Posts Tagged ‘writing’

I’ve been posting much more often over here these past few weeks, and I think that reflects my general state of being. I am very busy with teaching and being a student and writing, but it isn’t what occupies my mind for the time being.

I feel this sharp juxtaposition right now between “grad school” and “real life.” I guess because I’m getting married, planning for the future, dealing with the stuff of adulthood. (Because really, grad school doesn’t completely require you to be an adult, although it helps.) That juxtaposition is part truth and part illusion, because life is whatever and wherever you’re living in a moment, not some abstract concept. And yet when it comes to where I imagine myself being, and who I imagine myself to be, this MFA program is transient. Important, desired, but over in another year. I’m not entirely certain what lies on the other end of that year, but I’m eager to find out.

Committing regular time for writing has been difficult. Partly because of this blasted business, but also because my attention has been focused on other things. I find that writing requires a balance of stillness and activity. Too much of one leads to stagnation, too much of the other doesn’t allow one(/me) that interior quiet that’s necessary for creation.

If good writing captures the spark of life, it seems to me that it’s necessary for the writer to life a full life (which isn’t the same thing as a busy one). But when life is exceptionally full, I often find myself drawn away from writing, or simply forgetful. (Except there is always that guilt gnawing away at the corners of my mind, asking me how I can call myself a writer, which will only be silenced by writing, and writing, and writing well.)

I’ve no conclusion to this train of thought.


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“How do you tell a story when you don’t have the facts, but the story’s complete inside you?”

That’s Ben Okri talking about his book Starlighter, which I’ve never read. I recently finished another novel of his, The Famished Road, which I’ll admit felt like far too many words to support the story they carried; but after I finished it and started writing about it for class, I realized that it’s pretty amazing. Everything–the characters, the forward motion, the feeling of the world the book creates–accumulates as you read. In many ways the movement of the novel is more cyclical than linear, but each time something comes back it is intensified, and has subtly shifted. By the end the changes and emotion of the book left me breathless. It’s one of those books I’m very grateful someone made me read.

That’s not a review, and I’m too lazy to make it one; I’m basically procrastinating right now, anyways. Because open in a word document is one of those stories that is complete inside of me, that even has some facts to it (maybe too many), but I’m trying to figure out how on earth to tell it. It is a story of accumulation–the emotional accumulation of some things I’ve seen and some others I’ve been told–not to mention the pressure of all sorts of other things and stories that don’t directly affect the one I’m writing, but still exist in a network with it, inside of its reality.

But the accumulation in my head, while emotionally precise, has no plot, no shape except a personality.

So what does this story look like expressed on the page? Where does the movement come from? What facts are needed, what facts will just clog it up, and how do I navigate that?

It’s what I’m trying to figure out this weekend.

It’s what the deadline asks of me. (That’s March 28.)

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The week before last my Readings class read Didion’s essay “The White Album,” the first line of which is a famous quote of hers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I have seen this quote pretty often, and have probably used it more than once. It stirred me in the deepest places; it rang as true. It’s always presented as inspiring, affirming–which, standing there by itself, it is.

However, “The White Album” is one dang depressing essay. At the risk of being too reductive, the feeling it leaves you with is that the stories we make of our lives are largely meaningless and artificial. Although she is a writer, and thus always creating stories and attempting to impose meaning on events, she ends the essay by saying:

Writing had helped [Paul Ferguson], he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”

Although I’ve gotten better at reading stories as they are, I occasionally struggle with projecting a tone or atmosphere on them and rejecting them for something that isn’t there. For example, when I first read Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, I didn’t realize it was funny. I thought it was horribly depressing. Then I saw Smoke Signals and thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have written a long letter to my cousin complaining about how awful the book was. When I reread parts of it they make me laugh.

So it is quite possible that when I say I sense this meaninglessness in Didion’s prose, I could be reading it into the stories myself. I sense a searching, a struggle, a determination to try and make meaning anyway; but in the end the best you can do is make yourself feel a little better. And it makes reading Didion unpleasant for me, unless I really zero in on the craft of her sentences, her dialogue, what a marvelous talent she has.

This week one of our readings is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” Joel asked me to present it–whether by intuition, perception, or chance, I don’t know, but I am very grateful–and in fact, I am a little stuck, because she lays things out so clearly there’s not much more to be said.

This presentation is actually what I should be working on right now.

It’s due tomorrow evening.

BUT. This post is relevant.

One of the things Flannery explains is that she does not write “to make the reader see what I see,” and that writing is not “a missionary activity.” This is very different from Joan Didion’s statement that writing is a hostile act, “of saying I, of imposing upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.

But this springs from an even more fundamental difference in their views of writing and what it does. O’Connor sees stories as aiming after truth. Not truth as an abstract concept, but as expressed and embodied in reality. This is what makes writing art. She explains:

[…] all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in manner and in mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less.

