Category Archives: True Stories

Anecdotes from my past and present.

Meaner than a junkyard… writing teacher?

Posted on May 15, 2017 by

One of the things that is sometimes debated within various pockets of the literary community is the question of whether writing, (or presumably, by extension, any art) can be taught. Though many authors currently practice workshopping in some form, though a good number of us have availed ourselves of night classes, MFAs, opportunities like Viable Paradise or Alpha, and certificate programs like the one I teach at, at UCLA, there are also those who believe teaching writing creates cookie-cutter work.

There are definitely writers who are ill-suited to workshops, and who’ll generally do better if they bash along on their own. But like all good kernels of thought, it’s possible to get dogmatic about this down with teaching proposition, to argue that a workshop or a class will inevitably ruin new talent by crushing their creativity into some kind of rigid publishing mold.

Naturally, I disagree. (As a general principle, I disagree with anything that presumes that one size fits–or fails–all.)

Now, of course, I would take issue with this, wouldn’t I? I went to Clarion West, after all, and my wife Kelly Robson attended Taos Toolbox. And I do teach, a lot, not only at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program but in person at UTSC. My bread is entirely covered in student butter. (And I think Kelly’s many award nominations since she began to sell short fiction constitute a powerful argument, in their own right, that workshops can be a force for good!)

Do I think writing can be taught? Obviously. Do I think everything about writing can be taught?

No Way!

With the arts, you not a physics professor laying out a formula, some cut-and-dried procedure for which there is one satisfactory answer. You’re not showing someone how to paint the perfect yellow line down the middle of a strip of road, or fly an airplane without making it go kersplat, or performing open heart surgery. The arts are more fungible. For every so-called rule, there’s at least one fantastic book or story that makes said rule a hilarious joke, a baffled wide-eyed “But!” with cream pie dripping down their face.
So what is teaching writing like?

One of my favorite analogies for the teaching of writing is that it’s a bit like taking a bunch of people to a junkyard, a vast expanse of crushed metal and random parts, oil and cogs and wheels, looming in creaky, ominous, teetering piles.

In a junkyard, at first glance, much of what you see is pretty familiar: busted windshields, steering wheels, coveralls, crowbars, and the smell of paint. Things may be mixed and jumbled, but a gas tank’s a gas tank. Or is that… an oil pan?

Teaching writing is like taking students out to this stretch of familiar parts, and saying: “Okay, you all know what a car is. Now build one.”

They go off. They work at it. Every now and then someone may bring me back a door, or part of an engine, and ask where they should put it. If they do, I’m only to happy to suggest moving a windshield wiper or adding a muffler. But essentially once the task is set, each writer is off, isolated, in their own corner of the wrecking yard, fusing things together into stories, clanking away and hoping it works.

Then, finally, we get to the point where everyone’s made something and the workshop can begin.

Almost all of us have been in more motor vehicles than we could possibly count. How would you even guesstimate? Cars are ubiquitous, less familiar than your skin, but not by that much. You’ve been strapped in baby seats. Drunk and headed home in smelly taxicabs. Alone with a podcast on your nightly two-hour commute. You’ve been on road trips in rentals, trapped on tour buses, and on tenterhooks, possibly, at your driver’s exam.

How many of us could assemble a car out of parts?

In this analogy, the first thing I ask when I see the cobbled-together creations of my students is a pretty simple question: “Does it run?”

If a story doesn’t go, if it can’t carry a reader from some point A to another point B, the author’s generally got to go back to the scrapheap for more or different pieces.

This is an important element of how I think about fiction in all my roles, as a reader, a teacher, an editor, and especially as a writer. I want to create things that are exciting, fuel-efficient, and stunningly beautiful. But none of that matters until the story can move someone. If it can’t, it might as well be a hunk of metal up on blocks in someone’s yard. No matter how great the paintjob, it’s of limited use.

If a story runs–even if it can only cough its way like an ill-used jalopy, to the corner of Flash Fiction Avenue and Finished Street–then I as a coach and the whole workshop group gets to move onto making it run better.

And when it runs pretty well? Then you can really drill into the aesthetics: “Any chance you’d care to make it more attractive and comfortable for the passengers?”

(One of the things that is fun about this particular analogy is that process of translating workshop critique into car talk.)

  • “Right now the seats have a funny smell and the ride is really bumpy.”
  • “I know POV lives under the hood, but just because you can’t usually see it doesn’t mean you don’t need one.”
  • “After the adultery scene, it just kinda runs out of gas.”

