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After the workshop: what I learned at FAWC

4 Aug

I didn’t get a chance to update this blog more regularly after the first two days in my workshop because Pam gave us a lot of work to do (a good thing). I found myself spending a lot of time writing at night and then spending my mornings either finishing up an assignment or two, or revising what I’d written the night before. We’d often have two or three assignments, plus some reading. I know that two or three writing assignments doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but for a slow writer like me who edits obsessively, it took a long time. Also, there’s the time I took to think of an idea that would make sense and then write a story around that idea. The amazing thing about Pam is that she could come up with ten different ideas in a minute or two, and could think of just as many directions that our own stories could go.

Provincetown ferry to Boston

I said goodbye to Provincetown on the last ferry back to Boston.

One exercise that I really enjoyed was the Two Sentences exercise. She had us each start three different stories writing only two sentences for each one. Then another member of the class would choose one of the three to continue and would write the next two sentences. Then the original writer of the first two sentences would write sentences five and six. And on and on until the story was completed. It was a lot of fun, but we did reach a snag when we got to sentences seven and eight. Many of our stories stalled at that point, and I’m not sure why. Maybe we lost our focus? Pam reminded us that every sentence needs to move the story forward. Kurt Vonnegut once said that “every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” It is even more apparent when you’re not doing one or both of those things in very short stories, and Pam explained where we had all stalled in our sentences. I remember I got stalled on one story I had to continue because the setup of the previous two sentences required me to come up with dialogue for a character that had changed since my last contribution — in my view, the voice of the character had been lost. Because I couldn’t “hear” the character’s voice anymore, I felt that I was unable to write the dialogue, and I found myself losing interest in the sentences my partner had written. I really did enjoy the exercise, though, and it got us all thinking, while also taking away the pressure of having to think of the next line — something that can really stop a story (or writer) cold. I’d like to try this exercise with writer friends of mine whose work I know a little better and see where it goes.

By far the most important thing I learned was the concept of the “inside/outside” of the story. It seems like such an easy, simple notion, but it’s something I didn’t fully understand until this workshop. Pam explained it really well and she gave us readings and had us work on exercises that provided examples of this idea. The short explanation is that there is the “outside” story of what is happening (the action, setting, plot), and then there is the inside story of the POV character (that character’s particular struggle/preoccupation/obsession etc.). Looking back at some stories I’ve written, I see that some of them have very little inside story, and it is the reason that the story lacked resonance. I don’t know if this is something that most experienced writing instructors take for granted as something that newer writers should already know or understand, but Pam’s class cracked something open in my brain, allowing me to truly understand this concept for the first time.

I’m really glad I took this class and that I got to learn from a teacher as funny, interesting and experienced as Pamela Painter. I definitely recommend her as an instructor, and I recommend the Fine Arts Work Center. A week there is not cheap, but I think that if you take your writing seriously and you have an open mind with a willingness to learn and grow, then it is worthwhile.

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My Week at the Fine Arts Work Center – Provincetown, MA

28 Jul
Fine Arts Work Center

Fine Arts Work Center

Today was the first day of the week here with a brief orientation and meeting with our workshop leader and fellow classmates. The class I’m taking is Flash Fiction with Pamela Painter, an Emerson professor and widely published writer of both regular length short stories and much shorter flash or micro fiction pieces.

I liked Pam right away. We only had fifteen minutes together as part of our introduction to her class, and she led a mini lecture about the flash fiction form with some examples of the assignment she’d like us to do for tomorrow.

The class is small – right now just me and two other women, with a possible fourth classmate to join us tomorrow. I think the perfect size for a class is six people, so four (or three) is pretty small. The benefit is having more time to talk to Pam one-on-one and be able to learn as much as possible from her – something that is more difficult to do in a larger class.

View from the Provincetown Fast Ferry

We passed a sailboat on the way to Provincetown.

Our first assignment is to write the first two sentences of three different stories. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong! The first two sentences of any story are – like the last two – some of the hardest to write. The sentences need to do the following: place the reader in time and place; introduce character(s), POV, voice and conflict; draw the reader in. In some ways, the story needs to be already somewhat formed in your head before you can even begin.

Luckily for my writing, it is rainy and a bit cold (mid-sixties), so I got a big mug of tea and am locking myself in my room to write. Fingers crossed I don’t come down with a case of writer’s block!

Guarding Your Time

13 Sep

All artists–whether you’re a writer, painter, musician–need to learn how to guard their time in order to focus on their work. That means saying “no” to a number of social invitations, although not everything (While it’s important to guard your time as an artist, you also need to know when to say “yes” to social events that are well worth the time and can even be helpful to your craft).

