I got my hair cut on Thursday.
I’d seen this stylist before, but it had been a while. He told me I was lucky to catch him, because he will be leaving Minnesota in two weeks to go back to New York City. He said that he thought he’d be happy back in Minnesota, where he was born, but a number of people from his past kept calling him with increasingly enticing offers. Finally, this month, he ended up with five offers he said he absolutely could not turn down.
I told him I envied his life. I asked about how he started, and he told me that he moved to Milan upon graduating school, working mostly illegally until the Italian government caught on and sent him back to the US. By then he had already met his important contacts, and found himself unknowingly doing hair for the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Days later, he received an unexpected phonecall asking him to be at the Yves Saint Laurent fashion show in an hour.
It’s been about 4 days since he told me his life story, and I feel like it’s been staying with me. I have only a passing interest in fashion, but something about the travel, the freedom and the fast pace of his life excited me. I thought I could be pursuing his life, but instead here I am in my entry-level office job. And I can’t help but think that if I took the plunge, then I would be there in time.
I have friend who work in retail and restaurants still, like I once did. And they envy my cushy, hip office job. I’m not better than them. I didn’t do anything they can’t do. I’ve even sent them links to other jobs they would like, jobs that seemed perfect for them. They never apply for those jobs and continue to tell me that they envy my life.
I think it must work the same way for me. I think that only those who receive are those who ask. And I haven’t been doing anything lately. I think about the people I work with, and it occurs to me that they don’t want what I want out of life, and yet I put myself on the same career path as them. That doesn’t make sense, does it?
I once sat in a coffee shop for a reading in which a writer read for 30 minutes (the longest reading I’ve ever sat through from a person who has never been published before) from her novel-in-progress. Let me give you a summary of her excerpt:
- She had just moved to a new city and was lonely.
- Her boyfriend had just broken up with her and she was heartbroken.
- She was so depressed she could only manage to wear one big sweater, leggings and cowboy boots.
- She felt bored at her job as a writer (and yes, she was a professional writer in real life).
The excerpt included some beautiful imagery of laughing amongst dandelions, sunsets, nighttime breezes, inanimate objects “dancing”, and fingertips brushing against things. It was all very elegant and inspirational, but after the first 10 minutes, we all slowly began to realize that she was several pages deep and nothing had happened. There was yet to a scene with a beginning or an end, and all she had done was describe nonlinear moments with no apparent purpose to them. In other words, there was no story.
If you’ve taken writing classes or have worked with other writers, then you’ve probably encountered many talented writers who made you question what the hell you think you’re doing in even attempting to write. While it’s true that there are many people in the world who can’t write worth a damn, it’s also true that it’s not at all hard to find someone who is a very good writer. So I’ll posit this: writing great prose is easy. High schoolers can do it. If you want to sit back and critically look at ways to improve your writing, you have to ignore your prose and focus on something else.
In my personal opinion, great prose is only 25% of the battle.
I think prose is one of the first things readers pick up on. One striking sentence is all it takes for someone to tell you you’re a great writer. So I think that’s how many of us started writing — didn’t we all start by writing a couple descriptive paragraphs of a scene or a feeling? But how long is a reader willing to admire your way with words before they want something to happen? If your prose is only satisfying 25% of your reader’s expectations, they aren’t going to turn the page. And if you’re 17 years old when someone tells you you’re a great writer, then you can leave the prose on the backburner for a while and develop everything else that goes into writing.
So what is the other 75%? Depends of the writer, of course. It’s probably a mixture of pacing, characterization, having a good premise, and a number of other things. But whenever I read masterworks, I can’t help but notice flawless structure. To me, structure is a great place to start honing your skills, because it’s something that is concrete and therefore easy to analyze and observe. And once mastered and paired with your command of prose, it might just be the fastest route to a complete story that captures peoples’ interest.
Try this: take a short story, figure out its conclusion, and go through every paragraph, marking how the paragraph relates to the story’s conclusion. Of course, not every story works for this exercise, and many brilliant authors break this kind tight structure, but it’s still worth your time to learn. (That should really go without saying for every piece of writing advice.)
