The first time I started writing my debut novel, I was a senior in college at Oxford, Ohio. I sat outside my dorm room, because “sexiled” was a word I had recently added to my vocabulary, and wrote in longhand Continue reading
When I came to Rachel’s literary collage workshop at the 2017 David R. Collins conference, I hadn’t written literary collage since graduate school, but I had a story circling in my head that wanted to be told. It was the story of how I met my husband, but I wanted to tell it slant, non-narratively, with gaps and leaps that mimic the ways we shape our stories in the telling.
When Rachel gave us a series of prompts to write our own collage, with the first line to use language as abstract (or pompous) as possible, I had my way in: ambitious, silly, and big, getting at the way that our One True Love feels stellar, feels galactic, feels like a universal experience tailored just for us. Everything I wanted to say just fell onto the page, but Rachel’s prompts also made me reach for the metaphors that I’d been missing, and where the essay ended was a complete surprise to me, but it also felt right. I shared the essay with two of my writing groups, and they liked the result, but loved the idea. In consequence I offered to conduct a workshop on the literary collage at my local library, and I plan to steal Rachel’s approach and several of her prompts to inspire attendees to write a collage of their own. I’d forgotten the exuberance and the risk that collage allows you, and how wonderful it feels to pull old narratives apart, hold them up next to something else unfamiliar, and see what fills up that imaginative space.
Make a list of all the decisions your protagonist makes, every single one. Now change the order of the decisions your protagonist makes so that they follow a causal change. Rearrange your story to reflect this new list of decisions. Cut at least one decision and, if this applies, the corresponding scene. Now restructure the story again. Many stories are not ultimately in complete chronological order. The *plot* should still be the same causal chain, but the story might utilize flashbacks, memories, flash forwards, imagined scenes, etc.
Identify the “symbolic action” in each scene–what does the protagonist do that represents her/his change from where/who s/he was at the beginning of the scene (even if this change is slight), and which changes the situation (even if this change is slight). Add symbolic action where you are missing it. Try to get the most significant symbolic action for your protagonist close to the end of the scene.
Write past your ending. Write one or two or more scenes after the end of your story. Even if these scenes don’t make it into the final version, they will help inform the final version. What happens after the end of your story? And don’t stop there: now write about what the consequences are of what happens after the end of your story.
Restructure your story so that it starts at the most recent event and moves backward in time. Think about the causation here. Also think about the character’s possible paths and how those paths narrow by the choices they make.
I met this sweet exercise in a summer workshop Rachel Yoder taught at the Midwest Writing Center. It reminded me of an exercise I did in my MFA program, using Milan Kundera’s structure from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I appreciated the freedom of leaping from one topic to the next, of not having to worry about how it all tied together or made sense. These leaps in logic opened up new possibilities that my orderly mind would never make.
Although it wasn’t timed, I felt the pressure of hitting all the prompts in the time we were given in the workshop, so I couldn’t dwell or think too much—I just had to move. As a result, the first draft felt like a thrilling trail run: first I was in the forest, then I was on a ledge overlooking Lake Superior, then I was on a rocky climb, and each part was unique to itself, yet all part of the same trail. I gained momentum as I began to see how each piece was connected on a visceral level, sprinting with glee. Continue reading
This summer, while preparing to teach a class on the collage essay at the Collins’ Writers Conference in Davenport, I emailed author and teacher Amy Butcher to see if she had any great exercises she enjoyed when teaching about fragmentation, association, and imagination. If you know Amy, you know that of course she did, and what she sent was this amazing little exercise which she had adapted from poet Jim Simmerman’s “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” exercise, which first appeared in The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach (HarperCollins, 1992). Continue reading
If there is one thing more difficult than getting an idea off the ground, it is, perhaps, keeping that idea afloat, and fresh, and shuffling in a generally forward-moving direction. Though to be fair, phrases like “more or less” and “better or worse” may not be quite the right ones to apply to the expansive gradient of creation mentioned here — but it is at very least a start.
Back in the spring of 2015, three New School classmates and I founded The Seventh Wave, a 501(c)(3) arts and literary nonprofit bent on creating online and offline spaces for conversation and opposition to flourish. We were all from different industries of expertise and experience spanning education, graphic design, journalism, and the service industry. How we structured the organization, we agreed, would need to allow for each of our personalities and backgrounds to not just exist, but to also breathe organically. We wanted our strengths to show through in each of our roles within the beast we were creating.
