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Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Outline: One of the Words that Gets in the Way

It happens occasionally. I usually notice it when someone uses the word "media"--which is, by the way, the plural of "medium." Too many people I know, on hearing the word, will immediately think of "the press," or "the news," though the media are many, unless the term used is "the news media." But even then it could refer to the press, radio coverage, TV coverage, and news magazines, all of them at once.

Something similar happens when I present ideas in a writing class on various ways that writers plan their writing. I talk about planning, but prewriting and invention are also terms I use. For many of my students who are thinking that the class is just a repeat of high school, the term "planning" will mean simply "creating an outline."

But this is the last thing I mean. One benefit of having taught for a while is that I can usually anticipate wrong reactions to things and correct them. I usually follow up my use of the term "planning" by refuting the idea that outlines are very helpful. I mention other ideas--freewriting, brainstorming, thinking about your audience, cubing, and listing. But I stay away from formal outlines.


Planning that Works
The whole point in this part of a writing process is to come up with something that works. Like most of my students, I was not taught process in high school. I was taught to write a formal outline before writing a research paper. But I found that method too rigid. When I would begin to write, new ideas would occur to me, and I would begin to see my subject in ways I hadn't anticipated before writing. But I had to ignore these new insights and stay with the outline my teacher had already approved.

Again, this never helped much.

I discovered when I began writing short works that I didn't need an outline because I would already have one in my head. I would know--as with this blog--where I was going.

But with longer works, I would list things, chunk ideas together before writing about them. Then I would write, and I would discover new ideas.

This has happened as I've worked on my new novel, which has the working title Radio Eden. I had a general idea of the over-all plot and what is supposed to happen to the main characters. But as I began to write my way in last summer, new things happened as I was writing that led to new insights. I wrote at the time not being sure of how the main plot would unfold, but as I have written and then reflected on what I have, a new understanding of how things come to take place--for example, how the CIA gets involved at the local level where I am writing--has all unfolded. I am writing the second half--and rewriting the first half, with this new understanding.

The Lost Pilgrim and the Real Purpose of My Outlines
This is not a process I would wish on anyone. It almost feels religious in how it leads to doubts and big questions about the point of everything and why I'm even writing it. There were several days this fall when I though I wasn't going to finish. I was a pilgrim who lost his way.

But I know that writing a long work has many levels and much complexity. Writing a single linear outline misses the point.

Here is the way that outlines work for me. They work as a revision tool, what Composition teachers refer to as "reverse outlining." That is, instead of writing an outline at the beginning of the process, as a planning device, I write the outline when I've written my rough draft. I did this with my first novel. With the rough draft in hand, I wrote a chapter by chapter outline. This allowed me to see the ground I'd covered and hadn't covered, and where I'd gone off course in terms of plot and character. I could then see what I needed to cut and what I needed to add.

This worked, and this is what I'd recommend for any writing that anyone does that is longer than a blog--say a research project.

Then again, even a blog can benefit from the reflection that comes from writing a reverse outline.

This is the advice then. Think about planning a piece of writing the way we think about planning a trip. Give room for many ideas and possibilities to come in. Don't just try to nail everything down before you begin.

When you write, plan, don't just outline. 

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Escaping The Wired and Shallow Life

In their small but important book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy,  Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber offer the following caution regarding our wired culture: 

"We need to get offline. Tom Chatfield, in How to Thrive in the Digital Age, recognizes that for the first time in history 'many people’s daily default is to be "wired" into at least one personalized form of media' (30). We now have, he says, two 'fundamentally different ways of being in the world: our wired and unwired states,' and we need to ask 'which aspects of a task, and of living, are best served by each' (31). Shenk, among others, tells us that research shows that 'it takes an experienced computer users an average of 15 minutes to return to ‘serious mental tasks’ after answering email or instant messages' (Shenk “E Decade” par. 4). If we are continually interrupted virtually, we cannot help but be fragmented. If we keep checking messages, we suffer from what Thomas calls 'self-induced ADD'" (9).

Berg and Seeber note that this daily default of being "wired" is behind much of our hurry and exhaustion, but perhaps also most devastatingly, our inability to concentrate. They are especially concerned with the hurry and disruption that currently typifies university life for professors, who are asked to take on more and more in their workload, often at the expense of real productivity, creativity, and effective teaching and scholarship. Such hurry and disruption undermine deeper thinking and concentration. Berg and Seeber's observations are fitting for everyone, not just those involved in the work of universities. 

Indeed, being online and having to check every status report, every like on Facebook, every click on a blog or email newsletter, leads to exhaustion. Perhaps just as devastating, it doesn't lead to greater creativity or, for that matter, the personal connections I believe I am seeking. In fact, being constantly online can lead to feelings of isolation. 

The constant tendency to interrupt myself to check statuses has meant that it is more difficult to concentrate. In reflecting on this, I've begun to think about my students and their classes and the need to help them also become aware of how being "wired" means being shallow and unable to concentrate. This is especially important for writing students, since writing takes great concentration. 

While I am engaged in reading The Slow Professor, I am in the midst of planning my own small rebellion. I plan to be spending more relaxed and "empty" time off line, where creativity, where ideas seem to be nourished and enhanced. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

On a Book's Cover, and the Other Ways We Judge One

As I've been learning of late, people don't just judge a book by its cover. They judge it by any number of concerns--by genre, by the main character, by whether or not they've heard of the author, or, as in my novel, by an advertised aspect of setting in the book.

"I don't really like reality TV," an acquaintance told me recently, "so I wasn't interested in this. I figured I probably wouldn't like it."

"Well," I said, weakly, "reality TV isn't really the focus of it, just one of the settings. It's more about character."

"Yeah," this person said, "but still."

I had written so many other themes and strands of action into the book. The reality show is really the tip of the story, and the main point isn't the show. The show is almost a parody of one. The reality show simply allowed for a typical American setting in which I could focus on religious ideas, ambition, greed, and a crime. It also allowed me to explore a number of different characters. It allowed for a mystery plot to emerge. So I wanted to say to this acquaintance who wasn't interested in my book that her rejection of it on the grounds that it had a reality show in it would be like rejecting an Agatha Christie novel because there is a train ride in it.

Well, that's the last time I will be so arrogant to equate my writing with Agatha Christie. But you get the point.

As for the cover of the book, publishers really do think about them. They think about how potential readers and buyers actually do judge the book by its cover: first the front cover, then the back cover, and only then do they open it up to the first page. So they've put a lot of study and research into that cover, trying to understand what will lead a customer to become a reader.

My publisher had very interesting concerns with my cover, for example. My idea was to have an image of a wall of TVs, sort of what one might see on going into a department store. And I thought that each TV would be used to spell out the title of my book: Apocalypse TV. I even had my youngest son draw up a mock up of it for them.

My publisher saw this differently, however, and I think I came around to agree.

"Our research has shown that the more abstract a cover is, the more readers are drawn to it," my editor said.

I hadn't heard this. But as I thought about covers of books, I began to agree with them. And then I saw the cover they had planned--which used part of my idea--and I was sold. I really still like the cover of my novel.


In fact, I like it so much so today that I would rather have readers judge it by the cover than by whether or not they like and watch reality TV. I am always quick to note that I don't watch reality TV. I think it is a strange TV genre, and yet it helped me to make certain dramatic turns, and even introduce a bit of humor to contrast with the main character's thinking.

I would be happy to hear from you about any and all of this. What draws you to a book, and what leads you to actually buy it and read it?

Thank you for reading. If you are interested in reading further, here's a link to my novel. Check it out. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

How I Write in a Time of Crisis

Twice recently I've been asked about how I manage to write when I'm facing a crisis. I understand this question. Writing takes great concentration and a need to withdraw and reflect. How do I accomplish this in the middle of a time when the sky over my world seems to be falling?

The truth is that it isn't easy to talk about this. Indeed, writing is hard for me even when I'm trying to figure out how to handle a busy schedule. We are all busy, and it never ends. I do not organize well. The best I do is to manage to prioritize projects according to when they are due. I put my best energy during the first part of my day into doing what needs to be done very soon. That way, I always meet deadlines.

I also try to make mornings the time when I write during the summer months when I am not teaching. Evenings are for reading--usually after everyone else in my house is in bed. I give my mornings to writing as often as I can because that is when I am fresh. However, I did not accomplish everything I needed to this summer, so I am trying to think about setting aside an hour or two every afternoon this fall for writing on my new novel, which I am hoping to finish by the end of the year--at least as a rough draft.

The question above, of course, concerns writing during times when so much of my energy is taken by crisis. How do I manage to concentrate on writing a book when I'm facing something hard? How do I find ideas? Where do they come from?

I can't answer this for others. I can say that this summer I have worked hard to get ideas on paper, even though I know I will be revising them. But instead of trying to block out the hard times I've faced over the last ten months, I've been trying to let them in and make them a part of what I am writing about. I have divided my novel into four different point of view characters. Three of them are carrying pain that I know about. As I write about them, I am interested in how they are going to do with the pain they are facing. What is it about them and what they are doing?

I find that this allows me to write and to not block out what I'm feeling. If I encounter some pain from the grief I am carrying at present over the loss of my son, that pain goes on the page for two of the characters in the novel.

I'm not guaranteeing that this will lead to great writing. I'm only interested in seeing where it is going to take me. This is the most autobiographical I have been with my work. I am looking for ways to make it work, to, in a very real way, write with and through pain. This is work that usually starts in the journal I am keeping. I don't treat my novel like a journal. In the journal, the writing is raw and experimental. When I turn to the novel, the journal is the raw material to fashion into character, situation, and dialogue.

I would be interested in your thinking about this. What do you do to keep writing when you are faced with pain or a crisis?

Thank you for reading.  

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Writing and the Warp of Grief

With my teaching done for the spring, I've begun to try to work on a new project. It's an idea I've had since last summer.

Though I initially thought about it with great hope, the idea has gone through some shape-shifting during the last few seasons as I have faced grief after my youngest son took his life. Now, a lot of grief has entered into the picture, and I've begun to layer this into my original idea. I'm not sure if I am doing this because I now feel partitioned off from the normal patterns of life I see around me, norms I view from a slant, and my hope is that in writing about this loss, I will make it more a part of the "norm."

I'm not sure what is going on with this.

I have also found that in keeping a journal over the last seven months, a second project has sort of emerged and even forced itself onto my desk because it seems so useful, so practical in ways that the fiction is not. So I am caught between two projects. The problem will be to make a decision and go with it.

As for the novel, the problem is that I don't see a clear story arch in this new material about grief. I don't see the character who is a survivor getting "better." I'm thinking that perhaps this is something that I should simply go with, because the material will provide a counterpoint to the main story arch, where there is change and movement. The problem is that I know that audiences can lose patience with a lack of clear story direction.

Choosing the Right Plan
 I've written about my new idea for a second novel in other places. It is called Radio Eden, and it concerns four men who take their pastor's sermon about Eden literally and go out to find the "real" Eden. In the process, they are taken hostage by a terrorist group. The novel focuses on the pastor who gave that sermon and how he and his congregation react after the men are taken hostage.

There are two other story arcs in this tale, one told by a young pregnant woman, and the other by a young man involved in theater. I also had a third story arc--this was my character who was a survivor of his son's suicide. I've gone back and forth about this. I've thought about putting that story in one of the other arcs.

I'm still in the planning stages of all of this. And I am not someone who outlines very much. I tend to draft with a scratch outline. This is my way of writing my way into the material, and sometimes I write my way into a corner.

Writing about Grief
As for the new problem child, the one that has emerged from keeping a journal about my grief process, it appears to be something that is nonfictional and is emerging in a pretty clear form and voice. This is my dilemma. I seem to be facing a choice between writing fiction and nonfiction, between a project that seems large and is still taking shape, and a project that is already clear in both shape and purpose.

Perhaps, as some people will always suggest, it is a matter of doing both, of clarifying ideas and feelings in both genres.

If that is to be the case, I should find a lot of time for both. I can see how this could work, especially if the nonfiction idea is as focused as it seems.

I know that John Lennon has been quoted widely on the idea that "Life is what happens while we are making other plans." That seems to be the case here. I'm not all that good at drawing lines between my creative projects and the life that feeds them. I'm not trying to make lemons out of lemonade, or some other cliche. The goal is to try to do something with what remains.

Perhaps next month I will have some answers.

Thank you for reading. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Another Good Friday Reflection

This week I attended the Popular Culture Association Conference, held this year in Indianapolis. After reading a short story on the first day of the conference, a story I finished writing and submitted to the conference just days before my son Michael took his life last October, I was able to relax and attend several poetry panels.

 One of them was put together around the theme of grief and consisted of poets reading their own work on the grief and loss they'd experienced in their own lives. Humor and sadness were both fully represented in the very creative poems read by poets of different ages. Certainly, the panel reminded me that this season of my life is one where I still hear and laugh at jokes, and even tell them, even as I still feel sadness I've never known before. In this way, the panel felt real.

I also heard many poems that reflected strong poetic technique. Yet it was most interesting that the poems most affecting to me on this theme were poems that had both effective technique and a rich understanding of experience. I'm not sure what I was looking for in attending this panel. Since our loss, some people have given me poetry to read, some of it Hallmarky and some of it so severe in language that it didn't represent anything but a cold, distant cathedral not built for me.

The poems on this panel did not go to either of these extremes. Each poet's approach was different. I was most affected by one of the poets, Sally McGeevey Hannay, who wrote about the loss of her son five years ago in poems that explored the experience honestly in a number of different ways, but often drawing on the form of the sestina. I found empathy, identification, in someone writing from where I am living now, and I also found some hope.

