Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Up and Away

A friend of mine scored me a galley of Amy Bloom’s forthcoming novel, Away. The novel is a model of compression—at 236 pages it reads like a much vaster story. Those pages contain a mother’s migration from Russia after her family was massacred during a pogrom, to New York where she takes up life as a seamstress and mistress of two Yiddish actors, onward to Seattle and the Yukon, as she undertakes an epic journey to Siberia where she has heard the daughter who haunts her dreams and nightmares is still alive.

This is a bawdy story, a carnal little tale, since Lillian, the protagonist, will sell everything she has to see her daughter again and this often means selling herself. Still, this is a book that will be around a long time and has much to offer any disciple of the craft. I’d like to explore a few principles of the creative process and focus on what Amy Bloom has to teach us with her splendid novel.

Forward Momentum
On a basic level, any good story must create in the reader a desire to want to know what happens next. Bloom has a knack for the perfect, chapter ending. Here’s the final sentence of the first chapter: “She has gone on, she has traveled through a terrible darkness and come upon Jerusalem surrounded, Jerusalem saved.” In this chapter, we witness the horrifying, dreamlike massacre of her family and also Lillian’s plucky determination in the New World, after she latches onto the Burnsteins who offer wealth and hope to an exile. Bloom’s final sentence is a poetic summary that also propels us deeper into the story.

The Perfect Detail
Lillian takes a deep breath to calm herself, and she smells her mother beside her, perspiration and green onion and the singed, nutty scent of buckwheat groats tossed from one side of the skillet to the other in a perfect, nonchalant arc.”
Lovely, isn’t it? I've never eaten groats, but I can sure see that arc and smell the buckwheat! One single telling image transports us to another time and places us in a deeply sensual moment. Do you believe this story? How you can doubt when the details are so perfectly chosen? This is what art does.

Extended Metaphor
When a cousin brings the news that Lillian’s daughter is still alive, Bloom slows down and pays close attention to the emotional resonance of the moment. Here’s her describing what’s happening to the icy landscape inside Lillian:

“Sophie’s name is a match to dry wood. Ice is sluicing down Lillian now, running off her in sheets. Trees of fire are falling across a frozen field, brilliant orange, blue-tipped and inextinguishable; fire leaps from the crown of one tree to another, until the treetops send waves of fire back and forth between them, tossing flames like kites. Lillian’s hands are bleeding fire, her hands and feet rippling with it. Hawks and sparrows drop down from a blackened sky. Lillian’s face hurts. She stands in front of the window, her wrapper open, and presses her face and body against the cold glass. She has clawed four dark red scratches on her cheeks, and she will have them for weeks and the fire will not go out.
Alive. Not dead.”

This is rich prose, one long extended metaphor that carries the reader into a frightening interior landscape. Rich prose has the pitch and cadence of poetry. Look at all those short sentences, packed with tight details. I am haunted by those hawks falling out the sky. A truly awe-inspiring paragraph that is a doorway into emotion while never crossing over into sentimentality. Despite the length of the extended metaphor, it does not feel extravagant. Bloom shows here how to open up a moment in time using figurative language.

Time and Compression
Part of the sprawl in this short novel comes from the masterful way Bloom moves back and forth in time. While the story is almost always tightly focused on fully rounded scenes, occasionally Bloom will take a great leap, such as here: “Later it will seem to Lillian that only Yaakov Shimmelman was truly her friend and everything he recommended or encouraged or suggested pointed her toward death.” Bloom doesn’t give anything away with this sentence, while still projecting us into the future. Even minor characters take on the flesh and blood of real people, because even as Lillian’s life touches theirs and then moves on, Bloom takes the time to describe what will happen to each of them after Lillian is gone. They don’t just vanish never to be seen again. They live and die within this story.

