At age twelve, I wrote my first collection of stories. I typed it all on a Macintosh––first generation––printed out ten copies, stuffed them in a fancy translucent cover with plastic binding, and gave them to my family and friends. I even sold a few at a garage sale for a dollar, still the most I’ve made from any story.
I only recall two of the stories now. One was a post-apocalyptic Don Quixote adaptation. I hadn’t actually read Quixote, just seen a cartoon version, but that was enough to go on. The second was called "Bookworm," about a man obsessed with books. He meets the girl of his dreams, a fellow bookworm, but he’s so painfully shy that he can’t get anywhere with her. One night, he magically transforms into a library book. She picks him out among all of the others and reads him-- his dream come true.
Not bad, twelve-year-old me. I was clearly inspired by lots of late night Twilight Zone viewings (see the video above). The “Bookworm” story came to mind this week as I was thinking about the importance of having readers. The intensive writing, reading, and critiquing schedule of The Mark program has revealed to me the absolute importance of the outside eye.
This is especially true when it comes to the behemoth that is the full-length manuscript. The more my collection approaches some kind of hybrid novel territory, the more important readers become. It’s too easy to lose perspective on my own work when I’m assuming the dual role of judge (writer) and jury (reader). Or, to use a different metaphor, only those on the outside of the hole you’re stuck in can help pull you out.
In our first meeting, Antoine Wilson had us read an essay about writing workshops by Frank Conroy, longtime director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop (which is the first of its kind, so he knows of which he speaks). He states, “…the reader is to some extent the co-creator of the narrative. The author, then, must write in such a way as to allow the reader’s energy into the work.”
He calls it the “dance of two minds” and says, rightly, “without the active participation of the reader’s mind and imagination, absolutely nothing will happen.” This says to me that not only is less more, but even in a story where a zillion things happen, the reader must be included in the process. If the reader can't engage with the work, it's just words on a page.
One way to address this issue is to assume the reader is as intelligent as I am, but not more so. Writers will often read books “over their heads,” as Conroy puts it, and tackle challenging books they may not fully comprehend, as anyone who’s tried to make it through Ulysses, or better yet, Finnegans Wake, can attest to. But writing over one’s head, that can be deadly. The foundation of good writing, he states, is “meaning, sense, and clarity.”
But how do we get there? I’m not always sure what my stories are about until I’ve workshopped them, sometimes several times over. But it’s not like everyone agrees on a meaning and that’s that. The process is more like osmosis. As the conversation in a workshop flows, my mind sifts through the dirt of the story, the characters, the plot, the structure, language, and details, and if I’m paying attention, underneath it all I can uncover that rare and precious jewel: the theme.
The irony? It can take years for a writer to finish a short story, whereas a reader can read and digest it in under an hour.
When I was twelve, most of my readers were just impressed I wrote anything at all. Unsatisfied with the story collection, I attempted to turn the Quixote story into a novel. About a hundred or so pages in, I abandoned it. Had I a reader who offered critical advice, helped me see what I was trying to say, and inspired me to continue, perhaps I would’ve started this writing career a helluva lot earlier.
Where was The Mark when I needed it?
Did you know there are young writers just like you living above the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris? And you don't have to time-travel to the 1920s to find them. Check it out:
This week, as I write about writing, it is important to me to write about Shannon. She was my seventh grade Core teacher, which means she taught English in addition to history and social studies. She taught me about the power of words. She also taught me to believe that I could be skilled at expressing myself through them. For the past three and a half years, Shannon, who is 43, has battled cancer, and I recently learned that she is now in hospice care.
Some of the lessons I’ve learned from Shannon are literal. She taught me the importance of using homonyms properly (there, their and they’re; to, two and too; your and you’re; who’s and whose). She taught me to always seek the most meaningful word. (Good, she said, is a bland adjective. Can you think of a word that’s actually more descriptive?) She challenged us, her students, to find our true voices. (If you use swear words, she’d say, it suggests to the world that you don’t have the vocabulary to be more articulate.)
Of course, through her encouragement and positive example, she also illuminated deeper messages, many of which I continue to reflect on and strive toward today. Shannon opened the world of writing for me, teaching me about clarity, lyricism, and the power of self-expression. She also taught me to believe in myself as a writer.
