Tag Archives: work

Mile Markers and Check Points

If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons” (based on her book of the same name), it’s an inspiring listen. Ms Gilbert speaks to creative folks who are struggling to start or re-start their work. As these fledgling artists speak to Ms Gilbert about their fears, she generously bolsters them with her experience and encouragement. She gives them assignments and deadlines. Then, she utters the six most powerful words any artist can hear: “I’ll check in with you later.”

Bringing an idea from the realm of the formless and vague into the physical world is the type of work that’s best done with some sense of urgency. A sweater stitched one meager row at at time, for example, would be deemed a useless enterprise, and discarded before it even had a second sleeve. Urgency creates momentum, powering the maker through the inevitable tedium and the challenges.

Sometimes the urgency comes from the idea itself, the sheer excitement of it, the friction as it rubs against the inside of the mind. But, other times, urgency and motivation come from those kind people who make the artist feel accountable, the ones who’ll ask questions, or say, “I’ll check in with you later. I want to see how this is going for you.”

For years, I was a Secret Writer. Only my husband and a couple of my closest friends knew that I was working on a book. And so, I worked on it in fits and starts, often losing the thread of meaning and struggling to find it again. The work never quite felt as though it mattered. In fact, it didn’t, because no one knew about it. It was like a ghost, or an imaginary friend that others were always accidentally sitting on.

The more I began to go public with my work – to share it with friends, read it to writing groups, and discuss my goals – the more it became a real part of my life. I had to get comfortable with the supremely uncomfortable act of talking about my writing. The secret was out. People were going to ask, “How’s the writing going these days?” And so, I had to have something to tell them.

Thank goodness for these people, without whom my efforts might have fizzled out completely. Now I use these folks strategically and on purpose, announcing my goals to my writing group and my friends, and asking them to please keep me honest. My goals are humble, sometimes embarrassingly so, but these mile markers along the way keep me trudging forward when I’d often like to stop. And, by the way, these folks use me, too, and our mutual encouragement makes us all feel a little less alone at our desks.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert and the other professional artists who keep sharing their own experiences to inspire and motivate others. Most of all, I’m ever so grateful to my own personal cheerleaders, all the people who care enough to ask, “How’s your writing going these days?” Thank you for making room at the table for my imaginary friend.

This isn’t the first time Elizabeth Gilbert has inspired me. Also see my post about her wonderful Ted talk about creativity, and my thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love. And, if you are interested in creativity, her book Big Magic is… well, magical.

Adore Life, Part 2

Yesterday I posted about the album “Adore Life” by Savages. I’ve been thinking more and more about why the sentiment – to adore life, to embrace it without trying to pick off only the best moments – resonates with me so deeply.

It’s not because I’m coming up on an age at which people start thinking about their mortality. Certainly not that.

It’s not because I have regrets. Those mistakes that used to cause me pain are now slowly making their way into the “experience” column, and I try not to perseverate over them as much as I used to do.

It’s because of writing.

Writing requires me to be present, to sit in a messy, uncomfortable, difficult process, and strive to make something beautiful. It requires focus and sacrifice, by which I mainly mean forgoing evenings of television and lunches with friends. Writing a novel is the work of years, and in each second of that time there are so many other tasks that are definitely easier and possibly more critical than sitting with my pen. It’s a miracle a book ever gets written at all.

So, as I write, I have to remind myself that my time on the planet is short. It will end – as Jehnny  Beth sings, maybe tomorrow – and I my moments will be spent. Why not spend them living fiercely, loudly, and wholly? Why not adore life, even the messy and difficult parts?

Why not try and make a a miracle?

DIY MFA: Text #4, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The fourth book in my DIY MFA is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book wasn’t received well when it was published, so I didn’t know what to expect from my reading. I can only say now that I loved reading this book, and loved seeing the world through Janie’s eyes. This book and its characters have fastened themselves to my mind. In this post, I’ve chosen to discuss three of the many aspects that beg exploration: the beginning of the book, Janie’s character arc, and Hurston’s beautiful language. As I examine these aspects of the classic novel, I’m always thinking about how to apply what I’m learning to my current work-in-progress, and to my writing in general.

