Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Literary Conversation

I did a reading on Friday night, reading a portion of my novel to an audience for the first time. It went really, really well. Afterwards, several people complimented me on it, on my reading, and asked when the novel will be published so they can read all of it. All things considered, I'd call that a successful reading.

One person noted the similarity between my narrator's voice and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, which was gratifying to me. I hadn't set out to write in a narrative voice like Salinger's, the voice sprang into existence during a freewriting session and the very first thing it said was, "Shrink says everything's a choice, and I think he's full of it." The voice was there first, the story followed. In recent years, thinking towards needing to find a way to explain the novel in an agent query, I have been playing with billing the novel as "The Catcher in the Rye meets The Lovely Bones."

I read The Catcher in the Rye, like most American school children, in ninth grade, when I was fourteen, and have never looked at the book again until just a few weeks ago while I was on my writing retreat and wanted to read something other than my own words. Our friends had The Catcher in the Rye in their bookcase and so I opened it up. I was shocked at how much of Catcher I had assimilated into Altar, at how deep an impression Holden Caulfield seems to have made on me. I don't mean to say I have copied, or even tried to copy, Salinger's work. That's not it at all. Matt is not Holden Caulfield. I think the similarities strengthen the novel because they make it part of the literary conversation, an extension of what Salinger was doing with Holden Caulfield, which was an extension of what other writers before him had done.

All writing, all art for that matter, exists in response to what's been done before it. It exists in a conversation with the work other writers and artists have produced. It may be overt, as in the case of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, The Odyssey and James Joyce's Ulysses or most of Shakespeare's plays which referenced Plutarch, Chaucer, and many pre-Elizabethan stories, folktales and legends. Or it may be more subtle, taking character names or themes from previous work and combining them in new ways. This is one reason why, I think, we do ourselves a disservice when we throw the existing literary cannon out the window and stop teaching the classics in school just because the cannon was comprised mainly of Dead White Males. Instead of pitching out Shakespeare and Salinger, we should be adding the literary traditions that reflect our country's diversity. We are a Western civilization. Our culture goes back to the Greeks and Romans and Europe and our literature is a reflection of that. Now that our culture also includes Mexico, Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and a multitude of other traditions and cultures, we shouldn't banish the traditional cannon in favor of these newer influences.

The cannon gives us a common frame of reference, a common conversation. Yes, there's a lot more to read now than there was in Shakespeare's time. There are many more options and fewer people are actually reading. Movies and music have become our common cultural currency.

One of the things I'm doing in my other blog, Textual Archipelago, is exploring that conversation by writing stories in response to other short stories, specifically those stories published in the Best American Short Stories of the Century. It seemed like as good a way to get a cross-section of writers as any. And it's been kind of interesting to read what was being written and published almost one hundred years ago and find a way to write a contemporary response to it.

Yes, I've given this a lot of thought. Not just since I realized how much I'd assimilated Catcher into my current novel, but because my next novel is a much more overt nod to an earlier work. Namely The Odyssey. It's also because I read and study a lot about what came before me. I'm interested in the history of literature, its various movements and the way in which contemporary literature has come to be.

It is strange to me that, given all the people at State who have read portions of Altar, this man Friday night was the first person to mention the similarities (for instance, I'd completely forgotten that Holden's older brother, D.B., was dead and that's what sets Holden off, until this man reminded me), maybe even a little distressing since it means we're losing the common thread of the literary conversation. I see this in my classes, too, my fellow students who know nothing of their literary antecedents and are not interested in it at all. Which is another soapbox I'll get on some other day. But I will just ask the question, how can you be trying to subvert the conventional forms of literature when you don't even know how those forms evolved in the first place?

This is getting pretty long, so I'll stop here, but just point you to an excellent blog entry that Neil Gaiman wrote about literary cross-pollination and how many writers work on the same ideas. It happens all the time. He loves it when his work gets borrowed in new and inventive ways for good reason. It means he's becoming part of the literary conversation and that is the surest way that your work will endure.

Here's the link to Neil's blog:
You have to scroll to the bottom where he starts talking about fair use and the Harry Potter trial in 2008 where JK Rowling successfully blocked the publication of an HP encyclopedia because it simply copied what she'd written in the HP books.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Scruting the Inscrutable

Yesterday, I got interviewed and filmed for a short documentary about the Brisbane Art Sharing Evening. I got to talk about my work and get filmed typing at my computer, but it started me thinking about writing and the creative process because, let's face it, watching a writer actually write is...well...boring. (Unless you happen to love the person very much and everything they do is fascinating to you.) It is infinitely more exciting to watch a painter paint or a sculptor sculpt or a musician make music. Writing can be boring even for those of us who do it and love it. Half the time, when I "sit" down to write, I am pacing around the room, making tea, looking out the window, making notes to myself about other parts of the story, remembering that I have to make an appointment or an errand to run and writing that down, or doing other physical acts. But, the actual sitting in the chair with a pen or typing into a computer is only a portion of the creative act of writing. Which is part of what I talked about for the film.

While it's true that there is no story if the words don't make it onto the page (a regrettable fact, I am waiting for the invention of a brain to text interface that will free me from having to physically make the words appear so I'll just have to think them and wa la! there they'll be), the moment of sitting at the desk is preceded by a lot of other stuff and followed by even more.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my novel - making notes about the characters, the plot, the imagery that I want to use, the themes I think I'm going to be working on, getting to know as much about the story I'm telling as I possibly can. I fill notebooks with this stuff.

