It’s been a busy week: end of the school year activities most nights, a freelance PPT presentation to get done, decorations for the big dance tonight. But I did manage to get some writing in and had a kind of epiphany. So, I went back to the novel-in-stories that I discussed in the last post. I forgot that I had made some huge revisions to the first story so it felt relatively new to me even though it’s a story that I’ve been working on in various incarnations for several years. I cut about six hundred words from it and it is ready to show to my writing group. The epiphany was this: the older stories feel somewhat “heavy” to me. It’s hard to describe. The newest story feels like an arrow that hits the bulls-eye. So as I cut and cut from my story I realized that the difference in the writing is this: I used to be more concerned with the writing. I love creating beautiful sentences, rhythms, metaphors but the story is buried beneath all of that. The story was secondary to the writing. Now I am more focused on telling the characters’ stories (not my story or the story I have in mind regardless of what my characters want) and my writing is in service to that. Now I feel I can go back to those older stories and pare away the excess so that the true story can rise to the surface.
Archive for May, 2008
Apparently I only post of Fridays now. Time to ‘fess up. Delighted to announce that it’s been another productive week. My writing group gave me incredibly helpful feedback on Sunday which led me to work for 5 hours on a revision on Monday which I then sent to one member who agreed that it was ready to send out, which I did. Just now. Only to two (really good) journals though. I was able to submit on-line and that is so quick and easy. I’ll print out letters and cover pages and labels and all that later. At least I am back on that submitting horse again.
I’ve run into an interesting dilemma this week as I looked for the next project to sink my teeth into. I’ve been reading through my novel-in-stories and am still drawn to the characters and their stories. But. With this last story that I just sent out, my writing has finally turned a corner. I could feel it as I finished the revision. I finally broke through some wall. So now I go back and read older stories and they are lacking something essential and I’m not sure if I can go back into them and find that missing thing. The stories seem heavy somehow. I wonder how I’ll know if it’s time to let those earlier stories go and be grateful that writing them got me to this point or if I can plunge back in and make them as sleek and (I’m just going to say it) well-written as my current story. Maybe I’ll try it with one and see how it goes. I’m afraid that I may have to throw away all these drafts and just start from scratch instead of trying to build on what I wrote over the last few years.
Busy week. Didn’t track my writing hours but I did write. I finished and sent out a revision to my writing group. The story feels so close. But my major accomplishment this week happened yesterday. I spent hours going through hard copies of stories and organizing them into three binders: 1. a novel-in-stories 2. a novel 3. a short story collection. Then I went through my hard drive and found all the latest versions of each story and put them in new folders on my desktop so I can easily find what I am looking for. I noticed that one of the stories from my novel-in-stories was dated exactly one year ago so I took it as a kind of sign that this is the project I am meant to focus on and finish next. I am in the process of reading through the entire thing to see what’s there (and what isn’t). So all in all, a productive week. Next week my goal is to finish the read through and start submitting these stories to my group. I think it needs one last story that I haven’t even thought of yet. Hopefully it will come to me in the process of revising the entire ms.
So it’s my first week of ‘Fess up Fridays and I have to say it was a good one. I put in eight solid hours this week on one story. It’s a revision based on feedback from my writing group. I finished it yesterday then took it to the coffee shop this morning and tried to read it with fresh-ish eyes, made a few more cuts and one more addition. I think it might be ready for my group again. I’ll take one more look at it on Monday. Over the weekend (in between my daughter’s play, a friends wedding and Mother’s Day) I need to find a new project to focus on for next week. Either pull out another story that needs revision and still has some energy or start a new chapter of my novel.
One thing that got me through this rewrite was reading “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” again. I actually applied his advice instead of merely reading it. I slowed way down when I didn’t know what happened next and I filled the piece with things, what he calls inventory. And it worked. Thanks, Ron!
No, not jealous thoughts. I don’t usually write about things that aren’t directly related to my creative process here but today I am. It’s about “going green.” That’s the current catch phrase now, isn’t it? Maybe it’s the numerous end-of-the-world-as-know-it type of books that I’ve read lately but I’m finding that I am unable to go blindly through my days anymore, staying in denial or telling myself that one person can’t possibly make a difference. So I’ve started making small differences:
1. I am now obsessed with turning lights off whenever I leave a room.
2. We installed one of the new light bulbs.
3. I now turn my printer off every night as well as my computer which is having the added benefit of not being so easily lured onto the internet first thing every morning.
4. I try and do more revising on the screen instead of printing out a new draft every time.
5. When I do print a draft of a story I print it 4-up and on the backs of used paper.
6. I am not using my car at least one day a week, usually two. Added benefit: money and calories saved at Starbucks as well as more money saved from not buying books at the bookstore.
7. I pay most of my bills on-line. (Honestly that’s more of a convenience thing for me but hey, if it’s good for the environment that works for me.)
My next step is to buy stainless steel water bottles. Bye-bye plastic.
