31 December 2010
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 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:
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
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
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.
14 October 2010
17 September 2010
|Gary Shteyngart / photo: Mark Coggins|
“We’re having a Korean meal,” he said between mouthfuls of meat wrapped in lettuce leaves. “I enjoy the protectionism of certain Japanese foods—they’re small, they’re done with a lot of thought behind them. But often, I want to eat a lot of meat and I want myself to be on fire. That’s what I want to do. Sure, it’s sloppier than certain cuisines. Or classical French versus southern Italian, for example. You know where my sympathies lie. They lie with southern Italian, Korean—that’s the kind of person I am. I don’t give a crap if every sentence isn’t beautiful.”
There’s something liberating about this idea. It can free one up to write boldly, to take risks. Those are the ways we grow as writers and the way literature remains vital. Still, for some writers, it could be dangerous. Not all writers can write “messy” and still entertain, say something compelling, be coherent. And what does this do to the artistry of the craft? Does it skew it too much in favor of plot and detail, away from the power of language? I’ve not yet read this novel, so I'm not making any statements about Shteyngart’s choices. I’m thinking of this more as an approach to the craft and I’m still chewing on it. What do you think? Do you give a crap if every sentence is beautiful?
02 September 2010
In early drafts, many writers focus most of their attention on a main character or two. This may be particularly true of writers of short stories, but it is also common in contemporary novels. Capturing the depth, complexity and motivations of a main leading lady or lad can be a feat in itself. I often feel grateful getting that character—having caromed off interactions, items, objects and memories—to a satisfying ending. In my own revisions, though, I find that the bolstering of other characters can create a more interesting constellation of conflict and make the story . . . well . . . a story, rather than a meditation or a sketch.
Characters can work in concert with one another so that meaning emerges as a result of their interaction, a technique Charles Baxter refers to as "counterpointing." Knitting characters together in a comparative context can actually shape the conflict as one character attempts to live up to another's standard, purposefully goes against that standard, or flat out redefines it. But such relationships need not be strictly in the spirit of being against one another, like the famously opposing roustabout McMurphy and controlling Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Rather, characters who bring out a crucial response in one another can be put together to great effect. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, Gatsby finds the tantalizing and easily influenced Daisy within reach—as he has moved near her and acquired the wealth she so treasures—and this causes him to make decisions that set him on a fatal path. Daisy, too, is further characterized as her own reactions reveal her true nature.
Some supporting characters have done the vast majority of their work on the main character even before the story starts. Such characters are ones who have had a long reaching history with the main character—like parents, children or a spouse—and have influenced the way the main character views the world. Other supporting characters may have had a brief role in the main character’s life, but made a particularly powerful impression. In Lolita, for example, the narrator Humbert Humbert traces his desire for nymphets back to an early love cut short when he was about thirteen: Annabel, a few months his junior.
In Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, Frankie Machine struggles with the reality that his wife, Zosh, is in a wheel chair because of a car accident that took place while
Frankie was driving. Zosh's presence is powerful for Frankie in this novel, as facing her requires him also to face and experience the extent of his guilt. Frankie also remembers who Zosh was before the accident and putting those two different versions of his wife in a comparative context further informs Frankie's actions. His compulsion for drugs and indulgence in an affair with Molly-O, a more spirited woman, seem to give Frankie a temporary release from his guilt.
Don’t underestimate the power of supporting characters. They can represent to the main character a version of the self they once were. They can imprint the character with undeniable desires. They can even urge a main character in directions the reader might not expect.
20 August 2010
19 August 2010
While fiction relies comfortably on an author's ability to imagine, most fiction writers are bound to encounter the need to research. Sometimes this can be quick and casual—looking up a city's landmark—and other times it can be intensive and long term, involving information gathering about time, place, historical events and more. Many fiction writers turn to books, the internet, documentaries or magazines for research. While these are great sources to inform your work and even guide you to additional sources, this often shouldn't be the end of it. A printed interview will give great information, but you'll miss out on the cadence of the speaker's voice. A documentary is bound to offer vital tidbits, but some of the most valuable footage of gesture and nuance that build character may be on the cutting room floor. An article about the subway system in the early nineteen hundreds might mention the vivid advertisements, but you won't get the opportunity to view them yourself and imagine how your character would perceive them.
When researching, you want to get as close to the original source material as possible. If you're writing a story set in Maui, for instance, your best bet is to go to Maui and experience the place for yourself. If you're writing about bungee jumping, give it a try first. This, of course, isn't always possible. We certainly can't experience occupied France during World War II, if we haven't already done so. Some experiences you may not want to have, like those that are illegal, unsavory or life threatening. When you can't experience something yourself, look for the second closest source: someone who has. The internet is often a great way to connect with such people.
Also, track down other forms of original source material. Historical societies often have photographs, newspapers and even telephone books from different eras. The possibilities are diverse and varied. The New York Historical Society, for example, has an extensive collection of printed materials that document the subway where you can look up some of the earliest routes of the system. Some institutions even have collections available online. The New York Historical Society has an online museum with images and information on over 60,000 artifacts and works of art from their collection.
Don’t forget the experts. For every subject, there's bound to be at least one expert. Recently, I visited the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, which features over 4,400 mustards—in tubes, bottles and jars—that come from all over the United States and more than 60 countries. [Editor’s note: the museum has since moved to Middleton, Wisconsin.] They also display mustard related items, like mustard pots, mustard advertisements, different kinds of dispensers and more. There's a tasting station at the back of the gift shop where a Confidential Condiment Counselor assisted me in trying mustards—anything from chocolate mustard, to curry mustard to martini mustard. Barry Levenson, the founder of the museum, even gave me some insight into what prompted him to create it. After two hours of browsing, viewing, tasting and reading, I left the museum, clutching my bag filled with chipotle mustard and a super hot variety called Hit and Run. I carried with me, too, an appreciation for the people in this world who have a passion that they actively pursue and a willingness to share with others. No matter how obscure or unexpected the subject, someone is bound to have explored it thoroughly.
Perhaps you're not writing mustard related fiction. (Although you might keep an eye on the Mustard Museum’s writing contests and reconsider.) Whatever your needs, look for the person or organization out there who has taken on the topic with gusto. Take, for example, the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project that has been documenting varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States—the regionalisms that exist even within one language. A vital source for writers with characters anchored strongly in place.
If you're looking for information, there's a source out there that has it.
12 August 2010
Broadsided defines itself this way: “Street art. Fine art. Free art. Dialogue. Serendipitous public art. A counter-force for billboards advertising fast food and cars.” Here’s how it works: When a poem or fiction is accepted, it’s passed on to an artist who responds to it visually. At the beginning of each month, Broadsided posts a new literary/visual collaboration. Vectors download, print and post it. Where? Anywhere. Telephone poles, traffic signs, bank lobbies, gates, water coolers, bathroom stalls, and your very own back. (See the Vector Gallery for other inspired locations.) Anyone can become a Vector. Even you.
The Drum Literary Magazine, dubbed a “literary magazine for your ears,” publishes essays and short stories in audio format. You can listen online or download and share. Current work is free and after three months, it goes in the archives. Subscribers can access a year’s worth of The Drum and individual stories and essays can be purchased from the archives. The Drum is currently looking for help recording great prose with their Stories on the Street feature. Pick an excerpt from something in the public domain, grab something to record and hit the streets looking for people to read it aloud.
Added bonus? As of this posting, both are currently accepting submissions.
|Broadsided / Writer: Christine Bly, Artist: Ira Joel Haber|
06 August 2010
The first story I ever read by Stacey Ricther was “The Cavemen in the Hedges.” I didn’t know what I was getting into, but with that title I was eager to find out. I’ve been hooked ever since. Richter’s fiction is fun. It takes the reader to unexpected places, brings to life the surprising and, at the same time, reveals something interesting about what it means to be human. “The Cavemen in the Hedges” tells the story of a resurgence of cavemen that the story’s narrator chases away from his house with shiny Mardi Gras beads shot out of a pellet gun. It also tells a story of love, responsibility, and, ultimately, loss.
Richter recently published her second collection of short stories Twin Study, which Publishers Weekly described as “bracingly imaginative.” This follows her acclaimed first collection, My Date With Satan. The Village Voice named her a “Writer on the Verge” and she has been published in many journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Tin House and Swink. (Her website is a great resource for writers, too, with a fiercely witty q&a and interesting links to sites like “peculiar names for characters and pets.” Check it out: www.staceyrichter.com)
LP: Twin Study is your second collection of stories following My Date With Satan. What do you find appealing about the short story?
SR: One thing I love about short stories is that they’re nearly always read in one sitting, so they have a kind of unity in time that a novel can’t have. When I finish reading a novel, I have to go back and read the first page again to see how it relates to the end, but a short story is able to lodge whole in my brain. This makes short stories able to hold a lot of mystery and ambiguity and weirdness and contradiction, the kinds of things our subconscious minds are good at processing—and for some reason I think our subconscious minds prefer things to arrive in one sitting, like in a dream. I love that shivery feeling I sometimes get when I read a Kafka story or an Isaac Bashevis Singer story—like something has just been revealed but I don’t understand exactly what it is.