In the creation of our publication, then, everything from aesthetics to social media voice to communication with our contributors became an offshoot of who we were as individuals, and we hoped the transparency with which we operated would help keep our own work intentional and honest too. We insisted on handwritten thank-you notes and a writer/artist-centric presentation of the works we promoted. We allowed for the contents of each issue to dictate the format of our launch event. We engaged. By making these small gestures, we assumed that we were doing things differently enough from the rest of the literary world that we were making a bold, new statement. Continue reading
My friend, Ginny, asked me this: “How do you continue to find things to mine from your son’s situation?” This was a fair question, as we are both nonfiction writers and the flow of writer-ly material is important and then she appeared to hear herself and laughed and grabbed my arm and looked chagrined, and hastened to assure me that she meant her question in a good way. A tribute to my creative use of the raw material that appears.
I didn’t know what to say. And I thought about her question for a very long time, turning it over and over. I happen to have a kid who was born with a mental illness that made his childhood tricky and hard to navigate for him and, therefore, for us. Then, while still very young, he was hit in the head and his brain got hurt, but it was many years until the brain injury was diagnosed, partly because the TBI and the OCD were all jumbled together and compulsion looked like defiance and confusion like opposition. And by then he was a young adult who was thoroughly sick of doctors and meds and therapy and so went his own way and struggled a lot, but was stubborn and proud and made lots of bad judgment calls when his executive function looked the other way.
What is it about our present state of literary affairs that insists on blurring the line between fiction and memoir? It’s as if to have a narrative come from life lends fiction some undeniability or plausibility. Stranger than fiction? Or stranger than life? The moment we label the writing the questions begin.
One of the glories of writing fiction is that it allows you to inhabit characters, points of view, and states of mind that you might not in actual life. This might indicate that there is an unusual, even unenviable quality of this character’s life. In fact, this is how I look for a character to write about, having gotten into the habit of avoiding characters with uneventful lives. However, in the memoirs I’ve been riveted by–Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, and Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road To Everywhere Except Where You Came From–it usually matters less to me how extraordinary the life is.
These memoirs tend to construct a narrative from an incident in the life that might, on initial consideration, seem to offer a thin, even slightly dubious, premise. Often the writer’s story isn’t that remarkable; it is the skill of the writer that elevates the narrative into the art of memoir.
On the other hand, there are those memoirs that seem to blur the genre and offer a presumable fictional take on the writer’s story. Continue reading
Like most fiction writers, I spend a significant portion of my time alone, obsessively and intensively fretting about the personal problems of people who don’t exist. Whether an inborn proclivity for solitude leads a person to accept a calling to write fiction, or whether a fervid desire to write fiction forces an otherwise normal person to develop a tolerance for being on his own is a controversy on which I take no stance. I’m not worried about it either way.
Neither am I concerned about the fact that I talk to myself when I’m alone. I often compose sentences aloud, voicing possible dialog, or sounding out hard-wrought descriptive passages, listening ardently for the music I want them to make.
What I am worried about is that lately when I talk to myself I’ve been doing so with a Scottish accent. Continue reading
I’ve never been much of a girly girl. I rarely wear makeup or get my nails done. Most days I forget to brush my hair. Waxing any body part seems like a torture designed for others braver than I am.
Even so, I appreciate girly things, like clothes. I love clothes. When I was a young, single entertainment lawyer, I didn’t spend money on expensive vacations or cars. I spent it on clothes, and shoes. God, the shoes. Back then, I used to budget for the Barney’s Warehouse Sale, held for a week in an airport hangar. Everyone in the entertainment industry–lawyers like me, agents, development execs, assistants, production people–lined up to flip through racks of designer suits, tuxedos, evening dresses, coats and purses and jewelry and belts. I once found an Isaac Mizrahi evening gown marked down from $3,000 to $300. It was backless, sleeveless, classic. That same shopping trip, I also bought deliciously sensible Oxford shoes and a raw silk chocolate-brown Calvin Klein pants suit. The suit was boxy and mannish and gorgeous. I loved it even more than the dress. I wore it more. It made me rejoice in the more “masculine” side of myself that felt comfortable showing up to weekend brunches scrub-faced and wearing clogs with ripped jeans. The side that loved to sweat, that would weight train for two hours at dawn and take a spinning class at noon. Continue reading