Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Story as a Sentient Being

I started teaching a Valerie Martin essay for this quote, "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." It seems crucial to young writers at the start of the semester and fits with the way I prepare them for their first story. I've always given the word "unwary" a hard time -- I assume all readers are wary -- I love the essay because of Martin's quote and those of other writers on how a story/characters come them. As I was prepping to teach it again this semester, the essay seemed to be completely new -- in that it takes a turn I never really understood before. (To prep for this, it helps to know that I just saw the film HER for the first time, and last night I saw ADORE, based on the Doris Lessing story "The Grandmothers" -- my, my, Ms. Lessing!) Here's the part of the essay that -- upon reading it anew this semester -- suddenly appeared, "Stories think, and they do it the same way we do. They talk straight sometimes, right to the heart, but they have always a deep, symbolic understanding of reality that can dictate what happens on the conscious level. They speak to us, as dreams speak to us, in a language that is at once highly symbolic and childishly literal. They mirror our consciousness exactly because they are composed through a process both conscious and subconscious." If stories think, they have their own consciousness. They go out into the world and interact -- in dialogue and in a subconscious way -- with humans. Drawing on HER, stories are alive; they have their own intelligence. Sure, I've understood that art can be immortal -- those old unaging monuments of intellect. I've never been drawn to those notions. But this -- this idea that a story is a being, a living conscious being, that's a way of looking at it that I've never quite done before. Explaining this to Dave this morning, I reminded him I'm no fan of birthing metaphors for publication. (They make me a little crazy because I've had four children come out of my body and no one ever says, during labor, "It's just like writing a book! Bear down and push." They don't because it's not and because someone might slap them.) However, the story as a conscious being that the writer's made that then goes off and moves through the world interacting with others, having conversations, moving them or angering them... that does make sense. They gone on without us, as our kids do, into the world. Martin starts this essay with a birthing metaphor, in fact. "Unlike babies, not all stories come from the same place, and not all people who create stories go about it in the same way." I'm not sure I agree. People go about having babies often long before a physical act (which also comes with its variations) -- sometimes, in fact, a child starts as an act of imagination. People start with an image, just as the many writers in Martin's essay confirm. I'd say that miscarriages have been hard for me, the loss of a future imagining of our lives; the physicality of the miscarriage an added bereavement for my body. Maybe this idea of story as its own conscious moving into the world hits me now because my oldest children are moving into the world themselves. I'm actually really stunned that I'm making any of these metaphors about art and birth, as opposed as I've been to them all my life -- and certainly I'm not willing to take them too far. My children aren't stories. They're human, truly, beautifully and miraculously. Maybe, more simply, what I find really startling is how the Martin essay has its own consciousness -- one that, when I came to it this time, had different things to say to me -- ones I'd have sworn weren't in it before. This is also often true of the fiction I teach. It changes on me. Just this week I said of the short story "Owls" by Lewis Nordan -- he's defining love as the place where you can tell all of your secrets, and how beautiful it was -- this time -- that even a parents' failed love, when re-imagined by the child (the imagination as an active creator), prepares the grown-up for romantic love. It fits perfectly with Martin's essay -- as if those two beings are talking and I'm only eavesdropping, "In a world where the ultimate power to destroy all human life lies in the hands of people we can neither admire nor trust, and with the certain knowledge that this extraordinary power is held by people we may even despise, one must assume that the average person is making up stories all the time. Otherwise we would simply go mad from anxiety." We're all storytellers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Against Perfection

A grad student tells me how much it helped him with his novel-in-progress when he heard, "Done is better than perfect." I looked at him a moment and then said, "But there is only done. Perfect is a myth. You know that right?" He looked at me blankly for a moment. I went on to say something like, "Give me a novelist who thinks he's written the perfect novel and I'll give you someone who's delusional or artistically paralyzed." When we teach novels, those we've annointed, we have to be clear -- especially when teaching writers -- that no novel is perfect, especially in the eyes of the novelist who wrote it, but also it can never be perfect because the novel is a collaboration between writer and reader. A reader, just like the novelist who wrote the novel, is also always changing; there are two bodies of water here. What was perfect when read at 22 shouldn't be perfect when read much later; or what is perfect when read in old age shouldn't necessarily be perfect for your grandchild. At least, not to my mind. You all can argue this below if you want. But perfect is damaging. It's the photoshop of what should be beautiful, ugly, sprawling, lifelike. If a novelist actually thought a novel of theirs was perfect, I'd suggest they rip a seam a little, for the sake of the work itself.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Angelina Mirabella

