This past summer, I had the delight of hearing Derek Palacio share his ideas on writing a book-length manuscript, and I really took a shine to the way he framed his talk.
Palacio discussed how Christianity can serve as metaphors for faith in one’s writing—his discussion helped me reframe how the fundamental religion I grew up can be an important part of my writer’s mind. This reframe can offer me metaphors and an understanding of the power of story. It can also help me see that faith cultivated is a much stronger faith (in this last case, I’m thinking of the faith one needs in both the writing process and one’s creative ideas).
Derek offered a four-step framework for the long-form process. The first step is the one where we will necessarily spend most of our time. He asserted, and effectively illustrated through the Moses and the burning bush narrative, that writing a longer piece requires madness. Writing a novel or memoir requires a certain amount of delusion—that this thing that has appeared in front of me could lead to other things. Derek then explored the relationship between fate and doubt, asking the question, “How should I respond to this mysterious urge?” We can doubt it, as Moses initially did, or we can have faith in the idea and see where it can take us. Derek suggested that the question whether to believe in the idea is more about doubt in the self rather the idea.
The next interesting point about the madness phase lies in the notion that we have to bite off way off more than we can chew. If a story presents itself in good faith, we must follow it, write it, or we will lose more than we gain. We have to be willing to be a stranger trying to write in a strange land. It is necessary to overreach. The final point about this phase is that all the following steps must be subordinate to this one.
The second step is mania: “The white page recedes and the warm comfort of text emerges. We need to attach landscape and meaning and a world emerges. Plot can expand like a gas. What might happen transforms into plot.” Derek then quoted John Gardner – “the writers first job is to authenticate the story’s primary meaning. The what, who, where.” Who else but the writer can do this?
The third step is exegesis, where writers have to figure their way out of the first draft, trying to connect to the original fire that lit the inspirational pyre. This step is followed by doubt, and I loved Derek’s assertion that this was the most Catholic of the four steps. I felt like my brain exploded when I heard that there are different kinds of doubt—this was key insight; doubt in fourth step so different than the doubt in the first. And the practical applications for the revision process are many: doubt everything equally; forget what you know is good about the first draft; work with the premise that everything is bad unless proven otherwise.
Derek laid out an effective means for considering the long form narrative and I feel empowered by the framework he shared. Amen.
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.
Old Texts and New Angles
During my residency at IAIA in January, poet James Thomas Stevens, presented a craft talk, “Meditations on the Mundane: Rewriting the Already Written.”
James offered his audience a rich set of approaches to finding organizing principles, containers, or metaphors for the work that we are compelled to explore. His talk was a fascinating example of how powerfully an outside text can be as means to explore our interests and obsessions. I enjoyed his presentation for a variety of reasons, but his acknowledgement that writers tend to write about the same issues or themes was permission giving. It makes me feel less compelled to worry about the fact that I tend to explore the same things: loyalty, family, water, land.
He asserted that finding new avenues or sounding boards for our central interests helps give them new shape and meaning. This can alleviate the stagnation that might arise if we don’t look outside for new means for exploration. “Any object can be a metaphor for your life if you meditate long enough on it.” This quotation offers writers an expansive breath when it comes to exploring our work through new avenues or entry points.
A second point that struck a deep chord for me was the idea of gaining a whole new language set if one uses another, older text as the frame for one’s own interests. It’s such an attractive idea; to pick up an antiquated or narrowly-focused book and to allow it to build one’s vocabulary and sense of the world. It certainly makes me want to linger longer in used-book stores or pause at a garage sale once in a while.
I also appreciated the ways this approach to work allows for conversations between time periods and perspectives. James discussed a primer for Native children and this was a fascinating example of education as propaganda, and James’ “response” poem was a powerful interplay of history, politics, and language.
We will write around, through, about, with the same themes - using another text as the entry point can keep the work lively and give us a new perspective on what we think we know.
I’ve just returned from my second week-long residency in Santa Fe for my MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I attended a wealth of craft talks and readings and am full up with the insights and good cheer brimming forth from the faculty. This coming semester, I will be working with Chip Livingston as I develop and expand a memoir. His kindness, expertise, and wisdom on the other end of my writing will most likely yield excellent material, so I thought I’d share a few tidbits from his craft talk, “How Writers’ Habits and Characters’ Habits Enhance Productivity and Dimensionality.”
