Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thank you, JD Salinger

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Friendship and Writing

I have a dear friend who is the opposite of me in almost every way. Politically, we couldn't be any more different. She went door-to-door during the last presidential election, campaigning for Obama; I still miss Reagan. She is funny and talkative; I tend to freeze up in a crowd. She lives in the largest city in our state; I live in a one-traffic-light town that can't even keep a Hardees in business.We are both writers, and we both write fiction, but she focuses on the specific and fascinating nuances of the inner psyches of her characters while I (more and more lately) pan out and portray my characters at a distance, like figurines in a snow globe.

In a normal world, our paths would never even intersect, and in our normal lives, the chances of our becoming friends are slim to none. Yet, we have a connection that I think is a thousand times more profound than the usual social groupings: it's all about the work. It's the writing. It's always the writing.

But maybe there's even more to it than that: I think it's the thing that makes us write--whatever reckless energy that compels us to open that vein again and again--that's what makes us friends. Writing requires a sort of honesty, a willingness to pull the curtain back, to examine, to think, to press on, to inquire, and, more than anything, to empathize. To really empathize. We are both completely absorbed with this task: we've got to figure it out. The character, the story, the truth about human nature and the way our gestures and our obsessions and our fears betray us. We write to understand, and it's that quest--the understanding--that we recognize in each other. That makes us look at each other and say, you're just like me. You get it.

This is a writerly habit that has enriched my life in more areas than just the work: I seek the company of people like my friend--people who inspire me. When I finished up my MFA, I hand-picked a group of classmates and invited them to join me in a writing group. These are my people. People who make me want to write more or better or, I don't know, harder. I can't overstate how important this is: be diligent in your search for like-hearted writing buddies. Your writing self is likely your most vulnerable self--be careful who you trust it with, and once you find someone or a group of someones who are drawn to this insanity for the same reasons you are, hold on. Trust me--you need this more than any MFA program or writing conference or agent or lucky penny or brilliant, brilliant manuscript or a weekend away or whatever else your brave little writer heart could wish for.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Letters to a Young Writer

Check this out at Narrative: Letters to a Young Writer by Carol Edgarian. You'll have to sign in, but it's free and easy to do.

My favorite part is the closing:

Finally, know that you are embarking on the hardest, craziest thing you could ever try to do. The sun is shining, the grill is lit, the music is booming, there’s someone lovely calling your name, but you remain alone in your shabby room. God help you. What’s the matter with you? I know: you’re a writer. Despite the very real fact that you will fail more than you will succeed, you don’t care. You will happily blow a day turning over a single sentence. You will blow many days. You will emerge from your cave grumbling but shining—for you know that the building of worlds from nothing is the distinct privilege and pleasure of gods and writers. Gods and writers. Not so bad.

Thank You, Mrs. Young

When I was in high school, I had this crazy teacher who used to ride her bike to school every morning. We were her first class. She came to us with helmet-smooshed hair. Ah, the fresh air. She loved it. She was sixty-something, seemed ancient to us. Once her helmet was off and she'd changed shoes, she would rub the cold out her palms, perch on her little stool, and off and away we went.

This was a humanities class. We studied everything from the druids to the Egyptians to the Renaissance to the Vietnam War. We read Chaucer, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Kafka, and Arthur Miller. We dressed at Canterbury characters and told our tales to a group of 1st graders. We studied art, listened to classical music, and learned the fundamentals of ancient Chinese architecture.

Of course, we were high school kids, so we also did our share of complaining. We hated Kafka, couldn't quit giggling over dung beetle. We had no sympathy for Willy Loman whatsoever. Miss Havisham was beyond pathetic in our view.

And, I'll tell the truth: we laughed at our teacher's helmet hair.

But we loved her. Gladys Young. She passed away while I was in college. My mother called me at the off-campus trailer I was living and read me the obituary. At the time, I was studying to be a teacher myself and was just beginning to realize what teachers like Mrs. Young had given me.

She couldn't get enough learning, and it wasn't just academic pursuits. That woman loved her bike, she loved sunshine and trees and color. In the spring, she headed up to the John C. Campbell Folk School in the mountains and learned how to spin and dye her own yarn. We heard about that trip all year, how excited she was.

I've kept that name, John C. Campbell Folk School, in my mind all these years, always hoping for a chance to go. I would love to learn how to throw pottery or how to knit something really amazing. Spend a week writing. Mostly, I just long to soak up the atmosphere, this place Mrs. Young loved so much, the music, the mountains, a week of being with people just like me: people who want to learn things, who appreciate craft for its own sake.

Finally, this spring, I'm going. I'll be leading a writing workshop, and I'm excited about that, but mostly, I'm just thrilled to visit one of Mrs. Young's favorite places. To visit the school where she was the student. To wander about the campus where she played.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Recovering from my MFA

Here's a fact from my past that I rarely admit: I failed my driver's license test the first time I took it. I was sixteen years old and couldn't complete a three-point turn to save my life. This was on a Friday--my actual sixteenth birthday--and I went home to spend a miserable weekend sulking away in my bedroom, refusing all comfort save an entire package of Nutter Butters.

The next week, I practiced up, my mother in the passenger seat gasping every time the car accelerated, telling me to nudge forward here, that I came too close to the sidewalk there, that I'm signalling too early, too late, that stop does not mean yield. She stood on her own imaginary brake pedal on her side of the car whenever she thought I was going too fast or braking too late. We somehow survived that week together, and the following Friday, I passed the test. And then, finally, I learned how to drive.

Twelve years later, I engaged in an altogether different adventure, though, in many ways, no less harrowing or exhilarating: The Creative Writing MFA program at Queens University. My instructors there were breezy yet approachable, funny, brilliant, encouraging, and terrifying. While my writing surely made them wince, and, in one case laugh out loud despite the fact that the scene was about a woman going into labor and she nor I intended for the incident to be funny, it could not actually imperil their lives, and they did not gasp or hover over imaginary brake pedals. Yet, their instruction was not completely unlike my mother's: you're going too fast here, or, more often, too slow, or, you're stalled out, you missed a turn, you have no idea where you're going, do you? And, occasionally, something my mother never said: I'm enjoying the ride here, you're coasting along just fine. I wrote my thesis, graduated, and then, with a little time and a heck of a lot of practice, my writing started to improve.

I am indebted to my mother for so much more than the driving lessons, of course. And I'm so grateful for all that I learned from my instructors at Queens--even for what the one who laughed taught me. Truly, invaluable lessons. Yet, in both cases, the learning does not come in simple instruction, nor even in generous-hearted guidance: it comes later, when I'm at it on my own. When there's been enough time that the voices in my head--whose approval I wrote for those two years--have quieted, when I've first forgotten and then remembered everything they taught me. When I confront my own drafts with the tools they gave me, when I can discern the direction the story needs to go. It is the instruction and time and practice and reading that bring together what I really have to use: my own sense of momentum and the heft of the thing and the weight with which to lean into the pedal. Writerly instinct. In the beginning, when there's someone with you, it's about being careful, but you have to let go of a bit of that caution as you go, I think. It's about wearing down the sharp edges a bit, trusting yourself more and more. You have to let the sparkling thing--your training--fade just a bit. You have to breathe.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Something Elizabeth Strout Said

It's rumored that Elizabeth Strout once said the following on the art of fiction-writing: The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the reader.

I have this second- or third-hand; I can't even remember who said she heard the author of the utterly absorbing and artful Olive Kitteridge, among other great works, say this. Yet, this simple and true observation has stuck with me. In fact, I'd say no other piece of advice has meant more to me as a fiction-writer.

I love it for what it does for the lowly first draft. As I mentioned in a previous post, you really have to do this writing-thing for yourself. Beyond the fact that the writing life is too gut-wrenchingly difficult to labor over for any other reason, the work itself is just better if it comes from your very you. Otherwise, what you produce will be flat and boring, painfully contrived. The only way to give it energy and life is if you've loved it from the first with everything you have.

This is an important time for you and your budding great work. Be selfish with it, hug it to your quick little heart. Keep it secret. Keep it passionate. Get carried away among your own fancies and out-there notions. Include any impossible or unlikely or trite or bizarre anythings you want. Get to know it, spend time with it. Protect it. This is your baby; no matter how many subsequent saner, tighter drafts you do, no matter how well you eventually translate it for that obscure entity--the reader--no one will ever love it like you do at this moment. Coddle it. Spend your afternoons day-dreaming about it. Cherish this time. It will never be quite the same as it was back when it was just the two of you.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


I have two sisters, one younger, one older, and they both run marathons. Well, half marathons. They set out for places like Tennessee and Chicago and bring home tee-shirts immortalizing their accomplishments. Thirteen or so miles. Nothing to sneeze at.

I've never accomplished a half marathon. Or, in recent memory, five miles at a go. I'm a steady two-or-three-mile, three-or-four-times-a-week runner. Sometimes less. Sometimes, I walk.

Yet, there are times when something--sibling-rivalry or competitiveness or not wanting to be left out or the fear that I'm missing out or the desire to achieve, achieve, achieve--causes me to re-evaluate my measely two miles. I think, if they can do it, I can do it. And, that's probably true. I probably could start training. Get myself on a schedule, set up a goal, earn my very own tee-shirt.

People who attend my workshops or just curious ones sometimes ask me about my writing routines. I don't know what they're hoping to hear, but I can see the disappointment on their faces when I tell them: I start writing by around 4:30 in the morning and go until my kids get up. I do this everyday, holiday, vacation, out-of-town, whatever. Two winters ago, our furnace quit working and I rose early as usual, put on a couple of coats and a pair of fingerless gloves and got right to work.

Every time I answer this question, I can see right off what the asker is thinking: I should be getting up at four. Asker bites her lip and looks away. Or else, she thinks: I can't get up that early. Oh well for this writing-thing. Clearly, I don't have what it takes.

Certainly, you don't have to be an early-morning writer to be a writer. And more: you don't have to give your whole life to it. If you write, you're a writer. Any level of commitment, in my view, gives you the title. So, go ahead. Call yourself a writer. Quit playing coy, and quit harboring guilt over all the things you think you should be doing. Some die-hards would quibble with me for calling myself a runner. Let them. I'm a runner. I am. We'd all be wise, I think, to strive for equilibrium in our lives rather than satisfying some vague notion of all that we need to become.

I run for health, for well-being. To clear my head. I don't need a tee-shirt. We should write with the same goals in mind. Decide how important it is to you--writing, running, or anything else in life--and find a way to give it a proportional amount of your resources--time, energy, money, and gumption. There's no shame in writing as a hobby. There's no shame either in boiling your life down to writing and little else. Just make the choice. Live a fully conscious life. Know the sacrifices you're making and why you're making them.

After all, would my sisters really care if I ran those awe-inspiring 13 miles? How impressed would they be? Beyond that, even if they were completely undone with jealousy or respect or whatever it is I'm after, how would their feeling that way actually improve my life or theirs? Or anyone's? Is this what I'm doing here, impressing my sisters? Other writers? The people who come to my workshops? My cyber-writing friends? My very own you'll-never-be-good-enough demons running around inside my head?

You have to do it for you. You just do. Any other way, you lose.

(Okay, so I wandered off into preachy territory--sorry. This post has been inspired by a dear friend and superb writer who recently reminded me of the importance of priorities and what it means to value one's own well-being. Thank you, thank you, you know who you are, you wise, talented, and generous you.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Be a Generalist

One of my very favorite passages of any work of fiction is when young Mary, the protagonist of Rose Tremain's Sacred Country, is out on a swing, pondering the metamorphosis of tadpole to frog. It echoes the theme of the book--Mary is on her way to becoming Martin--and, the motion of the swing, back and forth, back and forth, along with these thoughts, drives at a broader notion: life is change.

I love it when a writer pulls off this kind of magic, drawing a delicate ribbon of subtext simply by mentioning a science fact or an ancient myth or a geographical wonder. Another of my favorite novels, Jenny Offill's Last Things, accomplishes this subtle, gorgeous shading of her protagonist's story by weaving in her mother's retelling of African myths. What's really extraordinary about it is that it is both on the surface, just laid out there, and of the subconscious. It's about creating something more than what's on the page, a thought, or the hint of a thought, you can't get to with mere words. It's the images and the connotations those words bring. The connotations the reader isn't even fully aware of as she reads. Everything melds together and carries the reader to another place--a place the story alone just isn't able to evoke.

Years ago, I read a book on creative nonfiction writing, Beyond the Writers' Workshop by Carol Bly, and I remember one specific piece of advice she gives: Be a generalist. Read everything. I think this is important for fiction-writers as well. These days, I read The Smithsonian and Einstein for Dummies. I search Wikipedia for rare neurological disorders and creation myths. I study phenomena in space and bizarre deep-sea creatures--I recently discovered an article on an iridescent sea spider. Amazing. I indulge my curiosity with every faith that the benefit is double: I'm learning, and my fiction will be the richer for it.

Be a generalist. Sound advice for the writer and the non-writer alike. Know things. Search everything. Read. Learn. Understand.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On Getting Started

E.M. Forster says our job as novelists is a simple one: it is all about getting the reader to turn the page. Charles Baxter advises us to take an interesting character and give that character an interesting problem. The great Pinckney Benedict believes the novel will teach the writer how it should be written.

For me--in my limited experience--I can only play around with the words, the setting, the characters until the narrative voice emerges. I have to know how the story needs to be told before I can worry too much about what actually happens, or even who the story happens to. For me, voice is everything.

Yesterday, I broke into my parents' house--they were at the beach and all was quiet there--and spent a day struggling through the first chapter of a new work. It was a sort of wonderful torture, piecing out the very start, finding not just the voice, but the authority of the voice. The power of it that says, yes, I can handle this. I can carry it through. And now, as the writer, my job is simply to follow that voice. To trust it, no matter where it takes me.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Just Keep Writing

Four years ago, I sat in a crowded, smoke-filled bar and listened to an acquaintance lament how little time she had for writing. We had been students together in an MFA program a year or so earlier and were now gathered with several other former classmates to celebrate the launch of a new independent press. I was fourteen weeks pregnant, drinking ginger ale and eating a huge plate of spicy nachos. An odd choice, but I was just coming out of the first trimester nausea and was enjoying my re-found love of food. I cared little about the consequences. She was on her second or third drink—something too stout for me, pregnant or not—and she laughed at my nachos.

“I love it,” she said. “Now you know you’ll have heartburn. It’s a certainty.”

An undeniable truth: women who are or who have ever been pregnant like to talk about their pregnancies, and worse—trade labor stories. Another truth: writers like to complain about all the things that keep them from writing. These are the things we love to hate. Morning sickness and writer’s block. That ugly dark line running vertically down the lower half of our bellies from the second trimester on. Lack of inspiration. The writing workshop that didn’t help. The truth, when it finally dawns on us, that our breasts will never fully recover from breastfeeding. The truth, when it finally dawns on us, that we may never get published. The constant demands on our time. Our inner demons, our doubts, our nerves, our expectations, our limitations, our need for sleep, blessed sleep. The fact that our babies will grow up, move away, forget to call, and yet our stretch marks will be with us at the nursing home.

That night, I returned to a house with dinner dishes still soaking in the sink. My daughter, three years old, whom I’d breastfed with her propped on a boppy while I typed away on my laptop above her head, was sleeping soundly in her toddler bed—bless my husband. It was late, I was tired, and it was hard to tell, was I more inspired or depressed after spending an evening with aspiring writers who, like me, were struggling for a reason to go on? Who nursed secret worries: could it be that all this was just a colossal waste of time? I had a toddler to care for and a new baby on the way. My friend had a garden to tend, her grown daughter’s wedding to help plan, and a full-time job. Was any of this really worth it?

And yet, the next morning, I woke early as always, took a couple of tums, tried a sip of coffee—just enough to remind me that the nausea hadn’t completely vanished—and I wrote. Before I faced the dishes, before I kissed my child, I wrote. Despite the heartburn, the tiredness. The guilt. Despite the nagging doubts, the feeling that I was writing into a pit, that nothing I wrote would ever be worth a second of anyone else’s time. Still, I wrote. I wrote, and I wrote.

I didn’t know what was coming, that I’d soon start having stories accepted here and there. That the very day I came home from the hospital after giving birth to my second child I’d find an email in my inbox from an indy press that wanted to publish my first novel. Or that the same press that we’d celebrated the night before would, a few years down the road, publish a collection of my short stories. Or that, a year and a half or so after that, I’d land my dream agent on the strength of a third book, another work I’d risen early, habitually, to tend to, to ponder and worry over and write and re-write and write once more.

All of it goes back to that morning, and to countless other mornings. I believe that every single word I write is only possible for the millions of words that came before it. In truth, I don’t know what else to do. My house is a mess, my children are driving me crazy, it’s my birthday, I finally managed to finish the laundry, I can’t find my car keys, my children are lovely and brilliant, it’s a beautiful day, I’m so very, very tired, I’m unreasonably happy or frustrated or devastated or angry, and the only answer is to keep writing.