Archive for May, 2007

Story: I’ve got it.

Me: Got what?

Story: Martha’s mother. Her name isn’t Helen. It’s Delia.

Me: Um… excuse me?

Story: Yeah yeah yeah… it’s Delia. Helen is her mother. Her and Toby’s.

Me: But the story is almost done and it’s Helen throughout two whole stories. It’s not just a matter of replacing the name, you know. Helen and Delia are two completely different kinds of people.

Story: I know. Isn’t it great?

Me: Great? No, it isn’t great. I’ve worked so hard on this.

Story: Yes and all that hard work is paying off.

Me: For you maybe.

Story: Well. Yeah. That’s all that matters, isn’t it? It’s all about the story that wants to be told not the story you want to tell.

Me: I suppose. But this is huge. You’re suddenly not what I thought what you were about.

Story: Exactly. And that’s when it gets exciting, for both of us.

Me: (Sigh) Where do I start?

Story: Well, start with the find and replace option. That’s a place to start. Just see her real name implanted there in the text in black and white and see what happens. Then do some freewriting in Delia’s voice, maybe on events that you’ve already written about as Helen. Play with it. This is fun.

Me: Yeah, fun. Whooppee…

Story: Trust me.

Me: Do I have a choice?

Story: Sure, you can ignore me, not write, get crabby, not write some more, get crankier, until you finally try it my way and wonder what you were waiting for all that time.

Me: (sigh again) Fine. You win.

Story: It’s not a contest. It’s win win.

Me: Whatever…


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Think of Trees

I may not be writing on this blog but I have been writing elsewhere: morning pages, writing practice and short stories. I just finished the second on efrom my novel-in-stories and sent it out to my writing group for Sunday. It’s still not quite right. I’m not sure about the title which means I’m not quite sure what the story is about yet. I’ve found that the perfect titles emerges when the story has found its focus. Maybe listening to my group discuss the characters and plot might trigger something for me to work on in revision. I just pulled out the next story and re-read it, to refresh my memory. The good thing is that I was intrigued by it- wanted to keep reading to see what happens. The bad thing is that it needs some major rewriting.

One thing I’ve been hyper aware of lately in my writing is the “viewpoint intruder.” I read an article about it in a magazine and now I notice it in my own stories. Martha notices, sees, watches, etc…. Once the POV character is established it’s okay to just let the scene unfold without constant viewpoint intrusion.

As part of my writing process lately I’ve been reading a poem out loud every morning before I start my own writing. Currently I am reading “The Woman I Kept to Myself” by Julia Alvarez. I love getting that language in the air. Sometimes the poem sparks a prompt for me to use in my writing practice. Usually I just listen to the words, so lyrical, so lovely, almost breathing in the writer’s own breath.

I’ve been reading “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” and was hooked by it at first but now am kind of, I don’ tknow, annoyed with it. The structure and style feel so self-conscious, always calling attention to the writer’s cleverness. And there’s this other annoying habit of using so many unusual verb to describe, say, the setting. I know strong verbs can be an amazing strength but in this case, once again, it just seems to call attention to itself. So I have put the book down for now. I am only a few chapters into “Sense and Sensiblity.” Not far enough to have an opinion yet. I’ve been so focused on my own writing that I don’t have the concentration needed to read that much. This happened when I took the class at OU and while I was and am currently incredibly productive I do miss my reading or the ability to get lost in another writer’s world, perhap because I am so immersed in creating my own fictional world.

“When I think of my death, I think of trees
in the full of summer, a row of them
marking a border, still too far away
for me to name them, posted with rotted boards
everyone but the faint of heart ignores.”
– from “Last Trees’ by Julia Alvarez

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Word by Word

So I slogged my way through my story today, showing up although everything else clamored for my attention from the chocolate brownie fudge ice cream in the freezer to the blue skies and the 77º day outside. But I kept my butt in this chair and managed to make some headway. Some days it’s just word by word. One trick I learned from Ron Carlson is the 20 minute rule. When you feel the need to get up and indulge in whatever has been clamoring for your attention, stay in your chair for just 20 more minutes. Stay in the room, he says, meaning the room where you write and the room or scene of the story. He promises that almost always it is worth the time. Today it was. A scene that had no focal point at all finally came into focus during that 20 minutes.

I know I sound like a broken record, but really, it’s all about showing up. Really. It’s the same lesson over and over.

So I am now reading “Sense and Sensbility” as part of my self-designed MFA. It is the second story in “The Master Class in Fiction Writing” and focuses on characterization. I’ve read chapter 1 so far.

For enjoyment I pulled “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” from my bookshelf and I am hooked.

