Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Irregular Writer

I was never a diary-writer. Even as a kid, I did not keep regular track of the goings-on in the Barbie and Ken crowd. I wrote when I was moved to, when something excited me, or bothered me, when I felt like I had no other way to communicate.

Remember the made-for-TV disaster movie, The Day After, about a nuclear attack in the midwest (Kansas? I think it was poor, unlucky, home-of-the-Westboro-Baptist-Nutjobs Kansas)? I was in sixth grade and I remember much ado about broadcasting such a relentlessly real movie about the horrors of nuclear disaster on network television and what it might do to the children (will anyone think about the children?).  The network (I think) strongly suggested that parents watch it with their children and make an effort to talk about it afterwards. Being a good mother, my mom dutifully watched it with me and when it was over, just as dutifully asked me if I wanted to talk about it. No, I was okay.  I don't remember the exact exchange of words (Obvs. It was darn near 30 years ago, fer crissake!), but I do remember going up to my bedroom and getting out a notebook. Again, I don't remember anything I wrote, but I do remember I was trying to figure it all out on paper. For whatever reason, that felt more comfortable to me (and to my mom's credit, she let me. I remember her checking in on me. I am sure that she would've wanted to be the sounding board for whatever I was processing, but she didn't push. She let me work it out on my own).

I wrote about it that night, dumped whatever feelings and thoughts I had about it on the page, then moved on. I don't think I went back to the topic, nor did I sit down the next night and write about whatever it was that was happening in a thirteen-year-old's life. Rollerskating parties? Biking to the Rite Aid to buy Hit Parade magazine? Going to the mall?  Whatever it was, it wasn't important enough or interesting enough to move me to write about it. Writing was never a habit for me, it was a need (Blerg. That sounds terribly self-important and eye-rollingly melodramatic. Sorry.)

I suppose that's still true for me now that I'm an adult. I've tried to write regularly with fair to middling success. I've tried to keep regular pages (three a night) and I go for respectable spans of time before I trail off. It's not that I don't enjoy the process, but I do find that when I'm constantly trying to force myself, the tedium can outweigh any benefits I might reap. Though I do understand that the only way to get through the tedium is to keep writing. But it also breeds frustration. Sitting for what seems like an eternity writing page after page of nonsense (sometimes it is, literally, nonsense), waiting for a breakthrough can be as detrimental to the writing process as not writing at all, or at least it feels that way to me. But still, I try. I sit and I fidget and I scribble and grasp at straws and cross out and start again. Sigh. 

The blog is helping, I think. Yeah, I know--I'm lousy at posting regularly. But this is all part of my process. It's all part of me trying to figure out who I am as a writer, what kind of writer I am, what I need from my writing and the circumstances under which I write the best. It's not an easy road to navigate. On one hand, as I said, I understand the necessity of regularity. On the other, I know myself, my personality and the kinds of ways I am motivated. And I have to somehow figure out a way to make those two things fit together. How much of the non-writer me needs to change to accommodate the writer me and how much can I change to fit those needs and still be the person I need to be? 

Um, what? 

I can't even make sense of that last statement. And that's not a good sign!  Perhaps the heat is getting to me. Perhaps I should quit before I get too overheated. 

I'm sure I'll revisit this topic again, I feel like there's more to discuss, more insight to try to glean from it. I'll come back to it. At irregular intervals, of course. :)

Until then, I'll be hanging out by the window unit. That is, if the dog moves over.   

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I am not a Poet

Generally speaking, poetry makes me feel stupid. I'm often intimidated by it (I don't think I'm alone in my assessment). It can be inaccessible. Sure, there's the typical stuff--the daunting Homeric epics, or the overwhelming verses by Milton or Dante, the impenetrable blocks of Gertrude Steinery ("all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain" really, Gertrude? What?).  But there are much more simple, more straightforward writers that I'm still so baffled by. I'm so intimidated that I won't even venture a guess. Heck, I may not know everything about fiction, but I'm willing to fling myself out a bit to figure it out.  But not with poetry.  And that frustrates me sometimes. I have a visceral reaction to it, but I can't always articulate it. And sometimes, I'm just not sure. One step outside the canon and I have no way of discerning good from bad. Heck, even within the canon it can get a little fuzzy for me. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock? Yup. Absolutely (though don't ask me why or how) The Red Wheelbarrow? Uhhh. Maybe?  Should I like this? I don't know!

