Writing Feed

Amy Bloom

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In her craft talk this afternoon Amy Bloom cautioned us writers.  "If you want to do something well to public acclaim, then do something else.  Like embroidery.  I recommend cooking.  Everyone likes a good meal.  And they will praise you."

"I don't write to recommend or to improve the lives of my readers."  

"Writing is not the toughest job.  It is a privilege.  It can be agonizing, but it is a privilege."

She encouraged us to read the work aloud, because then we would see where we make mistakes.  I wanted to hit myself upside the head.  I know this already, because I'm a preacher.  How many times has something looked correct to me on the page, only to be altered when I read it aloud?  But, I haven't been reading my memoir aloud as I've written.  Yes, I've read a passage here and there, but not the entire manuscript.  Damn.  Now I've got 72,000 words to read aloud.  Maybe that's what Sebastian will be hearing for the next few months?

A theme of her talk and her Q&A was character.  She spoke of how writers are lazy.  They put in just a few descriptors, just enough to "brand" their character in order to show the reader that the writer and the reader are in on something together.  Instead the writer needs to think about their characters and see the world from their point-of-view and describe them as actual persons, for there are no types of persons.  "Be your characters, don't describe them."  Describing them is simply creating a cartoon.

She added, "It is a big world.  You have to see past your own frame."  Asked more specifically how to do this, she said "Bring everything you know to everything you have imagined."

I left the talk realizing that I need to go over every bit of my memoir and look at how I've dealt with the other characters.  A few are more fully formed than others, but I realized that there are places in the book where I was lazy in my descriptions.

Asked when she knows she is done with revising a book, because you have to stop sometime, even though there are always ways to improve and revise.  She answered, "When I'm lying bloody at the finish line.  Then, I try to go a little further, and you can see the marks of blood as I go a little further."  I also realized that I'm not yet lying bloody at the finish line with my book.

But I was encouraged by one thing she said.  Speaking of endings she said, "My goal for the ending is that it transforms the work by shining a different light on all that came before it."  That I think I've done.  I think my ending is kick ass.


Lev Grossman

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"Fantasy is a way to re-encounter what we struggle with in the real world," said Lev Grossman today in Linsly-Chittenden Hall with the Tiffany window looming nearby.  He admitted the intimidation of returning to speak at Yale where he had been a graduate student.  His nervousness apparent in his personal ticks, like buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket.

He referenced his depression in his lecture and was asked if he would talk about it during the Q&A.  "Yes.  You'll find I'm very confessional about it."  He continued, "People romanticize depression.  It is not where my fiction comes from.  Depression should be treated aggressively.  I was more productive as a writer after therapy and medication."  

"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe taught me what novels are for.  And every time I've read the book after that first time as a child has been an echo of that primal experience" (here's a link to an article by Grossman on Lewis).  I resonated, for the Chronicles of Narnia have served a similar function for me.  Narnia represents a spiritual idea and ideal, luring me onto my best.  Which is why Grossman's The Magicians fucked with me so.  Then I preached about the novel.

Grossman had written and published for fifteen years without finding his authorial voice and began to believe that such a thing was a myth that other writers made up.  Then, in a conversation with Philip Pullman on what Pullman loathes about Lewis, he was awakened to the possibility that one could write a novel about the magic of adulthood instead of the magic of childhood.  And that he could talk back to Lewis, including all the things that Lewis and others in that tradition leave out.  While also leaving out of his story all the obvious organizing and meaning-making characters (no Gandalf, no Voldemort) because those were absent from his life.  As a young man he had to figure meaning out on his own.  Every day he didn't awaken with the task of vanquishing some evil force.  Real life was more complicated than that.

So, he wrote The Magicians literally sitting between a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, aiming for Franzen's realistic style in describing the fantasy world of his novel.  (Here are the passages I copied down from Grossman's novel when I read it in 2013).

You might remember that I didn't like the ending of the novel.  I thought it drew back from the obvious end of the story--Quentin dying of acedia.  Grossman confessed today that he didn't go far enough in the novel.  I hope I get the opportunity to ask him about that further tonight.  I have not read the sequels.

