Last night, I taught my last class as a graduate instructor at the University of Minnesota. I had struggled with how to end class—how to tell them what I wanted them to know—and I told them so.
We sat in a circle as evening came on, on a lawn that had been under snow as late as last week. This is a rough transcript of the letter I read them. (feel free to share with attribution, and please note I quote from Mary Ruefle’s “Remarks on Letters.” Big debts to my teacher Charles Baxter, as well, for his good thoughts on stories.)
Letter to a Young Writer/ Remarks on Fiction
For my Intermediate Fiction class
[First delivered in the new grass behind Lind Hall, May 7, 2013]
Here is what Mary Ruefle says about writing letters in her lecture, “Remarks on Letters”:
What I am trying to tell you is this: every time you write an unengaged letter, you are wasting another opportunity to be a writer. The greater the disparity between the voice of your poems and the voice of your letters, the greater the circumference of the point you have missed. The demands upon you, as a writer, are far greater than you could have guessed when you filled out your application form and mailed it.
And what I am trying to tell you today is that writing fiction is so much like writing a letter: It’s you in a room in a chair in front of a screen, a page, trying to say something that will matter to someone else—a someone who is, more often than not, nowhere in sight. Who may not even exist. And if she does, she may never read what you write. And yet, you have to act with the urgency that she will.
And when I was thinking about how to end this class, how to possibly tell you what I know about writing and what I want to give you, it seemed like a letter was needed. And who needed to hear it was my younger self, 10 years ago, when I was a student in intermediate fiction at Arizona State University.
Dear Me in 2003, end of intermediate fiction, Arizona State University:
It turns out you are teaching at University of Minnesota. I’m pretty sure you have never had a complete thought about Minnesota, as a place or a university, before now. But no matter: that’s where you end up.
You like writing, and you are serious about it. You like making things sound pretty. Sometimes you write a sentence and you’re not even sure what it means. But boy, it’s beautiful. You write a lot of metaphors about love that droop in the middle. I think – from where I sit in a classroom in Minnesota – this is because you are unconvinced that you have something to say. This is a false problem. If you are very faithful to what matters to you – if you let things matter – you will have something to say.
So stop it with the adjectives.
Stop it with the pretty words.
Stop thinking you don’t have something to say.
Also, stop trying to write about love you haven’t experienced yet, when plenty of writers have. It comes across as someone writing an instruction manual for a machine they’ve never seen.
Instead, write about the love you do know. How it is to love your parents, though that’s not cool. Or how you love your sister. Or the embarrassment of not knowing what other loves are like yet. Etc. etc.
You are a little untried. These next 10 years, they will try you. There will be a lot of opportunity to write, and you will waste some of it. Don’t beat your self up about it. But write more often than you want to. You will get better faster that way.
Because you have a long way to go.
Do not underestimate the importance of kindness. I know: this sounds cliché. But kindness is how you are going to make friends, get jobs. How you’ll survive a bunch of disappointments and betrayals. When that professor, the one you admire so much right now, tells you to apply to the new program where he teaches, don’t do it. He is not thinking of your career, or you at all. He has some other agenda, one that you will never really understand. He will not even sign the third rejection letter he sends you. It will take a while to let this go – you are still the person who pins her hopes to many people and things.
But you will, and—after much application and work and trial and error—find your way to Minnesota, where it is really really cold, but also where you will learn much from good teachers who are also kind humans. This matters immensely, it turns out, the kindness part, and you will feel lucky about all of those rejection letters that got you to Lind Hall.
Kind people are rarely the ones we hear first. They are often quiet. Pay attention. Listen for them anyway.
Be one. Be a kind human. Be kind be kind be kind be kind be kind.
You’re going to teach. Fiction, of all things. You’ll have students who are bright, very good writers and readers. Hard workers. You want to teach them everything you learned, even though most of what you learned happened in alone in that room, over a long time and many drafts, just between you and the page. Revision. You worry telling them this will sound like a cop-out. You worry it’s the only wisdom you actually have to tell them. Sometimes you go home and lose sleep, worrying if you have given them enough.
So tell them. Tell them to keep writing. Because it is a sort of magic, though not easily acquired. Because writing a way of being in the world that requires paying attention and trying to understand other people’s motivations, which is another way of saying empathy. Tell them to write because it is a way, in the end, to be kind. And it’s the way you know.
Now give them a 5-minute craft talk, to simulate the ticking clock you want in their stories. There is never enough time. That is the point all short stories are making, in their different ways.
And seriously: no more adjectives.
