This blog post is a summary of a panel I attended last January for my MFA in nonfiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts. This presentation dove into the subject of writing about one’s own life for both fiction and nonfiction. The audience was deeply encouraged to put the concern of how people will receive and respond to the work aside during the first draft. If we worry about the material when it will be out in the larger world, we are not giving the story its best chance. Melissa Febos emphasized we need to not censor our work in the process of creating it. For her, she works to find her biggest, most uncomfortable questions and then tries to write her way to those answers. We’ll have time later to consider what should stay in and what should come out. Melissa added that, “Chases out the things I have been hiding from in my mind.” Elissa Washuta opened with this great nugget: in the two different process of writing and publication, we will change the work greatly and there is enough time for us to consider what should stay in the work and what should not.
Then a discussion followed about how each writer creates a complicated and compelling persona/narrator on the page. It is important to remember that we will never be able to represent our full selves on the page. Melissa put it this way: (and my, how helpful these words were) pluck out a single thread within the work and consider the version of yourself defined by a single thread of pursuit – Ask yourself: what am I chasing? And are the scenes revealing this chase? Once a single thread is identified, search for what to leave out and the surprising news is that we might need to leave out almost everything.
Regarding audience and writing about people in our lives, it was suggested that a consistent voice was one of the most important ways to engage them. For Melissa, she thinks of one person she might be writing for, and often, this person is a younger version of herself, offering something that might have provided resonance and meaning to that younger person. For Elissa, she tries to implicate herself more than anyone else. She stated that, “The narrator’s culpability makes for more interesting reading.”
This makes me remember a thought from the writer/priest Frederick Buchener – he says that the phrase, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” needs to be flipped – to love thyself as thy neighbor because we often treat others in our lives with more compassion than we do ourselves – and to show compassion to all the various selves we’ve been along the way – and if those selves are unseemly, all the more call to show compassion.
I recently received an email from a student, with this question, "How difficult is it to enter into the publishing world for a writer? I understand and accept that it's a competitive field, but would a GOOD writer have very extreme amounts of difficulty selling a work which deserves publication?"
It's not surprising if you've never been given a straight answer because being published is such tricky business, especially as the industry changes so much. I do believe that if a writer consistently works to improve his/her craft and is relentless about improving the craft and submitting work, he/she will get published. Starting small is helpful - stories or essays in journals/lit magazine helps build one's confidence and craft - those are important carrots to weave into one's writing life. There are probably 1,500 people in the US, apart from screenwriters, who make their livings as writers, and this includes folks who are wildly successful such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc. Most writers have a day job . . .
This may be super frustrating to read, but being in it for the process, rather than the publication, is probably helpful. It has helped me focus on healthy factors I can control:
-finding joy in figuring out plot and character, line and image
-creating a community of people who are also committed to process and actually hone their craft
Then, the publications I have had become side benefits, not the focus. It's not an easy shift, but it's made all the difference.
I haven’t written a blog since I started my MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Life has been busy! But, I am thoroughly engaged by this program, by the caliber of the faculty and the teaching, and by the incredibly warm-hearted general vibe.
We had many craft talks, where a member of the faculty shared insights on a specific aspect of the writing life. Here are a few of the highlights from Marie-Helene Bertino’s talk. Later this same day, she read from her new novel, 2 am in the Cat’s Pajamas, newly released. She’s a rich writer and a generous human: in other words, a true inspiration.
Marie-Helene offered such a charming, hands on approach to the writing process as well as living the writer’s life. As she said, “I’m going to give you the nitty gritty practical: looking at a line the way a mechanic looks at a car.” She emphasized that studying craft is a process entirely different than focusing on the literary themes and symbols; analyzing the themes of a work doesn’t help us learn to write. One aspect of her talk I appreciated is the honesty of how long things take. The fact that she shared that it took her ten years to complete her novel depicted a realistic picture of the writing life, especially for novels. And in the process of creating and revising over this extended time period, we have to learn to manage our crippling self doubt.
Marie-Helene’s homage to her mother nicely informed the talk. What her mother offered both by example and by actual, specific support was delightful. All of the guidelines offered were extremely useful; the biggest moment of resonation came when she discussed finding your one true voice. This helps me commit to some of the material I have been avoiding. In listening to my true voice I have been both listening to and avoiding, two aspects of this portion of her talk were of particular help: 1) cultivating the ability to sit and be quiet so I can dial into what the story wants and 2) in cultivating your own true voice and ability to sit quietly, learn to address the human being as well as the writing.
