Mar 27, 2015

If You Want to Be a Writer

At SUNY Binghamton, I had the opportunity to meet with a class of graduate and undergradute students who studied Flashes of War. This unique class meets only 5 times over the course of semester, sessions lasting 2 hours each time the English Department hosts a visiting author. The students come from across the board--I met Enlish majors, writing majors, biology students, a linguistics major, and a pre-med student, among others. These students also attend the visiting author readings, and I imagine they write some sort of academic or creative response to what they learn from each visit.

In order to prepare, I was asked to brainstorm "important things you should know if you want to be a writer." The suggestion both excited and humbled me. My first thought was that I don't have anything to say to budding writers. They have to learn it for themselves and I'm still learning many, many things. But I knew an answer like that wouldn't fly, and certainly wasn't what I was being paid for! I spent some time with my journal while on the plane en route to upstate New York, and here's the list I came up with:

  • Read like a writer: Read widely, but read like a writer. Learn how to put on your X-ray glasses for each sentence, each paragraph. Identify the bones (the structure) of a piece and ask yourself critical questions as you go along. How did the writer achieve that impact? Why did the writer choose to shape the piece in this way?
  • Don't settle for easy answers: Live a full life and don't settle for easy answers. Black and white never makes a good story. Gray--the in-between, the uncertainty--always does. Remember that where there's a question, there's a story. Which questions should you try to answer? The ones where you feel the most genuine curiosity. The ones that keep you up at night. The ones that won't leave you alone until you weave narrative together and land on something true.
  • Remain disciplined: Discipline, more than talent, contributes to your success as a writer. Talent and luck come in at a close second. These are things beyond your control. But that #1--discipline, discipline, discipline--is all yours. Own it.
  • Become obsessive: Indulge yourself in getting lost in the heat and focus of an activity, a concept, a theme, a hobby, or an idea. From running to biking to polka dancing to the archives of the Smithsonian--whatever it is, you've got to have something in your life that exercises the muscle of becoming utterly focused and present. For many years, my obsession was waitressing. Then martial arts. Now running. Think of a soccer player dribbling downfield with a speedy defender at her back. Think of a ballerina, mid-leap. There is no before and after. There is only focus, in the moment. It's that feeling a writer needs to nurture over and over, because it's the same feeling that works in our favor when we're at the desk, too.
  • Be protective: Know how to identify what feeds your imagination and be protective of it. Understand the factors that balance your life, and keep that balance in check. Living a balanced, imaginative life is as much the work of the writer as the words themselves.
  • Hone your perspective: Writing has as much to do with learning how to think and learning how to see, as it does the actual words you put on the page. Nurture these skills. Work with them. Devote your life to them. Where one person sees a daffodil slumped in a patch of flowers, another sees a poem, a story, a memory from the past. Understand what filter your perspective applies to the world and work that into your writing. Then...
  • Know your blindspots: ...look beyond that filter. Look at your blindspots. What have you forgotten? What aren't you seeing? Be vigilant. Learn to see what's hiding and let it light up the page.

Mar 24, 2015

New Fiction + NY Event

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I'm delighted to announce that I have new flash fiction published in Litro Magazine New York. The story, "Immortality," chronicles a broken-hearted twenty-something's train ride from Nashville to New Orleans, ending with a surrealist twist--all in a few pages! Please feel free to leave your comments about the story and read it here.

I'm also happy to say that I'll spend this Tuesday and Wednesay in Binghamton, New York, meeting with the creative writing faculty and students of SUNY-Binghamton. If you live nearby, please join us on Tuesday, March 24th at 8pm on campus for a free public reading. Thanks to poet (and fellow Pacific MFA alum) Abby E. Murray for bringing Flashes of War to the university's attention. Abby has several chapbooks of poetry, the most recent of which is Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier's Wife. Her poems are as honest as they are tightly, gloriously written. I highly recommend reading her collection.

Mar 20, 2015

Revising the Novel: Hotels and What If's

Hard work, all spread out. Notice the yellow cards. Those are my "what if's."
On a whim, Brad suggested I join him for his clinicals on Thursday and Friday of this week. Between his clinicals all over the state, my martial arts and running committments, and my once-a-month short trips to somewhere for the book...we've been a bit flustered. I loved his idea immediately, booked a room at Hampton Inn via Rocketmiles (my new fave), and tossed a limited number of items into a duffel.

The emphasis there is on the word "limited." Yes, I have two other major projects under deadline right now. Yes, I have three inquiries for new jobs awaiting reply in my inbox (sadly, I'm booked through August--or maybe that's a good thing). Yes, I could have used a few more hours sleep this morning instead of getting up early to hit the road. But when it came time to pack, none of the items necessary for completing those tasks made it into my bag.

A change of scenery, however bland, can work wonders. When I'm feeling overloaded, the kind of change that inspires focused creativity requires keeping it simple. I dropped Brad off at the clinic, checked into the hotel, and was at the desk by 8:30am, tearing into my second cup of coffee for the day. I turned my wi-fi off, closed the curtains, spread my papers across the bed, kicked off my shoes, changed into yoga pants, and got to work.

