Writers on writing

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My post about NaNoWriMo from Friday reminded me of the duality of writerly opinions about how to create a first draft. John Gardner, who is perhaps as famous for his books on writing as his fiction, declared that you must strive to choose every word perfectly the first time around or else your story will be irretrievably led astray. Anne Lamott countered this advice in her wonderful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by encouraging writers to produce “shitty first drafts.”

The great thing about writers is that they all have different advice and methods for writing, and they’re all right. One of my great loves is the Paris Review interview series. The Paris Review, which has been published since the 1950s, contains interviews with novelists, poet, playwrights, and nonfiction writers all talking about their crafts. The writers–Tennessee Williams to Chinua Achebe, Hemingway to García Márquez–explain their habits, their successes and failures, their idols and contemporaries, their views on the history and future of literature. And, while reading them, I almost always feel a sense of kinship. Their habits sound familiar, their idols the same as mine.

One quote I particularly like from García Márquez talking about reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.” The way he describes Metamorphosis is the same way I felt when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude–I didn’t know anyone was allowed to do that.

Here are some of my other favorites Paris Review quotes from writers talking about writing:

Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they give the writer pleasure. A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. The joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Nothing else–cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews–will come near it for satisfaction.  –Ian McEwan

When I reach the heart of a story that I’ve been working on for some time, then, yes, something does happen. The story ceases to be cold, unrelated to me. On the contrary, it becomes so alive, so important that everything I experience exists only in relation to what I’m writing. Everything I hear, see, read seems in one way or another to help my work. I become a kind of cannibal of reality. –Mario Vargas Llosa

What is an artist? He’s a man who has antennae, who knows how to hook up to the currents which are in the atmosphere, in the cosmos; he merely has the facility for hooking on, as it were. Who is original? Everything that we are doing, everything that we think, exists already, and we are only intermediaries, that’s all, who make use of what is in the air. Why do ideas, why do great scientific discoveries often occur in different parts of the world at the same time? The same is true of the elements that go to make up a poem or a great novel or any work of art. They are already in the air, they have not been given voice, that’s all. They need the man, the interpreter, to bring them forth. –Henry Miller

Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. –William Faulkner


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Once again, I realize this topic might have thematically corresponded better with another week: next week. On Tuesday, November 1st, writers from around the country and world will start novels that they pledge to finish by November 30th. For this is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, where the theory (false, in my opinion) that everyone has at least one good novel in them is tested out.

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days; clearly, quantity is valued over quality. Writers are invited to write-ins at local libraries and bookstores, and commiserate and give each other pep talks on the online forums. Your worth as a writer is measured by your word count. If you meet the arbitrary goal of 50,000 words (a novel typically has more like 100,000+ words), you “win.”

I could not learn to do this in a month

Do you hear some skepticism in my tone? Seeing how November is fast approaching and that I am taking a novel-writing class, I considered signing up for NaNoWriMo. Why not? It could be a good external source of accountability, in addition to my classmates. Still, something bothers me about it. Mostly it’s the idea that all you need to do to write a novel is write a shit-ton in one month (granted, the NaNo site reminds writers that revision is necessary after the fact). Most famous writers agree that writing a novel instead requires you to write every day for, oh, a decade or two. Sure, writing a novel might not take all 3,650 days but you need to practice writing for that long to be able to write a good novel. I do not expect to pick up glassblowing tools tomorrow and be Dale Chihuly by December, but this is the sort of attitude that NaNoWriMo reinforces for amateur writers.

But not until last night did I consider another problem of how NaNoWriMo approaches the novel. Last night was the seventh class of my novel-writing course. We were workshopping a woman’s historical novel, and for the first time in the class nothing positive was being said. The woman didn’t seem bothered by this–she was completely ready to throw it all out and begin again. Our teacher asked how much she writes on average per week. The woman said, as an example, that she wrote 30 pages in 2 days last week. For a second, I felt a pang of jealousy and guilt–why can’t I write that much at once? Why don’t I write that much? But our teacher immediately said, That’s too much.

