Required Reading for Young Writers

Below is the speech William Faulkner gave when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. His words remain true for anyone who wants to be a writer. Click on the link to hear him read it.

http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1397

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

5 Reasons to Take a Creative Writing Class at CSC

5. Discover Your Other Selves

Before taking a creative writing class most days I looked like this:

But now some days I look like this:

And other days, especially after a haircut, I look like this:

550px-DoraTheExplorer-Color-Step-11

And once, on a particularly inspired day, I even looked like this:

James Joyce Conference in Rome

2. One word: How-on-earth-did-they-do-that?

Here is one of my favorite Wallace Stevens poems:

A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur—

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone—
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

I first read this poem what I was 19, and the only thing I knew was that I loved it. I lacked any way to articulate what exactly I found so appealing (Stevens’ use of imagery, metaphor, and voice, his wildly inventive details). To put it simply: I lacked the ability to understand and discuss craft.

By taking a creative writing class at CSC you won’t just read fantastic works of art, you will also learn how to talk and think about how these works are constructed and how–perhaps most important–these approaches can be applied to your own writing.

3. Get Published

All published work begins somewhere, and the creative writing classroom at CSC is just about the best place in all of northwestern Nebraska for your words to begin their journey.

2. You’ll Meet This Man

Rambo TV Series Sylvester Stallone Wont Return

No, not really.

1. Join a Community of Writers

Perhaps the greatest misconception of being a writer is this:

Yes, there are moments you have to sit at a desk and put in the required time and effort. However, by joining a creative writing class at CSC you will discover, much like this song suggests (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pj5zqg9sHuY), you do not have to do it alone. A creative writing classroom allows you to join a community of writers, a support network of thinkers, who not only want to see you succeed but will offer assistance for you to realize your deepest and most interesting self.

On Images–Deane Tucker

Underwear

The caption says one word: underwear. The text itself is located across the pants and not placed over the underwear itself. Of course, this is only meant to call attention to the fact that the ad is about underwear and not pants. It is even hard to tell whether the person is taking the pants off or putting them on. The word “Tommy” stands in for the head of the person while “Hilfiger” rests at his feet. The viewer’s gaze is directed from the underwear to the pants, to the feet, and then back to the underwear again. The tranquil river flowing behind suggests the beauty of time’s progression, linking the past to the joy of the moment and to a promising future. The underwear seems to almost bridge the river, implying a sense of timelessness and stability to Tommy Hilfiger’s underwear. This underwear is fashion, not a passing fad. This timeless quality is only possible because of the design of the underwear: it is patterned after (or maybe even from) the stars and stripes of the American flag.

The stars and stripes, the red white and blue, Old Glory; these are words that seem to embody the very destiny of America. The very material of the flag is threaded through American history. Whether carried as a standard into battle, hoisted at half-mast for a dignitary’s death, waiving from a state capital, or standing still behind glass in a museum, the flag signifies America’s presence. More than a sign, it is a symbol, since it neither resembles nor has the form of that for which what it stands. For Americans, it often stands for one thing: patriotism.

We Americans like to wear our patriotism on our sleeves. From kindergarten through high school we pledge allegiance to our flag. We fly it from our porches on veteran’s day, salute it at baseball games, and sing of its indestructible glory in our national anthem. We pin it on our clothes at rallies, attach it to our bumpers, and paint it on our business signs. An American can always tell a person’s patriotic fever by his reverence for the flag. Indeed, to question someone’s respect for the flag is to accuse him of being unpatriotic. The neighbor who doesn’t display the flag on July 4th, the student who silently refuses to say the pledge during homeroom, the baseball player who leaves his cap on during the ball park national anthem all manifest their unpatriotic natures in their contempt for the flag.

Some zealous politicians have called for protecting the flag, especially from burning during political protests. To burn the flag, they say, is to set America itself to flames. The fire consumes the symbol, exchanging America’s timelessness for cinders and ash. Some have even called for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.

But what would it mean to constitutionally protect the flag as a symbol? It must of course mean regulating it throughout its various appearances, but it can’t be a matter of its materiality. It is not offensive to anyone to burn cotton, wool, or any synthetic fiber from which a flag is fashioned. So it is not the material the government would seek to control, but the form.

But a symbol is only an idea, and therefore any attempt to regulate the flag in this way amounts to thought control. The flag might be a material signifier, an object sold as a consumer item more often than not made in China, but what it signifies transcends the notion of ownership. You can own the flag, but not the myriad of ideas it produces; and as Saussure reminds us, the relationship between a signifier and signified is always arbitrary and conventional.

