Me in My Book

A new friend recently told me that they’d started reading my book. Initially I was, of course, happy that they’d bought a copy and decided to make time to read it. Happiness was swiftly overcome with a sense of trepidation, here was this person still forming opinions of me about to delve into what was possibly my deepest emotional truths.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

In memoir, we carefully choose what to reveal, what stories to tell, and what moments to carefully edit out. But in fiction, the unreal acts as an obscuring haze over the real, meaning we’re more likely to tell emotional and psychological truths. Because every character is a magnified faucet of oneself, reading fiction is like reading the most personal there is.

I first came to this awareness when revising. As I shouted out what, exactly, my character needed to realize at the climax of the story, I was struck with the knowledge that this truth was exactly what I struggled with most as a person. I ended up laughing off the tension then, but the realization has remained.

When my first book was published, I was most worried about my friends and family reading the book. Sure, reviewers would like it or hate it, but hey, I went to art school and am so used to criticism and rejection that maybe someone should be worried. My family and friends, though, knew me as I presented myself and told my story; what would analyzing my fiction reveal? They, of course, just told me what they liked and moved on. Was I reading too much into it, a result of a sound education in critical thought?

I recently did a revision of a book that I know is very close to my life. When I began the book, I asked my mom for permission to write it, knowing it might someday alienate us from a family friend. She, of course, gave her blessing (and the book hasn’t been sold yet, so any concerns are way off in the future). The weight of needing permission opened up all sorts of questions. What had my parents thought of the book I’d published? They’d never really said. Was there something they were keeping from me? I’m not worried about it, but I still wonder, what does our fiction reveal about ourselves to those closest to us? Is this something only a writer would think about, or is it something other readers are aware of?

If you have any answers, musings, experiences, or thoughts on these questions, I’d love to hear them.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

Shifting Sands

Before I started writing fiction I worked as an economics consultant, and before that, I was an electronics engineer.  In none of my former occupations have I been on uncertain ground as often as I am now.  What is true is pretty much true in those fields, or at least, you can put reasonable bounds around things.  There’s a finite number of ways in which you can measure stock returns, and most people will agree on how to define these ways and what to call them.  When you learn a method of pricing an option, you can be confident that you won’t read something only weeks later that will completely overturn its authenticity.

Not so in writing.  In the last few years, I’ve had multiple blinding insights about endings, pace, and other elements of fiction – when I read an essay, for example, or study someone’s story – but my insights soon blur and disappear and are replaced by something else.  I wasn’t anticipating this. Of course I knew I was going to learn vastly different things but I was expecting to eventually nail down how to write a story: develop a theory, design a model.  I was used to pinning down concepts, harder ones, or, at least, that’s what I thought.

So how do I deal with the ambiguity in my new field? Answer: as if I’m immortal or, at least, have a hundred years to figure it out. I’m quite in awe of my own resilience, which is the word I’ll use, though I can think of more unkind ones.  At bottom is the conviction that however long it takes me to write a great story it will still be worth it.

Plot (story/structure) has always been difficult for me.  I know why.  I came to writing late, equipped with ideas for stories that I’d been carrying around, often based on my own life.  But the thing with basing stories on life, even loosely, is that one’s life is not usually inherently gripping. That’s why nice people who read my stories, including editors, often say they like this or that but it’s “slow moving.” I’m beginning to see that it’s not ignoble for a writer to structure a story to elicit certain effects.  Stories don’t have to be quite so real. I took heart from Aristotle’s opinion as stated in his “Poetics:” that “novice [writers] can master style and moral character before they can compose plot…” and, recently, began studying plot again, as if it’s an option-pricing problem.

Some writers will tell you to think of a story as a joke:  there’s got to be a punch line, they’ll say. What if you think of every story as a thriller?  You can’t miss it when the crime happens in a good thriller.  It’s dramatic.  It’s the turning point and the focus.  It’s what the story leads up to and what it jumps off from.  It’s automatic momentum.  However, someone loses something in all stories, even ones that aren’t thrillers.  Someone is acting and someone else is being acted upon.  What if I think of the loss in my stories as a “crime,” write towards it and from it?  Would that be a good way to think of structure?  I think there’s something in this – I’m only half-joking – but I’m afraid my wonderful epiphany will probably evaporate soon.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Writing Spaces and Writing Places

I’ve got this theory about writing. Like many notions about the craft it’s a little silly. But it gets me through the day, so I’ll let you be the judge. It goes something like this: Unless you’re a genius, or if you’re completely mad, the most productive way to get anything done is to find the best combination of space and place.

