What is "Doom Eager"?

Lorrie Moore, from "Better and Sicker"
"Martha Graham speaks of the Icelandic term "doom eager" to denote that ordeal of isolation, restlessness, caughtness and artistic experiences when he or she is sick with an idea. When a writer is doom eager, the writing won't be sludge on the page; it will give readers -- and the writer, of course, is the very first reader -- an experience they've never had before, or perhaps a little and at last the words for an experience they have."

Saturday, July 31, 2010

a little bit of Virginia

I've started reading Michael Cunningham's The Hours yesterday. The Hours tells the stories of three women and relies heavily on the work and life of Virginia Woolf. I'm not far enough along to comment on the plot or structure yet, but the language and style is beautiful and haunting. It's hard for me to find a novel I care to read to the end. I'd love to say I finish every book I start, but I don't. I think fiction needs to be worth my time. Not that it has to be literary but that it must be well-crafted. Twenty pages in, I can tell I'll finish this one.

I find Woolf herself a fascinating character study. Woolf once described the fashion in which she was preparing to write her next book in this way:
"As for my next book, I am going to hold myself from writing it till I have it impending in me: grown heavy in my mind like a ripe pear; pendant, gravid, asking to be cut or it will fall."

There is something exquisite in her description of the story idea as a fruit, hanging on the vine or tree, ripening, becoming sweet, becoming ready to be harvested. The act of holding back until the right moment, until the feeling is almost too much to bear, too much to keep to oneself, is provocative and sensual in a way that appeals to my sense of how a writer should feel about his or her work. The hour I've spent writing is nothing compared to the hours upon hours I've spent mulling over the story idea, turning it this way and that, waiting for it to ripen.

It makes me sad to think of how she took her own life out of despair and hopelessness, not so much for us as her readers but for her, that her act would cause her to miss the next developing fruit. If we keep the literary faith and our emotional faith, there is always that next great novel idea and that next turn in our life that brings a new chapter and, hopefully, a new ray of light. I felt much the same way the day I heard David Foster Wallace had taken his own life. My oldest brother was a talented writer and musician, and, sadly, a severe alcoholic, who (although we are unsure of all the facts) may have had a hand in his own death.

Okay, I totally didn't expect to be going down this path with this entry. But here I am. While I'm resisting a strong urge to delete the last paragraph, I'll keep it.

For your reading pleasure, I offer you a little taste of The Hours(which begins with Virginia Woolf's imagined last moments before walking into a river, her coat pocket weighted down with a large stone, to end her life), followed by a morsel of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Enjoy.

"She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric. Patches of sky shine in puddles left over from last night's rain. Her shoes sink slightly into the soft earth. She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision, behind her, here, no, turn and they've gone somewhere else. The voices are back and the headache is approaching as surely as rain, the headache that will crush whatever is she and replace her with itself." - Michael Cunningham, The Hours

"Sinking her voice, drawing Mrs. Dalloway into the shelter of a common femininity, a common pride in the illustrious qualities of husbands and their sad tendency to overwork, Lady Bradshaw (poor goose -- one didn't dislike her) murmured how, "just as we were starting, my husband was called up on the telephone, a very sad case. A young man (that is what Sir William is telling Mr. Dalloway) had killed himself. He had been in the army." Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here's death, she thought." - Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Yes, sweet Clarissa, in the middle of our fine, little party, here is death.

Keep writing, friends. Keep the faith.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thought for the Day and a Question

"The perfect place for a writer is in the hideous roar of a city, with men making a new road under his window in competition with a barrel organ, and on the mat a man waiting for the rent." - Henry Vollam Morton

My perfect place to write is in my office, in absolute quiet and with my West Highlands Terrier, Yankee, at my feet and, when it pleases him to visit, my fat, orange tabby, Sherwood, exploring under my office desk or kneading my plush futon pillows.

Sherwood lovin' on my office pillow.

Yankee, my office mate. He doesn't get much writing done, but he's a fun chap to have around.

Where is your perfect place to write?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

this season's book cover trends - cover art for the book fashionista

Elizabeth Bluemle takes a humorous look at this year's book covers, with an emphasis on the YA market, in her online blog post "The Season of Windblown Hair - Or, the Zeitgeist of Book Covers."

For my part, I happen to be reading Kimberly Derting's The Body Finder, which appears in Bluemle's first line-up of floral covers. I have to admit, it is a fashionable cover.

And on that note, I'm looking forward to the premiere of Project Runway Season 8. Episode one is entitled "And Sew It Begins."

significant fiction versus trivial pursuits

"If the young writer is to achieve intellectual and emotional significance in his fiction, he must have the common sense to tell foolish ideas from interesting ones and important emotions from trivial ones. These abilities can be guided a little, for instance by the teacher's pointing out, as I've done above, that stories beginning in character and conflict are bound to be more interesting than stories that do not -- a principle applicable even to thrillers, sodbusters, and horror stories. And the writer's sense of what questions are really interesting and what ones aren't worth bothering with may be heightened a little by wide reading, by conversation with intelligent people, and by the conscious attempt to, as James said, 'be someone on whom nothing is lost.'"

There's a weighty idea, "intellectual and emotional significance." I can imagine the young writer confusing significant fiction with "serious" or "literary" or, more misleading, "classic." This notion of "foolish ideas," of which I'll grant contemporary fiction is full of, can be misleading. Gardner warns the young writer not to be "carried away by fads." Sound advice by any means. But I would caution the young writer not to be handcuffed by the precepts of an traditional style or accepted subject matter. What may seem faddish, or even foolish, at first glance may have significance (something to say) lurking beneath, waiting for the hands of the daring, and perhaps novice, writer to pull from it elements that elevate it to the level of "significant fiction." Three novelist come to mind.

In the 90's Douglas Coupland depicted the nature and struggles of young adults in such groundbreaking novels as Generation X and Microserfs. I assigned Microserfs as a novel study for my sophomore high school students in 1997, two years after its release. My creative writing class studied excerpts from Generation X. I wanted my students to know that good writing could be reflective of the age in which they lived and, at once, entertaining, hip, and "intellectual and emotional significant."

The second writer is the new phenom Joshua Ferris, whose 2007 publication Then We Came To The End takes a funny and poignant look at modern office life and the effects of group think. Written in first person plural, while bordering on gimmicky, the point of view feels perfect for this tale of the American workplace.

Likewise does Jay McInerney's use of second person in Bright Lights, Big City , which captures perfectly the protagonist's need to psychologically distance himself from his own destructive behaviors. Not only is McInerney's daring use of second person fresh and reflective of the times, he takes what, by all accounts, is the height of trivial and self-indulgent, club-life in the 1980's, and creates a modern backdrop for a significant novel about human frailty, weakness, and the universal desire to be loved and nurtured.

It is precisely these risks Coupland, Ferris, and McInnery take (stylistic risks the average workshop and some writing programs would likely frown upon) that elevates their work and creates the intellectual and emotional punch they deliver. No, Gardner isn't wrong about trivial pursuits, but there is something, I believe, residing deeper in the seemingly trivial pursuits of society. It will take that daring, keen-sighted writer to reveal it to us.

By the way: For an interesting look at Jay McInerney, read Victoria Lautman's Writers on the Record.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

the writer's store of energy

"A writer's knowledge of himself, realistic and unromantic, is like a store of energy on which he must draw for a lifetime; one volt of it properly directed will bring a character alive." -Graham Greene

We'd like to believe we are noble and kind and unselfish. I'm sure for all of us, even the most depraved of us, there are occasions when these aspects are true. But for our fiction, they're not very interesting. At least, not unless set in contrast against our own inclinations toward pettiness, meanness, and greed. We are all human, right? And, even though we might want to deny so, aren't noble, kind, unselfish characters, ultimately, a bit boring? I mean, we all love Superman, but don't you secretly want to step on his cape, now and again? Isn't Batman, with his obsessions and secrets, more like us?