Here is a half-dozen questions for Angelina Mirabella whose debut THE SWEETHEART (Simon & Schuster) has just hit stores. Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Olen Butler calls the book "Smart, funny, and poignant..." I've started the novel and can attest, Mirabella is an amazing young talent, and this interview offers some wonderful insights into a marriage of two writers, motherhood and writing, and the joy of first and last chapters.  

Here we go:

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?

There were two moments, actually. First, I read THE NATURAL. I admired so much about it. Roy Hobbs is a fabulously flawed character, and the book's central message--a second chance is no guarantee of a happy ending--is one that struck me as inherently true. But, like other readers before me, I had a beef with the female characters. One is an angel and one is a devil. That is a problem. Then I watched some really non-nutritious bit of television--if it wasn't VH1's I LOVE THE '80's, it was something like that--and I learned that, at one point in her career, Wendi Richter could command more money than Hulk Hogan. That got me thinking about wrestling's potential as a subject. It's fun in and of itself--full of primal screams and primary-colored Lycra--but it also gave me a way to think more about good girls and bad girls. Faces and heels are the dominant personae in wrestling. I liked the idea of building a novel around two women who had adopted those personae but were infinitely more complicated out of the ring. 

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

I'm on both sides of this equation: my husband is also a writer. This has its complications, but mostly, it works. As long as you are sharing equally in the pleasures and challenges of family life and protecting the other's writing time as ferociously as your own, it is a helpful partnership. The trickiest bit, at least for me, is getting and giving feedback. Jack is a better reader of my fiction than I am of his, smarter and braver, and that can feel like a burden. Before I started THE SWEETHEART, I started another novel. I had been thinking about a wrestling novel, but I had this idea that your first novel was supposed to be a sort-of practice novel, something slim and semi-autobiographical. I took a week off of work and wrote sixty pages. At the end of the week, I gave the pages to Jack, and he told me he thought I was making a mistake and should just write the wrestling novel. I made a gin and tonic and took it in the backyard to cry into it because I didn't even want to be in the same building as him, I was so pissed. But he was right. It took me a while to come around to it, but I'm so glad I did. I guess that's my advice: be smart, be brave, and be prepared to sleep on the couch. 
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

When you're a mother who writes, it is very easy to let family life take over and to let your writing fall to the wayside. Time and energy are finite, and children demand a lot of both. If there's any left over, you want to make sure you are spending it on something worthwhile. There were times when I wasn't convinced that writing was the right investment of my limited resources. But eventually, I realized that if I wanted my children to set lofty goals for themselves and do the hard work to meet those goals, I was going to have to model it for them. By deciding my novel was important for them, I made it important for me. To get it done, I became flexible about how, when, and where I worked. There were days when I wrote with my laptop on my knees in the stairwell, because from there I could keep an eye on my children while they played. I couldn't always find the time to get to the computer, but I found the time to think about my novel every day. That way, it stayed alive until I could work on it again. And sometimes, you just have to do everything at once. Late one night, when I finally figured out how to end my novel, one of the two rare writing times when I felt like I was on fire, my youngest toddled into my room wanting to nurse. I popped her on, took a moment to stroke her curls, and then got back to work. It was so satisfying and empowering to have both of those things at once, to know that I could make art while nurturing and staying connected to my child.

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

I admire writers who can create a character out of a place, but I am not one of those writers. One of my earliest writing challenges was understanding my own relationship to place and finding a way for that to be part of my fiction. I grew up in a military family, so I moved around a lot in my childhood. That rootlessness felt like a disadvantage. I didn't have any fierce attachments to place, and there was no place in the world that I knew well enough to evoke in a way that would teach anybody anything. Eventually, I realized that a character's relationship to place didn't have to be cozy or even knowing. My feelings of rootlessness, estrangement, and bewilderment belonged in fiction, too. It doesn't surprise me that I created a protagonist who never lingers anywhere very long and rarely feels like she belongs where she is, whose relationship to any given place is little more than her immediate surroundings--a gym, a hotel room, a seat on the bus, a booth in the diner.  

What's your worst writerly habit?

Procrastination. I am very good at finding things to do that are not writing. This is one way that being in a relationship with another writer has been helpful. My husband has a superhuman work ethic. He has an academic job, his family responsibilities, and a side project co-creating two series of infant board books (COZY CLASSICS and STAR WARS: EPIC YARNS) with his brother, Holman, yet he always makes time for his fiction. Early in our marriage, when he would spend long hours at the computer, I would mope and say, "Can't we do things normal couples do like watch television or have sex?" And he'd say, "Sorry, I'm writing. But I'll get back to you later on the sex." After so many months of that, you start working on your own novel just because you have nothing better to do.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

Almost everything about my novel was difficult. It took eight years to get from the first word to the final draft (with some breaks for babies and other life events). In all that time, there were maybe two days when I felt possessed, when I was writing in a furious manic state because after many, many shitty, unsatisfying attempts, I was finally onto something. On those days, I finished the first chapter and the last chapter. Those are my favorite chapters of the book, and I'm sure there's a relationship between my assessment of them and the state I was in when I wrote them. But I couldn't tell you if it's because of the emotions I associate with those moments or because they really are the most inspired chapters. What I can say with certainty is that I couldn't make a novel out of just a first chapter and a last chapter. If I waited for the days when I felt like that, I'd almost never write.

Angelina Mirabella received her Master of Arts in English (Creative Writing) from Florida State University in 2003. Her work has appeared in The Southern ReviewThe Mid-American Review, and The Greensboro Review. In 2007, she attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams scholar. She lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband and two daughters. The Sweetheart is her first novel.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

1/2 Dozen with Michael Gills

Every once in a while, an interview will hit me at exactly the right moment, lighting a bright path. This one -- with writer Michael Gills -- is one of those fiery ones. Fellow creatives, take note. The question on why he teaches is really a mini-seminar on process and craft. Take heed. Dig in. 
It's still the New Year. Make a resolution.  

1.  I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration--the idea than 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?

When I was forty and my mother had just died and I was lost and crazy in the way that you can only be then, I commenced to attend Lakota ceremony which included Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest, and Sun Dance, this last one of which entails participants to pilgrimage somewhere such as Zuni Land in New Mexico in the heat of summer, where the lone open pit fire in the state is kept burning by bearded men who believe spirits are with them right there that second, and a whole host of dancers rise before light on Summer Solstice and march into the east gate of the dance ground, skewer stobs through their chest, these hooked to halters and roped to a hundred foot cottonwood from whence they proceed to hurl themselves away from and thus offer their own flesh and blood to the sun and the tree of life itself.  That first day I participated, 18 July 2005–two days from a full moon with wolves howling–that first singular moment when very real flesh was ripped from a body and the Tunkasila song burst forth, joyful voices over the big thudding drums, I was dumbstruck, sore afraid, and wholly inspired.

2.  Pep talk for the downhearted writer.

George Singleton has written a book called PEP TALKS, WARNINGS & SCREEDS:  Indispensable Wisdom and Cautionary Advice For Writers–go buy it.  This other fellow named William Blake wrote a book called PROVERBS OF HELL, wherein you’ll find “If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise” and “Dip him in the river who loves water.”  Track Blake down in quick time.  Remember what Papa H. said about bulletproof bullshit detectors and see Kurt V’s big nasty on the semicolon.  Most important, remember that your shit is  important as your gold–both come from the same place, and one cannot be without the other.

