Final Report on NaNoWriMo 2015

Have you missed me?

I got so engrossed with writing the NaNoWriMo novel in November and the sequel (still in progress) in December, and the of course the holidays intervened, that I took a break from my blog.   This was my thinking:  I can either write 1,000 words on my blog, or I can put that 1,000 words towards my novels’ daily word counts, and the novels won out.  But here, enjoy some metrics about the actual novel I wrote in November.

Novel Facts…

Title:  The Life & Times of Hecate Applebough, Teenage Poet
Words:  79,142
Page Count:  281 (double-spaced)
Certified NaNoWriMo Winner:  Yes
Genre:  YA high school romance-ish
Plotline:  Hecate (“Cate”) Applebough attends a school for wealthy, gifted students while developing her interests in writing and poetry.  She also attends events at an afternoon club and becomes friends with its members.
Timeframe of Plot:  August 22nd-December 25th
Setting:  Fictional town of Lytton, Maryland
My Favorite Character Besides Cate:  A toss-up between her Mom and Professor Khaniff
Character I’m in love with:  Alaunius

Novel Statistics:  Number of…

Times the Main Character (Cate) is Named: 184  (But this is somewhat disingenuous, as the book is written in first person.  I tried to do a search on the number of times “I” was mentioned, but it listed all the I’s in the book, to the tune of 23,744 times.)
Times other Salon characters are named:  Alaunius/Lonny:  472; Val/Malik:  463; Finian:  147; Felix:  133;  Arwyn:  93; Dhruv:  68
Times Mom/ Maggie is named:  369
Times Professor Khaniff is named:  30
Poems Cate “writes”: 4  (There are references to others, but I only include 4 poems in the actual text.)
Poems others “write”:  5
Times the words “Poetry” or “Poem” appear:  176
Texts from all characters:  111
Times the word “Text” appears:  96
Times the fictional manga title A Moon for Autumn appears: 10
Times the fictional character Takehiko from A Moon for Autumn is named:  23
People who have read this book besides me:  2 (1 for sure, 1 I’m not 100% about, but I gave it to her to read.)

The Sequel, You Ask?

The sequel is currently title-less… I really could just slap “Volume 2” on it, but I don’t love the original title so much that I want to repeat it (and frankly, the original title is subject to change, anyway).  On the other hand, I don’t want to adopt the format of Indiana Jones and the… or Harry Potter and the… either.

Or if I do follow that pattern, I guess the title will be something along the lines of Hecate Applebough and the Fucked Up Men in Her Life which I don’t think anyone would naturally gravitate towards if they saw the book for sale in Barnes & Noble.  (Despite it being an accurate title to describe Cate’s life as it appears in the sequel.  And let’s be real, that would probably be an apt title for the first one too… Hmm.)

Speaking of the sequel, it’s making me lose the will to live.  I’m really having to work to write it.  It’s like the first one wrote itself, like it was buried somewhere in my psyche, and just needed an excuse to be expressed on the page.  But LaToHATP ended on a cliffhanger so of course I had to write the sequel…which is going sooooo sloooowly.  I mean the first book covered four months; I’m only in February in the second book. (Still.) Granted, I’m at February 26th, but really, I’m 215 pages in (currently 66,702 words), and she’s only lived 2 months since the original book? Come on.  And somehow I have to resolve this story in the next 14,000 words?  Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

I don’t think it’s necessarily slow in terms of plot, I just think that there are so many characters making demands on me, that it’s really hard to progress.  Also, it’s really hard to write in first person.  Like, there are so many things going on in the background that Cate can’t know, and it’s really restrictive to me as a writer, and that annoys me.  (But to be fair, I’d probably complain if I wrote in third-person too.  But if I did write in third-person, at least I could let the audience know things that would be helpful to know in terms of backstory.  But alas, I cannot.)

2015 was a pretty good writing year for me over all.  Back when I decided to challenge myself with NaNoWriMo, I wasn’t even sure I could write 50,000 words in a month, and in 2 months plus a week, I’ve managed to write 145,844 words, which is amazing.  Add that onto all of the publications I had in 2015 (10, across genres, plus several more accepted, and a Pushcart Prize nomination), and I have to count it as my most successful year of writing yet, and I’m proud of that.