To understand the varied aspects of humanity, a writer must begin by knowing himself or herself; then, be open and courageous enough to draw from that knowledge, disregarding the whispers. We hear you behind our backs, you know. "Does she really do that?" "What kind of a guy thinks up a thing like that?" "Did that really happen to her?"

We jolt our characters alive out of our own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Sometimes it ain't pretty, folks. But isn't that a yummy morsel to chew on?

Monday, July 26, 2010

wrestling with subordinate clauses

Much is made in books on writing and writing workshops on "finding your voice." Most often "finding your voice" means writing with emotional honesty about the life you know. The promise is, having engaged in this type of raw and patient practice, that your voice will emerge naturally, producing in its "echoes" work that is original and authentic.

Okay, 1) I'm not arguing with this theory and 2) I generally agree with this practice, to a point. My problem with this technique, especially to the exclusion of other techniques, is that it doesn't help the young writer fully understand and appreciate the nature of style and allow for a means by which he or she may try out or adopt certain stylistic features, finding that perfect fit, suited to the writer.

And so, the young writer hears in a workshop that one shouldn't begin a novel with dialogue (though Ayn Rand does it strikingly in Atlas Shrugged, or one shouldn't employ the use of multiple first person points of view (except Faulkner does it hauntingly in As I Lay Dying). I know, I know. I hear it already, "But you're not Ayn Rand, dear." And, "He's William Faulkner, so he can." Poppycock. Emulation is, in part, how we learn. It's how we learn to tie our shoes, ride a bike, cook a meal. Emulation, practice, and trial and error.

I've debated this issue with writers before, especially when it comes to employing techniques used by "the greats," but discouraged for beginning writers, and most often times from short-sighted, though well-meaning, workshop hosts. So, it was refreshing today to stumble upon Nicholas Delbanco's essay "From Echoes Emerge Original Voices," published in print and online in Collected Essays from The New York Times. Delbanco's premise is that "To engage in imitation is to begin to understand what originality means."

In the article, Delbanco describes a course he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Michigan, during which students study and imitate the styles of great writers in order to understand how style may be reflective of a system of values and an author's perception of "reality" and how the writer conveys that reality to the reader. What Delbanco hopes emerges is not young writers trying to sound like older writers but writers whose emerging voices emanate from an awareness of style and the importance of the small details: punctuation choices, short, clipped sentences, incantatory repetition, or (as has been criticized in my work) the selective use of subordinate clauses. I see the world as a dependent clause, joined by a series of subordinate clauses, finished by a period. It's my style. Don't tell me not to do it because I'm not yet recognized.

Delbanco explains, "We can tell the way a writer thinks by looking at his or her desire to use say, the apposite comma or, as a sentence nears completion, the subordinate clause." In the following paragraph, he points to Virgina Woolf's use of parenthesis in To the Lighthouse. I'm no Virgina Woolf, but neither was she (until she was).

I say, carry on beginning writers. Emulate. Practice. Try on different styles, studying every choice the greats make, or don't make. In doing so, you will begin to understand what you are trying to say to the world and the best way to say it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thought for the Day

"A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down . . . If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him." - Edna St. Vincent Millay.

One of my favorite Millay poems.

And do you think that love itself

And do you think that love itself,
Living in such an ugly house,
Can prosper long?
We meet and part;
Our talk is all of heres and nows,
Our conduct likewise; in no act
Is any future, any past;
Under our sly, unspoken pact,
I KNOW with whom I saw you last,
But I say nothing; and you know
At six-fifteen to whom I go—
Can even love be treated so?

I KNOW, but I do not insist,
Having stealth and tact, thought not enough,
What hour your eye is on your wrist.