The task? Keep revising the novel, of course. Only this time, with a limited number of hours in my sterile. self-imposed cell, the pressure was on...and in a good way. I charged the cost of the room to my business credit card, upping the ante even more. This is a business trip. I'd better stick to business.

And that I did, stopping mid-morning for a workout in the exercise room (while I ran on the treadmill, I played a made-for-TV movie about a writer, trying to make it big, of all things) and then again in mid-afternoon for lunch and a quick glance at email (only to put out any fires). Then, back to work.

My goal for the first day was to re-read the revisions I've completed (116 pages) so far, watching for slivers of moments that I can more clearly characterize my protagonists. As I worked, I thought about what they want, how they act when they don't get what they want, and how far they're willing to go to get it. I thought about escalation, and what people do privately versus what they do publicly, when they're under the gun. By letting those concepts cluster in the back of my mind as I read and re-read my pages, I was able to make tiny, but crucial, changes to the work in progress.

...The point being that I need to pave my way for the final third of the novel as best as possible. If I can get my characters to be as whole, realistic, and developed as possible up to that point, I'll more confidently know what to do with them come end-time.

...The other point being that it's important to consider the what if's. These are the ideas that come creeping into my mind as I'm revising. And in the later stages of revising, when my brain knows things like structure, setting, and reaction are doing what they need to do on the page--it opens in a way that becomes crucial to deeper fine-tuning. I've worked hard to learn how to identify the teaser what if's versus the signifiant what if's, the latter primarily hitting me in the solar plexus as soon as the thought enters my mind. If it's a good idea, I can tell almost instantly, seeing precisely what needs to move (or be cut) and why. The changes I often choose to make end up increasing the tension, steepening an arc, or clarifying a theme.

My goal for tomorrow is to pursue some of those what if's. Here's a glimpse what's on my yellow card (see above pic) so far:

  • Move Chapter 5 so it follows Chapters 6 & 7. (Done--the result being that now Aaseya appears by page 35 of of the novel, instead of page 55, and all I had to do was change the sunrise/daytime references in Chapter 5 to sunset/evening references.)
  •  Make Folson disappear from the narrative for a while. (Why? So that readers forget about him, making the shocking end of his narrative arc all the more powerful.)
  • Explore Rauchmann more. (Why? To distract from Folson, and subconsciously plant the seed that our worry and focus should be on Rauchmann. How wrong we'll be...)
  • Make Folson's black eye reappear in the concluding scenes of the novel. (Why? It's mundane throughout the novel so far, but later, seeing Folson's full arc, readers will encounter the black eye one last time and see that it wasn't mundane at all--in fact, it was a hint at what lay ahead.)
Do all what if's come from Hampton Inn hotel rooms? Of course not. But they do come from careful focus. With spring buzzing in my ear and wedding plans in full bloom, I had to get away. And yes, I'm already scheming for Brad's next clinical assignment in a few weeks...

Mar 17, 2015

Jogging Writer: Going the Distance

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On Sunday morning, I ran the farthest I have ever run in my life: 14 miles. The last mile and a half were run at a slightly faster pace, as part of my training, and the thought that raced around my mind as I pushed was: You might never run a 14th mile again in your entire life; make this one count.

It might sound morbid, but it worked.

I openly confess: the "bug" to go for a full marathon hasn't struck.

I'm certain I'll have some very long runs in my future, even after the Half Marathon at the end of this month, but the reason I may never reach 14 miles again has to do with choice. That much distance is hard on my knees. I can still feel it today, and I have 3 hours of training at the dojo to look forward to tonight. If 12 miles isn't too terribly hard on my knees but 14 miles is, why push it? Or if 10 miles feels like a good challenge that doesn't cost me anything, why not listen to that? In other words, what's so important about "a few more miles" that could persuade me to push and push and push again? Unless I'm training for a race, not much.

Which brings me to the downhill slope of my training regiment. For now. I'm officially done with my "peak" phase of training. Today, the "taper" phase begins. Don't get me wrong--I still have a workout 6-7 days a week, including 10 miles with intervals this weekend--but the bulk of my physical challenges are over between now and race day. So: consume slightly fewer calories since I'm running less, stretch more, be extra germ-conscious when traveling or eating out (to avoid food poisoning or illness), and try to get more than enough sleep. That's actually a lot to focus on for the next two weeks, and takes as much discipline, I believe, as running 14 miles. Tapering is still considered part of most official training programs, and for good reason.

If any bug has struck, it has to do with running for long periods of time at a relatively slow pace. I've found (and know by heart) a pace that feels like I could run forever. That's a gift. After race day, that will be a pace I can return to again and again for sustaining workouts or, simply put, for sheer pleasure. I look forward to it.

Has any running bug caught, then, after 6 months of training? Yes, in fact. First, I know how to run consistently without pain and am better for it--and will run more because of it. Second, I have a quiet little voice in the back of my head suggesting that I run thirteen 13.1 half marathons--a nice little thought indeed. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

One thing happened of note while I was on my big run, and that is--of course--I passed the 13.1 mile mark. At that time, I also looked at my watch, which read 2hr17min00sec. So that's how long it takes me to run a half marathon. And now, that's the time to beat on March 28th!