Of course, if I plan to do anything with LaToHATP, that will require a hella lot of work, and while I’m working on the sequel (and sadly, one assumes the sequel to the sequel, because I can’t fix Cate’s life in the remaining 14,000 words, there’s just no way in hell), I can’t think about revising.

Plus…revising fiction is really hard, and I’m not good at it.  Like revising a poem?  I got that down to a science.  But since fiction is basically a mysterious genre to me, I don’t know how to revise my own work.  I mean, I can tell other people how to revise (hence, why I teach fiction in my creative writing class), but I seem to have blinders on when it comes to my own work.  I just have no idea where to go.  And, frankly, no idea whom to ask for help.  Well, ok, I have an idea of whom to ask, but I feel like it would bleed him dry, and I couldn’t possibly ask him. Unless I had $100 lying around I could slip him for the pain and agita… Anyway.

Still, I’m not gonna worry about revision for a little while.  I need to worry about resolving Cate’s life and then I can get back to writing poems full time.

At least, that’s the plan.

Report on NaNoWriMo, Week 3

I unearthed a folder of—I guess you’d call it juvenilia—a bunch of poems and stories that I started writing when I took my first creative writing class in college.  I had high hopes of mining this old (crappy) work for stuff I could appropriate as material for my two main characters in my NaNo, both of whom are poets.  I was thinking that the style I had when I was much younger might be appropriate to two teenagers, new-ish to writing, the way I was when I wrote it.  But the fact is, my juvenilia is godawful.  (Well, the poems are.  The stories don’t suck that bad—probably because they are SF, and I used to read a lot of quality SF, so I had good influences impacting my writing.)

But the poems?  Holy Cow.

And yet, I bet when I was much younger I probably thought my writing was awesome.  Like sometimes, as I’m flipping through this folder, I’m so clever in my word play, I’m OBNOXIOUS AF.  I was trying to find one of the poems that I could reproduce here to demonstrate how deliciously bad I was, but I actually am too embarrassed to show any of that stuff.

If I had any sense, I’d burn it all.

Ok, well, here’s a “This is Just to Say” parody I wrote, which is a little funny and not so appalling that I’ll have to hang my head in shame for sharing it:

Wm. Carlos Wms.-esque

This is just to tell you

that the plums
you ate were
actually
small grenades
which I was
saving
for when your
mother comes

Forgive me
that was mean
you’re so dead
and so cold

(Though I would probably line it a little differently now.)

Anyway, all of this is by way of saying, I’m still plugging away at my novel, although it’s dreadfully long-winded, and not making the progress I’d like it to be making—not in the sense of words, because I’ve got more than plenty of them.   But rather, since it’s framed as a diary, and I envisioned that I would be encapsulating the entire school year in it, I’m kind of annoyed that I’m not further along than November.  (When I started the book with August.)  I don’t think it’s boring (but then do authors ever really think their own writing is boring?)—though a good beta reader would probably strike out whole diary entries as being immaterial to the plot. (Which it probably needs.)

I also keep reminding myself that the upper end word count of a YA novel is 69,999 words, and I should just remember this isn’t a Victorian novel where publishers paid by the word.  But whatever—I can’t worry about that, when what I really need to think about is keeping on and figuring out how I’m going to resolve Cate’s life.

Also—since I think it’s a romance, who is Cate going to end up with?  Is it Val or is it Lonny? Or is it a dark horse, like Finian?  (Or is Finian actually gay?)  I like all these guys in her life for different reasons—and she likes them all too.

Which actually just reminds me how much of a bad fiction writer I really am.  Because maybe Cate is really just me—or what I could have been like if I were cool in high school—and maybe these guys are really just fantasy guys I imagined—the Mary Sue factor is pretty damn high.

And maybe that’s something I’ve realized about writing a novel—I mean, I knew it was hard, but what’s really hard is divorcing my brain, and my thinking, and even my writing patterns (which, I’m sure you’ve noticed in these blogs tends to be parenthetical and interrupting).

