Adam Reger | Pittsburgh Writer, Editor, and Teacher

Pittsburgh writer, editor, ghostwriter, and teacher.

Tag: Literature

“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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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.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 90th

Today would have been Kurt Vonnegut’s 90th birthday. I’m not usually one for celebrating hypothetical birthdays (Vonnegut died in 2007), but by coincidence today I came across this post, written for Hot Metal Bridge‘s blog while I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh. It could be more concise, but I remember well the incident described in the post, and am still charmed by the whole encounter.

Presumed Innocent

As has been mentioned, I had a recent encounter that softened me up somewhat to considering “genre” and “mainstream” fiction with more generosity than I typically showed either. The first book I read afterwards was Stephen King’s Under the Dome (which was a great read; it’s proving not to linger on in memory but, you know, whatevs). But I also took the step of ordering a couple books that my conversational counterpart (the one-time Franklin W. Dixon, author of the Hardy Boys series) suggested as being particularly good “genre” fiction. (An aside, to be filed under Reasons I’m Glad to Be out of Graduate School: How nice merely to put “genre” in quotations and trust that my readers have a vague-but-close-enough sense of just what I mean, without needing to strictly define, problematize, historicize, put in a specific cultural context, or otherwise footnote the term.*)

One of these books was Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. I’ve been working on it for a few days and though it was slow going to begin with, I’m now one late night away from ripping through it. In this case, Franklin W. Dixon’s pitch to me is worth paraphrasing: to wit, that though people get them confused, Scott Turow is no John Grisham; his prose is respectable, shapely, precise; there is nuance, depth, and great intelligence. Since I honestly had conflated Grisham and Turow, and from years of seeing Presumed Innocent‘s gawdy blood-fingerprint on the paperback cover had lumped it in with the pulpiest of pulp novels, this was news to me and I snagged a copy of the book with some trepidation, but with high hopes as well.

All of which have been justified. The novel is thorough and deeply intelligent, in structure as well as in the ordinary details of each scene. (The plot, in a nutshell, is that a deputy district attorney is falsely accused of murdering a former lover, and must defend himself against the prosecution of a political rival. The set-up is an elegant way of allowing the narrator to move from the prosecutor’s table to the defendant’s seat, where he picks apart the strategies of both his defense attorney and the prosecution team. It may not sound like much, but I feel I can now understand why Law and Order re-runs are constantly playing: the law is fascinating, and an endless source of conflict and human drama. To be ushered through it like this is a real pleasure.)

I won’t say that much about the novel, which was a big deal almost 25 years ago—I fear I’d be embarrassing myself, like if I’d just discovered the Star Wars trilogy and couldn’t shut up about it. At some point I will have to process some further thoughts on so-called “genre” writing; I feel at the moment that reading Presumed Innocent is only deepening my earlier conclusions, namely that there’s nothing wrong with it.

In terms of my own writing as of this moment, reading these more mainstream books has increased my desire and willingness to “go for it” in the sense of making the story exciting, as well as in terms of using the oldest, sturdiest fictional tricks: surprises, secrets, unadorned conflict. It’s very much a continuing development, but it’s certainly a welcome on.

*Re-reading that aside, it seems not so surprising that I’d be contemplating a move away from canonical “literary” fiction and toward the stuff that’s sold in airport bookstores and consumed voraciously on beaches, Greyhounds, diners, etc. etc. I’ve always reacted nastily to the lit-crit side of things, whether it was during my undergraduate studies or while earning an MFA.

Weirdly Appropriate Extract from Under the Dome

I said I probably wouldn’t write more about Stephen King’s Under the Dome, but I just came across this snippet, which seems bizarrely germane to the literary-vs.-“genre” fiction stuff I was going on about earlier. The background is that this elderly English professor and his grad student love interest have been trapped in Chester’s Mill when the Dome falls, and subsequently roughed up by the local cops:

“. . . At the double doors, Thurston Marshall looked back. A shaft of hazy sun from one of the high windows struck across his face, making him look older than he was. . . . ‘I edited the current issue of Ploughshares,’ he said. His voice quivered with indignation and sorrow. ‘That is a very good literary magazine, one of the best in the country. They had no right to punch me in the stomach, or laugh at me.'”

On Under the Dome; or, 1000+ words on literary versus genre fiction

I’m using that previous post to segue to a brief snapshot of where I am right now as a writer, by way of a long rumination on different modes of fiction.

About a week ago, I was at a party thrown by a Pitt creative writing professor. Invitations went out far and wide, and a lot of old students turned out. I ended up in a completely fascinating conversation with a guy who went through the program in the early nineties. For a few years during grad school and afterwards, he wrote under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon. If the name means anything to you, you may be freaking out now, as I was: Franklin W. Dixon is the author of the Hardy Boys series of novels.

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