Writing Better

EVAN: Again I sat down with Dr. Paul Christensen to get some tips on how to write better. What advice would you give somebody who is looking to take their writing to the next level?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Well, I have really one piece of advice, and that is, you will write from what you have read. And if all you have read are those fairly arid poems of the 19th century that high school considers the great art, that’s what’s going to come out of your mouth. You’re like, you know, the sailor’s parrot; he’s going to cuss a blue streak because that’s all he heard from his owner, right? So if you fill your ears with second rate Wordsworth imitations from the 19th century, you know really soft and pudgy kinds of poetry that got written in the 19th century in America that find their way because they’re so innocent, so without any sexual innuendos, you know, safe stuff that you can teach seniors and juniors in high school. If that’s all you read, well you’re never gonna make it.  Unless you’re one of these crazy geniuses that just has his own voice no matter what. So the thing you have to do is you have to modernize yourself. You finally have to become confident in the sound of contemporary speech. And you only arrive at that by reading as many contemporary journals of poetry as possible and going around to professors if they’re available to you and saying “Who’s hot?”, “Whose really in right now?,” and “Just give me the names so I can go to the library and find their books.” And go home and master what these guys, these women, are doing right. And then you see the slang, and you see the shortcuts, and you see the political allusions, then you see the references to movies, and television, and radio, and folk songs, and rock music. Is that possible you say? And you, all of a sudden, the shell starts to break from your imagination, that little tiny shell that high school gave you, that there’s only a certain kind of very finished and embellished and embroidered language that is real poetry that has to rhyme and have regular stanzas and all this other stuff.

EVAN: What exactly qualifies somebody to be a writer or a poet?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: You want a definition of a poet? A coiner of new language that fits the time that poet lives in.

EVAN: Where do you find this new language?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Very often you pick it up off the streets, off talk radio, television stand up comedians, the latest rock music; and you put it right in to your language. That’s why the best poets always seem to have a notebook handy like reporters, you know? And they’re writing down phrases they hear as they pass two people talking, arguing, speaking into cell phones, “Ah, that’s a fantastic phrase. I can use that.” Write it down; write it down. You know, somebody’s walking past you and screaming into his phone “I’d rather kill a dog than talk to you”; “Hey, that’s cool, let me write that down.” It seems to me to prepare yourself to be a poet you’d better, like a lawyer, learn all the precedents and all the case histories that you’re going to have to argue in court, you’re going to have to argue on paper, with all the latest language and all the situations that work now. That’s how you prepare yourself to be a poet.

EVAN: I hear you teach this phenomenal class called English 228, which is American Civil War to the Present. In your class what are you looking for in a student’s writing?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: I think really when I look at somebody’s language who is 20 years of age or 21 years of age, the best thing about that person’s ability that I can hope for at least is coherence, an ability to stay on subject and actually develop a point of view about this subject, it’s a story or it’s a poem or it’s a novel that this person is writing about. How agile and delicate are the fingers that are going to take the thing apart and put it back together again and understand it, right? A coherence and a kind of steady logic that they can apply to a subject until they can really make a conclusion without stumbling. And I think there’s usually 10-15% of the class that can do that very well. And then there are those that don’t have good reading skills and they don’t have good reading skills. And they come to me and they’re in tears and they say “Why don’t you like this? Is it because…?” Well, you haven’t read enough to be comfortable and to be able to refer to other stories like it so that you understand that a story has a neighborhood and the neighbors consist of stories by Steinbeck, and Hemingway, and Isaac Asimov, and John Updike and you feel comfortable with that.

EVAN: What courses are available to help our students become better writers?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: We have writing tracks that begin with English 325 for students who want to do some creative writing, and they go in there and they get exposed both prose and poetry this is our new way. We used to have a course in prose and a course in poetry, and now we’ve combined them under one roof. When they discover they’re more poetry than prose writers or more prose than poetry writers, they can go off to the next set of courses that help develop those skills. There’s a follow up course in poetry and a follow up in prose and then there’s a set of courses they can also take after that that takes on longer projects and has a more intense kind of workshop that goes along with it to. So they can take a battery of courses and really get to understand the medium that they’re working with and possibly try to figure out well should I go on to an MFA somewhere and really get into this thing. What does my teacher think? Will she or he write me a powerful letter to get me into writing school? Chances are if you’re good, yeah, sure, you’ll get that.

EVAN: What classes would you recommend to an engineering student?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Well, of course we have standard composition courses, which are very good, and advanced composition for learning how to really argue and set your case that could make a really good proposition or a proposal. But they could also take creative writing because that really helps you to become more adapt and to use imagery and to think about rhythm and even if you’re writing prose to be able to tell a good story, which is extremely helpful as communication for even technical writers, you know in very rarified fields like chemical and civil engineering. If you can tell a good story or you can come up with a good analogy, you might win the case better than somebody with a lot of statistics. Who knows? So I don’t think it’s a mistake. I don’t think it’s a waste of time for engineers to take classes like this.