Thursday, November 25, 2010

Writing Something in a New Genre

So a couple of weeks ago, I was waiting for a ride at the mechanic. Can’t remember how it started, but I got inspiration to start a Christmas play. For someone who’s never written anything other than short stories and nonfiction projects, it was an entirely new venue.

What Was Tough

  • Creating dialogue that didn’t feel stilted but showed what the characters were feeling.... I didn’t realize how often in my short stories I rely on the narrator to explain how the characters are really feeling and what they’re thinking.
  • Thinking about what characters need to be doing behind the scenes.... An eye to the logistics can help bring more clarity to how realistic action is.
  • Capturing the dramatic element without it feeling cheesy.... Tougher when you can only use blocking and dialogue.

What Was Cool

  • I got to think on multiple levels: sound, lighting, set design, blocking, etc.
  • I got to use media tools—video, audio, projection screens.
  • The challenge to think in these new areas makes me approach standard fiction projects from a new outlook with an eye for the visual.


See if there are new genres you can try. It’s fun. And it can help you return to your regular projects with fresh perspective.

Afterword: Writing Opps

Call for Papers
A scholarly journal of Lindenwood University is accepting submissions for its first issue. We need some A/P writers to get to work and add our voice! Deadline Dec. 15, 2010. Click here for details.

Writing Workshop Scholarship
Scholarships are being offered for IMAGE's Glen Workshop for writers, songwriters, and visual artists. Click here for details.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vacation Book as Photo, Memory, Story, Life

So what do you read on vacation?

I used to go on vacations with more books than clothes, somehow believing any travel would elongadate time to the point I might finish a title every day, and still have time to enjoy the sights. No more. Now I hone my selections to a bare—but varied—minimum, always with one title too many so that there’s flex room in case my mood changes.

Then, strangely, a book often comes to symbolize that entire vacation for me. The memories of reading a unique story in an unusual place glows on the shelf when I espy it months or even years later. Occassionally, the book becomes the single metaphorical memory of the holiday—intertwining its existence as a physical object and an engrossing story with my vacation locale and all of its related activities.

It’s not hard to scan my shelves and see:

  • The Jungle Book and Lolita become Portugal, our final trip before becoming parents, the most delicious food we’ve ever had overseas, my embarrassing order of peanut sauce when trying to speak Portuguese, great seafaring monuments, stifling heat. In reflection, I have no idea how I combined these two titles together for this trip, except that their contrasts framed our days away.

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame becomes our first trip to Rome—The irony of reading the quintessential book about Paris in Roma somehow didn’t seem ironic until I was reading it on a small bed in a tiny hotel room with a balcony revealing this amazing view of the ancient city. Yes, we saw and enjoyed all of the amazing history and art, but it all starts with this twisted fairy tale.

  • Truman is a Youth Retreat in Carlinville, Ill—I remember yanking it out during a lull on the first night and everyone gasping at its size. Yes, I was reading David McCullough’s bio at the time, but I also brought it to impress. (I was young and na├»ve!) I remember staying up all night to play Risk. (I lost.) I remember the Lord moving. I remember discussing Bill Clinton’s election possibly being a good thing for Pentecostals to stay engaged in the political process. I remember beautiful weather.
  • Twelfth Night becomes London. In truth, it’s not fair to choose a single anything to somehow magically represent a two-month stay in England due to work (one of the most blessed periods in my life), yet this book resonates because London reimmersed me in the classics. An unknown publishing house called Wordsworth was offering all the classics (no matter their size) for 1 pound each! 1 pound! I gobbled up most of Shakespeare, Hardy, shelves of poetry(!), Austen, the Brontes and even some Dickens. There was always something to read! So it was that I happily chose Twelfth Night during my second month there, alone in the company’s seond-story flat. My bedroom window overlooked an angled roof, hard against the back wall. It beckoned to me. So one beautiful day, I climbed out onto the roof to read Twelfth Night. It seemed like the most appropriate way to read Shakespeare in London. Twelfth Night is still my favorite comedy, and the first title I think of when I revisit London in my mind.

  • Sun Tzu’s The Art of War becomes Sanibel Island, Florida on our honeymoon. Everyone—coaches, businessmen and politicians! Everyone!—at the time was recommending this must-read title, so I tossed it onto my pile (without thinking, obviously) before we traveled south. It was only when Nita pointed out the timing of what I was reading that I realized my error. All I can say in my defense is that this title saved our lives when an army of vengeful Samurai cornered us one evening . . . nah! I blew it! Don’t bring it on your honeymoon.

Finally, I can’t explain why one book becomes that overpowering metaphorical travel memory while the other titles on the same vacation drift away. It’s not the nature of the trip, as I’ve been to many locales—Milan, Phoenix, Paris, Chicago, Scotland, and Ontario—where no books resonate afterwards. I just know certain books seal my story into theirs to create something far more powerful than any group of photos ever can.

So what do you read on vacation?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Failing Better; or What I Learned at Nimrod 2010

Insert mental image
of failure--
it looks different
to each of us.

In the words of Cesare Pavese, we do not remember days; we remember moments. Fourteen days have passed since the Nimrod conference. Understandably, my memories of the day are fleeting. What I remember of the day is jogged by the bullet point entries made in my Moleskine notebook.

I remember moments.

I'll never forget a stranger's telling me I look just like Natalie Merchant.

And I'll see David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, with his shiny bald head, a big smile, and crisp white shirt, greeting attendees crammed in the conference room for the opening panel session with a jubilant: "Do you know how many standing-room only audiences a writer sees? This is great!"

Attendance was up this year, and attendees ranged in age from adolescent to octogenerian.

The conference theme centered on "Spinning Legends, Telling Truths." It is the central irony of the written word that truth is conveyed through the fiction of a construct, whether that rhetorical construct is a story, a poem, or quite another form. As one participant expressed it, "Literature is shaped truth."

I remember Jude Nutter asserting it's okay to tell a lie in serving the truth. Is she right? How do you know when you've carried the lie too far?

I remember Colum McCann's paraphrasing Samuel Beckett's admonition: Fail better. You have to take risks in life and writing. His formula for success: 70% talent + 100% effort. How many people do you know who would set off on a bicycle ride across the United States to overcome writer's block? Or spend a year and a half in the New York subway to experience the lifestyle that they will be writing about?

As McCann advises, "Be promiscuous in your research. Use obscure details that are true. Tell the stories of characters relegated to the corners of society." And he does.

He speaks of the power fictional characters can hold over our imaginations: "I know Edgar Sawtelle better than I know anyone in this room!"

And these days, I'm getting better acquainted with Edgar Sawtelle myself. Ever since Ann reviewed the novel last fall, I've had it on my must-reads list. I knew the time had come when an editor I met with at Nimrod huge had this to say about my writing: "Your imagery is every bit as good as Edgar Sawtelle. Have you read it?" I figured I should see what I'm up against. Oh, it's good alright; that Wroblewski knows a thing or two about writing. But while my imagery might compare on some level, my narrative skills are nowhere near.

I, for one, need to learn to fail. Better. More often. I need to remember those moments of failure, along with the moments of inspiration and success. If I'm not willing to fail, am I actually taking any risks? It wasn't as if I set out to look like Merchant or write like Wroblewski, but somehow being compared to them sets the bar higher for my own craft. And if I fail, it will be for trying to jump too high.

And maybe, just maybe, in trying, I'll actually learn to jump higher.

Where have you failed in your writing, and what are doing to fail better the next time around?

Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.
~Samuel Beckett

(Beckett's advice has even inspired a literary journal. Who'd have thought?)