On Writing


Kelly Spitzer kicked off her Writer Profile Project with Yours Truly. And you can read the interview here. Thanks Kelly!

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For the second time (first was in 2004) I participated in National Novel Writing Month–or NaNoWriMo as those in the know refer to it. The goal is to write a novel in a month–50,000 words minimum. A lot of novices particpate in NaNoWriMo and many writers with higher literary aspirations look down their noses at NaNoWriMo, but just like anything, it is what you make of it. I used it as a motivating tool and found it really helpful. I tend to write really slowly and sweat every word, and I recognize that it isn’t always the best way to write. Certainly not the way to get to a deeper level in my writing. I’m not even sure why I write so slowly on a normal day. Fear? Perfectionist tendencies? Avoidance? All of the above? For me, NaNoWriMo becomes like the exercises we did in art school to force us to loosen up: things like drawing from the shoulder and not the wrist, doing 30-second gesture drawings, and blind contour drawings (drawing without looking at the paper). Both of the last two exercises encourage really focusing on the object you want to portray, but not examining (or criticizing) your results until you are finished. When I write FORWARD ONLY during NaNoWriMo–without looking back–it’s like doing a blind contour drawing. I’ll eventually take a look at it and go, “yikes!” but I will also recognize that I have learned something very valuable in the process–that “seeing” your subject is at least as important as portraying it–and I will find a surprising beauty in some aspects of what I have drawn. So, 30 days and 50,000 words later, I have five new short stories (no, I didn’t write a novel, but again, it’s how you use NaNoWriMo that’s most important–how you make it work for you) and a new recklessness to my writing that takes me to more surprising and exciting places. Yes, I have a lot to go back and edit and tinker with, but you can’t make a finished sculpture without a whole mess of...

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This spring I’m teaching a critiquing class. The group meets once a week and we read and discuss work brought in by participants. I bring a timer to keep us on track and to ensure that discussion time is divided fairly. I also offer a writing prompt, week-to-week in case they need ideas to keep them writing. It’s been a great class and has made me think a lot about the writing and workshopping process. Learning to critique the creative work of others is a really valuable life lesson, especially if you are pursuing a creative life yourself. We learn a great deal from having our work critiqued and also from critiquing the work of others. Here are some of the basic “rules” I have my students follow: For the reader: · Do not explain your work. Do not give us “background information” before you read it to us. Let the work speak for itself. The words on the page must do the work–once it is in print, you will not have the opportunity to “set it up” for your readers. After comments you can explain if you feel compelled to do so. · Understand that a critique of your work is not a critique of you. Because we look at your work and find suggestions for improvement does not mean that you are a bad writer. Most work needs tweaking. Above all, remember that a critique is not personal. You are not being judged. You are not passing or failing. You are workshopping. · Remember that this is your work. Ultimately it will have only your name on it. As such, it should say what you want it to say. DO NOT take every suggestion offered. This will result in a mish-mash of ideas and styles. I tell my students to think of a critique session as a buffet. Sample everything, yes, but only take seconds of whatever food appeals to you. For the critiquer: · Be positive. It is not easy to put creative work before a group. Find something that you like and comment on that before finding fault. · Offer suggestions for improvement. Phrases such as “have you considered…” and “what if you tried…” go a long way toward making the critiquee receptive to your ideas. · Do not be afraid to speak up if you disagree with what another critiquer says. You can do this politely, but it is important for the person who is being critiqued to know that what that person says is not agreed to across the board. There is no problem with having a different opinion. We are all writing...

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And I’m speaking of the Viswanathan publishing scandal, which I am finding especially troubling. I know she did wrong, no question. But can’t we (meaning the people in the business of publishing) examine this a little more closely? Can’t we take a minute to wonder if maybe we bear some responsibility for this happening in the first place? Consider: 1) Ms Viswanathan was 17 years old when a big publisher dangled that $500,000 advance (and some probability of fame) in front of her. 2) In an interview (prior to the scandal) she said she didn’t even want to be a writer, she had no plans to pursue it as a career. (Anyone else see a red flag?) 3) The book was bought on the basis of a few chapters. A few chapters! 4) Suddenly, sale complete, she found herself faced with finishing the whole book…this for a young woman who has never written a novel before. Having written two novels myself, I can testify that about halfway through the process, fear, despair, and a certainty that it will never, ever get finished sets in. Even when I know I’ve made it to the end of a book once before, and that I can, I still panic, and I’m 40 years old, with an MFA under my belt and no big contract contingent upon my finishing the manuscript. Did no one involved in this sale think that this was a possibility? Did no one pause to wonder if they were doing the right thing giving a huge advance to an unpublished author who is also only 17 years old?? Was there such a rush to get a piece of The Next Big Thing that they all lost their heads and put a huge load of pressure on a high school student? Sure sounds like it to me. She can’t even go into a bar and order a drink. She’s a kid. A kid who screwed up royally, but I challenge you to show me a kid who doesn’t have at least one major screw up during his or her teen years. Did Viswanathan exploit the business, lie and steal? Yes, she did. She panicked and she plagiarized. By all means cancel her book, take it off the shelves, make her pay back her advance. But an equally valid question is, Did the corporate publishing machine exploit her as a pretty young ambitious female with a foreign name? I think perhaps they...

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I sent work out during all of 2005 and got nothing in return for my efforts. No love, no ink, no shred of interest, and rejection after rejection after rejection. A year’s worth of it. Hard to imagine going a year with next to nothing in the way of positive strokes, but it’s the writer’s life I’m afraid. Needless to say, I was getting bummed and wondering if I should just quit trying to get published in journals. The whole lit journal publishing racket leaves SO MUCH to be desired. Then, on Saturday, I opened my email to a lovely acceptance from Xavier Review for the short story that is essentially the first chapter of my novel. This acceptance was especially sweet because Xavier Review publishes work about the southern US and Caribbean, and wants work that explores racial themes. Perfect fit! Yay, life is good. Then, the mail arrived. In the stack was a letter from Primavera accepting another story of mine that was first submitted in 2004! (In 2005 they requested a revision to the ending, which I did, and they have now agreed to publish it in 2007. A long way off, one might think, but in this crazy publishing business I’ve learned that it really isn’t so far away.) This is another excellent fit, as Primavera is a journal that showcases work by and about women and the story is about two very different women who come together and the assumptions that each makes about the other. The editors were wonderful and really considered and discussed the work before deciding to publish it. My faith in the system has been restored. Although, in a perfect world, I would have preferred to space my acceptances out just a bit more–two in one day may be more excitement than this poor fragile writer can handle, and it mostly left me shaking my head in disbelief. But I’ve decided to stockpile the excited feelings–store them away so that I will have a stash of fortitude to get me through the possibility of another long acceptanceless...

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My college roommate had a serious David Bowie obsession. Today I’ve been thinking of his song “Changes.” Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes. Facing change is essential if we are to grow and strengthen in our art. That song, Changes, marked a pivotal time in Bowie’s career, and became the first song of his to make the charts. He was discovering and embracing the things that made his art unique and it brought him critical and popular acclaim. I’m currently experiencing a small writing crisis…no biggie, and nothing that needs sympathy even, since I’ve learned by now to be patient; that these periods of doubt and struggle always precede a great growth spurt in my writing and an evolution of my “voice.” I’m looking forward to that. A pivotal time. Time to embrace the...

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