Category Archives: revision

There’s something about memoir

. . . and what writers rarely admit about rejection & revision

I have a lot of friends who are fiction writers, and they all told me that writing a memoir is different—and hard.—Darin Strauss, in The Washington Post

Darin Strauss became a memoirist with Half a Life, reviewed here, after publishing three acclaimed novels. I came across his admission above just after a scholar/essayist/travel writer who was visiting our campus told me, when she heard I was writing a memoir, “Memoir seems really hard for some reason. I had two friends start them and give up. They went back to writing fiction.”

I don’t think memoirs are harder to write than fiction. They’re kin to novels, but escape a novelist’s first monumental task: picking a point of view. All the same, for fiction writers, a memoir would be a new learning curve—probably also steepest because of point of view. That seems a given in memoirs, who is telling the story, but it isn’t, at least in terms of the writer’s persona. Sure it’s you, but which one? Where does s/he stand in relation to the story? How does the writer now make sense of the action then? What else besides the foreground story is going on with the narrator? (These are all just ways of asking, Who is telling this story? That question seems all-important in memoir.)

No wonder, as I’ve struggled to get this right myself, I’ve written so much here about persona in nonfiction. No wonder there’s a craft panel on this every year at AWP. The narrator must let readers in, seduce them, confide in them, treat them as friends. But ask nothing from them except that they keep turning the page. He, in my case, must know more than the earlier version of him who’s staggering through the life depicted. I think we desire a wiser narrator because we evolved not only to receive meaning in stories, we evolved to expect a survivor with perspective to tell about the hunt or the battle.

Washington Post writer Ron Charles, who caught Strauss’s admission about memoir’s difficulty for his fiction-writing friends, also wrote down Strauss’s elaboration:

     He offered a simple rule to the MFA students in the room: “If you’re writing a memoir, don’t say, ‘I.’ Say ‘she.’ You’ll have a much clearer sense of the character. When you say ‘I,’ you’re defensive. When you say ‘she,’ you’re more objective. The problem with too many memoirs is that you can feel the author trying to forgive himself in every paragraph.”

 (This surely is wise advice for achieving narrative distance, though presumably the writer goes back and changes everything to first-person viewpoint—not an inviolable rule for memoir but close to it, for practical purposes).

So . . . there’s something specifically hard about memoir that has to do with the closeness of the writer to her material, which is an aspect of herself. But an age-old writing issue also applies: a writer can think his book or essay or story is working when it isn’t, not yet.

We all know the story about scorned writerly brilliance. We’ve always heard it about novels and now we hear it about memoirs: the writer pounds out her guts at the keyboard; she writes a masterpiece and the world rejects it. Over and over! She persists in sending it back out, though, and after sixty-seven brutal refusals an editor or agent finally gets it. Finally. What’s seldom mentioned in such a scenario is how s/he kept working on the book after each rejection. Making it better, making it different. The book or story that finally was accepted and published—after more revisions—wasn’t what s/he started pitching an eon ago. When s/he thought it was ready. But it wasn’t.

I think this is true for others because it’s been true for me—but I am a slow learner and stubbornly capable of not hearing good advice the first (or second) time. Wiser writers than I who lack experience in a new genre vet their narratives with writer friends or in workshops. Some pros, no doubt, can smell insufficiency in their own work. I suspect that most of them, however, also air such doubts with their tough writing posse. But writing is so strange, a black art, that the tendency of friends is to urge you on. Anyway, in the end, each writer labors alone.

Poet Mary Karr has said her remarkable bestselling memoir Lit, reviewed here, took seven long years to gel. This was despite her having written two previous celebrated memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry. The reason, she said, was because she kept trying to get her account of her marriage and divorce to feel right. She threw away 500 pages in which her ex-husband was an angel and as many again in which she was the wretch. Finally she hit her balance.

Each type of book, and surely each book, has its own challenges. The learning curve is a big U, after all. Our performance goes way down before it rises when we tackle something big and new. And any book is big and new. It is, in fact, novel. The difficulty of getting a book right may be why being “an author” still means something.

Whether the writer is getting rejected and keeps rewriting, or has the insight to plug away in silence, like Karr, until the manuscript is truly ready, sticking with it is called “learning to love the process.” Karr, speaking for herself, was less sunny: “It was so horrible.”

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, revision

Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

Clouds over Melbourne Beach, Florida

I can only speak for myself, but there’s something about writing at night that feels . . . sneaky. There’s an outlaw quality to it, combined, oddly enough, with a sense of being safe. It has an anaerobic, subterranean feel; it’s as if I’m working beneath the soil, toiling in secret, trying to cultivate something hidden and occult.—Alethea Black, “Essay to be Read at 3 a.m

 I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Broadway Books, 238 pp.

