There’s a scene in Braveheart where William Wallace congratulates his childhood friend, Hamish, during a contest of stone put:
“That’s a good throw.”
“Aye, aye, it was.”
“I was wondering,” Wallace queries, “if you could do that when it matters?”
Hamish looks confused by the question, so Wallace expands:
“As it matters in battle? Could you crush a man with that throw?”
Hamish accepts, Wallace stands several yards away, and lets the big Scotsman hurl a large stone at him. He misses the target, and in turn, Wallace picks up a small rock and swiftly pops Hamish in the noggin.
What does this have to do with creative writing or an MFA degree? Like Wallace, who took a well-practiced shot at Hamish, to write well the writer must be diligent in the craft, and the MFA student often has to create under pressure. Diligence. Practice. Read a variety of texts old and new, ancient and avant-garde. Page through books if there’s no time to actually read. Look at the pictures. Read the captions. Observe human behavior. Allow sensory overload. Then write. We writers write like furious beings in the wee hours of the morning and late into evening’s hushed dark. When we examine what we’ve put to paper we must ask: Have we hit the mark?
I teach my students there’s a difference between telling an oral story and the act of putting it to paper. What may sound interesting verbally (a guess-what-happened-to-me-yesterday ditty) doesn’t translate easily to words. Then there’s point of view choice, tense to consider, and perhaps the story shouldn’t begin at the beginning, and after all that, maybe the story needs more tension and conflict than what actually happened. Can we throw the stone and hit the target when we have to?
Can we write well under pressure, as in “battle?” Many graduate students in the MFA program are forced to leave the “creative” part out of their writing. Perhaps the student’s too tired to care. The burdens of class-required reading, working a job, working as a GTA, laundry, researching material for academic papers, balancing a checkbook, and trying to wedge in a wee bit of social time, or better yet, some real solitude for cerebral downtime often leaves little time to work at being creative in the writing. And it takes practice. The brain is a muscle, and like a stone thrower’s arm, the more we train our brain the better it functions under pressure. As a graduate student it would be ideal to turn in third or fourth drafts in workshop, not the first draft hammered out the day it’s due. But for many, maybe most, it’s a challenge just to get one draft written, printed, and stapled by the due date.
For the determined student writer, the one who must write under pressure without the luxury of weeks and months to work on a poem or a short story, a predetermined area of focus can help segue from the chaos of daily living to ephemeral hours set aside for pursuit of the creative. What I mean is, if the poet or writer can identify a diehard, indestructible, irresolvable obsession, it can be nothing less than a blessing. The writer with an obsession never has to search for subject matter. It offers a pressing, chronic subject which can work like malleable metal, i.e. it will change form as the writer needs, but the material is in place when the writer visits the page. My primary obsession (I have many) is my father and my now deceased mother. Emily Dickinson’s supposed obsession was death, the theme that electrified her language whenever she approached it. Many writers have disclosed their obsessions or muse; research into your own writing could help reveal yours.
A writer without a true obsession, a foundational fracture, or a mythic wound, may have too much time to think, and in “battle” misgivings about a subject, or a reluctance to work at the writing, can produce miserable results. Calling out the creative might ask of the writer to seek out a muse or to locate those things that are dark, discomforting, and unsettling, but there might lay what is often transformative: the writing that will connect, that will evoke deep emotional resonance.
Keeping a list at-hand of craft tools will help the strung-out brain remember to use literary devices. Under pressure it’s easy to churn out a poem or prose piece without use of repetition, imagery, well thought out diction, or thematic concerns. We tend to dump to the page whatever pops out of the internal dictating voice of the mind, forgetting about the art of absence, omissions, ellipses, and the beauty of that which is withheld. I have a notebook at my side filled with literary device terms, and favorite bits of phrases “cut” from poems and prose pieces I love like a mad-quilter would stash coveted squares of decorative fabric. When I feel the brain-tank running on fumes, after a brief scan of my notebook, I’m re-fueled for the writing-road.
Whatever the source, a flip through a deck of tarot cards or lighting a candle, when the pressure is on, finding a way to quickly move from the “waking life” to the realm of dream-life is vital. We all love our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but beware the ability of blips and dings to distract when it’s time to enter the realm of the creative. Put it away. Turn it off. Let the mind turn on, dream, and imagine. It might take practice (yes, it can take practice to dream) since it’s been a long time since we were children, but allow yourself the right to dream and imagine, to un-filter the doors of perception.
Don’t let your work just be a “good throw.” Practice daily and work hard at it. We know the cliché: Write hard. Work to segment the parts of your busy writer’s life so when you write, whether a piece of flash fiction or a cover letter for a position, you do it well. With an “obsession” in mind, and all external reality filtered through the consciousness and sensory perceptions, the writer can hope to tap into the borderless, creative mind of childhood, and use well-practiced aim to “hit the mark” in the writing when it matters.
Judith earned her MFA from UCF in May of 2015. She has created and taught writing workshops for adults challenged by mental illness in conjunction with the University of Central Florida’s Literary Arts Partnership. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications. Her poetry collection, “According to the Gospel of Haunted Women” received publication and the 2015 Pioneer Prize. A memoir piece, “My Nickname was Frankenstein,” is nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She confesses to an obsession with the archaic and misunderstood, dead relatives, and collects vintage religious artifacts and creepy dolls. Currently she teaches poetry at The University of Central Florida, and is an assistant poetry editor for The Florida Review. More information can be found at http://www.judithroney.com .