The rich list of rituals that Chip shared opened up windows on how I might consider and render characters, both in fiction and nonfiction. In particular, sobriety and coming to the table rituals (my husband and I have different expectations about how our family should come to the table when a meal is ready—the insight I gained from Chip’s talk might turn into an essay about these differences).
Breaking ritual can be a way to show the growth of a character and when the character encounters the ritual again, it can be a re-unification with the past. These elements: rules, food, power, and place were an excellent way to consider character, and Chip suggested that ritual is the fifth dimension, the means to move from one social position to another. In my developing memoir, education is a key piece, so graduation ceremonies hold a special significance that I can more directly work with as a result of this discussion.
Another fantastic point offered writers a craft move when working with a cast of many characters; ritual might be the way to differentiate them. We see what is important to characters by their rituals, their eccentricities, and showing character in a given ritual might be a deft means to open a story. For example, a narrative that opens with a person in fervent prayer immediately establishes character.
I am assigning myself the suggested task of watching the first minutes of twenty films to see how backstory is immediately established. I relish this very specific suggestion to improve my ability to understand how ritual can effectively create a full sense of character.
Finally, Chip’s discussion of writers and their rituals married the point that ritual is essential for understanding character as well as establishing one’s relationship to the writing process. Chip shared the story of a writer who wrote in the nude—he couldn’t leave his writing studio until he had finished a project. Without clothes, he was forced to remain in the writing space. This example powerfully demonstrates how important it is to cut yourself from your distractions after identifying them. Rituals as access to another worlds is a rich entry point for understanding character—and is a powerful insight for the access writers desire and require when creating worlds.
As part of my MFA program, I have to study the craft of the other writers, seeing how their work might strengthen my own. Below is an excerpt of one such essay - perhaps it'll help you with your own memoir?
In the essay, “Return to Sender,” Mary Doty offers readers a powerful exploration of the landscape of memoir and memory, of family and self, and of how writing one’s truth may come with consequences the writer must be ready to face. The subject matter and Doty’s ambivalent relationship to his book, Firebird, as well as a keen sense of craft, deeply inform the piece. In the complicated business of trying to bring clarity and power to these subjects, Doty presents both a richness and an evolution of images that unites the piece. The work is nourished by an engaging tension between the memoirist and those whom he writes about; this tension is furthered by the refined use of images.
One of aspect of brilliance in this essay is the way Doty investigates perspective—how we see memoir and memory, how others see us, how we desire—and are terrified of—being seen. Early on, this writer shares a powerful image offered to him from a therapist friend on the dynamic nature of memory, as expressed in the spiral staircase in a lighthouse: As one moves up or down the stairs, perception changes. A bit later, we’re given another way to think about memoir and memory: “and in the realm of memory, time and location spin like an old-fashioned toy, the kind where pictures can be suddenly spun into motion” (155). This image takes what we’ve been offered before—the spiral staircase—and evolves it.
It is this movement that calls to me in Doty’s work. The memoirist doesn’t “arrive” at a single emotional location regarding the chosen subject matter; there’s a constant interplay of moving perspective. This movement—this ambivalence—is artfully, poignantly, articulated in the final lines of the piece: “I am proud of my book, and I wouldn’t change a word of it. I wished I’d never written it. No, I don’t. Yes, I do. No, I don’t” (164).
So much of this essay is exploring the betrayal that is built into memoir (157), a betrayal that is also an affirmation of self—a singing of the self—both necessary and painful. There’s a compelling humility in the piece, one that provides a road map for other memoirists who write in order to be seen, to be known. But, this being fully present and knowable on the page does not suggest that memoirists are in any way superior to those they write about: “experience teaches us we could have been these people” (161). And yet, this compassion is extended also to the writer as well as the father. Doty’s exploration of his childhood in Firebird allows himself to be an equal player, reclaiming, through craft and writing, the parts of himself he’d had to submerge in order to survive: “I’d protected my inner life from my parents’ scrutiny for fear of judgment” (158). In singing his song, Doty brings more of his fullest self to the surface of his life, but his father doesn’t want to share this view with him. In the essential act of allowing himself to be seen, he asserts that this is only his own view. “I have mis-sung their music; I have, with my words, wounded the powerless dead” (155).
Keeping the evolution of images moving, Doty underscores the fickle nature of memory as well as the power and importance of finding a clear note in the song of his life, one his father cannot see or hear or chooses not to.