What do I mean? Well, I write in three spaces. First, there’s the space in my mind where memories and feelings form the stories I want to tell. It’s gorgeous — vivid and bright. Words and sentences spring to life, and I desperately want to share everything I have there. But I can’t. It’s all trapped inside. To get it out, I have to shift into my second space, the area between my thoughts and the keyboard, sometimes intersected with pen or pencil. Here it’s not pretty. This is where I struggle to capture the language I envisioned, to make the words pouring out match those in my mind. It’s a rocky and battered space. It’s where I spend most of my time, and it’s frustrating. Finally, there’s the written page, a space that can be pixelated on a screen or sometimes paper-printed, where my logical brain rearranges, revises and justifies everything I’m trying to say.

My spatial boundaries are loose, fragmented. Often I’ll occupy all three simultaneously, or jump haphazardly between them. My writing places, on the other hand, are solid. They’re the foundations for my spaces. There are also three: There’s my cluttered and wooden home office desk, the coffee-house down the block and, of course, the Writers’ Room.

Day-to-day, even moment-to-moment, my spaces and places are gushing fountains or sticky tar pits. I never know what to expect, no matter my plan. But the beauty of my theory is, if something’s not working, I can shift focus without losing a beat, and without feeling bad.

So there’s my creativity rubric — or gimmick. Call it what you like, but it’s how I inhabit my creative writing life, how I’ve learned to manage the hardest and most fickle work I’ve ever done. Jobs that actually paid me to write were easier than this. Newspaper reporting, for example — ask the questions, sort the facts, draft simple declarative sentences. Or public relations — massage away a client’s negatives and shape a compellingly manipulative story. Creative writing is so difficult that there are times I simply do not want to sit at my keyboard, even in the very same moments when I am compelled to type.

And that’s why I need to think in terms of space and place. It’s just a game I play with myself to get words onto the page, to keep me in a groove. To keep the work flowing.

Mike Sinert, 2016 WROB Nonfiction Fellow

Ruthless Cutting

“I had a computer file where I would stick these things, a little novel prison, and I’d tell myself if I missed those scenes they’d be allowed to come out and get back in the book.”                                      -Ann Patchett

Revisions always begin with ruthless cutting. Between end-of-semester grading and a revision, there’s been ruthless use of both my zero and delete keys this week. But, as Ann Patchett writes, the beauty of writing on a computer is that you can save all those little darlings that you’re killing.

plainicon-com-45533-512pxAs I write this I have three different documents open that serve just this purpose: one contains cut passages, another lines to possibly use elsewhere, and a third is the “working doc” of scenes I’ve copied to revise and paste back in. Each revision (and this is the second for an editor) has it’s own file, not to mention the countless drafts saved under different names.

I find that having this net is freeing. I am ruthless with the delete key if I also have the ability to cut and paste. However, unlike Patchett, who writes that these scenes never make it back, I have one scene that I pasted back in yesterday. Who knows if it’ll stay there, but it was wonderful to know that it existed; I didn’t have to rewrite the entire thing, I could find it, cut it, paste it, and then make tweaks… and tweaks needed to be made. I remembered the scene well enough, but what I didn’t remember was that it was written so early on (and cut so early) that the protagonist’s name was different. We’ll see if it stays, but it’s nice to know that the work wasn’t wasted.

Ultimately, that’s what I think is important, knowing that the cutting isn’t wasteful. Even if it never ends up in a book, it served a purpose, it helped me figure out my characters and establish my setting; I learned from it. Sometimes it helps to remind myself of this, especially when I consider all those sad, forgotten files in my computer, pieces that will probably never become printed prose.

Patchett quote form this article: “Ann Patchett on Stealing Stories, Book Tours, and Staying Off Twitter.”By Mary Laura Philpott, Lit Hub, August 29, 2016:

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

The Word As A Journey


Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Writing is a journey that has no end; a path always in the making. It is impossible to say where and when – or how – it will end.

To write is to live between the signs of a ceaseless interrogation…to wander in the infinite extension of the verb.

Without a starting point or a clear arrival, writing forges its own path in the same way that the wind ploughs through and shapes the sand in the desert; or the way in which the fingers of someone in love stroke the face of the beloved one – each minute feature.

The blank page is a desert, a discernible silence, the indelible Word.

The desert: symbol of the only place the Word can be heard and received. The blank page, the only place where the Word can be created.

To write is to interrogate oneself without rest and without answers. To put on trial all that you believe you know in order to establish a new space for dialogue with the self, with the Other, or with that “metaphor for emptiness” called god.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

And given that our capacity for dialogue is born from silence and solitude, the encounter with this Other will be marked by blank spaces, parentheses, hyphens, commas, italics, annotations on the margins in which the writer asks the reader to hold a pencil and trace the map of what s/he is reading. Cartography of infinity.

To think, to write, is to make oneself equal. Words and ideas are only subtle approximations of the equality of beings, a game of semblance, in the struggle of humanity against the object. We understand our humanity in the instant that we write ourselves, when we turn into Word. And it is in the Word where we discover our similitude with the Other.

Reality is objective, therefore reality is not enough for us, and to live is to write one’s own existence. As a poet I do not understand writing to be more than a means for establishing a commitment to the Other, one’s neighbor – made in my image – incarnated since the time of the biblical prophets in the Stranger, the Orphan, the Victim of Oppression (political, social, moral, religious), the Exiled. And this commitment is a dialogue that calls for hospitality: a sacred duty that involves kinship and hope.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

As I write these lines, I am traveling through Eastern Europe and from the margins arrive the murmurs of thousands and thousands of refugees beached on the shore of nothingness. Men, women and children. Children, thousands and thousands of children who have been denied the right to write, to read; the right to the Word that names a new world of colors and sounds, pleasant smells and kind voices that offer welcome. The Word that returns to create everything, the birds whose names we’ve never known, the taste of bread and salt, warm milk, honey, a sunset over the rooftops in the city that is also ours, the trees and their shadows, prime numbers, a story by Maurice Sendak, a childhood without bombs.

To write is to name what does not exist, so that it will come into existence.

-Ari Belathar, 2016 Poetry Fellow


Writing Advice I Give Myself

For this post I thought I would collect some of the writing advice that I keep on and on giving myself. I am my harshest critic. I nag myself. I’m a bore and a bully. I’m unhappy with much of what I write and pelt myself constantly with bits of difficult-to-follow advice that take away most of the pleasure I might have obtained from my writing but also almost always improve it.

You there, I tell myself. Yes, you. Don’t always be so concerned about plot and how to make the story proceed. I know you do this because plot is your weakness but you must think more broadly about your story as a way to envelop your reader in the character’s soul. I didn’t say this, Chekhov did (I paraphrased his words). Imagine, visualize, and intuit more about your character and his world than what is necessary for the story. Even if your story covers an hour, write it in such a way that the reader realizes it is just one passage within someone’s full, complex life. If you do this well the specifics of plot will matter less.

Do not, repeat, do not, get carried away by the pleasure you take in language. Yes, language is fun to play with but what you make with it matters more in the end. So play if you must, but in the end make every sentence work to illuminate the idea, the reason for the work’s being. The language must be in service of the story, except for writers who are so very good with words that words become the reason for the story’s being. But you aren’t like that.

Consider temperature. Stories may be cool or hot. A cool story is written from a distance and allows you to be ironic and contemplative, which I know you love being, but whoever’s reading it has to be at least a little like you to appreciate it. A hot story is written from the middle of a character in the throes of whatever feeling is prompting the story. Hot stories may, by definition, lack perspective. The characters may seem narrowly – foolishly? – centered on their own lives but these stories use a universal language of human experience and so have the potential to touch readers immediately and reliably. Cool or hot is a decision you should make upfront but don’t just default to what comes easier to you. Take up a challenge once in a while.

Yes, you must revise. Sad but true: one’s first attempt to communicate is never very good. But there’s such a thing as over-revising. Over-revising results in self-conscious writing, writing with much of the edge taken off it. Writing that’s supposed to be flawless but is flawed because it’s stripped of spontaneity. Though your first draft may be imperfect in expression, the thought behind it is often the truest. If you over-revise you run the risk of improving the delivery but ruining the thought. Always keep in mind what you were thinking when you wrote your first draft.

Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow

Thinking and Writing. Or Not.

sport-aircraftI’m 38,000 feet over the eastern seaboard somewhere between Boston and Miami, on a cramped and noisy jet plane, sitting next to a man who smells strongly of body odor and Aqua Velva. Flight attendants are moving up and down the aisle, delivering drinks and snacks, and a gaggle of passengers are milling about a few rows up, in line for the lavatory.

