December 28, 2009

Clear vs. Fuzzy

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately. (Well, let’s face it, I always read a lot of short stories.) But lately I’ve been noticing how some come across clearly and some seem fuzzy in my brain.

Some of this has to do, I think, with how far the sensibility in the story is from mine. If it’s fairly alien, fairly far from what I’ve experienced, I often have to reach more. However, a good writer can explain something clearly that is fairly alien (think Denis Johnson), but sometimes the writer chooses a less conventional style to get across a feeling. And that’s part of the problem: When is the writer just being self indulgent and when is she or he legitimately thinking of the reader’s experience?

But even when something is fairly close to my experience, it can come across as fuzzy. The writer’s choice of words are imprecise or doesn’t express things concretely. The structure is unnecessarily complex. It often relates to how concretely ~ or un-concretely ~ things are expressed. Showing vs. telling. It might occur when the writer is trying too hard, trying to be writerly rather than just go inside the character and write from the character’s voice.

And often it relates to interiority ~ how far inside the consciousness we are. Abstract concepts and feelings are hard to describe, and so when we’re deep inside a character, we don’t have the common vocabulary that accurately depicts the inner life.

But I would argue that this complex interior life and the complex moments between people can be expressed clearly ~ and often through sly gestures and hints and omissions. I really don’t mind working hard at understanding something, and especially if it’s something I can read over again and get more out of, but I don’t like the feeling that the writer is more concerned with showing off or masking insecurities than just telling the story.

Another thing I struggle with in this regard is that the more interior writerly language is thought of as being the more well-crafted, better, higher on the literary/art scale. There are times when this is true, but there are times when this is not true. Abstruseness or lack of regard for the reader is sometimes mistaken for depth. Things can be clearly expressed, even using writerly language. And when people write in simple language (e.g., Hemingway), their work can be just as writerly, just as subtle and nuanced. In fact, I would suspect that the stories that are most easily read are the ones that the writer worked very very hard to make that way. And they thought about the reader as they were doing it.

I’m kind of conflating fuzzyness with writerliness, I guess, which I don’t want to do, but the two can be related.

Writerly language vs. spare clear language will always be a tension for me ~ and I suspect for many writers ~ because of the connotations of worth and because that weird balance of hubris and insecurity is the writer’s condition.

What I’m Reading Today: More Anchor Anthology. It does not quite attain the Ecco Anthology’s shear awesomeness, but nonetheless it’s a very good anthology with a lot of really great stories. I think part of my reaction is because a number of the stories are more experimental and outside my comfort zone, which is very good for me to read and cogitate.

PS We’re headed out on vacation tomorrow, so I may not be able to post anything this week. Happy New Year to everyone!

December 27, 2009

Unqualified Recommendation

You've got to go watch Avatar in the theater now, today! Preferably in 3D. It rocks! So so cool. James Cameron, you're definitely one of my cool people.

December 23, 2009

Surviving on the Long Tail

For those of you who don’t know ~ and as I’ve recently learned ~ the long tail is the concept of selling a large of number of singular items (as opposed to large numbers of mass-produced items) in small quantities. It comes from a 2004 Wired magazine article by Chris Anderson and then an influential book (which I haven’t read), The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.

I think the term originates in statistics (or as we unoriginally called them in college, “sadistics”) where things occur along a bell curve, or “normal distribution.” In other words, for most people, things occur in about the same way, or at the center of the bell curve, and if what happens to you is unusual, it’s out at the ends or tails of the bell curve. On average, people are born about the same weight at about the same time in gestation. They get married at about the same time, have about the same number of kids at about the same time, and die at about the same age. “At about the same time” is the peak of the bell curve. Consequently, things are more likely to happen, be more probable, at the center of the bell curve, rather than at the ends.

Same with selling things. Something, a widget, is created and then begins to be sold. The bell curve starts with zero sold and then slowly rises. The widget gets more and more popular, and its sales peaks (tops the bell curve). Then it falls out of fashion and sales decrease, until there are virtually no sales. “The Long Tail” refers to when the tail extends ~ in other words, small numbers of items are just popular enough to continue to be sold.

(I’m explaining this to myself as I go along.)

How does this apply to art, you might ask? I came across (via Rumpus) the idea of the artist staying true to his or her principles and making just enough money to survive by selling small amounts of his or her work “on the long tail.” Writer and Technium blogger Kevin Kelly calls it 1000 True Fans here and here, and Robert Rich, sonic artist, has lived it.

Rich says, “The sort of artist who survives at the long tail is the sort who would be happy doing nothing else, who willingly sacrifices security and comfort for the chance to communicate something meaningful, hoping to catch the attention of those few in the world who seek what they also find meaningful. It's a somewhat solitary existence, a bit like a lighthouse keeper throwing a beam out into the darkness, in faith that this action might help someone unseen.”

The rise of the internet both helps and hinders artists. It’s easier for fans to have access to an artist’s work (i.e., publicity and direct sales), but then again it’s easier for fans to have access to an artist’s work (download copies without the artist making a dime).

I would think, to live this way, it would help to approach not just the work but also the selling creatively, and it would help to be a generalist and to know how to do a lot of different things (as Rich says). Bartering would be good. A tolerance with insecurity and change would be good.

Rich’s final word is not too cheery. He says, “In reality the life of a ‘microcelebrity’ resembles more the fate of Sisyphus, whose boulder rolls back down the mountain every time he reaches the summit.” Finally, “Starving artists will probably remain starving, although perhaps with new tools to dig themselves a humble shelter; and as in the past, some of these artists will use those tools to build sand castles or works of great art.”

The unresolvable perennial question. I am given hope by the power of the internet and the fact (via Cory Doctorow) that the economy of the internet is not one of scarcity and competition (i.e., each item you buy takes it out of the system) but of abundance and replication (each item you buy creates a new copy of that item, e.g., print-on-demand and itunes). The paradigm is shifting.

What I’m Reading Today: Actually, just web-surfing and watching a bit of Life (Part 2) on PBS. Very interesting show.

December 22, 2009

Empathy

Good will toward men!

Which means empathy. And I don’t know about you, but fiction is one of the ultimate exercises in empathy ~ both the reading of it and the writing of it.

So may you surfeit in reading and writing.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Twisted Tree.

December 21, 2009

Tradition

Christmas is about tradition, among other things. And that’s also what writing is about (in some ways).

A story is not just one person’s experience or creation; it’s also a dialog with all the writers that that author has read. Some of that shaping is conscious ~ “I liked how that book was structured. Let’s see if I can use it.” ~ while a lot of it is not. There’s a lot of work being done down there in the depths of a writer’s mind and emotions. A story line or an image will just seem right, whereas another writer would take the story in a totally different direction. One of the many things that makes writing so mysterious.

This is why it’s so important to read ~ for pleasure, of course, but also for craft ~ it would be a pretty solipsistic conversation without it. I’ve been told that there are writers who don’t read much ~ about which I was shocked! (I’ve never understood people who boast about being dumb or about writers who boast about not being readers. Totally incomprehensible to me.) Maybe they’re writers who are just starting out, I don’t know. What impulse would prompt a writer to go through the roller coaster from hell that is writing, other than admiration for other people’s work and his or her own pleasure in reading? Fame? Money?

Then again, it’s hard to place your own work in a tradition, unless you’re consciously doing so. Genre writers may have it somewhat easier ~ they have a ready-made list of comparisons, though their work may be very different from what’s gone before. If you’re trying to just write your own story, or write literary fiction (which often doesn’t follow as-firmly established conventions), it may be harder to place. I know it was for me. (This may say more about me than about what I write.) But no one’s story is without precedent. There are always comparisons.

I guess I shouldn’t make generalization about this because when it’s your story it’s complex and you can see connections to all kinds of things. It’s hard to reduce it to anything ~ I imagine it’s this way when you write genre too.

A long rambling post just to say: it’s good to know where we’ve been. It’s a lot less lonely, and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

What I’m Reading Today: Finished The Graveyard Book. A very good read. Reading more short stories from the Anchor Book and discovering some wonderful writers I hadn’t read before.

December 18, 2009

Rate of Revelation

This morning, I drove an hour and a half each way for a dentist’s appointment.

I used to hate driving long distances ~ I was bored out of my head and/or feeling trapped inside my skull with someone I didn’t like very much, aka myself. Now I enjoy it. Having three-year-old twins doesn’t leave me as much alone time, and so a drive is so peaceful. Plus I get time to step back and think about writing in a more global long-term way.

Stephen King has a great story about this (“The Road Virus Heads North,” from Everything’s Eventual), which ends with a weird dude from a bad painting attacking this guy as he returns home. Wonderfully layered, very creepy and suspenseful. But it starts with an author looking forward to thinking about his novel during the trip. Then evil author-creation kills author, hehe.

Sometimes on these trips I have epiphanies. (I just love epiphanies, don’t you? I wish I could have one every day. Feels like I’m making mental progress.) No epiphanies today, however. Mostly I just thought about the pacing in children’s books ~ I was thinking specifically about The Graveyard Book, which I’m reading ~ and the pacing in literary short stories. Or, as Jim Shepard talks about, the rate of revelation.

