Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Seven-Hour Story

On Thursday, I took a break from thinking about my big thing to write a small thing. 

Huffington Post’s “Seven Rings: A Game of Artists’ Telephone” is a new media blog/art project curated by poet Nicole Walker and artist Rebecca Campbell. “Seven Rings” works like this: someone writes a poem, sends that poem to a visual artist, who has one day to respond with a work of visual art, which is then forwarded to a writer who has one day to respond with a poem, story, or essay, which is forwarded to another visual artist who responds in one day with painting or drawing or photograph…and so on.

I signed on for this in June, and I've been nervously anticipating it ever since. What would they send me? Would I be inspired enough to write something? And would the story be good enough to publish? 

I knew the art would be sent to me Thursday, Oct. 28 at noon Pacific time. So I cleared my schedule for Thursday night and Friday morning. Right on time, Nicole Walker sent me this picture:

Basically, Top Chef finalist Angelo Sosa painted (and sculpted) on a white plate his response to Robin Hemley's piece:

Which was a response to Adam Bateman’s art:

The conversation seemed to have taken a meta-turn about the nature of art, about representation itself. I was reminded of what James Woods said in How Fiction Works: “Since Plato and Aristotle, fictional and dramatic narrative has provoked two large recurring discussions: one is centered on the question of mimesis and the real (what should fiction represent?) and the other on the question of sympathy and how fictional narrative exercises it.” At first, I thought I should push myself to write the literary equivalent of the Adam Bateman painting, a story that resists the real, resists narrative.

Sometimes it's only when we are presented with art that challenges our assumptions that we recognize that we even have assumptions. Why does there need to be, as Mario Varga Llosa said, a "trampoline of reality" from which you create a fabrication? Why can't a white plate be a canvas? Why can’t food be sculpture? Hmmm….paradigm shifts. I sat there for awhile trying to figure out how to speak to paradigm shifts. Maybe I should write a prose poem or lyric essay and focus less on narrative and more on language.

And then I realized, Wow, time is really flying by. So I did what comes naturally. I wrote a story. For whatever reason, I can't resist narrative. I. Just. Can’t.

So I wrote about the gender paradigm (a VERY big thing), something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: 

Do women writers need “wives”?

Why are some men ashamed of performing household duties? Why are some women ashamed of performing household duties? Why do so many couples maintain dual careers, double incomes, double the stress, rather than opting to live more simply on a single income? And why is it usually the man who works and the woman who stays home? Why does the opposite arrangement freak people out? What is a wife in the 21st century? How do couples who both feel they each have important work to do (a relationship in which there is no “wife”) deal with the challenge of compromise that is built into a marriage? Who makes dinner? As Viriginia Woolf said, “Marriage [is] the art of choosing the human being with whom to live life successfully.”

Here. Read this essay by Carole DeSanti. She talks about it all here. 

So, I wrote this story in about seven hours—appropriate, that number. Seven. 

Lately, I’ve been drafting my novel quickly, taking Anne Lamott’s advice to write a shitty first draft. But for this project, I went back to my old way of drafting: write a sentence, revise it, tweak it, move on to the next sentence, repeat. The story is about 1200 words long, and the first draft took me five hours. I ate dinner, and then I revised that draft for another couple of hours. In the morning, I tweaked a bit and sent it off. 

And I felt good. Really good. 

Perhaps, even in the middle of writing a big thing, it is good to stop for a day or two and get that high that comes when you finish something.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My Blogroll, My Students

Just so you know: I’ve been thinking about this idea—THE BIG THING—for ten years now. Ask my students. 

How many have worked with me on a Big Thing?

Oh my.


This is the statement that goes in the syllabus of a Big Thing Workshop.

Your goal is to produce what I call a “big thing,” fifty pages of polished work. This can be the beginning of a novel, a novella, a series of interrelated stories, a collection of non-related short stories, fifty one-page stories, or a combination of things. I want you to aspire with this project. I want you to aim high. I want you to start writing the book you’ve always wanted to write, but never seem to have the time for. I want you to care deeply about whatever it is that you’re writing about. Much of the work you have to do will take place outside of class, in solitude. But when we are together, we will work collectively to help each other achieve our individual goals. In other words, you must expect much from yourself and give even more to each other. If you aren’t ready for something like this, then please bow out gracefully now.