Except for sunlight streaming through windows, it’s totally unlike the stillness of the Room, where phones are silenced and computers don’t beep, where the only sounds come floating up from State and Broad, and from the occasional sneeze or tearing of Velcro, followed by a hushed ‘sorry about that,’ and where there’s a motivational vibe in the air.

The vibe in this Airbus stinks of sweat socks, and I’ve no place to stretch out my typing hands across the keyboard. I’m all hunched up.

Still, I had a plan to get some work done up here. I’ve got Billy and Bruce blowing through my headphones, and a couple of books for inspiration. This should be the perfect spot to finish a piece with which I’ve been struggling — an essay on the anxieties I used to feel about flying when I weighed 350 pounds, and seat-belt extenders and an encounter with a beautiful Nordic flight attendant.

But I can’t write a damn word and it’s not because of the working conditions. The problem is I can’t stop thinking. I can’t get out of my own way. I’m stuck. It’s not writer’s block — I never think of it that way. It’s more that there’s a jumble of ideas rattling around in my mind and I can’t sort through it all. I can’t contain anything. I can’t find a single line of clarity.

I’ve been here before, muddled and baffled at the keyboard. We all have. To my mind there are two ways out. One of them is not more typing.

Sometimes the best choice is to walk away. Not permanently, of course, but for a little while, to let my thoughts marinate. The best ideas will inevitably float to the top, the worst will wither away. But that takes time. Instead, if I’m lucky, I can free-write my way out of the jam.

I can put the computer away and go back to a method I discovered years ago, in Natalie Goldberg’s classic book, Writing Down the Bones. And that’s what I’m going to do, cruising up here in the stratosphere, sitting in this seat between my wife and the odorous man who’s name turns out to be Leon.

I take out my notebook and start pushing a fast pen across a clean page, non-stop. I write whatever comes to mind. I fill my Moleskine with word after word, sentence after sentence, only about half of which relate to the actual essay. Some are meaningless drivel: “The Crest was delicious this morning; my teeth felt great.” After a while, though, the nonsense is cleared out and the sentences start to make sense. I can see puzzle pieces coming together and solutions starting to reveal themselves through the simple act of forward movement.

And all I had to do was get out of my own way. Ultimately, it boils down to the advice of a great baseball player, Yogi Berra, who once asked, “How can you think and hit at the same time?” Though a New York Yankee, the team I despise more than any other, Yogi’s counsel is wise and wholly applicable to our craft.

How can you think and write at the same time?

A Writer’s Confession

My biggest problem as a writer is trying to protect my characters.

Tension and conflict don’t come easily to me. As someone who survived public school by disappearing around tense situations, it’s understandable. However, it’s problematic when it comes to writing fiction, as you might imagine.

This problem is not something I would’ve figured out with the help of my critique partner, who, thankfully, gives straight, blunt feedback. We didn’t realize this problem right away but working with the same person for four years can be extremely helpful when it comes to understanding process and recognizing pitfalls: I protect my characters, my crit partner avoids physical description. Unfortunately, being aware of this hasn’t changed how either of us write our first drafts. Rather, it’s changed how we both revise.

Both my critique partner and I know that in a first draft I will write a scene and then trickily protect my character from the worst. Our solution to this is to simply flag the parts in which the conflict and tension can be pushed. This allows me to work through a first draft (rather than continually revising) and then return to these moments and discuss how to push the scene. In return, I flag moments where she needs description, and highlight other moments where there’s good description, so my partner knows when she’s achieved it.

Right now, I’m itching to go back in and fix a scene that needs heightened tension at almost every moment but I’m holding off until I can see more clearly what’s going to be around the scene. Until then, I’m making notes- on the train, over lunch, when I wake up- whenever an idea strikes.

RatIn a dream last night, a rat ran over my bare foot. I’m wincing right now, remembering the feel of its matted, wet fur and sharp toes against my skin. This morning, in my overflowing notebook in which I’m juggling projects, I jotted down a note to “Add (copious?) rats to alley scene.” I may as well use an unsettling dream to upset my protagonist.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow


Splendid and Immense

“Ser cronopio es contrapelo,
contraluz, contranovela, contradanza,
contratodo, contrabajo, contrafagote,
contra y recontra cada día,
contra cada cosa que los demás aceptan
y que tiene fuerza de ley.”
⎯ Julio Cortázar.

I have always believed that to write about writing is as relevant as asking a rhinoceros for its opinion about the use of chiaroscuros in the paintings of Roberto Ferri.

