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5 for Friday: Valuable Writing Tips from my Most Trusted Professors

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.


As I’ve said before, I’ve been spending some time lately
reflecting on my MFA experience.  I’ve
been sifting through my memories and I’m realizing that there are so many
things I must not forget. There are so many tips, lessons, pieces of advice
that I need to write down so I can turn back to them when I hit a bump or need
a reminder. Today I’ll share 5 of those tips with you, tips that I received
from some of my favorite creative writing teachers. These are some of the ones
that have stood out to me. I know they work because I’ve used them and I’ve
seen my writing benefit as a result. Maybe, hopefully, one or more will work
for you, too:

1.     
Read Even
More.
One thing that is surprising about an MFA degree is the
amount of reading that is required. I’ve heard students in certain programs utter
this ironic statement: I don’t even have
time to write—
I’m reading too much! But
a reading practice, as my professor says, is just as important as a writing
one. There was a student in one of my classes who, when asked who her favorite author
was, responded: “Well, I’m not a big reader, really.” “Well, why, my dear,” my
professor snapped, “are you even in this program then?” We learn about craft
and the writing process by reading voraciously. As my writer friends said in
last week’s post about how her MFA benefited her—“When I read now, I read as a
writer.  I still read for the story, but now I can see the architecture
beneath the writing.” By stretching ourselves as readers we learn to recognize
that layer of architecture, and in the process we become more mature story builders
ourselves.

 

2.     
Take
Time Off
. “How can I make this story better?” I begged my professor
one night to help me, to tell me what my story was lacking. “Please,” I said,
over coffees in a dimly lit café, “just tell me what it needs.” “It needs time,”
he said. “That’s it.” I remember him sitting back in his seat, his smirk
suggesting a secret I hadn’t yet learned. “Time?” “Yes, put it away. Let it
marinate.” We hear this advice a lot—when you run into a problem or you’ve
taken a story as far as you can, sometimes it’s best to put it away. The best
gift a story can receive is a set of fresh eyes. I didn’t fully trust my
professor then, but I still headed his advice and stuck the story at the bottom
of my to-do pile. And yes, of course, he was right—what a difference a few
months made. I returned to it with passion and excitement, pumping out seven
new pages in a matter of days. The story had transformed.

 

3.     
Hit
The Bone
. Oh, I love this tip. I really do. I even love how it
sounds. Hit the bone. It sounds intimate, incredibly sensitive, yet risky and fierce,
too. Here, my professor was talking about digging deep. About digging deep in
the dark, despite all insecurities, and all the walls that hold us back, until
you finally hit that place where the emotional nerve of the story simply vibrates.
This is hard to do. Because we all have those walls. But a story can’t survive
without authentic emotion, without raw emotion. And I know this tip is somewhat
elusive because really, how do we do this?
It’s a lot like love, I’ve been told—you have to keep searching and you’ll know
it when it finally happens. And as my professor said—“Once you do it, you’ll be
able to do it again and again and again.”

 

4.     
Be
Specific
. Yes, the mother of all tips. Specificity. I’ve blogged
about this before
. Again, without this, most stories can’t survive. I sat in a
workshop one day and watched my poor little story being ripped apart. I
remember my teacher saying: “It’s just so general. Even the characters. Who are
they? If I were to walk in a room I could never pick them out of a crowd.”
Really, I thought. “I thought the characters were relatable because they were
universal,” I said to my teacher. “No, no,” she responded. “Being universal is being specific. You must make this
character an individual. She can’t be a movie character, an archetype. She
needs to be her own person. Sometimes it just takes a small detail. Give her
something—a mole below her nose, a pair of vintage sparkling earrings.”  When we make our characters specific, we bring
them to life.

 

5.     
Make
Every Word Count.
I’ve heard teachers say this to students: “This
writing is just so lazy.” Yikes. This is some tough love. I mean, I really don’t
think any of us believe, when we embark on a new story, that we’re being lazy.
What we’re doing is hard and we’re actually giving it all we have. I forget who
said it, but one author likened writing a story to cutting through a thick
forest with a butter knife. Often times we don’t know where we’re going or how
we’re going to get there. Each sentence we write, each tree we cut down, is a
slow, painful process. But. That’s often the first draft. That “shitty first
draft.”
The getting it down part. After that, as we move on to revisions, we
must be responsible for each word we choose. After all, every word leaves an impression
on our readers, shaping the way they read our story. I once wrote: “He has nice
teeth.” “Nice?!” a teacher barked. “Nice?! Tell me how his teeth really are.
How about strong? That tells us a lot
more about him than nice.” You wouldn’t
think teeth would be such a big deal. But they are. And the change was
significant, as my main character shivered and noticed this character’s strong
teeth, something new was happening: there was now tension rippling under the story’s
current. Every word counts.

 

“My task—which I am trying to achieve—is by
the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel. It is, before
all, to make you see.”

-Joseph Conrad

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3 Responses to 5 for Friday: Valuable Writing Tips from my Most Trusted Professors

  1. I became a writer, I think, because I was first a voracious reader. Reading often inspires me to write, challenges me to write better. And as you say, I find myself reading now not only for the story but also for the structure.

  2. Kate says:

    I agree, Carlo! We all sort of shook our heads and looked at each other in amazement when this particular student said that– "What? Huh? How can this person not love books? And why the heck are they here?" It just didn’t make sense. How can you want to write when you don’t like to read??

  3. Carlo says:

    Great specific advice. Thanks for sharing.

    I thought the comment about not being a reader was funny. Having taken several screenwriting workshops, I’ve encountered a number of wannabees who, when asked what movies they’ve seen recently, answered, "I’ve never been much of a movie or TV person." What??? LOL

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