The Mark Blog


Last week, I had my Final Review with The Mark Program.  Amazingly, they told me they wouldn’t change a thing; it was perfect, genius, revolutionary.  They introduced me to a top agent and publisher on the spot, who offered me a $100,000 advance on top of a healthy percentage of royalties.  They said they wouldn’t be surprised if the Pulitzer was next.
Okay, not really. They did say it’s come a long way, but that it still needs work.  No surprise there. All in all, there’s no doubt I benefitted from this process, but now the hard part begins. I’m on my own.  No deadlines, workshops, reviews.  It’s all up to me.  This is what separates the dilettantes from the professionals. 
How many more drafts will it take?  Hard to say.  Will it change dramatically again, as it did between the first and second drafts? Probably. 
Luckily, I won’t be groping in the complete dark.  Both Antoine Wilson and Rob Roberge have given me wise, copious notes to get me rolling again.  Although they believed it was working as a linked collection, I’m not ruling out heading into novel-territory.  I would need to locate or invent a central narrative thread, however, and I’m not sure I want to force it if it doesn’t come naturally.
The stories, in case you haven’t been following my blog (and shame on you!), concern one central character, from middle school to middle age.  There are thematic links: falling in and out of love, dysfunctional friendships, the hazards of lust.  Some changes I can foresee making are condensing the scope, focusing on the 30s, combining a few characters, streamlining plots.
The worry, as always, is just how long this can take. I probably shouldn’t, but I can’t help but feel the pressure of age.  If I was in my 20s, maybe I wouldn’t be so concerned.  Enough fellowships, residencies, and readings – it’s time I actually got something published.
Overall, I am excited to begin the rewrite, but still wracked with doubt.  And a lot of that has to do with me, or really, how much the main character resembles me.  In a way, this can be a good thing. It makes the work resonate on a personal level, more so than if it was total invention. But it can also feel self-involved, or, as Antoine put it, “self-mythologizing.” He was speaking of the way the main character wrote about himself, but it might as well have been me, too.
The strongest voice for the book seems to be first person, i.e. the narrator telling his own story.  For the next draft, I need to pinpoint all the ways this character and myself are different, and, in so doing, discover what the writer can tell you about the character through his narration.  In other words, how reliable is he, and what truths seep through for the reader that may not be even be apparent to the narrator himself?
This was one of the biggest challenges I received from my Final Review.  The others, lose the clichés, come up with less “telling” endings, all seem doable. This process has meant looking over my life, wondering about what I’ve done, and not done, what I did right, and what I did oh-so-wrong.  And where it all leads.  A big chunk of it has led to writing this book.  But I’m not so interested in memoir.  I still enjoy manipulating facts too much. Sometimes, in order to be honest, you have to lie. Other times, you have to be honest. Writing can be an act of negotiation between the two.
In some ways, my fate and the book’s fate feel intertwined.  It feels as if it fails, so do I.  Then again, they say you learn most from failure.  That may be true, but when does the learning end, and the being begin?
Though I haven’t blogged for two months, I’m feeling a little sad now, this being the last one. Big thanks to Antoine, Rob, Libby, and also web-masters Sasha & Daniel. And, of course, to you, whoever you are, for reading.  I’ll miss you all.

Writers Reel: Henry Miller Asleep & Awake

In this 1975 short documentary "Henry Miller Asleep & Awake" writer Henry Miller takes a tour of his bathroom and his life.

Miller guides us through his bathroom, covered with photos and drawings collected by the author. He points out the highlights of both this gallery and his life in this documentary by Tom Schiller.

The Only Thing Left

The thing about the end of The Mark Program is that I don’t know what comes next. Before this, there had been a number of logical steps: I completed my undergraduate degree, majoring in English; I participated in the PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship; I went to graduate school for creative writing; and, most recently, I got to be a part of The Mark Program, which is now coming to a close. The next step, I suspect, is not so structured or clear-cut. I’ve never done it before and I’m not sure how it’s going to work, but I sense that it requires giving myself time, space, and, most of all, creative freedom to let loose and do the one thing that’s left: finish writing my novel.

