writing inspiration

59 posts

Talking With George Saunders: Part 2

In his most recent book, George Saunders quotes “movie producer and all-around mensch,” Stuart Cornfield, to make a point not only about movies but about writing – – “…every structural unit needs to do two things: (1) be entertaining in its own right and (2) advance the story in a non-trivial way.”

Doesn’t seem like much, does it? But for writers, the twosome may be more challenging than you think. To entertain should not be taken lightly. And you cannot do it randomly, either. At the same time it must advance your story, meaning “randomness” is the enemy!

Often this calls for variety in your story, but again, you face the danger of variety for the sake of variety. Chekhov, Saunders’ hero in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a natural at this. Says George: “Chekhov’s instinct seems to be toward variation, against stasis. One of his gifts is an ability to naturally impose variety on a situation that a lesser writer would leave static.”

(OK, static sorts. Take a step forward and admit it. Or watch as Chekhov takes a step backwards, leaving you exposed.)

This brings us to these famous dictums for writers:

  1. “Don’t make things happen for no reason.”
  2. “Having made something happen, make it matter.”

You see, again, the relentless campaign against the random? A particularly contrary writer might wail, “But, hold on! Life is random, so why can’t I write random?”

Because, Saunders seems to be saying, writing is a controlled random – an exquisite, oxymoronic dance of sorts.

Thus, he writes, “In workshop we sometimes say that what makes a piece of writing a story is that something happens within it that changes the character forever.”

Tall, meet order.

To quote Chekhov (and Saunders does so, early and often): “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.”

Happy formulating, then. It’s what make writing such an enjoying challenge!

 

 

Talking With George Saunders: Part 1

In many ways, George Saunders’ new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, hits all my buttons. Chief among them is its use of short stories by four Russians — Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol – to illustrate key points on the making and enjoyment of literature. I’ve been reading the Russkies since being knee-high to a praying mantis. Thus, being a Russophile (literary-wise, anyway) and a writer as well, I found myself doing something I seldom do with my books: annotating it as I went along.

Talking to Saunders, is what it amounted to, even though the odds of me ever attending his distant Syracuse writing class lie somewhere between slim and none.

I decided to share a bit here with other readers interested in writing and reading. First, I’ll provide the Saunders remarks that gave rise to some questions and thoughts. Then I’ll offer what I’d say if I were in Saunders class (if my classmates and professor kindy allowed, that is).

For Part 1 of who knows how many, here’s Saunders on one of the simpler “laws” of fiction. You know how laws get one’s ire up. Can you break them? Are they good laws? And what about the caveats, both mentioned and un-?

Saunders:

 

“Earlier, we asked if there might exist certain ‘laws’ in fiction. Are there things that our reading mind just responds to? Physical descriptions seem to be one such thing. Who knows why? We like hearing our world described. And we like hearing it described specifically (‘Two men in green sweaters were playing catch beside a wrecked car’ is better than ‘I drove through this area that was sort of bland and didn’t notice much.’) A specific description, like a prop in a play, helps us believe more fully in that which is entirely invented. It’s sort of a cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick. If I am trying to put you in a certain (invented) house, I might invoke ‘a large white cat, stretching itself out to what seemed like twice its normal length’ on a couch in that house. If you see the cat, the house becomes real.

“But that’s only part of the move. That cat, having been placed in that particular story, is now, also, a metaphorical cat, in relation to all of the other dozens (hundreds) of metaphorical elements floating around in the story.

“And that cat now has to do some story-specific work. Or, we might say, it’s going to be doing some story-specific work, whether it chooses to or not, by its very presence in the story; the question is what work it’s going to be asked to do and how well it will do it.”  (pp. 27-28)

 

On the surface, there seems little to debate here. Of course a more detailed description makes a scene more believable. The writer’s skill of naming things alone counts for much in his ability to create a sustainable dream for readers.

The catch lies in how much description. It might be “easy,” as Saunders allows, to deploy spellbinding description, but the difficulty lies in when to stop describing. Readers, though they may love description, don’t have infinite patience with it. Ditto editors.

