Last year I wrote a post on how important it was to have a space dedicated to just to writing. (That way, I said, we can have a place where we shed our non-writing thoughts and leave our troubles at the door, etc.)
A year later, I am a hypocrite to my words. I write mostly on my bed. Sometimes on the couch, but usually on my bed because I like to write in the middle of a pile of books. Books that I can reach for when I need to remember how to write a tension-packed scene or sentence (Thanks, Joyce Carol Oates), or others with scenes that serve a similar function within a novel (Hello old city descriptions in Middlesex), and more with the historical information I need to write a particular scene for what I daresay is a “mostly” historical novel (hence, my 1927 Sears Catalog). I basically get up, do morning things, make my bed, and cover the mattress with books that five seconds ago covered my dresser, and get to work. I know this is so un-feng-shui.
Coffee keeps me awake. Also, a walk around.
Does anyone else write on their bed? What would we do without laptops?
…if you don’t value people you don’t wish to communicate with them. And any writing is a form of communication, just as any writing is a form of hope.
Because think of what you’re hoping for: you’re hoping, number one, that you’ll finish whatever it is you’re writing; number two, that it will be comprehensible; number three, that your message will somehow reach another human being; number four, that they will open that bottle that’s washed up on the shore, and they will take out the message, and they will be able to read it; and number five, that they will be able to comprehend it and derive meaning from it. And that’s a pretty long list of hopes.
This quote comes from the end of an interview Margaret Atwood gave with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s show, BOOKWORM. For most of the interview, they talked about her latest book, Maddaddam, the third of a trilogy.
If you are a writer and unfamiliar with this show, I highly recommend you start downloading the podcasts. You can listen to the whole interview here.
Atwood’s words remind me of what I’ve started to call the “Stevie Wonder Principle:” It’s not a religion, people. It’s a relationship. Writing can become, quite fast, a religion. We have our ceremonies (prizes, readings, book signings), and rituals (turning off the internet, staring at a blank page and staying put until something comes, listening to podcasts of author interviews), and there are several denominations (or genres and poetry schools). We have our leaders whose approval we might, if we’re not careful, depend on too much.
Nonetheless, like what Atwood says here, it’s important to go back to the very core of why we do what we do: to communicate with people. Once we start to sacrifice the “relationship” for “religion,” our writing becomes self-indulgent, mean, without any sort of redemption, hard to stomach, and, you know, corrupted by the same thing that corrupts all religions: greed.
All of that aside, it was nice to hear that Margaret Atwood express a need for hope in order to write what she writes, despite the fact that in the hierarchy of writers, she’s probably pretty close to the Vatican. Writing is always a process, no matter who we are or what we’ve written.
Nick is my colleague down here in Tallahassee but I think of him as a Midwestern poet, specifically an Ohio poet because he’s from Akron. He makes Akron seem cool, like the Black Keys make Akron seem cool. The first time I hung out with him, he came and joined a bunch of poets on my porch, brought a bottle of excellent whiskey, and wrote a bunch of poems with the group on the backs of pizza boxes. I still have those pizza boxes. They are, as Nick would say, “Rad”. He’s not just cool though, he’s impressive. Every time I turn around, Nick’s doing something awesome related to poetry, or he’s got a new poem appearing somewhere awesome. Like when I went to his Facebook wall to catch up on where he’s at on his current book tour, I saw that many of his friends were re-posting this new poem of his, which was recently published on the PEN American Center’s website. I would say that Nick is just having a really good summer but believe me, he’s like this all year long.
H_NGM_N recently published his first book of poetry:
Like Nick himself, his book is doing things. Lots of things. He’s got several poems called “What a Tremendous Time We’re Having,” spliced between other poems, my favorite of which have titles that start with “Basic Guide…” He’s got a Basic Guide to History that would make Woody Guthrie and Emma Goldman blush. He’s got a Basic Guide to Friendship, which made enchiladas sound delicious and necessary. He’s got a Basic Guide to Success, Basic Guide to Growing Up, and a Basic Guide to Emergency that had one of my favorite lines in the whole book:
Every moment is an emergency and every emergency is an array of juxtaposition and grace.”
His book is anything but basic. It’s an unbasic guide to a whole bunch of truths, and many of these truths had me laughing in public. In some ways, reading Nick’s poems reminded me of last Thanksgiving, when I spent the afternoon in my apartment with my brother listening to all the Mitch Hedberg Youtube had to offer. Like this line of Nick’s:
I wash my laundry in blue sauce.
and this line, which comes from the same “What a Tremendous Time We’re Having!” poem:
Sunflowers have the hospital surrounded
Like Mitch Hedberg, Nick’s poems are full of moments that make me stop and say, “Huh.I never saw it like that…” Moments that, I would say, indicate that I’m reading great poetry. Some of these moments are sad, or nostalgic, or humble:
I feel like an air conditioner emitting/a kind of stupid music for you all but all I want/is not to be invisible.”