Grief is that experience that is perhaps most universal. We all will die, and before we do we all lose people we love. I am writing this late on the night of Good Friday, and I am aware that this day marks the time of great fear and uncertainty when the followers of Jesus watched him being crucified, and then they ran shocked and horribly confused into hiding. I am aware that Christianity is first a religion of grief, before it can be a religion of resurrection. I am conscious of the fact that those first followers would have been in the dark at this point after sunset on Good Friday. And we need to face this for the moment; at this point in their journey, they were in grief, and they had no understanding, no hope, and no expectation that anything would ever change.

That it did is what is celebrated in churches on Sunday, of course, and if it is believed, it should be celebrated. But before we rush to Sunday, I would like to note that many don't like to stay in the condition that the first disciples found themselves in as the sun set on the death of their rabbi. Many of us don't want to dwell in that place where everything looks futile and final.

I'm not suggesting that we should want to stay there. I understand the desire for light and victory. But if we don't understand the deep sadness and shock that was the disciples' experience, as it is honored by our remembrance of Good Friday, then I'm not sure that we are getting all that the Christian experience is really about.

The poets on that panel I attended yesterday didn't all read poems that connected with me in that way. But it was clear that they knew something about loss and how it shapes us. And all of the poets had learned to laugh again. But it came with time.

As Christians, we should understand this about our own grief and the grief of others. Constant happiness is not a sign of a blessed life. Grief comes to everyone. There is nothing we can do to help, and we shouldn't expect to do that, and we also shouldn't ignore people because we feel we cannot help them.

The normal run of grief was interrupted by the triumph of Sunday in the story of the resurrection. That is not the story for most people who grieve. Before Sunday comes, we should attempt to understand something of the grief that tore at the disciples in those hours on Saturday. It may help us to stay with each other and understand our burdens a little more, because in a very real sense, death shows us our futility, and we are still looking forward to the resurrection that is to come. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

How Many for a Listening Tour?

On Monday, I had my creative writing students go on what I like to call a listening tour. Politicians typically do this when they are thinking about running for office; they go out into public and claim to listen to what the voters want from today's office holders. It's hard for me to imagine any politician of any party actually doing this--listening, actually holding their tongue and just letting others tell them things. I suspect that they are listening to see how much of their own message they can get to line up with what they are hearing.

I tell my students that this is something each one of them can do any time they'd like. They can decide to stop talking and start listening to what is going on around them. Part of this attempt is not just that we stop talking. Part of it is that we also quiet our minds enough so that we can hear how we are inwardly responding to everything around us. Even an hour spent like this--what most monks or mystics do most every day--can be incredibly freeing. We can really learn a great deal--about ourselves and others--just by listening.

I instructed my students to go out to the campus squares where people meet and listen for an hour and write down everything they heard. "Listen to the way people say things," I said. "Notice that we are not always direct in what we say." The hour spent in this activity is designed to get them more attuned to the way that people talk so that they can write more believable dialogue. Maybe they will continue to do this more in the future--that is, maybe they will get practiced at listening.

I have been having the same wish as I have been tuning in to social media sites lately. It seems that everyday I see various friends on Facebook and elsewhere basically talking past each other. Rather than listen to another's point of view, one friend will hear certain terms, phrases, or ideas that will serve as triggers, and then they are off on a whole series of tangents meant to be refutations for arguments they imagine they have heard else where.

This is not healthy discourse. It isn't enjoyable. It is not dialogue, which is often productive. It is noise. I refuse to engage in it. I have refused to post what I think about various issues in the news lately, even though I am strongly committed in my opinions and think I am thoughtful about them. But I don't want to be a trigger for someone else's tirade.

Instead, this week, I posted the same invitation to my Facebook and Twitter friends that I gave to my creative writing students. I posted an invitation to all to go on a "listening tour" for the day.

I am sincere about this. It's worth trying. People need me to listen these days more than they need me to talk. I am not against giving them this, and I don't care if they don't stick around to listen to me. That is not that point.

Listening is one of four literacy skills, often paired with speaking. There is reading and writing, listening and speaking. Too many people today are writing and speaking. Who is willing to read and listen? What might change if we switch our emphasis and work on the receptive side of things?

I don't think I will join the other party. But I may not see those who belong to it as the idiots, clowns, and generally bad people they are seen to be in the public discourse.

Maybe this will make our "public square," whether on Facebook or in a town hall somewhere, more worthwhile and productive.

It's worth a listen, at least.