Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based fiction writer

Category: Fiction

On Writing Badly

I’m not sure when I became a fanatic about the writing process. It was probably not until after I got my MFA in fiction writing that I settled into a more coherent process of writing a free-flowing, often somewhat sloppy first draft, then going back to it to rewrite and revise. Up to that point, I had steadily become much more comfortable writing every day, and often writing a lot in terms of word count. That was a positive development for me as a writer, but as I’m just beginning to fully appreciate now, that was only part of the final evolution.

For a long time—as far back as high school—I’d really valorized writing every day, and especially of hitting a word-count goal like 1,000 words (which I’d seen recommended in Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, one of my early writing heroes). At some point, this became a religion for me, and I felt I had to write 1,000 new words or I hadn’t worked at all. This belief lasted a long time, well through graduate school. (I can see now that the facet of grad school I most enjoyed and appreciated, having the time to write, prolonged this mania for daily writing, because I usually had enough time to write 1,000 words and look over a draft of an earlier story. That’s an ideal situation, and it didn’t necessarily prepare me for having a day job and only being able to scrape up about 45 minutes of writing time. In the real world, sometimes you have to choose.)

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve made peace with the notion that revising can be a day’s work. I held myself back for a long time by insisting on writing 1,000 words of something new when I had a finished draft of something else getting cold in a Word file on my computer. It seemed like I never had time to go back and work through those finished drafts, and the obvious—letting myself off the writing hook for a few days—was something I wouldn’t even consider.

Today, I’d go further than allowing that revising can be a day’s work and say that it’s practically the start of my work as a writer. It’s the stage of the process you’re aiming for when you sit down and hammer out that sloppy draft. It’s the stage where you get to think about what you’re saying, and look critically at this character and ask if he makes sense, if he could add to the tension in this scene, if he even belongs in this story. Everything is up for debate at the revision stage. You’re working at double your own capacity, because you’ve put your wild, unconstrained self on the page and now your critical self gets to have a look and pick out all the places where the wild self has created opportunities, along with those choices that just don’t work.

A book that helped me to appreciate what revision even is is The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, by Stephen Koch. I remember reading this during the period between college and graduate school and wrestling with one of the key points that Koch makes, which is that after that first draft, you should essentially throw out what you’ve written before. You should be married to nothing in that first draft.

This was not dramatically different from what I’d read and been told other places, but Koch seemed to pointedly answer questions I’d been asking without realizing it. Not even questions so much as doubts, statements of skepticism and disbelief: So when I revise, I’m literally rewriting the story? Every single page? Before this, I’d thought of revising the way many young writers do: going through an existing draft changing some words around and cleaning up typos. (For this reason I spend a lot of time, possibly too much time, in all my writing classes unpacking the differences between proofreading, copyediting, and “real” revision.) Koch’s book helped me accept that yes, a working novelist will literally write her 250-page novel again, multiple times, in the process of drafting. It had always seemed somehow impossible that “real” writers did that.

Accepting that and committing to deep revision was a good first start. And it was liberating, in its way: these are the rules, and ifI wanted to produce my best work, I simply had to accept that this was what it took to produce something worth reading.

But since that time, I’ve not only gotten comfortable with this sort of deep revision, I’ve even gotten good at it. And that has yielded an additional benefit that I was not even aware I was missing out on. The benefit is alluded to in the title of this post. It’s the freedom to write badly.

Admittedly, writing badly is something I’ve probably always done, though unwittingly. But now I am confident enough in my ability to fix and dramatically re-work things at the revision stage that even when it’s painfully obvious that I am writing badly, I don’t stop or become discouraged by that knowledge. To be sure, it never feels great to write badly, and a whole day can later seem indefinably “off” if I’ve spent a morning writing badly, but I know that the trash I wrote in the morning can be fixed when I go back to the finished thing at some later point.

