Writing Race & Privilege

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What does creative writing have to do with race or privilege?

Many writers are okay with discussing class because many writers feel they are or were working class, middle class, or poor, which renders them underdogs, makes them part of the people so to speak.

However, Addonizio is the first white American writer I’ve encountered who talks about race, class, and privilege so candidly. This doesn’t include non-fiction writers (read journalists) who make it their business to talk about politics, class, race, gender, sexuality, news, etc. I mean all the novelists, fiction writers, and poets who think their creative work is above the influence of a racialized world.

Here’s what Kim Addonizio writes in chapter 20 of her book:

“Because I am Caucasian-American in a culture that is predominantly white, I have blind spots. Sometimes I know what they are, and I can try to see them in a side mirror. But sometimes, I think, I don’t even notice them. I can usually afford not to notice. This is the privilege of my skin color.

What does all this mean for my writing? It means I already have a whole boatload, so to speak, of cultural identities and assumptions. It means that those attitudes might be revealed in my writing, whether or not I’m aware of them.”

She quotes Tony Hoagland in this chapter as saying:

“To speak in a voice equal to reality in this case will mean the loss of observer-immunity-status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them, in very personal ways.”

And yes, these quotes are taken from a book on writing.

Addonizio gives ten exercises to “help you approach ‘other Americas’ or to consider race and class as they intersect with your own experiences.” I’ll share my favorite one.

Write about the messages you got about “other people” as a child. Did you hear of people being better off or worse off? Were some people lazier, smarter, more deserving? Did you hear about people starving in third-world countries? Try to remember a specific encounter when these ideas were either confirmed or overturned.

This is the final lesson I’m sharing from Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio, so be sure to get your own copy of the book!

Public Speaking for Writers 101

If you ever have the opportunity and the privilege to read your work to a live audience, DO IT.

There’s a transformation that occurs when you read your work out loud. The work takes on new dimensions both for the reader and the writer.

Public readings are a good way to make the writing life less solitary, to connect directly with the audience and actually witness the reactions that you could only imagine while writing the piece.

Now that I’ve persuaded you that live readings are wonderful, here are a few distilled tips from Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio to help you prepare.

Think of the reading as a performance. If you’re not engaged by your work and the reading of it, the audience won’t be either.

Time yourself. Less is better than wearing out your welcome.

Practice. Seems obvious, but I mean really practice reading out loud. Don’t just read your poems over and over in your head. Use a mirror, read to some friends or family, or record yourself.

Relax. Most readings or open mics are relatively tame, supportive, and laid back. In these settings, people tend to follow the rule, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” so you probably won’t get booed.

Now take your writing to a new audience and push past your comfort zone.

What other strategies do you have for making the best of public readings? Share your thoughts.

Read Like a Writer: The Importance of Close Reading

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Get your magnifying glasses and microscopes! Your scalpels and fine-tooth combs! It’s time to read like a writer!

Call it a close reading.

Not of my blog, thank goodness, unless you feel so inclined.

You actually get to study your favorite piece of writing.

Keyword: study.

Close reading is more than just reading to understand or reading to enjoy.

A close reading is a study to discover and learn the intricate workings of a piece of writing.

This process is especially important for writers because it’s how we learn more about our craft.

And despite what you may be thinking, examining a piece of writing doesn’t take all the joy out of it.

If the piece is any good, a close reading will only deepen our appreciation for the work and help us see the magic, the dexterity, the surprises, the connections, the truths that lie beneath the many layers that great works are known for.

I think great writing begs close reading, because great writing has depth and doesn’t give away all its wonders in an initial or surface reading.

Although I began reading closely in high school, I wasn’t introduced to the term close reading until the middle of my undergraduate career.

I’ve been hooked ever since.

An interesting piece of writing is like an interesting person. I want to know more. I want to “pick the brain” of the piece, if you will. I want to ask: How do you do it? Where does your strength lie? What else do you have in your bag of tricks to offer the world?

As Kim Addonizio points out in Ordinary Genius, you will also nourish your own creativity for producing your own work.

Chapter 30 of the book is a simple guide for getting intimate with your favorite piece of writing.

First, read, read, and reread.

Second, pay attention to everything. In good writing everything matters, so pay attention. If the piece is long, you may want to focus on excerpts at first.

Third, catch the themes, the “reason-for-being of the piece.” You’ll find that all the parts and decisions the writer has made add up to the whole of the theme(s).

Fourth, notice tone and voice, usually conveyed through diction (word choice) or syntax (sentence structure).

Fifth, uncover the structure or skeleton. How does it begin and end? Where does it turn or change? Where does the tension build or slacken? How is repetition used, if at all? Where are the section breaks, line breaks, or stanza breaks?

These are five steps to get you started, but once you do, you’ll go wherever the writing takes you.

This is how to really read like a writer.

How do you learn from what you read? What other ways do you get close to a good piece of writing?

Writing Emotionally Charged Pieces

Readers don’t care about your feelings.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. What I really mean is that they don’t want to read pages and pages of you pouring out your hurt and pain and love and desire.

That’s as unappealing as melodramatic movies.

In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, Robert Blake described acting out a famous scene from the movie In Cold Blood. The director essentially told Blake to tone down his acting, not to cry because the rain was crying for him. He told Blake just to say the lines, not to try and express any emotion. This became one of the most famous scenes from Hollywood.

A lot of emotionally charged writing is overdone and cheesy.

Writers try too hard to make you cry or gasp or whatever.

Consider this:

The poor, abandoned orphan stood alone in the pouring rain, crying and yelling for the only parents she’d ever known. Her heart wrenched, and her pain was so unbearable that she fell to her tiny, innocent knees, splashing into the muddy gutter . . . etc. etc.

That’s an example of trying too hard.

The remedy I’m presenting to you:

Distance.

In Ordinary Genius, Kim Addonizio actually calls it coldness.

Don’t think cold as in cruel, think cold as in distant like an outside observer or reporter or doctor or scientist or comedian.

Here’s a better way to think about it:

“As satisfying as it was to write in my journal, I could see that something besides deep feeling was required. I needed craft.” -Addonizio

That lame example about the orphan is overly concerned about emotion with no regard for craft.

But isn’t writing about emotion?

Of course. Readers want emotion.

But without craft, you can’t effectively deliver emotion.

Here are four ways Addonizio suggests we maintain focus on craft when writing emotionally charged pieces. The explanations are my own.

Imagery

Show, don’t tell. Focus on the tangible details of the moment instead of explaining emotions. Write the entire piece without naming the emotion.

Restraint

Don’t give too many details. Avoid adverbs and adjectives with strong emotional connotations, like desolate or grudgingly.

Hyperbole, Humor, Irony

This is the reason I like the term distance rather than coldness. Because humor and hyperbole can seem quite warm, but they require distance.

If done well, you can ignore the first two suggestions when using hyperbole, humor, or irony. But make sure you exaggerate enough that the exaggeration is obvious. If it’s not blatant to the reader that the speaker is being facetious, the writing will be just another bad piece of writing.

Form

Focusing on form helps you not focus on the emotion. It also requires that you be concise and focus on language. Form is like a leash that keeps you from trampling all over your readers’ emotional flowerbed.

I encourage you to go ahead and write about cancer, war, death, divorce, and abuse. But gain some distance. Focus on the imagery, practice restraint, infuse some humor, or stick to a form.

What do you think? What are the most effective ways to get strong emotion on paper without making your readers roll their eyes?