Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Writing Like an Undergraduate

When I show up to teach my fiction workshop these days, I can hear the conversation buzz from my classroom several doors down. And fortunately, the hubbub doesn’t go silent when I walk in. I expect and promote lively discussion, and my students don’t let me down. They dive right into most any topic I bring up—they ponder the fate of the written word in the Kindle age, detail the structure of a favorite fairy tale, give ideas for a better ending for a fellow student’s story. Especially, here on the cusp of spring, they nearly vibrate with energy.

This is one of the things I like best about teaching undergraduates – all the energy (and maybe, hormones) that ricochets through the classroom. If I’m lucky, I’m in the path of some of these laser beams—and on the best days, I am able to get my students to channel all that good stuff into their work.

We talk a lot about the process of writing—that is, how exactly we can get ourselves to sit down in a chair and write—especially when there are video games, roommates, Facebook, beer pong, chemistry homework, love interests, and well, spring --calling us to abandon our posts. I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice of this subject. Though my list of distractions is different (I won’t be playing beer pong), I surely let life call me away from my work. I don’t have the energy of an undergraduate, but I often squander the energy I do have. I tell my students that they need to think of the ups and downs of their lives as messy, fertile loam—opportunities to feel something, to experience something vital—something they can use. I tell that that there’s no better time to sit down and write a story than when they’re really mad. Use that, I say, write about a character who is mad as hell.

I am not very good at taking my own advice. I think that I often write like the grownup I have become—the rational being that takes her vitamins, does her laundry, and wouldn’t think of embarking on a trip without a hotel reservation.
Maybe it’s time that I start writing like an undergraduate.

This does not mean that I will now begin to write stories involving vampires and tattoos –and resolve plot issues with cell phone calls. Neither, rest assured, will I write about my first sexual encounter. However, I do think I could learn a thing or two from my students –those who will try to write a story about wolves in second person, those who will create a whole world based on steam technology, or those who will event a new language for a unknown planet in a novel la begun at 11 pm the night before its due. Hideous failures, probably, all these attempts. But of course, isn’t that where really good writing begins—with failure?

Next week, while my young students run off to the beach on spring break with $50 and no thought of where they will stay, I am going to borrow their energy, I am going to steal their verve. I am going to write just exactly as if I can easily cook up a whole new planet –plot, chapter and verse—and tie if all together before the sun comes up. Dude.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is Her children have forbidden her ever to use the word, "dude."


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Anonymous said...

I like to riff write sometimes when I want to edit a passage that sounds too stiff. Just let stuff fly instead of laboring over every word.

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