Thursday, May 14, 2015

Teaching English at BYU-Idaho is Making Me A Better Writer

It struck me early this morning that for the last few edits of my novel Doleful Creatures (fantasy, about 80,000 words, I’m looking for beta readers), I’ve focused on two things: First, making the story better. Second, making the characters better with the story. I want to talk about the second thing in this post.

Revision Seven has been the Revision of Aloysius, the badger. In previous revisions, he’s been merely a cranky foil to pretty much everyone else in the book. However, I hinted at his crankiness rather than made it clear why he was so cranky. So in this revision, I brought the crankiness into focus. In doing that, I brought in a lot more of the backstory which now seems critical to the entire story, and also helped flesh out two other characters who had also been hinted at and are now much more pivotal, even though we only learn about them in flashback.

Revision Six was the Revision of Magda, the crow. She emerged as the true leader of the crows rather than her more laid-back and more juvenile hubby Chylus – and that’s okay. She’s become the glue that’s keeping the novel – and all the other characters – together.

What this tells me is that I’ve probably got another revision to do, this time focusing on Jarrod, the main character. I have done some with him as I worked on Aloysius, because their characters are somewhat intertwined, but it’s clear I need to do more.

What’s prompting all this?

Why, teaching at Brigham Young University-Idaho, that’s what.

First came a student discussion on poet Gregory Carr’s “ThisI Believe” essay, in which he says the following:

When I write a poem, I process experience. I take what’s inside me — the raw, chaotic material of feeling or memory — and translate it into words and then shape those words into the rhythmical language we call a poem. This process brings me a kind of wild joy. Before I was powerless and passive in the face of my confusion, but now I am active: the powerful shaper of my experience. I am transforming it into a lucid meaning.

My Pathways 106 students have latched onto this statement this week, hoping to use it to remind them to process their own feelings and memory as they write their own belief statements. As I read their comments, I came to realize that’s what I need to do with my characters in Doleful Creatures – I have to help them take the “raw, chaotic material of feeling or memory and translate it into words, and then shape those words” into the rhythmical language we call a novel.

I’ve been hounding students all along that it’s stories that help us remember points and concepts – now I need to remind myself of that very thing as I try to turn a fictional world into something that can get a point across.

Then let’s move on to my English 101 class this semester, where we’ve had a lively discussion on S.I. Hayakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction. They were struggling to understand the concept until I found this website (geared toward public speaking, but it easily applies to writing as well).

Having a concrete example of the abstract helped my students a lot – and in explaining the concept to them, it hit me: How much ladder climbing (and descending) am I doing in Doleful Creatures?

So I stop to check myself, near the end of the seventh edit: Not as much as I need to. There are instances, in flashback, where it’s clear to me what’s going on. But the abstract has to meet the concrete of the reader’s reality – and I’m not yet succeeding at that. If I want to get across the abstract concept of the book – what would have happened if the sixth day of creation stopped before the introduction of mankind – I have to get to the concrete of the matter: How do animals react to man in the world today, and how might they react if there were no men around at all.

I find myself missing the mark (but that’s okay; the concrete reality of what I’m trying to do with this novel only arrived in the seventh revision. So – sigh – more revisions to follow.

But in helping these students see the value of adding these concepts to their writing tool chest, I’m reminded myself of these tools’ intrinsic value to me as a writer.

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