“The Last Chicken in America” a novel in stories by Ellen Litman
I got lucky and found these first two books in the library last week. I didn’t notice that they were both novel in stories. This first one exposes the reader to an entire community that I was not even aware of- Russian immigrants in Squirrel hill, Pittsburgh. These funny and tender stories focus on Masha who is just out of high school and others within her community. We learn of the struggles between parents and children, friends and neighbors, cultures and religions. It’s about people trying to find their place in the world that is so huge and foreign in so many ways which is true whether you are an immigrant or not. And she gets the award for the best short story title: “The Trajectory of Frying Pans.”
“Olive Kitteridge” a novel in stories by Elizabeth Strout
This is another one of those library books that I will now need to go out and buy. These stories just tugged at some part of me. They are the kind of stories I aspire to write. I love it when fiction inspires me to write down lines of prose that resonate on such a deep level.
“But after a certain point in a marriage, you stopped having a certain kind of fight, Olive thought, because when the years behind you were more than the years in front of you, things were different.”
“They had fun together these days, they really did. it was as if marriage had been a long, complicated meal, and now there was this lovely dessert.”
The stories revolve around the unforgettable retired school teacher, Olive Kitteridge and the ordinary people of Crosby, Maine as they maneuver through loneliness and all the small and large moments of grief that make up a life. They participate in that human dance of holding tight to that knot of aloneness and reaching out to whoever is there. The writing is simple, pure and deep filled with moments of tender humor and glimpses of hope. I loved this book.
“The Fiction Class” a novel by Susan Breen
I am always drawn to books about writers and/or writing whether they are non-fiction, memoir or, in this case, a novel. The book is structured around an adult creative writing class in NYC. There is the story of the class that Arabella Hicks is teaching along with the writing exercise she gives each week as well as the story of her mother in a nursing home who yearns to write her own story which we also get to read. It was an entertaining read but it got me thinking about why I fall in love with a book such as “Olive Kitteridge” and others feel like a pleasant diversion. In this case I think the characters felt too convenient to the story. I knew as soon as I read one sentence what the dynamic of the love story was going to be, and I was right. I knew who it was and how it would play out. I prefer to be surprised by the story, by the characters. Which now has me thinking about a current story I am revising. I want to be surprised so I am dreaming of ways the story can shift. Ways to turn the story and characters upside down or at least sideways.
“The Book of Dahlia” a novel by Elisa Albert
One of my new favorites novels. The voice is dark, funny and heartbreaking. Dahlia is twenty-nine, depressed and kind of stalled in her life when she is diagnosed with an aggressive, inoperable brain tumor. She goes to a bookstore with her divorced parents where they buy stacks of books to help them through this ordeal. Dahlia winds up with a questionable self-help guide that becomes the structure for the novel. You cannot write Dahlia off as just another twenty-something slacker- she is raw and purely unique. Highly recommended in spite of the terminal illness plot. Now I need to check out her story collection.
“World Made By Hand” a novel by James Howard Kunstler
Yes, yet another end of the world as we know it books. But… this one leaves you with threads of hope. It’s not the apocalyptic dark end of the world story. Just the end of the world we have become accustomed to, which may or may not be a bad thing. Electricity flickers on briefly once in a while. Cars are gone. Strip malls? Gone. Government? Not functioning. Healthcare? They rely on people who practiced “before”, making due with what they have and what they know or read about. The story focuses on Union Grove, a small town outside Albany, New York. Communications are down so not much is known beyond the scope of a few miles. What is rumor or fact is anyone’s guess. A new group of people move into town headed by Brother Jobe and the town is forced out of the inertia they had settled into. Some of the townspeople remember the days of cars and airplanes and being able to walk into Target on payday and buy whatever was needed. Now they make what they need by hand: food, transportation, brooms. You can’t read this book and remain in the dark as to where we are headed. It really gets into your head every time you are able to turn on a light, watch the news to see what is happening half way around the world, get in a car to run an errand or walk into a store stocked with anything you could possible need. It should be required reading for everyone.
“Up High in the Trees” a novel by Kiara Brinkman
We see the world through Sebby’s (short for Sebastian) eyes. His view of the world is tight and close up and relentless. The book is divided into very short chapters which was a relief and it seemed to mirror Sebby’s mind. He tells of his life after his mother’s death. He has two teenage sibling who struggle to keep the family together as their father struggles to help Sebby while quietly disappearing into his own mad grief. I was a little leery of yet another precocious, autistic narrator but Brinkman renders this family with honesty and razor sharp intensity.
“The Mind of Your Story: Discover What Drives your Fiction” by Lisa Lenard-Cook
This may be one of my new favorite books on writing. She peels open the revision process layer by layer allowing us to discover what drives our particular fiction. She has an exercise for structuring time within a story that makes so much sense I’m surprised I’ve never heard it before. She helps us to see that revision is truly where the story takes shape. Where it is uncovered. I can’t wait to pull out all those drafts of stories and start peeling them apart layer by later myself to uncover or discover the mind of each one. Highly recommended.