Friday, December 7, 2007

Readers and Writers

Dec. 7, 2007

Fall semester is winding down at the University of South Alabama where I teach creative writing. Another group of students will be getting their master’s or bachelor’s degrees. In a world where degrees in English are not a “hot ticket” to corporate success, I’ve had many conversations with my students about where they’ll head once they leave the academic world. The answers are surprising and refreshing.
Some of my students, I have no doubt, are destined to become writers. A goodly number will even become published authors. I’m glad they know the distinction. Writers write because they love to write. They love the creation of story and characters and a place that exists only in their minds. Publication (by a legitimate publisher) is validation and a financial reward, but it isn’t the only measuring stick of talent.
There’s only one sane reason to enter this crazy writing business. I tell my students (and myself) if you can stop writing, do it. Be a plumber or a small business owner or a doctor. My students have the intelligence and abilities to become anything. But I can usually predict which ones will become writers. Not because they’re more talented, but because they cannot help themselves. They write because it is the thing that drives them. They view the world in a unique way, and they have a compulsion to share that view with an audience.
When I start a new class, I ask my students one question: Do you want an audience?
They instantly assume that there’s a right or wrong answer to this question. But like most things involving art, there isn’t right or wrong. There is only the individual “truth.” If the student is honest, this answer helps guide me in teaching him or her. A writer who wants an audience has already taken that step into the public or “commercial” market. It’s simply a matter of being honest as to how big a slice of the market a writer wants.
Do you want literary fame? Commercial success? The answer to this question requires a level of personal honestly that many writers find difficult. But writing demands honesty. Total honesty. Even honesty about ambitions and fears.
Once a student, or writer, decides that an audience is part of the package they choose, then the “rules” of publishing kick in. If a writer wants to be a bestseller, then he has to incorporate the elements of story-telling that a publisher recognizes as bestseller material.
Do I particularly like the “rules”? Absolutely not. But I write because I can’t help myself. And I accept that publishing is a business. If I want publisher X to print half a million copies of my book, then I must meet what publisher X perceives as the elements of a bestseller. Do I agree with publisher X’s perception—maybe not. But ever since Guttenberg developed the press and certain formatting criteria, mass publishing has become a partnership between writers and printers (i.e. publishers).
Some rules, such as word count, are based on physical need such as the size of the page, the shelving requirements in bookstores, the strength of the binding, the bottom line cost a publisher is willing to put into a book, things like that. Others have a much longer history. While each publisher has certain criteria, the elements of traditional story are much older.
Story is an ancient art form anchored in oral tradition. This structure, which many people misinterpret as a formula, goes back to the oral tradition and how stories captured an audience.
First of all, something has to happen to start the story. A spell is cast, a baby is stolen, a bomb is set. These inciting events pull the reader into the story through action. And then the tale unfolds, following a pattern of twists and turns that are familiar—and therefore easily accepted by the audience. Books, films, songs—each of these art forms has a long history of traditional structure.
Every generation brings artists who experiment with that traditional structure and how “story” is conveyed. This is one of my biggest challenges as a teacher. I’m a traditionalist, but I want to encourage and work with writers who are experimenting. To guide them without constraining their enthusiasm and originality.
I’ve done my best for this class, and I was paid the highest compliment by one of my students. He told me that he’d become a better reader. “I have a more critical standard. I expect more from a book, and I appreciate and enjoy the hard work and talent that goes into a good book so much more.”
While I teach writing, I also teach reading. When a student begins to read with intelligence and appreciation, I know I’ve succeeded on many levels. This is an educated person. One who can enter any field and succeed. Writing may be the goal, but reading is the reward.
In a world where technology and business degrees are the valued and sought after benchmark of a college education, liberal arts is often underappreciated and neglected. It’s viewed as a degree with “limited possibilities.” That this is backwards goes without my saying it. When a student has been educated to read, to really read and comprehend, this is a person with unlimited potential.
Whether my students break publishing records or write for the satisfaction of self-expression, they have been changed forever by learning to write. Yes, even though it astounds me that I’ve been part of this remarkable process, I’ve participated in a remarkable process—the creation of educated individuals.

Carolyn Haines has three new books out this year, and a short story included in the NYT bestselling anthology Many Bloody Returns.
Fever Moon, (February 2007) was a Booksense Notable book. Revenant, a thriller set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast pre-Katrina, was released in September by MIRA. Ham Bones, the seventh book in the popular Mississippi Delta Mystery series, was released by Kensington in July. The series will continue next summer with Wishbones.
Haines is a recipient of an Alabama Council on the Arts Fellowship. She is an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama. She shares her home with 8 horses, 8 cats, and 5 dogs and urges all pet owners to spay and neuter.
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The Pulpwood Queen said...

Smartest thing I have ever read and I read ALOT! No wonder I love you and your books so much! You are a REAL teacher as you also teach reading! BRAVA! BRAVA!
Tiara wearing and book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs

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