But they never drop.

Most people think they have at least one book inside them. Sometimes all you need to do is tell them that it’s time to try and write it.

Sometimes that big thing is published. Usually it’s not, but does that have to be the point? Sometimes the big thing becomes part of an application to a writing program or a fellowship program, an opportunity that leads the writer to another place, another subject, another big thing. Sometimes I recognize bits and pieces in their blogs. Sometimes those 50 pages become a single poem. Sometimes the humbling experience of having attempted a big thing leads to a life-long appreciation of books. Sometimes they never write another word of fiction, but they write other things instead. They teach. They read. They write. They blog. They review. They edit. They participate. There are about a million ways to be a writer, and you don’t have to publish a book with Random House or get a job teaching creative writing. You just need to write.

So, I decided to use my blogroll to show off the different ways my former students are making literary lives for themselves. Today I reached out to a young woman who graduated last year and is going through what Ted Solotaroff called “writing in the cold.” And she responded right away: “I'm so excited for this now. I've been trying to read as many writing blogs as I can because it helps the feeling of isolation when you're working on a project for hours and hours all by your lonesome. I'm so excited to get back to work on my Big Thing but also TERRIFIED. Time to conquer that fear and keep on learning!”

My blogroll, then, is a kind of family tree. It’s a link to my students' blogs and websites (some personal, some professional, most a little of both), and I hope it gives you (and them) a sense of how many different ways there are to lead a literary life. Each link, each person is different, but what connects them is the shared experience of having written a Big Thing.

If you were a student of mine in a senior seminar or graduate workshop, please send me a link to your blog or website. If you’re reading this and you’re friends with someone who was in one of my classes, please pass it on. Thank you. 

Monday, October 25, 2010


"This is a draft. For the next 30 days, you will write a 50,000 word big thing. This is only a draft." 
On the first day of my Advanced Fiction course, I dropped the bomb. "Everyone in this class is going to participate in National Novel Writing Month. Even me."

You should know this: not a single student dropped. In fact, many of them got pretty excited.

I'd never tried this before--as a writer or as a teacher--and, to be perfectly honest, I wish now that I'd called it "National Novel Drafting Month" instead.

To draft. To draw up a preliminary version of or plan for. To create by thinking and writing; compose: draft a speech.

It's the name itself, "National Novel Writing Month," that produces the derision. Oh, the humanity! All these…people…with no formal training, who don’t know what they are doing, pretending that they are actually writing a novel! It's absurd. National Novel Writing MONTH! How about National Novel Writing Year? Well, in my case, you might call it National Novel Not-Writing Decade…

And at first, it was the name that confused my students. 

You want us to write a novel?

No, I want you to write a draft of a novel.

Well, that’s not what the acronym says. WRI stands for writing.

I know. Ignore it. 

But Cathy, to write 50,000 words in a month, I would have to write about six pages a day.

That’s right.

It takes me about four or five hours to write that many pages of good, solid prose.

I don’t want you to write good, solid prose. I want you to write a shitty first draft.

You want me to do what?

[I hand the student a copy of Anne Lamott’s famous essay.] See. There is sound pedagogy behind what I’m telling you.

You want me write shitty?

Yes. I want you to write really, really shitty.

But I can’t stand shitty prose.

Neither can I. But you if you fuss and fret over every word, you'll never get a draft. The point here is to know what it feels like to finish a draft. You stand a better chance of finishing something if you turn off your Inner Editor and just go and go and go.

So: that's what I'm calling it. NaNoDraMo. 

Coming up: ideas on how to run a novel "writeshop" instead of a novel workshop. And a list of good books that were written quickly. 

Strike that. Drafted quickly. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

You need visual (and aural and tactile) aids

When I was young, I obsessed about craft as a writer and teacher, because I thought craft alone could save me and save my students. I learned (and then taught) the methods of characterization, effective use of dialogue, how to use setting to create mood and atmosphere. Et cetera. 

In class, I never, ever talked about the writing process itself.

In “Unconscious Mind,” an excellent essay about craft and creativity that introduces his textbook Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell says: 

“The great defect of craft-driven programs is that they ignore the writer's inner process. Creativity, the inner process of imagination, is not discussed. So far as the craft-driven workshop is concerned, creativity is sealed in a black box; you're supposed to remember that the box is there, but there is a tacit agreement not to open it in public.”

Here’s the problem, as I see it: in order to create an environment in which Big Things can be written and discussed, you have to move away from the straight-up craft-driven workshop. You have to acknowledge and talk about the creative process itself. You just have to. I mean literally: how do you get all that story on the page? It would be like training your body to run a marathon without also training your brain

What I learned the hard way as a writer was that craft knowledge was not enough. I needed that other kind of creative writing book. The non-craft kind. You know, the self-helpy sort that talks about the boring day-to-day-ness of it, the goofy shit you find yourself doing when inspiration strikes, the obsessive rituals, the dogged regimen and fierce will that are required, all the ways in which you must talk yourself into embarking on (and sticking with!) the protracted journey that is the writing of a Big Thing. 
This semester, I’m teaching a section of Advanced Fiction. My students and I are preparing to embark on National Novel Writing Month. At the beginning of the semester, I asked them to read this great article, "How to Write a Great Novel," and respond to these questions: 

“What do you notice about the different ways that these writers get their stories out of their heads and ultimately into the books you read. What process and methods and tricks do they use? Do you see any pattern or similarity in how they work?

This is what we came up with.

1.     It’s okay to have a plan, a blue print, an outline. (Banks and Ishiguro and Pamuk).
2.     Pay attention to your obsessions. Save stuff until it starts to assume some kind of shape. Maybe you don’t just need a writing desk. Maybe you also need a wall (Danticat and Mantel). Maybe you need a card catalogue (Chaon).  
3.     Don’t work on a word processor, which encourages endless fussing. Consider hand writing on paper, notecards, blue books, napkins, etc.
4.     Consider talking out loud and recording yourself (Powers and Baker).
5.     If you do write directly into the computer (McCann), manipulate the machine’s capabilities to your advantage (Rice, Baker). And once you get it into the computer, then get it out of the computer so you can move it around (Atwood) or listen to it (Danticat) and see it (Lippman).
6.     Remove yourself from distraction. Write on the subway (Wray) or in the bathroom (Diaz) or in your sugar shack (Banks).
7.     Embrace the bountiful array of products available at your local Office Supply Store. Get out the scissors and tape (Ondaatje), the colored index cards (Chaon), the binders and flow charts (Ishiguro), the thumbtacks (Danticat).  

One day not long again, I set aside some class time so that my students could work on their visual aids. The class meets in a room that’s lined with computers and has small tables set up in the middle. Some students went work at the computers, others sat at their tables to draw their outlines. One student was using crayons and colored markers. I sat down at a table to write thumbnail scene sketches on blue and yellow post-it notes. Someone came into the room, looked around, and asked, “Is this a writing class?” and I looked up and said, “Yes. Yes it is.”

Friday, October 22, 2010

Writer's Center of Indiana @ Marian University

I'll be in Indianapolis tomorrow, Saturday, October 23, to talk more about making big things at the Gathering of Writers. If you're in Indy or there bouts, please drop by.

If the technology gods are shining down on me, I'll be presenting my thoughts in the form of a Powerpoint, a form which I like to call The Illustrated Essay.

I don't use bullets. I use metaphors. I use my own experiences. I have been known to use the word "I."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It’s not a story. It’s a manuscript