One eye-opening exercise for me was when I did that to Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling” (it’s in your Scribner!). As I noted how each paragraph moved the story forward, it became clear that every single sentence in that story is an arrow pointing directly to the story’s final sentence. So, while many pedestrians — and a fair number of writers — insist that we artists are at least a little bit in the business of gilding lilies, you can show them one randomly chosen story in which every sentence is something like a cog in a machine. Essential, cohesive, functional, and always moving forward.
So, if you’re trying to get better as a writer, my advice is to to stop questioning whether or not your prose is good. It is, okay? Set that aside and study your storytelling. Are you the girl in the coffeeshop throwing beautiful ideas and lovely descriptions, or is your story written with purpose and clarity? Study how your story moves and flows. If you get a good handle on a tight, focused structure, then I think you truly are in the top echelon of writers.
The best part is that it’s almost mathematical and can be learned. It’s up to you to sit down and do the work.
Do you think people ever write parodies of Thought Catalog articles for the purpose of getting them published in Thought Catalog? There are so many possibilities.
Possible Thought Catalog Articles:
- What Eating Kale Feels Like
- 31 Reasons I Parted My Hair The Other Way Yesterday, But Not Today
- Dear People Who Believe In Things, Shut Up
- Why It’s Actually Much Harder To Be Beautiful
- I Know The Doctor Said Your Erectile Dysfunction Is A Medical Issue, But I Can’t Help But Take It Personally
- 41 Reasons Why Lists Are Easier To Write Than An Actual Essay
- What Racism Means To Me, A White Person
- What Wearing Corduroy Pants, A Western Shirt, A Hoodie, Denim Jacket, Glasses And Chukka Boots Feels Like
- 94 Reasons I’m Over My Ex-Boyfriend
- An Ode To Bearded Men With Half-Sleeves
Tweet more at me. @ladymullette
Dear Editors of Thought Catalog,
What are your damn criteria?
This was inspired by the racist article you published entitled So are We Just Not Going To Tell Chinese People That New Years Was A Month Ago? Which is racist for many reasons, but also features the sentence:
If we’ve got a billion people that all look exactly the same writing the wrong dates on checks, you’re looking a global financial collapse that no eyes have ever seen – round or slanted.
What I don’t understand is if you, TC, actually want to help writers, provoke thought, share new perspectives, share universal perspectives or, like, get as many clicks as possible. Like, if you just accept whatever writing is barely passable, this writer — almost exclusively a beautiful, privileged, white 20-something — is so excited to get published (ostensibly because no other publication would accept his/her work) that s/he shares the link on all possible forms of social media so that his.her friends who would not normally read anything so trivial and self-absorbed, except this time they know the person who wrote it so it’s cool!
The only other explanation is that you honestly and sincerely don’t know what good writing is like. I don’t think of myself as a literary snob, and I hesitate to say that any writing can be objectively bad. I guess I just have a background in teaching writing and literature, which has led me to see the value in rubrics. Or, if not a rubric, some kind of standard for what is “exceptional” versus merely “proficient”.
Here is an example of a rubric:
You may (or may not) be wondering why I think your content is, shall we say, “inadequate”. Can one really judge the quality of writing? Maybe I just don’t agree with your writers’ opinions? Maybe I’m just a Negative Nancy that likes to hate on things. Maybe I’m bitter about my lack of publication in TC and whatever other journals/magazines are out there.
I’m going to continue anyway.
You ask for work that is “fun, smart, creative, i.e., journalistic, literary or entertaining”. Well, I read an article about how a pornstar could not believe how “a brainy, band camp-attending gangly teenager turn into a confident, sultry internationally known sex icon [sic] in a matter of one year? I’m not tooting my own horn. I’m just in disbelief.” That was the article: how great she thought her life was with no details on what her life was actually like, what she did, how she came to be this way, complicated thoughts, or events, or scenes, nothing like that. Just how she thought her life was so cool that she couldn’t believe it, finally concluding that she didn’t know what to do but that simply putting it into words was an accomplishment (TC publishing the perspective of a beautiful white girl whose life is so good that it’s literally baffling and she’s proud of herself for just writing about it, whodathunkit?). Aside from being vague and disorganized, was it at least fun, smart, or creative? How can the essay be any of those things when she seems to have made no attempt to connect her experience to anything I, or anyone else, can understand, relate to, or be changed by? In other words: what was the point of reading that?
