You Can’t Teach Writing

You can’t teach writing. So why even bother going for a degree in it, or to any workshops or conferences at all?

Because you can’t teach writing to people who don’t love it, who don’t have any talent for it, who don’t want to lose themselves in it every time they set a pencil to paper. And for those talented writers willing to live and die by their pen, you can refine them, shape them, mold them, guide them. I’m going to use the super-cliche “diamond in the rough”. Because that’s what you do in writing courses–you help those with potential reach a fuller potential.

And perhaps, even more importantly than all that, you give these fledgling writers a community they can lean on. And friends they can go out with and grab a drink or two. Friends they can bounce ideas off of and refine. Friends who support you every step of the way.

To my friends:

To all my friends, who inspire me always:

Sahar A., Gwen L., Mina R., Jamelle J., Becky H., Will R., Kariana R., Ryan L., Will R., Natasha G., Paul Y., Catrina M., Rachel K., Allie M., Mika K., Natasha S., Andrew H., James D., Lauren F., Mary D., Dennis L-C., Steve B., Pial H., Rebecca O., Tylar P., Jenny L., Danielle M., Julie R., Hannah S., Brian E., Sara M., Elena C., Daniel H., Johnathan N., Alina D., Tania S., April D., Leelah M., Anthony M., Emily K., Osmond A., Alex C., Caitlin F., Jackie Y., Elizabeth F., David V., Carolyn C., Katie V., Paul F., Shannon N., Katie M., Sarah K., Brianna B., Frederik B., Justin C., Rose Q., Amy L., Kaisa D., Janet C., Tifany M., Tammy H.

(Hopefully I didn’t miss anyone)

Local San Diego: 2012 UCSD MFA Graduates Read

UCSD Presents its 2012 Graduating MFA Literature Class, 5/16/12

It’s always lovely to hear talented new artists. It makes me feel hopeful for them, wondering when we’ll see their books out on the shelf. An MFA is something I’m strongly considering for myself in the future. Many of these MFA graduates were my TA’s or friends.

I’ve included a link to the sound recording here. At the time of writing, it still is not up. UCSD records all of its writing series, but I usually don’t link back because they are published authors. At the moment, the work of these MFA grads exists nowhere else. I jotted down some thoughts during the reading and posted them below. Take a listen and let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessments.

Amy Forrest:
Amy read some excerpts from her novel project. I found her writing to be very conversational and correct. It’s not showing, it’s not trying to make you oohh and aahh, but is involved in communication. The parts of the text she read were very straightforward and precise. It’s almost Hemingway-esque.

Ryan Luz:
Ryan was my TA for introductory poetry and he’s an awesome writer and all around cool guy. Check out his blog here. Ryan has a particular gift for seeing the beauty in the tiniest things, in noticing all the details of his world. In one of the poems he read, he described a spider spinning a web on a bike, making ” a tiny anchor in the wind”. His poems are short and compact, which I enjoy. I enjoy writing poetry that way as well, because my other writing occupation is fiction. And I enjoy the way both forms can be so far form each other in form and length, but still beautiful. Ryan posts a ton of poems up on his blog. He’s also a photographer, musician, and makes videos.

Kara Ford-Martinez:
Kara was my TA for introductory fiction and later, my peer in a grad level film studies course I took. Kara read some pieces from her project, which is a collection of intertwined stories. Her fiction is also straightforward and conversational, very much in the contemporary mode. But there’s something sad and melancholic about it. The words express a strong desire for reminiscing. It could be just the work she read, but I think it’s more of her style. There’s a deep poetic longing underneath it all.

Lester O’Connor:
If I could describe Lester’s work in one word, it would be “packed”. He’s very much like Gabriel Garcia Marquez in that way. He notices everything and leaves nothing untouched. His sentences are well-constructed and filled to the brim with beautiful diction. It almost sounds like a flarf construction, but I don’t think it is. Or else it’s incredibly well-curated. His work is rich and deep and beautiful. I imagine if you were reading Lester’s work, you’d read it a few pages at a time, in order to fully digest the intense beauty of it.