I know someone who took a Novel Workshop in college. This is how it went down.
First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.
Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.
Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.
And then the semester was over.
I’m sorry, but I think that’s a pretty stupid way to encourage the writing of novels in a creative writing class.  
Most courses labeled “Fiction Workshop” are actually “Short Story Workshop.” Nobody says you must write a short story, but that’s what everybody does anyway. Why?
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we transmit this subextual message to our students: “You will learn to tell a story in 8-15 pages. If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you must artificially inflate your story so that we will not think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you must artificially deflate your story because more than 15 pages makes us very cranky. Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We like minimalism. Show don’t tell is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. Show don’t tell is reassuring, like a lucky sweater, like “Sweet Home Alabama” on the jukebox. The opposite of show don’t tell, the tell tell tell of artful narration, well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, show don’t tell virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.”
Here’s one simple thing you can do to encourage the making of big things in your writing workshop or your writing practice: don’t call it a story. Call it a manuscript. Show them an example of a book manuscript: cover page with title and contact information, table of contents, epigraph, even maps and photographs, if they wish. I teach them to use the abbreviation “TK,” the printing reference that signifies that additional material will be added at a later date. If they think their big thing will be comprised of eight stories, but they’ve only written two and a half and the other five are still in their heads, I tell them, yes, it’s okay to give us two and a half stories, to give us placeholder titles, maybe even short synopses of what is “to come.”
I don’t put the word story in my syllabus, and I don’t use it in class. I say, “So, how are you doing on your manuscripts?”
“Turn in around 15 pages of your manuscript to discuss. This can be one 15-page short story, or two 6-page stories, or fifteen 1-page stories, or one 2-page story plus one 12-page story. It’s your manuscript. You decide.”
            “Remember, your manuscript is due this week.”
And later, one of my students came to my office and said, “I have a question about my manuscript.”
She didn’t say “my story.”
And she certainly didn’t say “my paper.”
She’s working on a manuscript, a big thing.  

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Maybe it's not a bad story. Maybe it's a big thing.

The title of this blog comes from an old mentor of mine, John Keeble. He referred to our books in progress not as novels or short story collections or books—and certainly not as MFA theses—but simply as “big things.” 

It was my second year of graduate school, and I knew I was trying to write something akin to Winesburg, Indiana. Instead of emerging one by one, however, the stories came out hopelessly fused. 

Imagine if Sherwood Anderson sat down and wrote the title, “New Willard House” and proceeded to describe all the characters who lived in or passed through that fictional boarding house. The end. 

That’s a pretty good description of the story I submitted to Keeble’s workshop for discussion, a big, messy failure of a story. I knew it, and everyone sitting around that table knew it.

And then the most amazing thing happened. Keeble opened the discussion by saying, “Some of you are working on stories, on the small thing, but I think this piece wants to be a big thing. Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” 

Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be. My peers weren’t allowed to say, “This story is muddled and digressive. There’s no main character and no dramatic arc.” All of which would have been absolutely true. 

Instead, they said things like this: “Oh, that Tandy Hard. Good character. And Elizabeth Willard. She almost kills her husband. That’s a story. Oh, and also the night she dies with all that money hidden in the floor. That’s a good story. And maybe the day George Willard leaves the boardinghouse once and for all is a story in itself, not just a scene at the end of this story.” 

Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.  

I was lucky.

Typically, students want to prescribe. They want to talk about what’s not working. It’s up to the instructor to create the default setting, to frame the workshop so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully. 

Next time, I’ll talk about some of the ways I try to do that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Origin Story

These questions have been on my mind for quite a while:

Why did I spend twenty years working on short stories as opposed to novels? Is it nature or nurture? Am I really predisposed to write short stories, or do I write them because it is the only prose form for which I received explicit instruction?

How do you write a novel? And how do you teach a class on how to write a novel?

Is our current and much discussed market glut of short stories due to a genuine commitment to the form, or is it due to the fact that the many, many writers we train in creative writing programs simply don't know how to write anything else?

Is a workshop antithetical to generating a big thing? Is it possible to teach a class that is a "writeshop," not a workshop? What would that look like?

Gradually, I've incorporated all this thinking into my classes. And also--because for me teaching and writing are inextricably linked--I've incorporated all this thinking into my own writing practice; I'm in the beginning stages of a novel. Not a novel-in-stories this time. A novel. I created this blog in order to share this journey with others trying to make the same shift from "story" to "book."

There are an infinite number of venues to talk about creative writing, but not as many to talk about teaching creative writing--which is unfortunate, because I absolutely love to talk about teaching creative writing. That's one of the reasons I love being friends with writer/teachers on Facebook; we share what we're doing, how we're doing it, what's not working, what is working.

I've never blogged before, but I've wanted to for a long time. The best way to begin, they say, is to begin with what you're passionate about, and right now, this is what I'm passionate about: the big thing--generating one, revising one, publishing one, teaching others who are interested how to do it, too.

This blog isn't slick, and I know I have a lot to learn. I came very close to not starting the blog for those reasons. I'm a Virgo, a perfectionist. My impulse is to spend hours fiddling with the format, figuring out everything about how this works--but I can't. I have a big thing to write. And students who have a big thing to write. Onward.