Thought for Day 17 & 18: Don’t Fake It

Authenticity is one of my favorite words.  The people I get along with most are the ones that I feel like I don’t have to hide anything from.  I don’t like hiding things.

Lucinda Williams, that blues-americana goddess, is a great example of artistic authenticity.  If you want to “hear” authenticity, hit the play button.

I just want to live the life I please/I don’t want no enemies/I don’t want nothin’ if I have to fake it.

You don’t have to fake it, Lucinda. You prove that very well.

And so it goes with writing.  Especially with writing fiction, which calls us to be more authentic than ever because we have to persuade the reader that the story they are reading is true.  Not real, but true.  There is a distinction and it’s our job to search out what that distinction is, exactly.

Part of being an authentic writer is to be honest with ourselves about where our story is at.  We can’t fix its problems if we don’t acknowledge them.  This means that when we get a critique, we allow ourselves to be pissed for a few hours/days/months until that negative energy rolls away and leaves behind a constructive thought we can take to the revision.

It also means that we are honest with our drafts about the paragraphs we’ve stuck there as place-holders so we can bypass the hard scenes to write–the ones that make us uncomfortable.  Often those paragraphs are full of inauthentic sentences.

If you’ve taken a fiction workshop, you’ll know that a lot of time is spent on logic.  Our colleagues scan our work with a BS radar and look for places where it seems like we’ve bent the truth to get through a scene that we don’t feel comfortable writing. Writing takes courage, folks.  Meanwhile, our colleagues mark our drafts for the sentences that don’t convince them. (Robert Olen Butler, by the way, is a genius at this. I got to take a five person workshop with him here at FSU and he would go through our drafts, sentence by sentence, and point out where the words lost their contact with authenticity. It’s on the shortlist for best workshop I’ve ever taken.)

Part of the fiction writer’s job is to convince the reader, and that doesn’t come from learning how to lie real well.  It comes from being as authentic as possible on the page.

Oh, and being authentic off the page is good practice for nailing authentic sentences.

Thought for Day 13: Embrace the Waste

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

Thought for Day 11: Pay Attention.

Woodypayattention
This is my dog, Woody. He’s really good at paying attention.

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…)

should aspiring writers go to grad school?

If you have read my about page you can probably predict that I tend to answer this question with an enthusiastic yes.  Here’s why:

student writers have to write a lot

they have to read a lot

get to talk with someone about writing at least four times a week

meet established writers

go to readings all the time

get exposure (and perhaps funding) to go to writing conferences

get really good at reading other people’s work

if they teach or tutor, get really good at line editing and spotting errors

All of that said, I followed some advice coming out of undergrad that I should take some years off before applying to an MFA program.  I took four years; I spent two in Detroit and two in Bangkok.  This decision worked out really well for me because I was exposed to tons of communities in a short amount of time. I worked as a nanny, an actor, a musician, a research assistant, a tutor.  I stocked a department store, directed radio-performances for the blind with a cast of senior citizen actors, traveled to South Africa, India, Vietnam, and to every region in Thailand.  I picked up a lot of cool anecdotes on the way and I am curious about a lot more things than I was before I met all the people from those experiences.

In both of my graduate programs for creative writing, I’ve had friends and colleagues  who have come straight out of undergrad.  Some of them probably could have benefitted from exposure to life experiences outside of the academy but some are spectacular writers and write about cool stuff.  It really depends on the person.

In my experience, street-cred made me a more rounded writer, but school made me a better writer.  I think anyone can get tons of life experience and still be a terrible writer because, if they are anything like I was, they weren’t sure how to send their stuff out, what to read, who to talk to. There are ways to find this stuff out but, if they are anything like I was, will have a much harder time outside of academia.  Whatever the case may be, I have a hard time believing someone could go to graduate school, work hard (this is key), and come out at the same level they went in.

I will end this post by saying that I initially wanted to go to grad school so I could work in the academy and be a writer.  I’m more skeptical about this now–about my ability to land an academic job with an MFA.  The market for the writer academics who inspired me to write in the first place is totally different than the market will be for me.  I still don’t regret spending all this time in school.  Writing is the only thing I know I’ll be doing three years from now. Regardless of what I do–whether it’s getting more street cred or adjuncting or whatever, I’ll be able to write better than if I hadn’t been a student.