We can only imagine the consequences of such legislation. It would suddenly be illegal to display the flag in a vulgar manner, which would necessarily have a vague definition. Flag bumper stickers, if still allowed, would have to be shown the same ritualistic respect as the flag flying over a military cemetery. Earrings and other jewelry bearing the symbol of the flag would be deemed offensive even on someone under the vain pretense of wearing their patriotism. Even photographs of the flag would have to fall under the same jurisdiction as the flag itself, subject to the same rules of display and proper disposal.

These circumstances would leave our Tommy Hilfiger ad at a complete disadvantage. Advertising, in principle, demands a prior referent system in order to exchange signs for meaning. Advertising symbolizes both production and consumption, each governed by manufactured desires. As production, it envelops us in a world in which objects are taken out of their material, utilitarian context to become signs of desire. As consumption, advertising creates a space in the imagination where these signs can be decoded back into objects to be freely (perhaps illusorily) consumed. The underwear ad demands from the consumer a prior referent system to patriotism that can be worn on your sleeve, or, in this case, under your pants (patriotism as under armor, America as the last defense before your unprotected and vulnerable nakedness in the face of a harsh world). But if it is meant as a direct exchange, a transfer, of the producer’s patriotism for the consumer’s, then the ad would already be governed by the under-handedness of the flag as symbol. This patriotism cannot be worn, because such a display would already be unpatriotic.

Luckily, the incendiary debates amongst politicians about the flag have cooled somewhat over the past few months. Cooler heads know that the flag as symbol cannot be regulated. The flag does not simply signify patriotism; one is free to project his desires of patriotism on the flag, or not. The flag, as an object, signifies at the least individuals, and at most categories of people, each consuming a different meaning. Every person must symbolically recognize his own (changing) self in the flag. Patriotism is not something that is passively consumed, but is instead exchanged by every individual for his or her own freedoms concealed like underwear in their minds and hearts.

On Writing–Deane Tucker

A couple of years ago I was having a pint on the patio of a pub in the English village of Naunton. I was there to meet an old friend I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years, and since I had walked the five mile footpath from Bourton-on the-Water at a brisker than normal pace, I arrived an hour earlier than planned. At the table to my left sat three rather dapper looking old gents, all three sheets to the wind. Their fourth companion was a three legged dog, a lurcher oddly out of place in the company of such aristocratic looking Englishmen. I soon learned that they were old mates from their days at Oxford and were on an annual country pub crawl, an inebriated tradition they had steadfastly kept for the past fifty years. When I asked about the dog, its ‘owner’s’ face beamed with happiness (or it could have been the result of the copious amount of wine he had drunk) as he told me how much the dog means to him. As the Oxford foursome got up to leave, he turned to me and said, “I’m just glad he can’t speak, because he’d ruin my f—king life.”

Writing is my three-legged lurcher, and it speaks. Every time I put my own words on paper and show them to anyone—especially editors at publishing houses—I am struck by an irrational fear that what I wrote, somehow, will ruin my f—king life. Or at the very least, cause me embarrassment. To some, that might mean the same thing.

Writing, to paraphrase Nietzsche, is dangerous. You put yourself and your reputation at risk every time you hit the submit button or drop a manuscript into a postal box. It’s like sending who you think is your well-behaved child off to her first day of school. After all your work at teaching her manners and self-discipline, she might actually behave like a spoiled brat as soon as she steps on the bus. And you might actually be a terrible parent. Your offspring—and in the case of writing it is truth, your truth—is no longer exclusively yours and will be judged for years to come by anonymous strangers.

My colleagues tell me that blogging is writing where the stakes are low. Still, I wouldn’t bet on it. But I’ll keep writing everyday, stumbling blindly along like poor old Oedipus, rambling on like I am in this blog post.

Oedipus—the worst child and the most terrible parent imaginable—too is a figure of writing. Poor Oedipus had no idea that solving the riddle of the Sphynx would ruin his f—king life. How could he have known that he himself was the riddle’s answer? Or that, blind and destined to walk with a cane the rest of his life, he would become the three-legged lurcher that the third part of the riddle pronounced?

On Reading–Deane Tucker

In a funny scene in the not so funny film Smart People (2008), a conceited, self-absorbed, and somewhat loathed English literature professor played by Dennis Quaid meets with the only editor at Penguin willing to publish his latest and universally rejected tome on literary theory. The book bears the titillating title You Can’t Read, and though concerned about the pompous tone of the writing, the editor is giddily excited about the publicity he knows the title will generate.

Pompousness and Hollywood comedic sarcasm aside, our fictional derisive professor might just be on to something. Maybe it is the case that you can’t read, and neither can I. We can’t read.

Or, perhaps we have lost the pleasure of reading in an intelligent, creative, and meditative way. This is the subject of a book I just finished reading (no irony intended) titled Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2013).