One of the questions I got asked was about inspiration and where my ideas come from. My answer was that it's about being out in the world. I know I'm engaged with the story I'm telling because everything hits, everything tells me something about the story. For example, when I was at the cabin last week, one of the neighbors was fascinating to me. He owns a big equipment construction company and has lots of BIG toys. He was constantly doing things on his property, in his bulldozer, moving trees and earth around. It rained while I was there and he went out to regrade the road. As this was kind of distracting for me, I went out and sat on a boulder and watched him. While I was watching him, it hit me that the step-father in my novel is like this, always fixing things, trying to remake the world so it's no longer broken. He's an Iraqi war vet who lost a leg in Basra in 2004. Now he's back in Reno, married to his high school sweetheart (my narrator's mother) and trying to have the life he lost when racial pressures broke him and Rachelle apart.

The idea about him fixing things triggered me thinking about Alan's backstory in more depth, and I decided that he works as a supervisor for a call center (which I knew), but he's also getting his degree in psychology at UNR so he can help people (which I didn't until that moment on the boulder, but it fit perfectly). Thinking about this led to a line I'll use at the end of the novel where Matt says, "You tried to fix us because you thought we were broken, but we were never broken." Which is the moment I need where Alan allows Matt to head out to the desert where the climactic scene of the novel takes place. But that moment where Alan turns was really weak in my first draft, very flat.

If writing was only about sitting at my desk, I never would have had that moment on the boulder and never had the inspiration about Alan wanting to become a psychiatrist.

The actual act of writing is sometimes really difficult. I realized that writing differs from other art forms because each day, when I sit down to write, I'm writing into a void. The shape of the thing I'm creating doesn't exist yet. Yes, a painter starts with a blank canvas, a sculptor with a piece of marble. The difference is that when a painter makes a brush stroke or the sculptor makes the first cut, something exists that can be built on, shaped, refined. That something doesn't exist for me until the draft is finished. Each day, I'm creating the world of my story, the scene, new. Like these words I'm writing now. They don't exist until I think them and then type them. Staring at the blank screen or sheet of paper can be very intimidating because it's a void in which nothing exists until I put it there.

After the physical act of writing, comes rewriting, revising and editing. The second draft I'm working on right now, although it's the same story, has mostly different words. I'm estimating that, out of the 80,000+ words in the first draft, only 25,000 will remain when I'm done with the second. Some of the scenes will be the same, but the way they're written isn't. Periodically, as I write, I print out and edit what I've done, which is where shading happens, where I make my choices at the word level, finding those words that do more than just tell you what happened, they tell you about the person who did the action, the story, are specific to this particular world.

It's the difference between writing that someone signs papers and writing that she holds the pen so tightly, the bones and veins stand out on the back of her hand while she signs the papers that give her uncle control of her father's farm.

Those moments of shading are where the theme of the novel becomes clearest. Those are the details that carry the greatest weight because they are so specific to the story and paint the most vivid images in the reader's mind.

The writing process is so amazing to me. And it's also so amazing to me how much I am learning about it as I write this novel. In some ways, this exploration of process is as compelling to me as the story I'm telling and is part of what keeps me coming back to the page.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Still Life With Children

It is a delicate balance, the balance between being a parent and being an artist. I'm adding this post just after saying good-night and good-bye to my older child who will have left for school tomorrow morning before I wake up.

There is always a part of myself that longs for the kind of unlimited freedom I will be experiencing for the next week, for that unfettered, uncluttered ability to descend, body and soul, heart and mind, into the world of my writing, and that wants to have that kind of freedom all the time. A fellow MFA student at State was given a three month residency at MacDowell. Three months at MacDowell sounds like absolute heaven.

I envy her, but I can not imagine being able to do that. Not that my family wouldn't support me in it, but I can not imagine not seeing my kids for three months, not seeing my husband, not seeing my dog. But especially my kids. In three months, their lives could change completely. As maddening as it is to juggle the disparate demands on my attention, time, and energy, it is what I have to work with. And by my own choice. I freely admit that.

I have my dark moments. Those times when I think about what could have been if I did not have kids, if I had not met my husband, if it could have been only my needs I was dealing with on a daily basis. Those times I think I would not be working on what will be called my first novel, if it gets published (fingers crossed, knock on wood), but my fifth or even sixth by this point. Those times I think about where I could be instead of where I am.

I once heard Joyce Carol Oates say she would not have been able to write as much as she did if she had had children. I totally agree with her. And there are dark moments when I think, yeah, I could be Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood if I hadn't had children.

So I go, and I have my week, and I think, wow, three months would be amazing. Think what I could accomplish with three months of this. Think what I could experience. Think what I could write.

But then again, think what I would miss. John Lennon once said life is what happens while you're making other plans. And what I want to be writing about most of all, is life. Real life. With children. And spouses. And dogs.

Howling at the Moon

I am about to head off for at least a week of uninterrupted writing time courtesy of some very generous friends who have given me the use of their cabin. Just thinking about it makes me giddy. A week to be alone with my characters, to live within my story without needing to surface for grocery shopping, forgotten homework, doctor's appointments, even phone calls. There will be no TV, no Internet,and very limited cell service. The closest town is 30 miles away and the road to get the main road is down several miles of dirt road. Once there, I am there. And it's just me and everybody currently living in my head.

Believe me, this is a writer's idea of heaven.

It's seldom that I get the chance to live so completely within my story and it is a wonderful gift. My goal is to come back home with the second draft of my novel finished. And I'm so ready to be finished, let me tell you.

So, there will be no new blog posts for a bit, but when I return, watch out.