Think Your Writing Sucks? That’s a Good Thing

Vivienne Raper is working on a science fiction novel with the help of the Kingston MFA.

**************************

It takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. Spend 1,040 of an estimated 6,685 leisure hours each year to actively improve your fiction writing, and you’ll be a successful writer in 10 years. That’s according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, which aims to debunk the myth that some people are born geniuses.

The Beatles, Bill Gates and many other exceptional people, he argues, became brilliant through deliberate practice… Practice… And more deliberate practice. They set out purposefully to improve and stretch themselves. They taught others, surrounded themselves with like-minded people, sought feedback, worked on their weak spots and evaluated their progress.

The idea of natural talent is a myth common to many areas of life. Creative writing is no exception. There are serious discussions about whether fiction writing can be taught. Some authors believe literature emerges by spontaneous genius and teaching will make students emulate others at the expense of their own voice.

No one can give someone a voice if they have nothing to say. But, more typically, beginning writers struggle because they don’t know basic technique. Story construction. Scene construction. Sentence construction. Paragraph construction. How to construct convincing dialogue (tip: take a tape recorder on the bus). They also don’t know the idiosyncrasies of their chosen genre, whether it be literary fiction, women’s fiction or romance. They discover through brutal trial-and-error, familiarity and socialisation what editors and competition judges will accept, and what readers want to read.

Ten thousand hours of practice is a lot of books and stories read. Many short stories and novels written and rejected. Long evenings spent in workshops and critique groups hearing how to make work suck less.  Thousands of hours spent alone in front of a keyboard. Writing. Editing. Tearing up the thing you just wrote. Rewriting it again.

Does that sound harsh? Maybe. Perhaps you’re reading this thinking “I don’t need to do that. My friends think my work’s great. My first novel is a work of misunderstood genius”. If that’s the case, you’re on the starting blocks my friend. Ahead is one of the biggest causes of writer’s block out there. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is named after two social psychologists who discovered in 1999 an interesting fact about human behaviour. As shown in the graph below, people’s assessment of their own skill doesn’t rise in line with increasing experience. Geniuses know they’re geniuses. Partially-trained people can tell they suck.

Unskilled people don’t know they suck. They’re too incompetent to accurately judge their own performance. Say you woke this morning and thought “Hmmmm, I want to be a best-selling novelist like Dan Brown. Or maybe I want to write the Great American Novel” and hadn’t written a work of fiction longer than your last tax self-assessment. According to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you can’t know your novel is rubbish because you don’t know enough about novel writing. In fact, you’re likely to think you’re the next J.K. Rowling or James Joyce, and publishers are ignoramuses.

We all know the stereotype of the unpublished novelist who believes their diabolical work is amazing and won’t listen to criticism. The real trouble comes when a humble unskilled writer embarks on ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. They march along the Dunning-Kruger curve, improving their performance. Hopeful. Joyful. Certain of imminent publication. Oblivious of the length of the road ahead. At some point or another, they realise “I suck. Everything I’ve written sucks. And I didn’t know.” Instant writer’s block. How do you continue writing when you know you suck? What’s the point? You’re only going to delete it anyway. Trouble is, you must practise writing rubbish so you can eventually rise swan-like from the bottom of the Dunning-Kruger curve.

Lesson learned? Embrace your knowledge that your writing sucks.  It means that you’re learning something. Carry on practising, improving, working on your weak points, putting your work out there. Learn from informed criticism and rejection. Suck. Fail. Learn. Suck less. Fail better.

Reviewing the Book Review: Crawling at Night by Nani Power

Alaa El Fadel is finishing her MFA in Creative Writing, working on a fantasy novel and a screen adaptation. Her blog is Mountain Quill.

The passage through the mountainous regions of craft has left me with a permanent love of literature and the arts. Wonder, spirit, boundless imaginings – those are the things that are worth writing about.

********************

When I was studying book reviews with my students, I pointed out that some critics only review books they liked. In literary terms I don’t believe this is healthy. Reviewing books you don’t like can deepen understanding of yourself and literature in general. What worked and what did not work to appeal to your interests as a reader? Having said that, here is the review I wrote on Nani Power’s Crawling At Night:

Crawling at NightOk so I’m reviewing this book… well… hmmm. Honestly this is a very difficult book to review and you will know why in a bit.

