Posts Tagged ‘putting writing/art in my life’

Mothering as Writer, Writing as Mom

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

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In an online mom’s group I belong to, a fellow mom posted this article by Kim Brooks about the intersection (or lack there of) between creative work and parenting. I’ve thought a lot about this particular topic because it was one of my biggest fears in becoming a parent: that I would be subsumed by motherhood and lose my creative identity. It is hard, especially in that first and second year of parenting, when there’s no sleep and no end in sight and your child needs everything from you to find the mental capacity to cultivate any kind of creative space that doesn’t involve playdough or fingerpaint or Duplo blocks.

Brooks doesn’t offer solutions in her article, so much as shifts in perspective. She talks about the “literature of domestic ambivalence,” books about (and likely by) women who struggle in the cracks between the desire to be an artist and the desire to be the perfect mother. I imagine it as a sort of blanket of creative ennui and I’ve been there. But that way also lies self-pity. How do we break out of the cycle of doubt that says if we can’t be superior in all things it isn’t worth trying? That art-making and mothering are mutually exclusive? (more…)

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The Muse & The Marketplace 2015: Reflections

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

I attended my first writer’s conference last Saturday: The Muse & The Marketplace hosted by Grub Street Inc. a non-profit creative writing center in Boston (the same folks I took a class with earlier this spring). It was really cool to be surrounded by other writers of various stripes, to be exposed to a lot of fresh ideas about craft, and to meet-up with writer friends. There’s a huge component of The Muse that’s focused on publishing, including sessions and lunches where you can meet agents and editors, but I skipped those this year and focused on craft-based sessions. Click on the courses below for some of my take-aways:


["Timing is Everything: Negotiating Past & Present in Fiction"]

taught by Maya Lang

This workshop was fantastic and I wasn’t the only one discouraged by the blaring fire alarm that interrupted our session. Dr. Lang had a smooth, calm voice and made the concepts we covered – the position of your character in time and how that relates to the narrative of your story – seem approachable, achievable. She also talked about the way readers experience time: “Some stories make time disappear,” she said, “others make time slow down.” Like devouring a meal versus savoring an 11-course tasting menu. “Sometimes it’s worth dwelling.”

Notes:

  • META narrators are positioned away from the dramatic action, but the story brings them back through time to focus/reflect on that action. These narrators utilize: hindsight, regret, justification, self-awareness. The change in emotional state between then and now adds to the sense of emotional stakes – why the narrator is looking back.
  • IMMERSED narrators are present in the dramatic action of the story. These narrators utilize: immediacy, high stakes, likeability, more detail, no safety net, no pre-knowledge of the outcome. “You have to watch the pace of the unspooling” of the narrative.
  • Seamless flashbacks are woven into the narrative and flow of thought – they don’t disrupt the story. They are always “triggered” by a thought or sensory experience in the story.
  • Demarcated flashbacks are often longer and there is some sort of indicator (paragraph break, chapter break) indicating a movement in time. These tend to be fuller and richer than seamless flashbacks.

Reflections: This session was perfect for me because in The Ghost Story I am doing all four of these things – meta narration in the form of demarcated flashbacks alternating with live-action immersive narration with the occasional seamless flashback. I asked Dr. Lang if that was allowed, if I could do all of these things in one novel. That I didn’t want to do everything half-assed instead of one thing well. “Don’t think about what you ought to do in the first draft. Just write.” A lot of the temporal position questions can be resolved once you have the whole picture, she assured me, once you yourself can reflect back on the work.

Maya Lang: "Time is a tool at your disposal"

Maya Lang: “Time is a tool at your disposal”

["Dramatis Personae or What Are All These Characters Doing in Your Story"]

taught by Lynne Barrett

Twitterfbc7013Another fantastic session. Barrett dove right into characters from a theatrical point of view: their roles on stage, their exits and entrances, the dynamics of different numbers of characters interacting with different levels of knowledge. “A story has a cast with roles,” she explained, “And those roles and relationships can change shape and shift.” It was fascinating to think about making effective use of “stage time” for characters and developing triangles of tension between them. “Good books have lots of triangles in them,” she joked as she outlined the dynamics between characters in The Great Gatsby.

