Sunday, April 26, 2015

On Making Things Hard For Yourself

I have decided what I am going to do this weekend: absolutely nothing.

Much like Peter Gibbons, in fact, from Office Space. I am doing absolutely nothing, but in a studied way. Sometimes when you feel a little undecided and bottle-necked, it pays to just step back, take a breath and then do something else for a while.

Tentative plan is to dive into redrafting Llerg this coming weekend. Maybe I'll even come up with an actual title at some point.

It's funny how you often overthink things and make life far worse than it actually has to be. I had a pretty amusing training moment with my boss a few weeks back to that effect, that I was just making things way too complicated at some tasks, in a way which was making life fairly miserable for me.

So, this is the theme for now. Stepping back and letting life happen at its own pace. Let my subconscious sort shit out, decompress, and hopefully things will fall together and make more sense eventually.

In lieu of actual story-writing progress this week, I'll tell a story instead: the best fiction class I ever took.

This is one of those pivotal moments in life, and, like a lot of pivotal moments, it was one which doesn't precisely make me look like a great person if cast in a certain light. It's one of those stories you throw out there with a slight wince, knowing that a simple Google search by an employer will lead to one of those earnest one-on-one chats where certain probing questions will be asked about capitalized words such as Integrity or Honesty, or what have you.

Let's clear the air before I dive into this: I am excruciatingly honest as a general policy. Probably more than any sane person needs to be. It's easy to say something slightly painful up front than constantly live your life trying to remember all the stories and lies you've made up. Not having to hide things or navigate through a web of lies is worth the discomfort of coming clean. This is true 100% of the time, especially when doing business or establishing long term relationships. If you never lie, then you never have to worry about getting tripped up by a lie.

Got that? Got it.

Back to my story: the best fiction class I ever had.

I had a class in grad school about nonfiction writing. I believe it was more journalism-focused than anything else, because one of the usually-undergrad journalism professors taught it.

He was from the old school. Had a truly impressive mustache back in a time when mustaches were out of style. He was professional and to the point, a ruthless and terrifying dictator of an editor who would call you out on the length of your paragraphs or on your lack of punctuation or for your habit of not using simple and to the point grammatical constructions. He had a hyphenated last name and, in my memory at least, wore bow ties more than your average doctor.

He had that look of someone who was raised in the bull pen, a man who was suckled on newspaper ink, who's written any beat you care to name, whose resume was measured in inches and bylines. He was pretty street.

He would call you out on your bullshit regularly. He assigned long papers with punishing frequency. As the semester wore on, he'd show up for class less and less often. Classes would be short and you got the impression he didn't read your paper so much as threw a dart at a wall full of letters and let the gods decide your grade. But you would always get feedback if you asked for it, and sometimes it would make your ears ring.

One time in class he was served divorce papers. A burly kid with a mohawk knocked at the door with a manila envelope and my professor took off down the hall with the same mien as someone practicing trailer park parkour on Cops. When he came back, he slammed the door behind him, gave us all a hunted look and we didn't see him for two weeks.

I hated him at the time and I hated the class. He was one of the only professors I ever gifted with a one star review during the end of semester evaluation.

But I suspect--after two decades of reflection and growing-the-fuck-up--that he was a damn good teacher, one of the best in the department. He was just Going Through Some Shit. I wish I could go back and bump him up a few stars in my evaluation, or at least take another class with him during a time in which he was in a better place.

The class load, even with an oft-absentee professor was brutal.

He would demand a new article, every week, researched and with interviews. Full length articles, with several interviews with actual people. Anywhere from 8-20 pages.

I was a dirt poor grad student living in a cheap rented box in a bad neighborhood. Two blocks away from a strip club with neighbors who dabbled in drug-dealing and arson. I didn't have many friends and no relatives within easy driving distance. My phone service was abysmal, my energy levels low.

I had a class load so heavy it was measured in megatons. I was teaching two sections of Freshman Comp at the time. If I'm not mistaken, that was the semester I set my office hours at six in the morning because I needed that time to get work done. (Yes, I know. Terrible, right?)

Needless to say, my free time was limited and my social network nearly nonexistent. Asking me to do interviews was a punishing thing to ask: who would I interview? I didn't know anybody. I barely had enough money for gas, and no free time to speak of, so it's not exactly like I could pound the pavement looking for leads. The internet was barely a thing, so it's not like I could just randomly Google leads.

So I would make up interviews. I would invent fictional people for my articles, sometimes at the very last instant. I would write life stories for them, cook up character traits and hobbies and little points of conflict. I would find about the towns in which they lived, gather information to the point I could fool even people I knew who lived there.

And I would write the articles I was assigned. 99% bullshit, yes, but usually pretty entertaining and informative.

Before I started pulling these things out of my ass, I would average a B at best. Once I got comfortable making shit up at the last minute? A's.

It was the best class on fiction-writing I ever took.

Forcing me to write in a journalistic style shook up my technique. Paragraph lengths went down. Sentences got simpler. My writing became more organized. It read better out loud.

And I realized that research improves everything, even fiction-writing.

The need to make a plausible human being up on the spot made me study characterization more closely. As a result my characters became more believable, the dialogue more naturalistic.

Yes, I was cheating, but I was cheating in a way which made me grow.

I suspect my professor knew right away what I was doing. If he were in a better emotional space, he might have sat me down and talked me through things. As it were, everybody in class wound up banding together a bit to help each other out on assignments, as sometimes happens when a professor is absent a lot.

It was good practice. I don't recommend going through a similar situation, but it was definitely a growing moment. Probably the most amount of lying I've ever had to do in a four month period, though.

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