The building project on campus has been going on all year,but there is no building yet. The workers are working hard, though. I know this because I can hear their dump trucks and front loaders beeping and beeping, the sound of backing up.
I’m beginning to think that’s the whole job: climb in your vehicle, throw her in reverse, and make as much noise as possible as you circle backward toward eternity.
“In fiction, what I do is I will often put on the mask of the character that I’m writing in the persona of. I go through the day in the point of view of my character. So put on the mask of the person that you’re writing, even if that person is in a nonfiction book. Think about how would this particular person see the world and details will come up and jump into you and stick with you. And you can get them down if you have [a] notebook, if you have [a] pen and [a] piece of paper, no matter where you are.”
RaeNosa Hudnell: What was your research process [for A Brief History of Seven Killings]?
Marlon James: I am an extremely exhaustive researcher. The book I’m writing now, I’ve been researching since spring 2014. That is two years of research before I have even sat down to write. Even the stuff I know, I like to know more about it. The interesting parts in a novel often come from the stuff you pick up in research. The stuff that makes a character feel natural,d the organic way in which people live their lives, the almost trivial stuff, is important to know when you start writing. For me, this is when the book starts to take off, when I can have my character contemplate multiple outcomes because they can’t and wouldn’t be able to afford gas that week. It’s all good to know who was in power, but how much was a tube of toothpaste and could the characters afford it? If they couldn’t, what would they do? Would they run to Mom’s house and steal toothpaste? Could that lead to an argument where Mom is telling them to grow up? That is when the characters become real. But I research everything from society to politics to the price of food and clothing at that time. When I start writing, I commit and go full speed ahead. I don’t stop. I need to know as much as I can to do that. I do some more research after I finish a draft or a chapter, so I can look back and ask if this could really happen. What’s a better way to write this? Would this type of character even exist? Was the record I referenced the number one record? Would that be playing on the radio? Would the character like that song or just shut it off? That is where research helps me the most. It’s not the big things. You can google that. It’s the details.
One thing I always try to emphasize to my students is to approach writing as a fun experiment and remember why you loved it in the first place, rather than sitting down and thinking, “This is an important thing that I must get right.”
If you take something too seriously and decide ahead of time what it will be, that’s often a way of killing an idea.
—Julie Schumacher, author of THE SHAKESPEARE REQUIREMENT, in The Chronicle
On Monday, the writer Susan Neville talked with my Storycraft class. Here are four choice cuts from her talk:
If you write something you’re afraid someone will read, you’re probably going in a good direction.
Stories don’t start with a meaning. [The writer] starts with observations, questions, fascinations, places, memories . . . Only later, at some point in the revision process, do you start to figure out what the story’s about.
Language makes sense and it’s musical, so it combines reason and passion.
Place needs its witnesses, people who can see it and say: This is what it was like for me. You—in this time and place—will never be repeated, and that’s worth writing about.
Check it out: my first set of class magazines, which feature an essay from every student in my first-year seminar. These aren’t meant to impress you—I know they’re not that fancy—but to make you think, Hell, I could do that. You’re right, you could. Easily.
Why would you want to?
The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” asserts that students should write for a genuine audience. With class magazines, the students become readers as well as writers of essays; they become the audience for each other.
It might provide an incentive for your students to care a little more and work a little harder on their essays. Not long ago, a student told me they work at one level if they know a teacher is going to read their stuff, but they work at a higher level if they know their peers are going to read their writing.
So how do you put together a class magazine?
You’ve got options. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. You can cobble together a long Word document or PDF and distribute it electronically. You can print that long document and pass out hard copies. Or, if you work at a school with a print shop and a bookstore, you can do what I did:
Make the class magazine a required text for your class, and have the bookstore charge students a few bucks for it at the beginning of the semester.
Ask the bookstore to send that money over to the print shop.
Voila, your students have funded the publication of their own magazine. If your print shop can handle design as well as publication, all you have to do is send them the document.
All in all, it’s a pretty easy way to create a genuine audience for your students’ writing. Give it a shot, and hit me up at furuness(at)gmail.com with any questions or if you’d like to share your experience with class magazines.
For almost every writer, this is the heart of the process: You cannot be good unless you are first willing to be bad.
This is not only true for the artist; it is true for each project. My work-in-progress, for instance, is currently Mad-Maxing through the badlands. Could it die out there? It could die out there. The coyotes could tear me apart. But it’s the only route to paradise, so I’m willing to take the risk.
When it came to teaching online, I was a skeptic. Could it be an effective way of teaching and learning? Maaaaaybe. But could the experience be as good—as joyful and meaningful and warmly human—as a face-to-face class? I doubted it. I was convinced that, for me, all the joy was in the classroom experience and in conferences with students. In person, in other words.
But last year I thought I should give it a try. It was 2017, after all. Plus, sometimes I like to see if I’m wrong.
This past year, I taught two classes that were fully online, as well as a hybrid class, and I’m happy to report that I was wrong: these experiences have been just as interesting and fulfilling—for me, and, I think, for my students—as my face-to-face classes.
What was the key? Instead of using written forums, I used voice and/or video to make the experience more personal and human.
Let’s be honest: forums suck. Nobody wants to make posts, and nobody wants to read them (including the teacher). So you have a bunch of posts with the bloodless quality of all perfunctory writing. When you set up forums, you’re more likely to get student compliance instead of engagement. As a result, learning lags and the class starts to feel like a slog.
But when you and your students communicate through voice memos or videos, something different happens. Everything feels less distant, less detached. More personal, more immediate. Everyone becomes more . . . human. You all get to know one another and actual engagement—with each other and with the material—becomes possible.
Want to try it? For voice memos, try poking around your learning management system (Moodle and Canvas both have a voice recorder baked into their feedback studios, I know). Alternatively, you can just use a free app on your phone. The one that comes with the iPhone is solid and simple: you just record, type in an email address, and off it goes with a swoopy sound.
For videos, check out Flipgrid, which is now free for educators. Flipgrid is basically a video version of forums: Students can post short videos, and they can reply to each other’s videos in a thread. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually intuitive and easy. I’ve used Flipgrid now for several different classes, and all my students have been able to figure it out within a couple of minutes.
So count me as a convert. I’ll wrap up with a sentence that I would not have imagined writing a year ago: Teaching online can not only be as effective as face-to-face education, but it can be every bit as personal and interesting and satisfying.
When I was young and people found out that I wanted to be a writer, their reaction was always the same: “Oh, you’re gonna be the next Stephen King, huh?”
Oh, did that make me bristle.
No, I informed these Philistines. I was going to be a Real Writer (whatever the fuck that meant). Stephen King could keep pumping out his trash; I was going to write Real Books.
At that point, as you may have already guessed, I had read exactly zero of King’s books. Now, after finally reading a couple—THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON and JOYLAND—I would have a different answer to that old question.
JOYLAND is just the kind of story I would love to write. By that, I don’t mean a coming-of-age story set in an amusement park with mystery elements and supernatural overtones. I mean the kind of story that seduces a reader. The kind of reading experience that feels like a crazy affair—on your mind all the time, even when you’re not together. Especially when you’re not together. When can I see you again?
How does King do it?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I wish someone could tell me, because I’d like to do it, too.
King certainly doesn’t need my stamp of approval, but what the hell, I’ll give it to him, anyway. Sorry for slagging on you when I was young and dumb, Stephen. Keep writing Real Books and I’ll keep reading them.
This book, like most of my books and stories, was a surprise. I began to learn the nature of such surprises, thank God, when I was fairly young as a writer. Before that, like every beginner, I thought you could beat, pummel, and thrash an idea into existence. Under such treatment, of course, any decent idea folds up its paws, turns on its back, fixes its eyes on eternity, and dies.
The introduction to DANDELION WINE by Ray Bradbury