The Mark Blog

WAR AND WRITING

For the second half of The Mark Program, Antoine had me revising—and lengthening—a couple of stories set during the Croatian War of Independence. These stories were especially difficult to revise in many respects because they’re set against a backdrop of violence. Not a lover of the war genre, I originally found these stories difficult to write. This may be why they were the shortest in the collection.

Part of me wonders if I had a right to write about this topic. After all, I’m not a Croatian citizen. I didn’t inhabit a bomb shelter for weeks at a time, didn’t run from sniper gunfire as my relatives had. A passerby of sorts, I am tied to the country through blood relations. I happened to go through Zagreb and the Dalmatian coast in 1993. I saw the signs of war firsthand, but managed to stay away from the hot spots of danger. What qualifies me as someone who should write about this war? Other writers have pondered this dilemma. Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was nominated for the National Book Award in 2012. The novel features Iraq War veterans who are at a Dallas Cowboys game. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Fountain said, “Since I’ve never served in the military, never been in a shooting war, I felt like I had to earn the right to write a book like this. I’m still not satisfied that I had the right to do it.”

I’m not sure the alternative, which is to not write the stories at all, would solve anything. Consciousness begets consciousness. Not telling a story because one has not lived through an experience would silence a lot of voices. If we qualify to write a story only when first-hand experience is earned, then many admired stories would never have been written. That’s the beauty of writing: we can assume another point of view, another life, if only temporarily, on the page.

And when assuming another point of view, stories come alive because of character. The war may be a strong presence, a backdrop, part of the setting. However, it is not the story. In the end, stories are about characters who desperately want or need something in their lives, characters who are grappling with the reality of their experiences, whether inhabiting a city under siege or a quiet nursing home in the suburbs. After a number of revisions, I fleshed out by the stories by focusing on characters, not the war.

Bookmark This: Zadie Smith's Rules for Writers

Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW provides The Guardian with a list of golden rules for writers.

Here are a couple of our favorites:

3. Don't romanticise your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can't do aren't worth doing. Don't mask self-doubt with contempt."

To read the full list, click here.

SUFFER NOW, HEAL LATER

This morning I did something unusual, or unusual for me, anyway. I woke up at 6am and went to a yoga class. I know this is not classic, writerly, self-destructive, up-all-night, nefarious behavior, but I’ve probably had enough of that for a few novels. Now it’s more beneficial for me to have a clear head and to utilize its maximum potential in my writing. Or whenever I get back to it.

Currently, I’m on a break. It’s a bit of a challenge. For the first few days after I turned in the second draft of my collection, the stories kept running through my head. I kept wishing I’d changed or deleted something and wishing I’d had a bit more time, especially on the final story.

My first version of that story juggled three different plot-threads. This wasn’t my initial intent; they came up organically through the writing process. I think this layered, tri-story approach made the work intriguing, but it was difficult to hold them all together and come to a satisfactory payoff in the end. 

After two re-writes, and cutting one of the plot threads, I still struggled to find the right tone and trajectory for the story. With the deadline looming, I scrambled at the eleventh hour, turning in what I knew was a not-quite-realized version of the story.

In the end, I need more time. Because it’s the last story in the collection, I feel like it has to be especially relevant. This is the end of the protagonist’s journey (the stories are linked by the same main character), and he needs to come to something. If not a revelation, he should have at least a change, a development, a regression, something. Even if it’s not neat or tidy or complete. In fact, it might be better if it’s not. It doesn’t have to be rousing, heartwarming, resolving, or redeeming. It just has to resonate on some level. Basically, it has to work.

I’m determined to let it go for a while, and to return in a month and see how I feel. I’m actually looking forward to seeing the manuscript with fresh eyes. I’m always surprised; even when I think I couldn’t possibly work a story any more, I come back to it a month or two later and find all kinds of holes, bad sentences, characters, or situations that can be developed more sharply, new ways to uncover hidden depths.

Won’t this always be true? Is it possible to overwork a story? Maybe, but I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet. I think as long as I’m inspired to work and it feels like it’s getting better, then it probably is. Even if it has to initially get worse in order to eventually get better.

It’s like life, how sometimes the only way to get to a place of healing or revelation is to feel the pain in order to process it. In other words, I have to suffer my own bad writing now to write better later.

WRITERS' REEL: Neil Gaiman's Commencement Speech "Make Good Art"

Neil Gaiman, author of Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book, delivers a commencement speech to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia's graduating class of 2012.

"When you start out on a career in the arts, you have no idea what you're doing.

This is great.

People who know what they're doing, know the rules, and know what is possible and what is impossible.