Stories and written language surround us, just as cars do. They travel, as cars do. And what the car metaphor gives me is an ability to talk about the building process—to teach via metaphor. You can talk about getting a vehicle up to speed, about skidding out of a turn, about the flashy exterior of a pretty sports car. Oddly, this can sometimes make more sense than “Show, don’t tell.”

Now actual cars do have a right answer, when you’re building them. It would be ludicrous to expect mechanics to learn to assemble them from trial and error.

But what about the part you can’t teach?

I’m an expert, on stories. I can see if they run. I can say if the tires look good and the propeller on top is, probably, a bit too much. But because each writer makes their own story from the ground up, every time, out of a glorious randomosity of bits of wrecked dream, nuggets of grudge, precious hoarded research, glimmers of genius and cobweb threads of memory, the final path to making any tale roadworthy isn’t ever going to be a case of me giving you the One True Answer. Art is not Newtonian physics, or fixing Chevy Cavaliers. I may think that propeller I mentioned, above, has to go. Meanwhile the author’s gut’s is saying “We just need another one, on the bottom. It needs to be made of uranium.”

Somewhere, within that gap between my “That’s not gonna take a reader anywhere!” And their “The propeller is non-negotiable,” is the stuff that can’t be taught. That’s the point where the author has to slink back into the junkyard, wrench at the ready, in search of the pieces to make it fit.


About this post: There used to be a link on my now-defunct Livejournal to one of my photographs–a picture of a broken traffic light–along with some musings about the nature of teaching creative writing. I called it “the car metaphor essay,” and linked to it often. It contained some handy ideas, but it was also little more than a sketch of the core concept. This new essay attempts to adds a real engine and some new paint to the thing.

A few shots from the U of T

Posted on May 10, 2017 by

This is one of those experimental posts that comes of the Internet having improved itself without my permission. It used to do a thing with Flickr that I quite liked, and I’m seeing what it does now. To which end: some pics of one of our gorgeous local campuses.

University of Toronto

Stark, simple, infinite: Sarah Gailey Inksplains her #tattoos @gaileyfrey

Posted on April 26, 2017 by

Hugo and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and the Boston Globe, and she is a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. Her most recent fiction credits include Mothership Zeta, Fireside Fiction, and the Speculative Bookshop Anthology. Her debut novella, River of Teeth, comes out in May 2017. She has a novel forthcoming from Tor Books in Spring 2019. Gailey lives in beautiful Oakland, California with her husband and two scrappy dogs. You can find links to her work at www.sarahgailey.com; find her on social media @gaileyfrey.

The first time I met Chamuco, I took my shirt off and he traced the outline of my back onto a sheet of paper and we talked about the shape of the universe. The design I wanted was stark, simple, and infinite.

Everyone wants to know what it is and what it means. The amount of explaining I do largely depends on who is asking.

Random guy at a festival who grabs me by the shoulder so his friend can take a photograph of my back gets “not your fucking business.”

Stranger at a con who asks politely, interrupting a conversation I’m having with a friend gets “it’s a tree.”

Casual acquaintance gets “it’s tree roots.”

Friend who I dearly love and who has just purchased me my third glass of champagne gets this:

Dendritic patterning is a motif that is already intrinsic to my body. It’s the pattern that’s found in neurons, and lungs, and blood vessels. It’s also the pattern that’s in tree branches, and lightning, and river deltas. It represents my faith. It represents the way that my past connects to my future. It represents the infinite smallness and infinite largeness of everything I am and everything I do. It represents all the terrible things in my life, and the way all of those terrible things came together to point to a path that I’m glad to be on, and the way all of those things will eventually prove to be small in the great scope and scale of my life.

The first time I met Chamuco, I told him what I wanted, and he responded with a sketch that filled the top third of my back. The session took four and a half hours. Chamuco started at the bottom and worked his way up. I braced my arms against the back of a plastic-wrap-covered office chair and told him about my life as he worked. At the very top of the piece, he shaved off part of my hair with a straight razor. The tattoo needle made my skull vibrate so hard that my vision blurred, and I saw what pain feels like.

When I came back, Chamuco put an octopus on my thigh.

I trusted him by then. I trusted him so much that I indicated a span of flesh ranging from the top of my pelvis to the top of my knee, and I said “put an octopus there, whatever you want.” Chamuco was pretty excited — it turns out he’d spent days and nights at the Monterey Bay Aquarium studying the way tentacled creatures move. He gave me my second tattoo in another 4-hour session.

 

I didn’t come back again for five years or so. I’d gotten a lot of skin covered in a short time. I didn’t want anything else yet. I sent friends and family to Chamuco, and I kept up with him on social media, and I followed his artistic career as much as I could. It felt like a shorter time than it really was.

When I came back, I wanted my upper arms covered. They had scars on them, and they embarrassed me in that way that things only you ever notice can be embarrassing.

“What do you want?” he asked me, after we caught up a little.

“White ink,” I said. I liked the way it looked, and I liked how it would make my scars blend in. “Something that will go with my back piece. Whatever you want.”

I was wearing a strapless dress, and I rolled it down so that Chamuco could see my back piece. I stood with my arms outstretched as he drew on my skin, freehand, with a sharpie. I looked in the mirror at the curling, lacy wings he was applying to my shoulders and upper arms, and I smiled. I asked for one small adjustment — a curl where there was a straight line — and within a couple of hours the filigree was permanent.

I came back a week later for touch-ups on my back and thigh, and I realized how good I had it — that I could come to someone and ask them for something that would be on my skin forever, and I never once had to worry about whether or not I’d love it. Chamuco’s additions make me feel like art. When River of Teeth comes out in May, I’ll be sporting a new piece — a blood-spattered water hyacinth. I won’t know what it looks like until it’s finished. I won’t know what he has planned for me until it’s done — but I know it’ll be good.

It always is, in the end.


About this post: Inksplanations (and variations thereon) is the name for a series of short interviews with a number of genre writers about their tattoos. Why they got them, what they mean, how getting ink did or didn’t change them–any and all of these topics are fair game. What drives a literary artist to literally become canvas for an image or epigram? Did they get what they were seeking? I wanted to know, especially after I got my 2016 poppies from Toronto artist Lorena Lorenzo at Blackline Studio, and so I did what any curious writer would do. I asked.

Swingin’ into spring cleaning, starting with the internets

Posted on April 18, 2017 by

I dictated the draft of this post last night, into my phone, from a comfy seat on the shores of Lake Ontario. I had to pass a few thousand hockey fans to get here; I had not realized a playoff game was happening tonight, but the crowds were identically dressed, good tempered, and very, very huge.

It was worth swimming against the throngs. I ended up looking at calm water and listening to the shriek of a million seagulls and red-winged blackbirds. The sun was still up as it approached 7 o’clock and people were strolling around enjoying the tail end of what was a glorious day. There was even a sparrow mooching at my feet, though I had nothing to offer him.

In unrelated news, I killed the Planetalyx livejournal this week. I had not been using it much anymore, but was still exporting this blog out to it, as I do to Facebook, Goodreads, and a few other bits of online real estate. The recent changes to the LJ terms of service and the explicit queer hatred bundled therein were, as I’m sure you can imagine, last straws.

Caboose of the Whimsically Tardy 2016 Reading List

Posted on March 22, 2017 by

On Monday I posted a rundown on all of my 2016 reading except new-to-me books: the student projects, rereads, short fiction, first chapters, you name it. Today, I give you the things I read from cover to cover.

One of the great things about being a writer is that you sometimes get to see advance copies of books, and I got to look at a few such things, some of which are out now, some of which are coming soon.

They were amazing, and you will love them!

Crossroads of Canopy: Book One in the Titan’s Forest Trilogy, by Thoraiya Dyer
And Carry a Big Stick, by S.M. Stirling (March 2018)
Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren
All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, by James Alan Gardner

Just as wonderful, but slightly less hot off the presses…

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, by Dan Jaher
VN, by Madeline Ashby
Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection, by Kate Beaton
The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant
The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed, by John Vaillant
Enter, Night, by Michael Rowe
Crosstalk, by Connie Willis (read my Tor.com review here!)
Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case on the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873, by J. Dennis Robinson
Cloudbound, by Fran Wilde
A Feast of Sorrows, by Angela Slatter (read my Tor.com review here! Also, check out this cover.)
The Trespasser, by Tana French
The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet, by Molly Sauter.
Company Town, by Madeline Ashby
This was my reading year! And 2016 being in the rear view, perhaps I’ll ask: How has yours been so far?
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