Category: Writing

Updates

This summer Pale Hearts was featured on American Bookfest.

I’m so grateful to all the readers who’ve told me they enjoyed the book! Thank you for taking the time to read it and share your kind words. I always appreciate Amazon or Goodreads reviews too, if you have a few minutes to comment on the book. It helps other readers find the book, and it helps me as I continue to write!

This fall I’m leading another writing workshop at the Lawrence Branch of Mercer County Library.  It will be on September 15 at 10 a.m., and the subject will be description.  We’ll talk about how to use descriptive language to make your writing vivid.

writing workshop

The decks will never be clear

decks
Source: Morguefile.com

Sometimes, when my to-do list grows longer and longer, I feel like I can’t possibly write until I clear all of the other tasks.  I plan to allocate a few days just to focus on the chores.  Then, when they’re done, my mind will be free for writing.

It never quite works out that way.  As soon as one thing is completed, two more replace it.  I never get as much done on chore days as I hope.  The to-do list is never defeated.  Instead it morphs over time, leaving me frustrated at how much of life is given over to administration–mundane tasks that keep everything running, but steal huge amounts of time in the process.

I first started writing seriously in the months after I graduated from college.  At the time, I didn’t yet have a job, and that was when I started keeping track of the hours I wrote each week.  At first I found it difficult to write for more than two hours per day.  I figured I had time to build up my endurance.  One day, however, I had a realization.  If I couldn’t make myself write for more than two hours when I was as free as I’d ever be, then I wasn’t really being serious at all.  I had to make better use of my time.  I’d never be that free again.

This revelation was unfortunately true. I have never had enough time to write.  Even during my wonderful four-week residency last year, I was filled with a sense of desperation.  I wrote eight hours a day, wrote until my fingers hurt and I couldn’t think anymore.  I knew that, as soon as I went back to real life, it would be so hard to find the time. There are always other, more important things to do.  Always.  Lately my to-do list has gotten alarmingly long, and it’s tempting to put aside writing until all everything is done.  I wish I could clear the decks so I’d have the time to focus on my novel like it deserves.

Writing, especially fiction writing, takes a certain kind of irresponsibility.  You have to find the will to set aside more important things.  For people like me, this is difficult and anxiety-inducing.  But there will never be a good time to write.  You have to write when you’re uncomfortable and hurried and anxious.  If you wait, you’ll never write a thing.

Writing residency & other updates

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New York Mills water tower

A few months ago, I had the great fortune to be a Visiting Artist at New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.  The center is located in New York Mills, a tiny, wonderful town in the middle of rural Minnesota.  Despite its small size, New York Mills has a vibrant arts scene. The Center hosts concerts, art exhibits, classes, and a gift shop stocked with crafts by local artists.  It also has a Visiting Artist program.  Each artist is in residency for 2-4 weeks, living alone in a cheerful yellow house near the center of town.

My residency was scheduled for 4 weeks in November and December 2016.  I flew from Boston to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove the three hours to New York Mills.  As soon as I set foot in the artist house,  I felt a sense of peace and excitement.  There was a scrapbook filled with journal entries from the artists who’d stayed there before.  The house had a small kitchen, a bedroom, and two work spaces with large desks, perfect for writing.  Once I’d stocked up on groceries, I holed up inside (frigid temperatures helped!) and wrote, drafting about 100 pages of my novel-in-progress.  I met lots of interesting, friendly people around town–artists, writers, the local baker, a taxidermist. I learned about dark house spear fishing and the local boat factory.  I also held a workshop, participated in a reading, and visited 3 English classes at the high school.  It was a fruitful and creative month.

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Train tracks near the artist house
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Grain elevator near the center of town

I kicked off 2017 as a featured reader in Timothy Gager’s Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, MA.  The other readers were poet Michelle Y. Burke and memoirist Rita Zoey Chin.  I really enjoyed reading and learning about their work!

Finally, my talented photographer friend Kate Kearns took some lovely photos of me and my book last fall.  I’m just getting around to posting them now because I’ve been preoccupied by several life changes, including a move.  But, finally, here they are!

library phhoto

Writing and talent

Recently I showed someone a story-in-progress of mine, and they said I had talent. Naturally it pleased me to hear this. But I was also aware of how misleading the situation was. To the reader, who’d never seen the piece before, it perhaps seemed like a fresh new story, one I might have composed quickly and with inspiration. In reality, it was the product of several labored drafts, and it will go through several more before I finish. In addition to this, I’ve made conscious effort to improve my writing craft over the last five years. This has involved classes, critique groups, and hours of reading, thinking, and practice.

Sometimes I’m in the reverse situation, in which I read a piece somebody has written and impulsively form a judgment about whether they have talent or not. This, too, can be inaccurate. A single piece of writing may be good or not, but it doesn’t give a whole picture of the writer. Writers’ stories vary in strength. In addition to this, the writer exists in time, developing their skills over an extended period.

I have no idea whether I’m a good writer or not. It’s impossible to judge one’s own abilities. And when it comes to judging others, there is a great deal of taste and subjectivity involved. Many excellent books elicit polarized reactions from readers. One example of this is Madame Bovary. Of people I know who’ve read the book, some love Emma Bovary and others hate her. This affects their enjoyment of the book as a whole.

So I can’t say whether I’m a good writer, but there are a few things I know to be true. One is that I’ve been published and paid for my work. The other is that I’ve improved significantly over time.

I took my very first writing workshop in my senior year of college. I had just started to write seriously around that time. There were two levels of the writing workshop class, and both had competitive admission. I was admitted to the beginning level—barely. It soon became clear that I was one of the worst writers in the class. In retrospect, it was one of the more difficult workshops I’ve been in (or maybe I just wasn’t used to it, since I’d never been critiqued before). I remember some particularly harsh comments about my characters and dialogue. I felt embarrassed and ashamed about my writing, especially since some people in the class had written remarkable stories. I’m sure that I seemed quite untalented.  That spring, I applied to the advanced fiction workshop. Other people in my class got in, but I was rejected. The worst part was you had to go to the English department and look for your name on a list posted on the wall. When I didn’t see my name on the list, I rushed out of the building in shame.

Now, when I look at the stories I wrote back then, it surprises me how amateurish they seem. Over the years, I kept at it, and it’s unquestionable that my writing is much better for the work.

The point of all this is sometimes people appear successful, but there’s a whole story of struggle behind how they got there. If you’re just starting out as a writer, don’t be discouraged because other people seem more accomplished or talented than you. Chances are they’ve already been working at it for a few years. Also, it’s impossible for other people to judge your talent. They’re looking at you at a moment in time, when in reality your life is a trajectory. You’re the one who gets to decide that trajectory—i.e., whether to keep working or not. You’re the only one who gets to decide whether you’re a writer.

Pale Hearts reviewed in Compulsive Reader

I am thrilled to share Compulsive Reader’s review of PALE HEARTS.  Reviewer Ruth Latta had many kind things to say about the book.  She also took the time to write in detail about some individual stories. The stories she focused on were somewhat different than the ones that occupied the greatest part of my attention, and it was refreshing to see the book through someone else’s eyes.

compulsive-reader

I particularly appreciated the assessment that “the fifteen thought-provoking stories in Pale Hearts are both literature and entertainment.”  I’m starting to realize that I sit right in the middle of the great supposed “literary” and “genre” divide.  I love Melville, Flaubert, and Faulkner.  I also love Stephen King and Michael Crichton.  I find a lot of so-called literary fiction pretentious and boring, while many great genre fiction books are overlooked by the literary world.  Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, and Donna Tartt, are people who don’t fit neatly into genre/literary distinctions.  I hope I can achieve that balance in my own work.

Writing ambitious characters

How do you center a novel around one character’s ambition? This is something I’m wrestling with in my current project. You’d think it would be easy, since most fiction is driven by characters’ desires. But, like most things in writing, it’s deceptively difficult. Ambition is not so much a desire as a character trait. It may be focused on a specific goal, but if the character existed in a different setting, her ambition would latch onto something else. Sometimes readers ask why a character wants something, but there’s no why to ambition. It’s something people are born with; they either have it or they don’t.

I’ve noticed that many fictions use some sort of proxy to show that a character is ambitious. Academic characters want to get into Harvard or Yale or Stanford. Musical or theatrical characters want to go to Juilliard. Writers either publish in The New Yorker or write an instant bestseller. There are many problems with this strategy. First, it’s lazy. It relies on general associations, taking a short cut around details and development that would actually convince us the character is ambitious. Second, it’s cliché. This makes the character seem more like a stereotype than a person. Third, it’s unrealistic. For some reason, it’s rare for characters to fail at these goals. In many fictions, the character is accepted to an Ivy League school after minimal struggle. In TV shows, it’s common for a mere hobbyist to get into Juilliard after auditioning on a whim. These one especially bothers me. It takes years of training and hours of practice every day for a dancer or musician to be good enough for Juilliard. Such breezy portrayals undermine the difficult nature of achieving these things in real life. Also, real life is unpleasant and arbitrary. There are many more deserving students/musicians than there are spots at flashy schools. Unfair as it is, politics and luck play a role.

All of this leads to another problem. If you’re writing about characters who, in real life, would actually audition for Juilliard (i.e., serious high school musicians), then you have to somehow surpass all the clichés and fabrications that have built up around this plot point.