Then, there's Dean Young. (If you've never heard of him, here's a recent NPR story about him and his recent heart surgery: http://www.npr.org/2011/05/23/136358656/the-heart-of-dean-youngs-pre-transplant-poetry)

Dean Young writes the kind of poems that punch all manner of holes into what I just wrote above.  No, I don't always "get" him. But often, I don't care. Often, the joy of reading the words on the page--the way they are placed, the order, the rhythm, the juxtaposition--supersede any need for explanation. The dark humor, the charm, the cerebral wit.  Take, for example, the first three stanzas of "My Work Among the Insects"

The body of the lingerneedle is filled
with hemolymph unconstricted except
for a single dorsal vessel. A ventral
diaphragm bathes the organs of the head,

undulations drawing the fluid back through
tiny holes called ostia aided by
 the movement
of a Napoleon within each abdominal segment
pacing his Elba exile, muttering la Russie

la Russie as the snow squeaks beneath
his boots. All through the night
the temperature drops but no one
knows where the lingerneedle goes.

"Aided by a Napoleon within each abdominal segment/pacing his Elba exile, muttering la Russie/La Russie as the snow squeaks beneath/his boots...." Are you kidding me?! That's effing brilliant! Or how about this, a few stanzas later:

Often in July,
one finds them collapsed in the tub, unable
to gain purchase on the porcelain that seems

to attract them mightily. It is best not
to make everything a metaphor of one's own life
but many have pressed themselves against cool
and smooth, in love and doomed.

Aaahhh! "...but many have pressed themselves against cool/and smooth, in love and doomed." I have never read anything so perfect in my life. I want to run outside, shouting, nailing copies of this poem to the doors of my neighbors' homes like some kind of Martin Luther of the MFA crowd.
See? I don't know how to really, smartly talk about it. I don't know exactly what it is that makes me want to do cartwheels over this thing. But I don't care, for some reason. I'm happy just to point to it, drooling like the idiot it makes me, and say "Isn't this phen-effing-omenal?" But maybe the fact that I have no real vocabulary is because the work is so great. 

Maybe that's what great art should do--make us stupid with happiness.

Monday, May 23, 2011

WriteAnon and a Thank You

Writing is, ostensibly, a solitary endeavor, but I think that any writer who keeps to herself all the time is doing herself a deep disservice. Getting together with the right combination of people to talk (some might say commensurate) about this silly little idea of a writing life can be a soul-renewing experience. That's usually how I feel after an evening talking to Betsy and Nancy.  (The three of us met while in the master's program at Hopkins; we'd all had several classes together and I personally thought they were two of the most articulate classmates and among the strongest writers in the program. I honestly can't remember how we three came to form this little alliance--a triumvirate, perhaps?:) --but I'm grateful for it nonetheless). We meet when we can: When kids and horses and the general detritus of life doesn't get in our way.  Sometimes we have manuscripts to read and comment on; mostly we just get together and talk. It's like a support group for writers. "Hi. My name is Bobbi, and...I'm a writer." "Hi Bobbi."

We met last Friday in our usual place (the Panera in Hunt Valley. Don't knock it. What it lacks in ambiance, it makes up for in free coffee refills). This week, we spent a considerable amount of time talking about instinct. I know I've written about this before--that elusive gut-thing that writers are supposed to listen to. Do we listen, though? Nooo. Often we don't. That's what I learned Friday night. We doubt our guts and that kinda sucks.

A few years ago, Nancy wrote a phenomenal story. Just an incredible story about an injured horse and the two riders who had to make difficult decisions about getting it down off the trail.  What I remember most about it was the way she managed to convey the paradoxical nature of horses--on one hand, they are sturdy, strong. Beasts of burden.  But they can be delicate too. Their skin is so fine, it tears so easily. Their legs--while the muscles are strong, the bones are fragile. I'm still kind of in awe when I think about how she did it. And the escalating tension was magnificent. I loved reading that story.  But when Nancy workshopped it, she was told it "wasn't a story."  WTF??  I really don't care that the person who told her that little gem is a published author. Writer-lady was wrong.  I know it. Nancy knows it. So how could one person convince her otherwise?  How is it that we let someone (often it's anyone and not just those who we look to as authorities) tell us that the opposite of what we know deep down to be true and right is actually false and bad? It can be devastating--not only to your ego, but to that voice in your head, that feeling in your bones that you're right. Gah. How do you get around it? How do we learn how to trust our guts?

Well, for me, talking to Betsy and Nancy helps. And I hope I help them (I'm hoping that Betsy and I convinced Nancy to query journals for that piece. It deserves a second chance!).  It helps to know that I'm not alone when I doubt myself, that's for sure. And getting encouragement from fellow writers--people who want you to succeed and much as they themselves want to, is, as I said, good for the soul. It gives me renewed energy and the strength to keep trudging through, even when it feels like I'm trying to run through knee-deep mud.

 Writing has to be solitary, at times. I have to wall myself off to get things done. But when I get to spend an evening with talented and articulate people, talking about craft and about our struggles and successes, I feel energized and ready to get back to work.  So, thanks ladies!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Admissions Committee Doesn't Really Smoke Crack

When I first started my masters program, I was fairly certain Hopkins had made a mistake. I'd even had my sister re-read the acceptance letter, because I thought I'd somehow forgotten all the definitions of every word in the English language and was misreading the "Congratulations! You've been accepted..." I sat in my first class that first semester--in Maryland Hall with its clanging heaters that I swear were always on, even in the summer months--scarlet-faced, with the sound of my pounding heart galloping in my ears. I was in way over my head and the moment I was forced to open my mouth and contribute something in class, everyone--my classmates, the instructor--would know what a fraud I was. I didn't belong there! I gripped the edge of the desk, convinced that at any moment, the program's director would materialize in the doorway, summon me into the hallway and, in an even, businesslike tone, inform me that the admissions committee had been hungover, or smoking crack (or something similar) when they read my application and once they'd sobered up they realized what a terrible mistake they'd made. He would then smooth  his hair back, tug at the bottom of his sports jacket and, with a nod of his head, bit me good day ("I said good day to you!").

Of course that never happened. Nothing even close to that ever transpired.  And I learned pretty quickly that I wasn't the weakest link.  Was I the best student in the class? Uh, no. Was the the best writer? Most emphatically, no. The most experienced? Most well-read (well-readest?)? The most insightful or articulate? No. Nope. Nuh-uh. No. No. No.

But as one semester ended and another began, as I got deeper into the program, I worried about those things less and less.  I actually feel kind of silly admitting to them here. The logic part of my brain (which is a very very small part that's buried very deeply in the center. It's also kind of dusty and probably smells like mothballs or my great-great Uncle Bill's attic) knows how pointless it is to go around comparing one's ability (or lack thereof) to another person's.  Especially in something so subjective as creative writing. But I'd be lying if I said those anxieties about being good enough are gone forever .  They still make themselves known; I don't think they'll ever truly disappear, but... I don't know. My attitude toward them has changed, I guess. Yeah, I'm insecure as hell (about a lot of things). That's a fact and it won't change. But I feel now, two years out from graduation, as if I might just know what I'm doing most of the time. Or at least I feel like I will eventually arrive at certain insights about my writing. Eventually. Oh, I still need the map, but I feel pretty confident that I can navigate most of the way with only desultory glances at it should I get myself really lost.

Take, for example, the critique I had last week. I'd turned in the first 6500 or so words from this novel I keep referring to. As you might recall from earlier posts, I've been working on the thing for, oh, I don't know, eleventy years (and that's dog years, BTW). And being neck-deep in it since Moses was in knee pants, I'd lost any kind of perspective drafts and drafts and drafts ago (I believe around the "paleolithic" draft).  This I knew going into the critique. Despite my lack of orientation within my own damned novel, I suspected I knew, generally, what worked and what didn't. I had a feeling I knew which were the creaky steps in the staircase.  I was only a little bit surprised at the feedback. My fellow writers were insightful, as always, and I found myself agreeing with nearly everything they had to say (not a terribly common occurrence).

Now, getting feedback that you knew you were going to get might seem--on the surface--like a small victory.  Some might even think that kind of feedback is unhelpful, useless. But it's actually the opposite. It's actually huge and significant and useful in the way a lifeboat is handy to have around when your ship sinks.  Because, if I know what they're going to say, it's because I know what my story needs.  And that's really quite freakin awesome. I know what my story needs. No, I might not know at just that very moment how to fulfill those needs--that's really the insignificant part--I'll figure that part out eventually.  But I know. And that's half the battle.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Here it is, Tim. You can stop bugging me now.

My last post, the one I wrote waaaay back last week about overhearing my tipsy neighbor and making a story out of his (shouted) conversation, struck a nerve with my friend, Nancy. A good nerve, by the way.

You see, about a year ago, a very similar thing happened to me--I was walking through Johns Hopkins Hospital (because that's where I work) and I overheard about five seconds of a phone conversation. for whatever reason, my ear caught it and then my brain went to work. I just happened to be walking back to my office and by the time I got there, I pretty much had a (very) short story written.  I scribbled it down and over the next week made a few minor edits. That was it. Sent it off to a few journals and it should show up in Echo Ink Review one of these days.  Simple as that.  When Nancy read my post from last week, she reminded me that I've done this in the past and suggested that this approach might be something to explore/think about. . I hope she doesn't mind, but I'll copy a paragraph from her email here:

Not only will it help your writing because it really gets you writing, but it also raises some of the questions you want to confront with your blog. I mean, why can you sit down and immediately write a 4-page first draft when you overhear something that catches your imagination?  Why do these stories come to you so quickly?  Do you see the whole story quickly?  or do you keep your pencil moving and the story is just there?  Think about what's going on and why?  Maybe it will lead to a greater understanding of your writing.  And I also think you should exploit this ability you have with taking pieces of overheard conversations or just a snippet of a spoken sentence and then sitting down and getting the story down.

As you can see, she asked some great questions that I've been thinking about lately.  The thing is, I don't know why it happens the way it does. I really have no idea why my ear latches on to certain things and not others. For example, just last week, as I walked past an elderly woman who was chatting with one of the guards at the hospital, I heard her say "...and then the Holy Spirit spoke to me."  And I kept on walking. I thought it was a bit curious and slightly amusing and I thought "I'd love to hear the rest of that conversation," but I didn't push past people waiting for the elevator to get to my office to write down my next short story.

Nancy suggested that I work on a collection of stories that originated as overheard conversations.  It's appealing, for sure.  It would give me a goal, a framework, a method of organization (and I could certainly use more of all three in my life). But I worry--will I start to overreach? How will I know which conversations to use?

The key, I think, is instinct. I think that might be what's going on when I pick out those meaningful conversations. Let's face it: Nearly every decision I make in life (be it choices in my writing, or choices for dinner) comes down to a visceral reaction. Maybe, after so many years of letting my gut make all the decisions, it's finally started to develop a discerning palate.  (And, quite frankly, it's about time, right? I've fed you well, gut. Now you're working for me.) I think that has to be it. Specific to the idea of overhearing conversations, like anyone, I overhear tons of conversations in any given day. Many, like the little old lady with a dedicated line to Jesus, are merely interesting/amusing/unnerving.  Something in here has to be picking through all the detritus and making the decision, right? And broadly speaking, that's what instinct is, right? That mechanism, that thing, that whatchamacallit that filters out all the crap and focuses on what's important.

I'm hoping that's what it is. Because if my instinct is guiding me through all the unusable stuff to get me to the stuff that works, then that means that I have learned something, that I've grown, right?

I think that's it for tonight. I should get a good night's sleep. I have a full day of eavesdropping ahead of me tomorrow.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Little Sigh of Relief

No, I haven't recovered from the lost post yet (but I will); but I did just scribble about 4 or so handwritten pages of what I hope will be a nice little short story.

I was sitting in my backyard this evening (this lovely, mild, Mother's Day evening), minding my own business, when I overheard a neighbor. Well, "overheard" might be slightly misleading, though. It implies that the conversation was meant to be private. And perhaps my neighbor intended it to be that way. Except he was kind of shouting. Bellowing, one might say. The air rushing out of his lungs, I'm guessing, was propelled by a teeny tiny bit of alcohol. So, I really couldn't help but hear, if you look at it that way.

Semantics aside, though, I was inspired. Thankfully, I had a pen and paper nearby and just like that <snaps fingers> four pages. Of course it's not complete. It'll need polishing, tweaking, some fleshing-out. But it's something. And it floated over to me on the cool evening air. Simple as that. It doesn't always happen that way--jayzus knows it hardly ever happens that way--but when it does, it reminds me of why I do this. Why I feel like puking, as Nancy said (I actually liken it to a bit like throwing yourself off a building, but the puking comparison is certainly accurate!). The payoff is incredibly satisfying. I'm smiling as I type this I'm so happy. I feel like I could run a marathon uphill and in hip-deep water I'm so energized by it. Surely some endorphins have kicked in and I'm all blissed-out on them.

