Jan 21
Written by

Workshop Advice That Will Ruin Personal Essays

Here is what I was taught about writing descriptions in both poetry and fiction:

  • take the adjectives out
  • choose verbs carefully; "the difference between the wrong verb and the right verb is like the difference between the lightning bug and lightning" (a misquote, but it's functional)
  • never use adverbs
  • cut, cut, cut every word you don't absolutely need
  • make every word count
  • detailed descriptions are old-fashioned and slow down the story and annoy the reader
  • use short sentences and paragraphs
  • "If you write a passage that you think is particularly fine, strike it out," also expressed as "Kill your darlings"
  • be extremely economical and concise with language; the writers who did that correctly were Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson, so write like them
  • never write "very"; if you have to use "very" you have chosen the wrong adjective

In other words: Put your poetry and fiction on a strict diet and treat words like calories.

All this was very 20th-century when the style was for stripped, bony, "masculine" prose like Hemingway's, not sparkling and vivid like Fitzgerald's, although nobody pointed out that Hemingway's style was right for his subjects, hunting and war and fishing, while Fitzgerald's was right for describing romance, youth and parties.

When I came to write essays, I realized almost all of the above advice was ruinous for personal essays. I now think essays about life should have the shape and texture of life. They should be long and rich and fill pages and explore tangents and use the five senses. I revise creative nonfiction NOT by stripping the piece to the bone but adding facts and details to enrich and clarify and layer it. Not fat, but flesh. James Baldwin, whose style is sumptuous, first inspired me to write personal essays, and I noticed he makes his most careful choices when selecting adjectives rather than verbs, although if I must choose between them, I will work harder on finding a good verb.

Of course I have somebody read my drafts and tell me where I went overboard and where there isn't enough, or where I'm unclear, and then I revise until the essay makes sense to everyone who reads it. It can't be merely expressive, as some poetry is; it must make sense, and not just to me.

I still believe in not using "very."

Jan 17
Written by

Bored With Death

The litmag editor opens her mail. She's eager to see today's nonfiction submissions:

1. The family is at Grandma's hospital bedside. A wonderful lady when she was well, now she can't speak and looks awful. The machines are beeping. Then Grandma is dead. Everyone feels terrible.

2. The pet is the best friend and companion anyone could have, a fount of unconditional love and loyalty, just like a person, and did many cute or amazing things, but then he gets sick and dies and leaves the owner only terrible emptiness.

3. The longtime friend gets breast cancer or ALS or has a stroke and bravely fights it and dies.

4. The husband, in his 70s or 80s, dies. What a good man he was, taken before his time.

5. The wastrel uncle or brother, a smoker and drinker who was never there for the narrator, is dying. It's terrible, but the narrator thinks it's important to sit with him through his last days and coma and forgive him.

Say. . . It's possible to write a good family essay or memoir that's not about somebody's death. Professor John N. Morris advised me, about poetry (but I use it for everything), "When given a choice between writing about life and death, choose life. It's much more interesting."

Alternatives:

1. Write about Grandma's most wonderful talent.
2. Write about why you became so emotionally attached to and dependent on an animal.
3. Write about the friendship in the days long before the friend got sick.
4. Write about the husband, keep the work in a file, and wait until you read about a call for an anthology about widowhood or bereavement.
5. Write about what the brother or uncle did in life. His waywardness will make better reading than the self-conscious narrator's inner struggle at his bedside.

Consider, in honor of those you've lost: Would you prefer that your author relative write about your death -- or write about what you did and accomplished while you were living?

Jan 07
Written by

Pumping Up Prose Style

At the last prose reading I attended, each piece was competently written in a funereal monotone that never varied or picked up its pace. Not a simile or metaphor anywhere; no sensations were described except those that came through eyes and ears; vast on talk and low on action. Very low-risk writing and deadly dull, like an electronic hum. And it was all very serious, so I know it was intended to be literary art.

Completely sterilized flatline prose, "strike out all the adjectives" prose, Ray Carver prose without Carver's timing or delicacy -- is too common. It seems to me as if the "personal style" we writers are all supposed to develop on our own won't happen anymore unless we are taught or encouraged to write memorable as well as competent prose. I wanted to say, "Hey, creative people,
  • try making up a simile to describe that "indescribable" thing!
  • Get your characters up from their tables and moving!
  • You don't have to give us every sniffle of every conversation! Paraphrase the dull stuff!
  • The other three of the five senses aren't illegal!
  • Convey a range of emotion!
  • Put in a subplot so we have two things to care about!
  • Lighten up just once, even if it's just the briefest mention of the bizarre or amusing!"
Dec 07
Written by