***

Two other good nuggets from his talk.  "Reading Mrs. Dalloway is why I stopped being a chemistry major.  It is the greatest novel of the twentieth century."

Another was his discussion of George R. R. Martin, and the radical thing he did in the novel Game of Thrones using realism to write about this fantasy world.  Right now I'm reading Martin's Feast of Crows, the fourth novel in the Song of Fire and Ice series.  Martin is a skilled writer.  I stand in awe of some of his paragraphs (I should share some excerpt here, but I don't have my copy with me at the moment).  

Reflecting on Grossman's discussion of Martin, I realized part of what is missing in this season of the TV show and maybe one reason the season is unsatisfying.  Martin enriches his story with common folk.  Earlier seasons of the show allowed us to encounter this world through the stories of a prostitute and a smith, but those common folk as rich characters are largely missing this year.  There appears to be less realism this year and more fantasy.  Which fails the test of what Grossman stated in his lecture "Fantasy is a way to re-encounter what we struggle with in the real world."


George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos

"I wrote about things I needed to understand."  George Pelecanos grew up in Washington, D. C. where he was a minority and during a time of racial conflict.  His father owned a diner, and George began working at age eleven.  He said that American fiction is usually about people who win.  He wanted to write about those who don't.  Crime fiction and television drama are his genres.

He researches by spending time with the people he writes about--police, criminals, etc.  "You learn to write," he said, "by reading and living a full life."  I liked that last bit.

He said that life is long and that our window for doing our thing as writers is wide open.  Athletes and other artists may have some physical limitations to when they can do their work.  We can write until our deaths.

"My goal and your goal should be to be a better writer tomorrow than you are today."

He treats it as his business, dressing each day for work and locking and unlocking his writing space at home.  When he's working on a book, he writes seven days a week.

He doesn't outline or plot things out.  For him the stories arise from the characters.  He works on getting the characters correct.

He answered lots of specific questions about The Wire.  Of course many people argue that it is the best television show ever.  It's one of those I intend to binge-watch sometime, but have never seen.

His favourite film is The Wild Bunch and True Grit his favourite novel.  "I want to write a Western some day."


Joining the extremists

"Making the decision to be a writer is kind of like joining an extremist faction," proclaimed Mishka Shubaly.  

He is the number one author on the Amazon Singles market, here to discuss with us the changing face of publishing.  And like every guest speaker I've seen in the auditorium of Linsly-Chittenden, he glanced over at the Tiffany window and paused, taken in and maybe slightly intimidated by its grandeur.  Fewer speakers seem to note the reliefs of great thinkers that also surround the room.  Many, however, comment on the window.  Shubaly said, after looking over at it, "This isn't my normal gig."

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But he had words of valuable writing advice:

"Insecurity and self-loathing are the business we are in."

"Send something in.  If you don't, your chance is zero."

"Not everybody will like it.  If everybody likes it, it's shit."

"Ask the dumb question.  Take the big stupid risks."

"Your writing has to be amazing, and you have to be fearless at inflicting your writing on people who don't want to read it."

His talk was followed by a "Craft Talk" delivered by Gish Jen.  The prominent guest faculty provide master classes in the morning to small groups and then a craft talk to the entire conference in the afternoon.  These talks vary in style and quality, though most  I've heard are good.

Jen's bored me.  She gave a prepared speech (with slides) on the different approaches to self in the East and the West.  Okay, sure.  Already knew that.  Also something of a false dichotomy.  I did like the picture of her family's genealogical record which is a series of bound volumes dating back to 1131.  I took no notes or quotes related to the craft of writing and learned nothing about it from her, which was quite disappointing.  Even during the Q&A, which I hoped would save the presentation by answering student questions about craft, did not redeem the time.  

Better to have been sitting on a bench in the sun reading.

Come to think of it.  I never saw her look at the Tiffany window.


What does it mean to be about something?

What does it mean to be about something?