Hurston creates profound sympathy for Janie from the first page. The story begins as Janie  walks a gauntlet of prying, gossiping neighbors. Out loud, they talk gleefully about how she’s fallen in the world. “She ain’t even worth talking after,” one neighbor says, as they continue to discuss nothing else. “She sits high, but she looks low.” Janie earns the reader’s sympathy by enduring her neighbor’s stinging hostility; she more than endures. She walks by without withering, without stopping to solicit the neighbors’ good opinions. She sails by, with the grace and confidence of a woman who deserves admiration, but doesn’t need it. In just a few short paragraphs, Hurston tells us much about this character, and also allies us readers with her.

Getting readers to be on the main character’s side is something that Cheryl Klein has talked about in her book Second Sight (and also in this post on her blog). Klein says the author can make a character sympathetic by showing unlikable characters mistreating him or her. Klein discusses this strategy via Harry Potter (as is her way). She writes, “What happens is basic literary math: We dislike the Dursleys, and the Dursleys dislike Harry, so we automatically like Harry.” Janie couldn’t be more different from Harry Potter, but the same strategy works in both cases. If it can work in these two texts, it can certainly work in mine.

Hurston seeds the introductory pages with elements that pulled me instantly into the story. There is, as I’ve said, the friction with the neighbors. We also learn almost immediately that there has been a death, but don’t yet know who has passed away. Then, we hear about a man named Tea Cake, and we know only that he’s younger than Janie, that the neighbors didn’t approve of him, and that they assume that he has been an instrument of her downfall. Death, envy, and sex – what could be more titillating?

Janie’s arc from a person who lives according to society’s values to someone who lives by her own is a compelling and beautiful one. It’s not only that Janie has an unconventional love affair, or that she finds her voice. It’s what she says, it’s that she learns to say what is in her heart. For example, when Tea Cake asks her whether she regrets leaving her secure and affluent life to be with him, Janie says, “If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” Earlier in the story, Janie resigns herself to a separateness of her outer and inner worlds. Such an emotional speech is only possible for her later in her life, when she feels whole.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of middle-age story. There are many stories like this, about the older and wiser woman who, after spending her youth doing what society expects, sloughs of external obligations and begins to live for herself. I, an almost middle-aged white woman in the Pacific Northwest, relate deeply to Janie’s journey, though we share little else in common.

The beauty of this book is its language. Hurston writes with two distinct styles: the narrative voice and the dialogue. Both are rich with rhythm and metaphor. The narrative voice contains some of the Southern vernacular, but it’s in the dialogue that the characters and setting come to life. Hurston uses open vowels and dropped consonants, writing phonetically to make the dialect accessible to readers. Even though I’m not familiar with the dialect at all, within a few pages I felt at home in it.

Here’s an example that shows both narrative voice and dialogue. In this scene, Janie and her second husband Joe are having one of the fights that erodes their affection.

“You sho love to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!”

“Dat’s ’cause you need telling’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and cows. I god, they show don’t think for theirselves.”

“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”

“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Time and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left her bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.

– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes  Were Watching God

In a recent SCBWI workshop on dialogue, Lin Oliver advised writers only to attempt regional dialogue if they really know it and can comfortably keep it going throughout the whole book. Hurston writes the dialect precisely and consistently; it’s the tongue of her childhood.

My current work-in-progress Nana’s Bikini has several characters who speak with a heavy Italian accent. I’m struggling with consistency, and with how to convey their accents at all. Oliver’s advice is to indicate the dialect with key words or phrases, rather than try to carry the dialect through to the end. I’ll have to go back to my manuscript, and think carefully about how to do this. What could the key words be? What is the best way to write the Italian accent phonetically? Once I decide these answers, I have to make sure I carry that through from beginning to end.

This book was a gift to me as a writer and a reader, and I’m grateful for my DIY MFA for prompting me to read it. Thank goodness, too, for Alice Walker, considered by many to be responsible for rekindling interest in Hurston. In 1975, Walker wrote an article for MS. Magazine called “Looking for Zora” about her trip to Hurston’s final hometown to find her burial site and to speak with those who knew her. It’s a wonderful read about Alice Walker paying tribute to her hero, her adopted ancestor.

To read previous entries in my DIY MFA series:

Fun with Rubrics

Author Jo Knowles wrote a blog post called “Some Things I Learned from Being ‘Judge-y'”, in which she reflects on the experience of judging writing competitions, and compiles the feedback she gave to the submissions. Looking across her feedback, I was struck by the common threads and my mind started to bunch certain comments together. I was also super grateful that she generously shared her experience so that the rest of us could learn a thing or two. Her post epitomizes the generosity of the writing community. Three cheers for writers!