In the end, his repeated title proves true. We’re having a tremendous time and we don’t want it to end. Knowing Nick, there are plenty of tremendous poems coming soon.
One of my intentions for creating this website was to have a space for promoting my friends’ work. I have a lot of friends with new books, or with books coming out soon, so I’m here to get that ball rolling with one of my oldest and favorite friends, Khary Jackson.
Khary and I both attended the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts (he graduated a year before me), and he was always a little weird and a lot talented. Usually those qualities come hand in hand (for example, Khary Jackson). One of my favorite memories of him is when I came into our drama teacher’s office and he was standing in front of the television, conducting all of the symphonies along with Tom Hulce in the film version of Amadeus. Khary and I both majored in theater/drama and we competed together on our school’s state champion forensics team. We competed in a dead people competition. Not really. Forensics, in that context, means speech and drama. Khary was one of the most stand out, uninhibited performers on the team, so it’s no surprise that he continues to write and perform his poetry in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he now lives. Few things make me happier than talking to him on the phone, not only because he has a marvelous speaking voice, but because when I’m listening closely, I can catch snippets of the Minnesota accent he’s picked up over the last decade. It’s adorable, though adorable is not a word I’d use to describe his work. His words are imaginative, memorable, and usually pretty heart-wrenching but also pretty funny at times. His poems, like his performances, are uninhibited. There is no fear or hesitancy in Khary’s work, which makes it a blast to read.
This week I finally got around to ordering and reading his first poetry collection, Any Psalm You Want, which came out last spring from Write Bloody Poetry. The book is as marvelous as its title. It’s also got a great cover:
There’s a lot of themes going on in this book: music, Detroit, the African American experience, grieving and suffering, living life to its full capacity. Of course, if you know me at all, it was the Detroit aspect of this book that captured my interest the most. In a poem called “Frida in Detroit,” he details the miscarriage she had at a hospital named after Henry Ford:
Frida./This is my city before Motown. It is a body/that walks with no rhythm in its limp./There is no music here but what you scrape from the concrete,/what you break from your back in the liver of a factory.
Many of the music poems are conversations: George Gershwin tells Janis Joplin what he thinks of her version of “Summertime.” Leadbelly makes sure Kurt Cobain knows what he’s really singing about. In another poem, Khary ponders June’s reaction to Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt. You know, things you wish you’d thought about before and are grateful to be able to think about from this point on.
Reading Khary’s poems excites me because he presents poetry as a medium of infinite possibilities*, especially when it comes to subject matter. Aaliyah Haughton’s brother apparently re-dubbed some of her lines in her last film shortly after she died in a plane crash. Khary hears about this and says, “Really? I have to write a poem about that.”
This thought comes, again, from Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART.
I have noticed two major terms writers like to use when insulting other writers: hack and precious. I’m not exactly sure what precious means, except I get the impression that it has something to do with the kind of writing one associates with greeting cards. I’m positive that it is always a matter of taste and opinion because I heard someone call Italo Calvino precious and Italo Calvino is a god. See what I mean:
Precious, again, is a matter of opinion.
Hack, I understand, especially because Pressfield lays it out for us at the end of this book:
A hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the presence of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot? What can I make a deal for?
Hacks sound pretty smart to me but I still don’t want to be one. Hence, my poverty.
I found, during my MFA, that I can’t commit to a project that makes me feel like a hack. I wrote about 200 pages of a novel and then stopped because I let someone see it who said that the writing was unimaginative. That scared me, because imagination is a pretty big part of my (and your) identity as a writer. If he was wrong, which I don’t think he was, I think I would have felt that and persisted. I knew instead that he was right, that I wasn’t at all connected to the language in the book I was writing because I wasn’t really writing it from that, “I must write this!” place. I didn’t care that much about the characters. The situation, though interesting, was not really something that I felt like my life’s journey has given me authority over.
Today’s thought is about what to write. Your intro to creative writing class taught you to write what you know. I don’t like that phrase much. Instead, I think “write what you’re obsessed with” is better advice.
If you’re obsessed with something, if there is a sliver of a narrative that you overheard one day and think about once or twice a week, you know enough about it to write about it. You don’t have to know everything about what you’re going to write. That’s why I don’t like the advice to write what you know. Writing is an act of discovery, by gosh, and nothing is more dull than reading a narrative from the perspective of a “know-it-all.”
