f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 1 with Greg Garrett: Professorial and Teaching Q&A

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, June 06, 2005

Day 1 with Greg Garrett: Professorial and Teaching Q&A

Greg Garrett is the published author of two novels (Free Bird and Cycling), two non-fiction books (Holy Superheroes and The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix with Chris Seay), and a variety of short stories and other works. He is a professor of English at Baylor University where he teaches creative writing and a number of other classes. And he was one of the driving forces behind creating the Art and Soul festival. We spent last week talking about Free Bird and Greg was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to answer some questions.

What classes do you teach at Baylor?

I’ve taught all sorts of courses over the past fifteen years, but since these days I spend more time writing and less time teaching, I typically teach only fiction writing, film, and American literature for non-majors, my one service class. This coming year, since one of my colleagues has left the department to seek his fortunes in the journalism department, I’ll probably add our screenwriting class to that mix. I hope so. I’ve taught narrative screenwriting at the University of Oregon but not at Baylor, and I learn a lot about dialogue and plot structure whenever I think about screenplays.

In working with novice writers, are there one or two crucial problems you see students make again and again?

I find the biggest mistakes that beginning writers make have to do with forgetting about character to focus on other things, be they theme or symbolism or plot gimmicks. A story is about a compelling character or characters, and if we’re interested in the characters we’ll follow their adventures—or non-adventures—wherever they might lead.

That said, I find beginning writers are often trying too hard to emulate the works they most admire. It makes sense, since what motivates many of us to be writers is the fact that we’ve read works that have moved us and changed us. But given the way that we’re typically taught literature, we’re led to focus on theme and symbolism as ways of measuring a work’s seriousness, and while it’s true that great fiction is “about” something, it’s about the characters first or it’s just about ideas the writer wants to communicate.

I also find that beginning writers have a very simplistic idea of plot built around situation comedies and films, or around tricky or quirky endings that they think justify writing a story. On my writing site I’ve listed some of the plots that I see over and over—or would if I hadn’t placed an embargo on them.

Do you approach the topic of writing "spiritual" or "faith-focused" fiction in your classes?

Since I teach at a Christian university and I’m an outed Christian writer, this is a question we discuss often. Many of my students are interested in the ministry—or in evangelism—and so are drawn toward writing things intended to convert their readers. I push them to write honestly about their characters and their dilemmas, and let the faith arise from the story. Their values and beliefs drive them—they’ll drive the story as well.

We also talk about the vocation of writing, since I believe that writers and artists are charged with bringing the Kingdom into closer focus, just as a pastor, priest, or social worker might be. Since we’re all entrusted with talents to use for good or ill, I certainly would rather see my students writing about redemption and grace then about Uzis and orgies. But who knows? Sometimes those stories can be stories of grace and redemption too. I wouldn’t want to spend time with most of the characters in Pulp Fiction or Magnolia, but every time I see those films I’m blown away anew with the way that grace emerges like a flower out of a trash heap.

Many think writing can't be taught. That's obviously not true but are there any areas that are more difficult to fit into curriculum?

A question I’m often asked is where I get my ideas. And of course, there’s no idea factory—you just have to be observant and a little bit imaginative. I have my writers keep a journal, do exercises to try and help them generate story ideas, and still every semester I find students simply looking at me blank-faced. “I don’t have anything to write about.” It’s one of the reasons genre fiction is so appealing to young writers, I think—there’s a form and pattern that they don’t have to recognize or make up. Then later, after they’ve seen some more life—which is to say, unfortunately, more conflict—I notice lots of writers move from science fiction or fantasy or women’s to more individual and “literary” stories.

What's the most important thing in writing--talent or discipline?

I’d put my money on a disciplined writer any day. Talent is—and I mean no offense to any talented readers—a dime a dozen. When I look back over my fifteen years at Baylor, I see that the most talented writer I’ve ever taught gave up after her first rejection and one of my less obviously-talented writers persevered year after year, took an entry-level job reading screenplays, came back to Baylor to do a Masters degree with me in creative writing. And he and his writing partner now command a seven-figure paycheck on every movie they write. I could not be more proud, because he could have given up anywhere along the way.

I’d say ninety percent of success as a writer is just being too pigheaded to give up. I’m evidence of that. Twenty years elapsed between my first published short story and my first published novel. I used to imagine that I’d be discovered when I was 25, but the truth was, I hadn’t written anything good enough when I was that age. Usually things happen when they’re supposed to happen, but they only happen if you’ve kept yourself in the game.

Riff a little on the very common advice, "Write what you know?" How far does that go? When does the writer learn to rely on the imagination?

I find I’m less and less interested in “Write what you know” unless by that we mean something like “Write what you care about.” I could have gone on writing stories and then books about depressed artistic men until the end of the world, since that was the experience of most of my adult life. With short stories, it may be valuable to put up a familiar stage set for your actors to work in front of. But now that I’m writing books almost exclusively, I find that although I’m writing out of human emotions and desires I know, the surface details don’t have to be familiar. In fact, it’s more interesting if they aren’t. I knew North Carolina and New Mexico, primary settings for Free Bird, and I’d been a rock musician like the narrator, but the primary plot details were made up, and more interesting because they didn’t so closely follow my life.

In Sanctuary, the novel I just finished revising, I made the narrator an oncologist whose abusive Irish Catholic father was a dock-worker in New Orleans and whose best friend was molested by a priest. Needless to say, those are not my life details. But I found that doing the research was a challenge and a joy. I learned about oncology and new developments in cancer treatment, I spent time in the French Quarter, I did research into the Catholic abuse scandals, which were particularly virulent in Louisiana. If I’m going to spend three to five years of my life writing a novel, I want to learn some new things every time I do it.

Can you name some writing books that you've found helpful or recommend to students. (Not Bird by Bird, everybody knows that one.)

Well, besides Bird by Bird, which I do use every semester, I like Stephen King’s On Writing (which shows you the writer’s toolbox and then shows a master mechanic using those tools), Rust Hills’ Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (terrific guidance from the former fiction editor at Esquire), Roberta Allen’s Fast Fiction (emotional plot prompts that can kickstart your creativity), and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (a screen consultant’s take on the archetypal hero’s journey from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, it’s perhaps the best aid I know on plotting; I had it and handy the whole time I was writing Free Bird).

Less obviously, I’m also drawn to Thomas Merton, who took devotion and writing very seriously and wrote often about his writing and reading (see New Seeds of Contemplation and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), Walker Percy’s books about his writing and his faith (The Message in the Bottle and Signposts in a Strange Land) and The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (for its great lifelong debate about whether great fiction could also be spiritual), and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire (which are as much about telling stories as the stories they tell).
Go to Day 2 of our Conversation with Greg Garrett