Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

What creative writers can learn from professional writers

Since I embarked on a career as a freelance writer and a teacher of writing about four years ago, I’ve learned lots of things about the art, craft, and business of writing. One of the most useful and surprising has involved the breakdown of supposedly impermeable barriers between different types of writing.

I want to share how these observations have informed my writing process as both a professional writer and as a writer of fiction.

(Note: This turned into a massive (2,300+ words) post so I am charitably hiding the bulk of the post below the fold. You’re welcome!)

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“Getting Good” as a Writer

I recently read Richard Russo’s essay collection The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life, and really liked it. Russo had previously existed in a literary blind spot for me, where I certainly recognized the name and knew the titles of his biggest books, but had never read a word he’s written. An uncle of mine recommended the essay collection to me recently by saying that a lot of the essays, where Russo talks about being a young writer starting out as a university teacher, reminded him of me. With an introduction like that, of course I eventually checked it out.

A couple of essays in particular really spoke not just to my current career situation but to writerly concerns that I don’t see addressed very often. The title essay discusses a telephone exchange Russo has with a former writing-workshop classmate who seemed destined for literary stardom, and who, discovering that the less-talented writer he remembers from classes 40 years earlier has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, more or less accuses Russo of having stolen his destiny. It’s a thrillingly, almost nauseatingly vivid evocation of the fear and uncertainty a lot of writers have of doing everything they can to succeed, trying hard, and just . . . never making it. “The Destiny Thief” is the first essay in the book and going through it, I was a bit wary of accepting advice or sympathy on this issue from a writer as well-published and celebrated as Russo. But he handles it with a lot of sympathy and empathy, and I found I was pretty much in for the rest of the collection.

The centerpiece essay, for me anyway, was “Getting Good,” a long, sometimes wandering meditation on failure and rejection, self-publishing versus traditional publishing, democracy versus egalitarianism, art vs. craft, and, yes, getting good as a writer. (Note: I’ve linked to the essay, over at The Sewanee Review, but only the first page or so is available there and the rest is behind a subscription paywall.)

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Fantastic fiction

No, not one of my stories. I wanted to point everyone to an amazing short story published in June in The New Yorker: “Fungus” by David Gilbert.

I’ve only read it through once so I have nothing very earth-shattering to say about the craft, but I found much of Gilbert has to say in this interview with fiction editor Cressida Leyshon interesting and insightful. He talks about writing versions of the story in which the key fact or incident of the story (I won’t say what it is here) was only implied, never actually mentioned, and calls it “Subarus like white elephants,” a wry reference to Ernest Hemingway’s classic story “Hills Like White Elephants,” a masterpiece of indirection and implication.

Anyway, although like many fiction writers I have numerous strong opinions about The New Yorker and its fiction selections, this is a stellar story and I highly recommend it.

New piece in Pitt Magazine

I wanted to share a piece I wrote for the most recent issue of Pitt Magazine, the University of Pittsburgh’s alumni magazine.

I’ve had the pleasure of writing for Pitt Magazine for the better part of a decade, but I can easily say this is one of the most inspiring—and, fair warning, upsetting—stories I’ve ever written for the magazine.

It’s about current graduate student Hanifa Nakiryowa, a Ugandan woman who in 2011 was the victim of an acid attack. She’s overcome incredible hardships not only to survive but to make a new life for herself and her daughters in the U.S., going through Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs with the aim of bringing that knowledge back to Uganda to help run the Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence (CERESAV), the nonprofit she founded to help other acid-attack survivors.

Hanifa was a pleasure to speak with and my editor and I had an incredibly difficult time getting the piece down to the prescribed word count—there was so much more to say about her, everything she went through, and everything she has accomplished despite long odds. I really appreciate the editors of Pitt Magazine giving me a chance to talk with her and share this story, and it’s fantastic that PittWire, the university’s daily news site, is sharing the story.

 

 

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

I hesitate to put a name on this—I’m afraid it will come across too much as a eulogy—but I wanted to offer an appreciation of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where I just finished teaching what will likely be my last class.

The PCA and its sister organization, Pittsburgh Filmmakers, are going through extremely tough times right now (see here and here): there will be no fall classes at either institution, in a move designed to cut costs. After that, the future’s unclear.

Even before I heard this news, I had made up my mind to “retire” from teaching at the PCA. The reason has quite a lot to do with having a toddler at home and hating to leave in the evenings to teach until 9 or 9:30. It also has to do with my own career, both as a teacher at local universities and as a freelance writer, getting busier.

It certainly has nothing to do with the students who came through my classes.

Without a doubt, that will be the biggest thing I’ll miss about teaching at the PCA. Over five years of teaching fiction classes there, I’ve met so many incredible writers and people. Each class was an amazing reaffirmation of the fact that there is talent everywhere in Pittsburgh, that there are thoughtful, ambitious, inquisitive, and dedicated writers in places (and professions) where you would not expect them. As my teaching career has developed, with classes at the Community College of Allegheny County, the University of Pittsburgh, and Saint Vincent College, the PCA has consistently been a welcome and sustaining complement to teaching at the undergraduate level: I’ve gotten to step into a classroom with people who are hungry, often starving, to focus deeply on writing, to share their work, to spend time on it, even if it’s only three hours on a cold, snowy Thursday in the dead of winter.

The PCA was really integral to my development as a teacher, both in terms of forcing me to condense a lesson on point of view to 10 or so minutes, and pick a reading that will illuminate the key aspects of the topic, and advancing my career. I started teaching with an aim of trying it out: I proposed a class at the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning at Pitt, it was accepted, and I stuttered my way through, well enough to find that I liked it. I taught one or two more classes before I took a job at Pitt, which meant I could no longer teach at Osher.

Looking around for ways to keep it going, I remembered having seen the occasional writing class in the PCA catalog, and reached out to the education director. That was all it took: in the winter of 2013, I entered the PCA’s children’s studio, with its low-to-the-ground tables and its chairs designed for children, and greeted my first class.

I’ve lost track of the number of classes I taught at the PCA. Over the past five years, I’ve taught at least one or two, sometimes more, each year. Along the way, I devised and taught several offerings of a class called Writing Studio, based on the observation that the biggest problem troubling most of my fiction students was simply finding the time to write and making themselves sit down and get the writing done. I’m very proud of what Writing Studio became, in particular because I adapted it each time to fit the needs and the writing goals of my students.

One of the things that makes me proudest as a teacher is that several groups of students have gone on to form writing groups based on the connections they made in my classes. This was a frequent piece of advice when I introduced the concept of the writing workshop and my particular rules for how it should run: the ultimate goal of being in a writing workshop is to connect with people who “get” your work and whose comments you find valuable; grab hold of those people, I said, and keep in conversation, keep sharing your work.

My teaching, and my own thinking about writing, has also been deepened considerably by the insights that have come up in class discussions. One of the most memorable came from using the first chapter of a Harry Potter novel to discuss detail. In the scene, the British prime minister is worrying by himself in his office, late at night, when a supernatural creature from the wizarding world appears to him, arriving through the suddenly-green fire in his fireplace. My intent with discussing this passage was to present the idea of verisimilitude, and to show how light a touch J.K. Rowling uses in seeding the scene with concrete details: the dark wood mantle place, the sooty fireplace, the heavy velvet curtains, all give a sense of the setting.

“Why do I see Oriental rugs on the floor?” asked a student. “And marble columns in the corner of the room?”

We explored this as a class, talking about what other details we’d mentally filled in, and where we’d smuggled them in from. It was invigorating to see something new in this passage, to investigate and deepen this student’s observation. I’ve mentioned it every time I have taught detail since then, and that lesson is much deeper because of it.

I’m very lucky to have ended with a Fiction I section full of smart, generous, and talkative writers. That talkative bit is important, because the class was only four people. That’s sometimes happened during my PCA career—that first class was a whopping 12 students, still the high-water mark for enrollment—and when I’ve gotten down to four students in the past, it’s sometimes been challenging. This time around, I promised the class on the first night that we wouldn’t often go all the way to the advertised 9:30 p.m. end time, only to break that promise again and again as students raised really interesting and perceptive questions about whatever topic we were discussing that evening, leading to fascinating extended discussions about characterization, plot, dialogue, and point of view.

Each first PCA class is a grab bag, a bit of a gamble—you never know who will turn up—and I’ve been extremely fortunate in the people who have chosen to take my classes. In fact, if there is anything positive in retiring, it’s that I look forward to taking off my teacher’s cloak and greeting these former students, if and when I see them—and Pittsburgh is still a small enough place that I suspect I will run into many of them (as I have already over the years)—not as my pupils but as peers, colleagues, and friends.

Some Updates

Although no one would guess it from checking this website, I’ve been busy in 2018.

I’ve just made some updates to the Copywriting page, adding recent (and some not-so-recent) clips of things I’ve been working on. One that really deserves special attention is this small book, “If Kids Built a City,” produced for the Grable Foundation. It’s beautiful:

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A small thrill earlier in the summer was to learn that I was a co-finalist, with the writer and editor (and great guy) Ervin Dyer, for a Golden Quill award for a Pitt Magazine story that I contributed to. We didn’t win, but that was a first for me in my professional writing career—and the story, “Higher Ground,” is well worth your time.

Finally, one of my favorite recent stories was picked up by The MacGuffina terrific literary magazine connected to Schoolcraft College. The story is called “The Pedestal of the World” and came out of a half-remembered remark by one of my favorite undergraduate teachers, Oli Watt, about the Italian artist and trickster Piero Manzoni. Oli described Manzoni’s piece, “The Base of the World,” and said that if he ever thought of something like that, he’d quit art forever, something that stuck with me for, I guess, more than 15 years. The story’s print only but if you have a chance to pick up this issue of The MacGuffin you’ll find a ton of other great stuff by some fantastic writers in it.