The underlying assumption of this, something children’s books take as axiomatic, is that things have to be interesting. So, what’s interesting? For children’s books, it’s often mortal danger, and new creatures popping up. Developments in plot. But also developments in the child and his or her approach to the world.

For literary fiction, what’s the equivalent? Well, I’m still working this out. Weird is sometimes good, but not so weird that a reader can’t relate. The specific detail is good, and the cliché or generalization is bad. More interiority is good, but not bland not-moving-ahead interiority. Even though we’re inside, we need to have a sense the story’s moving forward. The inner life can’t be irrelevant to the action. By rate of revelation, Jim means that the reader is learning new stuff, relevant stuff.

I guess that’s the crux of it. What’s relevant? Can the reader see what the writer is trying to do? Is it obvious enough but not too obvious. This is definitely where revision comes in: every aspect of the story has to work toward the effect. No extraneous stuff, down to each period and comma.

Loosely put, how do you make a literary short story read like a children’s book? Alice Munro can do it. George Saunders can do it. Tobias Wolff can do it. Hmmmmm.

Note to self: do more research on rate of revelation.

What I’m Reading Today: More Graveyard Book.

December 17, 2009

Faking It

I find that a lot of life is faking it. Acting like you are something that you may not feel like you are. Isn’t that funny? Do you ever get the feeling that you’re not really an adult and only playing at being one? That your house, which you’ve put so much into, is like a house you visited when you were a child ~ unfamiliar, how could you actually own a house?

When I was in graduate school, I taught writing at various levels. When I walked into a classroom for the first time, I had never been taught to be a teacher. As part of the fellowship, I was required to teach a course, so I did. I acted like I was a teacher and I was in charge. It was the same in taking graduate classes. I felt like I was pretending. No matter how much I prepared, I didn’t feel prepared enough, so I’d fake it.

After a while, I learned that this is an essential skill in graduate school, as well as in life. I couldn’t possibly be as prepared as I felt I should be ~ there weren’t enough hours in the day. But I learned to gauge how prepared I needed to be. If it was material that I wouldn’t be tested on and everyone was discussing it (and therefore the burden wasn’t just on me), I could get by with skimming it once. If I was leading a class, I had to know the material inside and out, so I read and reread and took notes and did outside research.

And if I found myself in a situation where I was asked something I didn’t know, I could apply that old politician’s trick of redirecting the conversation: “You know? It’s interesting that you ask that. It reminds me of …” Then you can say whatever you want. Or, alternatively, you admit you don’t know it, especially if you’re teaching. Students have a nose for bullshit, and if you’re giving them a load, they’ll know it, so you say, “I’m not sure. I’ll get back to you on that.” What’s important in all this is that you come across as confident and self-assured. Life is performance art, so you have to perform.

I’m reminded of this as I’m reading books to my kids. It’s much more about the performance than it is about accuracy. The first time I read a book, I may not get the words right, but I skim along putting in feeling and intuiting voices and sound affects. The first time, it’s actually a little scary, like riding a bike ~ if you stop, you fall over. It’s actually very good practice for doing readings, I think, because it’s the same thing ~ you jump off the cliff and go with the currents while rapidly flapping your wings. Maybe those who’ve done it a lot can control it more than that, I don’t know.

The point I’m coming around to is that being “a writer” is this way too. Many people hesitate to call themselves writers because they’re not published. To me, a writer is someone who writes, and by this definition there are a lot of people who call themselves writers who are not actually writers, and many who don’t call themselves writers who are.

I wonder if the feeling that you’re faking it ever goes away? Or maybe it’s just me.

What I’m Reading Today: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. What a great read! I’m immediately going to go out and buy his entire oeuvre. His work gives me the feeling I had when I was ten and discovered Joan Aiken or The Wind in the Willows. Thank you, Neil.

December 16, 2009

Flat

Hard to muster the emotional energy for writing when you're feeling as flat as a midwinter's sky. Shouldn't be an excuse, though, should it?

December 15, 2009

Home Is Where … the Writing Psychosis Starts

Just learned that a distant relative, whom I’ve never met, committed suicide yesterday. She was the mother of a four-year-old. It just makes me so sad.

There’s something about having kids that breaks things wide open inside you. Before kids, things would be sad, sure. When something bad happened to someone, I’d think, that’s too bad, but then, usually, the thought would slip from my mind and I’d be thinking about the next thing. But now, when I read something, I immediately think, what if that were my son or daughter? It’s particularly bad if that horrible something happens to children. It just tears me up inside. Empathy kicks in, big time.

It makes me think what a terrible wilderness the world can be for kids. Their lives depend completely on their parents or caretakers. Take one away, or have the ones there be mentally ill, or whatever, and that kid’s life can be horrible, a nightmare. There’s a reason kids’ books are so scary ~ because their lives hang by a thread. Instead of a wonderland, the home can be a torture chamber.

And we tend to be a pretty hands-off not-my-problem society. Even if you suspected something weird was going on with some kids you know, would you report it? If you swatted your kid in the grocery store for being a brat, would you want someone to report you? It’s all very murky.

Another reason why there’s a lot of people who feel the urge to write: they need to be heard, they need to tell the truths of their childhood.

What I’m Reading Today: The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus. Within this last year, I read the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Cristopher Beha. That is the SINGLE BEST COLLECTION I have ever read ~ and the reason is that it’s not just a year’s worth of stories. It’s the best single story (in the editors’ opinions) of the best short story writers working today. This Anchor anthology is shaping up to be just as good! I am so psyched! (Thanks, Rashena, for the tip.)

December 14, 2009

An Incipient Story

Even though I haven’t gotten very far on the other story about the sisters, I have another story just aching to get out, so I think I’m going to switch to that one. I have a first line but haven’t had the chance to sit down with it yet.

What I’m Reading Today:Diary of an Interesting Year,” a short story by Helen Simpson at the New Yorker. Gaaaack! (In a good way.) By the end, you’re looking back at the beginning thinking, how’d I get here?

December 11, 2009

It's a Peach

Watched James and the Giant Peach with the kiddos tonight and sat on the couch snuggling and eating popcorn and candy. All I can say is, aaaaah.

December 10, 2009

Representation in Fiction and Nonfiction

I was talking earlier today with a friend and fellow writer about voice, but in a slightly different way. We were talking about how, as a journalist writing profiles or features, you are the voice of people who can’t speak for themselves. You put their best foot forward. You are their advocate. You are their emissary, their warrior, their free lance.

It got me thinking about being a writer in general, how what you do is take on voices, whether you write nonfiction or fiction. It’s all about voice and about empathy and, as Steve Almond would say, about loving your characters or your subjects. It’s about understanding the world from their point of view and getting it across as best you can.

In this way, it’s about technique, and while fiction and nonfiction are far apart in some ways, at their base they are the same. They are someone representing someone else, be they real or imagined.

And, weirdly enough, I would say that fiction represents people better and more comprehensively than nonfiction ~ especially better than newspaper reporting and most magazine profiles. Think about it. What do we do in newspapers? We reduce the story to a simple coherence that can be told in one sentence. Now, how can the world, a person, an incident, be accurately represented in one sentence? I say this as someone who’s done some journalism. We may wish the world was that simple. In fiction, and in the nonfiction essay, writers often try to get to the truth with all its complexity and nuance.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the similarity between journalism and fiction is that at their most basic they’re about representing the world and often a person; however, fiction’s better at it, in my humble opinion, because it doesn’t leave so much out. But there are lots of journalists who do their best to encompass the complexity.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Ken Olsen’s very moving series about 22-year-old infantryman Brendan Marrocco, an Iraq War veteran, on the American Legion site. Parts 1 and 2 of a four part series. I can’t wait for the other two. Very well done.

December 9, 2009

What Comes After Postmodern?

I was curious the other day about what comes after postmodern, since that’s where we are.

Dr. Alan Kirby, Oxford, U.K., has an interesting take on this. The gist of it ~ if philosophical ideas can and should be broken down into “gists” ~ is that postmodernism is followed by what he terms as “pseudo-modern.” He says, “Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product.” In other words, the reader/viewer/audience is an integral contributor to the “text.”

Examples of this include television programs having viewers text on their cell phones to select favorites or Tivo or being able to comment or add to news via email or comments. A major one is the internet. Texts or entertainment used to be a fixed thing. You read or viewed from beginning to end. But now with the internet the viewer selects what they want to see, essentially creating their own un-repeatable narrative with every click. In that way, it’s like performance art, only the narrative is selected by the viewer from fluid possibilities, rather than the creator. But, like performance art, it’s ephemeral and ever-changing.

Kirby goes on to say that this creates people who are technologically savy but paradoxically helpless: “This technologised cluelessness is utterly contemporary: the pseudo-modernist communicates constantly with the other side of the planet, yet needs to be told to eat vegetables to be healthy, a fact self-evident in the Bronze Age. He or she can direct the course of national television programmes, but does not know how to make him or herself something to eat – a characteristic fusion of the childish and the advanced, the powerful and the helpless.” And, finally, “You are the text, there is no-one else, no ‘author’; there is nowhere else, no other time or place. You are free: you are the text: the text is superseded.”

