Elbow Grease, Or How to Remove Unwanted and Unnecessary Verbiage

The idiom “elbow grease” refers to strenuous physical labor, but we all know how laborious writing can sometimes be. The etymology of the phrase is uncertain. One 17th century source translates it as “it smells of lamp,” as in the midnight oil one burns when working late into the night, as many of us writers sometimes do. Oddly enough, the phrase has changed little in meaning. Then and now, it connotes diligent, hard work.

Enter Peter Elbow —whose name is, depending on your point of view, rather odd or incredibly convenient— a Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst known for his many books which attempt to take the difficult (and the fear) out of writing. Elbow began his PhD in English at Harvard University in the late ‘50s, but his persistent struggles with writing caused him to quit. He began teaching, first at M.I.T., and became an early proponent of freewriting (which I wrote about in my last blog post), but it was his book, Writing Without Teachers (Oxford UP, 1973,1998,), that turned the freewriting technique into a popular pedagogical practice. As I recall (I can no longer find the book to confirm), it was in this book that he presented the Elbow Method. The technique is as simple as it is non-threatening. With a topic in mind (and when the mind is typically almost paralyzed with swirling thoughts), you sit down and write all that you can, without editing or judging, for 15 or 20 minutes. Then you look at what you’ve written, identify the strongest sentence and circle it. That sentence then goes at the top of a new page and you begin writing again, letting the sentence sharpen your focus. The process is repeated three times, at which point you have a solid draft and the dust has settled around the swirling thoughts. Elbow stresses that one of the benefits of writing this way is that the more a writer writes, not only does she have more to work with, but she also has more to throw away. I have used the Elbow Method to great effect, and more recently, used it on a poem without being fully aware I was doing so.

Van Gough PortraitLast spring, under the pressure of too much deadline and too few ideas, I began a poem about sound (I think), where I described an undergrad course I took at Berklee College of Music called Ear Training. The idea of sound turned to hearing which turned, somehow, to Van Gogh and soon I was looking for fancy words to describe the almost indescribable color and movement of the olive groves he painted outside the asylum at St. Remy. The poem, 33 lines long, had become unhinged. I knew it needed focus. My instincts were telling me the poem needed to say more —with less. One line leapt out at me. It was the one that had surprised me the most when I wrote it, a line in which I described Van Gogh’s severed ear as a “fleshy orphan.” While I didn’t exactly put that line at the top of a new page, I did let it drive a new draft. I cut the Ear Training material (no pun intended), which was just ramp-up, and I scrubbed away all the verbiage about colors and olive trees. Much has been written already about Van Gogh, his tortured life, his brilliant paintings. I didn’t feel my poem needed to cover that well-worn ground. Instead, I decided to focus on the story of the severed ear, to let that odd tale do the telling. The finished poem, a third of the original in length, is titled, “An Orphan for Rachel.” In it, I mention fellow painter Gauguin, the well-known image of Van Gogh’s gauze-wrapped head, even the prostitute (Rachel of the title) he presented the ear to —but I never name Van Gogh. It’s a better poem for this final, unexpected bit of elbow work. Less is, sometimes, more.

Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow

 

 

The Magic of Deadlines

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

I’ve read a number of articles about writer’s block over the last couple of years, articles that examine the neurological reasons why we sometimes stare hopelessly at the blank page. A common thread in these articles is fear. It turns out that fear of failure, fear that what we write won’t be any good at all, can actually impede our ability to think creatively. This is something that I can’t afford right now, because in September I started my thesis semester at my MFA program. The task is daunting. I have 11 weeks to complete 100 pages of a fiction project of publishable quality. Even with the majority of the stories for my thesis drafted before September, I am still looking at two new story drafts and at least three intensive revisions. When I actually confronted the amount of work involved, I felt a little panicky. I couldn’t seem to get started. Then in my first meeting with my thesis advisor, I sat down with a calendar and set myself a series of deadlines.

Deadlines don’t seem like the most natural thing to help free up our creative thinking processes. In high school and in college I had writer friends who rebelled against deadlines, who thought that their creativity shouldn’t be constrained. But here’s the thing, facing a huge project like a collection or a novel can be completely paralyzing. It’s like trying to run a race while keeping your eyes on the finish line the whole time. For a while it can seem like we aren’t getting anywhere. Breaking it down, though, gives us small manageable goals to work towards. I just have to reach that next corner. I just need to draft one story this week.

In effect, small deadlines force us to stop staring in horror at the whole picture, and simply get down to work on the pieces. A large project doesn’t seem so unmanageable when we can think about it one story, or one chapter at a time. Plus, as we meet each deadline (or just complete each piece, on deadline or not), we feel a sense of accomplishment about what we have done, not hopelessness in the face of what we still have to do. If we can draft a new story in two weeks, then we can definitely revise a story in one week.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Finally, deadlines force us to spend the necessary butt-in-chair time. One of the hardest parts of writing is actually sitting down and writing. Somewhere in the back of my brain I still assume that writers sit around in cafes, drinking lattes and scribbling artistically in their notebooks. The reality of my chosen vocation is that in order to produce work we have to sit alone at desks for hours at a time, struggling with sentences and how to make that piece of dialogue sound just right. Writing takes up time that sometimes I’d rather be spending with friends, or maybe baking pumpkin bread, or taking a nice walk through the fall colors, or doing my laundry. The work requires sacrifice and discipline, practice and lots of time spent with our butts in chairs and our fingers on our pens/keyboards. Trying to commit the time on our own can be really, really hard. Especially when the part of our brains where the fear of failure lurks is telling us that what we really need now is a nice walk to the store in the sunshine to pick up stuff to make cookies.

