James Finn Garner is not a big fan of writing, which is puzzling since he makes his living as a writer.
But the author of the Politically Correct fairy tales and bedtime stories series, Tea Party Fairy Tales, and other books told a group of Culver Academies students Tuesday that while he doesn’t like the writing process, “I love having written.”
Garner’s time on campus was sponsored by the Montgomery Lecture Series, the Writing Center, and the Humanities Department.
He also is a big fan of revising his work, saying that no great story is ever written, “it is rewritten.” First drafts are a great way to get your thoughts down on the page, Garner explained, but the subsequent revisions allows the writer to find precisely the right word to “nail your meaning down.” And when that happens, that moment “is golden.”
Garner knew he wanted to become a writer in the sixth grade after reading To Kill a Mockingbird “blew my mind away.” But at age 23, living in Chicago, he was already suffering from writer’s block. A friend suggested he try performing in an improvisational theater as a way to loosen up his thoughts.
“It was very liberating,” he said, and it provided the inspiration for his first of the Politically Correct books. He also learned a valuable story trigger from his time on stage. To keep a story going in improv, you must say “Yes, and . . .” The same is true with advancing the written story.
While talking about using adverbs, Garner suggested looking for a stronger verb to replace your original selection first. Using verbs “with a little more RPM” often makes adverbs unnecessary.
Also, use descriptive phrases that will make the readers use their five senses. “Make me feel it,” he emphasized as students wrote a short three or four sentence story. “Pull my memory toward yours.”
Garner added he is a big fan of “warming up” before writing. His example was to have students write three sentences using “I remember . . .” as their trigger. It is a trigger that writer Joe Brainard used for warming up. Brainard ended up publishing his memories in a highly praised autobiography.
Another method is “free writing,” which is writing whatever pops in your head. “But I strongly, firmly, suggest that you warm up,” he finished.