Crawling at Night by Nani Power was chosen for an undergrad class I was teaching. The story revolves around the characters of Ito, an ageing Sushi chef and Mariane, an alcoholic waitress, whose lives intermingle with several other characters in bizarre twists of fate. Power’s story is emotionally grasping as we are absorbed by the character’s choices and history. With a non-linear structure, the past and present fracture to unfold the horrors of why Ito and Mariane are the way they are. Sympathy grows for each character as more is revealed about them. Secondary characters are quite realistic and entertaining as they clash with Ito and Mariane.

Power uses several techniques including fracturing text, capital letters, italic and bold formats for specific sentences or words, 3rd and 1st points of view, flashbacks, dramatic irony and foreign names and words. The post powerful technique was the use of lists. With an introduction to how lists dominate our lives, food items and other things are listed at the beginning of each chapter. Sometimes, the last item kicks the curious cat, like ‘Sleep’ or ‘Tears.’ It’s a lot of fun to check things off the list and figure out how they play a part in the story. Like menus, the novel begins and ends with a list, enclosing all the information a customer needs in between. All of these elements would classify Crawling at Night as an experimental book.

Empirical books such as this are always fascinating; they challenge our perceptions of novels and question the novel form. After all, the original meaning of novel meant ‘something new.’ (Dictionary.com).

The page before the first list explains the term ‘crawling at night.’ Night crawling or Yobai is the practice of an unknown man crawling into a woman’s futon for anonymous copulation. Yup, you read right… If the woman rejects the man, the man saves himself from embarrassment by wearing a cloth to cover his face. He simply, crawls away without being identified.

Wrapped within the sushi roll of the plot, a dominant theme of coition is read in excruciating detail with intimate moments between characters and the defilement of innocents. The novel becomes emotionally draining and difficult to continue. In two hours, I read three consented couplings and two forced ones.

I could not believe this book was in the syllabus, but I understand why it was. The novel has two major sides to it – the story and the distinguishing literature. As a story, I felt quite sad and uncomfortable after finishing it. It did not leave me with wonder or satisfaction. However, when looking at the prose, the novel was a masterpiece in writing. To write proper and effective back-stories is a difficult skill for writers to perfect and Power’s does it fantastically. The dynamic plot drip feeds the truth without losing our interest, all the way to the very last list. If you can stomach the events then this is a book to learn from as a flourishing writer. But Crawling At Night is not the only book with well written back story and is certainly not the last one we can learn all these techniques from. This is not a matter of censorship but one of personal choice. So the question remains – is it worth trading skills you can get some place else for emotional disturbance?

2013 Kingston University Pedagogy Conference

Pedagogy Flyer

KWS 1st International Conference, July 10th 2013

Pedagogy and Practice: Writing and Higher Education

Key Note: Philip Gross discusses ‘the writer: accident, improvisation, and limitation’

An Interview with Hanif Kureshi by Vesna Goldsworthy

For its first international conference, The Kingston University Writing School will present a one day conference of theoretical and practiced-based papers, workshops, panels, and performances that will add to our understanding of the relationships between Pedagogy and Practice in Higher Education.

This one-day conference hosts a series of panels on the possible relationships between pedagogy and the practice of writing in higher education. The conference will consider all forms of writing, from creative writing and poetry workshops to life writing, autobiography and memoir, journalism, digital publishing, blogging and writing for social media.

The conference will provide a valuable opportunity to reflect on the debates about writing and pedagogy and will showcase experimental approaches to writing and teaching methods from a diverse body of researchers and practitioners.

Our Keynote speaker is Philip Gross, Course director, Masters/PhD in Creative Writing at University of Glamorgan. Philip is a writer of many parts from prize-winning poetry, young adult novels, science fiction, opera libretti, poem-documentaries. He is also a creative writing teacher at all levels.

After a morning of panels and workshops, Professor Vesna Goldsworthy will interview Hanif Kureshi and there will be an open mike reading with special guests in the evening including S J Fowler, Kimberley Campanello, Allison Gibb, Jane Yeh and others.

Two of our MFAs will be participating in the New Practitioners Ponder Pedagogy panel, Lucy Furlong & Sinead Keegan with Creative Writing & Pedagogy MAs, Amber Koski and Joshua Poncil. MFA alumna and Emerging Writer-in-Residence, Alison Gibb, will be participating in the Pedagogic Innovations in Creative Writing panel with MFA lecturer, James Miller. All conference attendees also have the opportunity to take a workshop with either Alison or James.

Book your tickets here. Or email Amber for information on the free tickets still available.

For more information please contact Amber Koski – k1246713@kingston.ac.uk

KWS Logo

To Tweet or Not to Tweet?

Before motherhood, Emma Strong worked in legal publishing, the youth homelessness voluntary sector and local government. Currently, she’s completing her Creative Writing MFA, going backwards at Bikram and singing slink a ma rink a dinky doo with her toddlers, out of tune. Twitter with her @emmastrong72.

********************************

To tweet or not to tweet, is a 21st century question for writers and for teachers of creative writing, in the digital age.

Vanderslice (2012) argues creative writing (CW) students, armed with key skills including telling story and empathy, are poised to dominate the online cultural landscape, if they are digitally literate. As Cross (2011) describes it, the ‘tsunami of electronic media’ has created an online ‘global village’, accessible to all. Any message, banal or profound, using no more than 140 characters, can be posted on Twitter. Introduced in 2006, by 2011 there were 200 million users a month on line, posting 140 million tweets a day.

As Cross (2011) argues, at best, Twitter creates a new frontier of expression and connection, using emoticons, abbreviations, acronyms (LOL), slang, hash-tagged trending, hive-mind #thinking and #sharing. At worst, the hive-mind can be an ungrammatical, unattractive swarm of belligerent #ranting.

Could CW students hone their reading, writing, and critiquing skills using Twitter? Could their online connections and conversations, the responses they received to their postings, be construed as formative feedback?  Or is Twitter just a narcissistic time-waster, best ignored? Guided by Race (2007) that we learn by doing and making sense for ourselves, and by Vanderslice (2005) that CW teachers should model the skills and ways of thinking they want their students to develop, way behind the curve, I became @emmastrong72.

Fellow MA/MFA students, @sineadkeegan, @lucyfurleaps and @lisajanedavison, invited me to join in a challenge they’d set up: #30days30stories. The idea was to tweet an idea for a story or tell a story, every day, for 30 days, in no more than 140 characters. Or rather, after subtracting 16 for the # link, no more than 124 characters.

Having taken time to read and study posted tweets to understand the form; I spent around twenty minutes composing my first story in tweet form. With just 126 characters to play with, careful consideration of word, image, and sentence construction was required. I had to edit and revise. It was a useful work out for me as a writer and I felt it could also be a great challenge to set as a CW teacher for students. But how was it received?

Going to @connect I could view responses. I got a retweet (RT) and a favourite (*), which I took as positive feedback. I read the others’ stories, RT-ed two and *-ed another, to share the feedback love. Seven days and 28 ideas later, the RTs, *s and comments, generous all round, provided relaxed, supportive and helpful peer feedback and engagement. Formative, in that it allowed me to see what was received well. It was also interesting to observe that across subject matter as diverse as hip hop DJs asleep for 100 years, knitting circle blood baths, and a boy scooting into hollow trees as Mrs Owl told him to, we each had a clear voice and developed our own approaches to the form.

Engaging with Twitter, as a platform for experimental literary short forms, such as the ‘Twiller’ being written by @mrichtel, influenced  by the Japanese literary subculture trend, Keitai Shosetsu (cell phone novels) (Yourgrau, 2009), feels enticing. On the downside, a rash tweet, taken out of context, could get you into trouble years after you tweet it, as Paris Brown, the short-lived youth police commissioner found out (Telegraph, 2013).

The #30days30stories exercise echoed the benefits of the traditional creative writing workshop: like-minded souls coming together in a safe place to try ideas out and share feedback. It provided a useful and fun learning environment. I was strict with my activity, to avoid losing too much time within the Twitter-sphere, going straight to the #group. In that way, I could use it as a useful 30-minute daily warm up writing exercise. A less focused engagement could risk eating up a lot of time. As a teacher, a large group of students all engaging with the exercise could be time consuming if attempting to feedback to each student every day. However, the exercise facilitates peer and teacher feedback, and doesn’t need to be given to every individual, every day. Getting an RT or a * here and there is a more discerning indicator of what works. Among four of us, we were each receiving feedback most days from at least one other participant. A larger engaged group would generate plenty of feedback for all. The teacher’s role could be more supervisory, encouraging students to engage with the exercise within boundaries aligned with those set up within their weekly workshops.

