I noticed in the New York Times Book Review last week, there was a nice review of Jim Krusoe’s new book, Girl Factory. I was happy to see that, because Jim Krusoe was my first—and most influential—writing teacher.
Jim teaches creative writing at Santa Monica College, (and his faculty page reveals so much about him). He lets anyone join the class, but you have to read your writing out loud. This weeds out almost everyone. Because first you have to write something. And then you have to let everyone rip it to shreds. In front of you.
But wait. It gets worse. Because Jim edits. He slashes most of the writing he reads. And then, if you’re new to the class, you assume he’s wrong, so you read out loud what he has cut and you hear it fall flat as soon as it leaves your lips.
Try it. Read something you wrote out loud to a friend. If it’s bad, you’ll feel right away that boredom has overcome the room. If you have even one flat sentence, you hear it when you read it out loud.
The first time Jim heard me read my writing, he said it was the best he'd heard anyone read in his class in a long time. Then he slashed everything I wrote for the next six years. Sometimes I’d hand in three pages of writing and he’d leave only five sentences.
But this is the thing about those five sentences: they were great. And here’s why I became a dedicated follower: Because I felt like he understood my compulsive need to write my life. And I understood his goal, which was to have interesting sentences. So when he cut full paragraphs that I thought were important because my sentences were boring, I felt grateful that he saved me from banality.
And I channel him every day that I write a post. I think to myself: Is this sentence one that Jim would cut?
I am not so arrogant as to think that Jim would even bother to read any of my sentences today. But I do know that the lessons I learned from Jim are the essence of good blogging. You can't be boring on a blog. People will stop reading.
So if you want to know how to write interesting paragraphs, read the authors who are famous for their ability to stun sentence by sentence. Try Jim Krusoe. Try literary types who sacrifice plot for prose: Ken Sparling, Martin Amis, Ann Beattie. (And, when you are feeling ambitious, Marcel Proust.)
I tell people all the time to pick a mentor rather than picking a job. Jim Krusoe is my first experience with this. He didn’t teach at a college I had ever heard of. And he didn’t even write books that I understood. But he is legendary for churning out well-respected writers, year after year.
Find a mentor with this reputation, and then work hard to make sure you each understand each others’ goals. What you’ll get out of this relationship is a new way to be more of your true self. And this is the best kind of job we can ask for.
We don’t have to find our true calling from a mentor. In fact, what I found from Jim was confidence to think that I should keep writing and see what happens. A good mentor opens doors, in our minds, and you can find that at any job, any company, anyplace your connection with someone is strong.