Episode 124B – Charles Degelman – Being a Professor for Young Writers

Overview

Charles is a professor and works with young adults on writing. We have a great discussion about helping the next generation learn to write and what is important in that process.

This isn’t just about learning to spell or diagram a sentence. We discuss exercises and learning about editing.

His Book

YouTube

https://youtu.be/3c0VDH9z95E

Transcript

So let’s move on to some or stuff. And like I said, I’ve got a very exciting topic. I wanna discuss with you cuz it affects me in what I’m trying to do similar things.

But before we talk about that, you’ve written several books. So what are some things that you’ve learned over that time that you’re doing different than you did from the beginning? I’ve had such good practice in terms of two different forms. One is. Working collaboratively in the theater where you’re working together to create something.

Charles: So that’s an odd comparison because here you are, as a writer for the most part it’s often a very, as lonely is just you and that damn keyboard there and right. And the glowing screen unless you . And there are certain things that I learned in terms of collaboration, in terms of developing in, in fiction, especially seen work and characters and so on.

But the other experience I had of course, was developing this educational material. And even though that’s a far it’s a long distance from this kind of fiction some of the disciplines are very important. As far as I can see the thing that I learned the most had to do with making decisions often intuitive decision about whether or not I was going to write an outline the way you would say for a film script or whether I was just going to plunge into.

Material and see what, where I came out. and those are two very different approaches. Yes. Yes. But I have learned over the years that in some cases it’s better to just jump in and see what happens. And in other cases it’s better to lay it out. Or even if you don’t start by laying it out, coming to a point in your writing where you say, oh man, I better stop a minute.

I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I’ve been. I don’t know where I’m going. Yep. Charles, so when you’re writing, are there any software or services that you like to use particularly or different.

I’m pretty simple guy when it comes to that. I write I write it depends if I’m writing a film script, which I have not been doing much of lately then then oh, what’s the name of that film script program?

There’s a script program that, that really is very beautifully said.

Stephen: Yeah, I’ve heard of it. I can’t think of the top of my head. But for the most part, I just write in Microsoft word. Okay. I just sit there and I that’s what I’m I’ve dealt with Microsoft word I’ve been writing on Microsoft word now.

Charles: I wish they’d stopped putting bells and whistles on it. cause I don’t need them. I’m just most part I’m just writing but yeah that, that’s it for me is the simplest vehicle that will support my efforts without getting into a lot of fooling around and codes and every, everything just gimme something I can go left to right left to right.

Get it out there. Besides doing podcasts, what else are you doing to market your book? The social media stuff is very important. I’ve got it out to some reviewers through this publicist who’s always, it’s always helpful to have to have some reviews that come Somewhat qualified people.

I haven’t hit the front page of the book section in the New York times yet, but yes, but there are awful lot of people out there doing doing very smart work looking at books and stories and you’re doing part of that too. So part of, for example, part of my publicity will be whatever we come up with here on on your show today.

That, and then,

Stephen: yeah, I was gonna say, so let’s talk about some of that. So you’ve part of your career, life has been working with and inspiring young writers. Tell us a little bit about how you got into that and what exactly do you mean that you do to help inspire new writers?

Charles: I think there’s.

Third two situations that I’m used to one is writers who are there because they just that’s what they wanna do. They wanna they wanna learn how to write. And then of course, you’ve got a captive audience sometimes. So you’ve whether they wanna write or not is the real challenge because I’ve literally had students, especially over the past few years when social media has taken over so completely.

And they’re like, look, I can get ideas across with a, with my just crappy shorthand. Why are you teaching? Why are you telling me all these things that I need to know about style and why? And so the truth is that part of it is. Learn the craft it’s like being a musician you can’t, unless you play scales, unless you can play scales.

There’s not much you can do you can get up and sit there and smash away at a guitar or a trumpet or some torture, some instrument, you turn into a torture machine or you’ve got to learn the craft. So then the challenge becomes well, how do you teach in the craft?

I think that the most critical the thing that I try to get across very early on is writing has a purpose. You have things in your life, you have experiences in your life. Let’s find a way for you to write about your lives. Let’s find a way for you to write about how life is impacting you, how life is affecting you.

What, who are you in the world and finding ways that are you don’t ask somebody to write a gigantic novel right off the bat. You ask them okay. Let’s like, for example, I will start a class with two or three short exercises. One of them will be okay. Get ready either.

Put your fingers on the keyboard or put your hand on a pen. You’ve got a piece of paper. Okay. Now, when I say go. You’re gonna start writing and you’re not gonna stop writing until I say stop. And when I say you’re not gonna stop you’re not gonna think you’re not gonna edit. You’re not gonna say no, that was all wrong.

You’re not gonna do any of that. You’re just going to write and everybody goes, what the, so then I say, okay, nevermind the, what? The let’s just do it. so they that they let, hopefully I’ve defined it and gotten the idea across clearly enough. So they just lack their crazy mind role their monkey chatter, mind role.

So they’ve first, so that’s great because then they’re saying, okay nobody was killed here. I finished look at what I wrote and I finished it and nobody said, you’re wrong and that’s terrible and you gotta die. Then we move on and I would say to them, okay now we’re gonna write with some purpose.

So now you’ve done this free writing. Here’s an assignment for you. You are going to go with a friend to a museum, an art museum, and you are going to look at the latest exhibit of say, van go paintings or whatever they whatever’s there. So you and your friend are going to go, but here’s the deal.

Your friend is blind. So it’s your job. To describe this painting to your friend. So then they get 15 minutes or something to, and I put a painting up on a wall up on the, I like that PowerPoint, shoot it up there, a painting, something crazy. I wouldn’t some you can use almost any painting and say, okay, now remember you are now going to tell your blind friend what this painting is about.

So then they have a purpose. So then they see, oh, look, what’s falling into place here. I’m trying to tell what the colors are, what the background is, what the, what, the, what the objects or the characters or the animals or whatever. Are doing and what kind of impression it’s giving me as

Stephen: I look at it.

I like that exercise. I just, so you know, I may steal that on my website, I’ve got absolutely exercises that call imagination inspiration. And I might put that one up and steal that. So let me ask you, you said you worked for a nonprofit that created materials and stuff. What type of materials were you creating?

And I assume these would be for schools. Oh, you know what, the comment first I do, like what you were talking about, because one of the things I see is. Especially in schools and not blaming them and not all schools, but they talk about, we’re gonna teach the kids writing, but they focus on only the craft and the sentence structure and proper use.

And there’s a whole other side to writing that you have to get the story out. You have to be creative regardless of punctuation, regardless of spelling you want. That’s the part that I think gets missed in schools

Charles: Often, I think I agree with you and the trick really is to say, okay, let’s have, so now you’ve had some fun usually on say this particular exercise I told you about the painting students will say, Hey, that was fun, man.

It was great. And they’re proud to read them. And some of them are funny. Some of them are quite beautiful and so on and they got resolved. But then of course, That’s the time when you say, okay, now let’s see how you said this. And is there any way that you could say it in a, I tend to work towards simplicity in terms of I’m not gonna teach a grammar, but I’m gonna teach you to write straightforward straightforwardly, and I’m also going to teach you and this, I use, I’d be glad to send this to you.

It’s I say often to my upper level classes these are university students in their second or third year, fourth year, I say, okay, now you’re going to be your own editor. That’s rough. So rather than having some teacher that you’re writing for. You are going to be your own editor.

And then I break that down into three different jobs that an editor has. And in those different jobs, you’ve got conceptual organizational editing, right? The big sort of big picture or organizing. Then you have an editor who’s looking at what’s called line editing, which is syntax and and style and clarity.

And then all the way down at the bottom is you are your own copy editor. And so you do this with material that they’ve drafted. So you say, okay, now we’re gonna look at this from the overall editor’s point of view. Now we’re gonna look at it from the line editors. Could you have said this more simply this line.

Why you’ve got a run on sentence here. What’s a run on sentence. Why does it detract from the clarity of what you’re trying to say? How can we choose

Stephen: that? These kinda nice. I like that.

Charles: I try to drag, I try to bring it drag it along beneath the purpose of say a good writing prompt where they get something on the.

Stephen: And I like that. Cause that’s my thinking too. Cause the kids get a lot of craft and grammar and spelling. They don’t need that. They get that. But the problem is that becomes the focus of the writing. So I’ve seen a lot of adults that they start writing and you read it and you’re like, okay, where’s the story.

You’ve got a rambling narrative here. That’s no interesting story. That’s no conflict. That’s no real protagonist or antagonist. There’s nothing that makes it a story. And I could share less what the grammar is. If I’m not interested in the story, I think kids need

Charles: that. And then once you get a story there, then you can say how can we now?

How can we really make this work? So it’s moving beautifully. That’s

Stephen: And that’s, I.

Charles: You can’t, they have a a framework, a context in which sort

Stephen: and they’ve got experience. Yeah. Yeah. Because I see again, trying to teach adults or kids, something before they have experience in that this was something I learned clear back in boy Scouts that you have, ’em do something and see what they do know and get the experience.

So when you’re talking about it and teaching it, they get it better. Cuz they’re like, oh, if I wanna light a fire, I need to build it this way and use this material. And that, now that makes sense. That’s why my fire didn’t light. Yeah. And the same with stories, it’s very difficult to teach somebody how to write a short story if they’ve never written a short story.

So with kids, they’re more open, just get ’em out there. And now we can talk about editing, like you said,

Charles: right. And then and it goes all the way back to that very first exercise, which is. Don’t stop because when you stop, that’s you thinking about what you’re writing about? I don’t want nobody is I say this often in my classes, nobody will be killed you’re in a safe place here.

right.

Stephen: So you worked when you worked for the nonprofit, what were some of the materials you were creating to assist in this?

Charles: We, the, this stuff was very specific supplemental material. In other words, it wasn’t huge textbooks, but it was social studies and law related education, which sounds dry as hell, but social studies.

So us tackling us and world history, depending on what grade the most state public school systems have a set of standards where if you’re teaching American history, you gotta hit. In the seventh grade, you gotta hit these numbers and this is what we’re. So you’re keeping in mind that, but you, this material was a lot of it was short, almost like news articles on American history or world history, current events in which not only are you writing, this is why it was such a good exercise as a writer, but you are also creating a basis for students to have a civil conversation about a topic do video games, create violence. So first of all, you gotta, you wanna write something, but you wanna write something that has to do with that topic and gives both sides of the idea and then channels its way down to a procedure in which you get them to explore what they’ve just read.

So it is very challenging writing because even though it’s maybe at a, it’s even harder, because you’ve got very limited space you have to really be careful what vocabularies you’re using. And of course it has to be in some way balanced. It has to, in some ways, say on one hand we have.

This point of view about this issue. On the other hand, we have that point of view about that issue. So right there, a lot of that. And then just being the clarity the exercise and clarity was, and it can get very complex. Law related education is about constitutional law and the tension between what the constitution says and what the world is all about, which we’ve seen a lot of lately.

That was the other kind of writing was, had to do with taking up issues. For example, they would be now taking up issues about gun control or or women’s right. To choose know, reproductive freedom. So

Stephen: on. Yeah the episode that I just am putting live this week had to do with someone who wrote, it’s a fiction story, but in the first chapter, her protagonist has an abortion and she wrote this two years ago and it just so happened.

