Crazy Sh*t That Really Happened

Crazy Sh*t That Really Happened

I have said that I feel a bit more liberal about mining my real life for writing topics – something I tried really hard not to do, basically because I didn’t want to just fictionalize my life. It was boring when it happened and it would be boring on the page. Jk, jk – it wasn’t boring, but it wasn’t – and isn’t – fiction. It’s real life, and maybe I’ll write a memoir one day, when I’m rich and famous – lololol – but until then, my goal is to write compelling fiction.

Even so, a lot of what has happened in my life has very definitely informed what I end up writing about in fiction. For example, here is something that happened in real life once:

I was driving on S. Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, approaching Earhart, and a group of well-coiffed 7 & 8 year-olds were on the streetcorners with buckets, asking for money to attend a basketball tournament out of state.

I used this scenario to write a story, called Service Learning, whose protagonist, once upon a time, did this very thing. Eventually, her mother stopped giving a shit about her but luckily she took the reins, managed to get a scholarship to a private high school, hoping it would be her ticket out of her bad neighborhood. All goes pretty well for her, or at least well enough, until the service learning trip for her grade goes back to that bad neighborhood, her neighborhood, in order to “help” people like her.

The story is wildly different from the scenario at the corner that I saw, but the two things go hand in hand. I wouldn’t have had the story without this experience.

I was thinking today about some things that have happened in my life that could be good fodder for stories or novels – these kernels of things that could provide an image or a scene. I was also trying to describe a setting and fumbled, describing the place I was (a university) because it was right in front of me. I had to scold myself into writing the setting I saw in my imagination. Fiction, after all.

Anyway, here is a short list of some of the many crazy things that I’ve experienced that could inspire something fictional:

  • When I was climbing out of the above-ground pool in my childhood backyard, I slipped and slammed my vagina – straight-up scissor-style – on the wall of the pool, but was WAAAAY to embarrassed to let anyone see.
  • At 18, a bouncer checked my ID at ladies night, saw I was 18 – old enough to get into a club but not to drink – and then handed me an empty cup because, “Ladies drink free til midnight.” Ok, so he shouldn’t have really wondered why I ended up rolling around the concrete at 2 in the morning, completely blitzed. His fault, am I right?
  • My then-boyfriend, now-husband, and I had breakfast at the same place almost every Sunday when we were in college. Once, I opened a packet of butter and slammed it on his glasses, rubbing it in. He had to get new glasses. We still talk about this, ten years later.
  • I have stayed awake for 72 hours, biking, running, hiking and canoeing, as an adventurer racer on Team Engine.
  • I bought my first plane ticket abroad – to Paris – the day in fall 2001, on November 12, 2001, two months after 9/11, when AA Flight 587 crashed in Queens.

I’ve been alive now for almost 34 years and, trust, this is just a SMALL sampling of crazy or interesting stuff that I’ve seen, done, experienced or caused, that could inspire a short story, a novella, a full-length book. I think keeping this list is a great way to force myself to feel inspired, to remember something wild, to start with a scenario or a spark and then just free-write.

What would be on your list?

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 13

Summer Reading List – Week of June 13

One really trying piece of advice that I really struggle hearing is, “Don’t measure yourself against others,” or some variation of that. I get it, I get it. Writing is hard enough without constantly comparing myself to someone else and their success. But, on the other hand, agents and publishers want to know how my work will fit in on bookshelves in stores large and small. What’s the genre? Who writes like me in that genre? What books are similar? Agents need this information to decide if they even want to read a book, to sell the book to a publisher and to match writers to appropriate editors. Publishers need this information to find appropriate marketing plans and connect new authors to established ones. They even have a word for this! Comparables.

They have this concept in real estate, too; it’s how we know how to price a house before putting it on the market. We ask, what have other, similar (or COMPARABLE) houses sold for?

My reading list this week is in part designed to help me answer that question!

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

I didn’t know about Abbott until a local writer here in New Orleans selected The Fever as a Maple Street Bookstore Book Club book. Since then, I attended a craft talk given by Abbott at the Tennessee Williams Festival, and have nosed through some of her other work. Abbott’s books straddle the Young Adult/Adult Fiction genres, like I think my novel does, and they also contain mysteries. In my dreams, my  novel is like a cross between Sarah Dessen’s coming-of-age tale, The Truth About Forever, and Megan Abbott’s mysteries. But before I claim that comp in writing, I want to make sure I’m familiar enough with both authors’ bodies of work. Also, Abbott’s books are just plain fun.

Plan BHow to Talk to a Widower, and This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I’m reading Tropper for another project I’m working on, in which a twenty-something woman who has followed all the rules decides to start taking risks by saying, “YES!” whenever given a choice. Tropper’s rompiness in his work is something I’m interested in emulating for this new project (a novel titled Standby), and I think his focus on plot and story will help me chart out the narrative for my main character, Erica.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Having never read any Young Adult until I, somehow, wrote a YA novel, I am now devouring popular, well-written, borderline literary YA novels so that I can really understand the category and the people within it. Rainbow Rowell comes very recommended, so I thought I’d start with this classic love story. The novel is set over the course of one school year, as is mine, so I’m hungry for lessons there as well.

Other People We Married by Emma Straub

I’m still trying to figure out how people write short stories, so I picked up Straub’s collection to see how she did it.

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

Summer Reading List – Week of June 6

I am currently **trying** to write/revise/rewrite short stories for my thesis/short story collection (first draft due date = December 1) and so in the spirit of reading relevant things, I will be turning to short stories for some inspiration. First stop, Alice Munro!

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro

I have read a bit of Alice Munro, most recently her collection, Too Much Happiness, which included the short story, “Wenlock Edge.” The setting of the story, like much of Munro’s work, is so totally commonplace, but the turns the story take are diabolical and dark. Think, young girls naked at dinner at the home of a wealthy, older man and the intentional drowning of an annoying camper. I saw parallels between this story and what I hope to accomplish in my collection  – the devastating and the mundane mixing together, basically. So, I dug up this anthology of her stories for more inspiration.

Buttony” by Fiona McFarlane

Since reading the NY Times review of The High Places, I’m pretty excited to read anything by this author.

Crab Orchard Review & Glimmer Train & Virginia Quarterly Review & Tin House Magazine

One of my major, major goals this year is to go submission-wild. To do that, I need to have some polished work, of course. I look at my Submittable page now and am embarrassed that I ever sent stories out to such publications as the ones listed above, n+1, Guernica, etc., when they were so obviously and totally not ready. On the other hand, I’m glad I did, because I can see them and think about how much I’ve grown and advanced as a writer, despite the noise in my head that tells me I haven’t. (SHUT UP!) But, I have also built some confidence through submitting, first off, because it is a way of interacting with the writing world, and secondly, because, for all my rejection, I’ve actually gotten some good feedback as well. I’d just like to be a little smarter about it, sending stories out when they are closer to ready, to publications that actually may be interested. So, I have a bunch of back-issues of these magazines, and many others, that I will be reading to try and find a home for some of my work.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I read this book once and it, well, ravaged me. Filled with images that slay, this book gets me.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

I don’t know where this recommendation came from – some interview I was reading, I’m sure – but I picked it up and read the first story, “Next Door,” which made me feel very sad, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why it made me feel that way. In my work, I am sometimes too explicit about what I would like my readers to think or feel, and that story was the opposite of explicit. I had to really pick it apart to understand why it made me bummed. (Bummed in a good way, that is…)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I’ve heard that this book is fantastic for general inspiration and advice.

And finally, I will, will, will read the short story collection of my thesis director, More of This World or Maybe Another, which she (Barb Johnson) wrote while a student in the UNO MFA program, and M.O. Walsh’s The Prospect of Magicso I’ll know what I’m up against as I defend my work in the spring!

Pearls of Wisdom

Pearls of Wisdom

I definitely, unabashedly, troll book reviews, to find new books and authors that might interest me, but also to keep an eye out for agents I may eventually query if my manuscript is ever ready, magazines I may want to submit to if I ever have a final short story draft, or quirky ideas for the stories that stay in drafts 1-6. Sometimes, reviews are just the springboard into a google-session about an author which can feel a little bit like my other internet guilty pleasure (People Star Tracks, I am indeed looking at you). This review, of Fiona McFarlane‘s short story collection, The High Places, did double duty, as most fiction-related words should. It both introduced me to McFarlane, whose novel is now on my to-read list, and taught me something about craft that I hadn’t ever considered before.

I’m heading into the third year of an MFA program and have completed 4 workshops at this point. Our program director, who led two of the four, gives awards at the end of each semester for categories as varied Best Plot, Person Who Works Harder Than You and Best Written Critique Writer. Well, two years in a row, I won “Most Ill-Conceived Image or Metaphor.” The first winner came from a coming-of-age tale about a girl whose friends pressure her into taking sexy-photos to sext to a boy she likes. The metaphor/image was: “She had to tuck her breasts into the cups, and even with the tucking, they didn’t quite fit. The sports bra had always held them close and tight to her chest. In this new bra, they floated up and away from her, almost flapping like wings.” I can quote it exactly because, well, I put it in writing.

The second winner, from a story about a rich white woman who goes to a poor Caribbean island to vacation, was this: “This coconut smelled rancid, like it had been slathered onto a radio alarm clock and put into an oven to bake.”

On their own, they’re fine metaphors, fine images, I guess. Although the real problem with them is that they don’t do anything in the story. And to hid that fact, I just amped up the craziness of the description. I didn’t quite get it, even as I won that second award. If I wasn’t supposed to have amped up images in my metaphors, what exactly were my metaphors supposed to do? I wish I could say that I figured it out, but even though I’m 75% done with my MFA, I have to admit that I didn’t.

Luckily, in his review of McFarlane’s collection, Christopher Benfey did figure it out, and then he was nice enough to explain it to me.

He writes:

“While lesser writers use similes to render descriptions more vivid, McFarlane’s heighten aspects of her characters and advance her plots.” Yes, he is describing me here, but maybe not for long? His explanation delves into McFarlane’s writing:

“When the marine biologist compares his diaphanous squid to “my mother’s underwear soaking in a holiday basin,” we get a sense of both his deep attachment to the squid and his stunted sexuality. When the sheep farmer likens his wife’s body to “the thin run of a creek in the bed, a low creek that puts out the small noises of a comfort it can’t deliver,” we know the drought has extended from the parched fields to his own bedroom. In a clever story called “Exotic Animal Medicine,” a veterinarian is called from her impromptu wedding to place an emergency catheter in a cat. When she drives “as if she were landing an enormous plane full of porcelain children on a mountaintop,” we can tell what a careful surgeon she is, even as we surmise that there will be some breakage before the story is over.”

Oh, so that’s what metaphors are supposed to do. So images and metaphors and characters and plots, they’re all connected. Reading this review was seriously a D’oh moment for me. I’m currently revising stories for my thesis and am incorporating this wisdom ruthlessly.