First Readers

First Readers

I finished the first draft of my novel back in March. I sent it out to a few friends, readers who are very good at line editing, whose taste I trust. I had some questions for them, which they answered, and I spent March and April going through, page by page, fixing line issues, strengthening the language, cutting the boring stuff. Zadie Smith had a really great piece of advice when I saw her speak this past year. She edits in the airport, surrounded by people and noise and distraction. If she can’t stay focused, then whatever is happening in the book is not engaging enough, not compelling enough. The kill-your-darlings spirit carried me through these two months of edits before I sent the final manuscript off to the folks in my Tin House workshop and the mentor I’ll be working with while I’m in Portland.

I have another set of readers, though, and I feel quite a bit of fear when thinking of them reading the manuscript…My family. While the novel is…fiction…(i.e. the definition of a novel!), some plot elements come from some experiences I had as a teenager. I can admit that but I also have to stress that I took some great advice and separated the plot of the novel with the plot of my own life. Very little of what happens in the novel resembles what happened to me – or what I made happen to others – in real life. BUT, the fact remains. The book is about a missing father. I had a missing father.

So, when my aunts – my dad’s older sisters – finally saw the printed out copy of the book, and read the first sentences (I mean, the first words of the book are: “My dad disappeared Christmas of my eighth grade year…” or something to that effect), they started crying. Of course they did. The thing that happened to me didn’t just happen to me; it happened to them too, although in a different way. I had a hard time watching them get upset. They weren’t upset with me, and if they were, I knew they didn’t really have any right to be. But I also know that, in writing this novel, I have dredged up some history that makes a lot of people – myself included – very sad.

Thankfully, my husband, who has read the book in its many iterations and drafts, reminded me that, no matter the inspiration, the book is a work of fiction. It’s a novel. It’s not a memoir or autobiography or biography. It’s purely imagination. And he’s right. The book is set in New Orleans, but there isn’t a single oak tree that I’ve described based on an oak tree I know. The oak trees in the book are all made-up trees, an amalgamation of all the oak trees I’ve ever seen in my life, in New Orleans and elsewhere. And the dad in my book isn’t my dad, as much as I’d like him to be.

Showing the book to my first readers, my husband and my friends, wasn’t hard. Showing it to my family was. If it ever makes it into print, I hope that my extended family can read it, love it, appreciate it, not because my dad is present on its pages but because it is a beautifully rendered, highly imaginative work of fiction. And because they will know that he was in my heart, my brain and my hand as I wrote.

Advertisements
Summer Reading List – Week of June 27

Summer Reading List – Week of June 27

From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant

I recently read “The Bog Girl” by Karen Russell, and then followed up on it by reading her interview about the story with the New Yorker. I was in awe of how, in the story, she created setting without me even noticing it, she transported me to this weird, otherworldly place and she set up dynamics between the main character, Cillian, his family and the kids at school. In the follow-up interview, she talked about the story, “From the Fifteenth District,” which inspired her a bit, saying, “In [the story], the dead are haunted by the living. One ghost complains that her widower husband keeps calling her “an angel”—she hates this bogus, patronizing word.” This idea caused her to come up with the bog girl. I’m always trying to understand how to be inspired, so that I can continue to build a repository of fresh ideas.  Having a long list of ideas means that if I am ever bored with something (i.e. my thesis!!), I don’t have an excuse to stop writing. I can just go to my list and start something new. I’m also thankful/excited to find a writer I’ve never heard of!

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

I am excited to read this novel, despite the fact that the plot seems like something we’ve all read before: a mom who works part-time must start working, juggling family issues, work and love. I actually love new, fresh takes on stories like these. Here’s a short description:

“In A Window Opens, Elisabeth Egan brings us Alice Pearse, a compulsively honest, longing-to-have-it-all, sandwich generation heroine for our social-media-obsessed, lean in (or opt out) age. Like her fictional forebears Kate Reddy and Bridget Jones, Alice plays many roles (which she never refers to as “wearing many hats” and wishes you wouldn’t, either). But when her husband makes a radical career change, Alice is ready to lean in–and she knows exactly how lucky she is to land a job at Scroll, a hip young start-up which promises to be the future of reading, with its chain of chic literary lounges and dedication to beloved classics. The Holy Grail of working mothers–an intellectually satisfying job and a happy personal life–seems suddenly within reach. Despite the disapproval of her best friend, who owns the local bookstore, Alice is proud of her new “balancing act” (which is more like a three-ring circus) until her dad gets sick, her marriage flounders, her babysitter gets fed up, her kids start to grow up, and her work takes an unexpected turn.”

I’m really trying to make sure that I read both literary and commercial fiction (I’d call this commercial…) in order to see what makes a book like this compelling. Usually, the answer to that question is THE WRITING, THE WRITING, THE WRITING! So, I’m reading it because I’m somewhat interested in the subject matter, and I’m interested in the commercial health and prospects of a well-written book. I’ve been very impressed by novels that I consider peer to this one – Liane Moriarty is an author that comes to mind – and I hope that A Window Opens is another novel, and Elisabeth Egan another author, to whom I can look up.

Tin House Novels-in-Progress

Finally, I am reading a stack of 25-page novel excerpts, while around the country, 11 other folks are being required to read my novel opening. I am so excited to be going to this workshop/residency, so excited to be in a class with Dana Spiotta and so excited to have Michelle Wildgen as a mentor. Did I say I’m excited????

Well, I’ve taken an almost two-month break from reading and critiquing workshop stories, and I’m a bit out of practice. But, I know the drill. Read read read. I will hopefully read them on the way to and from St. Louis and Chicago on a mash-up Barry’s birthday-Barry’s presenting at a conference-Chicago Cub’s game road trip! And I’m excited to see the final manifestation of all of these novels-in-progress, whether its two, ten or twenty years from now!

Storytelling

Storytelling

During one workshop, a professor offered a little nugget. Someone had submitted a story about a girl who was studying abroad, a satire that I didn’t recognize as such, and the professor commented that a story about a student in college may not resonate because the stakes weren’t high enough. He argued that, for the most part, college is this cushy, safe space where kids can try things out, seek how they go, and try again.

Of course, we immediately railed against him. What about “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer, we argued! Well, of course, there are exceptions to every maxim. Those exceptions are probably a large part of why some people dismiss MFA programs altogether. I grappled with his advice myself because I did not experience college as this kind of bouncy castle. Instead, I worked 40 hours a week to pay the tuition overage not covered by my federal loans. (Somehow, I had the wisdom to not take out a private loan, for which I am thankful to this day!) I was also still reeling from some teenage trauma that affected everything I did in college. I didn’t really make friends, I barely paid attention in class although I received straight A’s, I didn’t study abroad. College, to me, ended up being a piece of paper, an accumulation of credits that resulted in a document that meant I could make twelve dollars an hour instead of seven.

Long story long, college was tough. It wasn’t tough because college itself is tough, but it was tough because of the baggage I brought to the experience. So, I don’t think this professor was entirely right about his advice – there are stakes for some in college – but I understand his perspective. To write a story about someone in college, you really have to find the nuance that allows the conflict to matter.

We can look to the news to find ways that it can matter. A very widely discussed example is the Brock Turner case. *College* didn’t explicitly turn him into a registered sex offender, nor did *college* victimize the young woman he raped. But college, as a setting, provided a real, nuanced setting within which these two nuanced people converged and conflicted. I dare say they are both forever changed.

I’m thinking about this a bit now because I’m thinking of aspects of my life and my experience that I would consider weaving into a story or using to write a book. I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to feel conflicted about allowing my own life and experiences to influence my writing directly. But, I’ve let that go in writing my novel, in part because I read the incredible David Vann, whose work (or at least some of it) is taken a little bit from his real-life experiences. Other writers do it too! In writing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida was inspired by her backpack which was stolen in Morocco. Probably, most of us do it! The trick, I think, is to recognize the inspiration for what it is and then let the story’s path diverge when it needs to. (Thank you to a very wise agent, Brettne Bloom of The Book Group, who gave me that advice!)

In another post, I’ll talk about brainstorming my list of crazy stuff that’s happened to me (and not so crazy stuff, too) that could inspire my writing. I bring this up, though, because I go back to many formative, interesting experiences I had when I was college-aged, when the stakes felt pretty severe. I’m hoping one of those experiences will give me some direction on the next big writing project I plan to undertake, which will follow a young woman as she moves abroad for the year. The protagonist, as I envision her, will have quite a few naive beliefs about the place to which she is moving and the people who live there, and in being baptized in this new culture, she will come to learn how lethal her beliefs were, no matter that she shared them with most of her family and friends, people who still believe them. It will be a kind of coming-of-age story after she’s already come of age.

Cards on the table, I’ll admit that I work in international education at a university, so I am very interested in this topic. But, I have also witnessed the transformative power of a year spent meaningfully immersed in another culture. It doesn’t matter how similar or different the culture is. What does matter is the meaningfulness of the time spent.

I suppose the important thing about advice, in general, is that none of it should be universally accepted. Any piece of advice I hear, I always have to apply it to myself, what I know I am capable of, what I’m trying to accomplish. The noise of that advice, particularly advice that may be good but isn’t suited to a particular writer, has the power to stifle creativity and output. It’s a dangerous thing, to hear that advice and take it at face value. I could see it stopping me each time I sit down to write.

So instead, I take it as a caution sign. Be careful with this premise, he says; make sure your protagonist wants something and she will suffer if she doesn’t get it.

That’s advice I will make sure to take.

Travel Writing

Travel Writing

I am the worst travel writer. When my husband and I spent three weeks in India this year, I struggled to write a single creative word. The best I could do was scribbling out lists of things we did, along with a few words to jog my memory about funny anecdotes and things that happened – like the way our driver, Jagdish, would get very excited whenever some free space opened up on the highway, and would exclaim, “Yesh! Yesh!” while gripping the steering wheel. He also called me sheeshter – sister – more times than I would have liked. Voluminous writing just doesn’t come naturally to me. Words don’t pour. I’ve had to establish a routine in order to have big writing days, and even when I break the routine – writing in the afternoon rather than the morning, for example – I have to turn that deviation into a new routine in order to trick myself into writing.

Travel – the way I like to travel – generally sees me having no routine. I let myself wake up and decide what I’d like to do, in tandem with my travel mates, and let the day follow whichever course it would like. Even though this mentality can wreck my writing routine, travel has been so important to me as a writer. It has infused so many ideas in my head. A whole novel draft that I wrote last June – while traveling, believe it or not – was inspired by the time I spent in Spain, Germany and Morocco. A new novel idea is also inspired by my experience in India. So many little snippets from things I’ve written have started as an interaction I had while traveling. That exposure to things outside of my comfort zone, outside of my routine, actually help my writing. But, I still need to make a word count!

Tomorrow marks the start of a crazy summer of travel for me. I will be road-tripping with friends to Texas, road-tripping to St. Louis and Chicago with husband, flying to Portland for the Tin House writing workshop and then taking a week-long, post-bar-exam girls vacation with a good friend in Mexico. This summer of travel will be punctuated by a long weekend in New York City for the wedding of some good friends. I am also supposed to be finalizing my thesis draft this summer, while incorporating revisions into my novel and starting a new full-time job. HOW TO DO THIS WITH SO MUCH TRAVEL!?!? ARGH!

Just like I’ve done with smaller deviations in my routine, I need to come up with some goals and mini-routines within my non-routine vacation. Sequestering myself for some alone time when I can, always having my notebook handy, forcing myself to write while sipping coffee in the morning, going for long walks and talking to myself about what I’m seeing, hearing, imagining. All of these are good, tried-and-true tactics to get me to generate words while I’m on the road. And I think, since I don’t have a minimum word count hovering over me, it might be good to simply get into the habit of free writing, letting the travel experience really inform my writing.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Write about the setting – where am I? What am I looking at? What looks the same as home? What’s different? What’s the most interesting thing I can see?
  2. What are the silly snippets of conversation going back and forth between me and my travel mates? Can any of that conversation be used to inspire some snappy dialogue (probably!)?
  3. Could any of my characters from my thesis stories – or anything I’ve written – be found in this new environment? How would they react to being in the desert or in the Pacific Northwest? This prompt can help me get to know my characters better, even if they never find themselves in this situation.
  4. Imagine what is happening back home. Normally, I like to be in a place, really be there, and forget about my life back in New Orleans. But this prompt can really stoke my imagination…
  5. FOOD! What am I eating? How is it reacting to me? How am I reacting to it? Is it making me full? Sleepy? Is it better than food at home?
  6. Behind the scenes – What is happening with the staff at the hotel? What happens in the kitchen or the bar? Who has to clean the pool? Imagine miniature relationships going on between all of the people that come to this place for work.

What are some other ideas for writing prompts while traveling? How do other people keep the word count up while they’re on the road/plane/boat?

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Carry On Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I am 150 pages into Eleanor & Park and it’s official: I love it. I love Rainbow Rowell. I love Jennifer Niven. I love Young Adult. I wrote a Young Adult novel before really getting to know the genre, and I would say that I’m pretty much just scratching the surface with these books, but having finished All the Bright Places and now barreling through Eleanor & Park, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this genre, about how well-written, literary young adult could capture me and somehow, retroactively tell my thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, etc. self that everything I felt and thought was totally valid and normal and – dare I say – fantastic. When an agent read the first ten pages of my novel, before I’d written very much of it at all, and suggested that I write it as Young Adult, my initial reaction was shock and, I’ll admit it, disdain. I didn’t want to be labeled a YA author. People wouldn’t take my writing seriously. We don’t write YA in MFA programs.

Holy shit, I was wrong. That agent probably wanted to tell me I was being ridiculous but instead, she took a deep breath and explained that readers grow up and keep reading the authors they loved when they were younger. And that – gasp – adults still read YA. They read YA to better understand their own kids, they read YA to remember being young themselves, they read YA because the writing is good. They read YA. Full stop.

I’m almost thirty-four and I would, in a heartbeat, read anything by Rowell or Niven, because after reading these two books, I trust them completely as writers. They draw their characters so well, so completely. They illuminate their feelings, their emotions, with writing that makes me feel what they feel, like all good writing should. These two Rowell books are next on my list!

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

I read the first few pages of this novel and it’s both mysterious and comical. I’m not sure how it’s both those things so I will read it to find out. An older widow who lives in a somewhat secluded beach house thinks she hears a tiger skulking around her den one night. The next morning, a stranger shows up, claiming to be a government caretaker, sent to wash her windows and make her lunch, to take care of her for a few hours a day. The premise is incredibly intriguing, the mystery intense but shrouded in mundanity. Very excited about this one.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This novel has been the subject of A LOT of buzz, and I’ve stayed away from most of it since I so often allow other people’s critical opinions cloud my own. But, the summary alone makes me super-excited to read it! Below is the full description from Penguin/Random House’s website:

“A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Writing through Trauma

Writing through Trauma

I have experienced my fair share of “the traumatic” in my life, some of which I didn’t even recognize as trauma for a good amount of time after it happened. Probably the most defining and pivotal trauma – the unexpected and violent death of my father when I was thirteen years old – has both shaped my life since then and provided the inspiration for my novel. With Father’s Day this weekend, and the imminent workshop I will be attending to critique this novel inspired by his passing, I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about how I finally came to write this book that is both about him and not about him, and how writing it has changed me.

Every fall that I can remember, I would start to feel antsy and unsettled as the warm October days became chillier. As soon as November hit, I would inevitably snap at my loved ones more often than normal and cry more often than normal as well. I didn’t really realize the cause of this until, in November of 2012, I was finishing my Master’s thesis at the University of Oregon and had some bad news from a potential job prospect. The stress of writing the thesis plus the disappointment of losing a job threw me into a bit of a tizzy. Luckily, I had lunch with my mentor and, in the process of debriefing with him, I realized that one of the contributing factors to my spiraling out of control – or at least out of a sense of wellness – was that the anniversary of my father’s death was coming up. In fact, I unwittingly scheduled my thesis defense on the very day he was found, his official date of death.

It’s crazy to think that I didn’t realize it, but it makes sense. I had, for fifteen years, tried so hard to prevent his death from defining my life. I came to this conclusion fully when I recounted the realization to my therapist and she was shocked, not that I had this experience but that she had been treating me for months and I’d never disclosed that my father was dead, much less the traumatic way that we lost him.

Three years later, as my husband and I were dealing with his mother’s sickness and ultimate passing-away, I started writing poetry about her. I wrote about how I imagined she was feeling, how she must be existing in that liminal space between our world and another, how close we are all to being in her position. I made an error here – I submitted these poems to my workshop that semester. After reading the rightfully-scathing feedback from my classmates, I decided that part of the reason the poems weren’t quite working was because I wasn’t writing about the thing I wanted to be writing about. I should have been writing about my dad.

But, I don’t want his death to define my life! I was kicking and screaming that…what did I have to say? What is MY story? Not his, but mine!?!?

I pushed those questions and second-guesses from my mind and decided to just go with it, to free-write whatever came to me. I wrote seven-thousand words, the opening chapters of a novel about a girl, not unlike me, on a quest to find her missing father. In writing that opening, I had to admit that, although he had been physically gone from my life for years, I had been seeking him, looking for him, from the very moment we put him in the ground. His death, it wasn’t my life, but it was a HUGE part of my story, a huge part of the story of my life.

So, I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote. I edited. I revised. I rewrote. I shared the book-in-progress with people. I rewrote more. I cut huge chunks of what I wrote. On and on and on.

Although the novel is completely made-up – truly, it is not just memoir parading as fiction but is fiction in the realest sense – the protagonist suffers through much of what I did and, undoubtedly, every time I wrote about the father in the book, I thought about my own. The last 15 months, over which time I composed the text, off and on, have not been easy. During the weeks that I intensively wrote – sometimes, up to ten thousand words per day – I found myself feeling depressed, edgy, easy to snap. Other times, I felt as though I was in a totally different world, separated by some gauzy wall from my husband, my family and my friends.

But, I forced myself to write, revise, and rewrite.

Now, on the other side of the experience, with a moderately polished manuscript and the major tenets of the plot in place, I no longer feel the tense, antsy-ness that I did, consistently, while I was writing. As Father’s Day approaches, my husband said, Whatever you need this weekend, just let me know. And when I thought about what I might “need” I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need anything. Writing about this trauma, as difficult as it had been, actually exorcised so many of the negative and painful feelings I’ve had over the years, and has truly brought this odd sense of peace to me.

I never thought it would have been possible.

In the days, weeks, months and years following this personal tragedy, I could not write about it. I could barely talk about it. But, not addressing this thing that had become such a major part of my story really stifled my ability to write about anything. In suppressing this one event, I had to suppress everything. I don’t know exactly what flipped the switch in me, to make me feel like I had permission to write about the sadness I’d experienced. I’ve mentioned David Vann before and I will again here to say that his novel, Legend of a Suicide, freed me so greatly. The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith also made it permissible for me to write about the grief I had inherited. I am so, so grateful that these authors, and others, had the guts and courage to write about their hardest things, so that I may have found that same courage. Once they opened my eyes, I was able to really look around and see how much of the art in the world is a reflection of the artist’s experience. It seems like a super-obvious thing to realize, but it took me a while to get there.

And if I ever get the book published, if I ever get into a position where I can teach a class about writing, I would want trauma writing to be a part of it. We all have traumas, large and small. We should write them. I’m so glad I did.

Happy Father’s Day!

 

Why am I so interested in Daddy Love?

Why am I so interested in Daddy Love?

I picked up the Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Daddy Love, when I was in the library last week.

(I have this compulsion. No matter how many ordered books I’m coming to pick up, I always scan the shelves to find something else to add.)

I have only ever read one other book by Oates, the novella Black Water, based on **a true story** which deals with the death of a young woman who had been having an affair with a powerful, married man. Daddy Love interested me because, like Black Water, the novel focuses on a deviant topic of interest to contemporary readers. The plot could be described as the inner lives of victims of kidnapping and sexual assault. The character, Daddy Love, abducts five-year-old Robbie from his mother’s care in a parking lot in Michigan and over the next six years, trains him to be an obedient son while also raping him. The novel is not quite as explicit as Ramsey Bolton’s attacks on Theon, i.e. Reek, in Game of Thrones, but still, it’s explicit enough to disturb even the most morbid of readers, i.e. me.

But, I read it because I write stories like these, about these deviants and their misbehaviors. One of the stories from my thesis collection, formerly titled “Photo Shoot,” and in the process of being revised/rewritten, follows a fourteen-year-old girl named Sophie who must move to a new town before starting her freshman year. She and her mother move to escape the nasty legacy left by her father, who seduced, photographed and sexually assaulted girls in Sophie’s class. The story will hopefully show Sophie picking up the mantel where her father left off, turning from a victim herself into one who unwittingly becomes a perpetrator.

By the end of Daddy Love, Robbie is out of Daddy Love’s grip but the reader is left with the sense that he still craves the type of relationship he had with his abductor. Robbie is much changed by the brutality of his captor. My hope, in my story, is that Sophie will be much changed by her father’s actions as well, to the point that I reader, despite their desire to feel sorry for her because of the pain she’s suffered, will also feel an inkling of fear, as the reader will know how dangerous she will become.

Oates, in Daddy Love, really tows the line between enough and excess in her descriptions of the torture and assault that Robbie undergoes. But the descriptions are necessary to ensure that the reader knows the extent to which he was abused. I am taking some lessons from this novel in the revision process of “Photo Shoot.” How much do I need to explicitly state what Sophie’s father is guilty of and how much can be inferred? How much does Sophie need to cross over into similar behavior in order for the reader to develop that sense of fear, that sense that Sophie is capable of similarly disturbing actions? How quiet can the story be while still instilling the feeling that something dangerous will happen?

Beyond picking up lessons for my own writing, I enjoyed Daddy Love for Oates’ play with time – she repeats the first few scenes of the story before the abduction takes place, as Dinah (Robbie’s mom) and Robbie are in the parking lot. This repetition reminds the reader that there is a moment – in this case, Dinah being slammed in the head with a hammer – after which there is no memory. The repetition creates the sense that Dinah is replaying, over and over, that which she can remember, because there is so much that she can’t.

Oates also plays with voice and point of view within sections, moving from one character’s POV to the other. Robbie and Daddy Love also have other identities, created out of their own psychological necessity, and Oates moves artfully between them. The characters themselves are also specific and richly drawn, but in very sparse prose. (The whole novel clocks in under 300 pages.)

One more lesson, though, that I took away from this novel, is the importance of an engrossing narrative and believable, interesting characters in a mystery. At its heart, this novel is a mystery, among other genres, because the reader is wanting desperately to know what is going to happen to Robbie. Will he completely forget himself, his parents, his previous life? Will Daddy Love kill him when he reaches puberty? Will he ever be normal again? But, the novel was so engrossing that I didn’t rush through simply to find out the end, to answer these questions. I really sat in the pages, sat with the language and with the story as it unfolded. It was too complex a tale to just be wrapped up neatly. (Although, it did end a bit too quickly for my taste…)

I’d totally recommend this novel, but not for the faint of heart!