Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Being Stubborn

One way a writer’s stubbornness pays off is when you’re a young writer and your parents tell you that being a writer is a ridiculous idea. How will you live? (My father’s line was that he wasn’t supporting me until social security took over.) That’s a good question and you will have to find an answer to it some day. You may be one of the few who make a living off writing, but most likely you’ll need the help of another job or a tolerant, well-paid spouse or a trust fund or some other, preferably legal, means of support.

BUT—you will need to be stubborn, regardless, when family members and sometimes even lovers/husbands/wives tell you that your dream will ruin your life. As with many dreams there is an element of the ridiculous to it. Also there’s that hubris. Who do you think you are anyway? Why can’t you just be satisfied with a normal job and life(whatever that is)? Who would want to be a writer anyway? Be real. Grow up.

Contrary to movie and TV show notions of reality most people do not have a dream that fills their life. They have desires. Every single one of us has those and we have them all the time. But the big dream is rare. If you have it, you will not be understood by most people. Sometimes you will not be understood by those who love you. Probably you won’t even really understand it yourself. SO you have to be stubborn. I prefer a polite, quiet totally inflexible stubborness, but the loud, rude kind certainly has a dramatic quality. Whatever. Be stubborn. Write.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Writing in the Zone

I believe a lot of elements of writing can be taught. An inexperienced writer who finds the right teacher, right for him or her I mean, can learn much about things like characterization, plot, setting, novel landscape, pacing, even to a certain extent paragraphing and sentences. Putting it all together in a unique and powerful way, though, is something the writer has to find himself. And so the reason writing programs give a lot of people MFAs who never publish or who publish very little. I got an MFA after teaching myself writing by reading (to me the most the single most important thing besides writing itself a writer can do to improve) and writing. Did the MFA help my writing? Yes. Is getting an MFA for everybody? No. Some it won’t help. Some don’t need it. But for me it helped me focus on my weaknesses and helped me know myself as a writer better.

When I was learning the martial art Taekwondo I realized the importance of breaking down moves. We’d work on part of a kick and then another part and then another part. It would take a long time to put it all together and be able to do that kick right and then even longer to be able to use the kick in combination with other movements. It would take still longer to be effective sparring with the move. Some people never could get there. They knew what they should do but they couldn’t make their bodies do it. Or they couldn’t let their bodies do it. Some people could do it fairly well. Only a few were really good.

Writing is more difficult. Still, I think writing’s moves can be analyzed in ways and by isolating each aspect of writing that aspect can be improved. Whether the writer does this herself or in a program or with other writers doesn’t really matter. Whatever works.

But are there some parts of writing that can’t be taught? Sure. The writer’s unique way of looking at the world. The writer’s style, too, can’t really be taught though it can be developed. The writer’s particular feel for language is, I think, like personality. And there’s that one very magical part to writing (like with Taekwondo); everything has to work together without the writer consciously forcing it to do so (of course when rewriting the writer will be very conscious about his choices). The writer has to find that unconscious place where he becomes the story. Everything slips away. The room. His fingers moving on the keyboard. Words like setting, plot, language, characters mean nothing to him. He is what he’s writing.

That’s the place a writer needs to get. A kind of forgetting. When athletes talk about being in the zone that’s where they are. Everything the writer has ever learned is there without being there. It’s a kind of magic.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Writing Life

The writing life is a funny life. We are trying to create life on the page which requires that we remove ourselves from life and sit in a room alone and stare at a blank screen. We spend much of our life making sentences.

Sometimes I do wonder about that. We excuse ourselves from many things in the real world in order to try to make things live in our imaginary worlds. Sometimes it gives us a good distance, but it can be a dangerous one, too. We see something happen or are involved in something and even though we’re engaged, some part of us is imagining how whatever is happening might be worked into a story somewhere down the road. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. It is what it is, I suppose, though to be honest I don’t know really know what that means. “It is what it is” is a phrase I keep hearing and that I use myself sometimes. It sounds good but isn’t it kind of obvious (of course it is what it is, what isn’t?) and non-descriptive? Maybe that’s its charm. But I digress.

So there you are. I think writing teaches the writer a certain detachment, which can be useful in certain situations and has to be controlled in others or it might be harmful. And all this sentence making? Long ones, short ones, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex. Round and round. You can measure a writer’s life in sentences. Good ones and ones you do over and over and never become good. Ones you can’t take back (I’m afraid I have published copies of MY ROADTRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPTIAL OF THE WORLD, my first novel, in my room where I’ve taken a pencil and rewritten sentences; I try not to look at published work but sometimes if you’re doing a talk or reading you’re forced to) and even ones you like, even ones you think, Not bad.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I’m a bit of a writing book advice junkie. I remember once reading this advice: try to get to know your characters by letting them write each other letters or emails. I think it’s a good way to get to know characters or to get to know how characters feel about a certain situation or scene in your novel.

For example, say I have two characters, Jesse and Lauren, who are attracted to one another. They kissed the night before. I might try to figure out attitudes by having them send each other a few emails.

To Jesse,
I think we need to get together and talk about what happened last night, but I should tell you ahead of time that I’m not ready for a relationship. I can’t be with you. I like you a lot. I do. But I can’t get involved with anyone right now. Lauren

To Lauren,
It was just a kiss. I didn’t say anything about a relationship. I enjoyed the kiss and all but it was just a kiss. Jesse

To Jesse,
What do you mean just a kiss? What’s that supposed to mean? Are you saying you just go around kissing girls and never mean anything by it? I didn’t take you for that kind of guy. I’m glad I found this out about you now. I really am. Lauren

To Lauren,
But you said you didn’t want a relationship. You said, “I can’t be with you.” We weren’t exactly with each other anyway. I’m just saying. It was a kiss. It was a nice kiss but just a kiss. I agree with you about the relationship. Jesse

To Jesse,
Just don’t pretend like you’re agreeing with me. This is why boys drive me crazy. They come up with boy logic. A kiss is hardly ever just a kiss. Anyone with a heart would know that. A kiss is a promise. It can be a promise anyway. That kiss of ours certainly was. Lauren

To Lauren
I don’t understand. Jesse

To Jesse,
So now you’re breaking up with me? Lauren

Sunday, September 13, 2009

writers don't waste

No doubt you’ve had your own problems with the dream world. I certainly have. I can’t control it at all. I just had a troubling dream. I was locked in a car trunk. I hate car trunks. So cramped. The smell of damp carpet. The spare gouging your back . You can't move. You can't even breathe right. The air is stale and there's not enough of it.

I don’t like small places. A trunk is a small place. No need to get in one to check this out. Take my word for it. You can’t stretch out in a trunk . You're helpless locked in there. It feels like you'll never get out.

In my dream I started screaming and kicking and punching. I wanted someone to know I was unhappy. I hoped for help. Instead, I woke up. But it got me out of the trunk so maybe that was the help I hoped for.

Dreams, like memories, can be good sources of emotional moments. If I ever put one of my characters in a trunk ( and how could I not now?), I will feel very bad. I will feel sympathy and guilt, of course. BUT maybe I will do a good job because I will remember how I felt in that trunk, and I will describe that feeling. Sorry characters, I will think, and then put them through hell. Sometimes we have to put our characters through hell.

Here’s one of the great things about writing: all memories, even the bad ones, even memories of dreams, can be stored or, if you prefer, thrown in the compost, and eventually they will be used. SO THERE NIGHTMARES. You may think you’re getting something over on me but I’m using you or I will use you. Writers don’t waste anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


TIRA (her wonderful blog is Time Is Running Away) graciously passed me a "Coisas Importantes" award and asked that I come up with the six most important things in my life. So, without worrying over it for weeks, and I do tend to worry over lists, here are my six.

1. All the people I love and have loved.
2. All the animals I love and have loved.
3. The ability and opportunity to write.
4. My work outside of writing, which is teaching. It’s important to me that I do a good job with students.
5. My entertainments, particularly books but also movies, music, art, and other entertainments I enjoy.
6. Living in a place I love.

And speaking about writing, here’s a little quote about writing that I got from my agent, Sara Crowe's blog (Crowe’s Nest, a blog for her clients). One of those clients is the YA writer Randy Powell, who quotes something George Saunders’s said in a Tin House interview.

“With writing, you have your eyes closed and you’re passing your hand over the stove trying to find out where the hot spots are. My thought is that you trust the hot spots. Don’t even think about anything else. Look for the place where the prose energy is high…”

I love this quote because it speaks to the great mystery we face all the time as writers. This guy has written very successfully for over twenty years, both fiction and non-fiction, but here he is talking about closing his eyes and hoping to feel hot spots. Love it. And he also manages good advice, of course. Be vigilant about prose. Try to feel when you’re going through the motions. Try to only keep the hot spots.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Write What You Want to Read

Here's one of my favorite quotes about writing. It's from J.D. Salinger's SEYMOUR, AN INTRODUCTION. Seymour is writing to his younger brother, Buddy, who is a budding (sorry) writer.

When was writing ever your profession? It's never been anything but your religion. Never. I'm a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won't be asked. You won't be asked if you were working on a wonderful. moving piece of writing when you died. You won't be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won't be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won't even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished. I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won't even underline that. It's too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it, Buddy! Trust your heart. You're a deserving craftsman. It would never betray you. Good night. I'm feeling very much overexcited now, and a little dramatic, but I think I'd give almost anything on earth to see you writing a something, an anything, a story, a poem, a tree, that was really and truly after your own heart... Love, S.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

subtle but savage

Forgive me football haters.

It’s all about choices. There’s this football movie where Al Pacino, the coach, is giving his team the big motivation Talk before the game. He talks about his own wreck of a life and then he talks about how the game, like life, is decided by inches, by an inch. You move a little too slow or a little too fast, you arrive a second too soon or a second too late, and you fail. You do it all right and you have the chance for success.

Truman Capote said, “The difference between good and great is subtle but savage.” I’d say the difference between good and almost-good is the same. It’s hard to write a good story or novel. It’s very, very hard. It’s hard to see when you don’t write well. Once you learn the basics-- you know grammar, you understand character and plot and setting and you have a feel for language-- it’s all a matter of subtle choices. You make the right ones and at the end of the day (year) you have a book. You make the wrong ones and at the end of the day(year) you have a manuscript that doesn’t work. Sometimes it almost works. It’s very close. That’s a bit of a heart breaker, the almost good manuscript.

So how do you make the right choices? That’s the big question. That’s the one that has no single answer because every manuscript is different.

I do think one thing you can do to help yourself make the right choices is to struggle to be in the scene, to BE THERE and not allow yourself to force your characters to do things from the outside. Try to find that place that allows you to experience the scene with the character. That closeness will help you find your way.

Or so I think today.