Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Random Advice and Bits

I'm taking bits I've written on various subjects to various people and posting them here. I'm choosing things that may be of wider use. I hope it helps or at least entertains: 

1. Upon which I give advice to someone I don't know personally but who'd publicly posted a request for advice. After hearing a bit of good career news in her own life, she would try to ruin it by seeking out news from other writers, diminishing her own accomplishments. 

My response: 

"this strikes me as an instinctive safeguard that was built early into your process and worked for a long time. it kept you humble, hungry, and striving. our brains process the critical because we've evolved that way -- thinking about how to get away from the bear is much more useful than spending time thinking we're really fast runners. in other words, this is instinctive and good -- but it's turned on you. and even our worst creative processes get dug in deep b/c of outcome bias -- you've had success so this works when, in truth, sometimes we have success despite the flaws in our creative processes. your critical voice and your creative voice should be built in tandem (often not true for the very well educated -- their critical voices are so well informed while creative voices atrophy) -- but your critical voice should always win out. so again there's good in this practice. and i'd also say personally that i no longer get a high from success -- i think this is because i've also learned to numb up from exterior commentary and at all costs protect my relationship with the page. (i've published 20 books -- simon & schuster, harpercollins, hachette, random house...) you and the page matter. the other stuff doesn't. so i think it might be developmentally appropriate that your highs from success wear off. (highs from writing are the ones you hold onto -- tightly). i'm reading POWERS OF TWO a new book on collaboration that you might find perfect to read right now -- and it hits me that you might be searching for camaraderie or competition or collaborative connections -- in this incredibly solitary pursuit. again, these are smart moves in terms of longterm fire (even negative fire) that gets you back to the page. so. basically -- all of this feels natural to me -- i relate. but what you need is to figure out just that one competitor -- just that one -- the one who really inspires you with the command of their work and/or frustrates you b/c they're overrated or you can twist between the two. but only find one. and only allow yourself that fuel when you really need it. and only use it to get you back to the page -- which is then a pretty holy place, perhaps. (i went on so long that this became a process essay... sorry. this stuff fascinates me -- i lecture on Creative Efficiency so my brain is often here...)"

2. A moment in which I wrote to a fellow writer and very good friend (nameless here). I'd just received his novel in the mail and had pawed through it:

"you said it was hard to write -- but you always whine like that. what you neglected to mention was that it's brilliant -- and that's unlike you."

3. After flubbing a question asked by a student after a reading. 

... you asked me a smart Q after the reading and I didn't give much of an answer. You know how I sought to overcome my own fairly protected childhood as a writer? I didn't write about myself -- not for a long time. I used my own life -- in bits and pieces -- b/c it was available. What else does one have? But I also wrote about my ancestors whose lives were turbulent and brutal in many ways. I sought out people who'd lived interesting lives. At a parade, an older woman was given an award. She'd been a nurse in the Battle of the Bulge. I looked her up after and interviewed her. My friend's father was a Death March survivor. I asked her if I could interview him, and they both agreed. I spent time in nursing homes, listening. I set up a grant to design and teach a memoir-writing workshop to help elders tell their life stories. I have a desire for lives to be preserved. Basically, I reached out more than I reached in. 
To be honest, for a long time, I wasn't interested in my own life and experiences at all. I eventually learned how to write in that way -- or to better forage my own memories but understanding myself wasn't what drew me to writing. I wrote far from myself. It was an escape.
And now, even when I use my own life, it's usually so far from myself that no one would recognize it. And I still draw an awful lot on history. Note the book of poems I read from -- Lizzie Borden in Love. This is a collection of poems written in historic women's voices. Again, I sought to give voice to others. (Of course, it was in writing that material that I learned a lot about myself...)
Anyway, I wanted you to get a smart answer. A thoughtful one. Because the one I gave was off the cuff -- you caught me off-guard. I hope this helps.

In case you landed at this blog randomly, you can find out about me here: 

Bear in the House -- On Openings...

Valerie Martin has said, “The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings, but to create for the unwary reader a sudden experience of reality.” I love, of course, the idea of not saying anything and not making meanings. I have no desire to make meanings. And I talk to new writers about the task of creating the sudden experience of reality -- how to do that in very specific terms. But, to be honest, I've been so sure of that the term should be "wary reader" that I usually read it that way. I'd love an unwary reader. When writing for adults, I assume wariness and weariness. As a writer who loves the reader -- both wary and unwary, weary and unweary -- too much for anyone's own good (theirs or mine), I generally start with a promise of some sort -- the experience of reality, an introduction to the world (sometimes an otherworldly world) that assures the reader that something is coming and that I wouldn't be here, writing things down, if I didn't feel urgent in the telling. That start is something I go over and over and over again because it has to have enough resonance for me -- a self-promise -- that it demands (sometimes almost petulantly) the 300 pages to follow. At the same time, the opening is teaching the reader how to read this novel. Usually unwittingly, I'm setting out some rules. I prefer to imagine the opening like a broad-shouldered bear breaking the frame of door as it enters the house of the novel. In this way, you break rules before you really even begin.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Benjamin Whitmer