Deadlines are the excuse we need to make those sacrifices to we can get the work done, even if we have to start wearing all our weird pairs of socks because we haven’t done laundry in two weeks. Setting deadlines helps us put pressure on ourselves to do the work. And while the pressure isn’t always pleasant, it can help unleash our creativity. When we have to turn in a story, we will sit down and write ten pages. Some of those pages, at least, will be good. But at least the story will be down on paper, and we can move forwards from there.

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

Zoning In, Zeroing

One of my writing practices centers around the art of zoning in and zeroing out. It consists first of putting myself in the zone of spontaneous writing, where I push the pen into unplotted territory, and second, of zeroing out—quieting the internal critic. The concept is not original. It’s been around for years and, depending on who you listen to, is alternately called free, automatic, or spontaneous writing. I’ve been doing this every Wednesday night for 12 years with my writing group—though these days, catching all four weeks in any given month is a challenge. The core members of the group have belonged for nearly as long, if not longer. This shared, ongoing experience fosters the zeroing—the turning down of mental chatter to near-zero—as well as comfort. Comfort with each other and the process, even the chairs we sit in. Our process is simple:

1) Pull a prompt from a short story or poem, or words from the dictionary;

2) Write for roughly 40 minutes;

3) Read out loud what we wrote.

Long ago I decided this wasn’t suitable to writing poems. I found I spent too much time in a kind of woolgathering which didn’t leave enough time to weave the threads. My next attempts were self-conscious personal essays. It wasn’t until I decided to try short stories that I hit my stride. Now, my typical yield for 40 minutes of in-the-zone writing is 500 words of short fiction featuring a few characters, one or two scenes, more internal narration than dialogue and (surprise! surprise!) close attention to diction, sonics, and rhythm. These last three are, of course, elements of poetry, and that’s where a transformation has occurred. My free-writing attempts at fiction have freed up my approach to poetry. On Wednesday nights I can trust that if I throw myself off the cliff without a parachute, I will land safely, sometimes magically (though not always without a bump) on the other side of a short story. And now when I sit down to write poetry with the blank screen staring at me—I prefer the computer when composing poems—and no more than a scrap of an idea, what happens (after much more than 40 minutes) is often so surprising that it’s as if someone else were doing the writing.

Author Kristin Prevallet, in her slender but stimulating book, Trance Poetics (Wide Reality books, 2013), speaks of automatic writing as the need to “…disassociate [the] conscious mind (the part…that plans, chatters, distracts, and often interrupts) from [the] unconscious mind (the part…that loses track of time, gets into a flow zone, and enacts [the] inner auto-pilot.” Prevallet, who is also a poet, performer, and hypnotherapist, compares the conscious and unconscious mind to a train running on two tracks—one in a tunnel and one above ground—that, with practice, can be distracted. “The conscious mind…can go ahead thinking about one thing, while the unconscious mind sets off on a completely different course….”

In the early years of the writing group, members took turns preparing and presenting prompts that were a smorgasbord of choices —suggested opening lines, scenes, metaphorical themes, ingredient words. This heavy helping of prompts fortified me for the uncertain ride ahead. The ingredient words often acted like stepping stones or, depending on the slope the piece was on, slalom gates that moved me through unfolding terrain. These days, I no longer feel the need to be helped by all this hemming in. With our lean, spontaneously generated prompts I feel a kind of reversal of Frost’s riding loose in the harness. There’s a freedom in having very little to guide me. Frost is well-known for saying, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” He also said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” When I zone in and zero out, I love how the lump in my throat tells me that home lies ahead in the poem I’m about to write.

—Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow

Flannel-Clad Diety

Before I ever attempted to write about him, people told me that my father was a character. Smoking a Winston lifted from his pack, I sat in the passenger seat of my friend’s car or on a tree stump behind the high school, trying to emulate my father. Eventually, I transferred my emulation to the page, weaving in the details that interested me the most: his loyal squirrel pawing the backdoor for peanuts; the serrated knives, syringes, and jugs of formaldehyde beneath his taxidermy workbench; his quick-witted dialogue still laced with Vietnamese slang thirty years after the war.  “Your father’s a character, alright,” everyone said, “something else.”

For years I wrote about my father in confidence that I knew who he was and how to describe him. But after seeing him for the first time after months of writing about him, I was startled that the man I had created on the page differed from the man sitting beside me. My effort to transcribe him had resulted not in an indistinguishable replica, but in “something else.” I had created a character; my version of my father. Compared to the real man, my character seemed stronger, invincible. He was. The page is permanent, blood becomes ink; as a character, my father is immortal.

