Tag Archives: Writing

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.

Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

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.

 

Acceptable Forms of Cheating

A novel is a big project, is what I’m learning. Overwhelming. Unwieldy. And, sometimes, wickedly elusive.

I suppose this is why, until I finished the draft of my first YA book, my notebooks and hard drives were a graveyard of half-baked ideas, fragments of scenes, and chapters that never saw the light. I didn’t have the stamina to see a novel through to the end.

In finishing the draft of Weaving the Sea, I learned a couple of things. First, I learned to write, even when I didn’t feel like it. Even when I was 100% certain that everything coming out of my pen or keyboard was pure, unusable garbage. This was harder than I thought it would be, but my critique partners helped. They were my cheerleaders, and believed in my project even when I did not.

Another thing I learned is that sometimes, when my novel gets particularly cantankerous, I have to put it away and do something else. I admit it: I cheat on my novel.

There are unacceptable forms of cheating, distractions that become almost irresistible when my mind is grappling with a story problem. The Internet calls – loudly – to me in those moments, and that is a dark form of cheating that takes all the wind from my writing sails, and robs me of precious work hours.

Other forms of cheating do the opposite. Doodling, painting figures, writing a short story, writing a poem, writing a blog post, and playing with an idea for another project all give me new energy, new oxygen so that I may submerge myself back in the world of my novel.

I cheat with a deadline. After a few juicy hours (or days) of cheating, I feel warm and fuzzy toward my novel. I can be kind toward it (and myself) again.

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.

Show Your Work


“Show your work.” When I was a teacher, I must have said those exact words a million times. Easily. There are a few reasons I wanted my students to show their process, rather than simply writing down an answer.

By looking at a student’s work, I, as the teacher, could identify much more easily the concepts with which he or she needed extra help. I could also give a student credit for any work that was done correctly, even if the answer was not right. Showing the steps of the process can actually help a student get to an answer, because it breaks down the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks and gives the student a place to begin.

Most importantly, a person who writes and shares his or her process becomes more aware of it, and more reflective about it.

The night I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I was so jazzed to get started that I couldn’t sleep. Sure, revealing my efforts and work at all stages of the process is a terrifying prospect. By doing so, I hope to become more aware of my process, to reflect more about it, and to be a little less lazy. Nothing like announcing to all your friends and family that you’re writing a book to motivate you to write the book. We all behave better when other people are watching.

I’ve written before about how much Kleon’s work has inspired and motivated me. I’m grateful for his brief, powerful, practical books that have had such an impact on my creative journey. And perhaps that is truly the most important reason to show one’s work.

The Jacket Copy Assignment

Last Saturday was the first class in a 2-month long novel writing course at Portland Literary Arts, taught by author Emily Chenoweth. Other than those two facts, I know very little about what to expect from this experience. That’s part of what makes it so exciting. Before heading out, I had the usual first day of school nervousness: Will they like me? Will I like them? What should I wear? Where is the bathroom?

I haven’t done something like this – something completely new, completely on my own – in quite a long time. It’s exhilarating.

Emily sent the class an assignment to complete before our first class. She asked us to read examples of jacket copy from any novels we had close at hand, then write copy for the jacket of our own book. It was an interesting experience, writing jacket copy for a book that’s not yet written. I re-read my first attempt, and realized that I was still focused completely on the concept, rather than on what actually happens in the story. Understandable, given the fact that I haven’t written the story, and have very little idea of what will happen.

So, I started again. As I was writing, I realized: Emily’s tricking me into writing an outline! In the past, I’ve written scenes more or less at random, figuring out later how to string them all together. The problem with this, of course, is that I find myself with large gaps, and no ide how to fill them, or I write myself into a corner and end up having to throw out large amounts of writing. I know that throwing out work is always part of the process of creating. But, I wonder if better planning might help me to throw out less. As I wrote my jacket copy, I found myself making decisions, changing my mind, rewriting. And since I was only working with three paragraphs, rather than three pages – or three hundred pages! – the process of playing around with the story felt fun rather than painful, doable rather than overwhelming.

The jacket copy assignment is helpful for those of us reticent about outlining, but hoping to get a little clarity about an idea for a novel. It might even change my mind about planning in general.

Here’s what I ended up with for my work-in-progress, titled Nana’s Bikini.

 

Ginny had been looking forward to her trip to Italy for months. She planned on two weeks of sunning, eating gelato, and making out with boys named Fabio. She certainly didn’t plan on going to Italy with her dour, old Nana.

Now, Ginny’s dream trip is more like a nightmare. Nana walks for miles a day, barely needs to stop for food, and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for stained glass! All Ginny can think about is how to ditch her grandmother and have a real vacation.

It’s not until the travelers get on a train going the wrong direction that the trip starts going right.  In crumbling hotels and beach-side shacks, Ginny sees glimmers of the adventurer that Nana could be. The trouble is, she’s buried beneath layers of cardigan sweaters and sensible shoes, and Nana seems to want to keep her that way.

Nana’s Bikini is a story about mis-matched travelers, about growing up, about letting go, and about gelato. Lots and lots of gelato.

Since writing the story, I’ve tried a few different methods to help me plan Nana’s Bikini. Which does beg the question: Is planning the new procrastinating? Or, an extremely valuable use of time that will pay off in clarity and focus down the road? In writing, it’s not clear what will work, what will benefit the story, what will benefit the process. And that’s part of what I like about it. Making an outline might help. Staring at the trees might help. As I become more prolific, I’m figuring out what tends to work best for me, but writing a story is still a magical chemistry. I’m always tinkering with the balance between the ingredients: the practice of discipline and living with a wide-awake mind.