Today’s blog post comes from Gwen Hart, whose poems “Flight of the Six Wild Turkeys” and “Life in the Circus” are featured in our newly published Issue 15: Desire.
Uh-oh, you’ve graduated, and you no longer have a writing workshop to go to. Don’t despair. Here are four tips to keep you going:
Tip #1: Find your best editor and marry him or her. A few years ago, my husband and I set a deadline to finish our novel drafts before our summer vacation. At the beach, we read each other’s manuscripts and discussed them. It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended!
Tip #2—In case Tip #1 takes some time to achieve, form your own workshop out of trusted friends, either in person or online. Think carefully about whom should be invited and what type of rules and schedule you want to set up. The great part about setting up your own workshop is that you can create the kind of atmosphere that is most productive for everyone involved.
Tip #3: Find your own writing prompts and deadlines. Without a teacher or classmates spurring you on, you need to keep an eye out for writing prompts—conventional or otherwise. One of the things I love about The Quotable is that it provides themes to work with. Recently, I saw a call for submissions for an anthology of stories about couches. That’s weird, I thought. What story could I write that would center around a couch? I wrote the story, and although it was not accepted for the anthology, I am still happily sending out a quirky story I never would have written without the “prompt.” Also look for prompts in every day life. For example, my poem “Early Introduction to Freud” sprang from a friend telling me his daughter would not learn to drive because of the awful films they showed in Driver’s Ed. “Oh,” I said, “just don’t watch them! That’s what I did.” And then I thought, Well, I missed the chance to give her my advice, but I could still write a poem for her about own Driver’s Ed. experiences.
Tip #4: Finally, become your own best editor. One of the downsides of workshops is that they can make you doubt yourself and feel that nothing is ever quite finished. Learn to trust your own judgment. Take every opportunity (such as when a poem or story is rejected) to review and revise as needed, but once you decide a piece is finished, have faith that it will be published when it finds the right editor. That was the case for “Flight of the Six Wild Turkeys.” In fact, none of the poems I have had accepted for The Quotable were workshopped in the traditional sense. I ran them by my husband and read them out loud to trusted friends (a great way to tune in to your internal editor), and sent them out again and again and again.
Writing outside the workshop can be the best kind of writing life—give yourself permission to enjoy it!
In my MFA program we’re required to write a critical paper. It’s meant to combine issues of social justice with literature. Even as a long time reader and writer, I had never truly thought of literature as an instrument of social change. But once I started looking, I couldn’t stop. Literature, even in its most base forms, can change minds. And as a writer, I’m accountable for the message my work sends. While the overt message of a piece (spoiler alert: Brave New World is about how much a society hinges on its access to knowledge) is important, the underlying message is just as critical. So what message are we giving to our readers? Not surprisingly it’s a pretty one sided conversation.
Most literature, much like the world, defaults to straight white men. That’s not to say that change can’t be achieved with a straight white man at the helm. One of the most influential series of all time, Harry Potter, has a deeply seeded greater message of compassion. Studies have proven that young readers of J.K. Rowling’s popular books are more likely to be empathetic children. But if we can’t diversify our books, we’re giving our readers the impression that their normal is, in fact, not normal. We’re telling them that, unless they are a straight white man, their stories aren’t worth being told. Writers are accountable for that message. And, as a writer, it’s my job to make sure my readers can see themselves in the pages of my books.
My paper focuses on the evolving representation of bisexuals and mixed-race characters in literature. One of the first representations of bisexuality in literature was Fanny Hill by John Cleland in 1748. Things have changed dramatically since then, in the world and in literature. We now have books like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that has characters’ sexualities represented as fluid and ever-changing. Larsson may not have realized the scope of what he did, but when readers can identify aspects of themselves that aren’t as commonplace in a novel, they immediately feel that acceptance.
The same can be said for mixed-race readers. Before, when the plight of the tragic mulatto was commonplace, it seemed that being mixed-race only ever resulted in death. But now we have books where mixed-race characters can embrace all of their backgrounds and represent them as they see fit. It’s exciting for readers.
