16 July 2011

Talk Shop with Dean Bakopoulos

Dean Bakopoulos, author of Please Don't Come Back From the Moon and My American Unhappiness, is in the Barnes & Noble Writing Room this week, fielding questions through Monday, 18 July. Stop by and talk shop.

If you're not familiar with his work, check out the short story "Please Don't Come Back from the Moon," which is also the first chapter of his novel of the same title. Prepare to be charmed. Seriously. You can also read an excerpt of his latest novel, My American Unhappiness.

12 July 2011

Writing Slow

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how long the writing process can take. Will Allison, author of What You Have Left and Long Drive Home just did a guest spot in the Writing Room, a board I moderate at Barnes & Noble’s website. He talked a bit about the difficulty of a fiction writer writing under deadline: “The biggest challenge I faced in writing Long Drive Home was having a deadline—the book was already under contract. I should have known better, because one thing I do know, from 20+ years experience, is that I’m a slow writer if nothing else.” (He details this and more about his writing process for this novel in his article, “My Editor, My Wife.”) Will’s book is powerful and this back story got me thinking about other books I love that meandered ahead in the slow lane, such as Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which took nine years to write.

I’m a slow writer, too. Sometimes, it simply takes time to get those words on the page just right. Other times, I write myself into a corner and step away from a story until I figure out the problem. Some significant time can pass in these instances. I recently finished a story that I had started in 2007. Back in 2007, I only made it half way through the first draft, just up to a turning point in the story. I knew it was a turning point; something was going to change but I didn’t know what. I’d pull that story out every so often, read through it and get to that turning point again and still be at a loss. Then, one recent revisit, I knew the solution and I simply raced forward. It was like some little stone was stuck in the gears and I finally dislodged it.

All of this, of course, wouldn’t be much of a problem if I didn’t have a desire to move ahead in my writing. Yet, I don’t know any committed writer—myself included—who would be able to shrug her shoulders and think, “Eh, if this doesn’t work out, there’s always something else.” In Negotiating With the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes about what separates the would-be writer from the writer, “Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.”

When we are driven, we have to negotiate, re-negotiate and make peace with the peculiarities of our own creative process with the pressures, responsibilities and expectations that come with life—those others place on us and those we place on ourselves.

31 December 2010

Writerly Resolutions for 2011

While you’re committing to cleaning out the garage or eating healthier or learning to play the banjo, jot down a few writing goals for 2011.

Feeling a little blue about past years’ resolutions quickly falling by the wayside? Perhaps you could tweak your resolution making. Start by thinking big and list everything you want to accomplish in 2011. Then, break it down. Lofty goals can seem overwhelming and difficult to achieve. Smaller, more focused goals will help you get there. Also, be specific. Instead of simply committing to “writing more” this year, give yourself a word count or amount of time to write for each week (or month). That gives you something to work toward and helps you track whether you’re accomplishing your goal or not.

So, what are your writing-related resolutions this year?

29 December 2010

Dialogue: Keep it Real

I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately, specifically how cramming expository material into dialogue is a sure way to scorch what could be lush. (What prompted this? A very smartly written story having a momentary lapse in writing.) Dialogue should communicate information, but not all kinds of information belong in dialogue.

Dialogue packaged only for the reader—without concern for the characters in the exchange—is bound to sound forced. For example, a husband says to his wife:

"I can't go to the shop after dark anymore. My brother Doug died driving that same stretch of road because it was dark out."

The wife already knows about the brother's death and the circumstances under which he died. How often are your friends and loved ones telling you obvious information about themselves as if that information were new?

Here's a revision of how that dialogue might sound in the course of natural conversation:

"I can't, not since Doug's accident."

If the brother’s death is even more recent or otherwise on the surface for this couple, his dialogue might be even more abrupt:

"I can’t."

So how do you get the rest of that information to the reader? Narrative and suggestion. Here's an example of how it might be done:

After dinner, his wife cleared the table. He listened to the fork on the plates as she scraped food into the garbage. She wanted those papers. He knew right where he had left them—piled atop a speaker next to his office door. If only she'd mentioned it an hour earlier, when it was still dusk. He didn’t want to have this conversation. She’d tell him to try. But he had tried and all he did was sit in the parked car thinking about Doug and the snaking road along Windsor Lake. He walked to the kitchen entryway. " I can't," he said.

This passage pays attention not only to the reader's need for information but also the history of experience between these two characters.

09 December 2010

reside, write, repeat

Kerouac House
When I think of writers’ residencies, I don’t usually think of airports. Still, there’s something to be said for writing under unexpected circumstances. Last year, author Alain de Botton served as Heathrow’s first writer-in-residence. He set up shop in the middle of Terminal 5 and got to work, his writing appearing in real time on a screen behind him. Heathrow invited him, but he had some stipulations. He wanted generous access to the airport and authorities could not review the work that resulted before publication. A Week at the Airport, the book that came from this experience, was recently released in the United States. The residency experience may have much larger reverberations beyond this book. In an interview with CNN, Alain de Botton said of talking with travelers, “I could write many hundreds of novels based on what they told me.”

Heathrow invited Alain de Botton, but there are plenty of unique residencies writers can apply for. In a program that will continue for two hundred years, Andrews Forest Writers’ Residency invites writers-in-residence to visit specific study sites in the forest and reflect on and write about the forest and their relationship to it. The writings become a part of the archives at Oregon State University.

The National Parks Service currently has twenty-nine parks participating in the Artist-in-Residence program where artists, including writers, can live and work in the parks. Sites include the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, Joshua Tree National Park in California and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

As a former writer-in-residence of The Kerouac Project of Orlando, I can tell you Kerouac’s Orlando home is something special. Writers-in-residence spend three months in the house where Kerouac lived when he was writing The Dharma Bums. You can sit on the back steps, the very place where Kerouac curled up—severely sick and locked out of the house—upon his return from New York City after the publication of his most famous novel, On the Road. There are other residencies connected to famous authors. The Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship for Writers includes a residency in a private apartment in the childhood home of Carson McCullers in Columbus, Georgia. The Thurber House Residency in Children’s Literature includes a month long retreat in James Thurber’s home in Columbus, Ohio. The James Merrill House Writer-in-Residence Program provides living and working space in James Merrill’s residence in Stonington, Connecticut for a half or full academic year.

Don’t limit yourself only to residencies that already exist. Why not initiate your own? I’ve long thought the Brooklyn Bridge would be a great site for a writer-in-residence. Or the red line of Chicago’s El. Or a currency exchange shop. Or the kitchen of a late night diner. Of course, it’d be worth getting the okay first. And you might only take up partial residency so you can catch your forty winks in peace.

29 October 2010

To Write or Not to Write

Guest post by Kelly Thacher

I’m not sure when I realized that other hobbies and art forms had so much meaning and connection to the writing process for me. Whether directly, or indirectly, the activities we writers engage in outside of our craft can impact our work in a variety of ways.

Almost a decade ago, I met a coworker who inspired me to relearn how to knit, and became a good friend in the process.  I’d tried it when I was in grade school, but ran into problems with my first hat knit in the round. You knitters out there know what can happen when you try to join the circle without twisting the first row . . . I digress.  My friend is a marvelous knitter who had me knitting again in no time, and this time I was addicted.

Knitting often provides me a creative break from the page.  The rhythm of whatever pattern I’m working on takes me to a different place.  Sometimes the activity creates a space in my mind where new ideas come for stories, characters, or scenes for a piece I’ve already started.  Other times that knitting can be a trickster and a devious temptress.  When I start a new pattern, I often dive right in and don’t stop for hours; it’s all I’ll do with my free time for days in a row.  But even as a distraction, knitting serves to make me appreciate and sometimes pine for the art of writing.

Back in the spring, I took an intuitive painting class.  I was excited—the little kid in me remembered finger painting and the like, and I couldn’t wait to get started.  I chose my brushes and colors with no problem.  And then I just stood in front of the blank paper and stared.  Panic set in.  I had no idea where to begin, and feared that whatever I put on the page would be substandard.  Sound familiar?  As writers, we often edit ourselves out of a good story before we even get started.

With a little encouragement from the teacher, I finally laid down my first brush stroke.  Gradually, as I allowed myself to create whatever came, my painting took shape.  It’s much more difficult to edit art, but the teacher emphasized that we should not think of any brush stroke as a mistake, but to allow it to be part of the whole work that we created.  The humility I felt as a new artist, and the freedom I learned helped me to relate to my own  Intuitive Writing students, and to continue to express that freedom whenever I sit down to write.  Writing should feel free—there will always be more than enough time for critiquing, editing, and revising later.

When I saw that another artist friend of mine was teaching a pen drawing class, I couldn’t resist.  From the first session, I experienced the parallels between what I’m trying to learn in the class, and what I’m striving to achieve as a writer. One session began with playing drums from the teacher’s native Senegal. We then each chose a drum that we wanted to draw.  Moving freely through the music, and then the artwork, inspired me so much that I sat down and wrote a blog post about it the minute I arrived home that night.

Whether it’s music, painting or drawing, photography, fiber arts like knitting, crochet, or weaving, or even sports, every writer should—and probably does—have some activity in his or her life to balance the art of writing.

Kelly Thacher is a writer, editor and literary coach.  She is the author of Blue Door Story blog, and also teaches several writing classes.

14 October 2010

Talk Shop with Matthew Pitt

Matthew Pitt, author of the story collection Attention Please Now, is a guest author at the Barnes & Noble Writing Room, a forum that I moderate. Want to talk shop with Matthew? Stop by! He’ll be responding to questions and spreading his unflagging good cheer through Monday, 18 October.