11 Lessons from NaNoWriMo

As the days of November passed I actually kept writing, just a little behind the scheduled goal of 1700 words a day. And then for few days I really pounded it out for three or four hours at a shot and made the goal of 50,000 words of fiction to become a NaNoWriMo winner and veteran. Fifty thousand words is about half of a real novel manuscript. I learned:

1. Fiction writing is addictive.
2. Some days writing is better than others.
3. A piece of yourself must go into each of the characters or they are not interesting.
4. Characters really do come alive and start dictating what they want to do.
5. Can't be scared of the stratospheric numbers: word counts, pages, number of characters, number of chapters. . .
6. The great tasks of composition and revision are nothing but work. Work is all they are.
7. Those pages and pages of dialogue were the characters defining themselves.
8. Write anything; worry about it later.
9. While you're drafting, go there. Just go there.
10. Write the cliche (example: the harried, worrywart suburban mom) and then give her one of your own traits or values. Suddenly she's real.
11. The fourth dimension of any novel is its moral dimension.

Is what I wrote any good? Of course not. It's a draft. Drafts aren't good. Drafts are the first step on the way to making it good.

The time and trouble was worth it. Now I understand novelists better than before.
Dec 02
Written by

Coffee Makes You Fat

During November, National Novel Writing Month (NaNo), my waistline expanded two and then nearly three inches above normal, and I was uncomfortable and not happy. I wasn't eating more or exercising less. The rest of me didn't fatten. Just my waistline.

I was, however, drinking extra coffee, always black, usually a cup at about 4 p.m., to get eight more hours out of my day and energy to write more. The NaNo write-ins were held at coffee shops and I drank it there it when I normally didn't. My waistbands got tighter. I switched to elastic waistbands. Tighter and tighter. I exercised more. Weight was going up a half-pound every five days. I couldn't imagine what I was doing to encourage it.

My waistline hadn't been so big since, years ago, I was depressed and drank coffee in the morning to drag myself to work, and had a cup after work to try to pretend I was starting each day over again. When I felt better and didn't take that p.m. coffee boost, the extra pounds fell off. They just fell off.

Coffee gives you its lift by igniting your adrenal glands and producing cortisol, the stress hormone. You have heard that cortisol, if it isn't used for "fight-or-flight," creates visceral fat which is stored behind the stomach muscles, enlarging the waist. The constant coffee drinkers I know have significant bellies. ("Drinking four or five cups of coffee, for example, can cause changes in blood pressure and stress hormone levels similar to those produced by chronic stress" - NYT). From what I read, it's the afternoon coffee that's the most fattening. If you're already stressed and drinking coffee, it's a double whammy. Also, with aging, the body processes cortisol less efficiently. I will give you some links that helped convince me: Here, Here, and Here.

Coffee drinking has its benefits, and I love it, but as an experiment, in the third week of November I quit coffee. Within two days my waistline was down an inch.

This all sounds weird, even to me. We all know black coffee has no calories. Some say the stressor is not the caffeine but other substances in coffee. I might be particularly sensitive to coffee. I can't prove anything; I know only that coffee gives me a big middle. I am passing on this story in case it can help anyone.

Nov 18
Written by

Night of Scribing Recklessly

"I'm NaNo," I told the librarian. It was 4:30 p.m. on the National Novel Writing Month's ("NaNo" for short) Evening of Scribing Recklessly, which had started at 2. About 30 fiction writers were packed into the library's conference room, including teens and two children, with not a single seat open. Wedged into a corner I used a chair as a desk. Junk food was available and pizzas brought in. I was surprised that talking and banter were allowed ("Hey, anybody, what's a good family name to put on a mausoleum?").

After the library officially closed at 5 we NaNos were "locked in" (one could leave the library but not re-enter). Until 9:00 p.m. we could sit anywhere in the library and I set up near the front window and then moved back into the conference room for the final hour. I missed some of the "get up and stretch" moments and the raffle that repaid the leaders for their outlay on food. Participated in some five-minute "timed writes" during which everyone wrote as quickly and as much as they could.

I wrote 7,252 words this evening so my novel draft is at 24,111, almost half of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words during the month of November -- and there is less than half the month left! One should be writing about 1,700 words daily (about 75-90 minutes' worth) or, alternatively, attending organized write-ins all over the city to write in concentrated blocks of usually three hours. The seven-hour Night of Scribing Recklessly is one-tiime event. I just had to be there.

I value the pressurized and communal NaNo novel-writing experience, although the draft so far lacks shape and like most NaNos I have no idea what might end up in the book. NaNos (thousands, nationwide) are drafting, writing for quantity, bypassing our inner critics -- for now. We update our word counts on the National Novel-Writing Month website, nanowrimo.org. It's nonprofit and free and open to all. And, contrary to what I had imagined, it's not crazy: The discipline is sobering and sane.
Nov 14
Written by

Moving Away From the Computer

There's going to be a resistance movement against computers. I sense it. Anti-computer articles will appear. Computerization will be weighed and described as a phenomenon instead of a fact, and its many failings enumerated. People will become suspicious of the instantaneous, and suspicious of images and thoughts and opinions instantly formulated or memed, in the way people now are suspicious of fast food; and they will again weigh their language, and the words in books, and the many forms of human commmunication and experience lived before or outside of the Internet.