It must be urgent. It must be clear why we are being told this story, on this day. If this story could happen on any other day, it’s not a story. Start over.
Start the clock ticking. There should be a ticking clock in every story and your reader should be able to feel, if not hear it. This is another way to say your story must have urgency.
Request moments are good at starting the clock. Those moments where someone turns to another and says: will you do something for me? (hat-tip to Charlie Baxter.)
So are “Captain Happens,” as Charlie calls them: that person who changes the energy in the room, who dares someone in your story—your life—to do something they don’t want to do.
Character is destiny. Heraclitus said that. Aristotle said that plot should come from character. Sort of. Everyone should read the Poetics, to find out what he really said. Characters all want or fear something. You, as the author, have to know what that is. They have to know what that is. They cannot spend the story not knowing what they want. Characters being confused about what they want more, or wanting several conflicting things is A-OK. But no one—author, character—can not know.
Setting and Detail
Everything happens somewhere. If your story reads as a green screen, able to be lifted up and placed elsewhere, people will forget it. Thicken up the world. Setting should also be dramatic. It should convey your characters somewhere, or get in the way of where your characters are going. The world is full of stuff. Your story should be too.
People usually have a hard time saying exactly what they want, but they can and do talk around it. Subtext is everything. There is no text without subtext. There is no dialogue without bodies. No disembodied voices, please. If you feel like you are writing too much body in your story, it is probably just the right amount – go over. Voices belong to bodies, which are doing things. This is to your great advantage as a writer. Use the body. Start with the body. The body is the thing from which the voice originates. Those wants and fears? The body houses them. Your work should demonstrate knowledge of this.
Clichés are everywhere. They make up large parts of our cultural fabric, especially film/TV. They are not intrinsically bad, though when they appear in fiction, they often signal inattention or carelessness, an impatience to find a new way to say something.
Clichés can be useful, shorthand for something that we all understand, but in fiction, they also have the effect of making a reader skip over, ahead, or put the book down. If you have too many clichés or do not complicate them, your story is in danger of being skipped over or put down. Use sparingly, and only with great purpose. Otherwise, take the time to say it better and newer.
Helps to create character. Flashback can clarify motivations, establish the wants and fears that are pressing on the present scene.
Flashback is also true to life: Almost all of us are thinking about the past as we go forward.
That’s the thing: we are still going forward. The one direction life goes in. In this case, art should imitate life. It should have momentum. Always. We must feel that the story is still moving forward. If your reader forgets that something is happening in the present because your flashback is so good, so captivating, you need to tone down the flashback or pump up the captivation factor of the present. Hopefully, both.
Reread Charles Baxter’s essay “Against Epiphanies.” He says it much better than I ever could.
Reread Gary Lutz’s essay. Keep it around, even when you move apartments, cities, bookmark it on your computer, just to remember that stories are made of sentences are made of words are made of sounds are made of letters. Letters again. See?
Find a story, poem, essay, something, whose sounds and letters you love. Read it aloud to yourself, imitate. Keep in nearby to remind you why you are doing this thing in the first place.
Go into your work carefully, ruthlessly, investigating and replacing the words and sounds so that they are better, more musical, more dramatic than before. These are your tools. These are your only tools, and you must submit yourself to them.
Is pretty much the only way to do all the impossible things I mentioned above.
Be patient with yourself, work hard. Stories are usually not done just because you want to be done with them. It is no good punishing a story until neither of you like each other. Put it away, and work hard on something else.
Some of your stories will see the light of day; they will be published in journals and books. Tens, hundreds more of them, won’t: they will simply be etudes. Scrap metal. You will have to write them to learn something you could not learn another way. And sometimes they are just carcasses left from that teaching.
But each story will teach you. Writing, like other art, happens by this inefficient miracle. It is the only way it happens. To be good at this, you must find something holy in such inefficiency; you must want to return to it, without consideration of final draft or reward. You must be fed by befuddlement, by feeling in the dark, by being a little dizzy with all you do not know. You must love mystery – not mystery in the Dan Brown sense – but the mystery of being a body in the world. You must be earnest and serious about your curiosities.
You must love to read. You must never stop reading. You must write letters. You must aim to speak as truly as you can, despite all the noise in the world. Because of all that noise.
Again, you must pay attention.
And to write well, you must – and this is just my own theory– love the world, and writing it down is the way you act on that love.
Endings are the most artificial parts of stories. They are not like life at all. But the clock has run down, the clock I promised my 20-year-old self, and this is the end. Until the next draft.
How far, Mary Ruefle asks, are you willing to travel this love you profess to have for words?