Our teacher’s point was that the woman had an attitude that none of her writing mattered, that she could and would delete it as easily as she wrote it. The energy you put into a piece of writing is the same energy the reader feels when reading it. Thus, we didn’t think her writing mattered either.

So what does that mean for all the would-be NaNoWriters? There are plenty of good reasons to be involved: to connect with other people, to challenge yourself, to try something new, to be inspired, perhaps to hold yourself accountable to a goal you’ve always wanted to achieve. As long as you’re realistic about these reasons and expectations, I imagine it would be a lot of fun. Just put in the energy you want to get out.

10 favorite novels


I kind of hate being asked who my favorite authors are. There are very few authors of whom I’ve read the entire oeuvre. In fact, sometimes I avoid reading more of an author’s work when I’m completely enamored of one of their novels, because inevitably I’ll feel disappointed (or so I learned when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera). Picking out favorite novels, though, is a piece of cake. If I thought a little harder, this list could easily expand to 25 or 50. In the interest of time, I’ll stick to my top 10:

Cover art from One Hundred Years of Solitude

1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez: I read this book for a world literature class in high school. When the town of Macondo suffered a plague of insomnia and lost their past, when a Buendía daughter ascended into the sky with the laundry, when it rained yellow butterflies I would think You can do that?!? I’d never read anything like magical realism before, and it flipped my world upside down.

2. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: This is the kind of book I wish I’d written first. I mean, one of the characters is an opera singer, another is a translator, and it’s all set in an unidentified South American country. And it’s so freakin’ flawless. One of our assignments for my novel class was to bring in a paragraph we love from a published work. The only difficulty was choosing which one of Patchett’s incredible paragraphs to bring.

3. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: This was the only novel I brought with me to Spain. And, even though reading it was pretty much all I did with my free time, it took me three months to finish it–it’s that dense. Reading it was realizing that magical realism can exist outside of South America. Reading it somehow was both wading through Rushdie’s thick sentences while also being buoyed by his exuberant energy. I don’t think any other novel could have sustained me for so long.

4. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: One of the two best novels of last year. For a book about an Irish boys’ prep school, it’s surprisingly long. And it’s surprisingly wise. I’ve bought it for all the boys in my life thus far.

5. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: The other best novel of the past year. And also, technically, the only book on this list that’s not a novel. Instead, the book is made of interconnected stories that grow out from each other, wind back on themselves, delve into the characters’ pasts and launch into their futures. I got to see Egan at a St. Paul event called Talking Volumes at which she spoke of how her writing process for this book was just to follow her curiosity. It all began with a tiny moment in her own life, from which she wrote a story and then she wrote a story about one of the ancillary characters from the first story. I like this as a description of the creative process–follow your curiosity and see where it leads. Egan also has a very cool website which you can read about all her moments of inspiration and how they led to different stories.

6. Saturday by Ian McEwan: Set all on one day in London, Saturday is a deep study of one character’s psychology. McEwan loves detailing how tiny decisions and collisions set a course that affect an entire life. When he did this in very popular Atonement I was so angry I threw the book across the room at the end of the first chapter and never picked it up again. When he does it in Saturday, it’s extremely effective.

7. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood: Atwood is the queen of creepy science fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale being perhaps her most famous twisted novel. It’s best, though, in the Blind Assassin because the novel is a story inside a story inside a story inside a story. The innermost story is a gorgeous piece science fiction that is told by one unnamed character to another (which happens to be a novel written by another character). In the science fiction section, orphans are made to create fine carpets for the ruling class; a carpet’s quality is determined by how many children were blinded in its making. The orphans, once blind, have no place to go except an elite assassins’ club where they use their other senses to get close to their victims. The other surrounding stories are just as incredible.

8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex is full of transformations: we’ve got the Greeks who become Americans, cousins who becomes spouses and, of course, the main character who is raised as a girl before going through puberty and finding out she’s biologically male. Given that I sold more of this novel than any other when I worked in a gay and lesbian bookstore in Provincetown, MA, I’d say this is a favorite in that crowd, but the questions of identity are relevant to everyone.

9. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: Another novel I wish I’d written. In fact, there are some similarities between this novel and the one I’m currently trying to write. I love reading novels like this where, when you get to the end of it, you share the characters’ nostalgia for their pasts. And who can beat a novel where Hitler’s getting punched on the cover?

10. My Antonia by Willa Cather: I read this when I was perhaps 12 or 13, and it taught me what nostalgia tastes like. I think the books I read at that age had a deeper emotional impact on me, and this one in particular seemed to settle into my bones. My favorite line from all of literature is when Jim tells Ántonia, “Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’ve have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister–anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” Forever after, that’s how I’ve understood love.

What are some of YOUR favorites?


How to be a novelist


What you’ll need: a plot, patience

Songlist: Paperback Writer by the Beatles, Open Book by Cake

Further reading: On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

If he can do it, so can I. Right? He's nothing special. Right?

It was a gray, uninspired Monday in October, the first day of the 43rd week of the year. She had run out of topics.

Yeah, that’s today, and yeah, that’s me. It’s not completely true, but fiction never is. The sky is more blue than gray, and I have at least a few weekly themes still up my sleeve. But as I was thinking through these remaining topics, none felt quite right today. So I’ve decided to venture into risky territory: the truth about me.

If you’ve read this blog at all, you can probably guess that I like writing. I always have. I wrote my first story when I was four, which was before I knew what the letters I was drawing signified. In second grade I got special permission from my teacher to sit outside in the hall every day for a half hour and work on a novella called “Mary and the Deer.” I had a dream to become the youngest novelist ever published (my goal was to be published at 12, and I remember being someone sad on that birthday, knowing I’d let the deadline slip past me).

Knowing I wanted to write novels for a living is like knowing one’s own sexual orientation: it was an early and immutable fact about myself, something I could not change even if I wanted to (and I don’t). Still, it feels risky to admit. All the other jobs I’ve highlighted over the past 10 months in this blog have been wonderful dreams, but also ones I’m all right with letting go of. Not writing a novel is the one thing that I would regret more than any other on my deathbed.

The stairs up to the Loft Literary Center--built to look like pages of a book

For that reason, I signed up for a course at the wonderful Loft Literary Center this autumn called “Working on Your Novel.” I thought of an idea for a novel about a year and a half ago, and started writing about a year ago. After writing every single day for two months I got burnt out and stopped completely. I was hoping this class, which started in September, would help me get back on track. I was hoping especially that my teacher or a classmate would give me some invaluable insight about how I might proceed.

Two weeks ago it was time for my manuscript–all 60 pages I have so far–to be critiqued. When my teacher came around she had a few questions about characters and plot. But she had just one piece of advice: keep writing. Her main objective for me? Finish the novel by the end of the course. I must admit, this was a little disappointing and very terrifying to hear. I already knew I had to do that; I needed to know how.

But, alas, that’s the truth about writing: there are no shortcuts. I can read all the how-to books and interviews with writers I want (and I do so love reading them!) but in the end there’s only one way to finish a novel: keep writing. On that note, I’ve gotta go; I’ve got some writing to do.

DIY: Write a sestina

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Although seemingly counterintuitive, limitations nourish creativity. If someone asked you to write a poem in one hour and gave no guidelines whatsoever, you might end up staring at a blank piece of paper for sixty minutes. On the other hand, if the person specified that this poem must be twelve lines long, rhyme in an ABAB pattern, and include the words “salt,” “dive,” and “molten,” your brain would be much likelier to start firing with associations and possibilities right away.

It’s no surprise, then, that poets often turn to predetermined forms to get their creative juices flowing, such as haikus, villanelles, sonnets, pantoums, and ghazals. One of my favorites is the sestina, which happens to be the only poetic form that the web version of the literary magazine McSweeney’s accepts for publication.

