An unexpected challenge of calling myself a writer

Writing at the airport, a few months before finding out I'd been accepted to graduate school.

Writing at the airport, a few months before finding out I’d been accepted to graduate school.

When I was younger, writing was easy. I was always naturally talented when it came to putting words on paper (or typing them onto a screen). I didn’t learn how to revise until graduate school, and even then, it was only my creative writing; the critical papers I turned in were always first drafts. It might take me half an hour to write a paragraph, but when I had it, I had it—though it was more usual that I’d write much more quickly.

But before then, before I began my work toward a graduate degree in writing, before I switched to studying a writing-related field in undergrad, writing was just a hobby. One of the reasons I did switch to professional writing in my third year of college was because I spent more time writing then I did studying for my engineering classes. There were no stakes when it came to telling stories like there were when I completed a problem set of studied for an exam, and in the fall of my junior year, I “won” National Novel Writing Month by writing 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Despite feeling increasingly lost in my major (I switched from engineering to microbiology, something I’ll never understand since I’d hated the one bio class I’d taken), writing felt increasingly safe and wonderful.

It stayed that way even after I became a professional writing major. I took classes on grammar and editing, on visual rhetoric and web design. I turned in first-draft papers and received 4.0s, even when I wrote them in their entirety the same day they were due. (This is the point where I hope none of my students are reading this….) My creative work was still kept separate. Even when I began applying for MFA programs (and yes, the “revising” I did on my writing sample before sending it off amounted to changing a few words and fixing a few commas), writing remained a place of glorious refuge.

And then I got to graduate school, and suddenly things weren’t so easy. Some of my classmates were so very talented, and for the first time I wondered about my ability to live up to that level of skill. My first short story, one I was really pleased with, was politely but poorly received—I didn’t realize just how poorly until we workshopped my second story and everyone exclaimed how much better it was.

I started sending out work to be published, and like an idiot, I sent my first piece to Tin House. I told myself I wasn’t surprised when I was rejected, but in some ways I was (I was still learning the crazy level of competitiveness at literary journals, especially the ones in the upper tier). I began to wonder why I’d given up my highly lucrative future as an engineer to do something I was only okay at, and because I didn’t know how to revise (that lesson didn’t come until I started working one-on-one with my thesis advisor), I started to lose my nerve. I only wrote when I had to. The rest of the time I was too scared to open up a Word document and see what type of crap I’d spew onto the page. Instead I threw myself into editing—both critiquing my classmates’ work and through my work with Willow Springs. I began to wonder if it had all been some big mistake, if I was a better editor than a writer, and if my professors had been wrong to let me into graduate school. I worried so much about this, in fact, that I called my mother crying a few weeks before my thesis defense and told her I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t good enough to get the degree. That I passed my defense easily and enjoyably—it’s one of the times I had the most fun in all of my MFA program—only temporarily stilled my worries.

Since then, I’ve had ups and downs with writing. I had my first short story accepted at PANK, one of the journals on my list of dream-journals, and I wrote a handful of book reviews for The Collagist. But I’ve also had frustratingly long droughts during which there weren’t any nibbles, let alone bites. And in these times of rejection rejection rejection, I find myself wondering again: am I good enough? do I have what it takes?

I’m in one of those droughts right now. Aside from a few spurts in December when I was laid out with a broken foot, I haven’t written, revised, or submitted any fiction. I haven’t even opened the files to look at my work. I’m so afraid. So very afraid of what I’ll find. I know I can write stories that are good, but being a good writer isn’t enough for me anymore, and while I know that only practice can take me from good to great, I haven’t yet figured out how to handle all the disappointment that comes with getting better, because you can’t get better without failing. And I don’t know how to fail.

Sometimes I still miss those days when the writing I did came without consequences, when I could write and write and write and still think highly of myself—highly enough that I thought, yeah, I can do this for the rest of my life. There was no risk then, but no reward, either, and I crave that reward more than almost anything else in the world. At some point, I’ll have to decide if my risking my pride and facing my fears is worth having a shot at getting what I want.

Writing tip of the week: keep your focus

A few more days of headaches and general sickness means I’m a day late on this week’s writing tip.