No. Write what you’re obsessed with.
Write what you need to know more about. Write about what makes you curious.
My novel that I’m working on now came to me when a mentor asked, “What do you wish you could find on the shelf at a bookstore? Write that.”
There was a time when I only wanted to read the kind of novel I was writing, but due to personal experiences/circumstances/tragedies at the time, I knew that the book I was working on was the last thing I’d go to the bookstore to read. I needed something funnier. I needed something more triumphant, more strange, more delightful than what I was working on.
I spent a day grieving. Deciding to put a novel down for a while (or perhaps drop all together) that you’ve worked on for 200 pages feels like taking a puppy into a field and shooting it in the head because it has some strange disease that you can’t afford to cure. It’s awful.
I’m guessing that there will be a time, or five times, this current project will seem like a diseased puppy to me. But I’ve already written a draft, so I am more confident that I have what I need to cure the puppy. I have more in stock now, I mean. More tools to fix it.*
Plus, I have made it through a full draft so I know that enough about it works to keep going. (I ditch drafts a lot. A LOT. I don’t recommend that, necessarily, but I also won’t say it’s something I don’t do a lot.)
*That paragraph is for the record. Please remind me of this post when I start talking about my novel like it’s a diseased puppy.
I don’t know about other MFA fiction graduates, but I think the most daunting thing about not being in a workshop, and not having a committee waiting on a draft, is the fact that we have no deadlines. I’ve already written about this (Thought for Day Three), but today I’m thinking more about how the lack of having a deadline changes my attitude towards writing. Here’s my thought: embrace the waste.
(Just like it says on the title for this post!)
This thought came to me after reading Dorothy Allison’s interview in a book called Novel Ideas. Allison talks about different tricks she uses in taking a fresh look at her manuscript for a revision. She puts it down for a year. She writes entire sections in a different perspective (character or narrative perspective, like from first to third). She does a whole lot of writing and then tosses that writing away–none of it goes into the final draft.
I will remember my committee-chair (Elizabeth Stuckey-French) the most by one phrase she loved to say, again and again: “Try it and see where it goes.” This is a lot easier to do when we don’t have a deadline approaching. (ESF taught a really good class about novel writing that I was super lucky to take. In fact, that class is why this Novel Ideas book is on my shelf.)
Maybe other people had different experiences as students, but I wrote with a lot of pressure to get it good the first time. Not get it right, but get it good. Get it good enough so it wouldn’t get slaughtered during workshop. I taught 45 students and was often taking three classes at a time while I was completing my MFA. I didn’t really have time to waste a lot of pages trying things.
Writing while a student has shaped my perspective in a bit of an unpractical sort of way: I feel like I have little sense of how much work actually goes into completing an entire book, especially a book that I want to be not only right and good, but amazing. I think a big part of writing an amazing book is allowing ourselves to try things and see what happens.
Let no possibility go unexplored.
This post, I suppose, is sort of a confession. I suspect that if I were a better student (and I suspect that if I didn’t take the teaching so seriously, which I just could not figure out how to do), I would have made more time to waste pages. Now, the ability to just write a bunch of pages for the mere act of discovery sounds like a tremendous gift. Nobody’s waiting on my novel (except my close friends and family). It feels luxurious.
It’s also really, really scary.
Being open to possibilities takes a lot of courage. This is why, I believe, fundamentalism is closely related to fear. Any kind of fundamentalism, religious or secular. Chin up, writers. And by writers, I mean me. Time to march into the unknown. And by the unknown, I mean, the possibility of making a discovery while wasting a bunch of pages.
And waste is probably the wrong word. Each sentence we write is productive, because it means, simply, that we are writing. The only waste a writer has is the sort of muck/guilt/fear that piles up after not having written in a while.
Recommended Reading: Novel Ideas (Second Edition) by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman, University of Georgia Press: 2009
I just finished The Day of The Locust by Nathaniel West, which is an example of telling a story through great details (in this case, of faux-everything-Hollywood).
Next he came to a small pond with large celluloid swans floating on it. Across one end was a bridge with a sign that read, ‘To Kamp Komfit.’ He crossed the bridge and followed a little path that ended at a Greek temple dedicated to Eros. The god himself lay face downward in a pile of old newspapers and bottles.
–Chapter 18, page 126.
The book is full of descriptions like this: semi-cold language with stark images to carry the emotional weight. The protagonist (Tod Hackett) is so out of touch with his feelings. He’s got strong feelings but no clue what to do with them. He sort of reminds me of Pete Campbell from Mad Men in that regard. It’s descriptions like these that really get the job done in terms of portraying the amount of despair this dude actually has in his life.
