Good writers

A young Romanian writer reflects on how he learned to suck it up and just keep writing . . .

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Noted: T. C. Boyle on creativity

Boyle, T.C

In order to create you have to believe in your ability to do so and that often means excluding whole chunks of normal life, and, of course, pumping yourself up as much as possible as a way of keeping on. Sort of cheering for yourself in the great football stadium of life.”

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To plan or to plunge?

What a nude “gesture sketch” class taught writer Rachel Howard.

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.  Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one.

—Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches

Annie Dillard's self-portrait sketch.

Annie Dillard’s expressive self-portrait sketch.

Rachel Howard’s essay on “gesture writing” in The New York Times interests me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve taken two writing classes from her through Stanford’s online continuing studies offerings, and she’s a generous teacher and a true prose artist who has published a memoir about her father’s murder and is completing a novel. Second, her essay concerns one of those core writing issues that is challenging to discuss and which I’ve gone back and forth about on this blog: the role of the conscious or critical mind versus the unconscious or intuitive mind in initial creation.

Rachel’s insight favoring the intuitive arrived after she started posing as a nude model for drawing classes. She was impressed by a teacher who urged his students to capture her essence in the pose rather than to try to make their sketches representational. Rachel explains:

This “gesture” idea was fundamental. In painting classes, where I held the same pose for three hours (with frequent five-minute breaks, thank God), the paintings that looked most alive were built on top of a good gesture sketch, a first-step, quick-and-dirty drawing in which many crucial decisions about placement, perspective and emphasis were made intuitively.

In a gesture drawing, a whole arm that didn’t matter much might be just a smudgy slash, while a line that captured the twist of a spine might stand in sharp, carefully observed relief. The “gesture” was the line of organic connection within the body, the trace of kinetic cause-and-effect that made the figure a live human being rather than a corpse of stitched-together parts. If you “found the gesture,” you found life.

This quick impressionistic approach helped her, she says, find the essence of a scene she’d been struggling with in her novel. Abandoning her keyboard, she sat on the floor with a notebook and saw the scene unfold fast and clear in her mind. She jotted new dialogue, suddenly seeing and capturing a new point of view as well. In Peter Elbow’s terms in Writing With Power, Rachel experienced the scene. And when a writer does that, the scene lives because its details are both organic and relevant—what the writer or participants really would see and feel—rather than being laboriously descriptive and feeling somehow false or dead.

Elbow speculates that effective images tap more of the writer’s memory fragments, thus becoming vivid images rather than abstract ideas or conceptions. He notes that one drawing technique forbids the artist to look at the paper but to pour all energy into seeing, and explains:

The drawings people produce when they can’t look at their paper are very instructive. They are liable to have obvious distortions of one sort or another. But they usually have more life, energy, and experience in them than drawings produced when you keep looking back to your paper and correcting your line and thereby achieving more accuracy. They give the viewer more of the experience of that torso or apple. . . .

If you want your words to make a reader have an experience, you have to have an experience yourself—not just deal in ideas or concepts. What this means in practice is you have to put all your energy into seeing—into connecting or making contact or participating with what you are writing about—into being there or having the hallucination. And no effort at all into searching for words. When you have the experience . . . you can just open your mouth and the words that emerge will be what you need. (In the case of writing, though, you will have to revise later.)

Writing With Power (discussed much on this blog, along with his other work, as the linked words suggest) is a brief for process-based writing. Elbow’s theories apparently have done much good in schools because beginning writers are taught that their first drafts can be messy, and should be, and that writing is steadily refined instead of arriving flawless the first time. In contrast, what I and many writers do—compose and edit at the same time, polishing each sentence and passage as we go—he calls “the dangerous method.” That’s because, in his view, the critical, editing mind is different from and hostile to the creative, holistic one.

Recently I wrote here about stylist Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, in which he argues that there isn’t such a split, and that in struggling to perfect each sentence—he “auditions” and rejects many—the writer discovers her material and brings it to life. Even as the Times offers Rachel’s essay, it’s running a new one by Klinkenborg, another of his small wonders—only 386 words—about the mounted head of a mule deer, shot by his father during their Colorado years, that he’s been lugging around his whole life. His essay interests me because I’m a fan, because of its remarkable compression, and because I’m vacationing in Colorado right now.

This apparent schism between Rachel and Verlyn’s process of composition relates to the everlasting argument in creative writing between “plotters,” who plan everything, and “pantsers,” who plunge in and proceed by the seat of their pants. I think most writers work in the middle; they do both, if not initially then eventually. Notice that Rachel had a complete draft, at least of that problem scene, when she retreated with her notebook. One might even surmise that her intuitive fix worked because she’d already gutted out the scene; she knew it cold from more plodding work.

Who knows? But the fun and the key is finding out what works for you.

After I posted this I realized maybe I’ve muddied the water in equating Elbow’s dangerous method—editing as you create—with planning your structure. A writer might polish each sentence as she goes even if she doesn’t know where she’s going in terms of plot or structure. Also, in Rachel’s example she already knew what was happening in the scene—she’d previously created it—just didn’t like how it was playing out. So she sat and riffed, seeing it fresh. But it was not in that sense initial creation.

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Fiona Maazel on loneliness

A novel approach to the absurdities of mass desolation.

Lighted Globes x 

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

Graywolf Press, 336 pp., $26.00.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story . . .

—John Steinbeck, to the Paris Review

Maazel novel

A Google search for the term lonely can yield 287,000,000 results in less than twenty seconds. A Facebook Community called “Loneliness” has close to 19,000 Likes, while over 15,000 Likes appear on a Facebook Interest page with the same title. It looks like Fiona Maazel really struck a chord with this literary theme in her second novel.

The cover, with its iconic backlit image of a concert crowd wave, pulls the reader right into the anomie awaiting inside the book. When a writer as proficient as Maazel collects intriguing ideas—such as global eavesdropping in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, the juche idea of the spirit of self-reliance in the isolated nation of North Korea, the secret world of subterranean Cincinnati, the lure of cults, and the psychology of loneliness —and combines them all into a plot that is at the same time wildly comical and perceptively forlorn . . . well, you’ve got yourself a rollicking good read.

Some authors can make you laugh out loud. Others wrench tears right out of you. Maazel blends those two abilities in a startling yet subtle way—at least for me. While reading Woke Up Lonely, I would on occasion be aware of a riotous laugh heading straight up my throat, only to be met by an equally powerful lurch of my heart just before the hysterics breached my lips. The effect muted what was about to become a loud guffaw by curtailing the initiation of tears into a sharp intake of breath instead, infusing me with a unique sense of poignant hilarity. Maazel’s artistic skill in smudging the demarcation between comedy and angst left me shaking my head in admiration time and time again.

Her first novel, Last Last Chance, also touched upon disparate societal issues viewed from an absurdist eye with acuity. I would place Woke Up Lonely in a special fiction genre, however, possibly also comprised of Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

The protagonist in Woke Up Lonely inspired opposing feelings in me as well. I found Thurlow Dan, known as Lo, at once both despicable and endearing. Lo is the founder of the Helix, a cult followed by throngs of lonely people. He, too, is aware of his emotional remoteness while missing his former wife, Esme, and their daughter, Ida. It’s been a decade since he saw them—and then suddenly he does.

Avid readers of Boris Pasternak will recognize the riff on a scene from Doctor Zhivago as the novel begins. Thomas Hardy aficionados may pick up on another from Tess of the d’Urbervilles at the book’s end.

The author employs a technique for revealing Esme’s backstory by having the character number the pages of a speech she’s preparing about her early life. Unbeknownst to Lo, Esme’s job has involved spying on her former husband. One of their most hilarious scenes together takes place in a limo driving through Pyongyang, DPRK, told at different points in the novel as each of them experienced it. Esme’s disguised professional vantage point over the years has allowed her to protect him covertly as she became aware that she still cared for him. Then Lo throws her a curveball by taking her agents hostage. These four spies are vividly drawn quirky characters with mind-boggling individual story lines of their own.