In Richard Freadman’s essay “Decent and Indecent: Writing My Father’s Life,” included in Paul John Eakin’s collection The Ethics of Life Writing, he describes his early struggle to write about his father as a “curiously vague inner resistance.” My own inner resistance surfaced only after I interviewed my father about his experiences in the Vietnam War.  Before that time, I had written personal essays about fishing trips, lazy summer days by the pool, afternoons beneath his Chevy, purposefully smearing my shirt with chassis grease. They were sentimental sketches. Though I was a twenty-five-year-old man hardly blind to my father’s faults, his fear of driving in New York City, his secret social anxiety, and his annual eruption of accumulated anger (all of which I inherited), I had no significant reason to write about him in any way other than complimentary. If I were depicting a scene of us working on his Chevy, I conveyed him to the reader as a god bending over the engine or a flannel-clad deity raising a mug of coffee to his face in the clouds. Even as I stood with a heavy ratchet in my hand while he lay beneath the truck, I was looking up to him.  Before I interviewed him – before I asked him to explain himself – his taxidermy studio seemed pure, no conflicting metaphors of life and death.

Writing about my father was an act of preservation. Like the flattened squirrels and raccoons he scraped off the highway and brought down to his taxidermy workshop in the basement, my father could be repaired and posed anyway I chose. Immortalized. But soon I realized that I wanted to create more than just a statue, an owl mounted on a severed tree branch, wings outspread. In order to do that, I had to be willing to show his imperfections and my own.

-Anthony D’Aries, Fellow in Nonfiction

 

 

Revision: The Hard (and Exciting) Part of Writing

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Photo Credit: Debka Colson

The air is getting crisper, the evenings are becoming shorter, kids are heading back to school, and I’m about to start my thesis semester. To finish my MFA program, I need to write 100 pages of a project of “near publishable” quality. I’m excited to work intensely on one long writing project. But I’m also a little nervous. So much of my writing life has been about writing new stories to be workshopped. I’m less familiar with what comes after workshopping: revision.

Revision is perhaps an even more important part of the writing process than drafting. Most great writers revise and revise and revise again. Last spring, one of my professors loaned me a book about the evolution of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Another professor has a photocopy of the first draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” stuck up outside her door. The first draft of the poem is vastly different, but you can see the bones of the finished poem beginning to emerge. Bishop’s notes and edits on the first draft show her beginning to refine and develop her text. The poem doubtless went through a number of incarnations after the draft before it reached the finished form that is so well known today.

As I get ready to jump into my own revision process, I’m looking to great writers to learn how to revise. Here are some of the lessons I’ve drawn from Hemingway and Bishop’s drafts.

Nothing is Sacred

One of the first hurdles I had to jump in order to learn how to revise was my belief that my stories were perfect the way I imagined them the first time. Written down, that idea sounds absurd, but it’s a belief that many beginning writers hold. It partly stems from the worship of inspiration, of the idea that story comes to you from some mystical other: the muse, the subconscious, the divine. The belief that inspiration comes from a mystical origin makes the story sacred. Changing anything would betray the higher purpose, right?

Wrong. Both Hemingway and Bishop treated their first draft not like a sacred text, but as a raw material within which was buried something of great value. To reach their finished work, each had to cut, replace, and change much of the original text. Nothing in their first draft was sacred. Instead of trying to preserve their original words, both worked to bring out the resonant moments in their drafts. They were ruthless in cutting away anything that wasn’t working.

 We all know the quote “kill your darlings,” but I didn’t understand what that really meant until I began to see my drafts as raw material rather than already perfect stories. As I tackle revising stories for my thesis this fall, I’ll try to be fearless about cutting and changing text. After all, in this age of digital technology, I can always undo the changes if they don’t work.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” – E.M. Forster

One of the most fascinating things about Bishop’s draft are the edits she made by hand. Instead of simply rewriting the poem, she clearly spent time reading it, searching out the moments and ideas that resonated, and then working to clarify them. E.M. Forster’s quote above, while humorous, also explains this approach to revision. Both look for ideas and themes that emerge from the work, rather than trying to impose their original ideas on a piece that is evolving and changing. I’m hoping to use this approach with my own work this semester. I’ll try to read every story with fresh eyes, looking not for what I intended to say, but for what ideas actually appear in the work. Then I’ll revise to develop those ideas.

Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment

Elizabeth Bishop’s final poem is very different than her original draft. To get there, she had to try new wording for most of the lines, to experiment with different ways of getting at what she meant. I want to include more experimentation in my revision process. Rather than rewriting the same scenes over and over, I’m going to write new scenes and try out new voices, introduce new characters and alter the sequence of events. Trying different ways to tell each story will help me figure out which elements work the best for each piece. In addition, this process of experimentation will make the work exciting. Revision can be the hardest part of writing, but playing mad scientist can make it more fun.

What are your thoughts on revision? Do you have any tips or advice?

