Friday, April 30, 2010

Stalking Bret Lott

I was a middle school teacher in the spring of 1999 the first time I heard Bret Lott's name. It was the end of a day near the end of my third year of teaching and I was going to be married in the summer. I was driving home, headed down highway 18 in Lenoir, North Carolina, crawling through a string of stoplights. A few furniture factory plants, a Little Caesars. An outdoor sunglasses vendor.

Go beyond the call, the radio announcer said. It was a Christian station and this was his bit. His job was to spotlight a believer impacting his community with an outreach of some magnitude or to call attention to a Christian making news in the secular world. He particularly liked to mention Christian sightings in the entertainment industry. Billy Baldwin holding Bible studies in his trailer. An eighties sitcom star who now played a Christian superhero. Kirk Cameron. One of the nurses on ER. And today, Bret Lott, an outspoken believer who wrote literary fiction and whose novel Jewel had just been selected for Oprah's book club. In his memoir Before We Get Started, Lott later referred to Oprah as the Force. Of course, this was going to change everything for him, his book, his career.

And for me: I'm not sure I'd even heard the term literary as a genre used before. I knew I liked John Irving. Margaret Atwood. I knew I didn't like Christian fiction as a genre. I'd been frustrated with how cut-and-dried what I'd read of it made the Christian life and its struggles seem. I knew, even back then--me, young and teacherly, living in a tiny apartment on top of a graveled hill, in my last days of laundromats and Lean Cuisine dinners--that life of any philosophical stripe is gloriously complicated.

I read Jewel on my honeymoon and enrolled in a creative writing class the following spring. By the fall of 2001, I'd quit my job and was checking out MFA programs. My friend Sheryl Monks likens the call to write to Joseph Campbell's notion of the hero's journey: a mentor steps up, wiggles a finger. Come. I've yet to meet Bret Lott in person, but I've accepted his invitation all the same. I've pursued him the way every aspiring writer should seek the creator of work that inspires us: I've read his books. He taught me voice and how the lyric quality of really good prose can elevate and crystallize any scene, no matter how domestic, how ordinary at first glance. A woman rises from bed on a morning in 1943 and knows she's not of the "rightful age" to bear children and already, I know this woman. Already, I'm in her world and I'm worried for her and inspired by her, and at the same moment, I'm the writer, reading to learn. It's Bret Lott, wiggling his finger. Come, he says.

I was finishing up my MFA when he became the editor of The Southern Review, and for the next couple of years, I submitted regularly. I got my first "ink" from TSR: a scrawled few words on the bottom of the rejection slip: much to admire. A few submissions later, and I had it, not an acceptance, but a hand-written rejection from the man himself: Dear Ms. Woodring--The writing in this is wonderful, but I grew impatient with the disparate pieces the story tried to juggle--Keep us in mind! He signed it; here was proof that finally, finally, I'd made contact. He had read my work.

I kept going. Years later, after the publication of my first novel and my story collection, I submitted a story to a literary magazine contest he was judging. It was a story I'd actually written years ago, when I was full-swing in my Bret Lott phase, when the rhythm of his prose beat through my thoughts constantly. I revised it a bit, and was beyond thrilled to learn a few months later that Lott had selected my story as the winning entry. He wrote of my story, "it is a quiet cameo, a beautifully rendered portrait..."

This happened in 2009, ten years after that spring afternoon when the sunlight filled my car and the radio guy implored me to go beyond the call.

So, what about you? Who is your writing mentor? Have you met him or her? Tell me how his/her work has played a part in calling you to this writer's journey. Any good stalking stories?

(November, 2011: update.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Son Keeps a Collection of Mommies at Target: Making Up the Truth

I love that my three-year-old doesn't quite understand the difference between fabrication and life as it really happens. To him, it's perfectly reasonable to claim that monsters come out of the walls of his bedroom in the dark. The trampoline is a cage. The toilet, a goose. He says he has a collection of other mommies at Target. He doesn't believe any of it, but he's not exactly lying either. For him, the line between real and not real is happily blurred.

The line is much more sharply drawn for my seven-year-old little girl. It annoys her to no end for her brother to claim to remember how things were when she was a baby, three years before he was born. He says, "I am a caterpillar," and she is indignant. This simply is not true.

Poor thing. She is burdened with an infuriating cause: she longs to set the world right. Half-truths and exaggerations offend her. White lies are beyond her sense of fairness. If you ask her, did she have fun playing at her grandparents' house this afternoon, she can't just say yes and get on with it. She can't even just say no or shrug noncommitally and skip away. She is left in a terrible quandary: Did she have fun? How does she know for sure? And, even if most of it was fun, does that mean the whole of it can be called fun? What does that word--fun--even mean?

I suspect it's partly to do with their ages. They may stray a bit as they grow and learn things, as their brains allow for more points of view and as they experience life. I think the pathways, though, the means of expression, are essentially set. They at least have their bents, their tendencies.

But it's not just the two of them: we are all looking to understand what we see and feel, and we are desperate to tell our versions of the truth.

Aiden is no liar. He is afraid to go upstairs by himself; to him, the danger of the dark is exactly equal to the danger of the unseen monsters. What he is saying could be, figuratively, a whole lot more true than what is literal and evident. He doesn't actually have ten mommies stored away in the lawn and garden aisle of Target, but his mother is often distracted. So, the sentiment behind it is true: he wishes he had all those loving mothers lined up, at the ready.

As a fiction-writer, I admire his technique. He tells a truth that is all the more poignant for its emotional precision. He must have absorbed it in the womb: show don't tell, the first rule of fiction-writing.

And little Abby. Abby is a philosopher, a theologian. A questioner. Her drive to get it right is the most universal and high-stakes ambition for any artist. That's what we really want to do, isn't it? Get the details spot-on; we won't call it fun unless the story proves as much. Like Abby, we question, we wonder, we linger over our choice of words. We worry over them, sometimes taking a long time to answer, to let go.

It's an oddly satisfying brand of torture, isn't it?

Try this:

Take a character you've been working on and give him/her an absurd physical ailment that somehow mirrors his/her emotional state. There are tons of examples of this out there--Gregor the dung beetle, anyone?--but I especially love how Aimee Bender does this in her collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. In her story, "Marzipan," for example, the father, grief-stricken over the loss of his own father, wakes up to find a hole where his stomach used to be. Another story, "The Remember" begins: "My lover is experiencing reverse evolution." By the end of the story, he's a salamander.

Imagine: a housewife, frustrated by how her family takes her for granted, literally goes invisible. A no-fun executive turns to lead. An elderly person falls apart, piece by piece. A teenager, all hormones and angst, begins to smolder.

Be Aiden: make it wild and unspeakably true. Be Abby in the details. This is what makes it believable, what makes it all the more heart-breaking or inspiring or ironic.

Then, either toss the exercise, just carrying from it a deeper understanding of your character, or find a way to use it in your story. Maybe it is the story?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Writing on the Slant

Possibly, my greatest talent in the arena of coordination and, well, luck, is skee-ball. I'm not like great at it or anything, but I am good enough so that whenever we go to Hickory Dickory Dock (our local version of Chuck E. Cheese, but with fewer drunken brawls), my three-year-old insists I toss a couple for him. He's desperate for the tickets he can trade in for tootsie rolls and plastic army men.

I take the first ball. As I rear back and aim, I'm also watching my three-year-old climb the next alley. I'm listening to my seven-year-old ask permission to run off to the other side of the arcade. I'm keeping my eye on my purse. My mommy-radar is on, screening all strangers as potential kidnappers and watching out for big kids looking to push little kids around. I'm calculating roughly what time it is, planning what I'll cook for dinner, speculating whether or not my husband will get home from work on time. I'm thinking I'll call my sister on the way home. My three-year-old is pulling on my sleeve. I aim, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire. I tear off the tickets when they reel out. I never actually think about what I'm doing.

There's a similar disconnect when it comes to writing fiction: we have to relax our focus a little. Allow for the right kind of distractions; avoid over-thinking. This is especially true when it comes to constructing our characters. We must write them on the slant, giving them a chance to surprise us, which is kind of a tall order, if you think about it. After all, we created them, right? We have to find a way to make it up and not make it up at the same time.

Here are a few writing exercises I plan on unleashing on a short-story class I'm starting tonight, all designed to help you come at your character indirectly:
  1. I Don't Know Why I Stole It: Your character walks into a store, a family member's house/bedroom, an office, a coat closet, a supermarket and steals something of no obvious value. Maybe it's a plastic seashell bracelet. An owl figurine. A pouch of chewing tobacco. A spoon. Do a little free-writing, describing the object, where it was stolen, and a bit, in the character's point of view, explaining why he stole it--or why he doesn't know why he stole it.
  2. Party: Your character is at a party. Describe the party. Is it a kid's birthday party? A cocktail party? A college kegger? A little old lady's garden party? Your character either really wants to be there or is there out of obligation, or for employment purposes--maybe your character is the hired entertainment: the stripper, the magician, the caterer. In any case, there is a person at the party your character is avoiding. Describe the person and your character's thoughts about the person. Show your character in scene, ducking the other person, or maybe running right into them. Throughout the scene, try to inhabit your character's thoughts and his/her body: what does the carpet feel like under his feet? How's the food? Is the music too loud? Does your character's smile feel too stiff? Is your character getting drunk?
  3. Okay, Here's a Sex Scene for You: I generally don't like writing sex scenes. They just aren't terribly interesting...unless something goes wrong. Or, try this: Write a scene where a couple is having sex for the last time. Likely, they won't know it's the last time, yet, you as the writer know it and knowing it will color how you describe the scene. Or just one of them will. Or, maybe one of them comes to that realization halfway through the scene. Or at the end of it. Again, you need to fully inhabit your character's point of view here. Besides the obvious, your character will notice things: the quality of light or darkness in the room, smells and sounds drifting in from other places, odd little sexy and unsexy details like a mole on a shoulder or stubble on an unshaven face.

By the way, Madison Smartt Bell wrote a great essay on a similar concept for Tin House.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Humble Bees: My Week at the Folk School

A soft-spoken potter. A foreign-born artist who became a US citizen the same day Kennedy was assassinated. A court reporter who, in her normal life, works in a jail, but for this week goes around with blue jeans covered in fresh clay, dangly earrings, and a winning--some might even say giddy--smile. A cheerful and funny weaver who retells Garrison Keillor anecdotes and calls to me from the farm house living room, "Wine, Susan?"

To say nothing of my marvelous students: a teacher, weary from her many impossible tasks yet searching for a way to express her own hard-won lessons and dreams, a communications expert for Federal Express with a funny, Wild West novel half-completed, a French-born, English-raised visual artist committed to taking down the family stories her late sister had dreamed of writing but was never able to. I urge them on with passages from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, a number of free-writing exercises, and my own convictions about how good writing comes about: there is no straight line, no easy path from the confusing din of this, our story-telling impulse, the clutter of our lives, dreams, and memories and the actual story.

My artist-student helps me form the analogy: this story, whatever it is you wish to tell, is a painting trying to emerge from a blank canvas. If you set out to paint a tree, you will likely get a tree. No surprises. But, if you play with it a bit, close your eyes and draw a few squiggles, step back, look, add a bit of color, a little shading, you'll likely come away with a whole different tree--or an entire forest or a house or a girl or a bulldozer or a monkey or a pond--layered with nuance and light and, well, story.

When it's time to write, sometimes what we really must do is play. Cut our sentences up into words, rearrange them, start with the lyrics to an old Prince song or the first line to a Walt Whitman poem or the hint of a memory we've mostly forgotten. Just make a squiggle or two. Step back. Look.

The weather is perfect, which helps with the overall sensation that I've somehow stepped sideways, slipped a few inches outside the bounds of real life. Artists gather at the dining hall to sing Johnny Appleseed, pass the corn bread, and share: how's your project coming along?

Outside, on the path to the writing studio, there is a cherry tree heavy with blossoms, dripping with bees. It's all right, I have been told. Those are humble bees, the kind that don't sting.

And that's me, coming back from dinner. I'll keep the studio open late tonight. Feel free to stop by, plug in your laptop. The coffee's almost done perking.