Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Unsolicited Advice
May 9, 2007, 9:38 am
Filed under: Derek Nikitas, Killer Year Members

I’ve been teaching college for—Jesus, nine years now.  It’s the end of the semester down here at Georgia State University, the week when I dole out advice to my fiction writing students because there’s really nothing else left to do.  They’d rather I let them out a few minutes early, but I feel obligated to let them loose with some last (and perhaps first) words of wisdom for the semester.  I have no idea if my words are wise, but they work for me, so I say them anyway.


I tell them to take at least three other courses before they graduate: advanced grammar (so they can put sentences together), poetry writing (so they can make those sentences sing), and screenwriting (so they can string sentences together into “story structure.”)  Someone’s probably wondering why fiction classes don’t teach story structure.  We try, but, frankly, the books we canonize for college are the books that tend to break story structure rules—which is fine, and fun, but I’ve always been a fan of the notion that one needs to know the rules before one can break them.  Besides that, we don’t often study novels in writing classes, which is a damn shame.  Screenwriting, in my limited experience, tends to be a lot more brutal and pragmatic about structure, and that’s a trial student writers need to put themselves through.  At the very least, they need to read Robert McKee’s screenwriting book Story—at least a couple times—and then watch Adaptation to see how Charlie Kaufman messes (and doesn’t mess) with it.


I also tell them that when they finish college, or during their summer breaks, they need to find a backbreaking, grassroots job to do for a while.  Not telemarketing, not fast food service, not the video store.  Okay, full disclosure: I worked at a chain video store for a long time and learned nothing about human nature.  However, while getting my master’s degree, for extra money I worked in a mom-and-pop video store that rented out mostly porn, and I learned more about human nature in a few months than I did working at the other place for years.  And I mean the nature of the customers, folks, not the rampant “nature” exhibited in the movies we rented out.


But I’m not talking about some video store, or any store.  I’m talking delivery jobs, construction work, paint work, Department of Transportation work, stuff that’ll give you a sunburn, bug bites, muscle cramps and insomnia.  Stuff that’ll put you within reach of people that’ll never have the time or inclination to read a word of your damn fiction drivel.  Stuff that’ll make you want to drink yourself into oblivion on your days off.  Frankly, most of my fiction students have been suburban kids that never would’ve dreamed of taking such a job.  That kind of reticence, I think, is never going to help them get to where they want to be as writers.  They need to learn how the world functions.  They need to see real people struggling through their daily lives.  They need to be humbled, have some of that sparkly serene self-esteem knocked out of their heads.  Then they can write about something other than satire about the materialism of the rich, suburban ennui, and how fun frat parties are. 


Me, I took a job driving an ice cream truck for two summers.  I know what you’re thinking, but believe me, it was backbreaking.  Every day, twelve hours on the road, hundreds of miles logged, most of them driven at two miles per hour, trying not to run over the kids and dogs darting out into the road.  I saw human nature at its best and worst, and it wasn’t just kids.  I’ve sold strawberry éclairs to gang-bangers who probably would’ve brained and robbed me if they knew I had five-hundred bucks in earnings tucked under the driver’s seat of my truck.  I’ve fed creamsicles to unchained growling Rotties. 


I’m deeply grateful, in retrospect, that I got to sell two-dollar bomb pops at ten o’clock at night, hallucinating from sleep deprivation and heat exposure, in a dirt-road trailer park out in the woods eight miles from any mapped town, swarming with mosquitoes, to a shirtless father almost too drunk to stand up, who paid me in wet dimes and chuckled when his starving kids, wearing nothing but underwear, peeled off the wrappers, tossed them in the grass, and scarfed down their popsicles in three bites.  I tell you, every inclination to write suburban ennui frat satire left my heart for good.  The world contains real human beings, suffering, striving, wild in their hearts—and apprentice writers, especially “privileged”  ones like I was, need to learn that truth a hard way, I think.  Chances are, we’ll never learn it the actual hard way, by living it our whole lives, but visiting is better than nothing.  And if we get our asses kicked once or twice, even better (I suppose this last comment is for the men in the audience, mostly; I don’t advocate women going out to get their asses kicked).


The last advice I give them is related, in that it’s another urge to leap out of the nest:  You want to be a writer, go live in a foreign country for a while, even if it’s just for a month.  Preferably a country where English is not spoken, so that you’re made to feel desperate and frightened and humiliated on a regular basis.  But you have to live there, with the people, not as a tourist.  I got this advice myself from John Irving—not personally, but from reading an interview he’d done years ago.  Irving’s odyssey was to Austria, and those of you who know his early novels can see how profoundly influenced he was by that experience.


