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: http://lithub.com/ann-patchett-on-stealing-stories-book-tours-and-staying-off-twitter/

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

The Word As A Journey

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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.

Demiurge.

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

I’ll Write You an Offer You Can’t Refuse

I just watched The Godfather. Early in the movie, Kay asks Michael about a strange man in a corner, talking to himself. That’s Luca Brasi, says Michael, the man who held a gun to the head of a famous Hollywood big shot while Don Corleone assured him that either his signature or his brains would be on an important contract.

That’s powerful motivation for getting words on the page.

As writers, we’re self-starters. We have no boss standing over our shoulder, cracking the whip, making sure the work happens. There’s no Luca Brasi.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized about writerly motivation: Sometimes you don’t have to dig deep for it. Sometimes it’s staring you in the face and you don’t even realize it.

Fifteen years ago a venture capital guy read the 60-page business plan I’d written for ZoomPak, a shipping venture, and said it was the most literary thing to ever land on his desk. He declined to fund my startup, which collapsed into bankruptcy.

In business school before that, I’d written a fairly detailed, 40-page academic research paper on competition between Boeing and Airbus in the market for super-jumbo airliners. Roget gave me a dozen synonyms for the word ‘competition’ – clash, contention, engagement, rivalry and horse-race among them — and I included a boxing match analogy in the conclusion. My statistics professor called the paper ‘well-written but frothy.’

As a public relations guy during the late 1990s dot-com boom, I wrote a speech for a Silicon Valley mogul. I was awed in the man’s presence. I tried to put beautiful words in his mouth, stunning phrases that rivaled the great orators. The guy read my draft. ‘It’s not f– -ing art,’ he said, and never talked to me again. Pretty soon I lost that job.

I never succeeded in business or PR, or the myriad other careers I attempted. I was never motivated. I was always doing the wrong thing, always trying to be like someone else — college friends who’d made big money after business school, old journalism colleagues who became ‘communications professionals.’ Nothing ever clicked.

But then a time came when I was forced to write my way out of a serious illness. For three years that was all I could do, and by the time I emerged from my hospital room I realized writing was all I wanted to do. I’ve been typing ever since. I’m not a successful writer by the measures of our craft. I haven’t published much. Last year I earned $25 from my words. But I’m driven, and good things are happening.

Photo Credit: Tara Colson Leaning

Photo Credit: Tara Colson Leaning

You might say that illness was my Luca Brasi, forcing me to put words on the page. But I think it just opened my eyes to possibilities, to the writer’s motivation I already possessed. That’s the trick it took me years, and a near-death experience, to figure out.

Open your eyes.

-Mike Sinert, 2016 Nonfiction Fellow

 

School Events

Though my book Baba Yaga’s Assistant has been out for almost ten months now and I’ve been working on many other projects, I find that much of my time is still spent working for this book. For me, this takes the form of school visits. While writing a book is an isolating task except for occasional critique group meetings, school visits are my chance to meet my audience directly and honestly, they can be a lot of fun.

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Photo Credit: Debka Colson

Last week I loaded my bike panniers with books and headed over to Arlington, MA, to meet with students. In the beautiful library, I set up my powerpoint and prepared. As students waited for the other classes to arrive, we talked about what they were reading. There was a list of what you might expect: Rick Riordan, Raina Telegemeier, and Jeff Kinney, but also some titles you might not expect. I gave some recommendations, and then we got started.

I always begin with a brief background, then move into the idea and research process. I spend a bit of time talking about the importance of revising. The kids’ eyes always get big here, their mouths dropping open as I explain just how many times I revised the piece; this is every teacher’s favorite part.

I’m at the point where I can do this presentation in my sleep, but if anything, that makes it better, because it frees me up to read my audience when I speak. I ask questions as I show slides, asking students to show their knowledge and connect my process with what they’ve been learning in their English and art classes.

Once I’ve established the writing process, we talk about the phases the art went through (again, revising is important here!) and I end with a final spread. This is my favorite part: asking students to break down how the different art elements are working. The students are always able to look at color and shape and indicate how it relates to mood, tone, and setting. Meanwhile, their teachers’ mouths are dropping. Unless one of the teachers is trained in art, they generally are not aware of how much visual literacy is a part of graphic novels and how adept their students are at analyzing it.

Then, of course, there’s Q&A. Always call on the random squirming boy in the back. Generally, his question is surprisingly relevant and insightful, not the run of the mill “will it be a movie?” Which is a question every author fields at school events and most would rather not.

With groups under fifty, I tend to end my presentation with an exercise, getting the students to practice their own writing and drawing. I love to see what the students make and what questions they ask, but it’s also a point at which insecurities arise. I’ve found that fifth graders will do pretty much anything but seventh and eight graders, especially those who are in advanced classes, worry about doing something wrong. We’ve all been in this situation, had this fear, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to wonder if this is directly tied to revision.

As writers, we’re aware of how much work, how many changes, will ultimately go into our final. Whatever we do for a first draft or pass can be shitty; it’ll get better (it might get worse first, but it’ll get to a better place eventually). Focusing on endless sketches and countless revisions, something I didn’t get to do until college, makes work less precious, more malleable. If we allowed for more of this in schools, would students be more willing to take more risks? Or is the time allotted to testing and prepping an impediment to this very important skill?

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet but what I can say is that I love visiting schools. I love being able to take time out of new projects to connect directly with my audience, to learn what they’re reading, what they’re excited by, and how they engage with the concepts inherent in my work. When a student lingers after an event to tell me about what they’re working on, or that they liked my book, well, then I know it was worth it. Luckily, I have some more visits planned.

-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow

 

Transformation: A WROB Reading at Porter Square Books

Four members of The Writers’ Room of Boston will be reading at Porter Square Books at 25 White Street in Cambridge on May 17, 2016 at 7 PM. Though they will be presenting work in a range of genres and styles, each piece relates to the theme of “Transformation.” Our readers will also recommend a favorite book written by another author (available in the bookstore) relating to the same theme.

Our readers are (in alphabetical order):

Mary Bonina, memoirist and poet.

Alexander Danner, writer of comics, fiction and audio drama

Kate Gilbert, writer of children’s fiction writer and a freelance editor

Jennifer Hollis, music-thanatologist and  memoirist.

Please join us for this special event!

porter-square-books