Columns > Published on October 26th, 2011

Three Things the Author of "Gods and Monsters" Learned by Listening to His Students

Find out about Christopher Bram's 'Beginning The Novel' class, which begins May 28th!

I'm not much of a talker. I'm a pretty good listener and an excellent reader, but I save my full personal expression for the written word: I'm more articulate on the page than I can ever be aloud. As a result, when I teach, I listen more than I talk, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I often get into a dialogue with my students and their work, especially when their work is interesting.

Ann Lamott in her classic writing guide, Bird by Bird, tells students, "You must listen to your broccoli." She took this wonderful nonsense phrase from the comic genius, Mel Brooks. In the persona of a psychiatrist, Brooks used it with a patient who wanted to know how to eat his vegetables. As Lamott points out, writers must listen to what their characters and story are actually telling them, and forget what they wanted or intended them to say.

As a teacher, I listen to my students and discover what they and their work actually need. Sometimes a question or two is necessary to speed the process. Over the years, by listening and asking, I've learned a few basic truths that are valid not only for my students' writing, but for my own. Here are three:

1. Don't be afraid to tell a story (and include enough of that story so your readers can follow it).

Many of us, when we first start out as writers, don't want to do anything so clichéd and sentimental as tell a story. Every story has already been told. We concentrate instead on doing strange new things with language and structure. Which is all well and good, but story really is a keystone of good writing, in both fiction and nonfiction. All stories have been told, but they are familiar ground that enables a reader to share a writer's new and different experience.

This was brought home to me several years ago by another teacher and writer. I was part of a party of authors visiting a small college. We sat in on a writing class one day and listened to an undergraduate read her work. It was nicely written but so cryptic that I couldn’t recognize any characters or tell what was going on. Afterwards, one of the guest authors, a famous man who loved experimental fiction, praised the piece and asked if she'd written it in order to emulate Alain Robbe-Grillet or another French writer. The student said no, she'd written it because her music teacher's husband had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and she wanted to imagine what her life must be like. Suddenly the story made sense. Another guest author, Samuel Delany, who teaches and works in science-fiction as well as other genres, quietly told her, "You need to put some of what you just told us into your story. Then it'll work."

It was the simplest, most effective piece of literary advice I've ever heard. Since then, when a student's work seems opaque or muddy, I ask them to tell me the story that either inspired the piece or that they thought they were telling.

2. Make sure your words mean what you think they mean.

You might assume this goes without saying, but it doesn’t. Writing is a very private act. We work alone inside our heads with words that might mean one thing to us and something else to others. Reading is a private act, too, and words are weirdly flexible. The reader can give a phrase a meaning the author didn't intend, but the misreading still makes sense in context. I've learned to listen for passages that don't quite hang together, that are odd in clunky, confusing ways.

The best example that springs to mind came not in a student's prose but in a class discussion. A student wrote a story with a gay character. Another student complained that the story was full of stereotypes. Since a stereotype can be very subjective--one person's stereotype is another person's realism or another's archetype--I asked, "What stereotype bothered you? That this gay man likes musicals?" It was a harmless enough story--the author himself may have been gay. The student looked puzzled. "No, no. It was the fact that he called himself a fag and somebody else called him a queer. I hate it when people use stereotypes." Now it was my turn to be confused. "Uh, those aren't stereotypes. Those are epithets." We spent the next ten minutes discussing the difference between stereotypes, which are traits, and epithets, which is name-calling.

Which brings us to a very basic piece of advice: Don't be too proud to open a dictionary now and then.

3. Trust that your story will be as interesting to other people as it is to you. (And if it isn't, find out why.)

The most basic and frightening idea for any writer is that what's important to you is trivial to others. We sometimes fear this so much that we protect ourselves by refusing to show our work to other people. We will even leave out the most interesting, personal elements, the very things that made us want to tell a story in the first place, for fear that we--and our story--will be rejected.

This fear is such a common problem that I don’t have a particular anecdote to illustrate it. I discovered it over the years in the course of seeing, again and again, how weak, timid first drafts often became rich, lively second drafts. The writer was shy about telling his or her tale. Not until they made a first attempt and people responded with interest and questions--"Why did your mother do that?" or "How did it make you feel?"--that they trusted their readers and themselves and told the rest of the tale.

There is the possibility that your story really is as insipid as you fear. But you're not going to know that until you put it out there, in all its shame and glory. In my experience, however, almost any story can be made interesting if you dig deep enough and find the right way to tell it. Or sometimes the story you really want to tell is right next door to the weak story, but you weren't ready to tell it yet. A show of curiosity and approval from fellow students and your teacher can set you and your better, more authentic story free and enable you to tell it.

These three rules all come out of the fact that writers are often locked in the rooms of our own heads and we are nervous about going public. But we have to step out of our privacies and share our words with the world. Otherwise we are just talking to ourselves. The reality of the outside world will make us better writers.

About the author

CHRISTOPHER BRAM is the author of nine novels, including GODS AND MONSTERS, which was made into the Academy-Award-winning movie starring Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave. His most recent book is EMINENT OUTLAWS: THE GAY WRITERS WHO CHANGED AMERICA, a literary history released in February 2012. Chris has also written essays, movies reviews, and screenplays. He grew up in Virginia and attended the College of William and Mary. He currently lives in New York and teaches at New York University and

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