In explaining the reasons why people behave in unusual ways, social psychologist Elliot Aronson noted his “first law” in The Social Animal, published in 1972 and now in its 11th edition: “People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy.”

Later, in his 2010 memoir Not By Chance Alone: My Life As a Social Psychologist, Aronson wrote: ““In this society most of us glide through life protecting ourselves; in effect, each of us wears a behavioral suit of armor, to minimize how much other people can hurt us. But sometimes we become so successful at hiding our true feelings from others that we hide our feelings from ourselves as well.”

Woke Up Lonely strikes me as a literary exploration of these very ideas. Maazel juxtaposes ribald incidents next to analytical explanations of how loneliness differs from anxiety and depression with a deft and sure hand. She draws attention to the distinctive features of individualism and collectivism within a society as they relate to loneliness.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, coauthor of Loneliness, has spoken widely about such concepts. Cacioppo stresses that loneliness is not a bad thing because it compels us to form connections. “Loneliness is a cue to us to reconnect, like a prompt,” he says. “Individualism is celebrated in our culture. The underlying collective is not recognized.” According to Cacioppo, the symptoms of loneliness are: “(1) You don’t have a confidant who confirms who you are. (2) You don’t have a collective identity, a social identity.”

And that’s right where Thurlow Dan’s Helix cult snags so many lonely people in Maazel’s novel. I was briefly confused a couple times amid shifts from first to third person and in the description of several characters, but never did they mar the framework or flow of this modern tragedy with its intelligently subtle humor. Maazel masterfully couches editorial observations about our culture within the dialogue of her creatively sketched characters. On page after page, I thought in bemused wonder, “How did she ever dream up these folks?”

I picked up some insights when I heard Maazel speak recently at the New Fiction Confab in Austin, Texas.

“I write because I enjoy it,” she said. “I don’t know how to do anything else but fiction writing. It’s lucky if you get to do what you love.”

She doesn’t hold stock in the old adage “Write what you know.”

“Write what you can learn about,” she said. “It teaches you about your inner life. If you’re a person who finds it difficult to confront your inner life, writing is a way to do it.”

She advised writers to “be available to the world around you. It teaches you. I use no headphones or iTunes. I use the subway to be a keen observer. Let the stories come to you. Refract them through your own consciousness.”

Afterward, I asked her how many drafts she wrote of Woke Up Lonely before it was published.

“Oh, about forty-six,” she replied seriously. “There’s no ‘would-be’ about being a writer. You’re either a writer or you’re not.”

Fiona Maazel is definitely a writer.

ChezZee x

Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

 

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Learning the craft, part three

Don’t submit your beloved manuscript too early.

Sky Hole 2x

This is part three of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

There’s such a high in completing a book’s first draft. A whole manuscript. In You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, Elizabeth Sims nails it:

To write a book is to open and give yourself to a world thirsty for authenticity. Writing a book is a heroic act, and it is an accomplishment no one can take away from you. When you come to THE END you will know a wealth of things about your subject, about writing, and about yourself. You will be a deeper, richer, more complete person.

The tough love part for me resided in a simple question. Do you want to publish it? Your baby? You don’t have to—but I wanted to. And so I learned that if you think your book is ready, it isn’t. You must know it’s ready. That took more work, in my case. Six drafts over seven years.

A rookie mistake, which also afflicts writers at every level, is sending off a manuscript too early. It’s hard to see your own work. But I can now see my un-admitted doubts when I began to submit what I probably was calling the third draft of my memoir.

Freckles sez, "Get help—don't be baaaad!".

Freckles sez, “Get help—don’t be baaaad!”