In a little flash fiction piece, of only say, 500-600 words, I feel like my writing can be so much more imaginative, and so much more not me.  Initially, I thought my novel was going to be “so not me” too—I might even have used that term in an earlier blog—and yet as I go back over it, I think, well, the stuff in this book may not have actually happened, but I’m still, somehow, writing my life.  Cate sounds like me.  Like she’s a 40 year old…stuck in a 15 year old’s body.

That just may be bad writing at its finest.

But I’m not discouraged, because I like Cate.  I like her Mom.  I like her teachers, especially Professor Khaniff.  I like Val and Finian, and I’m pretty sure I’m totally in love with Lonny the way Cate is.  Even if he’s kind of a dumbass.  Because he is a sensitive writer who has the grand vision, who won’t be defeated on the macro scale even if he pouts on the micro scale when things go wrong.  He’s…ebullient.  Which is so alien to me, and so very beautiful.

Anyway, there are still 12 days in the month to go.  I have no doubt that I will get my 50,000 words—and probably a lot more, since I plan to write like a fiend over Thanksgiving.  (When I’m not cooking a feast.)

I hope any of my Five Loyal Readers, if you too are doing NaNoWriMo, that you are experiencing good success, and that your characters continue to delight you, the way mine are.

Report on NaNoWriMo, Week 2

At nearly 19,000 words, I feel like I am making great progress on my “novel,” and I’ve been thinking about what to do when I actually finish it.  Of course, we all have grand designs about writing the next Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (a book I loved when I read it a couple of years ago because it was funny and it was set at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and which I recently found out originated as a NaNoWriMo novel).  I know, deep down, however, that I won’t be writing the Next Big Thing.

What is more likely is this:  I plan to revise my book and get some feedback (I have a couple of people who have agreed to read it once it’s done–they must have a masochistic streak), and then, I think (unless they rave about it, and encourage me to MASSIVELY revise and think of publications, which also ain’t likely), I’m going to release on Amazon for 99 cents.

For 99 cents, I’ve read some pretty damn decent books.  I mean, I wouldn’t pay more than 99 cents for them, but for a couple of books (that had an interesting premise and characters who sounded reasonable), 99 cents was money well spent.  I have every confidence that my book is certainly worth 99 cents.

So… that’s what I’m thinking, at least this week.

Anyway, I’ll have more to say soon–but I was really busy with grading and with tennis tonight, I haven’t had a chance to write, and I’d like to get some words knocked away if I could.  (But first I really need a shower… I have some serious tennis funk going on.)

(I know you really needed to know that.) (xo)

Report on NaNoWriMo, Week 1

I’m just going to say it:  so far, NaNoWriMo is going great for me.  I’m doing everything wrong, everything I remind my students, ad nauseam, not to do—I’m telling more than showing, cheaping out on sensory description, failing to use character tags as effectively as I could, lollygagging (emphasis on gagging, I expect) with my dialogue, using adverbs a little more heavy-handedly than I ought.  And it’s FUCKING AMAZING  how much you can get written when you just don’t worry about MAKING ART.

I’m having a GREAT time.  I love every damn flawed word I write.  It’s so much fun to just focus on plot and vomit words down on the page—and to know that I can delay the revision process till much later, if I want.  Or not at all.  There’s a heady freedom knowing that there’s no stakes attached to this “novel.” I don’t agonize over the words the way I do when I’m writing poems, or even my “real” stories—here, I’m just racking up the word count.  If I can’t think of a more elegant word for when my character feels emotionally bankrupt and friendless and dorky, she just says she feels “crappy.”  And I’m totally ok with that.

Why?  Partly because she’s a teenager, and teenagers are not particularly known for their emotional depth and elegance in articulating the way they feel.  Partly because I know that this “novel” is an exercise in stamina and persistence.  And partly because I know that even if I write the lousiest, lamest, most derivative novel this November, that’s ok.  Because it’s practice writing.  It’s making me sit down every day and prioritize my writing over everything else.  And face it, that’s what we writers need to do.

And you know what else?  I would love my friends to read this novel when it’s done—because it’s cool in its way—and its aesthetic is so not me (at least I don’t think so) that it would be interesting to see what my friends think.  The way sharing writing with friends used to be—something you did for fun (instead of something you did because you’re concerned with publication)… Geez, when you have no expectations about publishing, you’re crazy free—like going to Kroger in a skimpy tank top and no bra when you’re a 46DD kind of free.

Something else I like about this novel is that it’s definitely not like most young adult fiction that seems determined to be depressing, dystopic, and dysfunctional.  This is about a girl at a new high school who likes to write poetry and who finds a guy at the school who like to write it too.  Sure, there’s bound to be heartbreak, but no one is going to be shooting people with arrows and trying to stay alive so your district can eat a little better the next year.  My characters are basically happy.  How’s that for innovative?

I think, honestly, overall, there are some good ideas in my story, and I actually kind of love my main character and her relationship with her Mom—they have an amazing rapport, and I like writing them together.  (Maybe I’m Mary-Sue-ing the hell out of them… somehow I have no problem with that. ) Actually I like all my characters.  None of them has disappointed me, and I don’t expect them to. They’re just cool people I’d love to hang out with… that’s what fiction should do, right?  Make you fall in love with the characters and want to Netflix and chill with them?

As I think about it, maybe there’s some real potential in this book that it could become something awesome at some point (with massive revision, let’s not kid ourselves—it desperately needs the artist’s/ critic’s eye leveled against it, and all of its blemishes to be smoothed away with the writer’s equivalent of Clearasil).  But again, if it doesn’t go anywhere, that’s ok too.

The main point is, it’s fun.  And I feel like there hasn’t been a lot of fun in my writing this past year.  I’ve definitely had some whimsy, but not out-and-out fun.

It’s fun to break the rules.  I possess such a serious attitude towards writing in general—I’m so concerned with making art, and creating something that will resonate with Important Readers (like editors and other academic creative writers and journal-reading types), that, frankly, it’s kind of constipating, artistically-speaking.

This novel, in contrast, is the Dulcolax approach to writing.  Anything can happen.  Characters can do stupid shit and say the unexpected thing—and I can worry about making it work later. I’m going to go on those writing tangents—I can be a little more plot driven and not obsess about creating these finely-wrought (overwrought?) characters who gnash their teeth in their sensitivity.  Sometimes my characters have whole paragraphs of dialogue that doesn’t seem to go anywhere.  OMG, the dialogue doesn’t drive the story forward!  Oh, the horror!  You know what I say to that?  So what.

And my characters laugh and smile a lot.  And they gaze at each other intently.  Yeah, I know:   I really need to expand their action repertoire.  They need to do more than laugh and smile and gaze intently at each other. They need to “inhabit their space.” (I tell my students that all the time about characters in their stories and plays—make them physical beings, block their movements, blah blah blah.) I know I need to move their asses around more effectively and get them from place to place with a bit more style.

But not right now I don’t.  And why is that?  Because it’s my novel, and I can.

Even with the “minor” setback of the exploding Coke Zero that decimated the motherboard in my desktop computer yesterday and the possible permanent loss of 1200 words (and potentially everything else I’ve ever written—though I’m really trying hard to have faith that my data is safe and not freak out and imagine the worst, as is my nature to do), hasn’t really fazed me.  In fact, it’s not even a real loss… it’s like I’ve “temporarily misplaced” 1200 words—sure, they comprised a few really good scenes with some funny dialogue—but hell, if the scenes are gone for good,  there’s more where that came from. Because I feel like the Mount Vesuvius of language—there’s just so much inside of me oozing out everywhere—even if I actually really have lost those 1200 words, that ain’t no big thing.

To have this experience in my writing life is remarkable and wonderful and really weird for me.  It makes me wonder what I could accomplish in other areas of my life if I just gave in to the fun and didn’t care about being proper and appropriate and sensible and practical—maybe I would be as grandiose and giddy as I feel now.

