17
Apr 17

10 Writing Lessons I’ve Learned from The Fast and the Furious Franchise

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of all the Fast and the Furious movies. In fact, if you’re the type of person that likes to hate on these films, then this post is not for you. I’m pretty unapologetic about my love for them, and I will not entertain any detractors. Even though the movies are full of things that, according to the laws of science, are impossible, I don’t even care. These movies are 100% full-on good times.

10 Writing Lessons I've Learned from The Fast and the Furious Franchise

As a writer, I’m interested in how the movies pull that off. It’s one thing to write a bad ass action movie. It’s quite another to have it turn into the juggernaut that the Fast and the Furious films have become.

But how do the films achieve this? That’s a very good question, and I’m not sure I can answer it completely. Obviously, it took several years, a very complicated timeline, and several new and amazing characters to get there. So, while I can’t tell you how the writers got there, I can tell you what I’ve learned in watching these movies.

So settle in and pop a Corona, because I’ve got the 10 writing lessons I’ve learned from the Fast and the Furious franchise.

(Fair warning: This post is hella long, but it’s because I have hella feelings about these movies, and have learned hella things about writing.)

001: Improbability + Sincerity = Good Times

I never took physics in school, but I know the difference between things that can happen and things that can’t. That having been said, I don’t necessarily care whether or not things can happen. Some of my favorite stories take place in spaceships, and those stories never tackle how the characters’ bodies would degrade from living in that atmosphere, or how traveling at the speed of light all the time would affect the aging process. I LITERALLY DON’T CARE THOUGH. That’s the thing. If you’re telling a good story, it doesn’t matter whether or not it could actually happen. And, if the writer has done their job, they’ve set up the rules of the story world well enough that these little details shouldn’t matter.

If you're telling a good story, it doesn't matter whether or not it could actually happen. Click To Tweet

So, I have to believe that in the story world of Dominic Toretto and his crew of unruly criminals-turned-secret agents, things like jumping from cars in high-speed chases or government law enforcement agencies asking crews of thieves to help them out to catch real bad guys are totally possible. And I believe this because the story delivers all these things with the sort of sincerity that you don’t usually get from action movies. It’s not that most action movies don’t try, it’s just that they can’t achieve it. If you don’t get what I’m saying, then you need to watch any of Jean Claude Van Damme’s movies from the early 1990s, and you’ll totally see what I’m saying.

002: One-liners don’t have to be terrible and cheesy.

Alright. One of the big problems I have with comic book movies is the comic book-style one-liners. If Spider-Man is hanging from a web, I DO NOT LIKE IT WHEN HE SAYS SOMEWHERE IN THE DIALOG THAT HE’S JUST HANGING OUT. I HATE IT I HATE IT I HATE IT. So, for a number of years, I thought I just hated one-liners. However, thanks to the Fast and the Furious movies, I’ve realized I don’t. And if I’m being real, we have Tyrese to thank on that.

Tyrese plays Roman Pearce, a pretty badass dude that also serves as the comic relief of the movies. Not only is his timing perfect, but he plays off the other characters so well that there is never a point where his one-liners feel forced and cheesy. Could he say “just hanging out” in a scenario where for one reason or another he’s trussed up by the big bad villain? Yes, yes he could. And I would want to murder Peter Parker even more because Tyrese would do it so well and make Spidey look like an even bigger chode.

003: Character interaction is everything.

I would argue that the main reason people have fallen in love with the Fast and the Furious movies is the characters. Sure, there are plenty of badass men-of-few-words style tough guys, but at the end of the day, they’re family. (If you don’t know, one of the most common phrases spoken by Dominic Toretto is “I ain’t got friends. I got family.”) So, as a family, there is a fair amount of ribbing and general fun.

And let’s be real. As a part of the audience, you gotta wonder how in the world a movie full of actors, rappers, a former professional wrestler, some MMA fighters, and a Jason Statham (he belongs in his own category) would get along well enough to pull it off. And it’s such a damn delight to see all these people interacting and making it work. And the reason it works is because the characters interact in very real, emotional, and often hilarious ways. Without those interactions, the movies don’t hold the magic necessary to enchant large audiences.