“In the arts, your weakness becomes your signature. The fact that your work is imperfect makes it interesting. A perfect face isn’t interesting. A book’s flaws make it less predictable.”
– Janet Fitch

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I have been immersed in short stories lately. I just finished “The Dead Fish Museum” by Charles d’Ambrosio last night. The stories are rough around the edges, in a good way. I remember enjoying almost every story as I read them but honestly not one paricular story stands out against the rest. To be fair that could be because of all the other stories I’ve read lately. Like the entire spring issue of “The Missouri Review.” I rarely ever finish an entire issue of any literary journal much less read it cover to cover in two days. But that’s what happened this time. I read every story, essay and poem word by word. And there’s a great interview with David Sedaris. The theme for the issue is Love and Lonliness. Maybe that appeals to me. For whatever reason, I was immediateley drawn into each and every piece from the couples at the “lifestyle” resort to the father and son who both fall in love to the philosophy student who tries to put his relationship in some kind of context against the back drop of a marathon. I especially enjoyed the two essays so much that they make me want to try my hand at one myself.

I received the new Narrative on-line and read a great new story by Ron Carlson as well as an in-depth profile on Ann Beattie. While meandering blogs in between my own writing I found myself linked to 2 other short stories, both involving hands. One is by Benjamin Percy. You can find it at http://www.storyglossia.com/thirteen/bp_hand.html. Then there is this one by Elizabeth Graver at http://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmArticleID=4916. These also inspire me. Now I want to write a story that uses a hand in a surprising way. The there’s this new story by Kate Walbert that all moms can relate to: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2007/03/26/070326fi_fiction_walbert.

I’m thinking I need a break from short stories now. Not sure what is next but I love this feeling of not knowing. I love being in this space in between books and browsing through my shelves at leisure until the next book I am meant to read falls into my lap.

With all this reading you’d think writing has taken a backseat but that is so not the case. I finished yet another draft of “Japanese for Butterfly’ and am letting it sit for a while as I work on the next story. I hauled out this five inch thick binder yesterday that has all the stories for this book so far. I grabbed the next 2 to get an idea of where I am and saw that much can and should be cut from both and that they are actually one story in different seasons- winter and summer. At one point I had over forty pages strewn across my living room floor as I made a list of all relevant scenes. I worked on it yesterday and the story and characters percolated all day no matter if I was cooking, doing the dishes or watching TV. I had to come back to my office and scribble down notes as new things came to me.

I wrote these stories a couple of yeas ago. The copies I have contain notes from people no longer in my writing group. It’s been a humbling and interesting process. So much time has elapsed making it is easy to read with an objective eye. I noticed this embarassing habit I had of writing what I can only call purple prose. I read and crossed out passages with this vague sense anxiety. I knew there was a word for what I was reading but it wouldn’t come to me. At some point the term “purple prose” came up in my reading and I googled it and found this: “Purple prose is sensuously evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.” Yep. That’s what I did. God, it was excruciating to read. The good news is that I’ve obviously (uh, hopefully?) grown out of that particular writing pitfall. Oh, I’m sure I’ll stumble across many more as I continue.

As part of my writing process, I am filling up pages with writing practice. Yesterday the topic was “Write about a cold snap.” I started by writing that this topic does not inspire me at all, blah, blah, blah. But I stuck with it for three pages and the beignnings of a brand new short story with brand new characters emerged. I keep telling myself it’s all about just showing up. Apparently that’s true.

Made a birthday card for a friend. Took a picture of it. And, yes, I still need to learn how to post photos. But first I need to learn how to get them off my camera.

“With good writing, I think, the most profound response is finally a sigh, or a gasp, or holy silence.”
– Tim O’Brien

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I must be a “real” writer if I’m editing my word choice in my dreams. Last night I dreamt that I interviewed Jack Nicholson. I notice how blue his eyes are and scribble that in my notes and try to come up with a word less cliché than piercing or penetrating. I mean Jack deserves better than a tired ciché, doesn’t he?

I read two books from the library and they are due back today but I had to note this weird similarity between them. They both have characters with the same name. “Skylight Confessions” has a female protagonist named Arlyn. “The Ghost at the Table has a minor male character named Arlen. Do character names go through popularity cycles like baby names?

I’m thrilled to say that I am back in some sort of writing groove. I worked steadily on a story everyday this week, even last night at the ice cream social at school. I am trying to cut it down to 7500 words from 8100 since that seems to be a pretty basic maximum for many journals and I am already trying to place a 10,000-word story.

Not only did I write on my story for several hours each day but I also did morning pages everyday and three pages of writing practice several times throughout the week. When I took a fiction class at OU one of the requirements was at least three 20-minute writing sessions each week in addition to having a new story or revision ready. I even did one now and it’s Saturday.