Notes:

  • The protagonist is important, but the story really starts with the entrance of the deuteragonist (2nd character) who may or may not be the antagonist. The introduction of a tritagonist (3rd character) allows for more variation – the deuteragonist can then take on more of a confidante role. But all of these roles can transform by the end of the story.
  • Aristole’s Poetics, Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, and the Comedia dell’Arte all have examples of different kinds of roles that are useful in interpreting your characters. Doubling up on roles can really add drama through bonds of love/hate. E.g. Breaking Bad where the anti-hero and his antagonist are brothers-in-law –more dramatic than if they weren’t related.
  • There are viewpoint characters like Watson who relate the story/serve as a lens versus focal characters like Sherlock Holmes who are the main drivers of a story.
  • How do you make things happen in a story about internal struggle? Character “rifts” – Characters that enact internal struggle/conflict with strong actions that are contradictory serve the story  best. Continual contradiction creates character. Characters that say one thing but do another, who are consistently inconsistent create action and movement.
  • Ways to think about your characters and story design. Try making a character map or list outlining the breakdown of your characters by: class, territory, genealogy, order of appearance. Entrance order in Shakespeare’s plays made clear the balance of power to an audience without a program. What does your characters’ order of appearance say about the balances within your story?

Reflections: Yes, a thousand times yes. My story is bloating outward with characters; everytime I fact a conflict or am not sure which way a story should go, I add more characters. “Every character should really contribute to the outcome of the novel,” Barrett warned, “Always try to think about who can serve more roles.” I really appreciate being told to think about the roles my characters play and how those interact. Whose story is it? Who’s telling it? Who contributes to that story and how? Also love the character “rift” point, that contradiction is the strength of good characters.

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Lynne Barrett: “Good books have a lot of triangles in them.” Connections of marriage, lust, power, and money in Gatsby.

["'A Woman Wouldn't Say That'- Gendering Characters Without Bending to Stereotype"]

taught by Dawn Dorland Perry

A gentle conversation about how to develop characters that don’t conform to gender stereotypes. “In the absence of information in a story, a reader will make an assumption, likely fueled by a stereotype,” Perry said. We discussed techniques of characterization and what some of our own stereotypes are about men and women. “Stereotypes eat our writing from the inside out,” Perry warned, and urged us to think deeply about the context and point-of-view of stereotypes creeping into our own work. Perry did an excellent job of making the material accessible and comfortable, though I wish we had had the time to dig a little deeper into how gender shapes the choices we make about our characters. We did some reading and writing exercises that were very fruitful.

Exercise: Step 1: Call to mind someone you know Spend three minutes list the salient traits of this character, inventing and embellishing wherever you like. PAUSE. Step 2: Flip the gender of your character. Take a moment to adjust to this new reality. Then for five minutes write a passage rendering a scene from this new characters point-of-view, either in third or first person.

Reflections: Doing the gender-flip exercise was great and I loved the discussion it generated… I almost wish we had done that earlier in the workshop! This is a topic I think a lot about because my novel’s protagonist, while female, often passes for a boy and is fairly non-conformist. Its important to me not to fall into the traps of my own bias, especially when I’m creating an entire world to populate. It got me thinking about: what are the stereotypes in the world I am creating? How do my characters break not only the stereotypes of our world, but of theirs?

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Dawn Dorland Perry: “Stereotypes eat our writing from the inside out.”

["One Thing You Should Always Do Before You Write"]

taught by  Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Not too many notes on this because we spent most of the session doing a visualization exercise. Johnstone was very down-to-earth and organized, even with the cerebral nature of the exercise. Writing without developing a scene in your mind is like moving into a house with not plan for unpacking, layout, and design she explained. She walked us through a piece of writing, having us call out the d

WP_20150502_15_17_26_Proetails of scene and character that stuck with us. Then she led us in visualization exercise. First we jotted down a few notes about a day-in-the-life of our character and had us think about one thing that might be different on this day.  Then we closed our eyes and she had us picture the scene, first from a birds-eye view with natural elements, time of day/year, etc. Then she had us zoom in on the space our character occupied and examine it through the senses, then through the furnishings and objects around the character, then examining the character herself and those around her. Finally we focused on action in the scene and that subtle shift – who or what has changed at the end? What won’t be the same anymore?

Reflections: I liked this exercise, though I don’t think I did it right – I started my character in her bedroom in the morning, after first waking up before I realized we were sort of supposed to start them in the moment in change. But when I asked Johnstone about it she said “If you started in her room, there was a creative reason for it.” I think this is a great exercise for really diving deep into sensory details. It’s something I do in a smaller way on a regular basis since descriptive detail is my jam. But I liked the idea of “what is different about today?” and that it could be as small as waking up in a different mood. I had a mini “ah hah” moment during the exercise, so that was fruitful.

A hook to get me into a fresh scene for my novel...

A hook to get me into a fresh scene for my novel…

["Star Literary Idol"]

Pieces read by Steve Almond, judged by Stephen McCauley, Anita Shreve, Elinor Lipman, and Mameve Medwed

Imagine having your first page read aloud in the dulcet tones of writer Steve Almond and judged by four brilliant authors? Yup, that’s “Star” Literary Idol. Almond read the pieces aloud and if one of the judges hears a line that would prompt them to stop reading, they would raise their hand. Once two hands were raised, Almond would stop reading and the judges would critique the piece.

The first piece read aloud was a darkly funny piece about a man struggling with obesity, attending over-eaters anonymous with a bunch of skinny women. The judges loved it and wanted more. The second piece they read was MINE. Almond read it beautifully, I’m sure, but I only heard half of it because my heart was literally beating so hard and loud it felt like my entire rib cage would split open. But… no one raised a hand. My first 250 words made it through strict judgement! They were intrigued. Anita Shreve was worried that it would be grim, but was interested in hearing what happened next. They all liked the imagery (even Elinor Lipman who said “I don’t usually go for descriptions of leaves and things…”) and the unexpected line “the trees rattle and cough with hundreds of birds.” And then they were on to the next piece and my hands were shaking and I could breathe again.

Reflections: Terror! Now the rest of my novel has to live up to the first 250 words! Which was always the case, but some piece of me wants to believe that if I fix the beginning enough, the whole thing will be fixed – NOT TRUE. As for the rest of the pieces read and analyzed during the Idol session, about a quarter to a third of them were stopped mid-read, usually due to confusion, boredom, or cliché. There was a large swath that made it all the way through, but where the feedback was really mixed – the usual comment was “The first part was slow/clichéd/confusing, but it really started for me with your second-to-last line…” There were a handful that the judges had only positive feedback on, and a teeny tiny number that the judges loved.

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Mameve Medwed: “Dialogue should be the cream that rises to the top.”

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Transition

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Monday was the second day of June but the first day in a long, long, time when I had the opportunity to feel weightless. It was hot and sunny and bright; the sky was a scorching blue and I could sit outside with a book and a tall glass of iced tea and read because for once, I allowed myself to have nothing else to do.

Ladies and gentleman, I no longer have a traditional job. Not that working in a bookstore as an event coordinator was really traditional, certainly in the sense of hours. But on Friday I trashed or filed all the thing on my desk, sorted and packed up old galleys and reviewer copies. I put everything in boxes and put them in my car and drove away. Well, first I had to take far too long to sort and pack, making me impossibly late for a hair appointment (I rarely book hair appointments, so I’m never prepared when they finally happen) to the point where we had to reschedule, and then I dropped and shattered a small ceramic watering can as I was loading boxes into my trunk. But then, ah then I got in my car and drove home. The house was very quiet.

So everyone’s next question is: what is your new job? Because of course who, in this market, would quit a job without a new one to replace it? Well friends, my new job is to write. No one is paying me to do it yet, but I hope eventually they will. I will also continue my wonderful job of hanging out with my kid and making sure she eats well and gets dirty on the playground. I’m getting some help from her daycare in this regard, so that I’ll have time to write during the day.

My sister and I had a long conversation once, about my writing hang-ups and my propensity to put “the cart before the horse.” Having been part of the “cart” side of things – promoting, marketing, selling the final product, the book – it’s hard for me to focus on that damn horse, who seems to be impossible to capture or lead to water or however much further you want to take this analogy. Well friends, I’m attempting to become a cowgirl here, a horse-wrangler if you will. If stories were horses… well, you get the idea.

I am taking the summer off, regrouping, getting myself organized – enjoying the nice weather; reading all the books; writing blog posts or morning pages or writing exercises; connecting with some fellow writers and with old friends; cooking, baking, gardening; getting involved in my community. All the things I’ve been putting off for good reasons or stupid reasons or just reasons of time. And then come September I’ll be sitting down at my desk with a plan and some project ideas, and some semblance of a schedule.

This makes me sound all super organized and calm and prepared but I am actually petrified. I have stripped myself of a perfectly good identity: “author events coordinator at an indie bookstore” for the far more nebulous one of “unpublished writer” and while I know it is important that I try this and that I’m ready, I still fear failing. I fear what other people think. I fear that I will let my daughter down by not being a good role model. The fear that these fears are petty and who am I to speak of true fear? All of those ugly, little, voices.

All I can do is own the choices I make and live by them as best I can. To take this gift of time, this beautiful, effervescent weightlessness and turn it into some beautiful words. Maybe words that will quell the fear in someone else or make a small difference. This is my strongest tool, so all I can do is wield it.

“If you always dreamed of writing a novel or a memoir, and you used to love to write, and were pretty good at it, will it break your heart if it turns out you never got around to it? If you wake up one day at eighty, will you feel nonchalant that something always took precedence over a daily commitment to discovering your creative spirit?

If not—if this very thought fills you with regret—then what are you waiting for?”

—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life 

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Cultural Exploits 2011 (so far)

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011
In no particular order:
  • Vienna Teng concert (swoon)
  • Susan Werner concert
  • George Winston concert
  • Kaki King concert
  • We’re About 9 concert
  • Jasper Fforde reading
  • Gesine Bullock-Prado reading and cooking demo
  • Museum of Science
  • Community theater performance of “All in the Family”

NB: I’m not counting my now permanent cultural exploits of planning author events because then this list would be infinite. These are just adventures I have attended outside of work for the pure joy of it.

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Cultural Exploits: December/January

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

I also spent some long over due time in several lovely bookstores, new and used. I never did make it to Carmen, much to my chagrin, but will be attending a ballet with my grandmother come early March.

I know it’s January, the time for resolutions. I’m formulating.

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Author: John Irving

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Last week I went with some friends and co-workers to hear John Irving speak at the Coolidge Corner Theater. I’ll be honest: I have never read anything by John Irving and when I told Greg I was going he said “Ugh! Didn’t he write Owen Meeny?” So I didn’t know quite what to expect. But my friends were all very excited to hear him, so I was looking forward to it as well.

I was not disappointed. He read the opening pages from his new novel Last Night in Twisted River, which take place at a logging camp (my fellow bookclubers and I looked at each other and smiled—we had just finished Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods which talks about logging camps at length). Then he went into a discussion of his process for writing books.

“I can’t start writing a book,” he said, “until I’ve figured out the last sentence.” For each of his twelve novels, this has been the case. Once the final sentence springs into being, he is able to map his way back to the beginning of the book and begin writing. He was the first to acknowledge that this “method” was very unorthodox and that as a young man he had tried to resist it, but apparently it was the method that worked for him. Twisted River he said, had been in the back of his mind for more than 20 years. He had many of the details in mind, but one of the main characters and that final sentence eluded him.

He spoke about wrestling and how writing is, more than anything, being willing to do something boring over and over, like any other form of exercise (reworking sentences, revising, learning how to structure a narrative). About his inspiration, the 19th century novel, and of his greatest teachers, Dickens and Hardy. About his favorite characters, the ones he found most challenging. About why his novels are so macabre and dark—that he writes about what frightens him. He took a fierce pride in his dedication to language and punctuation. The reading was only an hour, but he covered quite a bit of ground.

Doing the same boring thing over and over… it’s true. Though I love (ok, love and hate and love again) writing, it can be very repetitive. I was recently working on a revision (gasp, I KNOW, miracles are at work) and sitting there reworking the same sentence over and over… it gets tedious and frustrating. It is an exercise in creative will power. I’ve used the metaphor of exercise in the past to explain various attempts at writing regimens to non-writers: creativity is as much a muscle as your heart or your legs and without constant effort and exercise, it’s easy to be out-of-shape, making the next run that much harder. It’s hard, if not impossible, to run a marathon (aka write a novel) without consistent training (writing everyday). I still believe this is true.

Irving is a somewhat dashing older man, with silvery grey hair and his tan shirt unbuttoned at the collar. He seemed to epitomize the idea of the male writer. I couldn’t quite decide if there was an air of arrogance about him or not—though I suppose after twelve novels and an admirable amount of fame, a bit of arrogance is completely warranted.

John Irving on Wikipedia

John Irving’s books on Indie Bound

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Author: Margaret Atwood

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

I heard Margaret Atwood speak at the First Parish Church in Harvard. My friend E went with me, which I was grateful for, as readings are always more interesting to attend with other people. Atwood is a petite woman with a wonderful halo of frizzy white hair. She looked older than I had imagined, but at the same time her face had a smooth, almost ageless complexion, as she bent over slightly to autograph my copy of her newest book The Year of the Flood. She spoke in an odd sort of cadence—slow at times, loud and insistent at others. You could tell by her response to readers’ questions which topics truly engaged her: questions about the environment and social justice, about science fiction and it’s history, about craft. She read a couple of pages from Flood (which I have since read—yes, in two days) and also played us several of the hymns from the book which a friend had put to music. The book itself centers around a religious group that is both laughable in it’s extremism and sobering in it’s predictions and believable ideology. The hymns reflected this; Atwood even sang us one herself, a children’s him about the humble mole.

Atwood is one of my favorite writers. Her book, The Blind Assassin, is probably my favorite novel. The Year of the Flood is a “simultaneal” companion book to her recent Oryx and Crake. I wish I had been more patient and re-read O&C before starting Flood. I had forgotten character’s names and certain plot points. Flood can stand on it’s own, but as with other simultaneals I’ve read (e.g. Ender’s Shadow), you can feel that you don’t know the whole story in a more profound way than when a novel stands on it’s own. Regardless, I enjoyed the book—it’s heart-wrenching, tragic, comic, and disturbing. The ending of this book felt more positive than that of Oryx and Crake, if you can say a book about the end of civilization could be in any way uplifting. Tragic, but with a bit more sense of closure.

Atwood was asked a question about her process, specifically about The Blind Assassin and she explained that she had to approach the book three times before she got a handle on it. The first time she tried telling it from the perspective of someone who had died, and someone had discovered a hat box of her letters. That didn’t work. Next she tried involving two characters who mutually discovered a box of journals by a woman who’s story the book was to tell. However, Atwood said, the two characters began having an affair and soon she had to put them in a drawer and start over. Finally, when she let the character speak for herself (and the hatbox by then had turned into a steamer trunk) the story began to unfold more organically.

I explained this process to my husband and his response that it was interesting how most writers and artists speak of their creations as if they have a life of their own. Obviously Atwood made the conscious choice to have the two characters she’d created have an affair, which caused the story to go in another direction… but if so, why? In my mind, I explained, a writer creates characters in a very interdependent way. So if the character you’ve created doesn’t line up with the way another character is acting or a plot point you’ve decided on or a direction you want to go in, you either have to change the character or the story. I think often the character will dictate that decision—creating rich characters that have that sort of decision-making power are worth hanging onto. Unless of course they change the story entirely. In which case you either decide to write that story or you put them in a drawer and start again.

It was a pleasure to hear Atwood speak (and sing!). She discussed everything from superheroes (she preferred Batman to Superman) to the books and magazines she had recently read to the fate of mankind (“Do you think we are doing better now than we were in the past?” someone asked. “That depends,” Atwood said, “on the ‘we.’”) At the end she made everyone vow to only drink fair-trade shade-grown coffee as commercially grown coffee is killing songbirds. Not being a coffee drinker, that’s a vow I can happily keep.

Margaret Atwood’s website

The Year of the Flood website

Margaret Atwood’s books on Indie Bound

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Cultural Exploits: September/October

Monday, October 26th, 2009

Upcoming:

  • Carmen, Boston Lyric Opera
  • A play or two (TBD)
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