Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Fiddlehead no. 246 arrives in January!

The winter 2011 issue of The Fiddlehead (no. 246) will be mailed out to subscribers and on the newsstands in January. Enjoy the five stories: Greg Bechtel’s “The Mysterious East (Fredericton, NB),” Marjorie Celona’s “Big Sex,” Michael Doyle’s “The Disappearing Man,” Sheila McClarty’s “Stolen,” and Shane Neilson’s “Freight.”

Turn to the poetry and read new works from fifteen poets including Jan Zwicky, Jack Hannan, Christine Lowther and Shane Rhodes. There are also reviews and Anna Cameron’s wonderful artwork, “Untitled V” graces the cover.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Train Your Brain to Create instead of Think (part 2)

  1. I’m stealing from Stephen King’s On Writing: write the first draft with the door closed and the second with the door open, which is to say realize the difference between creating and thinking. The first time around a composition does not have to be good, it has to be there. Good comes later.
    • As one of my supervisors said, “I give you permission to write absolute shit.” You can’t work with a blank page but, you can rework some good, old-fashioned textual fertilizer into something better.
    • Write whatever comes no matter how ridiculous. Remember, NO THINKING. Try for a mentality of and this happens, and this happens, and this, this, and this rather than a mentality of what happens next?
    • Tell the story YOU want to hear. Forget about what anybody else will think or feel. Please yourself. It is story-time, and you are the teller and the audience.

    Okay, that is all frame-of-mind stuff, but what about actual drills?
  2. Write for 20 minute bursts everyday—stream-of-consciousness if that is what comes. You’ll be surprised how quickly this exercise will gear up your creativity. Think of the bursts as push-ups. Today you can do one. Next week you will be able to do four. And the week after that you’ll feel like something is missing if you don’t do any. I know a professor at the University of Toronto who uses this drill to teach writing and the students say it works.
  3. Play 20 Questions if you are really stuck. Write 20 questions about your project. Keep them simple. What is his name? What are his hobbies? Why is he mad at his sister? And after you have all 20 write a simple 3 or 4 line response to each. NO STOPPING. NO THINKING. It is a great way to brainstorm and it pushes you to create as if you are under the pressure of someone else’s questions.
  4. Play 20 Questions with someone else. Make sure you choose someone you trust not to feel stupid in front of and who is patient so they won’t mind when you get irritable as the pressure to answer questions you don’t have responses to begins to annoy you. This one is my personal favorite.
  5. Safety in numbers. Buddy up and set a specific time every day. At this time you will exchange whatever you wrote that day (be it 3 lines or 3 pages) with your partner and then provide just reactionary comments like this made me laugh, or I tripped over this bit, I loved this, this was boring etc. NO THINKING!

And here I’ve provided just a couple of assignments for writing. You can obviously come up with more on your own. Set small, specific goals like write a scene with a lamp, a dog, and blue sedan. Remember, education is about drills and jumping through hoops. Most of those hoops are going to be completely arbitrary, just like lifting a dumb-bell up and down is completely arbitrary, but arbitrary hoops provide practice, and you need to practice creativity to develop it as a skill. Editing comes later. Learn to just grow a story first. You can train yourself to do that. If a creative writing teacher asks you for story after story with no change in the pattern no matter how well or poorly you do, that teacher is interested in seeing where you are as a writer. But if a teacher gives you little assignments or arbitrary drills (either regularly or in response to seeing you need some help), then that teacher is interested in teaching you to write. There is a difference. Don’t let anybody discourage you by convincing you differently.

Matt Mott
Editorial Assistant

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Train Your Brain to Create instead of Think (part 1)

I for one am getting sick and tired of being told that you can’t teach creative writing, that there is no reliable pedagogy for it, that the most you can do is provide people with a space and a time to workshop their material and allow them to get better over time.

I say codswallop.

True, you can’t teach talent and you can’t teach inspiration. And yes, the workshop—providing time and place for closed circuit feedback—is an essential component to teaching emerging writers to hone their craft. And true, the only real way to get better as a writer is to write. And to read. And to write some more. But that does not mean there is no pedagogy for the field, or, rather, that the only way to teach writing is to get people to write stories or what-have-you, pass them around, and receive comments back on what worked and what didn’t. I will defend workshopping to the nines, but frankly workshopping is only half of teaching creative writing. The golden rule to learn to write is to write but that says nothing about what to write or how to write it.

You can’t teach someone to be a good writer per se, but you can teach people, or rather train people, to regularly access the creative side of their brain. You’d think this would come eventually as you write more and more stories (however failed those stories may be), but this is not always the case.

My creative thesis (and the vast majority of my short fiction prior to it) has been kicking my ass! And after weeks of beating my head against the thesis, I finally understand why. I think too much! There is a difference between thinking and creating—a fundamental one in fact. I thought any time you engage in mental activity you are thinking. This is not true anymore than any time you are moving you are necessarily swimming. I just thought writing (the act of composing language) was simply always the same kind of writing which inevitably used thinking, mostly because years of school has taught, has trained, me to write critically, to think, or rather to make logical or symbolic connections between ideas in varying ranges of complexity, judging merits and assessing application value—how good is this and what does it do for us as a society. No wonder my fiction kept stalling out, if it ever got started in the first place. Every time I put something down I would never see it as good enough. I’d crush it before it had a chance to grow.

Thoughts like that’s lame or that’s stupid or who would want to read that would be common for me. After two or three of those babies your line of thinking … no your line of creating is shot and then the blank page will stare you down. In a staring contest, the blank page always wins. You have to build momentum, which doesn’t really happen, in my experience, when you think. Thinking is like building—a piece at a time until you have a structure that works for an essay or argument because you are not aiming, in the back of your mind, for someone to like it or identify with it. You are aiming for it to stand up against the elements of counter-argument. But when you are making something creative, you want to touch people, or anger them, or insert emotional response here. A creative piece is organic, and thus does not form one piece after the other but rather grows. If you stop the growth every five seconds and pick a leaf off, dude, your plant is going to go heels up.

What I see now is that I was editing as I went either consciously—that’s too melodramatic, Matt—or unconsciously—that’s stupid. Editing as you go is thinking. Creating should feel like the ideas aren’t even yours, like they are arriving for you from somewhere else and you are just writing them down as they come. The moment you start up with what happens next or, even worse, where do I want to go with this you aren’t creating, you are plotting, and that way there be monsters—clunky, artificial-sounding ones. Of course, this is all semantics—even while in the creation zone you have a direction you want to go with your, art, obviously but the point is that question-of-direction should never really form as actual words in your mind. It sounds very The Matrix or The Empire Strikes Backdon’t think you are, know you are—but that pseudo-leap-of-faith is the essence of creativity—don’t plan where your art will go, go where your art will go. And if you are like me, used to thinking critically rather than creating, creating something will be exhausting. I am talking major exam headache after only an hour of writing. So, we’ve got to train your brain up! Which, after a long ramble, brings us to pedagogy.

I stress again that work-shopping is essential, but that does not mean instruction is without merit. In fact, assignments (rather than just write me a story) and instructions are the other half of teaching creative writing. What is any education but a series of broken down drills to teach someone individual skills so that at some time in their life they have a cache of abilities to call upon to achieve a goal. Creativity is the same. You cannot be taught to be a good writer, but you can be taught to compose language and you can train yourself to use creativity rather than critical faculties.

Matt Mott
Editorial Assistant