Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Is Your Writing Process Like, Alan Heathcock?

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alan Heathcock, author of Volt (Graywolf Press), reveals his current approach to writing.
Process is a curiosity to folks, and I understand the interest. People want a behind-the-scenes look into an author’s day, and want to know an artist’s mind. Sadly, though, I think many aspiring writers are looking for a mythical fountain-of-greatness, thinking that if they work in the manner of their favorite author then the quality of their work will match that of the author. This is why I feel the need to explain that my process is ever changing, and the process I use now has developed over my sixteen years of being a writer, and it may be different at this time next month. It’s my process. I believe the process of being a writer is that you must find your own process.

That said, here’s how I’ve been working lately, with a description of my last writing day as an example: 

STEP 1: Being a writer has ruined me to reading. I don’t really mind. I’m ruined because I always hold a yellow crayon or marker while reading, and as I read I highlight any passage I think has value. I might highlight a great line of dialog, a great image, a great noun or verb, an interesting mannerism, whatever.

I start off each writing day by going through what I’d read the day(s) before and hand-writing out every newly highlighted passage into a composition notebook. The idea is that I’m training my brain and eyes and hand to write at the same high quality as the highlighted passages. I have dozens of notebooks filled with passages, my own personal library of greatness. On this day, I entered passages from James Salter’s Dusk and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Here’s a couple of examples of passages I jotted into my notebook:

From Salter: “In the harbor the boats lay still, not the slightest stirring of masts, not the softest clink of a sheave.”

From Woodrell: “Snow covered the tracks and made humps over the rails and the twin humps guided her.”

STEP 2: I decide my task for the day. I don’t believe in demanding a word count for myself, as I feel word counts are generally arbitrary and hedge toward quantity instead of quality. I try and choose a reasonable task, usually one scene or moment in the story. I usually write a story chronologically, so, naturally, I usually decide to write the next scene/moment in the narrative. On this day, I task myself to write a scene where my protagonist is floating in a house on the roiling currents of a great flood while talking with a recovering meth-addict/dealer, who’s telling her why he’s done certain bad things in his past.

STEP 3: I’m what I call an “empathetic writer,” which means I believe the most powerful place from which to write is through a character and to have as few touches of a narrator as possible. I work to fully inhabit my point-of-view characters, to see though their eyes, hear through their ears, think and feel and imagine, in full, as the character. Much of my day is working to get my imagination all the way into the place of empathetic truth. This means I need to fully realize the world and the events of the scene, the scene’s choreography and timing, and the sensory experiences and emotional content of the character.

The way I write has a closer kinship to acting than to journalism, though I use techniques from both disciplines. From my training as a journalist, I use research. On this day, I need to get my head around how floating in flood waters might feel and smell and look. I turn to videos online, watching home videos of floods from Alabama and Iowa, and I also look at a few videos from the tsunami that ravaged Japan. I take notes. I make sketches. From this, eventually the flood becomes realized in my imagination.

"I drink your milkshake."
Next, I have to figure out the content of the dialog, and specifically what the drug-dealer will offer up in terms of insight as to why humans do awful things like sell drugs to others or commit crimes of violence. I try to think of any books I’ve read, any plays or films or TV shows I’ve seen, that might help. On this day, I read a bit of Trainspotting, Ask the Dust, a bit of Flannery O’Conner, a touch of Nietzsche. I read the Sermon on the Mount. Then, I watch a bit of Sons of Anarchy, and scenes from Pulp Fiction and  There Will Be Blood. After all of this, I come away with the gist of the dialog, and the philosophical insight the dialog must convey (something I believe to be true and will attempt to prove with the scene). 

Finally, I try to place myself inside the character, which in this case is a twenty-three year old pregnant woman, a former Army mechanic, who is now, with her father incapacitated and her brother ill, in charge of the well being of this floating house/ark. I take the setting I’ve imagined, and the dialog written for the drug-dealer, and now must figure out how she might feel, think, and imagine, in this situation. I read a book on the Stanislavski System of method acting and find it very useful to take the emotional content of my own past and place those feelings into the character. I work all this out in my imagination, playing the scene in my mind over and over until it feels both true and dramatically potent.

Step 3 takes up most of my day.

STEP 4: I sit down at the computer and do my best to find the words to capture the empathetic experience of my character, as it’s vividly alive in my imagination.

STEP 5: I revise, scrutinizing every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph, until I’ve delivered the scene into absolute truth and clarity.

STEP 6: I do whatever I need to disconnect from the empathetic experience of my character before my wife and kids get home. On this day, a beautiful autumn day in Idaho, I go for a long run while listening to the new Wilco album, and stop by the Gyros Shack for a little treat. I come home smiling.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

William Lychack: "The Real Mystery Is Not How but Why"

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, William Lychack, author of The Architect of Flowers (Mariner Books), talks about his years of studying judo, the books that have inspired him, and writers who have helped him along the way.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
In a previous life, I played a fair amount of martial arts—particularly judo—and among other things I learned that the key to judo is balance. I’d venture to say that judo is nothing but balance, the idea, in Japanese, of kozush. Overcommit in one direction, and you’re vulnerable to the opposite. Every throw implies a counter, every pull invites a push, and every strength becomes a kind of weakness, just as every weakness turns out to be a secret strength. And you only learn this by losing, by being thrown, by taking falls. Over and over, before anything else, you learn how to hit the mat, because that’s what you need to learn for your own well-being.

Took eight years for me to earn my blackbelt in judo. Eight years, five to six days a week, and a lot of luck not to get seriously injured. Luck to have other players in the dojo with whom to train. Luck to have sempais, senior students, who took the art and the class seriously. Luck to have a sensei, a teacher, with his constant nudges and scowls and occasional beams of praise.

It’s not unlike any pursuit, I imagine, the truth being that no one can promise you a blackbelt if you go to the dojo for ten years. But they can guarantee you will not earn your shodan if you don’t keep showing up somehow. And here’s the true mystery of martial arts—the real mystery of judo is not how but why—why you keep showing up at the dojo for ten years or more.

What book or books made you want to become a writer? 
It wouldn’t be fair to blame a single book for leading me down this wayward path, but I should probably curse Luigi Pirandello for writing the story, “The Cat, a Goldfinch, and the Stars.” I should curse a horrible summer job I had as a high school janitor while I’m at it, and curse my bosses who let me decamp in the library while they napped in the afternoons, and curse myself for reading and rereading Pirandello’s beautiful fable about connectedness—or the lack of connectedness—in events of this world. I could recite most of the story for you now, as if to prove what a terrible janitor I was.

To be honest, what’s more interesting to me is not what made a person want to become a writer then, but what makes them still want to be or become a writer now. Chekhov, Hemingway, Woolf, Maxwell for me. Brothers Karamazov, Jesus’ Son, Dubliners. I’ve been rereading Moby Dick this fall and recently drove to Arrowhead, Melville's house, in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Moby Dick was written behind that little bedroom window, Melville tearing at his beard as Mount Graylock went in and out of clouds in the distance. Not a happy household, as I understand, but still it makes you think anything's possible sometimes.

What is your writing process like? 
Oh, I stare at Mount Graylock and just let the magic roll. Pure and effortless. And when I wake up from that dream, I find I’m still up to my chest in the sausage factory of my work, and that someone has to mop up all of this mess, and that no one else seems to be around.

The happy truth is that I no longer presume anyone cares about things like this—my work, my process, me—so I just try to listen to what I care about. I think the writer’s job is to care, and to keep caring, to care so much that you don’t care if anyone else cares, which might make someone care, and might make you care if they care.

Have you had a mentors, and who were they? 
I’ve had true luck to fall into the hands of generous mentors at key moments in my life. Charlie Baxter, Nick Delbanco, Jim Robison, Blanche Boyd, the list is one of the true blessings of my life.

Another mentor, the writer and editor William Maxwell, once gave me the following advice: “Try to listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a sea shell, and then put them down on paper.” That seems the kind of perfect, direct, and reasonable counsel that an aspiring writer (such as myself) might ignore for a good decade. And one ignores it for good reason—it’s difficult work—but, again, your real job is to sometimes care enough to find and say what you feel about the world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Story Prize Judges: Sherman Alexie, Breon Mitchell, and Louise Steinman

The Story Prize is fortunate this year to have Hollywood types Jorge Cloony* and Sofia Lorren* announce this year's judges (Sherman Alexie, Breon Mitchell, and Louise Steinman) live** from the White House:

 (The transcript)

Jorge Klooney: Do you know who the judges for The Story Prize are?
Sofia Lorren: Yes. I hear the brilliant novelist/short story writer/poet/screenwriter/director Sherman Alexie is one of the judges.
Jorge: Whoa! Those are a lot of slashes. You know, I am an actor/writer/director.
Sofia: I will ignore that. Another judge is Professor Breon Mitchell of Indiana University.
Jorge: Say isn't he a well known translator of books such as The Tin Drum and The Trial by Franz Kafka, not to mention the Director of the Lilly Library at Indiana University?
Sofia: Indeed
Jorge: And who is the third judge,? Not that creep Simon Whatever, I hope.
Sofia: The Story Prize has better taste than that. The third judge this year is Louise Steinman.
Jorge: Say, isn't she the curator of the ALOUD reading/conversation series for the L.A. Public Library and co-director of the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC?
Sofia: Yes. She is also an author and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Jorge: Wow! That is quite a lineup. I can't wait to find out which three books they choose as finalists for The Story Prize.
Sofia: The judges do NOT choose the finalists. Julie Lindsey and Larry Dark do that.
Jorge: Oh, I guess that is just a popular misconception. The judges choose the winner from among the three finalists.
Sofia: Now you have it! The Story Prize will announce its finalists in January. And the winner -- as chosen by Alexie, Mitchell, and Steinman -- will be announced on March 21, 2012.
Jorge: That's at the end of an evening of readings by and interviews with the authors.
Sofia: Yes. It will be at The New School in New York City. So mark it on your calendar. And, remember...
Jorge: Keep it short!

