Emily, an alum of our esteemed Writing Studies program, was gracious enough to provide an update on what she’s been doing since graduation.
Our fabulous literary magazine, The Avenue, has assembled some impressive talent for an Author’s Showcase, to be held on October 13 at 7 p.m. in Mandeville Hall, Room 313. Alums and current students will present some of their work. Come and enjoy this special evening with us!
I am Abdullah and I am from Saudi Arabia. I am a grad student in the Writing Studies Program. The Writing Studies Program interested me once Professor Tenaya Darlington, the Writing Studies Program’s Director, asked me to attend a class in the spring of 2014. I started my masters in the fall of 2014. It is an American-based program that I find challenging. As someone who is interested in gaining as much experience as possible, I find this program excellent for honing my English skills. “You will be the program’s star,” as Professor Tenaya once said.
My dream goal is to be an English instructor in one of the universities in Saudi. I chose this program because I want to perfect my use of the English language. I want to diminish my accent and learn how to use the English language correctly in class. This program definitely has helped me in terms of fluency. I am surrounded by bright, sharp, and opinionated American students, which can make me feel intimidated whenever I attend a class, but it also brings out the best in me.
It is definitely a competitive market out there; therefore, I need to be a step ahead of the other applicants trying to get a teaching position in Saudi. Being an ESL student in an American-based master’s program helps me continue to improve my use of English. I feel confident about the level I have reached. All credit goes to the competitive feelings I have when I attend class.
I invite ESL students who seek teaching jobs in their countries to seize the opportunity and apply to the Writing Studies Program. Not only will they know how to write professionally, but they will also learn how to speak English fluently and live an amazing experience with a very helpful, well-rounded staff.
In proper form, I have stolen my title from Joan Didion, who stole it from George Orwell. I’m not claiming to be in the same league as either of those wonderful people, but what I am claiming is much simpler: I did it because I can.
For some reason, there is a voice in everyone’s head. For the most part, I’ve found that it depends on your major. Regardless, that voice is saying, “You can’t write. You suck and you probably shouldn’t even try. Here. Do this math problem or go draw a picture. Good job.”
If you can imagine a little pat on the head after hearing that, then you understand what I’m trying to talk about. So many people have this strangely innate fear in them that says writing is out of their grasp, and what’s worse is they listen to that fear. We live within the lovely confines of a language that grants us so much freedom that it scares us. What many people forget is that they already know so many words, they just hesitate to put them on paper, or they think that there is a “best” or “only” way to do it.
I have a simple exercise that I have done with high school and college students alike. Have pairs of students, with one student telling a funny story and the other student typing it as it’s told. It takes maybe 5 minutes, and it shows the storyteller what the story looks like on the page. Sometimes it takes seeing it on a page to let you know you can actually do it.
Working as a writing tutor for the last 4 years, my advice has gotten very simple. Putting words on paper or computer screen should not be intimidating. If anything it can be time-consuming, but you just have to be willing to tough it out. I see writing as a way of finding out what I’m thinking, what I see and what it means. Writing has been a way for many stories to become lasting as opposed to lost. Words can capture what we want to remember! My advice is this: if you can tell a story, you can surely write it down. You are your own personal stenographer!
I think the reason that so many believe they shouldn’t write is because they think there is some mystical dimension that separates a person from a writer; a lack of access to the writerly realm.
Apparently writers aren’t people?
The funny thing is that writers ARE people; they are just people who have a lot of emotions and spend a lot of hours writing them down or avoiding them. Writers are also people who listen to things, watch things, hear things and interact with the world. What I’m saying is that writers are people and people are writers. The space between people and writers is imaginary! Who knew?
Before I step gingerly from my soap-box and run away from the elitist writers trying to chase me, I just want to leave some final words of encouragement. As people, cultures, friends, groups, humans and livers of life, we all have stories to share. Some cultures and languages do not even have a written form, so let’s take advantage of ours! Everyone is capable of capturing their stories with words. It’s a way of saving, remembering, learning and sharing. Without stories, what are we but ghosts in a windy world?
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.