Thursday, February 28, 2013

Practical and Impractical

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I just want to thank you for your patience.  The last two weeks have been long, and I was not productive--unless you call healing productive, which I guess is something.

Anyway, in the midst of my un-productivity, I watched a lot of shows, read a book or so, and came to a conclusion about something that I've been mulling over:  what hooks you on a book.

Now, I'm going to stop and say in no uncertain terms something that will seem completely sacrilegious to anyone who's been reading about writing in the last 50 years.


Not the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, or the first fifty pages.

Instead, I'm going to talk about something that seems to me much more fundamental.  And that is, for a book or story of any sort to really succeed, there must come a point in which the reader must know how it ends and puts it down only under duress.

 For me, at least, I am willing to give a book a little time to grow on me, and I think that most readers are the same.  The amount of time we give varies by reader.  I think most editors, possibly by virtue of the sheer number of submissions they get, put manuscripts and books down rather quickly.  Those who don't sincerely love books probably put them back after the first few pages (possibly less) unless they are hooked. Even those who adore books only persist so long.  I often give books 25-50 pages, noting last week that I didn't really get into the most recent book of one of my favorite authors until page 52.  But then something strange happened.  Somewhere around page 130, I couldn't put that book down.  When I did put it down, I was annoyed at whoever had come between my book and me. I just had to finish that book.  And I realized that that's how most of the books I read are.  To be honest, I have quit reading many books in the middle because they fail to pick up speed.  If I do finish, it's because the book starts to bolt forward.

And so, I'd like us just to think about why this is.  Do you have the same experience, or is it just me?  What would help us achieve this drive?  Should we start at the end?  Should we severely edit the end of the book in order to improve the rhythm?  I'm not really sure.

This week's assignment, then, will explore this concept.  I have two potential ideas:
  1. Write a story about your life beginning at the end and moving forwards (in other words, write your last sentence first and slowly build forward).
  2. Write a story about reading a book that was truly important to you.  Instead of writing an essay, write a story.  Don't tell me what the book's about, tell me about how you got hooked.  Tell me about why you kept reading.  Tell me why you read it a second or third time.
 Can't wait to see what we find out!   

Friday, February 8, 2013

When You're Too Tired

I know I've talked about this before, but I'm going to put the easy stories into a new perspective.

No one thinks it is a weakness to eat a meal.  No one considers it a weakness to sleep from time to time.  Runners take breaks and drink water.  Weight lifting routines require breaks for the muscles to recover.

Similarly, writers can't stare down the devil every moment of every day and expect to be okay.  There will come times that story writing with get you down, down, very, very down.

That doesn't mean that there isn't a time for staring down the devil, for taking all of those terrible emotions and committing them to the page, or for delving through those less-than-comforting memories of the past.  There absolutely is--just like there's a time for fasting, all-nighters, marathons, and weight-lifting regimes.  But you can't do it twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.

Simply put, you must take a break, or you will burn out.

More than that, you don't want to simply take a break from writing.  Instead, you want to associate writing with something positive, something fun, something refreshing to your soul.  Furthermore, even though you want to take a break, you want your break to stretch you.


Think of it like a vacation.  Many vacations are both fun and edifying (and by edifying, I mean stretching.  You don't need to go to the Smithsonian on your vacation to learn something).

So how do you take a writing vacation, particularly in memoir? (My examples are in the hollow bullets.)
  • First, think of joy or peace or any other good, refreshing feeling you have had.
    • refreshing, surprise, laughter
  • Locate one particular instance in which that feeling manifested itself.
    • My first date with my husband
  • Put that part on paper.
    • DH drove from Daegu to Cheongju.  I had gotten lost on the way home from church and so I was late meeting him.  He was sweating to beat the band because he'd agreed to wear a red sweatshirt so I would know who he was but it was about 85 degrees that day.  I saw him, waved, and immediately fell over a hole in the sidewalk.  The whole date went like that.
  • Next, think about some type of writing or expression you've always loved but have never dared to try (or one that you haven't tried in a while)--it could be poetry, song lyrics, visual poetry, emoticons, a short story, a fairy tale--any kind of genre you've always wanted to play with.
    • I'd love to try to write this date/marriage to the tune/structure of Harry Chapin's "Cat in the Cradle."  I've never been able to thread narrative, allusion, and dialogue together like that, and I love it.
  • Think carefully about what type of structure that genre has and what information you need about your instance to create one of those stories.
    • I need (1) the narrative for the verses; (2) the allusions; (3) the dialogue; and most importantly (4) THE POINT!
  • Collect that information.
    • You'll have to wait till next week for that.  But you get the picture.
  • Try to put it together.
Don't worry if it isn't perfect.  Perfect isn't the point.  Rest, stretching, and pulling out the positive emotions is the point. 

Facing down the stuff that shaped us, the stuff that bent us, and the stuff that made us who we are is important, healthy, and cathartic.  It is also exhausting.  We need emotional restoration as well. 

PS - If you say restoration stands in the way of finishing, I have only two arguments.  First, if you're too emotionally spent to finish, then you're not getting anywhere anyway.  Secondly, it's very hard for anyone to read a memoir of unrelenting hardship. Even the saddest stories have bright spots.  And those bright spots throw even more emphasis on the dark ones, creating greater interest and impact.  So go for it!  Take a break!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Earning It

Over the last month or so, we've been talking about projects--getting them done, making them unified, facing obstacles in our paths, and setting intermediate goals.

Today is going to be a more contemplative post about memoir, sharing, and the writing process.
"i ain't gonna tell you" she said and turned her head
"ain't gonna tell me what" i asked
"what you asking me you gotta live to be seventy-nine
fore you could understand anyhow"
"now you being uppity" i said
"yeah but i earned it" ...
                                ~ Nikki Giovanni, from "Conversation"
My verses have "touches of truth in them"  ~ James Laughlin, from "Death Lurches Toward Me"
"Your job is not to judge your characters, no matter how despicable or wonderful they may be.  Your job is to lay out what happens, as clearly and dispassionately as possible, show how it affects the protagonist, and then get the hell out of the way." ~ Lisa Cron, from Wired for Story
Memoir and fiction share many aspects:  story arc, vivid description, a reliance on characterization.  But they also differ in an important aspect:  Memoirs are true, and we want to hear the writer's opinion.  You do not need to be dispassionate, but, like Nikki Giovanni's old woman, you need to earn your wisdom in the eye of your reader.

Our goal this week is to recognize the point that we want to make at story's end and make sure that we have put in enough hints, action, and vivid evidence to justify the insight we choose to share (or maybe more appropriately, unveil) at the end.

How do you do that?
  1. Make sure the conflict of your story is directly related to your point.
  2. Show as much of all sides of the issue as possible.  Be sure to use your senses and the intelligences discussed in the last post.
  3. Order how (and when) you unveil that information.
  4. Make each step close.  Use dialogue, rhythm, and paragraphing to emphasize your point.
  5. Reveal your point of view with subtlety but finality.
I'm going to post this now just to get it up, but check back later in the week for expansion of the points above.