For more on The Story Prize judges, see our Web site. In the weeks ahead, we hope to feature each judge in a separate blog post. 

*    celebrity lookalike avatars
**  okay, not live, pre-recorded
†   location lookalike avatar

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Miroslav Penkov, Reluctant Translator

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Miroslav Penkov, author of East of the West: A Country in Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), talks about coming to America from Bulgaria, writing in English, and translating his own collection into Bulgarian.

I usually tell my friends that I first arrived in the United States with a plan: I would listen to the English language, read it, speak it, befriend it, tame it and only then would I attempt to write it. I would need ten years before putting pen to paper, and even longer before considering the thought of publication. You are a reasonable man, my friends might say and then applaud my patience and commitment.

I am no reasonable man. I have no patience. The plan I speak of is a lie. Within the first month of my arrival, the week after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, I sent my first story to a science fiction contest. It was a story about an android who falls in love with a human girl, then dies of a broken heart. In the final scene, the girl begs him not to depart, not to shut his systems down. You don’t understand, she cries and gives him the big reveal: he’s not a cyborg, but has been raised as one. He’s human, just like her, the main subject in an experiment that has spanned all his life.

The story was returned to me within a week. I would need to print it on one side of the page only, and then resubmit. I did, and waited, and a few months later received my first rejection slip.

While living in Bulgaria I wrote stories set on the moon, in space, in imaginary towns with names like Mountain Springs and Ocean View. My characters were Jessicas and Johns and Jacks. I didn’t do this because I was unhappy with where I lived and wanted out. I did it because, like all young kids who mess around with writing, I imitated the books I read. But in Arkansas, surrounded by Jessicas and Johns and Jacks, unable to afford a car and so locked in a space that might as well have been some futuristic lunar base, it was Bulgaria I thought of, Bulgaria I dreamed of late at night. And for the first time in my life, I saw very clearly what I should write about.

There are eight stories in East of the West. Stories about the fight for Macedonia’s freedom, the Balkan Wars, the two big communist uprisings, the ugly Process of Rebirth during which the Communist Party forced all Bulgarian Muslims to change their names to what were deemed proper Bulgarian ones. There are stories about the fall of Communism in ’89, about the life after this fall, home and abroad. I tried to contain in this book voices that were strong enough to cross the Atlantic and speak of Bulgaria in a moving way, not just to the American readers, but also to me and to other Bulgarians who might be reading.

It took me almost three years of massive revisions before my editor accepted the final manuscript. And then within a couple of months, to everyone’s great surprise, FSG sold foreign rights in ten countries. Please, I was thinking, no Bulgaria. I’d worked on the stories for so long, struggled with them so much, I could not, would not go back and translate them into my mother’s tongue. But when the Bulgarian offer arrived it was my mother I thought of, and the rest of my family who didn’t understand English and so could never read my work.

It was agreed that someone else would translate the book and that in the end I would smooth out the translation. For months I felt guilty, very anxious. What was I doing, allowing someone else to translate my stories into my dear Bulgarian? Out of laziness, I was betraying everything that could be betrayed. My ancestors were looking down on me and shaking their great heads in disgust.

When a few months later the translation arrived I was relieved. The stories sounded awful in Bulgarian. And how could they not? Had I really expected that someone else could do my work for me? I emailed the publisher, apologized profusely. Then sat down and started work myself. I spent this summer working, moving slowly – for some stories a page per hour, sometimes a page per two. At first, the voices that spoke to me so clearly in English sounded so rusty, fell so flat. I had to reimagine them from scratch. I hated every minute of translation. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep. My mood was always down. But now, when everything is over, I love the way the stories sound, so close to my heart, so dear.

Will the Bulgarian readers like the book? I hope they do. Although, when it comes to success, especially in Bulgaria, my hopes are always low. But at least now I feel no shame, no sense of great betrayal. Besides, my grandmas like the stories very much. And at the present moment, this seems enough.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Patricia Henley on the Rational Part of the Writing Process

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Patrica Henley, author of Other Heartbreaks (Engine Books), talks about her approach to writing and what she looks for in a short story collection

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 
Three of the stories in Other Heartbreaks are linked. They were extracted from a novel I wrote in the mid-oughts. I wanted the stories linked, but I wanted them to work as stand-alone pieces. Each one needed a small narrative arc that finished well. “Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland” required the most re-writes. Echoes of what happens to Emma over time in the novel needed to happen in a short time-span. Emma’s story is sort of a hero’s journey. And Emma has to choose or not choose the wisdom of a crone who presents her with new opportunities for growth. This sort of problem solving is one thing I love about writing – the rational part of the process. There was also the challenge of erasure with the novel material – how much may be erased while still infusing it with the richness of life, the implication of a world off the page?

