Monday, April 29, 2013

1/2 Dozen with Rhonda Riley

A conversation with debut novelist, Rhonda Riley, who's novel THE ENCHANTED LIFE OF ADAM HOPE -- a wonderful story -- is newly out in the world. I love her wise advice here. Things like: "The first draft is like dreaming with my eyes open."

Read on.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Maybe because I hurt my leg recently dashing across a wet sidewalk, or maybe because in my recent writers group I was criticized for using the verb “walk” too many times. But lately I love watching people walk.  Considering that we all do it the same way—upright on two legs, there is amazing variety. What hips knees, thighs, ankles and feet can do between the waist and the ground is fascinating and highly individual in shape and rhythm. Totter, lumber, stride, stroll, sway.   There was a bag boy at my grocery store for a while who had a muscular condition that bend his legs into awkward and seemingly impossible angles. He was cheerful but always seemed on the verge of toppling over. I saw him run once, sprinting after a runaway grocery cart. He looked like jazz.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love the imaginative aspects of writing.  The first draft is like dreaming with my eyes open.  I let it unfold and try not to ask the story too many questions.  The revisions that follow are less fun, but they satisfy in that they are like sculpting in clay.  You add some then you take some away. You ask questions. The worst parts of writing is copy editing. I am terrible at it. And I hate it.  But I also hate embarrassing myself with stupid typos.  Sitting for long hours is no fun.  Sometimes I stand to write.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick. 

Don’t stop.  If you’re stuck, get help.  Find a writer’s community.  Exchange work, you’ll learn a lot. All stories live in that space between the writer and the reader.  Learn to think like a reader while you revise.  Read good books, they are much more important than how-to-write books.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it? 

I have very limited experience with the post-publication criticism.  But there have been a few readers so far who didn’t like some aspect of Adam Hope, but they all owned their negative comments as preferences, and I am fine with that. You can’t please everyone.  There was one professional review that puzzled me.  I had the feeling the reviewer had just skimmed the book.  I was irritated for about 15 minutes, then I let it go.  Criticism in a writers group while a work is in progress is a little different.  There is always that point in my writing when I seek out peers, when I need new eyes on my words.  I try to be as open as possible to any criticism, but I give myself permission to ignore it if it seems off base or misguided, especially if it comes from just one person.  If a whole group agrees on some negative--or positive--criticism, I listen and take that to heart regardless of my own opinions and then try to make if work for me and my writing.  But my skin can be as thick as it needs to be. I had a fellow writer in one group who called my narrative style “wet noodles on the page.”  I thought he was an ill-mannered ass for saying it that way.  He often had hissy-fits in the margins of my manuscript, but he was also completely incapable of stopping himself from line editing and he was very good at that. He found every misspelling and every missing period or comma.  I took full advantage of his copy editing skills and let the rest of it roll off my back.  I’ve also found that cheerleaders—even when I think they are probably just being nice and don’t want to hurt my feelings—are invaluable during those slumps when my writing looks dead to me.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

The baby of the family by ten years, I always felt a little outside of my own family. My parents were tired and I was frequently unsupervised. By the time I was in third grade, I knew where the cop next door kept his gun and his condoms, which drain pipe the stray cats hung out in, and what the neighbors down the street kept in their freezer. My Uncle Calvin once described me as being off in my own world, but I was really just a quiet, nosey kid.  I hung out with the other kids in the neighborhood and I adored my friend, Shirley, but I was very comfortable with solitude. Being solitary was helpful when being nosey.  Adults will often ignore a quiet, single child.  Sometimes I pretended to sleep on the couch or in the back seat of car so I could hear what they really said when they thought there were no little ears listening.  My family was very blue-collar, and I was read to only at church or when I was sick. There were few books in our home.  Yet I had a library card before I could read.  I was a voracious, promiscuous reader of stories all through school.  When I was about 12 years old my mother quit the night shift at the local food processing plant.  Suddenly she was around all the time and she started telling me stories most nights after supper.  Now that I think about it, all of this seems to the perfect preparation for becoming a writer—read, snoop, listen and be okay spending lots of time alone.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

Yes, place is very important to me.  In The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, the setting plays a major role in the plot, literally giving and taking life. The landscape is practically a character in its own right. Place has always been important to me personally, especially the natural environment. To me, the air and the dirt and the little weeds that grow along the side of the road can be as exotic in a new place as the language and buildings.  I’m also fascinated by the way we can love and hate a place, the ways in which some people are deeply attached or completely detached from the aspects of a particular place.  Living in Florida, I get to meet a lot of people who’ve left the northern climes. I knew a Dutchman who mourned for frozen sleet each winter.  I had a neighbor once who was completely creeped out by the relative quiet of Gainesville compared to Manhattan.  It seemed to be a neurological rather than cultural longing. He couldn’t sleep without the hum of millions around him. I think a place can sculpt us and our stories.