My first student papers come in this week, and though I haven’t started the grading yet, it seems like a good time to talk about one of the top issues I see with student papers.

First, let me say that I get where this comes from. Students want so much to impress, and they want to be seen as smart and intelligent. They are smart and intelligent. I haven’t yet had a student in my classroom that I don’t think that about, even though they have smarts and intelligences in different areas. It breaks my heart when so many of them tell me that they’re bad writers, that they hate writing. It’s clear that they don’t think they have it in them to be good writers. If there’s one thing I want to change in them, I want to disabuse them of this notion. They might not be superstar writers in every situation, but each student has situations in which they are capable of being superstar writers and communicators.

But back to focus. So many writers—not just student writers—think more is better, but in writing, it’s usually less that’s better. Staying focused on one thing, or a few things, allows you to go deeper into your subject, to explore it in ways that are interesting, that are new, or at least new angles. When writers stay off focus, when they reject depth, they have to go for breadth instead.

The trouble is, when we, as writers, go for breadth, we spread ourselves thin. We don’t go past the surface, which means we don’t move into originality. We don’t move past summary.

Now, on the one hand, that surface information is often essential. We have to start from somewhere, and what good is it to know, to pick a random example from my science days, how electrons affect bonding if we don’t first know what an electron is, or an atom, or a molecule. However, if all of the papers—or talks or whatever—on electron bonding first explained what a molecule was, then an atom, then an electron, readers would get bored pretty fast. Every time a reader picked up a piece on electron bonding, they’d get the same information, over and over, rather than learning about something new. Maybe the end of each of those pieces would do something different, but it’s a lot of breadth—a lot of surface, a lot of repetitive stuff—to get through before getting to the meat of the matter.

Now, we can think about this from a creative writing angle, too. Readers want to get into the complexity of a plot, they want to see the depth of characters. Think about Harry Potter, for instance, with just the surface plot. Where Harry, Ron, and Hermione just go after Voldemort. Where they don’t have deeper interactions with each other, or with any of the other characters. There’s no complexity of character. Harry doesn’t feel mixed feelings about his father, Dumbledore doesn’t end up being more complex, and Neville doesn’t shift from feeling scared and unimportant to brave and full of self-worth. It would be a different kind of series, then, and way shorter. It probably also would be an obscure series, not one beloved by millions. Depth is what makes those stories stand out, what makes them catch our attention, and it’s the same for most types of writing. There are of course some exceptions, but then again, there always are.

writing tip of the week: dialogue tags (part 2)

Wow it’s been a crazy week! My lesson planning is in full swing (looking forward to sharing some of it here, actually), and the first day of classes grows ever closer. Wasn’t it June only yesterday or so?

This week’s writing tip is the second and final part in a discussion on dialogue tags. Last week I talked about not using repetitive tags (tags that do the work the dialogue already did) and trying to avoid writing dialogue that needs to be rescued by tags. This week, though, is about exceptions. Because of course there are exceptions. And I’ve put together a few examples of times I think dialogue tags work well.

For Pacing

I’m starting with this tip for admittedly selfish reasons: I love to use dialogue tags for pacing. I like to pay attention to the rhythm in my prose, and I think dialogue tags can be a good tool for the way it sounds when read aloud. They can also add suspense at times.

Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel are two writers who I think do this extremely well. Check out that first link to hear Richard Ford read three stories by Raymond Carver (so you can hear the pacing) and then look at “Today Will Be a Quiet Day,” by Amy Hempel to see what it looks like on the page, though I think her work sounds awesome read aloud, too.

For Irony or the Unexpected

Sometimes tags are necessary because the dialogue is not being said in the way a reader would expect. Maybe your character is feeling snippish rather than romantic when he says, “I love you,” to his wife, or maybe a character deadpans a joke or fakes indignation. These are instances where a little bit extra in a dialogue tag can expand rather than interfere with meaning.


This one is always a sticking point for me. While I know that genres like romance often use the convention of…shall we say explanatory dialogue tags, I still feel the writing would be stronger without it. Still, who I am to decide the conventions of an entire genre?

