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Get Away and Write

23 Aug
Writing Outside

Writers can get inspiration (and a whole lot of work done) at residencies or artist colonies.

A friend and I have talked recently about applying to writer residencies this year for next summer. Some of them are free of charge and require a minimum two-week stay with maximums of five weeks or more. Some cost money but offer scholarship and work-study opportunities.

 After attending a writers’    conference and realizing that much of it is focused on publishing and getting an agent or editor, I decided that what I really need to do is get away and write, free of distractions and responsibilities.

My friend and I have begun doing some preliminary research, and have made a list of some of the more well-known ones. Many of the ones on our list are the most competitive, with 10% acceptance rates (slightly lower or higher, depending on genre). For fiction, many of them want anywhere from 15 to 25 pages of fiction, the equivalent of one short story or a novel excerpt. I’ve been working on one particular short story that I think has promise and hope to send out both for publication and as my writing sample for these residencies.

If I had any doubt about the benefits of attending a writer residency or artist colony, those doubts were immediately brushed aside after reading this essay by Alexander Chee about the worthwhile experiences he had at three different residences (Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; the MacDowell Colony; and Civitella Ranieri).

My goal at a residency or artist colony would be to work on my short story collection. At this point, I have only written two stories that would work as part of the same collection, and need about eight more.

It seems that I got things backward this year; if I were to give advice to writers deciding between attending a conference or a residency, I’d recommend the residency first and then the conference. It makes sense to go to a conference with a finished work, or at least the first draft of one.

I look forward to next summer. Who knows where I’ll end up?


Electric Writing

22 Aug
Refresh, Refresh - short stories by Benjamin Percy

Refresh, Refresh

As a reader, I love to delve into stories that have electricity, ones that command my attention and interest in the first couple of paragraphs.  This doesn’t mean that I won’t give a promising story a chance if it starts off slow (quiet stories can be wonderful in their own ways), but what I do mean is that my favorite stories, the ones that stay with me, have a vibrancy that is arresting, an energy that makes me feel like I’ve taken a few shots of espresso followed by a few shots of tequila.

One story that falls into this category, and which I highly recommend, is “Refresh, Refresh” by Benjamin Percy. The Paris Review blog recently made this story available again on their website, and if you haven’t read this story, I urge you to take the opportunity to read it now. Even if you have read it, it’s well worth re-reading if only to ask yourself How the hell does he do that? and then spend the rest of the day trying to figure that out.

If this post hasn’t convinced you yet, I provide you with the third paragraph for your reading pleasure:

We began fighting after Seth Johnson—a no-neck linebacker with teeth like corn kernels and hands like T-bone steaks—beat Gordon until his face swelled and split open and purpled around the edges. Eventually he healed, the rough husks of scabs peeling away to reveal a different face than the one I remembered—older, squarer, fiercer, his left eyebrow separated by a gummy white scar. It was his idea that we should fight each other. He wanted to be ready. He wanted to hurt those who hurt him. And if he went down, he would go down swinging as he was sure his father would. This is what we all wanted: to please our fathers, to make them proud, even though they had left us. 

Feel free to share your own thoughts about this story in the comments, or suggests others that you think fit in this category of “electric writing”.

Reading Cheever

8 Aug
Reading Cheever

Me and Cheever on a sunny summer afternoon.

I’ve been thinking about John Cheever quite a bit lately, particularly after reading this New Yorker article about Cheever’s unique and artful language choices. Shortly after, I started seeing his name everywhere: in articles and interviews, even in conversations. It seemed like everyone was thinking about Cheever.

I talked with a friend about this recently, and she asked me if I’d read much Cheever. I thought about it and I know that I definitely have, although the only story I could remember reading for sure was “The Swimmer”. My friend told me she ordered his collected stories, and it sounded like a good idea so I ordered a copy for myself.

In the (mercifully) brief preface, Cheever wrote:

Any precise documentation of one’s immaturity is embarrassing, and this I find from time to time in the stories, but this embarrassment is redeemed for me by the memories the stories hold for me of the women and men I have loved and the rooms and corridors and beaches where the stories were written. My favorite stories are those that were written in less than a week and that were often composed aloud.

What I like about this passage is that Cheever acknowledges that his earlier stories were not as strong as his later ones, but nonetheless, they’re important to him and serve as memories of his past. I’ve read about authors who admit to being embarrassed by their early works, but I think it’s helpful to be able to see a writer’s development over time, especially a writer as revered as Cheever.

So far, I’ve read four of his early stories in this collection, and it’s fascinating to be able to recognize how flawed they are, and yet, how impressive, particularly the language. Even stories that felt contrived, or lopsided in some way were still pleasurable to read because of the language.

Artful, precise language, strong metaphors and analogies are all important components in a sophisticated story. Those aspects are what elevate a piece of fiction to an art form, to Literature with a capital “L”. I was given this lesson recently while at Squaw, when an agent workshopped my story and called me out for instances of “lazy writing”. I’ll write more about what I learned from that particular experience in a future post, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

In the meantime, I’ll learn all that I can from reading one of the masters of the short story form, and fellow New Englander, John Cheev[ah].

Endings, Drafts and Ernest Hemingway

5 Jul
Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway at work. (AP Photo)

I was thrilled to read this New York Times article recently about a new edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which includes 47 alternate endings and rough drafts of certain sections written by hand:

“For close readers of Hemingway the endings are a fascinating glimpse into how the novel could have concluded on a different note, sometimes more blunt and sometimes more optimistic. And since modern authors tend to produce their work on computers, the new edition also serves as an artifact of a bygone craft, with handwritten notes and long passages crossed out, giving readers a sense of an author’s process. (When asked in the 1958 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton what had stumped him, Hemingway said, ‘Getting the words right.’)”

A Farewell to Arms is one of my favorites novels, and it’s one I’ve loved since I first read it in high school. I’ve always emulated Hemingway’s writing style and believe that my style has been heavily influenced by his; I still believe that the best style is a precise, clean one, no matter how long or short the sentences, or how lean or image-laden the prose.

What I’m most excited about is being able to see his writing process, particularly the drafts of certain sections of the story. As all writers know, beginnings and endings are often the hardest parts to write, of any story–short or long–and to read all the possibilities he imagined and worked on before finally hitting on the “right” ending fascinates me.

I look forward to buying this book and to heading over to the JFK Library to view the Ernest Hemingway Collection— a collection I somehow have never seen, despite living so close.

The John Updike Archive at Harvard

27 Jun
John Updike (1932 - 2009)

John Updike (1932 – 2009)

After work today I joined some writer friends to go see the John Updike archive at Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Leslie Morris, Houghton’s curator of modern books and manuscripts, is quoted in the Harvard Gazette as saying that the items on display, including two of Updike’s rough drafts, “[help] you understand where he came from, how he developed in the ways that he did.”

Seeing one of his rough drafts marked up in red pencil in the same way that I mark up my own rough drafts reminded me that the drudgery of the writing, rewriting, tweaking, rewriting and so on is a process that all writers – even the most prolific – go through.

The archives also contained typed correspondence to Updike from John Cheever, Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut. You can glean certain information from the letters, but I would have liked to have seen a few of Updike’s letters in response to these other writers.

Although I’m glad that I got to see the archives (and the Houghton Library – well worth the visit, by the way, and free), I did feel disappointed that there wasn’t more to see and absorb. Perhaps I’m comparing Updike’s archive with one I saw recently, in April, when I viewed the more extensive David Foster Wallace archive on display at the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin. Wallace’s archive is fascinating and devastating, and well worth seeing if you happen to live in or visit the Austin area.

Overall, my takeaway from today was something I already know, which is that the best writers have talent, yes, but they also work incredibly hard to get their work from draft to publication. It motivates me to keep working and improving my fiction.

Tracy Staedter

Science writing, editing and workshops is the best place for your personal blog or business site.