Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Birth of a Story

I always love hearing  how writers come up with the things they write. Some people seem to have endless ideas gurgling in their heads and not enough time to write them all, and others seems to have one really necessary story to tell, and then must work to come up with more. I admit I've felt like both ends of that spectrum.

Currently I have a folder of ideas on my computer with more books than I will probably ever have time to write. But those ideas are all novel ideas. Stories that are too big to be told in a few pages. And this past month I needed to write a short story for school.

Enter the joint brainstorming of my husband and I while sitting in traffic one day.

Me: I need to write a short story but I still have no idea what to write about. I want it to be fun to write though. My current novel is bumming me out.


Me: Once, in a writing class in college, the professor said in order to get a great conflict throw a few very unlike characters into a place where they can't easily get out and make them interact. You know, like Speed where all the people are stuck in a bus. Which was pretty smart of him, because that was before Speed even came out.


(You might be noticing that my conversations are sometimes a bit one-sided.)

Me: Where could I trap people? A bus was already done, and for that matter, the cruise ship thing in Speed 2 also.

(Can I take an aside here to say that while writing this conversation I've just come up with FOUR more story ideas?? Trap them in a mine! A carpool lane with an accident blocking the road! The line for a bathroom in a mall! A city tour!)

Me: Also, the people would have to be fun to write. What kind of great characters could I throw together?


Me: And I'd need a really catchy title. A fun one.

Him: How about So a Priest, A Rabbi and a Prostitute Walk into a Bar?

(See???? He may be a man of few words, but he is BRILLIANT!!! Who would NOT want to read that story???)

Me: That is BRILLIANT!! So why are they there? I mean, why would those people end up in a bar, and why can't they get out?


Me: What if they are escaping something? Something terrible is going on outside the bar and they use the bar as a place of refuge from it.


Me: What do you think about the Occupy movement? Maybe the characters are all downtown for different reasons - some protesting, others not, and then they are thrown together when the police come in and the protests end up in violence and chaos!

Him: That sounds like something you'd write.

Me: I could tell it from the four different points of view!

Him: The four?

Me: Yeah - the priest, the rabbi, the prostitute, and the bar. Okay, the bartender.

Him: Or a beer's.

Me: I think I'll stick with the bartender.


Me: But I don't know much about rabbis, so that might be a really hard voice to capture. 

My Son: (yelling from the back of the van) What's the title Dad came up with that you're laughing so hard about?

Me: ummmm...

Him: Maybe you should change the title.

Me: Nooooo! The title is the best part!

Me: Hey, if the rabbi comes into the bar unconscious because he got hit with something in the protests, I wouldn't have to have him talking. That would solve that problem.

Him: So the others carry him into the bar to get him out of danger?

Me: YES!

And that, my blogging friends, is how "A Preacher, a Rabbi and a Prostitute Walk into a Bar" was born.

I broke the story into four points of view, each person's story picking up where the one before let off, so there is a general story arc as well as four sub-stories. Of course, I ended up still having to do the rabbi, even though he was unconscious the entire time.

I have no idea how the story will be taken at school, but I'm proud of it. Not in the "I'm sending this to a magazine to get published right away because it's so brilliant" kind of way. More in the, "I wrote and revised (five times) a short story in less than a week" kind of way. And also, because I did what I set out to do: have fun writing it.

While I never loved short stories before, and would much rather write novels, I can say it's so fun to try something new and risky, to branch out and do something I'd never spend a whole year and 350 pages doing. I got to incorporate a bunch of techniques I've learned through school that weren't applicable to my novel. And did I mention how fun it was?

So all the credit goes to my husband, who came up with the title that made the story fun.

Have you tried anything risky lately? Come up with any good ideas in weird ways?  And do you have any more ideas of how we can trap characters in a small space with no way out??

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

When Good Enough Takes Time

I've been writing this novel of mine for nearly two years now, and there are days when that seems like 18 months too long. Writing friends have finished two or three, even more, books in that time. And yet I still struggle along.

Patience has never been my virtue. There have been several times I've decided, this is it. This book is done. I've tinkered with it long enough and it will never get better than this.

And then it does.

So I keep tweaking and deleting and rewriting and reorganizing and polishing. And then I do all that again. And again.

I was heartened my first semester when my then-advisor told me he'd revised his award-winning novel 17 times. I was heartened again when I had a discussion with my now-advisor about prologues, and how she'd initially written a prologue for her book, then changed it, then scattered parts of it through the book, and then eventually did away with it altogether.

And then last week I read Edgar Sawetelle, by David Wroblewski. This is the pedigree for Edgar Sawtelle:

David Wroblewski is the author of the internationally bestselling novel The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle, a 2008 Oprah Book Club pick, a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, winner of the 2008 Colorado Book Award, Indie Choice Best Author Discovery award, and the Midwest Bookseller Association's Choice award. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was selected as one of the best books of 2008 by numerous magazines and newspapers around the country, and has been translated into over 25 languages.

Not too shabby, eh? I'm not typically a fan of Oprah-endorsed books. Clearly she and I have very different tastes. But this book was everything the awards say it is. Sublime, lovely, gorgeous, haunting.

But what I love love loved about my copy of the book was that it had an extensive author interview. I love author interviews!!  (And as an aside, I totally fell for David in it. Despite all the acclaim and publicity he's gotten, he seems very humble and down to earth and somebody I'd utterly love conversing with over a cup of coffee.)

What impressed me most in the interview was a question about putting some of the chapters from a dog's point of view. David's answer was inspirational to me, not because it gave me some great insight into point of view, but because it revealed that he'd worked on this book for years. Years, people!! Two years in his MFA program, and then years after that, when he finished it, changed it, revised it, altered the entire point of view (which originally had been first person but ended up being mostly third).

It makes me realize that sometimes, the really good stuff only comes with time.

I don't think taking longer on my debut book would have helped. I still think that book was ready to go after nine months, and although it may not be the book I'd write now, it's the book it needed to be.

But this book - this current work in progress - needs time. I won't be rushed, because I don't want to throw it out there until it's really ready. Something I can be truly proud of. Right now it's not. And I'm okay with that, mostly because the more I work on it, the exponentially better it gets. (Which isn't to say it's great, mind you. It started out pretty stinky...)

What about you? How long do you think you'd be willing to work on something - not just writing but anything - before saying, "That's enough. What I have now is going to have to be good enough"?

Monday, November 14, 2011

It's Not What You Think It Is

Twenty years ago I got a harsh lesson in writing: an author is not in control once the writing has left her hands.

I was in a poetry class in college at the time, and had been doing very well. The professor loved me. The class took to my poems well. Until one of the last assignments, when I turned in a poem about a relationship with my then-boyfriend, written as an analogy to a carousel ride. The poem was metaphorical, to be sure, but not cryptic. There were lines that made very clear - or so I thought - that this was about a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship about to end.

And the professor and half the class thought it was about sexual abuse of a young girl by a father.

Even as I write this, I am laughing, because that idea was so preposterous it left my head spinning. They sat in class for 30 minutes discussing this poem and the deeper meaning to it, when I could find NOTHING within the poem itself to lead someone to believe that was what it was about. When, at the end, I told them it was not about that at all, they STILL didn't believe me.

I got an A+ on that poem, and resolved never to write poetry again.

One could hope fiction stories are different. Most are not cryptic, nor do they lend themselves to requiring people to seek deeper meaning in them. But if I've discovered anything in the last year, other than the fact that I write pathetically slowly, it is that a book is not the sum of the words on a page: its meaning lies, to a great extent, in a combination of what the author brings to the page, and what the reader brings.

This is a hard truth for writers.

We want to be in control of what people are reading, of what they are thinking as they read. Mystery writers especially try to control the thought process - throwing in hints here and clues there while all the while also writing glaring neon arrows to lead the reader down the wrong path in hopes of surprising them.

But most writing does this to some extent. Water for Elephants, for example, deliberately sets the reader up to expect one ending and then delivers another. Authors like Suzanne Collins and Chris Cleave set out to write books with a message on war or immigration or the harshness of life.

But no one book is ever read the same, because no two people come to that book with the same experiences and perspectives. What resonates with me in The Things We Carry may mean nothing to you. What grabs my interest in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time might not carry any significance for you. I read and love Mennonite in a Little Black Dress for probably very different reasons than my Mennonite friend will.

And what I've learned is that this is okay. It is okay to write a story and let that story take on a life of its own. How great is it that people can read my words, and find themselves in it?

I am currently working on a short story for my residency in January, and it contains four different characters with radically different political points of view. It is just a story to me. I wanted to write something that stretched me, that put some controversy between characters, creating conflict. I remembered a teacher once telling me long ago that the most interesting stories often are where very different people are trapped together and have to deal with each other. So that's what I did. I threw four radically different people into a room with violence ensuing outside while a person lay dying inside, threw a little politics and religion in the mix ... and waited to see what would happen.

I expect some of the critiquers in workshop will be able to see this as merely a story and not a political statement. It is just a story to me. I really am not making any point at all in it.  But some, I suspect, will focus on just one point of view that supports or attacks their own point of view and take issue with that. Some will see themselves on one side, some will see their own angry debates with friends or family, some will identify with the hopelessness, some with the rage, some with the loneliness, some with the compassion. Some will make rash judgements about me and what I believe.

For once, I'm not just begrudgingly accepting this. I'm embracing it. I'm writing for it. "Come, read," I want to say, "and find yourself in here somewhere."

As long as they don't think it's about child molestation, I'm okay.

Monday, November 7, 2011

MFA Monday: Books!!!