Right now, as I draft, I will keep in mind the power of images, of humility, of the ways one must mis-sing the notes in order to know the self in memory. I will remember these words: “In order to work freely, I needed to behave as if, in the composing process, I was in the arena of pure freedom, of irresponsibility; here I could say anything without consequences” (159). Later, in revision, I will hone the song, but for now, I need to find the full range of my voice.
Well - I had my session with Sherman but I'm still processing it - it went well and I hope to write about it soon, but in the meantime, I thought I'd share some of what I learned from his craft talk this summer. Enjoy!
I have seen Sherman Alexie speak a few times, and his craft at the Institute of American Indian Arts this past summer was the best.
The most practical element of Sherman’s talk has to do with memorizing some of my writing; this is not something I’ve ever done. I guess I’d been thinking that memorization belonged to the realm of poets and now I know differently. I do try read all my work out loud so both my mouth and ear can engage in the editing process, but I think moving toward memorization will not only improve my public performances; I will grow in my ability to revise because I will ‘take up residence’ in the language I am using. This will help me understand what I am committing to the page: is this the best possible way to phrase/express this thought, action, description.
Sherman also helped me remember that I get to take up space. His example and discussion about people who rush through their material definitely was instructive. I’m pretty sensitive to people who do not know when to stop speaking (or writing), and as a result, I might shortcut my own ability to effectively connect with an audience because I don’t want to over stay my welcome. I loved how he phrased it, “Nervous about being nervous.” Letting go of one’s anxiety about anxiety, well, that’s a pretty profound insight. One powerful way to create this connection with the audience is to begin with an engaging story. Sidestep the formality and just launch into scene and give the audience something to invest in from word one.
Reading someone else’s work is brilliant. It not only changes the energy and focus, it’s a moment of generosity that can benefit everyone involved. It can also “anchor” me if I’m feeling a bit unmoored by the reading itself. I love this idea.
As someone who tends to go through life unscripted, Sherman’s comments about preparing for the event so much that it feels improvised was another deeply instructive moment. It aligns with a mini-epiphany I had in the last year: getting organized and prepared is not selling out or giving into the Man—it actually makes me stronger and more able to accomplish what I want to accomplish, allows me to connect with a broader group of people.
I think Sherman’s talk boils down to this: presence. Be present with your audience, your material, your own heart. We all struggle, regardless of race, class, accomplishments. Being present with your own material and preparing so that you’re ready to go wherever you need to go with the specific audience you are with is key. Be ready to invite the audience into the world of the writing you are presenting, and this invitation can happen in a variety of ways: immediacy of story, repeating a line in a piece to give it more emphasis, asking the audience to become the chorus of a piece you are reading. In some ways, it seems Sherman let some of his masks drop, and in that dropping, made searing connections. These are the kind of connections I want to foster, and as a result of this talk, I feel more equipped to do this.
As many of you know, I began a MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at the Institute of American Indian Arts this summer. Five times I will travel to Santa Fe for a week-long residency, and during the four semesters, I will work online with the nonfiction mentor I have been assigned (Melissa Febos) and the four other folks in the group.
Sherman Alexie is a big supporter of this program, and he and the director, Jon Davis, have been cooking up ways for Alexie to take a more active role that also accommodates his busy schedule. So, two weekend intensives have been organized as well as Skype sessions. I cannot travel to Santa Fe or Seattle for the workshops, and I was reluctant to sign up for a session. My reasons:
1) It’s individual – meaning I cannot hide behind other student writers. It’s just me and Alexie, talking.
2) I didn’t want to take the spot from people who might not have had access to writers of Sherman’s caliber, experience, and perspective,
3) I’m intimidated (I’m listing this again in case it’s not clear in point number 1).
A friend told me to go ahead and sign up anyway. My guts coiled at the thought. But, I’ve done it. I will send Alexie 20 pages a week before and then he will read my work and we will talk about it. Doesn’t that sound terrifying? And what I do want his help with? Being funny. How to strike the balance between pain and laughter. How to honor the stories of people you love and not mock them. To me, this seems like a tall order. But he does it in his work. And I want to in mine. I want to be able to find the right focus, of highlighting surprise, of the freshness of new flowers emerging from the decomposing leaves, of people and their resilience.
Now, I have to decide which of the currently muddled new pages to send to him. Yikes. But it’s just me and Alexie, talking. As terrifying and human as that.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
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.
The Self's Delicate Shell
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.