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

27 January 2011

"Write to please just one person...

...If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." --Kurt Vonnegut

It's been a while since I've posted, and while a part of that (I am happy to say) is because I've been busy writing away, part of it is also because I've been procrastinating writing a post.  I started this blog to discipline myself into stepping back to critique and reflect on my work so I do not get wholly wrapped up in the process, but it turns out I'm just as much a procrastinating blog writer as I am a procrastinating everything else.  I doubt I'll ever be able to overcome procrastination, but I know I'll be a better writer for this blog, so I'm vowing to take a stab at posting regularly.

This week, I've made the switch from third to first person.  I've actually found the move extremely freeing, which is a relief, as I often felt I would run into brick walls in the third person.  I'm not saying that first person has solved all of my problems, but it has certainly freed up some creative instincts and, in many ways, allowed me more freedom in characterization, which, we've already established, is what I like most about writing.

I'm a pretty stubborn person when it comes to academics and competition, and, a few years ago, when I first saw my fellow undergraduates passing in first-person story after first-person story, I came to the conclusion that I needed to stand out by writing in third-person.  I passed in a third-person story (the first incarnation of Discipleship), but it was stuffy, wrapped up in itself.  I might have stood out, but I made a mistake in that I wasn't choosing point of view based on what would best serve the story, breaking a carnal rule of short-story writing.  I was trying to prove a point: that I could stand out among my peers.  I was ignoring Kurt Vonnegut's advice, and allowing my stories to catch cold.

Another problem was that I hadn't yet found my voice in writing.  I was attempting to emulate those I had read.  And while this is not a bad way to go about writing--I once had a professor challenge us to write in the style of another, and the affects were wonderful for the whole class--I was not emulating with the mentality that I was an apprentice to the greats, but a mentality of showmanship.  I wanted to show-off to the others in my class; I wanted to be the best.   Writing in third person kept me at a distance from my own narratives.  And my readers could see the disconnect. 

I didn't write a first-person short story until my second year in the writing program.  A professor challenged us to stray from our methods.  We passed in two full-length short stories over the course of the semester, and she wanted one to differ greatly from the other.  She challenged us to write in first-person if we were accustomed to third (or vice-versa), and work towards becoming more well-rounded writers.  While I disliked this professor's teaching methods in many ways (she seemed to have a cynicism towards writing and teaching that was not exactly encouraging), this piece of advice was one which truly helped me as a writer.  I wrote about a girl visiting her Aunt for the summer in the South.  Here's an excerpt from one of the first drafts:

That summer was the first time I had seen someone so drunk that they were transformed.  My cousin had warned me, pulling me aside from unpacking my new yellow suitcase that I was so proud of in order to tell me his mother sometimes got into trouble.  He was whispering, protecting the eight-year-old ears of my brother.  Dominick was known for reacting irrationally.  When he heard about a lice outbreak at the school two towns over, he wore my father’s high school football helmet day and night for a month.     
            “It won’t be an issue, I’m just letting you know in case you hear anything tonight,” Liam whispered.  
           His fair skin was red from the sun, burns he had recently received from the first days of summer not yet having healed into a tan. 
            I nodded, hoping to seem accommodating.  Aunt Hattie had taken Dominick and me into her house while my Dad was away on business, and if my Mama had been alive, she would have reminded me to be grateful.  It was not my place to complain that I had to share a bedroom with two sweaty boys, or that I had seen more bugs inside my Aunt’s house than at the Science Museum's Creepy Crawlers Exhibit Dominick had made us go to, or even, I told myself, that my Aunt was a drunk.

In the process of writing in first-person, I found that the narrative came easier; I was writing from my character, and thus could follow the age-old advice that every writer has ingrained into them at some point in their careers: "Show, don't tell."  It wasn't that writing in first person was easier, it was that it was easier for me to forget my audience.  I was no longer writing to be "literary" or to prove myself a great writer.  I was writing out of my character, and attempting to stay true to them.  I'm not sure if my writing truly improved in that first attempt at first-person, but I know I gained more confidence as a writer.  I was writing from within instead of without.  I was taking Vonnegut's advice, and, in that case, the one person I was writing for was my protagonist.

What I found most amazing was the ease with which I could bring my readers to an "epiphany" moment.  In third person, I worried that I needed to be non-explicit, to only hint at character breakthroughs because I thought that was how I would be artistic and artsy.  I was sacrificing my writing by trying to please others.  I was breaking another of Vonnegut's rules: "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.  To heck with suspense.  Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages" (Vonnegut quotes taken from "Creative Writing 101" in Bagombo Snuff box).   Instead of worrying how to present a character's breakthrough moment in the "correct" way, I allowed the character to speak for herself:

Liam looked up at me as if I had struck him.  I would later come to understand the weight of what I had suggested.  Betrayal was not a word I would match a feeling to until much later in my life, but Liam knew then the power that his potential betrayal could hold, and knew that it would destroy.  As I sat on the rickety cot, listening to the night air and watching the wide eyes of my cousin through the darkness, I came to appreciate my freedom.  Liam sat across the small room from me like the fireflies Dominick caught and put in a Mason Jar to use as a night light.  Only I was free to fly through the night sky, illuminating my own path.

While, in later drafts, I saw room for expansion within this paragraph and sections to edit, it was refreshing to speak this frankly without worrying that I was being too overt.  I was speaking in the voice of this protagonist, and could later take this quickly-written paragraph and expand it into something I was very proud of.

I realize now that, in being so adamant towards the third-person narrator of Discipleship, I  was once again trying to be a writer instead of simply writing.  The short story the novel stemmed from was always a third-person perspective, and I had never taken the time to evaluate the right point of view for it in its novel form.  I was only focused on what others would think of the narrative tone or voice, and it was easier to allow my characters to be buried in flowery, unspecific language.  First person puts the focus back onto the characters, and, in another positive, forced me to re-write whole sections of the novel. 

I still may not know whether the novel will end up in third or first person, but I know that, for now, I am allowing myself the freedom to listen to my characters.  I have found simple truths since I made the switch to first-person that have opened up whole other aspects of the novel.  I need to ride out this first-person wave, and see where it takes me.

Here's the new first paragraph of Discipleship.  A bit wordy at times, but I am excited for its potential once edited.

"It was the summer never to be forgotten or remembered; the summer my mother’s death by seagulls was completed, when Callie and I found and drowned our mermaids, and Thaddeus saw the end of the world coming with every nightmare.  But even now, it’s hard to remember the specifics.  Fragmentary memories sometimes appear, periodically bobbing above the surface of my consciousness like messages in a bottle.  Yet the corks of the bottles are moldy and cracked; they fall apart and allow trickles of water to soak into the hand-drawn maps, to make the ink run on the lover’s notes.  Only the hint of memories remains, structure without detail."

*all writing property of Rachel Coffin

22 January 2011

Resist much. Obey little.

-Walt Whitman

Discipleship began as the first short story I wrote for my "Beginner's Fiction" course.  The short story came from a writing exercise we were asked to complete in class.  My professor (incidentally, the same professor referenced in my last post, although in an earlier class I took with him)  asked us to write a scene in which one character has something important--even life-changing--to tell another.  Somehow I managed to never exactly get to the prompt, but I've never been one for following creative rules.  Although it is hastily written and there are lines I'm desperate to edit, I think it's important to write out where Discipleship began, word for word.

"I had been able to tell for weeks.  Despite the facade that Julia thought she was so effortlessly putting up for Thad and I, her efforts had gone to waste.  I tried to fool myself into thinking that her stiff movements and lack of eye contact were all for Thad's benefit; that in reality she was conscious of my knowledge that she was leaving.  These lies were like a salve that I spread on daily before I greeted her; without them, I couldn't bear Julia ducking out of a room when her eyes filled with tears.  

'She's just protecting the boy,' I relayed to myself, choking down breakfast.

Thad, in all his innocence, lost in his Scriptures, was oblivious to the fact that Julia was leaving us.  Eldest cousin, surrogate-mother for our summer vacation, organizer of our daily schedules and chief-provider of the feeling others label 'home-sweet-home,' but we just called Jules, was taking off.  I wondered if Thad would feel abandoned.

After what I had come to romantically term, 'the summer never to be forgotten or remembered,' the betrayal hit hard.  Not only was I left to deal with my feelings, but those of Thad.  It was that night, as I read Bible stories out loud and cradled Thad in my lap that I began to feel anger.  

Several lines scrawled in Julia's uncharacteristically messy handwriting served as my only comfort.  The boy had begged to see it.  I hadn't let him; this was mine--the last thing from Jules that was all for me.


It is amazing that such a small exercise could spark a minor-obsession within me.  I became dedicated to these characters, and so intent on discovering them that I am still in the process of doing so, more than two years later.  I began to plan out their lives.  I wanted to see who they were, and manipulate the world around them.  It's a frustrating and beautiful process, and I'm still in the midst of it.

I think the most important aspect I was able to take from this exercise was the relationship between the characters.  I always knew that Henry would be devoted to his older cousin (whose name has long changed from Julia to Callie), that Thad would be devoted to religion, and that there would be a competition between the two boys for her affection.  Those aspects have never changed, despite the multiple overhauls the story has undergone.

There are so many decisions an author needs to make when crafting a novel.  I, for one, am having a semi-crisis point in that I'm considering shifting from third person narrative to first person despite the fact that I'm 125 pages into a manuscript.  There are so many questions that come up, so many characters that need to be re-vamped or deleted entirely, so many panic attacks late at night that what you're writing has been done a million times before.  It is comforting to know that, through it all, I have stayed true to these characters.  No matter what has changed, the excitement I had when I first discovered Henry, Callie, and Thaddeus is the same excitement that allows me to overcome my self-doubts and continue writing today.

The structure of the novel is nothing extraordinary; the idea is the same as it always way: three cousins spend the summer together.  For me, characterization is a far greater challenge than inventing an exciting plot.  I am so drawn to characterization that I often find myself overwhelmed at the thought of plot points and inciting incidents and falling action.  I have never written by a formula, and, for better or worse, I can't start now.  Instead, I'm forced to agonizingly accept that this novel won't come into being by organization.  I have tried numerous times to outline the work, only to see that what I want to accomplish cannot be confined to an outline.

I know that structure is implicit in a successful novel.  Believe me.  I understand the benefits of following the rules--I've been through a creative writing program.  I was forced to read books that told me the proper way to write, each professor flaunting a different theory or method.  But, for me, it is too easy to become entrapped in the structure to so great an extent that I begin to doubt my own process, or that I become overwhelmed to the point where I simply want to stop writing.  I know that I need to find a way to wrangle my thoughts into cohesion, but I also know that can only come about after I've discovered these characters from the inside out.  I cannot stifle their voices just yet, no matter how much I would like to rush the process, I just have to listen to Uncle Walt and trust my own. (Dead Poet's Society, anyone?)

I have always loved Walt Whitman.  I love the fact that Whitman is able to encapsulate the entire world within his "Song of Myself," drawing on his own experiences and yet broadening his take on the world until he creates a camaraderie implicit between reader and author.  He writes in the way I hope to some day, intensely personal and yet beautifully broad.  His advice is what I need to remind myself of each day I sit down in front of my computer to write.  I need to resist the little demons cropping up inside my head, whispering that I am not good enough, that I am not structured enough, that I don't have enough of a process.  I need to resist all of the doubts, and obey the little song of myself, struggling to make itself heard among the cacophony of self-consciousness.  It is a lesson I think every writer comes across at one point; and it is one I am determined to learn.   

Okay.  Enough of my scatter-brained ramblings.  I figured I'd give you a small excerpt from the present incarnation of Discipleship.  This is probably tough out of context, but since I've been going on about characterization, I figured I'd show you some of the character work that has found its way into the novel.  Not to mention, I just finished talking about inner demons.  This is part of a chapter dedicated to Thaddeus, and his relationship with religion...

"The first time it happened, he dreamed he had been swallowed by a black whale and was being digested day after day.  He couldn’t hear anything except the echo of the water splashing against the sharp, square teeth, and he sat cradled in a corner of warm tongue, where he eventually fell asleep.  Even when the whale opened its mouth, and a voice from outside woke him up to say that he was free to leave, Thaddeus decided he’d rather stay inside, tucked into a corner between teeth and cheek. 
He had thought it was only happenstance.  He thought he had been punished for being jealous of Abraham and his title of God’s friend or for forgetting to bring his plate to the sink.  But now it was happening more frequently, in darker corners of the night where he dreamed about Mary giving birth, about Jezebel being eaten by the dogs while he stood naked and watched.  He felt ashamed each time.  And when it happened, he woke up to the mocking snorts of laughter, sneering at him from behind the windowpanes.  The whispered conversations taunted him.  “Little boy.”  “Little religious freak.”  Then, the cackles sounded from behind the thin walls of the room, closing him in.  He held his hands over his ears to block out the sounds coming from all around him, from across the hall and under the baseboards, but he only seemed to hear the voices louder, piercing his mind.
“The Lord is my strength and my song,” Thaddeus said.  He struggled to block out the noises. “He has become my salvation."
The shouts became louder, calling his name.
“We’re coming for you Thaddeus,” the voices spoke deliberately, each one beginning a moment after the other, echoing in a terrible chorus. “Soon we’ll have you all to ourselves.”
He took his Bible in his arms and ran out of the room.  He hurried down the hall, yet the voices seemed to be closer.  He longed to run into his mother’s room.  When he was younger, she would only have to speak, and the demons would retreat in fear.  But he was too ashamed; he didn’t deserve comfort.
 “He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him,” Thaddeus said, louder. 
“Thaddeus, you’re just one of us,” The dark voice whispered.
Thaddeus closed himself in the bathroom at the end of the hall and locked the door.
Taking a seat on the edge of the bathtub, he flipped breathlessly to the book of Revelation, to the story of destruction and the final battle between good and evil."

Thanks for reading.  I welcome any comments/suggestions.

20 January 2011

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

-Ernest Hemingway

Once, in an intermediate writing seminar I took as a requirement for my B.A., my writing professor asked me and the eleven others in my class to take a few moments and write a page on "why it is you want to be a writer."  It was the kind of question I had gotten used to since transferring into the writing program at Emerson, where I had absentmindedly fallen into a community of students who, as a means of entertainment, debated the validity of second person narration.  At Emerson, I found myself a somewhat apathetic member of the Writing, Literature, and Publishing major, branded a "WLP student," but lacking the blind passion for writing which my classmates possessed.  And though I knew I didn't have the same writing aspirations as the other students in my classes, Emerson was my third college in two years, and I didn't have the stamina to transfer again, so I made up my mind to pretend I was a writer. 

When we were finished with our assignments, my professor called on some students to share their thoughts.  He called on me when students stopped volunteering, and although I had generally been a teacher's pet throughout my entire school career, I declined to share.  I declined not because I did not approve of my work, but because I didn't want him to know the truth.  I didn't want the first professor who believed in my writing, who had once defended my work against the negative opinions of the entire class, to know that I was a fraud.  I didn't want him to know that I had never envisioned myself a writer, that I did not harbor a secret passion for publication alongside the likes of Allen Ginsberg.

Due to a recent midnight-cleaning spree, I was able to find the notebook I used for the class.  I've copied out what I wrote in class that day.  I added some paragraph breaks to keep you all from having to read a mammoth block of text, but otherwise, I've made no edits:

"Writing began as a requirement.  And no, not some romantic ideal of words and sentences and images which would not relent their torture of me until I had brought them to life.  Writing courses required for my major forced me--upon threat of failure--into the creation of places and people, conversations and conflicts.  My sister was always the writer of the family, and I, by default, was required to choose another hobby while she created worlds filled with dragons and princes.  

The very first time I was asked to write fiction--every Friday as part of my middle school English curriculum--I wrote about how I wished my life had been, innocent stories filled with families of nine children and even more pets.  Writing was a game, my best friend and I writing the same piece of our novel from the perspective of different characters.  The endeavor was stopped when Samantha produced not a creatively different point-of-view, but a nearly identical copy of my carefully crafted original.

In high school, on the rare occasion one of my teachers chose to assign a short story, I created plots I believed would shock and astound with their surprise endings and suddenly remorseful characters.  I received an A- for my most prized effort, although the stab came on the last page when I noticed the perfect penmanship of my teachers comment: 'verisimilitude?'.  When I first saw the word, I had no idea of its definition.  I can ensure you now I will never forget.  Although the blow--somewhat overly exaggerated in its reproduction as I re-write it years later--is easily recalled, I cannot blame the critique for any decision on my part to desist writing.  I had never started writing, and did not have plans to take it up as a life-long passion.

After two years of badly chosen colleges, struggling to make it through my semesters as one of hundreds in generically comfortable 'English Department's, I transferred to my third school, where writing classes were required for my major.  Wondering what I would ever write about and nervous about the response of others, I attempted to hide my in-class exercises from others' wandering eyes and was too nervous to read anything aloud.  But somehow, in the act of being forced to write, the characters became too vivid not to explore.

I wrote my required short stories at the last minute, struggling to have a complete story to hand in.  And despite its poor reception--one of my classmates critiquing that he, 'had no idea what the f*** was going on,' and another deciding that all in all my story was 'pointless,' I realized that I had created something truthful to me--characters who breathed and lived and, to my delight, created controversy.  The high school student hoping to shock with stories which concluded in the realization that the protagonist father had killed his own son by mistake had never left my writing intentions, and now had been reborn--and fueled--by my classmates' erstwhile attempts to get me to write about something else.  I had discovered a power not only over my characters, but over my audience, a power which I continue to explore as I continue to write.


When I read books as a child, I never imagined the process of writing to be one that would be so incredibly challenging.  It was only through the process of taking required classes which forced me to sit down and actually craft stories myself that  I realized the beautiful effort required.  And, once I realized this, I found that I was hooked on the possibilities, that I had understood a voice inside myself that wanted to scream out loud its refusal to be quiet any longer.  I began to understand the world of fiction, and, more surprisingly, understood that I could have a place in it.  Somewhere between transferring into a program that was a last option and graduating with a degree in writing, I became a writer.  I became the kind of person who loves mapping out plots and structuring dialogue.  The kind of person who feels best when she works through her emotions in pen and ink and who struggles every day to find the right words to convey the proper emotion or subtle character trait.  I have even become the kind of person who can hold her own debating the negatively constricting qualities of second-person narration. 

And now that I've found the writer inside me, I refuse to let her go.  I may never find my books in the stacks of libraries or have stories published in The New Yorker, but I will continue to write.  I will write if only because it makes me feel more connected to myself.  I will write because I have so much to say; I will write because my story is untold.  And if I were forced to answer my professor's question again, my answer would be much simpler this time, and free of the shame that used to cripple me. 

I want to be a writer because I have become the kind of person who understands the comforting, cathartic thrill that can come from sitting down at my computer to bleed.