So, no insights tonight. No musings or attempts at philosophic waxing, no frustrated prattling on. Just a shared moment of good news.

Have a good night, all.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


So...I just spent, oh, I don't know, an hour? 75 minutes? on a post. Aaaaaaaaand it's gone. Poof! Bye bye. And damn if it wasn't a good one. I'll have to collect the remnants of my thoughts and hopefully stitch them back together soon.  Until then, my friend Chris Stewart, of the Real Writer (http://www.therealwriter.com/my_weblog/) posted something to The Writer's Edge recently (http://writersedgeinfo.blogspot.com/), called "Seeing the Forest for the Trees." It's a great piece and one I'm hoping to weigh in on soon. I really think she nails the reasons why I'm having so much trouble with the novel. You should check it out and I'll check in soon, once I recover from hating my laptop and its overly-sensitive touchpad.  Arrrgh! <shakes fist>

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Creative Process, with Glasses...

A friend of mine shared this video clip recently http://kottke.org/11/04/your-taste-is-why-your-own-work-disappoints-you
Now, some of you are already aware of my deep affection for Ira Glass (though, I have to admit, I find it slightly--very slightly--irksome that he uses "like" "you know" and "ok, ok?" with Valley Girl frequency. Even so, my dedication to him is unwavering...), but that isn't the only reason I've shared this video with you. Not only is his advice welcome, but it dovetails nicely with our discussions as of late. In one of my earlier posts, I think I quoted Salinger's character Seymour Glass (huh. I didn't try that...). When giving some advice to his younger brother, Buddy, he essentially says, you've been a reader long before you were a writer, so all you have to do is think about what you most want to read, then just write the damned thing yourself. Well, duh. Thanks.

Seriously, though, Nancy said it nicely in a previous comment--nothing in, nothing out. You've got to fill up the tank, so to speak, otherwise you run out of creative gas (uh...bad metaphor, sorry). But how do you work with the frustration that inevitably comes when what you're putting out doesn't quite match up to all the the Faulkners, and Hemingways, the Weltys and Pynchons, the O'Connors, Joyces, Fitzgeralds (ad infinitum and fill-in-the-blanks with your own) that you're putting in? And it is frustrating, even if the non-fictional Glass is telling me to relax and keep pushing through (you know, ok?).

Maybe all of this is in the front of my mind because I just turned in the first 30 or so pages of a novel I've been working on for years. I know exactly what it is I want the story to be, but I'll be damned if I can write the thing. Where the hell is the holdup? Why is it that I can't seem to make the words (all of them I am familiar with and have used countless times) say what I want them to? This monstrosity had gone through at least four all-encompassing, direction-changing edits since I first put the idea down on paper. When, exactly, do I call it dead? After an embarrassing number of years and so many disparate iterations, am I now entering the realm of heroic measures? Does my novel need a DNR order?

I think Matt touched on this in his comments previously, the idea of getting stuck in a cycle of just kind of regurgitating all the stuff you've just ingested. It's great to find inspiration in someone else's work, but, as he said, when do you cut the umbilical cord? Or, maybe better, how do you get the connection to start working for you again?

Ira Glass talks about a specific kind of frustration, but I've talked to people about this general idea before, this idea of pushing through the hurdles, the blocks, the general detritus to get to the good stuff, and my friend Betsy said it best: "You  have to be present for those moments."  You have to roll up your sleeves and dig in to get those moments. Sure, sometimes they come to you as a gift, when you least expect them--when you're walking the dog, or on the phone with your mom or doing the dishes. But I don't think I want to rely on that kind of breakthrough, because, more often, the great ideas--the ones that make you jump out of your seat with excitement, the ones that make you want to run around the neighborhood and tell random passers by what you just thought of (the ones that make you want to yawp across the roofs of the world, I guess)--come when you do expect them, after you've worked long and hard to get to them.  After you've vomited up a whole lot of crap, too.  But the point, I guess, is to keep working.

Sigh. Thanks, Ira. <3