I thought it would be useful to apply Ms Knowles’ criteria to my own submissions, to see how my writing would fare and, most importantly, asses where it needs the most improvement. For ease, I adapted her comments into a rubric. By referring to the rubric during revision, a writer can see what he or she already does well, and which areas of the writing are weakest. And, then, by following a column, the writer can even figure out what to do to move his or her writing into the next category.

Can’t take the teacher out of the girl, I guess.

Here’s a link to the Writing_Rubric I made by adapting Ms Knowles’ comments. I tried to make it feel as universal and non-genre specific as possible. Feel free to use and share. I hope it’s helpful to others.

To learn more about author Jo Knowles, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

 

DIY MFA: Text #1, Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Several weeks ago, I wrote that I would pursue a DIY MFA degree, awarded to me by me, a quilt of texts that I want to read (or re-read), specifically in order to grow in my work as a writer, or at the very least to keep me warm this winter. The books that I chose were either recommended to me as exemplary examples of fiction writing, or they are well-regarded examples of the genres of fiction that I am currently writing (young adult fiction and short stories for adults).

The first text I read is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It was an unusual choice for me, as the book is not like anything that I’m attempting to write, or even like anything that I would normally read, but it came with high praise. However, while still reading the first couple of pages, I regretted picking up the book and was grateful that it was short, so I wouldn’t have to suffer for too long.

My feelings about this books are very different now.

The text soon grabbed me, immersed me in the peculiar mind of an author in pursuit of a singular subject: the color blue. Although Maggie Nelson does not write much about herself, each word she writes, each section she chooses, points vividly to the person herself, to the writer, and to the act of writing.

Which leads me to the first question about this book: What is it? I’ve tried to describe it and struggled. For lack of a better word, I call each piece a “section,” but only because it sounds more literary than “chunk.” There are 240 of them. It’s hard to say whether they are poems, vignettes, research items, or simply ephemera. They are a mix of all of these, I suppose, collected with a blue thread stitched throughout, though the blue is more or less visible in these sections, and some feel more or less connected to the sections around them.

Each individual section is beautiful, yet it is the collection of them that is important. The book, though slim, feels like a work many years in the making. To sift through books, movies, life, and the world in search of meaningful tidbits and stories is hard enough, but to search for stories that relate to or evoke the color blue is another thing entirely. The nature of this collection suggests the writer as an obsessive person. And, it also suggests that there is something about the nature of writing that fosters (or requires) obsessiveness.

One type of section that appears throughout the book are sentiments addressed to a “you,” a former lover. In one of my favorite sections, she writes:

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Nelson writes several sections that acknowledge the difficulty of pursuing such a project. She refers to failed attempts to gain interest for her work among scholars and grant committees. And then, at the end, rather than feeling satisfied with her final product, she says she feels surprised about how small the finished project is, “an anemia,” she writes, “that seems to stand in direct proportion to my zeal.”

Nelson’s choice, the specific choice to write about the world through the color blue, reminds me that there is an immense power in the particular. It’s a great paradox in literature, that the more the writer succeeds in expressing the specific, unique details of her experience, of her story, the more universal and affecting her story will be to the reader. That is the true beauty of this text, that Maggie Nelson has managed to depict all the world, not in a grain of sand, but in a color.

Other thoughts and resources:

 

Meditations

I’m not good at meditating. The balance between mental focus and emptiness eludes me. My mind races toward distractions with a quickness that is almost eager, as if any escape hatch is preferable to simply being alone and quiet with itself.

And yet, I keep trying. I’ll admit, part of my motivation to meditate has to do with the widely held belief that it is “good for you.” Meditation is the kale of the creative world. But it’s a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes, when I realize that my mind is coming up with new combinations for pizza toppings rather than focusing on my breathing or the space between my eyes, I want to stop the timer, turn it back, and start it over again. But, I don’t. My theory about meditation is that it is precisely this coming back to stillness after wandering away, that makes it so valuable. My goal when I meditate is not to have consecutive minutes of perfection; my goal is to notice when I’ve gone astray, and to keep bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

And as I was engaged in this practice of self-correction, and trying not feel too bad about it, I realized that it’s not just in meditation that I feel the urge to go back in time. I long for do-overs when I spend twenty minutes browsing celebrity pictures on the computer, or when I feel sick after my second helping of ice cream.

The do-over that I most yearn for has to do with my writing.

When I was younger, at the age when I was told I should decide what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been a writer, in practice. But when it came time to “go public” with my career choice, I chickened out. I told myself that there was no way that I would ever be published, not with all the aspiring writers out there. I believed myself, too, and laid my dreams aside with hardly a word of protest.

I’m thirty-seven years old, and I’ve finally allowed myself to say these words: I’m a writer. I’ve finally allowed myself to carve out and protect the time and space I need to work. I’ve finally articulated (publicly) my wish to be published.

Writers much younger than I are published many times over. They’re winning awards and gaining readers for their work. And there are so many days that I just want to cry with longing to turn back the clock and start this career when I am just eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. I want to go back and convince my younger self to stop insisting that the writing is a hobby, just something I do “for myself.” I would encourage myself to put my writing out into the world as soon as possible. But in life – as in meditation, as in anything – do-overs aren’t possible. We can’t erase what’s come before, no matter how much we regret our actions (or lack thereof). All we can do is gently bring ourselves back to the path, and move on.

Does part of me fear that it’s near impossible to get published? Yes. Does part of me think I don’t deserve to get published, since I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue my dream? Uh-huh. But, the timer is still going, and each moment rises before me and provides me with an opportunity to do the thing I love. So, I pull myself back, gently, but firmly, to the writer’s path, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as saying to the path of my life. And I’ll do the only thing that I can, which is to start now.

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

 

 

Possible Magic

Each project teaches me something.

When I wrote Weaving the Sea, I learned to go to my writing every day. That one lesson took me a long time to learn. About four years. Over the course of that time, I lost momentum, I lost my bearings, I lost hope that I would ever finish the story. But, then I found myself a writing group, and they inspired me to pick up the thread. I re-read what I’d written, I got myself excited again. And I began to write. I pushed myself to write every day, even for a little while. After some time, I didn’t need as much pushing. It was just habit, and the practice of daily writing kept me profoundly connected to the world of the story in ways that paid off in the quality of my writing.

Now, I’ve just finished Nana’s Bikini. It’s a draft, and to call it rough would be like calling a roller coaster curvy.  It’s ROUGH. Flimsy and thin, too, in parts. But that doesn’t bother me, because the story is out of my head and onto the page. A story in my head, that’s hypothetical, that’s what-ifs and half-remembered dreams. But a story on the page is something I can work with.

I finished the draft of Nana’s Bikini in nine weeks, over the course of a writing workshop at Literary Arts, taught by Emily Chenoweth. The workshop was key. Knowing I had to share work with a bunch of writers kept me accountable. I divided my story outline by the number of weeks in the workshop, and came up with my weekly goals. Before the workshop, that would have sounded like an overly analytical approach. Shouldn’t I write because I’m inspired? Yes, and no. I am inspired, but writing is hard. So I decided that I would write like it was my job. It worked for me. I kept going back to the story, kept plugging away. Enough of that, and eventually there are thousands of words in a document. About 50,000.

I’m exhilarated and proud. And, I’m eager to begin on the work at hand. Because now I know that I can do this one kind of magic, I can create a story where there was none before,  and I have to learn the next spells. I have to take these rough, flimsy words, and tease and polish them into a story that matters, that has the power to move my readers. It sounds like magic, but I know now that it’s a possible kind of magic. Here goes.

 

Writing Critique: The Good Questions

Responding to writing is something I know a thing or two about. During my years as a teacher, I conferred thousands of times with young writers about their work. I taught workshops for teachers about how to teach young writers, and I contributed to books about running Writing Workshops in elementary school classrooms. Plus, I have my own experience as a writer of stories for children, giving and receiving feedback in critique groups. With all of this in mind, I’ve started a list of some of the most helpful questions (and comments) a writing partner can contribute. These are the questions that can crack open a story and give it room to grow.

  • “I’m not clear what’s happening in this part.” Almost always, when someone says this to me in a critique, it’s about a part of my story in which even I am not clear about what’s happening. One of the most helpful things a critique partner can do is shine a light on a part that the writer wishes could be left alone, in the dark (because it’s so much easier that way!). These are the parts that the writer doesn’t know what to do with, and that’s why the light is so important.
  • “What does the character want?” All the beautiful prose in the world will not save your story if the character is not searching for something, whether it’s the answer to a mystery, a priceless work of art, comfort, or all of the above. The character has to want something.
  • Note whether there is balance between the action, the backstory, the dialogue, the inner dialogue, the setting. Often writers are really good at some of these things, but completely forget about the others. For example, I tend to write stories that start off with some action and lots and lots of dialogue. I need a critique partner to remind me to locate the characters in a specific place, and to give a little backstory.
  • “The character(s) isn’t consistent across the story.” If the character is super shy for the first half of the story, and then suddenly turns into a social butterfly, it won’t sit well with the reader unless there is a good reason for the change. The story I’m working on now has a character who flies into a rage quite frequently during the first chapter. Then, in the second and third chapter, she becomes very easily placated. Since I’m still at the beginning of my writing process, I’m still casting around for the shape of her personality. It was good to hear that feedback during my critique so that I can keep that in mind going forward. By the way, secondary characters should also feel like real people who behave with consistency.
  • “The metaphors aren’t working.” A reader will likely lose interest if your metaphors are forced, or don’t match your story’s tone. The language in general should match the story’s tone and subject. Your language creates atmosphere and setting for the book, and gives the reader countless clues about the book’s meaning.
  • “This scene isn’t carrying its weight.” If a scene doesn’t move the story forward, or contain a significant revelation or reversal, cut it out. Or, if it’s a great scene with a great setting and it’s important for another reason, make it count by adding a transformation or reversal.
  • “What are the subplots (or what are they going to be)?” I’m still mastering the fine art of the subplot. What I do know is that they are the harmony to the main plot’s melody. They are absolutely necessary for your story to be complex enough to hold a reader’s attention. (On the other hand, your critique partner might point out that there are too many subplots, and it’s making your story overly complicated.)
  • “Have you considered reading your dialogue out loud?” In my writing workshop yesterday, one member suggested to another that he read his dialogue out loud, to hear the spoken language. This is something that I’ve heard from several other authors, and that I’ve tried myself. It’s a powerful revision tool, and not just with the dialogue parts.
  • “Do you think you could start the story any later?” The story should start as close to the action (inciting event) as possible, especially for anyone writing a book for children. Too much backstory up front can kill a story’s momentum. One can always weave in backstory later, but, as a rule of thumb, you actually need much less than you think.
  • Turn any of the above critiques around to make a compliment! Writers need praise, and lots of it! Praise – the honest variety, please – encourages us to keep going, and it also shows us what is working. Sometimes this is the best feedback of all. If a writer knows what is working, she can use that awareness to fix up another part that isn’t looking so hot. So, by all means, if the dialogue sounds natural and the metaphors are hauntingly beautiful, and the character is rich and consistent, do not leave that out. It’s almost hard to give too much praise.

Another thing that I often include in critiques (because a critique partner once said this to me, and it was so lovely) is: “Your book reminds me of [title of a wonderful book that is similar in tone or subject to the manuscript at hand].” An unpublished writer is usually hoping to one day be published, and it does feel ever so nice to have one’s work compared to a book that is already out in the world, occupying shelves in books and libraries. It’s a reminder that all books start out as nothing more than a bundle of marked up pages.

Begin Again (Again)

So, here I am. Beginning again (again) on this blog. Beginning again (again) a new book. The draft of my YA novel, along with all the notes and scribbles and doodles, is tucked away in a basket under my desk. It feels good to get away from it, as I’m sure it will feel exciting to get back to it in a few months, so I can look at it again with fresh eyes.

Even though the novel is not in its final stage, the draft is done. Done. Finishing a project has never been my strong suit, and I couldn’t be happier that I reached that goal. I’d rather finish something terrible than write something mediocre or even great that languishes, unfinished, in a notebook or a laptop.

One way I’m forcing myself to finish work is by forcing myself to share it, by submitting short works of fiction at least once every quarter. In the first quarter of this year, I submitted two pieces, both to print publications. There are also some amazing online fiction journals that I’ve been reading. I’d never realized before how much quality work is being printed exclusively online! It’s inspiring and humbling. If you’re interested in reading and writing fiction, here’s a list of some of the best sites for reading and submitting.

Finishing work, sharing work, submitting work. Beginning work. That’s the kind of writer I hope to be going forward. The kind that begins again, and again, and again.