Tag Archives: Cynthia Newberry Martin

Four writers on their messy process

Bill Roorbach has instituted a new feature over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, an author interview. The first, with John J. Clayton, marking the appearance of his new novel, Mitzvah Man, is remarkable for being done all in scene—Bill interviewed him at his home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts—and for Clayton’s thoughts on just what God truly is. Or may be.

On his laborious daily struggle to write:

 I do what I can to avoid writing fiction, because writing fiction is the hardest thing I do.  I answer emails; I fabricate the need to write emails; I read parts of The New York Times on line.  I lie down for five minutes.  Now I write.  When I’ve got something coming, I’m grateful.  I don’t listen to music—I put earplugs in my ears and write.  If nothing is coming or if what’s coming bores me, I take a walk with my cassette recorder and our dog and talk to myself.  Then I go home and jot down notes from what I’ve said.  It’s a good system, because then later or the next day I have something to start from.  I write from 8:30 to 12:30, then have lunch, then do all the secondary stuff like scrounging for readings, sending out old stories, etc.  And reading.  For six months I’ve been writing a novel and having a hard time.  There’s a lot of waste effort.  But I do have faith in my process—if I keep working, something will come.  I can’t make it come, but I’m convinced that it will come.

At Hippocampus Magazine, Amye Archer has a great interview with memoirist Beverly Donofrio, author of Riding in Cars with Boys and Looking for Mary. Donofrio lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she founded and currently directs the San Miguel Workshops. Her thoughts on memoir as a form of imaginative literature—nonfiction but not journalism—are astute.

Her routine:

I get up, make coffee, read something spiritual, meditate, do yoga, then write. Some days I skip the yoga, some days I go for an early morning walk. All of the disciplines are in some way in service to the writing. To get me centered, able to focus, less stressed. I print out constantly and edit with a pencil. On the memoir I’m writing now, I rewrite and polish a chapter until I think it is good and it is finished. I pin it to the wall. Write the next chapter till I think it is good and finished, then go back to the previous chapter and sometimes the one or two before that one. Invariably I find that none are good enough or finished. But, by moving on to the next, I’ve gained enough distance to view it with a fresh eye. My first take on situations, my memories, the stories I want to tell is fairly superficial. I hate this about myself: I’m fairly superficial. Only through writing do I go deep, and each draft brings me deeper still. Perhaps if my default weren’t to be so shallow, it would take many less drafts to get to the good stuff: the truth.

At Catching Days Cynthia Newberry Martin catches up with New Orleans writer Barb Johnson, author of the short story collection More of This World or Maybe Another. As the latest writer featured in Cynthia’s smart series on writers at work, Johnson reflects on writing from the perspective of someone who spent twenty years busting her guts as a carpenter.

Her struggle with herself and against the pernicious Internet:

 I love revision. I love to edit. Those things come easily. But making up the new stuff can be scary. The carpenter part of my brain is always trying to find the most efficient way to do everything, but efficiency has no place in generating new material. It takes however long it takes, and the result is often too ugly for me to believe that one day it will be better, good even. So, as a way to keep myself going, I promise myself that I can do anything I want, anything at all, once I hit that thousand-word mark. I can get up and go hang out with friends or finish the book I’m reading or take a nap if I want to. That nap part of the bargaining is hilarious: I never, ever nap. But when I stare at a blank page, it makes me sleepy, so the promise of a nap always feels meaningful.

. . . It most certainly does not mean screwing around on the Internet. The Internet shortens your attention span. Because of its click-and-drag wizardry, it will leave you feeling impatient with the rather labor-intensive, single-focus nature of writing.  All that clickety-click quickly starves your creativity. Writing requires you to make a car out of cardboard box. The Internet gives you the car, complete with customization options applied by clicking a button. Once you contribute to your writerly stash for the day, then go ahead on, find out what your friends have been up to on Facebook while you’ve been cutting holes in cardboard boxes all day.

Franzen earned those whiskers, buddy

Terry Gross has rebroadcast a Fresh Air interview with Jonathan Franzen about his epic novel Freedom, on the occasion of its paperback edition. Franzen worked nine years on Freedom, producing a very good memoir and a neat essay collection in the meantime while enduring depression and doubt as he slogged through the novel. (He’s disabled the ability of his laptop to connect to the Internet.) I love his fiction and his nonfiction. I can’t join the Franzen haters, despite his recent infuriatingly obtuse and self-centered New Yorker essay about his late friend David Foster Wallace.

In this interview, Franzen talks about stripping his style down—he made a self-publicized shift toward traditional fiction some time ago—and what it cost him to go deeply into his characters:

 I don’t want to be a performer. I less and less want to be a performer. And I can’t seem to be a performer. If I’m just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that’s still hot in me, something that’s distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress — even aesthetic distress. … And that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man’s game a little bit. …

I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy. But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional’s office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences… [but] feeling that it’s absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.

And I keep trying — I kept trying, through much of the last decade — to access these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in direct ways…. So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work. And, along the way, becoming depressed — although it certainly feels lousy — comes to be a key and important symptom. It’s a flag. And it’s almost as if, when I start to crash, I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s being pushed to a crisis.

 

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Filed under discovery, fiction, memoir, NOTED, religion & spirituality, working method

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