Using Lists to Create a Landscape
“They walk away and it is darker than before. Lillian can see nothing of the country she is passing through. She smells traces of the man’s bay rum and the woman’s attar of roses. Apple orchards, green, red, yellow, brown, and dark plowed fields and muddy grazing cattle, and hoboes ducking through railroad yards and shoeless children in flour sacks waving to the train as it comes ‘round the bend, and clusters of shacks and red silos and large bodies of water whose name Lillian doesn’t know…”

Here, Bloom deviates from the short, punchy sentences, stretching out her lines. We’re on a train, moving quickly, and through this listing, joined by the word “and” a landscape flickers by. Long sentences, paradoxically, move the reader at great speed, as Bloom shows in this passage, all through smell and the focal character's imagination.

I’ll come back later, because there are few other issues I’d like to discuss about this novel. Read it when you get the chance, when you’re done reading The Night Birds!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Now and Zen

Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing is a jolt of energy straight from Mr. Electro himself. “You must stay drunk on writing so reality can’t destroy you,” Ray writes at one point, capturing in a memorable sentence the intensity of our craft. The entire book is hyperbolic and charged with such statements. Ray’s like a kid talking to us with his mouth full of pop rocks and fizzing soda and when you skim away the froth there’s plenty here to sustain any writer.

I met Bradbury about seven years ago at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books where he was signing his newly re-released copy of Farenheit 451. Attending an MFA program was a distant dream then, much less one day writing a novel. I was teaching middle school and lugging around a backpack full of poems, hoping to be discovered. White-haired and Buddha-chinned, Ray was kind to me. I didn’t show him any of my poems, but I did ask him about dealing with rejection. (I was still a few months away from my first acceptance.) Ray could have dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I’m sure, by that point in his career, he’d been approached by thousands of would-be writers, but his response was measured and patient. I left his presence inspired to go on and that’s ultimately the effect I think this hyper little book will have on readers.

Like many others, Ray advocates writing every day, or “[t]aking your pinch of arsenic every morn so you can survive till sunset.” Sometimes the book seems to oversimplify the process. “Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Then shoot him off.” Is it really that easy? With all of our terminology we do have a way of complicating the process of structuring a narrative work.

“In quickness is truth,” Ray says, suggesting the lizard as the totem animal for writers. Ray makes lists, big, brimming lists and from out of these free associations grow his greatest works. Can you recognize this novel from the list that follows? THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON. “And the stories,” Ray writes, describing these lists “began to burst, to explode from those memories, hidden in the nouns, lost in the lists…”

He’s also getting somewhere important when he notes “that is the personal observation, the odd fancy, the strange conceit that pays off.” Ray advocates reading poetry everyday, noting that even if we don’t understand the words, the sense of them burrows into our brains.

“The most improbable tale,” he writes, “can be made believable, if your reader, through his senses, feels certain that he stands in the middle of events.” There are echoes of Flannery O’Connor here. Like Stephen King, Ray also pushes toward our fascinations, our deepest loves. “I was in love then, with monsters and skeletons and circuses and carnivals and dinosaurs and, at last, the red planet, Mars.”

To reveal more would siphon away the kinetic energy of this book. Zen is a collection of essays about his work and writers and fans of Ray can both benefit. If you need a jolt, pick it up and you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Becoming a Novelist

While visiting the family, I happened upon my mother’s copy of O and paged through “The Reading Room” section with great interest. In the article “Inside the Writer’s Mind,” the magazine’s editors put this question before six working writers:

Besides talent, what are the particular human qualities it takes to be a novelist?

Joshua Ferris had this to say:

“It takes no particular human quality for one to become a novelist save this: the ability to endure long stretches of time at one’s desk." Mr. Ferris goes on to elaborate what you might be doing at this desk, describing the imagination as:

"…Preoccupations and curiosities you believe best served not by the casual anecdote, the emotive email, the journal entry, or the autobiographical essay, but through the variegated freedom that comes from making people out of words. People and planes landing on tarmac and lost tourists at nightfall in a land of casual murder. Words spoken in a voice you search for and hold like water in your hand. A voice lost and recaptured over and over during your hours at your desk. A voice borrowed from a chorus of voices you like best, now distilled from that chorus and distilled and distilled down your specific range and harmony. A range and harmony that coalesce your preoccupations and curiosities into a story of people made with words inhabiting a world inimitably yours. The people and the tarmacs and the tourist anxious to find their hotel in the dark. Inimitably yours because you shaped them hour after hour at your desk. Their conflict, their destiny, in your inimitable voice, confronting the vagaries of your imagined voice. Will they survive? The two hooded figures are approaching. The moon-dark beach is endless. What they would do to be at home right now. What they would do to be at your desk, determining the fate of their world” (O, The Reading Room, 160).

Wow! What a lyrical, lovely passage to capture the essence of our craft, that magical shaping of characters and landscapes from the raw cargo of words. Ferris structures his homage to the writing process through parallel, incomplete sentences, repeating openings to create a cadence and lull me into believing his thesis.

Yes, I’ll buy it in part. Hours at the desk, is another way of saying discipline, but none of us will be able to sculpt such poetic passages unless we are also readers. A writer is a passionate reader first. Stay in the desk and spin your daydreams, but also make sure a good portion of the day is saved for reading with a writer’s eye for detail. Read poetry, both contemporary and classic. Read the masters and read your peers. Read Chekhov and Alice Munro. Read novellas and read the sprawling epics. Read magazines and newspapers and let your imagination spread out like a fisherman’s net, hauling in anything strange and wondrous to be saved for a later day. Yes, spend your hours at the desk, but never forget that it was your passion as a reader that brought you there in the first place and will sustain you during the times the imagination runs dry.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Sage and the King

Last year at Silver Lake College I had the chance to teach both an introductory creative writing course and an advanced poetry workshop. For this post, I’d like to take a closer look at the texts I used for these courses.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has an immediate appeal for the beginning writers. Half of his book is a charming memoir, filled with moments as surprising and vivid as anything King ever wrote in fiction. The other half is a primer on writing fiction, and the tone here is also charming and approachable. I first read On Writing while I was on my honeymoon and I found the book so inspiring that when I returned I went down into my basement and began the novel that would become The Night Birds.

The second text we’ll consider is Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual. Again this post seems to be taking a thesis/antithesis approach to books on writing. King made $400,000 for selling Carrie, an astronomical sum. Kooser, on the other hand, sold insurance for a living and has only made his reputation late in life. Kooser’s a craftsman, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, but I believe it's a mistake to dismiss King as just a writer of horror. You don't make a career as a novelist unless you understand a thing or two about how to tell a story.

Aside from these differences, both texts are simple, entertaining, and filled with wonderful examples of what makes a good story or poem. I’ll know I’ll be using them again in future classes and I highly recommend both. Can you be both a poet and a novelist, even though one deals in microcosms the other in the sprawling canvas of world creation? I believe so and many writers--from the classic example of Thomas Hardy to a contemporary John Updike or Louise Erdrich--prove that it's possible.

For this post, I’ll format it a little differently. Below, we have a fun quiz on King. Just looking at the questions will give you a great idea about the book and I challenge you to ferret out the correct answer. If you really want to know if you're right you’ll need to buy the book. How do you think you would do? After the quiz, I’ll discuss some of the highlights of Poetry Home Repair Manual, including how we used it in our workshop.

Quiz on King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
1. Stephen King says the following about where a writer gets ideas for stories:
A) “From out there…man!”
B) A secret place in the subconscious a writer can access by practicing deep breathing and twilight dreaming
C) Heavy use of chemicals, especially opiates and Budweiser
D) There is no such thing as an idea dump. You show up to work and recognize two unrelated ideas to make something new under the sun
E) All of the above

2. Eulah Buelah was:
A) A psychotic first grade teacher
B) A heavyset babysitter with digestive difficulties and a perverse sense of humor
C) A critic who worked for the Village Voice and wrote nasty things about King’s first novels

3. Stephen King’s first really great idea for a story came from:
A) The happy stamps he saw his mother licking
B) A 1950’s movie about zombies
C) His fascination with Tonto and the Lone Ranger
D) Comic books about deranged teenagers