We’ll see how I feel next week—maybe by then NaNoWriMo will get harder, maybe I won’t feel so Mount Vesuvi-esque with my language… But as of today, I have logged 6899 official words so far—which technically counts the 1200 I lost, if I’m remembering correctly, but since there’s still a chance my data is safe, I’m counting them.

And if they’re really gone, like I said, it’s ok, I’ll just write more to catch up.

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 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.

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™

For a Writer Friend Who Isn’t Writing (This Is Still About Me Though, Let’s Be Clear)

A lot of my thinking has to do about why I write, and this blog looks at my writing process and elaborates on that thinking (as my five faithful readers are well aware). Everyone knows that writers write. And everyone also knows that sometimes writers don’t write—because they’re bored or they’re tired or they’ve just reached some kind of impasse.

I was going through a lot of crap in my office, preparing for the AC guys to come in and work on my AC unit (by the way, they still haven’t come, and my office is a disaster, though that’s beside the point), and in the process I was throwing out a lot of paper and other useless bits of detritus from my years teaching, and I came across a freewrite I scrawled on July 16, 2008. The topic was “Why Do I Write” and this is what I said:

I write sometimes it seems not because I love it like I used to, when writing was about loving words and not about worrying about a CV. I haven’t written like this [in other words, a freewrite—I was taking a continuing ed class at Emory on memoir writing] in a long time—I buy writing books but lack the discipline to doing it on my own. Actually, I lack the discipline in so many ways—

I was thinking earlier today that I should work on those poems for June and July [this was during the period our writing group, the DYPS, was working on the poems that would eventually become On Occasion: Four Poets, One Year]—it seems more fun to write when I have my friends to write for. But Karen and Bob are out of town, and again, their being gone is like a license for me not to write. And I need to write—after all, I want to be famous some day—that’s a really terrible reason, I know [well, come on, it’s a freewrite after all—you can say anything you want in a freewrite, even something ridiculous like that]—but I want to have something to pass on, something that matters. I probably will never have children, so my legacy needs to be another kind of creation. That’s why I write. Or, that’s why I want to write.

(Blah blah.  Oh, JC from 2008, you are so tedious.  But, on the other hand, if you need a reason to write, and the hope for fame is it, well, keep on hoping, and keep on writing.  Whatever works, right?)

The fact is, I do write. Well, now I do.  Maybe not with the frequency I should, but I’m at an ok point with my writing and my diligence and my publishing. What got me thinking about not writing was a recent email I got from my Brilliant Fiction Writer Friend™, the one who gave such amazing and useful advice on the two pieces of prose I brought him. I asked him whether he was still writing stories frequently, and he replied that since he defended his dissertation, he hadn’t written anything, that he was burnt out. (I can totally understand this—he also has a very time-consuming, draining job helping students work on their writing and communication.  When you’re giving so much of your energy to helping others write, well, maybe you don’t have a lot left for yourself…which is why I feel greedy and guilty and burdensome and needy asking his advice…but whatever, that’s my pathology.) What he said resonates in a big way with me:

I’ve tried a couple of times in the past three years, but I forced it and nothing came of it. I’m waiting for inspiration to strike.

Damn that inspiration—it’s so flighty and capricious. Of course we want to write something that is meaningful, “something that matters,” as I said in 2008—and inspiration does give us that energy and excitement that we need, especially when we’re in a writing rut.  After all, if we’re not writing something that matters, what’s the point? We’re just making the written equivalent of noise. (Wouldn’t it be great to feel inspired all the time? If I could figure out how to do that, I’d bottle inspiration and make my fortune.  Ah, pipe dreams.)

I can’t make BFWF™ want to write, but I wish he would, because he’s wonderful and I know that his stories (even if they’re hiding in his subconscious right now) will be wonderful too, once he digs them out.

At the same time, as writers know, if you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it, and forcing yourself to write when you don’t feel like it is pretty much a one-way ticket to hell because you’re a) setting yourself up for failure, and b) tossing yourself deeper into the “I hate to write” abyss, which makes you less inclined to pick up a pen (or keyboard) later on, and c) basically pissing yourself (and probably anyone around you) off.