I read Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely last January, at my sister’s beach condo in Florida, and again recently here in Ohio, parceling out a story a day to savor. These are funny, sexy, wise stories; some are sad, yet somehow they’re always hopeful.

Maybe my favorite story, perhaps partly because I read it first, on line at Narrative magazine, and imprinted on its tough beauty, is “The Only Way Out is Through.”  The story is about a man trying to help his angry, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip. The boy is suicidal, too, it turns out, and their trip is one long crisis. The narrative features an unusual flash-forward, deftly handled, that’s as thrilling as it is surprising.

The story’s title comes from a poem by Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston. The poem is narrated by a weary, depressed rural wife—terrified by the specter of madness in her family—who’s tending to upscale vacationers, lodged in cabins her husband built, and also feeding and cleaning after his coarse four-man road crew who board in their house.

Here’s the passage from Frost’s poem:

By good rights I ought not to have so much

Put on me, but there seems no other way.

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through—

Leastways for me and then they’ll be convinced.

A neat feature of I Knew You’d Be Lovely is that Black included Author’s Notes in the back on twelve of the thirteen stories, and says about “The Only Way Out is Through” that she had to put her head down and cry a couple times while writing it.

The story not so illuminated by commentary is “Someday is Today,” and it’s explained by the collection’s dedication, in memory of Black’s brother in law and to her widowed sister and their four daughters. Black might have written the story as an essay (see her essay about being a night-owl on the Narrative site), but her bent seems to turn to fiction, and this lyrical story, unbound by strict allegiance to whatever the literal facts, sustains a remarkable depth of feeling.

In “Someday is Today” an unnamed woman arrives to help in the wake of the death of her unnamed sister’s husband, and she struggles to comfort her sister and to care for the couple’s three young girls. Sorrow, the visiting woman-narrator says, has made the widow “a little girl again,” the girl she knew when they were growing up. But there’s new tension between them, partly because the single woman doesn’t know how to care for children and partly because she can’t share the depth of her sister’s grief. And also because she’s religious and her sister isn’t.

The sister’s overwhelming loss, her husband killed suddenly in his prime by a staph infection, comes during the couple’s massive house deconstruction:

     My sister has found some comfort in the widow boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of Ten Helpful Hints for Getting Through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life. Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: At the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.” The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home—and then remembers. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her. I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.

As the children’s mother keens, their wacky aunt teaches them words far beyond their abilities—orientation and omniscient; she buys them whatever they want at House of Pancakes, bounces with them on a trampoline, and endlessly re-watches with them The Sound of Music. Auntie tells them an age-inappropriate but very funny joke.

Despite her rapport and love for the girls, this sensitive woman balks when asked to agree to take them if her sister dies young like her husband. And though she’s allowed to talk to the children about God, when she reveals that she anointed her dying brother in law with blessed oil and said to him words by Annie Dillard (from Holy the Firm)—“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us . . . There never has been”—her sister is furious.

I realize I’ve picked the collection’s two heaviest stories to highlight. But the scenes here between the well-meaning aunt and her young nieces are tender and funny (which only makes the situation more heartbreaking), and the story is so perfect and suffused with such profound emotion that it is life-affirming and inspiring.

Alethea Black

Alethea Black, hard at work—maybe not: the sun is shining.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely, only nine months old, is already in its fourth edition. Black worked on the collection for many years, having committed only after college to writing, and the stories reflect this time investment in evidence of what Dillard once called the “richness of the years.” Yet they don’t feel overworked—quite the opposite. There are moments and snatches of conversation that are so real and apt that you just know Black pounced on them in real time.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t deeply imagined. Even when the outcome of a story is improbable, as when a beautiful young doctor leaves a party with a man she’s just met, possibly bound for bed, it is believable in part because you want to believe. Another of those stories is “Good in a Crisis,” about a young high school English teacher, who, questioning her calling, tracks down the cool high school teacher she’d had a crush on. “He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.”

I say improbable, but it’s not that—unlikely?—no, not that either: some events are just unusual, while falling within the range of human possibility. As in the collection’s title story, in which a lovely woman wangles a ménage a trois for her boyfriend, as his birthday present, with herself and the lovely woman he may already be having an emotional affair with.

These stories are all really about love, I guess, and anyone who has been there knows that love is transcendent: earthbound rules don’t fully apply. Many of Black’s characters are young, college-age to about ten years out, and they’re lucky people, the type who were enrolled in gifted and talented classes in grade school, who were slotted into AP classes in high school, and then shuttled off to the Ivy League. Take the top three percent of that group, for wit and overall brilliance, and you have the general demographic.