Nikolai Beope:
Nikolai shared some of his fiction. Right away, I noticed his work as being a bit darker and grittier than the previous speakers. It came across as tough and unapologetic, precisely the attitude of the characters whose story he was relating. He displays a real talent for finding beauty in the unbeautiful. His work also included some sections of what came out as spoken word/rap, though I think it’s supposed to be some other type of art form that I missed the reference to. Either way, his work showed great versatility.

K. Lorraine Graham:
Lorraine seemed to be the most interested in experimenting with form and language in her poetry. She also makes use of methodology as a means to create art. Her work is very juxtaposed: things fit together precisely because they don’t. Her writing is extremely emotional and comes across that way, as a torrent of feeling. In the manuscript she read from, I didn’t so much get a sense of a theme binding together the prose poetry, so much as a feeling. She uses language to evoke emotional responses rather than cognitive response.

Allie Moreno:

Allie is the current editor-in-chief of Alchemy, the translation journal that I also work on. She has her blog here. Allie is such a sweet and laid back individual, who balances school, work, and a child! When you talk to Allie, she seems rather mild-mannered and sedate, but when you hear her read, it’s ferocious. She definitely packed a punch closing off the reading. She has a background in spoken word and it really shows in her poetry. Her art is fierce. Allie has a profound understanding on the way in which we can use sound and silence in language to express something beyond mere words. Her work is rhythmic and focused on tonalities and the musicality of language.

Local San Diego: Paul Harding

UCSD New Writing Series Presents Paul Harding, 4/11/12

You have to love an artist who can poke fun at himself. Paul Harding was introduced by his friend and UCSD Professor, Ben Doller. Professor Doller started off his presentation by reading from some of Harding’s worst reviews on Amazon.com. Apparently, some people found his novel, Tinkers, boring, without plot, and a waste of time.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2010.

A self-deprecating Pulitzer winner? A God among men, yet the humblest of the humble? Perhaps you are calling shenanigans on me from your computer screen. But ladies and gentlemen, it’s all true. I cannot tell a lie.

Okay so, Paul Harding. He’s smart, he’s humble, he won a Pulitzer, and a lot of people didn’t like his book. So where does that leave this review?

I’m going to borrow Tinkers from my friend as soon as my workload lightens up. Harding read from Tinkers at the reading yesterday afternoon, along with an excerpt from his new novel that will be released soon, and part of a short story he wrote, Speed of Light, which is set in Nigeria.

While listening to Harding read his work, I was struck by the same feelings I felt listening to the poem Howl being read aloud. It’s one of those things where the words you’re hearing don’t fade out of your mind as soon as you process them, but collect until their is a bottleneck of beautiful prose in your brain, the pressure mounting until it all comes out in a rush when the story is done.

Harding certainly had beautiful, precise, prose. It’s very lyrical and bears a strong resemblance to poetry. Harding used to be a drummer, which seems to contribute to this feeling of musicality. He explains that he seems to hear the lines in beats and phrases, trimming a syllable hear and there to fit this sort of rhythm he has in mind for his work.

My favorite line I picked up on at the reading, was fromSpeed of Light. Two characters are looking up at the stars, and one is talking about them to the other. He says, “Our own history is in the sky, preserved for us in light”.

In the Q&A, discussion of Harding’s writing process inevitably came up. I really enjoyed his answer though. In essence, he said that writing processes are never normative and should never be thought of as such. He also went on to state that “the right way for you to write is whatever gets the words on the page”. Another of his thoughts about writing is that a writer should know his language to the fullest extent possible so that everything is as precise and perfectly articulated as it could possibly be.

I’ll close this off with another gem from Harding’s writing. In Tinkers the title character goes searching for his father. In it, he climbs trees and is described as “tasting for traces of my father in their sap”.

