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Scott Lax Blog

Writing About What You Don't Want to Write About

H.L. Mencken once said, "There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers."

I sometimes give my students an assignment to write about something they don't want to write about. I've heard and read some wonderful results of this exercise, but here I only want to say why I think this can be helpful.

Writing about what you don't want to write about helps you understand your own nature better, and helps you examine your prejudices, as well as the wider world you may have neglected. This applies to writing about people you don't like, as well.

In fiction, those people may become characters. Those characters – because you now understand them, even if a little – become people once again, instead of clichéd characters. In other words, they're not dull. They're real.

As well, you'll face your fears, including those that involve people that frighten you, or have hurt you or those people about whom you care. It's okay to create a character without being that character. You are not your characters. You are a writer, the one who creates them. There's a big difference.  Read More 

What Wine and Writing Have in Common

While I can't call myself a connoisseur, I suppose I can say I'm an oenophile - a lover of wine. The protagonist of my new novel is a connoisseur, though, a wine writer who travels from Paris to the South of France, then to Ohio, where he has a dark purpose that is against his nature. In any case, wine plays a significant role in my novel, as a metaphor and in and of itself.

Recently I tasted a French wine, after a few weeks of only tasting Australian, Italian, Chilean and American wines. It was a relief. Not because there aren't wondrous wines of the above-mentioned countries: all of them produce amazing wines, even in my writerly budget's range.

It's simply that, for me, in general, French wines allow their flavors to emerge and be interpreted. There is something I sense (and of course wine is utterly - or almost so - subjective) in many French wines. They emerge; they hint; they whisper. They are the most literary of wines... for me. (Not for everyone, certainly; and if we ever move to Northern California, I will, naturally, take this all back and ingratiate myself to the great vintners of California.)

All of my wine musings mean only this: What I like is for a wine, like a story, to emerge from the bottle or page. I don't want to be smashed (literally and figuratively) over the head with it. I don't want a "big, chewy fruit and sugar bomb" in a wine, or a James Patterson novel in a book. (Though I admire both in other ways - more power to them, both big wines and Patterson, Inc.)

When you write: allow your reader to figure some things out. Not everything, of course, but you don't need to over-explain. One of my teachers told me to "write for smart people." I don't think she meant I.Q. I think she meant to write for real readers - those who wish to think, not merely move their eyes across the page and demand to be entertained.

For me, with wine or words: complexity under the surface of ease of consumption is preferable. If only F. Scott Fitzgerald had stuck to moderate wine consumption and stayed away from the booze... how ironic, if you think about it… for he was the French wine of literature.  Read More 

"Sales Call," My Short Story, Placed Second in a Competition

I was recently informed that I won second place in The Lit's MUSE magazine Literary Competition. I won it for a short story I wrote -- under 3,000 words -- called "Sales Call." The winner was Toni Thayer, for "You Are What You Play." I've never met Ms. Thayer, but send her congratulations and wish her much success.

This is a particularly nice award, as it's the first short story I've submitted to a magazine -- I wrote it for the contest, pretty quickly -- and it's about a subject that I've thus far avoided – sales, and the lost world of American manufacturing.

I was once a traveling salesman, a manufacturer's representative, though the story itself is fiction. I typed “Sales Call,” as a title, and the rest just came pouring out. I had no idea what it would be when I typed that title. I spent so much of my younger years in that occupation. (Drumming, and music, should be coming up soon in my fiction writing, as I was a professional drummer, too - sometimes it takes some distance to write about a thing.)

I'm gratified that the judge chose to recognize something that isn't anywhere close to the de rigueur, MFA fiction that I read so much of in magazines. It's just a story about a young salesman and an old sales pro. That's all I'll say about it, as I heard it's going to be published in The Lit’s MUSE magazine in March.

For me, it's a bit of confirmation that trends don't matter to everyone; that you should follow your heart and write about what you want to write about; and that what's hip today will be passé tomorrow. Don’t worry about what judges or editors or publishers are looking for. You’ll paralyze yourself. Just write cleanly and from the heart.

I'm grateful to Judith Mansour, executive director of The Lit, for promoting writers and literature in NE Ohio. If you want to read an article that ran today about The Lit and the contest, click the link on the Announcements or Home page of this site. As for the story, it should be published pretty soon. Read More 

On Journal Writing, Blogging and Creative Writing

Writers have, as an option, the chance to take classes in "journaling" - journal writing. Or, as it used to be called, writing in a diary.

While I don't teach such a class, I write in a diary, by longhand, with pen and ink. It helps me separate out what I need to say to myself from what I need to say to the wider world. It works as a kind of therapy, and there's something deeply satisfying about it. Head to hand, hand to pen, pen to paper.

Blogging is another way to do this, but when someone blogs, even anonymously, there's an understanding that others will read it. So it changes the words. Even if the blog is brutally honest, I think that it changes the words, because it’s an other-directed action, not an inner-directed action. And that's fine, but not the same as writing only for you.

Then there's this kind of blog -- for advice (for writers, for example) -- or for any reason: politics, entertainment, cooking, ad so on. And those are all fine and often entertaining or helpful to others.

But literary creative writing -- fiction or nonfiction -- shouldn't be for therapy, or to rage against the machine, the wind, or your boss. It's for readers. Which doesn't mean it can't be a kind of (seemingly) unfiltered angst-ridden narrative (CATCHER IN THE RYE), or stream-of-consciousness (ON THE ROAD) or other works that seems as if they are coming directly from the writer’s subconscious. That seemingly unfiltered, flowing story or book that affects you is likely heavily edited (not so much with ON THE ROAD, but that’s an exception), and intricately crafted.

So how do you combine the two disparate things – a private diary/journal and fiction/literary nonfiction? Here’s my suggestion. Use your journal to find out about yourself – what’s really important to you, what your hopes and fears are, as well as ideas that pop into your mind while writing. Then take those ideas and, those hopes and fears and everything else, and use them to write honest fiction or literary nonfiction that is crafted and, you hope, read by others.

Some writers through history have used the bottle or the needle or other mind-altering stuff to access their unconsciousness. Too many of them died too young. There are other ways to access your inner writer. Writing in a personal diary is only one of them. If you haven't tried it, maybe it's time.  Read More