Archives For process

I was initially invited to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour by the fabulous Rebecca Meacham, whose fiction I admired even before the publication of her debut and award-winning story collection, Let’s Do. She was ahead of me by a few years in my Ph.D. program and I always admired and looked up to her – despite the fact that I think she’s a foot shorter than I am. Check out her post from last week.

Then, when I was just about to send a message to My Go-To Guy – the dangerously charming and talented Joseph Bates, author of the story collection Tomorrowland – inviting him to participate, I received a text from him, and he was inviting me. Like at the exact same time! Since he was up first, we decided he could tag me, and I’d tag other writers. Check out his post here, and see below for the three awesome writers who agreed to do it next week.

So anyway. Here are the questions and here are my answers.

1) What are you working on?

My personal life, mostly. It’s been a year in which I’ve felt more like a character in a novel than creator of characters. And things are never easy for characters in novels. So many internal and external conflicts! So many unexpected plot twists and cliffhangers! Obstacles! Antagonists! Only now do I feel that things are settling down enough that I can be the kind of character I prefer: Mrs. Dalloway wandering the streets of London, pausing as Big Ben rings another hour (irrevocable) and pondering the messages of aeroplanes.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I am not very generically stable. Fortunately I’ve found a publisher – Rose Metal Press – whose mission is to mix-and-match genres. I sent them the manuscript for Liliane’s Balcony, calling it a “novella-in-flash.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but they were like, yeah, sure, we love novellas-in-flash. This fall they’re publishing a collection of five novellas-in-flash.

Rose Metal Press is also going to publish my next book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, which I am calling a collage biography. It’s all found texts from books and letters and internet sites. It’s also got images – photos, collages. It may or may not also include postcards that I’ve been writing to Božena. Stuff about my aforementioned personal life.

dont feel free

3) Why do you write what you do?

I go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house on a chance trip to Ohiopyle, PA, I take a tour, I am overcome by the place, by its natural and architectural beauty, I think OMG I have to write a story set here, I listen to the tour guide who tells of the Kaufmann family who purchased the house, I remember being a kid in Pittsburgh and going to the Kaufmann department store, I think, “Same folks?” I go home and read up on the house and the Kaufmanns and I learn that the wife Liliane was beautiful and smart and tri-lingual and an art collector that her life ended in an overdose of pills in her bedroom at Fallingwater. I start writing.

Or. I go to Prague on a chance trip, I buy a book of Czech fairy tales for my daughter, I notice that there’s a picture of a woman (a woman!) on my Czech money and that her name matches the name on the fairy tale book, I do some research to learn more about her, I find conflicting info, poor translations, and outdated material, I find that someone has translated some of her letters and they are nothing like what I expected based on the research, and I take all my notes and quotes and arrange them until they tell some combination of her life and the impossibility of telling it.

4) How does your writing process work?

My favorite part is the research. I don’t think we talk enough about the importance of research, or the fun of it. You get to work on your writing project without actually writing, and research gets you excited and loaded with ideas so that you can’t help but write.

For Liliane’s Balcony, I volunteered as an Ask-Me Guide at Fallingwater, traveling to Ohiopyle, PA once a month and volunteering all weekend, talking to visitors and employees. I traveled to Cincinnati where I uncovered an archive of letters from Edgar Kaufmann to Liliane. I took photos of each letter, transcribed them at home, and incorporated excerpts into my book. I toured Wright’s other houses in Chicago. All of this informed and inspired my writing.

For my Božena Němcová project, I took a month-long Czech language class in Prague, visited her home town of České Skalice, and toured the extensive museum dedicated to her in the town. (I also got totally lost in this unpopulated village of non-English speakers.) I went to a used bookstore in Prague and bought old copies of her books to make collages. Most recently, I bought a 1968 Czech typewriter on eBay. All part of the writing process.

IMG_1990

A sketch I made of Bozena’s glasses, pen, notebook, and rosary displayed at her museum in Ceska Skalice.

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Here are the three writers who I have tagged for next week. And when I say ‘tag,’ I picture myself holding a magic wand that sparkles as I touch it to their shoulders.

Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced. Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, and her story collection Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent was selected by Peter Ho Davies as a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. She has received over a dozen grants and fellowships and has been awarded artist residencies at Anderson Center for the Interdisciplinary Arts, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. See her website and blog at www.donnamiscolta.com. [I also interviewed Donna for my How to Become a Writer series!]

David Dodd Lee is the author of eight full-length books of poems and a chapbook, including Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues Press, 1997), Arrow Pointing North (Four Way Books, 2002), Abrupt Rural (New Issues Press, 2004), The Nervous Filaments (Four Way Books, 2010) Orphan, Indiana (University of Akron Press, 2010), Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, the Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlaxeVox, 2010), and The Coldest Winter On Earth (Marick Press, 2012). His newest book, Animalities, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in October, 2014. [He also makes gorgeous collages! Visit: http://seventeenfingeredpoetrybird.blogspot.com/]

Margaret Patton Chapman is the author of the novella-in-flash, Bell and Bargain, forthcoming in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press 2014). http://margaretpattonchapman.com/

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My last post was an interview with the poet Carrie Oeding that ends with this advice: “Write and read, and things will happen.” I’ve been writing this blog for almost two years now, and something definitely happened.

I got Freshly Pressed! I got hundreds of comments and likes and new subscribers.

I can’t help but think of it in literary terms: like a Deus Ex Machina. The WordPress gods intervened – apparently out of nowhere – and changed the story.

But the point of my How to Become a Writer interview series is not to perpetuate the idea that things happen out of nowhere, that we should just sit around and wait for a god to get lowered into our life stories to solve everything. Just the opposite: that things happen because we’re working to make things happen. One of the comments on the Carrie Oeding interview post said something like, “Don’t forget the importance of luck.”

Which makes me think of the quote by Seneca: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”

I was hugely lucky (and grateful) to get Freshly Pressed, but I’ve been preparing for the opportunity for years. I remember reading a Wordpess post about “How to Get Freshly Pressed,” and there was advice like have good content and give credit to your images and links. I made sure to follow the advice. I’ve been writing this blog for almost two years, and I created a series that I hoped would be of interest to others, and I tried to make it look nice.

It’s the same thing I’ve done in my journey as a writer: I keep writing and submitting my work and rewriting and resubmitting. Yesterday I got a rejection letter. Today I’ll send something new out.

Anyway, what I mean to say is: Hi! I’m excited to meet all of you who subscribed to my blog and left comments. I’m still going through your comments and visiting your blogs – which are from all around the world. I’ve subscribed to some of your blogs and left comments on others, and I’ve even got a couple new writers for my interview series that came from your comments and suggestions. Thank you!

Stay tuned for a new interview to post this weekend…

I finally got around to watching Julie & Julia. No, that’s not quite right. It’s not like I’d been meaning to see it, or wanting to or planning on it. The only thing I knew about Julia Child was her voice; I didn’t know anything about Julie. I saved the movie on my DVR because my daughter, who is quite interested in cooking (and chick flicks), wanted to see it. And finally, last weekend, we watched it.

The opening scenes give pleasing images of deco Paris and hipster New York, and we are soon enough introduced to the conflicts of each character. Julia is bored, her talent underutilized; Julie is not as successful as her (icky) friends, and she hasn’t fulfilled the promise of her college years. Although she comes home and cooks every night, it turns out she wants to be a writer. She even wrote half a novel at some point. Meanwhile, Julia gets into cooking school, fights to hang with the male chefs, and meets a couple women of writing a cookbook. They need her help.

Suddenly the movie is not just about cooking, but about writing.

For a while I am confused every time Julie buys ingredients, cooks an amazing meal, feeds her husband or guests, gets calls from food critics, and somehow concludes: “I’m a writer!”