(See? How am I supposed to talk about this, when she’s already explained it all so beautifully?)

Flannery O’Connor believed in the vision of truth her stories presented. Joan Didion, it seems, didn’t believe such a vision was possible. I admire Didion for continuing to write nonetheless, for looking chaos in the eye and staring it down. But whose stories are more powerful?

To search for truth seems one of the fundamental marks of being human. To believe what you’re searching for isn’t possible is madness.

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ANNOUNCMENT: I do not apologize for not posting that Thursday–which one was it, again, last week’s? the week before?–and I shall not apologize for sporadic blogging again for the rest of the semester. I should probably not be blogging at this moment; although I really do think blogging does something for me, as a person and a writer, makes me think more clearly, deepens my sight. But anyway, think of this blog as being on a semi-hiatus. At least until (if) I get this time-management thing more under control.

We are reading various words written by Joan Didion in my readings course, and in an interview published in

she talks about her rituals: sleeping in a room with the manuscript when it’s in the final stages, and taking an hour and a drink before dinner to go over that day’s work.

I realize that I don’t have many rituals. In a way, I don’t have time for them: the pressures of so many deadlines of such varied degrees of importance make time a precious, panicked resource. This is partly, I know, because I am disorganized. When you’re continually rushing to finish something that’s due tomorrow, it’s hard to be ritualistic.

But if there’s one thing that growing up Catholic has taught me, it’s that rituals exist for very real reasons. And if there’s one thing being a student has taught me, it’s that I need structure to get anything done.

I am thinking about what those rituals might be for me. I’ll get back to you on that.

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Lit Mag Adoption

How cool is this?

One of the few litmags I can afford to subscribe to is One Story. This afternoon I found an email from them in my inbox announcing this program.

I wish this had been in place last year so I could’ve signed up for my summer course … although I suppose six weeks isn’t long enough to really take advantage of it. I won’t be teaching creative writing again until my third year, so I’ll have to remember it then.

I think it’s great to put undergraduates into contact with literary journals; I remember Dr. Mark O’Connor assigning presentations so that his students had to research what was out there. (He also made submitting a story to one of them part of our final assignment, which I think was wonderful.)

I will admit getting free desk copies as the teacher is also an incentive.

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In the process of poking around in the dank and musty closets of my ancient Blogger account (for reasons which I will explain later), I found myself wandering the corridors of an old blog. For nostalgia’s sake, mostly; but I was surprised to find some real treasures on there, vivid bits of thought that still caught the light.

Thunder in the Attic–a name I still think rather brilliant–was a collaborative blog about writing. As I skim the archives, I find I can guess who wrote each post by the titles alone, almost always correctly.

We were all young. I realize, in fact, that we are all still young, even if we are graduating college, going to grad school, serving as full-time missionaries in foreign countries, and so on. But the energy and optimism we posted with then makes me smile. It makes me smile, also, to see the unique genius of each of my friends, that spark that belongs to them alone, given to them so that they, in turn, can give it back to the world.

(When I say genius, I don’t mean that each of us are or were prodigies out to change the world (though perhaps we thought we were, in a humble, youthful sort of way); I mean rather the mystery and miracle of personality.)

In February of 2006, I shared a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” The beauty of it, and the mind behind it, still moves me. I would like to share it with you here.

But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tales are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. …The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already and enchanter’s power – upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy”, as it is called, new form is made: Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

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While conspiring with the internet to procrastinate my long list of Things I Have To Do By TOMORROW, I stumbled across the NaNoWriMo Coffee House, and was pleasantly surprised to find it active.

It’s a pretty happening place in November, and when it first “opened” in 2004 it stayed active all year round. But now, come January, it drifts around aimlessly, knocked about now and then by a few stray posts.

Reading it reminded me that I have an idea for this year’s NaNo–a vague one, granted, with two vivid characters and an opening setting–and it also reminded me of one of last year’s failed beginnings that might also make a good novel. Which means that more than one idea is vying to be written–which has been, in the past, a good sign.

What makes me think I’ll have time to do NaNo this year when last year I unceremoniously gave up and ran away screaming?

I’ll tell you what: if I can get excited about NaNoWriMo–more importantly, if I can get excited about my NaNoWriMo novel–then I’m golden. I know I can do it. And I think part of the key is lurking around the forums, getting back in the communal spirit and feeling the electricity that runs through those threads, even in the off-season. That was how I first met NaNoWriMo; how my first November Novel came together, bits and pieces sticking to each other and then exploding into something.

And I need to be excited for November, for the actual month, the season of fall, which always, always feels like the Time of Novels to me.

And I need to write some good old speculative fiction.

And I need to figure out what trouble is rumbling at the bottom of the mountain my characters are skiing on.

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