004: Diversity is stupid easy to achieve.

I won’t say that this series is the most diverse film franchise to date. There are no LGBT characters, and the only disability I recall being portrayed was Jessie in the first film, who had ADD. (He was later shot.) However, I will say that this film series brings together a lot of different ethnicities, and does it in a way that never pays lip service to diversity, which tends to be an issue when Hollywood execs say “let’s get some brown folks in a movie!”

And not only are there are a lot of ethnicities represented, but they are represented doing a wide array of things. Ludacris is a computery tech guy! Michelle Rodriguez is a badass who, much like Eowyn, is no man! Gal Gadot can handle anything with a motor or a trigger! Sung Kang is a chameleon who can do whatever is needed and he eats lots of snacks! Don Omar and Tego Calderon just get work done and win all the dollars in Monte Carlo!

It’s also worth stating here that the ethnicities never come into play in a forced way. Like, Letty never has an unnecessary monolog about her abuela to let you, as the audience, know that she’s Mexican. I really appreciate that.

005: If you keep the audience happy, they won’t do the math.

If you’ve seen Fast & Furious 6, then you know that the climax of the film involves cars chasing a plane down the runway. The cars, using harpoon-like cables, hold the plane down and prevent it from taking off. They do this for like 11 minutes. I don’t know where in the world this 11-minute runway is, but I don’t even care. And I don’t care because I am having a good time. It’s like I said back in 001. It’s that sincerity that makes the improbability okay. And even more, if I’m enjoying it, I won’t do the math. In fact, I think Chris and I had seen the sixth movie like 3 times before we even noticed that this plane was taking hella long to take off.

And just like in the gif above, do you think I care that it’s pretty impossible for a car to jump from skyscraper to skyscraper? Nope. Not at all. In fact, I’m planning on trying it in Downtown OKC later this year.

006: When in doubt, add a red head.

Adding a red head works great in stories, but it’s also just good life advice. I have a red headed boyfriend and a red headed dog, and I can say that they’ve definitely enriched my existence. I like to think that’s why the filmmakers decided to add Kristofer Hivju to the the eighth film.

And side note: When we went to see The Fate of the Furious, a worker at the theater came up to me to ask if Chris was my boyfriend, because in her words, he looks just like that new bad guy in the new Fast and the Furious movie. Chris has also been told he looks just like Zach Galifianakis and the country music singer, Zac Brown. If you ask me, he looks like boyfriend material. #Heyo

007: You can write yourself out of any corner.

If you’ve seen the Fast and the Furious movies, then you know that there is no corner that can’t be written out of. Characters can come back from the dead. The story’s timeline can be completely changed to allow for a dead character to be in two more movies. The most touching tribute can be put into a movie to acknowledge the death of one of the actors, even when there are plans for the story to move forward.

Writers can basically imagineer everything, and you can imagineer your way out of any corner you’ve written yourself into. Because if we’re being real, Tokyo Drift should’ve been the corner to end all corners. But I’ll be damned if they didn’t come at us with Fast & Furious, which is the fourth film. (Screw you, article adjectives!) And like pretty much every other Fast and the Furious think piece published since 2015, I’m going to agree that the fourth film was the renaissance the film franchise needed to bring us the delights of the later films. So, if you find yourself written into a corner, think about these movies. Can you add a character? Can you change the story timeline? Are the bad guys suddenly on your side? Seriously. Watch the movies. It works.

You can write yourself out of any corner. #amwriting #F8 Click To Tweet

008: Characters will grow in the direction you make them.

In 2001, we were given a Dominic Toretto who was a bad guy. In the original movie, Dom and his crew are thieves. They highjack semi trucks so they can steal DVD players. (For the younger readers, those used to cost actual money, and you couldn’t just stream movies.) In fact, Dom has a super dark past that involves him brutally beating a man nearly to death with a wrench.

And yet, now we know him as a family man who would do anything for the people he loves. He’s a pardoned criminal who functionally saved the world from several drug dealers, a mercenary, a hacker, a warlord, and a Jason Statham. (It’s worth noting that Jason Statham evolves into a good guy in the eighth movie. Basically, friendship and goodness can all be built by driving fast cars and working together.) And the only way that we believe this is because we see the slow evolution of Dominic Toretto. We see the goodness that the other characters bring out of him. We see why he does what he does, and realize that there is no one in the world who is all good or all bad. These characters are products of their choices and their relationships, and that’s what ultimately shapes who and what they are. It’s the sort of nuance that the Star Wars prequels would kill for.

009: There IS a such thing as too many butts.

I bet you were wondering when I would address the scantily clad, faceless women who attend the street races, though they have very little to actually do with the races. Yeah. It’s problematic. It’s an unnecessary nod to the original film, a very niche movie made for people who were into street racing. I’ve never been to a street race, but considering the street racers in Oklahoma City like to drag through Bethany, the most conservative and elderly part of OKC, I can’t imagine that these booty shorts-wearing ladies actually exist.

So why do the movies continue to show these moments? I have a feeling it’s because people like me aren’t the intended audience for the Fast and the Furious. So, while I’m sure the filmmakers are aware of objections to these scenes, ultimately, I think they don’t care. So that’s a writing lesson in and of itself. As your audience expands beyond your original target, you have to be aware, as a writer, of how specific elements of your work will be perceived by the new members of your audience. And sometimes, that means taking out unnecessary butt shots.

It’s also worth noting that Michelle Rodriguez’s character, Letty, is a badass who doesn’t take shit from any man. She’s seen as an equal throughout the movie. So is Gisele. And Elena. And hell. We’ve only had Ramsey for two films, but she gives Tej and Roman as much shit as they give her, and she invented the god’s eye software macguffin from the seventh movie! And, hell. Even Charlize Theron as Cipher is like the pinnacle of hacker villains.

(For more on women in the Fast and the Furious movies, check out this post from the Ringer.)

So, while the movies give us these very capable, multiethnic women, there are still those moments that remind you, as a woman, that even if you’ve achieved some semblance of equality in your role, there is still work to be done. And I’m not saying this to shame anyone who likes to dress it hot pants. That’s a perfectly legitimate choice. The issue is more of agency. When those street race women in booty shorts are portrayed as fully formed people and not objects, that’s when it will be okay. Close-up shots of butt cheeks hanging out of hot pants definitely don’t portray or respect the agency of those women.

(And, like, I could write a dissertation on how crappy the movies are to mothers. But pretty much everyone else has already written about the treatment of Mia Toretto, and they’ve written way smarter things than I ever will. And I like to think that Helen Mirren as Jason Statham’s mom in the last film is penance for the bad treatment of Mia. And yet, don’t even get me started on what happens to Elena in the eighth movie.)

010: Just keep adding character ingredients to your story soup.

I don’t think anyone, after seeing the first Fast and the Furious movie in 2001 could predict the success this franchise would have. So, we have to look at what happened over those past 16 years to determine why the later films have so much box office success in comparison to the first one. And I have to believe it’s because of the addition of characters along the way.

I’m not saying that all the characters the Fast and the Furious introduced were great. I mean, the only character that anyone liked from Tokyo Drift was Han Seoul-Oh, and his death in that movie created the alternate timeline. But if you look at the evolution of Dom’s family, you can definitely tell that the addition of characters, and the evolution of those characters, is what keeps people coming back.

 

So, there you have it. Those are the 10 writing lessons I’ve learned from the Fast and the Furious movies. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to be busy writing a short film about Tej and Roman muttering stuff under their breath about Tego and Rico while Tego and Rico simultaneously mutter under their breath in Spanish about Tej and Roman, while they all stare each other down. THIS IS THE SHORT FILM WE DESERVE, and I’m adding it to the list of fan fiction I want to read.

The Fast and the Furious: 10 Writing Lessons I've Learned from Dom and the Gang #F8 Click To Tweet

Any lessons I left out? Let me know in the comments!


03
Apr 17

Slow Living: What We Have Time for

For me, slow living is all about figuring out exactly what it is that you have time for.

As I write this, I should be grading. Hell, before I started writing this, I was walking the dog. And during the time I was walking the dog, I should’ve been grading too. I’m a college instructor. There are precious few hours in the day when I shouldn’t be grading.

Slow Living: What We Have Time For

And as a writer, there are precious few hours in the day when I shouldn’t be writing. Even if I count every idea scribbled on a Post-It, every notebook bleeding ink, Word Docs filled with rambling prose, and every last stolen minute I took to write, I still wouldn’t write enough.

But that’s the thing of it, isn’t it? Whatever we do isn’t enough, and we always feel like we’re running out of time.

Whatever we do isn't enough, and we always feel like we're running out of time. Click To Tweet

I had this thought on the dog walk, and knew I needed to get home and write it.

For me, I don’t feel like there aren’t enough days left in my life. I’m 31, which is relatively young. I do worry about the hours in the day, though. How is it already 3 PM? How did Tuesday pass me by? I swear, I need a weekend to recover from my weekend. Even though I still feel like there is plenty of time left in my life, I can easily see how it’s all slipping away, and getting me to a point where there won’t be enough time.

So I slow down. I don’t wish days away. I don’t live for deadlines or benchmarks. And even though I feel like I should be further in my career right now, I’m very content with where my life is.

I think we all see what’s possible and we want it immediately. We all see what others were able to accomplish with relatively little time, and we think we should do that too.

I definitely used to feel that way. I’ve been slowing down a lot lately. I’m obsessed with slow living, especially as I see others scrambling their way through life.

(Slow living, for those who don’t trawl the blogosphere/podcastosphere for content about how to take a chill pill, is living life at a slower pace. It’s taking a step back and enjoying life. It’s refusing to be manic, even when every other aspect of daily life would have you believe that you need to keep up. If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out The Art of Simple and No Sidebar.)

I’ve stepped back and realized that I’m supposed to be here. I am embracing the marathon mindset, because I know everything is a slow burn. I’m making time for picnics. I’m saying no to things I don’t need. I’m creating space to breathe when the rest of the world is underwater. I refuse to choose busy. I’m setting my own agenda. I’m living my own damn life, y’all.

This got me to thinking about the things I value, and the things I have time for. It made me realize that the only reason I want to be further in my career is because I want writing to be the day job, not the side hustle. It made me realize that I’ve been valuing that paycheck and health benefits more than I have the very thing I was meant to do with my life.

And while I can’t very well quit my day job (unless some rich benefactor wants to pay for my existence while I hole up in my house and write my butt off), I can focus more on what I have time for.

Even though I know what I want, I haven’t made time for it. I have, however, made time for Netflix, fast food, too much social media, and Tetris. I’m shocked by how much time I’ve spent zoning out while staring at the TV, or poisoning my body with garbage or just scrolling through my phone, or just rotating those little tetrominos. (That free app is killer. I’ll delete it, but add it one afternoon when I want to shut my brain off — usually after grading like a fiend. If there’s a way to completely block an app from your phone, I’d love to know because I don’t have that level of willpower.)

Even though I’m not happy I’ve spent time doing that, I know why I have. It’s easy to shut down your brain. It’s easy to zone out. It’s easy to consume. But that’s the thing about slow living. It’s hard. It’s deliberate. It’s focused.

For me, slow living is figuring out everything that is important and vital to my existence, and letting the other things fall away.

This realization is one thing, taking action is another.

So for today, I’m starting. I’m taking stock of the things I have time for.

I have time to write. I have time for Chris. I have time for family. I have time for dog walks. I have time for daydreaming. I have time for deep conversations about magic and spirituality. I have time to listen to my favorite records over and over and over. I have time to read poems in the middle of the day because that’s what I need to do. I have time to cook a meal made of real food that won’t put me in the hospital or give me a heart attack.

I’ve been taking stock of privilege lately. I have benefited immensely from the privileges I possess. And yet, I’ve operated as if everything I have will someday be taken away from me. I’ve been overly hungry. I’ve been like Smaug the Dragon laying on my hoard. I’ve been manic. I’ve believed that I needed to work myself to death. I’ve believed that I don’t have time to take care of myself. I’ve believed that I needed all the things that were being sold to me.

This is all fairly woo woo and vague. But if you’re here, then I have to believe that 1.) you know that’s who I am and what I write about, and 2.) you’re here for that.

I’m here for that too. This is what I have time for.

Slow living is what I have time for. Click To Tweet

P.S. The whole time I was writing this, Non-Stop from Hamilton was running through my head.

Have you ever stepped back and wanted to slow down? Why do you write like you’re running out of time? What do you have time for?


29
Mar 17

The 40 Reasons “Why Do You Write?” Challenge

Have you heard of the 40 Reasons “Why Do You Write?” Challenge? Bryan Hutchinson over at Positive Writer posted about it on Sunday. Because I’m super defiant and love a good challenge, I thought I’d take a whack at it. Plus, I really wanted to take stock of why I write.

Why I Write

Without further ado, here are the 40 reasons why I write.

40 Reasons Why I Write (Thanks, @ADDerWORLD!) Click To Tweet
  1. I’ve always had a knack for it.
  2. Teachers and family encouraged me to keep it up.
  3. I communicate better in writing than I do in speaking.
  4. I daydream too much not to write it down.
  5. Writing is how I clear my head.
  6. I love the feel of a pen in my hand.
  7. I love the feel of a keyboard under my fingers even more.
  8. I want to feel in control of language, even though I also believe it’s the number one deterrent to communication.
  9. Someone has to fill up all the notebooks stores sell. May as well be me.
  10. I have a desire to be viewed as an intellectual, and writing scratches that itch.
  11. I like to express emotions in terms of the synesthesia they inspire.
  12. I love proving to money-hungry jerks with logical careers that writing is a thing you can earn money for.
  13. I enjoy breaking all the rules your English teacher taught you.
  14. I can’t just turn off my brain after the workday is over unless I write.
  15. I think writing is a gift from the Universe, so I have to share it.
  16. Without writing, I literally have no idea what my hobbies would be.
  17. I write because if I don’t, I get super depressed.
  18. Writing is like a puzzle I want to solve. I set out to make a paragraph, and I have to figure out where the pieces fit.
  19. I believe I’m smarter than 95% of the population, and writing reaffirms this. (NO APOLOGIES.)
  20. I write because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write.
  21. Sometimes inspiration bashes me over the head like an avalanche, and I have to.
  22. Even if a piece I’ve written gets rejected, I don’t feel like I want to quit. Writing is the only thing I never want to quit.
  23. Writing is my calling. It’s my higher purpose. It’s why I’m on this planet.
  24. Because people automatically think I’m interesting when I tell them I’m a writer. #sovain
  25. I write because I empathize with a lot of people, and I want to give voice to the feelings this empathy brings me.
  26. I write because I can understand the motives of a person within knowing them for an hour. (Thanks, mean girls from my childhood. Your guileless transparency was a great primer.)
  27. I like sharing ideas with a broad range of people.
  28. I read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 in the second grade and decided I was going to be a writer. (Thanks, Beverly Cleary!)
  29. I write because it’s often like picking off a scab and digging around in the pus to find what’s causing the problem.
  30. I have stylistic intentions for my commas, and believe parentheses are like hugging your words.
  31. Writing lets me take stock of moments and record them.
  32. I want closure for so many things, and writing is the only way to get closure in a lot of situations.
  33. Because I want my thoughts to resonate with someone.
  34. I write to share my experiences with others.
  35. Because I literally have no idea what people do with their time if they’re not writing.
  36. I write because some day I want novel writing to be my day job.
  37. I write because you can’t name another Persian Mexican Native American writer that’s your favorite.
  38. Because writing is fun when I’m manic.
  39. Because writing is life-saving when I’m down.
  40. And finally, because 200 years from now, people will know my name. It’s all about the infamy.
200 years from now, people will know my name. #amwriting Click To Tweet

28
Mar 17

Five Things I Learned from My First Writer’s Retreat

I’ve written a little bit about my stay at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow, but today I want to talk about the five things I learned from my first writer’s retreat.

