Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based freelance writer

Tag: Writing

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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Notes for Next Time

(I was tempted to title this something flashy and contemporary-seeming, like “One Weird Trick to Make It Easy to Jump into Writing,” but opted for the more prosaic title you see above.)

Anyway, a note stemming from last night’s meeting of my “Writing Studio” class at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. (Briefly, this is a class whose purpose is to offer writers of all genres/backgrounds the time to write, with some hopefully-stimulating elements like a weekly craft talk, exercise prompts, discussion time, the option to share pages with me and get feedback. Basically, think of an open studio in pottery or painting—it’s like that, but with writing.) Two meetings in, the class has been great fun and very stimulating—for me but, far more importantly, for the students, a number of whom have told me they’ve been enjoying it and getting lots done.

We had a great discussion regarding writing process, and someone brought up Hemingway’s practice of stopping a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence so that he’d have a natural and easy place to start the following day.

This prompted me to share something I do when I stop writing for the day that has come to seem so natural, I quite forgot that I’d ever not done it. The students seemed interested, so I thought I’d share it here as well.

Going off the Hemingway practice, which was designed so that Papa could stop when there was more to be written and it would be fairly clear, the following day, what should come next, I have gotten into the habit of marking the place where I’m going to pick up tomorrow and then writing a short note about what I think can or will happen next.

For example, here’s what I wrote at the end of today’s work on a piece that I think will eventually add up to a novel:

“echoes of Homewood, someone saw him give Malaki a hug and wants a hug too; asks Pete’s advice on Hilda”

This will of course be complete nonsense to you, but it means something to me and when I begin work on this piece tomorrow I can look at this and remember what I thought might be a good next step.

I have the option to follow those notes as if they were a blueprint, but it’s only an option. What I think is important is that these ideas present suggestions I can consider following (and decide to do something else—for instance, I might decide this bit about the hug is stupid, after all, and ignore it), begin to follow and then change course, or follow to the letter if I’m simply not feeling very original (or if I still agree with these ideas).

As I said, this has become a thing I do unconsciously when writing, as ingrained as having a cup of coffee nearby and my internet connection disabled. But several of the students remarked that picking up the thread of a piece of writing often costs them a bit of time and effort each time they get started back up on something, and I remembered that that used to be an issue for me, too. Hopefully this is an idea that can be beneficial to somebody out there.

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?.

 

AWP Post-Mortem: What Was That?

This past weekend I went to the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP, though obviously it would more accurately be “AWWP”) in Washington, DC. It was fun. I got to see some great writers read, among them Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amy Hempel, and Gary Shtyengart. I got a good, large dose of Richard Bausch, who is as entertaining, wise, and funny in person as are his stories. (Actually, he’s way funnier than his stories, which rarely “work blue,” in contrast to the man.) And I dropped in on a couple panels preoccupied with my own preoccupation, making a living as a writer (while not giving up on my personal, creative work).

But as I made my way back to Pittsburgh, the dominant feeling was something like “So that was AWP.” Kind of a flat feeling, like “Why did I do that again?” My hope for the conference was that I’d come out of it hungry to write, inspired by what I’d seen and heard. And while that sort of happened, to a greater extent, it didn’t.

I’d been to AWP once before, three years ago when it was held in New York. But in some ways I considered this my first conference because in New York I slept on a friend’s air mattress up in Queens, and it seemed that my days divided neatly into AWP Time and Friend Time. AWP Time featured panels and perusing the tables at the Bookfair. Friend Time began with a subway ride north, and was centered more on bars and strip clubs, with not as much overlap between the two as you might expect. In the time between conferences, I’d come to understand that a lot of AWP’s value stemmed from networking, and that a lot of that was done outside of panels and the Bookfair, at off-site events and over drinks (though never, that I’ve heard, at off-site events hosted by strip clubs, or over watered-down strip-club drinks).

My first reaction to the “flat” feeling mentioned above was that the trip was a waste of money and time (during which I got zero writing done, it bears mentioning). I opined to my traveling companion that it would have been better to do a writer’s retreat kind of deal, where a part of each day was spent actually writing.

That’s probably true, but in the fullness of time—two days later—I think that such a reaction misunderstands AWP’s purpose. I have a friend from grad school whose AWP schedule was positively packed, and the reason is that he attended a few of those writer’s-retreat deals—Breadloaf, Sewanee—and met a lot of people there. AWP’s function seems more to refresh those connections.

And/or to solidify them. My roommate, Sal “Chugg-a-Lugg” Pane, knows a lot of literary people only by way of the internet. It was interesting to see him talking with people in person whom he’s “known” for some time, but never actually met. (These observations also served to bring home the fact that a lot of literary people are quite awkward in person.)

These are incomplete thoughts, but when an experience feels flat or vaguely unsatisfying, it’s usually useful to think about why that is, and whether or not you’re “doing it” wrong. (Heh, heh.) I didn’t do AWP wrong, exactly, but it was less than it could have been. The way to do it, it seems to me, is to use AWP as a meeting space for old friends, understanding that it’s not going to help your writing transcend previous limitations, but, if done correctly, it might help you renew your commitment to the writing life.

Seemingly Unrelated Addendum: The writer Pam Parker (whose blog, Finding Meaning with Words, is well worth your time), is a Green Bay Packers fan and jokingly suggested some kind of wager between the two of us (as the Packers just played the Pittsburgh Steelers, my local team, in Super Bowl XLV). Nothing came of it, but in the spirit of friendly sports-wagering between writers, I thought I should acknowledge this “rivalry” and give Pam a small shout-out for having backed the winning team. Congratulations to the Packers, who also mowed down my real team, the Philadelphia Eagles, en route to becoming champs.