In seventh grade, under Shannon’s tutelage, I wrote an essay titled “The Best Time of Day is Night” for a city-wide standardized writing test. You can imagine the approach many teachers would take to instructing middle schoolers about “standardized” writing, but imagine the opposite and then you’ve got Shannon’s approach. She encouraged us to be creative and develop our own style, to cultivate atmosphere and write poetically while still conveying information clearly. Also, we’d better use grammar and punctuation correctly!
When my essay came back with a strong score, Shannon made me feel special. Other teachers had given me positive feedback about my work before, but this was a pivotal moment because of the way Shannon taught and the way she connected with students. She gave me the confidence to believe that writing was something I could do well and that I should continue to work diligently to cultivate this ability.
Last year, Shannon visited the undergraduate creative writing course I was teaching at UC Davis. Though I was the instructor and she the visitor, she illuminated the classroom, and the way she engaged with the students exemplified the kind of teacher I would want to be.
I’m certain there are thousands of students whose lives Shannon has influenced in immensely positive and powerful ways. They can identify with me, then, when I celebrate the graceful powerhouse of a teacher and a person Shannon is. They can relate when I say, with sadness and gratitude, thank you to the woman with the big heart and the huge vocabulary who has made the world a brighter and more articulate place.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in life. But then death happens within your circle of family and friends and the every-day-living routine is broken. Death calls for a pause.
On a macro level, sports fans in Los Angeles are acknowledging loss with the passing of Laker’s owner Jerry Buss. On a micro level, this past week has been heavy with people passing: a friend’s mother, a cousin, and a writing friend and past Emerging Voices fellow, Robbie Frandsen.
Prior to The Mark program, I was in (and plan to return to) a writing group led by Bernadette Murphy. Robbie is the second member of our group to pass away within a six-month period. In the midst of the hustle-and-bustle of life, I was not expecting all of this death. Even though I realize we’re all mortal, and that it’s a part of nature, I’m stupidly surprised each time it happens. Especially with Robbie. One of the last times I saw her we had lemon cake, celebrating her return from surgery.
I met Robbie in the winter of 2004 when we both took Bernadette’s nonfiction writing class through UCLA Extension Writers' Program. I was an Emerging Voices Fellow at the time. A year later, she was in the EV program, working on a nonfiction book that was quite moving. A couple of years later, we both found ourselves in Bernadette’s Thursday evening writers’ group. I always appreciated Robbie’s insightful comments on both writing and life. The book she was working on brought me to tears many times. She had an easy way about her prose. Incorporating factual information seamlessly into a story came as second nature to her––at least she made it seem that way.
Robbie’s recent passing reminds me of the delicate matter of life. It also reminds me to put daily matters into perspective, to be kind to myself and others. And I am reminded, once again, to be grateful for all of the wonderful people in my life. Within the context of my writing life, the Emerging Voices program enabled me to meet people who became friends, and still are friends almost a decade later.
I am thankful I knew Robbie, an amazing person and writer.
Photo credit: antoinewilson.com.*
Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and recipient of the Carol Houck Smith Fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. He's taught creative writing at Iowa, Wisconsin, CSU Long Beach, UC San Diego, and UCLA Extension. A contributing editor of A Public Space, he lives in Los Angeles and currently teaches in The Mark program.
Many of our Emerging Voices and Mark program alumni pursue or consider pursuing an MFA degree. Can you tell us one of the most important elements of craft you took away as a graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop?
You know, a lot of broad fiction craft stuff can be found in books. I've assigned Jerome Stern's Making Shapely Fiction to The Mark participants. Anything you're going to learn about craft in an MFA program can be found in there, probably, and in the old short story anthology Points of View. Those cover the basic toolbox.
What I really discovered at Iowa was a way to create a small amount of distance between myself and my work for the purposes of revision. Approaching the work of others with a conscientious critical eye, week after week, for the purposes of making that work better, helped me develop the ability to self-edit. As so many craft lessons have fallen by the wayside in favor of a more gut-level improvisational approach, that learned ability has helped me more than anything.
Can you talk about some of your early literary influences? Who are your current role models?
When I decided to bail on my plans to go to medical school and instead pursue novel writing, it was because of three books. I'd have been a doctor if it weren't for James Baldwin's Another Country, Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, and Thomas Pynchon's V. Later, when exploring shorter forms in graduate school, I fell in love with John Cheever and Alice Munro. And I went through a Nabokov period—in which I read all the novels—that now seems to me like some kind of opium dream. These days, I've been reading early 19th century English essayists on my iPhone. Carlyle, Hazlitt. David Foster Wallace's The Pale King recently destroyed me.
I'm currently in search of a healthy novelistic role model. My ship is on the rocks.
What is the most difficult scene you’ve had to write?
The next one. Sorry to sound glib. I enjoy nostalgia as much as the next guy, but I try not to remember anything about the writing process if I can help it.
You published two novels: The Interloper and most recently, Panorama City. You have a number of creative "side projects" on your website, like Shopping Carts of Panorama City. Can you talk about Shopping Carts and also your other means of self-promotion?
The shopping carts book was just something I did while shooting photographs of Panorama City for novel research. I came home one day and realized I had enough to put together a book. So I tweaked the pictures a bit in processing and uploaded the whole thing to Blurb.com under a pseudonym. More the outlet of a distracted novelist than any real side project.
A legit side project, Slow Paparazzo, has taken off a bit more, perhaps because it's more process-oriented. The concept is fairly simple: Whenever I see a celebrity, I take a picture of where they just were. I capture the afterglow of fame. These go up on a blog at http://theywerejusthere.tumblr.com. A local art publishing house called The Ice Plant just released a book of some of them. It came out really nice.
However, I wouldn't call these side projects means of self-promotion. In fact, they sort of demand their own promotion. For the Slow Paparazzo book I've had to write pieces for blogs and sign copies and all that kind of stuff that comes with promoting a novel.
I do feel a certain duty to promote my work, on behalf of the publisher, and on behalf of the part of me that wants people to read it, but I'm not interested in, say, branding myself. I use Twitter a whole bunch, I've got a website, I do side projects—but these things are a result of my needing different creative outlets, not any kind of marketing strategy.
What are you working on now?
How does The Mark differ from a standard writing program?
To my mind the most significant difference is that it is more goal-oriented. In a traditional writing program, you're focused on process as opposed to product—or at least you're supposed to be. The point is to hone your skills in preparation for a lifetime of suffering, er, I mean writing. The Mark is specifically oriented toward writers who have manuscripts that are almost ready to go out into the literary marketplace. It's a different focus.
If you had one bit of advice to a beginning writer starting their first novel, what would it be?
This is only your first novel. You don't need to cram everything you've ever thought about the world into it; you don't need to deploy every writing technique you've ever learned; you don't need to show us everything you know; it's not about you.
Who would you recommend apply to The Mark program?
If you've got a complete book manuscript in hand, i.e., one that you'd be comfortable sending on to an agent or editor, The Mark is for you. Odds are it's not quite as ready as you hope it is, but that's why we're here. Also, be ready to work.
*An explanation for this author photo can be found here.
What to call this form? It’s not quite memoir, not quite fiction. In an article on The New Inquiry, Emily Cooke tackles this somewhat new form, dubbing it “semi-autobiography.” While I may not agree with her adoration of spontaneous writing, I do relate to this passage: “…the new semi-autobiographers, you might call them, reject privacy and propriety for openness and provocation. In their novels-from-life they aim for a synthesis of the personal and the intellectual on the one hand, and the fictional and the nonfictional on the other."
Apparently, writers like Kate Zambreno and Sheila Heti include real emails and conversations in their “novels” and refuse traditional plot structures. Though this type of writing intrigues me, it’s not quite what I’m going for. I don’t think a novel will ever be “life” because a) it’s words on a page, and b) there’s always selection. Writers choose what parts of their lives they want to show. This kind of editorializing shapes a version of reality into a fiction. I want my stories to have the feel of life with the payoff of fiction. I want to have my cake and eat it, too. What the hell else are you going to do with cake, anyway?
One of my favorite writers, Roberto Bolaño, mastered this balancing act. As I’ve described before, his protagonists seem to be versions of himself, right down to the names Arturo Belano and B. He retells real events in minute detail, giving his fiction the engaging quality of memoir. Sometimes he details various moments in a character’s life with no rising action, climax, or resolution. In either case, he creates a compelling whole.
“Pies, Pies, Pies” (1961), by Wayne Thiebaud.
This week, in literature and in life, I’ve encountered many reminders about humility.
One: In Object Lessons, a collection published by The Paris Review, I read Bernard Cooper’s short story “Old Birds,” about a man and his elderly father. The father is lost on the streets of Los Angeles, asking strangers to open his jar of peanut butter, as he’s also speaking on a payphone with his panicked son. The story is told simply and directly, with tight prose. It’s a brief short story—only 9 pages—and by the end, I was left rattled. In style and tone, it feels different from what I’ve been reading lately (Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her and our Mark instructor Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City) and, as such, it reminds me that good literature comes in infinite forms. Perhaps it even breaks some of the “rules” I’ve been abiding lately, and that’s something I appreciate, too.
Two: I’m organizing a fundraiser and as part of the process, I’ve been writing in order to spread the word. As I’ve struggled to articulate and present my real self, and the real people I care about, I’ve realized that until recently, I’d never written about deeply personal topics in a nonfiction form, for other people to read. (On the other hand, diaries—yes!) Since I believe that emotional honesty is essential in good writing of every genre, I hope that this experience teaches me to write beyond my own sensibilities.
Three: I read this essay by Garrison Keillor a few weeks ago, and I saved it because I think it is simultaneously so hilarious and humbling. “Writers, quit whining,” published by Salon.com, is an essay about all the ways that being a writer is, contrary to popular opinion, wonderful. Keillor says, “Clarity is hard. Honesty can be hard. Comedy is always chancy, but then so is profundity. Sometimes one winds up as the other.” From hereon, when I’m on the verge of complaining about the difficulties of being a writer, I will—with self-deprecation—think of this essay and reconsider because, as Keillor says, “What’s not to like?”
Four: During my time in The Mark, I’ve been struggling to answer some of the questions that Antoine is asking about my novel-in-progress. The Mid-Project Review is quickly approaching, as Natali mentioned in her most recent blog post, and in preparation I’ve been composing and editing new chapters. Some of them feel different from the style and tone of the book as I’ve known it for the past four years. I’m not certain if they’ll stay as an integral, real part of the book, or if they’ll end up being let go.
Five: Lastly, I woke up one morning and this was the first thing I read: “Before you do, say or even think anything, remember that you don’t know everything.” –Unknown
Photo credit: The Guardian
Way back at the defense––which feels like a year ago, although it's been little more than two months—Antoine recommended that I read The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick. His recommendation was spurred by the fact that I'm missing a short story in my collection. I have its title, a point of view, and I've even a written scene. However, I can’t bring myself to write it. The story is about a woman dealing with the loss of her seven-month-old infant decades earlier.
I’ve been busy with rewrites and the workshop agenda. There have been other recommended books to read. Blog posts to write. But next week is the last workshop before the Mid-Project Review, and I have a feeling the subject of the unwritten story will come up. So I’m gearing up to write it–finally–and reading The Shawl seemed like a good starting point. The first part is actually a short story of the same name, in which there's a major loss. The second part is a novella entitled “Rosa.” It concerns the main character in the aftermath of the loss.
I had read the short story “The Shawl,” but the novella somehow escaped me. Ozick’s usage of language is unbelievable–sad and beautiful and powerful at the same time. Her prose leaves me marveling at its succinctness. This sentence haunted me for a day: “Her knees were tumors on sticks, her elbows chicken bones.” And that’s just on page one. Ozick is a master. Another favorite sentence, this one from the novella: “She wrote on the brittle sheets of abandoned stationery that inexplicably turned up in the cubbyholes of a blistered old desk in the lobby.”
In the video shared here, Cynthia Ozick speaks beautifully about her life, the background for the story, and her process. It’s a little over eight minutes but worth a watch. Check it out:
For this special Valentine's Day edition of Bookmark This, the PEN staff have shared their favorite love poems. Enjoy:
Grant Hutchins, Program Coordinator, recommends:
"The Flea" by John Donne
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be...
Libby Flores, Program Manager for Emerging Voices and The Mark, recommends:
I want to say that
forgiveness keeps on
dividing, that hope
gives issue to hope...
Sasha Mann, Digital Media Manager, recommends:
I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart...
Hilary McCreery, Program Manager for Membership and Awards, recommends:
Close your eyes. A lover is standing too close
to focus on. Leave me blurry and fall toward me
with your entire body. Lie under the covers, pretending
to sleep, while I’m in the other room...
Michelle Meyering, Director of Programs and Events, recommends:
If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses...