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Short Fiction: A Weekly Dedication – Week 1

I read this article that said reading short stories is an excellent way for a writer to get examples of narrative structure in quick succession.  As we all know reading is extremely important for writers to hone their craft, but as many of us tend to delve into novel writing, we also tend to read more novels for inspiration and example.  Per the advice in this article and for the reasons given, I decided to start reading short fiction on a (somewhat) daily basis.  Lucky me, I discovered that I was unknowingly surrounded by it!  Here is what I read and gained from my first week:

I began with O. Henry’s “The Plutonian Fire”, which was somewhat of a treatise on the nature of writing – the lengths we writers must go to and the deceptions we sometimes must act for the better of our craft.

I read another O. Henry after that –  “The Princess and the Puma”; the “Princess” in this case being the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Middle America.  This story – being very similar in theme to the Poe I read today, “Spectacles” – demonstrated the folly of the vanity and pride of men. In the case of the O. Henry story, pride of masculine vs feminine roles, and in the case of the Poe pure vanity of appearance.  The end result in both cases is likely to elicit an “Oh-you-silly-man”-style giggle.

Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” – an excellent example of the feminist themes for which this author is so celebrated – is heartbreaking.  And it is an interesting contrast to Dorothy Parker’s piece, “Mr. Durant” which shames the title character indirectly for his callousness.

Finally, H.P. Lovecraft, who I have wanted to read for sometime, and for which I have my cousin and her clever idea for wedding favor to thank.  “The Beast in the Cave” was a great example of the thriller/horror genre that Lovecraft is touted for.  However, I learned a very important lesson about reading short fiction. You see, I have for years, got into the habit of flipping ahead to see how much further I have to go before the end of a chapter of\r at least a natural stopping point.  Now, this is fine when reading a novel (save for the danger of seeing a statement so enticing that you won’t put the book down anyway).  However, this is very dangerous when done with short fiction.  In order to not ruin your own reading, I will use an example to illustrate this danger.  I happen to look at the last line, which for all of it’s twisty surprise-iness is this story’s equivalent to, “He’s Keyser Soze.”

Moral:  Don’t read ahead in short fiction!!

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R – Recipes, And Other How-To’s: Entertaining NonFiction

Okay, I’m not usually one to put recipes on this site. That’s not what this is about, but as I was trying to come up with an “R” word that had to do with writing, I started thinking of another one of my favorite writers, Anthony Bourdain.  Some of you may be familiar with his former show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations.  Others may know him by his current show on CNN, Parts Unknown.  And some may know him best by his bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential; a (hate to tell you this) very realistic portrait of life working in restaurants.  But one of his books you may not have heard of is called the Les Halles Cookbook.  This is a book that he wrote which includes a number of french dishes that he cooked while working as head and executive chef at the New York Brasserie, Les Halles (a restaurant I am determined to dine in myself one of these days).

Now there may be some out there who are still thinking, “Okay, great.  What does this have to do with writing.”  Well, as I say, Anthony Bourdain is a writer, and he has a great gift with words and imagery.  And his cookbook is like none I’ve ever seen before or since.  He does not simply list ingredients and steps.  He tells you about the dish you are making, and gives you hints and secrets about the best way to cook it.  And he does all of this with a talent for the use of language.  If you can get it, I highly recommend you pick up the book.  This is the only cookbook I have ever sat down to read for entertainment.

So here’s a challenge: (Completely stealing this from a public speaking assignment I had in college.) Write a recipe, or other seemingly doldrum instruction oriented piece, but do so with not only the purpose of informing, but entertaining as well.  Instruction manuals, how-to guides, and cookbooks do not have to be boring to read.  As a matter of fact, they shouldn’t be.

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M – Meetup: Where Are All The Writers?!?

As we all know, writing can be a very lonely hobby and profession.  If it’s your full time job, you may spend up to 8 hours of the day, like Stewart O’Nan, at your computer or desk or typewriter or notebook.  If it’s a hobby, you probably try to spend at least a couple of hours, like me, at your computer, et al, and 8 hours or more at work, and hours with family, and (if you’re lucky) at least 7 to 8 hours sleeping.  (Wouldn’t that be nice!)  With all that time alone, how do you get to meet people, socialize, find other writers who share your pain and celebrations?