What I was thinking as I read this is that “kids these days” have never been without the internet. Their conception of the world is totally different than mine in this respect. What also strikes me is, if you believe like I do, that a novel or other text is as close as you can get to another person’s consciousness, then our consciousnesses are getting closer together, melding in a way that they never have before. It’s not that we’re developing a mindless hive-mind but that the potential for understanding and connection is that much greater, and to people not just next door but around the globe. With the “author” actively creating text and the “reader” actively responding and shaping text as well, we’re creating a communal consciousness.

I take this as a very positive and hopeful thing.

What I’m Reading Today: Joy Williams’s Taking Care. I love her work stylistically, though I can’t help feeling sorry for the children who are collateral damage in her stories.

December 8, 2009

Congrats!

Congratulations to Maile Meloy for having her Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It among the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2009! That is so cool ~ and so deserving.

December 7, 2009

Should Writers Learn About Publishing?

I was listening to an old audio interview with a literary agent today, and when she was asked if writers should learn about the business and about writing query letters, she said, unequivocably, yes. Not only that, but her voice stumbled with disbelief at the question, and it dripped with disdain as she answered. She said that when teaching a class, she asked her students what genre they were writing in and half of them had no idea.

I’ve heard other people ~ often established writers ~ claim equally as vehemently that the business of writers is writing and the last thing that they should be doing if figuring out how to write a query letter. All the energy spend updating your blog and building your platform would be much better spent honing your craft. Writers write, they say.

So, all this to say, I tend to be a practical person and believe that we should learn about the business. If we want to publish, we should learn about publishing. If we want to be taken seriously, take it seriously. But I also believe that the most important thing is the writing, so most of our energies should be focused on that, and when we find ourselves pulled into the maelstrom that is blogging (she says hypocritically) and publishing and raised-then-dashed hopes and all that, we need to step back and remember the most important thing: the WRITING.

However, the contempt in this agent’s voice as she talked about those writing hopefuls made me sad.

What I’m Reading Today: “The Laugh” by Tea Obreht in this fall’s Atlantic Fiction Issue. Wow! The atmosphere of danger is palpable ~ and then realized ~ yet the moving part of the story is the emotion. It inspires me to start a story set in the early 1900s about two sisters living in southern Montana. Don’t you love reading something that makes you immediately say to yourself, “That is such a cool story! I want to do that,” and then you think of a very cool idea.

PS Your acronym of the day: SWIM = “someone who isn’t me” but can ironically indicate it is, indeed, the same person; similar to AFOAF (“a friend of a friend”)

PPS An agent requested a partial of the novel today!

December 5, 2009

Getting into Trouble

I’m watching Ovation TV and they’re talking about cinematographers. An interviewee says, “You find ways to get yourself into trouble and then get back out again.” What a fabulous way to think about art! Art isn’t this tidy thing that the artist figures out, like a mathematical proof or an engineering design ~ though I don’t think that these things are actually as tidy as we would like to believe ~ but rather it’s messy and uncomfortable and emotional and hard. Above all else, it’s hard. You have to risk and put it on the line to get your best work. It's only much later, after publication and reviews and controversy and acceptance and teaching in the classroom that things become solidified and accepted and "great."

Let’s go get into trouble!

December 4, 2009

Do You Know Any Blogs that Discuss Craft?

Do you know of any other blogs that talk about the craft of writing? I was trying to think of some. There are a lot that discuss publishing. Sites like Narrative and Glimmer Train have craft articles and essays. The New Yorker in its podcasts discuss authors and their intents. There are web sites devoted craft. But are there any blogs?

I certainly can’t be the only one.

If you think of any, please let me know by commenting or by sending me an email. I’d very much appreciate it.

What I’m Reading Today: I had book club this week, which rocked (hey, Vixens!), and what with bath night, I haven’t had much reading time. But I’m still hanging with Zombies.

PS I got an acceptance from a literary magazine today! Woo hoo!

December 3, 2009

Aaack! Revision – A Guest Post by Pembroke Sinclair

Today, our Cool Person guest blogger is Pembroke Sinclair. Pembroke loves to write about the human condition even though he does not particularly like to be around them, and his kickass protagonists inhabit dark scifi and fantasy stories, as well as westerns. He has an unhealthy obsession with the paranormal, sweeping political specfic, and serial killers. His story “Sohei” was named one of the Best Stories of 2008 by the Cynic Online Magazine. You can read his work at the Cynic Online and NVF Magazine or pick up a copy of Sonar 4. You can also read his blog or order a collection of his short fiction After the Apocalypse or his novel Coming from Nowhere on Amazon, which I encourage you to do immediately.

First and foremost, thank you to Tamara for having me as a guest blogger. I appreciate the gesture, and hope you find me as entertaining as she is!

Tamara had mentioned in a post a few days ago that she was revising a story, taking her time to add all of the details that she hadn’t thought of during her initial writing and fleshing the story out. While revision is a VERY important part of writing, it is also the most tedious. When I think about the revision process, my hands start to sweat and panic grips my chest. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!

For some authors, the revision process is a sign of accomplishment. After all, the hard part is done; the story is on the page, it just needs tightening up. For me, the start of the revision process is the beginning of a never-ending series of rewrites. Believe me, I’m not so jaded as to believe that my first draft is perfect, it’s not. In fact, it’s usually far from it, and I know I need to revise. The reason I hate to process so much is because it never ends; there is always something that can be fixed or needs clarification. How do you know when you’re done? Eventually, you just have to get to a point where you say, No more. This is as good as it’s going to get. But is it? Especially as the author, when is it ever good enough?

I’m sure I’m not unique in this situation. I’m sure there are tons of writers out there whose work never sees the light of day because they never think it’s good enough. Even when you get to the point where you decide you’re done revising and you get a piece published, how many times have you reread it and found a mistake? I hate that. It embarrasses me more than anything. That’s why I’ve stopped reading my stuff after it’s published. Unfortunately, I can’t stop revising. No matter how much I wish for it, my work doesn’t revise itself. I guess I will constantly be trapped in a love/hate relationship with writing and revising. Oh, well, I guess that’s as good as it’s going to get.

Thanks so much, Pembroke!

December 2, 2009

Willful Ignorance

It’s the late 90s. At 1 a.m., I sit in front of a blank blue WordPerfect computer screen. I have a paper due at 9 a.m. on the Book of Judith for my Bible as Literature class. Though I’m buzzing with caffeine, I get up and refill my coffee. I return. The terror of the blank page peaks, and I consider dropping out of college entirely. I have no idea where to start. My papers almost always receive good grades, but I’ll be darned if I know why. In desperation, I pull quotations I might use and start grouping them on the screen.

The reason why this was so excruciating was that I did not know how I’d done it and whether I could repeat it. I couldn’t articulate my process, any more than I knew the parts of an essay. No one had ever taught me about thesis statements or the five-paragraph essay. Or, if they had, I hadn’t been listening. It wasn’t until grad school, when I was trying to teach others how to do it, that I really understood writing process and how to structure text. In fact, it was my husband and his good old college prep education that helped me discover topic sentences. It all came as manna from heaven.

That’s why I don’t understand when experienced writers say they don’t know how they do it. First of all, how do they do it at all without going crazy, if that’s the case? Gosh, I certainly would have. Second, isn’t it our job to know? Writing is articulated thinking, and if you haven’t been thinking about how you write as you write, I’m not sure what that says about your writing. Is it a willful resistance to knowledge? Something in the psyche? I can understand if they just don’t want to go into it, and there’s definitely a part of it that is mysterious and heaven-sent.

Maybe it’s me who’s missing something.

Oh, and I’ve finished my story. Woo hoo!

What I’m Reading Today: Some interesting New York Times articles.

December 1, 2009

Writing as a Series of Decisions and Re-visioning Your Work

I’m at the stage with this story where I’ve gotten it all a laid out. I’ve written through it.

It was a challenging story to write ~ though I wasn’t blocked at all ~ because I chose not to figure it out ahead of time. It’s so much easier when I know where I’m going. It flows much more quickly and I feel more confident. When I take Robert Olen Butler’s approach ~ put yourself within a situation and character, not knowing what’s going to happen ~ each itty bitty step is a decision.

(I hadn’t thought about writing as a series of decisions until I read it recently in the wonderful This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, short shorts and writing essays by Steve Almond. It’s true and one of the many reasons it’s hard.)

As I was saying, the story is laid out. Now I’m going back and expanding and embellishing and revising. (Though I do revise each day as I write by rereading, editing, and organically adding to what I’ve written.) I hadn’t set the story in any particular city, but I pictured its neighborhoods. Then I realized that Omaha fit it perfectly. Consequently, now I’m going back and adding more place and atmosphere. I discovered themes and motifs as I went along (mothers and afghans ~ the blankets ~ as it turns out), so now I’m going back and enriching and twisting and adding. Knitting it together ~ hehehehe ~ as I go.

That’s one of the amazing things about Kent Meyers’s Twisted Tree, which I’m reading. He must have revised and revised and revised, the way each chapter/story can stand on its own yet is part of the larger weave. (Boy, am I in a textile frame of mind today.)

One thing I need to think about is how to see a story fresh as I’m embellishing and revising. I’ve always done revision, of course, but I think I need to take it a step farther and re-vision ~ re-see ~ it, as they say. I think about extending themes and complicating plot and making it like real life and not tidy. I do do this. But I need to figure out a way to take it further, find ways of coming fresh to the material. After you’ve worked on something long enough, it feels fixed, and it’s hard to imagine outside of what is already there.

(I feel so academe-maniacal when I use the word “re-vision.”)

What I’m Reading Today: Unfortunately ~ or fortunately ~ family obligations have been taking precedence. But I’m still playing with Zombies!

November 30, 2009

Competition, Shame, and Rage

Every writer’s dream (to assert a vast generalization) is a secluded cottage with internet access, a cozy fire, comfy log furniture, and nice morning light. Three times a day, a picnic basket appears at the door with muffins and a latte or thickly sliced ham sandwiches or piping hot lasagna with garlic toast and a nice Chianti. Your agent calls at noon to tell you your book is on the best-seller lists, as well as a critical success. Oh, and they’re making it into a movie. In the evening, after a busy day clicking away at the keyboard, Ernest Hemingway and Alice Munro and Truman Capote wait in the main house next to a roaring fire to drink mojitos and wine and to discuss your work and tell you how your stuff rocks. There are others there who flirt with you and then go back to your cabin to have wild sex, before you drift off to a contented sleep, looking forward to more of the same the next day.

What this dream doesn’t account for is the urgency of competition and the cold steely nerve brought about by indifference. Better yet, the angry impetus of active hostility. We need the dark side. We need to see our friends and our enemies doing better than we are so we push ourselves to improve, to do more, to apply the seat of our pants to the seat of the chair. We need our skeletons and our shame to give us the gift of our best work. We need family to give us life and we need life to intervene and give us the whetstone against which we hone our art.

If only it weren’t so.

Very important side note: My friend Leslie Maslow won the 2009 Open City / Rrofihe Trophy for her story “Mum.” I got the honor of reading it in workshop last summer. Make sure to pick up Open City #28 to read this great story!

What I’m Reading Today: Some lovely and tormented Kent Meyers. And Zombies!

November 27, 2009

An Evolutionary Imperative

Kids have all this energy, and they want to make things ~ cookies, paintings, snowmen. They also like to destroy things, especially when they’re feeling mischievous or angry. But in my (possibly naïve) experience they’d rather create than destroy. Supports the theory that there is a natural drive to create. It makes sense to me ~ evolutionarily speaking.

What I’m Reading Today: Zombies!

November 26, 2009

I Am Thankful …

For the car breaking down when I was ten, as my outlaw cousins ~ who don’t care about safety ~ were taking me rappelling,

For the two Army guys who pushed the car my two girlfriends and I got stuck out of a snowdrift on a cold winter night in the Bighorn Mountains,

For a long stretch of empty 3-a.m. interstate, which allowed me, when I was eighteen, to coast the wrong way in order to start my dead-battery’d car,

For not being raped in college, when there were a few times it could’ve happened,

For all those people who work on holidays just so I can get those eggs to make the pumpkin pie that I forgot when I shopped last weekend,

For friends near and far who regularly make my day,

For all those old boyfriends, without whom I would never have been able to have such a happy marriage,

For my in-laws’ inclusiveness and love of children,

For my family’s willingness to accept the individual,

For my daughter’s peregrinations and her willingness to just laugh,

For my son’s clear-eyed sincerity and his preference for order,

For my husband’s kindness and profound empathy and for making me feel like someone’s listening,

Finally, for my creative gift, from wherever it stems.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Kent Meyers.

November 25, 2009

Thankfulness

I have a very dear friend who is devoutly Catholic. This does not mean she’s fundamentalist or humorless or evangelical. What is so lovely about her faith is that she counts her blessings every day. Talking with her reminds me of how much I take for granted, which can lead to wanting more and a general dissatisfaction with life. To quote a well-worn phrase, if you see the glass as half empty, you’re looking to fill the rest of it. If you see the glass as half full, you’re focusing on the water you have, not the water you don’t.

I think that a kind of thankfulness is necessary for creativity. A paucity of spirit makes a person focus on what he or she is missing. I think it leads to bitterness, creative blocks, and too much time on the internet flaming other creative people. It may also lead to artists morphing into the kind of critic that all artists dread ~ the one without empathy who’s so focused on being clever and scoring points that he or she doesn’t take the time to try to figure out what the artist was trying to do. The kind in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.”

Julia Cameron talks about this in The Artist’s Way. You need a sense of abundance, of play, in order to be creative. Another way to look at it is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What Maslow says is that our needs are in a hierarchy, with very basic ones like breathing, food, etc., at the bottom, love and belonging in the middle, and creativity and self-actualization at the top. People can only focus on needs higher up in the hierarchy when the needs on the lower tiers are met. In other words, you’re a lot less likely to want to paint a masterpiece if you’re worried about being homeless.

What I’m Reading Today: Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s “Girl with Boat” in the last issue of Arts & Letters. You know how stories are supposed to move you emotionally? Well, I’m going to grieve for days, but that’s a good thing! (I was runner up in this contest ~ as was my friend Pierre Hauser ~ but it's such a great story I’m glad Lucy won. Congratulations, Lucy!)

November 24, 2009

Creativity and Courage

“No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.” Jack Kerouac

I have friends (who shall remain nameless) who are not creative. They state it that way: “We are just not creative.” They don’t consider themselves to be artists in any form ~ no writers, painters, or interpretive dancers. But the thing is, they are very creative in what they do. Some are homemakers and cook fabulous meals and sew clothes and costumes. Others do woodworking or keep Home & Garden lawns. One even spells his name in his dissertation with one letter of his name beginning each chapter. (Many of these friends are married to writers or other creative types, which makes you wonder if they are unconsciously trying to acknowledge this part of their makeup.)

I think part of the gap comes from the definition of “creative.” My definition of the word “creative” is someone who creates. It can be creating anything ~ a home, a family, even. I think many of these friends define “creativity” much more narrowly and exclusively, as only applying to the fine arts.

Part of what I wonder, too, is if it’s a matter of courage. It takes courage to stake a claim like this and assert it to the world. “I am a writer.” “I am an artist.” It’s scary and dangerous. What you’re doing when you make a piece of art is putting yourself out there. It’s not physically dangerous but emotionally and identity-ly (is there a word for this?). People could rip your heart out and stomp on it. And if you’re putting it out there, they are ~ regularly ~ with rejections or just ignoring you, though they don’t mean to stomp. It’s as if you’re asking a girl (or boy) to the prom every time you stick that stamp or click that send button. So you have to develop a thick skin and have confidence in yourself and roll with the punches. (Insert your favorite cliché here.)

Now that I think of it, part of it too is that you have to be selfish to be creative, and someone schooled to minimize self tries to “claim” as little as possible. Hmmm. I’ll have to explore this in more depth in another post.

So here’s what I say: You should be proud of yourself for simply having the courage to put the words on paper or brush strokes to canvas. You should be doubly proud of tentatively shooing that offspring into the cruel world, knowing full-well the odds of it getting run over by a Mack truck. To those of you who are creative, I salute you!

What I’m Reading Today: Kent Meyers’s Twisted Tree. Knocked my socks off, man! Or rather, knocking, since I haven’t finished it. But you have to get through the first story, which is compelling and lyrical but very Lolita-esque.

November 23, 2009

Educate Me

I vividly remember my first taste of injustice. (Okay, maybe not my first, but for dramatic purposes…) One of the first things they did when I went to kindergarten was test each child to see what he or she knew. I remember sitting in one of those orange plastic chairs next to a hulking teachers’ aid while she asked questions and then scribbled on a piece of paper. I remember being nervous ~ it was a test after all, and even at five I realized what this meant. She asked me to recite Hickory Dickory Dock (or some other nursery rhyme) but I had never heard it, so even when she prompted me with the first line I couldn’t complete it. I remember thinking: How unfair! No one ever taught me this rhyme, so how could I possibly be able to recite it?! Of course, now I know that they were just finding out what I knew so that they could start where it left off ~ and maybe gauge my intelligence and how I interacted. But at the time I was outraged in my mousy way.

I also remember my first taste of infinite possibility. I came to the University of Wyoming as a freshman not knowing what I wanted to study. I had wanted to be a veterinarian until late in high school, and changing my mind left a huge gap. I think the first major I chose was public relations ~ which is hilarious actually because that’s essentially where I’ve ended up after all these years. (Officially, I was in public relations, teaching, computer engineering, and art and unofficially considering nursing before I ended up in English.) I realized one day that I actually could be any major I wanted to and that all the knowledge I needed to learn for that major or any other subject in the universe was available at Coe Library. (This was pre-internet of course.) It was an epiphany: I could learn absolutely anything I wanted to! All I had to do was check out a book. It made me so happy I could’ve screamed.

What do these two things have in common and what does that have to do with writing? Well, first of all, it highlights how important learning is to me. I have always loved going to school and learning things. I love the life of the mind. Second, I think this intellectual curiosity is essential to being a writer. Certainly, you need emotional intelligence as well, but the ability to learn things allows you to be inside the heads of people from all professions and ways of life. All you have to do is read and learn. It’s like someone gives you a neat present every time you pick up a book or click open a web page.

Go forth and learn! I will till the day I die.

What I’m Reading Today: I read Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid in one sitting. It really captures what it’s like to be in middle school! Though from a boy’s perspective, of course. The changing allegiances. How grown-ups have the best intentions but often totally misconstrue everything. How alienated you feel. I almost wished for a little more lightness, but being disaffected is part of the gig.

PS Soon, this blog is going to occasionally include other writers expounding on craft. Consider yourself warned!

PPS Yes, I know I just split an infinitive ~ goes to show you’re just as geeky as I am.

November 20, 2009

Who Are You, Really?

Putting up a website makes you think a lot about how you are perceived and how that perception differs from your own self-conception. For example, my recounting of my childhood is very different from my siblings, I’m sure. What is it they say? “Nobody grows up in the same family.”

It also makes you acutely aware of the persona that you put forward. You want to be interesting but not too weird, articulate but not stuffy, friendly but not so approachable that you have no mystery. And, as you think about it, you have to come to terms with parts of yourself that seem mutually exclusive.

For example, I was raised on a ranch. There were parts of that I really love, but there were also parts that were horrible. I can neither reject it whole cloth because it’s part of who I am nor accept it unquestioningly because of the damage it did.

So, when putting a persona out there, how do I balance those different parts of myself? And I can’t just ignore it and hope it’ll go away because I have to put something out there. Also, it’s from this tension that a lot of my fiction originates.

I don’t think I can come to a conclusion on all this. I guess I’m just pointing out the tension.

What I’m Reading Today: Getting ready to read Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid for book club and to get back to my friend’s zombie novel.

November 19, 2009

Just Working Those Glutes

Today’s writing exercise: A very short story with all five senses.

Something smells bad, and it’s not in my dream. I don’t open my eyes. Instead, I pull the nubby quilt over my head, but the wreak is so strong the fabric won’t block it out. It’s then I realize that it wasn’t the smell that woke me but the panicked barking of our terrier, but now there’s nothing. I hear my mom moving around. Still on my back, I toss the covers off and roll from my mattress. When I open my bedroom door, the smell hits me so strongly that I gag and bitter bile rises into the back of my mouth. I cover my nose with the crook of my elbow and force myself to swallow. “Tiff,” my mom yells at me from the main part of the house, “don’t freak out. Stay in your room.” Her voice is deep with exasperation. “What?” I yell through my arm and step into the hall. I heard her, but I want to know what’s going on. “Stay in your room!” she says. Then, “You left the patio door open, and a skunk’s been eating the dog food. Terror waited till it got inside to confront it.” That’s the first night we sleep in the car.

What I’m Reading Today: Nothing, unfortunately. Sometimes, you just have to clean the house.

November 18, 2009

Closure

I love the feeling just after the house is clean and of just finishing a book. If I feel like I’ve offended someone, I can’t rest until I’ve made it right. When I start a task or promise to do something, it weighs on my mind until I complete it. If I tell the kids I’m going to do something tomorrow, I try my best to follow through.

I’m not saying this to make it sound like I’m particularly honest or conscientious. No, it’s all because I have an inordinate need for closure. I guess I don’t know if it’s an inordinate need. Maybe there’s a lot of other people out there who feel just the same. But for me, I feel tension until I reach that closure.

Funny how that doesn’t apply to starting books, though. I taste them but don’t feel compelled to finish them until I’m in the right mood. Maybe I don’t feel like I’m committed, or feel that hollowness to where I must bring about closure, until I’m farther along into the book.

Anyway, it’s something to keep in mind when ending a story. Does a story need closure? Or are some stories better ended with resolution but no closure. I guess, here, I’m defining closure as a tidy bow, wrapping everything up. In this way, I’d have to say that I like the latter more ~ resolution without closure. Because it’s more like real life. Because that’s often what literary fiction does.

So I’m always thinking about how to end a story with resolution but not closure. How do you make it feel like a story, make it satisfying, without wrapping it up in a nice little bow? The perennial question.

What I’m Reading Today: Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. How tough and tender.

November 17, 2009

Today, I’m a Writer

Whew! Well, I wrote today. Only a little, but it was forward motion. And, if you’re a writer, if you’re not moving forward, you ain’t breathing!

(Don’t know how far I want to extend this metaphor. Aren’t sharks cannibals?)

I avoided tackling the story that’s been dogging me and started a new story with just a want. This man wants a spoon. Why does he want a spoon? Because that’s what he uses to put on his shoes ~ a very large kitchen spoon. Why does he want to put on his shoes? Because he has to get away from his girlfriend, who’s an unpredictable shrew. And onward from there.

It’s like standing in front a closed door. Then just turning the handle and cracking it open. This other world reveals itself. The first line is the crack and then the door swings wider and wider, until you step through the door and wonderful things happen.

I woke up grouchy, but now everything’s cherry pie!

What I’m Reading Today: Just a quick bit of Juan Rulfo. This story “The Man” was a bit experimental. It was a man tracking another man who had murdered a bunch of people with a machete. It had the conceit of them almost talking to each other as they scrabbled up a mountain. They aren’t but it’s structured in such a way that the thoughts of one pose questions or follow the other and then point of view skips to the other man. Very interesting.

PS Boy am I a writer today. After I wrote the above, I got the most wonderful acceptance and the most wonderful and heartbreaking rejection. So, all in one day, I was blocked, I wrote, I was accepted, and I was rejected. I don't know if I can take this. KIDDING!

November 16, 2009

Resistance

I tend to be an upbeat person. A realistic optimist. I try to make the best of things and believe in the good in people, but I also try to balance it with the indifference of the world and that people are usually more concerned with themselves and slights are not intentional. I don’t think this world-view is paradoxical, though I’m sure it has inconsistencies in logic, as we all do.

This I try to reconcile with being slightly bipolar. Not so much that I need medication. Every two to three months I go from being energetic and full-speed ahead to down and struggling to get myself to even think about writing. Then, once again, back on that horse, full-out gallop.

And, by nature I’m a good girl. I try not to make others uncomfortable and I tend to be pretty empathetic. Which is all to say that when I’m not writing, I get kind of down, yet I don’t want to let that note of desperation creep into these entries.

So I have a dilemma: On one hand I would like this to be an honest account of the creative process and a deeper discussion (especially when I good comments ~ thanks, Pembroke), but on the other hand the good girl in me shrieks when I consider talking about writers block. Hmmmm.

We’ll have to see how it all shakes out.

What I’m Reading Today: Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain and Other Stories. Oh my gosh, what amazing stories! He’s right up there with Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, only more desperately heart-wrenching.

November 13, 2009

Wanna Buy Some Art? Only $19.95!

I received some very nice emails from the photographers of the istock photos I am using on this website. I also came across a very nice note on istock forums thanking me for letting the photographer know I’d used his photos. All of them said that I was the only, or one of the only, users to let them know that I’m using their art.

Yesterday, I read Janet Burroway’s "Best Advice" on Narrative. She has a lot of good things to say. One of my favorite lines was, on becoming a writer: “You may also be led to neglect not only bedtime but also sobriety, monogamy, hygiene, and solvency.” Also, “Writing for the masses is like marrying for money, an exhausting way to become a hooker.” What great lines! She also said, “Over the past forty years the commodification of writing has extended from the conglomerates to the publishers to the editors to the agents to the writers to the writing programs.”

As often happens, the conjunction of two things came together in my mind (while I was in the shower, where I do my best thinking). It hit me that the reason why the photographers weren’t getting notes from people using their photos, which are really their art, is because everyone views them as a commodity. And of course they are a commodity ~ the photographers put them on istock in order to be sold/licensed for use. But, as I’m taking a photography class, I realize the amount of work and the shear volume of photos that had to be taken in order to get that one good shot. And the photographers must love what they do, even if they’ve grown distant from that and begun to view it as a way to make a living as well. But I don’t think so. The beauty of the photos shows the love and care they have for it.

And I’m guilty of this, if guilt is the right word for such a complex phenomenon. I would love to be able to write fiction full time. But then that would mean I (and my family) would need to subsist on what I make as a fiction writer.

So I guess my take-away on this is that art is viewed impersonally as a commodity, and the ramifications of this extend far beyond merely selling stuff online. It permeates the very way we approach art, the things we take for granted. To own up to it: the things I take for granted.

What I’m Reading Today: My friend Nina McConigley’s story “Curating Your Life” in the last American Short Fiction. What a courageous and kickass story!

November 12, 2009

Formative Moments

I sometimes wonder about the formative experiences of a writer. Those experiences that give a person the balance of hubris and doubt necessary to persist long enough to create art. It’s a very complex thing, and there are tantalizing details.

For example, the summer I was five I often wore a bright red fuzzy minidress with fringe, but no socks and shoes. I think it was actually my mom’s sheath shirt with no sleeves. I loved it and wouldn’t take it off for days. Imagine it on a skinny knock-kneed girl with long uncombed dirty blonde hair—like something by Dorothea Lange. That summer, like many summers, my dad irrigated on a Honda motorcycle with the shovel stuck in the back like a flagpole. (This is the same motorbike, after it gave up the ghost, that I rehabilitated in high school shop class, before someone stole the key and I couldn’t start it.).

I was wearing that dress the bright midsummer afternoon I hopped on the back of Dad’s bike to go home. I don’t remember it, but I imagine I begged Dad to ride with him. We were driving down a dirt road between irrigated fields, and the road had a huge washout down the middle where the ditch had overflowed. The road was essentially a ditch over which cars straddled. Dad drove along the top right side of the road, but it gave way and the bike collapsed to the left off into the middle ditch part. Dad straddled, trying to keep the bike upright—unsuccessfully, as it turns out, because the left bank was too far away. My leg was underneath the bike, and my calf was in contact with the hot tailpipe, so I ended up with a broken leg and a burn the size of a pancake on my inner calf. To this day, I have a faded bumpy patch there.

We waited until my sister drove up with the truck and I rode home with her. I remember the panic in my parents’ voices and the pain. It was decided to take me the 25 miles/45 minutes into town. Dad drove, I was in the middle, and my sister sat by the door. If I was five, this sister would have been about 22 and in college. I’m sure I was crying and carrying on, a pretty pitiful sight.

My sister told me the story of the seven princesses who wore out their shoes every night. You know the one: Every night the seven princesses wore out their shoes, and the king could not figure out why. So he said that whoever could find out would get to marry the princess of his choice. Many princes tried but fell asleep to beautiful music and therefore failed. They were put to death. Finally, a handsome young prince had the presence of mind to stuff his ears with wool and stayed awake long enough to find out that the seven princesses went dancing every night at a magical place and that was why their shoes were worn. He told the king and got to marry the youngest and most beautiful of all.

I was enraptured, swept away, taken out of myself. I remember after the story coming back into myself and awareness of the pain, though it was largely gone. I was amazed. I understood that it had made me forget my pain, and I think I kept repeating, “I forgot it hurt!” trying to make my sister and dad understand the miracle of it.

I think all writers have stories like this. Formative moments that really stick in their memories. Certainly the reasons I’m a writer are more complicated and go much deeper than this, but this memory is one that I cherish, strangely enough. A defining moment.

What I’m Reading Today: Janet Burroway’s "Best Advice" on Narrative. Struck a cord. Made me both hopeful and morose.

November 11, 2009

Happy Endings

Thinking about happy endings. Most people want them, but real life rarely provides them unequivocably. Probably why most people want them. In my quest to show the nuances and subtleties of "real life," I shouldn't forget that.

What I'm Reading Today: Not much.

November 10, 2009

Note to Self: It's Your Character's Voice, Not Yours

I recently watched an interview with David Wroblewski (author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) who said that there was a period after mouth surgery that he couldn’t speak, and it gave him a whole new view of the world. The main character in Edgar is mute.

I’m also taking a photography class, and every session we spend an hour looking at photos for composition and effective technique. The professor told me that a photo is not a record of a subject but rather a record of the photographer’s interpretation of that subject.

And then there’s the technique for effective fiction in which every detail included is filtered through the consciousness of the protagonist/point of view character. All details should carry their weight and contribute to the overall effect. They should do more than one thing. They should be significant details ~ significant in that they show the reader something about the character.

What do these three things have in common? Well, let’s see if I can articulate it. It’s all about point of view, of finding a very specific and unified view of the world. I’m not going to say “unique” because that word has pretty much lost its meaning (only one of its kind in the world; you can’t be "kind of unique"). And it’s not you the author’s point of view or voice, but that definitely contributes to it.

When I was at Tin House this year, I worked with Jim Shepard (who rocks, by the way), and he said something that made me feel so much better. I asked him, “How do I find my voice? I’m torn between the spare western voice and the more interior lush voice.” He said, “Don’t worry about finding your voice. Find your character’s voice. Maybe you’ll be drawn to certain types of characters and theirs will become known as your voice, but that’s not a question you need to worry about.” It was tremendously freeing.

I guess what I’m saying is that the best we can do is to try to be true to that specific character and their take on the world. Also, all things in that work need to be filtered through that character. And if you do a good enough job, be specific enough and push beyond cliché and the expected, you’ll create a world that others will find interesting, hopefully. It’s not you, not your world, but that of your character, and all things in that work need to contribute to that effect.

What I’m Reading Today: I haven’t had a good chunk of time to sink my teeth into my friend’s zombie novel (hehe) because I can’t bring loose pages into the hot bath at night. And I’ve really needed the hot baths to relax. I can’t wait to get into it though. Last night I read more Mary Gaitskill.

November 9, 2009

Ssssssshhhhhhhhhh

I used to surround myself with sound. I always had a radio going ~ as I got ready in the morning and in the car and working around the house and falling asleep at night. I didn’t mind being alone, since I was always alone growing up. In fact, I’d get nervous in groups of people. But if there was silence my inner monolog would make me miserable. I was a bundle of low self esteem and caffeine-induced free-floating anxiety, and by immersing myself in noise I couldn’t hear my inner voice, for good or ill.

Then a number of things happened. I worked through a bunch of issues, I got in a stable relationship, and the radio in my car broke. At first I missed it terribly, but then I got used to the silence. I stopped listening to the radio as I took a shower, and I surrounded myself with silence at those times that I was alone. You know what? I created this space for thought and writing that hadn’t existed before. Now I love that silence, and some of my most creative thinking time is in the shower. Not so much in the car, since I usually have two three-year-olds in the back.

So that’s something I now realize I need for my writing: a calm inner space created by silence.

I did lots of writing today, but unfortunately none of it was fiction.

What I’m Reading Today: Zombie novel continued. Go kick some Zombie ass, Krista!

November 7, 2009

The Cream Rises to the Top ... Or Does It?

Last night between shows on the AMC movie channel, a director came on and talked about Ed Burns’s first effort at directing, The Brothers McMullen. He said that Burns’s big break was having his father have a connection in the biz and passing the tape along so that that director viewed it. The director said something to the effect of “Talent always rises to the top. It will always get its chance in the spotlight.”

I lay for a long time after shutting off the TV thinking about this. Did I actually believe it? Laying aside the question of whether or not I actually have talent, do I believe that those who have talent will eventually be noticed if they stick it out long enough? I finally decided that I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it’s something I have to believe. Otherwise, what’s the point? Sure, writing is a reward unto itself, and it keeps me sane, but I also believe that the urge to write stems from a need to be heard, a feeling that you haven’t been heard. Therefore, implicit in writing is the desire to publish, to put it out there.

It’s sort of like the up-by-your-bootstraps American dream, and I actually don’t believe that the American Dream is true. It's a myth. I believe that it takes lots of luck and lots of help from others, in addition to hard work and dedication, to make it big. Maybe this contradicts my previous paragraph, I don’t know.

We must all have our illusions.

What I’m Reading Today: About to start a manuscript of a friend of mine’s, a zombie novel. I’m very excited!

November 6, 2009

Six of one ...

Writers block? No.

Sick kids? Yes.

Amounts to the same thing, though, doesn’t it? But, on the plus side, I got to hang with my kids all afternoon and watch a cool animated movie (Ice Age 3). They’re really neat people, and I think I’m going to go give them another hug right now. Big hugs, all the way around.

What I’m Reading Today: A little Jill McCorkle from the 2009 Atlantic fiction issue.

November 5, 2009

My Website

A number of people asked me how I created this site. Did I hire someone to do it? Where did I get the photos?

Well, all I can say is: those thousands of dollars spent on computer engineering classes finally paid off! (I’m kidding ~ actually I’ve never felt they were a waste. I’ve used them in all kinds of thing ~ technical editing and writing and so on.) Seriously, I did it myself. I thought my brain would explode, but I was able to do it. I created it totally from scratch twice ~ once to learn the software and figure out the design and then again to do it right. And I’ve been tinkering with it since. I used Web Expressions software and pulled some plug-ins from various places ~ forms and the photo album. Network Solutions is my web host, and I used their plug-in of WordPress for my blog. (I’m not sure I’m using the term “plug-in” in the correct sense.)

The photos I got from istock.com. I WISH I had taken them. At istock, you can find photos on all kinds of things, and it’s very reasonably priced to use them. Since then, I’ve credited who took the photos and linked to their sites. I also sent them an email saying I was using the photos, and so far I’ve received a nice note back from one of them.

I was afraid starting a blog would turn into a guilt thing and also take away from my other writing, but it hasn’t. I look forward to it, and it too is a way to connect with people. If you’re like me, I love reading blogs about writing and publishing.

What I’m Reading Today: Continuing Maile Meloy’s novel Liars and Saints.

November 4, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

I read Stephen King’s short story “Premium Harmony” in the New Yorker yesterday. It’s fascinating to gauge reader response ~ let’s be honest, my response ~ to it. It’s a wonderful story. On a hot August day, a lower middle class man and his overweight wife are taking a drive in a car, and they aren’t getting along. Her little dog in the back seat is annoying. She coerces him into stopping to buy a pink ball for their niece. She goes in and he stays in the car, and then a store clerk comes out to tell him his wife collapsed. He runs in, leaving the dog in the car, and finds his wife dead. Two hours later, when he comes back out, the dog is roasted to death in the car, but it is a weirdly happy ending ~ in King’s trademark combination of humor and horror. (Have you read “Autopsy Room Four” from Everything’s Eventual? Hilarious.)

What is curious is my reaction to it. The protagonist is reprehensible in a lot of ways. He’s cruel to his wife, and he’s not very likable. But because you’re in his point of view, you’re asked to sympathize with him. An unreliable narrator. But what’s curious is the way I’m able to sympathize with him. The same thing happens in workshops. We’ll all read someone’s story, and others will talk about how there’s nothing likable about a character and condemn that character as horrible. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, “Yes, he does some really horrible things, but I understand his motivations. I understand why he does those things.” Like reading Lolita ~ he’s is a horrible child-molester and uses his own desires to justify his actions, yet I understand why he does it and am seduced by his words.

That’s one of the reasons I’m a writer ~ when people do things, there’s always a reason, a motive, even if it’s an emotional one. By labeling them as crazy, you’re dismissing them and not trying to understand why they do the things they do. When someone is a serial killer, it seemed perfectly reasonable and necessary to them for that person to do those things. And that’s why I write ~ to try to figure out why. Someday I’m going to write a story about those kids in Idaho who kept the police at bay for days after both their parents died. I’m going to write a story about a mother having to choose between her children. It’s horrible, but compelling.

So I sometimes wonder if the way my empathy works is uncommon, since others seem to be much more ready to condemn.

And then there’s what I find funny, which is the subject of another post.

And I’m inching forward on writing my story.

What I’m Reading Today: Gina Oschner’s short story collection People I Want to Be. Her style reminds me of Jim Shepard’s. Very interesting.

November 3, 2009

Book Club

Book club was at my house last night, and it was a hoot! In the middle of the month when you look at the book that you didn’t necessarily choose but have to read and think about the arrangements you’ve got to make to get ready, it seems daunting. But then you get together and have such a good time, you want to have book club twice or three times a month. Plus the group of women who get together are just fabulous. Interests vary from specfic/horror to Victorian novels to quirky mysteries to quirky nonfiction. So we’re always reading something different and we try to have something light after a couple of dark books. I’ve truly enjoyed the books we’ve read. Some were hard to get through, and some were pure delight, but I’ve loved getting to read things I never would have picked up on my own.

We read Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge, so we did New Orleans and hurricanes for the theme. One friend was going to make gumbo, but we had to cancel and reschedule a couple of times, so she made her delicious chicken enchiladas instead. We had rich pie ~ half pecan and half not ~ and yummy dirty rice and donut holes (couldn’t find any beignets). I made corn bread with cheese and chiles, and we had hurricanes to drink. We talked about the book but also about ghosts and the new scary paranormal movie and blogs and all kinds of stuff. We decided to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid for next month.

I had a revelation as I was trying to figure out why I felt so distanced from the characters in this month’s book. I pondered this a long time. One reason was that it was in the style of a newspaper article, but more specifically, the revelation was that we were being told, rather than lead through and shown, the emotions and what was happening. We were held at an arms’ length from the characters, or there was a wall between the reader and the characters. So that’s a note to self ~ Self, remember to show, not to tell. Let the reader feel the emotion, rather than telling him or her to feel.

And I’m making more progress on the story I’m working on.

What I’m Reading Today: Stephen King’s short story “Premium Harmony” in the New Yorker. Even though I don’t read much horror, I’ve always been a fan of Stephen King.

November 2, 2009

Back in That Saddle

Well, I’m back on the Vietnam story. What had been stopping me was how to enter the scene. Where do I start? It seemed too overwhelming. There are a lot of people in this scene and a lot of things I want to accomplish ~ too much, and it overwhelmed me. But luckily (as I said in a previous post) I’m modeling this story on another, and once I reread the model story and realized what she was trying to accomplish, it became clear what to do.

Do you ever do that ~ take a story you really like and write a story that mimics the tone and structure of that story? I find it’s a really fruitful way to learn craft. I can only hope that some of the genius of the first story filters down to mine. But a funny thing ~ the weaknesses filter down as well. There was a story I modeled on that was really good, but there were parts of it that didn’t seem to move the story forward, that you were tempted to skip as you were reading. Guess what, I got that same reaction to the story I wrote that mimicked it.

Using another story as a model also helps me correct some of my weaknesses. I tend to be spare, not to have much of a narrator over and above the protagonist helping to guide the reader, and not to have much interiority. This is a detriment when you’re trying to write literary fiction, I can tell you! Who was it who said that one of the differences between literary and genre fiction is the externality/interiority balance of the story? I’m never trying to make a story be strictly interior (e.g., stream of consciousness) ~ that’s not my thing ~ but a little more never hurt.

So I made progress today! Today, I’m a writer.

What I’m Reading Today: Maile Meloy’s first novel Liars and Saints. It’s immediately interesting, and I love the style of this book! Sort of that skimming through time of a fairy tale, but told from multiple points of view. Have I mentioned that I love multiple points of view?

October 31, 2009

Need Any Marketing Material? Editing?

Today I’d like to get the word out about a great editor and writer friend of mine. She and I got our master’s together. Our class was particularly close, and if you would’ve asked any of us, “Who do you think is the most prepared and works the hardest?” I bet they all would’ve said, “Kerry Ceszyk.” When teaching classes, her syllabus was always prepared months in advance, and she was always so conscientious. She loved teaching at 8 o’clock in the morning because that’s when the best students took Science and Technical Writing. Not only that, but she’s a really nice person.

Now she has her own freelance writing and editing business. It’s called Elements Writing. If you need a resume, a thesis or novel copy-edited, a nonfiction book indexed, or promotional materials, she’s your person. I can wholeheartedly and unequivocably say, Kerry Ceszyk is who I would ask. Check her out.

What I’m Reading Today: The litmag Granta, Chicago-themed issue 108. I just read the short story “Parrot,” by Peter Carey. Such magazines are the literary heart of our day ~ passionate in youth, steadfast in age, and glorious all around.

October 30, 2009

Thank You All!

Wow! Thank you all. I sent out an email yesterday to let writer friends know that I was linking to them and to ask (beg?) them to link back to me, and I got such wonderful emails back. I connected with people I hadn’t talked with in a while, and I got to read some people’s work. I also mentioned something on Facebook and got a lot of nice notes there. Really, your generosity is overwhelming. After yesterday clicking the send button with much trepidation, now I feel like I’m in It’s a Wonderful Life.

And thanks to everyone’s efforts the bots finally noticed me and put a listing on Google.

So that’s my thought for the day. I am not alone; you are not alone. We often feel stranded out here in the writers life ~ or just in life in general. The world not just passively but actively works against creativity and productivity, and the writing itself doesn’t cooperate. But there are others out there feeling exactly the same way. If you’re feeling blue, or would just like to chat, please don’t hesitate to email me. If nothing else, misery loves company.

What I'm Reading Today: Mary Gaitskill's short story collection Because They Wanted To. Raw but nuanced. Wow!

October 29, 2009

Why I Love Alpine Hot Spiced Cider

Well, a storm has closed Laramie down today. It’s not the heavy wet flakes but instead the unremitting powder that the wind sculpts into wave forms. It reminds me of why I love Alpine hot spiced cider.

When I was growing up, we had a late-season grazing lease up on the top of the Pryors. This meant that late in the fall while we finishing up our summer grazing—which we spent in cabins with no electricity or running water—we would cut out a herd of cows and drive them up the steep mountain to where shooting stars and pine trees grew. Then, months later when the snow was deep in the high country and we were back at the home place, us kids would be taken out of school for a long weekend in December to round this herd up and bring them down.

It was always frigid and, let me tell you, cowboy boots are not warm. I always dreaded having to pee—finding a copse of trees, creakily hoisting myself off the horse and hopefully into a space blown free of drifts, and then hiking up my coat, down my chaps and pants and longjohns and underwear to try to hold the horse and squat and miss my pantslegs. Anyway, it would take a couple-three days to bring the cows down, winding through canyons and cutbanks down to the home place.

One year, after that first day of roundup, we stayed in some friends’ cabin. It was dark by the time we dropped the cows and piled into the suburban. The warmth of the heater made me drowsy and I could feel as I thawed the radiating cold from my extremities. I didn’t know where we were going. When we drove up, the kerosene lamps through the windows of the cabin looked like Christmas, and when we were invited in, they offered us Alpine hot spiced cider. I glanced at my aunt to make sure that it was okay, and she nodded. The smell of the apples and the cinnamon and the heat of the cup in my hands and the steam on my frost-chapped cheeks gave me such a sense of warmth and satisfaction.

So to this day, I love all things apple, and especially Alpine hot spiced cider.

Oh, and I finished a story today!

What I’m Reading Today: Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, a short story collection. A week ago, I finished her short story collection Half In Love. I’ve always had a hard time finding writers to compare myself to. By that I mean writers who write the same type of material that I attempt. Maile Meloy is the first and only writer I’ve come across who writes what I’m trying to write ~ the West of Wyoming and Montana from a (recovering) ranch girl’s perspective, as well as more broadly. Maile Meloy, wherever you are, this is my love letter to you!

October 28, 2009

Let's Play

Well, it was the switching that helped (see yesterday’s post). I shelved the Vietnam story for a couple of days and responded to a call to write about blue (thanks, Nina!). The voices of the protagonist of this story and of the previous story are actually not much different, but the mode of expression is much different. In the Vietnam story, it’s all very serious, mimicking my approach to the piece, while this second story writes like a fairy tale.