It will be understood that not everyone has a computer or Internet access, and those who have never had them will be considered true and unspoiled humanity, like Samoans as portrayed by Margaret Mead. While the computer is a handy tool, we will say it is not the necessity that business and educational institutions believe it is, and business need not be done at the speed of light. The computer will be depopularized and its use subsumed back into the sciences. Emailing will be tacky, Internet information doubtful, and we will be horrified by the commodification of the self and others via the fad we called social media. For the moments when instant communication seems necessary, a premium form of it, classy and acceptable, will be devised for those who read the NYT and listen to NPR.

The effects of the computer, cellphone, and advertising on human health and development will be studied and decried: stress, brain tumors, back problems, low-level radiation. The Internet's peculiar insanities -- spam, phishing, spyware, carpal tunnel syndrome, NaNoWriMo, GoogleMaps photos of every street and dwelling on the planet, addiction to games and Internet porn -- and frustrations (dammit! Why can't I make that spreadsheet work?!) will be called insanities. Specialized therapy will help wean users from the Internet. Private schools will teach restraint, courtesy, and the art of conversation. Privacy will be reclaimed as a value and personal meetings and appearances rationed and romanticized. Giving a third-grader an iPad will be a crime, because it will stunt him socially and intellectually and perhaps turn him criminal; expect to see established a legal age for possession and ownership. Children will be tracked and tied to their guardians by means other than handsets, which only the lowest sectors of society will prize.

The writer's part in all this? Just keep doing what you're doing. Your reward will arrive.
Nov 12
Written by

A Writer with $10

A $10 Target gift card, my reward for taking a survey, sent me to Target to look around. I intended to spend this mad money on my heart's deepest desire. Unsure of what that was, I went to Electronics seeking a small battery-operated radio, like a transistor radio, to have in case of a power outage. The clerks showed me clock-radios-- red-eyed black boxes that work neither as clocks nor radios and emit, at unpredictable hours, noises seemingly piped directly from Hell. They also showed me a radio that one straps to the arm and jogs with. Not my heart's desire.

I browsed the kitchen tools, hoping to replace the lemon zester lost while carrying utensils to class to use as inspirations for poetry. Not there. Longing for coffee I thought I might spend my gift card at the Starbuck's inside of Target, but the card may not be spent there. I looked in vain for a ceramic pour-over coffee funnel in Kitchen Appliances. Then I saw Hello Kitty merchandise and got an idea. I treasure a Hello Kitty pocket notebook, a gift from a student who overheard me admitting that I dig Hello Kitty. I log mileage in that notebook, and still have it. Seeking that notebook I saw others and suddenly realized that my heart's deepest longings, from the time I was small, are for office supplies. Office supplies are my second body! My second mind!

Beside the stacks of notebooks I saw racks of pens, Bic and PaperMate and a knockoff brand, sold in packaged platoons of three, five, 10 or 20. I couldn't recall when I'd last bought pens. My supply came free from auto-repair shops and health fairs, but these, because of their frailty, soon became invalids--pens that don't work although I keep them hoping they will. So I spent $10 for one very good, pink-barreled Dr. Grip gel pen and a package of five fat blue Bics Pro Plus. I took them home--they have no idea how lucky they are--opened their packages and wrote "Love" with each one, making sure that the first word born from each was an auspicious one.
Nov 03
Written by

Adding Facts to Personal Essays and Memoirs

It should be obvious but sometimes isn't: Facts are basic to nonfiction writing. Even a personal essay or memoir relying mostly on the author's memories gains power by using "hard facts" from other sources: photos, reports, quotations, definitions, dates, and interviews. Maps, court records--facts are everywhere, and readers need them to fully enter the world of your essay. But surprisingly, writers of personal essays often don't think to mention what year they are recalling, what town they lived in, the names of their parents and siblings, the name of the rival school (Hamilton? Franklin? Something like that. Does it matter? In nonfiction, yes). They often neglect too even to describe themselves, as they were or as they are.

Some writers arrive at creative nonfiction thinking "creative" means "no research." (After those college research papers, what relief!) But even if you don't use all the facts you find, the ones you do use give your personal essay muscle and traction. Did "your father read books", or did the shelves he built in your basement overflow with his personal library of 200 Civil War biographies and histories? (Research the family photos! Open the old boxes!) Did "your family go to church," or did you and your mother and older brothers Allen and George take a slow-moving city bus every Sunday to the First Christian Church on Maple Street? (How far was it from home? How much was the bus fare? Interview your mother, or look those up.) Trying to recreate your reality in your nonfiction? As you revise, find and share with your readers the facts of who, what when, where and why.

