No lead magnet to promote.
Allow me to introduce you to Professor Laura Bandy .
Laura is currently a member of the English faculty at Spoon River College where she teaches creative writing, composition, and literature courses.
She received her MFA from the University of Illinois and attended the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers PhD program from 2009-2013, where she received the Joan Johnson Poetry Award. She has had work published in Soft Skull's Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry and Ninth Letter, among others, and currently has work in Alluvian. Her chapbook, Hack, was published in August 2021, and her full-length poetry collection, Monster Movie, will be published by Gold Wake Press in spring 2023.
Here's what she had to share in response to the questions I asked her (allowing us ALL to get inside her brain! Yay!)
If someone came to you and said, “I want to be a better writer, but don’t know where to start,” what would you advise?
Well, I’m never sure this will be a popular answer, but it is tried and true—read. Read everything .
Read widely, read deeply, read passionately, and read across genres (including writing guides and essays on craft, such as Ruefle’s “Madness, Rack, and Honey” or Addonizio’s “Ordinary Genius” for poets, and King’s “On Writing” and Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” for fiction and creative nonfiction).
I also really like the textbook I use for my creative writing classes, The Practice of Writing by Heather Sellers (herself an accomplished essayist, poet, and professor at the University of Florida).
And read for pleasure, of course.
How will you know what you want to write if you don’t know what you like to read? There are no shortcuts if you really want to improve your writing; you must read to see how the greats do it and how you might be great yourself.
But how amazing is that? YOU GET TO READ! It’s a gift, truly. Reading will make you a better writer and a more empathetic and interesting human (studies show that reading literature is akin to an empathy machine)—win-win!
Many writers know how to crank out a basic article, but they don’t know what differentiates GOOD writing from GREAT writing. And that is becoming more vague with AI-powered writing tools. What, in your mind, makes for a great piece of writing?
For me, great writing is that which lingers long after I’ve put the book down. Am I still thinking about the story/poem/essay days, weeks, even months after I read it? Am I still marveling at the structure of the thing?
As Toni Morrison said: "Writing has rules, conventions, and requirements. There is form and it matters. Did you feel you were in expert hands as you read the piece? That’s a sure sign of greatness—when you can relax and enjoy the ride—there’s a pro at the wheel."
And, to borrow from Emily Dickinson, “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
She was speaking specifically to poetry, of course, but I believe her words apply to all great writing. That, at least, is my litmus. (If it’s good enough for Ms. Dickinson, then it’s good enough for me!)
For writers who feel stuck creatively, what can they do to reset?
I know that different folks have different reset methods and whatever works for you, awesome! DO THAT! For me, when I get the blahs about what I’m writing, I usually switch to a different genre for a spell.
For example, I was burned out after finishing a poetry collection last year, and the thought of starting a new manuscript of poems made me feel peevish and fussy. I felt as though my poetry spring had stopped burbling, perhaps forever. And so, I started writing a murder mystery novel with a dark academia vibe, and…presto! Like magic, the fun was back.
I had no attachment to the genre for my own writing, so the pressure was off—I could just have fun. I’m at 45,000 words and still loving it. I also try switching up my media diet when I’m in a writing rut. If I’ve been binging rom-coms, I switch to documentaries and foreign films, and if I’ve been reading deeply from the fantasy or sci-fi wells, I move over to essays and theory.
John Jeremiah Sullivan’s book of essays, Pulphead, was a great find when I was in a reading rut, and Eula Biss, On Immunity. Currently, I’m reading a book on film theory by Quentin Tarantino, and it is igniting creative possibilities by moving me over into a more cinematic head space—I can feel it coming out in my writing.
Listening to new types of music shakes me up in productive ways, too. A writer I admire, Alexander Hemon, mentioned in a recent NY Times interview that his ideal reading experience included Bach’s cello suites and Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” playing in the background.
I’d never listened to either, but have been blasting them at full volume during my writing time lately, and the music is definitely rearranging my brain in strange and possibly productive ways.
How can writers infuse a human touch/make their writing more engaging for the reader?
The robot overlords arrived so much more quickly than I expected with ChatGPT. I hope they will be benevolent when their rise to power is complete!
But seriously (I was actually being serious there) in terms of worrying about AI supplanting human writing, I tend to fall in with the great science fiction writer Ted Chiang’s take on the topic:
“Think of ChatGPT as a blurry jpeg of all the text on the Web. It retains much of the information on the Web, in the same way that a jpeg retains much of the information of a higher-resolution image, but, if you’re looking for an exact sequence of bits, you won’t find it; all you will ever get is an approximation.”
Yes, what AI can do now is amazing , astounding even, in its writerly competence. But that’s just it—it is merely competent, a faint reflection of the real thing. When it comes to writing creatively, there is simply no substitute for the human touch.
Infusing the human touch in your writing/making it optimally engaging requires your most definitive humanness to be infused in the writing. This, to me, speaks to specificity.
What was the rock you picked up on the beach that time you walked at sunset on Lake Michigan when you were sixteen and had just met a boy named Jay while vacationing at the Jolli-Lodge with your family in August of ‘99? Was it a Petoskey stone, all gray and whorled and fossilized? Was the water warm that summer? Did it lap around your feet while you slowed your pace, trying to make the stroll last forever, laughing a little at Jay’s description of his school in Grosse Pointe and the strange teacher with a lisp and how he wished he didn’t have to go back at the end of the week, wished the vacation would last just a little longer, and you wished the same, wished also that when you bumped against each other navigating the dips and swirls in wet packed sand, that he would take your hand and hold it for the rest of the evening as the sun set a spectacular technicolor explosion of pinks and oranges in the endless sky, maybe hold your hand even for the rest of days?
Have you ever felt that way, Mr. Robot-AI-ChatGPT-whatever? Have you ever felt anything truly human? I didn’t think so.
What you don’t feel, you can’t write—I believe that with everything in me. And by that I don’t mean that you must only write about lived experience (I enjoy writing about space aliens and have never been to Mars—maybe someday?)
I mean you need to feel emotions as only humans can—the joy, the love, the illness, the grief, the suffering—you feel it and you write the feelings, that’s it.
Everyone has a million things on their daily to-do lists, and if writing is something they’re working on on the side, it often gets pushed to the back burner. How do you encourage your students to make it a priority?
I tell students (and myself) that, if they’re crunched for time (as are we all) then start small . Set aside an hour a day for writing. Heck, set aside a HALF hour! But make it count and make it non-negotiable—that hour or half hour is completely and totally dedicated to writing, full stop.
No scrolling, no puttering, no cleaning the house first. WRITE.
I was lucky enough to take a workshop with the stellar poet Victoria Chang last summer. During our week of the workshop, she would set aside half-hour chunks of time and give us prompts for our writing.
I was astounded at what I was able to accomplish in those short bursts— usually rough, but always interesting, and I came away with several new drafts of poems from those isolated and dedicated 30-minute bundles.
I remember Victoria smiling at me with quietly knowing air when I exclaimed at the volume of writing I accomplished by week’s end. “It’s amazing what you can do in 30 minutes when you don’t allow for distractions, isn’t it?” she said.
I would add: there are sometimes pockets of time that open up in our lives out of nowhere—a second job falls through, a child goes to camp, a planned getaway is postponed, a GLOBAL PANDEMIC OCCURS…when those time-gifts present themselves, accept them as the miracles they are and don’t waste them.
When I had unexpected time on my hands last summer due to a summer class I was meant to teach not making enrollment, I averaged around five hours a day on my writing, sometimes more. I knew it was a miracle, I knew it might not happen again for a long, long time. I closed the door to my office and wrote greedily, selfishly, voraciously. I loved it.
Any general writing wisdom you’d like to close with?
As the great Clive Owen once said in his terrific film Croupier: “Hang on tightly, let go lightly.”
Give your writing everything you’ve got—hold nothing back.
When I complained once to my poetry professor that I wanted to hold my favorite poems back and only send them out for publication to a couple of top-tier journals, she laughed (politely) in my face.
“If you’re holding poems or stories back, that means you’re not writing enough. You should be writing every day, generating new work every day. You should ALWAYS have a new poem to send out.”
I can’t always follow that advice (life gets in the way) but when I do sit down to write, I go for the throat. And then, I revise ruthlessly —those words on the page? They’re not precious yet. Prune them ‘til they are.
And when the inevitable rejections come in? You start all over again and you thank your lucky stars that you get to do this thing, this solitary, sometimes lonely, rarely triumphant, always worth it, thing—this writing life.