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

 

An Interest in War

Years ago it occurred to me that all my life there has been a war somewhere on the planet. Whether a big war or a “brushfire” one or a “conflict,” always somewhere people were being injured and killed, people being displaced, their homes destroyed. People in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, North Korea and South Korea, Lao and Hmong, Serb and Croat, Arab and Israeli . . . it goes on and on, war or wars in period after period, this or that country, and always the dead, the refugees, and the exiles war makes.

When I was somewhere between infancy and three years of age, my older brother and I spent weekends with our father’s parents in Queens, New York. Weekends there meant Sabbath observance from sunset on Friday until sundown on Saturday. In the afternoon, after our grandfather returned from shul and our grandmother (my grandfather’s second wife, my father’s mother having died in 1918, in the ’flu pandemic, when he was eight years old) had served lunch, children were sent to nap, my brother in one room of the apartment, I in another.

The room in which I was to sleep was our young aunts’ bedroom (where they went on weekends when we visited, I never learned). Along one long wall there was a bed at each end, and along the other at each end there was a vanity and its small chair. Above the headboard of one bed hung Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” above the other, Thomas Lawrence’s painting of a young woman called “Pinkie,” though I did not then know the names of the pictures or the artists, nor why those paintings were there, seemingly forever.

There were other pictures in the room, photographs wedged into the frame of the mirror over the vanity close to the door to the bedroom and therefore far from the bed where I lay. Often on Sabbath afternoons, while I should have been asleep, my grandmother quietly entered the room. If I were not sleeping I’d have shut my eyes, to fool her. She sat down in the small chair of the far vanity, her elbows on the top of the vanity, her hands together under her chin, and stared at the photographs. I watched her face in the mirror. Soon, she took the photographs down and thumbed through them, slowly, stopping longer with one or another, soundless as tears fell down her cheeks. I remember wondering who the faces were and why she cried, but I knew, as children do, not to ask, and not to let her know that I watched her. Whether I told my brother what I saw, I can’t remember, though I saw it time and again.

Later, I learned the photographs were of of relatives, mainly hers, sent to her from Russia, and some were of relatives of my grandfather, all of them people who had stayed behind, perhaps changing their minds too late. Eventually the family learned almost all of them died in the camps, of disease or killed. One grew up Jewish absorbing such knowledge then, though not every family talked about it. The photographs disappeared from the mirror; I must have noticed that on a visit. Maybe my grandmother told me whose faces those were and who they had been when I was in high school, studying European history, which briefly included the Holocaust.

My father had known some of those people. As a young surgeon, he’d had a fellowship for 1936-1937 to work for half a year at a London hospital and half a year at a hospital in Berlin. Before starting the fellowship, he traveled to Russia and Poland—national borders in such contested areas being unstable in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish and non-Jewish communities might be said to have moved from one country to another while staying put, sort of like trench warfare. In London, the “senior” in charge of my father’s work was openly anti-Semitic. When, at the end of the first half year my father went to Germany, on his first day at the hospital in Berlin he was questioned about his accent in German (clearly recognized as Yiddish-tainted) and taken on a tour of the hospital, including the Jew ward. Within days, he was back in London, where he expressed to his senior a strong wish to spend the second half of the fellowship year there, a wish that, almost unexpectedly, was granted.

Section of Painting by Salvador Dali

Section of Painting by Salvador Dali

As a front-line Army surgeon, my father entered Europe in a duck boat as part of the Normandy invasion. For the rest of his life a calendar of the war lived in him: June was Omaha Beach, December the Battle of the Bulge, April Buchenwald. Every December he was overcome by cold, the record freezing temperatures, the snow, mud, ice, and frostbite of 1944. When the Army was forced to retreat, my father volunteered to stay with the American wounded too ill to be evacuated, for which he later was awarded a bronze star. When the Germans arrived, he was captured, and the Colonel in command ordered him to care not only for his Americans but also for wounded German soldiers. Once the Americans were well enough to withstand removal to a prison camp, my father, blond, blue-eyed, built like the wrestler he’d been in college, and able to speak German, however tainted by Yiddish, escaped. In April he was with the Army for the liberation of Buchenwald. He never forgot what he saw. He took photographs for the medical records and made copies for himself, which he showed to me when I was in high school, studying history. For three weeks I could not sleep through the night. I was fourteen.

Having been raised on one war and then old enough during the Korean “conflict” to read newspapers, which puzzled me by the constant mention of parallel lines, it may be no surprise that I became interested in war and, later, war poetry, coming upon, for example, Joel Barlow’s “Advice to a Raven in Russia,” written when Barlow, sent to Russia in 1812 on behalf of the U.S. government to meet with Napoleon, witnessed the devastation wrought by the failed attempt of the Grande Armée to take Moscow. From World War I, the “Great War,” there are, in English, the British poets, those of 1914 and 1915, such as Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, for whom heroism and glory were inherent in war, and others later, such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, living and dying, as Owen did, in the fruitless repeated battles of trench warfare, seeing and writing about those at the front, the wounded, the crazed, the dead, and about the generals, at the rear. They wrote, too, about soldiers on leave, in “Blighty,” unable to face or talk about the war with mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, many of whom continued to praise what the soldiers fighting in it, witnessing it, protested in poetry and in fiction, such as Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930), the title taken from Shakespeare, so the pun is easily guessed. An astonishing poem written early in the war is by Charles Hamilton Sorley, now almost unheard of, a twenty-year-old soldier killed on the Western Front in May of 1915:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
 

The Vietnam war, in Vietnam called the American war, has a literature of its own: stories such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), and poetry by such poets as Kevin Bowen, Bruce Weigl, and Fred Marchant, a Marine who, while serving, filed for and was awarded conscientious objector status. Of necessity, I skip much: there are now many anthologies of war poetry, and poetry is being written in other languages where war is now going on.

But an interest in war may not be unique to me, it may, rather, be ordinary, given the world we live in. An interest in poetry of war, poetry against war, poetry telling of the effects of war, written by combatants, former combatants, and noncombatants, men as well as women, such as the poets and translators Martha Collins and Eavan Boland, may well be increasingly of interest, given the world we live in.

-Ellin Sarot, Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

 

Blurred Vision, Found Philosophy

On a Saturday in early May, as my husband and I were driving to the Mass Poetry Festival, my right eye suddenly started to do things it never had before. A large gray floater drifted with metronomic precision across my field of vision and, in the peripheral edges, I saw what looked like lightning flashes. It was an overcast day, not really sunny, but what the Scots sometimes call bright. At first, I thought my eyes were simply adjusting from indoor light, but the symptoms persisted, and as they did, panic mounted. I knew that one or both of these —a sudden increase in floaters, flashes of light— could be signs of a retinal tear. Worse, the onset of retinal detachment. I spent the day listening to poetry, while trying not to be distracted by the eye or catastrophic thinking. Was I going to be vision-impaired? How would that fit into my reading-and-writing life? The floater and flashes, it turns out, while persistent and annoying, are just part of the normal aging process. My symptoms are the result of the vitreous humor, which is normally Jell-O-like, shrinking and liquifying. My retina is fine, but it took a few visits to specialists, and some fairly aggressive eye exams, to reach that conclusion. It was in the waiting room of one of those specialists that I found a philosophy.

Three and a half weeks after the initial onset, I met with a doctor specializing in diseases of the retina and vitreous. Her waiting room, which was shared by several offices, was a sea of mahogany chairs with maroon leather. The appointment lasted many, many hours, most of which I sat out with other patients, each of us waiting to be called in for one exam or another then sent back. I seemed to be on the same cycle as an elderly man and his wife, both of whom must have been in their eighties, but looked younger. He was loud and lumbering. When his wife was out of the room, he told me how many years they had been married, and that he first dated her sister. Each time she spoke to him he croaked, What…? He was gruff, impatient, but on one occasion he whispered something tender about a vacation. He had the attention-seeking behavior of people who don’t understand boundaries in public spaces. I would have buried my face in a magazine, but the multiple dilating drops had kicked in and I was semi-blind. I moved to a bank of windows and stared out at the street, trying to ignore him, but each time his wife was called away, he engaged me in conversation. I responded with a polite terseness that I hoped he would read as discouragement. He didn’t. On one occasion, when it was just the two of us and he was sitting half a room away, he said, “Do you know what the three keys to a successful marriage are?” I looked his way, and before I could say anything, he held up three sausage-y fingers.

“Number one: Gut communication,” he said, gripping his stomach. He folded his index finger down.

“Two: A sense of humor.” Only the ring finger was left.

“Three: Non-sexual touch. A pat, a hug, a squeeze. The human species —and we’re all members of the species— the human species needs affectionate touch.” It didn’t escape me that when he said the word “pat,” he caressed the air the way some men stroke their wives’ bottoms.

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t disagree. And then I thought that if I had to distill the secrets of a successful marriage down to three aphorisms, I might choose something very close to this loud and lumbering philosopher’s. He was called away, I was marooned in the sea of chairs, and it suddenly occurred to me that his philosophy could be grafted onto writing, and if I did that, it might look like this.

One: Write from the gut, write authentically. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” Elmore Leonard proclaimed.

Two: Don’t take yourself, your words, too seriously. “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone,” Stephen King has said. “Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt…but it must be done.”

Three: Touch the reader, her soul, in some way. “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me,” Emily Dickinson declared, “I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

It’s not a perfect fit, this “found” writing philosophy. The grafting might not yield hearty, new growth, but it has a ring of truth, some value. The floaters still annoy me most days, still temporarily gray my vision and, when I’m tired, light sparks in my periphery. But my vision is somehow sharper. People, like writing, can be a process of discovery and surprise. And the next time I’m in a waiting room, I may not engage with the strangers around me, but I won’t assume they don’t have something valuable to offer.