Another genre where we see more detailed dialogue tags, specifically ones with adverbs, is children’s writing. Part of a book’s job at that age is to expose children to language, and with a child’s growing understanding of how people say things, adding descriptive adverbs makes a fair bit of sense in terms of helping children expand their vocabluaries. I wrote reading passages for children in grades three through eight for a year, and breaking myself of the habit of simple dialogue tags was very difficult.

So there you have it! My expanded thoughts on dialogue tags with some guidelines on when they can help and when they just interfere. Happy writing!

writing tip of the week: dialogue tags (part 1)

The first spring after I finished grad school I signed up for a creative writing class through MSU’s continuing education program. There was a beginner class and an advanced class, so naturally I enrolled in the advanced one. I didn’t have any delusions that it would be like grad school, but I still had some expectations. But then came the second class period, the one where my professor stopped the workshop to give us a lecture on dialogue tags. I don’t remember how the conversation went exactly, but it was something like this:

HIM: Don’t say “Tom yelled loudly.” That’s weak writing.

ME: *nods along in agreement*

HIM: Instead, find a verb that conveys both the weak verb and the adverb. Try something like “screeched” or “hollered” instead.

I didn’t say anything, having already (politely) offered a counter opinion to a few of my professor’s statements earlier in the class, and I didn’t want to be that girl, but if I had known in advance that this was coming, I would have saved one of my objections for this advice.

Screeched and hollered, you see, are still weak writing in most instances. I’m not even sure they’re an improvement over the verb-adverb combination. The problem, though, isn’t inherently the adverb, or even those words themselves: it’s in the dialogue itself.

Let’s take a look at an example:

“Good idea,” whispered Hermione, clearly pleased that Harry was calming down. “Ron, what are you staring at?”


“Nothing,” said Ron, hastily looking away from the bar, but Harry knew he was trying to catch the eye of the curvy and attractive barmaid, Madam Rosmerta, for whom he had long nursed a soft spot.


“I expect ‘nothing’s’ in the back getting more firewhiskey,” said Hermione waspishly.

-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This example takes us back to the adverb problem—and if you’ve been writing seriously and engaging with other writers for even a minimal amount of time, chances are you’ve heard some form of “adverbs are bad.” I don’t agree with this as a rule (though I do thing a suggestion to be wary of adverbs is a good one), but this quote shows why adverbs aren’t always our friends. Read the above excerpt through once, then read it again, this time leaving off the last word so that the final dialogue tag just reads “said Hermione.” Is there any way you’re going to misinterpret her? Is there anyway you’re going to think she says it kindly, or angrily, or lovingly? We know exactly how Hermione sounds when she says that line, because JKR has written us some fantastic dialogue. The adverb, in this instance, becomes repetitive, and unneeded repetition is, to me, writing that can be stronger.

Now, I used an example with an adverb here, but the same type of repetitive mistake can be used with my professor’s “stronger” verbs. Take the line “‘I love you,’ she said sweetly.” It does the same type of thing. Unneeded repetition, unneeded details.

Unfortunately, the opposite of repetition can also occur when writing. Sometimes the dialogue isn’t strong enough to convey any real emotion and so writers use dialogue tags as a crutch.

My advice thus far has been to keep dialogue tags simple and to not have them either tell or interfere with the story, but the truth is, I do think there’s a use for these types of dialogue tags. I even think there’s a use for tags with adverbs at times, but I’m going to save that for next week’s post.

*Please note that I label these tips and not rules, and even if I had called them rules, I’m a firm believer that sometimes breaking the rules is the best thing for your writing. Writing isn’t about memorizing a set of rules and following them, but I do believe there are certain guidelines that, more often than not, will help writers improve—either by following them or by breaking them intentionally.

writing tip of the week: writing from real life

My last few posts have been (obliquely) on teaching, but I identify first as a writer, and I wanted my new blog post to reflect that aspect of my identity. And so the weekly writing tip was born—though I have to wonder if I can, in good faith, call it weekly before I’ve shown a commitment to that schedule. We’ll see!

This week’s tip was inspired by something I hear frequently—from friends, family, acquaintances, people I met randomly five minutes earlier, etc. It may be a throw away comment from some people, and to others I see how they are trying to establish a connection with me, but it almost always makes me wince inside a little bit.