You do not. And you should not...

...If you don't know what's impossible, it's easier to do."

Clarifying Goals

I’ve heard that you should write a book that you would want to read. Lately, I’ve been reading works from a wide variety of genres and styles – George Sheehan’s Running & Being, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave – and it’s got me thinking about what sort of books most draw me in, and why. What characteristics enrapture me as a reader? Which of these characteristics are present in my novel, and how can I develop the ones that aren’t?

In Swamplandia!, I like the melding of the fantastic and the mundane. Ava Bigtree, the 13-year-old protagonist, narrates the story of her family’s crumbling alligator theme park and the disintegration of her family. I appreciate Ava’s voice, full of depth and zest. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I’m interested in adolescent female narrators because the protagonist of my book is 15-year-old Lillian. It’s something I’ve struggled with since the inception of the book: How to navigate the story through a first-person teenager’s voice while being both true to her age and, at the same time, conveying the complexity of the situation, of which she might not yet be aware?

The stark honesty and bravery of Wave, a memoir about a woman who lost everything—her husband, parents, and two young sons—in the Southeast Asia tsunami of 2004, has humbled and shaken me. She is at once unsentimental and full of emotion. The story is told non-chronologically, flashing between present action after the tsunami, memories of the flooding, memories of life when her family was alive, and reveries. Emotional truth in fiction is the characteristic I admire most about a book, and Sonali Deraniyagala achieves it fully in this memoir.

I’ve found that I like literature that lets me feel as if I’m getting a surreptitious peek into the author’s life. In The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristofer Jansma achieves this, as he layers story within story, creating a meta-effect. It reminds me of People of Paper, another experimental novel I value. At the same time, I found aspects of the novel dissatisfying. In the second half, its thematic concerns seemed to shift from the story of the characters’ lives to a concern with the idea of storytelling itself and, more specifically, the difficulty of writing. While this may sometimes be a compelling topic, its specific presence in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards undid, for me, the more compelling emotional investment in the people themselves.

I’m still in the midst of George Sheehan’s Running & Being. (Love that title!) So far, I’ve found that I love the rhythms of his writing. It feels free and natural, while simultaneously focused and articulate. He writes about the similarities between running and writing; during his life, he excelled at both. He offers mind-opening insights, such as, “Good writing is true writing,” and “I must achieve the aloneness that is necessary for the creative act whether one is a master or a common man like myself. Because nothing creative, great or small, has been done by committee.” (Also, I’m in awe of the fact that this man ran a 3:01 marathon at the age of 61.)

My priorities, as I work to complete and polish my book, are these:
1) Write a full and open world. Build a world that can be seen in a reader’s mind.
2) Care about the characters and their problems, because this can be felt on the page. Develop and deepen characters, and their relationships with each other.
3) Pace the novel, giving space and words as needed, so that the story feels fully experienced by the reader.
4) Make conflicts complex and multi-dimensional. They cannot be easily resolved; there is no single clear-cut answer. They demand internal struggles.
5) Give readers an intimate sense of the first-person narrator. The aim is to write a novel that feels as if the reader is, in fact, occupying her soul and looking from within the sockets of her eyes at the world.

SEARCHING FOR STRUCTURE

 

I am happy and relieved to say that yesterday at noon, I emailed my final manuscript to the PEN Center USA offices. Of course, this isn’t the final version. Much has changed since the beginning, even since the Mid-Project Review. I’ll continue to work on it after the Final Review, which will be at the end of June. However, for now, this is the manuscript. Up until yesterday, I was still debating about the order and placement of the stories. This has been an ongoing process. At the Mid-Project Review, we all agreed that the chronological structure I was trying to implement simply wasn’t working for this book. Yesterday at about one in the morning, exhausted and convinced that the structure was as good as it was going to get at this moment in time, I retired for the night. Which gets me thinking about the structure…

Strangely enough, deciding on a structure for your book is sort of like choosing a school for your child. School selection has been something I’ve spent a considerable amount of time pondering this spring. When you stop to think about it, a school is the structure you drop your child into. Unfortunately, I chose incorrectly for both my child and my book. The error in thinking was similar in both situations. I made decisions based on my preferences, as opposed to what is compatible. I thought a progressive school would offer an out-of-the-box approach to learning. Turns out that this wasn’t the best fit. My child needed a different structure. A similar thing happened with the collection of linked stories. I looked at some of my favorite books, such as Little Altars Everywhere, and noticed that they were structured chronologically. This intuitively made sense to me. I tried to make it work—I really, really hoped it could work--but the collection was too stilted and lop-sided in many respects using this organization. This obviously wasn’t the best fit, either.

Back to the drawing board. The second time around, I strove to make a more conscious choice for my child and the book. I asked for advice from people I trusted and listened to different opinions. I’m grateful for all of the wise people I met along this journey, especially at The Mark. I tried to read between the lines. I asked myself questions: does this structure make sense? Why or why not? What are the pros? What are the cons? I allowed myself plenty of time to ponder the decisions. I wrote about it a lot. I wrote in my journal about the school situation and wrote a handful of outlines and played around with notecards while thinking about the book. Most importantly, I followed my gut. If something didn’t seem to be right, even if looked fine on paper, I discarded the notion.

Nothing is perfect. In one way or another, I’ll probably have to tinker with it again. This is all right. The objective is to find a good overall fit. As one of my writing teachers once told me, “Anything (in writing) is OK--if it works.” It’s just about finding out what works.

BOOKMARK THIS: Tips on Revision

From The Guardian, M.J. Hyland discusses the importance of revisions, how to avoid clichéd pitfalls, and stresses that there is not a single first draft in the world that is, or ever will be, perfect.

The article reads:
"I've never read or written a perfect first draft. Perfect first drafts don't exist. And yet most writers, at the beginning of their careers, think they must. This intimidating myth of effortless gift persists because successful authors aren't in the habit of admitting to writing weak drafts and rarely show the public their mistakes."

Hyland continues with a list of writings tips:
1. Remove exaggeration (tell the fictional "truth"). "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink." George Orwell

2. Cut out cliches. "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov

3. Remove your failed similes. A bad simile is embarrassing, like a long joke with a weak punch line, told by a nervous comedian. "Kate inched over her own thoughts like a measuring worm." John Steinbeck

4. Don't attempt a final version of the beginning of the story until you know how it ends. (And don't waste time fussing over the beginning until the rest of the work is done.) "Be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid." HW Fowler

5. Do at least one of the following to help you see your prose more clearly:

• Write by hand

• Use an ugly font

• Read your work aloud, or have somebody else read it aloud

• Write your second draft without referring to the first draft

To read the full article, click here.

The Finish Line

Above is a picture I took of the cabin in Big Bear where I am now sitting, writing this blog entry. I’ve come here to be away from distractions while I finish my book, due tomorrow at noon. Or, at least, this particular draft of it. I’ve made a lot of changes since the Mid-project Review, even written a few brand new stories that were birthed from the ashes of previous ones. I’ll get as far as I can by the deadline, and then send it off as is. Done? Not quite. As close as I can get over six months and three marathon writing sessions alone in the woods? You bet.

The cabin belongs to a friend, a fellow teacher and artist, and it’s crammed full of old things: paintings, collectibles, trinkets, vintage furniture and furnishings, records, and books. It’s tough to resist dusting off one of the hardcover classics on the bookshelves, many of which I’ve still never read, sitting back by a roaring fire, and flipping through the weathered pages. That pleasure will have to wait. I’m here to work, dammit.

I have allowed myself a couple short reading breaks to get me inspired. I read two now-classic short stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and Raymond Carver’s “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (What great, and similar, titles.) Both are amazing, near-perfect examples of what’s possible within the scope of twenty pages.

Though both writers kicked off the so-called “modern era” of the short story, these stories are written in a more classic style. They both start with long character summaries and then shift to the heart of the story, the scene where their lives become unraveled. In a way, this goes against the maxim, “start in the middle and go from there.” But who knows what their process was? They may have started in the middle, and realized that the story would be built better if they pulled back and gave more context. Certainly, their continued popularity shows they must have been doing something right.

This is heartening in a way, because lately I’ve been worried that my stories were too traditionally plotted in this post-postmodern age. I’d been reading Gary Lutz and Amy Hempel and admiring their more episodic, pastiche approach. Their approach relies not so much on plotting, moving logically from A to B to C, as on small bursts of scenes, building momentum, and focusing less on the what and more on the how. They’re essentially minimalists, avoiding anything extraneous or cliché, and their impact, in particular Hempel’s, is all the stronger for it. Lutz, relies a bit too heavily on the restructuring of language for my taste. He is so consumed with finding new ways to communicate that I find the stories themselves less gripping, and have a harder time connecting with the characters. I guess you’d say it’s more experimental, a form of writing I admire in theory more than practice.

Reading them made me feel about as much a postmodernist as Flannery O’Conner. I am, however, telling very contemporary stories, set from the ‘80s to present day, modern in content, and writing rather explicitly about things that would go unmentioned in most eras of literature. I’m hopeful that this combination might prove alluring: classic story structuring for contemporary stories.

Then again, over time, I may gradually shed convention, strip away the formalities, forget about the what and zero in on the how. But right now, with just one day left, it’s a little late to reinvent any wheels. Instead, I’ve got just enough time to make sure there’s enough air in them, that the gas tank isn’t empty, and that the car remains on the road, driving on.

Not One for Good-byes

I've never been one for good-byes. I'm the person who lingers on the curb at the airport, or stands in front of my house waving until the car disappears around the corner, or runs back inside a friend's apartment to give her another hug. But, whether I refuse to say good-bye or not, the Mark Program is going to say farewell to me on June 29th, the date of our Final Review.

Last week, we had our last workshop and, tomorrow, our final manuscripts are due. In a month, at the Review, we will be challenged to think through and discuss our projects. The program isn't done, but we're in the final phase. I've never been one for good-byes and I know that saying good-bye to this program is going to be no different.

So, as I mold and polish my manuscript to be its best self and contemplate what I might be asked at the Review, I also feel the need to think about what it will be like after the program. My hope is that, in mentally preparing myself, I can make this transition smooth, happy, and productive. Here are some of the ways -- ranging from the small and idiosyncratic to the broad and goal-oriented -- that I am trying to prepare myself:

• Re-subscribing to The New Yorker. (There's something about its arrival each week that creates a nice rhythm and keeps me feeling looped in to contemporary news and writing.)

• Creating a comprehensive reading list of both fiction and craft books for myself. (I know George Saunder's new Tenth of December will be on this list, as well as more Aimee Bender, Toni Morrison, and Denis Johnson. I've been meaning to read Charles Baxter's craft book, Burning Down the House, for a long while.)

• Cleaning off my desk.

• Developing a strong and clear outline of my novel. (This will include which chapters are working as they are, which chapters call for revision, and which need to be written.)

• Seeking and reading books that are successfully narrated from a first-person adolescent point-of-view. (My novel is told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, Lillian. I'd love suggestions.)

• Organizing a calendar of deadlines to apply to conferences and fellowships and to submit to contests and journals.

• Thinking through concrete writing goals and next steps. (For the Final Review, each of us is required to make a list of writing goals. For myself, I'd also like to set some deadlines for each of these: when will I have X chapter written by? when will I revise X by?)

• Reconnecting with writing friends and setting dates for exchanging pages and workshopping together. (I love community and find it so helpful--and fun--to read each other's work and to give and receive feedback.)

I don't look forward to bidding farewell to The Mark Program. Yet, at the same time, I am anxious to launch into the next phase of writing and revising, confident that--as a direct result of this program--I am in a better place to finish my novel. When I have to wave good-bye and pack my bags, I'll do so knowing that a deep, positive mark has been left on my novel and, even more, on me as a writer.

GROWING WITH BOOKS

I’m the type of reader who always seems to have a favorite book that I keep coming back to. In the second grade it was The Little House. By the time third grade rolled around, I had transitioned to Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. In fifth grade I discovered Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In the course of a year I must have read the book de jour over a dozen times. Easily.

Junior year of high school I became obsessed with The Sun Also Rises, reading it multiple times. At the time, I probably didn’t even understand half of the subtext. But that’s how it is when I set my sights on a certain book. I can’t leave it alone. The following summer I went to visit family on the Dalmatian coast. Waiting for my uncle to wrap up work at the public library, I spotted a copy of Hemingway’s classic, translated into Serbo-Croat, on his desk. In spite of my limited reading and writing skills in my first language, I wanted to give it a try. My uncle thought it was a great idea. It took me almost the entire two months, but I read it in my mother tongue as well.

I used to think that we choose the books we read. We buy or check out a book and read it. We make a choice using our brain. They don’t magically appear on our nightstands. However, I’m beginning to realize that books choose us as well. There’s a bit of serendipity when we find just the right book, one that seems to speak to us at just the right time in our lives. Once I heard someone say that books are alive. At the time I didn’t understand what they meant. After reflection, I’ve come to realize that the pages of our favorite books are infused with energy. Whatever is happening, all of the joy or pain on the page springs to life in our minds. In this way, the books we love are living entities.

Over the course of The Mark program, I’ve discovered a new favorite. It’s William Trevor’s After Rain. In recent months I’ve returned to Trevor’s book to study the technical elements of his writing. How did Trevor manage to tell a story from differing points of view? I reread “Timothy’s Birthday.” How does he end a story with an image? I look to “A Day.” Returning to our favorites allows us to gain greater depth and understanding. And when we reread a favorite, it’s like being reunited with an old friend we always seem to learn something new about.