Friday, May 25, 2012

Making A Mess of It

Being the mom of three kids, I'm no stranger to messiness. Not just the clothes-on-the-floor or food-on-the-face variety, but in everything. My kids love art projects, and I struggle not to roll my eyes when they dive into the art cabinet and begin pulling out markers and play-dough and construction paper and glue. For me, the mess is the price I pay to let them explore their creativity. For them, the mess is part of their creativity.

A few weeks ago, I was reading an article in The Writer's Chronicle (a publication of AWP - The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) entitled "Where do you get your ideas?" by Alice Mattison. The article was not so much about coming up with ideas as it was how we as fiction writers invent stories - from the first idea all the way through the end of the story. How we create.

I'd love to print the entire article here for you, but here is part that spoke to me, especially where I am right now in this writing journey (which is a journey for everyone who writes, no matter how little or how much you are published):

How do we invent? The answer I want won't be simple; it's not a set of instructions.... There is some process we have in common – not a dignified one that could be given the pretentious name "craft," which suggests a number of things that rarely lead to good writing... but a sloppy, embarrassing process involving fooling around, moving haphazardly from whatever we began with, in the general direction of something else.

Craft is something you can do in public and explain in public, while good writing is more like taking your clothes off when that's not appropriate – something that may even do harm or make our friends and family ashamed of us. And "craft" suggests control, while a good book requires surrendering control, at least at times.

There is so much more to this article, things I may come back to on this blog, but right now I'm sitting on this. I am in the sloppy, embarrassing process of creating.

I'm discovering there is craft – which I am learning in school – that is helping my writing get cleaner and more focused, and there is the process of creating, which is messy and embarrassing and often confusing. I disagree with Mattison's idea that craft rarely leads to good writing. I think it's critical to good writing; it just isn't enough on its own.

I think, maybe more accurately, we should say there are two aspects to writing well: one is craft  and the other is the creative process. If craft is defined as the tools and skills that can be learned, the creative process is the artsy, personal side. It's what we as writers have to muddle through on our own, in our own way, which may actually even differ from story to story. The process is something we have to discover and rediscover.

I don't like messiness. I like things to be clean and neat and orderly. I like there to be answers to problems, a clear path from bad to good with a set of instructions to go along with it. But most of good writing isn't like that. It's a big fat muddy mess sometimes.

Maybe this is no revelation for you, but this has been a big revelation for me in some sense, in that I couldn't understand how I was getting so much better at the craft part, and still feeling like my writing as a whole was floundering. I am currently mired in my own creative process muck.

I'm still trying to find ways to make that process less messy. Jolene Perry recommended the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder to me, and even though it's about screenwriting, I am finding in it terrific tools. But on the whole, I think I'm just going to have to accept that not all of writing is clean-cut. Not everything can be learned from a book or a class or even a brilliant mentor. And that even though some parts of my process are messy right now, doesn't mean other parts aren't making great strides.

Where do you thrive? In the disorderly, creative part of writing, or in the things more systematically and concretely learned?

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Reading List

The semester is over and I lay panting on the floor under a pile of books. The first two semesters I tried to keep up a running review - a once-a-week go-over of my favorites and what they meant to me. But this semester has been more intense, and I've been less online, and here I come to the end with hardly a word said about them.

I'm not sure how many people who read this blog will be interested in these books. It's been a more "literary" semester, one with far more short story collections and less books off the bestselling list. But just in case someone is in need of some titles, here they are:

Short Story Collections:

Refresh, Refresh (Ben Percy)
Night Swimming (Pete Fromm)
Jesus' Son (Denis Johnson)
Ship Fever (Andrea Barrett)
The Pugilist at Rest (Thom Jones)
American Salvage (Bonnie Jo Campbell)
The Fireman's Wife (Richard Bausch)
Where I'm Calling From (Raymond Carver) (ebook)


A Soldier of the Great War (Mark Helprin)
Geek Love (Katherine Dunn)
Run (Ann Patchett)
City of Thieves (David Benioff)
The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway)
In the Lake of the Woods (Tim O'Brien)
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer) (ebook)
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) (ebook)
Animal Farm (George Orwell) (ebook)
The Book Thief (Marcus Zusak) (ebook)


Indian Creek Chronicles (Pete Fromm)
Hooked (Leslie Edgarton)
Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maas)

There's not any in here I would not recommend, although I love some more than others.

The Book Thief, if you haven't read it, is a must. Amazing read. My son and I read it together - he for his school and I for mine, and we both were in awe. It's narrated by death, during World War II, in a small town that borders Dachau. So... yeah. Incredible.

If you don't mind a little experimental writing, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is also well worth your time. Even though it takes place in post-9-11 New York City and the narrator is a boy whose father died in the World Trade Center, it is really a story about a boy trying to find answers when there are none, and instead, finding that he isn't alone. Very touching.

If you like memoir, or books about surviving in the wild, Indian Creek Chronicles is a book I will not soon forget. I burned dinners while reading it. I got grumpy when my family demanded things like clean underwear and food. Pete is my advisor this semester, though, so I have both a face and voice to put with the story, and that might have colored my reading some. I also am a huge fan of survivalist memoir. But the writing in this is truly beautiful.

You can't go wrong with anything by Tim O'Brien, and if you haven't read him, you should. He will spoil you for any other war books. 

I found Maas's book to be very basic and simplistic, but good. I don't think there was anything revolutionary for me in it, and it seemed a little overhyped in the idea that if you follow these rules you can become a best-seller, but it's a good beginner primer for writing novels.

Hooked was a little better, although it leaned too heavily on movies, for my tastes. I underlined a ton in it while reading, but a few months later, I can't remember what it was I thought was enlightening. I guess I should go back and look at that again.

I still don't get short stories. I can enjoy them, the way I enjoy a good poem, but I don't get how they work and how they're put together. The entire list of ones I read this semester were brilliant. There wasn't a one on there I didn't like. Fromm's, again, were probably my favorite because they resonated with me the most, but all of the others were also very well written.

So now I'm onto my next semester books. The tentative list is done and turned into school, but I imagine that might change over the semester as this one did.

I know you all read a wide variety of books, very different than the ones I've been reading, so tell me: what are the best books you've read in the past five months?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Before Oregon...

This is the mantra you hear around my house all the time now. With only four weeks until residency, it seems like everything hinges on this. "You need to go to the doctor and get that cough checked out before Oregon." "We need to set up the vacation plans before Oregon." "I need to finish all the touch-up painting on the trim before Oregon." "You need to hem my skirt before Oregon." "I need to revise two stories and a novel and write a new story before Oregon."

You'd think I was leaving for a year-long trip to some remote Survivor location.

I'm not. I'm just going back to school for ten days. But ten days is a lot to be away from home when you're the one who makes all the cogs in the wheel move smoothly, and it's an intense ten days that I can't afford to show up less than 100%.

If it's top in my family's head, it's overtaken mine. It's really all I think about. Which is sad, because this is a big time in my kids' lives. It's the end of school. They have award ceremonies and band concerts and choir concerts and piano recitals and parties and the pool opens. And it's not that I'm not at all those things and loving them all.

But in the back of my head, there is always school. There are advisors to consider, book lists to solidify, plane reservations to make, shuttles to book, clothes to buy and pack, There are silly things, like hair cuts and jewelry, and bigger things, like planning the thesis.

Oh thesis, how you vex me.

Okay, I admit, the thesis is taking up the majority of my brain power these days. Do I use my novel? Do I use the short stories I wrote this past semester? Do I mix the two? What is my strongest writing? Do I even have any strong writing anymore? To say I feel anxious and stressed doesn't even begin to come close. I've been praying a ton these last few weeks. For peace. For wisdom. For clear eyes. For more time to work, and more work to complete. But mostly for peace. And a closed mouth so that I do not drive those around me crazy with my anxiety.

I can't believe I am three quarters done with school, that there is only one semester left. Only one more advisor to get to know, love, glean brilliance from.

When I told my advisor how stressed I was about coming to the end, about feeling like this is the last chance to "get it right," to write something worthy of an MFA, to produce work I'd be proud to see leather bound in the Pacific University library with the other MFA alum, he said the smartest thing ever to me.

He said, "Heidi, the thesis is not the end product of your graduate work. The end product is whatever you go on to write for the rest of your writing life."

Now I just have to work on not stressing over the rest of my writing life.