4. Why does King throw away the first draft of Carrie? What connection did he need to realize in order to save the story?_________________________________

5. When it comes to write a story, you should write about:
A) ideas based on life experiences that have shaped you
B) formulas that will likely please your teacher
C) write what you know
D) anything you damn well want

6. Stephen King believes that stories are:
A) two parts wishes, one part terror
B) found things, like fossils in the ground
C) carefully outlined and plotted beforehand

7. Flannery O’Connor once said that stories are shaped by the “mystery of personality.” She believed that you should begin with a “real” character and go from there. Stephen King would:
A) agree 100%
B) believes that the situation comes first
C) emphasizes pure plot above all things

8. Describe how Stephen King discovered the idea for Misery: ___________
9. Take a look at this example passage of description below. What did King say was most important about description?

"After the hot clarity of Second Avenue, Palm Two was as dark as a cave. The backbar mirror picked up some of the street glare and glimmered in the gloom like a mirage. For a moment it was all Billy could see, and then his eyes began to adjust. There were a few solitary drinkers at the bar. Beyond them, the maitre d’, his tie undone and his shirt cuffs rolled up to show his hairy forearms, was talking with the bartender. There was still sawdust sprinkled on the floor, Billy noted, as if this were a twenties speakeasy instead of a millennium eatery where you couldn’t smoke, let alone spit a gob of tobacco between your feet…The air was redolent of steak and fried onions. All of it was the same as it ever was."
10. What’s wrong with this passage of dialogue from Hart’s War below? How might it be fixed?

Pryce grabbed Tommy once again. “Tommy,” he whispered, “this is not a coincidence! Nothing is what it seems! Dig deeper! Save him, lad, save him! for more than ever now, I believe Scott is innocent…You’re on your own now, boys. And remember, I’m counting on you to live through this! Survive! Whatever happens!”
He turned back to the Germans. “All right, Hauptmann,” he said with sudden, exceedingly calm determination. “I’m ready now. Do with me what you will.”

11. How does King show the goodness of Johnny, the protagonist of The Dead Zone? How does he show the evil of Stillson, the villain?

12. If one of your characters hit her hand with a hammer, you should have her say:
A) “Oops, I did it again.”
B) “Jeepers! That’s gonna leave a mark.”
C) A simple “ouch” will do the trick.
D) “@#$%*&@@!”

13. The reason you should have her say the above is:
A) To maintain FCC regulations
B) So that your mother can read it and not cringe
C) Because a writer must always tell the truth
14. In King style, invent one of your own “What If’s” that might make an interesting story... (What if a woman rented a hotel room and discovered a dead body in the bed…)

  • The Sage
    “While you’re writing your poem, there’s one less scoundrel in the world,” Kooser notes toward the beginning of The Poetry Home Repair Manual. “And I’d like a world, wouldn’t you in which people actually took the time to think about what they were saying?"

    I’m going to divide this into three sections. The first includes some highlights, favorite parts of the text. The second centers on activity we focused together on as a class. Just as Kooser advised, I sent my students out on Poetry Patrol. Many of my poets enjoyed it so much, they stayed “on patrol” long after the class ended. Lastly, I’ll conclude with a few more quotes courtesy of the text. These are only highlights and a small glimpse of what is an extraordinary book!

    “Poetry is communication and every word I’ve written here subscribes to that belief."

    “We serve each poem we write” (3).

    We say we loved the earth, but we could not stay” (5).

    “The aim of the poet and of poetry is to be of service” (6).

    “We teach ourselves to write the kind of poems we like to read” (9).

    “When you find a poem that is a terrible mess, think how it could have been made better” (12).

    “While you sit quietly scribbling into your notebook, memories and associations rise like bubbles out of the thick mud of your mind” (13).

    “A work of art defines itself into being, when we awaken into it and by it, when we are moved, altered, stirred. It feels as if we have done nothing, only given it a little time, a little space; some hairline crack opens in the self, and there it is” (13).

    “Revision, and I mean extensive revision, is the key to transforming a mediocre poem into a work that can touch and even alter a reader’s heart. It’s the biggest part of the poet’s job description” (16).

    “A poem is the invited guest of its reader” (18).

    Poetry Patrol

    Kooser tells us that “if we want to engage our listeners and readers we need to shake off generalizations and go for the specifics. It’s the details that make experiences unique and compelling” (93).

    How do we get more detail in our writing? We must practice and hone our skills of observation.

    Task One: For two days next week, take a close look at six things. Jot down your observations in a notebook. Turn one of these observations into a poem. (See page 94 for example.) I would suggest going to a favorite place or exploring somewhere new. For one of your ventures, try to focus on the people around you.

    · “Henry James advises writers, ‘Be one of those on whom nothing is lost.’ (qtd in Kooser 96)
    · “What about writing about things outside of ourselves? There’s no end to possibilities” (97).
    · “I’ve heard it said that God is in the details and the devil is in the details. Both aphorisms attest to the powers that details carry” (103).
    · Search for the “authenticating detail” recognizing that “the imagination makes a lousy realist”

Artist or entertainer? Which do you strive for in your writing? Perhaps the truth is a blend of each of these. Bestselling novelists can learn from the quiet craft of poetry, just as poets need to be reminded that this ancient craft began as entertainment--a skald telling stories of the impossible to an audience gathered around a fire.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

One For the Money, Two for the Show

For this first post, I’d like to compare two disparate books on the art of writing fiction, one geared toward commercial interests, the other literary writers, both fresh voices and the “elderly statesmen” of the arts. So we’ll call this first duel “big money” versus the “high arts.” Which do you aim for as a writer? We’ll start with the money.

Recently, I attended an all day conference in lovely Madison, Wisconsin. The keynote address was delivered by New York agent Donald Maass. I expected him to focus on the kinds of novels I don't intend to write, mainly thrillers and pop lite fiction, but I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the lecture.

Donald Maass drew heavily from his book Writing the Breakout Novel to talk about the sacred trade of storytelling. What makes a story timeless, a classic? How can novelists write in such a way that our readers go on thinking about our stories long after they set them down? I highly recommend his book and if you ever get the chance to hear Maass, he's an excellent speaker, both charming and humorous. As an agent, Maass sees hundreds of manuscripts come and go in a month, so he's honed a keen sense of what works and what doesn't in a novel.

Below, I've included some highlights of the lecture. I took copious notes, eight pages worth in fact. I was a hundred pages into my second novel when I attended the session. Afterwards, I immediately decided to start over and apply some of these wise storytelling principles. If you attend one of his lectures, I guarantee you'll come with ideas for your story!

  • Add heroic qualities and add them right away. Do we care deeply about the characters we are reading about? What causes us to care about a character?

    You must show opposite qualities, too. This opens extra character dimensions, by creating conflict and a possibility for change.

    Build Inner Conflict. A powerful quality, being torn in two directions. What the hell is this author doing? When are you still thinking about a main character after finishing a novel? The inner conflict will stay with you and resonate. The reader will be aghast at the moment of quitting.

    Create larger than life characters. What’s one thing your character says or does the way anybody would? Now how can you make this as odd as possible, unexpected or just plain strange?

    What is the goal for this particular scene? Write out the goals and go down the list to the lower portion. Dig deeper into motivations.

    Who is the antagonist in the story? Make them more multi-dimensional, so they will be frightening. Enemies are sometimes closer than friends. The more we understand the antagonist’s view, the more gripping the conflict.

    Raise the personal stakes. What is your protagonist’s main problem? Now how can you make it worse? Much, more worse? You must reinforce the problem and raise the stakes. Can you make those terrible circumstances the end of your story?

    Storytelling should take us extraordinary places. In order for that to happen you must make the hero go to hell and make your reader afraid of the outcome.

    Try to weave in three plot layers. Have scenes take place in unexpected places. Weave plot layers together so they intersect.

    Delineate the inner turning point by fixing down the passage. You must find a way to measure change, to measure how your character feels differently about a place. You must make the change dramatic.

    In the first thirty pages look for back story. Cut it. Three defining moments in the past, three separate scenes. Put this later in the story, where it will illuminate the character. Back story bogs down the beginning of a story. It should instead answer a question we’ve had all along. Let it be revelatory.

    With individual passages, add tension. Take your pages and toss them up in the air. Pluck up a page at random. Introduce apprehension. What tension comes from the point of view character? Tension all the time is the great secret of successful fiction. What happens next? How are all these tensions going to be resolved?

    Notes from: Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass. Cincinatti: Writer's Digest Books, 2001.

The second text focuses on literary writers, the ones who win the Pen/Faulkner and grants from the Guggenheim foundation, even if they don’t score big contracts from publishers. Published by Writer’s Digest Books, Novel Voices was edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais. The editors interviewed seventeen authors for this collection, so I’m going to include my favorite quotes from each working writer.

Averaging seven pages, the interviews provide a good quick read, a little infusion of energy during your coffee break before you head back toward writing that great American novel. Because of this format, I consider this text more helpful for teachers of creative writing. There are quotes here that are instructive toward teaching fiction and the craft of short stories. Here are the authors featured along with a favorite quote.

  • Richard Bausch. “When asked about his fiction, Bausch says that he takes characters whom he loves and visits trouble upon them.”

    A story generator he uses for students. “Here is an opening line; write a story about it: ‘I kicked him in the stomach; it was like being in church.’…One exercise is to describe a field of flowers from the perspective of someone who is about to kill a child. Or try to deliver a situation through dialogue only.”

    “I don’t teach writing. I teach patience and toughness, stubbornness and willingness to make mistakes and go on.”
  • Charles Baxter. “The truth is that you can say most of what you want to say about human beings and their behavior with a relatively limited number of characters if you send them through enough fiery hoops.”
  • Andre Dubus. “…and a wise old Jesuit once told me, “If there were no sins, there wouldn’t be art.”
  • Stuart Dybek. Responding to a question about “underlying rhythmic coherence:…It’s a feeling akin to understanding a character in order to be able to inhabit that character either on the page or stage…Gardner has another great line in which he talks about description as writer’s connection to his unconscious.”

    “I believe craft is the way the writer makes magic, the gifts through which the writer transcends his or her limitations and participates in a power borrowed or stolen from the gods.”
  • Richard Ford. “And I had begun, out of youthful ignorance and ardor, to associate darkness—emotional, spiritual, moral darkness, with high drama. It’s not unheard of. But I realized I could no longer sustain identifying darkness with drama.”
  • Ernest J Gaines. “They say if you steal from one person you are a plagiarizer; if you steal from a hundred people, you are a genius.”
  • William Gass, on reading as a writer. (Something this site is dedicated toward.) “This is one of the great losses of the profession, either as a critic or a writer. You don’t have the innocence or the openness that says, ‘Let me read and have a good time,’ that you might have had when you started out. Instead you think, ‘What am I going to say about this?’ or ‘What is the story telling me about how I am to write?’”
  • Tim Gautreaux. “People own the territory they are born into.”

    “Most editors have a vision, or least a notion of what’s good for their readers, and I trust that.”

    “When you teach creative writing, you basically say the same things over and over.”

    “Understand that if you are writing fiction it will probably take twenty years before you begin to know what you’re doing.”

    “A Jew and an Arab get onto a streetcar. There’s an immediate conflict there. A joke is the archetype of all human entertainment.”

    “I’ve considered myself more of a teacher than a writer all these years, and a husband and a father. I’ve put twelve million hours in honey-do projects into this marriage. That has always been first.”

    “I’ve read that a woman is born with all of the eggs she is ever going to produce. I think that a story writer is sort of like that. Sometimes, when a story is successful and complete, I feel like I’ve given birth to something.”

    From: Novel Voices. Levasseuer, Jennifer and Kevin Rablais. Cinncinati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2003.