What do you tell writers who ask for advice?

At the request of Campus Activities I agreed to participate in what is called “Storm Talks.”  It seems the goal of the project is to initiate conversation between students and professors.  I talked briefly on video and invited students to tell me about their writing before, during, and after the first year writing course.  The video was published via YouTube and Facebook.  Questions came in.  Here’s one of them:   “Any advice for a young writer?”

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I usually answer that question by saying that the writer should read and write a lot.  I suppose it’s a philosophy–PRACTICE– that I used back when I was eighteen years old and cared about my free throw percentage. Okay, I still care about how many I’d make out of 100 if I were to go shoot tomorrow morning, but what I’m getting at is that in order to shoot free throws well, part of that process was that I shot a lot of them.  I remember in Donald Murray’s book, Write to Learn, he quotes writer (and Google fighter) Ursula Le Guin about this notion of practice:

“If you want to be a tuba player you get a tuba, and some tuba music…And you probably get a tuba teacher, because there are a lot of rules and techniques to both written music and to tuba performance.  And then you sit down and you play the tuba, every day, every week, every month, year after year, until you are good at playing the tuba; until you can–if you desire–play the truth on the tuba.”

Right after I suggest reading and writing to the person who has asked for advice (who am I really to give it?) I say that the writer needs to learn how to read.  People often laugh and think I’m joking, but I’m not.   As a student at Georgia College in Milledgeville, a generous faculty helped me to begin to read like a writer.  I learned to see that when Flannery O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” she made a choice for conflict in her first sentence:  “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”  O’Connor had many choices when it came to the beginning of her story.  She could have delivered dialogue, oriented readers to the setting, or perhaps written images for the purpose of developing character.  As I began to read in this way, all of the texts that surround me became my potential teachers, and I can read for lessons connected to dialogue, structure, endings, word choice, and many, many more.

So when asked to give advice I say to read and write a lot, and I say to learn how to read.  That feels like a pretty “DUH” thing for me to write.  Do you think so?  If you’re in position to ever be asks the question, how do you answer it?

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Prof. Torg’s take on Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD

If you have a Facebook page, own one of the latest cell phones, blog, or tweet, then you ought to at least check out chapter 13 in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad.  In the following quote from the last chapter, a once big-time music executive laments about the state of the business.  Feel free to substitute ART in the place of MUSIC.  Here’s Bennie:

“The problem is,” Bennie went on, “it’s not about sound anymore.  It’s not about music.  It’s about reach.  That’s the bitter pill I had to swallow” (page 312).

Whose taste in art is for sale?

So when Bennie says “reach,” he’s talking Tweets, he’s talking Facebook Friends, and he’s talking hits on somebody’s blog.  The last chapter takes place in the future—and she could just almost be talking about right now—we all have to wonder if a book or album or any kind of art is really good or it’s just being promoted very well.  What is the Tweeter getting paid to say that this new artist is the next Bob Dylan?  What perks or gifts have been sent the book blogger’s way?  I just attended a BEA blogging panel where there was talk of ethics in the blogging world.

It may or may not have occurred to you that a novel can pay-off in various ways:  you can be made to feel as if you get to know the characters like people, the text can make you think, cause you to believe you are getting smarter, or make you bawl your eyes out or want to break stuff.  Another pleasing feature of a text can be the language, the words the writer chooses and the ways that the writer puts the words together in the form of sentences.  Egan’s text has that feature.  There are sentences beyond this one that would make for better examples of word choice but there are some original choices here—prewallet, overhandled, Sow’s Ear—and the clever detail of the guy who drinks flakes of gold.  An expensive habit, especially these days when an ounce of the stuff would cost over $1500.  This quote comes from the first story (notice also that it is a long sentence, not an always easy thing to pull off) when Sasha remembers stealing a wallet from a woman in the restroom while she was on a date.  We’ll also hear about Bennie here and we get to see him in the stories that follow.  He’s worth meeting.  Now here’s Egan’s sentence:

“Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening:  lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha’s admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee—as an aphrodisiac, she suspected—and sprayed pesticides in his armpits.”

I tore that brown thing out on the side and used it as a bookmark.

This is a novel-in-stories, and I loved the first two.  I moved very logically with Sasha the kleptomaniac to her once boss Bennie in the second story who drinks the gold flakes and picks up his son from a previous marriage.  Most of the characters in the book are connected to the music business.  Egan almost lost me on the third story which takes place on an African Safari.  I felt internally frustrated as I was reading and trying to link each new story to the ones which had come before it.  On page eighty-seven, I wrote in the margins:  “I don’t know what the hell is going on or where I am.”

I gave up on trying to connect the stories and just tried to live in each one as a separate world.  I’d say this reading tactic helped, but really I think what happened is the stories got more interesting.  There were many good stories in a row and then on page two hundred and eight, I knew right where I was.  The stories were puzzling together.  I could see where all the pieces might go.  And then Chapter 12 is a Power-Point slide journal.  I don’t generally go for the story that could be called gimmicky.

I was just at a Writers Conference at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and most of the table moaned when I held up the book and showed off some of the slides.  One student is doing an MFA graphic novel thesis.  Suddenly, she was more interested in the book, and another guy at the table said, “I’ll never read a story like that.”

Fine, readers have their tastes I guess.  For me, Egan and The Goon Squad had won me over by the time the Power Point came up.  By the fifth slide I was laughing and my wife was wondering what was up.  It’s great the way I was taught by the text how to read it.  I say Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is one you ought to read if you’ve got grown up and thinking tastes in reading.  I do.

Citation Information:

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. New York: Anchor Books,    2011. Print.

Drop me a note if you want:

william.torgerson (at) gmail.com

To Marry or Not? Finding Answers in Suicide Hill

It may or may not be obvious that stories can come from all sorts of places and get written for all sorts of reasons.  Take for example “Suicide Hill.”  It was the first story I ever mentally composed, (as opposed to writing it on paper or typing it on a computer) and I “wrote” it by saying it silently over and over again to myself as I proctored an end-of-course language arts test to middle school students in North Carolina.  The story was partly written out of boredom (what else to do?) but also for a more practical reason:  I had decided I wanted to earn a graduate degree in creative writing, and I needed a story to turn in as a writing sample.

William Torgerson, Bill, Torg, St. John's University, Cherokee McGhee Press

My Mental Setting for Suicide Hill: Crown Hill Cemetery in Winamac, Indiana

Back then–this was around the year 2000–the only other text I had written was a messed-up manuscript that represented one year’s worth of writing where each morning before school I typed up 800 words of whatever I could remember about getting divorced.  It was in fact the very manuscript that clued me in that I needed some help learning to write.  I didn’t really even know what getting help might mean back then, (now it means I had to learn how to read like a writer) but I’d read John Irving somewhere saying something about how Kurt Vonnegut had saved him a lot of time. (Vonnegut, I proudly remind you, is a fellow native of Indiana.)

According to Irving, Vonnegut had been able to teach him something that sped up the process of learning to write.  Perhaps even more importantly, I was beginning to believe that writing was something that could be learned sort of in the same way I’d learned to shoot a basketball:  with some of the right fundamentals, a lot of desire, and an enormous amount of regular practice.

Can you learn to write in the same way you can learn to play ball? Here I am in my younger days.

Next came the question that pops up every year or so for me:  what to write?  Back when I’d earned an MA in English Education, I participated in something The National Writing Project calls the summer institute.  Doing that, I’d prepared a teaching demonstration (think writing teachers writing together) that had emerged from my reading of Stephen King’s On Writing.  I had potential writers survey their life for details looking for subject matter they could bring into a story.  I applied that lesson to my own thinking and what I began to consider was that I was in a relationship that was teetering toward marriage, this even though I’d promised myself to never marry again.  Back then, I was in a relationship great enough that it was challenging my old promise to myself to keep to myself.  In writing “Suicide Hill,” I wanted to write a story that would tell me how to live my life.  It worked, but not in the way that I expected it to.