I’ve read that Philip Roth sent his novel drafts to five people, and I like to imagine who they were: three wickedly good fellow novelists; a sensible and erudite lay reader; and, what the heck, a Rabbi. Every writer needs a writing posse. At some point, however, your chief deputies can fail you if they too have read the work, or its pieces, so long that they’re blind to its faults. Plus, they want your and its success. I was fortunate that an editor, in a roundabout way, kindly directed me—actually he bluntly called my book “plodding”—to obtain the services of a developmental editor.

So after I got professional help I began writing a new version that truly was new, the fourth draft, and about a year later I had it, another baby whale, the manuscript having returned again to its original length of 500 pages. Eventually I cut it to a svelte 360, and broke up a chapter on my father and dispersed him throughout the book. Where he should have been all along—as an MFA mentor had mentioned the better part of a decade before. I went through the book a couple more times, smoothing sentences, looking at persona, and clarifying timeline.

Finally I knew my memoir was ready, and thankfully hadn’t burned too many bridges with my early efforts. That’s the problem with submitting a book before it’s ready, not just initial rejection but permanent rejection. It’s natural for neophytes to think, “This may need some work, but they’ll see it’s a diamond in the rough. They’ll want to work with me.” Nope. Not unless you are named Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. There are too many other manuscripts that are ready, clamoring for editors’ and publishers’ attentions. They’ll cross you off and move on.

Now, finally bearing a book contract, here I am, this putative font of wisdom who’s really just trying to advise himself. Trying to codify what I fear I’ll forget. And while I hunger for another project, for that addictive immersive quest for authenticity that puts you in a new zone, at the same time I must fear it. Or something. I think it’s fear of failure that produces resistance, but I’m not sure. I seem to wish I could skip the struggle, the time, it takes to enter fully a project. As if on cue, I stumbled the other day across this:

I realized that this was going to take time and patience, which I didn’t have much of. It took me only 15, 20 years to develop some patience, and it was a struggle. It was the same with my reading. I had the desire to learn, but I didn’t have the patience. I wanted to tear that page up, because I didn’t have the patience to even contemplate those words. I was in a hurry to run away from the suffering that was required to sit still.—Harvey Keitel

So start, slowly. Time is going to pass anyway. Night is falling. Accept suffering, but try to enjoy the process. Because it’s all process on the writer’s way, the writer’s path.

This and the previous three posts have run, in slightly different form, as a single guest post at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

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Learning the craft, part two

In writing, I learn, it’s wise to emphasize love over discipline.

 

This is part two of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

 There’s a common notion that self-discipline is a freakish peculiarity of writers—that writers differ from other people by possessing enormous and equal portions of talent and willpower.  They grit their powerful teeth and go into their little rooms. I think that’s a bad misunderstanding of what impels the writer. What impels the writer is a deep love for and respect for language, for literary forms, for books.—Annie Dillard

Thankfully I came across this advice in The Writing Life early in my work; an MFA mentor had admired Dillard so I was reading her. Love, Dillard continues, is much stronger than discipline: only love gets a mother out of bed in the night to tend a crying baby. Discipline has its place—after a writer has gotten in shape, built his muscles. After he’s made himself ready, in other words. You don’t set out to run a marathon on your first day jogging.

I used to wonder why it took writers so long to finish a book. I didn’t realize they were producing multiple versions of that book. Mine took six complete versions over seven years, with each sentence, paragraph, passage, and chapter worked over so many times I lost count. While part of me can’t believe it took seven years, using Dillard’s figures in The Writing Life the average length of time is six years to produce a publishable manuscript.

Sure, writing’s hard—but it’s play, too. Get in shape before you try “discipline.”

Get in shape before you impose “discipline.”

It always took me an hour to re-enter the work; in the next hour I started producing; in the third and final hour, all I’m good for, came the good stuff. My usual hourly rate, I found, was a page an hour. And after a year and a half of writing for hours daily I noticed that my sentences seemed better somehow. They felt more fluent, and I’d learned the secret of varying their structure for rhythm and musicality.

In the end, the self that apprehends meanings, the part of us that would say this is true, is all-important. You’re trying to make something out of nothing. One wants—no, wishes—to be worthy. All one can do is put one’s head down and try, hope that the work itself will call forth—and in some way help supply—any necessary personal transformations. One must begin humbly but bravely wherever one is. And try.