I have always been a slow reader. I don’t mean slow developmentally, but that I tend to linger over words, sentences, and sometimes even punctuation in a book. A few words about the word ‘linger.’ Its etymology can be traced to the Old English word lengan, meaning to “prolong, lengthen.” Its Germanic cousin is the word längen, meaning to “make longer,” which in Middle English becomes linger, to “dwell, abide.” To slowly linger over words in a book then is to dwell, or find one’s home in that book. Paradoxically then, when we find ourselves lost in a book we might be just where we belong.

In literary theory, slow reading is just another name for close reading. Or deep reading. But as Mikics points out, slow reading, deep reading, and close reading are all modern-day kissing cousins in a lineage of active, intelligent, and creative reading—and rereading—that goes back to the rabbinical Talmud scholars of ancient Israel. It is how serious readers—those who read for both pleasure and understanding—practice reading. To quote Emerson (as Mikic does): “There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of what ever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.”

Mikics reminds us that slow reading takes practice, like learning a musical instrument (note the word ‘labor’ in the Emerson quote). Like any practice, there are rules. Below are 14 rules (or just guidelines) of slow reading suggested by Mikics that I am trying to practice. I leave you to take up your instrument and play:

Rule One: Be Patient

Patience means taking the time and effort to read. But it also means allowing ourselves to be perplexed by what we read and taking the time to ponder our puzzlement, whether it be over a single word or an entire chapter.

Rule Two: Ask the Right Questions

This is related to the first rule. As Mikics says, “Asking questions is how you get from perplexity to engagement.”

Rule Three: Identify the Voice

Sometimes, as in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary—in which Mikics argues are two voices—this takes the effort and patience of detective work to untangle. Don’t rush to judgment.

Rule Four: Get a Sense of Style

Style, as Steven Pinker reminds us, not only helps the writer to get her message across, it adds beauty to the world. Stop often to enjoy the pleasures of a writer’s singular style.

Rule Five: Notice Beginnings and Endings

This could mean lingering on the beginning and ending of a single sentence, or even on the title as it relates to the whole work. Or, one can go back and reread the ending and beginning of a text to see again (or for the first time) how the middle fits.

Rule Six: Identify Signposts

Here is how Mikic sums up this rule: “A book’s signposts tell you what to pay attention to, where to direct yourself in your journey through its pages. Signposts can take the form of key words, key images, key sentences or passages…As you develop your skills at slow reading, you will want to stop at as many signposts as you can, to carefully absorb the details of your book.”

Rule Seven: Use the Dictionary

To illustrate this rule, Mikic quotes novelist Maxine Hong Kingston: “The dictionary is my Scheherazade. Plus it can spell Scheherazade.” Now go look up Scheherazade in a dictionary.

Rule Nine: Find the Author’s Basic Thought

Ask yourself the question, “What is this book about?” You will often find that the answer takes time to discover.

Rule Ten: Be Suspicious

There is always a subtext lurking beneath a text. Authors, characters, and speakers do not always mean what they say (or say what they mean). Sometimes meaning has to be carefully mined from words.

Rule Eleven: Find the Parts

Every text has a structure and organization. Take it apart to see how it’s built and then reconstruct it.

Rule Twelve: Write It Down

Take notes as you read. I like to write in a book’s margin. I don’t like the note taking features on E-readers (which doesn’t mean it’s not useful; I just find it cumbersome), so when I am reading on my Kindle, I keep a notebook ready to jot down thoughts or questions I have. It’s another way to keep the conversation between author and reader lively.

Rule Thirteen: Explore Different Paths

“Revision, the writer’s most basic tool,” writes Mikic, “is also important for the reader. It’s always a useful exercise to imagine how the author might have begun or ended a work differently, or changed a crucial moment in its plot.”

Rule Fourteen: Find Another Book

Books, authors, and readers are inter-textual—they are engaged in dialogue with one another, they talk back and forth in conversation. It doesn’t end when you finish reading a book—keep the conversation going.

Friday Five: Spoken Word Poetry

I’ve been sharing a lot of spoken word poetry in my classes this semester. Here are five of my current favorites.

If you’re new to spoken word, Sarah Kay’s TED Talk, “If I Should Have a Daughter,” is a terrific introduction to the form. She shares her journey to becoming a poet and writing teacher and performs two of her poems:

Teacher Clint Smith cautions us on “The Danger of Silence” in this TED talk:

 

It’s hard to choose just one poem by Phil Kaye, but I’m going with “Repetition”:

 

Malcolm London’s “High School Training Ground” highlights what really needs to be reformed in education (also, he’s only 20 years old!):

After you listen to Daniel Beaty’s powerful “Knock Knock,” be sure to read the children’s picture book he wrote based on this piece: