Thursday, May 30, 2013

Like the corners of my mind...

One of the things you get asked a lot, if you’re fortunate enough to get your fiction into readers’ hands, is where your ideas came from. That character, they’ll ask, is she someone you knew? What about the place, is it somewhere you’ve been? That plot twist, did it really happen? We all like to draw connections, I suppose, and the process of doing so probably satisfies some eager little section of our brains. One of the results of having a higher-order mind, maybe.
For writers, it’s not always consciously apparent where we’ve picked up this character trait or that detail. We’d like to think we created it all. But because I’ve been writing for a long time, sometimes I’m able to see a connection to something after many years have passed, a connection that may not have been evident to me in the immediacy of the creative act. Once the writing becomes almost like a memory itself, I can see its relation to another memory, something I actually saw or experienced. Sometimes.

As many of you know, I wrote my novel, The Qualities of Wood, quite some time ago. I was living in Chicago at the time and took regular trips out of the city to visit family. In the book, my character has a certain impression of the Midwestern landscape which, after years, I couldn’t have really said was my experience or not. In fact, in re-reading the book, I question what I’ve written. I describe a house surrounded by farmland but backed by a woodsy expanse of trees and wonder if this is accurate, if this could actually exist. I wonder about the mood—is it something others would feel in that setting?
I’ve been back to Chicago quite a bit but haven’t made the drive north to Wisconsin in many years. Last week, my daughter and I were back in the Midwest, walking the city but then driving through the rolling hills and farmland beyond the city’s borders. And it was a surreal experience. Like my character, Vivian, I had left the concrete spaces for green expanse and I felt as if I was immersed in the novel I’d written so many years ago.

"The drive wasn’t long, the countryside a blur of sameness. Fields of indecisive green, hills falling short of remarkable. Here and there a white or brown-shingled house, some shadowed by barns. The predictable Midwest."



“Sometimes I think I could drive around all day, but there’s not much to look at, just the fields and a cow here and there.  It’s peaceful, though.” 


The small, white house was set back from the road and elevated slightly, like a judge on his bench…White with dark green trim, there were wide strips of paint missing altogether; these sections of bare wood gave the impression of something bursting its seams.



About forty feet from the house, the land sloped downward.  In the distance stood a line of trees, fairly thick against the sliver of orange that remained of the sun.

So maybe these descriptions, this place, were imprinted in some corner of my mind after all. A photograph, a feeling, a breath of someplace different. It makes me wonder what else can be mined from those dusty corners, so often blocked with debris.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Sense of Travel

My daughter and I are hitting the road tomorrow or really, actually, the skies. We’re headed to the Midwest for the long weekend and I am beyond excited. First stop: Chicago, one of my favorite cities and the setting for the last novel I completed. I think traveling is an exercise for the senses—no photograph or travelogue can compensate for the actual experience of standing in a different spot. The sights, the sounds, the smells. What do I miss about Chicago? Well, I want to hear this:


And see this:


And this:


And smell this:


Those of you who love the Windy City like I do know just what I mean. Happy long weekend and hope yours is a delight to your senses.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane

Readers (and publishers) have had a long and ever-evolving relationship with short story collections. Stories may seem best suited for the places you usually find them—magazines, journals, and now, online sources. Short pieces are concentrated and self-sufficient, intended in most cases to be read in one sitting. In recent years, the rise of the short story has been announced by some in publishing who claim the shorter form is especially suited to our social media age, wherein information is doled out in bite-size nuggets and attention spans are decreasing. Yet, why shouldn't these writers compile collections and publish them in book form? Many recent collections have garnered national attention. It's an unwieldy and diverse form, just like the novel. Which brings up related questions: how should story collections be unified and organized? If the stories interrelate, at what point does it become a novel?

Honestly, I don’t lose much sleep over the labeling business. I’m happy to call a book whatever the author wants to call it. But I do lose sleep over finding the right package for my own writing ideas. Like many writers, I started out with short fiction and at some point, felt that my ideas needed more room so I made the shift to novels. I’m a long-time subscriber to a few magazines that feature stories and yet, I seldom read them. Why? I don’t know! Lately, I’ve been seeking out more short fiction for selfish reasons, because I’m working on my own collection. Periodically, I return to Flannery O’ Connor and Katherine Anne Porter for inspiration, and yet, I didn’t write anything in the shorter form until a subject seemed to call for it. (Oh, and reading the collected works of Lydia Davis a few years ago opened up a whole new world.)

It seems to me that subject dictates form, then, and there’s a great freedom in knowing other writers are stretching the boundaries, breaking established “rules” for different forms, and most importantly—being read. Jessica Francis Kane’s collection This Close is a good example. Kane unifies her collection with a central theme: the gray area in relationships, how people come “this close” to true communion with another soul and the ways they fall short, misunderstand and misinterpret. A young man agonizes over his interactions with the mother of a friend who has died, a woman is threatened by a neighbor’s relationship with her elderly father. Human connections and how they confound us at times. The longer pieces in the collection are perhaps on the short side and there are two pieces that come in under a page. Each story is focused and perceptive, its own world. Some of them interrelate with the same characters and show their progression; some don’t. The entire collection is 178 pages. So that’s the structure of it. The question is, does it work? It most certainly does. The writing is poignant and vivid and touching. The characters are relatable and in clear focus. I’d give Kane and these stories what is probably the biggest compliment I can give: I read it very slowly. I was completely content in the world of each piece and was in no hurry to get to the next one. I nodded my head several times while reading. I was surprised and perplexed and entirely engaged. She has a perceptive way of getting to the essence of a person, a situation, and holding us captive as we wriggle and watch and eventually, turn the mirror on ourselves.

Perhaps the shorter form isn’t really suited to a fast-paced world after all. If a story is done right, you shouldn’t want to rush through it. This crystallized form of narrative takes much polishing and care, and Jessica Francis Kane has offered a collection of gems with This Close. If you have a moment to spare, or several moments, I highly recommend you give it a read.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Snail's Pace

The last half of my usual run begins along a fairly busy, four-lane street. Ordinarily, I run in the morning, but the path is mostly shady all day. I run on the sidewalk; to my left—a small section of grass broken up by an occasional tree, to my right: expanses of flowers and landscaped bushes and ground cover.

And there are always, in the morning, many snails. Maybe every five to ten feet, you’ll see one making its way, left to right, across the dampened sidewalk and headed for what must seem like a wilderness at their height. In addition to my usual worries (breathing, not falling, not having a stroke), I have to watch for the tiny grayish shells on the gray sidewalk. Because stepping on one would make me feel very badly, and possibly would make me fall and/or stroke as well.

I wonder about what I imagine is a daily trek for the snails. From the density of the bushes to the grass patch (the street?), then back uphill to the bushes. Is it water they’re after? The gutter typically has a steady stream but you’d think they could get enough dew under the brush canopy. Are they avoiding predators—rats, rabbits, possums? But wouldn’t it be more safe to stay partially hidden than to expose themselves in the open? I’m no zoologist, obviously. (I did, however, pick up some snail knowledge at

For whatever reason the snails complete this arduous, daily journey—water, reproduction, survival, to gaze at the night stars—it seems like a lot of hassle. The sidewalk is dangerous, lots of foot traffic, and they risk life in a number of ways to make the trip. A ritualistic effort, probably tied to primordial urges, repeating and repeating, despite the fact that any moment, an unexpected sneaker can end everything. It’s life, that’s all.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Writing: The Amateur Draft

If it’s one thing writers love talking about, it’s books. If there’s another, it’s the writing process. This dialogue is what drives writers to conferences—finally, a group of people who can commiserate over an unwieldy first draft or the pain of a sixteenth (or twentieth) draft! You’ve probably heard lots of writers talk about their “writing self” and their “editing self” and how they transform for each endeavor.

I’ve been working on a first draft lately. There is a constant push and pull, trying to keep the editing self at arm’s length. She watches over my shoulder, telling me when I’ve used a word too often or that I’ve started something I’ll need to resolve eventually. She makes me re-read sections when I should be moving forward. She taps her red pen on the desk when I’m trying to concentrate on being present.

There was an excellent essay in The New Yorker this week, wherein John McPhee talked about the insecurities of being a writer and his own process of writing and revision. “First drafts are slow and develop clumsily,” he writes, “because every sentence affects not only those before it but also those that follow.” He claims to have a four-to-one ratio when it comes to revision vs. writing (he spends four times as long revising), and he talks about the debilitating waves of self doubt that accompany a first draft: “If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free…if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer.”

At the point when the first draft is finished and your editing self takes over, McPhee claims: “Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting. Experience is more helpful, as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional.” The experience is compounded, I think, because of the very nature of a first draft. Here you are, recreating the wheel, heading off into some vast expanse of your own design and if you’re really delusional (as most writers are), then you’re also trying something new in terms of style, narrative, something you haven’t tried before. It’s truly a brave new world and you feel like the sole inhabitant. A true amateur.

The editing self, on the other hand, has been through this before. She’s read hundreds (thousands!) of books. She deletes commas and unnecessary words without batting an eyelash and can slash through even the most inspired, flowery rumination, searching for the grain of truth. She’s a professional—unemotional, subjective, harsh. Her mind is always on the text. Again, McPhee: “You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem…You may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep.”

I’d argue this is the case with the first draft as well, a constant obsession with the work, no matter which draft you’re working on. It's just that the professional, the editing self, feels more assured in her task. It’s a relief when she arrives.

This is a great article with lots of concrete advice about editing. And if anecdotes about grammar excite you, the second part of the article talks about McPhee’s experiences with The New Yorker’s editors and issues of house style. Really, a must-read for writers. Link to entire piece here.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka