Sunday, November 23, 2014

Kim Addonizio "Borrows" from Real Life

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kim Addonizio, author of The Palace of Illusions (Soft Skull Press), discusses her writing habits.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I think if I weren’t a writer, I might cease to exist, or anyway shrink down to a single-celled organism like a slime mold. Though the other thing I’m involved with is music. Without writing to obsess me I might have more time to practice. I’d be a world-class harmonica-playing slime mold.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
Sometimes I’ll literally turn my face away from the keyboard as I type, trying to access my unconscious a little more. Like if I don’t look, I can fool it into coming out of its cave.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
I borrow—it’s more like steal—things all the time. Then I use them for my own purposes. I worry about it, but I do it anyway, and try to explain to the people I care about that this is how writers work, using the stuff of the world and filtering it through our imaginations. 

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
Any time I start with an idea for a story it’s pretty bad. I like to just find my way in and then see where I am.

Where do you do most of your work?
In bed, where I feel far from the world and thus able to engage in the aberrant act of writing. Sometimes, for variety, I move to the couch. I haven’t worked at a desk for a couple of years now.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
Freak out, mostly. It’s like being an athlete with a broken leg and worrying it will never heal. Then I remember I’ve been there before, and try to trust that it will come back.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Do the work. Understand that it’s a very long road. Strive to be a good writer rather than a published one.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Every creative and/or fucked up act by other human beings. Mortality. The need for love. And beauty in any form. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sara Lippmann Gets Over It

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Sara Lippmann, author of Doll Palace (Dock Street Press), discusses overcoming shyness and offers tips on giving a reading.

I am that kid. Small, hunched. Shagged in thick bangs designed to hide my watery eyes, which at any second are bound to spill; the kind of child people call “sensitive.” My clothes itch. Turtlenecks dotted with cherries strangle my neck. Polyester pants on the story rug attract a steady wave of static electricity. People are shocked if they touch me.

When I say my name it sounds like this: SA-WA WIPPMANN. Oh, it’s endearing – when I am four; cute, maybe, at five and six. But by nine, I am no button. I am dead fucking serious. I have opinions and ideas. I want desperately, more than anything, to express them, to be understood.

Just don’t make me talk in public.

School play: The South Park version
Excuses ensue. In the school play—on tooth decay—I bow out of a speaking part. All I have to do is Velcro a cardboard cavity to the buoyant blonde playing the lead bicuspid. When the spotlight shines I nearly trip over my pigeon toes. I dart along the back wall, the black hole wilting in my grip.

My grandmother wipes away tears: “So you won’t be an actress.”

If only it were simple. But maybe you’ve heard—the world’s a stage. I practice my speech. Girl, hurl, world. Stretch my tongue down to my chin and up to my nose, curl it into a bun; I fold it in half like a sheet. It is pathetic. In high school, my English teacher counts the number of times self-doubt rears its ugly head during an oral report, every “like” and “I don’t know.” He intends to teach a tough lesson: Words alone won’t transcend a performance. Sound like a bimbo and people will pin you a bimbo. I am a bimbo 87 times in 10 minutes.

So I write. In college, I keep my mouth shut. Before graduation, my thesis adviser tells me to stand up straight, better advice than any note on my manuscript. But it doesn’t immediately sink in.

When asked to co-host the Sunday Salon reading series in New York’s East Village, I laugh. Me—on stage? Of all the cruel jokes.

But Nita Noveno, series founder and cohost, is an inspiration. Her commitment to celebrating a diverse group of writers every month is heartfelt and unflagging. How can I not help out?

For the past handful of years now, I get up. I’m no Jimmy Fallon. I don’t ad lib. I redden like a teenager in love. But if I’ve learned anything from the experience, I’ve learned it’s not about me. It’s about fostering a warm, meaningful connection between the audience and the authors we host.

When you have a book, there is no choice. Putting yourself out there is a necessary component of the writing life. Every time I have a reading or an event, I face the constellation of old fears. The child inside wants to dive under the covers. Some of this unease is probably on par with that of others who spend countless hours holed up alone in their heads. We tend to be an introverted bunch. But over the years I’ve had the immense privilege of reading with writers born for the stage, who have broken into pitch-perfect song, and the incredible honor of hosting writers who have brought the entire room from full-bodied laughter to chills then tears. While I wouldn’t say it’s gotten easier, I know I’ll get through. Sometimes, I even enjoy it.

Here’s what little I know:

Be yourself. The biggest and fanciest don’t necessarily make the best readers. Whoever you are, it’s not enough to bumble through your piece in a dismal monotone. Know your music. Play that song.

Check your ego. Consider the audience. People have come to hear you. Look up and acknowledge them once in a while.

Keep it short. Satisfy the listener, but it’s all right to leave them wanting more. I once heard a very important writer drone on from her very important chair without lifting her head for almost an hour. This is never okay.

Preparation helps. Sure, you wrote the thing, so it may seem counterintuitive to practice, but reading your work out loud demands a different kind of attention. Print your document in a large font or if you are reading from your book, mark up the text for pauses, emphasis, etc.

Captivate your audience. Remember your beloved school librarian? And the kid next to you who wet his pants because he was so enthralled by her swash-buckling pirate tale? Strive for that. Bonus points if they forget all bodily functions.

Storytelling – that’s why you’re here. Tell a damned good one. This is your job.

If you still have the jitters, hit the bar. One drink—not six—before show time should do it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Alden Jones's Writing Advice: "Don't Listen to My Advice"

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Alden Jones, author of Unaccompanied Minors (New American Press), offers some tips worth following—or not.

If you’re planning to have children, don’t use up your favorite names on your fictional characters. You want a clean slate with your brand new, real-life babies. You won’t want associations with your fictional characters. Especially because if you are writing interesting stories, your characters will be highly flawed, even problematic, people.

Rebel against the “backwards checkmark” structure of the traditional short story. Try writing stories with no plot. Write something solely to explore the postmodern concept of the Active Female Subject. Subvert the dominant ideology through form and content. Make your reader decide what actually happened in the story. But don’t do this for very long. You’ll learn a lot about narrative structure—mainly how important it is.

Write tons of sex into your book if that’s your thing. But make sure your collection has at least one story that doesn’t center on sex, because when your book comes out, your parents will invite all their friends to come hear you read at your hometown bookstore and you’ll want to have something to read.

Make sending out your work for publication part of your writing process. It’s a great way to feel productive while you’re procrastinating. And don’t be deterred by rejection. It may take you—I don’t know—fifty-four rejections before your story is accepted by some magazine you’ll be really happy about, like—I don’t know—AGNI.

Big Mistake: Get back to your desk!
Don’t fall in love with the wrong person. This one is important. When you fall in love with the wrong person, instead of writing fiction, you will write emails to this person. Instead of hollowing out a place in your consciousness for your stories and characters to unspool, your creative energy will burn almost exclusively on imagining the next time you are in bed with this person. You will think, “Who needs writing? Love is all you need!” And then, because they are the wrong person, the relationship will eventually collapse and bury you in its rubble, and for a long time you will not want to write at all because you are depressed. When that happens, give yourself a break. You’ll go back to writing when you’re ready. But boy, what a long and unnecessary distraction! (Then again, maybe all of this will be great fodder for your third book.)

Nourish the other parts of yourself. Find a good partner. Be a good parent. Or a good yogi, or a good carpenter, or whatever makes you feel like your best self. Spend fall days walking your dog in the woods. Watch television without feeling guilty about it. But don’t forget to read. A lot.

Don’t listen to advice about how to write or how to be a writer. Don’t listen to my advice. Don’t listen to anyone’s. Someone will tell you something, trying to be helpful, like: “You’re not a real writer unless you write every day,” and instead of motivating you to write every day, this declaration will plague you with insecurity over whether or not you can call yourself a writer. For years. Or you’ll hear: “The first draft is supposed to be terrible. Getting it down is the important thing.” But you know in your heart you are a writer who needs to hit the vein, to really nail something important in the first draft. And you’ll spend more than a year writing something you know is terrible because someone convinced you if it was terrible, you must be doing it right.

The only advice you need comes from that Nike copywriter who said “Just Do It.” Do it your way, but do it. You’ll make mistakes. They will be your own mistakes. In the end, after your books go out to meet the world, you’ll be amazed by the advice you will want to give the person you were when you were starting out.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

David Ryan and the Crowded Room

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, David Ryan, author of Animals in Motion (Roundabout Press), discusses the inspiration he has drawn from the work of other writers.

A long time ago I discovered a handful, and soon a crowded roomful, of writers whose work baffled and compelled me beyond the ideas of craft I’d been trying to sort out. These writers seemed to focus less on the typical notions of craft—setting and event and character—choosing instead to enlarge something I couldn’t yet identify. Or rather, they did it all so well—these typical crafty things—but so strangely and transparently, with a special sort of undertow. These were writers doing something simultaneously deeper and more diffuse than what I was used to, and I wanted to know how.