One of the greatest tools I have found is Meetup.com.  Meetup.com is a website devoted to bringing people together via the internet to meet in real life activities and events.  They can be found in most every city – the major hubs, obviously, but some smaller cities too.  (When I searched my hometown, which is notably smaller than my current city of residence, I found over 100.  Flint, Michigan with a population of just 100,000 also had over 100 groups.)

Now, you may be thinking, “What does that have to do with writing?”  Well, like I say; writing can be a lonely business, but humans are generally social animals.  So finding a group that you can cut loose with is important.  The site has groups that are of vast interests and purposes.  Let’s remember, too, that writing is a sedentary activity, so if you can find a group that goes on a hike once a week or gets together for tennis or other sport, you can get some exercise too.

And, of course,  every city I searched had at least one group of writers.  If you can get in with a good writing group, you are on your way to completion and success. While Meetup is not the only way, it is one of several ways to find a good writing group that can help advise you and critique your work. I attribute the completion of my first MS entirely to a writing group I attended for about 5 years.  A good group can be an excellent source of motivation, wonderful critique, and a solace when you are struggling with your work.

So look for a good Meetup in your area, and get out and find writers!

 

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I – Inspiration: Mmmm… Magic!

We never can be sure when it’s going to hit, or what causes it.  Maybe a song you heard on the radio had a lyric that sparked something.  Maybe an international news story gets you wondering what it’s like to live over there, under those conditions.  Maybe a documentary on the History Channel sparks something.  Who knows?

But when the inspiration hits you hard, it’s magical.  You sit down at your computer, or your notebook and you just start letting it flow out of you.  It comes so easily.  You probably don’t even notice that your pen isn’t leaving the page, or your typing is ceaseless.  Your hands and wrists don’t hurt, even though hours are passing by.  You have no idea, because you’re in the zone.  If you were hungry once, it’s passed.  You might be thirsty, but you’re too busy to notice.

In that moment, when the story is coming to us so seamlessly – like you already have it memorized and you’re just transcribing it now –  this is what we all wish and hope for.  I remember reading something about a famous author writing his most famous work – it might have been Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, or Faulkner and The Sound and the Fury; I can’t remember – and he managed to do it in only two weeks.  My MS took six years, and I remember thinking, “What a jerk!  For a masterpiece like that (whichever one it was) to come so easily.  I hate him.”

But just a few weeks ago, for the first time in years, I was hit by one of these waves.  Ten handwritten pages kept me up until 4:30 in the morning, and I had to force myself to go to sleep.  I was so jacked up on my own inspiration; my own creativity, it was like drinking an espresso.  My mind wasn’t turning off.  And suddenly, I understood how Faulkner or Fitzgerald, or anyone else for that matter, could finish upwards of 97,000 words or more in just two weeks.  And there’s a part of me thinking, maybe I could do that.  Hopefully, the wave will keep up.

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H – Hermits: A Typewriter, A Shack In The Woods, And That’s All I Need!

There are so many authors throughout literary history who are famous, not only for their literary works, but for their reclusive lifestyles.  In some cases, such as J D Salinger, and Emily Dickinson, the author is perhaps better known for being out of the public eye than for his/her other literary contributions.

So what is it about literary life or the nature of writing that drives this decision for some to shut out the outside world?

For one, writing is largely a solitary activity. Being in the public eye, constantly berated with an onslaught of fans, editors, and critics hounding one about one’s work can, I (must) imagine become tiresome.

Secondly, so much of writing comes from personal reflection, philosophy and general “soul searching”. Creating a personal philosophy is something that one must necessarily do alone – not to discount the importance of outside influence.

And of course, one cannot ignore the important work that this device has given us such as Thoreau’s” “Walden” and Longfellow’s American Translation of Dante’s Inferno.

But, before you go off to put a down payment on a rural farmhouse and cancel your phone service, keep in mind that so much of what we write and where we get our ideas stems from our experiences. It is our connections with other people, the events and activities in which we participate that gives us our material. Sure, some may have the intellect or imagination to gather ideas without the benefit of getting out in the world, but they are few and far between. For most of us, it is living that provides us our inspiration.