There are certainly practical reasons for a writer to go international: readers like to read stories that take place in foreign lands because it’s akin to proxy travel, without the risks or cost.  But, more importantly, Irving also cited more metaphysical reasons for why his time abroad was key to his development as a writer.  In Austria, he saw himself as a true “other” for the first time, a stranger in his surroundings, and the experience introduced a deeper sense of self that became critical to his ability to creating real characters in his fiction.  Even more importantly, the cultural differences between Austria and New England provided him with a much worldlier sense of his own home environment.  In Austria, he learned to SEE New England, as if for the first time.


Perhaps I’m conflating some of Irving’s own experience with mine, but that’s the basic sense of what he’d said.  Me, I’ve never written anything set primarily outside the United States.  In fact, I’ve rarely written anything set outside of a particular fictional town in upstate New York I call Hammersport, an amalgam of several Erie Canal port towns west of Rochester.  It’s the area where I grew up, but I am certain I never really saw it with writer’s eyes until I lived overseas for a spell.  I didn’t get to Europe for the first time until grad school, though I’d been slated to go to England as an undergrad, a trip that was cancelled because the professor in charge was deemed too dodgy by the administration.  It was after reading Irving’s advice that my thwarted desire became an obsession, so I contrived, no matter the cost, to have myself shipped to Prague for a couple months.  I fell in with the ESL (teaching English as a Second Language) crowd, as good a way as any to get by.


I could go on forever about Prague, probably the greatest city I’ve ever visited.  Suffice it to say my time there altered my mind and my aesthetic forever.  It was an ancient place, a brooding place, a perfect place to hone my noir sensibilities.  I walked the Charles Bridge at night, wandered through a church filled with thousands of human bones arranged as artwork, stood at the foot of Kafka’s grave, drank absinthe in underground taverns.  I learned that magic really exists in the world, and it wasn’t just because of the absinthe.  I’ve been openly harassed on the street by toothless gypsy prostitutes, and I’ve been berated in words I couldn’t understand by waiters who refused to serve me because I didn’t speak Czech.  I’ve seen ten foot statues of anonymous farmers, the Socialist dream.  I’ve seen someone run over by a cable car.   I’ve seen an elderly woman exhibiting stigmata on her hands.  I’ve seen beggar artists hawk their own brilliant artwork for booze money.  I’ve run out of money and known the terror of temporary homelessness.  I’ve watched Swedish surrealist films with hipsters in a rundown theater.  I’ve seen a concert crowd of thousands chant “Mother Russian rain down!” with the Sisters of Mercy.  I’ve eaten the juiciest sausages and drunk golden hops-heavy beer for a quarter a pint.      


The only problem with such an odyssey is, like Odysseus himself, you tend to get bitten by the travel bug.  And not just travel, either; I have little desire to go anywhere for a week, to see all the requisite sites listed in the travel guide.  There’s nothing a writer can learn from that except dry information.  I want to live in these places.  And I’ve been lucky in regards to living in foreign lands: I wrote a third of my forthcoming novel in a tin-roof shack just outside of San Jose, Costa Rica—no hot water, no telephone, millipedes crawling all over the floor, rainwater leaking down the walls.  At times I was miserable there; at other times it was like a spiritual experience—to see an active volcano spewing smoke, to hear and see the howler monkeys bellowing in the trees just outside of our hotel bungalow.  I’d never trade the experience. 


For a time, I taught at my undergraduate college and managed to revive the same month-long England program that had been cancelled when I tried to go years earlier.  I went to England four times as the instructor for that program, and, though I won’t say the experience was particularly “foreign,” I was profoundly inspired by walking the same streets that Charles Dickens walked, writing a few pages of my novel in the same bay window at the hotel where Thomas Hardy sometimes wrote (not to mention drinking in his favorite pub), wandering the same moors that haunted Emily Bronte.  And I have so many fond memories of sharing ideas about writing, art and life with my students over eight-dollar pints at pubs all across the country, like the Eagle & Child, the Oxford pub where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to hang.


I realize international living isn’t possible for everyone.  That’s why I try to deliver the advice to students before they’re tethered by full-time jobs, family obligations, and credit card debt—when they can use college scholarships, grants and loans to offset the cost of such travel.   I guess I have to admit I’ve “sacrificed” in order to do these things.  Still don’t have a house or a new car, but I don’t see how either could make me a better writer anyway.  My job will never pay much, but I get my summers off and I get opportunities like teaching that England program.  So maybe I’m crazy.  Nonetheless, if there are any beginning writers out there, or even seasoned ones, who have the ways and means, do it.  Don’t got to the fucking Bahamas.  Go somewhere you’re scared to go.  Not every moment will be pretty, but you’ll learn some things for your writing that no amount of practice or study can ever teach you. 


Derek Nikitas Author of Pyres

St. Martin’s Minotaur

October 16, 2007


10 Comments so far
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Amen, Brother. This advice is priceless. I know my own writing has been greatly influenced by my travels. I’ve spent a total of over a year of my life out of the U.S. And I would trade it for nothing. And, like you, I seldom have the urge to visit the tourist spots, liking instead to get to know a neighborhood, blend in and become an invisible regular who can observe and soak it in.

