Posted on 20 May 2013 | 17 responses
I finished the first draft of my novel-in-progress last week. Before you suggest breaking out the champagne, I have to remind you (and myself) this is just the beginning of a very long road. I don’t outline in advance, so to say my first drafts are messy is an understatement. But it definitely feels good to have the rough beginnings of the story on the page — a story I feel has real promise. The opening chapters of this novel are what won me the scholarship to Tin House and also earned me a finalist nod from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.
Promise or not, writing to the end of a novel is a long, lonely process. Here’s who (and what) kept me company during many of those early morning writing sessions:
Remember this guy? I kept him on my desk until I finished the draft.
Not pictured: 1. My writing buddies from when I worked on this novel during our occasional writing sessions. 2. The little boy who lives on my street and who interrupted my flow (in a charming sort of way) by sobbing his head off every morning when the school bus picked him up.
From here, I’m taking at least a month-long break from the novel to gain some distance and perspective. If only Cirrus could say the same thing about my laptop, I’d be set.
Who keeps you company when you write?
Posted on 17 May 2013 | 22 responses
…not for the Bowling Green subway station in New York City, as this photo I took back in March would have you believe, but Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Starting this fall, I’ll be a student and graduate teaching assistant in BGSU’s MFA program.
That means I’m leaving my editorial position here in Cleveland to spend two years writing whatever I’d like, gaining teaching experience, editing the Mid-American Review, reading, and then writing some more.
This was a huge decision for me. I’m going to miss many of my coworkers and the work I do now as an editor, but I’m also astounded at the mere thought of how much time I’ll have to write while in this program. I have never before put my own writing first…until now.
In recent years I’ve struggled with whether or not I wanted to pursue an MFA. In 2010, I wrote on this very blog: “I would like an MFA because I’d love to spend an intense period of time working on my writing. I want to be funded to write. I want to learn from established writers. I want to meet other writers like me. Even more, I want to meet writers totally unlike me.” All of that still stands. I considered low-residency programs but knew that a fully funded program, like Bowling Green’s, would be the best option for me. The fact that Bowling Green is close enough to allow me to easily keep Cleveland as a home base certainly helped make this possible.
I’m sure I’ll be posting much more about this change in the coming months. I’m also looking forward to sharing my first-ever experiences as a teacher, a slush-pile reader, and of course a full-time writer. But for now, I think it’s enough to say that I’ve set myself up to be able to work as hard as I possibly can. And that, I can already tell, is priceless.
Posted on 15 May 2013 | 7 responses
♦ Living Arrangements was named a category finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award.
♦ I will be heading to one of my favorite places — Portland, Oregon — for a week in July for the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. I am so grateful to have received a full scholarship, without which I wouldn’t be able to attend. I’ll be workshopping the opening of my new novel, so Portland, you better look out for darkness, skin, stars, and girls. Someone should probably warn VooDoo Donuts, too.
♦ I’m also happy to share that I wrote the introduction to the new Sophie Kerr Prize Anthology, which was published recently by Washington College’s Literary House Press. (You can learn about the Sophie Kerr Prize and my experience winning here.)
Speaking of the Sophie Kerr Prize, May 14 was the big day to announce the latest winner. I wasn’t able to watch the ceremony live because, among other reasons, I was at a writing group. (I think even Sophie Kerr herself would approve of that excuse.) But I did watch the video later. The prize was announced at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore following a keynote from Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda.
Dirda opened his remarks with not congratulations but consolation:
“One of you will be the happy recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize, worth, as we know, a considerable amount of money. But the other four here tonight will need to hold back their tears and put on a brave smile. It will make little difference to hear, as you may, that the choice of this year’s Sophie Kerr winner was a difficult decision. In fact, it will make it seem worse. That little voice in your head will cry out, if only I tried a little harder, had run that last paragraph through my typewriter (to use an old metaphor) one more time … No, you will feel heartbroken for a while. But if you are meaning to pursue a literary career, it’s best to get used to that feeling right away.”
He also had some wise words to the winner, who was later announced as Tim Marcin. This advice that perfectly sums up the news I’ll be sharing about my own writing life later this week: “It doesn’t matter if you fail, if nobody ever hears of you or your writing ever again … but right now you need to try, and try hard.”
How hard are you trying?