What is your writing process like? 
I start many stories, like a painter keeping a sketchbook. It might take years for a short story to gain momentum and beckon to be finished. “Kaput” was begun five or six years ago with the news of a shocking event at the back-to-land community where I lived for a few years in the seventies. I kept trying to make the story fit into that era. This past spring while traveling on the Yucatan Peninsula, I saw that the characters were now ex-pats, living in Mexico. With so much time having elapsed between the events and telling, I was able to use that distanced remembering narrator voice. How the past informs the present is always fascinating to me. When that new layer was added, the story came together quickly. At last! Patience is required to make a memorable story.

I am reminded of “Our Story Begins” by Tobias Wolff. The young writer in the story realizes that writing is bit like moving through fog. You see only a little in front of you, but you have to proceed. Eventually a little more is revealed.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
A good short story collection gives me perspective about what it means to be human. It might make me laugh or it might break my heart. It makes me curious about the lives of the characters. Strictly to myself, like a back-fence gossip, I become an active participant in the making of the fiction beyond the small, often misunderstood, moments in the lives of the characters, the meaning sometimes still murky for them. I like a story that suggests an entire life before and after. And I love being transported ever so briefly to another place. I just finished reading a terrific long story by Rob Davidson set on Carriacou, from his new collection, The Farther Shore. The economy with which he brings the place alive is something to behold.

What book or books made you want to become a writer? 
 I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn once a year between the ages of eight and fourteen. It had something in common with The Secret Gardenanother book I read over and over as a girl. Both novels have strong girl protagonists who go up against adversity and triumph.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
 I research places and settings. “Kaput” was easier to write for having been in Puerto Morelos in March. The wind, the French-Canadian toddlers on the beach, blues night at the Chinese restaurant – all were gifts given me by the place. The linked stories in Other Heartbreaks were researched in Pilsen, a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. Pilsen has been a port of entry for immigrants to America for a very long time. I like to think that my Czech ancestors might have lived there when it was home to Eastern Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A Dominican friend made arrangements for me to stay with the friars at the Dominican priory in Pilsen while researching the neighborhood. They were wonderful hosts, giving me a roof over my head and meals but also telling me stories of the neighborhood and introducing me to locals. I had not been to Mass in a while, but I went and was enchanted by the offering of the infants after Sunday Mass at San Pio. That appears in “Ephemera.”

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lynne Tillman Interrogates Herself

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Lynne Tillman, author of Someday This Will Be Funny (Red Lemonade), explores her writing process.

What is your writing process like? 
I want to answer, or try to, because I'm not sure what my process is. Maybe if I can respond, I'll better understand it. Which might be the reason, one of many, I write. To understand something, anything. So I may begin there -- what am I thinking or worrying about? I will interrogate myself. What keeps coming back to me, a thought that boomerangs. An image I can't shake. For instance, I see a baby carriage at the top of four wide stone stairs leading to a pathway in a park. I may have been in the carriage, or I may have walked past it when I was a child. Then I would have been with my mother or father. Then that notion leads to others. So one day I might write a story based on that image so that finally I'll know something about it, by fabricating a narrative to go with it, and then dismiss it from memory. That's an aspect of my process. Another is having a big theme: say, modernism vs post-modernism. How would I write a narrative about that, actually?

Years ago, I wrote a novel, Cast in Doubt, which was, in part, based on figuring out how to tell that story, with characters embodying, in some sense, their different and similar ideas. But an idea is different from a story, so while lots of ideas can pop up on my screen, few come into existence. It can take me two years or more to find a way in: American Genius, A Comedy germinated a long time, and while it did, while I tested things in my mind, I felt enormously frustrated. Then finally it came. Through the voice, a voice that was right to tell the story, which started with sensitivity. Everyone I knew had become more sensitive to the environment, but the same everyones could be quite callous too. And America started a pre-emptive war, Iraq. Usually I need to write a voice, that is, a character, that enables me to tell the story. Finding that voice, that character -- now I'm not able to explain it, which is not to mystify it. I am NOT a conduit, I do not hear voices, I am not hallucinating. I write it out, I write sentences, words, use rhythms, then I begin to realize a character who might be right.

Another part of my process: kick myself in the ass. I can be lazy or resistant. Resistant to throwing myself into IT and letting everything else fade fade fade.....