But ideally not try so hard that you lose the fun and let fear win. Because that’s what “lack of discipline” usually amounts to, fear and confusion. Maybe it’s all confusion, because ignorance creates fear that can only be remedied in the practice itself and through education, both willful and incidental, as a result of the practice.

No wonder writer Bill Roorbach counts birdwatching and gardening as writing. Writing is fed by what lies beneath the straining ego; I think of that vastly larger continent as—there’s no better word for it—soul. Or, if you prefer, Jung’s collective unconscious. The Force? Whatever you call God?

Anyway, something greater than the feverish brittle outward egoistic shell we commonly call me.

Next: Why your writing posse is vital—but can be mistaken.

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Learning the craft, part one

Pondering the writer’s never-ending education.

Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Photo by my jet-setting sister, Meg.

Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Photo by my jet-setting sister, Meg.

This is part one of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

“I don’t think writers go to college,” my father informed me as I prepared to leave home for college. His unsparing honesty was one of the reasons I hadn’t revealed my ambitions, of course, but my dreams were obvious.

And while Dad was trying to be helpful, he was wrong. Not totally, in that his knowledge reflected what he knew of writers such as Jack London and Mark Twain and those of his generation—probably Hemingway and Faulkner. He didn’t know about Fitzgerald attending a prestigious Catholic prep school and then Princeton or about Dos Passos at Choate and then Harvard. Dad was a man of action. Though he’d graduated from a famous prep school himself, earning today’s equivalent of a fine college liberal arts education, he’d been thrown out of Cornell for landing an airplane on a campus lawn.

Afterward, he’d educated himself. He believed writing was about gaining experience in the world and then putting butt to chair. That’s how he’d written and self-published his own book, Success Without Soil: How to Grow Plants by Hydroponics.

There’s some truth in my father’s vision of the writer, but it’s ignorant about the degree to which writers must be highly educated, through some process, by other writers. Hemingway, again, is the case in point, though he famously turned on all those who’d helped him.

“I think you can be big in this business,” my father told me as I, newly graduated, headed off for my first newspaper job. “But learn the craft.”

Today the writers are in colleges, and that’s where craft lessons usually start. I’m not building up here to say that an MFA is necessary, not at all. But education in craft by fellow writers is. For most, that tutelage continues long past one’s undergraduate years; the guild of writers schools its apprentices by means of chummy conferences, by stray remarks about their work, and by sharp blows to the snout—stark rejections.

June 2005, just before my first MFA residency.

June 2005, just before my first MFA residency.

Creative writing, in whatever genre, is an endless education, which ultimately does become self-directed, through reading books and from practice. But there’s nothing sadder than a man who sits down to write a big book, the book of his life, thinking it’s just a matter of butt to chair. I had been such a boy and almost was that man. And while I like to think I’d have gotten a draft done without my MFA program, I might have lost heart without its craft lessons and its affirmation. Because at Goucher College I gained an instant supportive community—students and mentors who live and breathe literature—and also began my long-overdue apprenticeship in the craft of book writing.

I learned so much afterward, in writing draft after draft of my book—it’s true that the only way to learn to write a book is to write one—that I risk falling into the common trap of undervaluing my MFA as part of my process.

There are many paths, but the consistent key is learning, at first with help—with lots of help. I know a writer who published a fine memoir, with a big New York trade house, after taking post-college on-line classes (Stanford’s are great) and after attending writers’ conferences. (Then she got an MFA, desiring to write fiction and probably wanting the degree to teach.) After a while, reading deeply in your chosen genre is the main thing, and reading and raiding everything else, as you write. Plus all the other things you’ve always heard you should do and finally find yourself doing: looking up words, counting syllables, reading your work aloud.

So many times I thought of my father as the years went by: I’m learning the craft, Dad.

Next: Another lesson on the path to publication: learning to love the process.

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