She’s releasing it now and it’s very timely. So it’s a, we had a good talk about that. The history thing we talked about earlier you learn from fiction if it’s written right and good and fits and all that. Yeah. Uh, You mentioned video games, which I found interesting too, because one of the things I’m working on is doing a workshop for kids on writing for video games, writing story, and writing narrative for video games, because we’re getting more of that.

It’s getting bigger and it’s a form of entertainment that needs good story writing. It’s not your typical beginning, middle end. It doesn’t fall the same arc. So it’s an interesting new way for kids to write. Could be of interest to them, plus it could lead some to programming or other skills and video games are huge in our country right now.

Yeah. Yeah,

Charles: no, I th I think you’re, I think that’s very right. And what the other dimension to video games in terms of story, is that you’re not necessarily dealing with a linear start. In other words, you have options in terms of developing video games where you could be going in, you could be hitting a crossroads and a whole other story would branch out.

So there’s a lot of there’s just tremendous. Now, sometimes all of those possibilities can drive you crazy but certainly video games is great. And a lot of, I feel like a lot of. Of what we’re seeing on coming up on, on Netflix and some of these other channels has to do with kind of stories that, that really can’t be told in the simple beginning, middle and end a different

Stephen: thing, right?

Yeah. Charles, do you know, or have, or recommend or something for teachers or parents, or even just kids, any materials that are out there, some books or training courses or anything else like that to, that they wanna get into writing. They just don’t know where to start

Charles: For kids it’s I’ve had, let’s see if I’ve got all of them up here.

I’ve got a million of them. This one dry though, it may be. This is this is the beginning and end of everything in terms of style, as it says, it’s about style. It’s not about story. I also used in my class for a long time. This is a,

this is a big thing and I wouldn’t say it’s something for the students to necessarily know about, but have you come across the writer’s journey? I’ve got

Stephen: that exact copy. I’ve got that same cover and yeah, I’ve got that one too

Charles: as well. You should it is, it goes to the heart of what makes up story in terms of our collective.

Consciousness our collected this is basically Joseph Campbell, the sort of the myth, mythological historian, all of his work, boiled down into a storytelling. Yes.

Stephen: And one of, one of the other things I do is encourage teachers, parents, kids to write fan fiction because it’s a world.

They know they don’t have to think about the world and the world building and so much. And the characters, it’s a good way to get started writing. And again, once you have that experience of writing, you’ve got some writing under your belt, the grammar and other stuff makes a lot more sense and is easier.

Sure. And I think too many schools and teachers, and it’s not their fault. They have a curriculum, they have to do common core and all that jazz, but I. To really encourage good writers and we start ’em early in school. Fan fiction is a great way to do it.

Charles: Yeah, no that, once again, that’s kind the part of the theme you and I have been talking about here is get some stuff on the page and then we’ll look at let’s not out about oh, that’s wrong.

Oh, that’s wrong. Oh let’s get something down there and have a good time with that. And then see what what we can do to make it stronger, clearer, more impactful all the good stuff that comes with style, yeah,

Stephen: absolutely. All so Charles, we’ve had a great discussion and you’re going read a chapter from your book here in a moment, but we do, before we do that, do you have any last minute device for new authors or young authors?

Charles: I think again, I don’t wanna qualify it too much for basically my, my fundamental suggestion for new authors and young authors is right about what’s important to you, what and it can seem trivial to somebody else. It doesn’t matter if you can convince us that it’s important to you, then you’ve told us you’ve succeeded yeah.

About the things in your life that are important, that impact your life. The things that that you feel either are unjust and need changing or things that you love about your life. And write about them as, as fully and clearly as you can even if it’s the time you had a, you went swimming with some friends and you went over a waterfall or who knows what the and right, right from there first.

And then from there, you start looking at what other people might think is important and so on, but first got

Stephen: it. Great. Charles, great. I appreciate that. Good advice. Thanks for chatting with me today. We’ve had a great discussion about your book and writing in general. Absolutely.

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