Friday, October 30, 2015

the face at work.

I can remember so clearly, as a kid, watching the concentration in my mother's face when she was at the piano playing the most intricate and demanding pieces. She was foreign to me then -- so muscular and exact. Her mouth, in particular, would tighten in a specific way -- fiercely.

I've never thought of myself as making a face when I concentrate -- but these are the moments when your body disappears and your mind is its own machine. But I recently noticed this wrinkle, just on one side, below my mouth and I knew it immediately -- the only face I know that would create that odd, upright line. I knew it not from my own visceral understanding of self, but by watching my mother while at work on her own art. So strange to see it there and know it and realizing that I don't always know myself.

On Oates...

I heard Jim Braude interviewing Joyce Carol Oates recently, asking her if she taught her own work -- and, to be clear, I think he meant process. 

She was a little aghast. No, never, was the answer. 

He followed up, asking if students walked up to her and asked her questions about her own work; they are, after all, taking a class with Oates. 

She said something like, "My students aren't that naive." 

Of course, I'd never suggest a writer teach their own work, but I have access to my brain -- my process -- and I do try to crack my pinata-head open, as figuratively as possible, to show them how the candy is arranged. When in doubt, I do this. When starting out, I try this. When lost, I do this. When stumbling on point of view, I try this. I talk about other writers' processes too -- and other artists and inventors and composers. 

But I agreed with Braude and if I were in an Oates class, I'd be so naive -- or so bold -- and I'd ask and I'd probably keep asking.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Writerly Tips & Whatnot & Whatall

I was on Vermont Public Radio a couple weeks ago, forgot to post. Here's some writer stuff that popped up. 
I've been saying for years that you could open a book of mine to any page and I could explain the memory that went into building what's there. And then the interviewer, Shelagh Shapiro (who's wonderful) completely catches me by pulling out a very short bit -- maybe only one sentence -- and it contains three distinct memories. Her point is about using metaphor, but mine is all about using memory. You'll find that at 14:50.
On the page here, you can read the visualization exercise that I now do on the first day of class. Visualization is crucial to my process and I was underplaying it in my teaching so decided, this year, to develop a way to get writing students -- first off -- to understand or, maybe more pointedly, to trust that their minds are generative. Many of the stories written in my classes this fall started with this exercise. Try it yourself, use them in your classes. (If you're teaching them, speak slowly -- the asterisks allow the writers time to see...)
Other bits:
11:15 I explain how I'm Tilton, how I still allow my mother to mother me as she needs to.
11:35 An explanation of my daughter Phoebe's nickname for me "Baby Mobster"
13:20 The dangers of writing a novel over 18 years.
18:15 On how to write a story within a story. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

the reading.

I know my brother's coming late to the reading so I tell the crowd [that's playing free-and-loose with terminology -- I should use the word audience, but I'm sticking with crowd] that when he shows up they should whisper loudly, "That's him! That's the brother she just read all those horrible things about!"
But he knew that I'd do something like that so he was armed to be loud back. He said, "My grandfather always told me that if you're headed into an uncomfortable situation, it's best to show up late ... and drunk." 
(Note: Our grandfather was a wise man.)
He took his seat. The brilliant Laurie Foos and I were into the Q & A part and he's beaming in the audience the way my Pops does, which is really sweet, but then, moments later, I see him looking down and I know he's gotten distracted and pulled out his phone so I whip around the podium -- as maybe some of my students can imagine -- and I say, "Dude, you are seriously not on your phone right now."
And he says, "What? I'm searching for my favorite line from your novel."
And I say, "Oh yeah. Right."
He sticks with it. "Really, I'm searching the book!"
And I say to the audience, "Oh, he's searching alright." Then to him, "We'll discuss this at Thanksgiving," which as we all know is the time set aside for the airing of family grievances.
Later though, while I'm signing books and before we head to the bar, he shows me the lines. They are:
“My dad got us a Lab from the pound. It ate its own poops after they’d been left in the yard to harden,” I tell Ron. It’s a rare memory of my father.He fed it fat rinds from the table, which Eleanor took as a comment on her cooking. The dog would be flatulent for the rest of the night.
“Eating your own poop – that’s the height of vanity, if you ask me,” he says, which is hard to take from a man who is moussing his hair. Ron’s hair shifts unnaturally in wind as if a single unit.
This is proof, of course, that my brother did read the book because of all the lines in the book "Eating your own poop -- that's the height of vanity, if you ask me," would clearly be his favorite. I soften.
A bunch of us went out after. Some of my favorite people were there. My brother who rarely reads promised Emily Franklin that he would read her new upcoming novel which he claimed was more valuable than anyone else there reading her book because his book-reading is so rare. Jay Wexlerendured much Baggotting; I've sent my apologies already. Tim Hugginswasn't spared either.
And just as things were winding down, my oldest daughter pulled out her phone and told my brother to do a sorority squat, and she didn't just get a picture of it -- no, no. She got an actual leaping and squatting and cute-facing video. And THAT my friends will be what we share at Thanksgiving. It will be a gift that gives and gives and lives on.
And there is a happy ending for all, the end.

[I'm aware that this advice from my grandfather could have far-reaching effects. At the very least it could change faculty meetings forever. ]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

oh, monkey bicycle, i had a blast with this.

so the game is that you explain your book as something else, beginning with if my book were ... 

here it is. i go a little off the rails at the end.
Sebastian Matthews had a wild idea -- to read all of my books and, while reading, conduct a months-long interview. The Five-Part Interview is up in full published at Fiction Writers Review over the course of last week. 
I was in Michigan much of last week so didn't post it all, but here is the first; each one leads to the next section. 
NOTE: If Michigan TSA explains that, once past security in this tiny airport, you will not find any bathrooms but there will be a pot machine, keep in mind, she might not have said pot machine. In Michigan, soda is called pop. So, before you kind of admire Michigan for itsprogressive pot culture and the potential for people who are scared to fly to do so while high, check yourself.