As Vanderslice (2006) argues, the three ways of thinking a creative student must develop are reading as a writer, critiquing as a writer, and writing and re-writing. A Twitter exercise such as #30days30stories could be a smart additional writing exercise for any writer, developing those three ways of thinking on a daily basis. And a daily writing habit is a habit a writer needs. If you’re up for the challenge, want to acquire a daily writerly workout, then check out #30days30stories, @sineadkeegan, @lucyfurleaps, @lisajanedavison and @emmastrong72, and #ff.


 

REFERENCES

Cross, M. (2011)  Bloggeratti, Twitterati: how blogs and twitter are transforming popular culture. KUS: i-Cat [Online]. Available at: http://ku-primo-prod.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/search.do?vid=KU_VU1&reset_config=true (Accessed: May 2013).

Ensor, J. (2013) “Paris Brown: Youth police commissioner warns of dangers of social networks as she resigns over ‘racist’ tweets”, The Telegraph, 9th April 2013 [Online]. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9982146/Paris-Brown-Youth-police-commissioner-warns-of-dangers-of-social-networks-as-she-resigns-over-racist-tweets.html (Accessed: May 2013).

JISC (2009) “Effective Practice in a Digital Age”, JISC [Online]. Available at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/programmerelated/2009/effectivepracticedigitalage.aspx/ (Accessed: March 2013).

Race, P. and Pickford, R. (2007) Making Teaching Work: Teaching Smarter in Post-compulsory Education . London: Sage.

Vanderslice, S. (2006) “Workshopping in Harper, G. (ed.) Teaching Creative Writing, 1st Edn. London and New York: Continuum.

Vanderslice, S. (2012) “A Whole New Creative Writing Classroom: Daniel Pink, Digital Culture and the Twenty-First Century Workshop” in Perry, P. (ed.) (2012) Beyond the Workshop, Kingston Upon Thames: Kingston University Press.

Yourgrau, B. (2009) “Call Me Ishmael: The End”, Salon [Online]. Available at: http://www.salon.com/2009/05/14/cellphone_fiction/ (Accessed: 13 May 2013).

[Editor’s note: All referencing done by individual authors. While every effort is made to ensure that resources are appropriately referenced, neither this website and its editor nor Kingston University accept responsibility for incorrect or insufficient citations.]

An Open Letter to Stanislavski

Amy Suiter is an American student in her second year of the MFA. She spends her time writing a novel, juggling the PG Cert and a part-time job, and trying to cut down to two cups of coffee per day. She occasionally finds time for random musings on her blog, A Minnesota Yankee. Today she considers whether and how she can apply her dramatic studies to teaching creative writing.

***********

An open letter to Konstantin Stanislavski, after using his sense memory acting technique to teach fellow students how to write sensory character descriptions:

Well, Mr Stanislavski, my idea was a bit daring. Can I really use an acting method to teach people a new way of writing? Even more, can I teach this to people who have little to no experience writing?

Yes, in fact. I believe I can. With careful preparation and enthusiasm, I feel that I succeeded. The session started off quite well with genuine interest from the students. I introduced my idea and learning outcome: that they should be able to write a sensory description of infatuation by the end of the lesson. I proceeded straight into an activity, asking them to recall a time when they were infatuated with someone.

This is where I believe I made an error, as I then called out examples for them rather than letting the students come up with their own first. The Teaching Center (2009) warns specifically against this: ‘Do not give in to the temptation to answer your own questions, which will condition students to hesitate before answering.’ While my over-eagerness may have limited the number of responses, they still had plenty of ideas of their own.

After explaining the idea of putting oneself in the character’s circumstances, the class was asked to write the reaction of a character to a specific circumstance, using guided hand-outs I had prepared. I intentionally avoided Power Point slides as I did not feel they were necessary with the time constraints, although student feedback suggested it would have been beneficial to include the quotes I delivered as a visual aid. After all, who would not want to read your great words, Mr Stanislavski?

Overall, however, I felt it was an invaluable experience on my road to becoming a teacher, and saw from the student feedback that it was an enjoyable lesson for them as well.

References

The Teaching Center: Washington University in St. Louis. (2009) Increasing Student Participation. Available at: http://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/increasing-student-participation. (Accessed: 6 November 2012).

StatCounter

wordpress stats
%d bloggers like this: