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Saturday, March 10, 2018

How Not To Be a "Formula" Writer

If Jack Kerouac tried today to submit his manuscript of On the Road, he would have a hard time getting it past many editors. Publishers are not as willing today to take risks. Jack likely would have had to self-publish, or find some tiny indie publisher who thought his story was worthy enough to give it a shot. 

There are many critics (whatever they are, whoever they are) who believe On the Road was not a well-written book. That it lacked discipline or convention. But my point is not whether On the Road was a great book. That's debatable and subjective. There is no denying its impact, however. And no denying it was not the kind of book that had come before.

And so with this, I wonder, why do so many workshops, independent or publishing house editors want writers to stick to the formula, the long-held rules, the conventional tenets of writing? Stay with a certain approach, write like this. Are there art curators who tell painters they must create their work in a certain way, a particular form, or adhere to a conventional process, like every other painter. No, of course not. Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" broke all the rules of conventional rock or pop on the radio. It had far too many verses. And it was too long. Six minutes and 13 seconds. The average length of a song on the radio at that time was under three minutes. Today, songwriters will tell you "Like a Roling Stone" may be the best pop/rock song ever written. 

Kerouac, like Dylan creating music, did not create the story of On the Road in the traditional way. He did not adhere to the "formula" writing that was expected. And of course, Kerouac is not the only writer to push away convention. I use his work only as one example of how many facilitators at workshops, MFA programs, and writing retreats ask participants to model a pattern. 

This is what I see and hear and read far too much:

1. Always start your story with action.
2. Show don't tell. 
3. Write your story in a three-act structure. 
4. Build a crisis and come to a clear resolution. 

These "rules" of creative writing are all over the internet, in the workshop brochures, in the lesson plans of higher-ed programs, especially continuing-ed programs. The majority of the "tips" out there include these ideas. 

"Beware of advice. . .even this." —Carl Sandburg

There is something to these so-called rules, there is truth in each one, to some extent. But what has happened, in my estimation, is that we are producing a lot work that is similar, the same, in a particular formula. Writing that is almost paint-by-number, writing that is put together with an instruction manual, as if Ikea were running a writing workshop. 

I do not write this as an expert, for there is no such thing. And it would help if we are reminded of this. There are masters of the craft, of storytelling, of literature, but "expert" implies that he/she has all the answers to your writing woes. They don't. They won't. Don't expect them to. 

Certainly, as a reader, you may like a formula story, or a conventional structure, or like lots of dialogue or not, or wish the writer would stop "telling" so much and "show" more. (Whatever that means. There are so many schools of thought about what this actually means.) And ultimately, it is the reader who is the critic, the last reviewer. 

Some would argue that self-publishing has partly created this "formula" approach. So you want to be published? Do these four things. And some "real writers" believe literature has been dumbed-down because there are no longer strict gatekeepers. The music industry "experts" said the same thing when small labels began to sprout in the early days of Indie Rock. And of course, we have all read the stories of how many great writers of the past had once self-published: Zane Grey, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot. I could go on and on. 

"We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master." —Ernest Hemingway

My base discipline is journalism. Broadcast, mainly. But my memoirs and fiction are part of my creative life. They fuel the energy. And in the end, I write for me. Yes, of course, I want to the reader to enjoy, to find connections: I want the story to resonate. But, and this may sound selfish, I first must satisfy myself. Many writers have said the same. And it might be that what satisfies me is not formula, is not of the conventional wisdom. This means, of course, that some may dislike my work. That's okay. I accept. But I'll take that over developing work that fits in a neat little box. 

"Style is to forget all styles." —Jules Renard

I've been lucky enough to have publishers want my work. Are the Big Five scrambling for my manuscripts? No, they are not. But that, too, is okay. Would I want them to? Sure. But obtaining their acceptance is not why I write. 

So, if you want to abandon formula and find beauty in your words simply because they are yours, then forget, at least partially, what you have been "taught" and write what is resting on your soul and in your heart, and don't look back. 

"And if from this turn inwards, from this submersion into your own world, there come verses, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. . .a work of art is good if it has risen out of necessity." —Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Generous Writer

I was listening the other day to one of my favorite radio shows, Sound Opinions, with Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis. In this episode, they were interviewing music producer, Don Was, who has worked with Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones. Was talked about working with what he called "generous" musicians, musicians who played from the heart, who were not quick to show-off what might be his/her flashy technical prowess. "There were two kinds of music,"Was said. "Generous music and "selfish music." "Selfish" is someone standing up with his guitar playing "a thousand notes a second." Basically, all he is saying was "look at what I can do." It is like "watching an acrobat." He must have "practiced a lot." But this music doesn't "impact your life." One can appreciate the skill. On the other hand, "generous music" comes from people who "spill their guts" and then have the ability and courage to share it with strangers. "Generous music" transcends any style or genre.

Was was right. But I wonder if he knew he was not only talking about musicians, but writers, too.

What is a generous writer? 

The generous writer doesn't spend his time trying to craft the acrobatic sentence. That's what a selfish writer does. "Look at what I can do," he says. Certainly nothing wrong with a well-crafted sentence. But what have some of our most revered storytellers said? Hemingway: "Write one true sentence." Kerouac said, "Don't count syllables." When talking about poetry, Kerouac said to keep it "simple and free of poetic trickery." "One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple," he wrote in The Dharma Bums.

Are you a generous writer?

Do you keep it simple where you can? Do you believe opening your heart, (in memoir or fiction or personal essay), is more important than being praised for your technically perfect grammar? Are you authentic to your prose? Are you true to your story? You don't make your story sweeter than it is. You don't make it more troubling than it is. Will the reader discover your soul in your writing? Do you reflect a shared humanity? Do you believe in the power of words?

Do you believe your words have that power?

Generosity comes in many ways, and being a generous artist comes in different forms. But the spirit of generosity comes from one thing—something deep inside. William Wordsworth wrote in his poem, The Prelude: "Fill your paper with the breathings of the heart." I'm not sure there is any better piece of advice. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Walks With Sam

I took a long walk the other day. Before the snow melted, before it was washed away by warmer weather and rain. My dog, Sam, and I set out for a winter hike. It was a couple of miles long, long enough to re-balance. The beauty of a long walk is just that, a matter of re-balance.

I'm also working on a new novel, a work-in-progress, based on a man who tries to re-balance his life through daily walks with his dog. The people he meets, the intersection of thought and movement of feet, the aloneness, the surge of endorphins all play a part in his redemption. But so does the dog, the dog's intuition and the power of unfaltering love. 

The morning was gray, but the snow gave it light. There were tracks everywhere. People tracks, dog tracks, tracks I did not recognize. Little feet had scampered to or from something in the hours before dawn. 

In the park about a mile from home, the village had fenced off a hill to give children a safe place to sled. The snow was packed and icy. But there was plenty of evidence that it had been put to good use.

I wore my knee high rubber boots, a poor man's Wellingtons or Wellies, as they are affectionately called. It was damp, slushy, and muddy in places. The boots allowed me to walk with Sam in the park's most water-swollen spots. I unhooked Sam's leash and let her run and romp. She made circles around me and around the icy pond. She ate snow. It was not easy to get her back on the leash. No dog wants to be tethered. 
It was early enough that few people were outside. Not even the early, dedicated joggers or the reliable dog walkers. Just me. Just Sam. And we liked it that way. There was solace in the silence, a quiet the snow had helped to recreate. And I could think. Consider the place where I walked, and allow my mind to wander, to reconnect with the world. Not the world of the daily news, the Trump chatter, or how spring training was progressing. But the natural world, the world out in the open.

As I write this, Sam is stretched out at my feet on the hardwood floor. She does not know that we are heading out again this morning. She does not know that I will again slip on my "Wellies" and tramp my way around the neighborhood in the light rain that falls this morning. She does not know that I just might let her off the leash again, to jump and splash in the mud and the puddles. She doesn't know that we are again about to re-balance in the world outside, in the grayness of a February morning, but also in the light of a new day. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Learning to Write

I'm a teacher, a journalist, a broadcaster, and an author. I am not just one of these things, I am all of them. I'm also a guitarist who occasionally writes songs. I am a father, a husband, and a friend. I try to be as good as one can hope to be at all of them. There are occasions I fail. Sometimes fail miserably. I'm not perfect. But I do know this. I have learned much along the way. And I am better, I believe, at every one of these parts of me—these aspects of myself—than I was the day before. It's a matter of incremental steps.

I could write much about this notion of growth when it comes to fatherhood or being a good marriage partner, I'm certain of this. That's probably a different blog post or better left for the therapist's office. So, what I want to write about instead is writing and growing as a writer. 

