Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Objectionable Books ....

This is a short piece on Baggott & Bode books being deemed "objectionable" by a Boston-suburbs principal and how this fits into the bigger picture of the national climate ... some thoughts on censorship, Obama's speech to school children, etc ...


Friday, September 25, 2009

Daily Practice ...

Darwinistically speaking, we are wired to see other human beings as cardboard cut-out versions of themselves. We walk past cop and think cop. We walk past homeless person and think homeless person. We give our money to the person at the counter and count our change. To look into another person's eyes, to fully imagine their lives, to even acknowledge in some small fractured way that this person has a life as full of fear and desire as yours, well, it's just not efficient. It's not smart survival.

Except if you're a writer.

Here's why.

If you see people as cliches, if you do not accept their full humanity, if you gut them of their hopes and fears and replace them, mentally, with cardboard cut-outs, day in and day out, if you simply pass people by, as a writer, you will find yourself at the page, writing the world as you see it. You will turn the cliches into cliches on the page.

But if you practice, instead, imagining the full lives of those around you -- those you pass by -- if you think of them as having an internal life as rich and vexed as your own, you will find yourself at the page writing the world as you see it. You will turn humanity into humanity on the page.

A few years ago, the chair of the English department made the very unwise decision of letting me sub in for the person who'd been assigned to take minutes at the departmental meeting. I was happy to. I wrote exactly what was said -- sometimes summarizing, sometimes using exact quotes -- complete with sniping, witticisms, wildness. I sent the minutes out, thinking I'd done a passable job. I got a lot of feedback -- cheering, really. One person said it was amazing how I'd turned the minutes into an art form. I had no idea I'd done anything. I told people that I just wrote what I heard. The problem was that I saw the meetings as a form of art in and of themselves. (I don't know how else to survive the meetings.) I was making art from art. (I was never asked to be secretary again.)

If you see people around you as real, full, rich and vexed, you will be making people out of real people, which is much easier than trying to make real, full people out of cardboard. If you see the world around you as art then your job is to make art from art. This is much easier than making art from air.

Maybe unwittingly, each time you take that presumptuous move to step into the life of another person, you are -- if writing with real depth -- being empathetic. Not sympathetic. Sympathy requires distance. Close writing requires breaking down distance.

Living as a writer is a daily practice - one that exists throughout your day, not just while writing.

The act of writing fiction is the practice of empathy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Move from Short Story to Novel...

I have some things to say, quickly, to those who are writing stories and want to make the move to the novel. Actually, I've got lots to say about this -- bolts and bolts of fabric lining the walls -- but I'm going to give the small package version.

First of all, it may well be true that you're tromping the terrain of a novel without knowing it. Try to look at your characters specifically. Is every woman character of a certain age really the same woman -- your mother? -- that you keep dressing up in different pantsuits?

This is possible. Look for your recurring characters. See if they fit together. This could be a very good discovery.

Now look through the stories you've written for the ones that hold the most heat -- the ones with the meatiest characters, with the strongest undercurrent of longing, suffering, need.

Then think in terms of the story as container. What keeps a short story short? Things like: size of cast of character, passage of time, point of view (the dissolution of a family from one point of view can be a story, same dissolution from 3 points of view is a novel), geography, heft of insight, limited retrospect, limited backstory ...

Is there a place in your story that can be opened up -- I call this looking for pleats. In my first novel -- originally an 11-page story -- the narrator's father has an affair with a redheaded bankteller, is confronted (in a weird way), and disappears for the night. In the novel, the most important pleat was that one night. Why not have the father disappear for a summer? What then?

I also filled in a present day for the narrator so that she had a reason to be looking back at the summer of her father's disappearance. I created a novella-length present day plot for her, expanding retrospect. In the father's absence, the mother and daughter road-trip back to the mother's childhood home ... expanding geography and cast of characters. I was then given a reason to write the mother's backstory. I kept the singular point of view.

Of course, this is just one way of getting at it -- a pinhole view.

The unforgiving truth is that each novel teaches you how to write it.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is Facebook for?

My husband just got a message from someone accusing him of lying -- in the late 80s early 90s -- about his father: inventor of the bar-code label.