Do it too for yourself, just to own your own facts. It feels like owning gems.
Oct 30
Written by

Random House and Penguin Merge

The other news from NYC today, besides Hurricane Sandy, is that Random House and Penguin, two of the "Big Six" publishers, are merging, and the NYT article adds that the remaining Big Four are considering mergers, too.

I predict that within a few years the two publishers remaining will issue and aggressively market 6 to 12 books per season. These and any other books they issue, whether electronic or paper, will contain ads or product placements and will be bundled with a related video game. This will allow the prices to be doubled. Ebooks and video games will collect the reader's personal information, and his or her reading and game habits. To read a book you will have to sign a privacy-policy agreement. Reader and gamer information then goes into artificial intelligence which will generate new books and games based on buyer preferences. Ultimately a novel will be a video game only, and the buyer will have the option of inserting himself as a character. People will dress and act like their favorite characters and many of them, given a fiction-writing template, will ultimately write spinoff books giving themselves further adventures.

Until the day that books are written entirely by computers, most writers will work really hard to copy this year's bestseller or prizewinner formula. Ultimately they self-publish, or publish with tiny independent presses, and rather than sell the book they mostly trade books with their self-published friends. These books become a form of business card or greeting card and almost nobody reads them, especially the fiction. Your true friends will be those who have read your book. Writers who still think stranger-readers are important will pay professionals or famous people to read and mention their books.

Then, regardless of quality, education, sales figures or status, everyone will become his own favorite writer, reading his own stuff wherever he goes, and writing more. I think everyone already is his or her own favorite writer. I hear lots of moaning about the death of the industry and the writing profession and quality going down the tubes, mostly from people who want to be other people's favorite writer. The time for that is just about up.
Oct 22
Written by

Is Blogging a Waste?

Writers are often told they "need a blog" to "get known" or promote themselves or their book, but I find that it doesn't work that way. It can't work that way when every writer has a blog and every blog has a writer. I've been writing two blogs, including this one, since 2007, and for various reasons and under various names have started 5 others, 3 of which still serve a purpose, and admit I spend a lot of time on them; if not writing, then reading them, because I'm fascinated by what I -- or my pseudonyms, because only two blogs run under my real name -- have written over the years. Some the blogs include photographs or videos. I write them only when I'm inspired to do it and work at making them good.

Should the energy going into blog posts have gone into poems or other literary work? And I realize that isn't a question. A writer should write whatever he or she likes. I'm far more eager to write blog posts and articles than I am to write poems that, like children, need not only to be born but need to be brought up and disciplined like a ballerina and then sent out to flutter and starve and freeze in a blizzard of poems, a wintry world in which everyone is his own favorite poet. Or a poem is like a single chip in a casino, one bought and played at great emotional expense, while knowing the house always wins. And you know what? Nobody cares what you write but you. The future of authorhood is everyone writing his or her own book and being its only reader. Technology is making that truer by the minute. And truer than ever are those old chestnuts that the only reason to write is because you enjoy doing it, or if you are driven to do it, or if you get paid for it. If you blog to "get known" or "get your work out there," that's what's futile now.
Oct 22
Written by

NaNoWriMo's Free Trial Software

National Novel Writing Month and the organized effort by the nonprofit NaNoWriMo.org to get us all drafting a novel during the month of November: Intriguing, but I'd sort of brushed it off, and then asked myself "Why?". Yesterday a local NaNoWriMo workshop attracted about 12 people, mostly under age 30, to a library on a gorgeous October afternoon, and the GenXer in charge said she'd "done NaNo" -- that is, completed a novel draft in 30 days -- four times. That doesn't mean any of her novels are complete or published; she's still revising her 2008 manuscript. But she's doing it again in 2012 anyway.

The National Novel Writing Month movement began in San Francisco in 1999 with 30 people vowing to draft their novels, with each other's support, in November's 30 days. The goal is 50,000 words, or 1,667 words per day, about 10 double-spaced pages, and it's acknowledged that what you'll produce is maybe a draft of a draft. But those who complete 50,000 words ("weighed," but not read, by the organization's website) win the challenge. That's all they win, except for a 50 percent discount on book-writing software called Scrivener. The GenExer demo'ed it for us and I liked it and you can download the trial version here, Nanowrimo participant or not, fiction or nonfiction writer. Use it free until Dec. 7. Very intelligently designed for book manuscripts. Yes, you can export what you write in Scrivener to Word, or import into it what you've already written.