38 Days Until NaNoWriMo, or: Oh Holy Geezus

November is National Novel Writing Month, and while it’s still roughly five weeks away, I’ve  decided to test my mettle and give it a try.  As you know (from many, many posts), my experience of writing fiction is middlin’-to-poor, and while I have no illusions that I will produce The Great American Novel, let alone 50,000 words in one month, I kind of like the thrill of trying something new and frankly terrifying.

After all, what’s more terrifying than having to produce 1667 words a day for 30 days?  (Well, ok, there’s a lot of things more terrifying, but this post isn’t about bungee jumping, mountain climbing, or singing in front of a live audience.)  At 325 words per page (double-spaced, of course), that works out to five-ish pages of manuscript a day.  Five manuscript pages… for a sustained vision with a sustained plot and sustained characters for 150 pages.  *gasp*  (Best not to look at it that way.  I might reconsider this madness.)

I need to be terrified.  I’ve had this thought recently that I really have been sitting on my laurels.  It’s almost a year since I finished The Manuscript (the manuscript I sent to nearly 30 contests), and I haven’t produced anything of significance since.  Yes, yes, I’ve written a few short creative nonfiction pieces and I’ve been diligent about submitting, which has resulted in a number of publications this year and I’m not discounting them.  And I’m not discounting that I was even a finalist in one of the contests, which was gratifying and nice, and much better than just being an also-ran—but what have I produced?

What have I written this year that I can say, “Wow, look at me!” on December 31st and have auld acquaintances be duly impressed over a glass of cheap champagne?

The answer is, rienJe ne fais rien.  That sucks and it needs to change.  But poetry lately is not working for me—I’m not feeling it.  I was feeling it a few weeks ago, when I was going through my prose poem “renaissance,” but that has since dried up—because I wrote a bunch of trash and I couldn’t get it to work so I’ve left it behind like a bad Kirk Cameron film.

I could be all kinds of bitchy and blame my writing group which is currently on summer hiatus.  (Oh wait, it’s Fall now.  Yes, I’ll blame them.)  No, no, I’m kidding—they all really have legitimate reasons they’ve abandoned me and our writing group… Ooh!  Listen to me being passive aggressive! I know, Grow up, JC.  Sometimes, it really is about more than just me…but I miss them and I miss writing with/for them… And I’m sad that right now everyone’s lives are so complicated that we can’t get together.  But my not writing isn’t their fault, and I know it.

And… yes, I’m coming to a point about NaNoWriMo… I’m just not ready to make it yet.

I was sitting with Bob today at lunch, and I asked him what he was working on writing-wise.  And he echoed a thought I have often had:  he mentioned that he’s “got a lot of stuff but none of it fits together.”  Listening to people talk about their writing process is so meaningful for me, because it reminds me just what a weird thing creation is—how capricious it is and how much we’re just sometimes at its mercy.  I know some people really believe that they can only write when the Muse strikes them—I hear that from my creative writing students all the time—but I believe that the Muse can be coerced.

That’s right.  The Muse can be coerced… by developing a writing habit.  I realize I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard a thousand times.  Blah blah get in the habit of writing blah blah write every day.  So hence, NaNoWriMo.  I’m fairly certain that whatever I write during the month of November will probably only be good enough to line the catbox with.  But what I’m looking forward to is that commitment to myself and my writing—I figure, two hours a day should do it.  If I can’t write 1667 words in two hours every day for a month then I should mail my Ph.D. back to Nebraska and ask for a refund.

But, wait, you ask, don’t you already have a writing habit, JC?  Kind of.  But not two-hours-a-day’s worth of writing habit.  And certainly not a fiction writing habit.  I think I want to do NaNoWriMo just to try it.  To see if I can.  To challenge myself.  And also, to get away from dumb distractions for a few hours every day (*cough cough* Facebook—Twitter—Tumblr *cough cough*)—which is, itself, as terrifying as writing 50,000 words.

I guess the best part is, I don’t have any expectations.  When I was working on The Manuscript, I really believed it was going somewhere.  I wrote it out of order, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I had the expectation that when I was done, it would  be a thing.  And yeah, it’s a thing alright. A thing nobody wants.  (Oops, sorry, I really need to get that cynicism under control.) Whatever “novel” or novel-like-thing I write this November, however, will be an adventure.  Beyond that, no expectations.

Though surely, somewhere in that 50,000 words, there will be something of value?  It can’t all be shit—because I’m not a shit writer.  (I mean, not usually.)

Who knows, maybe if the story winds up being awful, I can Sharpie-marker all of the bad words and just keep the good ones and turn them into erasure poems?

And even if I can’t write erasure poems, I will certainly have a story to share on New Year’s Eve, about the time I got this nutty, terrifying idea to write a novel in a month…

DBF Post-Post Mortems

I mentioned a few blog posts ago that I decided to forego reading any poems from my manuscript at the Decatur Book Festival, because it’s really hard to excerpt pieces from a narrative–let’s be honest, the book is a verse novel, and so many of the poems are interdependent (except maybe the Moon Poems in it), that even reading sevearal in narrative-arc-order wouldn’t make much sense. How do you get invested in characters without hearing the WHOLE THING?  I don’t think it’s possible. (I suppose, if I ever get it published, I will really have to figure out how to present the poems in a way that makes sense for poetry readings.  But that’s just not an issue right now, so it’s clearly on the back burner.)

Anyway, at DBF, I read a handful of prose poems as I planned to.  I’ve been writing a number of them in the last year or so, along with the pieces of flash fiction and flash nonfiction.  (Actually, writing the prose poems might have been the catalyst for getting serious about fiction and nonfiction, now that I think about it.)

I’m not sure why prose poems are resonating with me so much–when I read them, I respond to their “quirky sensibility,” and the fact that they tend often towards absurdity and repetition (as well as the other things we expect in poetry, like sound and image and metaphor), and I like when I can write with a little bit of abandon, and try to tap into writing on the lighter (nuttier?) side.  Maybe that’s just my state of mind in the last year or so!  I’ve certainly gone out of my way to read a lot of prose poetry this past year, and I like what happens when I try writing it.

As promised…the Set List!  (You can find links to many of these on my Online Poems & Writing Page.)

  1. Nocturne
  2. This Is Not a Poem About a Blank Page
  3. Oceanic
  4. Weed ’em and Reap
  5. How to Mend a Broken Heart
  6. When the Wolf Bit Off the Fingers of My Left Hand
  7. Prosecco
  8. Piccioni
  9. Chiuso

Regarding readings, I was once described (by someone with excellent poetic delivery) as being a “diffident wise-ass,” and told that my performance tended to be sly and snarky between my poems, undercutting the presentation of the poems themselves.  I personally don’t mind being considered a diffident wise-ass–despite the fact that a body could argue that the definitions of both words would seem to cancel each other out–because it’s an accurate critique of my whole personality, and anyway, I’m nothing if not a contradiction.

But since he said that to me, I’ve tried to give  my poems the gravitas they deserve, and not be so snarky in my delivery.  I think I mostly succeeded this past Saturday at the DBF, but I’m sure I said a few snarky asides.  No one’s perfect…and anyway, I can’t help myself.  No one would recognize me if I was perfectly serious.

Finally…as for the photos… well, I forgot to bring my camera and had to settle with using the phone, and I often  get blurry pics on it.  I apologize to the photo subjects, who are all much more beautiful than they appear here!

Here are Tammy Foster Brewer, Robert Lee Brewer, and Andrea Jurjević (and Bob Wood in the foreground of Andrea’s photo).

Tammy Photo 1  Robert Photo 1  Andrea Photo 1

Here are Kodac Harrison, Dan Veach, and Rupert Fike (listening to Andrea’s poetry with rapt attention).

Kodac Photo 1  Dan Veach Photo 1  Rupert Fike Photo 1

Last, but not least, may I present “Still Life with Bob’s Hand.”  ;-)  Here he’s guarding his stack of copies of The Awkward Poses of Others, which, if you haven’t read, get thee to Amazon immediately and purchase a copy–especially if you like movies and art and ekphrastic poetry.

Bob's hand photo 1

And with that, I’ve no more to say about the Decatur Book Festival.  Until next September, that is.

DBF Post Mortems

I’m not sorry the Decatur Book Fest has been put to bed for another year.  There, I’ve said it—excoriate me all you will, but after nearly ten years of participating in the Local Poet’s Stage, there’s really nothing new and energizing about it.  It epitomizes the term de rigueur.  Been there, done that, got the poetry chapbook.

Don’t get me wrong—I truly like listening to my fellow poets—I thought Tammy Foster Brewer’s work was especially good this time—and I know I have her book around here someplace and I really need to re-read it.  Of course I enjoyed Robert Lee Brewer’s work too (I laughed out loud at the “Love Song of Lt. Commander Data”) and also Andrea Jurjević’s poetry—I like to hear them as writers and experience them as readers, which is why I always corral them for the 10 o’clock hour.  I find something new every time I listen to them—and that’s great.  And it’s amazing to listen to so many Atlanta poets just in general.  There’s a wealth of poetry here, and we can all thank Kodac Harrison’s work with the Local Poet’s Stage for bringing it to such a lively audience.

I always want to stick around for the entire day, but it’s complicated by an uncooperative body.  I did stay for the 11 o’clock hour, a medley of poets including Dan Veach and Karen Paul Holmes and Kodac (who, being a spoken-word/ performance poet recited both of his poems to the delight of the audience).  One poet who read with whom I wasn’t familiar at all was Christopher Martin, who seemed like a good ol’ Georgia boy, but he had a real narrative sense to writing, which I always respond to.  (I wish I had thought to buy one of his books.  For once I was carrying cash.)

I started to linger for the 12 o’clock hour (with the goal of staying through at least 2 p.m., so I could hear Karen and Bob)… except suddenly I was feeling anxious and light-headed, and that spoon-scooping-out-my-eye pain (indicating an oncoming migraine) hit me, and I knew I had to leave.

After all these years, the post-DBF reading-migraine makes me think it’s like some kind of psychosomatic response…I know for sure I’ve gotten one the last 4 years I’ve done this.  I don’t know what to attribute the migraine to—if it’s the venue, being outside on the patio, exposed to street noise (and let’s not forget Java Monkey has shitty coffee, though their frosted mint lemonade is terrific, I discovered), or if it’s the heat the longer the day gets (that’s always an issue, though the morning started cool enough), or if it’s just all the people who eventually fill in around me and I get antsy and hemmed in (actually, I’m almost sure that’s a main reason)—but SOMETHING kicks in, and makes me all Decatur Book Fest grrr-y/ angsty, and I have to GET OUT.

The problem with that DBF migraine is I missed a lot of local poets I’d have loved to hear.  Of course, Collin and Karen are giving a reading on Sept. 30th (which, assuming I don’t have a tennis match on that day, I plan to attend), so missing them this past Saturday is less egregious than missing, say, Christine Swint, whom I generally only see at DBF.  (And who I was so sorry to miss this time, because I’m sure she read poems that had to do with her Camino journey, and those I really wanted to hear.)

I suppose I should have taken a prophylactic Imitrex to head off the inevitable migraine (I get migraines ALOT, and I generally carry Imitrex with me just in case), but I didn’t think about it, and thus, just as all my friends were up to read, I had to go. But what can you do?

As far as my own reading went, I think it was fine.  About eight people were in the audience when I went on—mostly friends of Tammy’s—though my former supervisor and now dear friend Shannon Dobranski showed up just to hear me (I know it was just to hear me, because she left right after I left the stage), and I can’t tell you how touched I was.  It was so unexpected to see her in the audience, and it meant a lot that she showed up because at least I had someone to read to who wasn’t just there waiting in the queue to read after me.  And Bob showed up half-way through, too, when before, he emailed that he wouldn’t be coming, so that was a nice surprise.  I’m used to reading to an imaginary audience, so to have two friends there was two more than I’ve had before, and it was nice.

I’ll post the set list tomorrow, as well as some photos, as promised.  I feel a lie-down calling to me now.

Reading Many Books at Once–Dilemma or Delight? (Well, It Depends, If One of the Books is Magic for Beginners.)

When I was in grad school working on my comprehensive exams, one of the things I had to learn to do pretty quickly was read many different books at once.

Now, if you think about it, when you’re in any kind of school situation, you naturally read many different books at once, all the time, to keep up with your different classes.  Somehow, though, that seemed different.  Maybe because of the “compartmentalization” that going to school requires—i.e., when I am in my Whitman seminar, I am only reading Whitman; when I’m in my Women’s History class, I’m only reading Women’s History books.  But of course, you’re still taking multiple classes in a single semester, so you’re actually reading multiple books, and you might not finish one on one day because you need to prepare for a different class the next day.

Logically that makes sense, and yet when it came down to my comps, I suddenly felt like, OMG, I have to read 100 books (or whatever it was) all at the same time??? How will I keep them all straight?

And of course, the reality is, you’re not reading 100 books at once.  You’re maybe reading five or six at once—and taking notes, to keep them all straight.  And many of them were books of poetry, so of course, it’s easy to finish off reading one at a stretch.  But you add in books about practice, about writing, about theory, and you just can’t read 400 pages at a sitting.  (Well, I can’t.)  So you learn to negotiate, and you work your way through the list.

All of this is by way of saying that I used to be particularly rigid about not starting a new book until I had finished the previous one.  When you’re reading for personal enjoyment (i.e., not studying for a comprehensive exam), you can be restrictive like that.  My thought was:  be disciplined, finish the book!  And then of course comps happened and then I let that goal go.  You have to, to manage all that information without losing your mind.

These days, I do mostly just read one book at a time—you can inhabit the world and connect on a really deep level, concentrating on the characters in front of you, and only have them to think about for the duration of the novel.  But occasionally I read multiple books at the same time.  Sometimes, it’s because my attention is wandering in the book I’m trying to focus on.  Sometimes people tell me I need to read X, Y, and Z, so I think, ok, I’ll add them into the rotation.

As I mentioned last week, I was reading Aimee Bender and Kelly Link, in between reading chapters from Kerry Greenwood’s Queen of the Flowers.  But then I got on this Kelly Link kick, because multiple people were saying how she awesome she was, so I focused entirely on Kelly Link.

And got really pissed off.

There are stories in Magic for Beginners that I like.  I liked the first one, “The Faery Handbag,” quite a bit, and both of the zombie stories (“The Hortlak” and “Some Zombie Contingency Plans”) though I didn’t love their endings, were enjoyable in their way.  What pissed me off though was the story, “Stone Animals,” a story which my little writing workshop held up to the highest esteem, and so I had great expectations for it.

It is not rational, when we have a visceral repugnance against something like a fiction story.  But I repugn “Stone Animals.”  I despise it.  I hate it so much, in fact, that I wasn’t even sure that I was going to finish Magic for Beginners at all because it took me so long to get through, and I was annoyed that Kelly Link forced me to read it since she wrote it.  Every page was like pouring acid in my eyes and gulping down deodorant.  Catherine’s obsessive painting, Henry’s inability to quit his job, the rabbits, the rabbits, the rabbits—really?  About the only thing I liked about the story was how they’d stop using some household object because it was suddenly “haunted.”  But after multiple pages of this, I was like, come on.

Perhaps what really pissed me off was that there was no payoff for the story. Like, after I felt I’d given my life’s blood to read it, to discover the rabbits were waiting for Henry to get on their back and be prepared for an attack against Catherine’s party inside the house?  WTF?

Actually, I don’t need an acronym, I need to write that out:  WHAT THE FUCK?

Now, considering the kind of writer that Kelly Link is, I know better, after having read several of her stories, than to expect a conventional, satisfying ending.  She’s kind of out there—she writes horror and fantasy, and they have their own genre-imposed behaviors and audience expectations.  But the horror of “Stone Animals” is its obsession and obsessiveness, and its obsessive repetition, and at some point, I just really wanted to fling the book across the room.  I mean, Goddammit, Kelly Link.

So you’re saying, Why not just stop reading?

Because I was looking for a payoff.  I was looking for THE BIG REASON she wrote that story—I wanted to believe that somehow after reading 53 pages, investing that kind of time into unlikeable characters and a story that just seemed to go nowhere, that everything would be clear—albeit clear in Kelly Link’s kind of fucked up way.  But no.  I got to the end, and couldn’t even feel the relief that it was over.  I just felt angry and betrayed.  (I know, not rational.)

I had to put to put the book aside after that—even though the next story was called “Catskin,” and I’m drawn to anything cat related—because I was too mad.  I was just too mad at her and didn’t want my brain to feel defiled any more.

So I started reading the first book of Chobits (manga) by Clamp (a collective)—I’d long since seen the anime, but found the first book buried on a high shelf in my office (from the previous occupant, I suppose), and thought it would be good to read, then I picked up Kerry Greenwood again, and Aimee Bender… then went back to Kelly Link.

I’m in the middle of “The Great Divorce,” which is interesting from an idea standpoint (that a person can marry a dead person and have dead children), but I find my passion (good, bad, or otherwise) for Link is spent.  I’m wondering why everyone loves her, in other words.  Yes, she’s inventive, but at what cost?  My sanity—what little there is of it—is precious, and I don’t like getting angry at books.  That seems like a waste of time.  Still, I’m determined to finish the book so I can say I finished it.  But it’s happening about six pages at a stretch.  I find that’s all I am emotionally prepared to give her.

(Sadly, when I bought Magic for Beginners [after all the Kelly Link love I was hearing about], I also bought her Pretty Monsters.  I feel depressed just thinking of it sitting on my nightstand and taunting me to read it, knowing as I do that it will probably be more of the same.)

I’m also currently reading the manga for the Ouran High School Host Club. (I’ve watched and loved the anime multiple times, and thought I should finally read the manga—and it’s just as funny as the anime, and I like how the author, Bisco Hatori, periodically makes herself known and comments on her own work, which amuses me—although I know lots of people don’t like when an author breaks into the world of the story.  Generally I don’t either, but maybe it’s ok in a comedy full of highjinks and farce—you learn to accept that anything’s possible, including authorial intrusion.)  And I’m reading a couple of books of poetry, one of which is Daniel Khalastchi’s Tradition, the other, The Octopus Game, by Nicky Beer.

Speaking of the “payoff,” in case you’re wondering what it is for this post:  I guess it’s this—that my reading process is kind of like my writing process—all over the place.  And that’s ok.  If a book annoys you, put it down and come back later to it.  Or don’t.  There’s no Book Police out there who will hunt you down if you don’t finish a book—especially if you’re not reading for educational requirements.

I don’t know why I feel like I HAVE to finish a book though–like I will finish Magic for Beginners, even if it kills me—which it very well might.  I certainly don’t feel that way about my writing.  If something’s not working in my poetry (and especially my abortive attempts at fiction), I set it aside, and come back later. Or I don’t.  I guess with books that are already written (in comparison to my writing which is in various stages of completion anyway), if you don’t finish them, you’re denied that little perk of feeling a sense of accomplishment.

And if you think about it, that’s really ok too.

Getting Ready for the Decatur Book Festival

This weekend is the Decatur Book Festival, the “largest independent book festival in the country,” going on ten years strong.  I have read at nearly all of them on the Local Poets Stage, which is located in the Java Monkey coffee house, and I am reading again this Saturday at 10 a.m.

That early there’s not much of a crowd.  I’ve heard that Maureen Seaton and Denise Duhamel are also reading at the same time (their program is Caprice:  Collected, Uncollected, and New Collaborations, being held in the First United Methodist Church), so I doubt that there will be anyone in the audience for me.  I don’t mind so much for myself—after all, I’ve heard my own poems often enough, but I’m sorry for the three people I’ve lined up for this time slot:  Tammy Foster Brewer, Robert Lee Brewer, and Andrea Jurjević, excellent poets, all, who deserve a good audience.

(It must be said, I wouldn’t mind hearing Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton either—but alas, I cannot.)

Because I am a tangential member of the group that puts the Local Poets Stage together, I have historically chosen the 10 a.m. slot to “get it over with.” Generally speaking, it’s disgustingly hot out, overcrowded, and crammed with people trying to persuade you to buy their books—and the most persistent of sales pitches seem to come from the self-published.  (I know, that’s terrible of me to say.) The height of summer is also not the best time to crowd 50,000 people into Decatur Square (about 3 city blocks or so), so usually I read my poems, M.C. my hour, and hightail it the hell out of Decatur.

This year, though, I’ll stay at the festival at least a few more hours, although I might go wandering, because Karen’s hour isn’t until 1 p.m., when Emily Schulten, Bob, and Karen’s friend (and mentor from University of Tennessee) Marilyn Kallet will be reading, and afterward, Karen is throwing a little soiree for Marilyn.  So, I’ll stick around for all of that.  Of course, a lot of good people are reading on the Local Poets stage—people I always like hearing, like Christine Swint, Collin Kelley, Julie Bloemeke, Lisa Annette Alexander, Cleo Creech, Megan Volpert, Rupert Fike, Kodac Harrison, and Theresa Davis—but they’re all reading in the afternoon, and I just can’t give up my entire Saturday for them, sad to say… not on Labor Day weekend, the last hurrah of Summer.

Anyway, I’ve picked out the poems I think I’ll read, and will make a set list afterward so you can see.  I could read poems from my manuscript, but honestly, it’s hard to pull out pieces from a narrative and have them make sense—and certainly, in 10-12 minutes of reading, it’s even harder to see a common thread—so instead, I’ll be reading a bunch of prose poems.  I’m looking forward to it—I’ve never read them to an audience (at least, I don’t think I have) though many of them have been published (or will be soon).  So that might be fun.

Well, I haven’t much more to say on this subject, though I will report back on Saturday (or Sunday).  There might even be pictures.

Oh, Fiction, How You Torment & Tantalize Me…

I’ve been doing this little online fiction class—it’s only for three weeks, and it is just about over.  The group is small—seven writers and a leader/ moderator and his friend/ assistant.  I don’t know much about the person leading the workshop (I know he has an MFA and a TT job and he’s published a great deal). But all of the things he’s shared about writing and about the individual stories that the group have submitted seem pretty on target to me, and (once I finally understood the interface—it took me several days) I’ve been enjoying it… but more from a teacherly perspective, than a writerly one.

Were I a fiction writer by vocation, I would probably find the prompts and writing discussions more applicable to my own writing process—I want to try them out, of course, I just haven’t… yet.  I’ve said before that I’m interested in writing fiction—I just really can’t seem to do it.  But perhaps like anything, it just takes practice.  And, a few of his prompts could very well apply to creative nonfiction, and I know that I’ll definitely try his “life through artifacts” prompt.

Anyway, as I said, the class interests me from a teacherly perspective.  I like to see good teachers in action.  He draws from a lot of different backgrounds in fiction, and, since the theme of the class is about genre bending/ blending, and being experimental (two things I’m especially poor at), he has a vast knowledge of texts that he uses as examples to illustrate his suggestions about individual pieces and in his discussion about writing in general.  Since I’m not that educated about fiction (from a writing it kind of standpoint), his commentary is especially useful and interesting.

While he seems to have a particular affinity for SFF (as do the rest of the students in the workshop), he doesn’t look down his nose at other genres of fiction, and I admire that, because many academics in general dismiss genre fiction as being aliterary at best and no damn good at worst.  This tension seems to pervade the aesthetics of many writing programs; I’ve seen a few genre-writing MFA programs advertised in Poets & Writers, but that’s in no way typical.  (I never took a fiction writing class at Nebraska, but my sense of the fiction writers they had on faculty back then was that they were literary fiction writers exclusively.)

I suppose writing programs still want to turn out John Steinbecks and Margaret Atwoods (though she’s a bit of a fence sitter) rather than Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings and Kerry Greenwoods… The argument always comes back to high art vs. popular culture, particularly in the hallowed grounds of the Ivory Tower, doesn’t it?  (I also suspect, though I can’t be sure, that academics have a deep-seated fear of debasing themselves to write for money.  Like writing popular fiction is the dark side or something.  I have no such fear.  If I had the talent to do it, you better believe I’d be turning out romance novels or mysteries or Game of Thrones clones or horror stories, or hell, even porn.  I’m not proud.  I’m just not talented that way–I have no attention span to write anything longer than six pages, tops.)

As a reader and lover of genre fiction (although my interest tends to run toward mysteries… and Christmas romance novels, when it’s Christmastime), I’m glad the  workshop leader doesn’t have an arbitrary bias against genre fiction.  Anyway, all this is by way of saying, I ordered three books from Amazon on his suggestion—two were by Kelly Link, a writer I didn’t know about at all, but whom I’m liking. (I’m reading stories from her Magic for Beginners in between more chapters of Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and in between stories from Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (which was a suggestion from BFWF**).  It’s important to have good material to aspire too… or to be motivated by.

Imitation being the highest form of flattery, I try putting absurdity like Bender’s or Link’s into my stories, but generally it just comes out wrong. Or pretentious.  Or just like I’m trying too hard to be too cool and winding up being that doofus in the corner.  So then I try writing a conventional story, which I gravitate towards naturally anyhow.  (I know, I know, they tell you to write the thing you’re frightened off… but mainly I’m frightened of writing things that suck, so that advice doesn’t work too well for me.) I worked on a story the other day—it was based on an upcoming theme from Duotrope’s upcoming theme list—a Christmas-ish story, to be submitted by Sept. 25th.  (So, not a lot of time to dick around with it.)  I don’t know if I will finish it, though.  It’s lacking something… maybe, more words.  It’s supposed to be flash though—ideally, the journal wants 700 words.  I’ve written 1000, and it’s not finished.

A real experience prompted the story, and so as I’ve written it, it lies somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. (Liminal spaces suck, by the way.) The problem is, it doesn’t work as fiction OR nonfiction.  I like the idea of it—it focuses on an interaction with a neighbor I had one time when I made a snowman in the front yard.  I could make it totally creative nonfiction, but then it will be considerably longer—and it already lacks that CNF aesthetic—that real attention to beautiful language that CNF is known for, that expectation of a transformative moment that we rely on in creative nonfiction to drive the story forward.  And yet, it is there, a flash of a moment where the woman building the snowman relents, at least a little bit, in her annoyance at her neighbor’s intervention.  So the draft has that going for it.

Still, the journal wants fiction.  If I make it shorter, and more fiction-y, I don’t know that its point will be clear.  Honestly, I’m not sure anyone would care either way.  If I made it more fiction-oriented, I wonder what I could do to “fix” the story?  I can’t make it about a snowman that comes to life because I believe we ALL have heard that one before.  What I’m really interested in is the relationship between the two neighbors.  But I just don’t know if it’s compelling enough.  Maybe the story just needs to be a little anecdote I share with friends—maybe it’s really not meant to be shared in a large sense (with a public audience, I mean).

But maybe I’ve just persuaded myself that I could try harder and make this story work.  It doesn’t hurt to try and a hundred other motivational platitudes, blah, blah, blah.  I can see what happens if I try.  At the very least, it will be practice, and all writing practice is good, even the failures.  I know it will wind up longer, so I guess I’ll go the CNF route and forget about sending it to that particular journal.  That’s ok.

But I’ve digressed…  Back to the writing workshop:  I have a story to read and respond to for the online group.  I printed it out and left it on the table and now it has cat vomit on it.  But the first page seems pretty good, despite the stain, so I think I’ll go read the rest now.  And then maybe another Kelly Link story.

**Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™

My Philosophy on Writing, As Explained on My Creative Writing Class Syllabus

On my creative writing syllabus this term, I’ve included the following …well… essay explaining my philosophy on writing.  I thought it would be useful to my students to see what I think about the writing process going in.

Of course, everyone knows, the longer your syllabus is, the less students read it.  So I’m sharing this with you, my beloved five readers, because maybe you will appreciate it.  :-)

(P.S… I will make a Wednesday Post tomorrow… I just wanted to share this since I think it’s pretty good.)


This class is as much about process as product—more so, actually.  What we end up with is important—but how we get there is more important.  It is extremely rare that the first draft we write is the final polished version—the person who can do that either is a literary genius or has made a deal with a devil.  If you’re a literary genius:  go home, you have no need for this class.  If you’ve made a deal with the devil:  congratulations on your masterpiece and future literary career, but too bad about your soul.