—Jane Poirier Hart, WROB Poetry Fellow

When Research Happens to You

Photo credit: Gwen Cook

Photo credit: Gwen Cook

In June I traveled to Switzerland with my family. While I was there, I had two unique, unexpected experiences. First, my family visited the James Bond themed mountaintop installation called the Schilthorn. While we were eating lunch in the rotating restaurant, the cable car that is the only way up to and off of the mountain in this season broke. We were stranded for a couple of hours, until we made our exit in a Bond-worthy way: airlifted my helicopter to safety. My family likes adventures, so instead of being upset, we were kind of thrilled. I now know what it’s like to be pelted with gravel and snow as a helicopter lands, or the surprising smoothness of helicopter flight.

A week later I had the less pleasant, but no less exciting experience of spending a couple of hours in a Swiss ER. In the end, everything turned out fine, but I was having some trouble with my right eye that lead to my receiving a neurological exam in a mix of French and English and a CT scan of my brain. As I was being wheeled through the halls on a gurney, one of the thoughts that kept me from completely freaking out was “Someday, I’ll work this into a story.”

As writers we are in the unique position to not only live our experiences, but then to interpret and share them as art. Whether we are writing memoir, nonfiction, poetry, or even making things up, our own lives inform our work both consciously and unconsciously. As a fiction writer, I need to build a world that my readers can believe in, and that requires a mixture of imagination and details drawn from life. I could have imagined about a character climbing into a helicopter or receiving a brain scan, but the scene would have been thin. Now I can describe how the dye for the scan filled my mouth with a metallic taste. I know what thoughts might go through a character’s mind.

I’ve been thinking a lot about research recently. I’ll be writing my thesis in the fall, a collection of linked stories about a captive tiger, so I’ve been trying to gather as much information about tigers as I can. In addition, one member of my writing group is working on a novel set in medieval China, and another is working on a novel set in turn-of-the-century Russia. We’re all three grappling with the best ways to research. I plan to write more about that soon.

What I realized in thinking about my experiences in June is that there are two types of research. There’s the research you seek out, and then there’s the research that happens to you. The things that happen to us affect our writing, whether we like it or not. We can choose to try to ignore them, or we can use writing as a way to reflect on and come to terms with our experiences, even if it’s just through populating fictional worlds with real life details. Hemingway is a great example of a fiction writer who used his personal experience to enrich his fictional narratives. Many of his novels are centered around experiences similar to his own: visiting the festival of San Fermines in Pamplona, ambulance driving in World War I, fishing in the Caribbean. His fictional worlds are full of sights, sounds, scents and tastes that he no doubt experienced in person.

I don’t know if I’ll be writing a story about a family trapped on top of a mountain and rescued via helicopter anytime soon. I’m learning not to try to dictate my own direction, but to follow the ideas that call to me. However, there’s no doubt that during my trip I expanded my experience base. Who knows, maybe one of my characters will have a mysterious medical complaint that necessitates a CT scan. Or perhaps I’ll write about a journalist who must travel by helicopter. What I do know is that when one of these moments does come up, I’ll be able to render it more completely for having lived through it.

Miriam Cook, Ivan Gold Fiction Fellow

My Recipe

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI write best in the morning, with a cup of coffee and a single candle burning on my desk. Unless of course I’ve stayed up late the night before revising, then I write best at night, no candle, one lamp, shades drawn. However, I’ve recently noticed that I can write in the afternoon, right after lunch, in the public library, but only if I can snag one of the private cubicles near the back windows. For a few weeks, I wrote outside on a bench with a hot cup of black tea beside me and a pencil and a yellow legal pad on my lap because I thought I remembered Patricia Hampl mentioning that a yellow blank page is more inviting than a white blank page. David Huddle notes that the novelist Don Bredes suggests placing a plant, preferably a cactus, in one’s writing space. Not exactly sure what Bredes is getting at with a cactus, something to do with keeping him sharp. Perhaps he puts it in the doorway of his studio to keep out the cat. Who knows – it’s dangerous to decode a writer’s habit, to look for a recipe. Although, Huddle is the one who suggested the candle, and I don’t think I’d write as well in the morning without it.

But real writers know there is a recipe, and it only has one step: write every day. You must find the time, at some point each day, to sit down and put pen to paper, fingers to keys. It can be good to take a few days off, though. Get some distance from your words, come back with a new perspective. That’s the only way to keep things fresh. But too much time off isn’t good either. You know that scene in Swingers when they’re talking about how long to wait before calling a new date – a day, two days, six days; you call too early, she’ll think you’re being too pushy, too forceful, like you’re trying to impose meaning on a relationship that doesn’t exist. Call too late, and she might think you forgot about her and all the promising details of the night you first met. If only writing were as easy as love.

Hemingway said to write well, you must write without ambition. Good advice. Step one: stop trying. If our job is to make a struggle appear effortless, to make it seem like we wrote this novel or story in one sitting, word by word, sentence by sentence, proudly placing the final period with a smug grin, then perhaps it’s worth setting aside ambition for a while. Ambition makes us think too far ahead, makes us look up witty epigraphs when we should be writing dialogue or ponder dedications while the cursor winks on a blank page. We must maintain our passion but control our ambition. At times, unfortunately, the difference between passion and ambition can be indiscernible.

