Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Emily Mitchell: Anatomy of a Bad Writing Day

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Emily Mitchell, author of Viral (W.W. Norton), describes her work day circuit of frustration.

About good writing days I don’t have much to say. The hours vanish, replaced by words on the page, and for the time that I am writing I get to vanish too. It’s wonderful.

A bad writing day on the other hand is an event. On a bad writing day, one of those days when the language itself seems to obstruct what I want to say, I have a circuit that I track repeatedly around the lower floor of our apartment. It starts on the couch by the window in my office (also our spare bedroom) where I do most of my work and where, on days like that, the open file on my laptop seems to glare at me resentfully as if to say it can’t believe that I’m not making more and better progress given all of the advantages I’ve had in life. Why haven’t I finished the draft I’m writing months ago? Why haven’t I started on the next project? Why am I such a mediocre cook? Why can’t I speak French?

I look away from my computer screen and glance evasively around my office. When did the room become so messy? Is that yesterday’s cup of half-drunk coffee sitting on the window sill? Or is it the one from the day before? Either way it is evident from the state of the room—the haphazard arrangement of the furniture, the drifts of books and papers waiting to be shelved or filed, the overflowing trash can—that this is not of office of a real writer. A real writer’s office would exude an air of calm and artfulness. A real writer’s office would seem to hold its breath waiting for the great work to begin inside it. Obviously, my two books so far have just been flukes. The praise they’ve garnered was people being polite, foolish, or both. You can be sure that Alice Munro does not leave dregs of coffee sitting out in her workspace overnight. 
In the fridge: Same old, same old

I put my laptop aside and stand up. I go into the bathroom (stop #2 on the tour), where I discover that my face in the mirror has not appreciably changed since the last time I looked at it. A few more wrinkles maybe, a few more signs of my advancing years. From there (stop #3), I try the kitchen. I open up the fridge and look inside just in case some interesting new food has materialized in there since last time I checked it 20 minutes earlier. It hasn’t. There is only the same astonishing array of condiments, and so from there I go to the front window (final stop) in the living room and gaze out at where the flowers in our flowerboxes nod sagely, much too well advanced along the road to enlightenment to worry about anything besides displaying their inherent beauty to the sun.

From there, since there’s nowhere else to go, I return to my office and sit down again. I pick up my laptop and reluctantly reread the page of text displayed there on the screen.

And this is where, occasionally, something interesting happens. For example, I might suddenly discover that this character I’ve been trying and failing so far to bring to life has … what? A prodigious memory. She can recall anything she’s read after seeing it once only. She can recite entire books by heart, long ones, like Don Quixote. I did not know this about her until just now and it changes my view of her significantly. Instead of only being difficult and damaged, she’s a person with an unusual gift. Abruptly, she ceases being flat, she is interesting to me once again, intriguing, and I’m wondering about how this odd talent might connect to other aspects of her personality and suddenly the bad writing day is turning into something else entirely. And off we go.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Jerry Gabriel and the Crux of the Impulse

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Jerry Gabriel, author of The Let Go (Queen's Ferry Press), explores his drive to write.

For various reasons, I have been thinking lately about where the impulse to write stories even comes from, in part because it seems at once wide-spread—there doesn’t seem to be just one or even a hundred “types” of people who want to (or do) write stories—but also generally frowned upon—as an indulgence, a frivolous hobby, and worst of all, an economic liability. No parent-in-law-to-be that I know of is happy to hear that their future daughter- or son-in-law is a novelist, let alone a short story writer or, god forbid, a poet.

So there is this tension about the act of writing on a cultural level, and probably as a result of that—at least for many—on a personal level.

When I first started to encounter contemporary fiction (I came to reading late, around 20), I was electrified by the ways it caused me to think and see and feel differently. I was receptive to the discomfort that frequently accompanies literary fiction, because I wanted to understand everything about the world—every inscrutable decision that people in my life had made, every masked behavior I guessed was happening just out of view, every fear and hope that people possess. And, too, I wanted to see into my own somewhat ineffable motivations and longings. Almost from the start, I understood reading fiction—in addition to its other charms—as a means of accomplishing some of this. I don’t think I was wrong to do so.

And once I had had this kind of experience—let’s call it insight, the nebulous rat pellet we get from engaging with a book (or any piece of art, really)—I wanted to have it every day. I reasoned that if reading could give this to you, then writing had to be an even better vehicle. So I started writing—hadn’t been a reader for more than a year or two probably. But I was drawn inexorably toward what I was beginning to see as the magic of a created world that was perhaps not quite our world but that somehow reflected it, somehow allowed us to see ourselves from the outside. I wasn’t any good at conjuring this magic, of course, but this, I think, was the crux of the impulse—getting outside of myself. And I think it still is, another twenty plus years later.

Anne Tyler has said, “I write because I want to live more than one life.” For me, this is exactly the thing, and it is these other lives that I’m after, both as a reader and a writer. Has reading and writing fiction made me into a better person? I’m not sure I would say that, at least not here. But I would say that it’s made the world a bigger and richer place for me, and has allowed me—continues to allow me—to come to better understand or better see or better feel, sometimes consciously, frequently not, who we are and why we do the things we do. It is a kind of learning, of course, but it is not just learning, but something else, a visceral catharsis. On the best days, anyway.

Obviously people write for lots of different reasons. This is my current best stab at why I do.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Carole Burns' Free-Roaming, Imaginative Phase

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Carole Burns, author of The Missing Woman (Parthian Books), describes the process of starting something new.

My stories begin in pieces. I write in longhand, often in a lined, spiral college notebook, putting down images, preoccupations, descriptions of people. I seldom sit down with a story in mind; stories form on the page.  

“My Life in Dog Years,” from my collection, began when I wrote down the snippet of conversation, overheard in a bookshop cafe, which became the opening line. “The City of Brotherly Something” connected two images I’d been playing with: the PECO sign shining in my friend’s Philadelphia apartment, and a woman sitting at the top of a brownstone staircase between two potted trees. When the imaginary woman rented my friend’s apartment, I began to see a story. 

A long time ago, my advisor in graduate school told our workshop: You can’t write a novel the way you write a short story.  

So the first time I started a novel, I spent three days at MacDowell trying to write the beginning, and failing. Finally, I just plunged in, and wrote the hardest scene. It took me years to finish that novel (it’s now making the rounds), so maybe my advisor was right.

But I don’t know how else to do it. 

So these last few weeks, I’m starting a “new project” (I don’t dare call it a book yet) in the same way. Each morning, I head off to a local library in Cardiff, Wales, where I live, with a few pens and a spiral notebook, and write whatever snippet of the larger story comes to mind. 

I have to admit these days are glorious. 

Unlike with a short story, I have a big idea, but the people and event and countless particulars are sketchy indeed. I fill the story in by writing. The scenes and characters I’m scribbling on the page may belong to any part of the story, and may or may not end up in the final version months and months from now. I don’t worry about that at the moment—I can’t pre-edit.  

The endless possibilities for the story remain open to me. My character says this here; no, she says that. I keep them both in my notebook. An essential event happens this way; no, it happens that way. I don’t have to decide yet, because I don’t know. For a person who hates making decisions, this is a very comforting way to work. 

At some point, when I feel I have enough—when I feel I’ve earned it—I will take these notes and put them onto my computer, where they will expand and contract, lead to new scenes and ideas, be given some order, and take a shape on the page. The writing and rewriting will begin. I’d certainly have enough by now if these were stories, but I’m not sure yet—I’m afraid of stopping this free-roaming, imaginative phase too soon. 

Friends ask me: How’s it going? Not a clue, I say. Just words on a page right now. But I sort of know that the words some days are better than others. Bad days produce just ideas, character traits, descriptions, polemics—useful, maybe necessary.  But some mornings, I look back and find a scene that I’m right in the middle of. It’s alive. I’m inside it. Sometimes, I’d forgotten I’d written it. That’s a good day. 

But I try not to think of all that—it might freeze me up. It’s working that matters. I was lucky enough to interview Michael Cunningham, who told me that on “bad” writing days, he would sometimes come up with just one good sentence. “I’ve found, though,” he said, “that when I look back six months later at what I’ve written, I can’t distinguish the parts I wrote on the good days from the parts I wrote on the bad.”  

So I keep sitting with my pen and lined paper. 

At precisely one o’clock, I am thrown out, occasionally in mid-sentence, when the library closes for lunch. 

I’ve always resisted Hemingway’s idea to leave yourself knowing where you’ll start the next day. I want to explore my ideas immediately, before they fly away. But I can’t now, and I’m finding that’s fine. 

I’m writing, and it’s a good day. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Katherine Heiny Offers Her Apologies

In the 14th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Katherine Heiny, author of Single, Carefree, Mellow (Alfred A. Knopf), talks about some things she regrets—and some she doesn't.

I would like to start with an apology to all my former students who asked about the protocol for using details from real life in fiction, and to whom I said the policy was full speed ahead and take no prisoners. Now that I’ve had a book published, I understand that it’s a little more complicated than that.

I would like to apologize to the principal of a middle school in my hometown because I wrote a story about a teacher who was a sexual predator and I used a name generator to find a name for the character, and when it suggested “Mr. Poole,” I thought it sounded good and natural but I really didn’t think about why it might sound good and natural. The story was published first in The Atlantic and then in my collection, giving everyone in my hometown two chances to see it.  (Mr. Poole, I really am so sorry!)

