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Entries in Emerson College (12)



Here I am, up on my writerly soapbox, "Do this challenge! Do that one!" And I've never thought to ask what you guys want to hear about.

So today is question and answer time. Are you considering pursuing a degree in Creative Writing but are on the fence? Are you considering pursuing a second degree in Creative Writing and are wondering if you've gone insane? Do you suffer from crippling writer's block? Are you just curious about Emerson College, or Boston, or about having a full-time job and/or significant other and/or a pet of some kind while also chasing down the writerly dream? Want to know what it's like to drive an ice cream truck? Or to have a paper route? Or to be a real estate agent? Or a college professor? 

All these and more are things I could tell you. 

Whatcha wanna know?


Revise less?

An interesting article about our writerly obsession with revision and how it's actually a new trend:

“The ideal environment for revision is one where you can preserve several different versions of a text,” Sullivan says. With only one in-progress draft on a computer, we lose the cues that led the Modernists to step back from their work and to revise it. “It’s that moment of typing things up that led to the really surprising and inventive changes,” Sullivan says. “The authors came back to their text, but it seemed estranged.”

So why do we continue to champion revision? Sullivan suggests it’s partly due to the literary ideals and habits we’ve inherited from the Modernists. She also mentions the professionalization of creative writing, which pushed authors like Carver and Oates to teach at universities. “Writers need to look more like professors and to discuss their laborious processes,” Sullivan says. “‘We can’t teach you how to write, but we can teach you how to revise.’ And it’s a big business.”

Read the rest here!

My writing classes at Emerson and Trinity were absolutely all about revision. If I ever get to teach creative writing at the college level, I'm going to insist on creating a Writer's Bootcamp course that will stress output over perfection. It's tough to shut off the critical mind, especially when you've honed it to the point that it has something to say the second your creative mind opens its mouth.


Week Twenty Two: "I want to like this class, I really do..."

I wrote this in boredom (clearly) during one of John Coffee's classes: either History of the Bible or History of the U.S. Constitution. I thought he was great ("The word of the day is fustigate! F-U-S-T-I-G-A-T-E. To beat with a stick."), but I had trouble focusing during the parts of his classes that were not him telling us awesome stories.


"I want to like this class, I really do..."

Unlike Weeks Twenty and Twenty One, this was not intended to be a first line... but it could be!

Freshman-Me put it in quotation marks because he thought it had some kind of story potential, but what that might have been is beyond me now. Guess we'll just have to make something up!

Sunday, midnight, 300 words!


Week Seven will not quit

So, I mentioned before that I was going to submit revised versions of Weeks One and Seven to this year's Boston Theater Marathon. 

Then, unbeknownst to you, I submitted those same plays to the Hovey Summer Shorts Festival and to one other festival I haven't heard from yet. 

Well, Week Seven's play made it into Hovey aaaaand...

That same play, The Interview, will also be appearing in the fifteenth annual Boston Theater Marathon

I really cannot overstate what an accomplishment this is for me. Since I first learned about the BTM in an intro to playwrighting class at Emerson College (...eleven years ago...), it has been a major goal of mine to get something I had written included in the lineup. And to that end, I wrote a decently okay play and slavishly tweaked, submitted, retweaked, and resubmitted that same play several times, each time receiving the flattering rejection note. (I assume there is a version of that letter that is less effusive. Maybe they're all flattering...)

The truth is, I don't really know what that play was about. It was called Dating Athenasmarmy business guy has several bad dates with the Greek goddess. It had an ambiguous ending I thought to be "theatrical" but did not mean anything to me. I just wanted to see my work on stage. Any work. 

The Interview does mean something to me... and in fact, I was worried that it was in some ways too literal, too earnest. But that's my style, and if the work feels disingenuous to me it'll show to others. Thanks in large part to this blog, I'm trying to be less precious and more direct with my writing these days, and I think that's why this particular play is responding with people: I've stopped trying to be clever and started trying to be me.

I can't wait to see what the director and actors bring to it.


Spring 2001

With Fall 2000 at my back and my winter break survived, I was more than ready to throw myself back into my life at Emerson. By this point I was, I believe, majoring in Writing, Literature, and Publishing (this is a more employable way of saying "Creative Writing") and still had some prerequisites to chew through: 

  • Fundamentals of Speech Communication
  • Intro to Creative Writing: Fiction
  • History of the U.S. Constitution and History of the Bible
  • Minds and Machines

...but I finally got to take a fiction writing class! My workshop instructor was Alden Jones, who was in her second semester at Emerson, but clearly knew her stuff. We focused at first on short experiments like writing with all five senses and trying to craft a story with literal dialogue (complete with the "ums" and "likes" that pepper actual speech), and I felt like a fraud every single day, but persevered. Looking back, I credit this class with being the most influential to my malleable writerly brain. It was work, but the good kind.

History of the U.S. Constitution and History of the Bible were also influential, but mostly for their teacher: the Reverend John Coffee, who was an institution at Emerson College for 35 years. Many considered taking a class with him to be a prequisite for graduation, he was that popular. I'll talk more about him in future posts.

But for now, we continue on to Week Twelve...


Boston Theater Marathon

Every year, the Boston Playwrights' Theatre puts on the Boston Theater Marathon—50 ten-minute plays staged all in one day.

And every year, I have had exactly one short play to submit. I wrote it in my senior year at Emerson, and have submitted and resubmitted (with minor cosmetic edits) that sucker several times over the past <shudder> decade, each time getting the nice rejection and sometimes even a handwritten note.

This is just a quick post to say that, this year, I will be submitting two new plays—slightly revised versions of Weeks One and Seven's completed challenges. Though it's seemed, at times, that I'm not living up to the challenge I've set for myself here on this blog, the ultimate goal was to get me writing again, and that it has done. So thank you for reading and commenting, and fingers crossed that one of these guys will get staged next May!

[And by the way, if any of you New England–area playwrights have anything to submit to the BTM, the deadline is this Thursday, November 15th.]


Week Eight: You are a person of little worth if you are casual with your non-verbal moments

Geez. Judgy much...?

Evidently I wrote this on December 1st, 2000—a week or two from the end of my first semester at Emerson College. It had been a rough semester, personally and interpersonally. I felt angry about some things, guilty about others. I don't remember why specifically I wrote this or what I was thinking at the time, but I do remember that I was feeling low.

Perhaps I felt that I had been casual with my non-verbal moments, and this was why I was having such a hard time of it? We may never know. Those AOL Instant Messenger chat logs are lost to time, buried in hard drives several dead computers ago.

What I do know is that this was meant as a prescription for me. In this sentiment, somewhere, was the way by which I could get back to feeling good about the future and my place in it.

So that's a starting place. Kinda. Hmm. This one will be tricky...


Reflections on Week Seven

[Read the completed story here!]

As I realized when writing the reflections for Week Six, the best way for me to break these challenges into actual stories that I'm not ashamed to write is to dig so deep into one theme or aspect of the prompt that the final result bears little resemblence to the original idea. I am much more creative with constraints, and having to push and pull against something I don't want to write is a great way to figure out what I do want to write.

The process, I'm just now realizing, is very similar to the Lifehacker.com article I posted about here:

The biggest creativity challenge we face is that while we want to innovate and change, our brain actually prefers to stick with what it knows. Whether it's a first draft or a five year old plan—once an idea has taken root it's very difficult to think of another. [...]

A powerful tactic to overcome this is taking a project and breaking it down into smaller pieces. Once you stop looking at your project as a whole, things don't look as obvious as they were before. Write down a list of all the elements in your current project[...]. Then focus on one part at a time and change just that one. The most interesting thing about this tactic is that just dividing a project into a discrete list of elements will help ideas to start flowing.

(Check out the rest of the article here! There are illustrations!)

Which is exactly what happened with Week Seven's challenge: what began as an idea for a "documentary" in which the narrator is actually planning to kill the subject of the documentary ended as a short play in which an interviewer is trying to break down the interviewee (and then the tables turn... and then they turn again). 

I kept thinking during the revision process that this story is not something I could have written when I was in college. I had had a part-time job (sometimes two) since the sixth grade, but I didn't know anything at all about types of resume paper, tax writeoffs, or interview ettiquette/strategy. I didn't have any experience with unemployment. 

Sometime during my Freshman year at Emerson, my buddy Graham and I went to a gaming convention (oh yes we did) at Harvard called Vericon. One of the featured guests that year was Margaret Weis, coauthor of many of the earlier Dragonlance Chronicles books that I adored during middle school.

[Quick geeky sidebar: She actually showed up in the middle of a game of Dragonlance, in character, as Tasslehoff Burrfoot—a diminuative kind-hearted thief—and stole a number of things from our characters before departing. I'm truly sorry if this is the weirdest thing yet you've read on this blog, but it was awesome.]

Anyway, I learned later that she was signing books down the street, so Graham and I wandered over, and I did something I had never dared to do (and have been far too embarassed to try since): I asked her something like what, in her opinion, was the most important thing in becoming a writer. It was a powerfully dumb question, I know, but I just wanted a connection of some kind.

Her answer completely deflated me then but fills me with gratitude now: she told me that the best thing a writer can do is to grow up before becoming an author. That all these important life experiences would happen between now and then that would shape my stories in unimaginable ways. It was not the answer I wanted to hear—I was accruing all of this college debt in order to become a successful novelist now, not decades from now.

But she was right. I've done a lot of growing up between the fall of 2000 and the fall of 2012, and no doubt there's still a lot more growing up to do. But I am a much more confident writer now, with a much greater wealth of experience (some of it awful at the time, but all of it uniquely mine) to draw on. I still don't know if I'm ready to become an actual novelist yet, but I think I am ready to try.

Next up: Week Eight!


Week Six: Write a novella about the journey into the psyche

I remember this one very well.

Peter Corea's psychology class had a lot to do with the philosophy of the mind. Not just what we think, but why we think what we think. To give you a sampling of the things that struck a chord with me, here are a few lecture notes I took throughout the semester, all of them direct quotes from Dr. Corea:

"Just because we are able to describe something doesn't mean we are able to understand it."
"Change is the very essence of energy."
"Words are just symbols of reality."
"There is an unknown energy that is not space and time."

(Check out an older post I wrote for more about the late Dr. Corea.)

You may have gotten the impression by now that this was not your standard psychology class, and you would be correct. It was, however, structured like one, and so there was the matter of an end-of-term research project that we had to propose. I was champing at the bit to do something creative, and I landed on the idea you see above.

I wanted to investigate several areas of parapsychology (ESP, astral projection, etc.), reconcile them with some of the ideas Corea himself espoused, and compose a sci-fi novella about someone who abruptly discovers these abilities and what they mean for him/her.

He hated it. More to the point, he all but accused me of trying to repurpose some crap story I'd already written for some other teacher. (I was occasionally guilty of this later on in my academic career, but in this case I was entirely innocent.)

Anyway, I never did write it. If I had, I imagine it would have been somewhat dark and very melodramatic, for this was my disposition at the time. I still have this image of the nameless, faceless protagonist aflame with psychic energy as he rises above the SWAT team and National Guard members who all have automatic weapons trained on him. The boy is innocent, of course, but how else could this possibly end?

(So, okay, maybe not the best end-of-term paper for an aging professor.)

What to do with it now? Well, with apologies to the over-eager freshman year version of myself, Week Six is not going to be a novella-length work. The subject area still intrigues me, though. Ultimately I would love to write a series of sci-fi/fantasy/literary-minded books, but apart from an audio drama project I co-wrote with fellow Emerson alums once upon a time, I don't think I've ever actually dipped my toes in that water. 

So thentime to give it a shot!


Reflections on Week Three

[Read the finished story here!]

I talked a little bit in a previous post about why this week's challenge took longer than an actual week. Week Two was also a bit of a trial, but I really let Week Three knock me off the rails. My procrastination is the type that comes from perfectionism, which may be the most crippling kind. Throughout school, I'd let my fear of producing something substandard paralyze me until the night before the assignment was due, when finally my options were reduced to "just do the effing thing" or "fail this class." I could never start until those were the stakes. Almost every semester was this way for me, and evidently I'm still doing it.

But it's okay, right? This is why I created this blog: to revisit all of these false starts and, in doing, create an ironclad writing habit that is impervious even to my own crippling thought patterns. There may be bumps like these, but the important thing is not to walk away. I'm going to see this through, for my resolve is fierce. You can feel its ferocity through your screen, can't you? It burns. Yes. Yes...

So anyway, this particular prompt was tough going because I hated the dialogue, I hated characters who would speak this dialogue, and I didn't have anything useful or unique to say about the subject matter. I didn't want to write a judgy story about how someone can use the fact of less-fortunate people to make others feel bad, but meanwhile neither is he or she doing anything to help. I especially didn't want to write something where two people banter back and forth about homeless people and which of them is the more Samaritan-like. 

The best I could come up with, for awhile, was this:

"What? You're afraid of homeless people?"

"No, I just didn't want to disturb him."

That seemed like a considerate, reasonable response to Marcy, but for reasons she didn't understand she was annoyed by her old high school friend. She found herself asking aggressive questions like this all weekend, hoping maybe to find reason for her indignation.

"So what if he had been awake. Would you have sat on that bench then?"

"I don't know. Probably not."

"Why not?"

"I don't sit next to strange men."

Blah, blah, blah. I couldn't get away from the prompt and make it my own, until much later, in the shower probably, I was thinking about a time early in my freshman year at Emerson when an older black woman came up to me and told me she thought she was going to die. Immediately I dismissed writing about this, because no part of me ever wanted to be a writer who wrote the words "black woman." I just felt like you'd immediately get all kinds of ideas about me and my attitude about race and income and who knows what. That I'd have to bend over backwards explaining that it was a detail, not an example of something I think to be a universal truth, and in my explaining all of this I'd unintentionally reveal some ignorance or prejudice I didn't even know was there. Better just to avoid that anecdote altogether, I thought.

That got my wheels turning. Which was worse: to write about a strung-out black woman who I tried to help or to never write about anything other than white people because I'm terrified of saying the wrong thing? And this became, in a way, the guiding theme for the story I finally ended up writing, which came to me pretty easily once I started it. I don't know if it's the best thing I've ever written, but I accomplished what I set out to do here, which -- finally -- is perfection enough for me.

Onward to Week Four!