Rhonda Riley is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at the University of Florida. This is her first novel.  She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

wait. baggott on a lobster boat?

so dave posted the link yesterday to the Damariscotta Lake Writers' Conf. while i was away in TX on a panel trying to be, you know, coherent, and my mom clicked on the link. later, we talked on the phone and she said, "did you know you're going to be speaking on a LOBSTER BOAT?"
i said, "what? no, there's no boat."
"i told your dad that there's no way my daughter knew about the lobster boat. you're going to get out of that, aren't you?"
"is there really a lobster boat?"
"ask dave."
"he'd have told me."
"maybe he doesn't know about it either, but it says on the thing that you're the hog lecturer --"
"boss hog," i say, a nervous joke, because now i'm afraid of the lobster boat.
"and," my mother presses on, "they say that lecturer is talking all day on a lobster boat!"
"i had trouble at that bateau mouche restaurant last summer. just reaching for the salt and there's this slight shift under your seat."
"well, you'll just have to tell them that you're not speaking on that lobster boat. that's all there is to it."
today, i look up the link and damn if she's not right about the CLEAR indication of a lobster boat: "the academic centerpiece of the week is the Hog Island Lecture, for which participants climb aboard Kieve’s lobster boat, the Snow Goose, to spend a day with an established writer in an interactive class and informal gatherings."

Full link with 411.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Highlights from TLH Book Club

Highlights from my new talk, given last night. Basically, I discuss how I came to be a writer, which I've talked about many times, but this time I added pop-out lessons and warnings that can be applied to many fields. [The quotes are rough. The MP3 version of the full speech might be on the way...]

Here goes:

"Our culture is deeply invested in the concepts of inspiration, having big dreams, innate talent, and luck. These four concepts have one thing in common: they require no work. Success in any field requires work. The arts require hours, days, years..." 

I broke down all four concepts (more or less) but here's my take on inspiration .... "I tell my students the old adage, 'When there is no wind, row.' And I also add, 'When there is wind, row double-time.' I have been inspired. The problem is inspiration is not sustainable. You can be inspired to write the first paragraph of a trilogy, but not the thousands of pages that a trilogy demands."

“When I say I’ve been published by most of the major publishing houses in New York City, I don’t mention that I’ve also been rejected by all of them. You don’t publicize the failures.”

"Failure is just a narrative plot point. When you're in it, failing, it feels like the end of the story, but it's really just the middle. When you fail in your career, it's just part of the story that leads to the eventual success. When you fall in love with the wrong person, it feels like failure but it's really setting you on the course to meet the person you're meant for..."

"A lot of people are talking about 'Leaning In,' these days. I would have a much more nuanced, smart and well-thought out response to the chatter, if I weren't so busy leaning. With four kids and a career, I've leaned in and leaned out. I've learned how to sway. To live a resentment-free life, I had to learn how to do both -- have a family and keep writing. I've done both intensely."

In case you would like to read more, here's another write-up of the event.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Efficient Creativity. How to write while not writing and other tips...

(Originally published in August or so of 2009 or so...)

I've butchered this Norman Mailer quote many times in my life. But here it is in full:

"Over the years, I’ve found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write." (The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, Random House, 2003)

If I had just one rule, I'd say that I believe in the commitment, in doing right by the commitment. In short, I believe in showing up.

With four kids and a university teaching gig, I've had to learn how to be efficient, creatively-speaking. My thoughts on this might apply to ANYONE in the arts or the art of politics, business, science ... anywhere there's the need for reflection, problem-solving ... musing.

When I had my first child, I was only twenty-five, but I'd been publishing stories for a few years. We were living well below the poverty level. No money to pay sitters. And I didn't write for thirteen months. (Eventually I went to two colonies -- VCCA and Ragdale. I'm hugely grateful for those opportunities.)

I realized later that the problem wasn't that I'd lost writing time. I could scrape time up from the dusty corners of the room and make bits here and there ... But when I got there, I felt lost, distracted. I feared starting because I wasn't sure I'd be able to stop. I feared starting because I was terrified of admitting to my desire to write. Instead I denied my wanting because to want and not to then be able to write is torturous.

Eventually, I had to give in. I had to let myself want and then I had to find the time to write.

For me it came to this: If I didn't write, I would resent my children. And if I didn't have children in order to have more time to write, I'd resent my writing.

I had to do both.

Once I allowed my desire to kick in, I realized that what I'd really lost was something more valuable than writing time. I'd lost my muse time.

Instead of thinking about my characters, my mind was churning over all of details of my new job -- nursing, diapers, Cheerios, rashes, language acquisition ... I thought about these things while driving, showering, falling asleep. I had to, really.

But once I'd decided that to survive, I had to write then I had to reclaim my muse time for my art. And so I began to train myself mentally. When I found myself churning on aspects of mothering -- ones that were not essential, but had become a little compulsive tic, a checklist on an endless loop running through my brain -- I stopped myself and pointed my thoughts back to my characters, to a scene, to language. I set my mind to a task -- say, what does this character fear in this scene -- and then let my mind spiral away from the task, associatively. When it wandered down an uninteresting rabbit hole, I'd pull it back in and set it to the task again then untether it and follow.

This became part of my process -- an essential one that has led me to say that IT WAS CRUCIAL FOR ME TO LEARN TO WRITE WHILE NOT WRITING.

Here are a few other simple pensees that I've gathered. Like Mailer, I don't much believe in applying rules to the creative process in a blanketed way. These are things that I've learned work for me.

1. Pay yourself first. What time of day is your most productive? Don't waste those brain cells on anything other than your own art.

2. If you can't (or choose not to) write in the mornings, still run your eyes over your pages so you can keep your characters at the fore of your mind as you walk through your day ...

3. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs. I don't stop before I'm finished so that I can artificially stop in a spot where I know I can easily start up the next day. Some writers do. But I always jot notes as to where I think I'm going to go next.

4. Write the scene that comes to you even if it's out of order. When I've ignored these scenes rising wholly in my mind, no matter how vivid, I've forgotten them when the time comes to write them -- or they've at least faded. I show that I'm thankful for a risen scene by writing it then -- even if in a sloppy shorthand fashion.

5. I never throw stuff out. I keep a junkyard of pieces that aren't working and I use them later in other works ... Again, this seems to add to the texture from my perspective, and it rewards me for being editorially rigorous -- eventually.

6. When a good idea hits, lift your head and take note of your surroundings so that you can recreate the conditions. For me, it's been nursing, driving, showering, peeling fruit, picking seeds out of wilted cosmos ... for my work for younger readers, I work much better on the floor, closer to the ground... Whatever it is ...

7. Collect. I go through my day as myself and as my characters ... I collect pieces of conversation, images, gestures, scowls, clothes, laughs, belches, noses, chins, nervous tics, my own odd assumptions and daydreams ... In this way, I never have to approach the blank page. I have all of my bits, spread them out, quilt from there. (I won't launch into my full process here ... or why this, for me, creates a more textured work etc ... One day ...)

8. Read like a writer. Rosellen Brown has said that the art of reading for her is one of 'oh, so you can write about that' ... I've taken this to mean that in the work of others you find territories that you can then send your own imagination out into ... I have also learned that when I guess at plot and I'm wrong, I shouldn't simply say, "Huh," and move on. I should examine the plot that my own brain has discovered. It might be of interest. I like the exercise of reading the table of contents to a book of poems, imagining the poems, therefore creating my own visions ... and perhaps following some to poems of my own. I did this often when working on my first collection. When you then read the poet's full poem, it's never the one you've imagined.

9. And, of course, tell yourself you're going to write. Let your subconscious begin to prepare the material, and then show up.

10. Keep showing up.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Advice to Mothers who are Artists, Writers...

Damn, I kind of throw down in this interview -- on advice to mothers who are also writers/artists. Yesterday's post was the sweet version. This interview is: "Assert yourself now... Elbows [bleep] out. You deserve the time. Your partner needs to step up. This is where it begins." I also touch on Mommy Wars, explain my practice of creative efficiency, talk about being judged at cocktail parties as a sell-out and more. HERE's the link.