Monday, September 28, 2009

On nurturing young writers

I've been asked to take on a writing student. I have to admit, I'm ambivalent. On the one hand, the request reminds me of the way Madonna asked an Olympic dressage rider I know to teach her how to ride - honey, you're asking a professional to take time out of their busy schedule to teach the basics to a beginner? It's like asking Yo-Yo Ma to teach your child to play cello. On the other hand, if the kid has talent, it's an exciting prospect. But I feel like the situation is being forced on me by a pushy parent who doesn't understand that what a young writer or artist really needs is space not instruction.

Don't get me wrong. I teach creative writing to 4th and 5th graders. I love the enthusiasm, the crazy way kids put stories together, and I LOVE it when I encounter those kids who innately know how to put stories together and show talent. It's exciting to hear someone experimenting with their voice, finding the ideas they want to explore. It's also exciting to work with young writers who literally can't stop putting words down on paper, to watch them fall in love with the process.

What I think a lot of parents don't understand is that artists flourish best in conditions of benign neglect. Encouragement, yes, but encouragement in terms of, "that's really interesting" or "I like how you wrote about that, it really painted a vivid picture in my head," not "oh, my God, you're the next James Joyce! Let's go find you an agent." We live in an era of hyper-talented kids, or at least parents who are willing to shell out a great deal of money for lessons of all types in the hopes that their child will become a towering genius. I'm not saying that this is what's going on here, but I see it a lot, especially in San Francisco where so many people have more money than they know what to do with. And sometimes, it's coming from a good place. Parents want to give their kids opportunities they never had.

Based on what the mom's said, I think she might be disappointed in what I'll do with her child if I take him on. She said he writes a lot and it's all over the place and she'd like him to learn structure. For me, that's exactly what his stories should be doing. They should be all over the place. One thing I've learned after six years in the classroom is that I hear different things in the writing than the teachers (and probably the parents) do - it's one of the reasons the teachers like me in the classroom. I'm not listening for grammar, correcting spelling, or even hoping for logical progression in the pieces. On the contrary, the pieces that seem like they're all over the place are the ones that I like the best. One of the most exciting pieces I've heard from one of my students was NOT the best written - it was all over the place, it changed character names, it changed tenses, in terms of what teachers generally look for, it was awful. But what I heard was a story beginning to order itself on the page - the tense changes, those were the shifts a writer makes as his or her ear learns to hear the story being told in their head. I've had other students feel as if they've failed to do the assignment correctly because their writing makes no sense, but when they read it out loud, I hear a juxtaposition of images and information that borders on poetry - it doesn't make sense as a logical progression, but as true writing, it's beautiful.

To me, the danger comes when a child produces a few pieces like this and starts being pushed into thinking of him or herself as a writer, or the parent or teacher starts critiquing the work - saying what's good or bad. It's way too early for that. Way too early even for some of us who've been writing for years. Only the artist knows how close they're getting to what's in their head, to what's in their heart. The best a teacher can do is provide the way to get there, show road maps, expose the student to other writers or artists who's work may be of interest. But never, never judge the product.

Benign neglect - the work always knows what it needs. The best a parent or teacher can do is help the student listen to the work deeply enough to hear it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On Working Cross-Genre

I ended up in a playwriting workshop this semester. I hadn't been intending to, but I ended up there and, as has usually happened at State with the classes I haven't gotten into versus those that I have, it's proving to be exactly what I needed. I am loving the structure of the playwriting workshop. It is very different than the fiction workshops - we are actively writing scenes for each week, bringing the scenes in and staging them right there. Our classmates become our actors and there it is, in front of everyone.

I was very intimidated about working this way, but it's proving to be so invaluable I'm considering the idea of always hiring actors to help me work through difficult scenes. First, there is going over the scene with the actors and having to define for them what's happening for this character, then, there are the questions they ask, which further helps define the scene and the character.

On Thursday, I brought in a scene I'd adapted from Choice. It isn't actually in Choice, but it probably will be. I wrote it because I needed to get Matt and his mother in one place and keep them there - my greatest challenge with Rachelle is that she keeps leaving the room whenever she's alone with Matt. I understand why she does this, and it works for the novel, but, I have to have times when they interact. So I wrote this scene, following Matt's first meeting with his public defender. They're in the grocery store:

Rachelle :What do you want to get for dinner?

Matt:Why didn’t you tell me all that stuff about Denny?

Rachelle:Chicken? No. The thought of it makes me sick.

Matt:Mom, why didn’t you tell me about Denny?