I don’t mean this as a criticism—quite the opposite. There are so many tales of mere sorrow, ordinary angst, and the seedy underbelly.  I Knew You’d Be Lovely offers wit, humor, and artistry that cast a hopeful morning light on life’s turning points and its tragedies.

Alethea Black answered some questions for Narrative:

I’ve read that you decided you wanted to be a writer two years after you graduated from Harvard College. What was your major? Do you wish you’d majored in something different now that you are a writer?

I was a literature major, but I opted out of writing a thesis in the end, and received my degree in General Studies. I was not at all on my game in college, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I thought the desire to write was completely dormant in those days, but one of my suitemates recently said that I told her I wanted to be a writer, so I guess it was there even then. I don’t wish I’d chosen a different major; I don’t think I could be anything other than a writer.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely took you a decade and a half from start to publication. What was the most important thing you learned about writing during that time?

It’s true, this book was a 15-year pregnancy. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of economy—never say with twenty words what you can say with two. When I look at early drafts of my work, the thing I notice most is how unnecessary some sentences are.

To ask a dumb question: why does writing a book commonly take so long? Or, more precisely, why do some of your stories take so long—what happens in that time, those years, that makes them at last complete?

No such thing as a dumb question! I think writing often takes a long time because you’re learning how to do it as you go. (And of course you’re living your life and working your day job as you go, too.) As to how you know when a story is complete, that’s one of the great unanswerables. When I give readings from LOVELY, I still find words to cut. But I do think it’s fully itself. When the sculptor Alexander Calder was asked, “When do you know a sculpture of yours is finished?” he said, “When it’s time for dinner.”

You’ve published poetry and essays but fiction has been your focus. Do you think the habits of art that fiction cultivates are different than for nonfiction? For instance, your story “Someday is Today,” based on your brother in law’s death, could have been a lovely, resonant essay instead of a lovely, resonant story.

I’ve come to think that fiction and nonfiction are more alike than I ever used to realize. When I wrote “Essay to be read at 3 a.m.” for Narrative magazine, I kept being surprised by how much fun it was. I had no idea that nonfiction could be every bit as inventive and lyrical and mysterious as fiction. You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.

What are you reading these days and how does your reading affect your writing?

I’m a very slow reader and I’m always reading about ten different things at once. I love the New Yorker cartoon where the man is pointing at his bookshelves and saying: “On the left are the ones I haven’t finished, and on the right are the ones I haven’t started.” On my nightstand right now are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Human Line by Ellen Bass; Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston; The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum; Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and a guidebook called Just Enough Italian. I sometimes give myself a moratorium on buying any new books until I finish the ones I own, but I never stick to it.

You mention your religious faith on your website. Do people react differently to you or to your stories if they know you are religious? Faith in any kind of God isn’t very popular these days.

Faith isn’t fashionable, no. But what a small thing life would be if my goal were to fit in. I don’t know if my religious beliefs (I’m a progressive Catholic) influence the way people respond to my stories, but they do seem interested in that side of things when I give readings. I’m always happy to answer their questions because it’s as strange to me as it is to anyone; if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d now be someone who talks openly about Jesus, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. Before my book came out, a friend advised me to take the “God” tab off my website because it would hurt my career. But I have to say, whenever I’m on an airplane in turbulence and I feel like the end is near, I’m always glad I spoke openly about what I believe. Faith has brought me so much joy; it would feel selfish to keep quiet about it.

You’ve said you put your “own MFA” equivalent program together. Could you elaborate on what you did and what you learned?

My home-school MFA? I read a lot of books about writing, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I learned so much from Natalie Goldberg that I thank her in my Acknowledgments.

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

If you have doubts about something, more often than not it should go. If it was really meant to be there, it will suggest itself anew when you look at your story with fresh eyes, perhaps after you’ve let it rest for a month. I always assume that my reader is smarter, wittier, and a better dresser than I am, and I don’t want to bore him. My cardinal rule is to keep things interesting or call it a day.

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Filed under Author Interview, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, MFA, poetry, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, teaching, education

Revising, from the top

Belle the Revision Dog supervises all edits. Shown: typical summer habitus.

Last summer, in Italy, I stood gaping before Michelangelo’s David and reflexively took a photo—no flash, but forgetting that all tourists’ photos of him are banned—and got chastised. Supposedly Michelangelo said he made the immortal statue by just chipping away what didn’t look like David. I’ve thought of writing as having to first create a block of marble, then pounding it into a narrative. Which must be an evident metaphor, because Bill Roorbach mentioned it in his blog’s recent advice post in trying to answer my question about how to cut my book.