I’ve been thinking about this fairly simple point lately because I’ve been working on a novel that, for one reason or another, has been coming out quickly. I had a period of a week or so where I was writing many, many pages a day, on one or two days 5,000 words or more. That is kind of crazy, and when you write 5,000 words you are surely sacrificing quality. I would not want someone to publish the novel as it currently exists, because there’s certainly something embarrassing in the pages that emerged from these marathon sessions.

But in working this way on this project, I’m able to accept 1) that I’m writing badly and 2) that this is just a stage in the process; I can clean this all up later. Being confident in my ability to revise later and make this all make sense, make the characters more coherent, make their dialogue smoother and more believable, allows me to generate material at a rate that I could never match if I still labored under the misconception that every sentence I write has got to be good.

Worrying about writing well at every turn has been a great habit to grow out of, and I hope my students (and readers of this blog) can work their way past it as well.

Writing Studio: Slightly shameless plug of an upcoming writing class

Later this summer, I am going to be teaching a class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts that I think/hope may be of interest to some of my readers (local ones, anyway).

The class is “Writing Studio” and it’s not so much a class as, well, studio time dedicated to writing (as the name may suggest).

Just as students in other disciplines at the PCA have studio options, and can drop in once or twice a week to work independently with ceramics, screen printing, sculpture, etc., students interested in writing will now have the opportunity to come in to the PCA’s education building once a week and get some writing done.

The class stems from a basic observation I’ve made throughout my courses at the PCA: most of the writers who’ve come through my classes have the most trouble not with point of view, plot, etc., but with the struggle to find time to write and to keep writing (both in terms of keeping their seats during a single writing session and coming back to the writing desk day after day). Building a healthy writing process, and the discipline to keep it up, is among the most pressing challenges for any writer, especially those just getting started. (And working a day job doesn’t make those challenges any easier.)

“Writing Studio” is meant to address these challenges by offering a dedicated chunk of time each week, as well as a space where students can come to work quietly, buoyed by the presence of others doing the same thing. Along with time to write, the course will offer a sense of community and the opportunity to discuss ongoing challenges, troubles, and triumphs. The aim is to give writers time and space to get work done during the five weeks of the course and to launch them into a productive and sustained writing routine long after.

I’ll supplement the core of the course—in-class writing—with writing exercises, craft lectures*, and availability for one-on-one feedback and discussion. But by and large, the class is about giving students a place and a time to come, sit down, and write.

The class runs five Mondays, beginning July 11 and concluding August 8. Each class will run from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

If this sounds like something that may be of interest, I hope to see you in July!

*An important note: “Writing Studio” is designed to work for writers in any genre, so readers who don’t write fiction (as I do) may still find something useful in the class, even beyond writing time.

Free Box #5: Old Testament Beard, Where Have You Been All My Life?

“Old Testament Beard, Where Have You Been All My Life?” is the title of my undergraduate thesis in creative writing. I’m alarmed to find it’s more than 10 years old.

It was doing absolutely nothing, hanging out in a filing cabinet, so since I have a scanner and a website, I thought I’d post it. It’s quite a bit of writing, especially for an undergrad: 60 pages comprising two stories, three poems, one essay, and a tough-to-define thing that I guess you could call a story. (It’s text that was screen-printed onto a t-shirt as part of a group art project; see the very last page of the document and decide for yourself.) I’ve improved as a writer since then, certainly, but I remain fairly proud of a lot of this writing

Anyway, here’s Old Testament Beard Where Have You Been All My Life?.

 

Free Box, Installment #2: Novel Appendix

Part of what I want to use this feature, Free Box, for is to post old stuff that’s moldering in my filing cabinets and on various disks and computer drives, that will never be published and would be more fun to share now than when someone is going through my papers after my death. (Free Box #1, with an explanation, is here.)

To that end, here’s a blog entry that I posted about two years ago. Here’s the piece of writing I’m putting in the free box (with a warning that there is some strong language and content in this piece). The blog entry gives fuller context, although I’m not sure anything could properly explain where this came from, in the sense of what I was thinking at the time.