What happens is this: I’ll be talking with someone, and they’ll tell me a story. Usually it’s a story about something weird that happened, or a story about something sad, or bad. And I’m listening, and I’m interested, and then the person will say this: “I should write a book about that.”

And maybe the person should write a book about it. Goodness knows that a lot of successful nonfiction (and even fiction) has come about in response to events that happened in a person’s life. But what many amateur or aspiring writers fail to realize is that there’s a difference between a good anecdote and a good story. Continue reading “writing tip of the week: writing from real life” »

Why I’m terrible at writing nonfiction

When I was young—high school, college—my writing came from a place of pain. I thought I was in touch with some larger wisdom when I let the words just come, trying to talk about my pain as if I had felt things no one else had, things no one else could understand. “I have seen too many changes, too many unfortunate circumstances,” I wrote. “I have experienced them.” As if I were the only one.

At the time, some of those things were serious, but most were mundane, and none were unique. Still, writing was how I communicated to the world, since I wasn’t sure how to do it any other way. When I blogged about being depressed, I thought I was being honest; when I poured my heart out to the pages of a secret diary I kept on my hard drive, I thought I had found release. When I wrote an essay about losing a man I’d loved, I called him and asked permission, pretending that I hadn’t written a word yet and that I never would if he said no. I had dreams of getting it published, then of someone stumbling across it and sending it to him, saying, here, Alex, see what you mean to her. But even then I was a fiction writer, shaping my life on the page into something it wasn’t: I was less interested in the truth of any given situation and more focused on trying to create the truth I wanted there to be. I made up for the lies by putting into my nonfiction every detail I could think of, relevant or not, as a way, I suppose, of trying to prove it was real.

I always was a terrible nonfiction writer.

These days the only creative nonfiction I venture into are these blog posts, and I still can’t fully commit, but while in the past I over-shared, giving away details of loss and heartbreak on first dates or even before, these days I protect my own stories. Some days I break down and sow tiny clues (or occasionally large ones), but when people do ask, I tell them it’s nothing. And it is nothing—or at least it’s nothing I can’t get through on my own. I made the switch to fiction long ago, but these days I write about things I dread rather than things I want. Instead of giving my characters the traits I wish I had, I give them the ones I’m afraid I already possess: cowardice, naiveté, greed, fear, selfishness, and, above all, a complete inability to be agents of change in their own lives. In some ways, I’m still looking for myself in every single thing that I write. I just do it with lies rather than with half-truths.

I haven’t written anything serious in a month again. I sat down tonight to start a new story, but after listening to a horribly wonderful sad song on repeat for twenty minutes, I finally had to admit that I had reverted to my old habits, and I simply don’t allow myself to do that anymore. Writing isn’t therapy, after all, and I’ve rejected more than a handful of pieces because the writer’s emotion was too fresh for the writing to do anything other than bleed. I want to write stories that make other people bleed, but if I’m the one feeling the cut, that becomes next to impossible.

I pulled out that essay tonight about the man I once loved. I haven’t looked at it in nearly eight years, and originally I was just looking for humorously bad quotes to include in this post, but then I read through it in an objective way I never could before, and I realized it’s not really that bad. Oh, it’s cringe-worthy at times, and it sacrifices heart for pain, leaving it feeling more like a plea than an essay, but parts of it might be salvageable. Just not as a piece of nonfiction. I need some new story ideas anyway, and as I tell my students, I have an advanced degree in how to lie.

Where I’ve been

I’m teaching a senior portfolio seminar this semester (two sections, actually), and we spend a lot of time talking about crafting your professional identity. It’s work, I tell my students, and they believe me, and hey, I’m right, but I suck at following my own advice.

The trouble is I’ve hardly been writing. I’ve hardly been reading. It’s the end of April and I haven’t posted my year-in-review books post yet because, hey, I don’t have much to say anyway. 2013 marked my worst reading year in a long time—probably since I learned how to read. 2013 was also another year in which I didn’t get any bites on my writing, and I finished the year with one book review published and one personal rejection for my fiction.

There’s no doubt about it: I’m losing steam. It’s no secret that I doubt myself in a lot of ways. I’m so afraid of writing poorly that I don’t write. Which is funny, because I don’t actually have a lot of problems submitting once I do have a piece. But I wrote exactly two new pieces in 2013, and so far I haven’t even started a new piece in 2014. I’m behind in the other literary-related commitments I’ve taken on—so far behind, in fact, that in some ways I’m really having to resist the temptation to just disappear because otherwise it means owning up to how irresponsible I’ve been. Yes, I’m balancing teaching with everything else, but plenty of people have figured out how to make it work for them. And yet.

I stopped setting goals for all of this, because I was getting too frustrated with never meeting them. And yet.

I want to write. I really do. I don’t need to write (and I’m suspicious of anyone who says they do). I even think writing is something I have a talent for, though I’ve learned in these past few years that my talent isn’t as great as I’d thought when I was younger. It’s hard to accept that you might be average. It’s hard to admit that your failures are all your own, with no qualifications or excuses.

I’m not here today to make any promises, to say how often I’m going to write, or blog, or read. I’m not even going to think on those things, because I’m afraid that the only outcome for me is disappointment, and I just can’t take more of the disappointment right now. And yet.

With every word comes the potential to fail. With every word comes the potential to be great.

Yes, writing and editing are real jobs, and they deserve real compensation

This post is in response to some requests I’ve received recently from friends and acquaintances, requests that I’m sure to receive again. What happens is this: I get a Facebook message or email—usually from someone I haven’t spoken with in years and with whom I was never very close—asking if I will perform some editing and/or writing work. Usually, after exchanging a few messages, in which I ask about the project, it becomes clear that I am being asked to do this work for free. The one time I was offered any type of payment up front it was in the form of “I’ll buy you lunch at this beloved but very cheap local restaurant,” which I interpreted as, “In payment for the work you will do for me, I will take you out on a date.”

I always turn these requests down—politely at first, as I tend to operate under the assumption that these people honestly don’t realize how rude they are being—but if the person persists, I stop caring so much about being nice in favor of caring about being valued as a working professional in a very legitimate career field.

For those of you who don’t know, I freelance these services. I have worked freelance or contract projects on web design, writing, developmental editing, copyediting, and consulting. The lowest amount I ever charged was $15/hour for web design work while I was still a student (and even then I short changed myself fairly severely). Now I primarily write and edit for freelance work. I charge between $40 and $65 per hour for this work.

If you have never worked as a freelance writer or editor, or if you have never hired a freelance writer or editor at a fair wage, these prices may seems exorbitantly high. They aren’t. I actually tend to charge on the low- to mid-end of industry standard rates ( I have never had any professional client balk at these rates. In fact, the rate I pitch is usually accepted right away, without any type of negotiation, which tells me that I still could (and maybe should) make more. Continue reading “Yes, writing and editing are real jobs, and they deserve real compensation” »

This writing shit

I’m finally back and (mostly) decompressed from AWP, which means I’m ready to start harnessing the energy and motivation I acquired while at the conference. Most of that energy comes from guilt, and from seeing so many successful people (and wanting to be like them). I figure it’s still good though, no matter where it comes from.

But I realized something at this year’s conference, something that I think I’ve slowly been figuring out over the last year or so: I’m good at writing.

It feels odd to say that considering that the reason I started this whole MFA-business in the first place was because I knew I was good at writing. Before graduate school, I’d never once done substantial revisions on any piece of writing, be it creative or academic. My idea of revision was rereading my work, deleting extraneous commas, and changing a few of the more awkward wordings. There was only one time in all of my pre-graduate school years that I got below a B on a paper, and I was so offended by my grade that I dropped the class rather than have to figure out what I’d done wrong. But even considering that one time, I never had to pay the price for not improving my work. I got 4.0s on papers I wrote, start to finish, two hours before they were due. Even my graduate school writing sample was a rough draft.

That began to change in graduate school, of course, but in a lot of ways, it was too late. Rather than learning the value of hard work, I’d learned over many years that the good thing to do was to give only 50-80% of my effort to any given project. That way, in the event that I did fail (and for me, failing has usually meant anything that is less than perfect; seriously, ask me about the time I got grounded for getting a B+ in math), I had the ready-made excuse of having not given everything I had. That way my problem could always be defined as lack of effort rather than lack of talent.

But writing is turning out to be different. You see, I am good at it, and I’m good without trying too hard. But good isn’t enough. Good doesn’t get you to the level I want to be at. Good won’t get you a book published, won’t win you any prizes or contests. Luck might, but not being good. You have to be great. And to be great, you have to work.

People ask me sometimes how it feels to do something I love. I tell them I don’t love writing but that I love having written, that I love the power of a good story, that I love creating a good story, or a good character. These people are usually shocked to hear this attitude, but I don’t see why they should be. When writing is such a huge part of your life, when it’s another job—one that never ends—it’s hard as hell. And at least so far, it hasn’t gotten easier. Oh, I get better at it, but it’s still not any easier. It’s hard work.

And I’m finally ready to work. I’m ready to stop making excuses about why I haven’t written in two days, ten days, three weeks. I’m ready to take a chance for once in my life, to risk giving everything I have and still not being enough. But I want more than I have, and I’ll never get it sitting here talking about someday. This starts now. Wish me luck.

Performing an identity

The AWP conference started yesterday, and the last twenty-four hours have been a whirlwind. For those who don’t know, AWP is an annual writing conference, with panels and a huge bookfair (think hundreds of tables to visit). This year there are (I believe) seven thousand writers in town for the three days of the conference.

So far it’s been good. I’ve bought more books than I probably should have (and will most likely acquire a few more before the conference ends on Saturday), and I’ve met and reconnected with some truly awesome people.

It’s also been stressful. I’ve done one previous AWP conference (2010 in Denver), and in the two years since, I apparently forgot how crazy, busy, and overwhelming it is. More than all the people and booths, however, what exhausts me is the constant need to push my introverted qualities away and pretend like I have more extroverted ones than I do. It’s a performance for me, and when that needs to go on all day, it becomes more than a bit wearing.

The problem (or, perhaps, just one of them) is that I don’t find myself very interesting, and while I genuinely like many (most? all?) of the people I meet, I can’t get rid of this lingering self-doubt that tells me they find me horribly boring. I don’t worry that people actively dislike me, but rather that, once I walk away, they don’t think of me again.

I don’t know what to say in groups. I don’t follow group dynamics. I alternate between not knowing what to say and so saying nothing and not knowing what to say and so saying the first thing that comes to mind until I’m babbling. I smile a lot, and nod when I don’t necessarily understand. I ask questions, but often struggle with articulating them. I do this even with people I know fairly well.

Usually, I prefer sitting at home to going out. I prefer solitude to groups, even when I’m feeling lonely. The one real exception is my immediate family, and they don’t understand why I’m not as comfortable with others as I am with them.

Yesterday, I found myself in conversation with someone I’d been really looking forward to seeing, but it was a group conversation, and I mostly just stood there mute. The girls on either side of me talked freely, jumped into the conversation in a way that felt natural, unplanned. Close to interruption, but in an intimate rather than rude way. I walked away from this group feeling dejected. There wasn’t any reason I should have been given a one-on-one conversational moment, but I still felt cheated for not receiving one (because, you know, I didn’t ask for one).

In my hotel room hours later, I lay staring at the dark ceiling, and realized my disappointment stemmed from wanting to feel special, important, and from the fact that I have a hard time feeling special or important of my own right. Usually those feelings only come from external forces. I think this is why I often miss school so much—I received these types of confidence boosts without having to seek them out: a good workshop, a good grade on a paper, a verbal compliment during a thesis meeting. Now, I’m floundering. Except at twenty-seven, it’s not supposed to be like that, and so I perform—or try to.

Like in my writing, I excel when given a specific task. I do perfectly well sitting behind a booth talking about a literary journal, or in front of a classroom when following a lesson plan. I feel comfortable when someone points out the flaw in my writing that I should fix, but I still struggle with finding the flaw myself. I still struggle with knowing what to do in non-scripted encounters. On the whole, the issues with my writing are improving faster than those with my personality. I suppose I should consider that a good thing.