Strong sense of setting is of particular importance to me in my own writing. Stories usually come to me first, not in terms of “who” (like we’re trained, usually, to start with), but more in terms of “where.” I get a place, and then I try and figure out who is in that place and what they want. I cannot separate people from their places. I am only sharing this in order to acknowledge the fact that not every writer works this way and I get that.
Even so, I think we writers can benefit from emphasizing place in our stories because in order to do that, we have to train ourselves to pay attention to our surroundings. Paying attention is an enormous part of being a writer, of course. Listening, we hear about often. Watching, not so much. Or maybe I’ve just not encountered too much from writers about the importance of being watchful. Maybe being watchful just sounds creepy? Whatev.
I have a grandmother who is a painter. She painted until she was near 90, or maybe she painted after she was 90, I can’t remember–she actually might have started up again. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home. She is pretty awesome for a lot of reasons but one of them is that when I used to drive her places, I’d be telling her about something and then she would interrupt me to point out cloud formations, or the amount of birds hanging out the telephone wire.
Now I’ll admit, I don’t pay attention as well as she does. I think it was Flannery O’Connor who suggested writers take drawing lessons. That is a great idea.
(Ooh! If you know me and would like to buy me a gift, I would love another copy of Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain… I left mine in Bangkok with a friend because it was too heavy to take back to Detroit. My birthday is coming up, you know. :D)
And I think it was Natalie Goldberg who offered the following meditation for connecting to our surroundings:
While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–pick a color, say red. Next, note all the objects you see in red.
So simple, right? But it definitely works wonders for helping me connect to a place. I did this a few times while I was working and living in Thailand and I recommend it to anyone traveling. It’s especially useful when you are tired of wherever you are, or homesick, or just don’t want to be in a place. It cultivates appreciation, however bland a way it seems.
This year, I came up with a point distribution game for my walks to school (I live 19 minutes away walking from the campus where I got my MFA). It goes like this:
While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–allot a certain amount of points to everything you notice. For instance, the coke can you you step over on the sidewalk might be worth two points but the Porky the Pig graffiti on the side of the gas station might be worth five.
This second game is particularly nice for getting you out of your head if you’re battling some louder-than-comfortable thoughts.
It’s my belief that cultivating this kind of awareness not only gears us up for better writing, but an overall better quality of life, too. If nothing else, it cultivates a nice amount of mischief.
(Yes I am aware I used the word “cultivate” three times in this post. Cultivate! See, that’s five…)
The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CLAPP) recently anthologized story of mine called “Uncle Sam City” in this book:
It’s a collection of short stories that emphasize setting; the story I wrote was set in Bangkok, Thailand. Other authors collected include two author-friends of mine from my time in Oxford, Ohio: David Harris Ebenbach, who was, for a short time, a local writer in those parts and Joseph Bates, a resident writer at Miami University who taught one of my grad seminars there. He was actually the first to workshop “Uncle Sam City,” when I submitted it as “untitled”. It’s gone through several changes since then. I’m really honored to be in a book with these two–they are wonderful, imaginative writers and fantastic folks.
Other authors in the collection who I don’t know include:
Jenn Winter, Brandon Tietz, Dan Treadway, Robert Duffer, Heather Skyler, Elva Maxine Beach, Delphine Pontvieux, Emma Riehle Bohmann and Lorraine Boissoneault. Traci Kim is the editor.
For information about how to access the collection see this page on the CLAPP Center’s website.
Toni Morrison is 80. She published her first book at 39.
I’m taking a ton of summer classes (by ton I mean three) and for two of them I had to read Toni Morrison novels–A Mercy and The Bluest Eye. I’ve sort of bookended her career, I suppose. Now I’m tearing through Beloved on the side of all my homework (i.e. write four response essays and read two other novels by Wednesday…) and I think it might very well be the best book I’ve ever read.
I love that I can go through nearly two decades of school (counting kindergarten) and still pick up new writers to be obsessed with. This reminds me of why I think it’s silly for writers to be competitive–sure, our own success and glory is pretty great, but isn’t it also great to read good books? Don’t you want publishers to release as many good books as they possibly can? Don’t you want the people who write these good books to be your friends?
I will probably never “know” Toni Morrison, but for the record, she did recently appear to me in a dream wherein we were going out for pizza and bowling and she was really nice. And now that I’ve transitioned back to the main subject of this post, I am going to say, once again, that we can learn from writers like her that there is no need to rush our writing careers or put pressure on ourselves about how much we should have published by when. Just write well, live a long time, and write a lot. And read Beloved if you haven’t yet.