When people talk about the elitist shift to writers who grew up with money, disconnected from the real world, and then were shuttled away to MFA programs where they wrote about growing up with money, disconnected from the real world, I wonder who these people are talking about. Sure, yes. There are a number of writers -- including some brilliant ones -- who grew up well-tended to and affirmed and even encouraged to write. (In fact, I grew up well-tended and affirmed and encouraged to write. I was the youngest and my parents -- whose childhoods were turbulent and unsettled in ways I never had to live -- had given up on making career suggestions and just let me do what I seemed to need to do, which was to write.) 

But when I'm with other writers, the well-tended, much less the well-appointed childhood, is rare. I find real writers who lived hard lives. Those students I've taught in MFA programs are often no stranger to tough inner cities with high murder rates and impoverished rural settings, lots of siblings and little food... The conversation among the authors who collect at writing conferences are often stunned that their lives have turned out this way. (My own grandfather couldn't read or write. I often imagine him at these little authorial gatherings and wonder what he'd make of it all.) The thing about writing is that it's one of the arts that requires little by way of start-up costs. And although the odds are stacked against everyone who wants to build a writing career, the door can be found wedged open by library books; people can still shove a boot in and some even kick the door straight down.

What I'm getting at is that Benjamin Whitmer is such a writer -- he kicks the door straight down. And once there, he keeps kicking down door after door, showing us lives and worlds and characters that exist and have voices only because he's given them breath. 
Without further rambling, Whitmer. Enjoy. And, if you got something from this by the end, go buy his new book CRY FATHER.  (It's how writers are allowed to keep bringing us worlds.) 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
Well, I’m teaching a class on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian this summer, so most of my obsessions have been scalp-hunting and the metaphysics of Indian hating. But I’ve also been mixing in a healthy dose of 1940s and 1950s prison-break movies because of a new project I’m working on. And I've been trying out a lot of edible plants of Colorado. I’ve been thinking about those a lot so that I don’t think about writing when I take walks. I’ve even been keeping one of those edible plant guidebooks in my back pocket. And I’m still alive and haven’t been to the ER once. Which I count as a very successful obsession. I tend to consider any obsession that doesn’t send me to the ER to be a successful one.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?
Kind of. For me it was just looking at my children and being scared to death. Parenthood is always on my mind. I’m a single father, and it’s the most important thing in my life. Which doesn’t make me any better at it, of course, it just means I worry about it all the time. What could I have protected them from that I didn’t? What more could I have done for them? Where did I screw up? Parenthood is the best way to come face to face with your failures as a person. And fatherhood, in particular, is a great way to drive your head straight into all those tropes of masculinity that most of us’d probably be better off without. Cry Father came out of wrestling with those. I don’t think I learned anything from it, except maybe that I’m no good at writing positive examples, but that’s where it kicked off.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
Most of my pep talking would go to finding what moves you. I think we’ve gotten way too interested in books that are market-driven or technically flawless. I want my heart broken. Once you’ve put everything you’ve got on the page hopefully you’ll find a great editor or agent to help you hone it. But until that time, don’t even worry about anything but what moves you. In his Nobel speech, Faulkner said that the human heart in conflict with itself is that alone which can make good writing. Everybody’s got an example of that story. Show me yours.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?
I try not to worry about it. My books are about subjects which are bound to attract a certain amount of criticism. Luckily I get some good reviews as well as some bad ones, but you have to take both with a grain of salt. The only thing I can say about Cry Father for sure is that it’s the best second novel I could write. It’s not perfect, and there’s lots of room for criticism, but it’s not my job to worry about that. It was my job to write the best second novel I could write, and I did that. That doesn’t mean the bad reviews don’t sting, but if I wanted to remain immune from criticism I wouldn’t publish.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 
I had the perfect childhood, I think. I was raised by a single mother in a series of very rural areas, so I grew up with the kind of freedom that would get most parents arrested these days. We didn’t have electricity or running water much of the time, but we always had books and woods to walk in. It was a good lesson at the beginning of my life to know how little you actually need to live. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. (Nor would I ever willingly live it again. I’m a sucker for hot showers and WiFi.)

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
 I’ve had a bunch of jobs. Everything from food service to factory work to technical writing. Even sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. I’ve always had a dayjob and I write the kind of books that mean I always will. All of them inform what I do. If nothing else, just in the realization that most people have to spend the greatest part of their waking lives doing things that’re inherently useless. There’s a crushing desperation in that. In every job I’ve ever worked, everybody hated what they did. That’s a fact. It’s a necessary evil, something you do to feed your family, but you know you’re burning up the best part of your life just to survive. It’s terrifying if you think about it, and it seems like it gets completely bypassed in most books.

Benjamin Whitmer is the author of Pike, which was nominated for the 2013 Grand Prix de Littérature Policier, and coauthor (with Charlie Louvin) of Satan is Real, a New York Times’ Critics’ Choice book. His second novel, Cry Father, will be released on from Gallery Books. 
For more info, go to Benjamin Whitmer's website.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Teaching.

On the first day of classes, the main thing I try to convince the students is that they've already lived long, rich, story-filled lives, that there is never really a white page to fill, only a transfer of what they already have and can imagine, in arrangement. We talk about the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, "Memory is a net," in order to further convince them that in addition to the material, they already possess an editor. The memories that remain have had some sorting and what's left has psychological resonance, even if just a small simple detail. And then we do an exercise -- they jot a memory of birds, water, bad job, odd neighbor -- and they shout out the ones they want to volunteer. Here, they start to see what they already have. I talk about what's on the board, how each of these bits registers as different elements for me, as a writer who's a bit seasoned -- a scene, a flashback, something used to punctuate a story, a climax, an oracle figure...and then together, we make a story. It's improvisational and ephemeral. It's a story no one will ever write and no one will ever see outside of that room, and yet they are some beautiful stories and I love that they exist -- collectively and only for a brief time. The parts go back to their rememberers to work with as they will -- more exercises, memory, observation, collection, imagination. And at the end, I erase the board and there's something beautiful in that. If my job is to build stronger writers -- for me, that means to first empower them as storytellers and to make them aware that they are walking through a life that -- with their eyes a little wider open -- is worth keeping, holding, examining, and sharing. If this gaze and thoughtfulness and appreciation is what they walk away with, I don't care what job they take on one day. Even when I am teaching someone who will become a writer, I'm really trying to help that person strengthen their ability to see observe and listen, to remember and collect, arrange and rearrange, to imagine and give back.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Novel is 17 Million Little Ideas, Arranged and Rearranged.

A nun taught me to swim. She wasn't yet a nun, but in just a few short years, she would be. And she didn't teach me to swim in water. Water was the problem -- my fear of it. So she took me out of the water to a bench. I was in 4th or 5th grade, and a lot of people had tried to teach me before her. But not this way. She told me to stretch out on a picnic bench and swim, the arm-stroke, the kicking, the breathing and all. I went home and dove into my sofa, and I swam. At night, I swam in bed. Eventually, one day, she said I was ready to apply it to water, and I did. I could swim. I'm thankful to Sister John Elizabeth to this day. This story -- in fictional form, all the characters and situation shifted -- is found tucked away in The Future for Curious People. One the 17 million little ideas, arranged and rearranged.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014



The Importance of Telling a Story -- Emphasis on the Telling.

The thing about pitching in LA is that, for me, it's the closest I get to old-fashioned tell-me-a-story storytelling. Raised on my mother's side by southerners, I was steeped in the oral Southern storytelling tradition from birth. Ask for a peach, and someone will say, "I know a woman who died from a peach. Have I ever told you that story?" Your answer doesn't matter. You will be told the story -- which will be archetypal, brutal, and, if you lean in, will lead to more stories. When I had a bunch of early, messy pages for THE FUTURE FOR CURIOUS PEOPLE, I created a pitch and pitched it to some producers. That's the other thing -- LA is filled with hyper-educated, widely read people who know story. Some leaned in. The story got tighter, smarter. Late one night back in my hotel, I watched a Charlie Rose interview with a panel of neurologists and, oddly enough, the artist Chuck Close, who suffers from the inability to recognize faces and whose work is to paint enormous canvases of detailed portraits of people's faces. The mechanism for "envisioning," which is key to the story, clicked into place. The rest-- including roping in my co-author -- came later. And this summer, I took the novel and returned it to its elemental form -- the screenplay, which may be what it was all along. As a kid, I wanted to be a playwright, but I then realized I couldn't play God in that role. I had to rely on actors. But this summer, Seeing Sam Rockwell in FOOL FOR LOVE, finally reading JUST KIDS and only getting starstruck in the parts with Sam Shepard, sending my 17 year old off to NYC to do improv, seeing a great new play DANCING LESSONS premiere a few weeks ago... I start hearing characters in my head. They begin confessing. I feel a story, and then I turn to Dave and start to tell it. When I was coming up, writing teachers told us not to talk about our stories, but the telling is where I come from. (After reading POWERS OF TWO new nonfiction on collaboration by Joshua Wolf Shenk, I know just how important that turning-to-Dave is ...) First and foremost, I tell stories.
(To my students, a warning -- with me, you'll start by telling...)