Rachelle:Tell you what about Denny? (pause) Spaghetti? I should have made a list before we left the house. I should have thought about stopping at the grocery store. We don’t have anything in the house. I should have remembered.

Matt:All that stuff you said. In the PD’s office. Did you know all that shit or were you making it up?

Rachelle:All these things I keep forgetting. Did Alan say he was coming home tonight? Do you remember, Matt? Did Alan say if he was going to be home for dinner?

Matt:Forget it. I don’t know. I don’t care. I don’t want to know.

Rachelle:I don’t know. I can’t remember if he told me.

Matt:It’s not like I don’t know what goes on in the house.

Rachelle:We never plan these things, you know. Things happen. Things come up. We go for weeks without grocery shopping and then there’s nothing in the house to cook. I could call him.

Matt:You think I don’t know, but I do.

Rachelle:Of course you do. Of course you know. Were there noodles in the cupboard? Matt? Noodles? I could do a tuna casserole if there were noodles.

Matt:I know everything. I live in the house, too, you know.

Rachelle:But you don’t know if there were noodles.

Matt:I mean, I may not know everything. There’s stuff I still can’t figure out, but I know enough to know you weren’t making it up in the PD’s office. Denny was into some serious shit, and that was fine with you. You just let him go.

Rachelle:What else could I do?


Rachelle:What? I can’t even keep enough food in the house to make dinner. What was I supposed to do? Denny was going to do what Denny was going to do.

Matt:You could have stopped him. You could have told him you didn’t want him going out with Ray and doing all that stuff he was doing.

Rachelle:(directly) Like I can stop you doing the same thing. Like you don’t think I know you’re following your brother down the same path? Tell me how I’m supposed to stop you. Tell me that I know everything you’re doing. Tell me the pot was Ray’s, I’ll believe you because that’s what I do. I want to believe you so I’ll jump on whatever little piece of hope you offer me because that’s what I do.

Matt: It was Ray’s, mom. He thought he was doing me a favor by giving it to me. It was just my stupid luck to get caught with it before I could give it back to him. What else do you want me to do?

Rachelle: Tell me what you want for dinner.

While the scene was being acted, I was busy taking notes on the physicality of the actors - how were they moving in relationship to each other. Matt kept trying to get in front of Rachelle, to get her to look at him, and she keeps turning away, moving away from him, until she speaks to him directly and then she moves toward him. Those are things that will make their way into the prose rendering of the scene.

But also, what I appreciated was hearing the audience reaction and understanding that I'd hit the moment correctly.

I think writers get scared of letting the character speak the truth too blatantly, we want to make it apparent to the reader, but not to let the character know it and speak it. Somehow that seems more honest and realistic. But here, when Rachelle speaks her truth "Tell me and I'll believe you because that's what I do. I want to believe you" it worked for her to articulate it because it shows that her denial, her refusal to deal directly with Matt is intentional. She's conscious of what she's doing, and, because she knows, it becomes that much more potent and powerful.

Another thing I did in this scene that I think worked really well was to take the Pantoum form from poetry and adapt it to this dialogue (with some modifications, of course.) A Pantoum repeats whole lines so there becomes a kind of call and response sense to the poem. What I found was that having the characters echo each other's words but keeping the subject of what they were saying on different tracks, worked really well to portraying the parallel nature of this relationship. They're living in the same house, have gone through the experience of Denny's death, and yet, they are not having the same conversation at all.

So, now I've got to get back to work so I can pages to Nona on Tuesday. I love deadlines. I will so hate leaving school and not having deadlines to make me focus.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Today's Work

Today, I started work on the limo scene. Keeping everyone in close, tight quarters. The draft of the scene is about three pages so far - longer than I want, it's a draft. I'm sure the finished scene will be shorter. What I am liking about this scene is the juxtaposition of information - there is what's going on in the car and there is the information Matt is choosing to impart at this time.

What's going on in the car is a lot of unspoken interactions. Matt being cut off from his mother, Alan's feeling that he needs to take control of Matt's behavior but not having the authority to do so, Rachelle's debilitating grief and reliance on the grief counselor to get her through the funeral. And how Alan and Rachelle's new start is completely at odds with what is happening in the family at the moment. Every one is lost in their own little world, unable to connect, and rubbing up against the other worlds. Then there's the juxtaposition against this image of Denny in the darkness of his room - a cave (or womb) where he has retreated just weeks before his death (which is an echo of the image of Rachelle in the interior of the limo waiting to go to the cemetery).