I know this from personal experience. When you’re at a dry spell in your writing life—if you’re a writer—it’s probably because lots of other things in your life are in a dry spell too. In those “I hate writing” times of my life—when the writing ennui is really incapacitating and insurmountable—it’s generally because my life is out-of-whack. (Everyday life and living can be such a bitch sometimes.)

I’m a weird point. In some ways, I have a completely out-of-whack life right now—I’m feeling extremely morose and demoralized about a number of things (I won’t bore you with details) but I guess I feel like I can retreat into my writing—and if I’m not writing, well, at least I’m sending things out so they’re being seen in the world.

Anyway, I’m glad and grateful that I’m not not writing—sometimes, writing is the only thing in my life that makes sense. I hope that continues to be the case. And I hope inspiration strikes soon for BFWF™, I really do.  The world needs his words.

Headus Injurius, Or, Why Can’t I Write Fiction Too?

I was having one of my “tired days” yesterday, and when I came home from work, I went directly to bed. I did get up later, but never with the kind of focus I needed to be able to write a blog post (well, not one that would have been coherent, anyway), so here is my Wednesday post on Thursday.

I’ve mentioned my interest in nonfiction before, but I’ve also become interested in writing fiction too. It doesn’t come easily, writing fiction, so I am a great admirer of those who can write it “easily.” I put “easily” in quotes because I know that writing well doesn’t come easily to anyone—an author has to work at it. But of course some people have a knack for writing fiction, and some, like me, have some really great ideas that, because they have the attention span and stamina of a gnat, rarely get explored in a long form like fiction. Oh sure, there’s always flash, and I do have some ability to write flash because it’s short, and it has a kind of poetic aesthetic which I can get behind. But I want to write “real” short stories.

I have a number of partially completed stories that I’ve written in the last few weeks. The problem is, I can’t get past the “partially.” This is my fiction writing process:

  1. I have a great idea.
  2. I begin to write the great idea.
  3. I write myself into a hole (or into boredom).
  4. I wish, fervently, for a tornado, or earthquake, or angel or other Act of God to happen to get my characters out of the hole I’ve dug.
  5. I know deus ex machinas are cheesy and horrible, and reject any Act of God that occurs to me as being the last desperate attempt of a failed fiction writer.
  6. I give up on the story.

You see? It’s hopeless. And what I really don’t understand is that conventional wisdom says, “Read voraciously in the genre you want to write and you will be able to write it.” I do this! I read mysteries, literary fiction, romance fiction, YA, monster/ fantasy stories. I read a lot of fiction (as well as nonfiction and poetry, of course—and drama). I don’t understand how come I can’t translate all this great modeling being done by the fiction authors I read into fiction of my own.

Conventional wisdom also says “Go with your strengths.” But maybe whoever came up with that bit of conventional wisdom was some bozo who wants us to stay with what we know so we won’t encroach on their areas of expertise! It’s possible.

Or it’s possible that the idea of going with our strengths (writing what we know?) is to keep us from banging our heads against the wall. Believe me, I’ve felt like doing some head-banging lately—and not of the metal concert variety. I have written these partial stories, and I just know that if I could finish them, they’d be cool. But where do I get that impetus to finish? Or perhaps a better question is, “Is there anything beyond the initial cool idea rattling around in my brain?” (Sometimes, I doubt it.)

Certainly it’s a matter of training—my creative writing background consists entirely of poetry and poetry classes. (I wonder if there’s a Remedial Story Writing 101 class I could take?) But I want to write beyond that—and to write in a sustained way. I just don’t know how to do it, and it’s so frustrating to come up against limitations that I don’t even know why I have them. How hard can it be to write a story? Why does it have to feel excruciating? Why does my brain have to come up with these ideas that I clearly can’t develop beyond a few pages? It seems so unfair. And pointless.

And so I suppose I’m going to continue banging my head against the wall, writing these partial stories until SOME DAY I get the message from outer space or wherever that lets me actually finish one. Or maybe I’m just destined to be a failed fiction writer. But somehow, I can’t accept that.

Well, not yet, anyway.

(Fiction writers:  how do you do it????)