Carol Guess is the author of ten books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn and Doll Studies: Forensics. She is Professor of English at Western Washington University, and lives in Seattle. Find her here.
A lot of writers have the bad habit of comparing themselves to other writers whom they deem better. Have you experienced this? And if so, what advice could you offer a budding, yet not-so-confident writer who has this bad habit?
Thanks for interviewing me, Nichole, and thanks for these excellent questions! Your first question makes sense to me, but comparing myself to other writers isn’t one of my bad habits. (I have plenty of bad habits, just not this one.) I try hard to remind myself that my struggle is personal, and that I’m primarily competing with myself. I want my next book to be better than my last book; I want to challenge myself to evolve as an artist. Other writers are a source of inspiration, encouragement, and energy. Of course I do struggle with jealousy, but not around the work itself. I think my jealousy is usually centered around public recognition, awards, and praise. And my jealousy of these things, or writers who acquire these things, is just petty—a bad habit, true. It’s a distraction from the difficult work of making art, which for me is a private process that’s translated through publication and performance into community building.
My recent engagement with collaboration (poet Daniela Olszewska and I just wrote a book together) has really helped me see this, so that’s my first piece of advice: try collaborating with another artist, so that you create a shared, rather than competitive, mindset. Another piece of advice is to focus on finding joy in your process. If you’re happy with your own progress, and take pleasure in making art, you’ll be less inclined to pass judgment on yourself or others. Yoga helps me with this, so a final piece of advice is to establish a routine in another discipline—running, knitting, carpentry, cooking. Leave writing behind for a while, and be an expert or a beginner in another field.
In flash fiction and prose poetry, how do you deal with compression? How do you describe compression?
I love making things tiny and perfect. It gives me pleasure to focus on detail, so compression comes naturally to me. In fact, for years I was told by writing teachers to make my work longer and more plot-oriented. I thought compression was a bad thing, and fought against it in my writing for a long time. It was such a release when I finally gave in—when I realized my bad habit was actually a skill!
I describe compression as winnowing something—a story, an image, a character sketch—down to the most intense elements of meaning and music. The work must still make some kind of sense, but leave gaps for the reader to fill in the mystery. It’s interesting that the form of yoga I practice, Bikram, is all about physical compression. You don’t stretch, you compress—you curl inward. It’s sexy and challenging and metaphor-laden. For me there’s so much meaning in the physical sensation of curling inward—it looks vulnerable, but feels strong—as well as the release that follows.
Is there ever a point at which you give up on a story? How does a writer know when to let a story or an idea go? Should a writer even do this to begin with?
Good question! I do have a fair share of false starts, but I usually make use of them later. I hang onto most of what I write, and see it as ingredients for the next project. For example, one of the prose poems in Tinderbox Lawn was a failed short story, stalled at seven pages. I compressed it down to one page, emphasizing the most important elements of the narrative.
Do you have any specific successful, efficient editing techniques to share?
Compress! Do away with as many words as possible, but save all of your earlier drafts. It’s also useful to consider whether seemingly unrelated poems, stories, or manuscripts are really parts of the same larger work. In my most recent book, Doll Studies: Forensics, I incorporated bits of an earlier unpublished manuscript. I pared the earlier manuscript down from 80 pages to about 20, and made those 20 pieces into a section of the book called “Departure Lounge.”
A lot of writers who submit to journals and read journals, and even this blog, are MFA students. What advice would you offer an MFA student who feels his professor doesn’t like or encourage his work? How important is it for a writer to have an MFA?
Thanks for asking such an honest question, Nichole. I don’t think every writer needs (or can afford) to get an MFA. I see the MFA as primarily a teaching/professional degree. That is, it’s not so much about becoming a better writer as about becoming a better teacher, editor, academic, and critic. All of those skills are useful to writers, so yes, the MFA is a very useful degree. But the end goal of most MFA programs is to place students in some kind of teaching job, or link them to an academic/professional circuit of some kind.
I have an MFA (confession!) and it was useful to me because I got teaching experience, and learned something about the politics and practices of academia. It didn’t improve my writing at all, and in fact I stopped writing altogether for about a year after I graduated. I was really damaged by my professor’s detachment, by a few of my peers’ arrogant and cruel remarks, and by the incessant criticism of the (very harsh) workshops I attended. But that’s just me. I’m an introvert; I’m a loner; I’m sort of (happily) odd. I learned to write by reading and by writing all the time. I mean, hours and hours a day, whenever I could, whatever I could. I learned to write by studying ballet very seriously as a young girl and recognizing early on that discipline was instrumental to the kind of artist I wanted to be. And I learned to write by falling in love, as I still do, with particular books—wanting to talk to those books in print, wanting to join that community.
The best advice I can give any emerging or beginning writer is to stay true to yourself, to believe in your aesthetic and your goals. If a professor treats you poorly, try to have compassion for them. Remember that they’re human, and are probably just struggling with some human worry—a divorce, trouble publishing, illness, depression. Ground yourself in whatever inspires you outside of the program; don’t let the program be your whole life. And stay close to other writers who are genuinely kind, smart, and thoughtful in their critiques. Be that person for a beginning writer, too—it’s really empowering to understand that you can be the mentor you didn’t have.
FF.Net Author’s Note
Nichole Beard is a graduate of Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She received her BA in Integrative Arts from Penn State University where she published articles for a student-run arts & culture journal. She is currently working on her first novel.