Most of the fellow students in my workshop got something from my book which is not my primary question.  Yes, the thing they got is in the book, but it wasn't the deep read.  I don't resent that they got something out of it that wasn't my primary intent.  It did puzzle me, as I thought I had done a better job with my themes and questions and what it meant for me.  I've got more revising and writing to do than I anticipated.

But all this raises questions about aboutness, of meaning, of hermeneutics.

We learn in most contemporary hermeneutics that authorial intent (whatever that is) cannot determine the meaning of a text, especially an ancient text like the Bible.  Meaning is created by the community of authors, readers, commentors, etc.  I agree with those who contend that Rembrandt's paintings or Steinbeck's novels are just as helpful in interpreting the meaning of sacred scripture as Calvin's commentaries.

I do not think my job as a pastor is to establish the meaning of a text.  It is to open the text for my congregation to engage in determining its meaning.  Thus, two stories:

I deliver my candidating sermon on the Doubting Thomas story at CoH-OKC in April 2005 and when I sit down the Rev. Michael Piazza says, "You did such a good job of leaving it open such that those who believe in an historical, literal resurrection heard that and those who believe the resurrection is metaphorical or spiritual heard that."  To which I answered, "Yes, that was my goal."

When the Committee on Ministry of the Oklahoma Association of the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ asked me to write a paper detailing my theological beliefs, I gave them a paper that excerpted a variety of stories from my sermons.  They said, "This isn't what we are used to seeing.  We don't think everyone will understand it."  "It's the only way I can fulfill your assignment with authenticity.  I don't believe in propositional theological language."

I have my questions, my reasons, my meaning in writing the book.  I'm excited when others get it, but if for them it is something that simply helps with the social issue of being gay and being Christian, fine, but that topic is banal to me.


Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin

"I am completely opposed to similes.  Let's all agree not to do that anymore."  Colm Toibin grinned and the room filled with writers laughed.

Asked later, "What about metaphors?"

"Metaphors too.  I'm against anything that tries to put language on display.  Stay plainer, stay truer."

"But," Eileen Pollack asked, "It sounds as if you are against tired language and cliches.  Surely one of the true delights of writing is finding a way to compare two things that are not normally compared?  It is for me."

He cocked his head momentarily in thought.  "I guess you could make it work"--you could sense relief spreading across the crowd--"but I try to avoid it."

He did confess to one simile in his published writing, used in describing a gay sex scene between teenage boys (based on a personal experience of his from Catholic school).  I'll spare you the simile, though he didn't spare the audience (Sexual comments are suddenly a thing this year in presentations, following on Terry's condom joke at the beginning.  He reported today that the count is down to 883 remaining.).

"The two best gay sex scenes were written by women."  One was Annie Proulx in Brokeback Mountain.  I didn't know, or catch, the other one.  "I've always wanted to ask them how they did their research."

"The more we watch our words, the better they are likely to be."

He had the room captivated, laughing, responding.  His craft talk began with the story of Henry James and the failure of his play Guy Domville.  After the failure James determined to make the next decade, his fifties, his best.  He wrote A Turn of the Screw.

"James put elements of himself into the novel.  We have to let something of ourselves into the story.  The only craft involved is to find a metaphor for yourself."

Ah, I wish I'd examined my notes during the Q&A and asked about that line given what he later said.

"As a writer you must be alone, maybe every other weekend.  Tell your significant other they must leave you alone or that you are going away.  When other people go to the bar, go home to write.  Say, 'I'm writing a book.'  People love that."

"Writing is a form of communication, not a forum for self-indulgence.  The screen or page is not a mirror."

"It is morally wrong to not finish your story."

He described how he is a vulture, taking germs of stories from other people.

"You will get it right by reading it.  Read it at night before going to bed and in the morning when you get up."  This was advice for the key paragraph of any work.  "Everything depends on getting that paragraph exactly right."

"The best craft is a sort of feeling.  Explore a feeling you are afraid to have."


Tom Ashbrook

Tom Ashbrook

After Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR's On Point, described how he and his staff sort through the large stacks of books that come to his office, not even opening the vast majority of them, he was asked "What are you looking for that will get you to read the book?"

"Be famous."

Nervous, knowing laughter all around.

