Tuesday, October 20, 2009

First Drafts.

"All first drafts are shit." Hemingway

Obviously. So stop being so prissy about them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Gazing Exercises.

"To gaze is to think." Dali

We gaze at other people's worlds instead of our own -- all of our various screens. We gaze and gaze. But we don't think.

It's the writers job to gaze. It is an exercise of thought as much as observation.

If you don't believe me, perhaps you'll prefer someone by the name of Benoit Mandelbrot who says, "The most important instrument of thought is the eye."

He's likely speaking of observation, but the blank gaze is a good gaze for the writer. The dumbstruck in absentia gaze. The one where you have stopped existing in this world and are in another. Practice it. Cultivate it. Nurture it.

If you're not gazing -- truly gazing -- then you won't find what you need.

"Chance furnishes me with what I need. I'm like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something. I bend over and it is exactly what I need." -- James Joyce

The writer has to a. stumble along -- likely gazing absently. b. trip. c. stop -- not just with a backward glance -- but bend over and pick this object up and then fit it into the world of the work, which is what they were thinking about as they were gazing and walking and tripping and bending and gazing again.


Friday, October 16, 2009


"At the end of a story or novel I most artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work, and therefore must casually mention something about those whom I have already presented." Chekhov

I butcher this by saying, "Don't forget your stuff," and "Your final image already exists in the story. Find it," and "You've invested in the creation of an arresting image. Get a return on that investment. Bring it back and back again." I talk about leaving stains on the reader's mind. Stains are good. And if you've created a strong image, let it haunt.

I talk about two plotting techniques I've come up with, ones I see again and again.

Hint, circle, reveal.
Reveal, circle, hint.

In the first, the author mentions something larger, but only a hint, then circles back to it, and then finally reveals.

In the second, they tell everything, then circle it with an image, and then make one deft final mention.

These sound like rules. There are no rules. Only things you can try to get away with.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


"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." Valerie Martin

I have a gesture for this moment that I use in all of my classes. It's your hands as a frame and then your face moving into that frame. It is the moment that we enter the story. It's different for different readers. But the skilled writer will give us plenty of opportunity.

It is usually a moment around an undeniable detail -- something simple -- the jostle of a dog's tongue, someone spraying oranges at a fruit stand ... A moment that we cannot deny exists -- somewhere in the world of this story. And we enter.

If the beginning of a story gives us this moment, there is success.

Stop telling us what to think. Stop trying to establish things. Stop SAYING things.

Create a sudden experience of reality.

Easier said than done.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No tricks.

"There is no invention to it, there is no trick, there is no fake; you simply lie down in a coffin and breathe quietly." Harry Houdini

I just found this quote. Weirdly enough in my first book of poems. It's the epigraph. I have no recollection of it whatsoever.

But I can tell why I put it there. I dig it.

We write from the coffin -- the shallow air of invention, the ever-present notion that we'll die one day, oh and all the greats who've come before to wind up in a box or a book. We try to find air holes. We try to drum up fields and -scapes. We wonder what's the trick. There's got to be a trick.

But it's just this ... breathing quietly. The in and out of air. One word penned and then the next. Our minds not in a coffin.

One breath and then one more ...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Against Puppetry

"I collect lines and snippets of things somebody might say -- ... then characters begin to emerge." Richard Ford

So why do we keep trying to establish the whole person from the get-go? Why do we stuff them with sawdust and make them shuffle around, doing our bidding in the name of our plotted agenda? Why the wires and strings?

Even if you stuff your characters with candy just to string 'em up and beat them later until the candy rains down on your head ... it's not good. It's not right. It doesn't make them anymore alive just because you're now eating candy.

See. Let there be snippets. Let there be bits. Let there be a gesture. Let there be a childhood incident with a stray cat. Let there be a mother's gloves. Let there be something beneath the bed. Let there be a rotten beam in the house. Let there be a dead grandmother. Let there be too much eating of ham. Let there be knuckles. Let there be ...


Monday, October 12, 2009

My Dear Sweet Dirty Rotten Liars

"Any story told twice is fiction." Grace Paley

Dearest liars, this is what we have in common -- our natural deceitfulness. Novels are long lies. It's hard to keep it up. But if we think we're telling the truth, if the deceit starts there, if we lie best when we lie to ourselves, then it is the truth ...

Flaubert doesn't even impose that kind of logic. "Everything one invents is true."

Ironically, what we want is the truth. We ask a lot of the reader -- feel it the way I feel it.

Think of Rat Kiley in Tim O'Brien's 'Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," the guy who if he said he'd slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half. "...he wanted to heat of the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt."

So if we felt a moment at the level of say, a seven, then we hype in the storytelling to a twelve. Upping what happens, hyping the lie, all that can help. But, really, words aren't flimsy translations for life. You have to trust them. They'll do the good work.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Shut up. Mr. Vonnegut is speaking.

"I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old fashioned plots is smuggled in there somewhere. I don't praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep the reader reading." Kurt Vonnegut

Because if the reader stops reading, you can be as beautiful and elegant and edgy and experimental as you want, but you may as well be singing in the shower.

I'm not down on experimental writing, however. Don't get me wrong. Even if you think I'm a sell-out, I'm all for experimentation. How else can you blow something up? I want things to get blown up -- or, moreover, blown open.

But Mr. Vonnegut is only talking about smuggling here. The plot can be a dime bag of pot. He's not asking for commercialism. He's not asking you to do the reader's dishes and take out his trash and rub his feet with peppermint foot lotion. He's just saying give the reader a dime bag -- somewhere. Smuggle in a little plotty love.

I'll further this by saying I don't need plot necessarily, not even a dime bag. But I do need a mystery. That mystery doesn't need to be plot-based. It can be aesthetic, stylistic, imagistic, a tension that between the writer and the page -- as long as it doesn't exclude me. The mystery can be -- what will be the final image? How's the writer going to pull this off? The mystery can be when and how is this going to reveal itself as a moment of actual being, when I'm forced to see the world anew.

You've got to offer me, the reader, small gifts. If there is no plot then I need other bonbons to keep me reading. Carrot at the nose. Lead me and then occasionally reward me.

Oh, but don't get me wrong. I respect how pretty you sound when you sing alone in the shower... Oh, the echo ... I just don't want to have to listen to the soundtrack.
I'll take your word for it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How to Cope

Chuck Palahniuk once said something like -- I try to apply enough pressure on my characters that their coping mechanisms break down in 300 pages.

This means that if you don't establish coping mechanisms -- she loves the light switch, touches the light switch, flips it on and off -- the reader can't watch the break down -- he doesn't love her and now she loves the Christmas lights, wraps her body in the lights, stands on the roof wrapped in Christmas lights. It means that you'll be telling us that your characters are breaking down -- Judy was super sad -- instead of letting us see it happen -- Judy was blinking on the roof.

Don't tell us about your characters like you're on one end of a tin can strung to my tin can. We'd like to see it. Better yet feel it.

Blink, blink, blink.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Poor, Stupid Reader

Here's the quote: "The unsaid, for me, exerts great power..." Louise Gluck

Here's the riff: The greatest sin of the writer is to underestimate the reader. Poor, stupid reader, let me spell it out for you again -- and again. We say it and say it and say it, blue-in-the-face, and powerless, like an insane parent who can't teach a child to tie a shoe. "Bunny ears!" we scream "Bunny ears! See 'em? Hop, hop, hop!" And then in madness, we rip the shoe off the child's foot and tie it ourselves.

In the end, we have crying child and a tied shoe in our hands. Are we happy now?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Backstory of my Run-in with ESQUIRE fiction editor -- a continuing saga?

guest blog by Julianna Baggott

In 2006, Tom Chiarella, the then brand new fiction editor at ESQUIRE, sent an Esquire cocktail napkin to 200 fiction writers. The request? Write a story on the cocktail napkin. It was smart, clever, innovative.

The problem was that I was pregnant, tired, overwhelmed, pissed.

And so I wrote on my napkin, alright. I congratulated Chiarella on his new post as fiction editor and then said, But, frankly, F-This. I went on from there to say F this and F that ... and make some proclamations about Fitzgerald, in poetic terms, and then on feeling reduced and reduced and further reduced. Now I have to fit on a cocktail napkin? That kind of thing...

You can see the full text here -- the napkin and, beneath it, a transcription.

I kind of became crazy about Chiarella -- who's a damn good writer, by the way -- because not only did he publish it online, which seemed like a pretty upscale place for my rant to land, but because he wrote me back -- a beautiful letter about his own mortgaged soul -- again, see the cocktail napkin for the context of the Fitzgerald reference...

I wrote him back -- again on a napkin as I thought this to be his preferred form of communication -- something short and thankful and sweet with a big red lipstick smooch on it.

Now, thing is, I'm going to meet Chiarella for the first time, in person, this November at the Sanibel Writer's Conference.

Does he think I'm crazy? Does he think I'm fine? Maybe he doesn't even remember me cussing at him on a cocktail napkin ... Right?

More to come.

The Baggott-Asher Bullet

My old badminton partner used to call one of my meanest serves "the Baggott Bullet." We played two summers in a row, afternoons, in the mown field across from our houses and we talked and talked. It was a phase of mine when I was bemoaning a certain collaborated (ahem, Almond), but a bunch of other things too. And it was during this phase that I admitted to a family tradition. The letter.

When truly pissed, my mother would write my father a letter. He was a lawyer. She was a pianist. It wasn't a fair verbal fight. And so she learned not to argue, but to write a letter -- where she couldn't be interrupted by counter-arguments, points of logic, facts and mere objections.

To this day, if my mother hands you a letter, you should be terrified.

Now, it might not mean she's pissed. It may mean she thinks she's hurt your feelings. It may mean you've hurt hers. It may mean something else entirely. Something, in fact, otherwordly. In any case, beware. Good or bad, these letters will make you cry.

I picked up this family tradition when Dave and I were first married. (The famous kitchen cabinet incident of '94 -- Dave knows of what I speak.) And, still, I will occasionally write someone in the family a letter. In fact, every so often the kids will wake up to find notes for each of them on the breakfast table. Things that I want them to aspire to in their day ... Things I admire about them ... I ruminate at night and come up with this stuff ...

In any case, my friend started to refer to this kind of letter as "the Baggott bullet," too.

And, fact is, I have a sash of such bullets when it comes to writing, and I have offered to take writer-friends of mine to task. "You want I call you up and give you what for?"

It's not encouragement we always need. Sometimes it's a little more direct.

Like a personal trainer who wants to get the best out of you ...

So ... Let's now call it the Baggott-Asher bullet.

I thought maybe I'd share a few speeches here -- some encouraging and some not -- but I'm not sure that I can. A letter needs an audience. Maybe I'll think about what I tell myself... Reasons to shut up, sit down and write.

We'll see.