Standing amidst the slag I’ve already jettisoned, I am too close now to the shaped narrative to see what else should go. And I don’t want to put the book in a drawer for ten years. I’m long-winded, as readers of this blog know, but in theory I understand the power of concision.

My impulsive forbidden photo

One of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect movie—aside from brilliant casting, score, and narration—is that Horton Foote compressed the novel’s three years into one, focusing on Boo Radley, the racial incident, and the trial. The novel drags a bit for me, and I read it most successfully as an atmospheric memoir, which it appears to be, except for Harper Lee’s inspired fictionalized use of a real racial incident for the dramatic core of her book. When the movie was edited Gregory Peck insisted the children be trimmed further, and the director excised the thread of Jem’s and Scout’s relationship with Mrs. Dubose. She ends up just a mean old lady on a porch, and the spotlight shines more strongly on Peck and the trial. I think Peck was right, whatever his motives, but of course today we’d watch every outtake if we could. (I’m an instant expert from reading the recent biography of Lee, Mockingbird, plus watching the DVD’s commentaries.)

As I try to cut my memoir, at least I’ve seen a new way in, thanks to a friend’s reading. She showed me that while I’ve written a rather chronological story, my memoir may need to open with something out of sequence. This is common, of course. Recently I saw Lidia Yuknavitch do it in her edgy memoir The Chronology of Water. For Yuknavitch, a competitive swimmer, water is a metaphor for the flowing, non-chronological nature of memory. Actually hers is a chronological unfolding overall, too, beginning with her traumatic girlhood in her dysfunctional family, but it opens with the stillbirth of her daughter. Yet the way she writes, what she focuses on and how she tells it, her very syntax, de-emphasizes her story’s chronological spine. (Thanks to Cynthia Newberry Martin at Catching Days for calling attention to The Chronology of Water.)

Several weeks ago I lugged my manuscript to my friend Candyce Canzoneri for feedback. It had grown in my latest rewrite by 220 pages, to 520. Candy is a writer with a wonderful sense of humor, and reading my doorstopper took someone with a blithe spirit. She gave me her response to the first act right away: pretty good, except the first chapter’s opening is all wrong. It was about the fifth or so version of  that chapter.

But I knew she was right. The entire chapter wasn’t bad, she said, but the first five or so pages describing me and my family finding a farm in Appalachia didn’t work. I got readers imprinted on that farm, and we didn’t end up with it. Readers are like goslings: they imprint on first things. What appears and moves out first.

Yuknavitch's edgy memoir

The opening had virtues I hated to lose: it was a long, vivid, rolling scene—therefore inherently dramatic and engaging and experiential—and smoothly introduced the cast of characters and a smidgen of background. But Candy said, “I’m not sure yet where it should start, but not there.” She found what she sought in chapter seven. “That Bromfield stuff,” she said. “Start with that.”

She was right again, though reworking the passage has been a challenge. The Bromfield stuff, about the influence on me as a kid of Ohio novelist and agrarian writer Louis Bromfield, was interlocked with references to material readers had learned about earlier. And yet I saw that leading with Bromfield solved so many more problems than it caused. It’s a passage with a lot of heat—though it’s mostly expository—and shows why a child of the suburbs wanted to farm. In short, a teenager growing up in a Florida beach town, pining for the loss of his family’s Georgia farm when he was six, stumbles across reprints of postwar Malabar Farm and Pleasant Valley, two of the most romantic books ever written about agriculture. It was like pouring gasoline on a pile of parched driftwood and striking a match. And I realize only now how much Bromfield’s romantic prose underlies my own attempts at describing the lovely Appalachian landscape of southeastern Ohio.

Pleasant Valley is a memoir about Bromfield’s return to northeastern Ohio from France in 1938. Having fled the Nazis, the writer, by then a famous and Pulitzer-winning novelist, sought refuge in the purchase of farms totaling about 1,000 acres. The book opens with a scene of Bromfield, his wife, and his literary manager driving into a hushed snowy valley, where the writer imagines the dreamy summer landscape he’d known as a child:

What I saw was a spring stream in summer, flowing through pastures of bluegrass and white clover and bordered by willows. Here and there in the meanderings of the stream there were deep holes where in the clear water you see the shiners and the bluegills, the sunfish and the big red horse-suckers and now and then a fine small-mouthed bass. On a hot day you could strip off your clothes and slip into one of those deep holes and lie there in the cool water among the bluegills and crawfish, letting the cool water pour over you while the minnows nibbled at your toes. And when you climbed out to dry in the hot sun and dress yourself, you trampled on mint and its cool fragrance scented all the warm air about you. . . .