Local San Diego: Eileen Myles

UCSD New Writing Series Presents Eileen Myles, 3/12/12

This is the image they used to advertising Myles’s reading. To me, it kind of sums her up perfectly. As an artist, as a writer, as a poet, she is incredibly human. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to her read at UCSD three times now and every time I am amazed by how utterly normal she is. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s kind, she’s the sort of person I’d want to narrate my life if my life was a movie. And above all, I find her to be quite humble. There are those people who you know think highly of themselves even if they’re not saying anything to that effect. Some of them deserve it, some of them don’t. But Eileen Myles isn’t one of them. She’s quite well-known, but she’s the humblest famous person I’ve ever encountered.

I can’t decide if I like hearing Myles’s work or her stories about her life more. It seems she’s been everywhere, done everything, met everyone worth knowing. She even ran for President once.

There are some people whose actual voice and their writing voice, don’t jive. For whatever reason, they seem like separate parts of the same individual. It’s hard to imagine them reading their own work. Myles isn’t one of those people. When she’s reading poetry, reading fiction, talking about her life, it’s all the same. There is no boundary between Eileen the artist and Eileen the person.

My friend once pointed out to me that in my writing, the word/image of “dust” always sneaks in. I always found that interesting, but considered it to be sort of weird quirk I should probably try and get rid of; I’ve never heard it/seen it in another. But tonight, for whatever reason as I was listening to her, all sorts of words and ideas kept popping out over and over. Chief among them is the idea of water, of wet, of the ocean, of things that flow. I don’t know Eileen as a person, but after hearing her several times, I would say this concept is important. The idea of something that exists everywhere with the power to calm and to destroy and to mold everything around it. Yet water is innocuous in that we need it to survive just as we need the food we eat, masticating it between our teeth and destroying it beyond recognition. When we take in water we reduce it to its most primitive level and strip it of its power.

Eileen finds meaning and beauty everywhere around her, even if it’s as mundane as a box of Tampax sitting on a window ledge (actual inspiration for a poem). Eileen Myles isn’t your grandmother’s poet; like a lot of the writers I’ve been profiling here through my Local San Diego series, Eileen is a modern poet, someone young readers and writers can connect to. You won’t find a Shakespearean sonnet in her work (at least, I don’t think so. But if you did it’d be a Shakespearean sonnet like you’ve never heard it before). Like Charles Bernstein, Eileen is a thoroughly accessible poet. She told us she’s sixty-two, but like Bernstein, she might as well be a thirty year old with thirty-two years of experience. I sort of had a thought as I was sitting there: Does writing keep us young?

Someone asked her a question about her writing process. While she didn’t give a straight answer, she did impart us with a little gem, however unintentional, in reference to a pencil that captivated her attention: “I wrote until that pencil had no more poems”. I think that’s something we can all aspire to as writers.

Local San Diego: Jaap Blonk

UCSD New Writing Series Presents Jaap Blonk, 2/27/12

I don’t think I was quite prepared for this guy. He was billed as a “sound poet”, but I never really gave much thought to what that meant. Well, it sounds a little like this:

Talk about pushing the boundaries of poetry, music, self-expression, and the vocal range of the human body. The funny part is that Jaap is quite mild-mannered, verging on soft-spoken. But when he performs, he lights up. I’m pretty sure he can make more noise than an entire room-full of people together.

I don’t have a lot to say about this performance, mostly because it was so trippy. Every time I thought I understood how he worked/what was coming next, he’d move on and do some other surprising thing.

One of the most interesting things about Jaap came out during the Q&A. For ten years of his career, Jaap was soundly rejected by those who said what he did wasn’t poetry or music. But he persisted and now he performs at literary and musical events, among many others. Sometimes if you just don’t go away, people find a way to accommodate you. It’s all a matter of being louder than your neasayers. 🙂

Follow back to Jaap's own website