My First Writer's Retreat

I had fantasized about attending a writer’s retreat for many years before I was able to attend one, and it was definitely a life-changing experience. I’m convinced that it’s something I should be doing once a year. In fact, I may roll my yearly writer’s conference budget into a yearly writer’s retreat budget. No offense to conferences, it’s just I think I’d like the open time to write more than I’d like to attend sessions on writing.

In order to make future writer retreats easier on myself (as well as to make it easier on any of my readers who may attend one) I’m recapping the five things I learned from my first writer’s retreat.

Five Things I Learned from My First Writer's Retreat #amwriting Click To Tweet

001: Bring a night light.

Anyone else a super weird wiener kid incapable of turning their brain off at night? No? Just me? Okay. Here’s the thing. In a past incarnation of this ol’ blog, I wrote about how I’m afraid of the dark. And it’s not really the dark that’s the problem, but it’s this writer imagination of mine. I can easily think of all the things that might be lurking in the dark. In fact, I can list roughly a BAJILLION things that might want to end my life, and only like 3 of them would be real. This is always exacerbated by spending a lot of time writing. When your brain is in overdrive from writing ghost stories all day, it’s really hard to shut it off just because you should be asleep.

The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow gives every writer their own bedroom, bathroom, and writing area. So, even though you’re in the same house as other people, you’re relatively secluded. And the darkness in Eureka Springs is just a little darker than it is in Norman, so naturally I left a bathroom light on every night I was there. Next time I’ll bring a night light.

002: Don’t be too hard on yourself.

If you haven’t read the “As I Write This” post, click on over. It’s a good primer on the writerly psychomachia that plagues me in every waking hour of my life. I struggle with impostor syndrome, feeling like everything I write is garbage, and worrying that I won’t ever do anything that’s good enough. And you know when my brain decided would be the best time to wrestle with all these things?

IN THE MIDDLE OF MY FIRST WRITER’S RETREAT.

(And also like every day.)

But take it from me. It’s going to be hard to not feel like you’re squandering your time and energy while you’re there. Because uninterrupted time is so hard to come by, I felt that I should be spending my days at the retreat working on the Next Great American Novel. And if I’m being honest, the majority of my thoughts aren’t Next Great American Novel so much as Spooky Ghost Story with Historical Flashbacks.

Don’t waste time worrying that you’re wasting time with the words that are coming out. Instead, just breathe that fresh Ozark air and get to typin’.

(Note: You will only find Ozark air in the Ozarks. If you attend a different retreat, then you should breathe that air.)

003: Healthy food is fuel.

I was ready to consume nothing but junk the whole time I was in Eureka Springs. I have some very unhealthy writing habits that were encouraged by a certain instructor. He was very fond of telling us about the amount of candy he would consume while in the process of writing, and I definitely picked up that habit. (For example, when I was writing my comprehensive exam essay for library school, I bought potato chips, cupcakes, soda, and frozen pizza to fuel my paper writing. I passed, but the whole next week I felt like I was going to die.)

While eating bad food during marathon writing sessions is a bad habit I’m definitely trying to break, it was relatively easy to eat well at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow. Jana, the cook, made some of the best food I’d had in a while. Here butternut squash and caramelized onion galette was amazing, and I absolutely loved the yellow dhal soup. Then, our dinner at Ermilio’s, while not the healthiest meal in the world, was definitely more balanced and nourishing than what I would normally consume while in writer mode.

(Also, lest you think that I’m not still a human garbage disposal, know that I had Diet Coke, Peanut Butter M&Ms, and Starburst Jelly Beans every single day I was there. I just didn’t eat them as a meal. So, see? I’m basically a health food guru as a result of my first writer’s retreat.)

004: Fresh air and conversation is necessary.

Like I mentioned, I have a tendency to get all up in my head with negativity. But the best way to combat that has always been to step away. Luckily Mari Farthing likes to go for walks too. So on both Friday and Saturday we set aside time to explore part of downtown Eureka Springs. We definitely got lost on Friday just because we are flatlanders and the loopy curves of Eureka Springs streets as they go around hills is definitely not something we’re used to navigating. They didn’t have to send out a search party, but it came close.