LP: Your stories are so fresh and imaginative. There are cavemen running around in the world as we know it (“The Cavemen in the Hedges”), identical twins attending a study on twins (“Twin Study”), and a daughter negotiating life with an incredibly famous and unpredictable mother (“My Mother the Rock Star”). How to you come upon these ideas? Do you consciously bring this element to your fiction?
SR: I just write about things that appeal to me, that interest me, and that I wonder about. Really, like everyone, I’m always writing about my life and the way I see the world. Usually I’m not writing about experiences I’ve literally had in real life—though sometimes there’s an element of that—but I’m always writing about the contents of my brain. I look for dramatic situation that excite me and I’m excited by twins, cavemen, clones, and so on. But honestly, I really don’t think my subject matter is so imaginative. Doesn’t everyone, at some point in their lives, wonder what it’s like to have an identical twin? Doesn’t everyone who’s watched a TV show about prehistoric times wonder how cavemen smelled? To me, it seems like a fairly mundane day in the life of a human imagination.
LP: When you start writing a story, do you tend to know where it’s heading?
SR: I know where it’s heading but I don’t know where it will end up. I always try to start a story with some sort of conflict in mind. That usually gives me enough direction to write the beginning and the middle and at some point after that I have to figure out how to end it. Occasionally I try to start a story with only an image or a world or a character I like. Sometimes that works too, but I’ve found that those stories are more likely to get bogged down and abandoned.
LP: “Young People Today” is written as a letter from Virginia, a woman who calls herself an “old hen,” to her friend Flora about why she’s decided to spend more time with young people. In the process, she tells the story of how it all started: with Andy Hassenfield, the young man she hired as a day laborer. Why did you choose to tell this story in the form of a letter?
SR: When I write a story in the first person, I often find myself demanding an explanation from my narrator along the lines of: why is she telling me this? So I end up with an imaginary story-behind-the-story that explains why this particular person is telling their tale and who they’re telling it to. Sometimes that explanation makes it into the story itself but it often doesn’t. In this case, the back story did make it in. It didn’t really make sense to me that an old lady would be explaining how wacky young folks are, in a quasi-sociologist’s way, unless she was addressing another old lady.
LP: I understand you’re working on a novel. How has that process been different—or similar to—writing short stories?
SR: Yes, I'm working on a novel. Compared to writing a novel, writing short stories is a piece of cake. All I have to worry about when I write a short story is the beginning and the end—the middle just sort of takes care of itself. I can pretty much make up a short story as I go along, which suits my nature, which is either disorganized or Zen-like, depending on how I want to spin it. But novels are all about the middle. The middle requires planning and plotting and conniving and perspective. It's occurred to me that I may have to write a half dozen novels before I figure it out, which is depressing, though it's intriguing to have a life-long project.
LP: Are there any authors who you think should be read widely but aren’t just yet?
SR: Kelly Link, Mary Robison, Julia Slavin, and David Markson immediately come to mind, though there are others.
LP: What are you reading now?
SR: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.
LP: What piece of advice have you found particularly useful as a writer?
SR: Rick Moody once told me, in a very nice and indirect way, not to write stories with only one character in them. That was probably the best writing advice anyone has ever given me.
03 August 2010
|Can you guess what I Wordled?|
A poet friend, the incomparable Joanne Diaz, introduced me to Wordle, a web gizmo that makes word clouds out of text that you provide. The more often a word appears in the text, the larger it appears in the word cloud.
I’m a sucker for this sort of thing so, of course, I spent a lot of time noodling around with it and the uses for the writer are rich—and not just in the procrastination department. I used it in the creative writing classroom recently with students who were collaborating on a short story. Since they had to conceive and write a story together, I thought Wordle might help them start a discussion about common interests. I generated a series of prompts that they responded to in freewriting. Then we merged each individual’s freewriting into one group document and fed it into Wordle. The conversations that came out of this method were certainly more unexpected and varied than had I just let them lose with the direction to come up with a story idea.
This could easily be adapted to the writer who’s working solo. Need out of a rut? Dump a big chunk of freewriting—written in one day or over several months—into Wordle and see what comes up. Enter your work-in-progress to see what emerges with this different view on the material. Stumped for a title for your story? Wordle it for a brainstorming session. Enter your writer’s statement or compile your text on grant or residency applications to see the overall impression you’re making when you send out your materials.
What do you think? Do you Wordle? How do you use it?
30 July 2010
There is a lot to be said for the mainstays of point of view. First person offers the richness of voice and an unparalleled intimacy. It is as if the character is telling you—you!—the story directly, taking you into confidence. Third person has a thrilling range of possibilities, where you choose how much access the reader has to the characters’ inner worlds. But there are several strategies that exist off the beaten path that are worth a look.
Second person is cropping up as a more popular experimental form, but it still isn't all that prevalent. Junot Diaz's short story "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie" is an example of this approach:
Wait for your brother and your mother to leave the apartment . . . Clear the government cheese from the refrigerator. If the girl's from the Terrace stack the boxes behind the milk. If she's from the Park or Society Hill hide the cheese in the cabinet above the oven, way up where she'll never see. Leave yourself a reminder to get it out before morning or your moms will kick your ass.
Notice how the "you" character is a specific and individual person. Second person can be an evocative approach, immediately bonding the reader to the character. It is certainly an interesting and unexpected place to situate the reader. Be careful, as some readers can find this off-putting or gimmicky and the approach—in its uniqueness—has the potential to take over the story itself.
Serial First Person and Serial Third Person Limited
A serial approach is essentially a series of either first person or third person limited perspectives. One chapter or section is in one character's perspective and the next chapter or section shifts to another character's perspective. Russell Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter is an example of serial first person. The first chapter is told in first person from Delores' perspective. The second chapter is told entirely from Billy's perspective. And so on.
This strategy combines the intimacy of a more limited point of view strategy with the sweep and scope of omniscience. It is important to choose scope carefully when using this strategy. You need to tell a story that demands many perspectives. In Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, for example, the novel follows a town's journey after the loss of most of their children in a bus accident.
First Person Speaking Directly to a Second Person
This strategy employs not only a specific narrator, but also a specific listener. A first person character is speaking directly to another character, one who is clearly defined in the story. David Benioff's short story "Neversink" uses this approach, with a first person narrator addressing the story directly to his former lover:
I got your number from Michael and called you the next night, but you were busy that week, and busy the week after, and I resigned myself to never seeing you again. But then you called me, one month after the birthday party, and invited me to watch the meteor shower.
"It's supposed to be best right after sunset," you told me.
"Meet me in Sheep Meadow."
The sun was nearly down. I brushed my teeth while showering and the sky was still bright as I climbed down the stairs to my subway station. Thirty minutes later I was stumbling over angry meteor watchers in Sheep Meadow. I had forgotten to ask you where to meet, and the Meadow is huge, especially on a moonless night. I thought I saw you lying belly-down on a blanket and I leaned close to make sure.
There is an intimacy to this approach that lets the reader eavesdrop, listening in on heartfelt words aimed directly at a specific listener. It also allows for a different intensity of emotion in that the reader knows who the intended listener is and—eventually—the implication of that. It is vital to eliminate all traces of over-explanation in this approach. Sharing information with the reader without making all the prose sound heavy handed—a speaker telling a listener information she would clearly already know—can be difficult.
What are you favorite reads that use a point of view strategy off the beaten path? Do you experiment with this in your own writing?
28 July 2010
I was thinking about this when I put together my syllabus for a recent Introduction to Creative Writing class. What would happen, I wondered, if I just plunked everyone down in the library near the literature? This was during the poetry unit of the class and they had a task—to find poems that resonated for them in some way. What a delight to see students sprawled out on the floor of the library, noses in slim volumes of poetry, books stacked up beside them. The project had them follow through on the connections they made and I was floored to see just what came of this. Students stumbled upon poems that made them think of their futures, of grandparents who had passed away, of childhood inspirations they’d long forgotten. I did this project with them and found a poem that inspired in me a peculiar sense of dark wonder that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It may or may not lead somewhere in my own work—I’m still chewing on it—but it certainly sparked something.
What about you? Do you still wander the stacks like you did before card catalogues went the way of trendy apartment decor?
For those of you who miss riffling through those index cards in search of just the right book, this catalogue card generator from blyberg.net that might offer you a bit of cyber soothing. I’ve already spent way too much time with the Dewey Decimal System trying to make clever connections between number and subject that no one will even notice.
I'll be posting content from the archives periodically, but will focus mainly on keeping the conversation about the craft of fiction, the writer's life and other bookish topics rolling. I hope you'll join me.