When I write I try to do justice to that message. I try to perpetuate a culture of acceptance in my books and offer up a diversity never seen before. Writers don’t work for themselves only, they work for the readers too. And when I can write something that reaches across all divides and gives someone the opportunity to accept themselves, I have truly lived up to my accountability and accomplished something worthwhile.
Today’s guest post is by Emma Rasmussen. Her creative nonfiction piece,”Expensive Sex,” appears in the Danger issue of The Quotable. She lives in London.
It’s the chair’s fault I can’t write. It’s an absurd choice. The seat is so high my thighs cut into the little pine desk in front of it. Clearly the absolute idiots who paired this duo (my lovely parents) had no idea anyone would ever do anything important here – like start a novel. I drag in other chairs from around the house and thrust my bottom down for a test drive. Something in the cut of each on irritates me. Eventually, I compromise on a pink wing chair. It’s the right height, but has such a sloped back that I can’t reach my keypad. I charge off for a cushion to plug the ‘black hole’ between my back and the chair. Fourteen cushions later, I’m ready to start my novel.
Finally settled, I take a sip of my coffee. It’s cold. I trudge downstairs to give it a blast in the microwave, pushing it past it’s optimal temperature, as I sense there may be a few more delays before the Muse and I pull out of the station – hot coffee is an essential part of the story. The story of ‘Writing’, not the story I’m actually writing. That one doesn’t exist yet.
Back at my computer, Microsoft Word invites my first sentence…
Wait… Am I hot?
My boobs definitely feel sweaty, and that feeling of hot clammy skin resting on more hot clammy skin is really only acceptable as part of a holiday romance. I get up and go grab my bra, but as I do, I see my fags and remember I’m a smoker. My first cigarette of the day was supposed to be a reward for capturing at least two thousand words of truth about the human condition. I imagined myself pulling out slow drags, tired from keeping up with the energetic cast of characters all showing me, in perfect unison, where they needed ‘our’ story to go.
I have a fag anyway and it provides an unhelpful, five-minute window to again ask the question of whether I really am, ‘A Writer’. With the answer a resounding, ‘probably not,’ I go back upstairs and tap out my first word, ‘Madeline’. I press the space bar. It’s sticky (probably that second breakfast of toast and honey). Now, rather than enjoying the reward of crunching the space bar, in horrid parallel to the voice in my head, my computer also seems to be resisting my prose. I type out my next word, ‘Lane’. I sit back and look at my story so far, ‘Madeline Lane…’
I don’t like it.
I look again. It’s in Arial! No one has ever done anything creative in Arial.
I spend the next ten minutes searching for a more literary font, something with flair, but space, playful but economic – something to match the style of my prose. With ‘Century Schoolbook’ complimented with the task, I retype my first two words again. But just as I do the sun floods my room, turning my screen into a mirror and giving me yet another opportunity to take a long hard look at myself. I want to cry. I pull the blind down and face my first two words again. I wait for the next. It should probably be a punchy verb, but the only words coming are, ‘dull’, ‘simplistic’ and ‘obvious’ and none of these are meant for my story.
Then I do cry.
If I can’t write then I’m not ‘A Writer’, so what am I meant to do with the rest of my life? Forget my life, what about the rest of my day. It’s 9.02 am, the day after Boxing Day. I’m staying with my parents, and I know what these days can be like. After pacing about the tiny, little house, walking in and out of rooms for no reason, I’ll sit there flitting from channel to channel, watching working actors (another possible calling) delivering the lines of paid writers. Every half an hour, I’ll wander into the kitchen to break off another nib of black treacle cake, just to push the door on existential hell, without spending too many calories on it. Without an interest in crochet, Monopoly or helping out around the house, I’ll do the only two things left, a long walk and an even longer wank.
I am about to shut down and head for the cake, when I’m struck with a choice. As painful as it is to admit that I don’t have a lot to say about the life of a woman named Madeline Lane, I do have at least a thousand words on chairs.
I park the story I was going to write and I write this instead.
As it turns out, it’s not just a rant about chairs and so perhaps those books on being ‘A Writer’ are right. First you sit down (uncomfortable furniture can help) and then you write. What comes next, I may have little control over, but I should write it anyway. Write and write through it.
It may not be the inspiring tale of an unlikely heroine battling obstacles and inner demons to find out who she really is, but in its own little way, it just might be.
Today’s guest blog comes from Brian Druckenmiller.
As my story “Mail” is set for publication in Issue #14 of The Quotable, I thought it best to address an issue concerning augury—a major component of my piece, but not in the piece’s creation.
Let me start by making this clear: I’ve never understood the draw of fortune-tellers.
It’s not that I’m skeptical about one’s ability to see what’s in store in my life (although that’s not entirely accurate; I am quite skeptical), but rather the idea that I’ll know what’s going to happen. Sure, there will still be daily mysteries, but because I know the outcome, I’ll never have to put any semblance of thought into a decision ever again. No more bad decisions. Only right ones.
So why would we want to turn over tarot cards for our characters?
Though everyone’s writing process is different, the outline can mean the death of authenticity in fiction. Create as overly-detailed a character sketch you please, but if we decide destiny before dropping her neck-deep into conflict, she’s no longer making decisions for herself; you are now a puppet-master, and that’s not the writer’s role.
My first sizable fiction escapade was an overly ambitious novel for my undergraduate thesis. I knew the character (hint…it was me). I had the idea. So off I went, constructing a 22-page outline that had in-depth synopses of every chapter I would write—summaries of writing that didn’t even exist! That’s insane! When I finally returned to it, after having it stowed away with the hope of one day returning to give it an oomph, not much was salvageable. I had 194 flat, predictable pages. No reader would invest any ardor into my protagonist because he seemed so…well…fictitious. Unnatural. Alien. The entire draft was recently recycled, most likely on the verge of being reincarnated into something practical, like a roll of paper towels.
The writer’s role is to present their characters’ version of reality. That’s it. Seeing the role as anything else risks a loss of natural character development. If we know their fate before their circumstances, the handling of said circumstances turns cliché because, as my novel writing taught me, the destiny is cliché. Why wouldn’t it be? According to a popular axiom, there are only so few stories to tell, but a bagillion ways to tell them (I’m paraphrasing here). In essence, we’re picking one of these stories to tell as opposed to being the bystander making sense of and enjoying the story as it unfolds. Gardner preached the writer’s creation of the “vivid” and “continuous dream” and the readers’ desire to be seized by it…let’s writes in a similar way.
Living is a series of heuristics. Our characters are (or should be) as complex and authentic as the writer himself if we expect readers to care. Let characters make their own decisions and, most importantly, their own discoveries. As for the writer, just watch and take notes.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to break open this fortune cookie. Powerball is coming up and I can’t wait to play these numbers.
Today’s guest post is by Susan Frith.
Waiting for Story
I was 13 when I got my ears pierced. The lady at the mall told me to keep the hypoallergenic studs in place for six weeks, but I couldn’t wait that long. Eager to advertise my rite of passage, I swapped out my sensible starter set for a pair of cheap, dangly feather earrings. Soon my only accessory was a nasty infection.
My earlobes weren’t ready to be shown off, and sometimes, I have to admit, neither is my fiction.
Though I’m sure every author’s experience is different, I consider it no coincidence that every piece of my own that’s been accepted for publication has found its home after a period of waiting, letting time work on my characters and me. Waiting has led me to make helpful changes to story length and point of view, find a new insight into my protagonist’s actions, or finally summon the willpower to dismiss that clever subplot that doesn’t work.
For me, waiting is rarely an intentional discipline. A reporter by training, I can’t help but set internal deadlines. I want to push the submit button right away.
Before I do I usually realize that something’s not right. So I tweak and re-tweak the same passages. I pester my characters to tell me their secrets and research odd topics—stalactites, octopus hearts, anything vaguely related to my setting, hoping to mine a nugget of information that thematically holds the piece together. Then life or a new deadline gets in the way, and I set aside the project.
When I come back to it after weeks, or even years (because, as a hardened pack rat I rarely delete or destroy anything), I’m sometimes surprised by the new possibilities that suggest themselves. What I’ve read, whom I’ve met, where I’ve traveled—any of those things might influence my next approach.
This doesn’t happen with every piece, of course. Sometimes a story refuses to open itself up to me. Take the one I began to write years ago about a tiny restaurant. (Very tiny, as in the size of a dorm-room fridge.) Each time I revisited it, I was enchanted by the setting and stymied by the dead-end plot. But who knows? Maybe one day I’ll rescue and reshape that one, too. I’m still waiting.
I teach very accomplished adults about writing. This doesn’t mean teaching them how to write creatively, so much as helping them to believe in the value of their life experiences. I encourage them to put their pens to paper, and later, to share their words. And yes, sure, I help them become aware of whatever techniques and approaches might be used to craft these experiences.
I recently began a new workshop, eight afternoon sessions. In the first class, I asked for introductions. The usual — tell us your name and why you’re here. One of the students, a woman I’ve worked with before, announced that she would like to learn how to leave herself out of her poetry.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this. There must be all sorts of advice columnists out there suggesting you go broad. That you don’t write about yourself.
Think about that: the idea that you should eliminate yourself from your writing.
Ahem. Something about that just feels wrong. And why not leave yourself out of your life, too?
This advice is hard for beginning writers. Heck, it’s hard for me, and I’ve been writing for years. Why can’t a writer re-enter and shape the parts of her life with her pen or keyboard? Why should he leave out the juiciest parts of what he knows? The better approach, it seems to me, is to offer your life, what you see and feel and do, but also widen beyond yourself, so others have a way to connect to your experience or emotion.
When I explained this in class, I asked if perhaps the woman wanted to reframe her statement to say, I want what I write to be more universal. She seemed enthusiastic about that possibility, and enthusiastic that she could still exist in her own poetry.
My two poems in this issue of The Quotable came to me because I was paying attention. To my life. To what I saw when I was driving. To my environment and its rituals — whether I am part of them or not. To what I read. To what I remember.
My writing process is fairly straightforward: I come up with a kernel of an idea and put it down on paper. Then, I wait and wait and wait for it to shake out to something more interesting than the me of it, the part I already know.
It’s luck when I get that extra part, and it is also work. The poem doesn’t exist without it. I have to know when to move lines around, when to start over, when to put it away and wait some more.
Writing is all about luck: the luck of living the experience, and the luck of realizing it is an experience. And finally, the luck of having the patience, skill and determination to turn that experience into something more: something that will enrich you, the writer. It doesn’t hurt any that it can also touch others.
I would never call myself a writer: I simply don’t write enough to warrant the title. Although I’ve been writing off and on since High School, a couple decades now, I rarely produce more than five pages of material per year. My inherent sluggishness, as well as persistent repetitive strain injuries which make typing difficult, mean I have tended to focus on abbreviated forms; mainly short stories and, more recently, poetry.
It’s true, however, that for a long time I refused to read, let alone write, poetry. As a smug teenager, I offhandedly sided with Nietzsche, who claimed that “pain makes hens and poets cackle.” I still don’t completely disagree. Yet eventually I learned that words are not just building blocks for larger narratives or stories. Sometimes moments and impressions do not necessarily connect to anything else: they exist by themselves, and defy assimilation. The words can be there to mark the passage of something, and it’s not always clear what went by.
Of course, personally, writing poetry can sometimes be a means of justifying laziness, often for the same reasons. Anyone can slap a few pregnant words together and call the result a “poem.” For me, it has always been a struggle to complete purely personal projects, but when these are kept short then the finish line is more attainable. Somehow content seems irrelevant when you have the satisfaction of seeing all those titled icons glowing back at you from the file system.
Like many who write I had youthful daydreams of being an author. These dreams sprung up at about the same time of life as pimples do, and were perhaps as attractive. And around the same time I outgrew the acne, I outgrew the fantasies. But I never stopped writing, and kept up my steady trickle over the years. Many of my friends, who wrote creatively along with me in adolescence and were much more productive, gave up writing altogether in college or shortly after. The realities of young adult life—justifying tuitions, finding a job—began extending their dampening effect, and my friends moved on to other things. In many ways, so did I. But at the same time, instead of lamenting lost dreams of an unfound audience, I gradually learned to write just for myself. Humbly, on the side.
This is not to say you shouldn’t pursue your dreams, but rather you should find a way to still live with them if even if they don’t prove to be anything more than that. Write what you enjoy reading, or write if the process itself is satisfying, or a challenge. Write like you can’t help it, with no thought for what may come of the finished product. Many people seem to feel that if they can’t possess the ideal, then they don’t want anything. I am not especially proud with the majority of what I’ve written, but in this day of age, when so much implacable pressure drives us to consume media, in any and all forms, I am proud that I at least create something, however modest. I let that be enough.
Today’s guest post is from David Walker, whose poem “Upon Visiting my Father” will appear in Issue 13, themed “Luck.”
As a poet, you believe in freedom of expression in its many forms. You know what you like and dislike, but you would never want to put constraints on anyone else’s art. As a lover of the English language, you cringe at the sight of “your” and “you’re” being interchanged mercilessly – especially in Facebook status updates. And as a Composition Instructor, you are all business with the red pen to prove it.
So as all three, what do you do with someone like, say, E.E. Cummings with his reckless abandoning of even the capitalized ‘I’? How do you twist just the right parts of your brain like a Rubik’s Cube to enjoy the pure expression of his poems and then twist them yet again to circle and underline and strikeout the same mistakes in your students’ writing? It’s not easy.
I’m divided on where I fall on the debate of grammar (mis)takes in poetry (if there even is a debate.) One of my graduate school professors swore by perfect grammar and would mark up our poems like I do freshman compositions. And I’ve seen it in action: I shopped around a poem with purposeful mistakes for a year or so until it was finally accepted somewhere AFTER I corrected them.
But how differently would we read “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]” if it adhered to the strict, oftentimes arbitrary rules of grammar? Would we deem it utterly unremarkable? Not exactly, but the outpouring of love felt when reading it would be sterilized – at least a little bit – to sentimentality. So is manipulating the commas and spaces and capitalizations a parlor trick or a stroke of genius? Is good poetry only good when it’s still good with good grammar?
I don’t know if I’ll ever reconcile the different sides of my sometimes-tumultuous relationship with language. Even now, when I’m revising this, I wonder if it takes away or adds to my message that I switched from the second person to the first in my third paragraph. I don’t think anyone could ever put their finger on the right answers for every situation in writing. But I suppose that’s the anarchist in me wanting to do away with the conventions of grammar altogether – except for that whole “your/you’re” thing.
Today’s guest post comes from author, Emily DeLoach. Her first novel, Escaping the Mirror, is now available on Amazon.com.
When people ask me what inspired me to write my first novel, Escaping the Mirror, I tell them I’ve had the idea for this novel since I was a teenager. What I don’t tell them is that the characters were once my lifeline, a source of comfort, an escape. In all truth, their story was a form of therapy for me.
Thankfully, I didn’t grow up in a home like the one my main character, Evil, was forced to live in. She was abandoned by her mother and physically and sexually abused by her father, while I had very loving and supportive parents. However, I did experience trauma when I was raped at the age of fourteen. Being a virgin at the time, this was my introduction into the world of sex, and it was followed by a series of unwanted sexual experiences. This impacted me severely: I was clinically, deeply depressed for two years, hospitalized twice. But somehow, I couldn’t connect what had happened to me with the pain and rage I was experiencing.
I started to develop characters in my mind as both a way of escape and a channel for my emotions. I could identify with Evil’s situation, even though on the surface it was different from mine, and as I made up all kinds of elaborate stories involving these characters, I was able to express my pain without admitting to myself that it was my own. It helped me to process my feelings when I wasn’t yet ready to face what had happened to me.
I thought of these characters so much, I felt that I knew them inside and out–much better than I knew most real people. I tried writing about them many times and always felt frustrated at my inability to truly capture who they were. Years later, as an adult, when I decided to devote more time and effort to writing, I kept coming back to them–or rather, it seemed, they kept coming back to me. I had a strong desire to give them a voice, because it was, in truth, my voice.
As Julia Cameron wrote, “Art acknowledges that feelings are mutable and that we contain the power to mutate the dross of our wounds into the ore of art. In this sense, art gives us the ability to always move out of the victim position.” Thanks to writing, I am no longer a victim. I am the creator of work that I hope will be a source of comfort for some, an evoker of empathy and compassion for others. My pain has been transformed into something good, and to me, that is a beautiful thing.
*As a promotion with Kindle, *Escaping the Mirror is available for free now through May 24, 2014.
Today’s guest blog comes from Robert Gordon Sumner. His short story, “Only So Much More,” will be featured in Issue 13 of The Quotable.
On a recent episode of The Colbert Report, Seth McFarlane plugged his new novel, A Million Ways to Die in the West, that he’d written during the filming of the movie with the same title, the screenplay for which he’d also co-written. Stephen Colbert pointed out that the usual process is the reverse, that screenplays are usually adapted from already-published novels. Why this is so perplexes me.
There are several advantages to writing a screenplay before a novel or short story, the main one being that a screenplay makes for a useful, detailed outline. Most novelists outline on some level before beginning to write a story anyway. Take the intermediate step and expand that outline into a feature-length screenplay (likewise, a short screenplay is useful in writing a short story or novella.) Although the plots of many prose pieces are arranged in a non-linear fashion, the underlying chronology has to be sorted out before deciding how to rearrange the component events. Most screenplays are written in such a linear, chronological order, not withstanding the occasional flashback. Working out the plot holes and the sequence of events at the screenplay level is much less complicated than it would be in the chronologically-scrambled prose.
The task of writing a novel also becomes less daunting when the writer considers that not only has the plot been thoroughly revised during the screenwriting process, but much of the dialogue has already been written and polished. Though a considerable amount of work still remains (screenwriting is easier than prose writing, despite Robert McKee’s defensive insistence to the contrary) – the bare bones descriptions in the screenplay must be elaborated, the characters’ memories, thoughts, and physical sensations which are mostly omitted from the screenplay must be written – having a portion of it done is a psychological boost.
The visual aspect of screenwriting also improves the final prose version. A series of scenes geared to be entertaining on a screen will be captivating imagery in a reader’s mind. Screenwriting offers many free workshopping opportunities that a novelist or short story writer does not enjoy. For the price of a cup of coffee a screenwriter can attend a meetup and hear feedback on their work in progress. Many aspiring writers will eagerly read portions of your screenplay who might be less enthusiastic about proof-reading your hundreds of pages of prose. They might not be familiar with the literary technique you plan to use in your prose, but they can always assess the plausibility of the plot, the naturalness of the dialogue, your characters’ likability or lack thereof, and the tone.
The final potential advantage to writing the screenplay before the prose version is remunerative: would you rather get the credit and the pay for both a novel and a screenplay, or hand the story over to a screenwriter to figure out how to adapt your story for you, and thereby take the screen credit and split the royalties that you could otherwise keep? If your answer is that you’re planning to do both, but adapt your own story after the prose version is written, then you have it backwards.