Julia typing carbon copies of her manuscript

But I am paying more attention. Now a scene of Julie getting reader comments on her blog; now a scene of Julia typing up manuscripts. Now Julie is in the New York Times; and Julia is in Boston meeting with an editor. Now Julie is getting phone calls for book deals! Now Julia gets a letter in the mail: “Oh Paul, they will publish our book!”

I find myself increasingly engrossed in this publishing plot, tantalized by images of typewriters and manuscripts and bookshelves and scenes at the computer, the way, I’m sure, the rest of the world is seduced by images of French cuisine.

I glance over to the other side of the couch, where my daughter is fidgeting. Could she be . . . bored?

Certainly she could be; it’s not that great a movie. But despite the fact that Julie’s mother is too naggy, her husband too perfect, her job too awful, and her friends too icky, by the time the double-climax arrives, I have gotten caught up in the dual quest for publication. I know it will happen for both of them (after all, I’m watching the movie that’s based on all the books they published), but I don’t know how or when, and I know the feelings all too well – the desire, the anxiety, the despair, the delight. And so, when it happens (oops, spoiler!), I get a find myself moved in spite of myself.

My daughter is already reaching for the remote, relieved that it’s finally over.

She turns to me. “Are you crying?”

I spurt out a weak, “Oh it’s just, well they finally got…published!”

The fact is, I cry at just about anything, so it’s not saying much to say that I was crying. But that doesn’t take away from another fact, which is that publishing a book is a major emotional experience. And watching a scene of someone publishing book is, for me, a minor emotional experience.

Real-life Julia working, writing

What this movie shows that is useful for anyone who wants to become a writer is that it takes sacrifice, focus, and a lot of time. Julie gives up time with her husband; Julia has to keep going through multiple relocations and rejections. Julie’s success seemed to come in a year, but don’t forget that she’d already been a writer in college and written half of a novel before starting her blog. Julia’s road to publication took years.

In a previous post, I reflected on my ten-year journey from starting graduate school to publishing my book. I remember when I started school and how fast I wanted it (a book) to happen. But the only thing that went fast was time. The next thing I knew I was done with grad school and no book. I was moving and starting a new job – and no book. I was teaching and teaching – and no book.

And then, one day – my birthday, in fact: BOOK.

I was in my office at school. It was Friday. I was headed to a meeting in a few minutes. And: “We’d like to publish your collection.” I shut my door. Alone in my office, I cried.

"They will publish our book!"


Practice, practice, practice! must be the practice of the artist.

– William Carlos Williams

Letter from William Carlos Williams to Denise Levertov, c. 1956

I found this – and other letters between Williams and Levertov – here.
This one is so eloquent, so tender, so specific, so sage. A letter from one artist to another, but more specifically a letter from a mentor to an emerging artist. Imagine Denise Levertov as an emerging artist!

Denise Levertov

Dear Denise:

Your new lot of poems at their best show the ability with the words that I have come to look for from you, the same mastery of the rhythmic structure. At the same time it reinforces my knowledge that poetry is a most difficult art. It requires constant attention to detail and a conscience that lays in wait to trip us up at the smallest lapse from perfection. “The Lovers” is a beautiful piece of work. “Tomatlan”, that attempts more, is also a good work which I very much like but it is not as sharply cut as I’d like to see.

One word too much in such short poems as this damages the whole effect. Without showing it all such short poems have to be cut to the quick. One redundant word overburdens the line intolerably.

The test of the artist is to be able to revise without showing a seam. In “The Lovers” you yourself state that the poem as I saw it had been revised. That proves that you have the right knowledge of what you’re doing. It often is no more than a question of knowing what to cut. And in the process of cutting, part of the same gesture, the new word, the insight in your own meaning will suddenly flash across your mind.

Practice, practice, practice! must be the practice of the artist. You have to write (as you must know) practically in your sleep and leap out of bed day or night when the inevitable word comes to your mind: it may never come again. You know all this but it can bear repeating, I am talking as much to myself as I am to you.

All the best passages we have ever written come to us in the flash of an — sometimes we lose them (it must be admitted) by revision, but that is a chance that has to be taken.

I return your script to show you what I would do to it — and never forget that as between writers there are no secrets. All I have is yours as far as I can make it so. I don’t expect that you will agree with me. Good luck.

Best,

Bill

William Carlos Williams

“A Love Song” by William Carlos Williams

What have I to say to you
When we shall meet?
Yet—
I lie here thinking of you.

The stain of love
Is upon the world.
Yellow, yellow, yellow,
It eats into the leaves,
Smears with saffron
The horned branches that lean
Heavily
Against a smooth purple sky.

There is no light—
Only a honey-thick stain
That drips from leaf to leaf
And limb to limb
Spoiling the colours
Of the whole world.

I am alone.
The weight of love
Has buoyed me up
Till my head
Knocks against the sky.

See me!
My hair is dripping with nectar—
Starlings carry it
On their black wings.
See, at last
My arms and my hands
Are lying idle.

How can I tell
If I shall ever love you again
As I do now?

(Listen to Ron Silliman read it here)

“When We Look Up” by Denise Levertov

He had not looked,
pitiful man whom none

pity, whom all
must pity if they look

into their own face (given
only by glass, steel, water
barely known) all
who look up

to see-how many
faces? How many

seen in a lifetime? (Not those that flash by, but those

into which the gaze wanders
and is lost

and returns to tell
Here is a mystery,

a person, an
other, an I?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to write my previous post about why I write. I knew I’d disagree with myself immediately and/or have a million things to add. So far I just have a couple things to add, and I’ll do so under the subquestion: Why do you write what you write?

Because another reason I write is that certain subjects, characters, images, and ideas compel me to write them. Just like certain books compel me to read them and certain music compels me to crank up the volume and certain clothes compel me to pay too much for them.

The fact is, I can carry along on a particular day with no thoughts whatsoever about writing. No intentions to write, no desire to write, not even any guilt about not writing. When all of a sudden I’ll see something or Google something or hear something that commands me to STOP: Achtung, baby.

In which Cortázar is plagued by the wrong subject.

Julio Cortázar describes this phenomena in “Some Aspects of the Short Story.” [I don’t have my copy with me, so I’m going to paraphrase for now and will update with actual quotes later.] First he says that when people find out he’s a writer they want to impose their stories on him. Have they ever got a great story! But Cortázar says that it doesn’t matter how great the story; you can’t impose a subject on a writer. Writers will be drawn to certain subjects – no matter how “significant” – and only those subjects will resonate for the writer.

In which Cortázar finds his subject.

I really like this section of Cortázar’s discussion because I’ve known a few people with dramatic life stories, and they imply in various ways that someone (like me) should write them. But even if I’m interested in hearing their stories, I’m not interested in writing them. I would not do it the way they would want, and I wouldn’t be able to do it the way I would want.

The passage also resonates for me because of the way I’ve Ouija’d*  my way into my subjects and settings. I was visiting a friend in Berlin for the first time, and we decide to spend a couple days in Prague. I found Berlin endlessly complex and fascinating, and Prague struck me as, well, very, very pretty. Nonetheless, when I returned from that trip I began to write about Prague. And I have been writing about and returning to it ever since. Maybe I needed to figure out what was complex and fascinating about Prague…

The same thing happened with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. I’d read a bit about Wright and enjoyed the novel Loving Frank, about one of his relationships, but that was about it. And when my family took a weekend trip to Ohiopyle, PA on the way home from NJ a couple summers ago, I was like, “Oh cool, there’s that waterfall house by FLW nearby.” The minute I walked in, I got all tingly (okay: choked up, like I might cry), and I knew I’d have to write about it. I’d also been watching a lot of Hitchcock, which was somehow related to knowing that it would have to be the setting for a failing relationship. Little did I know, it already had been. That became part of my pursuit as well.

Even after spending a couple days in Copenhagen, the only thing I’ve written about was a petite woman who dressed in an all white tuxedo and stood on an overturned bucket, performing as a “living statue” – standing perfectly still until she got your attention, at which point she would flip her hat in the air or honk a bicycle horn. (That said, the essay”Copenhagen Chiaroscuro” turned into a piece about my sister, whom I was traveling with, and about various shades of love. The statue woman was the central image and imagining.)

I suppose all artists have these mystical moments when we find – or are found by – our subject. And we know: we have to write.

*To Oiuja: verb. 1. To discover one’s subject matter or to solve a problem in one’s manuscript through a mystical but potentially dubious process. 2. Any act that feels more or less like putting one’s fingertips to a plastic planchette and wondering whether you or some spirit is actually doing the moving.

[Note: Cortázar’s comments about subject matter are similar to his insights about favorite short stories, which I talked about here.]

Get Back To Me In Ten Years

September 6, 2010 — 5 Comments

I just realized that it was ten years ago this month that I started this journey to be a writer.

Sure, before I began, I packed some provisions and planned an itinerary (as much as such a journey can be planned) and did some moderate training, but ten years ago, the journey began when I started the M.A. program at the University of Cincinnati.

I noticed a few significant changes right away:

1. I stopped writing about how much I wanted to be a writer, and I started writing. Between taking classes, teaching Comp., and being a mom, there was no time to muse about what I wanted to do; I just had to do it, dammit.

2. I started calling myself a fiction writer. I wouldn’t have let myself get away with such an audacious claim (for I felt I hadn’t “earned” the title), but as I met new people in the program, they wanted to know: Are you a scholar, a poet, or a fiction writer? I was a fiction writer!

3. I was alive. I knew I was doing what I wanted to be doing, what I should be doing, what I needed to do.

But I also realized that things don’t change overnight. Even though I started writing stories instead of writing about wanting to write stories, I had a lot to learn about writing stories. And even though I called myself a fiction writer (if only to distinguish myself from the poets and scholars), it was a long time before I became a published fiction writer. Now it’s been ten years, and my first book is finally going to be published.

The new semester has started, and at school and at Art Beat (last weekend), I’ve been talking to people who want to be writers. They want to know what to do, where to go. I think they think I can help them. But all I can suggest is that they start by making a change, even a small one. Sign up for a class, join a group, go to a conference, apply to grad school, attend a local reading, finish that manuscript. Lather, rinse, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And get back to me in ten years.

[Aside: In one of my first stories that I submitted for workshop, the title and the last line were the same phrase. One of my classmates let me know it was a lame device, and I am and was grateful. So, in an effort not to end this post with the same line as the title, I’m adding this aside/disclaimer. Which is itself probably a lame device…]

Of Haircuts and Edits

August 21, 2010 — 1 Comment

Last week I got a haircut; this week I got a manuscript cut. They both feel great.

I had to submit an almost-final version of my book manuscript to the publisher yesterday, so I Skyped with my amazing editor, Shannon Cain, who turned her laptop camera to show me all my stories spread out on her dining room table on the other side of the country. She had mapped the entire collection: made notes about recurring images and themes; quantified happy vs. sad endings (the sad endings win by a score of 11-3); listed the use of first/second/third-person perspectives; sorted out realist pieces from surrealist pieces from those with structural conceits; and set in place the four anchor stories that serve as the corner pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. I said she was amazing, didn’t I?

We agreed right away to go for lean and mean with the collection, and we started by cutting (hair comparison at work!) five stories. One long, one medium, and three very short. I imagine them falling in piles on the floor like all those unsettling clumps of hair at a salon. We cut because, as my editor says, there were too many stories (19!). The collection, like any head of hair, needed a shape. So we kept the stories that seemed to cohere, to hold together with one another and with the title For Sale By Owner. (The narrator of the title story is a former hair-stylist. Coincidence?)

With the first, last, and middle stories in place, we rearranged the rest according to subject matter, POV, pace, and style. Then we talked story titles and endings. We chopped the last paragraph from two stories and changed three titles. The haircut had turned into highlights and a style.

Now it just needs a dress to be ready for prom!