"Aside from that, do great work and pray that it gets well reviewed.  It also helps if your topic is timely.  If you have a memoir about being an employee of the Clinton Foundation, for instance."

He was a Presbyterian from the Midwest who grew up learning of God's love, which he believes made him open to the diversity of people and experience.  He shared of his time as a foreign correspondent, his journalism after 9/11, and the fourteen years doing On Point, especially the many authors he has interviewed.

"Yoko Ono. Going into it I thought she was a caricature, but I could have talked to her all day."

"Toni Morrison.  So magisterial.  Where do you begin?"

He does the show live and doesn't bring any prepared questions into the interview.

He had come to Yale as an undergrad directly from the farm to study writing.  Gordon Lish assigned them a task--write a story about your deepest secret, "for what you think is your own private thing is shared by everyone."  Ashbrook wrote about fucking a sheep.  "I had never done so, but I knew he'd eat it up."  Lish did, and declared Ashbrook the next Faulkner.

"It was too much to live up to, so don't let your workshop leaders mess you up.  Learn from them, but watch out."  He went to work the Alaskan oilfields and learn from Okies and Laplanders about mining and dynamite.

"Getting to the truth is a lot of work, even if you are prepared to be honest."

"Stay connected with the first spark."


Language, Form, Aboutness

"Details are what makes prose terrific," Eileen Pollack said as she launched into our first class as part of the Memoir Intensive.  She was discussing the three elements of a book length memoir--language, form, and aboutness (What is it about?  What questions are you trying to answer?).  

Avoid "It was" and "There are" constructions and words like "thing," "situation," and "process." She said she had marked every appearance of the word "it" in our manuscripts that we were supposed to eliminate 19 out of every 20 appearances.  "If you are talking about a dog, I'd rather read the word dog seven times in the same paragraph than see the pronoun it, because the word 'dog' is more concrete and makes me think of a dog."

There are many forms for the memoir.  Story, journey, profile, spatial ordering are some examples.

There are three kinds of writing in a memoir: scenic, expository, and meditative.  The essentials of scenic writing are characters and dialogue.  Action, setting, and sensory details are features as well.  The scene changes when you move in time and/or space.

Expository writing is the telling part, so memoir can't simply follow the old cliche "show don't tell."  Expository writing should be used to explain something, summarize, or to give a notion of habitual action.  Expository writing should also be filled with specific and dramatic language describing setting and sensory details.  The opening paragraph of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" is an excellent example of detailed expository writing:

In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

She spent most of her time on Meditative prose saying that this was the area all of our memoirs needed to work on.  This prose is analytical and creates meaning by sharing what you are thinking and feeling.  It also requires specificity, but this is difficult.  It is the hardest prose to write.  We need to make meaning while avoiding language that is obvious, hackneyed, or cliched.  

There are several levels of meditation in most memoirs.  What were you thinking and feeling at the time the events occurred?  What were other people thinking and feeling (you may have to do research and ask them)?  Now, looking back, what are you thinking and feeling?  And what are you currently thinking and feeling in the present?

This parallels with Robin Hemley's advice last year that there needed to be two authorial voices in the memoir--you as a character when the events occurred and you now as the author commenting and reflecting upon them.  I must admit that this advice was difficult for me as I wrote all year.  In fact, I edited out most of my contemporary-voiced commentary and analysis.  I may struggle with incorporating this meditative voice, though I look forward to learning from Eileen how to do that well.

It is the meditative prose which created aboutness.  You have to let the readers know the meaning of the raw material they are reading.  And the point of writing is for you as the writer to discover and learn something.  Memoir is NOT your clever dinner party stories that you tell all the time.  Ask: What don't I understand about my own experience?  We need to be human beings digging at our own experiences, making meaning of them, coming up with the questions, though we may never answer the questions, only explore them.  Knowing your questions helps you figure out what to include and what to leave out, because you know what is relevant.

As you read non-fiction you like, hone in on the meditative answers to questions and learn from how that author did it.

She indicated that early in the book you will need to devote pages to raising your questions.  This parallels Robin Hemley's advice about writing a preface.  I must confess that I wrote many prefaces over the course of the year (Robin said you should write many prefaces, as they help you organize your thoughts as to what the book is about), but ultimately I chose to eliminate the preface and get the introductory parts into the first chapter of the story.  I plan to review what I've written and see if there is enough of the meditative prose creating the aboutness.  After the class yesterday one of my classmates said he thought it was there, in the character of my grandfather.

So, we didn't get to workshopping my book yesterday.  Instead we will get to in on Monday, the next time we are together.


Nicholson Baker

The 2015 Yale Writer's Conference opened with Terry Hawkins informing us that the university had provided 1,000 condoms in the laundry room.  A colleague asked later at dinner, "Are they male or female condoms or both?"

That wasn't really the opening comment, but it makes for a good opening to my blog post.

After opening remarks by the Dean and Campus Security, we had our keynote address by Nicholson Baker.  Last year he delivered the final craft talk of the conference, and I didn't like it at all.  He rambled away with no sense of preparation, organization, or structure.

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This year Terry got me cackling (the loudest laughter in the room, and something I've been notorious for before--OBU theatrical productions) with his introduction of Baker.  He said that Baker was responsible for the second presidential impeachment, as his novel Vox, which is about phone sex, was one of the gifts that Monica Lewinsky gave the president before their affair began.

Baker than rambled on for about a half hour, but it was far more interesting and entertaining than his presentation last year.  Then, he began a slide show emphasizing the need to pay attention to the details (the design and the beauty) of ordinary things--and this part was simply brilliant.  He showed images of glasses, and a Crate and Barrel clerk wrapping the glass in paper.  The cover art of mid-20th century children's encyclopedias.  The design work of his father.  Family photos.  The dining room table he grew up with.  The entire time he was using the most eloquent language to describe what he was showing, some of it extemporaneous.  I saw it as an eye into his process.

I also enjoyed sitting at the back of the room--something I usually do--and watching how people responded.  I observed one woman lean over to the person beside her and say, "What does any of this have to do with writing?"  I thought--"I hope she isn't in my group."  She wasn't.  Thank God.

Here are a few of the notes I took from his keynote address:

The last thing you want as a writer is responsibilities.  You need to be free to think.

It is really good for a writer to be forced to be idle, especially in high school.  People should feel boredom and understand that if they are going to do something, it must come from them.  (as part of this he was criticizing too much homework these days)

2 things you should do as a writer:
1)  Read poetry.
2) Get a spiral notebook and copy things out that you like from other writers.  You are forced to become not yourself when copying these excerpts.  And you begin to question and learn why the author made the choices they made.

Sentences are never enough.

Look at things.

Trees are very old, but they're always doing something different, they always have something new to say.

***

I'll write a separate post about our first workshop in the memoir intensive (spoiler: we actually didn't get to my book today.  Monday we will.)

Tonight was the opening reception at Mory's, an event that I delighted in last year.  As I entered this year a nondescript gentleman walked up to me and said "Hi."  "Hi," I said in return.  He then said, "I'm Colm Toibin."  


Memoir Intensive

This year there is a new feature to the Yale Writer's Conference--novel and memoir intensives.  These are small groups (six people plus faculty member) who submit 50,000 words of a completed manuscript (and summaries of the skipped sections) for workshop.  I'm taking the Memoir Intensive, which is the main reason I returned to the conference this year.

I spent the last year completing my memoir, a project I had been working on in fits and starts for a decade and which I used last year's conference as a kick-in-the-pants to get completed.  In the winter I applied for the intensive and was accepted.  In March my 50,000 word manuscript was due.  I also received five other 50,000 word manuscripts.  Since then I've been reading and commenting on each of those.

So, this year the workshop really began in March, and we've had regular e-mails from our faculty member Eileen Pollack.  Besides the in-person discussions of the manuscripts, we are each submitting marked-up copies and a letter to the authors with our overall comments on the manuscripts--what worked for us and what didn't and our suggestions for what the book needs.

Last week Eileen sent us the schedule.  My memoir is up first.  We will begin workshopping it this afternoon.