Tag Archives: writing fiction

Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: The Sermon on the Mount Holyoke

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Blessed are the writers who have arrived at Mount Holyoke College to participate in the 2017 Warren Wilson MFA Program Alumni Conference, for they are lucky bastards, and I feel truly blessed and lucky to be here among them.

Blessed is the writer who takes the red-eye flight out of Portland at midnight, sleeps through most of that four hour flight, is fortunate enough not to get completely lost in the chaos that is the Newark Liberty International Airport as he finds and takes a bus, yes, an actual bus, from one terminal to the next to catch a connecting flight, sleeps through most of that short little jumper, and lands safely at Bradley International at Hartford, Connecticut, where, unsure about which shuttle company he hired last time he was here, and loathe to pay almost $300 for a private shuttle, hires a damn taxi and sleeps through most of that ride and arrives safely but still wiped out on this beautiful 19th century campus of Mt. Holyoke College, home of Emily Dickinson, who may have been epileptic, some people say.

Blessed is the writer who takes what seems like the fourth and deepest nap over the course of a single ten hour stretch of clock-time in his dungeon-like dorm room, tucked away under a stairwell into the basement, where he will serve out his week as the resident conference troll.

Blessed is the writer who opens his suitcase to discover it’s full of a mysterious pile of black plastic shards, who, for many moments is in a panic about what he packed with him that is now utterly destroyed: glasses okay, cd jewel boxes okay, books bent somewhat but not alarmingly so, clothes okay but full of plastic shards. Everything must be shaken out, the suitcase overturned, and finally a pile of this debris accumulates on the second dorm bed. Blessed is this WTF moment that culminates finally with the conclusion that, holy crap, the plastic shell that allows one’s suitcase to maintain its general boxiness was somehow completely shattered into hundreds of pieces in the journey. Blessed is the writer who comes to Mount Holyoke with a hard case and will venture home in six days with a soft one.

Blessed is the writer who thought several months ago to start storing all of his creative work on an external hard drive, because, blessing of blessings, his computer dies a quite sudden death two days before coming to a writer’s conference.

Blessed was the first night of readings, morning meditation, and a first day free and clear of responsibilities. Blessed is the writer who reads tonight sporting his disco bowtie, who chose poetry this time, a first for this fiction writer, but following in the footsteps of dozens of fiction writers and poets who have chosen to cross that invisible genre boundary and did not die from it, but, on the contrary, were met by their readers and listeners with much rejoicing.

That’s my dorm room back there!

Another view of the dungeon.

The Holyoke Troll

Looks kind of like a Rorschach inkblot test

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On Reading An Unpublished Novel I Finished 15 Years Ago

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The novel has been sitting in a box, both a real box on my desk and a virtual box on my hard drive. I miss it. I finished it some fifteen years ago, having labored over it throughout the preceding five or six years. I have fond memories of its composition and of the way I felt about its success on the page, bolstered by lots of voices from the past of folks who had read it, had good things to say about it, and encouraged me to get it out into the world. And finally, I feel a kind of sadness about the loss into obscurity of its subject matter, a subject matter I haven’t written about since then, but nevertheless a subject matter of monumental importance to my inner life and personality.

Why has it been so long inside the box? Well, the agent search yielded over and over again the kind of response that most good writers are quite used to seeing: “This is good; you’re a fine writer; here’s a list of laudatory adjectives to describe what we thought of your work; but it is not the right thing for us at this time. Some other agency will feel differently. Good luck to you!”  That’s not a bad kind of note to get. But it went on and on.  Until I had agents who wanted to take it on–for a fee. Or until I had agents who wanted to take it on, but  couldn’t tell me a damn single specific thing about why they loved it and thought they could sell it. Or until, (and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back), an agent loved it and asked for a series of quite lengthy and difficult revisions before she felt she could take it on. I complied. I complied because I thought the feedback was sound and the revisions would make a better novel. And I complied because I believed (don’t ask me why), that an agent asking for a revision would not do so unless they meant to take on the work.  Well, I was wrong about that. Ultimately, this particular agent passed on the novel. By now, I was shell-shocked. By then, I had been working on a new book. I shelved my little book about an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion (not really its true subject matter) and started in earnest on a new idea. 10 years later, still smarting from the agent search for the first novel, I skipped that trauma altogether and decided to self publish through iUniverse. Thus, the second novel I ever wrote, Monster Talkbecame my first published book. Then, I was on to the next idea, the idea that I am just now wrapping up, while my first novel continues to sit in its literal and virtual boxes.

Over the last several days I have liberated this work from its box on the desk and reread my first novel. What a strange experience. It’s probably been at least 13 years since I last read it from “cover to cover.” Some of it I didn’t remember writing, and as I was reading I was not sure where the novel would take me in the pages to come. That was a pleasant surprise, but odd, like looking at photographs of yourself doing things or being places that have totally fallen out of memory. Initially, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it, that it would seem green to me and unaccomplished, structurally incoherent. After all, I was 35 or 36 years old when I finished it, just a baby, and fresh out of writer’s school. But as I read, ultimately and happily I thought to myself, hey, this is pretty good. And it occurred to me, too, that its strangeness was in part because of the fact that the writer of this work was a different guy. We’ve already established that he was younger, yes, but there were other things that struck me about him. He was brave and brash. He was writing about things honestly that this older version of him would have difficulty articulating. His book was kind of dirty–but in the best possible way. Erotic might be a better word than dirty, but that would depend on the reader. But he was funny, too, and his sex scenes were funny. He could really write a beautiful sentence. And he captured, far better than I could capture now, 1980’s and 1990’s suburban life. Reading now the fictional work of a man who was alive then and living through it, the details are convincing and immediate. The internet was brand new in the 90’s and slow, non-existent in the 80’s. Email was just becoming a thing in the mid to late 90’s. People were still renting films from video stores. There were very few cell phones. Teachers were writing on chalkboards. Young people, when they wanted to go some place, walked to their destination. In this way, the novel felt like a kind of time capsule to me, and this writer captured what it was like to be a teenager in the 80’s, part of the true subject matter of the book, something I might have difficulty writing about now given that I am surrounded nine months out of the year by 21st century teens, whose lives, I suspect, are very different from their counterparts of 30-some years ago, but, who knows, might be in more danger of spontaneous human combustion then their predecessors!

So happily, I find suddenly and again that I have another work that is perhaps worthy of publication and I am psyched to try once again to find a good home for it. And to other writers who have older works languishing in drawers, boxes, and hard drives, I say, get those suckers out and reread. At the very least you’ll be surprised and you’ll learn some stuff about your past selves. And if you like what you find there, that work may just have another life to live.  Set that baby free.

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Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Tropical Flesh Mandala

I slept for seven hours cuddled up with my tiny electric fan–literally.  I thought maybe I’d roll over in the middle of the night and knock it off the mattress, or, worse, dreaming that I was snuggling with this machine, I might wake up with my hair caught in the fan blades.  No, it was safe and I was safe.  I didn’t move and the fan, sitting right next to me on the mattress, whirred me to sleep, kept me cool, and finally, on the fourth night at Wally Writer’s Camp, I slept well enough to be downright jazzed about attending this morning’s first class, having something to do with the iconic Buddhist, Hindu, sometimes Christian, oftentimes secular symbol or practice of the mandala. For readers who may not know what a mandala is, rather than define it, here’s an example I pulled from the mighty web in a 30 second google search:

SmallMandala

The class was taught by my new Wally buddy, the poet Michael Collins, and he facilitated the class in the best way, or perhaps, the only way in which to facilitate such a class with writers.  He had 20 or 30 different mandalas spread around the room.  In an hour Michael spoke less than 3 or 400 words.  Instead of talking about them, he orchestrated for us an experience with them. We looked at mandalas; we wrote about mandalas; some of us moved around from mandala to mandala; some of us remained faithful to one the entire time. In silence and on our notepads or notebooks, we described, told stories around, and dialogued with the mandalas, and then finally we made one of our own.  For about twenty minutes we were coloring, and it was exhilarating.

But here’s the thing for me that speaks to both the power of this kind of work and of the mandala specifically, but, more importantly, to the synchronistic quality that often percolates through a Wally Writer’s Camp experience.  After describing and narrating the particular mandala each of us had chosen, Michael instructed us to dialogue with it.  And, after giving us a few quick descriptors about what that might look like, he made an offhand quip to put us at ease and make us laugh: “You know, maybe you’ve got a character that talks to art.”

As it so happens, in my current project in fiction writing, I have a character that talks to art.  My dialogue had nothing to do with that, but with the particular mandala I was looking at, a series of four trees around the circle, each tree in a different stage of its year, bare, leafing, blooming, fruiting. But Michael’s comment stuck with me, and the mandala that I created later represented the four characters in my novel and their interconnectedness, and then, later, when I squirreled off by myself to write in my sky room (once more unoccupied!), I wrote a scene in which my character talks to art.

Today, in part because of a good night’s sleep, in part because of Michael’s fortuitous class, and in part because René just texted me a picture of my son, I have been grateful and happy almost beyond comprehension.

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P.S.  This is not the mandala I was looking for, but t’will serve.

P.S.P.S.  Oh, here it is, right in front of my face.

Photo on 7-2-14 at 3.48 PM

The mandala I made for my characters, while useful, was ugly.  I won’t be posting it.

 P.S.P.S.P.S.  And this, for Michael Collins, who has never heard of Robyn Hitchcock, is a song from his 80’s solo album Globe of Frogs, “Tropical Flesh Mandala.” The piano solo during the end fade is especially brilliant and terrible.

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Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: Reading What’s Not On The Page

 

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I arrived at Mt. Holyoke College last night right in the middle of dinner after a long day of traveling. I woke up at 3:30 in the morning in order to get to the Portland airport by 5 to catch a plan by 6 to arrive in Chicago to hang out for a couple of hours and have lunch with my friend Annie, then to get on a plane to Hartford and from there to share a shuttle with Annie to Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass, to arrive just in time for dinner and to enjoy the first readings of the conference and afterwards a drink with Wally buddies. We call ourselves Wallies. I’m not sure why we do that. My guess has always been that Wally must be short or a nickname for the fellow our writing college was named after: Warren Wilson. I cannot, however, at this time, verify the truth or accuracy of my guess. I’ll look into this and get back to you.

Today’s schedule is light. Workshops are the only thing happening during the day. Nothing else formally scheduled until this evening’s readings. So if attendees are not workshopping, they are freee with an extra e. I have been choosing not to workshop so that I can spend my energies writing writing writing. Today, I have not been writing, but rather, I’ve been reading my writing, which is all part of the same thing, ultimately. As I am working on a longer piece, time spent reading my writing is necessary in order for me to immerse myself, to get back into that other world, that world that I left behind many, many months ago now. There’s always a fear that when I come back to something I haven’t worked on for awhile that I will be unhappy with it, that I won’t like it, that I will no longer be interested. That rarely happens to me, happily, but that doesn’t prevent me from worrying about it, nevertheless. I read to myself and I rediscover usually what it was that hooked me to begin with.

I read to myself out loud—so I have to be alone in a room, not in a library or a bookshop or a coffee house–people would think I was nuts—I can’t write in public places because I can’t read out loud. So I’m here in this conference room all alone in the science building reading out loud to myself and I’ve stumbled upon a problem or a dilemma. An opportunity.

I am writing a first person narrative that is set in Oregon—Portland to be exact, my hometown, and on the coast of Oregon—Newport precisely.

For some reason I cannot explain, my narrator has a southern accent. Ultimately, I know I have to understand why that is. Right now, I can’t do it. I only know that this is how he speaks or how I hear him speaking. I have not written in dialect. In fact, I think that if I were to give pages of this thing to someone to read out loud or to themselves, there is no reason to suspect that this reader could discern or would interpret this speaker as being a southerner. And the narrator does not identify himself that way, at least not explicitly, not yet anyway. So when I read it, I am reading something that is not on the page. This interests me.

And so I have this burning question. Must it be on the page? My gut tells me that it should. If I understand the voice of my narrator correctly, his southern-ness is an important trait, something that I cannot leave up to the fates to help my reader understand. My gut tells me that I have to know how he came to be in the Northwest, and that somehow in his narration he must reveal his origins to the reader. But there is a counter-gut feeling telling me that maybe after all the fates should decide. I hear his southern drawl. Someone else may not. Is the story he tells dependent upon his regional identity? Could it be that he just doesn’t identify himself that way, at least consciously or overtly? Unless the character believes his southern-ness is central to his identity or to the story he is trying to tell, why should he mention it? If I read the piece in a particular voice, and somebody reads the piece in a distinctly different voice, is the second voice less valid because it is different from the one I hear? And does the piece suffer with this kind of ambiguity or openness to interpretation? Here’s the question—or the real problem. The problem of how the piece is read out loud, by the writer or anyone else, is moot. It matters little or not at all. What matters is this: Does the thing work on the page? Is it engaging? Is it good? Is the character in question believable, interesting, sufficiently complex? This other stuff is a question of ORAL interpretation, which is a different animal altogether from the writing of effective, meaningful, artful fiction—and that’s what I am hoping to do.

But I still wonder. I’m waffling. I want to understand, still, why I’m reading what’s not on the page and what it says about this character and this book, and what it says about the writer.

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#139: Writer’s Camp

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I’m going to camp.
I’ll be alone most of the time
but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner,
and at least once every evening,
I will be surrounded by friends,
writer friends, people who know me
and who share the dream and the drive
or the dream of the drive or the drive
of the dream to live their lives as writers,
whatever that means.  Whatever it means,
for all of my fellow campers it is a matter of survival;
we do it, as my friend Joan puts it, because we have to.
I’ll squirrel myself away in the science building,
(if no one gets there first) with the great big windows
looking out at the surrounding hills of Mt. Holyoke
and down over the balcony at the tables shaped
like amoebae, and I will pound at the keys
a bunch of words that attempt to tell stories
about people who only exist in my mind
while all or most of my writer buddies
do the same elsewhere.  And in the end we all go out
dancing, as it should be, now and forever,
amen.

 

 

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#3: Self Censorship and the Creative Writer (You Can’t Say That)

I hate it.  I wish it were not true, but whenever I have penned something delicious or exciting or in some way daring or brave, a series of questions begin nagging my monkey mind:  What will my students think of that? How will my mother react? Will my brother disown me? Will my wife want me reading this in public? Finally, is honesty worth the potential embarrassment or ridicule or backlash or anger in the service of art? To that last question I want to answer with a resounding, unequivocal YES.  And yet, a disconnect exists between the belief that the only art worth doing is the art that pushes an envelope and the realization that ultimately that envelope pushing will be attributed to me, and if there’s a piper to be paid, I will be paying the piper. Here’s poem #3 for NaPoWriMo, interestingly enough, in second person.

You Can’t Say That

and that’s why you write fiction

because it’s one thing to say what you mean
or to say what has happened
and it’s another thing, an easier thing
to attribute that meaning or happening
to an imaginary person
or an imaginary world.

These are not your experiences
or your crazy predilections,
this is not your philosophy,
this is not what you believe.
These are inventions, you say,
based on some studying you have done,
and that’s why the work is so convincing
because your research was painstaking
and meticulous, see.

You shrug at the question,
“how much of this is autobiographical”
in part because it’s a boring question
but in larger part because you don’t want to answer
that
 this is your story.

As a fiction writer you envy the
poet and the essayist
because they’ve put it all out there
and have not flinched
while your reality is disguised,
decorated, gussied up
for the first date
in order to make just the
right impression

Postscript:  I don’t know if I believe all of this–the jury is out.  While there is a part of me that sometimes distrusts the artifice of a novel, I know that some fiction tells the truth likes nobody’s business (Toni Morrison’s Beloved), while some poets might be just as likely to invent or to disguise their own reality in a persona poem or some other imaginative, symbolic way.  The essayist, on the other hand?  Here’s this bit by Annie Dillard: “The essay can do anything a poem can do, can do anything a short story can do; anything but fake it.” But still–the bottom line is this, at least for me: whether it’s an essay or a poem or a story or a novel, it’s always difficult to write about the most personal things, the things truly at one’s core.

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