And I saw the old mills, high, unpainted, silver-gray with the weathering of a hundred years, the big lofts smelling of wheat and corn and outside the churning millrace where fat, big carp and suckers lay in the deep water to feed on the spilled grain and mash.

In such broad brushstrokes Bromfield painted the lost world of his boyhood. I was his perfect reader. Curled up in an overstuffed chair in our house a block from the beach, I learned of America’s true paradise: Ohio. Oh, the irony. Well, here I am in Ohio today. Without him I wouldn’t have accepted a fellowship to Ohio State—just so I could visit Malabar Farm, now a state park—and wouldn’t have met my future wife without him.

Bromfield’s work occasioned some memorable, if terse, talks with my depressive father, who in the wake of his farming dreams was making his way as an executive at Kennedy Space Center. When I showed Dad those cheap mass market paperbacks I’d found in the mall bookstore—color covers of dewy pastures and freshly turned loamy soil— he pointed out the originals in his library. His hardcover versions, bound in black cloth, were embossed with a red Harper & Brothers logo showing a torch being passed from one hand to another.

Revising is hard work

I’m not happy that two thirds of my first chapter is now expository rather than scenic. Yet I know I went overboard with scenes in the last rewrite—one of the reasons the book is so long; scenes take more pages than summary. I was in good voice when I started writing almost six years ago, and the Bromfield passages, generated early, retain some of that sunny spirit. I was unselfconsciously expository, and very confident, having nary a clue about the depth of my ignorance about writing a book. Thank goodness.

And now, thanks to Candy’s keen eye, I’ve found a new opening and knocked the book back to 450 pages. And counting . . .

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Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, scene, structure, working method

Getting words down & revising them

I can’t remember how I came across a wonderful vimeo video on  Writer Unboxed  by Yuvi Zalkow on his breakthrough in revising his born-dead novel. Zalkow describes himself on vimeo in his “failed writer series” as a “writer, storyteller, novelist, shame-ridden schmo, maker of online presentations about my failures (and occasional successes) as a writer.”

I can relate, having just had a great essay (trust me!) fail to win two contests and get rejected even as a submission. That’s what I get for composing my humble thank-yous in advance, albeit inwardly . . .

Zalkow’s followup video on managing his time (and expectations) as a writer is really good, too. He talks about making the best of what little time he has. This was a topic Bill Roorbach and Dave Gessner covered well recently, Bill in “Finding Time to Write” and “Thank Your Editor” and Dave in “The Value of Momentum” over at Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

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Q&A: Ira Sukrungruang

Following my review of Talk Thai: Adventures of Buddhist Boy, I emailed some questions to its author. Ira Sukrungruang responded with uncommonly helpful answers. He’s only thirty-four, but maybe that’s why: he’s been writing seriously since he was a senior in college and is still close enough to what he’s learned, his big breakthroughs, to help illuminate writing’s craft. Here are my questions and his answers:

On your blog you call your memoir The Book that Took Too Long to Write. Could you discuss its evolution? What did you learn about writing in the process?

You can say I started writing this book as soon as I began writing seriously. I was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University, discovering creative nonfiction for the first time because of an autobiography class taught by nature writer Lisa Knopp. I found my material. I began writing essay after essay about my childhood, about my confusions as an immigrant son. I originally thought about writing a collection of essays because I didn’t think I had a memoir in me. Not yet. Not when I was twenty-two. Not when I was in the midst of self-discovery and though that discovery was revelatory, it was also difficult to sift through at the time. I took a few years more to see my life as a memoir. I needed those years to mature, to process, to understand. Time also helped me back away and write the exposition that was needed in the memoir. I didn’t have that yet. Everything was still really close. Also, for the longest time I labored over the essays, trying to write the bridges to connect them. I was driving myself nuts. It wasn’t working. Finally, I thought, “Screw it. Write the whole thing over.” I felt liberated. I felt I could write the book I wanted to write.

One of the things that is awfully complicated about using the “I” pronoun in nonfiction is that it continually evolves. The writer I am now is not the writer I was then. What was frustrating in revising those old essays was that I was trying to revise an older version of me, instead of writing a new book entirely. That was the biggest lesson I learned when writing Talk Thai.

Talk Thai opens with your enrollment in first grade and proceeds to high school. The book appears to be a straight, narrative-driven chronology, but that impression may be misleading in the sense that, while it feels complete, it’s concise and much must be left out. How did you work out the memoir’s form?

I always go by Bill Roorbach’s example of creative nonfiction in his textbook Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. Roorbach compares creative nonfiction to food styling. On the cover of cooking magazines, one sees the perfect turkey, perfectly brown, without the burnt parts. That perfect brown is motor oil. Real turkey doesn’t look appealing. Real turkey cooks unevenly, the skin pale in spots. Here, for example, is a picture of the turkey my wife and I had this Thanksgiving, cooked by a couple of friends while we were camping in Florida.