3.  Research.  We all have to do it.  Sometimes it's delicious, sometimes brutal.  Tell us a tale from the research trenches.
WHITE INDIANS is a research piece wherein the narrator drove a thousand miles to the place where he was asked to symbolically die, give his literal flesh and blood freely, and depart from what he’s heretofore known as reality forever and ever, Amen.  A “Visionary Memoir”--it’s not fiction.  And I’m the narrator.  In New Mexico.  A 109 degrees.  Piercings.  Ceremony.  No food or water for four days.  Yea, starved, hysterical, naked, how the hell’s that for the research trenches?

4.  Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

When in routine, I rise at 4:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, write two or three hours, and turn my machine off just as the sun rises.  At that point, my writing day’s done, and the rest of my life happens.  Usually, I have to figure out what to do with the rest of the day--teach, take a hike, garden til happy hour, make curry.  In bed at 8:30, I do it all again the next day.  Books happen.

5.  If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it--other than cash?

I was once asked to compose a brief piece on the why I teach writing for the U of U Honors Summer Newsletter, a task that halted me most of one sunny morning of May.  Here's what came of it.

Part of the difficulty, for me, is that writing is not a thing–ie., a noun. Writing is an act–a verb. This act is practiced until it becomes craft, and then a discipline, and in turn a way of being, a way of life. One might as well ask, “What is the importance of breath? Why breathe?”

I teach writing as a way of being, as opposed to a produced thing.

Student writers look at me askance that first day when I ask them to rise at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow and each day thereafter, that holy dream-time when the inner-censor is turned off and one might risk making a fool of oneself, as writers must learn to do.

They fidget up front when I insist that they walk straight-away from their happy safe zones, or when I ask them to count the words in the sentences in any piece of writing they’ve ever done and notice they’re the same because that’s a happy, safe place and same, same, same gets old, old, old fast, fast, fast.

They freak when I ask them to disengage spell check and grammar check and any other checks they’ve got on their machine, when I suggest turning off the machine and writing longhand, when I tell them that my best mentor, Fred Chappell, rises every morning at 4:30 to write and that I know this because I sat outside his house in Greensboro, North Carolina for successive mornings and I’ll be damned if his office lights didn’t come on at that exact time every day. Literary critics say he’s the most prolific novelist, poet, essayist on earth and he’s rock star famous in France but all he does is get up to write when everybody else is asleep. My students give me the look–our professor sits outside people’s houses before daylight?

Student writers are taken aback when I ask them to buy a dictionary, the bigger the better, to mark it up like a preacher’s Bible, to look up every word they ever come across that they don’t know—and become aware of all the other words they don’t know that surround the word they didn’t know.

My students eye me with suspicion when I ask them to find out the location in the library stacks of a book on their topic, to go there and disregard the book they were looking for, perusing the five hundred other books in the vicinity, some of which are infinitesimally better than what they thought they were looking for.

Most draw the line when I ask them to turn off their internet, especially when composing. I’ve seen them get the shakes, chortle, start taking short breaths and all of the other traits associated with withdrawal.

All but the hardiest of my student writers suffer shock when I preach that writing is an avenue of inquiry.  I am not interested in what they know, but in figuring out what they don’t know, the hidden things they do know, and eventually, write themselves towards. Writers aren’t knowers–they’re folks who ask good questions. Sometimes, I say, you have to write one whole hell of a lot to find out what you have to say.

I tell the story of Paul Crenshaw, one of the rarest student writers who actually did and continues to do everything I’ve asked of him as a writer. Get up at 4:30, I said. Paul gets up at 4:30. Turn off your internet. Paul turned off. Write four hundred pages and throw it away as practice. Paul threw out four hundred pages. Anything I asked, Paul was on it. Then I show them the Norton Anthology of Literature where Paul’s writing is prominent. I show them The New Bedford Anthology, multiple Best American Anthologies, Paul, Paul, Paul. I sometimes mention my books. I tell them that any problem they ever have as a writer, I’ve already had this morning, and yesterday, and the day before. We sit in a circle. I am only one of the circle.