I recall, for instance, my first attempt at a novel umpteen years ago. One editor, kind enough to provide a handwritten response, lauded the description throughout but said there might have been too much (for one) and that it often came at the expense of plot, which she found weak.

Then there’s the famous rule of Chekhov’s gun (rifle, what have you). Once mentioned as hanging on the wall over the hearth, it best be used before story’s end. Which brings us to another tricky concept: which details must play a role in the story and which may not?

A gun is fairly obvious. Why bring it up in passing? But the white cat mentioned by Saunders above? Is it equal to the green sweaters also mentioned above? Almost any detail from a setting can be integrated into a future plot development, but I daresay this will hold true for only a few.

Bottom line: the writer has a problem. Two problems, actually. Yes, your writing is richer through description, but when is enough enough? Salt lends flavor, no one will deny, but too much salt can kill a dish. Put description in a shaker next to pepper, and there you have it.

Additionally, it seems a case of overthinking matters to wonder which objects in any given description must do some “story-specific work,” as Saunders states, merely by dint of their presence. What if the description is implying something about a character, for instance? Does that count, or must it be woven into plot?

All of which brings me back to my own writing precept: Nothing is as simple as it seems. Even if George Saunders calls it a “cheap, or at least easy, authorial trick.”

Poetry as Suggestion

redleaf

Poems suggest themselves, even though they’re not there. By “poem,” I don’t mean the written product, although the suggestion may evolve to that. I mean anything that strikes you, that invites reverie, that slips some meta into your morning cognition.

This morning, the poem was the sound of rain on the roof. Ordinary, of course, but less so when it hasn’t rained for weeks — or at least not with the force needed for roof music.

Then as dawn turned black to gray outside the windows, I noticed a single red maple leaf rain-plastered to the window screen. In its minimalist way, it was like the calendar photograph for the month of October in New England.

Leaf as poem, in other words.

Sometimes even negative space can suggest poetry. How all of the songbirds of May and June have left. How the remaining birds are less musical: nuthatches scritching in circles around the tree trunks, chickadees flitting from branch to branch, the kingfishers out front with their forays over the lake.

But mostly it’s the quiet. The negative space left by nesting birds who have long forsaken us, leaving us to our fall and the coming cold.

Bird silence. A rare rain against the metal roof. A maple leaf framed by the window.

Poetry as suggestion, every one of them. No more, no less.

Berryman On the Value of Indifference

berryman

While spending too much time on the Internet (which is still holding up under a lot of weight), I came across this little quote from the poet John Berryman to wannabe writers everywhere (who, small thanks to the virus, should be doing more writing than usual by not spending too much time on the Internet):

“I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.”

Berryman also advised wall paper consisting of rejection notes from editors, but really, it’s too complicated nowadays, what with the cost of toner or printer ink or whatever you want to call that stuff apparently made of gold and frankincense and sold at Staples for about a quarter of your weekly salary (that is, if you are still employed during these Times of Trouble).

Yeah. That’s it for today. I have to go to that dystopian nightmare formerly known as a “supermarket” right now.

Pray for me. And have a good, anti-socially distant day.

Random Wisdom for Writers: Part Two

pencil

Here are a few more gleanings from Chuck Palahniuk’s estimable “writer advice” book, Consider ThisYesterday’s post featured the first group of ideas that might make you better at the trade. Today, the final set. Enjoy!