My reading for the semester is done. Here's what I read:

1. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Tom Franklin)
2. Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)
3. A Separate Peace (John Knowles)
4. Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri)
5. State of Wonder (Ann Patchett)
6. Heartsongs and Other Stories (E. Annie Prouxl)
7. Too Much Happiness (Alice Munro)
8. Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)
9. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Jamie Ford)
10. The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs)
11. The Optimist’s Daughter (Eudora Welty)
12. Abide With Me (Elizabeth Strout)
13. Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
14. The Murderer’s Daughter (Randy Susan Meyers)
15. Little Bee (Chris Cleave)
16. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Rhoda Janzen)
17. Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)
18. Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories (Tom Hazuka)
19. That Old Cape Magic (Richard Russo)
20. The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop (Stephen Koch)

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I LOVE that Pacific University allows us to make our own reading list. There is a certain amount of responsibility that comes with this. I assume if I peppered my reading list with genre fiction (which I'm not writing) my advisors would nix the list. But I work hard creating a good list - books I both want to read and books I think I should read. I gathered a long list of titles, most of which were suggested to me by people I respect (like YOU all), went to amazon and read the synopsis and first pages to see if I liked them, went to goodreads and read the reviews, and then chose the ones I liked the best.

Also, I tried not to weigh my list with books that were 800 pages. 

Let's face it, if I have to read these books and not put them down and move on if I hate them, I might as well pick ones I'll like, and ones I'm not stressed I'll finish on time.

Of course, some of these I loved more than others. I was not at all a fan of Love in the Time of Cholera. The reviews are great, but the book seemed slow and sluggish, and to take me forever to read. And I was unsure why I was supposed to connect with a main character who declared he'd had 600 affairs, some with girls as young as 11, some married, but declared he was really a virgin because he didn't love any of them and had "saved himself" for the one girl he did love (saved himself from what, I'm not sure).

But all of the others I thoroughly enjoyed.

I put a lot of short stories on this list because I wasn't as familiar with short stories as I feel like I should be. Most people in this program write short stories, and it's been ages since I'd done that. What I learned is that I still am not a huge fan of reading collections of short stories. Not that I don't enjoy them. Olive Kitteridge was fantastic, and Interpreter of Maladies was superbly written. But it's much too easy for me to put a short story collection down and not feel compelled to pick it up, because each story is self-contained. There's nothing calling me back to the book because if I've finished one story, that's the end of that character's journey.

Of all the books on this list, the ones I most highly recommend, ones that I absolutely loved, are State of Wonder (ironically a retelling of Heart of Darkness, which is the bane of my existence), Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (a book I just didn't want to end, and whose end was immensely satisfying), and Little Bee, which I wrote about here.

I also love the Writer's Workshop book. When I first read it, it seemed to lack the kind of practical advice and organization I crave, but it was so full of wisdom I couldn't help but underline half of it. I've continued to go back to that book over and over this semester. One of the best parts of it is where Koch talks about "climbing Mount Probability." Meaning, essentially, it doesn't matter if what you write is possible (or realistic), only that you can make your readers believe that it is. This is a whole post unto itself!

Now I've got two weeks to come up with a new reading list for next semester. I have 16 books so far, and need 4 more really great ones. So I come to you, again, asking for help.

What should I read next semester? What have you read and loved?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What The Heck Does One Do with an MFA?

I get asked this all the time. In various forms. Sometimes it's just as simple as, "What are you going to do when you get your degree?"

The answer is, I have no idea.

The obvious path is writing and publication, but while this program has definitely made me a better writer, we all know a writing career isn't as simple as just writing well. There's a little luck, a little timing, a little connections, a ton of perseverance, some creative magic.... it's just much more complicated than writing a book, even if the words on the page are good ones.

I could teach, of course. That seems to be the other obvious way to go. I think people assume that the only good any liberal artsy masters does is open the opportunity to teach at the college level. And I've considered this. A lot. I taught for years before having kids, and always thought teaching college would be a great challenge that I'd like. But I don't know that teaching positions open up that often, and within commuting distance of where I live, and in writing specifically. It might be easier if I got that degree in English, and then I'd be qualified to teach Chaucer and American Lit and all those classes that are considered English but not creative writing. But I didn't. Because I don't love that. I love writing.

I could edit for a publisher or a magazine. I could tutor.

After that, I start coming up with ideas like Walmart Greeter and McDonald Fry Technician.

And actually, I do know people who got their MFA in writing and kept working at Walmart or kept driving public transit... because they said those jobs offered not only a decent reliable salary and benefits, but also gave them tons of material to write about at night. Maybe the best jobs for writers put us in contact with real people who are characters.

I don't know what I'm going to do once I move my tassel from one side to the other. I hope I'll write. Preferably books. And get paid to do that. Isn't that the dream?

But if a great book deal doesn't fall in my lap (ya know - after lots of blood sweat and queries) and pay off student loans for the next ten years, I'm okay with working a different job, even if that something else isn't related to my degree.

I will keep writing, because I can't imagine not writing. I hope I keep getting better. I will never regret the two years and pocket full of money I spent on this degree. I have loved every minute of it. I am a better writer and a better person for it. I am blessed to have had this opportunity to do it.

But my happiness doesn't depend on following a certain path. Whatever God has planned for me, wherever he places me, I will find peace and joy in knowing I am where he wants me. Right now, that's in grad school. In two years, who knows?

For now I'm content to take one day at a time and cherish it.