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Scott Lax Blog

Dickens in the Age of Twitter

I recently read A CHRISTMAS CAROL IN PROSE, by Charles Dickens. It's of course what all the various film incarnations have been based upon, and has provided so many with a sense of what Christmas - for those who believe or sort of believe - is about. (Or don't believe in Christmas, it's still a great novella, I think.)

Partial as I am to the 1951 movie version of "Scrooge," above all the other interpretations, there is nothing like the novella. It took me inside of Dickens's sensibility and mastery of language, as well as into 1830's London.

How modern it is, in so many ways: Human nature hasn't changed much; nor has need, or poverty, or greed or love of family; faith remains, and cynicism does, too.

What has changed so much, I fear, is the pace at which opinions are formed and words are spoken. I don't want to imagine Dickens imparting wisdom in 140-character bytes.

If your means are small this Christmas season, and your mind is rushing, try reading A CHRISTMAS CAROL IN PROSE by Dickens. It sticks with you; it doesn't evaporate into the vapors. It stays, rather, in the mists of literary wonder, which, if you react as I did, enriches your life far more than a new sweater or a night on the town.  Read More 

What Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly Can Teach You About Character Development

If you're in college or graduate school or otherwise taking a creative writing fiction course, and you're trying to understand character development, you'd be better off studying Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly's rendition of "Little Drummer Boy" on YouTube than listening to an unpublished instructor try to explain it to you.

Watch Ferrell and Reilly. Then watch the original David Bowie and Bing Crosby version from 1977. Both are sort of insanely brilliant, both sort of just weird. But here's what you can learn from closely watching (facial expressions, voice control, set design, movement) both versions.

Ferrell and Reilly, two superb comic actors - if not geniuses - don't imitate the originals. They don't do impressions. They get to the truthfulness of the essence of that wonderful, freaky performance by Bowie and Bing.

That's what character development is. You get inside the skin of the character, and then you make that character your own. Do you see? That's why simply "observing" the human condition and "listening to real dialogue" and all those other clichés of writing teachers are not what creates good fiction.

Watch Ferrell's face. He's not Will Ferrell, yet he's not David Bowie. He's this other thing, a third thing. He's one plus one equals three. One (Bowie) plus one (Ferrell) equals a third thing, an original character. He and Reilly create characters. That's what you need to do in fiction. Create characters. Don’t get wacky, but don’t imitate. Get inside the character and run with it. He - just as your characters should be - is barely in control, yet perfectly in control. He appears on the verge of doing anything at anytime, but the reality is that he, as the author of that character, is completely in control.

Never once in that sketch/song do you see either actor "be clever." You see them "be." What are they being? When you know that, you'll know what it is to create a character.  Read More 

Activities for a Snow Day

Activities on a snow day: Writing with a scarf tied around my neck and a few layers of clothing because I'm sitting by the window, which, though I recently weatherized, is still glass, and cold. Classical music on a head-set. I'd written late into the night; slept for a few hours; dealt with school being closed, wrote again until I conked out for a nap. Now back at it: A good time to write, my brain slowed down, making it all the easier to catch errors. Alpha waves induced by mental fatigue can have its literary benefits. So: If you're a writer, you do your writing as you can. Excuses are always there. Then again, so is the blank page. Read More 

Writing by Computer and Editing by Hand

It's a peaceful Saturday morning. I’m sitting at the dining room table. There's a low-slung, pre-solstice sun gently lighting the snow on the back porch. We're waiting for our baby to arrive; but that could still be a few days or perhaps more away. I'm on edge, but in a good way. Earlier, I read part of a short story in The New Yorker. It’s a longer story, and I’m enjoying it enough to go back to it. But concentrating for long on reading, with a baby in the near future, makes this a good time for me to edit.

I've been working on a book proposal for weeks now. It's just passed forty pages. I ran it off on the printer last evening before I came home from the office, across town, where I write.

Barely a page in and I've made numerous additions, corrections and edited one thing out. I'm certain I wouldn't have made these same changes if I simply edited on the computer.

I take notes by hand, in a notebook, but nearly all of what I write for publication I write initially on a computer. It flows easier, and it helps my fingers move as fast as my mind, sometimes faster. Often I write something before I think it, or so it seems.

Editing is a different matter. Seeing a page in the context of the physical world enables me to grasp its shape, form and essence much better. I don't know why that is; I'll leave that to a study that might be (or has been) performed at a university somewhere. I only know it's true for me. If you are a young or a new writer, maybe it would help you.

Think about avoiding the alternative: sloppy writing. I've noticed a lot of mistakes made in blogs, tweets and even articles on the Internet, including in Web sites of traditional newspapers. It's as if an Internet piece is somehow granted special dispensation from the elements of style. Even some highly accomplished authors that tweet and blog make mistakes that would be admonished in English class.

This isn't a good sign, because it means it's slowly becoming acceptable to make errors of punctuation, usage, grammar and spelling. It corrodes the written language, but it also stops you from writing your best. And the best you can write is usually not the best unless you edit what you write.

For this blog post, I won't print it out. But I will edit it. I've made mistakes before in blogs, and then tried to correct them later. No one's perfect, especially me.

