Wednesday, December 29, 2010

So, What?

When I was in college I did a lot of writing. Okay, actually, the school I attended didn't offer near as many creative writing classes as an English major would appreciate but there were still plenty of sub-ideal opportunities for me to flex my muscle. Despite my complete lack of interest (which quickly turned into an absolute hatred for) journalism, I still signed up for nearly every one that was offered. I did not do well in those classes for the same reasons that I did not do well in any of my math classes: rules. My brain does not store knowledge of rules for any amount of time. I fully comprehend very, very few grammar rules. My grammar isn't terrible and I don't know how I spent so many years as a tutor without knowing the actual rules (anyone who does know the real rules and reads this has probably never been fooled). I know what works. I just don't know why. Wait. Isn't there one that's like "'i' before 'e' except after 'c' something something something 'neighbor' and 'weigh'." Yeah. There's that.It's a little bit like how Phoebe Buffay didn't really know how to play the guitar, she just knew how to play the guitar. No, she couldn't teach Joey or anyone else but she could still play (that was something that the audience just collectively understood about Phoebe--she actually really, really sucked at it).

In my journalism classes I worked so hard on putting words down and then organizing them into coherent sentences and then having to correct all of the rules that the damn AP Stylebook said that I broke that I'd overlook some pretty basic stuff.
For example, once I had to cover a speech that someone gave and I worked so hard at attributing and not accidentally taking things out of context and maintaining "journalistic integrity" that I forgot to mention anywhere in the article who this person was, where the speech took place or why he was even saying anything. Honest to God, I can't imagine what information I did include in article. My professor wrote at the end of the paper, "If you worked for a newspaper you would be so fired. [smiley face]" That was fair.

When I wrote for the newspaper (for the requisite two semesters--no more, no less) they had to create a student-profile column specifically for me because it was impossible for me to write articles about how construction was coming along on the seemingly hundreds of new buildings that were popping up despite our apparent lack of funding. Even that was a challenge, but at least I didn't have to stick to the facts. I made up all kinds of stuff about people--made them look really cool. That was mostly because I was super terrible at interviewing people. Anyone who has ever met me in real life knows good and well that simple getting-to-know-you conversation is so not my strong suit. I have a tendency to create a super awkwardness in first meeting people. I'm bad at basic things like returning questions. I answer questions in one sentence and then stare at you. I can only imagine what people think of me. Lucky for me, most of the friends that I have now are people that I was forced into getting to know. Or we have been together for years and there's no more room for introduction. Happy am I that people stick around for me. I had a friend who used to make me fake-interview him, just to work on my question asking skills. I couldn't do it. I'm not a role-playing kind of kid. I'd ask, "So where are you from? This is ridiculous! I know where you're from. Next question. What's your major? Damnit! I hate this." And that was about as well as it ever went.

So I thought that embracing creative writing would be ideal for me, and it would be except that I find that my strong suit is mostly in just making things sound really pretty but I can't push a story along very well. More often than not it was Professor Ness who gave us creative assignments. I think he knew that we didn't have a lot of opportunity to work with this. He had us write villanelles (still my favorite poem to write), flash fiction, free verse, stream of consciousness, I loved writing for him because he would actually try to guide you into a way to make your writing better (the actual creative writing instructor was kind of like a mom or a nanny who would say "that's nice dear" and not really give you any direction). More often than not, Prof Ness' notes on my papers would say, "This is beautiful but what's the point?" Half of that was flattering and the other half was crushing but he was right. He's still right. In my serious writing, when I'm telling stories I can do a really good job at making things sound wonderful and I can bring the story to a crisis. And then it's over.

I've been working on a story for a few weeks now and I finished my first draft but I'm reading it and I keep thinking "what's the point?" I had a friend who, when I asked what he thought of my writing, said that he loved reading it but when it started getting good, I'd always end the story. I went on a tirade using all sorts of cliches about "artist's vision" and about how he didn't understand me and was free to make love to himself.* Ugh. But he was right.

Oy with the self-improvement.

*According to Anne Lamott, this sort of reaction is completely normal. If you have a writer friend who asks your honest opinion and you decide to give one, even in the most delicate of methods, your writer friend will more than likely go on a murderous rampage. Do not dismay, she will always come out of it and she will be ashamed and more able to accept criticism.

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