Man or Woman, Every Writer Needs a Room of One’s Own

clouds2 2In 1929 Virginia Woolf stated her claim, on behalf of womanhood, that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4), and in doing so she opened the door (pun semi-intended) to the following question: does not every writer need the same?

While money is always nice at the start of a venture I would argue neither for nor against it as a precursor to success in writing fiction (or any other genre of the craft). Money is a tool that makes many things easier, makes many things possible, but it is not required that a writer have money before being capable of writing. Money can be a greater distraction than anything, and sometimes creates problems of its own to tend to. What one does always need, however, is space and quietude for the imagination to flourish.

Woolf’s timeless essay on the virtues of space and quietude is a defense of more than women’s needs and rights, it is in fact a defense of fiction, and of writing in general, and in my mind it makes the statement that fiction is valid and important in the human experience.

It might be that my revelation is naive, but it seems to me that the popularity of video and the decline in readership has likewise divided entertainment from education, and the value of fiction writing in particular to the fringe of common interest. If there is a piece of writing behind the television program or movie, today’s audience seems to say, then it must have been a good story, as though once turned into a video a story ceases to exist for purposes of follow up reading. The mentality seems to be that if one sees the movie there is no need to read the book.

But to the topic at hand, and whether the preceding is true is or not, it is true that stories must continue to be told. And what Woolf has done for all writers is to keep alive the importance of a writer’s solitude. While often this solitude is painful, loneliness being the chief malaise of a writer’s life, it is necessary and, with habitual practice, preferable to the myriad distractions common in today’s world. A writer must have some sacred space in which to work if there is hope of creating a full career (regardless of money).

A private space for writing, assuming the writer has such a space, also presumes that the writer has some time to dedicate to writing. It is therefore imperative that all of us protect our writing space, ritualizing the approach and embrace of our workspace as a sacred place. There is nothing to apologize for here. One hundred years ago this was the message Virginia Woolf had for the women of her generation, and bless her soul the message is still true today, for all writers. Protect your space, be it a room or a corner, and let it remain holy. The work done there belongs to you, and as with the room itself, it is a thing that is all your own.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

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Why It Doesn’t Matter That All Stories Have Been Told

a windowI used to host a movie group called S.N.I.F.F. Snotty Independent Film Fans. Our once-a-month meetings were for the purpose, among other things, of gathering together to view what my SNIFF friends eventually referred to as a W.A.M – Weird-Ass-Movie. The films I chose were deliberately fringe. I sought story lines that were outside the standard plot, usually featuring unknown or foreign actors, and shot in a way that was fresh and unexpected cinematographically, and/or portrayed the human experience in substantially diverse ways.

Similar to my taste in movies, I also gravitated toward unusual music, particularly singer-songwriters who have a rich talent for lyric writing and an unusual style of singing and composing. I’m thinking of artists like Elliott Smith, Jason Molina, Bill Callahan, Vic Chesnutt and, especially, Will Oldham.

I don’t know exactly where my penchant for fringe came from, though it was enforced in later years by some of my peers. We all knew that person in school who was fashionably different from everyone else. Not only was their style of dress unusual but they had broad knowledge of certain things the rest of us did not. They cited Henry and June and Rumble Fish among their favorite movies. They listened to bands you didn’t hear on the radio and smoked clove cigarettes instead of regular cigarettes, or were vegetarian before the virtues of vegetarianism became widely known.

I won’t deny that some of my initial draw to WAMs (movies as well as music) was influenced by a youthful desire to be fashionable. I liked those odd kids and I wanted to know what they were discovering in their weird-ass pastimes. I didn’t realize that I had always been drawn to this sort of aesthetic. Even as a young child I had somehow crossed paths with movies like The Deer Hunter, Midnight Express, and Taxi Driver – movies that shocked and moved me in ways that standard fare never had. What I learned by delving deeper into the interests of my peers is that the richness I had discovered on my own was a bona fide thing. People actually made art like this all the time.

The other day a fellow writer complained that “it’s too bad all of the stories have been told” but he was going to “write on anyway, whether anyone liked it or not” (I paraphrase). When I heard his lament I knew immediately what he thought he meant. Yes, all stories have been told, this is true. Furthermore each story runs on one of three themes: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. These facts have been true since very early in mankind’s storytelling efforts.

The thing that this writer doesn’t yet see, and that all writers must remember, is that while there are no new stories to tell, there are always new ways of telling old stories. In fact, the axiom that “no story is so good it can’t be ruined in the telling” exemplifies the critical importance in telling. Telling a story is all that matters, and it has to be told well. That is all.

The point of my interest in fringe movies and music, the WAMs of those genres, is that this is where I find the most original forms of storytelling. I am inspired by these ways of telling things that are otherwise familiar. This phenomenon exists in writing, too. Examples in recent stories I’ve read include “The Drowned Life” by Jeffrey Ford and “Proper Library” by Carolyn Ferrell. Stories that are unusual, unsettling, fresh.

When we paint with words there are standard things we have a very hard time moving away from, and the page is among these most substantial, permanent elements whether it’s made of paper or a digital display. Until we can pipe our stories straight into our brains via microchips we will have the page. What we put on the page is by necessity some aspect of the human experience. We are limited creatures in what we can experience, and thus we are limited in topic. But beyond that there are infinite variations to what we tell. So the goal is not to write a story that has never been told, but to write a story that has never been told in quite that way, individually our own, better because it is ours. It is the fresh in our eyes, the original in our minds that allows us to tell stories that are interesting to others. Interesting because they are told in just such a way.

That, you know, weird-ass way.

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What Colonel Kurtz Contributed to My Library (Or, How creative people watch movies)

snail I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving . . .” Colonel W. E. Kurtz, from the movie Apocalypse Now.

When Marlon Brando uttered these words over the voice-recorded tape of a reel-to-reel machine in the epic Coppola movie Apocalypse Now I was immediately engaged in discovering who this mad man was. I knew he was mad for two reasons: because I had been told through the perspective of Capt. Ben Willard by the U.S. military that Kurtz was mad, and because years before seeing the movie I had also read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the basis for Coppola’s film, and had likewise been informed through the person of Marlow that the merchant named Kurtz had been lost in the dark recesses of a foreign landscape. I had expectations of Kurtz’s madness.

And in my eagerness for the revelations of the story I discovered some truly tantalizing details in the movie Apocalypse Now, none more profound than those found in the books stacked about Kurtz’s dark den: Goethe, The Bible, From Ritual to Romance, and The Golden Bough. What had begun as a journey to discover the madness of Kurtz suddenly became a research project into the madness of myself. Though a fictional character, Kurtz expressed thoughts and ideas that made me wonder what the definition of madness really was. And when, toward the end of the movie, the camera panned over his stack of books, the details revealed in that momentary glimpse excited my curiosity beyond the end of the story.

What I discovered by paying attention to the information on the screen made me realize the critical and deliberate purpose of information in storytelling. What we are told in fiction writing 101 is that the details propel the story. Undoubtedly this is true. It cannot be argued. But what really makes the reading experience worthwhile is the way the story takes us beyond the confines of the moment. When the story ends on the page it does not yet end with us. After Kurtz’s death and Willard’s return to “civilization” the credits roll and the movie is over. But what has not been completed in us, if we have the mind to ask, is the question of what it was that Kurtz discovered in reading those other books?

Like a hidden bibliography the texts revealed in Apocalypse Now weighed in my mind like answers to previously unasked questions. Why those books? Did they make Kurtz insane? Did they make him a genius? Would they make me insane or a genius? Would they make me rich? Would they make me disintegrate into a pile of ash?

Although I did add the books to my library, and I even half read them, it isn’t important that I had these specific questions. What is important about those books, about that detail, is that I paid attention to it in the first place.

The creative person is deliberate (or should be) in what she adds to the story. The details need to do more than just propel the story forward, they need to carry the reader beyond the border of the page and make them think, make them spend money, research, or travel. Art is about ideas. One would hope that all people pay attention to the details so that the ideas can be communicated. This is the purpose of telling stories, whether through words, music, or visual arts. Look closely and see what is on the fringe. There is where we find the secrets to understanding the characters and actions exhibited in the work. As a creative person each of us stands to benefit from finding and contemplating these details, in allowing ourselves to be taken beyond the borders of the page and carried into the research of our own madness.


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Key to the Craft – Writing Character Backgrounds

I do not know, but have often wondered, whether visual artists ever do personality sketches of their subjects before creating the visual image. Does the paint or pencil artist consider the history and psychological make-up of the subject about to be painted or drawn? I would like to know.

Meanwhile most fiction writers spend some sort of time outlining backgrounds, histories, and family lineages before ever sitting down to write an actual story. But many amateurs skip this step, assuming that the words inside their head will do the work that sketches and outlines might otherwise cover. For my part I have written plenty of stories without drafting character histories. You have never read any of them, however, because none of them are any good . . .

I suspect there are a few reasons that beginning writers don’t draft character histories. For one thing it seems like a lot of work that no one is ever going to see. It’s a lot of time spent making up useless information that goes to waste. The joy, we tell ourselves, is in the discovery of writing the story.

But writing character histories is an important part of the story writing process (and it really is a lot of fun). Consider how much time you have spent sitting idly at your computer, or with pad of paper in hand, not sure of what to say because, frankly, you don’t have any idea who your character is. Knowing a character’s intimate thoughts, their passions and desires, fears, issues, mental health status, physical ailments, love life, place in the hierarchy of their family, position at work, type of job, mode of transport, favorite dessert, etc. adds up in the creative subconscious so that once you do sit to write that story, the wealth of their background is at your immediate disposal. With the work all done up front (in terms of knowing your subject) you are free to draft the story you were meant to write.

If you have never tried to write a character history consider the following exercise. Write your own history as if you were a character in a work of fiction. The details of your life, which you know better than anyone, are the exact sort of things you would imagine for a completely fictional character. Every interesting and sordid detail should be there. Not each and every day of a life lived, but rather the curious points. As you examine your life from the outside you begin to see things that excite your senses, rev the pulse, and when you come across those things you know you’re getting it right. Write about the things you don’t like about yourself as much as the things you do like. Remember that writing is about truth and honesty, and by getting down to the gritty things you are walking that razor’s edge that you hope will appear later in your fiction. My bet is that a single afternoon spent sketching out your life as a character will open the floodgates for future character sketches in all of your stories for the rest of your career. And while you will never use every detail in the sketch, you will have the confidence in knowing that the full palette is there for you, like a painter, to add and mix any color, in any shade, for just the right image.

Here, for example, are some character notes I wrote for Jillian – a character in one of my first novels:

Jillian Marie Kircher (Barnes) – 31
Pastor’s Wife – Mother (Kylie Jean – 4)
“The Faithless” “The Ghost”

She is the most difficult to write about.

You want to demonize her. Cheater, unfaithful, adulteress. Do you understand what motivates her? Jillian’s parents divorced when she was ten. The event left her stoic and emotionally unbalanced. At her worst she is suspicious, moody, depressed. But she has her bright side. She is kind to others. She dotes on Kylie. Let’s go back to her earliest years, before she was ten . . . Jillian is a complaisant child. You can tell already looking at her in her crib. She’s quiet. Of course, she is asleep, but see her awake. She looks around, but is quiet. When she cries at all it’s the hoarse rasp of a sick child. Nothing shrill, nothing red-faced and bloody murder. Her expression is wide-eyed; she looks shocked. She does not readily smile. She watches. It’s as if she knows, over and over again, there will be disasters in her life.

This is not the whole sketch. It goes on into her adulthood, into her marriage and the birth of her child. It also covers the day her mother killed her father, the realization of the disaster she had always sensed from the earliest days. In the sketch a psychological profile emerges.

The entire sketch of Jillian is fourteen pages long. Handwritten in a composition book as one of six (one for each of the primary characters) I wrote before starting the novel. The first try of the book took three years and ultimately wasn’t the book I wanted to write, but the sketches remain, and I will write a new version one day, prepared as I am with all of the characters detailed and standing by.

I encourage all fiction writers to write up character sketches. Whether an entire life or just the details of what is going on at the time of the story, the things we learn through this process are the things we need to know to create memorable stories. Character, after all, is key. Character is really all that we care about.

Ekphrasis: A Thing Among Things I’ve Gotten Myself Into

Ekphrasis – noun. A literary description of, or comment on, a work of art.

Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, not until I became involved with the Writers of the Mendocino Coast. Last year the Writers hosted a collaborative art show whereby local artists painted pictures and local writers were chosen to write a poem or short story about the paintings. By way of application I submitted work for this year’s production and two days ago I was notified that I have been chosen as one of eighteen writers to participate in the show.

The way this works, as far as I understand it, is that at the July meeting we will gather, writers and artists together, to receive a completed painting from one artist to one writer, wrapped in paper, which the writer will then steal back to their creative abodes where the painting will be unmasked and the writer will compose their ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is a Greek word combining ek “out” with phrasis “to speak,” and so the word literally means to speak out about a piece of visual art. The definition is further understood to mean that which through written word enhances the visual work on a new and profound level. This is to say that the ekphrasis does more than describe the painting. Rather it illumines the visual work in some way that is emotionally, spiritually, and/or aesthetically enlightening.

I am excited about this opportunity. I was accepted on the merit of a poem I wrote recently about an experience I had by the sea. The poem follows:

Des fruits de mer

I knelt beside a tide pool, cold,
the brackish water swirling black,
and studied there a fragile skirt,
a disembodied jelly head.
And I in giving nothing much
toward purchase price of this event,
paid my respects to that great sea,
its living things, as well as dead.

Then at once the abandoned shell
of a red abalone snail
blushed brightly in the dragging surf
and took me near the water’s edge.
This I gathered to carry home.
And there with treasures standing by,
one in the hand, one in the mind,
I thought upon the bounty that
the sea had given me that day –
a shell, the surf, a spray of mist,
salt on my tongue, the sting, the taste.

But best of all, with its great eye,
did judge my worth, no more, no less
than any other passerby,
and blessed with memory instead,
a tattered hood – a jelly, dead.

I don’t really know what the selection process is for the project, but I chose to submit “Des Fruits de Mer” because I thought it was a good example of what art often does: it replicates life. This is what we mean by mimesis, and the irony of art struck me in considering the possibilities of the ekphrasis because of the following. Paintings often depict nature in an attempt to capture something wonderful about the world. By copying the organic world in an image the painter is doing what Stendhal said is the work of the novel: it holds up the mirror to society and records what is there. The painting is not the world, nor is the writing the world, but both are a mimesis of the world. Ekphrasis then is the mimesis of mimesis – a synthetic elevation of a synthetic representation. This epiphany (for me, not necessarily for you) is exciting! What does it say about the creative practice? I think for the student of art, of writing, and/or of life, ekphrasis is an opportunity to dig deep into the art of representation and explore what is both in the world and in the interpretation of the world at the same time. Likewise it is an opportunity to make and understand connections between concrete and abstract impressions, at times dispelling the illusion of mortal life and at others confirming it. Try it for yourself. Choose a random painting, preferably something you are not familiar with, and compose a poem, short story, or an essay about the work that brings the painting to a higher level of aesthetic value. In the process I daresay you will learn more about the creative process and connection with the world than in almost any one lecture or, even, one incredibly interesting blog post!

I will update you all in the coming weeks on the ekphrasis project. I am also waiting for good news on a recent story submission. As for July, and online teaching, expect to see some posts about the exercises we’re doing in class. I anticipate a lot of new discoveries in July, things stimulating and wonderful about the craft of writing. I’ve already discovered a bunch of new stories I can’t wait to share. Stories by Annie Proulx, David Foster Wallace, Louise Erdrich. So many things to learn – it’s good to be a writer, don’t you agree?

Having the Guts to Give It Your All

I realized the other day that I have a very, very bad habit.  I have been subtly aware of this habit for probably almost as long as I’ve had it, and yet it’s only recently that I’ve decided to face it and do something about it.  My habit is laziness, or perhaps our old friend fear, or maybe it’s just my own misunderstanding of where creativity comes from.  In any case, it’s time to go public and it admit what this habit is doing to my work.

Simply stated, I’m not giving my all.

I was reading some interview material from the late (and sincerely great) John Gardner last night, and in this reading he quoted Terry Southern as saying writing must come “out of the old gut and onto the goddamn page,” and regardless of the kind of page, damned or otherwise, it was the part about the “old gut” that caught my attention.  What Southern is saying, I think, is that writing, everything really, should come from the gut, the place of intuition, where truth lives.  It must do this if our work is to be any good because unlike the head, which is rational and seeks to control the writing, and unlike the heart which is sentimental and strives only for cheap relief of emotion, the gut tells us “this is how it really is.”  The gut holds the truth.  The Truth.

Recently I have been paying some attention to my bad habit.  I tend to move between the head and the heart in two particular areas – nay – I dare say in every area of my life.  The two particular areas where I pay the biggest price, however, are chess and writing.  In these practices my habit manifests in the following attitude.  I believe that I have time to “try” something out, knowing the idea is not fully formed, kidding myself that if it fails I will learn and keep the lesson ready for when I finally decide to give my best.  In this time (which has yet to arrive) I will overwhelm my opponent (in chess) and I will devastate my reader (in writing) with the force of my all.

Instead I continue to dance around, heart-and-head, sentiment and reason.  No truth.

The truth in chess, as with writing, is that there are far more opportunities to make mistakes than there are to make brilliant combinations.  By taking a lazy approach to either activity the potential for mistakes grows exponentially.  In chess, at least, the level of ones opponent may be similar to ones own, and with errors being made on both sides of the board neither is likely to have a quick advantage, thus allowing one side recovery if the error is caught in time.  But writing, with the intent of having a wide and varied audience, is like playing chess in a tournament.  All levels are present and only those who are most skilled, and who pay closest attention, will approach victory.

Back to my habit.  There is something inside of me that is disgustingly lazy.  The dream of committing my all to any one project is far more romantic than the practical experience of doing it.  When I get an idea for something I feel it in the gut.  Adrenaline shoots through my chest and stomach, tickles my hips with a lusty urge to make things brilliant and sensual and alive.  My heart beats faster but, at first, it doesn’t get in the way.  My mind stays hazy in the dream of the initial idea, and Truth courses through my body in streams of code.  I make short, cryptic notes that get at the core of the idea, and sometimes they don’t mean anything concrete, but capture some flavor, like licorice tinged matchsticks, and such a notion becomes a world.  But when it comes time to write I have already committed to withholding the deeper emotion, hesitating to share the obscure and torrid realities of my greatest ideas.  I take short cuts.  Simplify my story.  Make it all safe.

That is not writing from the gut.

I suppose this is what revision is for (though you can’t revise in chess unless you’re playing the computer).  With good revision I think it’s true that the truth can sort of be put into something that isn’t true to begin with.  But I don’t think this is the best practice.  When Natalie G. tells us to move our hand without stopping, to do it thoughtlessly while being specific, she is talking about writing from the gut.  She is giving us the recipe for getting at the truth.

I don’t know about you but I am way overdue in telling the stories that are in my gut.  My head and my heart have had their time, and maybe this was a necessary step in my development as a writer.  I don’t know whether Bob Dillon or E.R. Burroughs or Henry Miller ever had a time when they were stuck in the head and the heart, but I doubt it.  They got right to the gut and they stayed there.

I hope from now on we can all find the courage to go beyond the consciousness of our ideas and let them loose from the source of our intuition.  This means telling the truth about the things we, as human beings, try to hide.  Our real thoughts and feelings about love and sex, our friends and family, our neighbors and God.  It means telling the truth about ourselves.  In the end it may indeed be that the page is damned.  All of the evidence in a story worth sharing is there.  The condemned indict themselves.  But this is why fiction has value, because it illuminates life as life really is.  Even in genre fiction, good genre fiction, the truth is laid out to tell us something about the hidden truths of our existence.

And it all comes from the gut.  The place where Truth lives.

Feedback Rejections! (An editor responds)

I knew going into the writing life that eventually I would want to try and publish, and I knew also that getting published was difficult and that rejection was part of the process.  A lot of rejection.  A lot.  I mean it.

I didn’t know how much a lot of rejection was (I still don’t) even though I had heard that so-and-so famous writer got rejected ### of times before being published, or that famous novel TITLE GOES HERE was harshly shot down ### times before finding a home and infamy in the annals of literary successes.  For my part I have been rejected, oh let’s say my liberal estimation is thirty times — ever.  That’s not “a lot” I don’t think.  That’s quite reasonable actually, if you consider that every unpublished writer in the world is so much clover in the field, and even if one is born with four leaves it takes a mighty long time – or a stroke of luck – to get discovered quickly.

This is not to say that every single rejection is easy to accept just because it’s one of a relative few.  No, every rejection is a disorienting smack in the chops.  Every rejection feels like all rejection, and in the hours after that dull, dim letter crosses your desk the pursuit of writing feels hopeless and completely void of meaning.

One of my first rejections came from a magazine called “Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.”  I knew very little about the publishing world back then and what I received when that rejection letter came in was the now-familiar form response letting me know that the magazine editors appreciated the chance to read my stuff and thanks for submitting but this isn’t right for us at this time, etc.  But unlike the other letters I was getting there was something else.  In the lower section of the page, below the short-and-to-the-point form copy of the rejection, was a handwritten comment.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the rarest of rejections.  An actual, helpful, critical response from a real live person.  In this case the person was none other than Zimmer Bradley herself!  In my naivete all I saw was a rejection, and though I was impressed that a real live celebrity author took the time to comment on my work (and send along an autograph via the signed comment) I took for granted that this sort of thing was the norm.

A few years later I submitted another story to another mag, not so famous, and when the inevitable rejection came once again there was an editorial comment attached.  With so few attempts and so little experience in the time of my efforts I continued to assume that this was normal.  But it isn’t . . .

This week I received a rejection, and once again it came with an editorial comment.  I knew this one was coming.  Not the rejection necessarily, but the editorial should the piece get rejected.  Yes, I finally realized (a while ago) that any response one might get from a potential publisher is nothing less than pixie dust, liquid gold, diamonds and rubies, dragon scales, and sometimes even the Crown Jewels.  When I saw in the submission guidelines that this publication offered feedback on rejections I submitted to them just for the sake of their response.  I didn’t even care whether the story was a fit.  Someone who knew the biz was going to tell me something that I couldn’t see for myself – and I was going to benefit from it.  Here’s what they said (parenthetical additions are mine):

“I liked the voice and the sense of detail, but the initial focus on description, for example of the (such and such) and of the appearances of (character 1) and especially (character 2), made the pace feel slower there than I needed at the opening of the tale.”

That’s it, nothing more specific about what worked and what did not, but oh the nectar contained in this tiny flower!  Here’s what I took from these comments:

1) The editor liked the voice of the story.  Hey!  I can live with that.  Voice is critical and to have that component down is something to be proud of – this guy is a professional after all and that’s a compliment to me.

2) Successful use of detail.  Ok!  I suspected that I had a good description of things going on: setting, mood, the things that make the story materialize off the page, and this confirmed it.  Score.

3) Looks like I got myself in trouble with too much detail early on, however, spending too many precious words on set up that didn’t need to happen.  The story got off to a slow start and for short fiction that’s a mistake.  My use of detail in this case was a boon and a bust.

The good news?  I now have a good idea about how to revise this story and get it a little closer to success.  Coincidentally this story is the same one that elicited the unexpected comments of the editor following Zimmer Bradley.  I like to think, with a little more work, I might have a winner here.

In conclusion, every rejection is a chance to get better.  You never know when the next one might come with a valuable editorial clue about how to improve your work.  Take heart when this happens.  So rare is this in the publishing world that, truly, it is the next best thing to acceptance.