Monday, September 17, 2012

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1

The best way to avoid becoming a literary dropout is to keep writing. As all of us know, that’s easier said than done. There are many elements to keeping the writing flowing. I’ll try to cover several in this series of blogs.
To begin with, I’ll start with factors that relate just to the writing itself, and not to circumstances peripherally connected to, or outside of the writing.
The first suggestion I’d make is to choose projects that you can complete successfully. I had a terrific student several years ago, a guy who had a remarkable facility for spontaneous writing. Our class was studying the surrealist movement at the time. I asked the students to attempt automatic writing as a learning exercise. Automatic writing is a type of writing devised by the surrealist group in Paris in the early 1920s as a way of liberating the subconscious. In automatic writing you don’t edit or look back at what you’ve already written but compose spontaneously, as if dreaming onto the page. It’s a great exercise if you’re suffering from writer’s block or just want to warm up. The student I’m referring to was one of the few I’ve ever encountered who could create a finished piece of work using automatic writing. The whole class was amazed at what he created during that in-class exercise, without editing. If he had lived in Paris in the 1920s, he’d be a legend.

Surrealist group in Paris practices automatic writing
Now, you would think that a person who can compose literature so fluently would have absolutely no trouble finishing a longer work. Poof! You sit down, you write, it’s done. But that wasn’t the case. For his MFA thesis, he attempted to write a sort of modern-day Dante’s Inferno. A worthy project. The task was almost impossible, though, since the way he set it up, not one of the characters interacted with anyone but the narrator. Not only that, but we knew that each story ended with the death of the person recounting it, since all the characters besides the narrator were ghosts. And there was a talking-head aspect to the format that killed almost all of the drama.
You should be extremely ambitious in the projects you pick for yourself as a writer, but don’t choose a project that you can never finish, or that won’t interest many people even if you do finish it. Stretch yourself, be daring in your aesthetic choices, do things that no one has attempted before, but don’t try to climb Mount Denali on rollerskates.

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