Creating a sestina is like putting together a puzzle, and is more confusing in description than in action. Each of six stanzas has six lines, and those lines end in the same six words. However, in each successive stanza the order of those words changes. A seventh stanza, just three lines long, includes the six words again, two to a line. If we assign each of these ending-words a letter A-F, here is their order in the seven stanzas:

7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

See how Elizabeth Bishop employs this form below using the end-words house, grandmother, child, stove, almanac, and tears:

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

*Now it’s your turn! With the end-words “dawn,” “noise,” “black,” and three of your choice, write a sestina. Quick now, I’m only giving you an hour…

St. Paul sidewalk poetry

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One way to celebrate April as National Poetry Month, as the Academy of American Poets website directs, is to “Put a poem on the pavement.” Four years ago, my home city took this advice to heart and started the Saint Paul Sidewalk Poetry Contest. Winning poems are pressed into newly poured cement so that the city is slowly turning into a canvass for local poetry. In my neighborhood you can hardly go a block without treading on someone’s words. Alas, the quality is not always good, but these poems are not meant to be more than brief images that temporarily commingle with your thoughts. Still, here is a nice one from a past winner:

A dog on a walk

is like a person in love −

You can’t tell them

it’s the same old world.

By Pat Owen

Are you a St. Paul resident? The fourth annual contest ends this Sunday, April 17th at midnight! Check the guidelines if you’re interested in submitting.

How to be a poet

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What you’ll need: an appreciation for the sublime and the profound in everyday life, a rhyming dictionary

Songlist: Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

Further reading: The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (the most comprehensive), The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (my favorite)

In the American tradition of giving causes their own days and months, April is National Poetry Month (this week is also National Library Week–a double whammy!) Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, poets, teachers, publishers and booksellers now celebrate the art form in a multitude of ways from readings to poem-a-day mailings to poetic tweets.

My own illustrious career began in the 3rd grade when we were doing a poetry unit. We learned about haikus and tankas and tried our hand at several forms. When we were instructed to write an ode, I quickly put together a poem about one of my best friends at the time. I turned it in to my teacher within a few minutes. She looked it over and suggested a few revisions, but I shook my head, assuring her that my artistic vision was perfect the first time around (somehow I already had a fully-formed artistic ego, and only learned the necessity of revision when I was about 21). The poem eventually won a contest judged by Garrison Keillor, for which I gave readings at a local mansion and a Barnes and Noble.

Cleopatra's poetry class at a dinner with Lucille Clifton (pink sweater) and Grace Paley (pink hat, gray sweater)

That early success has been unparalleled in the sixteen years since. Middle school was a particularly bleak time for my poetry (What more can I speak/of that which I seek?/Ah, this poetry is bleak!) But luckily I went to a college with an exceptional creative writing program and was gently nurtured from writing terribly crappy poetry to something a little more substantial. The winter of my junior year I was in a class led by the wonderful poet Cleopatra Mathis. For those three months, and about six months thereafter, poetry made sense to me. I could read a poem and be profoundly moved by it, and I saw the world in metaphor. That summer I had an internship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and on the ferry ride over from Boston I started to memorize poems from my Vintage anthology (see above).

That summer was one of the best of my life, as I was surrounded by other fiction writers and poets my own age as well as published writers. As most of us interns were newly 21, we spent many nights out on the town, but it was perfectly acceptable to decline an invitation out if you had a poem or story in mind you just had to get down.

At the end of the summer, one of my fellow interns who was in her second summer with FAWC told me that things would never be as good as with this community. She had gone back to her senior year of college with high expectations, but had been disappointed by the lack of energy there. Though I had had a fabulous class the previous winter, I experience a similar let-down my senior fall. I was in a seminar for poetry majors, but the poetry I was writing sucked and it seemed like I had no hope of improving it. I continued on, miserable, and was denied entrance to the honors track in poetry, instead being assigned an independent study. Poetry just didn’t make sense to me in the same way it had, almost as if my ability to understand it had shut off. Luckily, at the last minute I changed my focus to fiction and was able to make the honors standard with a thesis of short stories, but it meant that I gave up the image of myself as a poet.

I still haven’t gotten back in the habit of creating poetry out of my everyday life, but I have recently started reading and finding beauty in it again. Maybe my ability to understand it is turning back on.