, Modified: 2017-08-07
Tags: writing, MIT
(Back to Writing)
I’ve taken 4 writing classes, and learned something different from each professor. Additionally I’ve sat in on a few of Junot Diaz’s talks.
- Ralph Lombreglia had us write two pages every week (consistency is good), and he would make thorough line comments. He had this look of wonder in his eyes when he talked about stories, and always talks about ideas coming from this “other place.” He taught us to create space for ourselves to write, and to try to take our subconscious by surprise. He was fond of E.L. Doctorow’s quote, that writing is “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
- Alan Lightman
- As a writer, you have to read books much more deeply and critically: reading isn’t just for leisure. There were several elements to writing he kept stressing throughout the semester (see below). He did not tell us how to achieve these elements though. There are no explicit instructions, and I can’t say I learned any of them during the class, but in the time since them, I’ve slowly begun to pick them up.
- complexity - you have to think of everything when you write a story.
- interestingness - ask yourself, is the story interesting? Of course, this question presumes that you develop a taste for what is interesting. See interestingness metric. Filler dialogue is not interesting, and cliches are not interesting. Try to make everything the characters say reveal something about the characters.
- plausibility - does it seem like it could happen? (Sometimes it takes a bit of wisdom to figure this out.) Note that “plausible” is different from a “realistic”: realistic means that it is likely to happen in real life, plausible means it’s believable; for example, characters might express feelings directly, and get to the heart of things quicker in a conversation than in real life.
- wisdom - One of my worst stories I wrote in his class, about a mathematician-writer who falls in love. I was so focused on making things interesting and dramatic in the story that I forgot what was true: if you want to write about a math grad student’s life, then you have to understand the fabric of their existence. I understood what it was like to be a math student (maybe not so much a grad student, but one can extrapolate). But I didn’t think to write that into the story, leading Lightman to the comment “it seems you don’t understand the life you are writing about.” He also said, “Love is very different when you’re 20 compared to when you’re 30,” though he never explained himself further. It’s important when writing not just to follow your feelings, which can be inaccurate, but to think about them: just like William Deresiewicz says in A Jane Austen Education.
- Helen Lee emphasized having a theme or aboutness in a story – be able to articulate a core or central thread of a story, but also realizing that a story is made up of many elements. When we were analyzing novels for our class, she would just have us shout out things the story are about, and we would find out a single story is about so many things (dominance, freedom vs. being bound, role of masculinity, lack of opportunity, violence of nature, etc.), and we would see how you synthesize so many ingredients into one story. During writing workshop, she would always tells us to question or wonder, because aspects of the world or of the characters you haven’t thought about leads to good places for the story to grow.
- Junot Diaz
- How to write well? Diaz says to read, live (the best way to gain material is to get out there and experience life), and be honest with yourself. Before age 26, you don’t have to write anything. Instead spend your time reading. Thousands of books. It’s all about the quantity. The more you read, the more you’ll know the elements of a story. If you’ve read a thousand story endings, you’ll know exactly how to end a story.
- “Real” artists aren’t frantic people. It’s not about “producing,” it’s about saying the right thing, no matter how long it takes. How many of your works can you hope to survive and be known, given how much is already out there?
- On his book This is How You Lose Her: More important than good language or good characters is a story’s structure. Good structure is good storytelling. The placement and the relation of the stories in the book to one another was the result of much deliberation. There are things you don’t see unless you’re looking, and you might not fucking care about them, but they lend the story its power. When you write a story, you have to ask yourself “what’s the game?” In other words, what, deep down, do you want to express? The game here is with the reader. Why is the narrator telling the story? The older Yunior is telling the story, almost like he’s talking to a younger version of himself, and if you read closely you can see the undertones of the older Yunior hidden throughout the book.
- There is a set of principles for writing: learn them. He teaches a worldbuilding class where he points out those principles for worldbuilding.
- Elicit honest and comprehensive feedback. He always tells his students to give thorough line comments on drafts, and criticize like the author is “your best friend” (because that’s what good friends do for each other: point out their mistakes).