In my favorite story I like to tell in response to why and when I became a writer, I say, “Mrs. Hinds’ third grade class, Salford Hills Elementary School, 1996.”
It’s a feel-good story, albeit cheesy, about how a tomboyish stub of a girl wound up with allegedly the worst teacher in history, spent a whole summer whining (“They should call her Mrs. Hinney!”), then admittedly grew to love her. And most importantly, found a love for the arts. Mrs. Hinds was in her seventies when I had her, and those first few autumn months, I kept a list in my desk of how many times she said a few key phrases:
This is a story I’ve been working on for a several months, having published a much shorter version a few years ago. It’s part of a collection-in-progress, and is about two girls’ (Stoffi and Gert) severed friendship over a stolen brush that escalates into other, more violent acts in Pre-WWII Germany. In the scene I am working on, Stoffi, whose parents raise German Shepherds, overhears at school that a puppy has drowned, and realizes that Gert was the one to steal it.
1. Stoffi was successfully not listening to the girls talk about the camping trip, and would have continued to believe that a ghost had snatched the puppy from their pen had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it.
In the first version of the scene, the reader knows that the puppy Gert stole has drowned. In this sentence, Stoffi gleans that something happened to the “it,” but doesn’t know what it is.
2. Stoffi was doubly invested in not listening when she got to school, and would have succeeded had Emma not said that Rebecca was the one to find it, the it being anything, tracks in the dirt, raccoon scat, a bird’s nest, any of one nature’s wonders.
On the first day of my Topics in Publishing class in DePaul University’s M.A. Writing and Publishing program, we watched The Five Obstructions, a documentary about Danish filmmakers Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier. Leth had been von Trier’s mentor, but von Trier wanted to put Leth to the test by asking him to revise one of his films, The Perfect Man, five times in five different ways. Continue reading
First delivered to my Intermediate Fiction class in the new grass behind Lind Hall, May 7, 2013, with big debts to my teacher Charles Baxter for his good thoughts on stories, and to Mary Ruefle, whose essays I hold close.
Here is what Mary Ruefle says about writing letters in her lecture, “Remarks on Letters”:
“What I am trying to tell you is this: every time you write an unengaged letter, you are wasting another opportunity to be a writer. The greater the disparity between the voice of your poems and the voice of your letters, the greater the circumference of the point you have missed. The demands upon you, as a writer, are far greater than you could have guessed when you filled out your application form and mailed it.”
And what I am trying to tell you today is that writing fiction is so much like writing a letter: It’s you in a room in a chair before a screen, a page, trying to say something that will matter to someone else—a someone who is, as a rule, nowhere in sight. Who may not even exist. If she does exist, she may never read what you write. It may not get to her. And yet, you have to act with the urgency that she will. Continue reading
On Process: The Iterations
I’ve discovered something lately about the process of writing: it’s more fun when it’s moving. It’s less fun when it stops. And regardless of how much I agonize over it, it takes many, many iterations to reach anything approaching the speed of light.
In the season or so since I finished my MFA, I’ve taken the liberty of focusing on process. And I’ve discovered something: bringing a single work through multiple different forms, or iterations—from the spoken word to handwriting to the digital page—keeps the process moving for me. It keeps me from getting stuck. Continue reading
Teaching and Writing the Academic Essay: Moving from Closed Form to Open Form
“I think we should practice writing the kinds of essays that we want our students to write.” All the writing instructors turned and looked at Harriet with incredulity. What in the world was she talking about? Someone snidely whispered to another, “She probably has no idea how to teach writing herself!” And thus ended the essay writing discussion at our first department meeting of the academic year. The chair thanked Harriet for her suggestion and went on to remind us to submit our syllabi to the department secretary. We stuffed our notebooks and pens into our bags and shuffled off to classes or our offices.
Which portrait in this series came first? Second? Third? And how did your understanding of your subject and the emotions of the works develop through each iteration?
By title, “Glance” came first (and was one of the first in this entire series including these four works) followed by “Leaning”, “Holding” and then “Twist.” I didn’t necessarily intend to start a body of work from “Glance,” but that etching demonstrated a sense of psychology in the figure that I was unable to achieve in previous drawings. So, with the four works here, I think “Glance” was a starting point that allowed me to focus in on the figures’ emotions. The use elongated anatomy, leaning gestures, and variety of facial expressions began to display sentiments like uneasiness and sleepiness, but also a sense of softness and peacefulness. Continue reading
Friday dose of writing inspiration:
Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong. If you take that on faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.
From The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo