"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

12 May 2011

Goofy Notebooks and One Dollar Pens

If you haven't read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, you need to run out immediately and find a copy.  It shouldn't be too hard: if you have writing friends, chances are one or two of them will have it among their book stacks.  The question is whether they will be willing to part with it while your eyes are opened.

Most writing books are about strict rules that all writers should follow.  They are full of great advice, but I am often left dumbstruck at their tone.  They act as if it is easy for a writer to wrap her mind around characterization, grammar, plot structure, syntax, dialogue, point of view, back-story, sentence structure, and poetic discourse before she sits down to write.  It is easy enough to take writing books such as those in small doses, but does every writer truly master each and every topic underneath the heading of writing? 

Despite their sometimes overwhelming qualities, I've lately been strangely addicted to writing how-to books.  This is partly because I want to learn more about writing and its nuances, partly because they are interesting, quick reads, and (confession time!) partly because they are just one more excuse to put off doing the hard work of writing itself.  They give me an opportunity to think about the specifics of what I am writing in different terms, and, with the elements of my novel in mind, the authors can give me advice and pointers.  But, if I read them all in one go, their plethora of advice can make me tense, and, more often than not, a bit discouraged.  Maybe this is why I enjoyed Writing Down the Bones so intensely: the book is not about rules; it is about freeing yourself of them.

I went back home to visit my mom on Monday because I had to work all day on Sunday, and wasn't able to see her for Mother's Day.  It was a long day, and while I always enjoy seeing my mom and spending time with her, lately she has been going through a lot, and as I was staring out the window on the bus back to Boston, I realized just how much I had let it all affect me.  I felt sad for what she is going through and overwhelmed that there is little I can do to help, and I spent most of the bus ride extremely contemplative, sunk into myself in a way that is strangely gratifying in its selfishness, but also, I know, a dangerous path towards sadness and grief. 

There were only a few of us on the bus, and I always wonder about the many combined lives a bus can hold.  The rough-looking teenager next to me had a tattoo that said 7-31-09, also mirrored in sharpie on the strap of his backpack.  There were a husband and wife who had allowed their two sons to have their own seats spread out throughout the bus, and one of them fell asleep in the back row.  There was an older couple obviously on their way to the airport, traveling clothes chosen carefully.  How did I fit into the picture of that bus's passengers?  Did I fill the role of single, white, female? The role of artistic aspiring-novelist?  Jaded recent college-grad?

Buses put me into a very strange mind-set, different from taking the subway or riding in a car.  I think about the lives around me and the utter randomness of our being thrown together.  I wonder what would happen if we were in some catastrophe together.  Would we bond so much that we would forever feel a connection to each other? Would we all take care of ourselves, leaving the strangers to do the same?  It's a morbid thought (what do you expect? I work in a graveyard), but what if these were the people surrounding me in death?

It was most likely part of the mood I was in from both my day visiting my mom and the bus ride back to Boston that left me restless and thoughtful.  I did not want to hop onto the red line and go back to my apartment, so I decided to walk from South Station to downtown crossing, and spend some time at Borders.  I'm a bit paranoid when I go into a store without much of a purpose: I always assume I'll be targeted as a shop lifter if I wander around too aimlessly.  Just one of my strange neuroses, I guess.  I tried to shove these thoughts down and just let myself enjoy being in a bookstore.  I wandered around looking at a few different things, but lately I haven't been wanting to spend $15 on a book when I can most likely find a used copy online for a fraction of that price.  Nevertheless, I asked where I could find a book on writing, and a salesperson pointed me to the Reference section.

I scanned through the section, and eventually left with two: Writing Down the Bones and Roy Peter Clark's Writing Tools.  I chose them based on (I won't lie) their cover art, and the reviews on the back cover.  Despite graduating with a Writing degree, very few of my professors used writing books to aid their teaching, choosing instead to let us learn through experience, so I am on a mission to read the quintessential books on writing in order to round out my education.  I paid for the books and left with a mental note to find used copies of Into the Wild and anything written by Hermann Hesse (who I have wanted to read more of since High School).  I walked to the Common and got on the red line, pulling out Writing Down the Bones as I waited for the T.

The book was immediately refreshing, and the author's voice instantly clicked with me (perhaps it was the shared sentiment of: "It never occurred to me to write, though I secretly wanted to marry a poet").   I was laughing out loud within the first pages, and by the time I got off the T, I was on my way to Family Dollar to carry out some advice.  Goldberg, in talking about a writer's tools, mentions that buying an expensive, fancy journal puts too much pressure on you to write something great.  "...you should feel that you have permission to write the worst junk in the world and it would be okay," she says. "...Garfield, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Star Wars.  I use notebooks with funny covers...I can't take myself too seriously when I open up a Peanuts notebook."  It was wonderfully simple advice, but I suddenly wanted a goofy notebook of my own, realizing how many times I didn't want to write in my expensive, leather journals for the simple reason that I needed to save them for something truly inspired.

Family Dollar didn't have a huge selection, but I found what I needed: a colorful notebook obviously made for boys, with one of the characters from the Pixar movie Cars on the cover underneath orange block letters that say, "I Love Donuts."  I bought some $1 pens to go along with it, and started home, glad that my aimless wandering had ended in a mission, albeit a small one. 

I read Writing Down the Bones from the time I got home around 8pm into the early morning.  It is written simply and beautifully, with beautiful lines such as, "Own anything you want in your writing, and then let it go."  The book is about finding your true voice through writing practice (based on zen techniques), not worrying so much about structure that you are left drowning in your own pieces of fiction.  True, it is sentimental and full of feel-good encouragement that some may find out of place for a book on writing (one reviewer on Amazon called it "akin to watching Oprah pull at an audience's heartstrings), but in the midst of how-to books filled to the brim with rule after rule, the touching memories and advice in Writing Down the Bones inspired me to trust myself just a bit more in my writing, and encouraged me to keep filling up the pages.  It doesn't matter if it's the next Pulitzer Prize winning piece or, "the worst junk in the world."

05 May 2011

What's the Story, Wishbone?

It's been a long time since I've written on this blog, which, depending on whether you have been following along, you may or may not have noticed (I promise that is not meant to be as passive aggressive as it sounds).  This is partly due to the fact that my computer has become as fragmentarily concerned with its own death as the characters of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (my computer is a fish), and partly due to a job I began in April that left minimal time and energy for writing anything other than the novel (which, incidentally, is finally starting to come together).

I'll try to update you all on the process and the shape of the novel sometime soon, but, in the mean time, let's talk about possibly my favorite topic of all time: books.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the way books shape us as a society as well as individuals.  It fascinates me to learn which books my family and friends will never forget; the books they read as children or those they return to time and again.  Books were always a large part of my childhood, my mom being an avid reader her entire life.  Amanda and I received new volumes of Nancy Drew mysteries for almost all of our birthdays as children, we were just as excited to read the novels which accompanied our American Girl Dolls as we were to give them haircuts and color their nails with markers (I blame my Molly doll for my strange obsession with liberty gardens and WWII rationing), and I remember my father once having us take turns reading aloud from a Harry Potter book during a five hour drive to New York City.

Luckily, reading at school was just as enjoyable as at home.  As fourth graders, my friends and I bonded over our mutual love of Laura Ingalls Wilder as well as the Dear America book series.  Our fifth grade teacher used to read Avi books to us every Friday afternoon (Perloo the Bold was my favorite book for years), and in sixth grade we were assigned Great Expectations (I played Miss Havisham in our end-of-the-unit skit), a book I wouldn't see again until my Honors English class in the public High School I transferred to.  Books were tools for education as well as enjoyment, and my path towards becoming an Undergrad English major, whether I realized it or not, began as far back as elementary school, watching episodes of Wishbone after school.


As much as I enjoyed reading as a child, it was not until I really began studying books in High School and College that I became truly affected by them.  I used to be furious with teachers who attempted to explain an author's motivation.  I always wanted to ask them how they knew, how they could presume to be inside a writer's head.  And while, to some extent, I still believe there is an extremely fine line between interpretation and personal opinion that teachers sometimes cannot help but cross, I eventually came to revere books not only as entertainment value, but as carefully constructed pieces of art.  Literary analysis opens a piece of fiction up for critique, exposing its flesh and blood until its interior motives are exposed.  It took me some time, but I came to understand that it is only in analysis that a book's true beauty can be revealed.  I began to see authors and their frameworks instead of characters alone.

It is maybe for this reason that I can never give a straight answer when asked which book is my favorite.  I have a string of favorites, all of which I like for various reasons, but there is not one single book I would give up the others for.  When forced, I admit to a fascination with The Sound and the Fury, but only because there are many aspects I have yet to understand about it.  I would never want to give up my copy of Beloved or The Hours, but that's not to say I would not get sick of them were they the only books I had to read on a desert island.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will always entertain me with its picture of immigrant life and The Awakening will always amaze me in its truthful relevance, but neither outshines the other.  Novels are beautiful for both their beauty and their ugliness, for their carefully crafted structure and well as their ability to make you forget the conceit of it all, but I have trouble finding one more beautiful than others.  I cannot place one above the others because they have all shaped a small piece of me and my writing career.

What I find so fascinating is that, although reading is extremely personal, there are many books that seem to affect our generation on a general level.  Books such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Alice and Wonderland have become a part of our everyday vernacular, their plots well-known even if we haven't actually sat down and read them.  Everyone understands the world of Jane Austen novels, the bleakness of Dickens, but for how long?  Of course, classic pieces of literature affect us because they retain elements of truth no matter their milieu or time period, but will there come a time when references to Peter Pan or Sherlock Holmes will be meaningless, when Moby Dick will not carry with it connotations of a desperation for grandeur?

While watching bits and pieces of a very interesting yet strange movie called My Dinner with Andre today, I was struck for probably the hundredth time by the realization that I have never read The Little Prince.  I understand that it is the type of book which has a profound impact on many people who read it, and it comes up in popular culture and particularly in literary circles as a book worth reading, but, for some reason, I never came across it in my own education.  I have also never read Pride and Prejudice, although I have seen many movie versions.  The movie My Dinner with Andre calls to question the purpose of art and its ability to enrich life, and it had me realizing that, although I have not read some very key pieces of literature, I have not needed to; they have been utilized in many ways, to the point that reading them has become almost unnecessary.

While it is comforting to know that literature has a place within the popular conscience of Americans, I believe that, eventually, this may become a detriment.  More and more, our generation is beginning to rely on the stereotypical pop culture version of novels rather than on the novels themselves.  We settle for the movie version, for the zombie-fied post-modern re-telling of a book we've never even read.  In this way, Classic novels have become commodities; we need the cliff notes to differentiate between them.  

Of course teaching methods are going to change as new educational philosophies become popular and are considered innovative.  Of course not every piece of classic literature can be included in an educational curricula.  But what does it mean that I am just now reading To Kill a Mockingbird? Why was it only in college (when cast in a play roughly based on its structure) that I read my first line of Hamlet?  If I, as an English major and generally avid reader have missed out on many of these classic pieces of literature, what does it mean for those who are in majors outside of fictionalized literature, those who prefer not to pick up books for fun?  Will this common knowledge of classic plot lines disintegrate?  Will there come a generation that does not share a mutual understanding of Twain's American ideals or Gertrude Stein's political undertones?  And, if so, what does that mean for society?

The problem lies not in the fact that these books may be left behind, but in the fact that their replacements will be stories of sex scandal and Charlie Sheen-esque meltdowns.  Even the first and second-graders I work with are familiar with Justin Beiber and his status as sex-symbol.  At their book fair, they bought books chronicling his tour across the country that came with a pull-out poster and coordinating glitter stickers.  They will be reading chapter books not about girls living in World War II or during the Great Depression, but those who are forced to balance homework with their pop concert schedules and Friday night dates.  Now, the fact that seven and eight year olds are exposed to such a sexualized culture is an entirely other issue.  What I am concerned with is the substance of what we are giving them to read.  How can we expect their understanding of human emotions to be developed if we are giving them only stories of a fantasized, hollywood lifestyle?

Maybe I'm being over-dramatic.  I did see my fair share of students reading books by Beverly Cleary or Roald Dahl, all books I believe wonderful.  But it was my experience that these students had found them somewhat by accident, or were led to them by a great librarian or teacher.  I have seen wonderful educators bringing novels to life within their classrooms for their students, but with the sex-driven pop-culture overload their students are getting all around them, the books are making less of an impact.  We as an American society are setting a precedent of glorified triviality.  We laud teenage pregnancies and revere whatever makes a good magazine story, to the detriment, I believe, of our students.

I realize this has turned into something rather political, and it is very long.  If you're still reading (I forgive you if you aren't!), let me know what you think.  Am I completely off track here?  My love of literature and its ability to transcend every boundary began in childhood; I just hope we are not denying the new generation a literary life of substance.

Peanuts, June 22, 1952
P.S. Yes, I changed the name of this blog.  It was all beginning to annoy me with its schmaltzy-ness.  Not sure this is any better, but it annoys me less... 

19 March 2011

"You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like."

-Phyllis A. Whitney

As writers, it is easy to fall into the myth that inspiration is a necessity of the profession.  There is a misconception--and often, an expectation--that good writing simply flows from the writer's pen onto the page and is never again edited or trashed.  Writers are, in both stereotype and perceived tradition, inspired beings, men and women who see the world as a beautiful place when others cannot, who are so compelled towards writing that they are not able to function unless their stories are told.  Outsiders who subscribe to the stereotypical view of the writing world imagine scenes of candle-lit, fervid scribbling in leather-bound notebooks that contain all the emotion and urgency of Mozart's death scene(essentially) in Amadeus.  They believe writing to emerge, fully grown, from the writer's thoughts, perfect manuscripts spouted from the mouth of angels.  I know this because it is the exact mentality I once had, before I became a writer.

John Gardner says within The Art of Fiction, "...it comes about that books are taught (officially, at least) not because they give joy, the incomparably rich experience we ask and expect of all true art, but because, as a curriculum committee might put it, they 'illustrate major themes in American literature,' or 'present a clearly stated point of view...'."

We are conditioned, through the American education system, to believe in the perfectibility of the novel.  We are given the examples which have risen above, and, whether or not they apply to our lives as 21st century teenagers, they are the model works of literary history.  As a teacher myself, I can see the benefits of such a system.  Students learn the standard by which to uphold other work, and understand what a picture of a great novel looks like.

But, for the burgeoning writer, this system does a disservice.  It is my opinion that the debates which occur around fiction are the most beneficial literary lessons for a writer to be a part of.  By hearing both sides of an argument, the writer begins to see that fiction is wholly subjective, which is most of the beauty of it.  And there is little opportunity to critique a novel if it has been revered as an example of classic literature for hundreds of years.  Students are spoon-fed academic support for classic novels.  They are told to applaud its elements, and rarely focus on scenes or plot points which do not work.  They may not find the plot twists of Pip's mysterious benefactor to have much verisimilitude, but their opinion rarely has a place in their English classroom.

By focusing on the classics for the sake of their teachability (their ease of being deconstructed and re-built time and again), young writers do not see the process of writing, the possibility for failure and the struggles of an author.  Because they only critique the best and most academically acceptable works of fiction, students can easily believe novels to be easy to write.  As they become familiar with literature, they  are encouraged to hold authors up to a standard of excellence, lauding their genius.  They are taught that Twain and Shakespeare were exceptional human beings, chosen ones who were given a gift which high school students studying their work can only dream of (Can you tell that Heroes has been my go-to instant streaming chioce on Netflix lately?).

I am not urging teachers to swap out their ...Red Badge of Courage lesson plans for weeks devoted to Twilight or Harry Potter (Although there is of course an argument for both sides).  Nor am I blaming my teachers or education system for the fact that I walked away with the impression that writing was somehow a holy, inspired act.  I am simply realizing, in my own transition from reader to writer, that I had built up writing as something unattainable, a profession which I was not worthy of being a part of.  I knew that I didn't have the next Wuthering Heights roaming around inside my mind, and so found writing inaccessible.

What I did not realize throughout most of my high school career was the structure required to write great fiction.  Because I analyzed each book in my high school class not for its parts but for its success as a whole--the recurrance of its motifs, its affect on culture--I retained the misconception that writing is not hard work.  I did not see that, just like everything else, writing takes education and practice.  It is only now, while on the verge of being swallowed whole by the disorganization of my own manuscript, that I realize the process of writing a novel.  I realize that if I wait around for that myth of inspiration, the voice from above calling me to fufill my duty as the next nobel-prize winning author, the work will never be finished.

Some days, writing does feel like an inspired act.  We are eager to wake up and get to work on the manuscript, we feel encouraged by the world around us and ready to tackle our own vision on paper.  But those days are few and far between.  I have come to learn that, even on the days I dread working out the small kinks in my novel, on the days I run into a wall and become wholly discouraged, the work itself brings about inspiration.  If I start typing, the ideas will come (cue voiceover from Field of Dreams), and I will feel accomplished not because the chapter was a breeze to write, but because I was able to work through the issues until they became manageable; I was able to throw myself into the work with all the fervor of Mozart's brilliance.  Because, when you know the building blocks and are dedicated to their lessons, you can make it all look easy.     

     Photo Credit: Gregory Colbert

14 March 2011

"...My teeth and ambitions are bared/ be prepared."

I find it incredibly ironic that within a short time of posting a very scattered, self-conscious blog entry about being plagued by disorganization, I have come to start appreciating character plots, narrative summaries, and even scene spreadsheets! I've re-focused my attention on the structure and levels of this piece, and am, surprisingly, feeling as if I have been released from the self-loathing cave I was being held captive in.

If you've been following my blog, you probably realized that the sentiment behind my last blog post, and one of my first posts was roughly the same.  In each, I came to the conclusion that I was somehow above organization, or at least unable to draw inspiration from it.  Well, crack open your psychology books, because in the course of this past week--in which I've adamantly decided not to move forward with this novel until I understand its structure--I've come to realize that my previous posts were in some way just a self-conscious author attempting to degrade organization in order to feel better about the fact that I knew nothing about it.  I was at a horrible loss, and frustration metamorphosed into excuses and conceits aimed towards excusing my lack of focus.

The undergrad writing program at Emerson inspired me in many ways.  I worked with some wonderful professors who were very passionate about their students as well as their own work, and I was able to see examples of great writing (and, maybe even more importantly, poor or malfunctioning writing) from my peers.  But I do feel that there is a flaw in an undergraduate program that subsists almost entirely on seminar-style classes.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a seminar class, here's the general conceit: students are assigned a particular week to pass a short story out to their professor and classmates (usually with an upper limit of around 20 pages), their peers read the story over the course of the week, making notations and in some cases writing critiques (depending on the professor), and the next week the author remains totally quiet while the entire class tears apart their story like Scar's hyenas in the Elephant Graveyard.

See them? They're hungry, waiting to tear your carefully constructed dialogue to shreds.  They want nothing more than to attack your characters and half-grown voice and leave you bleeding, lying in the dirt trying to keep your composure.  They'll degrade your stories into what they assume are your own pornographic fantasies or adamantly insist that you drew your inspiration from a novel which you've never heard of (but, of course, you nod your head and pretend you keep it on your bedside table for midnight reading when you're out of ideas, because this is a writing class, and you get points for being well-read). 

The one in the middle there? That one is too afraid of confrontation to say anything bad about your writing.  They'll be entirely unhelpful in their praise that "they wanted to know how it ended" and "they like your style."  They'll tell you they can't wait to read your next story.  The critique of your next story will say the same thing, re-worded.

The last type of critic, there on the right, is just plain idiotic.  They're the type of guy who will pass in stories about robotic sex-toys and undercover cops who are caught masturbating while on psychedelic drugs that literally keep their feet from touching the ground, and then critic your story for being too "literary" or "pretentious."  Oh, and their story will be the undeniable favorite if you're unfortunate enough to be paired with them for critique dates.  Not that I'm bitter or anything...

Ok, maybe I'm being over-dramatic.  But the truth of the matter is that undergrad writers are thrown into writing workshop classes without truly being taught the craft of fiction writing.  They are asked to give their opinions of their classmates' stories, and thus become the only authority on whether a story was successful or not.  The flaw in the system is that, in the ultra-competitive atmosphere of these classes, students are more apt to tear each other down in the hopes of elevating their own work than truthfully commenting on stories in a mature, selfless way.

I did transfer into Emerson's program, which may take away some of my credibility in critiquing the program itself, but I did not skip over any of the required writing classes.  Apart from a freshman expository writing class and a speech class mainly focused on non-fiction speeches and essays, the students in the writing program are introduced to fiction through a seminar class.  They take literature courses alongside their writing classes, but the emphasis is on literature's intent and affect, not on its style or construction.

In acting classes, students are taught that they are a team, a support system for each other.  Despite the competitive nature of acting, and the fact that everyone in the class is going up for the same roles you are, there is a camaraderie which forms in most of the acting classes I've had the privilege to be in.  Through the process of improv games, script analysis, and scene performance, you all become a family.  And, while actors use their bodies to express what writers use their words for, the basic principle is the same: young people tearing themselves open, bearing their darkest secrets and questions for others to critique.  So why are writing classes so cold and predatory?

I think it is a flaw in a program to assume that young writers have nothing left to learn by the time they reach an undergrad program.  These programs elevate young writers to the status of literary reviewers immediately, granting them a power which they have not yet learned how to use.  It's no wonder they take advantage of their perceived status of importance.

Now, To be fair, the professor of my first writing seminar did lead us through exercises which were helpful and instructive (if you remember, one of which lead to the first seeds of Discipleship), and in all of my courses we were each required to lead the class in the deconstruction of a published short story, but the general attitude seemed to be that, if I was going to be a successful writer, I better trust my instincts and take off running.  There was no time to go back and catch up on the basics.  The professor of my final, 400-level seminar told us in a very condescending manner that he didn't think he needed to worry about leading "this level of class" through writing exercises.  What? Four seminar classes and we've learned everything we need to know about the art of the short story?

I understand that writing is an internal process which varies from person to person, but there is something beneficial about learning the structure and elements of writing which I feel I missed out on in some ways.  In acting classes, you don't jump into the final performance before breaking the scene into beats and finding your motivation.  Many intensive acting programs won't even allow their freshmen to perform outside of the classroom setting until their second or third year.  Why were we as undergraduate writing students expected to produce high-class work without first learning the building blocks of fiction writing?

I'm not trying to blame my writing program for my inability to organize my novel at this stage (short stories are wholly different beasts than novels, and I do believe the undergrad program makes a good decision in focusing on the short story before a longer work), but I do blame them for granting me a false confidence.  My belief that I needn't focus on structure because my voice would shine through is a false belief, and I have come to realize that it is only hindering my writing.  I've been lying to myself, and that's something I'll need to change before I keep writing.  I regret that I don't have the advice on structure to look back on in the same way I have lessons about character or dialogue cataloged into my mind.

But, in terms of organization, I've already made progress this past weekend.  I ordered two books on writing, and have used some suggestions from info I've found on the web to re-structure and delve into the placement of plot points.  Before this weekend, when I sat down to write, I felt as if I were jumping into a mess of characters and ideas who had voices and passion, but no grounding.  Now, I am slowly gaining confidence in the fact that this story is legitimate, that, with help and study, I can piece together a narrative that makes sense.  Even within a few short, focused days, I feel relieved about the novel, and where it is heading.  I have a long way to go, but, before long, I'll have those hyenas singing and dancing, kick-line and all.

04 March 2011

Fighting Against the Excuse of Fear...

It’s been far too long since I’ve written anything.  The characters, events, and nuances that make up the world of Discipleship are in my mind everyday, and yet I haven’t allowed them a voice in almost a full week.  I’ve fallen back into the task of jotting down notes and ideas, and letting them become stale in a closed notebook on my nightstand, not allowed to breathe.  I’ve come up with changes or innovations right on the cusp of falling asleep, and jolted awake with the need to find a pen and write them down, and yet I’ve done nothing with these ideas beyond notating them.  Some may call this writer’s block.  I call it fear.

In truth, I’ve become far too talented at masking my fear of failure with excuses.  Many different excuses have at one time or another kept me from sitting down to write, and yet one is more haunting than the others.  The one that constantly nags at me, day after day, the one that forces me to attempt reorganization tactics for hours at a time, is this:

I can’t go on until I find the key to the entire novel.

My writer’s subconscious has somehow come to the conclusion that scenes and ideas filled with characterization and hints of plot are not good enough, and so I should henceforth cease all writing activity until I have a plot outline so solid that anyone could write this novel. 

When we learn about famous writers in school, we never learn of the hard aspects of writing.  We applaud their narrative innovations, we learn of the spouses who supported them, the discrimination they faced.  But somewhere along the way, we are ingrained with the idea that, for these authors, writing came incredibly easy.  We do not see the hours of work spent on perfecting a single line, the pages of a manuscript that were thrown out after years of work.  We only see the artists’ finished product, and success gives them the appearance of virtuosos.

Somewhere along the line, I deluded myself into thinking of writing as a science instead of an art.  I’ve allowed the lessons and teachings of famous writers to alter my vision of writing until it has become the product of one standard formula that works for everyone.  I’ve begun using horrible phrases like, “the key to the novel,” phrases which make the process of writing seem unrealistically romantic. 

I’ve had writing teachers who have drawn plot diagrams on the board and quizzed us on its elements.  I’ve been given advice as to how to structure a novel or a short story.  I’ve read articles by writers on writing expounding their great beliefs (and, essentially coming to the conclusion that writing isn’t something easily taught).  I’ve read hundreds of books, studying the characterization techniques and flashback scenarios employed in each one.  I’ve been taught so much about writing that I’ve forgotten personality is what makes writing great.

There are numerous files on my computer that are titled “Outline,” or “Plot Points,” all dated by different months and even years.  I have never been able to follow any of them.  I think wasting time on organization is my way of subconsciously keeping myself from writing.  It’s just another excuse: If I don’t have a specific outline, there’s no way I’ll be expected to succeed.

What I need to remind myself is that there is no "key" to great writing.  There is no one line or structural element that will suddenly make each element fit wonderfully together.  There is only the writer, and the words.  It's just that a good writer can make it all seem easy.  

Every writer’s process is different.  I need to remember that every single time I’ve been taught the plot diagram, the professor has had various alterations to it.  Even they have not accepted the science of writing, choosing to re-name the rising action or add another element before the climax.  Every writer has to find their own process, and I suspect it’s hardest the first time around.  I need to remember that the structure will come, and right now I shouldn’t box myself in (isn’t this the same sentiment I came to in my second blog entry?).  The frustration I feel right now will pass, but the time to write will not come again.

I think I need to have this article wallpapered to the wall above my desk, particularly this passage: "Now you may ask, what if my characters won't talk to me? What if they won't even visit? The only answer is to think and think some more, and then go out and read and look and listen some more. Do not sit and mope. Do not sigh. Do not throw up your hands and give up on the whole project. Do not go back to the drawing board. There is nothing more depressing than an empty drawing board. No, go back to the world, which is where all characters originally come from." -- ALLEGRA GOODMAN

Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing, and maybe I need to find a better way to organize my thoughts if I want to get this novel written.  But, then again, maybe this is all part of my process, and maybe the frustration is really encouragement in disguise, willing me to be better, to be my best.

Excerpt, from Thad’s perspective (unedited--I want to eventually slow this part down and layer a bit more):

            I stayed quiet during Ed’s funeral.  My father used to take me to cemeteries to do grave rubbings.  It seemed strange to think that the bodies in the ground had once been walking around; not long ago they were going to school or getting yelled at for spilling their milk or were shaking their neighbor’s hand at church. 
The cemetery seemed too big.  Maybe, someday, the entire world would be covered by cemeteries until there was no room left for houses.  It was a place that made you think strange thoughts.  But it also seemed the kind of place the demons would stay away from, a place too clean and organized to have the room for their bulk, and so I felt at peace.
            After they lowered Ed’s casket far into the cold dirt, when I was waiting to get back into the black limousine and go home, I saw something jumping.  There were woods lining the outside of the cemetery, and I saw something in the grass, moving towards the spindly trees.  I got close, and saw a small toad.  It was brown, with thin legs, and it was ugly.  Did God think even this toad was beautiful and perfect?
I wanted to hold it.  I thought maybe Ed would like it if I left the toad at the grave.  Because I didn’t want him to be all alone all night.  The toad might like the fresh dirt they would put on top of the box Ed was in, and it might stay to keep him company.  I wasn’t sure how long it took before Ed would separate from his body and float to heaven, but I figured it wouldn’t happen until dark.  Maybe if I asked nicely, my father would bring me back late at night to watch it happen.  The toad could stay and sit with Ed until we got back to watch him float into the clouds. 
            I moved too quickly, and the toad jumped away.  I followed, walking as slowly as I could without letting him out of my sight.  It led me a bit into the woods, where it hopped in front of a big rock.  Its neck bulged in and out, fast. 
I wasn’t sure if toads had lungs, but it seemed like he was trying to catch his breath.  He looked tired.  Maybe he had jumped from a long way away.  I waited until he wasn’t expecting me, and then lunged forward, reaching my hands out to scoop him up.
            But I took too big of a step.  I squashed the toad.  I stared down at the ground.  Everything was quiet.  No one had seen.  I kicked my shoe off, the toad’s skin and blood and innards squeezed into the sole’s ridges. 
I was shaking like I did after a nightmare.  But this was worse, because I knew where the guilt was coming from.  Maybe this is how Peter felt after his betrayal.  Or maybe it was more like Judas.  A guilt that made the world around you seem smaller; a guilt that reminded you of the power you had.  I couldn’t be near it.  I stepped back, and fell down, which only made things worse. 
“I’m so sorry,” I said to the toad.
I hadn’t cried all day, but now I couldn’t stop myself. 
“Dear God, please take this toad into heaven,” I prayed, the words coming slowly between sobs.  “Please let it be in a better place, like Ed.  I’ll do anything.  I’ll take its pain if you will just take it to heaven.  I’m sorry.  It’s not the toad’s fault he’s dead.  I’ll do anything.”
I unfolded my hands and forced myself to look.  The toad’s back legs were smashed. The back half of its body was flattened and misshaped.  There was dark liquid oozing from its body.  I looked closely, knowing I was responsible for its death. 
Then, I saw its neck bulge out.  It was still gasping for breath. He was alive.
I knew I was supposed to kill him; I was supposed to stop his pain.  It had been what my father had done when the neighbor’s dog caught a bird in its mouth.  It was the humane thing to do, he had said, but I couldn’t help but cry when he twisted the neck.
Thou shalt not kill.
I crawled back over to the toad, knowing that it needed me to be strong.  It was my turn to be humane; it was my responsibility to kill the toad.
“Tell Ed I say ‘goodbye.’”
I lifted a rock.  I closed my eyes, my fingers tight around the stone, and took a sharp breath.
…if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.
It was a beautiful toad.  Maybe it would get better, I thought.  It looked strong, if you covered up the back of his body with a few crunchy leaves. 
I threw the stone into the forest as far as I could, and ran out of the cemetery, hobbling in one shoe.


13 February 2011

"Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul." -Whitman

I write best in the middle of the night.  It's a standard cliche, but when the entire world seems quiet, I can think.  And (true confession time) in the middle of the night I don't feel those small pangs of guilt that tell me I should be doing something more productive with my time.  The very early morning has always seemed to be a time without strictures and expectations, and I can forget about everything else for a while.  At least that was the case last night.  I got a good two hours of writing in, and found a new angle for a character I had been struggling with that inadvertently renewed my deep-love and vigor for Whitman's Song of Myself and Elton John's My Father's Gun.

Here's a quick bit of what I wrote last night, unedited as of yet:

The day after my mother left, I was in the old church.  Callie and Thad were asleep when I woke up, and I hadn’t felt like making breakfast.  I found Jack Wilson inside, sleeping on a back pew.
The Wilsons lived with their mother half a mile down the beach.  They stayed at the beach year-round, and had the weathered look of children who were raised outside.  They didn't wear shoes.   
The beach belonged to Jack Wilson.  We had always known that.  He could always be found along its shores, cleaning any trash that was left behind or leaving messages in bottles for the younger kids to find.  We knew he would grow old with one foot in the salt water, narrating the beach's history. 
Sometimes he carved out notes in the sand with his toes in front of each house in turn.  The notes were usually half-thoughts, bits and pieces of Walt Whitman poems mixed with lyrics from lesser known Elton John songs or lines from yellowed postcards he scoured second-hand stores for.  The morning after my mother left, he had carved out, “Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather…p.s. don’t forget toothpaste.”    
The messages were completed meticulously.  He made sure to find a space large enough to accommodate his words, and one that would have just enough time to be read before being washed away with the rising tide or destroyed by the footprints of children.   
Everyone loved Jack, especially Callie.
He opened his eyes when I came into the church.  He was very tan, and his brown hair was lightened from the sun.  He was the kind of person who seemed to elude belonging to any particular time.  He could very well have been quarantined at Ellis Island or have performed in a masked Greek tragedy.  Callie said he looked like the boys she thought would take Marilyn Monroe out for dinner after a movie premiere. 
“Full moon last night,” he said.  “The summer’s half over.”

As an update on what I've been reading lately: I've been barreling my way through Les Miserables (don't worry, I haven't given up on Ulysses--I usually have three or four books going at once.  I think I'll spend today on To the Lighthouse, another book I've never made it all the way through).  If you know me, you know how obsessed I am with the broadway musical adapted from Hugo's novel, and while I've attempted to read through the book before, I have to admit I've never made it past the first section.   For those of you who aren't familiar with Hugo's style in this novel, it is extremely politically conscious, which means many digressions and commentaries that diverge from the central plot line.

I ordered a copy through abebooks a while back (the most wonderful place to pick up a mountain of books for cheap!), but turns out I had gotten an abridged version.  I know there are many benefits to abridged versions of novels, but I had long ago promised myself that, when the time came to read Hugo's novel, I would read it in its entirety.  And, according to my kindle, I am now 25% through!  I owe much of this to lots of backstage time during the play I'm currently performing in, but I'm hopeful that I'll make it through this time. 

The novel was written originally in French, and it has gotten me thinking about the process of translation, which has gotten me thinking about writing in general in a different way.  I've taken World Lit classes (German Lit being my favorite), and I often questioned whether or not I, as an English reader, was reading the novel (or poem, or short) the author had actually intended to write.  How could I be sure the sentiment of Neruda's love poems was preserved by the translator?  How could I trust the wording and dialogue of the translated version of The Sorrows of Young Werther?

Over the years, I've realized that translation does not need to be an exact copy of the wording and sentiments the author had when first writing the novel, because it is an art form of its own.  Translators can't help but add their own experiences and interpretations into the work, and this adds just more fodder for literary discussion.

Most of the translated version I am reading is made up of short sentences, which I believe is a carry-over from Hugo himself.  Anyone who was in my first writing workshop class can testify to the fact that I am addicted to long, in-depth sentences.  I would pass in stories that were practically unreadable because of their poetic devices and layered wording.  I think it's a mistake a lot of young writers make.  For me, it made me feel smarter; If I could write beautiful prose that seemed to elude meaning, it meant I was a true literary genius.  I failed to realize that my carefully thought-out prose meant my audience had no idea what was going on.  I haven't completely abandoned my writing style from those early days, but I'm learning how to tailor my thoughts until they are artistically concise rather than dripping in sentimental bullshit. 

Hugo's story is one of the most powerful I have come across in my lifetime (which may or may not be due to the affect the musical had on me and my sisters when we were kids, an affect that had us re-enacting scenes from Revolutionary France on the weekends for fun).  Yet, this powerful story is told in short, clipped sentences that spell out exactly what the author is trying to say.  Subconsciously, the audience becomes complicit in the narrator's thought process.

Hugo's plot and characterization can hold their own no matter how wonderful or bereft the translation.  It is a reminder to me that structure and foundations of a novel should come first.  I should worry about the beauty of language once I have the basics in place.  It is a good lesson particularly for me (one not so far from what I discovered when analyzing the work of Jeannette Walls) and one I need to remember every day.  The ideas are there, but I often skew them with superfluous language (I would be the first member of semi-colons anonymous).

Story-telling is about making your audience believe they are a part of this world, that they fit into the neurosis of your characters and the quirks of the society.  Story-telling is a way to make a plot beautiful, but I've come to realize that, without substance, beauty cannot survive.

Are you all reading anything good lately? Let me know!

08 February 2011

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Procrastinator...

Okay,  confession time: It's been almost a week since I've sat down to write.  I've hit a wall that is part confusion and part laziness, mixed with the sinus pressure from a head cold and a bad addiction to netflix live-streaming documentaries.

One of my writing teachers used to tell us that we would never be writers unless we wrote every day.  While I had a fundamental problem with her categorization at that point (and still do, to some extent), I know that writing through blocks is the only way to tear them down.  Lately, I've taken to jotting down single lines, questions, or plot ideas instead of tackling the hurdles I have come to in the writing process.  Rather than take on the tough decisions about narrative and perspective, I've stayed in a sort of comfort zone that allows me to be creative without taking any risks.

Yesterday, the line, "I stayed silent amidst the screams around me," came into my head, so I typed it out.  The day before, I edited one of the first lines of the manuscript to read, "It was the summer never to be forgotten or remembered, and we were swimming in the rain."  I wrote the cryptic notes, "Henry: loses his faith b/c he believes the world is cruel, Callie: loses her faith b/c she is afraid of absorbtion/eternity, Thad: gains his faith b/c he does not want to be left alone…Ed looked so alone…he goes on without his family or anyone else…"  These notes are helpful in that they allow me to continue thinking about writing, but the problem is that, lately, I've been stuck in the thinking stages; I'm not bold enough to plunge myself into the sometimes less-rewarding writing stage.  

While ideas remain in form only, they are hopeful.  They could be that single piece I needed to temper the characterization, the one addition that will spur me towards finishing the manuscript.  But, in practice, they could just as easily become destructive.  

It is times like these I remind myself that writing takes patience.  I need to write through my challenging spots, and be excited to fail.  Who knows? Failure may just as well lead to another idea waiting to be unfurled.       

01 February 2011

Snowstorms, a book review, and James Joyce...(or, the post without an enlightening title)

I don't have the mind-capacity for a full post today (I blame James Joyce and a three-hour bus ride in the snow at 15 miles an hour), but I thought I'd pass along a recommendation for an author with whose work I've recently been re-acquainted.  The post is inspired by going to breakfast with one of my best friends, who feeds my book addiction by always asking me what I'm reading and passing along her recommendations.  Writers are always told books are our best teacher, so I figured reviewing books is just as constructive.  Besides, we're about to get a huge snowstorm, so those of you in the New England area will have plenty of time to catch up on a book or two.

If you haven't read Jeannette Wall's exceptionally entertaining memoir "The Glass Castle," run out to your local Barnes & Noble (or the less cozy Borders, if you're in Boston) or your friendly neighborhood public library or your tech-savvy online e-book store, and buy it.  Right now.

The first time I read this book was years ago, but I still remember falling in love with Walls' story-telling abilities.  The book recounts her youth, depicting the relationship she had with her alcoholic father and mentally unstable mother as well as her three siblings.  The book could have easily fallen into a woe-is-me first-person account of depression and self-pity, but it is anything but.  As a narrator, Walls is upbeat and smart, guiding the reader through this world, and giving them permission to laugh out loud.

Walls' childhood may have been unpredictable and wild, but her wonderful writing keeps the memoir cohesive, and allows the readers to not only sympathize with her, but empathize.  She knows how to keep her readers close enough that they begin to see bits and pieces of their own families coming through the bizarre abnormalities of hers (think a more intimate and heart-warming version of Burrough's Running with Scissors).

It is a generally fast read, but one that I have gone back to again and again because of its many layers.  It's the kind of book that seems to change as you grow older; a book that becomes new whenever you gain a new perspective on life.
Jeannette Walls' new book, this time called "a true life novel," is Half Broke Horses.  She shifts the focus off herself and onto her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a woman whose independence and high spirits characterize the tone of this novel.  Walls takes on her grandmother's personality wholeheartedly, utilizing a first person point of view that allows Smith's characterization to flow out of each line of narration.  It is Smith's story, and Walls made the right decision in allowing her to tell it, even if she did have to give up the "memoir" standing.

It is the voice of this novel that kept me reading.  The plot lines are not as amazing or thought-provoking as that of The Glass Castle, but the narrator of Half Broke Horses is fearless and wholly honest; it was refreshing to read a character who was so full of determination and heart.  I read most of the book  in one sitting (a long sitting that lasted into the early hours of the morning, but nevertheless...), and it was Smith's gumption (and Walls' skill at personifying it) that kept me reading.  Her voice carries this story along, and welcomes the reader into her world seamlessly.

When I was growing up, my mom kept horses.  I knew how to ride from an early age, and learned a good deal about taking care of horses (mucking stalls included, which I usually complained about to anyone within ear-shot).  Still, I would have been wholly lost in the world of cattle ranching and wild horse breaking were it not for the pace and narration of Walls' novel.   The book is broken up into small vignettes (most only two or three pages, some more) that allow the reader to absorb this world slowly.  Whereas some works of literature are jarring in that they throw the reader straight to the wolves to force them to become acquainted with the world of the protagonist (think the language in A Clockwork Orange or, in a more physical sense, any Beckett play/novel).  While this is a great strategy for establishing the mood Burgess and Beckett were going for (I remember how excited I was when I started picking up on the misplaced terms in Clockwork Orange and finally started feeling comfortable reading), this affect wouldn't have served Walls' narrative in any way.  By establishing the world through tight, well-constructed vignettes, the reader is effortlessly eased into this strange world of ranching, and, without realizing it, begins to think in its terms.

Lily Casey Smith led a life of fearless determination (I would love to teach this book alongside Thoreau as the antithesis of "quiet desperation").  She left home to become a teacher when she was just 15 years old, leaving her family and trekking across the desert by herself, on her horse.  She set goals and didn't give up until she achieved them, learning from her mistakes and finding herself along the way.  In summary, it sounds like a Lifetime movie that I will watch in secret and deny ever having turned on.  But in practice, Walls is able to expand the details of her grandmother's life to include much of the eccentric tone and heart that is ingrained into The Glass Castle.  She is a skilled writer who knows, first and foremost, not to let emotion or wordiness cloud her ability to tell a great story (one of my favorite lines from The Glass Castle says, "One thing about whoring: It put a chicken on the table").

Even though Walls is more revered as  "memoir" writer than a novelist, I believe fiction writers can learn a great deal from her style.  It is refreshing to see a well-crafted story that succeeds so wonderfully without many bells or whistles, and I think that is a reminder to all fiction writers (particularly those in the vein of me, who have days where they become so attached to flowery, superfluous language that they suffocate the storyline).

So, if you've never read Jeannette Walls, put her on your list.  I know, your reading list is too long already, but just squeeze her in there for those days you've been so ambitious in your goal to read Ulysses that your brain is numb...which, for me, is right about now.