No wild appeal, no mild rebuff
Deflates the hour, leaves the wine flat—

Yet if YOU drop the picked-up book
To intercept my clockward look—
Tell me, can love go on like that?

Even the bored, insulted heart,
That signed so long and tight a lease,
Can BREAK it CONTRACT, slump in peace.

Friday, July 23, 2010

the good, the bad, and the corny

"The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. Irony is always scratching your tired ass, whatever way you look at it. I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass." - Jim Harrison

I don't disagree with Harrison. But I think leaning on the side of sentiment is dangerous, especially for beginning writers. If we write from a place of emotional honesty our words will ring true. If we fake it or exaggerate, we become overly sentimental saps.

John Gardner calls this style of writing Christian Pollyanna and warns us "People who regularly seek to feel the bland optimism the Pollyanna mask suspports cannot help developing a vested interest in seeing, speaking, and feeling as they do -- with two results: they lose the power to see accurately, and they lose the power to communicate with any but those who see and feel in the same benevolently distorted way."

The mask of sentimentality is a cop-out. It's an easy, lazy way to process the world and communicate to your reader. Don't be lured by its distorted reality of dead expressions, flawless heroes, and happy endings. Sentiment, yes. Sentimentality, no. Write how you really feel about things.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

writing the pitch paragraph

Kristen at Pub Rants posted her insights into the growing importance of getting your query pitch paragraph just right. You can read her blog post at Pub Rants: Another Reason to Nail Your Query Pitch Paragraph.

I recently got the chance to work on my pitch paragraph for Gems in the Rough. Okay, I didn't so much as get the chance as I couldn't reduce my novel synopsis down to one page for an upcoming conference, so I wimped out and went with option 2, a paragraph pitch, which turned out to be more than a paragraph. I imagined the task as writing back cover copy for the novel. It's still rough, and I keep going back and forth about whether it should be written in present tense and give away major plot points. I'm gathering from comments on Kristen's post that most authors are okay with cover copy that doesn't contain any spoilers past the first third of the book.

I'd appreciate any feedback. If you read this pitch for a YA book, would it spark your interest?

Pitch Paragraph: Gems in the Rough by K. M. Smith YA Paranormal Romance

Sisters are special.

Twin sisters – twice as nice.

Demon twin sisters . . . ?

Summers on easy-going Annabel Island, Florida have always been a breeze for seventeen-year-old twins Ruby and Pearl Pryce. Impulsive, warmhearted Ruby has agreed to help run her beloved Aunt Mandy’s gift store, The Golden Dolphin. Smart and competent, she’s got everything in control – if only she could get her trend-setting, increasingly-irresponsible twin sister Pearl to stop ducking out.

While Ruby runs The Golden Dolphin, her father, city commissioner Tim Pryce, runs Leon Beach and mother, Laurel, plans her daughters’ up-coming eighteenth birthday celebration. The summer before college is underway. But this summer the sisters are in for the shock of their lives. Nothing they have ever known could’ve prepared them for the mysterious relative come to reveal family secrets, the latent powers that dwell within them, and the handsome stranger sent to hunt them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thought for the Day

Persistence is the pathway; perfectionism, the fallen log that blocks the way.

Today, give yourself permission to make mistakes. Have respect for your talent, and turn down the volume on the critics in your head.

Monday, July 19, 2010

turn on the headlights

E. L. Doctorow once said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Today, turn on the headlights and travel the distance you can. Maybe it's just 15 mintes of editing. Maybe it's writing a short scene or a bit of dialogue. Maybe you write the dialogue first, then turn on the headlights tomorrow and write the scene around that dialogue. If you need to turn on the brights to see better, don't worry; you're the only one out on that stretch of road.

