On Writing


My “Dear Teen Me” letter goes live today. Thanks to the moderators for this wonderful, important site. Dear Teen Me, Hello! How are you? Wait, I know how you are. You’re struggling with high school in a small, one-stoplight town. You get told you’re “too good” or “stuck up” when all you are is painfully shy. And it’s that row of teenaged boys in their steel-toed boots, flannel jackets, and John Deere ball caps who get to you most, isn’t it? They line the hall outside the gym, rating the girls who walk past: “too skinny,” “big butt,” “bitch.” It’s probably the right decision to live with “stuck up” rather than reveal the truth. Like dogs, the good-ole-boy gauntlet can smell fear. Wait. This is a letter. Let me try again: Wish you were here! Except I don’t. Ronald Reagan is president where you are, long distance phone calls are very expensive, and you think you know everything. No offense, but I don’t want you here. Those 30+ years between us represent a lot of hard-won battles and besides, you’ve only just seen your first Apple computer. You’d be a little behind in my world. (Sigh.) I’m avoiding the purpose of this letter, aren’t I? I’m supposed to impart some wisdom or perspective to you, but I can’t decide: should the advice apply to the you of 1982? Or to the you that will be me in thirty years? I mean, I could help you avoid some seriously stupid mistakes…but I’ve seen enough Will Smith movies to know it’s not a good idea to mess around with the past. Will Smith? Oh, he’s a rapper, turned TV star, turned movie star, turned…never mind. You’ll like him. So, I guess I won’t warn you off any future relationships—they each teach you something and I’d hate for your kids to just—poof—disappear…plus the wrong men ultimately lead you to Mr. Right. So try to be patient. You know, kiddo, I guess I do have one important thing to say—you don’t need bigger boobs. In a few years you’ll discover the push-up bra and your problem will be solved…as far as the world can tell. Anyway, you’ve got good legs, and those can’t be faked, so stop wasting your time fantasizing about all those magic creams. Oh, and one more thing—it pains me tell you this, but—you need to come to grips with the fact that your love isn’t magic. It won’t save you and it won’t save anyone else. I know you want it to, desperately, but those three-legged-dog dreams you keep having? Those are only the start of a lifelong struggle...

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This interview aired on a local TV station in 2009, but most of the discussion revolves around about the process and the art of writing, which are timeless subjects.

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A book, I have come to believe, is rather like a house. For the past six years I have been building a house of words from the ground up. I hammered every nail, placed every stone (at first I thought to write “brick” but the unique shapes of words, their roundness and roughness and varied colors make “stone” the better metaphor), and made every single design decision. Then I asked the advice of several friends and professionals. Their suggestions encouraged me to tear down and rebuild some stuff, rip out a wall or two, add some unusual landscaping and a distinctive path to the front door. These helped make my house better and stronger, more attractive, navigable, and liveable. Then I found my wonderful agent, and she helped me see that I needed a fresh coat of paint and new carpets in order to give it that final spruce-up that would help it appeal to a certain kind of buyer. After that, we put this book-house on the market and showed it a few times. The buyers we approached were complimentary and appreciative, but still skittish. So we had a few more people look it over and give us ideas. We carefully picked and chose among those ideas and implemented the ones that seemed best. But here’s the thing: anyone who buys this house I’ve built is still going to want to paint it and change the carpets, even though we just did that. We did it to make it sell, but they will do it again to make it THEIRS. In all likelihood, I will have more changes to make that will come only after we make a sale. So I’ve come to realize that I need to save a little bit of passion and energy for that time or I’ll never get through this crazy, lengthy process. And I also have to be careful not to tack on too many things that other people think might make it a better house. Just because one potential buyer loves plants and another makes birdhouses as a hobby and another wants to entertain friends and still another likes lots of natural light doesn’t mean that the buyer we find will want the house to come with an attached greenhouse and a bar in the basement and a woodworking studio and a whole bunch of skylights. If I start to add all of the different things to my house that could potentially make it appeal to a certain type of buyer, in the end no one will want it because it will have become a crazy hodge-podge.It will end up like...

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I have a good friend who has recently hit a publishing wall. She’s a great writer, with a published book that was nominated for a major award. Her writing inspires me. Now she has a second book out on submission and the process is killing her confidence in the unique way that only the publishing industry can. What she describes feeling is common among writers, even the successful ones. We all simultaneously think we’re something really special…and nothing at all. It doesn’t make sense, but that seems to be the way of the creative mind. If you are a writer, here’s what I think you need to spend at least a little bit of time thinking about: What does “success” look like to you? I’m talking about in your heart-of-hearts, what does success look like? When you have that warm vision of you as a successful writer, where are you? What are you doing? In my daydream of success, I’m standing at a lectern, reading and answering questions and I have a large audience. So, that’s “success” for me, it turns out, and that tells me that I am more interested in reaching people, in having an audience, and connecting with readers. Now for another writer, he might envision success as walking on stage and accepting a big award, or getting an excellent critical review of his work, or making the canon. Another writer might just see success as being able to find the time to write, alone, for long stretches. If you know what success looks like to you subconsciously, you can make changes in your work to push it in that direction. You have limitations, you say? All writers have limitations, even the great ones. And most creative people are working through the same themes for the bulk of their lives. I just read John Irving’s most recent book, and thirty-plus years later he is still rehashing the same themes–absent women, dastardly dogs, death of a child, and oral sex (usually taking place in a car) that goes horribly wrong. Every one of his books seems to have one or more of these issues creep in–but he’s JOHN IRVING…and he’s a writer with limitations. When the negative responses start to come in, we can parse them for similarities. Do any of the publisher’s responses ring true in terms of specific criticisms? Are there common complaints that can be addressed before the next round of submissions? I’m always amazed by the ways that small adjustments can make a huge difference to readers. (And help the writer to feel proactive instead of reactive.) Alternatively–and this is a scary question,...

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Before I began writing full time, I was a production potter. I strove to create beautiful work that was also functional. For me, beauty and function have never been separate ideals. A pitcher that is easy to lift and pours a smooth stream of liquid without dripping is beautiful for how it becomes an extension of the hand, an aid to human intent and ability. Beauty, likewise, has its own unique function: to make us happy, to carry us beyond the mundane details of our daily lives, to engage our souls and help them briefly soar. During my days as an MFA student studying creative writing, a beloved instructor gave me the following advice: “It’s all about the writing.” Focus on the writing, she said, and the rest will follow. She’s a brilliant writer and a kind and generous soul, so I believed her. But I now believe that I took those words of hers too literally, as in, ONLY the writing is important. In today’s publishing climate, this is not the case–if, in fact, it ever was. I’m not only referring to the fact that agents and publishers want to know if you have 1) a “platform” (i.e. some claim to fame beyond the writing, preferably still related to the writing) from which they can help you to launch your writing, 2) if you have a blog, 3) how many Facebook friends you have, and 4) how many Twitter followers. No, I think what I’m talking about is the fact that readers crave beautiful writing, yes, but they also want good, solid characterization, they want a functional story. And why shouldn’t they? I want those things in my reading, too. Writing beautiful descriptive passages has never been a problem for me. I’ve got that pretty much nailed. But it isn’t enough to keep a story hanging together. It isn’t enough to fully transport the reader. I’m a stubborn person. I know this about myself. For those of you who follow such things, I’m a Taurus, so yeah, bullheaded and all that. But I can be taught. I can learn. And what I have learned from my novel currently out on submission is that it is “beautifully written,” and that I am a “wonderful writer”…and yet… somehow it isn’t fully capturing the reader. It doesn’t quite deliver that fictive world that readers want to inhabit for 200 pages. Until now. I’ve spent weeks revising with this in mind, that it isn’t only about the writing. It is also about the character and what he/she wants more than anything in the world. It’s about the experiences in life that brought...

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Cliff Garstang has a great post about keeping hope alive as a writer: Don’t Give Up! Truly, mental fortitude in the writing business is as important as the writing itself, especially in the beginning. As Fred Leebron counseled us during our MFA program, “Writing is a game of attrition. Don’t attrish.” I’m very pleased to announce that I have not attrished, and any plans for attrishment that were being hatched have been ferreted out and squashed. The writing is going well on all fronts. I only wish I had more hours in the day. A bit of excellent news arrived in my inbox yesterday. I won the League of American Pen Women Mary Mackey Short Story Prize for my story Viewing Medusa. This story is part of the novel-in-stories that I’m working on, so that’s doubly heartening. Also, that story has been sent out to over 100 magazines and journals without ever getting picked up (yes, I’m stubborn). It is also the story that helped secure me a Bread Loaf waitership and an SLS scholarship in a contest judged by Margaret Atwood. It’s served me well, but no magazine has seen fit to publish it. Am I alone in finding that odd? Well, until one finally does, I guess I’ll just keep using it to apply for as many good opportunities as I can....

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