Ghostwriting: How to Know If You Need to Hire a Ghostwriter or Not

Ghost Image

This is the fourth (and, for now, final) installment in a series of blog entries about ghostwriting. I’m attempting to provide practical information for those who may be considering hiring a ghostwriter. The series started with some misconceptions about ghostwriting and continued with a rundown of the different ways you might work with a ghostwriter, followed by some questions to answer before reaching out to a ghostwriter.

Now that I’ve walked through what ghostwriting is, the various logistics of how you might work with a ghostwriter, and some things you can do to prepare yourself for success with a ghostwriter, let’s ask a seemingly dumb question: do you actually need a ghostwriter?

I know, I know—shouldn’t that have been the very first question?

Well, not necessarily. Sometimes it’s only once you’ve done some self-reflection on your needs and, especially, the nature of your project that you get clarity on what you actually need. And sometimes, talking through practical matters such as how you’d like to work with a ghostwriter and what kinds of materials you have available to give to him/her exposes a surprising fact: maybe someone writing this project for you isn’t what you need at all.

As I described in my first post, many will find that they need help from the ground up, from organizing their thoughts to writing the first word. The reasons vary: English may not be your primary language, or you may simply not like writing. If you’re in that boat, a ghostwriter is certainly an excellent and efficient option.

For many others, however, your answers to some of the big getting-started questions I proposed last time might indicate: that you have already begun writing your book, but aren’t quite happy with the pages you have; that you’ve written other pieces—newspaper articles, journal entries, blog posts, white papers and more scholarly articles—that you feel could go into a book, provided they are rewritten or reworked in the right way; or that you’d like to write the book, you feel you’d enjoy it and would do a good job of it, but something is getting in your way. (Usually the obstacle here is time, a sense of not knowing where to begin, or some combination of the two.)

The options I go through below are aimed at the people who fall into this category. Depending on the nature of your project and what kinds of material you’ve already generated, you may find some of the following helpful as alternatives to hiring a ghostwriter.

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Ghostwriting: Questions Before You Get Started

Ghost Image

This is the third installment in a series of blog entries about ghostwriting. I’m attempting to provide practical information for those who may be considering hiring a ghostwriter. The series started with some misconceptions about ghostwriting and continued with a rundown of the different ways you might work with a ghostwriter.

Today I want to cover how to prepare to work with a ghostwriter. I sort of covered this in my last post, on the different ways a ghostwriter might work—it was certainly my hope that looking through that list of methods might spark some readers to say, “Yes, that is definitely how I’d prefer to work with someone.” Figuring that out is a big part of the battle.

But mostly I want to move beyond the question of how you’ll get the ghostwriter the information they need to think about ways to identify what’s important to you and get at least a general picture of your book that you can communicate to the ghostwriter. Below is a list of questions and concerns to think about before you reach out to a ghostwriter. If you have even the beginnings of ideas on these topics, your ghostwriter will definitely appreciate it.

Where will this book go in the bookstore?

For now (and hopefully forever) the metaphor of a brick-and-mortar bookstore is still relevant. As long as it is, I ask clients Where would your book appear in a bookstore?

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On Rejection

For anyone who writes and seeks to publish their work, rejection is just a fact of life. Many times I’ve started entries like this one decrying how hard it is to get anything published, from a short short story to a novel. Thankfully, I’ve deleted most of them.

Being in a sunnier mood at the moment, I thought I’d offer some more positive thoughts on rejection, trying to put it into perspective.

A reality check, though: being “positive” really just means better coming to grips with what is a very grim reality. Two object lessons that will quantify that grimness:

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This is a screen shot from my Duotrope account, which (among other things) tracks submissions. It indicates that of the 31 submissions I’ve sent out over the past 12 months, I have a 4.2% acceptance rate.

Terrible, right? My work must be pretty bad, right? Actually, if you check out the note at the very bottom of this image, you will see that that pathetic 4.2% represents a better than average response rate (from the journals to which I submitted). So much so, Duotrope is congratulating me!

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Ghostwriting: How does it work?

Ghostwriter 2This is the second installment of a brief series of blog posts relating to ghostwriting. In the first installment, I looked at some common misconceptions about ghostwriting.

In today’s post, I want to dive deeper into a question that can be a bit of a sticking point for many people who are thinking of hiring a ghostwriter.

“How does it work?”

Once you’ve found a ghostwriter and you’re ready to get started . . . well, how do you get started?

There are three main ways that a ghostwriter works with his or her clients. In my experience, writing a book for a client is typically a mix of these three methods, and very rarely is just a single method employed.

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