Other nuggets: Listen to what the work is asking for. Be serving the work. Listen to the connective tissue of the work and trust the process.
Her set of revision questions offered me wonderful points of entry for strengthening our work: What else could I be doing? Am I being efficient and creative? What am I not thinking of? How have I seen this written? Challenge yourself to do in new ways: put yourself into the mind frame of how can I do this differently? If writing a sex scene: a little goes a long way. When writing the loud things: sex, violence, racism, make sure they are working for you rather than them working you.
I loved her discussion of point of view – it made me want to instantly read Henry James to develop my ability to identify the tone of the voice of the omniscient narrator. Again, that distance between the writer and the narrator is where I think my biggest growth in terms of craft will happen.
Another salient point: Don’t be scared to fly; figure out what you’re avoiding in your own work; dig in. The other aspect of this is to dive into what you’re bad at, write two pages of what you’re scared to write. There are quite a few on this list I could “encounter.”
Glissando: “Derived from the French glisser, to slide, the Italianised word is used to describe sliding in music from one note to another.”
When I was in my first graduate program, I struggled to bring forth By Way of Water (it was called The Wall of the Pacific then—a phrase that has found a new home in my current novel, One Man Reservation). One key aspect of the story involves how the main character, Justy, could image and be in the realities of her parents. Specifically, in a given scene, readers “slide” with Justy to other locations, other moments where her parents are but she is not, physically. Whether she does this out of clairvoyance or arrogance is not clear, but I knew this was essential for the book I wanted, and maybe even needed, to write.
One day, while meeting with my thesis advisor, she told me I couldn’t do this: I was breaking the rules when it came to point-of-view. And this wasn’t allowed.
Recently, while working on One Man, I came across the term, glissando. I read the definition with a sense of deep relief. This is what happens in my first book.
As I think back to the me that sat in her office taking in the comment, I wish, for us both, she had said, “You’re breaking rules and you’re not doing it well. Let’s talk about why this is important to us and how you could do this better.” I graduated six months after my classmates, after my thesis advisor grudgingly accepted the draft of the book with these shifts in point-of-view.
In essence, a conversation that focused on the difference between story and craft would’ve helped; a little more time spent on how to move between these two aspects of writing might’ve illuminated the craft problems for us both. I needed to earn the write to make the shifts in point-of-view seamless and credible. This is something I hope to remember as I continue to teach, to mentor, and to bring new, well-crafted narratives into the world.
My mom is an excellent cook. She bakes magnificent pies: chocolate cream, coconut cream, apple, lemon merengue, and my favorite, blackberry. She makes the crust from scratch, cutting the flour into the butter with a patient, knowing hand. For the merengue, she cracks each egg into a separate bowl first, making sure not even the tiniest bit of shell might find its way into the mix. My mom taught me all this, and I didn’t pay enough attention when I was younger, my impatience for all the sequenced steps nonexistent.
Austin Community College offers a national poetry and fiction prize, and this year the winners were Natalie Diaz and Hannah Pylvӓinen. Both authors visited Creative Writing classes and offered insights into the process and into their work. Natalie’s collection, When My Brother was an Aztec, is a powerful body of poems exploring family and the impacts of addiction. Hannah’s first novel, We Sinners, explores the ways family and religion come to bear on the lives of seven siblings, trying to live out the values of a very traditional and conservative faith. Family, that delicate shell that shapes us, rose to the surface of their visit.
I was fascinated that Hanna does not discuss her family’s response to her writing. She pointed out that the question of whether or not one’s fiction is based on ‘real life’ is a question that is most often asked of women writers, not of men. She also suggested that academia has a tendency to marginalize or mock people of faith and that was a dynamic she didn’t want to participate in.
I admire her responses; it helps me understand some of my gut reactions to the implicit judgments whirling around me during graduate school. For people of a lower socio-economic status, college often asks us to change our behavior, our attitudes, our relationship to the people we come from. At the time, I didn’t have the confidence nor the insight to put a finger on these re-negotiations of identity being asked of me. The emergence from my family cut both of us a little, leaving bits of eggshell in all of our ingredients, a measure of grit in our relationships.
Hannah’s comments helped me travel back to the self I was in graduate school (and undergraduate, too, if I want to take the long view) and have some compassion for the ways I might’ve chosen to identify with the dominant culture I was being immersed in rather than the family, the place, the many minority cultures I came from (rural, poor, Jehovah Witnesses, mixed-blood).
