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!