Ira Sukrungruang relates this, his Thanksgiving turkey, to creative nonfiction.

This turkey was delicious. That really dark spot was an explosion of flavor. Under the pale skin was the moistest turkey I have ever tasted. But by looking at it, you wouldn’t know. Real life is like this turkey; though good, showing it as it is doesn’t quite work.

When I began writing Talk Thai I needed to find the dramatic thrust of the book. The main questions that arose were how could I find myself in this Thai immigrant family, in America, in school, in temple, in anything? There are so many instances I wanted to put in the book, but some of them represented the same thing, and some of them slowed down the momentum of the book. Part of writing a chronological narrative is the art of sifting through all that is in a life, sifting through all the memories to get at what best represents what you want to illustrate. The book started off at five hundred pages, but a lot had to be cut and a lot had to be added until it finally found its final version. (Though, I must admit, I loved some of the cut sections, so on my website, I included a few omitted sections and a different ending. )

Speaking of endings, before I wrote the book I had to decide on a beginning and an ending of the book. I needed to have the ending point. I needed to know I was working toward something, shaping something. And the beginning—the natural beginning was my entry into the first grade. It’s when the world opened up to me. It’s when I was faced with America and all its confusion.

I enjoyed your narrative, an unfolding of events interwoven with reflection, because it conveys experience so well, but wonder if you were tempted to write more essayistic set-pieces about growing up Thai in America? The latter seems more popular in academic literary journals, while book publishers crave good stories.

A good story is good, but a memoir has to be more than a good story. It needs those thinking and reflective moments that you get in a good personal essay. I didn’t write Talk Thai because I had a good story. In fact, nothing truly traumatic happens in my life. I’m also not one to think being Thai or ethnic is reason enough to write a memoir. The story is secondary. A good memoir is about how one understands life, not the life itself. I turn to what Vivian Gornick says in The Situation and the Story: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

This is why I read memoir.

A note on book publishers: The best memoirs are coming out of independent and university presses. I love the memoirs that are coming out of University of Nebraska Press, the ones from University of Iowa Press, from Graywolf and Sarabande. These books are not only about the good story. A good story is forgettable if there isn’t anything else to cling to.

How and when did you end up getting an MFA after your undergraduate years? Since so many people of all ages are now pursuing MFAs, do you have any advice for prospective or current students about making the most of the experience?

I was student teaching at a high school in Illinois and I realized I wasn’t writing anymore, and at the time, that’s all I wanted to do. I decided to abandon my career path as a high school teacher and get an MFA. It was the best decision I ever made. And hardest. You don’t get an MFA because you want a job. I got an MFA because I wanted to learn more about the craft of writing and be around others who share the same passion. My advice: because you will be saturated in the writing world—reading, writing, teaching—you need to have an outlet. I needed to have one or two days out of the week where I did something else, like play tennis or work out. That was essential during my three years in the MFA program. My students who have gone on to MFA programs also played hockey or poker or something other than writing. It’s healthy sometimes to step away.

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Filed under Author Interview, essay-personal, memoir, MFA, narrative, revision, working method

Dinty Moore on revision & discovery

“Too often, in my opinion, beginning writers focus on what point they want to make, what the message will be in their writing, the ‘theme’ or ‘thesis,’ whereas the seasoned and successful writers that I know are always after what they can discover. Being too sure of what you want to say from the outset can be a bad thing in writing—you just end up re-stating the obvious.”

“If you want to be a writer, you have to love to write, love revision, love shaping sentences. You have to adore words and the endless possibilities of words in combination.  You have to know in your heart that even if no one ever read a word of what you have written, you would still do it, for yourself, because the process, the practice, is thrilling and inescapable.”

These quotes are from Dinty W. Moore’s interview with Writer’s Digest about his new book, Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction. As befits the founder of Brevity, the interview is concise. But in it he touches on pretty much everything a writer needs to know. His personal practice is simple but obviously effective in getting the work done: he says he rises about six o’clock, “writes for a few hours,” and goes off to his day job.

AARP on line currently features his distilled tips for people who want to get started writing a memoir. Elsewhere on this blog are other Moore tidbits, including excerpts of a previous interview with him by Mary Richert and my review of his textbook The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, discovery, revision, teaching, education, theme, working method

Writing by the ‘dangerous method’

A train station near Ravenna, Italy, May 2010

Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.“—Jo Ann Beard, in an interview with Michael Gardner in Mary

On my recent European trip I dipped again into Writing with Power, finding it dense but savoring Peter Elbow’s hard-earned insights. He’d been such a poor writer that he had to drop out of graduate school, only returning years later. If he’d been a natural, he probably would not have noticed how he actually wrote successfully, when he did. Pre-outlining didn’t work for him, either.

