We purchased a mini-van before we moved from Ohio to Wyoming, a Ford Windstar. Sometimes, I’m not too bright. A recall was issued for the van. The van had a tendency to drop the front axle while speeding down highways. The dealership said they had fixed the problem and not to worry.
Steve Almond, who I have met, but only met once, if he remembers me, I’m the one he remembers drunk on whiskey. I swear, this blog makes me sound like I’m some kind of alcoholic, stumbling around to the tune of what makes good writing, and in my freshman composition classes, I sound like a consummate pothead. I am neither alcoholic nor pothead.
(Someone suggested we record our class because we talked about invading space aliens the other day.)
What I am am (I hope) is authentic, truth-telling, passionate, open, and no surprise over at I Miss You When I Blink that Almond talks specifically about authentic conversations, because Almond is all of those things—authentic, truth-telling, passionate, open. Almond co-hosts Dear Sugar with Cheryl Strayed. He says of the show, “It’s almost entirely improvised. We’ll look over the questions in advance, but we don’t talk about them until we can see the whites of each other’s eyes. That’s the thrill of it. […] We both do best when we’re just yakking away and whatever stories or insights we offer arise organically. I think that’s true of most creative endeavors.”
That’s exactly how I go into my classroom. I know I have to talk about topic sentences. On this other day, I have to talk about quote sandwiches, and this next day I have to talk about active versus passive voice, but everything else is completely improvised. The students already inherently realize what they need to know—and I really let that momentum be the driving force of my classes. I’m more like a tour guide rather than a conductor.
I’m driving the bus with a microphone in my hand: “Hi, I’m Steve. We’ll be pulling up to the hotel in just a few minutes. Meanwhile, please sit back and enjoy the ocean view.”
When it comes to my writing, authenticity is harder. The lie has to present a truth somehow. There is work in concoction: plotting, developing structure, theme, motif. And really, as much as I am an outliner, I am just as much of a panster. I’m a pansting outliner.
If you don’t allow room to breathe, don’t allow exploration, don’t allow the muse to take you where she wants to go, you miss out on all the good stuff happening around you.
When I decided to return to school for my master’s, I looked around the area I lived in—Wright State University, Ohio State, Bowling Green University, Ball State, places that were basically close. Years ago though, before we were married, my wife left to work at a lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On one of her days off, she drove out to Laramie to visit the University of Wyoming and visited the English department and was told flat out not to major in English because there was no way she’d ever make a living off words. When I told her I was going back to school, she quietly asked, “Have you ever considered Wyoming?”
I applied, she applied. We sold everything we owned, packed up the car and the van with our two kids and drove through June to a dumpy little university apartment that felt more like a hotel room than a home. The van never failed us. But the axle had never been fixed like we had been told, and the muffler was tied to the frame with bailing wire.
Following a muse like that is risk-taking at the extreme. The universe, however, takes care of you when you learn to trust who you really are.
THE DOG MUST DIE
Beginning June 1st, I am offering a 3 week creative writing course entitled The Dog Must Die: Plotting and Structure Workshop. The first twenty-five people to sign-up will receive a complete critique/workshop of up to 20 pages of writing—and the writing can be something you create as you work your way through the course, something older that you’ve been having difficulties with, or even the first 20 pages of a novel in progress.
Cost for the course is $120.
Course registration opens May 20th. Until then, if you’re interested in taking the course, shoot me an email with the subject heading THE DOG MUST DIE.