I see a lot of this novel dealing with people trying to connect with others and being unable to do so - and especially this sense that everyone wants to keep their hands off Matt, that if they leave Matt alone he'll do just fine. Which is challenging, because the novel then turns on moments of missed connection and I have to find a way to make them dynamic, full of subtext, and NOT melodramatic.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Semester Gets Underway, the Perils of Caffeine and Other Tales

A New Semester Begins
So, the fall 2009 semester has started. I really love the first weeks of a new semester at school because so much hits deeply and my classes seem to resonate with each other - I find something someone said in one class coming up in another (references to the same book, a similar idea or the clarification of an idea, conversations that seem to be continuations of those from a previous class even though I'm with a different group of people, etc). It is exciting and exhilarating. For the first couple of weeks. And then the crush of the work takes over and I find myself getting into the "just plow through it" mode. Last semester was the worst - with the four classes and the residency I was in JPTI mode for most of the time. Read to get through the reading, forget about letting ideas sink deeply or leaving their mark on me. Each semester I have the same goal - hold off on JPTI-mode for as long as I can, use the newness of the semester to make me pay attention to the small details and try to keep that beginner's mind fresh.

I won't have much longer to have this experience, though. This semester is my last true semester in school. After these classes, I am through with the course requirements for my MFA and will only have to complete my thesis, which is my novel and, theoretically, going to get completed anyway and should not be a BIG DEAL. And then I get to graduate in the spring. I am excited. I did not go to my undergrad graduation because, by that time, I was so fed up with my undergrad school, I wanted out as quickly as possible, and the idea of going to graduation and not being able to sit with my friends (we were seated according to major) just seemed stupid and an exercise in several hours of boredom. This time, I want my cap and gown. I want a graduation portrait. And I want the graduation ceremony. I've worked my butt off for this degree, I want to celebrate my achievement. But...focus...get through this semester first, get the novel finished, and then PARTY!

The Perils of Caffeine
I think I wrote about the problems I was having with migraines over the summer - if not, brief recap...I was getting hit with migraines every two or three days all through the summer. I finally located the culprit. Caffeine. A lot of caffeine. I completely cut myself off from caffeine on August 17th and that seems to have solved the problem. The oddest thing to me is that I haven't had problems with feeling tired - like I thought I needed the caffeine to keep me awake for my nocturnal writing, but that has not proved to be the case at all. Which is strange and makes me wonder how many other things I think are necessary and really aren't, that are really more detrimental than beneficial. I'll have to start noticing that.

Other Tales
The rewrite of Choice is now underway. I think I've made the correct decision to do a rewrite and continue to keep pushing into the story. The difference in the first pages is enough to convince me that my intuition is right: it may have been good enough to be accepted by an agent and possibly for publication, but it's not the novel I want to publish. Yet. I read the first page and a half in one of my classes last week and the silence after I was done was that good silence of people experiencing something wonderful. The opening page is still the same - starting with Denny and Ray in the car and then Denny's death - but the next section, which is narrative summary is new. I was very happy with the reception it all got.

One of my challenges with the rewrite is to make full use of my narrative tools - exposition, summary, backstory, flashbacks - as well as my ability to create vivid scenes. It's like, now that I've told myself the story, now I'm telling the story. I know what happens, so I can create the dynamic juxtaposition of information and scenes that connect the dots in a more meaningful manner than just A, B, C, D. I'm killer with showing, with being in scene, but it doesn't give the novel the resonance and compression it needs to really explore the questions it poses.

For instance, in the first draft, I walk through the entire scene of Matt meeting Monica, the awkward dialogue of two people who don't know each other. In the rewrite, I say right up front, opening pages, this person is going to be important to Matt, he doesn't know her yet, but when she appears, she's going to be important. So when I get to her later, I won't have to show them becoming friends, I'll be able to move into them being friends. (this is actually something I realized over the summer while reading Terry Pratchett - sometimes it's enough for me to tell you someone is a certain thing, I don't have to pile up details to show you they are. The novel I was reading, Going Postal, has this master criminal/con man as its main character. Pratchett does not spend pages and pages showing you why Moist is a master criminal by demonstrating that he is - he just tells you and then Moist goes on to do things in the way of a master criminal, but Pratchett doesn't have to show how he does every little thing - he scales a wall, but I don't have to read about every hand hold and foot hold to know that he knows how to climb a wall).

My current scene is Matt in the limo on the way to the cemetery - I decided to get Matt and his mom and Alan into a confined space early on (this is page 8) so I can lay out the dynamics of the relationships. I've actually got no idea what's going to happen. I'll probably have to write about ten pages in order to get the two paragraphs I need, but, I'll know they're the right two paragraphs by the time I get to them.