Isn’t that interesting? Now that I think about it, any move to be more childlike ~ whether it’s by writing in a childlike style or by playing or by taking myself less seriously ~ helps me to become less blocked. Last year when I was trying to write a synopsis of a novel, the only way I could accomplish it, simplify it enough, was to tell it like a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, there was a good girl who fell in love with an idealistic young man who was a writer.” Then, from that purely chronological and essentialized version, I complicated it and removed it from the “once upon a time” style. But it really really helped. (Just as it would help to begin writing a synopsis as if you were sitting on a barstool and trying to explain a movie to the guy next to you.) It’s the taking everything so seriously, the anxiety of influence, of competition, of failure, that gets me sometimes. It’s not what I’m saying; it’s that I’m not saying it well.

So, let’s play! Get out those slinkies and footballs and Barbies and crayons ~ here we go!

PS

I think I’ll add to the blog, instead of status, “What I’m Reading Today.” Which doesn’t mean I’ll read it all the way through and finish it before I move on to something else. You might notice I skip around a bit. Uh, a lot.

What I’m Reading Today: Just finished Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge for book club. Very ambitious, which is hemming and hawing for I both admired it and thought it needed to be focused a bit.

October 27, 2009

Are you hearing the Voices?

The question is, when starting something new, how do you silence the voices? You know the ones. “Hey, what ever made you think you could write?” “This is shit ~ you know that, don’t you.” “Not only that, but everything you’ve ever written is shit. Everything, no exceptions.” “That sentence is so wrong, cliché, overwritten, underwritten ~ what were you thinking?” I try and try ~ and bang my head against the wall ~ and try some more.

What I sometimes do is quit ~ and then try something else. Start something new, or pick up something else I’ve been working on. Then maybe read something that inspires me ~ an essay by another writer or a short story I particularly like.

But when that doesn’t work, I know I’m in trouble. Sometimes, it’s not because of the writing but because of life. For instance, right now I have a cold. The hard part for me about being sick is not the physical pains and aches and misery. For me, the worst part is the emotional pit that sucks you down into depression. When you lay in bed and wish you could voluntarily stop your heart.

So at these times it’s best for me just to have faith in the process and know that I’ll come out of it and feel better and to keep trying. And try not to let myself get pulled too far into the vortex.

October 25, 2009

Rejection

I received a rejection from a litmag today for a story submission. I get lots of rejections, just as every writer does. But I treasure the ones like this that say, “I really enjoyed this. It doesn’t fit our magazine, but send us some more.”

This is a great big thank you to all those tireless readers out there who screen submissions for litmags. No pay, no recognition, just the honor and, hopefully sometimes, the pleasure.

October 24, 2009

World-building

I’m at that stage of writing this story where I’m world-building.  I have the general outline in mind, but the specifics of scene aren’t there, so starting to write is harder and slower and a lot more work.  The trajectory isn’t yet pulling me along.  I don’t yet have enough of the foundation bricks laid to watch the walls go up.  Some stories just flow out of me, which is one of the best feelings, but even the stories that come tough, eventually I’ll reach a critical mass and have enough momentum to go forward. (Are you tired of the mixed metaphors yet?) When the going is tough, I just have to have faith that it will catch fire, or at least sputter forward.  I find that helps me a lot ~ to just have faith that the process will work, that the way I get things written will result in a story.  Then that’s one less thing that will block me.

But I am moving forward every day, and that’s the important thing.

Speaking of perserverence, check out Benjamin Percy's column about what he learned from Rocky Balboa in the latest issue of Poets & Writers.  Sorry ~ it's not online but very much worth the cover price.

October 23, 2009

The Urge to Create

I have a friend, Kim, who is an amazing artist.  She does graphic design, flash, painting, photography, sculpture, and so much more.  I am in awe of her talent and her hard work.  (Her profile is not yet on the web, or I would link so you could see her work.) We were talking yesterday about the creative process.  

She’s working on a series of five amazing paintings of closeups of everyday objects, and she was telling me about her successes and her frustrations.  I kept nodding, because everything she said also applied to writing: It’s never good enough. There’s never enough time.  Sometimes there are happy accidents.  This part here works but this part doesn’t. Other’s work is so interesting and inspiring. You can get so into your work that the time flies but you can also be so focused that the muscles in your shoulders tense so much it gives you a headache. The dread before starting a project.  The excitement of starting a new project that catches your imagination. Your ambitions are too big.  You get nervous about its reception with other writers/artists.  It’s always easier to get to the projects that other people ask you to do than to your own. There’s so many projects you would love to do. Finishing something makes you very happy.  Life interferes but contributes. I could go on and on. I guess I had always thought about the creative process being similar across media, I’d never thought about it being exactly the same. 

Which got me to thinking about something I’ve been cogitating on a long time.  Don’t you think that there is an urge to create just as deep as there is an urge to destroy?  There’s certainly a nesting urge, a urge to have a baby, but it’s broader and deeper than that.  The need to make something, to produce something, is not just a byproduct of needing things because we’re hungry, thirsty, or desirous.  Wanting to leave our mark on the world, sure. Sort of the opposite of the need to consume, a counterbalance. I don’t know what I’m saying exactly ~ only that it’s more fundamental than people think.  The arts are sometimes considered extraneous, but they are part of something that is profoundly human.  They are the outward expression of creativity and imagination, and without creativity and imagination, we wouldn’t have science or society or anything.  Science uses metaphor ~ though they might call them “laws” or something else ~ especially with new innovation (think Einstein).  I’m not merely justifying the arts; I’m saying that creativity has an evolutionary basis that got us where we are today. Creativity is a wanting to connect to the world, to other people. 

We have urges both to create and to destroy, but creativity takes longer and more effort.  To nurture a plant or a child, it takes lots of time and attention.  To create art, it takes energy and material and time.  To destroy something, sure it takes an outburst of energy, but it’s much easier and much faster.  And maybe both these urges stem from the same place.  What do they say?  A critic is a stifled writer?  A hater hates what he sees in himself.

I feel like I’m not articulating this very well.  And many people have probably said this before me, and much better.  Ah well.    

Go create something. I’m gonna.

October 22, 2009

Alice Munro is da bomb

It was a good writing day today. I started a story early last spring as part of an online workshop (put on by American Short Fiction and the wonderful Jill Meyers) and then got stuck on it and put it aside. It began as an exercise in which we chose a paragraph from a published short story or novel and then played with it, making it our own ~ first word by word, and then sentence by sentence. I chose a paragraph from a story by Alice Munro (of course) and dove in with no preconceived notion of where I was going. This is unusual for me ~ usually I write a lot in my head before I write a line, have a title and/or a first line, and know where I’m going to end up. (People argue the merits of this approach, but whatever works, right?)

The story became, or was going to be, a story about a young man who dodged the Vietnam draft and spent the rest of his life trying to prove his bravery. I wrote a couple of pages but couldn’t get any further on it so put it aside. I went to a couple of conferences, talked to a wonderful man about conscription (Hey, Lauren), and conceived of the idea of a book of linked short stories. This story fit in that idea for a collection but not perfectly, so I played around with the initial premise until it evolved to a young man who doesn’t know he was adopted. He avoids the draft because he realizes that his military father, who he’s idolized but has never been able to please, is not really his father. It’s about his search to find out who he is.

So today’s progress was taking the three pages I had already written in the first storyline and converting it to the second storyline. Very interesting process.

On that initial paragraph, I once again went through and changed it word by word, sentence by sentence. This paragraph was not in my usual style of writing. I have a spare style, more Hemingway than Woolf, and this paragraph had lots of commas, lots of dependent and independent clauses, lots of looping structures. Mimicking this structure, putting my head into those sentences, makes me think differently and illuminates a character I don’t often inhabit. Someone who’s stuck in his own head, bound up tight and going in circles, tentative and tortured, searching, yet very articulate and nuanced. (Wait ~ some of that sounds a little like me… hehe ) It’s an amazing thing to have the very structure of the language pull you out of yourself involuntarily and shape the character you’re writing. Especially since I usually approach things top-down, from the head, and this process started deep within and worked outward. I don’t think I could work this way all the time, but every time I try something new, it furthers my grasp of craft.

And let me just say, if you’re going to attempt to mimic a master, Alice Munro is da bomb.

October 21, 2009

What This Blog Is About

When you start a blog, you think a lot about what you want to write about and what you don’t want to write about.  I know I want to write about writing because I think a lot about it.  It obsesses me.  I don’t want it to be just the surface stuff, the usual questions.  I want it to go deeper.  All the stuff you talk about late at night while drinking with your writing buddies or around a conference table at a workshop or in essays on craft.

I know I don’t want this blog to be about publishing, or only peripherally.  I’m equally passionate about my family and what they’re doing, but I like my privacy and I think they probably do too, so it won’t be about that much either.

I think it will also be about ideas, since I’m fascinated with those too.

Speaking of which, if you’re not familiar with it, go immediately to the TED site (Technology, Entertainment, Design ~ www.ted.com) and watch some of the videos.  Do it now (but don't let your boss catch you).  It’s fabulous.  Ideas that make you look at the world differently.  I’ve spent full weekends watching these videos.