I have published six books. The sixth coming out this April. I have a memoir manuscript being shopped around now that I'm proud of and feel strongly about. It's received some good interest from potential publishers. We'll see where it goes. I'm also working on a new novel—very early stages—and I am determined for it to be the best writing I've done. For certain, I know I write this now NOT because I want to reveal to you all my accomplishments or want you to think how special this guy is, how talented, how wonderful. I write this because I want you, the reader, and all the other writers out there to know, even after all the writing and work I've done, and being humbled by all the wonderful writers in Chicago, I still believe I have not yet written my best book.

When I go back and re-read my earlier works, I question nearly every word. I read much that I would now change, re-write, massage, tweak. Not because I think it is bad or unworthy, but rather because I am not the same writer I was when I wrote those earlier books. Hopefully, I'm better somehow, have more insight, more skill, and not just technically or as a crafter of words, but more skill as a storyteller with something worthy to share. This said, my desires are not truly about being better, but rather about whether I have grown. Grown in many ways. Grown as a person, a father, a husband and a writer, with all of these "growths" contributing to the writer in me. 

Writers read a lot. I read a lot. Tons. My wife laughs at the number of books that come in the mail. I admire so many writers. Especially some wonderful contemporary writers in Chicago. I could name them, but I would miss many, and I don't want to do that. If you follow the literary scene in Chicago, you know their names. And others you may not know, under the radar writers with much to say. They are extremely talented. I read their work and I shudder. Could I ever write that well? But then again, I know that I do write well. I wouldn't still be doing this, have another novel coming out in the spring; I wouldn't have publishers interested in new work or have been humbled and honored by the awards I have won. Not the National Book Award (Seriously?), or the Nobel (LOL), but awards of value and recognition—Chicago Writers Assocaiton Award, honored at the Chicago LIbrary Foundation's Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, the Royal Dragonflly, The Eric Hoffer Prize.

So why am I writing all this? To pump myself up, as writers often need to do? No. I write this to acknowledge that writing is a journey. It is not about perfection. I write this in the belief that the art of the written word is a moving target. Art in all forms is much the same. Painters change and reinvent themselves and their work. Songwriters do it, too. They grow into new artists with something new to offer. Think of the Beatles. Is the album Revolver better or just different from Abbey Road? And when the surviving members listen to those old records, do they wish they could change a lyric, a harmony, a note, alter the way it was produced? Yes, they do think that sometimes. McCartney has said so much. But their work is what is for the time that it was created, the time along an artist's growth journey, and that's what it should be. 

I will continue to grow. And I hope, continue to find new ways to develop for me and for those who read what I write. And I will move forward and try not to overly critique every word, every theme, or plot—vague or not—and try never to question what I am. For at least in part, I am a writer. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Submit Your Work

Every single time.

Students, workshop attendees, friends who want to write all say the same thing: "I have this material, and I think it's pretty good, but it probably isn't, but I don't know, and I'm afraid to send it out, and so it sits in a file on my computer."


Other writers,  beginning and accomplished, say: "I have some work that might fit for that, but no, it's not good enough, or it needs more work, or...or...or..."

Putting your work out there as an artist—any kind of artist—is an act of courage. Beginners and veterans alike struggle with self-doubt, concerns about whether something is perfect, whether it is finished. Here's the truth: It's never perfect and it's never finished. Art never is.

If you wait for perfection, you'll never share it. And art is not art if it is not shared.

I have a writer colleague, who will go nameless, who said once during a bookstore event we were sharing, that when she is finally finished with a manuscript, she is certain it is exactly how she wants it. Every little corner of it. That is probably true. She's an excellent writer. But I would argue that she is only finished with it, that is only perfect, at that very place and time. At that very moment. In time—weeks, months, years, or decades—she will look back at that work—even a published work—and see something she wished she had done differently. I guarantee it.

There is not one piece of writing—published books, short stories, essays, journalism—that I have "finished" that at some point in the future I have not wanted to adjust, change, rearrange. A word here. A sentence there.

Perfection, like inspiration, is elusive.

And that fact brings me to this:


The Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, Illinois is open for short story submissions. The HEMINGWAY SHORTS contest is all-inclusive—beginners, veterans, writers of all types are encouraged to offer their work. And one of them should be you. Write no more than 1500 words and submit for a chance at publication and a grand prize of $500.

Here's the link to do just that: Submit—Hemingway Shorts

Put your work out there. Make it the best you can, but shun perfection. You can tweak and edit and rework ad nauseum. Just let it go. It will do you good.

Art must be shared.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

On Winter Writing

Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way. — Ray Bradbury.

Last night left a dusting of snow on this morning of dim light and colorless sky. The temperatures were in the 50s yesterday. Today, we'll get no better than 34 degrees. I had to turn on the heater inside the writer shed an hour early to be sure it would be tolerable to remain inside for a few hours of navigating my way around what I've been writing. Still, there's beauty in the harsh air and the bleakness of a late January day. It's the shades of gray, the hues of white and black, and just enough chill in the air to remind you that we have some time to go before the newness of a spring. This is what I might label as the time of anticipatory despair. I predict more winter gloom before the light of a new season.

And this is exactly how I feel creatively.

It's not unusual. It's the norm. Anyone who creates feels this. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Is this any good? Is anything I've ever done any good? Will I write myself out of a cold season into a warm one? I've had a sliver of success with my writing. A few awards. Relatively good reviews. But it's not about the outside accolades; it's about the inside accolades. 

Don't worry. This is not going to be some navel-gazing piece about artistic self-doubt. How trite. Pathetic. Boring. Instead, this is about how this sort of gloom, this kind of mini despair, is useful. Even needed. To get to the spring, one must endure winter and all its cold and seclusion and all those shades of gray. Just below the snow that has settled on the barren branches are the yet unseen buds of seasonal blooms. So, the writer puts on his heaviest boots, his thickest coat, his densest wool cap and trudges forth because he knows that if he can hike his way through the weather, knowing there is something good on the other side, he will discover some kind of art. He's been here before. He's questioned it all before. But he knows seasons change. They always do. He knows he's doing what he can. He knows there's something down there below the surface, under the snow.

Three hours behind the walls of the writer shed produced 2,464 words today. Time and space will let me know if any of them are any good.

Monday, January 15, 2018


I can't stop myself from taking notes. While having morning coffee, I jot things down in the little notebook that I carry with me most days; I send myself cryptic comments in a text or email when all I have is the phone. I talk through my thoughts—out loud—when I'm driving the dog to PetSmart to give her a bath and write one-word-remembrances on an old business card I find in the car's cupholder. And then, at some point, usually early in the morning unless it is bitterly cold—temperatures below 20-degrees—I head to the writing shed and get to work. If not, then to a local coffee shop.

I'm calling this entire process, this never-ending work of writing. #dayofwriting. 

Every writer I know keeps notes, is always thinking of writing, is hearing dialogue at a grocery store checkout and stealing moments from it. A well-known Chicago writer recently revealed at a reading that she got the title of her collection of stories while in the shower. Or was it while washing her hair? Anyway, you get the idea. Writing is...all the time. It's #dayofwriting. In reality, it's #nightofwriting, too. Dreams come to us and we awaken, searching for our notebooks to write it all down. 

Writing is a 24-hour gig. Not that it's digging latrines or delicate brain surgery. Not that it requires the bravery of a soldier or policeman; not that it employs the smarts of an MIT mathematician. But our heads are always churning, thinking, developing, observing, sensing, shaping, massaging. This is not a complaint or the rant of a look-how-special-we-tortured-artists-are writer. No, it's only a clarification of the work.

Let me explain. 

When I've conducted readings or workshops, I am almost always asked this question: When do you write?

I default to this answer: I'm a morning writer, mostly. I like early in the day. Can't write for more than a few hours at a time. I take a break and sometimes I get back at it later.  

But that's only the actual writing, the physical putting fingers on computer keys and trying to type out something that makes sense. The real answer to "When do you write?" is this: Every single moment of every single day. It's all the notetaking, the research, the staring into the sky, the walks around the neighborhood, the meeting at the college where I work when I should be thinking about curriculum and I'm instead wondering what my character is supposed to say in that critical scene when his father dies. The real work is being done between tiny slivers of time when I am doing something else. 


So, with this, I thought it would be fun, on a semi-regular basis, to post a video, a photo, a thought with the hashtag #dayofwriting, and document, for lack of a better word, the writing "process." Not always, but now and then, when I'm doing the work—the physical typing or just talking through something, daydreaming or hurriedly jotting down a nugget of information—I will share it at #dayofwriting on social media—Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. I'm currently trying to flush out a manuscript, so it's a good time—or maybe a bad time—to embark on this little exercise.

We'll see. Happy #dayofwriting.