I tell my writing students to avoid the abstract by not using strings of big words with broad meanings, words such as "happiness, "freedom" and "contentment." There's no imagery there. "Curdled milk," "scratched leather shoes," and "scruffle-haired terrier" bring more to mind.
That said, I've been butting up against "success" lately.
It's not that my books have suddenly taken off, though I'm delighted as more readers are leaving reviews on Amazon for my new novel, Love At Absolute Zero. Rather, as my son Zach struggles with studying in college -- calculus and intermediate Russian are huge challenges -- I find myself considering his success as well as my students'.
As a father I've asked myself, what guidance can I give Zach? I've noted what some students do with me. They appear like helicopters during my office hours to ask for extra help or ask what they might do better. With 85 students among four classes, I simply don't get to know everyone personally, so the half-dozen that use the office hours during the semester I come to know better.
I learn their needs as they get extra help. I'm also reminded that not everyone learns the same way, so I constantly look for fresh approaches to a given topic.
Last month, I started poetry in my Introduction to Literature class. Poetry always begins with around twenty faces out of twenty-five masked with dread, wariness or doubt. "I don't like poetry," a few might say, and I feel like a gunslinger at the OK Corral. I hold my ground and reply, "That's like exclaiming you don't like oxygen. Poetry can brim with life, and just because you hate some poems, you might not hate all poems."
That's where I found myself talking last month about hearing the Eminem song, "Lose Yourself," the first time. I was in the car and had to pull off the road to listen to it more fully. It simply grabbed onto my shoulders. Here are three lines about how he felt before a rap battle:
There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,
but he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down.
I pointed out how amazing his rhyming is -- not exact rhymes but near ones. "Already," "spaghetti" and "forgetting" go together as do "nervous" and "surface." "Drop bombs" has a one-two punch in sound. The most impressive thing about the song is the passion and meaning. It's about driving toward success. The song runs a marathon as a sprint.
I saw the class perk up and, with the classroom fitted with a computer, the Internet and a projector, I went to YouTube and played the song. The energy rose in the classroom, and a few weeks later when I had them write a poem, they excelled: new Marshall Mathers' in the making. In essence, they'd been given permission to write about things important to themselves. With passion can come insight and meaning.
One student later sent me a link to a 60 Minutes interview with Eminem (click here for it). If you zip to minute 5:01, you will see an example of how he rhymes, making something special of "orange." If you watch the whole thing, you'll also get an idea about what he experienced growing up fatherless, poor, moving a lot, and always being the new kid who gets beat up.
He was a guy NOT primed for success. He could have ended up a thug, and it would have been easy to blame his mother, the city of Detroit, his schools and a whole lot more. Still, he was in his head a lot -- which turned out to be a good thing. His love of words -- even reading a dictionary to get more -- became something that pulled him away from poverty. Focus, or lack thereof, is something my less successful students struggle with. Eninem had focus.
I went to the Internet with the idea I'd bring up the TED conferences and see if the website had anything on poetry or success. TED started in 1984 as a nonprofit conference bringing together leaders from three fields: Technology, Entertainment and Design. I found what I was hoping for, a video, this video, by leadership expert Simon Sinek on why success touches certain leaders, people as diverse as Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King. It's basically that certain people have an inner core that others recognize as having gravity. Leaders draw people to ideas that make sense. Call it having an inner "why."
This can be dramatically seen in the following clip at a 1997 conference when Steve Jobs was asked, in essence, to defend the way he worked. (Click here.) He explains that it's not about the technology first (the "what") but the "why" create something in the first place? It was about the customer's experience.
I translated that to writers. My favorite fiction writers are people more than just great at crafting clever stories. They have a core that draws me in. Margaret Atwood, no matter what she writes, reveals absurdities that I find true. She has gravity. So does Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Joan Didion and Nick Hornby, among others in my eclectic group. They have something at their core to reveal about our life. They are thinking about the reader. They are also passionate.
This goes back to my blog of last week, my letter to my son. It's about following your curiosity. You may find success. You also might become a leader.
Daughter Ellen leading her scruffle-haired dog, Scruffle