Perhaps I can offset some of my chagrin at ways I may have decided to swim in the academic, superior mindset by reminding myself that I have consistently put these minority cultures at the forefront of my writing. Hannah’s comments can help me fine tune my approaches, help me earn the write to pen the people I come from. Another writer’s perspective can allow me to handle the self’s delicate shell with a bit more grace.
This spring semester, I am teaching a Digital Storytelling class - I'm learning a lot and it's cool to embrace technology to explore story and meaning. Here is my second piece - I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Last night, I attended a workshop called “Embodying the Muse: Where Creativity and Spiritual Awakening Converge.” We had an intimate group, and my anxiety was definitely present even though I know that engaging, listening, and connecting to the body are key activities in creativity, in letting go of hyper-vigilance. I even talk about this in my classes.
In fact, here’s something I wrote last week for an online course:
I think part of the problem lies with Descartes’ famous statement: “I think, therefore, I am.” To me, this radical demarcation between thought and the knowledge of the body has emphasized the power and privilege of thought rather than giving us all, and writers in particular, a place to explore and connect with the knowledge of the body. Put another way, our stories come through our lived experiences, the sounds, smells, tastes, touches, sights we have gone through – the visceral is our most direct route to the stories, poems, plays we’d like to write.
I believe this to be true, but to dive into my own viscerality, to actually experience my body’s knowledge, awkwardness, and fear—that’s another matter. It’s not just being vulnerable, which is HUGE, but there’s some class anxiety as well. I think I’ll dive into the relationship between class anxiety and body work in another post – there’s plenty to explore.
In essence, the workshop was incredibly profound (yes, I did the exercises despite my reluctance) – and the insight that rides forefront today comes from the idea that I get to be as big as I am. I’m guessing for many people, this concept is about taking up space, inviting all the different aspects of themselves into their everyday, but for me, this idea connects to my first memory:
My father is on top of my mother, hitting her. We’re all in the kitchen; she’s under him and my brother and sisters are yelling for him to stop. Me? I’m tucked into a corner, maybe trying to look away.
Ever since that night, I’ve been told I was the weak one—skittish like a badly broken horse. In a hard scrabble existence, I became known as the delicate child, prone to stomach aches and tears.
Last night, I was able to let myself, through time, let that three-year-old be as small as she was – she didn’t need to be bigger than those few days under her belt. She gets to be tiny, frightened, confused. Not pretending that she’s bigger than she actually was will allow me to relax a little, let me soften into what my body was communicating to me in that moment. I was little, I was scared, and if I acknowledge that, maybe I can now be bigger and less scared. Like relaxing a half-tensed muscle by finally engaging it fully, a fuller self can greet each day, both as big and as small as I am.
“Earning the Write” will be an on-going series of posts. I have much to say and explore when it comes to the subject of poverty and writing, the writer’s “right,” and the role of narrative in bridging the gap between different socio-economic classes as well as different parts of the self.
Of course, there are many wonderful allegories underscoring the power and importance of storytelling, with my favorite being Frederick by Leo Lionni. If you don’t know this story, it’s a gem, worth your time because of both its message and its artwork. I am grateful to my friend Aisha for introducing me to this story, even reading it to me on a particularly low day. Frederick, a mouse, collects the colors and the warmth of the summer while the other mice collect food for the winter. Then, during the darkest moments of the winter, when the food has run out, Frederick sustains them with stories he saved. It illustrates of the value of the storyteller in society and how story helps sustain us. To be able to tell a good story is both a gift and a responsibility.
I think of a writer I saw read at The Tattered Cover in Denver, Daniel Villasenor, who had recently been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford’s Creative Writing Program. He felt as though too many of his fellow writers were focused on the fact that they had been accepted into the program, rather than on what their contributions might be. Daniel asserted that writers need to think foremost about their contribution, not just their right to write. This statement resonated so deeply with me. Maybe it’s my working class background, but I believe writers must work diligently on their craft as part of their contribution. And then they need to take it a step further. They need to find a way to improve their communities – perhaps in the form of volunteering, formal or informal mentorship, or organizing events in their area. Earning the write can happen in many forms.
It is possible that being an active member in a community could help offset the ways a writer can slide so easily into isolation. The solitude required to create work can become a cloak of negative seclusion. Getting out in the larger world, helping others, is key to one’s own mental health and to balancing the role of the storyteller. Maybe we could shift into weaving ourselves into a community that needs us, like Frederick.