Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Little Help from Our Friends

The other day I got an email from a writer-friend. She was feeling a strong desire to put more time into her writing and wanted a guide-rope to help her get up the mountain. She asked if I could recommend any writing books that might have exercises to inspire and guide her. I’m glad she asked because when it comes to writing books, I’m a believer. I used to think that perhaps it was a waste of time to read books on writing -- time that was better spent actually writing. But quite early on, I realized there was a lot of wisdom in those books, as well as good company.

Now I’d have to say that all of the writing books I’ve ever read have been useful in one way or another. It’s not necessarily the exercises they offer as much as the feeling of being in conversation with another writer, discovering their thought processes, and learning the tricks and techniques they use to keep their writing honed. Whenever my writing is in a lull, I find that reading the musings of another writer nearly always manages to reboot my own writing program.

The writing book I quote the most is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I love her admonition to give yourself permission to write shitty first drafts. But the writing book that taught me the most was Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction. The “shapes” that Stern provides are like doorways into the heart of short story writing. Of course, for building a foundation in fiction writing, you can’t go wrong with Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction.

Another book I enjoy, especially for its prompt on writing the 15-sentence portrait, is Wendy Bishop’s Working Words: The Process of Creative Writing. And then there are the standby’s that no writer should be without --Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. She’s got a new book about memoir writing that I plan to add to my list. Many people swear by the Julia Cameron books.

Recently I picked up a different kind of writing book. It’s called Citizens of the Dream and is a series of letters to Salon.com advice columnist Cary Tennis, whom I recently met at the Sun Magazine’s Writing Conference at the Esalen Institute. The subtitle of the book is “41 good, serious, smart answers to your questions about writing, painting, paying, acting and living the creative life.” And that’s just what it is. He has gathered questions pertaining to creativity (and lack thereof) and provided answers that are heartfelt, thoughtful, funny, and so human.

Here’s an excerpt from one of one of Cary’s answers:

Assume that your writing is important. Assume that you have the right to do it and that it’s necessary and important. Assume that something has happened in your life such that you must attend to certain moral, aesthetic, and philosophical needs, or that you have reached a certain passage, or phase, or that you have been blessed, contacted by aliens, touched by God, whatever works, however you want to put it. Something has happened. You have received a call. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to answer the call.

WIY: Write a letter of advice to yourself. What is the wisest, most compassionate thing you can tell yourself about your own writing? Next, Get thee to a library and check out a book on writing. Spend time with it. Treat it like an old friend. Or a new friend. Get to know it. Get inspired.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mind Over Matter: Make the Most of POV

A lot of fiction these days is written either in the first person or the close third person. Close third person is similar to first person because the character’s sensibility is the lens through which we receive the story. Close third person gives the writer a tremendous advantage -- we get to know every thing that the character sees, hears, thinks and feels. We are privy to the character’s internal monologue. Sometimes I think this is one of the main reasons we read: we want to get in someone else’s head and find out what that is like.

But some writers don’t take full advantage of the close third person. They underutilize that wonderful device we call point of view. Here’s the thing: if you are going to use a close third person (or a first person) point of view, you need to spend some time in that character’s head. What is the character thinking? Or not thinking!

Here’s an example of the close third person from my novel From May to December:

Lolly picked up the pie from the round metal table where Aunt Jewel had left it and turned to go inside. Sue, a friend from work, had invited her to the movies, but she didn’t really feel up to it so she called and canceled. Saturday night and all she wanted to do was to eat some left over Thai food and read a book.
After her dinner she decided to take a bath. Her bathroom was small and covered in green tile. She’d need to redecorate in here, she thought. Maybe make a mosaic. She lit a vanilla-scented candle and undressed, drawing a hot bath. As she eased herself into the water on her one leg, she looked down at her body. How long had it been since a man had touched her? More than a year. Damn it, she thought. She used to see a guy named Sean. He was a French horn player, and what he could do with his lips was pretty spectacular. But then he got a symphony job in California and moved away. She missed him. Most men were afraid of her. Was it because of the leg? Or just because she didn’t take any crap from them? Being a feminist didn’t mean you were dead down there, she wanted to tell them. She leaned her head against the plastic waterproof pillow she’d stuck against the bathtub wall for just this kind of deep, soothing soak.

Supposedly we have about 60,000 thoughts a day. (I have no idea how they figured that out.) That’s a lot of thinking. You don’t need to overload your poor reader with all 60,000 thoughts, but don’t be stingy with them either. I know we harp a lot on the idea of “show don’t tell,” but sometimes you just need to tell your reader things and the best way to do that is through a character’s thoughts.

Why is it important? Mainly, it helps your reader begin to identify with the character, to care about the character, and to understand the character’s motivations. When you withhold information that a point of view character should know because you don’t want to give everything away, you run the risk of making your reader feel cheated.

Like most fiction guidelines this applies to memoir as well. The more we get in your head, the more engaged we will be in your story.

WIY: For ten minutes, write down all the thoughts that go through your head. Intersperse the thoughts with what is going on in your body and what you are experiencing externally. Now, let one of your characters talk to you. Ask your character what he or she wants to say, and then have your pen at the ready. If you’re writing memoir, that character can even be yourself.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mirror, mirror!

One of the most frustrating things for a writing teacher is to encounter students who say they love to write but they don’t like to read. What? Really?

Recently I was writing a proposal for an introductory course in creative writing. My colleagues couldn’t understand why so much of the course was devoted to reading and analyzing the works of others. Did I need to point out the obvious? Reading the works of great (or even good) writers is simply the best way to learn how to write well. One of my coaching clients has never taken a creative writing course, but he’s read everything Tom McGuane ever published. McGuane is a brilliant writer. My client is pretty darn good, too.

Immersing yourself in reading helps to plant a narrative voice in your head. You begin to think narratively. This voice is something we need to coax. It is the muse. And quite often we catch the muse from another writer. Reading widely also opens your mind to the incredible, the infinite, variety of forms that your own writing might take.

Of course there are those who are afraid their own unique style is somehow going to be unduly influenced by reading someone else. Harold Bloom called that the “anxiety of influence,” and I suppose at some point that can happen. You might not want to read Ulysses while you’re in the middle of your epic novel. (But you should read some James Joyce at some point in your life -- if only his famous short story “The Dead.”) If this is a worry, read outside the genre you are working in. I love to read poetry. I read several poems a day, but I rarely write it. Still, reading poetry makes me think about language. It keeps me attuned to the way words crumple the spaces in my heart.

In the end models aren’t likely to turn us into imitators. Our own experiences and filters will ensure that. I love Faulkner, for example, but I’ve never lived in Mississippi or experienced life from that particular perspective. That doesn’t mean I might not want to try on the long, verbose sentence for size. On my story it will look different.

When I teach introductory poetry, I ask students to study a particular poet and then write a “mirror” poem. That is, take the cadences of the poem or the rhyme scheme or some essential aspect of the poem and borrow it to write a new poem. What comes out is often fresh and exciting even if the frame has been borrowed.

WIY: Try it. Find a poem you like and borrow the structure to write your own poem. And if you’re writing a novel or a memoir, then read a novel or a memoir, paying close attention to the structure. Is there something that will be helpful to you? We don’t reinvent the wheel (forgive the cliche), every time we write. It will still be original if we’re true to the heart of the story or the poem that we need to write.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Slay 'Em with Your Verbs

It’s a truism among writers that the most important word on the page is the verb. Beginning writers sometimes think it’s the adjective, but nothing works harder than a good, muscled-up verb.

Here is an example of muscular writing from Frances Lefkowtiz’s memoir To Have Not:

My brothers and I are released from the truck like air from a tire, and we scatter off to find a driftwood for a campfire. We help pitch our five-man ten behind dunes and out of the wind. Then we tighten up the hoods on our blue sweatshirts and go to play tag with the thick, foamy surf. Signs warn of rip tides, undertows, and sneaker waves, but we don’t need signs to tell us that we are not supposed to enter this water. Its danger advertises itself: thick gray wedges curl into sharp peaks before smacking with a loud pop against the beach. We run up, up, and way, to the dry sand, where the thunder of the surf subsides, and we give in to gravity and geography and emotion, dropping onto that dark , pigeon-colored sand, our faces to the sky.

You could almost use the verbs to plot a small arc of action. Strong verbs are not particularly showy. You don’t even notice them at first. They simply sweep you up into the swirl of the language. But they make writing more vigorous or, as an Irish writing teacher of mine used to say: They fill it with verve. Even if you know this little truism, which you probably do, we need to be reminded of it from time to time. That's what Frances' memoir does for me -- reminds me of how transformative writing can be.

Does your writing seem a little flabby? Look at the verbs. Could they be stronger? If so, then shoot some steroids into your sentences. Don’t worry. It’s legal.

WIY: Make a list of ten things a dentist or a carpenter does. Now use those verbs in a passage that has nothing to do with dentistry or carpentry.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mad for Metaphors!

Metaphor is what makes writing delicious. In our Sevenoaks Transformative Writing Retreat, Kim Garcia asked us to look over our timelines and choose a particular event. We were to freewrite about the event and then to come up with a series of “it was like” statements. Then we were supposed to get rid of the “like” and simply go to “it was.”

Metaphor is sometimes stronger than simile, she told us. We struggled a bit with this exercise but by the end of the workshop, poetry was springing up all over the place. Once the mind gets into the metaphor habit, it’s hard to stop.

I want to share another piece by Sharon Glynn from that workshop. This is her response to the “What happened was” prompt that we did at the end of the workshop:

The edge of this clean, crisp day
Cream thumb prints mark the
blue palette of sky.
I see so far into the eye of morning
And the plump ball of mango
moon last night
Just a glowing sphere suspended
on a gossamer thread
Just a hush
curled into the vast night sleeve
of silence
I cradled it into my arms.

Lovely. Just lovely.

WIY: Play with similes and metaphors. What is this moment like? What is the scene like outside your window? Choose an event, a moment, a feeling, and come up with ten things that is like, no matter how silly. Now, take out the like.