Another way we stepped away from writing was in the evenings. Each night we had a full-on slumber party-style gab session, complete with wine furnished by Bethany Stephens, and the best gossip that the five of us could manage. We stayed up so late just chatting about life and work and everything else. It was amazing. In fact, that conversation has led to SEVERAL blog posts that will be coming down the pike in the near future.

005: Headspace is key.

This ties back into not being too hard on yourself, but know that your headspace is everything. I mean, just generally in life this is true, but it’s doubly true at a writing retreat. I struggle with an anxious mind. At any given moment, I’m thinking of all the other things I should be doing instead. It’s hard for me to turn off the to do list mentality, and I know I need to live in the moment more. And that was the sort of headspace I needed to be in before I started writing. I finally got there by Saturday, but since my stay was super short, I wish I would’ve gotten there sooner so I could get more done during my first writer’s retreat.

If you’re like me, then I recommend turning your retreat into a vacation/retreat. To do this, take a day or two to head to the place where you’ll be for your retreat. Then, set aside the first day as a vacation do. Get a massage, go to a nice restaurant, and definitely relax. Slow your body and brain down so that the next day you’re ready to bleed it all out on the page. It may feel like a wasted day, but getting your head right is going to be the best thing you can do for your writing.

Getting your head right is going to be the best thing you can do for your writing. Click To Tweet

Well there you have it — the Five things I learned from my first writer’s retreat. Have you ever been to a writing retreat? Do you have any expert advice for other writers? DO YOU WANT TO PLAN FUTURE A TRIP TO THE WRITER’S COLONY AT DAIRY HOLLOW WITH ME?!


21
Mar 17

The Pedestal in His Workshop

The Pedestal in His Workshop

This past weekend, I began writing about my experience with a specific writing instructor. After reading Bonnie Nadzam’s “Experts in the Field” essay in Tin House on Saturday, I’ve chosen to publish this. After reading Bonnie’s essay, I can’t help but feel like I had a really good experience, even though it was terrible. Our experiences aren’t the same, but neither of our experiences are unique. For further reading that explains just how prevalent this sort of thing is in the writing world, check out this piece on Literary Hub.

Ten years ago when I didn’t have the words for what was going on, I took a writing class with a local author. In fact, I took several. It was during the year between undergrad and grad school, and I wanted to stay sharp and relevant and if I’m being really honest, I wanted the praise that comes from a teacher.

I needed someone to tell me I was special because that year I spent waiting tables at a professional wrestling-themed barbecue restaurant in the parking lot of a Walmart made me feel really worthless.

(I’ve always been susceptible to the bigger and better, especially when I was younger. And when I couldn’t attain it, I crumbled a lot inside.)

So, on my first day of class, I showed up early. I didn’t know anyone, but I didn’t care. This was a class. This was where I excelled. This was what I was meant to do.

I had read one of the instructor’s books, and thought it was decent enough. It wasn’t a life changing read, but not many books are.

The class was an interesting mix. There were young and old, new and seasoned writers, published and unpublished.

Among the mix of people was my friend, Katie. That’s how we met. Even though I look back on this class with a mix of rage and regret, I’m glad I met Katie. She was a bright spot in a dark place.

Though this was my first time to take the class, it wasn’t the first time for a lot of the students. Many of them were long-time disciples, flocking like moths to a flame of this teacher. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would take the same class several times then. I mean, I was waiting tables and dead broke all the time. I couldn’t fathom paying for this $190 6-week class more than once.

As class began, it felt manic and frenetic. The energy felt good. That’s mostly how writing workshops have always felt to me, like the first time you try speed.

In the first session, we outlined a novel together. He’d call out for suggestions of protagonists and antagonists, for conflicts, for setting. We’d shout back as he wrote the different elements on a large easel-sized Post-It pad. Once we’d complete one element, he’d stick it to the wall and start over with another sheet on the big pad.

By the end of class, we had a novel. Sure, it wasn’t good. But most books aren’t. And that was how he convinced all of us that it was super easy to write a novel. After all, it’s just a game of filling in the blanks, right?

Then, for the rest of the class sessions, different people would bring their novel outlines and we would all critique each other’s. It went well. I excelled, in a way. Insofar as excelling is receiving praise.

I took many classes from this instructor that year. There were different class options that he taught, always a different component of the writing process, but taught in his signature madcap style. Katie was always there, and it was nice to have a friend who was into the same thing I was into, because up until that point, I had literally never had that.

Even now, I can count on one hand the number of friends I have who are into the same things as I am.

As I got to know that instructor better, and as Katie and I got to know each other more, a weird dynamic emerged. We were under a figurative microscope. Anything we did — writing, clothing choices, vending machine drinks — were under scrutiny. The instructor picked at us constantly. Sure, he did it in fun, or at least that’s what his tone said. The older, unkempt men in the class picked up the game quick. They would make similar comments, or let us know that they’d love to take care of us, if only we’d marry them.

The younger men in the class followed suit.

The Pedestal in His Workshop Click To Tweet

It’s also worth noting here there were a fair amount of women in the class that were older than me and Katie. It would be hard to be younger than us, as we were the 21-year-olds in an adult education courses. And those women, while they weren’t outwardly cold to us, it was obvious that they were tired of us. Like they thought we were asking for the attention.

At the time, I didn’t realize what was happening. I had never been in a class like this. I had never interacted with older men, except for maybe my dad and his friends. And they didn’t act like this.

I found myself behaving in odd ways in that class. I would specifically wear boring sweaters and jeans — anything to make it harder for that instructor to call me out. And when he did call me out for any number of things, I found myself answering untruthfully, just because I wanted to placate him. I wanted to tell him something that would please him. I needed that validation that I was attending those closes to get. So he’d ask me pointed questions, trying to trap me, to make me look like an idiot, trying to have that little moment where he could point out to the whole class how stupid 21-year-old women were so we could all laugh together, and I’d say anything to get him to just fuck off.

(I didn’t realize that was what I was doing, though. And I didn’t realize that I was doing that until I ran into that teacher a writer’s conference a few years ago. He started in on me as soon as he said hello, and I found myself saying bullshit to get him to go away.)

I can’t speak for Katie. I don’t know if that’s how she felt. But it’s how I felt.

And I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I was trying to play the game I played in classes. Say the right thing, receive validation. I was grasping at straws every time I attended that class.

I feel it’s important here to note that I don’t, nor have I ever specifically sought validation from older men. In fact, I have spent a lot of my life trying to piss them off. This was different though. He was a teacher. That’s who I wanted validation from.

It’s only now, with that 10 years of hindsight that I realize we were placed on a pedestal in that workshop. We were there for the entertainment and delight of a group of old degenerates. These were men, who over the course of several classes, would open up about their distain for their wives or for women in general. They would eloquently express how terrible women were, but they would gladly take up with us in a heartbeat.

And they felt they were allowed to do this because the classroom environment enabled it.

Only I couldn’t see it then. In fact, I joined a writer’s group with a few of those men, and met with them for years after the classes had ended. I think I was still young enough to seek that validation. Even though the teacher wasn’t there anymore, those old men had become his proxies. And I just wanted to hear them tell me I was a good writer.

But what I got was more picking.

While I’m not happy that was my experience, I’m happy to have processed it all, to understand what was happening. It has, perhaps irrevocably, changed my writing process. There’s always a sneering middle-aged man in the back of my head. He picks at words and story ideas. He reminds me that since what I’m writing about is something he hasn’t experienced, it’s somehow invalid.

And then I remind myself that this middle-aged man in the back of my head is just as disgusting as the men in those classes. All ear hair and paunch. Body odor and artificially inflated ego.

For a long time I thought my teaching style was forged by my love of writing. I thought if I just conveyed to my students that if you did the research or knew what you wanted to say, then it became easy to say it.

And while maybe that’s true, it’s not where my teaching style comes from at all. I am a product of that classroom, of those bad experiences from that teacher.

In my classroom, everyone has space to say what they want to say. Click To Tweet

In my classroom, everyone has space to say what they want to say. And no one will ever play those stupid mind games with my students on my watch.