(This addendum is related, in case you are wondering (and still reading), because the Super Bowl was the culmination of my long, eventful weekend—i.e., I was home for maybe 90 minutes before kickoff—and thus the conference and the game are tightly linked in my mind.)

Noveling

I wanted to share a novel-writing resource I’ve found useful over the last few weeks, as I’ve changed course while working on my novel. As usual, I’ve gone on at length in the run-up to sharing this valuable resource, Randy Ingermanson’s “Snowflake Method” for outlining a novel, so I’ll link to it here in case you’d rather not wade through the waist-high verbiage below.

In a nutshell, I became frustrated with the increasing aimlessness of my novel. I had what I thought was a good idea of where it was going, what the various threads were, and so forth. But each scene seemed inessential, even dull. I felt like I was writing only for the purpose of getting that day’s word count in. I could all too easily see to the end of this process, when I’d have a first draft I didn’t care to revise, and would be faced with re-writing the entire thing.

I thought, “What will I do before the second draft to make this less of a mess?” The best answer was that I’d look through, see what I had, and rigorously plot out the second draft based on the storylines and characters I’d worked out. This satisfied me for about thirty seconds before the obvious occurred to me: why not plot it out beforehand?

I’ve never worked that way before. I’m not ideological about it, though; I just think it’s fun to free write, catch a hint of where this thing is going, and then follow it there. I think Stephen King, in his surprisingly great On Writing, describes this method as something like finding dinosaur bones in the ground and then just following the process of excavating them. I’ve found that solid . . . but it’s never worked for me for the novel. Part of what gave me pause as my novel went along in its bumbling fashion was that I’ve been here before. I’ve written two novels, and each one I wrote more than once. That thing I said about getting to the end of a first draft and not caring to revise it? Yeah, I was very much speaking from experience on that one. (I would argue that my first novel is more like three novels, since each one shifted focus quite a bit.)

So I was left with the alternative: to plot. (I should stop and confess this is hardly a new dilemma for a writer to face; so much so, the website for National Novel Writing Month has at least one forum thread dedicated to the “Plotters versus Panters” (i.e., by the seat of your pants) schools of thought, and there are over 70,000 Google results for that search phrase. (Interestingly, “Plotters versus Panthers” turns up about eight times more results. Go figure.))

I looked around the internet for resources or advice on outlining a novel. Read the rest of this entry »

Further Franzen

Making steady progress through Freedom, which thus far is impressive and engrossing. The novel should be, and is, of special interest to me given the navel-gazing I’ve done in the past (see here and here for starters) on the subject of the mainstream novel, meant to garner millions of readers; implied in those dispatches was the notion that the literary novel belonged elsewhere. Franzen’s novel, of course, is a “literary” book that also aspires to bestseller status; Franzen has talked about his task of making the work so compelling one turns away from television and video games.

As a preface to registering a minor complaint about Freedom, let me say as clearly as possible that I greatly dislike this guy, B. R. Myers (at whom I took an earlier swipe here). He seems not to derive any pleasure from reading, only smug satisfaction from knocking down popular and approved-of books and writers. He has an unreasonable fixation on prose, too, to the seeming exclusion of all the myriad other elements that make a work of fiction go. And that is from someone who occasionally feels he is unreasonably fixated on prose style, who has wrestled with some of the same writers Myers trashes in his A Reader’s Manifesto—Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy among others—and in some instances tossed their books across the room.

With all that said, I start to wonder if Myers isn’t onto something, regarding Franzen’s prose, when I read sentences like this:

“She was a very good and painfully earnest and strenuously mature young person whose exasperation with Patty and Joey—her feckless mom, her ruthless brother—was seldom so extreme as not to seem comical” (171).

I hate this sentence because it is really quite masterful for about 3/4ths of its duration. Franzen uses rhythm to get away with out-and-out telling; nothing concrete here, nothing to be seen, heard, or felt. He keeps a beat even as he interrupts himself: feckless mom, ruthless brother. And in terms of telling us this, it all is perfectly satisfying and appropriate within the context of the story: this is a section where the main character, Patty Berglund, is sharing her autobiography; Franzen is using the fairly sophisticated trick of having a character write about herself in the third person, and having the “character” in that text (now at an extra remove or two from Franzen’s  third-person creation of the Patty Berglund character) reflect on the character’s daughter, Jessica, and what she thinks of her mother and brother. The sentence falls, too, within an immediate context of a couple stitched-together scenes involving Patty and the novel’s most interesting character, Richard Katz, a sexy musician and an old Berglund family friend.

All of which makes it mildly infuriating to come to the far side of that second em dash and have to stop flat. Wait. Seldom so extreme . . . not to be comical. So she’s rarely extreme, and it’s not funny. Or no, she’s seldom so extreme that it’s actually funny? This clause reads like a Mobius strip, and though the following sentences and a feel for the novel and the character, Jessica, tell me the meaning—she is so extreme it is funny (see how clear things can be when you strip away double negatives?)—by the time I decided to let it go, I’d come to a dead stop.

It’s just one sentence, and I’m sure by the time I hit page 562 of Freedom it’ll be long forgotten. But these are the kinds of lapses that, accumulating over the length of a book, can make it less readable, less engrossing, less magical than a book otherwise could be.

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.