Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pomp and Circumstance

By this time next week, I will officially be a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I’ve been making the rounds to see various professors and say thank you to them for the wonderful contributions they’ve made to my writing and, maybe more importantly, my confidence in myself as a writer and artist. So I thought I’d make a more public thank you as well and talk a little about what these fellow writers have given me over the past three years. I urge you to look up their work and give them a read or, in the case of the playwrights, go see their shows if you have the opportunity. They are all fabulously talented writers.

I took Donna de la Perriere’s “Business of Creative Writing” class my first semester in school. It was my fall back class in case I didn’t get into the novel writing workshop. What could a class on the business of creative writing offer to me? While I would have loved to have a class like this as an undergraduate twenty years ago, I wasn’t sure there was a lot I could learn – I’d been a freelance writer, taken lots of workshop classes (some even from agents and editors themselves) on how to query, knew a lot about how the publication business worked, and had recently closed up my part of a corporate communications agency. While there wasn’t a lot I didn’t know about the content of the class, Donna’s class helped me see that I had spent the twenty years between my undergraduate and graduate years as a WORKING WRITER. I had gotten fixated on not being a published fiction writer and not giving any credit to myself for continuing to work with words as a way of earning money.

My favorite moment in that class came the day we were discussing freelancing. The format of the class was always to have a panel of two or three speakers, writers, reading series curators, agents, editors, etc. The panelists would speak for about an hour to an hour and half, followed by a question and answer period, and then, sometimes, we’d break into our small sections for more discussion and going over the previous week’s assignment. For the freelancing discussion, Donna had arranged to have three writers speak to us, but one of the writers didn’t show up. I was sitting in the front row and, just about the time I was thinking to myself I should talk to one of the panelists after the class, Donna started motioning to me. Thinking that she was suggesting the same thing (because, of course, she could read my mind and knew what I was thinking), I nodded in agreement. I was caught totally off-guard when she told the class I’d be joining the panel as the third panelist. But I went with it and had a blast. If I had any lingering doubt about the legitimacy of being a professional writer, this class completely dispelled them. Further proof came the following week when one of the TA’s told me many of the undergrads in her group had quoted things I’d said for the three things they learned from the panelists on their homework.

That first semester, I also took Michelle Carter’s “Teaching Creative Writing” class. While I was interested in learning to be a better teacher, this class helped me excise any lingering ghosts of my undergraduate program. We got to talk about destructive workshops, what NOT to do in a classroom of young writers, and how to respond to creative work in a way that is helpful without trying to rewrite the work the way we’d like to see it done. This class also helped me be a better reader of other people’s work in my workshop classes. While I didn’t get the chance to teach at State, I did take a lot of what I learned into the 4th and 5th grade classroom and, I think, am a better teacher of writing because of it. Michelle was also my cheerleader while I was doing my residency at the dump and totally overwhelmed by the prospect of it. When she came to take a look at the show, she said she didn’t know how I’d come up with the work I’d done. When I demurred, she said, “But this is really difficult,” and I countered, “As opposed to composing a ukulele opera?” which was one of Michelle’s recent projects. It was a nice validation that an artist of Michelle’s caliber would respond to my work that way. And I am also grateful for Michelle’s guidance throughout my time at State, especially because she recommended I take the short fiction workshop with Alice La Plante during the spring 2008 semester.

I took several classes with Alice including two fiction workshops. I TA’d for her “Works in Progress” class and finished the first draft of Altar of Dead Pets (then called Choice) while doing directed writing with her. It’s entirely possible that Choice would not have blossomed into the novel it is without my taking that first fiction workshop with her. Totally stuck for a second submission to the class, I asked Alice if I could bring in the original 25-page short story. I’d been working on it off and on for several years and it had recently grown into a novella. I wanted to know if my edits were on track. Fortunately, Alice said yes, and I got the feedback I needed to know I was on the right track. When I finished the first draft of Choice, Alice asked me to send it to her agent, the best validation I could have received about the quality of the work. Though the agent declined the novel, knowing that Alice had felt strongly enough about its quality even in that skeletal form has helped keep me engaged and passionate about it.

A funny thing about taking that first workshop was that, not knowing she was an instructor at State, I had picked up Alice’s book The Making of a Short Story, while taking Teaching Creative Writing (it’s an excellent book. If you’re a writer, I urge you to get it) and used many chapters of it for the syllabus I had to create for that class. With it still fresh in my mind, I found myself quoting Alice to Alice during the workshop. Fortunately, she seldom noticed unless I said, “Oh, shoot, I’m quoting you to you again.”

Fall of 2008 marked my first foray into playwriting since high school with Brian Thorstensen’s “Architectonics” class. More than any other class I took, this one helped me focus on my creative process, to observe myself creating, track what worked and what didn’t, and learn how to be a more focused, productive writer. It also introduced me to the most supportive group of writers I’ve ever met. I dearly love the playwrights and their generosity with each other while still holding each other to a high standard of excellence. To a large extent, I lost a lot of my guardedness in Brian’s class because of that generosity and support. Brian also didn’t comment on the creative work we produced (he didn’t even put a mark on the scenes we wrote until I asked him if he was actually reading the work. The next week, all our scenes had gold stars), which took a lot of the pressure off me, allowed me to experiment without fear of snarky responses from fellow students, and to focus more fully on how I was going about creating the work. It was a liberating experience and has a great deal to do with the confidence I feel in my work and in my sense of myself as a creative person.

And, of course, Nona Caspers, who was my thesis reader. Nona is an exceptional reader of other people’s work. She is the first truly gifted editor with whom I have worked. I was fortunate to take two classes with her, both completely focused on my work and her reading of it. While I wish I had been able to take other classes with her (there are writers at State who seem to be getting a degree in Nona), I am very happy to have been able to work with her in this way at the end of my time at State. Nona does not read in terms of good or bad, or even working or not working. She has a way of finding places where the work isn’t fully developed and pointing them out so that you start thinking of how all the pieces work together to create a unified effect. The best example I can think of to illustrate this is a scene in Altar that I was nervous about. I felt that it might be too heavy-handed, that it might have been a holdover from the first draft when I needed something more dramatic to generate the energy necessary to push the novel into the final scenes, that it might be too over-the-top. A friend of mine, who read the book, told me she didn’t know why that scene was there and urged me to cut it. Nona said no, the scene was necessary because it’s what stops Matt from following Denny’s path. It had to be dark. It had to show how horrific Denny’s world really was. The problem was that I hadn’t gone into deeply enough, probably because it was scary to me. I needed to go deeper, not eliminate it. Her comments made total sense. They come from a place of respecting the creative impulse - that if you put something on paper, there's a reason for it. If it isn't working, it may be more a matter of not going far enough with it than with it being wrong for the peace.

What I learned from Nona was how to read my own work. I learned about honoring the creative impulse that led me to put something on the page in the first place. I also learned about trusting my instincts. I know what I'm doing.

Which may be what time at State has truly been about. Learning to trust what I already knew about myself and my work. That, and making some really great friends. And hopefully, Nona’s prediction, that I’ll have no trouble selling the novel, will come true in the next year.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Research Con't

I didn't have a chance to post the second entry I wrote while I was in Reno, but here it is now, with the added bonus that I can include pictures with it.

5 May
Went out to see the petroglyphs yesterday and was shocked at how much vandalism and deterioration has taken place at the site. The rocks have darkened so badly that it’s difficult to see the petroglyphs, but that’s due to nature. The vandalism on the other hand…there are places that look like the rocks have been shattered and a couple of places where it looks like people chiseled off the top layer of stone to steal the petroglyph (see left. Below, how this same rock looked in 2007). I would say it was natural forces, the work of water and temperature causing cracks in the rocks, except that there are no pieces of the surface on the ground. It is terribly disappointing that people would do this. Those petroglyphs are 400 to 1200 years old, and they’ve been destroyed. Even if the thieves were careful about removing them, they’ve been removed from their context. Yeah, they’re cool prehistoric art, but so what? Part of the magic of this site and the designs was that there were so many of them in this one place. Literally hundreds of them on this small hillside. It is disturbing to come across evidence of the greediness and selfishness of people.

I also wonder if I was in anyway responsible for alerting these people to the presence of the petroglyphs by writing an article about them for one of the Reno publications. It makes me think that any kind of publicity for sites like this is not a good idea - the fewer people who know about them, the better. As much as I love having seen the petroglyph site, there’s a part of me that wishes the site hadn’t been opened up for public access. And as much as I would like to see other sites, it might be better if other sites were kept secret and off the public radar.

Today was a happier day - I went to the historical society today, looking for more information about the Reno story and how the narrative is constructed. What I was really looking for was whether the narrative begins with the Native Americans or with the westward expansion of the United States. There’s a little bit about the Native Americans, though most of it has to do with their history after westward expansion with examples of items that had been created for tourists. There is very little about the Shoshone and Paiute cultures as they existed prior to expansion. They have made an effort to represent the various ethnic groups that moved into Nevada with exhibits about Chinese and African Americans, but nothing about Mexican/Hispanic people or anything about gay culture. The latter really surprised me because Reno had a gay rodeo for many years, but the museum didn’t even mention it.

The trip has given me a lot to think about for the novel. As I’ve said before, I am an accumulative writer. My first draft is a skeleton. Then I put on the muscles and then the clothing. Last comes the accessories. I’m working on the accessories right now, the details that will underscore the themes of the novel.

And now, time to go to bed so I can get up and drive home tomorrow. And then…back to work putting words on paper.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hitting the Town

2 May 2010 - sitting in a hotel room in Reno, Nevada. I’ve come here to do research for the novel. There are places I need to go because I’ve looked them up on the web but don’t’ have first-hand knowledge of them and places I want to see again to refresh my memory of them. To some extent, a trip like this feels unnecessary at this stage of working on the novel. After all, there are many writers who write about places they’ve never seen and the work is fine, great, accurate. For me, though, there’s something about coming into Reno and being able to look at everything with the eyes of my 14 year-old narrator. This is something that I find easier to do in person rather than relying on my imagination.

For example, walking into the El Dorado today, I realized how perfect this place is for Denny. This is the casino where Denny worked and the entrance is all mirrors and gold and tiny lights cascading from the ceiling. A place of fantasy. But it’s also a place where you can lose yourself. Casinos are set up to be disorienting - the lighting doesn’t give you any information about the time of day, there are no straight sight lines, the flashing lights, the cacophony of sound. The entrance to this particular casino also works well with one of the themes in the novel about the historical marketplaces and palaces and their modern-day equivalents that have been “fauxed” to appear luxurious.

There’s also the false history that’s created by the casinos as part of their fantasy experience. The Silver Legacy, for instance, created an entire false history of a fifth silver baron on the Comstock Lode (there were four of them) and the d├ęcor is built around the mining history of the state complete with a replica of a mining rig in the middle of the casino. I’d forgotten about that aspect of Reno. The myth-making, the false history, the borrowing of legendary lands - El Dorado, Atlantis, etc. But being here has reminded me of really using the location of my story to underscore its themes. I mean, the location of the novel is important to the story in terms of a place where Matt can go out to the desert, but using Reno’s history and present day, really using it, creates another layer of meaning for the novel.

3 May
You can never tell where information you can use is going to turn up. Tonight at dinner is a perfect example of this. The timing of this research trip coincides with a trip by a dear friend of mine who used to live near me but now lives across the country, and we had dinner tonight with a mutual friend who still lives here. In the course of our dinner conversation, my friend starts talking about a dynamic that existed in his family that is EXACTLY the relationship I’ve got between Matt and his mother. But it’s very difficult to show because most of the dynamic exists in Matt’s mother keeping her distance from him. So I questioned my friend about his experience and how he came to understand what was going on in his family (and was very upfront about it, I would never NOT tell someone I was asking questions for research). It helped me figure through some of what I’m doing with Matt.

Today was largely about driving around and visiting places in Reno like the mall (a pretty significant scene takes place there and I wanted to make sure I got it correct - picked up a good idea that adds another dimension to the scene while I was there), the hospital and the cemetery. All good stuff. Tomorrow, I head for the petroglyphs to see if I can milk some more out of that location to use in the novel. And then on Wednesday, I’m heading to Carson City to find out more about Nevada history.

Again, I know I could have just continued to use what I had in my head, but coming here and seeing the places and thinking about them in this way, seeing them through Matt’s eyes, helps me more fully visualize the world of the novel. And I think it’s important because if I can’t picture it or see it the way Matt would, I can’t write about it in a way that feels real to the reader.