I’ve been head butted by a homeless man as I cross the street in London, I’ve stayed with a family in Mexico who were too poor to afford glass for the window of their home, I’ve ridden the ferries south of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, I’ve sauna’d in Finland with the locals then run out into the snow and jumped in…and I’m not done. I’ll never be done.

Comment by Brett Battles

Derek, your wisdom is hard earned, but so worth it. Thnak you for sharing another fascinating chapter in your life. I envy your students, I can only imagine how changed I’d be as a writer with you as my teacher.

Comment by JT Ellison

Wow, Derek. I wish someone had given this advice to me when I was in college 20 years ago! I hope your students appreciate the value of your wisdom as much as we do now. Thanks so much for sharing this with us!

Comment by J.B. Thompson

Seoul Korea Olympics. One mother asked, “Why do you want to go there? It’s not safe.” The other said, “I’ll pray for you.” Went. Talked to an instructor back from the University, 15, 20 miles away from Olympic Village. Dozen or so students chanting, placards…nothing. A referee we talked to explained each country in each sport had it’s own set of rules. You get them all together every couple of years and in a couple days time teach them OLYMPIC rules. Comprehension is about 25%. Anti America? I don’t think so. Waiting for a bus after an event back to the village we met the heavyweight boxer who had just won the Gold Medal. Instead of celebrating with his family he told them to go on, he wanted to go back and talk to the kid who (should have won)in the light weight division. Derek’s advice is dead on. Go, do experience, collect stories.

Comment by Del Tinsley

Oh how I wish somebody told me this in college! I just now got the travel bug and it’s sooo expensive when you’re paying for it on your own versus going with a school. I’m actually just now going back to school for a Masters and am greedily looking up all their study abroad programs and have found two that I plan on taking advantage of! As for working somewhere with hard labor, you don’t necessarily have to go somewhere where it’s physically hard labor to find people not from middle class. I worked in the food court at my college and met some awesome people who were living paycheck to paycheck and who I made good friends with. It is definitely good to get a perspective on life and appreciate how difficult it is for some people to get by. Many of the women working with me had never had to work until their husbands, who were doing physical labor of some sort, got disabled so suddenly at 40/50 years old these women have to go to work for the first time!

Good advice, I hope your students are smart and take it.

Comment by mai wen

Thanks, guys, for making me feel like I have a little bit of wisdom to give.

I really don’t think students take enough advantage of overseas experiences, especially the writers, who, if I can be a little presumptuous here for a moment, tend to be the more introverted types. But introverted writers need to strive all the more to put themselves into situatons where they’re forced to communicate with the “other.” Otherwise, all your characters will be you.

College is a great time to do it. Back at my former college, some overseas programs cost LESS for a semester abroad than a semester on the home campus. We’re not talking England here, where everything cost twice as much, but places that are all the more suited to a writer trying to learn about life: South Africa, Kenya, Costa Rica (not the touristy part!), and Vietnam were all cheaper, for instance.

I see what you mean, Mai Wen, about being able to meet people w/o doing hard labor. However, I don’t think listening to people’s stories is quite enough for a writer. You might have to venture into their worlds and see their stories play out for yourself. It just seems that labor jobs are the type that get you there. Also, hard labor teaches a person what it’s like to suffer. For a college kid with his own car and a credit card his parents pay off, learning what it’s like to suffer is essential–if he want to be any kind of writer. After all, the number one rule of drama is: make your characters yearn and suffer.

Comment by derek nikitas

Great advice… I look back on my “menial” jobs — cleaning carpets, stacking frozen ocean drilling core samples, giving suppositories to nursing home residents (no joke) — and as I writer, I wouldn’t trade any of them. Not only do they teach lessons of humility and mortality, but those type of jobs put you in contact with people who have vastly different priorities than your typical college peer.

Traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language (Egypt did it for me) will make you vastly more sympathetic to immigrants who are trying to make it in the US.

I was fortunate to marry a woman who loves authentic travel experiences… not prefab Disneyfied tours. The only thing that put a hitch in our get-along was having a newborn, but we can’t wait until our daughter is old enough to take to Italy or Spain. Hopefully, since we live in “The OC”, seeing how the rest of the world lives, will keep her from becoming obsessed with Paris Hilton, handbags, and bulemia.

Comment by gregory huffstutter

What amazing advice – oddly enough my path pretty much parallels what you’ve written, but I have never thought about what it’s added to my writing.

And what I’ll need as a “booster shot” when/if the well feels dry.

Thanks so much!

Comment by billie

Great advice, Derek. College was a LONG time ago for me, but I think you just talked me into buying McKee’s book.

Comment by patry

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