Which is why all writers need a lake house. A modest one-bedroom cabin with a galley kitchen and tiny living room. A place far from ambition. Miles from aspiration. Smack dab in the middle of passion. On the long drive to the house, the city or suburb or roommate or spouse or parents or children shrinking in the rearview mirror, the contagious hum of the tires spreading a soothing song through the writer’s entire body, he begins to see his work open up like the road before him. When he arrives at the house, he inhales deeply, stretches his legs, and steps into welcomed isolation.

It’s good to write in public, too, though. David Mamet wrote in bars and restaurants; his dialogue more osmosis than writing. A friend of mine writes at Starbuck’s. A professor I once had told me he wrote best in small cafés and independent coffee shops. Something to do with free trade, I suppose. So there it is; that’s the secret: write in a private public place where your isolation is freely observed.

But one aspect of the writer’s life that can not be disputed is the benefit of devoting a chunk of time – three to six months – just to writing. There comes a point in a project that requires uninterrupted concentration. Time to let the narrative form in your mind as the coffee machine percolates, test the truthfulness of your dialogue as the water from the shower head blasts the porcelain tub, revise the final sentence of an essay as the white of an egg bubbles in the frying pan. Drift through the day on your words, kiss your wife goodbye in the morning and let the laptop warm your legs as you type and think, type and think. Yellow leaves cling to the branches outside your study’s window. As the season gets colder, the wind plucks the leaves, revealing the tree’s naked form, a bare continuation of its roots. Things begin to make sense. Your life is in order; your words an extension of your body. When was the last time you felt this connected? This full of purpose? You cannot remember.

By month two, you’re the worst writer that ever lived.

Why did you do this, you ask. You had an OK job, steady income, but now you’re coasting on savings and you can’t seem to do what you said you desperately needed the time to do. A day is a long time, you think. The air in your apartment sparkles in the light. You notice how this changes each hour, sparkling less and less, until the dust no longer shimmers. The winking cursor is audible, crashing like a judge’s gavel. These are just words, you think, just words. How did you let these inanimate objects infect your life? You start to doubt everything – your work, your life, your choices, your expectations, your capabilities. You remember a professor telling you that writing should not interfere with living. Or was it the other way around? You stare out your study window and the leafless trees look just like what they are: Skeletons.

Month three: You’re a genius.

Seger

You’ve started running and you realize everything Haruki Murakami says is true. Writing and running are founded on endurance, and boy, you have plenty. Your feet pound the pavement like the arms of a typewriter slapping a blank page. The revisions you made that morning make so much sense that you feel high, even higher because the high is totally natural, so pure that any attempt to name it or isolate it is futile. You just feel it in your system, coursing like blood, like air. While you run, you listen to Bob Seger to get in touch with your father’s character, and when you hear him sing the sweat pours out your body like the music that you play, you get chills. When you get home and cook a gourmet meal for your wife, she’s mesmerized by your brilliance, sees it glistening on your skin. That night, the two of you sleep with the windows open, the late fall air cooling your flushed skin.

Month four: What kind of a man are you?

You write about your fucking feelings, how your brother used to pick on you or let his friends drip spit on your face and you’d hide under the kitchen sink and listen to him and his friends looking for you and here you are now, twenty years later, trying to connect that to your father sitting underneath a kitchen sink in Vietnam because he’s only got thirty days left and no way he’s running out to the perimeter. Through the trees outside your study window, your eyes drift to the construction workers pulverizing the pavement with jackhammers. Each day you watch them work, the job progressing slowly, steadily. The chunks of pavement are cleared away and a clean channel is dug. A pipe is constructed and sunk into the channel. A worker connects the pipe to another pipe, one that has been underground for years, and eventually the same water that flows through the old pipe flows through the new pipe. At the end of the month, you watch them pour steaming asphalt into the channel and smooth the surface with a wide-toothed rake.

Month five: It’s about your mother! Of course!

The wind outside your study is her sighing in the kitchen, the tree branch cracking is the handle of her wicker laundry basket snapping, the yellow oak leaves on the ground are her delicate hands patting the soil, coaxing life from her garden. Here she is, you think, all around you, always has been, always there, taking care of everything behind the scenes and yet on the stage with the rest of the men, just never in the spotlight. It is time for her soliloquy. When you write this you are not a writer but a ventriloquist, her warm hand on your back, cool Listerine goodnight kiss on your cheek. After she is asleep, you speak for her.

Month six: No, it’s about you. It always has been.

Your father taught you how to restore a 1966 Dodge Coronet, but it was you who realized it could never last, never stay that way forever. Now when you run, you hear Bruce Springsteen sing I built that Challenger… but I needed money and so I sold it… and when your father brought home For Sale signs, though he didn’t complain, he filled them out like etching a tombstone. How much of us dies as we grow, you think. This is the thought that is on your mind now, as you continue to revise your work and search for meaning. When the cicada bugs that buzzed above your head on long summer vacations shed their old skin and sprouted iridescent wings, what did they leave behind? What had to die for them to go on living?

You are the taxidermist’s son, and his Army jackets in the basement, the ones that hang like old skin, are not about him, they’re about you. How you wrap yourself in the past, try it on and see how it fits, take up the slack and fill in the gaps with cotton memory, puff it up with the present, wonder how it will fit in the future.

Month six, you think, is life changing.

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So what do I know about being a writer? It’s taught me to embrace the loyalty of doubt. Doubt is my best friend, my toughest editor, my wisest critic. To be doubtful, to be skeptical of taking life at face value, is one of the reasons I write nonfiction. Life deals out metaphors like a set of match game cards, scatters them over years and years. You hold onto a few for reasons you can’t yet articulate, but doubt that putting them back in the pile will do any good. One day, you see the matching card in the pile, sitting right on top. How could you have missed it, you wonder. But there it is, and it’s doubtful you ever would have realized its potential if you hadn’t held onto that first card.

I think tailoring the definition of doubt so the word works for me is indicative of my approach to writing. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how writers write, what the secret is. I loved reading books on writing and discovering my favorite authors’ secrets. What time of day did Hemingway work the best? Does Tobias Wolff write in the attic or the basement? Did Raymond Carver use pen and paper or a typewriter for his first drafts? While it’s interesting to read about these details, eventually we have to stop reading about how others write and start writing ourselves. We must develop our own habits.

The only way to do that is to push through doubt. If it works to write in the morning one day, do it. If it doesn’t the next, that’s OK, try writing at night. Writing is a balancing act, a mental battle we win and lose daily, but that’s what makes us better writers: endurance, perseverance.

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So, then, my recipe, my secret ingredients: write everyday, take some time off, read a lot, revise revise revise, write in the dark, write in the light, use pencil, ink, blood, keep a cactus by your side, a candle in the window, running shoes on your feet, listen to Bob Seger, cook eggs, take showers, drink coffee, make love to your wife, know yourself, discover yourself, reinvent yourself, realize you were right from the beginning, trust your instincts until they steer you wrong, don’t forget your mother, stay healthy, own a lake house, go to the library, write without ambition, become a famous author and then say write without ambition, grow old, continue to write, carry the candle with you and do your best, no matter how dark it gets, to walk in the comforting shadow of doubt.

-Anthony D’Aries, Fellow in Nonfiction

Collaborating on Creativity

Over the years, collaborative writing —usually the domain of academic research and business writing, or an educational tool to give novice writers an approachable runway— has moved into the cluttered corridors of fiction. Ken Kesey (best known for his 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) worked in collaboration with a creative writing class at the University of Oregon on a 1989 novel called Caverns. The book received attention, partly because of Kesey’s notoriety, but was criticized for what would become recognizable pitfalls: no coherent voice and too many characters. Co-authorship, wherein two writers of equal voice and weight share creative writing, is more manageable.

Boston-based short story writer and essayist, Steve Almond, worked in collaboration with Julianna Baggott, a novelist, essayist and poet, to create Which Brings Me to You: A Novel in Confessions (Algonquin Books, 2006). The story’s two characters (strangers who meet at a wedding and lust after one another then and later) offered ready-made playgrounds for Almond’s and Baggott’s creative imaginations. The novel’s form, exchanged letters, was the ideal vehicle for discovery (the authors’) and disclosure (the characters’). Though some readers thought Which Brings Me to You verged on erotica, the epistolary approach gave both writers equal time and runway. Which brings me to this: Are there collaborative poems? What if a poet shares the collaborative process with a dead writer? What if the collaborator isn’t even a person?

Islamadora Birds

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Poet Kim Addonizio has invented a form that involves borrowing from other people’s poems. Her form, called sonnenizio, requires the taking of a line —any line— from another person’s sonnet and making it your own first line. Then a word —any word— from that borrowed line is repeated in each of the remaining 13 lines of the sonnenizio. Ideally the poem ends with a rhymed couplet. I tried the form not long ago when I was working in the Room, using this line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 59: “Show me your image in some antique book…” The line, from the middle of the sonnet, struck me as modern-sounding. It lacked the archaic weight of some of Will’s Elizabethan words. I was off and running. Then I hit a wall. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a single word in the original Shakespeare line that didn’t fall flat after a few repetitions. So I turned away from my monitor and —more out of procrastination than inspiration— began to study the spines of the books on the shelves behind me. An oversized book on the history of postcards in America caught my eye. As I flipped through it, images flying by like birds, one arrested me. It was a reproduction of a 1952 postcard from Los Alamos, New Mexico: a photo of a white mushroom cloud suspended against a bright-blue sky.

The book got me back on track. I gave up on the dictate to develop a repeated word and instead, ran with the image. By the end of my writing session, I had a new poem, a sonnet called “Greetings….” I don’t know who wrote that postcard book, but I’m not sure he or she was my collaborator. I think the book itself was my collaborator. Its contents became my gateway to some new place, that one image my unerring muse.

—Jane Poirier Hart, Poetry Fellow