Vonnegut on Writing

Here are some ideas from Kurt Vonnegut on writing. Vonnegut was, of course, a soldier in WWII and was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, imprisoned in Dresden and survived the Allies’ firebombing of the city. He also taught at the Iowa Workshops and wrote some of the 20th Century’s best novels. Here, he gives us eight pointers on writing a good story.

A Homemade MFA?

Over at The Review Review website, Randy Susan Myers has posted this group of excerpts from books she read studied that she considers her homemade MFA. We’ve discussed the eternal question of “To MFA or Not to MFA” before here, so we’ll let that dog lie for the moment. But Myers’ point is that if you’re uninterested in, unwilling or unable to suffer the slings and arrows of a graduate program in writing, you can build your own program.

Find books that you like as a start. Read through the first pages of books that interest you (you can usually do this online, but always in the store). If you like the approach, get the book and study it. Don’t just read through it. Study it. Take notes, make yourself write papers about the things you’ve learned. Commit them to memory. Then move on.

There are also other shorter, non-academic programs at writers’ centers and public libraries–and of course through the Veterans Writing Project–for people who aren’t interested in getting the academic credential but are interested in studying in a more formalized setting.

Finally, you could get into a writing group. Find a small number of other writers who are willing to share their works and their insights on yours. Build your own workshop.

But the most important thing is simply to write. If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. So get to it.

Rummy and Mo

Over at the New York Review of Books–of which Donald Rumsfeld reportedly believed that anyone who subscribed was clearly a communist–they’ve posted a snippet of writing by the newest Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Mo Yan (who technically was a communist, Mr Rumsfeld) describing some of Mo’s experiences in the Peoples Liberation Army.  It feels real to me, all that riding around in the back of trucks and hoping you’ll be the one selected for some new bit of training. So pop over and give it a read. Who cares what Rummy thinks, anyway.

A Veteran’s Day Poem

Joseph Bathanti, the newly-named Poet Laureate of North Carolina, has written a new poem in honor of Veteran’s Day 2012.  Bathanti is a friend of the Veterans Writing Project and has dedicated himself to getting veterans’, service members’, and military family members’ stories told. You should check out this new poem.  Our friends at Press 53 publish some of his collections of poetry.

Of Presidents and Poets

In anticipation of the upcoming presidential election, here’s a link to the Poetry Foundation’s website that lists a few of our former presidents linked to their favorite poets. General George Washington dug Phyllis Wheatley. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt read Edward Arlington Robinson so much he helped Robinson get a job. WWI National Guard artillery battery commander Harry S. Truman liked Alfred Lord Tennyson. Sailors John Kennedy, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter liked (respectively) Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling and Dylan Thomas. Now go vote.

I Watched the Naked Women Walk Out of the Sea

No, it’s not an admission to voyeurism. It’s a line from one of John Cheever’s short stories, “Goodbye, My Brother.” Cheever, whose birth centennial we celebrate this year, said that he wrote that line, and then built a story around it. Oh, did I mention that it’s the final line in the story?

John Cheever was a soldier in the Second World War. The story goes that he was in an infantry unit that went ashore on D-Day. Most of his company was killed. Cheever was pulled out of that unit before D-Day by an officer who knew of his work and thought the Army could use a good writer on the propaganda team. Lucky for John; lucky for us.

Allan Gurganus studied with Cheever at the Iowa Workshops. Gurganus gives us this remembrance of his mentor from the New York Review of Books. If you haven’t read much Cheever, I commend his work to you.  I have a copy of his collected stories beside my bed and am savoring a story each night before I drift off.

50,000 Words. One Month. No Problem.

By Alyssa Kropp

How difficult could this be? Girded by my VWP seminar in May, and inspired by my fellow veterans’ writings, I will find out this November along with many other aspiring novelists during National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org). Anyone else curious and a tad crazy? I am looking for some writing buddies, whether virtual or in the DC Metro area.

The Army’s made made me a bit of a planner- I am not very good at ‘winging it’, but Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo’s founder, would claim that no preparation is the best preparation. But for those of us who may lose sleep fearing writer’s block on Day 1, he has published No Plot? No Problem! – available in hard copy and Kindle editions on Amazon. This, combined with your dog-eared VWP text Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story, some good friends, a sense of adventure, and a bit of craziness, will get you at the very least the start of a novel, new writing friends, and stories about writing for 30 days straight.

If you have a few characters roaming around in the nether regions of your mind, give them a story to plant themselves in. Read up on NaNoWriMo, create an account and join the NoVA region forum (or the one in your area). VWP alum and friends interested in connecting as veterans, may then find my profile “mizzadventure” to become writing buddies (or send me an email to my gmail address mizzadventure). We can then plan on a few regular ‘write-ins’ for camaradarie and support, and plan a kick-off session on November 1st.

Alyssa Kropp is an Army Lieutenant Colonel on active duty in the Pentagon. She took part in the Veterans Writing Project’s seminars in the Summer of 2012.

Of Mattie Ross and Norwood Pratt

Sergeant Charles Portis was a United States Marine who served in Korea during the shooting war there. He came home to college and went on to a career as a journalist, including a stint at the New York Herald Tribune at about the same time guys like Jimmy Breslin, William Zinsser, and Red Smith were there.

Portis wrote a couple books, too. One of them was twice made into movies, first in 1969 and then again in 2012. Maybe you remember, True Grit. His other major novel, Norwood, is the subject of a review in The Oxford American by Wint Husky. I can’t recommend the book more strongly than this: if you don’t like it, you probably need to have your sense of humor re-calibrated.

A Hero as Poet

There is a review in the Economist this week of a biography of the British WW2 poet Frank Thompson.  I have to admit I’ve never heard of Thompson and I’ve struggled to find examples of his work: I found one. His work is classically influenced, and apparently he considered himself only an amateur. But in the end, aren’t we all–or 99% of us anyway?

I love the title of the book: A Very English Hero. He was a member of the Special Operations Executive, as irregular a group of heroes as will ever exist: Think T.E. Lawrence by the dozen. I’ll probably ask my local library to pick up the book (a great way to get to read books that cost more than you’re keen to spend and still make sure the author gets paid). It sounds like a ripper of a story.