Any literary work, especially poetry, must justify itself without prologues or academic essays defending it or explaining it. The author’s superstitions are irrelevant. The author is irrelevant.

I don’t have writing rituals. I don’t shine my shoes, light a candle to the enfants terribles, and sit in front of a vintage typewriter praying to captivate the public. At most I take the poison of each poem I ever read, and I resurface with the drowned in the sea.

I write knowing that the universe is a word. Knowing that to write poetry is to open the door of the night and walk across the page towards the darkest sun: where stanzas draw near like mountains; there are verses shaded by trees and at the end of a word water is born, at the beginning of another the sky trembles and a bird sings again.

If I feel something mildly benign when I write, when the images of my poems arise, it is not the pleasure of creating but awe of the word…like an idiot in love with the wind.

You think you are creating the poem, but the poem creates you.

As if an electric fish has caught the end of the yarn and unraveled the fine thread mooring all the boats in your head,

Poetry transforms the poet. The poet transforms the world.


I work the silence, I turn it into fire.  

A bird sings again.

Poetry is the path the individual must follow to return to our collectivity.

Poetry either transforms us or is useless.

In the most Aristotelian sense, poetry should not tell reality as it is but as it should be. Reinventing language, transforming life itself into poetry.

True poetry should be written by all and not by one.

So that the malefic voice of those who fear the poem, surrounding it with their troops, dismembering it verse by verse, deceiving the world with their white flags and machine guns, don’t force us to sing their paralyzing song.

Urgent poetry. Like daily bread. Like the magical evidence that another reality is possible. Utopia is but inalienable beauty.

We will return together to the poem, devoid of adjectives, splendid and immense.

-Ari Belathar, 2016 Poetry Fellow


Process Woes: Models

There is a certain inefficient, lengthy ritual that I perform every time I begin a new story or a major revision of one. Frustrating as it is, it will have to do until I come up with a better one or get to a point where I ditch rituals entirely. What the ritual involves is to look for a “model” in a story or other work whose voice or style or content resonates with my mood for my own story. Not that I’m trying to write like these other writers, though I do sometimes put down a sentence or two of theirs on my page – which is like trying on their clothes, I suppose – but reading them while I’m writing my story helps me write it better. This model is important. The sooner I find the right one the faster my story proceeds, sometimes with ethereal speed, to doneness which I judge for now by whether I still like it after a month. For instance there’s a story I worked on last year that I’m still happy with and I think this is in part because I found the right seed for it in the sad, mad, idiosyncratic rant, “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” (by Robert Olen Butler – how I love this story).

More often, though, I shift frustratingly from model to model. I recently drove myself crazy with a revision I was working on, and I’m exaggerating only a little when I say this. I’d begun by looking at Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia:” what I like about this story is how much like a story it is, no tricks with form or style, proper beginning, middle, and end, lovely language and high emotion. Why don’t I just write a story? I thought. Then I looked at some Alice Munro and was struck again by the complexity of her fiction, so brilliant I don’t always get all the ins and outs of it. (I consider myself only a middling reader of other people’s stories – I know good stuff when I read it but I can’t always say precisely why it’s good.) Then I studied “The Disappearance of Luisa Porto,” a brooding story by Frances de Pontes Peebles set in Brazil. Perhaps I should emulate, I thought, how the author works in ethnic details with such ease and abundance that reading the story makes me feel as if I’m strolling down the ethnic aisle of a grocery story surrounded by exotic, beguiling words on highly colored packaging. From Luisa Porto I jumped unexpectedly to my old love, Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters. What a book, one that gives conventional narrative the royal boot. (I’ve always had a fight with conventional narrative but in the end I’ll probably succumb because I’m not Bernhard.) Along the way I looked at other favorites, Akhil Sharma (deadpan humor), Elisabeth Harrower’s story “Alice,” etc., etc.

So I went on for a month at the end of which a point came—it usually does—when I felt I could go on with my own story, having settled—tentatively—on an approach that didn’t look like any one thing I’d been reading but probably had a bit of all of them in it. My process is frustrating. But having done this a few times I see some advantages to it. It forces me to look again at the work of writers I love and think about what I love about them. It helps me get a better sense of where my approach lies in the spectra of style and content. It helps me feel less as if I’m writing in a vacuum and more as if I’m writing to fill a gap. I suspect and hope though that one day I’ll just sit down and write to my own model.

-Anu Kandikuppa, 2016 Gish Jen Fellow