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.

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A Few Things I Learned at Squaw: Part 1

19 Jul

It’s taken me a few days since my return to figure out what I wanted to write about my experience at Squaw Valley. Overall, it was a good one and I learned a lot, but not what I expected to learn.

One of the things I learned is that the Boston-area is a great place to live as an aspiring literary writer. In addition to the universities and programs like the Harvard Extension School, where you can take any number of creative writing courses (for a pretty hefty price tag), there are several non-profit organizations that offer creative writing workshops that are high quality and much more affordable: the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Boston Center for Adult Education, and my absolute favorite and (in my opinion) the best option, Grub Street.

One thing I heard from other participants at Squaw was that they were so happy to finally be part of a community of writers at Squaw. I definitely felt like I was part of the Squaw Community — a unique and inspiring one, for sure — but it’s not my first or only community. I have a number of good friends in the Boston-area with whom I attend readings, literary events, classes and workshops. We talk about craft, story ideas, problems we’re having with our work. We push each other to improve and call each other out when we’re not working hard enough. It’s really a wonderful thing.

Going to Squaw did allow me to meet fantastic people who are also very talented writers, and whom I now count among my friends. I feel lucky for that, but sad that some of them live so far away (thank God for email and Facebook!).

Another thing I learned is that the publishing industry is ruthless. I’ll admit that I went to Squaw thinking it would be a fun, weeklong summer camp for writers with overfull wine glasses and parties and late night conversations–and those things happened, of course–but we also went to a few talks and got to actually talk to literary agents and editors (and in my case, get workshopped by an agent…welp!) and it was astonishing to learn just how competitive it is to get an agent, and then get published–forget getting people to actually read your work . I remember at one point looking around the room at the 100+ fiction and non-fiction writers and thinking to myself, “Holy fuck, all of these people are writing novels.” And that’s just a small segment of the people who applied and got accepted to Squaw, and an even tinier fraction of the people who are sitting at home writing novels right now. Thousands and thousands of people. Maybe tens of thousands. Maybe a million. What we’re trying to do is insane.

So I went through a couple of emotional days of crisis where I drank wine and couldn’t sleep and wondered if I should quit. It was one of those lame existential things where I lamented my lack of genius/talent and felt sorry for myself. I dwelled on the negative and discounted the positive comments people made about my work. I figured that I probably sucked.

And then I got over it. It’s arrogance, I know. But I think you need to have some of that to make it. You need to have that thick skin everyone talks about. You need to be ready to go to battle for your work. I didn’t realize just how hard it would be. But now I do.

Which brings me back to community. I think there are people who go to conferences to be discovered. They arrive with a finished manuscript, they mingle with agents, they are ready. I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure that very few people actually do get discovered at conferences. A majority will most likely leave the conference without a contract. Some might be lucky enough to get positive feedback from an agent, maybe an email address.

But even if you leave a conference without a contract, you’ll leave as a member of a community. And that means something. I’ll digress for a moment to admit the following: I haven’t started a novel. All I have to show for myself is a handful of decent stories that I’m still polishing, hoping to get them ready to send out for publication. I’m plodding along at a turtle’s pace. But when I am ready, I know that I’ll have a community of writers there to support me. And that’s the most important thing.

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.

Writing Until 4 a.m.

1 Jul
4 a.m.

Sometimes the hours slip away.

For a while, I was going through a bit of a writing slump, which was untimely because I was taking a 10-week flash fiction class at Grub Street where I was given prompts and expected to come to class each week with a new story. The class started off great: I was brimming with ideas of what to write, and some of my best pieces came about in those first few weeks. But by week six, I’d started to lag. We were expected not only to write ten stories over the 10-week course, but also to read and critique our classmates’ stories, adding up to about 12 stories/week.

For whatever reason, I think all the reading and critiquing sapped my energy and my creativity. I don’t know why it happened, but I do know that I wasn’t able to write flash or really anything creative at all for about four weeks. I felt panicked and guilty. I wondered why I couldn’t sit down and focus.

And then I got some excellent advice from a great writer and friend: 1) Cut back on the time and energy I was spending critiquing my classmates’ stories and  2) Keep focused on what was most important, which was revising the short story I would be bringing with me to Squaw.

When I skipped the last week of my class and began brainstorming ideas for my short story, something unexpected happened: I had ideas and energy and drive again. I could sit and write for hours without distraction. And it felt really good. Last night, I wrote from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. I revised and rewrote and then printed out what I wrote and made notes in the margins, crossed out words, sentences, paragraphs, added new ones in their place, then went back and made those changes. By the end of it, I was tired but giddy. I finished the first major rewrite of a story I first wrote eight months ago.  And I think this version is much improved from the last one. In other words, it’s ready for critique, and sometime after that, Major Rewrite #2.

It’s a small success, but I’ll take it.

“Easy Reading” v. “Serious Fiction”

28 Jun
Books

Easy reading? Or serious fiction?

If you haven’t already read the New York Times blog post by Gary Gutting, I highly recommend it. There are some great quotes in this short piece, but below is my favorite:

“But why should we think that what is hard to read is not enjoyable?  Here there is a striking difference between the way we regard mental and physical activities.  Running marathons, climbing mountains and competing at high levels in tennis or basketball are very difficult things to do, but people get immense enjoyment from them.  Why should the intellectual work of reading “The Sound and the Fury” or “Pale Fire” be any less enjoyable?   If I take pleasure only in the ‘light fiction’ of mysteries, thrillers or romances, I am like someone who enjoys no physical activities more challenging than walking around the block or sitting in a rocking chair.  Vigorous intellectual activity is itself a primary source of pleasure—and pleasure of greater intensity and satisfaction than that available from what is merely ‘easy reading’.”

What are your thoughts on genre novels v. literary fiction? In the summer, do you tend to read “light fiction” or do you try to tackle the big tomes you’ve neglected to read all year?

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.

Squaw Valley Community of Writers 2012

26 Jun

Just two weeks from now I’ll be participating in the Squaw Valley writers conference in California. This will be my first conference and I’m excited, but admittedly a bit anxious, too. I do feel incredibly lucky that I was accepted and awarded the William Turnbull Memorial Scholarship. Since I will be flying in from Boston, the scholarship made it possible for me to attend.

squaw_valley

Squaw Valley in summer.

I’ve looked over the schedule for the conference, and it looks jam-packed almost every day. I’d like to take advantage of every opportunity, so I have a feeling I won’t be sleeping much. But that’s OK. I don’t expect this to be a vacation as much as a camp for writers: after all, I will be sleeping in a bunk bed.

In the meantime, I’ve been heavily revising the story I plan on submitting for workshop. I want to bring something that I’m relatively happy with, or at the very least, something that doesn’t horrify me. Because the conference is affiliated with two very good MFA programs (UC-Irvine and UC-Riverside) and seems like it is one of the more well-known of the various conferences around the country, I do expect the level of work will be of a certain quality, all of which puts added pressure on me to bring my best work.

I hope to continue to make updates here of my experiences at Squaw, and upload photos of what I expect will be a stunning (and inspirational) landscape.

Tracy Staedter

Science writing, editing and workshops

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