So, because several people asked, here are the notes:
I. No matter what I say today, idea generation is still, basically a mystery. Peter Elbow made a similar point when he tried to explain what learning how to write was like. He said, imagine a world where the people are trying to touch the ground, but for some reason they’ve come to believe that the only way to get to the ground was to reach higher. They’re walking around with their hands in the air, bemoaning the fact that they can’t touch the ground. Some people, though, can touch the ground, they just have a hard time teaching other people to do it, so they try tricks, like telling the people to tie their shoes, and while they’re down there to wave their hands around. This works, but the folks who do it also have a tough time explaining how they did it since the idea that the ground can only be reached by straining upward is intrinsically ingrained in everyone. Getting ideas is like that. People get them all the time, but they don’t have a way to tell anyone else how to do it, and when they get right down to it, they might be able to tell you when and where they got the idea, and what they were doing when they got it, but the actual mechanics of why an idea appeared in their head is still unknown. One moment there was nothing, and the next there was an idea, just like that.
II. Almost all anecdotal evidence on how authors get ideas is interesting but impractical. I work with an English teacher who is also a poet. He talks to his classes about inspiration. One of his favorite stories is that he was hiking one day and he saw a solitary crow on a power line. He said that image stuck with him and became the basis of his favorite poem. Of what use is that story to a student? He could take his whole class out to see a crow on a power line, and not one of them would get an idea.
III.On the other hand, I knew another English teacher who would take his English class out to the canyons to watch him dive off a cliff with a hang glider. They all seemed to find plenty to write about.
IV. Annie Dillard says that her best writing environment is the one that is most unstimulating. She likes a room with no view. What does seem common is that writers often do best in an unfamiliar environment. I’d read that meant that for some men, they write best at home, and for some women, they write best anywhere but home. The call of the house is too loud for some, evidently.
V. I read an interesting book called DAILY RITUALS, by Mason Currey, which was about the working habits of 161 artists, composers, and authors. What I thought was interesting was how many of them incorporated long walks into their day. That was probably the most common behavior between them (followed closely by lots of coffee).
VI.So, what I’m going to talk about will be in many ways the equivalent of trying to get you to touch the ground by misdirection. We won’t be trying to touch the ground: instead we’ll do something else and occasionally run into the ground, more or less by accident.
VII.Freewriting: This is stream of consciousness writing championed by Peter Elbow in WRITING WITHOUT TEACHERS. The idea is that the act of writing will produce ideas faster and more reliably than the act of being paralyzed in front of your keyboard waiting for an idea. Freewriting is timed writing (say 10 minutes). You can write with no prompt, or you can start with your reaction to a quote or thought from someone else. I think it’s productive to look at the summary of a plot on the back of a book, and then use that as my starting point. Freewriting means idea production at the keyboard through active effort. This activity can be used at any time in the writing process, where you may be trying to figure out things about your character’s motivation, or you are wondering what is supposed to happen next. Stop at the stuck point, open your notebook or another document, and do the freewriting.
VIII.Use writing prompts. The web is filled with them. Do a search for “writing prompts.” You can even narrow your search to “science fiction writing prompts,” “fantasy writing prompts,” or “horror writing prompts. Bruce Holland Rogers wrote his brilliant short story, “The Dead Boy at Your Window,” because he was responding to a writing prompt in a workshop, which was, “Begin a story with a lie.” He won both the Pushcart Prize and the Bram Stoker Horror Award for that story.
IX.Writing exercises: a random first line generator, like http://writingexercises.co.uk/firstlineg
X.Co-writing. Sometimes two heads are better than one. It’s an interesting exercise to work on a piece with another writer. Brainstorming and the inevitably different approach your partner takes will produce new thinking.
XI. Without know how ideas come, many people talk about the conditions where ideas seem to come to them. One is while doing any activity that requires them to be awake, but doesn’t require much thought. It needs to be an activity where the mind can wander. This list includes:
a. Long drives
b. Mowing the lawn
c. Washing dishes
d. Jogging, walking or biking
e. Taking a shower
f. Painting the house or a fence
g. Knitting or sewing
h. Proctoring a test
i. Preparing a meal
k. Raking leaves
XII. The other activity where people frequently report getting ideas is where their brain has had a chance to disengage from the busy world.
a. Going to sleep
c. Waking up but staying in that drowsy, free associative state
d. Drinking/drugs (not recommended)
e. Sickness (particularly if they’re bedridden)
XIII.It is possible to actively provoke ideas, or at least put yourself in an idea-rich environment. These are activities that creative writing teachers will use:
a. One of my favorite memories of being in an English class was my junior year when the teacher had told us that our next assignment was going to be a short story. When we came to class the next day, she’d covered the walls with photographs from magazines, and art prints. All four walls were covered. There were hundreds of images. She told us to walk around the room, studying the prints, and then when one “spoke to us,” to write the story that the print suggested. This was basically the same prompt as the the VISUAL JOURNEYS anthology in 2007, where the authors were given a set of science fiction art to choose from to write a story to, or the 2003 anthology, IMAGINATION FULLY DIALATED featuring the artwork of Alan M. Clark that operated on the same principle.