All this does not, at first, sit well with most student writers. After that first class, I can see it in their eyes–that holy not knowing. This is why I teach writing, why I’ve stayed in the classroom these twenty-four years. Because the first day passes, the first week, and there is always–always–that fine moment when fire flies and the student writer makes the leap of faith onto the tightrope, no net below, risking all. Such moments are transformative and the payoffs are profound, because the writer now possesses a vehicle that ushers them full-throttle toward revelation and innovation and truths that the world so needs now at this most perilous moment for our species. And that is important.

6.  Faith.  Do you consider yourself religious.  If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

My uncle once talked me into pissing on an electric fence--what a surprise that was.  "Go ahead," he dared, "you don't have a hair."  Fenceposts stringed with silver wires stretched across two pastures to the barn where a big electric box had a lightning bolt zig-zagged across its face.  Uncle grabbed the middle strand, squeezed.  Through a lip-trembling smile he said, "What  you afraid of, boy?”  Thirty years later, the question remains.  There was a still moment in the back pasture, pieces of light flickering through the hickories, when I hooked up to it.  All this hite Indian ceremony stuff, at least for me, it's like that, pissing on an electric fence.  Whoa, I remember thinking, that's something.

Michael Gills is author of Why I Lie: Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2002), Go Love: A Novel (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2011), The Death of Bonnie and Clyde and Other Stories (Texas Review Press, 2012) and White Indians (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2013).  He is Associate Professor/Lecturer at the University of Utah.  Gills’ collected papers are archived at  Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He grows tomatoes in the Wasatch foothills with his wife, daughter, rabbits, chickens and dog, and is currently teaching what appears to be the first year-long novel workshop for undergraduates.
Caroline Leavitt was the first person -- outside of family, agent, editor -- to read and weigh in on Harriet Wolf's 7th Book of Wonders. I was holding my breath the entire time it was in her hands. I'm so grateful for her generous blurb. Here it is: 

"Dazzling and ambitious, Baggott’s gorgeously written new novel explores the 'miracles born out of desperation' of three generations of women, all set against an astounding sweep of 20th Century history. A mesmerizing tale of a star-crossed love, and of the dark secrets of a fracturing family, the book is also a profound meditation about stories: how they create and trap us, how they protect us, and how, even amidst great tragedy, they can sometimes make us bloom. So full of wonders, it leaves you haunted, amazed, and like every great read, irrevocably changed.”
-- Caroline Leavitt, New York Times Bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You

And if you don't know Caroline's blog -- great for readers and writers alike -- stroll the grounds:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Craft: The Novel as a Creature with Many Joints

I sometimes see the novel as a jointed creature, joints that are articulated for movement, but that are also points of weakness and possible erosion in the narrative. Each joint asks something of the reader. For example, when I write a multiple point-of-view novel, I usually draft in short chapters mainly so that I can keep each person's narrative fresh in my mind, aloft, with little time to burrow down and get lost. That said, I usually then go back and revise by pulling out a couple short chapters from each point-of-view and stitching them into longer chapters. Each time you switch points of view, you're asking something of the reader -- a shift of imagination, of internal state. (Even in a singular-narrative novel, you're usually asking for something by breaks -- white space might be little more than a breath but it also might constitute huge shifts in time, place...) I think of these breaks in terms of joints because they can pivot the narrative, allow for great agility, flexibility, but they're not just asking the narrative to bend, but the reader must bend, too. A novel can have as many rippling ribs as a snake, of course, but I'm mindful of the demands I make on those joints and how often I ask for the bones to break and move -- especially if I'm making other demands on the reader, ones I prioritize, that can be weighty, and that accumulate, applying more pressure to those joints (perhaps experimentation in other areas or heavy visualization of world-building...)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Guesting at WRITER UNBOXED Today: Why We Write, Why We Stop, How We Can Restart and Possibly Keep Going.

I'm back at Writer Unboxed today. Beyond New Year's Resolutions, this piece is about time, desire, failing, flailing (mid-novel), escape hatches, the weight of the unfinished... Good doses of writerly advice thrown in. I'm also, finally, putting together my writing on writing and there's a bit at the end on how that will become available. 

Here's the link!