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A – Autobiography vs. Memoir; Write About Me (Or, Well, You)

In 2010, 100 years after his death, Mark Twain’s estate finally released his autobiography. He dictated it in the last years of his life, and stated in his will that it shouldn’t be published until a century after his death.  Well, apparently it’s been 100 years, and we now have two volumes of his complete autobiography.

After the first volume was released, I came across it in the biography section at Barnes and Noble.  (Apparently, they don’t have an “autobiography” section.)  I was excited to see it, and a little surprised, even though I knew it was coming out and had, prior to its release, really been looking forward to it.

The first thing I noticed was the book was huge, at 700 or more pages, and was the size of a large coffee table book.  I flipped through about 200 pages, trying to find where the autobiography actually started; looking for some Twain version (READ: snarky) of the Dickensian model, “To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born” (David Copperfield, 1850).  Little did I know, it consists mostly of anecdotes and reminiscences, rather than being in a traditional autobiography “story” format.

I held this book like the Gutenberg Bible, thinking, “I would never be able to fill up a book like that”.  I’ve thought about writing an autobiography, mostly just to practice narrative and remember specific events in my own life which I’ve always found hard, but when I’ve tried I’ve had difficulty in deciding how to begin.

The distinction between autobiography and memoir from Writer’s Digest is so helpful to me.  The difference stated on the site is that an autobiography will cover one’s entire life, while a memoir is generally just pieces of narrative that are particularly meaningful, interesting, funny, etc.  For me this distinction is very important, as I can’t remember my entire life, and I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t be that interesting.  However, I can pick a few tidbits here and there, so a memoir is a far more reasonable.

So, for the past few months, I have returned to the work of writing a memoir.  Will anything ever come of it?  Aside from my sheer enjoyment, probably not.  But it’s nice to return to those moments that I remember fondly, examine those times that were so challenging yet character building, and remind myself that it has been pretty interesting so far… In pieces, at least.

 

 

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Who Doesn’t Love a Good Author Event?

Last night I had the pleasure of listening to author, Stewart O’Nan, speak. I had never actually heard of this particular author before, but some of his book titles were familiar to me. (And I’ll be familiarizing myself with him soon. I think I’ll start with Snow Angels, but don’t be surprised if my book search leads me in a different direction.) The excerpts he read sparked my interest, especially when he read from his upcoming work.

The best part of an author event, though, is the Q&A portion (READ: the chance to get a window into the author’s process), and his was enlightening.

Some of the most helpful advice I heard was:

ON BEING STUCK: When you’re lost for where to go with your MS, it’s tempting to go to your nightstand reading for inspiration, but O’Nan says, “Stay there” in front of “your machine”. He illustrated this by telling us that he goes so far as to tie a piece of yarn around his leg and attach it to his chair so he can’t get up, but I have my doubts. I just don’t think something as sinewy as yarn could hold him. Rope, or a strong twine, but you get the idea. I’m thinking of investing in Velcro.

ON INSPIRATION: O’Nan says he’s inspired by curiosity. The question he repeated was “How do you do that?” – “How does love turn to hate?” “How does a parent kill their child?” It made a lot of sense to me, since that’s where most of my stories come from. Let’s face it, the greater question that we are always asking is, “What is the human condition, and how would it present in these set of circumstances?”

ON RESEARCH: When describing something unfamiliar, O’Nan says you have to “know [what you’re writing] at least as well as your character”. From this I gathered that if your character has lived in New York City all his/her life you’re probably goIng to have to be pretty familiar with it – at least talk to someone who has lived there. If s/he takes summer trips to Charleston each year, you might want to check out a few local hangouts in the tourist district – the kind of place you wouldn’t try on a first visit, but by the third or fourth would switch to for a change. Here again, I agree. Sure you don’t necessarily have to follow the old “write what you know” adage, but you should know what you write. So look it up, talk to people, go there if you can. It will help make your story that much more real.

I’d like to thank Stewart O’Nan for speaking and UNC for hosting the event. I hope you will look him up, and I hope that some of these notes will help you. I think they are going to help me.

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