Finished “Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose and I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that she has changed the way I read. As I revise my story “Japanese for Butterfly” I am reading the entire piece out loud for the third time and each time I find a word that isn’t right or words I can cut. It’s fun. Reading out loud illuminates where the prose is clunky but it also slows me down which is one of the main lessons I learned from F.P.

Still reading the “Dead Fish Museum” by Charles D’Ambrosio and just read the line that explains where the title comes from… perfect.

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
– Kurt Vonnegut

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So I saw this out in the blogosphere and thought that it would be fun. Not sure if there are any parameters to follow but I decided to only list the short stories that I remember. No leafing through books to jog my memory. I can only check for titles and or spelling. So here goes… my favorite top ten stories in no particular order.

1. “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff
2. “Milk” by Ron Carlson
3. “The Potato Gun” by Ron Carlson
4. “Bocci” by Renée Manfredi
5. “Who Do You Love” by Jean Thompson
6. “In the Event” by Christopher Coake
7. “Howard Johnson’s House” by Mary Clyde
8. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore
9. “A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver
10. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Oates

These are all stories that have stuck with me, haunted me even. I am looking at the list to see if there is a particular theme or pattern that emerges. Several involve parents confronting the relative powerlessness we can feel in the face of our children’s lives. Several star adolescents on the verge of discovery and danger. I don’t know, but for these characters and their stories to stand out in spite of my voracious reading habit says something. And instead of being daunted, I actually am inspired to keep writing in hopes that I write a story so true and raw that it stands out for somebody, somewhere, sometime, someday.

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Baby Steps

I am about halfway through “Reading Like a Writer” by Francine Prose. She is really helping me to slow down and savor the sentences and word choices in my reading and my writing. And she is adding to my ever growing list of books to read, some by writers I’ve never heard of. Henry Green, anyone?

I just finished “The Knitting Circle” by Ann Hood. I felt rather voyeuristic as I read this novel, knowing how closely it mirrors her own experience. Her five-year-old daugher, Grace, died unexpectedly from complications from strep a few years ago. In the book a young daughter also dies and it is told from the perspective of the mother who finds herself learning to knit. The author also learned to knit when the usual comfort she found in writing and reading and language in general had left her after the loss of her daughter. I am not the sort of person who cries easily while reading but this one did it. It’s every mom’s worst nightmare. I’ve attempted to write stories that deal with the loss of a child in hopes of some kind of writerly magic preventing it from happening in reality as Kate Braverman once said but it is just too huge to grapple with. It gives such a raw incite into the grieving process that I read it almost with one eye closed, unable to watch it full on.

“Moral Disorder” by Margaret Atwood is another stunning book by this author. It is a series of interconnected stories that reveal the life of Nell as a child and adolescent into young adulthood through a complex relationship with Tig. The stories are structured in this sweeping arc of time that envelopes their lives. Carefully rendered, closely observed- trademarks of this writer.

Currently reading “The Dead Fish Museum,” a story collection by Charles D’Ambrosia.

On the last day of National Poetry Month I took my youngest to a poetry reading at our library by Keith Taylor. One line that struck me was “dancing under the temporary stars.” In the car my daughter asked me what my favorite poem had been. I was embarassed to realize that they had all kind of run together for me but she had a list of her favorites which once she began numerating then jogged my own memory.

I went to make a card for a friend’s 30th birthday the other day. Once I got into my art space I started finding objects that all went together and ended up creating a wall hanging as a present. I do have a photo and I really must learn to transfer it off my camera, onto my computer and onto my blog. Really, it’s on my list of things to do. It was so much fun to create. I had no real expectations, or very low ones- just gonna make a little card. No big deal. I’m thinking that low or no expectations might serve me in many other areas of my life too.

I’m in the middle of another huge rewrite of this story, “Japanese for Butterfly.” I thought I was at the point of reading it out loud and fine tuning the prose but earlier today it came to me that I need another scene which happens to be one I wrote in the first story. So I am merging the old story and new story into an even better story I hope. My goal is to finish it this week so I can start on the next story so I can have it ready for my writing group by May 20. I also want to make a list of journals to submit 3 different stories to, one that is 10,000 words. I thought I’d make a list one day, write cover letters the next, print out stories the next, label, stuff and mail the next. Baby steps since I really hate this part of the process.

“You can’t write seriously without reading the greats in that particular way that writers read, attentive to the particularities of the language, to the technical turns and twists of scenemaking and plot, soaking up narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates.”
– Alan Cheuse

…that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates… I love this!

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