Elbow advocates timed free-writing—ten-minute nonstop bursts to empty our heads of junk, to find nuggets, to warm up, to tap creativity, or to explore topics we’re writing about, like Aunt Mary’s screened porch in summer. He comes closer than anyone does to convincing me to freewrite. For instance, I’m a sucker when he gets all mystical and credits freewriting both with reducing writers’ legendary resistance to writing and also with preventing them from conquering their resistance. Here’s a sample of his thinking on this from Chapter Two of Writing with Power:

To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.

This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.

You’ve got to love a guy who comes up with stuff like that. In one of his chapters on the pros and cons of various writing processes, I discovered that I use the “dangerous method,” which means trying to make perfect words, sentences, and scenes as you go. The problem with this, he says, is that writing’s two major components, the creative and the critical, are at odds. They are too different. He thinks the editing mind being employed too early blocks writers or turns their prose wooden.

It would be hard to change my ways, however, and for now at least I’m not even going to try. For one thing the dangerous method is kind of working. Granted, I’ve ended up cutting hundreds of pages from my memoir that I’d been polishing for years. But lots of famous writers seem to use the dangerous method, or some variation. Recently I read that someone, Joan Didion I think, used to retype the entire essay she was working on every day. And based on Scribbly Jane’s recent post on John McPhee’s interview with Paris Review, it appears he stews and procrastinates all day, then sits down at the eleventh hour and taps out one perfect page. John McPhee! In its obituary for William Styron, The New York Times reported on his method:

[I]t was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.

My personal excuse for trying to make everything right as I go is that that’s how I achieve Elbow’s holy grails of discovery and of experiencing what I am writing about. He’d probably say I’m just polishing and could spend that time creating, and he’d probably be right.

Elblow’s discussion of such intangibles reveals that his concern isn’t with nuts-and-bolts craft but with process—and, really, ultimately, with the writer’s psyche. Writing does seem to me to be a profound struggle with the self—or at least it is for me. Facing the blank page with the Self and all that. Who am I? Who was I? Why did I do that, say that, fail to do that?

This returns me to the quote at the start of my last post; but if writing is not, at base, a set of skills, what is it? Some time ago, when I knew more about writing, I tried to answer this in my post “Between self and story.” This time, I’ll return to Clear and Simple as the Truth, whose authors, Francis- Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, say that writers’ “verbal artifacts” mask something deeper, more fundamental and conceptual going on than the mere arrangement of words. They say:

Great painters are often less skillful than mediocre painters; it is their concept of painting, not their skills, that defines their activity. Similarly a foreigner may be less skillful than a native speaker at manipulating tenses or using subjunctives, but nonetheless be an incomparably better writer. Intellectual activities generate skills, but skills do not generate intellectual activities.

Words on the page come from the self, and, for most writers, getting them there regularly seems to require a struggle with the self, of overcoming resistances arising from fear and confusion. I think a writer has got to like making sentences. This work is about seeing what comes out of you and, at the sentence level, trying to make it sturdy and sometimes beautiful.

Then revising, forever. And dealing with resistance and the exciting-depressing realization that any new project worth doing is going to make its own unique and otherwise perplexing demands. But I believe, and fervently hope, that writing, like other complex activities, rewires our brains. I think we do get better with practice, even if writing doesn’t seem to get much easier.

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Filed under freewriting, revision, working method

John Irving on writing & America

Novelist John Irving holds forth on Big Think on an array of writing issues in short videos excerpted from a long interview. He discusses his working habits—eight to nine hours a day writing in longhand in lined notebooks, seven days a week—and the deep rifts in America that trouble him. He talks about using post-it notes, the long process of revision, achieving syntactical unity throughout a long work, and the glory of the long, lavishly detailed, plotted, visual nineteenth-century novels of Dickens, Hardy, Melville, and Hawthorne. The tidbits are worth a listen.

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Filed under craft, technique, fiction, NOTED, revision, syntax, working method

At St. Annie’s knee

I keep returning to Annie Dillard, poetic, astringent, profound, gnomic. I just read Mentors Musesthis great essay by writer Alexander Chee at The Mourning News on what it was like to study with Dillard as her student at Wesleyan University. It appears in the new book Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers On the People Who Changed Their Lives edited by Elizabeth Benedict. An excerpt from Chee’s remembrance:

“ ‘Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader,’ she announced. This seemed obvious but also radical—no one had ever said it so plainly to us. She spoke often of ‘the job.’ ‘If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt. You don’t have to tell the reader how to feel. No one likes to be told how to feel about something. And if you doubt that, just go ahead. Try and tell someone how to feel.’

