Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Where I'm Writing From

You should see the town I’m writing from. Main Street starts with a set of railroad tracks running alongside Drexel Heritage Furniture Plant Number One, an enormous cinderblock structure, empty now, with kudzu climbing up the old loading bays. Beyond the factory, there is a lump of storefronts: the barbershop where they hold Saturday morning pickin’ sessions, a home-healthcare supplies office, a used bookstore, and a pizza restaurant. Up the hill, there’s the post office, and across from that, the First Baptist Church of Drexel, easily the town’s largest building. On down, there’s a Pentecostal Hispanic Church housed in a converted bank, an elementary school, a crisis pregnancy center, a coin laundry, and a row of tidy and not-so-tidy houses. Mine, the last in the line, is a dingy-colored stucco with a gravel driveway and an ancient holly tree, so large and unwieldy, it almost completely obscures the view of my house from the street.

Me, I’m inside, nurturing an instinct that is one of my life’s most enigmatic, glorious blessings, both terrifying and illuminating, cruel and extraordinary. I have learned, in these ten-odd years of trying, a handful of truths when it comes to this singular pursuit: writing, for me, requires this tiny space inside this tiny town. It’s the ideal isolation. I didn’t grow up here, but instead drifted here as an adult through a turn of events I’m not sure I could trace even if I wanted to. I have a writerly faith about these sorts of things, though, about how the creative life pulls itself together. For reasons I don’t completely understand, I belong here, hidden behind that prickly holly tree.

I'd love to hear from you: Where do you belong? What does your art demand: people and activity and culture or unflinching solitude? Do you have a place to go hide out and write? Or, do you find yourself yearning to break free of your solitude, to quit hiding behind a tree?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Scene in Three Phases

My friend Sheryl Monks, a brilliant writer, taught a dialogue workshop on the following scene from Micheal Cunningham's story, "White Angel." I've adapted it a bit, I'm more or less stealing this idea from her fabulous class.

A dialogue scene is (basically) made of three parts: the actual dialogue, the action, and exposition or narrator input--thoughts, explanations, etc. I think it's helpful to dissect a scene in this way, cutting all the way back to the dialogue and then adding the other layers back in, watching a pattern, or something like a rhythm emerge.

Phase One: Dialogue

"Shhh," I say to Carlton.
"Boys?" our mother calls from the kitchen. "Set the table like good citizens," she calls.
"Okay, ma," Carlton replies
"Zap," Carlton whispers. "Zzzzzzooom."
"Did we do it right?"I ask him.
"We did everything perfect, little son. How are you doing in there, anyway?"
"Perfect, I guess."
"You guess. You guess? You and I are going to other planets, man. Come over here."
"Where?"
"Here. Come here."
"You and I are going to fly, man," Carlton whispers close to my ear. "Fly," he says.
"You wait, Frisco," he says. "Miracles are happening."

Phase Two: Dialogue + Action

We are sprawled on the sofa in front of the television. Our mother makes dinner in the kitchen. A pot lid clangs.
Our father is building a grandfather clock from a kit. We can hear him in the basement, sawing and pounding. I know what is laid out on his sawhorses--a long raw wooden box, onto which he glues fancy moldings. A single pearl of sweat meanders down his forehead as he works. A mouse nibbles inside the wall. Electrical wires curl behind the plaster, hidden and patient as snakes.
"Shhh," I saw to Carlton. He is watching television through his splayed fingers. Gunshots ping. Bullets raise chalk dust on a concrete wall.
"Boys?" our mother calls from the kitchen. I can hear her slap hamburger into patties. "Set the table like good citizens," she calls.
"Okay, ma," Carlton replies. Our father hammers in the basement. I can feel Carlton's heart ticking. He pats my hand.
We set the table, spoon fork knife, paper napkins triangled to one side. After we are done I pause to notice the dining room wallpaper: a golden farm, backed by mountains. Cows graze, autumn trees cast golden shade. This scene repeats itself three times, on three walls.
"Zap," Carlton whispers. "Zzzzzzoom."
"Did we do it right?" I ask him.
"We did everything perfectly, little son. How are you doing in there, anyway?" He raps lightly on my head.
"Perfect, I guess." I am staring into the wallpaper.
"You guess. You guess?" You and I are going to other planets, man. Come over here."
"Where?"
"Here. Come here." He leads me to the window. Outside, the snow skitters, nervous and silver, under streetlamps. Ranch-style houses hoard their warmth, bleed light into the gathering snow.
"You and I are going to fly, man," Carlton whispers close to my ear. He opens the window. Snow blows in, sparking on the carpet. "Fly," he says, and we do. For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces--we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch.
We settle back down. Carlton touches my shoulder.
"You wait, Frisco," he says. "Miracles are happening."
I nod. He pulls down the window, which reseals itself with a sucking sound. Our own faces look back at us from the cold, dark glass. Behind us, our mother drops the hamburgers sizzling into the skillet. Our father bends to his work under a hooded light bulb, preparing the long box into which he will lay clockworks, pendulum, a face. A plane drones overhead, invisible in the clouds. I glance nervously at Carlton. He smiles and squeezes the back of my neck.

Phase Three: Dialogue + Action + Narrator Input (exposition, etc.)

Hours later, we are sprawled on the sofa in front of the television, ordinary as Wally and Beav. Our mother makes dinner in the kitchen. A pot lid clangs. We are undercover agents. I am trying to conceal my amazement.
Our father is building a grandfather clock from a kit. He wants to have something to leave us, something for us to pass along. We can hear him in the basement, sawing and pounding. I know what is laid out on his sawhorses—a long raw wooden box, onto which he glues fancy moldings. A single pearl of sweat meanders down his forehead as he works. A mouse nibbles inside the wall. Tonight I have discovered my ability to see every room of the house at once, to know every single thing that goes on. Electrical wires curl behind the plaster, hidden and patient as snakes.
Shhh,” I say to Carlton who has not said anything. He is watching television through his splayed fingers. Gunshots ping. Bullets raise chalk dust on a concrete wall. I have no idea what we are watching.
“Boys?” our mother calls from the kitchen. I can, with my new ears, hear her slap hamburger into patties. “Set the table like good citizens,” she calls.
“Okay, ma,” Carlton replies in a gorgeous imitation of normality. Our father hammers in the basement. I can feel Carlton’s heart ticking. He pats my hand to assure me that everything’s perfect.
We set the table, spoon fork knife, paper napkins triangled to one side. We know the moves cold. After we are done I pause to notice the dining room wallpaper: a golden farm, backed by mountains. Cows graze, autumn trees cast golden shade. This scene repeats itself three times, on three walls.
“Zap,” Carlton whispers. “Zzzzzzoom.”
“Did we do it right?” I ask him.
“We did everything perfect, little son. How are you doing in there, anyway?” He raps lightly on my head.
“Perfect, I guess.” I am staring into the wallpaper as if I were thinking of stepping into it.
“You guess. You guess? You and I are going to other planets, man. Come over here.”
“Where?”
“Here. Come here.” He leads me to the window. Outside, the snow skitters, nervous and silver, under streetlamps. Ranch-style houses hoard their warmth, bleed light into the gathering snow. It is a street in Cleveland. It is our street.
“You and I are going to fly, man,” Carlton whispers close to my ear. He opens the window. Snow blows in, sparking on the carpet. “Fly,” he says, and we do. For a moment we strain up and out, the black night wind blowing in our faces—we raise ourselves up off the cocoa-colored deep-pile wool-and-polyester carpet by a sliver of an inch. Sweet glory. The secret of flight is this—you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws. I swear it to this day.
We both know we have taken a momentary leave of the earth. It does not strike either of us as remarkable, any more than does the fact that airplanes sometimes fall from the sky, or that we have always lived in these rooms and will soon leave them. We settle back down. Carlton touches my shoulder.
“You wait, Frisco,” he says. “Miracles are happening.”
I nod. He pulls down the window, which reseals itself with a sucking sound. Our own faces look back at us from the cold, dark glass. Behind us, our mother drops the hamburgers sizzling into the skillet. Our father bends to his work under a hooded light bulb, preparing the long box into which he will lay clockworks, pendulum, a face. A plane drones overhead, invisible in the clouds. I glance nervously at Carlton. He smiles and squeezes the back of my neck.



Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Against Complacency

Sylvia Plath said self-doubt is creativity's worst enemy. It's only logical: if you believe you're beat before you even start, what's the point of starting at all? It can be paralyzing. Utterly hideous. And, if you are able to write even in the midst of doubt, your insecurities can cause your writing to be timid and water-thin, stifled by caution and too much second-guessing.

What we must have as writers is faith. We have to believe not only in our abilities as story-tellers, but--and this is the important part--in the story itself. We have to know it needs to be told. More: we must believe in the process of writing--that the hours we spend hovered over our keyboards and notebooks are taking us somewhere. That by all the doing, we are improving.

But are faith and doubt completely opposed to one another? Many would say they are, but I don't think it's as easy as that. My deepest religious beliefs actually call for both, and so does my writing. Doubt is what calls us to the next level, what pushes us to question what we see, or what we believe to be true. The habit of doubting guards us from complacency. It is faith, however, that gives us stamina and vision. Most importantly, faith closes the gap between what is and what can be.

I think faith and doubt exist symbiotically--you can't have one without the other. Without faith, you can't begin a story. Faith is the central mechanism of belief. But without doubt, there's no reason to make the story better, or to seek anything more than a second-hand knowledge of spiritual things. Or to do anything but simply accept what we've been told without coming to a place of truly knowing what we know. Either way, it's just not real without both the questioning doubt and the answering faith.

As writers, as breathing humans, we must be seekers. We must push off from the commonplace, dare to look. And then, looking, dare to keep a steady gaze, to not grow complacent or weak-hearted or smug. We have to really strain to see where we could go, then have the faith, the persistence to go there, to reach it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Copycat

"A writer is a reader moved to emulation."
Saul Bellow

I will never write like Marilynne Robinson. Or Richard Yates. Charles Baxter. John Irving. Elizabeth Strout. Ron Rash. Kent Haruf. So many others.

But, I can learn a heck of a lot trying to.

Try this: take one of your favorite passages and make a go at an imitation. Yes, you'll feel daunted from the outset, maybe even a little embarrassed, in the way that one can feel embarrassed even when you're all alone. Embarrassed for trying. Your result will be nothing like the original--in fact it will likely be just horrible--but you'll be a better writer for the exercise. You'll learn, on an instinctual level, the rhythm of perfect prose.

I chose the famous opening to John Updike's Rabbit, Run:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he's twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

Here, my clumsy--but earnest--stab at it:

Girls are looping daisies around a single pokeweed sprout with ripe black berry-bunches drooping down from its branches. Fingers, whispers. The murmur and lift of their unconscious chanting seems to puff the dusty yellow pollen from the petals into the dusk April sky gauzy just below the spread of oak tree branches. Georgina Perry, wandering through the field between all the houses in a bitty-flowered house dress, thick stockings, stops and watches, though she's eighty-three and her own fingers are bloated and clumsy. She walks with the aid of a cane and is so unsteady on it, she seems an unlikely wanderer, but the quick-blue of her eyes, dimpled deep inside her wrinkled, pale face, and the useless twitching of her thick, chalky fingers beneath the tattered, stringy sleeve of her dress give echo to the girl she once was: spirited and nimble-fingered and given to imaginative games such as this. She stands there, leaning on her cane, thinking, the knots are falling loose, they keep coming undone.