For the rest of us, we have to see a piece mature from a little clot of words and ideas to something that has possibilities to something that vaguely resembles a story or a play to something that becomes like a story or play to a revision and another revision to a detour to a revision of the detour to a rumination to a final polished version of a story or play.  Because experimentation is a key (and expected) part of the writing process, it’s not a linear process… it’s all ways at once, not a single path from start to finish.  (This may be scary to some  students, for whom linearity is a way of life.)  Creative writing is about approaching an idea from a lot of different ways, and sometimes that means we scrap what we started with.  Or we only save a line or two.  Or we change characters.  Or we change who’s telling the story.  Or we smash things together (or break them apart).  But the point is, you can’t be married to the first (or even second or third) version, because for most people, the first few versions are not fleshed out in terms of their vision and their form.

Drafting/ experimenting is NOT editing.  If you look at your first draft and “fix” a few comma errors or spelling mistakes, but generally keep the majority of the draft the same in terms of language and structure, that’s a cosmetic change (in other words, editing).  Drafting/ experimenting is an act of resistance… resisting the easy route, resisting the belief that the first try will be golden, resisting the status quo.  It’s about risk and about transformation.  It’s about making something new every time until the most perfect form reveals itself.  It’s about negative space.  About what’s not there—and about what could be there when we stumble on it.  But you won’t find out what could be there until you resist the urge to stick with your first attempt.  So, resist!  Resist mediocrity!  Resist the humdrum!  Because if you’re the kind of person who’s (even mildly) ambitious and curious and ready to aspire to something unique in writing, you’ll do just fine in this class.

Know this:  I’d rather see a flawed final draft that’s undergone some pretty substantial drafting/ experimenting as it emerged into its final polished form than a piece that hasn’t changed much at all because it was too satisfied with its original version or too fearful/ protective to let it become something more (in other words, a chrysalis that never becomes a butterfly).

I will help you realize the polished form and vision of your work through extensive comments on drafts and suggestions for revision.  I might not have the answer on how to “fix” your story or play, but I have a lot of experience in creative writing—it’s my field—so you can be sure that we’ll work together to make dynamic writing happen. Your classmates will also have ideas about your work.  This is a collaborative class—we learn from each other, and that’s as it’s meant to be.

A final word about this:  just because we experiment with our writing doesn’t mean that there aren’t “rules” that won’t need to be observed—we’ll talk about them in class, we’ll read about them in our text.  This is not an Outback restaurant.  It’s not “no rules, just right” (or “no rules, just write” as the case may be).  I do not believe in the idea of “anything goes because it’s creative!”  No.  There are real, aesthetic rules and conventions (practices or principles, if you prefer) that have emerged over the course of literary history that continue to be observed by contemporary writers for a reason—because they generally work.

When emerging writers understand these rules in writing and follow them, they acknowledge their forebears’ contributions to craft, and demonstrate that they, too, can be adept at using the conventions that have helped define (Western) literary and cultural tradition.  And then, through maturity, and only then, with deep, considered appreciation of aesthetics, may they consciously and judiciously break the rules and explore new territory.  Think of this in terms of an analogy:  Picasso, before he was a Cubist and could create something like Guernica, drew and painted realistic figures and scenes such as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.  As he gained in experience and artistic power, Picasso threw over realism-as-convention and became a pioneer.

In works the same in writing:  demonstrate first that you can follow convention, that you can do it the “right” way (at least in terms of form and style), before you earn the right to defy it.  It’s absolutely important to create something new… but not at the expense of alienating your audience or making something that is incomprehensible and labeling it “art” just because you can.

A note about form, while we’re at it:  think of form as a lens.  The beauty of form is that it should be invisible; if we wear contacts or glasses, we don’t see the lens, because the lens itself is clear, and therefore we can see everything in front of us clearly, without blur.  The form of a piece of writing works the same way:  it should make the words and their meaning clear—it should not obscure words and meaning.  If you hand in a play that’s not in correct play script format, can you even call it a play?  No, and you’ll alienate your audience because they will be expecting to read a play, and instead will struggle to see your characters and understand their actions through the wrong lens.  Form and convention are important, and you should be mindful of them.

Of course, let me also include a quote from the famous fiction writer Flannery O’ Connor about just this subject:  “It’s always wrong of course to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in [creative writing].  You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.”