Writing Programs and Workshops, yet again

In the March/April 2009 issue of the Writer’s Chronicle, Renée Olander interviews poet Baron Wormser, who says of writing programs, “[w]hat a writing program shows you is what’s involved with trying to be a good writer. I don’t think that’s the same thing as pumping out writers. Writing is a daunting task; one thing you learn is that it’s daunting.” One caveat: Wormser does teach in a writing program, specifically the Stonecoast MFA Program in Maine. But what he says is so simple, so “of course, that’s the reason anyone should enroll in a writing program.” But how many writing programs sell themselves by implying (or downright claiming) that, if you become their student, you too will become a published author? What I like about Wormser’s comment is that it is focused on writing, on learning the craft. Here’s what he says about writing workshops: “The workshop as a forum where people deliver ad hoc judgments isn’t a lot of help, obviously, because–unless you have some notions of what a good piece of writing is, can point to good writing, have a sense of what inspires you as a good piece of writing, what’s the point?” Indeed, what is the point? I’ve been to good writing workshops, and I’ve been to some truly awful ones.

The best writing workshop was taught by the late Wendy Bishop. It was an article and essay workshop, and I was a master’s level student. The workshop was configured into small groups and the class at large. We worked out the drafts of our essays in small groups and presented the final to the class. I was fortunate to have doctoral students who were also teaching assistants in my small group. They taught me that, yes, writing is daunting, but you must be true to yourself. I had written an essay in the typical academic third-person voice, and I was actually a bit proud of it. I thought I had managed to make myself sound like I knew more than I really did (I was a coward and words were my shield). [The essay was a book review of Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Virginia Woolf. No wonder I felt intimidated.) Fortunately, the members of my small group had no interest in revealing me for the fraud I was. Rather, they hesitated and avoided my eyes until they were able to tell me, in as gentle a manner as possible, that my essay was … boring. Boring, boring, boring. Can a writer be told worse? I was devastated and had to struggle to keep my composure. But, they wanted me to rewrite the essay. Don’t give up, they said. It’s the voice that boring, not the content. We want to know what YOU think, they said. And I naturally wondered, “Why would anyone want to know what I think?” That is probably my greatest barrier to becoming a successful (i.e., paid) writer: even today, I still wonder why anyone would want to read what I think.

But in the case of this pitiful essay, after a night or more of crying and feeling sorry for myself, I trashed the whole essay and began anew. I told them exactly what I thought about Gordon’s book. Not only was this new version of my essay widely acclaimed by the class when it came for final review, but a year later, it was published, with virtually no edits, in a small literary journal. Yes, seeing my writing in print was wonderful, even though I was paid only in copies. It was like icing because the real value from that workshop was learning to write in my own true voice.

FB status updates are poetry?

My favorite Sunday paper–The New York Times–has an interesting article on status updates in Facebook.  You can read the article by clicking here.  Suffice to say that I need to work on the poetry of my status updates, to create more “spontaneous bursts of being: perfect.”

The Kindle 2–is the audio option illegal?

Check out the post on the Writer Beware Blog for an in-depth discussion.  I don’t think authors have much to worry about since the quality of audio that the Kindle2  offers will match (if ever) the quality of a professionally produced audiobook. At best, the audio option will be a service to the visually impaired. I love audiobooks, and I’ve listened to quite a range of quality. A non-professionally produced audiobook can be entertaining for all the wrong reasons, but if I really want to enjoy a book audibly, then I’ll ante up for a professional production. The Kindle 2 offers a convenience only.

Favorite Writing Instruments

I’ve been musing a bit about writing instruments.  In pre-personal computer days (which I’m old enough to remember well and with nostalgia), I fancied pencils, usually the hard #5 which left such a spidery script that the lead faded in time.  When pens came in more varied constructions from the usual ballpoint, I was in bliss.  So many pens to choose from!  But as soon as I found a “favorite” rollerball or gel ink, I could rarely find the pen again and would buy so many others, trying to find one that would give me the same pleasure in writing.  Even when I had my first typewriter (an electric Smith Corona), the pen was my constant.  The typewriter was for the final drafts of my work:  the loud clacking of the keys and my poor typing skills did not provide for a productive stream-of-consciousness rump on the SC.  

Then came the PC and my writing life was changed forever and, generally, for the better.  Now my typing can keep up with my thinking and I can crank out reams of nonsense if I want (like I did for the National Novel Writing Month 2007).  But I do need to use a pen or pencil much of the time still, and, believe it or not, I still struggle to find the perfect writing implement.  

I’ve been a fan of Levenger for a long  time.  I love their Circa notebooks and all the Circa accessories.  Their pens are beautiful works of art.  I love the True Writer Demonstrator series, even though the pens are a bit large for my small hands.  But the quality of the ink–well, I’ve bought cheaper pens that had better ink flow and quality.  

I have tried fountain pens, both Waterman and Levenger, but again, I have serious issues with bleed-throughs, skips, and blots.  I have a Waterman fountain pen that I still use occasionally, but not for every day writing.

I have extra fine point Sharpies in every color imaginable.  They’re great for labeling packages and signing handmade greeting cards.  But for note-taking during a business meeting?  Well, there I prefer the standard black ink.  So, I suppose I could use a black extra fine point Sharpie, but then I would not be “going green.”  I had hoped, with my relatively new purchase of True Writer Demonstrator Pen (in “Always Greener”) that I would be minimizing my impact on the environment by using refillable pens.  Well, I guess I will, for as long as I use it.  And when I’ve used up all the ink refills, maybe I’ll just hang my True Writers on my wall as a kind homage to the writing life and buy a big box of extra fine point Sharpies!

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