(This person claims now to live on the same street as the Bar-codes.)

At this same era, I claimed my mother had been a Flamingo dancer. I was picked off for lack of proper pronunciation. Should have gone with Bar-code.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Where does story come from?

I'm late on a summary for a new novel. But I'm in the swirl of edits on my novel that comes out next summer -- the research of which required a. spending time in Provence and b. eating a lot of cake. (Research in the past has required trying to understand ancient coal miners over the phone, getting beauty tips from pageant contestants --which is more stressful than trying to understand ancient coal miners over the phone, reading Appalachian dictionaries, giving birth though not solely for research purposes, etc ... )

And so my head isn't quite ready to think of something new -- to wander the big pastures ... let the mind roam ...

Regardless, I jotted a few really big ideas down -- four to be exact. The last one proved my desperation and included chocolate. When in doubt: chocolate. And, because I'd wrestled my office to the bare ground, and had that overflowing metal rack marked IDEAS -- and two other boxes that I found later, sealed with clear mailing tape marked IDEAS in the frightened, scattered handwriting of a pack-rat, trying to move while not getting caught throwing stacks of random papers into a box ... -- I had a title.

The title made no sense to me. It was long. It included the name of a family that I didn't know. I liked it though. I'd written it down on the bottom of a to-do list ... and then put it in a pile, then threw it into a box. And now it was unearthed.

Granted, I'm not great with organizational skills. And there are very few other things I could have been in life other than a writer.

I couldn't be a lawyer -- despite my father's desire to pass down the family trade -- because female lawyers had to wear stockings back then. And that was a life I couldn't consign myself to.

I couldn't be a teacher -- though I tried, teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Language Arts at a Catholic school -- because I hated chalk and chalkboards and chalk dust. Little did I know that eventually schools would go to white boards.

In any case, I could only do what I could do.

I read off my four ideas to my editor in a phoner on Friday. She was a little perplexed. They were all pretty broad departures from the previous three novels (including the one I’m supposed to be revising at present) as Bridget Asher. We talked a little, in mulling tones.

And then I said, “Yeah, well. I don’t know. I also have this title that’s not connected to anything and I don’t know what it means.”

She wanted to hear it.

I told her the title.

She said, “I love it.”

“But what does it mean?”

We broke down the seven word title. Each gave some small clue.

Finally, my editor said, “You know I think your title has all four of the weird elements on your list. Did you plan this? Did you set me up?”

“No,” I said. “But if I just shove some chocolate into this thing, you’re right.”

We thought of how to shove chocolate into it.

I was jacked. I got off the phone. I had a title. I had four elements. I had another reason to research something sweet.

Then I turned to my husband, “I’ve got everything … except … a story.”

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Writer's Desire to Keep ...

I write things down on small scraps of paper. I always have. My mother told me that she'd find little pieces of paper with my notes on them scattered throughout the house even when I was young. My roommate in college recently told me she missed my trails of scribbled-on bank receipts and gum wrappers (perhaps sarcastically).

I think this need to write things down stems from my fear of memory slipping, of how a life can slowly -- one memory to the next -- be erased.

When I was 13, my grandmother came to live with us. She had Alzheimer's. When my parents were out, I was in charge of making sure she got dressed in the right order, helped her in the bathroom, convinced her that she couldn't simply walk home -- that she was miles and miles from home.

Eventually, we put her into a nursing home. My father fed her dinner every night, and when he was away on business, I did. I remember those halls. I remember the women scrubbing their trays until their hands were raw. I remember the people screaming in their beds.

In high school, I spent a lot of time walking those halls. I remember their faces, even today. I learned how to talk some out of their terrors. The ones who weren't visited by their families, I watched how quickly they slipped away.

My grandmother was placid. We rubbed lotion into her hands, combed her hair, and, when her radio wasn't stolen -- things were always going missing there -- we'd turn it on. And although she didn't know me or my father or this strange place of echoing voices, she knew the words to those songs ... and she sang.

And I became a witness. Having watched her lose one memory and then the next, one person and then another, I became someone who wrote things down. My need to take notes ratcheted up. Those notes and my desire to give witness is in every book I write. I've become a person of small slips of paper. A person who wants to keep ...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Clutter VS Clean -- Which Writer Are YOU? And...On Endings.

In the morning, while not quite awake, coffee mug in hand, I could walk over a couple of chalk-outlines of dead bodies to get to my computer and might not notice. A few stray dogs, a stolen painting or two, vandals who spray-painted literary slander on my walls, a squirrel infestation, a few lost clog dancers ... oblivious. I'd blindly pad over to my messy desk, stacked high with teetering piles of books and start typing away.

I have this memory of seeing a picture of, I believe, Ray Bradbury's office when I was a kid. (Someone's got to know something on this... Readers?) And it was packed with oddities -- animal heads, weird statues, masks .... It was ... liberating.

Anyone who's seen my space can testify to the disaster. It brings to mind post-Katrina photos.

Or .... it did.

I've been reformed. I've gone the straight and narrow. I've got labeled trays. I've got alphabetized books. I can see both my desktop AND the floor. (The floor, sadly, needs to be redone. I didn't know this when it was protected by books and stacks and scribbled maps ...)

The good news is that I found some really good stuff. Including ...

copies of the auction papers on my first ancestor on American soil -- sheep thief, did not go for as much as we'd have liked

my research on insane asylums

a great personal note to myself that quotes my husband as saying, "Be as graceful about being indecisive as you've been about being decisive all of these years."

my middle school ADVENTURES IN POETRY -- out of which I memorized (at a nun's request for a speech contest) THE HIGHWAYMAN -- in which a woman shoots herself to warn her lover that the Red Coats are after him (interesting choice for a nun to give to a seventh grader ...)

and, well, this is the most embarrassing thing of all -- I found diamonds.

Actual diamonds.

See, I had this family ring. Dave proposed to me without a dime. And so I took the diamonds out of this family ring to make a smaller engagement ring. The diamonds had been in the family for a couple generations -- my grandfather found them in a broach stuck in a lump of tar in a bathroom stall he was cleaning out ... in, say, the 1930s.

Or he stole it and came up with the story of the lump of tar.

In any case, nice diamonds ...

And I thought I'd handed them over to my sister -- who really loves things like diamonds and can keep track of things, in general. I have a distinct memory of this ... and now I wonder, huh, did I give her some other ring in the family made from that broach -- it was a sizable broach.

In any case, I shouldn't own anything of cash value. That's the point here -- or one of them.

So, I found the old ring -- missing three teeth that are now in my engagement ring. And, well, that's a reward for trying to mend my broken ways ...

I used to clean out after the last draft of every big project. But now that I try to keep multiple projects going there is no end and so no new beginning.

And this was good for my psyche.

Ending projects isn't as joyful as I once thought it would be. There is a moment's relief -- for me at least -- maybe a small swell of accomplishment -- but then the world is gone, the characters you created - gone. A strange lonesomeness takes hold.

This is a common thing among writers.

Not all -- I've heard Mark Winegardner say that he doesn't like writing. He likes having written.

But I've heard Donald Hall talk about his definition of contentment (which I've accepted) -- which happens around 3/4 of the way through a poem -- when he can almost see an ending ... but it's not yet there. I love being in that part of a novel -- when the ending is a shape in the fog. You know what you're writing toward -- if not why.

And I remember asking Madison Smartt Bell why he'd picked up a certain assignment. He said he knew that the end of his trilogy was coming, and he knew that with that ending would come sadness. He wanted something else to dig into ...

I get that.

But now I not only have beginnings, middles, endings -- I have a filing system.

Each metal tray is labeled with a project ... except for one. It's simply marked IDEAS. It's where I secretly dumped all the stuff I didn't know what else to call. It's my small mess. It's my rebellion. It's where the good stuff -- that makes no sense -- will hopefully start sending up shoots that will bear strange, unidentifiable fruit ...


Friday, September 4, 2009

Territories versus maps ...

I'd like to add to the post on Money & Writing & Desire the quote by Korzybski: The map is not the territory.

I don't know where I first read it. I butchered it for years. In fact, I used to say, "Don't confuse the territory for the map," because this was what I did more than I wanted to.

And I still very well may be interpreting the quote wrong. I can only tell you that in those very lean years, it protected me from my desires for the material. If I wanted something of the world and unnecessary, I reminded myself that buying it was like buying a map when you want the land.

It was a thing I held in my hands that would represent a life that I wanted. But it wasn't the life I wanted. It was only a map, a flimsy piece of paper in my hands.

I didn't want the photo album, I wanted the trip. I didn't want the good dining room table, I wanted the conversation with my family while eating. I didn't want my kids to one day have a good job that could afford them a big fat house, I wanted to give them a good education.

I don't want a picture of the life hung on the wall. I want the life.

The world offers you lots and lots of maps. In every store, there are maps for sale. If you spend all your time and money and energy buying maps, you'll have nothing left for the land.

Harder still, in life, you've got to imagine your own land and find it or create it. Easier to buy a map, yes, but not as enduring...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On Money & Writing & Desire

I had my first two kids under the poverty level. My husband made $17,000 a year. We lived in a three-bedroom condo and rented two of the bedrooms to foreign students, a boarding house situation. I had to provide breakfast and serve dinners. Our friends' year-end bonuses were already three times what we made in a year. We were willing to sacrifice things like privacy and dignity for ... time. Meanwhile, we aspired to the poverty level.

It was lonesome, in a way. We didn't travel. We didn't go out to dinners. We couldn't really afford to have people over for dinner -- and there was always a Brazilian dentist or a Korean woman who wanted to be a stewardess lurking around. It was awkward at best.

One of the guys in my husband's wedding party visited with his family. He told us, years later, that he and his wife talked about us all the way back to Connecticut. They told each other how crazy we were. What were we thinking?

And what were we thinking? I don't really know. Even back then, I was squirreling away money. Passing off fish sticks and beans as "typical American cuisine," made specifically to enlighten our boarders about all things Americana, I was siphoning funds and putting 'em in the bank. At Christmas, we put lights on a fake wood beam in the dining room of the condo and told the kids it was a tree.

In those early years, it was crucial that I didn't desire a sofa too much. I knew that money was really time and freedom. My husband got better jobs. We bought a house but still had to take in foreign boarders.

Time passed, and just as I'd squirreled away money, I squirreled away hours. Finding time to make stories and poems was like making bread from dust.

Finally, I had an agent ask for a novel. I decided it was time to get serious. I asked my parents for a loan for a babysitter -- the loan was for $500. I promised to pay it back.

I hired sitters. I made writing rules. I was never allowed to do anything other than write when the kids were asleep or the sitter was there. Laundry, shopping, taxes, everything had to be done with the kids at my feet, on my back.

I wrote the novel.

Two more kids and fifteen books later, I'm writing this ... There's a sitter here. The youngest is asleep. I pay for the sitter myself. I sometimes desire sofas. I still squirrel away my money and my time.

And the friends of ours who drove home to Connecticut that afternoon years ago talking about how crazy we were, no longer think we are. They think we had a great master plan and saw the whole broad picture. But, honestly, we had no plan, no broad picture. We went day to day, hour to hour, one moment to the next ...


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cross-training -- How to steal from one genre for the sake of the other ....

by Julianna Baggott, guesting in and mouthing off again. (Oh, how I adore Bridget for inviting me!)

Okay, so I've coined the term "plot poem" for a screenplay. So we steal the pressure of the white applied to language and image in poetry and apply it to the pressure of white on plot (which, in the best of cases, equals character) in the screenplay -- and/or vice versa.

And the pressure of the white should also come to bear on fiction. You've got to earn that white space. The last line before you use a break needs to be solid enough to hold up the text above it. Or, maybe think of it this way, you've got a space coming up -- a bit of white -- make sure you give the reader something that stains right there, something that churns -- something that deserves white for the demands of digesting that image ...

And while I'm talking about the text holding up what comes above it, I'd like to shout to the line breaks of Andrew Hudgins. His line breaks often strike me as falling under the weight of the image or language ... in beautiful ways.

If you have a fear of writing epiphany (and if you're a short story writer, you should -- epiphany being the most vexing and -- forgive me for sayin' it -- but contrived constraint on contemporary short fiction, by my count. Now, I don't want a story without some kind of epiphany -- but maybe only because I've been so conditioned -- even if that epiphany is only one for the reader and not the character ... etc., then you should also turn your gaze to the poets.)

Some of those poets who are really narrative do epiphany page upon page. (I'm thinking Marie Howe, Rodney Jones -- I love teaching David Kirby's Baby Come-over poem in fiction workshop, as well as some Frank Giampietro ... even Matthea Harvey though she might deny it ...) Anyway, if you want to learn the most about epiphany per word-count investment, look to poets.

(And just a quick shout out to Matthea -- go to www.quickmuse.com and see her entry. You'll be able to watch her writing the poem in near real-time. Fascinating process.)

Steal taut attention to language from poets, too, whilst you're at it, dear fiction writers. Let's not forget the obvious.

Of course creative nonfiction has long ago learned to employ the techniques of fiction to create convincing scenes. I think that fiction can borrow from creative nonfiction more freedom to illuminate with insights ... We've been made to show don't tell so much that we forget the beauty of insight, of occasional telling.

I'd always suggest to any poet who finds themselves locked in summary mode to pop into a near-scene by using a smattering of dialogue ...

Instead of "show don't tell," I say "Show don't tell. But when you have to tell, do it in a showy way." By which I mean, just tell us it's five o'clock. Don't -- as someone shouted out as an example in class yesterday -- laboriously have a character turn off Oprah with end-of-the-work-day traffic buzzing in the distance. I'd tell poets who are buried under the constraints of showing all: just tell it every once in while. Full permission from moi.

I believe that essayists have practiced the art of mining the self in a way that could be of real use to fiction writers. You don't have to invent it all, people. Dig through your memories. Use them to quilt together something unexpected. Use those memories to give depth and texture.

The novel's larger architecture -- I'd love to see it applied to some collections of poetry that are simply poems shoved together that only seem to have one thing in common: the same poet wrote them all. I love the collections of poems that are not only collected but that are put together with a greater structure in mind -- even if it's simply an awareness of the effects of accumulation ... image upon image, note upon note... Ditto the short story collection. I'm not pushing for novels in stories -- but within the traditional collection itself, steal the novel's architectural demands, for just a few afternoons ...

I've spoken about screenplays as detailed novel outlines. But also think of the agility in writing a screenplay when it comes to revisions of a novel -- and my process is near-constant revision throughout a first draft. The screenplay - because of its white and the pressure of that white -- insists on movement and allows for change ... in quick strokes. Where the novel bogs, word after word, making revision -- especially early on when you really should be drafting instead of writing -- really slow. I love the way screenplays allow for sketching before adding layers of oil paint... A structure can be seen, laid bare, more clearer in the screenplay ... Of course somethings can only be made clear with layers and layers of oil paints.

Research -- don't cordon it off into nonfiction territory. Everyone should do it. (How can you avoid it, really?) You should do it for the work's sake, yes ... and too, as I've already said in another blog, research takes you out of authority in very surprisingly good ways ... You think you want this to burn down or that building to exist, and history says otherwise. This leads to a different kind of inventiveness. I find some of my favorite writing moments aren't while writing but while researching something that opens my writing up in ways that I didn't expect -- that goes for all genres.

I've learned from writing novels for younger readers how to write dark whimsy for adult readers. Whimsy -- dark or not -- does not only belong to one age group. (One of the reasons that Harry Potter was such a hit with adults was because the publishing industry had long ago decided whimsy of this kind was not for adults and so had starved the adult audience of this element in their diet ... which helped to create the perfect publishing storm... mixed metaphors but whatever ... My point's interesting and in there somewhere ...) Freed up to do so for children, I was freed to do so, in general.

I'd tell poets who are really writing short stories but trying to pretend they're poems -- and there are some out there, no? -- just write stories. This advice can go in all directions at once to all parties who are writing in a genre because they know it, as opposed to writing in a certain genre because it's best for the material ...

There's no way to end this tidily ... and so I'll stop there. Again, I know I'm forgetting things -- and I'm sure you all have thievery to add -- so check the comments ...

and a little nonfiction essay...