SJU Writing Studies Blog

WHY CLARITY TERRIFIES ME AS A WRITER: A CONFESSION AND SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE by RYAN LATINI

I envy the writer who conceived of the simple imperative written on the packaging of moist towelettes: “Tear open packet and use.” Kraft’s Shake n’ Bake is also an imperative, but has the added depth of being a gerund coupled with a colloquial-amputated conjunction.

It is precision that I envy.

At this stage in my writing life, my high points come as personalized rejection letters from editors—good rejections that aren’t automated templates of letdown, but handcrafted works of… letdown. In 2008, while shopping around a novella to various contests and publications, an editor called my writing “magisterial.” I think the very use of “magisterial” in a criticism is, well, magisterial.

As I progressed through a few more years of fiction writing, I realized it was not overbearing floweriness that blighted workshops or my own work; rather, it was a lack of precision.

The biggest hurdle facing precision is emoting.

There is no precision in emotion because feelings are not vivid. At best, presenting scenes through the eyes of emotion offers summary disguised as scene. A thought or a feeling may hint at motive and may even toy with action or intrigue, but the fiction comes off best from a character’s action or inaction, both of which must be trusted and need no emotional markers or commentary.

A greater crime is bringing a piece to workshop (or your thesis advisor) and the reader is blocked from the fiction by the writer’s clear attempt at expression. John Gardner tell us that, “Self-expression, whatever its pleasures, comes about incidentally. It also comes about inevitably.” Expressing emotion in summary rather than action not only kills the fiction, but it robs the reader of the actions that linked the progression of a character’s emotional state.

Why does such clarity scare a writer?

In my limited experience, it has been my ego that destroys my fiction.

If I am precise, then you might not know how smart I am—at least that is the fear. It would be like a magician who mastered dramatic flourish, had the best pyrotechnics, most beautiful assistants, and after walking on stage, crazed by the sexiness of his own fanfare, forgets to pull the rabbit from his hat (I believe our friends in marketing call this, “All sizzle and no steak”).

If I was on Madison Avenue, the billboards I created would block out the sun and banner planes carrying my ads (because that’s the hot ticket in advertising) would circle the globe nipping at their own tails.

While it is precision, not concision, which I am advocating for, they often go together. Vividness coupled with irrefutable action is vital. As writers, we must have humility to write characters that do something rather than muse and feel. Keep your aim to express yourself in the journal and on the shrink’s couch—if the writing is good enough, what ever you wish to convey will come across innately. By remaining the silent partner in the business of creating characters, the ego will never outshine the fiction.

My ego thrives in abstraction, emoting, avoiding precision and delaying the effect until…well, until the house lights come on, the scenery is carried away, the beautiful assistants are in cabs on their way home, the smoke from the pyrotechnics has settled, and I am left holding a hat—rabbitless.

And there is my ego, ever undoing its own efforts to conceal itself.

The greatest trick in fiction writing is remembering to trick. Read your John Gardner and don’t stir the dreamer from the fictive dream. Most importantly, remember to be a vivid liar immersed in action rather than a pleading neurotic steeped in abstraction—a bore.

 

Thanks very much to Ryan for taking the time to submit this post.  Anyone in our program is free to do so.  It’s always great to hear from you!

If you would like to comment on this post, you may do so here, or contact Ryan directly at  ryan.latini856@gmail.com.

SJU Writing Series Continues with Writer Seamus McGraw

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Environmental journalist Seamus McGraw will be on campus on April 16th to read from and discuss his new book, Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change .

Events

3:30 Cardinal Foley Center “Betting the Farm on a Drought: A Reading and Conversation on Climate Change”

6:30 Cardinal Foley Center, “The Space Between the Pages: A Look at the Stories Behind the Stories”

Here are two recent pieces he wrote for the New York Times.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/13/opinion/monsters-in-the-woods.html?_r=0

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/seamus-mcgraw/

Read the Kirkus review for his new book here.

 Please try to support the Writing Series by attending this event.  It should be informative as well as lively!

SJU Alum Thomas Dooley Talks Poetry, Projects & Lessons Learned with John Rafferty

This interview was conducted by SJU Writing Studies student John Rafferty.

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St. Joseph’s University alumnus, Thomas Dooley’s poetry collection, Trespass, has been named a 2013 National Poetry Series selection. I spoke with him about his many endeavors and the tremendous success he’s enjoying with his poetry.

Trespass is garnering incredible reviews. What was the writing process like?

The writing process for Trespass was, for the most part, enervating. I approached the creation of Trespass as if walking into a dark house and flicking on the light switches; I lifted blinds, opened closet doors, took dust covers off furniture. I tried to look at this family narrative from every angle possible, so when I felt stuck I would ask, “what door have I not opened yet?” When I felt brave enough to look, I could see a new poem take shape.

I was fortunate to have an incredible group of poets around me who offered encouragement and advice for Trespass. I had an excellent editor at HarperCollins who provided some very incisive ideas for edits. A talented watercolorist created the book cover. The process from first poem to published book requires incredible focus and discretion, so I am thankful for the generosity of so many artists.

You’ve brought poetry to the stage with your theatre project, Emotive Fruition. Where did that idea originate?

I founded Emotive Fruition because I wanted to find a new way for audiences to encounter poetry. I bring together two artistic communities that do not often collaborate: actors and poets. Once I have gone through submissions and curated an evening of poetry, I cast professional actors from television, film, and Broadway to perform these poems on stage.

Our process is fueled by collaboration. Actors and poets meet during a rehearsal and work together to make the poems shine on stage. Emotive Fruition has garnered an incredible following and we look forward to new collaborations. In May, we will be hosting an event with NPR’s hit show RadioLab. We are working with universities and MFA programs, such as NYU, to cultivate and foster community and collaboration among student writers and actors. For me, Emotive Fruition has become a place where poetry can live and flourish; it is very much a vibrant and unique addition to the art and culture of New York. I hope to expand it to Philadelphia and beyond!

You are also involved in narrative medicine, something I was until now unfamiliar with.  Can you explain it to those who might be aware of it?

Narrative medicine is the practice of honoring and being attentive to a patient’s story. For the past five years, I have been facilitating creative writing sessions at the bedsides of hospitalized teenagers. I created the literary journal SURGE, which publishes the writing and art from my patients. I also provide creative writing wellness retreats for physicians, mental health professionals, and hospital staff. We all need the therapeutic process of writing to shape and organize our thoughts and feelings.

Between your writing, theatre project, and narrative medicine work, how do you balance it all? 

Balance is hard. There is always renegotiation. At the moment, I am a freelancing artist so I create new work while trying to piece together an income.

I try to stay very present to the demands of my writing projects. I have been busy working on a new manuscript, a verse novella of sorts, entitled Hang Down Your Head. It’s near completion and I am in the process of getting it published. My writing, publishing, and collaborations truly fuel and feed me.

I just accepted an offer to teach creative writing at New York University in 2016. I love mentoring young writers; they infuse the workshop with a sense of discovery. I’m also interested in shaking up the creative writing workshop. I would be interested to craft a workshop that included collaboration among students, writing about illness, performance studies – so many possibilities!

What was the greatest lesson you learned as English major while at St. Joe’s?

I learned some powerful lessons about myself. Dr. April Lindner gave me confidence to be a poet. In her creative writing workshop, I felt like I had potential to write and publish poetry. It also was the first writing workshop I ever attended. Dr. Lindner modeled for me how to discuss and critique student work. To this day, I try to channel her when I teach.

Dr. Owen Gilman created a space in his class for me to find my voice. I remember presenting a paper about my personal history to the class. That paper was a prelude to a lifetime of embracing my own personal narrative and writing about it. I am proud of my time at SJU and love coming back to talk with students. I look forward to the next time I’m on campus.

You can stay up to date with all of Thomas’ work and happenings at his website, http://www.thomasdooley.us/, including his newest work, Hang Down Your Head.

Fall 2015 Courses Unveiled!

Here they are – thanks for your patience.

Fall 2015 Writing Studies Courses

 

Monday

ENG 550: Practice of Writing/CRN 41212

Professor Tenaya Darlington

This course is designed as an introduction to the Writing Studies M.A. Program, and it allows students to explore a variety of genres while they explore career options within the writing/publishing world. Students will literally “walk in the shoes” of different writers, playing the role of columnists, reporters, editors, poets, and fiction writers. At the end of the course, students will reflect on these different roles and begin brainstorming a possible thesis project in one area.

(Core class)

 

Tuesday

ENG 620: Horror in Literature & Film/CRN 41740

Dr. Paul Patterson

From the horrors of Hell in Dante’s Inferno to the meta-narrative of Joss Whedon’s and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, this course explores the production, reception, aesthetics, politics, and evolution of the horror genre in both fiction and literature.  In this course we will explore the shifts in the genre’s paradigm as landmark films and books are considered and contextualized.  We will read the literary works and films against the historical, political, and industrial settings in which they were produced.  The course will move in chronological order through the films, beginning with the classic films of the 1930s and 40s. We will next examine Cold War politics and how it influenced the genre, then the apathy of the Clinton ’90s as reflected in such films as I Know What you Did Last Summer and Scream. We will conclude by considering the trauma of lost bodies in both Dante’s Inferno and such post-9/11 films as Speilberg’s War of the Worlds, George Romero’s The Land of the Dead, and the 2006 remake of The Omen. The literary works of Dante, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Colson Whitehead, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Brian DePalma, David Cronenberg, Joss Whedon, and Mary Harron, among others, will be studied.

(Area I)

 

Wednesday

ENG 641: Writing Through Race, Class & Gender/CRN 41789

Dr. Ann Green

Most of all, I have tried to understand the politics of they, why human beings fear and stigmatize the different while secretly dreading that they might be one of the different themselves.  Class, race, sexuality, gender—and all of the other categories by which we categorize and dismiss each other—need to be excavated from the inside. —Dorothy Allison.

In this writing workshop, students will explore how writers of a variety of sexualities, genders, social classes, and races have incorporated reflections on the subject position of the writer.  We will read a variety of writers—among them James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Nancy Mairs, and Alexandra Fuller—as we explore how race, class, and gender are inflected in the stories people tell.  Students will write creative responses to the texts we read, and we will workshop these in class. For the final project, students will write a piece of memoir, an essay, a short story, or a piece of a novel.

(Area II)

 

Thursday

ENG 675: Speculative Fiction Workshop/CRN 41788

Professor Carmen Machado

In contemporary literature, “realism” is often used as shorthand for “literary.” The implication, of course, is that serious writing only happens within a faithful representation of reality. But this is a strictly modern idea… and a false one. Literature is historically filled with ghosts, gods, magic, talking animals, and the walking dead. Some of the most powerful and popular storytelling of our time has examined the nuances of the human condition in our own future, in alternate realities, and on other worlds. In this course, we will read and discuss different kinds of fantastic literature, and use those influences to tell our own stories. Students will learn techniques to help them weave their own supernatural tales, bust through genre tropes, and explore their obsessions. Throughout the semester, we will be reading and discussing a variety of published pieces of speculative fiction. These examples are not meant for intimidation or rote imitation: instead, think of them as small flames illuminating certain parts of a dark room, in which you too will be lighting your own candle. You will be encouraged to consider how these authors approach character, form, description, dialogue, setting, and plot and also how you might do the same in a fresh and exciting way.

(Area III)

 


 

Tuesday

6:30 – 9:10 p.m.

ENG 443 Grant Writing/CRN 42110

Professor Maureen Saraco

Open to grad students with permission from the director.  (Area III)