New Favorite Paragraph (a Facebook Note, Rescued from Facebook)

From You Can’t Win by Jack Black. (No, not that Jack Black.) If you’re interested in hobo hygiene, read on. If you like liberal use of quotation marks, friend, read on:

“The ‘Johnson family’ became so numerous that a ‘convention’ must be held. In any well-ordered convention all persons of suspicious or doubtful intentions are thrown out at the start. When a bums’ ‘convention’ is to be held, the jungle is first cleared of all outsiders such as ‘gay cats,’ ‘dingbats,’ ‘whangs,’ ‘bindle stiffs,’ ‘jungle buzzards,’ and ‘scissors bills.’ Conventions are not so popular in these droughty days. Formerly kegs of beer were rolled into the jungle and the ‘punks,’ young bums, were sent for ‘mickies,’ bottles of alcohol. ‘Mulligans’ of chicken or beef were put to cooking on big fires. There was a general boiling up of clothes and there was shaving and sometimes haircutting.”

(This is part two in a series of items posted in the little-loved “Note” feature within Facebook, now rescued for posterity and, hopefully, a larger audience.)

Football Mailbag Item Demonstrates Something about the Varied Nature of Humankind

I am a habitual reader of Peter King’s “Monday Morning Quarterback” column on si.com; in fact, it often disrupts my Monday morning routine when I’m not able to dive into writing before the new column is posted. It’s Monday, and there’s a new column up, but I want to draw attention to an item in last week’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (a follow-up column with additional items, stuff pertaining to that week’s Monday night game, and a reader mailbag) before it’s lost on the internet forever.

I don’t really have anything to say about this or to add to what King writes. It’s just . . . interesting. Here goes:

“WELL, THIS IS AN INTERESTING TAKE. ‘I apologize for the rant but after seeing Arian Foster from the Texans looking like a baby bird getting fed by its mother when getting water I couldn’t hold it back anymore. I’m tired of watching football player standing there and letting someone squirt water in their mouths both on and off the bench. I know there are going to be a lot of reasons (time, face mask etc…) put out there. But for me those can be left at the door. Might as well turn in your man card if you need someone to squirt water in your mouth. Not sure why this bugs me so much. Am I the only one?’
— From Murray Galbraith, of Shawnigan Lake, British Columbia

“I believe so.”

Morning Fog

It is a foggy morning in Pittsburgh. As is always the case when fog is general across the city, I am reminded of one of my favorite short stories, Tobias Wolff’s “Our Story Begins.” The story’s setting is San Francisco, and the fog is a bit more aggressive than it is here this morning, but what lovely descriptions:

“The fog blew in early again. This was the tenth straight day of it. The waiters and waitresses gathered along the window to watch, and Charlie pushed his cart across the dining room so that he could watch with them as he filled the water glasses. Boats were beating in ahead of the fog, which loomed behind them like a tall, rolling breaker. Gulls glided from the sky to the pylons along the wharf, where they shook out their feathers and rocked from side to side and glared at the tourists passing by.

“The fog covered the stanchions of the bridge. The bridge appeared to be floating free as the fog billowed into the harbor and began to overtake the boats. One by one they were swallowed up in it.”

. . .

“Charlie started home the long way, up Columbus Avenue, because Columbus Avenue had the brightest streetlights. But in this fog the lights were only a presence, a milky blotch here and there in the vapor above. Charlie walked slowly and kept to the walls. He met no one on his way; but once, as he paused to wipe the dampness from his face, he heard strange ticking steps behind him and turned to see a three-legged dog appear out of the mist. It moved past in a series of lurches and was gone. ‘Christ,’ Charlie said. Then he laughed to himself, but the sound was unconvincing and he decided to get off the street for a while.”

Copying out these passages, I was struck first that these aren’t actually flamboyantly beautiful descriptions of fog; second, that they’re sneakier and more effective than that, because what they conjure up is the sensation you get when you’re trapped or enveloped in fog: in the first two paragraphs, Wolff describes a bus boy inside a tourist-trap restaurant as the fog closes in, strangling business for the evening; in the last, the bus boy walks home alone, late, through the fog and the empty streets. The three-legged dog is not Wolff’s usual thing—he’s a more realistic, generally unsentimental writer, not given to quirks or humor other than the dry sort—but here it makes sense: strange things come out of the fog, and everything looks a bit stranger when its context is wiped away. You can read metaphorical significance into the fog, isolating the main character, Charlie, forcing him to confront his own life—but you don’t really need to; it’s fog, it’s San Francisco.

I can remember reading “Our Story Begins” for the first time and getting chills. It was the summer and I was sitting in a laundromat in Philadelphia, waiting for my load of wash to be done. Walking around the city I had picked up a book called Graywolf Annual for some year, maybe 1989 or ’90, in a box of books put out on the curb with a placard reading “Free Books!” There were a number of fantastic stories in that collection—Andre Dubus and Richard Ford were represented, along with Annie Proulx’s “The Half-Skinned Steer”—but “Our Story Begins” was the one that made me put the book down, look around, and feel obscurely that I had been taught something important and at just the right time. I was older than the main character—23 or 24 at that time—but in not so different a place in terms of life and career. In the story, Charlie is revealed to be an aspiring writer who has moved to San Francisco with thoughts of Kerouac, of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso popping into the cafe where he goes to escape the fog; his novel, we’re told, has been returned without comment by all the publishers he’s sent it to—except for one, who’s written “Are you kidding?” across the title page. Without encouragement, friendless, with San Francisco’s long, cold summer wearing him down, Charlie is just on the point of giving up. His encounter in the cafe, listening in on an ambiguous conversation between a married couple and the choir director the wife is having an affair with, sustains Charlie, convincing him to push on a little further by conveying a sense of possibility, of wonder at what the world will turn up next. It was an immensely encouraging idea to read in a story; whether or not any of this happened to Tobias Wolff, it seemed impossible he hadn’t lived some version of this pivotal moment, deciding whether to go on.

I’ve already sort of spoiled the story for you, but below the jump is its conclusion—a big part of why I’ve remembered this story so fondly for so long: Read the rest of this entry »

Grammar Heroics

Apologies in advance for the bragging nature of this post. Sometimes, though, we surprise ourselves, and we have something of an obligation to let the world know about it.

Two grammar-related exploits to relate:

First, several weeks ago, I was meeting with two writers about a comedy project. It was our very first meeting and we were laying out plans for how things would work, how often we’d meet, etc. One writer proposed “bi-weekly meetings”; i.e., twice a week. The second writer frowned and said that he thought bi-weekly meant every other week. The first writer chuckled mirthlessly and said no, he was quite sure bi-weekly was twice a week. The second writer was coiled up and ready to strike when I intervened.

“Boys, boys,” I said. “Stop this quarreling. ‘Bi-weekly’ is an auto-antonym. It means one thing and its opposite.* You’re both right.”

They were thunderstruck and looked at me with perfect awe evident in their countenances. I nodded solemnly, as if to say, Yes, it’s true in answer to their unspoken question. “I’m a copyeditor,” I said to the second writer, by way of explanation for my pharisee-like authority on this matter. (I had already discussed that with the first writer, the organizer of this project. We were at a coffee shop and while waiting to order drinks I’d spotted a typo on the shop’s menu and remarked drolly, “You can’t turn off the gift.” (That he did not laugh at all was, in retrospect, probably a sign that our partnership was destined to go nowhere.))

The second feat of grammatical derring-do is more typographical in nature. I’ll make the point by simply reproducing a bit of text I wrote recently (in a fiction project):

Jessup touched his elbow. The contrast between Jessup’s fervent eyes and the rest of his face, blotted out by gauze and medical tape, was both funny and unsettling. “I told those people, ‘Whenever you make a mistake, when you pull a real doozy and you’re feeling low, that’s God tapping you on the shoulder and saying, “Listen up. I’ve got work for you.”’”

Relevant/exceptional part bolded. Did you get that? Can you handle it, America? A quote within a quote within a quote. Triple-nested quotations, resulting in this grammatically sound line of five (almost) identical characters: “‘”! I’m sure someone somewhere has gone bigger, but that’s not what it’s about for me. It’s got to be organic, you know?

Anyway, a couple of feats I needed to crow about. Please forgive me for wasting your time with these.

*It occurs to me now that “bi-weekly” might not qualify as a strict auto-antonym (list of examples here) because “occurring twice a week” and “occurring every other week” are not actually opposites, just different frequencies. But those guys don’t need to know that, and hopefully they’ll never find out.

Bukowski Hoggle, A Few Years Late (Including Reason #7 to Love Pittsburgh)

I just saw Labyrinth at the wonderful Hollywood Theater in Dormont. It occurred to me during the screening that the character Hoggle, Sarah’s (Jennifer Connelly’s) self-professedly cowardly muppet guide through the labyrinth, has the same elaborately craggy face as late poet/novelist/barfly Charles Bukowski. I just did all the work (“work”) of finding images of both and was preparing to blow the internet’s mind with this comparison when I thought I might as well quickly google “Bukowski Hoggle.”

I did, and found this and this. Oh well. Now I know it’s an apt comparison.

By the way, if you are in the Pittsburgh area, the Hollywood is well worth the short trip through the Liberty Tubes. (So is Dormont in general.) They’re the only game in town if you’d like to see a live showing of cult classic The Room, and have screened stuff I wouldn’t have been able to see elsewhere in town (Tim and Eric’s Billion-Dollar Movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow). I’m pumped because in a week or so they’re showing one of my favorite films of all time, Pee-Wee’s Big AdventureThey’ve re-opened the theater—a big, old-timey movie house with a giant balcony—a couple times and this time it seems to be sticking, as they’ve done it as a civic organization rather than a for-profit endeavor. So, consider this “Reason to Love Pittsburgh #7,” the latest in that sadly neglected series. (Seriously, there are thousands of reasons to love Pittsburgh. I’ve only got around to writing about seven of them.)

Another Great Writing Opportunity

Following up on this earlier post about a great (read: terrible) “ghostwriting” opportunity, here’s an ad I came across on Pittsburgh’s Craig’s List for fiction writing assistants.

As you’ll see, this sweet opportunity involves taking the ad-poster’s outline and . . . well, writing his/her novel, it appears. The successful candidate will have excellent grammatical skills, write quickly, and be able to make revisions quickly.

Okay, so it’s a ghostwriting gig. The person who posted this ad has an idea but isn’t good with words and just wants to pay someone to write it up. So let’s scroll down to the bottom where it mentions pay and see how much . . . Oh. Oh my. “Compensation: no pay.”

I won’t go on, because you probably get the picture. This crumb doesn’t mention anything about the successful applicant getting course credit, because he/she either doesn’t care or hasn’t thought that far ahead. What may be most audacious, though, is that applicants are asked to submit not only 1,000 words of writing but to spend additional time writing a 500-word statement asking for this person’s consideration. Does the poster think this is an attractive offer? Maybe he/she should mention literally any benefit the writing assistant(s) will derive from this arrangement.

My post about the ghostwriting gig was rather light-hearted, but this ad irked me so much I actually posted a response on CL. Was I too harsh? I don’t think so. It never fails to annoy me when I peruse CL or elance and see the rates people consider fair for writing (or editing or proofreading). I’m inclined to say that writing is not day labor, but that’s a faulty comparison because people have a better sense of the effort and skill involved in day labor. And I doubt you’d ever see someone get day laborers to build a patio or spread gravel around a driveway for no money by calling it an “internship.”

Update: Some time after I posted this, the person who posted the original, offending CL ad must have come to his/her senses (or, maybe, was adequately shamed by my response) and yanked the ad. So, you’ll have no luck following the link above. I imagine I’ve given a decent enough impression of the gist of the ad from the above takedown, however.