What about the article entitled “Dear Girls, Please Shave Your Pubic Hair”, in which the author unsuccessfully attempts to use rational thought to justify why women should shave their pubic hair, and how it’s not his fault that he “can’t get hard” for a hairy pubic mound? And even aside from it’s anti-feminist tones — I’ve read intelligent arguments in favor of Female Genital Mutilation that I found genuinely thought-provoking — the essay fails from an objective, logical standpoint when it attempts to scientifically justify why women should have hairless bodies. The logic was unsound; you are therefore promoting ignorance as “smart”, “journalistic”, or “literary”.
Humans use words, or any form of expression to connect. Art and writing is an attempt to find the universalities in the human experience. When you, editors of Thought Catalog, select which articles to publish, do you not take into consideration whether or not the essay could have some kind of meaningful impact on the reader? Whether or not the writer presents an interesting idea? Whether or not the writer has any sense of pacing, story, tone, or self-awareness? Have you not noticed that so much of what you publish is, from a literary and journalistic standpoint, incomplete?
I guess there is one other possible explanation for churning out content that is almost entirely pointless, narcissistic, and sometimes offensive. You have absolutely no criteria at all. Everyone who can arrange some dreamy or sarcastic prose can get published in Thought Catalog. It’s all about those delicious clicks, the publicity — who cares if it’s good or bad, and the ad revenue.
As a shitty writer, and a skinny and self-absorbed 20-something, (though I’m neither white nor privileged), I’m still disappointed with Thought Catalog. either your mission is disingenuous or your management is incompetent. You tempt writers with a chance of a byline and a wide readership, and cheapen their work by not filtering out unintelligent, bigoted, anti-intellectual, and banal work. Then you profit.
Dear few writers who read this blog, please do not read or submit to Thought Catalog. They profit by promoting ignorance as literature and journalism. They take advantage of developing writers to churn out a constant stream of free content and “clickbait” for the purpose of generating traffic->ad revenue. Secondly, you don’t want your hard work associated with something as asinine as “Being Privileged Is Not A Choice, So Stop Hating Me For it” or unintelligent as “17 Things Feminists Need To Stop Complaining About”. Your work is better than that. Save it for something good.
I don’t believe that it’s necessary for every writer to “write what you know”, but I do believe that I personally am supposed to be doing just that. I feel a sense of duty to my background, my family history, my place in the world, and to my unique message. The problem is, I don’t know how to sort through everything.
In every writing class I’ve taken, I’m handed short stories, and they are invariably about upper-middle class white people, usually undergoing some kind of quiet marital rot. I grew up in the suburbs of Omaha, Nebraska, so I thought I knew what that was like. My stories replicated these New Yorker-ish themes. After all, wasn’t the New Yorker the most prestigious publication for any short story?
Until very recently, I never saw the value of the stories I had sitting in front of me. I’m first-generation Vietnamese-American, raised by post-war immigrant parents, living in middle America. Aside from that, familial relationships are tenuous in their own ways, but also characteristically Asian. Not many people write about having a culture gap between themselves and their own parents, or inter-generational trauma, an immigrant’s view of the American Dream, or any number of things that surrounded me all this time, yet never considered things that I “know”.
But how do I sort through this and turn it into a story? I’ve never been assigned a story like mine to read. I’ve never seen it done before and there’s no one to show me the way.
In a way, it’s true that we all have to find our own stories anyway. But why is it so much easier to write other peoples’ stories? Why was I taught that this is what I “know”? Why has no one pointed out that the things I’ve written until now were not my stories at all?