“We were to avoid emotional language. ‘The line goes grey when you do that,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell the reader that someone was happy or sad.’ When you do that, the reader has nothing to see. ‘She isn’t angry,’ Annie said. ‘She throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.’

“In the cutting and cutting and the ‘move this here, put this at the beginning, this belongs on page six,’ I learned that the first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat, that most times, the place your draft begins is around page four. That if the beginning isn’t there sometimes it’s at the end, that you’ve spent the whole time getting to your beginning, and that if you switch the first and last pages you might have a better result than if you leave them where they were.

“One afternoon, at her direction, we brought in our pages, scissors and tape, and told to bring several drafts of an essay, one that we struggled with over many versions. ‘Now cut out only the best sentences,’ she said. And tape them on a blank page. ‘And then when you have that, write in around them,’ she said. ‘Fill in what’s missing and make it reach for the best of what you’ve written thus far.’

“I watched as the sentences that didn’t matter fell away. You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free. . . .

“ ‘Talent isn’t enough,’ she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. ‘I started with people much more talented than me,’ she said, ‘and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.’ . . .

“ ‘If I’ve done my job,’ she said in the last class, you won’t be happy with anything you write for the next 10 years. It’s not because you won’t be writing well, but because I’ve raised your standards for yourself. Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.’

“She paused here. This was another of her fugue states. And then she smiled. We all knew she was right. ‘Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go,’ she said. ‘Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.’ ”

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, emotion, narrative, NOTED, revision, structure, teaching, education, working method

Revise, then polish

“The writer who writes for revision does not wait for a final draft but works through a series of discovery, Sellersdevelopment, and clarification drafts until a significant meaning is found and made clear to the reader.”—Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition)

Not many years ago, I was having dinner with a writer I admired, and when she mentioned having multiple versions of an essay I said, “You do? That surprises me.”

“I’m surprised that you’re surprised,” she said.

At the time, I was still polishing and calling that rewriting or editing. I didn’t even know what revision is or that it makes new versions—sometimes two, sometimes four. Sometimes six. Keep them all!

Our cuts, restructuring, and additions we make in trying to make a piece work might not work themselves. Or parts of them might work and some parts won’t. We find this out down the road as a manuscript jells. (Note to MFA students: This why even the best teacher’s review early in the process can be unhelpful.)

Right now, I am adding a chapter that was dropped from my memoir a couple of years ago. That old limbo chapter—which existed in three separate versions—now fits the narrative. In picking and choosing from the previous three versions, I now have two or three more of “What Freckles Taught Me.”

(Freckles was a sheep—pictured in my last post—and today’s photo shows her last two lambs on my lap.)

As Heather Sellers says of revision in her excellent Chapter After Chapter, “It’s not a process of improvement; it’s a Richard,Lambsprocess of learning. Revision means you ‘re-see’ your piece. You see it again and again, in a slightly different light each time. Some lights are more useful, more flattering, more interesting. Some aren’t. Revision is information gathering. It’s not a slow and steady always-forward moving march toward perfection. Revision means making a mess, not straightening up. (Editing is straightening up.)”

Most of writers’ time is spent not writing but revising, she says. And I have to agree, since it took me a year and a half to write the 500 pages I’ve been reworking now for two and a half. Now the book is 200 pages leaner, and I remember what a former teacher, a veteran editor, correctly told me when it was still 100 pages longer and I said I was polishing: “Stop polishing and start cutting.”

What I tell my students about their rewrites of short essays is this: don’t just clean up the copy, make the suggested edits. Do a “save as” and submit a whole new piece. You may not like it as well, and you may be right, but you’ll have two versions of your masterpiece.

Sellers again: “Every time I work on a piece, I make some parts better and some parts worse. When I am sick of making versions, I choose the one I think is best, polish it to the best of my ability, and submit it to publication.”

When it gets rejected, she produces a new version, or maybe restores an earlier one: “With each new version, I learn more about the truth of the piece, so I know which one to pick, which one is right, even if it’s an early draft. Learning is a series of little improvements punctuated by many, many, many terrible disasters.”

But this is why everyone says writing is rewriting, which isn’t what I used to think; it’s not editing or polishing one perfect copy. There always are many ways to tell something and no one right way. But there may be an optimum version that’s discovered through revision. As Don Murray’s quote above indicates, what often happens is that it takes true revision, and many versions, for a writer to discover his structure and what he’s really writing about, his theme or deeper meaning.

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Filed under discovery, editing, memoir, MFA, revision, structure, theme, working method