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Scott Lax Blog

Editing in Life and Literature

One of the things that strikes me about Ted Kennedy's life and how he approached it, was that he believed that even with failings and flaws and tragedy, we can still attempt and sometimes do good works.

In view of writing, this holds true. I'm working on a book of short stories right now. One that I'm working on now, a 25-pager, calls me to edit it every day. I've made, I don't know, dozens, maybe a hundred plus changes. And I know that it will never be perfect, maybe never even be good, but I'll edit it until I think it's the best it can be. Then I'll let it go.

Even then, I'll know it could have been better. The publisher of THE YEAR THAT TREMBLED, Paul S. Eriksson, may he rest in peace, told me as my first novel was going to press, and I was begging for more changes, "There comes a time you have to let it go!"

Except Paul didn't exactly "say" it. He sort of yelled it. He was a grand and good man, with a passion for books, and he taught me a lot. So: my advice is to work and work on a project, and then let it go.

A work of literature is like being human: It will never be perfect.  Read More 

Ted Kennedy and His Legacy, Literary and Otherwise: May He Rest in Peace

I met Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who passed away today, on a few occasions, mostly at the home of his sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, widow of Ted's late brother, Robert F. Kennedy. The senator was larger than life, with a big, booming voice, a welcoming smile, and whatever tragedy he carried inside him -and he had had more than his share - he seemed to have put into compartments in his soul. I sensed that he had faith that he would be reunited with his loved ones: his brothers and sisters, among others, who went before him. He was a close friend of a close friend of mine, and though I didn't know Ted well, I was then, and remain now, in awe of his political skills and accomplishments. He cared about regular people - people without privilege, and the means that he had; people without inherent power, and those who just plain fell on hard times. He fought for human rights in many ways throughout his career, building bridges with Democratic and Republican senators, and moved his causes forward, inch by inch at times, and, sometimes, with bold action.

My friend Ron Powers (he was not the friend of Ted Kennedy's I mentioned) helped the Senator write his memoir, which will be out September 14. That pairing was fitting: Ron is one of the most brilliant nonfiction writers of our time.

I can't wait to read this book. I hope it helps people understand the man, and realize that Senator Kennedy's ambitions -- universal health care being at the top of the list -- were noble, even if the senator himself had his flaws and troubles, which were both freighted upon him and self-inflicted, which he acknowledged.

I'm glad I met him. Passing universal health care, I am certain, would be the legacy most important to Edward M. Kennedy. Andrew Young commented today that universal health care was, for Ted, a human right. I agree with that view.

May Edward M. Kennedy, a great, if flawed American, rest in peace.
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Knowing that the Effort is Real

When it comes to teaching, I like what James Baldwin said: "If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real."

That's all I try to do in my teaching: let students know that their effort is real. Sometimes they realize they don't want to make the effort. That's okay, too.

Most of a student's success comes because he or she has some talent, works hard, stays humble, takes some advice and throws out the rest. Creative writing teachers should guide their students' efforts; they should helping students find their stories, and find their voices in order to translate and shape those stories into the written form.  Read More 

Sherman Alexie

I just read "War Dances," by Sherman Alexie, a short story in The New Yorker. I thought it was a pretty good story, and then it sneaked up on me and landed as a very good story. Such was the ease of his writing - he allowed the story and theme to unfold.

I reviewed his book of stories, TEN LITTLE INDIANS, for The Plain Dealer years ago, and gave it a rave review, which Alexie has used on his site and when the paperback came out. My editor at the time had me temper the review. I wrote, "Alexie has dipped a big toe into Ray Carver and John Cheever and Tim O'Brien territory," or something to that effect. She thought that was over-the-top, and asked me to cut it. Then about a dozen other newspaper reviews said basically the same thing. Still, I was able to write about what a great book it was.

He's an outstanding writer. He often writes about his vision of the modern American Indian experience in ways that are far from precious. He uses clichés sometimes, in the way that Cheever used clichés about WASPS or Roth about Jews or Baldwin about African Americans. That's what the great ones do: they turn the clichés inside out, and they don't care about being socially or academically correct, which I suppose is another way of using that old chestnut, "politically correct," which is out of style, even if it is a good phrase.

Don’t worry about being correct in that way, or precious. Make your characters honest, even if a particular character is dishonest. To try to manipulate characters to be what they’re not demeans your fiction and corrodes the truthfulness of what you write.  Read More 

Reading to Become Better Writers

You've heard it before, I know: but for writers, reading is so important. It exercises your literary brain cells. It gives you ideas. It expands your world far beyond your house and garden, place of work, and the places you go, from the grocery store to the park. I'm reading - with great fascination - Ian Frazier's New Yorker account of traveling through Siberia. I'm seeing Siberia through his eyes, and learning a lot about a mysterious part of the world, one that covers more land than the U.S. and Europe combined.

For writers: I suggest you try to sink your mind into substantial works, be they fiction, nonfiction, long essays, features, short stories or novels. Think about how the author has worked to put so many facts and impressions and narrative story lines together. Read actively (not stressfully); ask yourself how he or she was able to weave together such a magnificent story - or, if you don't like what you read, why that doesn't work for you, and what it lacks. That alone can help you get into the rhythm of writing longer pieces, and doing so with the same kind of satisfaction you get (I hope) from reading such pieces.  Read More 

I've Resigned Writing my Column "Everyday People" for Sun News

The Sun News, for which I've written a column called "Everyday People" for a year and seven months, has restructured. My new editor wrote and said they were going to run my column every other month.

However, after some soul searching, and thinking about the state of freelance journalism in general, and Northeast Ohio in particular, I respectfully resigned the column instead of continuing to write it every other week. (It had run on the front page every week.)

I'm concentrating on fiction, teaching, and other things close to my heart and writer's soul. For all of you who read my column -- and your letters and comments tell me there were a few of you -- thank you very much for your support, and your good will. To the subjects I profiled, thank you for sharing your stories.

I've posted my last column for The Sun News on the Writing & Film link. (Click above.)  Read More 

Nothing Special. But That's the Point.

I think that good and great writing must have two components. The first is reasonable skill, which is to say, decent grammar and correct spelling. (I usually use spell-check; I'm barely a fair speller, so a dictionary or spell-check is necessary for writers like me.) The second is writing from the heart. Even satire; even journalism; even everything. Otherwise, it's false. And if it's false, it's not good writing.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: learn the basics. If you break the rules, at least know what rules you're breaking. And write cleanly and from the heart.  Read More