Last week, in my Final Review for The Mark Program, I had the privilege of discussing my novel-in-progress with the committee, comprised as usual of our instructor Antoine Wilson, advisor Rob Roberge, and Program Manager Libby Flores. During this hour-long conversation, I gleaned a lot of valuable feedback, including the illuminating advice from Antoine that I’ve already created a world, characters, and circumstances; now, in the latter portion of the novel, it’s time to let the will of the protagonist Lillian determine the outcomes of these dynamics. In other words, the events have occurred and Lillian must react and face the consequences. It sounds obvious but, to me, it wasn’t. Also, I’m encouraged by the fact that the committee members supported the developments in the narrator’s voice. The novel is more certain about the fact that it’s told by a 15-year-old and, as such, more fully embodies Lillian’s point-of-view than it was at the beginning of the program. In this way, the constructive criticism and positive support from The Mark committee is helping to make the journey between the current draft and the finished draft ever clearer and, simultaneously, less intimidating.

That’s not to say that I’m not afraid of the unknown. I am—while also knowing that I’m better equipped to face it than I was eight months ago. The Mark Program has forced me to know Lillian better, to ask and answer difficult questions, and to shape the present draft of Look Away so that it’s beginning, perhaps, to feel a tad like a real novel. From here, I’m going to give myself the creative freedom to take risks and write with openness and fluidity, into the unknown.

Lastly, thank you for reading my blogs for these past months. It’s been an honor to share with you and I hope we meet again on the page.

Bookmark This: George Saunders on Kindness


George Saunders gave a convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. We love this speech about the importance and complexity of kindness. Here's an excerpt pulled from the 6th Floor Blog on the New York Times.

"Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place."

"Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

...Those who were kindest to you, I bet."

Read more here.

Writers' Reel: Joan Didion Short Film

Joan Didion will be awarded with PEN Center USA's Lifetime Achievement Award at the 23rd Annual Literary Awards Festival on October 14, 2013. Click here to find out more about the 23rd Annual Literary Awards Festival.

In this short film excerpt directed by Griffin Dunne, Joan Didion reads a selection from the first chapter of her memoir Blue Nights.

Bookmark This: Joan Didion on Creative Process

Joan Didion sat down with the Paris Review in 1977. In this great interview she talks about her process and the importance of a good first sentence.


I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I've done that day. I can't do it late in the afternoon because I'm too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I'm really working I don't like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don't have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I'm in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I'm near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That's one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn't leave you when you're asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.


What's so hard about that first sentence is that you're stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you've laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.


The first is the gesture, the second is the commitment.


Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one. That's how it should be, but it doesn't always work. I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you're eliminating possibilities. Unless you're Henry James.

Read the rest here.

Writers' Reel: Interview With Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Today on The Mark Blog we have the only full version of an interview with the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

"The two things that people always want to ask me...

...How I ever came to write the Sherlock Holmes stories... the other is about how I came to have psychic experiences..."




Bookmark this article from The Atlantic: Prodigy envy isn't a new thing. The article states, "Young writers have always been angsty about the ever-waning time left to become a literary wunderkind."

"The feeling of having hoped you'd be further along by age x is pretty common, whether the yardstick is in financial success or artistic achievement and critical acclaim (and often young writers aren't sure which they value more). This is evidently one of the reasons the coming of Girls has been such an emotional experience for viewers with literary or artistic aspirations: Character Hannah Horvath is going through a rough time becoming the "voice of [her] generation." But the star and the creator of the show, Lena Dunham, has just won her second Golden Globe Award, writes off and on for the New Yorker, and received a $3.7 million advance to write a book for Random House. She's 26. Jeez, what have the rest of us been doing?"

Read the full article here.

Writers' Reel: Footage of Mark Twain

Today on the Writers' Reel we have the only known film footage of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, best known for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Bookmark This: Maya Angelou on Editing

Today on The Mark Blog Maya Angelou shares some funny and very wise unsolicited advice on editing. This excerpt was taken from her Paris Review interview in 1990.

The full interview can be found here. 

"I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop—I'm a serious cook—and pretend to be normal. I play sane—Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I've done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That's the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn't work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them—fifty acceptable pages—it's not too bad. I've had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you're right. So what? Don't ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I've kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one's own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important."