Collectively they didn’t fit into any particular school—some seemed to live on the outskirts of the literary establishment, while others should have fallen into the mainstream pretty easily. But they were each in their own way estranged from what I’d read and been taught up to then. And the more I read, the more badly I wanted to crack their strange codes. Some of them: Emily Holmes Coleman, John Hawkes, Grace Paley, Isaac Babel, Alexander Kluge, William Gass, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Lydia Davis, William Gaddis, Peter Mathiessen, Walter Abish, Claude Simon, Elfriede Jelinek, Henry Green, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Paula Fox . . . the list could continue—and does. Some threw out conventional notions of story entirely—for instance, the early novels of John Hawkes. But others, say, Paula Fox, or Isaac Babel, managed to tell stories that follow familiar conventions, yet always generate a complex, diffuse heat. If they used the codes of realism, these codes bubbled up from an extraordinarily erratic and, as I saw it, peculiarly human impulse.

So, if the books I’d read and been taught in my formal education had been the nucleus of an apprenticeship, I’d suddenly landed on a bunch of electrons that materialized and swarmed around anything I’d known before. Often the power of these writers’ work seemed impossible to grab hold of, and this alone drew me in—the difficulty in understanding how they did what they did. Even the simple stories didn’t feel simple. Their surfaces felt sticky, deceptive, even as they pulled me into them.

The earliest clue I could find, and what became the primary draw, was the language itself. Language was the spark, the essential magic. These writers’ extraordinarily precise language pushed into and through the center of their subject, drove it into unfamiliar territory. Language was the deranged genie, the genius—this monstrous undertow that rose up to the surface and dredged the depths, brought with it certain appealing murk. Language had the power to conjure a beautiful and glimmering pollution from a reader’s inferential capacity.

Perhaps this can’t really be called a craft issue, and yet I have learned so much about my writing through it: how gorgeous is the fuzzy light we generate through a reader's own associations with our words—if they’re chosen carefully. How powerful that we can tell one story on a surface, while lodging several others deeper, purely through our understanding of the inferential force of words, how the combustible qualities of one idea can sit beside another and ignite “a gathering web of associations,” as the British novelist Henry Green once suggested fiction should be.

I'd like each story I write to feel as if it were just barely concealing its own unconscious. That something anarchic and unruly was generating the words above. That at any moment something could snap free of the page and fly away. Because this seems to me to be how we as human beings draw our lives up. The world threads itself through us, and we respond—our irrational ways of taking and making meaning from the randomness of our day, the unpredictable gusts of life thrown at us, the insane bluster of our responses. We do the best we can, we give each day a form and then we go to sleep. Life is our monster and we are its shaping, its containment, its formal arrangement. This is the ultimate creativity, these occasionally extraordinary moments we shape around chaos. I want my fiction to live in that kind of skin as it responds to the world flying through each moment—I want it to reflect all that we don't notice about ourselves, even as it says everything about who we are. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hilary Mantel's Ten Observations About Writing

In the 39th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Hilary Mantel, author of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (Henry Holt), shares the benefit of her experience.

Ten things I’ve learned….since I started writing my first novel, in 1974 (which feels like yesterday). Ten things to think about, or ten rules I try to keep: I won’t call them advice, as I’d hardly presume to give it.

1.  If you see a problem in your narrative, go there fast. Head for the point of danger. It’s where the energy is.
2.  Free up your creativity: Liberate it from your expectations and experience. When you have an idea, don’t assume it’s a novel or story, just because that’s your usual medium. It might be a play, poem, song, or movie. Who knows, it might be best expressed as garden design. Or maybe you should knit it?
3.  If the rhythm of your prose is broken, read poetry.
4.  Cut every page of dialogue by one-third. 
5.  If a phrase troubles you, strike it out, and if there seems no alternative, try simple omission. If you are dubious about it in your manuscript, you’ll shrink from it in the printed book.
6.  If you don’t know how your story ends, don’t worry. Press on, in faith and hope.
7.  If you see a habit forming, break it.
8.  Control where the story starts. In a novel, don’t put anything important—like a clue—before "Chapter One." Prefaces, epigraphs: 90% of readers ignore them.
9.  When you break through, not everyone close to you will enjoy your success. Accept this.
10.  Writing for the theater is the most fun. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Jen Michalski Starts with a Dream

In the 38th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Jen Michalski, author of From Here (Aqueous Books), discusses drawing from real people and situations to fill in stories inspired by dreams.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
I find that my writing is a collaborative process. A lot of my stories begin in dreams, and I supply many of the other details through people and situations I’ve known. My dream life is so rich, so powerful, that I find it therapeutic to explore the implications of these loves, these fears and sorrows, in a controlled environment such as writing. Although director David Lynch believes that “waking dreams are the ones that are important” because “when you sleep, you don’t control your dream,” I love the paradox between having no control over the narrative of a dream and then shaping it, dominating it, in waking life.

Perhaps I am working through my own wish-fulfillment or aversion with my dreams, but the vessels into which I inject these feelings usually are real places and people. In the story “The Substitute,” for instance, my high school English teacher did take a half a year off to recover from an illness. It was little discussed and speculated to be anything from prostate cancer to alcoholism. And his son did become his substitute during his winter break from college for a few weeks. Those few weeks stayed with me, not because I thought his son was cute and smart (he was attending Swarthmore, and we lived in a little hick town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland) but because although “Patrick” was only a few years older, he’d crossed that huge divide between high school and college, and I wondered what he thought of us sophomores and juniors, if we were incredibly childish compared with his 21-year-old self who lived now in Philadelphia and saw so much of the “world” (at least compared with us).

When I got the idea to write “The Substitute,” almost twenty years later, I had begun to worry about my own mother’s health intermittently (she had had a serious hospitalization every decade of my life) and how adrift I would feel to lose her at such a young age. “Patrick” returned to me in a dream, and I wondered how he would deal if confronted with the possibility of his father’s death when both were so young, when Patrick, thinking he knew everything as a college junior (as I surely thought I did), would no longer have his father around to guide him through the first job, the first breakup, the first major adult disappointment. I wanted to explore that crossing over into adulthood, where one is tentatively independent but with that independence comes a real fear of loss. I wanted him to take the symbolic mantel of manhood by having his heart broken and by also acknowledging the greatest heartache, the death of parents, yet to come.

Ironically, my own mother died a few weeks ago. It was unexpected, and I was no more prepared for it than Patrick was with the thought of his father’s own. But I guess that’s life; we each have our own instruction manual, and we write it as we live it. We think we may pass it along to others, to our own children, but they must write their own anew.

Will I write a story about my mother’s death, since I didn’t seem to get the closure I’d wanted for myself from “The Substitute?” I probably will, but it will have no resemblance to my mother. It will probably start in a dream and wind up being about a former coworker or a person I notice in the row in front of me at the symphony or in line at the grocery store. Yet it will be so loaded with her essence that I won’t even be able to read it again once I write it.

Oh, my high school English teacher and I reconnected on Facebook about a year ago. He loved the story; we meet for coffee every once in a while. It’s strange to be his age now, when he was my teacher. I feel as if I know so much less now than I did then.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

J. Robert Lennon and the Sweet Spot

In the 37th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, J. Robert Lennon, author of See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press), talks about putting the right amount of pressure on himself.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
Probably I’d be an unsuccessful musician with an office job.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I often wait until there is almost not enough time to finish something before I start it, then do it very, very fast, so that I don’t have time to think. I’m not a procrastinator, per se; if I give myself only a day or two to write, say, a book review, it's bad, and if I take a whole month to do it, it’s also bad. There’s a sweet spot that lets me work in near-panic at a high level of competence, and I try to spend a lot of time there.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
I used to always say no to this question, but then I actually read what I’d written over the years and realized that there are plenty of repurposed real-life personality details. But no one has ever recognized himself. A few people have thought a particular character was them, but been wrong.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
Pretty much all of Donald Barthleme. It’s tragic, trying to emulate him, because it was never the stuff he thought to write about that was so important; it was just the fact of his being Barthleme, which of course cannot be imitated. I’m also envious of Kelly Link’s story “Stone Animals.” It feels like the funnest imaginable thing to write. I liked that story very much as a reader, but as a writer, I find it inexhaustibly delightful.

Where do you do most of your work?
The living room sofa. Sometimes in bed. Sometimes at a coffee shop. Almost never at a desk, though there are four desks in my life where I do other things.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block”?
I give myself a prompt, or go do something that isn’t literature—play the guitar, play a videogame. I’m lucky to be able to get over writer’s block pretty easily. Often some assignment comes down the line—a book review or other piece of topical writing—and I am forced to write by circumstance. That helps a lot.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Treasure nothing, be willing to throw out anything. The story you just wrote that you are proud of should not be coddled and worshipped. You can do it again. If your house burned down with all your work inside it, you would still be the writer you are, and you would continue to be worth something.