Monday, January 28, 2013

"Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninjas."

Ben Percy is one of my favorite teachers at Pacific. He gives some of the best craft talks - always focused and organized and intensely practical.

Something he said this January has been meandering around in my brain as I'm starting back at the beginning of my novel. "Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninjas."

I guess out of context it doesn't make much sense. :)

He was talking about indelible images - those images and scenes we see so clearly in our heads that we want to transpose into words. The trap with seeing things so clearly in our heads, though, is that not everything we see is that important.

The idea of being specific in writing doesn't mean we need to choke the reader with details. A story should rumble along at a nice clip until you get to the place (or places, in a longer piece) where you need amplification to slow things down, go deeper and grow the tension.

In movie terms, when the camera lingers on a detail, the director is saying, "This is important."

But how often in writing we misdirect out readers! We slow down, we linger at the places and on details that aren't important.

For instance, he said, in a detective story, you don't want to stop and spend two pages on describing the detective sitting in a deli eating his reuben sandwich. Do we need to know how high the meat is piled? Do we need to know the way he wipes the sauce from his cheek? Is it important we know the delicious combination of tangy and savory flavors erupting in his mouth when, two pages later, a Ninja is going to bust through the door?

The Ninja is what's important. And if we give equal weight to the sandwich and the Ninja, we are doing a disservice to what is important. We are leading our readers astray, asking them to focus on the things that don't matter and then leaving them wondering why they just slogged through so much information.

Forget the Reuben; Focus on the Ninja.

I think we all have our ticks - things we like to linger on and indulge our writerly selves with. For some people it's character descriptions. For others it's setting.

Every time I write now, I think, "Is this important to the story?" Is it important to describe a character to a T - that a character has a bulbous nose and dark hair and feet the size of a clown's? Is it important that the curtains in the kitchen are yellow with tiny daisies embroidered on them that flutter like a ghost when the window is open? Does my reader need to know the contents of the dinner plate?

Not to say specific details aren't important. When you can name something specifically rather than generally, that's always a good idea. ("Cars crammed the lot of the Shop N' Save" rather than "Cars crammed the lot of the grocery store"), but when they aren't crucial to a scene, but we shouldn't linger on them, add so much detail that a reader wonders if this needs to be remembered. It dilutes the power of the images and scenes that are important.

I think this isn't just writing, either. Don't we do this in life? Focus on the things that don't really matter, give them equal weight with the things that do? I worry equally about the cleanliness of my house and the surgery I have scheduled this week. I spend more time on facebook than talking to my friends face to face. I spent more time on this blog post than on my novel today.

Maybe Ben could just have said, "Focus on what's important." But I've heard that all my life, and isn't the Reuben/Ninja example just a bit catchier?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

End of an Era: Choosing Happy

I've spent thirty days of my life on this beach in the past two years. I've walked out onto the sand, feeling it give under my feet, waves lapping at the toes of my boots, and feeling utterly grateful to find a life where I never expected it.

I started my MFA program in Seaside, Oregon, and ended it there, although graduation ceremonies closer to Portland in June will formalize it all. But I could walk across that stage in June or not walk, wear the cap and gown or hang at home in jammies, and the degree is still mine. I now have a master's.

I don't even know what that means, other than that now I can tell how awful my writing is. If there is ever a time when the adage "The more you know, the more you don't know," holds true, this is it.

It is, at the same time, awful, and awfully better.

I read 86 books in the last two years - most of which I really loved and would never have otherwise heard of. I wrote over two hundred pages of a novel, put it aside and wrote six short stories, rewriting them until my fingers nearly bled - and probably my advisor's eyes bled. He was too kind to tell me if he winced every time my packets came in, but I suspect.

The thing is, somewhere towards the end, I suddenly got it. Just... a year of slamming my head against the keyboard over these short stories, not getting what seemed to be basic elements, everything on the page looking awkward and clumsy, and suddenly it was if someone took the blindfold off my eyes and I could see what I was doing wrong, and how to do it better. I could see why it wasn't working, why my characters felt like puppets I was moving around rather than real people, why my stories bored me, why the endings never worked. It was the entire cliched light-bulb moment.

I'd like to say it just took a lot of writing, the proverbial practice makes perfect, but I have to give most of the credit to Pete, who gave my work more attention than it deserved, who didn't give up even when I kept making the same mistakes, who doled out words of wisdom when I needed them to keep going, and eventually, praise that felt hard-earned.

So I headed to Seaside with two purposes... to present my thesis in front of the faculty and student body - a 15 minute critical introduction and a reading of one of my stories - and a thesis review with my advisor and three other students who'd also poured over my work.

I was nervous about both, but they went exceptionally well - much much better than I expected - and for the rest of the residency, I felt like I'd taken some euphoric drug.

There was such opportunity to be sad - the ending of this all. Sad is what I do when things end. I'm not a huge fan of change.

But a few of us decided we could be sad, or we could be happy, and that choice was up to us. So we chose happy. Happy to get to spend this time together before going on with our lives. Happy to have finished and have writing we were really proud of. Happy to explore the coast, soak up rare Oregon sun, hang out late at night, drink wine, hover around a bonfire on the beach in below freezing temps, sing at karaoke, dance. We chose happy.

Deliriously happy.

 (These are two of my three closest friends from the first day of the program.)

(This is at Cannon Beach, one free afternoon when we headed over the hill from Seaside to have seafood at the cutest little cafe and wander the beach. )

(Jeanne and Beth and I, the last night... choosing happy over tears. The motto was No Tears Until After Dinner, but we didn't even cry later. How can you cry when these people who I didn't know two years ago are now such a big part of my life? And distance now is such a little thing...)

(Me and Katie at Karaoke... she brought Gangnam style glasses for the entire crew that were a huge hit. Every time I see Katie, it's like no time ever passed. We will be texting each other for many years to come.)

It was below freezing on the beach, and if you stood too far from the fire, you froze. An inch closer and you actually felt your legs had burst into flames. It was awesome!

(Pete and Jack at the bonfire. Pete was my advisor for two semesters - practically a saint for that - and Jack workshopped with me for two residencies. These are some of my favorite guys!)

(Pete and I at the graduation dinner.)

So I'm done. What next?

I don't know. I'm taking it day by day. The first few days home I just caught up on laundry and groceries and cleaning from being gone. I spent the weekend with the kids, watching movies and playing Wii and talking. I read a book just for fun. I didn't worry about deadlines. I wasn't stressed. I just... lived. 

Today starts a new plan. I thought I was going to work on a novel again. During residency I was sure I would go back to Prodigal and do it right. But when I opened the computer, it still feels awfully muddied. Another novel - an old idea I fiddled with during my writing block phase a few years back - started brewing. But yesterday I had a short story pulling at me. Short stories are short term commitments. It might be fun to work on one just to get back into writing for me. It might be fun to look at magazines to submit to before diving back into novels and agents and the publishing industry. 

So. I don't know. And I'm okay with that right now. I'm feeling my way, but going forward. I'm sort of excited just to play around with all the tools I've gathered over the past years, see if what I learned stuck. 

I know why they call graduation commencement. One era may have ended, but the rest of life and this writing journey is just beginning.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

We Come to the End... Almost

“The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea.” - Isak Dinesen


I've arrived at Seaside for the last time. The entire trip out was bittersweet.... the last time on the airplane alone. The last time to arrive in Portland. The last check-in at the Rivertides hotel. The last residency packet, which was, without the semester handbook, list of due dates, models for residency reviews and semester study plans, shockingly thin.

There is a huge absence of friends. Friends that have already graduated and friends taking a semester off to pursue other opportunities. It'd be easy to get sad about that. But there were other great things, like seeing the amazing friends that did show up, all of us gathering in the lobby for cocktail hour and sitting around like old dear friends catching up and laughing, our group growing as others trickled in from their own trips over the pass.

I'm both ready to be done, and very not ready. I suppose that's normal.

Yesterday was our first day of classes and I went to all of them, even though I'm not required to anymore. Heck, this is my last chance to soak up every morsel of learning I can, and I'm not about to let that slip away.

I was thrilled that, as I took notes, I was still thinking, "I know exactly where to implement this!" Just like every other residency, I wanted to run out of class, open up a story and revise it. There is never a shortage of things to learn, and just this day reinforced how much I've gotten from this program. Am I a better writer? I'd like to think so, but here among great writers, with so much information still being thrown at me, I see how much I still don't know, how much I still want to learn, how much I still need to write and grow.

Maybe I will never be as good as I want to be. That's a good thing, I guess.

Today I present my thesis to a room full of people. I haven't been nervous, but I woke this morning with a churning stomach. I've gone over my speech so much I am bored by it. I've revised the piece I'm reading so much I can barely stand to rehearse it.

I fear, of course, I'm still not good enough. That I'm not worthy of this place behind the podium, of the degree, to be with all the people here who startle me with their talent.

But here I am anyway. I can hardly believe it. What a journey it's been.