Guard your time.

Don’t give your time away.

I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, as a number of people have asked for my time in one way or another. Work is a major drain of my time and energy, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about are the precious few hours after work, when you’re at home in front of a laptop, easel or piano, and your email inbox is full of requests from people asking for help with their projects.

While I think helping others with their projects (in my case, writing) can help me be a more precise, more skilled writer, I think it’s important not to allow yourself to get pulled into projects or commitments that take you away from your art while offering little in return.

One example I can cite from my own life is a recent invitation to join a writers’ group of four to six former classmates that would meet once a month to critique each others’ stories. The group formed after our fiction workshop ended. I felt a lot of pressure to join the group, not only from the group leaders, but also from myself: they told me they wanted me to be part of their group because they liked my writing and my thorough critiques. It was flattering, and it’s hard to say no to a group of people who really want you to be part of their writing community.

But I had to keep my head clear and ask myself what I would be getting out of this significant time commitment.  I’ve been a member of writers’ groups in the past and I know from experience that they take a lot more time and energy than expected. I also knew that I would be taking another workshop at Grub Street this fall, and there was no way I would want or be able to critique all of that student writing without burning out. I finally said no to the group, and although it was hard to say no, I ultimately felt relieved not to have another commitment on my long list of things to do.

Since then, I’ve gotten other requests from friends, family and strangers asking for my help with various projects, almost all of them writing-related. It’s harder to turn down these requests, so I often don’t, the result being that I go weeks without writing or revising my own fiction pieces, much to my frustration.

It’s difficult because I want to be helpful. If I can write well, why wouldn’t someone who is struggling ask for my help? And how can I refuse?

I’ve learned that the best way to handle requests that you can’t turn down is to calibrate peoples’ expectations. For example, while I’ll agree to help a friend or family member with a writing-related project, I’ll let them know that it may take a few weeks for me to send my feedback or that I can only help to a certain degree. I can give suggestions, but I most certainly won’t re-write the piece. I can give a critique, but it might take three weeks.

There are occasions when you just need to say no. I recently received a request to meet up with a current student at my alma mater to talk about alumni relations. As much as I want to help this young man try to figure out why I don’t care about reunions or visiting the university campus or participating in alumni events, I don’t want to take a few hours out of my day that I could be spending on writing. Although I am thankful for my education and the experiences I had during my undergraduate years, I graduated ten years ago and have moved on in life. I have other interests and little time to pursue them.

In short, when you decide to be a writer or artist you need to guard your time, because no one else will guard it for you, nor will anyone but you care whether you write that story or paint that painting. Oftentimes, the people in your life may not understand how important the artistic work is to you or may not realize how long it takes for you to help them. The only one who knows all of these things and who can do something about it is you: the artist.

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].

The Daily Write! and also…Following Your Instincts as a Writer

30 Jul
Write!

Write every day.

So I have two topics to share today in the form of a quick, short post. The first is that I’ve decided to commit to writing by spending at least one hour of every day writing fiction, what I’m calling “The Daily Write!” I know that sounds corporate and dumb, but giving my goals a title somehow makes it more official. I’m going to self-motivate, I’m going to commit. If Joshua Ferris can write up to 14 hours a day, then I can write for at least one hour. I’m starting today.

The second is this rather excellent blog post from writer and 2012 Squaw Valley faculty member Gregory Spatz. A few things that I appreciated about this blog post were that Spatz was stubborn enough to send a short story to 53 different literary magazines and journals before it was finally published, and he didn’t make any revisions to the story, despite personal rejections from various editors with very different suggestions as to how he could improve the piece. I like to think of that as following your instincts as a writer; it’s something that’s important to remember, both in a workshop setting and when you do finally send your work out for publication.

Spatz has that arrogance I mentioned in an earlier post, and I do think it’s important to have that as a writer. You have to believe in yourself in an almost haughty way to withstand the dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of rejections and putdowns you’ll receive over the course of a career. Spatz says the following about being a writer:

“I had the mistaken idea that from here on my work would only get better, faster and easier.  I didn’t understand yet how good and bad stories have an ongoing, back-and-forth symbiosis in a writer’s life; you don’t get one without the other.  Good work grows out of bad work, and vice versa.   In most ways, I didn’t have the bigger picture–a necessary blindness probably, otherwise I might not have cleaved so tenaciously to the other really important thing I was beginning to understand:  that through it all, whatever happens, you have to plug on.  Persist.”

Persist. Even when the rejections are piling up, even when it seems like the work you’re doing isn’t good enough.

Tracy Staedter

Science writing, editing and workshops

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