Posted on 8 May 2013 | 9 responses
Room, published in 2010, is told from the point of view of 5-year-old Jack, who lives with his long-imprisoned mother in a single room and develops a growing curiosity about the outside world just as he’s about to be thrust into it. Donoghue has cited the famed Fritzl case in Austria among several influences for her novel, but stressed it wasn’t the key driver of the work.
In this Guardian interview, she explains:
In the run-up to publication, however, word was that Donoghue’s seventh novel would be based on the modern-day case of Josef Fritzl, who locked his daughter, Elisabeth, in a basement for 24 years, raped her repeatedly and fathered her seven children – three of whom he imprisoned with her. Unsurprisingly, accusations of cynicism and sensationalism abounded. When I meet Donoghue, halfway through a publication tour that has mushroomed thanks to her longlisting, she recalls the period as “quite painful. A lot of people made out I was writing this sinister, money-making book to exploit the grief of victims. I was thinking, it’s not like that, but no one will know until they read it.”
She is keen, too, to contextualise the link between her novel and the Fritzl case. “To say Room is based on the Fritzl case is too strong,” she says firmly. “I’d say it was triggered by it. The newspaper reports of Felix Fritzl [Elisabeth's son], aged five, emerging into a world he didn’t know about, put the idea into my head. That notion of the wide-eyed child emerging into the world like a Martian coming to Earth: it seized me.”
Here in Cleveland, things are still hectic. A coworker who lives only streets away from the house where the women were held reports frustrating, round-the-clock filming, media coverage, and curious onlookers. As for me, I’ve found myself suggesting Room to a few friends. I would like to think that my own desire to re-read the novel is not based on voyeurism, but rather because this is a story that, in Donoghue’s words, has the capacity to seize us.
Posted on 6 May 2013 | 4 responses
Better late than never: I’m thrilled to share the June 2012 Stories on Stage performance, in which actor Blair Leatherwood read my short story “Q&A at the Film Fest.” He does a fantastic job, as you can see for yourself here:
Posted on 3 May 2013 | 4 responses
This morning, as I rushed out the door to head to work, a long-lost memory from a high school English class popped into my head. We’d been tasked with writing short stories, which we then passed around to several other students to review. When I received a story from a classmate I’ll call Jim, I saw that my friend “Ben” had already read and reviewed the story.
I knew Ben fairly well, and this was the most worked up I’d ever seen him over a piece of fiction. His comments were scrawled across the last page of the story in big, excited handwriting: “WOW! This story has EVERYTHING! Great plot, great writing, don’t change a thing!!!” It was, by far, the most effusive commentary I’d seen on anyone’s story that day.
Jim’s story surrounded a war in which the soldiers were embarking on a bloody, graphic battle scene. I thought it was well written, but otherwise, it didn’t float my boat. It just wasn’t my thing. But Ben’s very enthusiastic comments reminded me that every reader is different. Some people are going to connect with your story, while others simply will not. Some people might fall in love with it, others might feel so-so about it, and others might despise it.
I thought of this again later today, when I decided to scan through some of the reviews for a book on my Nook. Here’s a sampling of the one-sentence subject lines visible on my screen:
- Great, sly book!
- This is an excellent novel.
- I couldn’t get past page 37.
- A luminously written novel.
- Are we reading the same book?
- The worst of the worst.
- A struggle to get through!
- Captures an age.
- I won’t finish it.
- Absorbing and elegantly written.
- A complete waste of time.
- Yawn. I want those hours of my life back!
- Pompous and over punctuated.
- Insightful and illuminating.
- Boring and disappointing.
- Have a dictionary handy!
- A charmer.
- A literary failure.
So there you have it — some readers call the book “a literary failure” while others insist it’s “insightful and illuminating.” I know it’s nothing we don’t already know, that people have different tastes, but it’s helpful to keep it in mind, especially when those tastes can flavor so much of our writing lives. I feel like I’ve seen it all in writing groups, and I know how ugly it can sometimes get. If, for example, you workshop a few novel chapters and a critique member keeps attacking your family drama while insisting “there should be more violence,” you’ll be less tempted to throttle your book (and/or that critique group member) if you understand this person is not your target audience.
In other words: No, we aren’t all reading the same book.
Are you having a pompous and over-punctuated day, or an absorbing and elegantly written day?
Posted on 26 April 2013 | 12 responses
In the course of one week, I received some rather encouraging news regarding one of my writing projects that was followed, only a few days later, by a surprise rejection from elsewhere for the very same project.
Let it be known I usually don’t consider any rejection a “surprise,” but this rejection was for something perhaps not quite as competitive, and something I thought I might have a shot of getting. So while the good news filled me with hope and gave me the drive to continue soldiering on, the bad news left me wondering what happened.
Maybe I’m confusing you because I’m being intentionally vague, so I’ll sum it up: This writing game can be a complete crapshoot. Just when you think you’ve found your footing in a particular place, the ground shifts yet again.
It serves as a nice reminder that I need to keep my head down and focus on the work because everything else is out of my hands. If you don’t believe me, take it from Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn and winner of the 2013 Story Prize:
When I was an ambitious young MFA student I sometimes felt frustrated that Ohio State’s MFA program didn’t seem to do much to “professionalize” us, meaning teach us about the publishing world and how to work it so our books got published. We spent just 1 day a year talking with editors or alums about “how to get published.” Now that I have a book out it’s completely clear why our time was structured this way: because all the publishing savvy and insider connections in the world can’t make you a better writer. I know this is easy to say from my vantage point, but trust me: constantly worrying about getting published is wasted energy and a drain on your very soul. I’m now tremendously glad I was educated the way I was, encouraged to obsess only about the writing, the writing, the writing, and not about who would buy it or how. So I’d advise new writers to spend 364 days a year on writing the best damn thing they possibly can, and maybe 1 worrying about how to get it out there.
You can read her full interview on One Story‘s blog here. As for me, it’s back to the writing, the writing, the writing.
What’s the news on your end?
Posted on 24 April 2013 | 7 responses
I’m working on something really radical these days: I’m trying to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night. Every night. Including weeknights. I know, it’s an extreme goal. At the same time, I’m unwilling to give up my morning writing sessions. This means if I don’t get to bed early enough, my writing time will be cut short the next morning.
For the last few weeks I’ve been steadily working on my novel. The end is so close in sight, and I know it’s more important now than ever to work on this book every day so it stays whole and present in my mind. So if I only have 30 minutes to write before work, as I did the other day, I better use those 30 minutes to the best of my abilities.
It was tempting at first to not work on the novel at all — what’s a half hour, and how could I get deeply involved in the book in such a short frame of time? But for the next 30 minutes, I blocked out everything else and focused. As a result, I wrote one full scene. Not a particularly long scene, but a scene nonetheless. It didn’t exist the night before but it’s there now. How else is a book written except scene by scene?
And okay, getting enough sleep for once in my life probably didn’t hurt my ability to focus.
How did you sleep last night?
Photo: Leo Reynolds
Posted on 17 April 2013 | 8 responses
Slate is running a series on the daily rituals of artists and writers. I think we all know there’s no secret formula or ritual that can unleash a writer’s productivity, but it does appear one ritual is shared by many (not all) writers: waking up early and writing first thing in the morning.
I’m fortunate in the sense that I can write at any time of day. But while I love meeting my writing buddies for an evening session, and while I’ve even been known to sneak off to the library for thirty minutes of quiet writing time during a workday lunch break, morning is my favorite time to write. I’ve been making steady progress on my new novel the last few weeks, and there’s no question I’ve done most of the work early in the morning, before heading to the office.
From Mason Currey’s piece on Slate:
Some people get up early out of necessity, but others find that there’s something special about that early-a.m. feeling. The Irish novelist and playwright Edna O’Brien works in the morning, she has said, “because one is nearer to the unconscious, the source of inspiration.” As it happens, I also prefer to work early in the morning—not because I feel nearer to the unconscious but because I still feel semi-conscious. Being half-awake, body tired, squinty-eyed, and more than a little grumpy is, for me, the best state for concentrated writing. I simply don’t have the mental or bodily energy to be as distraction-prone as I am later in the day.
I agree with all of the above. Even on the weekends, I find that if I don’t head to the writing desk first thing, it becomes easier and easier to put the writing off as more mundane life tasks fill my day. But first thing in the morning, it’s just me, a cup of tea, a few cats circling my feet, and the page. Nothing else exists in my day yet, and so I get to work.
What about you — are you an early riser and early writer? And any tips for how I can stop hitting the snooze button?
Photo: Rob Swatski
Posted on 12 April 2013 | 6 responses