b. So, go to an art museum.
c. Listen to moody music with the lights low.
d. Go on a long, solitary hike, especially in a strange place or at an unusual time (like 3:00 am).
e. Sit on the beach or by a stream (moving water seems to be very inspirational)
f. Watch a fire
XIV. When I assign a short story to my Science Fiction class, I’m dealing with an audience who didn’t necessarily sign up for writing a story. It is a lit class, after all. So when I give them the assignment, bunches of them are at a loss for coming up with an idea. To help them, I give them the “What If” sheet. Show them the What If sheet.
XV. Ideas do not come full blown. They develop as the story is written
XVI. Where to you get ideas? How would you answer the question from a sincere, beginning writer who would really like some help?
So, to debrief the assignment, I took what I thought were the best sentences from each of the essays and put them on a PowerPoint. This is great to do in a class. Students respond very strongly to seeing their own work published (I try to use their writing in class as much as possible).
One of my favorite opening sentences was from a student who told the story as if she was dealing with survivor’s guilt. Her sentence was “I don’t rightly know how I got here. I’m not sure, after all, that I really belong in this aftermath.”
Isn’t that beautiful?
Here’s a couple of others:
• “I decided to hide. I found a path to the sewer systems below my town. Surprisingly, It didn’t smell badly as the bacteria died from the radioactivity and stopped producing gasses and breaking down materials. The rats were dead as well – small animals and small organisms alike. I trudged through the sewer waiting for hope, waiting for something to allow me to continue with life.”
• “This attack almost seemed like a holy cleansing; it almost seemed like god himself was trying to destroy the earth and end all of mankind.”
My second favorite passage was from a student who thought of the practical results of surviving a Martian invasion. How would life go on? I’m afraid that I agree with her. This probably is what would happen:
• “As you can tell, living through a Martian invasion is very impactful, and instead of lockdowns at our school, we now have Martian invasion bunkers and drills every two weeks.”
I was going through my messenger bag and I found my notes. Here's my list of bad advice to writers:
- - Try self publishing. You save time and Amazon exposes you to millions of readers.
- - Give up your day job.
- - Don't edit. You're too close to it, so you should let editors who are paid for this work do it.
- - Don't start a project until you have a complete story in your head. After all, you wouldn't go on a road trip without having already planned your route.
- - Editors respond to bribes, threats, sexual favors and appeals to sympathy. Choose the strategy that works best for you and use it in your cover letter.
- - Take long breaks from writing. Only write when you feel totally inspired.
- - If you ask for feedback on your writing, like from a writers' group, be prepared to defend yourself against criticism. Any negative comment about your story should be refuted immediately.
- - Use lots of linking verbs. Everyone is familiar with them and feel comfortable with them.
- - Try to make your characters look and sound like popular television and movie characters.
- - Use lots of familiar phrases in your writing, like "She trembled like a leaf," "He was a true straight arrow," and "Never give up, never surrender."
- - Hang out with other writers who don't write. Have weekly meetings to talk about what you might write about in the future.
- - Ideas are the true gold in publishing. The rest is just typing. Chat up your favorite authors with your ideas and an offer to split profits if they'll do the typing.
I think I have a new teacher hero.
His latest post, "Teaching: a love/hate letter," struck home.
The beginning of my teaching years were marked by three movies that oddly shaped my attitude about school and kids: ANIMAL HOUSE (1978), CLASS OF 1984 (1982), and RISKY BUSINESS (1983). I think I responded to ANIMAL HOUSE and RISKY BUSINESS because they reminded me that being a kid meant not knowing who you are. I know that puts a lot of weight on two light-weight movies, but that's what I was left thinking about afterwards. Tom Cruise's Joel Goodson (did you catch the last name there?) is caught between a fear that he will become his parents, and a fear that he will become something unknown. This seems similar to Larry Kroger and Kent Dorfman who are caught between childhood and something else, and living within their own rules or someone elses.
And then there's CLASS OF 1984, which is one of the meanest, stone-cold depictions of delinquency on film, and that's saying a lot since I have CLOCKWORK ORANGE in my memory mix. CLASS OF 1984 scared the beans out of me. I was still in my first year of teaching when it came out. Thank goodness I've never run into the level of sadism that this film portrayed.
Fortunately, later in the decade I cleansed my palate with Nick Nolte's TEACHERS (1984), and then totally rinsed the taste away with DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989).
What I thought was interesting about yesterday’s session is that our presenter briefly touched upon a division in the university’s English composition teachers. Some of them, he said, are “expressivists."
Expressivists are the teachers who emphasizes writing as a way to discover and express thought. They do a lot of exploratory kind of writing in class. The classes emphasize student choice in topic and expression. There’s more “creative” writing in class.
On the other side of the divide are the “formivists” or “formvists” (I’m not sure how to label them—we didn’t talk about them much or even name them). They teach freshmen composition by emphasizing the kinds of papers the students will write: five-paragraph, personal response, comparison-contrast, definition, cause and effect, formal research, etc.
You would think that there would be a nice middle ground where the expressivists and the formivists could meet, since one approach emphasizes the creation of thought while the other emphasizes the form of the creation, but it seems they don’t. The expressivists have their students brainstorming, journaling, free writing and paying attention to sound, rhythm and word choice, while the formivists have their students reading and analyzing model essays, imitating master writers, studying grammar, and then moving through a series of assignments that hit the essay form highlights.
The formivists, by the way, often complain that their students lack originality in thought and expression while at the same time being horrified by the lack of rigor in the expressionists’ classes. The expressivists have a tendency to see the formivists as paint-by-number, rule followers who kill student enthusiasm and stunt student growth.
I’ve noticed the divide before, but I’d never looked at the two approaches quite this way.
I hope that I hit the middle ground. I spend a great deal of time in class looking at examples of awesome writing, and then deconstructing the process that produces that writing. In my class, we see the form (like a comparison-contrast essay), but we work on what kind of preliminary thinking/writing/exploration can fill that form with interesting content that the student had to grow to produce. I teach grammar and structure while also having the students free write and do exploratory stabs at the topic before writing the final paper.
It’s a tough tightrope because in the “real” world, no one sets out to write a comparison-contrast paper. They have a thought and an urge to speak, and occasionally the comparison-contrast approach is the best one to use. The form arises organically out of the necessity of the topic. In the classroom, though, we do the opposite: we demand that the form is the goal and that we find a topic to fit it. That’s backasswards, but there’s not much we can do about it. The classroom is a place where we can practice technique and familiarize ourselves with forms so that when we have a genuine need for expression we know how to make some of the required moves.
By taking the middle ground, I manage to piss off both ends of the composition teacher chasm. The formivists wonder why I spend any time freewriting and talking about where student thinking comes from, while the expressivists can’t believe I teach grammar directly.
Friday, 6:00 pm, Unca Mike's Bad Advice with C. Berg, EJ Stone, M. Swanwick (M), J. Van Pelt and C. Willis. "C. Willis," for those who don't know, is the incomparable Connie Willis. This is a high powered panel!
Friday, 8:00 pm, Autograph Alley in the Atrium with all the authors who are signing.
Friday, 9:00 pm, Short Story Sampler,Vol. 2:Discussion & Readings with R. Seagren, EJ Stone (M), and J. Van Pelt
Saturday, noon, Lasting Appeal of The Time Machine/Time Travel Stories M. DesJardin, A. Mayer (M), D. Riley, EJ Stone, and J. Van Pelt
Sunday, 1:00 pm, Ask the Authors with J. Heller, R. Owens (M),M. Rotundo, J. Van Pelt, and P. Wacks
Sunday, 4:00 pm, Suspension of Disbelief with H. Bell, G. Jonas,R. Owens (M), J. Stith, and J. Van Pelt
Yesterday I went to Teague's final cross country meet. Teague is my youngest son and a senior in high school. A wave of melancholy swept over me as he was running. I've had sons on the FMHS cross country team for the last eleven years, and now they are done. I'll never have the same relationship with the team (and it's another harbinger of age).
It has been an awesome ride, though, watching the three of them run for four years each. They worked so hard and accomplished so much personally. I've always argued that cross country is the hardest sport to do. Of course, I'm prejudiced, but it's difficult to make an argument that other sports are MORE demanding physically than the coach pointing to some spot on the horizon and saying, "Run there, and then run back. Shouldn't take you more than a couple of hours."
What I liked best about FMHS cross country was that it has always been an inclusive, welcoming group. A lot of that is on the coaches who fostered that attitude. Many high schools can barely field enough kids to fill the seven varsity spots they get at a meet (remember how hard I said this sport was?), but Fruita has always had huge squads. I think that came from the coaches making it a fun, important place for the kids to be. Of course, the kids and their attitudes make the team, but a lot of their behavior came from coaches who encouraged an inclusive approach.
Thanks coaches! The FMHS cross country team has continuously been one of the best arguments for high school athletics I've seen.