But if you are writing a serious work – short story, a novel, a nonfiction memoir, a term paper, whatever it might be – you might want to edit it by hand. If you can, I strongly suggest you do that, at least once, then fix your work; and only then submit it.

Now, back to my own edit.  Read More 

Remembering John Lennon

I was and remain a huge fan of the Beatles, and of John Lennon, who died thirty years ago. He was murdered by a sick and twisted and murderous young man that held a copy of one of the great novels in American 20th Century literature, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. That man and the bullets in his handgun forever changed American culture for the worse. Anything in art can be twisted, even literature. Lennon and McCartney's "Helter Skelter" was likewise used by the sick and twisted twisted and murderous Charles Manson, who also forever changed the face of American culture for the worse.

The night John Lennon was murdered was a snowy night in Northeast Ohio, like it was this year on the night of Dec. 8, the 30th anniversary of John's death. There was a white-out blizzard and I as heard the news while I was driving I felt devastated by the news of Lennon. Talk about your end of innocence; a cultural touch-stone was gone with the pull of a trigger; not just Lennon, but the group that influenced so many of us.

In many ways, I don't think the music world has ever fully recovered from it, nor has the culture of celebrity. Though we lost many - Hendrix and Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and Janis Joplin and Buddy Holly and the list goes on and on, Lennon's murder, as seemingly random and starkly cruel as it was - given that he was on his way home to his home, to his young son, after a day's work recording an album that cemented his personal transition to a domestic yet artistic persona, shook popular culture and music to its core.

I want to remember John for being a man who knew he was flawed, however talented or even brilliant he was; a man who knew he blew it with his earlier child-rearing and wanted so badly to make up for it with his son, Sean. A man who had finally come to terms with being a husband and father, as well as an artist.

So I send my sympathy out to his family and to his fans. One thing about John is that he wanted to live a long time; he said so in his last interview. But he didn't make it. To honor his art and his memory is to live life as well as we can, always trying to improve, always loving as best we can, always being honest with ourselves. That's John Lennon's legacy to me.  Read More 

My December Column is up on THE FATHER LIFE

My new column is up on THE FATHER LIFE MAGAZINE. It's called, "Letter to my Unborn Son, Part Two." I hope you check it out - you can read it by clicking the link to the left.

Why I'm No Longer Teaching


While I still speak to organizations and schools, sometimes as author-in-residence, I've made the decision to stop teaching on a regular basis.

There are two reasons. The first is that I have a lot of writing to do, and in multiple genres. I have a novel at market; a book of short stories in progress; a nonfiction memoir in progress; two magazine columns; anda screenplay in progress. Not to mention other writing assignments.

The second reason is that world of higher education has slammed the door on accomplishment - e.g. being published, excellent teaching evaluations, and teaching skill - in favor of the acquisition of degrees, of M.A.s, M.F.As and Ph.D.s. I have a B.A. and that's it; and in the 2011 world of higher education, that's that.

Degrees are a wonderful thing; they're difficult to get, and are an achievement I admire. But I went another route when I began writing. I learned from great authors, I studied on my own, and I wrote and wrote and wrote, producing hundreds of published columns, essays and features, a literary novel, a produced play and a produced feature film. I've taught hundreds of students, if not more. (You can read some testimonials below.)

In 2010/2011, this is not enough to get my foot in the door of the academy. One university professor said to me a few years ago: "Do you understand why you can't get in the door?" I said no. "What do you think we sell here?" he asked me. "An education?" I replied. "No," he said. "We sell degrees. How do you think it will look if a guy with a B.A. is teaching students whom we want to get masters degrees?"

I cannot tell you how many times I've heard the same basic message, including from three university presidents, two deans, a headmaster, and a number of English Department heads. This is what they say it's about now, in our post-post modern era: "Accreditation." That means degrees; that means money to universities; that means you pay to play...or to teach.

I've taught for other organizations, literary organizations and such, and in general, it was a wonderful experience, especially with the students.

And I've taught for my own Chagrin Valley Writers' Workshop, which I loved. But I acted as administrator and teacher. It became too much, and took too much away from my own writing.

To my students whom I've taught over the past eight years or so: thank you. I enjoyed working with so many of you.

So a final few words. If you want to be a professional, full-time writer, my suggestion to you is to write, to study good and great writing, to be humble, and then to write some more. Then wake up and do it again, and realize that writing is a difficult career choice, but an immensely rewarding one in the sense of expressing your mind, heart and soul. Write cleanly and from the heart. Don't get cute. Don't be clever. Just tell a story.

If you want to teach, especially at a college level, I strongly advise you to get as many degrees as you can and teach the children well. But if you want to be a writer, as well as an academic, try not to let those with lots of degrees and little talent discourage you, or otherwise damage your writing. I've had numerous former M.F.A. students ask me to help them undo the damage from accredited courses they took that were taught by hacks.

I'm sorry the academy has gone in this direction, but it has. As my old Bread Loaf acquaintance, and a special teacher and writer, David Huddle, once said to me, as I was getting in my car for the long drive back to Cleveland from the Green Mountains: "Good luck with your writing. And good luck with your life."

And so to you.  Read More