Happy traveling, writers.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

the ether of ideas

"This is the first important lesson that the writer must learn. Writing a novel is gathering smoke. It's an excursion into the ether of ideas. There's no time to waste. You must work with that idea as well as you can, jotting down notes and dialogue."
- Walter Mosley, from "For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day"

I feel "the ether of ideas." It is that dreamy place in the gentle quiet just before falling asleep or having just awoken, that long car ride, that booth at the back of the diner, that space between where we are and where we'll be next. Call it "the zone" or "the void" or "our inner world." In the ether thoughts and ideas float around us. Voices speak, grab hold our hand, pull us aside to whisper stories into our tender ears.

Everyone feels the ether, hears the whispers, smells the smoke. The writer is the lucky (or unlucky) fool who feels compelled to gather the smoke of those ideas and voices and write them down. They slip through the fingers so easily.

The "dream" of the novel is quick to dissolve, which is why we must write every day. And, why, even when to others it may seem as if we are doing nothing, visit that place, in the ether, amidst the smoke, as often as we may.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

when you're strange . . .

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, "The Writer's Nature":

"As for the quality of strangeness, it is hard to know what can be said. There can be no great art, according to the poet Coleridge, without a certain strangeness. Most readers will recognize at once that he's right. There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected -- for instance, the late, surprising entrance of Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment, Mr. Rochester's disguise in Jane Eyre, the rooftop scene in Nicholas Nickleby, Tommy's stumbling upon the funeral in Seize the Day, the recognition moment in Emma, or those moments we experience in many novels when the ordinary and the extraordinary briefly interpenetrate, or things common suddenly show, if only for an instant, a different face. One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd pats of one's being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself -- as when in Anna Karenina Levin proposes to Kitty in the same weird way Tolstoy himself proposed to his wife. Strangeness is the one quality in fiction that cannot be faked."

A friend once told me I was "white socks with a black suit." At first, I was angry. Since then, I've come to appreciate and embrace his description of me. I think it fits me to a "T." And I'm okay with that.

I agree with Gardner that the best writers are a bit strange, which is to say they see the world, engage with the world in an atypical way. Generally, they are not group-joiners and don't necessarily play well with others. Too much strangeness, however, doesn't lend itself to good writing. Batshit crazy only produces work that rambles, rants, and reeks of ego.

So, be strange. Be white socks with a black suit. "When you're strange, people come out of the rain." Say "hi." Introduce yourself. Sit and talk a spell. It's okay if no one else can see them. If they make good characters, write their stories.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

the scissors and the pencil

"I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil."
Truman Capote

Cutting passages and scenes you love, writing you've labored over with the sort of devotion and intensity a new mother shows her young,can be gut-wrenching. The only rule for me in writing is this: Does it work? If it doesn't, and many times we know it doesn't (even when we are in love with the sound of our own words), we must take out our scissors. Do it. Cut it. Cut it out all at once and be done with it. One sign of a good writer is the ability to see objectively, to know what works and what doesn't, and when it doesn't, to cut without mercy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

finding your writing springboard

From editor Malcolm Cowley's introduction to
Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews
The Viking Press, 1959

"Apparently the hardest problem for almost any writer, whatever his medium, is getting to work in the morining (or in the afternoon, if he is a late riser like Styron, or even at night). Thornton Wilder says, 'Many writers have told me that they have built up mnemonic devices to start them off on each day's writing task. Hemingway once told me he sharpened twenty pencils; Willa Cather that she read a passage from the Bible -- not from piety, she was quick to add, but to get in touch with fine prose; she also regretted that she had formed this habit, for the prose rhythms of 1611 were not those she was in search of. My spring-board has always been long walks.' Those long walks alone are a fairly common device; Thomas Wolfe would sometimes roam through the streets of Brooklyn all night. Reading from the Bible before writing is a much less common practice, and, in spite of Miss Cather's disclaimer, I suspect that it did involve a touch of piety. Dependent for success on forces partly beyond his control, an author may try to propitiate the unknown powers. I knew one novelist, an agnostic, who said he often got down on his knees and started the working day with prayer."

I haven't tried prayer. Maybe I should. What seems to work for me, as my springboard for writing, is reading interviews by writers on writing or finding words of inspiration from writers and those who love the writing life. I think it's that I need to feel both hopeful and empowered. I need to be reassured that producing work, even when it's not what I feel is my best effort, is better than not producing at all.

Teacher and novelist John Gardner writes about how every writer, no matter how many writing courses and workshops taken, no matter how many critique groups attended, is, in the end, on his or her own. Finding your way as a writer is partly about finding your springboard: that walk, that moment of prayer or meditation, that inspirational passage powerful enough to launch you into your working day.

What is your springboard for writing or other creative task?

Friday, July 9, 2010

character first, character foremost

"Character is the very life of fiction. Setting exists so that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him, something he can pick up and throw, if necessary, or eat, or give his girlfriend. Plot exists so the character can discover for himself (and in the process reveal to the reader) what he, the character, is really like: plot forces the character to choice and action, tranforms him from a static construct to a life like human being making choices and paying for them or reaping the rewards. And theme exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody: theme is elevated critical language for what the character's main problem is." John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

I think we are sucked in by writing workshops and the publishing industry to focus on plot first, the interesting premise, the unusual situation. Not that character is ignored, but that we hear a lot of talk like "consider what if ...", meaning what if this happened to someone (read plot) or "hook your reader with an exciting initiating event", meaning again soemthing unusual or exciting happened to someone (again plot). Much of what passes for good movies and books, to me, these days is based on gimmicky premises, "twist" endings, and plot-driven, souless escapades. In fact, the last two movies I've seen that come to mind where character is treated with the importance it deserves are Revolutionary Road and Brothers.

I don't know if this lack of concern for character is a result of having to fill the market commercially, a misdirection on the part of writers workshops, teachers, and editors, or an indication of the public's general bad taste. What we remember, when the movie is over or the last page read, especially months and years later, is that character we couldn't shake, those people we felt we knew, that we loved or hated or both. Where are the great character-driven stories these days?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Walking on Alligators

On Jacksonville's westside is a wonderful used bookstore, Chamblin Book Mine, a maze of room after room crammed full of every genre of writing one can imagine. I could spend days browsing its stacks. Today I found a book of meditations for writers, Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy.

Shaughnessy takes passages about writing from various writers and expands on them, providing for each passage an affirmation statement designed to motivate and inspire. She begins with this quote from Erica Jong:
"Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark places it leads."

Shaughnessy follows the Jong quote with a short essay that invites us to take the journey of writing, wherever it may lead, even if we find ourselves "walking on alligators." She ends her remarks on Jong with this affirmation:
"Today, I will have the courage to go wherever my writing wants to lead me. I will not judge as I write. I will write, and write as honestly as I can."

Shaughnessy's meditations seem a wonderful way to start each writing session. I highly recommend it to those who write or want to start writing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Clutter" Accepted for Publication

I received word today that "Clutter," a "slice of life" story I wrote for the Florida Writers Association's second collection of short stories, was accepted for publication. The collection contains sixty stories by FWA members and will be released at FWA's 2010 conference in Lake Mary, Florida October 22-24. I'm not sure what the FWA has planned for larger distribution, but hearing my piece was selected was a bit of welcomed news.

"Clutter" is a personal piece about my mother's hoarding behaviors and my worry for her and frustration with not being able to help her. It's intensely personal and makes me sad when I read it. It was one of those stories that grabs hold and won't let go until you commit it to paper.

Seeing the piece published will be both sweet and bitter. Anyone who knows a hoarder knows they can become deeply ashamed and baffled by their own behaviors. My mother is 81 and knowing I wrote about her obsession could cause her pain. I would never intentionally hurt her. I think as writers we often struggle with which, if any, parts or people of our personal life to share in our work. "Clutter" is the first work I've sent out for publication since making a serious effort at a writing career. I'm glad it was accepted. I'm sad, however, I can't share it with my mother. She would be very proud.