I would like to apologize to the friend whose boyfriend ejaculated prematurely in Lake Michigan and the semen floated around, following them—and I used that in a story.  I would also like to apologize to my former roommate who confessed to me that a man she’d just given a blow job to told her he wasn’t sure he’d consider her his girlfriend, and I used that in a story, too.
Wholesome family fare: TED talks, BS walks

I would like to apologize to my children, since I have taken every cute or funny thing they have ever said and given it to a fictional child to say. I would like to apologize also to the guidance counselor at my children’s school for going in last week and asking a long rambling research question about the penalties for students who look at porn on school computers and only realizing far, far too late that the scenario I described didn’t sound exactly hypothetical. And I apologize further for not leaving her office meekly and speedily, but compounding my initial error by telling her that I wasn’t talking about my boys, that my boys would never do that, that my boys only watch TED talks on the Internet to improve their minds. And I said that actually they have to watch the TED talks at the library because we don’t even have wi-fi at our house. We don’t believe in it, I said. We don’t even watch TV, I said. We pretty much spend all our free time reading aloud from inspirational works. (I could see in her face that she desperately wanted me to stop talking but I couldn’t seem to.)

I apologize to my husband for having all the male characters in my stories tell the female characters boring facts. My husband would like me to apologize to his first wife for using all sorts of details from their marriage in my fiction, but I don’t really see the point of that. What’s she going to do—not speak to us for another twenty years?

Fiction, for me, has always been at least as much about re-invention as it is about invention. And if you think that I’m truly sorry for using any detail from real life to make a story better or funnier—well, that may be an invention on your part.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Megan Mayhew Bergman's Collection in a Nutshell

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Almost Famous Women (Scribner), boils her book down to ten words.

Describe your collection in ten words or less.
Unusual women peering out from obscurity, behaving badly and passionately.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sameer Pandya on the Intimacy of “I”

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Sameer Pandya, author of The Blind Writer (The University of Hawaii Press), appears in his fiction.

“I” is such an intimate pronoun. Yes, of course, the use of it in fiction does not signal the instant appearance of autobiography. And yet, for me at least, the use of it has always felt intimate.

I am still amazed when I read the first pages of a memoir or a personal essay where the writer reveals something alarmingly personal. It isn’t the detail that surprises me anymore, but rather the act of telling. It’s not the confession that shocks, but the act of confessing.

It is no surprise that my discomfort with confession has something to do with my own background, which I have been trying to dissect for a good long time. And I suspect I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But I seem to have inherited some combination of Hemingwayesque reticence, Brahmanical puritanism, and Gandhian self-denial. Translation? Reveal nothing. This might be a good formula for living for some, but it’s not so useful for writing fiction.

The first story in this collection was published ten years ago. In the time that has passed since, I wrote more stories, tossed some, wrote some more. Sometimes, I thought the collection was done and ready. Many other times, I was prepared to toss the whole thing out. The collection only began to take shape when I started writing the novella anchoring the book. I imagined another short story. It started with five pages, and then fifteen. At some point it was fifty, and now it is over one hundred manuscript pages. As I worked through draft after draft, I had some readers along the way who helped give it shape.

One comment particularly struck me. “You finally seem to appear in this story.” Appear? Had I disappeared all this time while I wrote, published, and trashed other stories? Had I been hidden away somewhere? This was a particularly interesting comment because in terms of plot, much of what happens in the novella—a love triangle between a 24-year old man, an aging blind writer, and his younger beautiful wife—never happened to me. And yet, it did feel like I appeared emotionally in the story in a deeper kind of way than I had before. Why was this? Did I suddenly become more comfortable with the public act of confession? Did the death of my father release me in a certain way? I don't know. What I do know is that I was simply lucky enough to find a story that allowed me to be more forthcoming and intimate with the themes embedded within it—on the complication of real and literary fathers, on failure and success, on the elusive idea of happiness.

I teach literature and creative writing at a university, and in any given quarter, I somehow end up in my classes on the last line of Ralph Ellison’s magnetic Invisible Man. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” There is just so much here. But for this context, I think becoming really intimate with the I—fictional and otherwise—was the key to making a connection with the you, the reader.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Patrick Hicks: 11 True Things About Writing

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Hicks, author of The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press), shares an odd number of writing tips.

1. Have a word goal
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s good to have a finish line for the day. For me, I sit down and won’t get up until I’ve written at least 750 words. Other writers shoot for 400. Some aim for 1,000. The important thing is to find a number that works for you and stick to it. Think in terms of words on the page rather than hours spent at the desk. However, I have to say that this can be a colossal pain in the butt because sometimes it takes me two hours to reach 750 and, on other days when I’m beating my head against the keyboard, it can take five or six hours. I slog on and don’t stop until I reach 750. For me, writer’s block is a myth, and it’s something only beginners say. After all, writing is my job. No one asks a plumber if he or she wants to go to work. They get up, they get under that sink, and they stay there until the problem is solved.

2. Rewriting is more important than writing
The first draft of anything is usually a big hot steaming mess, but at least the words are there and you’re now ready to start tinkering with them. I’ve always enjoyed rewriting more than writing, and I love the challenge of finding just the right word and just the right phrase. My first novel went through seven drafts before I sent it off to a publisher and most of my stories go through fifteen or twenty revisions. I keep on rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting) until it feels like someone else wrote the sentences. When the words feel like they don’t belong to me, that’s usually a good sign to let them go.
It's blue. We get it.

3. He said, she said
When it comes to taglines, I think you’re better off sticking with a simple “he said” or “she said.” Don’t get all flowery with adverbs and write things like “he roared aggressively” or “she bellowed pointedly.”

4. Readers are smart
Stories work best when readers have to ask questions along the way, and it’s good to remember that uncertainty is the lifeblood of narrative. Think about it this way: Pages will only be turned if a reader wants to know what’s going to happen next, so let them wonder. Trust your reader and don’t over-explain the plot. They’re smart. They’ll figure it out. I believe we read fiction in order to put ourselves in a different moral universe and then we compare the actions of the main character against how we would react to those very same situations. It’s therefore necessary to open up unknowns in a story so that readers are forced to fill in those gaps with their own imagination.

5. It’s okay to fail
This runs in such total opposition to our cultural beliefs that it seems un-American to even mention it. In the U.S., we love winners, and we don’t have much time for losers. But if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to fail, a lot—month after month, and year after year. It’s only by failing that you become better at your craft. Failure is your friend. It won’t feel like this at first (you’ll hate failure so much you’ll want to punch it right in the face), but as you write more, you’ll find your voice, and by finding your voice, you’ll discover what makes you tick as a literary artist.

6. Good writers start off as extraordinary readers
If you’re serious about wanting to become a writer you’ll need to read with great promiscuity. Read everything that comes across your field of vision. Even the books you don’t like are educational because at least you know you don’t want to write like that. Study cadence and voice and word choice and description and narrative perspective and pacing. Just as musicians listen to songs, and painters study shadow and form, you’ll have to bury your nose in a book. Writers begin as readers, and this is an unshakeable absolutely true 100% for real rule here. Read, read, read, and read some more.

7. Snow is white
Don’t tell the reader things they already know. By writing a line like, “the snow was white and on the ground” you’re not saying anything new. Tell the reader if the snow is yellow because there’s a story there, especially if a dog is sniffing around. Equally, don’t say the sky is blue—it usually is blue—but tell the reader if the sky is “green and boiling.” The same goes for green grass, and red blood, and wet water. In other words, don’t state the obvious.

8. The element of surprise
If I’m not surprised by what happens in the story as I’m writing it, readers will never be surprised by the story when they’re reading it. For example, let’s say you’re motoring through the first draft and then—what the hell?—your main character does something totally unexpected. Follow behind your character and see what happens next. If you’re not surprised by your story, the reader never will be. Go with the flow. Be surprised. Let your characters control you rather than you controlling your characters.

9. Find the “moment of crisis”
In short stories and novels, the narrative should zero in on a specific event that will forever change the main character. I call this “the moment of crisis,” and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the center of gravity around which the rest of the narrative should orbit. I often tell my students to rip off the first page of whatever story they are working on because the moment of crisis rarely reveals itself on the first page. Most of the time, it begins to appear on page two or three. Start there, I tell my students. Drop the reader into the crisis and they will start to ask questions immediately, which is exactly what you want to keep those pages turning.

10. Be kind to other writers
There are many wonderful things about being a writer, but it’s a life full of rejection letters and frustration. Other writers will understand what you’re going through better than anyone else. Plus, most of the writers I know are kind and thoughtful people who are deeply interested in the human condition. Be kind to your fellow wordsmiths. Support them. Don’t be a dick.

11. Get out of your office
You can only write about yourself for so long before you’ve exhausted your own stories. When this happens, get out into the world. Travel to a foreign country. Go interview a hospice nurse. Talk to a single mother. Meet someone from a faith group you don’t understand. Think of a weird job and ask someone who does that job about their hopes and dreams. Learn from strangers and widen your pool of stories. By doing this, you won’t make yourself the center of every narrative you write about and you’ll also find out new things that can spice up your work. In order to be a writer, you have to be curious about the world.