06 January, 2013

Making People Cry with Words

My mentor, Scott Bradfield, used to make people cry in his seminars.  People come to creative writing with high hopes of being the next Graham Greene or Earnest Hemingway, writing the next Beloved, being a creative genius.

Genius is turning fantasies into reality--a matter of effort.  We all have fantasies about greatness, but nobody starts out great (except at being a cute little baby).   Scott's first job was to shatter our egos, to show us how bad our writing was so we could start learning how to improve.

A famous editor, whom I've cited before on this blog, Thomas H. Uzzell, thought that "genius" or even "talent" were simply poor words for passion.  You wouldn't expect Beethoven to write great symphonies without first learning how to play the piano.  Like, really really well.  This takes effort.

The motivational rants on this blog are all about unlocking that passion.  My regular readers will by now know what I preach:  in the end, it saps more energy to stifle ourselves than it does to work hard.

So we've established that genius comes with hard work.  So what the smeg is "hard work" for writers?  You've all sat at keyboards before.  That's the best training.  But here's a little guidance.  Be prepared to break your ego over and over.  Nobody's perfect.  Scott made me upset sometimes, but mostly I was glad. 

Sometimes I was confused as to why my work wouldn't sell to the big markets.  I liked my ideas for stories better than most I'd read.  Otherwise I'd write about different ideas.  I knew my execution wasn't great and I didn't know why.  I couldn't convince Neil Clarke or Steve Erickson to rant about my work (although I did have the privilege of Steve doing it once, thanks to Scott).  Sitting across a coffee table having a great craftsman pointing at my manuscript and telling me why it sucked was the best thing that ever happened in my artistic education.

You can't give answers in art, but you can guide students into asking the right questions.  The first job of a teacher is to open your mind.  People will tell you that they've already penned (these people always say "penned", for some reason) the greatest manuscript of our time, but publishers just won't take the risk on their genius.  Absolute piffle.  The words of a quitter.  Most students I met on the MA and MFA had written a novel, or at least a good chunk of one, before they met Scott.  The novels sucked.  Many were good ideas.  I'm still going to re-write mine, but when I look back on my first book, my characters were name-tags, my settings were purple, and my plot was convoluted.  I can change all that now because I can see it.  And I can see it because I know what I must demand from my work.  I'd never have learned that if I didn't get a sense of the right questions.

I'm not denying that there's some crap out there.  (cough!...cough!... 50 Shades of...hack!...cough!)  But you can't rely on hype to market you, or on luck to get you published.  The fact is, publishers love genius.  It's their job to discover it, because consumers like good books, and publishers like money.  If you write good work, the market is hungry for you.

I'll try to guide you through many important questions, of course, but each of you will need a unique education, so you must first just open your eyes to find it.

Nothing happens because you're not good enough.  That's missing the point.  Your Beethoven has yet to learn the piano well enough to compose a brilliant symphony.  The original Beethoven got there eventually.  That means humans can do it and, presumably, you are one.  Never give up and be glad for every fail.  You probably earned it, and you can earn success too if you keep fighting.


Anonymous said...

I wrote a similar post the other day. Legacies aren't seconds long, professionals aren't built in a day. We need to own our amateur within and nurture it, taking those tried and true ideas from others and making them our own. I agree with you, criticism can be fertilizer...it can also be crap. Your '50 shades of cough cough' reference made me laugh because I totally agree, haven't read it, don't care to...but it made me think, isn't that so much of what sells today? Total crap, complete mindless banter...sad truth I see creeping in. Bloggers have so much more potential than the mainstream 'must read list' floating around. I enjoyed your post.


Wm. Luke Everest said...

I'm glad you liked the post. And yeah, there's some crud out there. I like to tell myself it's because the world needs people like me and work like mine ;)

We're all entitled to our dreams... What was it George Orwell said? "In our hearts all writers are vain, selfish and lazy." Something like that. I definitely agree with the first two.