  • “If you can identify the archetype your story depicts, you can more effectively fulfill the unconscious expectations of your reader.” — CP
  • Readers relate when authors tell what’s known as an “awful truth.” Imperfect characters making mistakes are a reader’s delight. For one, the reader feels, “I’m not alone,” and for two, the reader feels, “Better him than me. What a train wreck! I can’t take my eyes off this!”
  • Or, as CP puts it: “People love to see others suffer and lose.” (If it helps, think politics, 2020.)
  • “Great problems, not clever solutions, make great fiction.” — Ira Levin
  • Know the difference between a story’s horizontal and its vertical. “Horizontal” = sequence of plot points, whereas “vertical” = pausing to deepen risk and tension because it is a key scene worthy of extra details and action. Too much of one (particularly horizontal) over the other will lose your readers’ interest.
  • Your plot should have a metaphorical (or sometimes real) “clock” or “gun” that readers are aware of. These may disappear, but readers should, in the back of their minds, be worried about time running out or the threat of some weapon. There are many variations, but these “plot drivers” keep the writer honest and the reader on her toes. Think James Bond movies.
  • For tension, use unconventional conjunctions sometimes for a whitewater-rushing effect that carries the reader through a particularly suspenseful scene.
  • Tension can also be harnessed through the use of an object the author recycles throughout the plot. When it reappears, the reader says, “A-ha!” or becomes nervous and wary, or begins to sleuth a bit to figure matters out. Reappearing objects are tension devices.
  • Avoid tennis-match dialogue.
  • “Never resolve a threat until you raise a larger one.” — Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Do not use dialogue to further the plot.
  • No dreams! Ever.
  • “You don’t write to make friends.” — Joy Williams
  • To mix things up in a novel, change the setting. Take your characters on a “second-act road trip.”
  • Use joy and humor as occasional relief when the going gets rough or the plot gets particularly frightening or suspenseful.
  • It is OK to depict questionable behavior in a book. Just don’t endorse or condemn it. This is the reader’s task.
  • “Any time you deny a possibility, you create it at the same time.” — CP
  • “If you can’t be happy washing dishes, you can’t be happy.” — CP
  • One troika of character types frequently used by writers: a.) the character who follows orders, is shy and agreeable, is an all-around good boy or girl; b.) the rebel who bullies, breaks rules, brags; c.) the quiet, thoughtful one who often acts as narrator observing the conflict of the first two.
  • Do not let death resolve your story. Who do you think you are — Shakespeare?
  • Reject humdrum, believable material in favor of the actual wonders surrounding you in this world. This comes under the category of truth being stranger than fiction, so make those truths PART of your fiction.

 

Of course, there’s a lot of fleshing out of these ideas with examples from many books, so if the list piques your interest, pick up a copy of Palahniuk’s book.

Oh. And get yourself in a writer’s workshop group. Although Ken Kesey said, “All workshops suck at some point,” they do force you to write when it’s your turn to make copies and get critiqued.

Plus you learn from the writers around you—both better ones and worse ones.

Random Wisdom for Writers

chuck

When it comes to reading how-to books on writing, I always make sure the author is a success him- or herself before diving in. If it’s an unknown, you’re left to ask, “If this chump knows so much about writing the world’s great novels, why isn’t he doing it himself?”

Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Consider This, certainly fills the bill, though highbrows might sniff because he writes for the masses more than posterity. I’ve read only Fight Club, but I knew  he was prolific, so I picked it up and began reading.

When I read books like this, I like to highlight random pieces of advice or quotes. This book offers a rich trove and so might be worth your while. Granted, it focuses on novel and short story writing, but writing advice is writing advice, and there is always cross-pollination when it comes to effectively working among the genres.

Here’s a sampling:

  • There are three types of communication: description, instruction, exclamation (through onomatopoeia).
  • Little voice trumps big voice. “Little voice” refers to moment by moment events, facts, objective information. “Big voice” refers to musing, meaning, a character’s subjective take. Keep big-voice philosophizing to a minimum.
  • “Action carries its own authority” — Thom Jones
  • Use physical action as a form of attribution.
  • Use actions and gestures that go against the words a character says. The contrast can speak volumes.
  • “Dialogue is your weakest story-telling tool.” — C.P.
  • Keep a journal of people’s sayings, tics, gestures. Embed them in your writing.
  • Use lists now and then to break up the action. Readers love lists, for some reason.
  • Make up rules like little kids do when they play games. Home base. Poison patch. Time limits. Requirements. Exceptions. Author Barry Hannah says, “Readers love that shit.”
  • Put your dialogue in quotes, use attribution (readers skip over “he says, she says,” so don’t worry about variations so much), and embed gestures with the attribution.
  • Avoid Latin words, abstractions, received text.
  • If you get the small stuff right and use it up front, you can get away from some pretty crazy stuff after the fact because you’ve bought the readers’ confidence (or impressed the hell out of them).
  • Use your own magical aphorism early on and win the readers’ hearts. Think Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. It sold like hot cakes.
  • Answer these questions about your protagonist before you start: “Who’s telling this? Where are they telling it? Why are they telling it?”
  • Do not write to be liked. Write to be remembered.
  • Write from within character. Instead of writing “He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall,” a character might say, “He was too tall to kiss.”
  • Write via the characters’ experiences and descriptions.
  • Don’t be afraid to be outlandish, provocative, challenging.
  • Subvert the readers’ expectations. They’ll love you for it.
  • “No two people ever walk into the same room,” said Katherine Dunn. Think of that the next time you describe a room or tackle any setting, especially with point of view in mind.
  • Answer these questions before beginning or continuing your writing project: “What strategy has your character chosen for success in life?” What education/experiences does he bring? Will he be able to adopt to a new strategy or dream?”
  • “Going on the body” means describing through the five senses. Make your readers experience the senses your characters do.

 

Of course, Palahniuk expands on all of this and makes it much more entertaining with anecdotes, but some of this gives you an idea of wisdom he’s gleaned from the writers’ workshops he’s attended and from writers he’s met along the way.

My next post will offer Part Two of CP’s pearls of wisdom.

Talk, Talk, Talk: Famous or Not

wake

Some beginning poets are too wary, I think. Too conservative. They don’t want to try new forms, sentences or lack of sentences, stanza types, subject matter, et and cetera, because they want to stay within what they believe to be universally accepted lines, the equivalent of using training wheels while they learn to bike.

Truth is, there’s little you can’t try as an aspiring poet. Today’s poem features two techniques that newbies might consider “filler” or “against the rules”: dialogue (even lots of it) and/or quotes.

Whether you use quotation marks or not (and it’s your choice), entire poems can be dialogue or monologue (think Shakespeare, think soliloquies). Quotes, sayings, or aphorisms are also fair game, as long as you embed the source.

If the talk or conversation is interesting to you as a writer, then it should be interesting to readers as well. Ditto to the way you weave personal meaning around familiar or not-so-familiar sayings, be they from famous people (e.g. Lorca, below) or anonymous sources (e.g. a well-known proverb from a particular country).

The key is contextualizing. As a poet, you build a particular situation (the unique) and fold it into the broader context of something you overheard, created, or researched (the familiar). This means you can use either talk (and any prose writer will tell you readers love it) or favorite quotes from favorite writers as a lens through which to better see a scenario of your own making.

Here, Malena Mörling provides a narrative about a wake. She goes against expectation (sadness) to feature an instance where a wake brought joy. More important for poets learning the craft, however, is how 6 of the poem’s 19 lines—almost a full third—are not the words of Mörling but of Lorca.

Idea-wise, this might provide fodder for your own poetry. Have a favorite saying or quote, a touchstone you come back to or repeat to yourself often? No doubt there’s a reason for that, and no doubt that reason is rooted in experience. That combination is poetry waiting to happen! As an exemplar, I give you “A Wake”:

 

A Wake
Malena Mörling

I called Michael and he told me he just got home from a
wake. “Oh, I am sorry,” I said. “No, no,” he said, “it was
the best wake I have ever been to. The funeral home was
as warm and as cozy as anyone’s living room. We had the
greatest time. My friend looked wonderful, much better
dead than alive. He wore his red and green Hawaiian
shirt. He was the most handsome corpse I’d ever seen.
They did such a good job! His daughter was there and
a lot of old friends I had not seen in years. You know,
he drank himself to death. He’d been on and off the
wagon for years, but for some reason this is what he
ended up doing.” As my friend kept talking, I thought
of Lorca and what he wrote about death and Spain: “A
dead man in Spain is more alive as a dead man than any-
place else in the world” and “Everywhere else, death is
an end. Death comes, and they draw the curtains. Not
in Spain. In Spain they open them. Many Spaniards live
indoors until the day they die and are taken out into the
sunlight.”

Advice From 10 Who Made It to the Promised Land (Read: Publication)

pw

I there’s one thing people can’t get enough of, it’s chocolate. (Wait. Did I say chocolate? I meant inspiration.) This is why I like Poet & Writers Inspiration issue the most. In the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue, we get surveys of ten poets who scored debut collections in 2019.

These ten are asked the same questions, answered under these categories: “How It Began,” “Inspiration,” “Writer’s Block Remedy,” “Advice,” “Age/Residence,” “Time Spent Writing the Book,” and “Time Spent Finding a Home for It.”

And while there’s a lot of interesting stuff here by people you can’t help but cheer for (they made it!), let’s focus on the advice, shall we? Because if there’s one thing people can’t get enough of, it’s advice. (Um. After they’re inspired and full of chocolate, I mean.)

  • Patty Crane (Bell I Wake To): “Believe in the work, be patient, persist. Quiet all the voices except the inner one. Less is more. If you’re not sure whether the poem belongs in the collection, it probably doesn’t. Make the book the final poem. Submit the manuscript to presses whose publications you love. Keep moving forward, thinking about poems for the next book.”
  • Camonghne Felix (Build Yourself a Boat): “You’ll never get another debut! Your first is your first. Fight for yourself, advocate for your project, and trust your community if they tell you it’s not ready.”
  • Jake Skeets (Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers): “Carry your manuscript everywhere with you.”
  • Yanyi (The Year of Blue Water): “I’ve found that it is more important to love your own book than getting it published. I mean the kind of nourishing love you feel when you read the poetry you admire. This is the love that will help you edit it. It will help you advocate for it and send it out again and maybe one day read it over and over as though it is still new to you. Because it should be. Become your own reader and someone else will read it too.”
  • Marwa Helal (Invasive Species): “Take your time—or, I am paraphrasing, ‘Time is your friend,’ which is what my teacher Sigrid Nunez once told me. Trust your path and your work. Talk about it; don’t be shy about sharing your dreams. You never know who is listening or willing to point you to the next step in your path.”
  • Maya C. Popa (American Faith): “Don’t worry about how much or how little you write. It’s judicious to practice some degree of self-discipline, assuming you’re serious about completing a project. But don’t compare your practice with that of others. Trust that as long as you’re paying the right sort of attention to your life and the world, there’s a lot going on in the brain that will allow for writing to happen later on.”
  • Sara Borjas (Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff): Write toward honesty, then really write toward honesty. Stop lying.”
  • Maya Phillips (Erou): “I’d probably say be bold. Experiment with your work, and don’t edit out all the fun and the strangeness and the wonder.”
  • Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes (The Inheritance of Haunting): “Writing an abstract that articulates what the collection is about can help to communicate your work to editors while allowing you to create a map for what else your manuscript is asking to become.”
  • Keith Wilson (Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love): “Being published is a call someone else makes. It’s hard to know what to do to please others, and it’s maybe contrary to the place your poetry comes from. But someone’s first book changed you. Know that there are people waiting for yours.”

What We Don’t Know About the Brain Won’t Hurt Us

brain

On Star Trek, they used to call space the final frontier. Truth is, there are mysterious frontiers closer to home, including the real estate between our ears.

Go ahead. Ask any scientist. How much do we really know about that cauliflower in the skull? Somewhere between “not” and “much,” from what I understand.

I do know that brains are the switchboard for pain. Your body parts don’t experience pain because your brain does it for them. This is why your brain won a service award in 2019.

If you want to play mad scientist by mixing humor and science (too serious for its own good, anyway), you can let words and associations fly and have a good time of it in a poem. Picture a kid, a blank canvas, and six cans of paint. Picture “artist’s block” as a very foreign term.

All you need do? Embed real words from science with lines and stanzas! The contrast of typically formal terms with atypically informal ones will only highlight your goal: make readers laugh.

What might that look like? Ron Koertge is always a reliable go-to guy. Here he explains the brain in a way your brain has never been explained before:

 

Geography of the Forehead
Ron Koertge

Everyone thinks the brain is so complicated,
but let’s look at the facts. The frontal lobe,
for example, is located in the front! And
the temporal lobe is where the clock is.
What could be simpler?

The hippocampal fissure is where big, dumb
thoughts camp, while at the Fissure of Rolando
dark-skinned men with one gold earring lie
around the fire and play guitars.

The superior frontal convolution is where
a lot of really nice houses are set back off
a twisty road, while the inferior frontal
convolution is a kind of trailer park, regularly
leveled by brainstorms.

The area of Broca is pretty much off limits.
And if you know Broca, you know why.

 

This is truly an example of knowing just enough to be dangerous, and damn, if it doesn’t look fun.

So if you’ve been knocking yourself out and feeling pained (it’s coming from the brain, by the way) in your writing efforts of late, maybe you should treat yourself to six paint cans and have some fun—if not with the brain, with something else. The humerus in your arm, maybe.

Writer’s Weigh In With Resolutions

resolution

I emailed all the poets and writers (as a certain magazine calls them) I know (and really don’t, but I needed a lot of responses to make up a post) and asked what their writerly resolutions were. If they’re anything like mine, they’re an amusing mix of wishful thinking, good intentions, and, in some cases, playful sarcasm. (Wait. Can sarcasm be playful?)

In no particular order, from the expected to the un-, here are those responses that returned to roost in my inbox:

  • “Mine was to write for two hours first thing each morning before checking my Inbox. Then I checked my Inbox first thing this morning and am responding to this. Does this count as writing (she asks sheepishly)?” — T.H.
  • “To absolutely refuse to submit to magazines that charge reading fees and to reward those who don’t by submitting my best stuff. If more writers did this, fewer magazines would charge the fees. The fact that more and more are doing it tells me that many writers are ponying up. Why?” — B.C.
  • “Read more poetry to better inform my own poetry.” — O.L.
  • “Save money for an M.F.A. program. Do you have any, by the way?” — R.W.
  • “I’m thinking too many weird thoughts, like how sad fish heads look on plates at a restaurant. How can I write when I’m feeling sorry for dead fish eyeing the mouths that are about to consume them?” — K.T.
  • “Stop saying yes to so many fellow writers asking me to read their stuff. I need time for my own stuff, but I’m too busy being Joan of Arc to everybody else.” — V.C.
  • “Get better paying part-time work.” — T.D.
  • “Be more honest with myself. I like to kid myself, I do. I’ve told myself it’s essential to writing success, but after two years of talking the talk more than walking the walk, maybe not. I’m playing Billy Joel (“Honesty”) right now. It’s such a lonely word!” — A.A.
  • “Dump my fellow writer friends who are too competitive and jealous while calling other writers competitive and jealous. Some writers are more talented at gossip and back-stabbing and putting words in other people’s mouths than they are at writing. Delete. Dump. Move on, are my resolutions! (Does this sound angry? Good.)” — R.E.
  • “Pray more.” — I.L.
  • “I want to pay less attention to the news. It distracts and upsets me, which is horrible for writing and creativity. It’s not easy being an American these days.” — K. E.
  • “Work on writing plot! I suck at writing plots!” — N.
  • “Actually follow the stupid old advice about carrying a small pad and pencil around so I can write ideas when I think of them vs. just forget them.” — O.B.
  • “Stop looking at Submittable so much! Stop submitting so many simultaneous submissions so much! Stop saying, “I need some good news!” so much! (Though it’s true, I do. Do you have any spare good news lying around, Ken?)” — R.B.
  • “Put my writing on the Keto Diet. I am way too wordy. I’ll call all the words I delete carbs or something. You like it?” — M.N.
  • “You still owe me $50. My resolution is to collect it by Feb. 1st.” — J.L.
  • “I want to be kinder and gentler on myself. Writers take rejections too much to heart. A lot of them give up, and I’ve often felt myself wanting to give up, but they have to repeat after me: It’s part of the game and all writers, even the very best, go through it.” — G.O.
  • “Turn off my phone! Delete my social media accounts! They are sucking the living daylight hours out of me! Help!” — C.S.
  • “Experiment more. Take more chances. Avoid telling myself I can’t write about certain topics. Write what I’d want to read because I know many other people like to read the same things.” — T.D.
  • “Read across the genres instead of just the genre I’m working on. Stop reading silly free-verse blogs (smiley face).” — H.H.
  • “Stop paying my cable TV bill. That will eliminate the expensive distraction known as a TV.” — A.T.
  • “Read Ulysses. I’ve been putting it off for 17 years.” — S.D.