writing process

The light at the window

As a longtime wake-in-the-night insomniac, I have become obsessed these past few hectic months with the edge of my bedroom window. Not the whole window, just the right vertical strip that I can see from behind the blackout curtains when I’m lying in bed. This slip of window has become my gauge. No light: too early, go back to sleep or woe to you the rest of the day. Soft blue-gray glow: almost daybreak; if no more sleep, day sucky but survivable. Brighter gray glow: sun mostly up, okay to get up. Bright yellow glow: A sleep-in! Must be a holiday. From that light, I know almost to the minute what time it is without clicking on my bedside clock.

I have been ruminating about this strip of light for two months, as I wave the white flag at the to-do list, as I scratch random notes and read through what I wrote back in late August/early September to try to keep it close. I wanted a neat and tidy controlling metaphor here: The light at the window is writing! Look, a story comes into focus just like the dawn! Or the light at the window stands in for the surprising goodness in a cracked world (see Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”). Or it’s knowledge, it’s awareness, it’s dawning, it’s seeing anew, etcetera, etcetera. I’m wading deep in the territory of cliche and oversimplification, fumbling about for meaning, reaching for something to hold onto.

That fumbling seems the truest now, both in the sense of writing process and also importantly for negotiating the space of American culture. Because even as I have been watching this tiny strip of light in my own tiny writing world, I also have been watching large, terrible stories unfold about the shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown and the fallout in Ferguson, and even more recently twelve-year-old Tamir Rice– stories that bring forth past stories of Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, and Amadou Diallo, and countless Black and Brown men and women whose lives have been brutally stolen from them without repercussion because of systemic inequality in our legal and justice system, in all of our American systems, built right in from the ground up. I have watched and read stories about rape and sexual violence and trolling threats and plain old misogyny. I have watched health crises and plundering politicians. On my own quiet and lovely Thanksgiving, shared with the loveliest of human beings, I wept into my green bean casserole as I thought about the empty places at other people’s tables, of people with no tables to go to at all.

So I here I sit at my dusty old blog, floundering with what to write about that g-d light at the window, about the darkness of the world. Light and dark, black and white. Too much freaking symbolism, and too much literal division. I desperately want to make meaning. I desperately need to make sense of it all, to fix it, to make it okay. Write a g-d happy post for Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake! How hard can it be?

Hard. Which is how it goes sometimes, in writing, in the world. Even if we wish it weren’t so.

Writing is about telling the truth; who knows who said that first? Not me, but it’s worth repeating, mostly to myself. Because the truth is, too often I fear the truth. I fear that I will get it wrong, that I won’t do justice to what needs to be said, that someone else has said it better, that someone will rip me to shreds, that I will be banal and unwise and downright idiotic. I fear that I don’t even know what’s true anymore.

But not writing is worse. Silence is worse.

I wrote last year on Thanksgiving about my gratitude for reading, and this year that still holds. Even more, I am grateful these days for other writers’ writing, when I can’t seem to get my own down. I have been pouring over poems, essays, diatribes, tweets, articles, images. Some of it is complex and well-researched, some sputtering and imperfect and hot with rage, but all of it is a bright glaring spotlight on injustice, refusing to let it fester in the shadows. And there it is again: the light, the dark, not binary but fluid: both, all at once.

I have set myself up for failure in this post: how to resolve my controlling idea, the light at the window, when there can be no true resolve. To force meaning would make it untrue, when the truth is that I cannot wrangle it into cohesion yet because I’m all tangled up on the inside. And so I fumble my way through instead, with no perfect answers, but waking up to something, peering at the edge of the blinds, trying like hell to see.

The good of your writing

“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

We writers sure like quotes, eh? Tacked up on our bulletin boards, scrawled and underlined in our notebooks, lodged up there in the old noodle like a stray bullet. I’ve got that well-known Woolf passage on an index card among all of the other desk detritus: brown-edge postcards, Jane Austen action figure (with writing quill!), a beer stein stuffed with old nickels. Don’t you love the intricacy of that question: What’s the good of your writing? It’s one I ask myself every day in one way or another. I ask it on a micro level as I work on a story — What’s good in here? What’s working? What can go? — and on a larger level during contemplative long walks, during weepy moments alone in the shower (or, hell, at the grocery store, usually in the cereal aisle), in the deep dark moments of uncertainty: What’s good? What’s at all good about this?

The answer matters. Because writing matters — to you, if to no one else. Understanding that is crucial in pursuing this writing life, because let’s be clear: in most cases, no one is asking you for a g-d thing. No one’s waiting on tiptoes for that lovely little story you’re penning in the wee hours, in snatches at work, in long hours at the desk. Bret Lott’s personal essay, “Why Write, Anyway?,” touches on this idea. About one of his novels in progress, he writes, “Who cares, I had to ask, about an RC Cola salesman whose wife had just left him and how he would then live? … And the answer that came to me, while writing a book no one had asked me to write … was that I cared.” So care. After the people in your life, care about this the most. Breathe it into your serpentine clumps of cells, feel the thrum of it in your veins.

More good news about the good: the process itself. The world’s guffaw that Woolf mentions is real, and it takes on different tinges and tones for all of us, no matter our genders (although, her point remains valid and can be expanded to include the intersections of race, class, and sexuality). Perhaps it is the scoff of your father, a worried frown from a partner. Maybe it’s bafflement or apathy from co-workers. Or maybe it’s sharp, pin-dropping silence from everyone. Maybe it begins externally but creeps inward, becoming the astringent voice of your Inner Critic. But: the very act of writing can be a response, a defiance, to the skepticism in the question. The good? I’ll show you good.

But don’t forget: the process is joyous, too. Think of it: on those best days, hours pass, CDs loop, housework goes undone, plants photosynthesize, the sun slides right off the edge of the sky, and there you are, lost in the bright fire of your imagination, with what Elizabeth Bishop called a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” Finally blinking up at the clock or at the dark window is the most stunning kind of joy, isn’t it? Plus, every time you write, you’ll discover something new, whether it’s about technical craft or about a character or about what you don’t know. Every single time.

In Fires, Raymond Carver says, “If the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done your best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.” That satisfaction: you can’t get it off the shelf, in the bottom of the bottle, from the bank. Trying to get a story right, trying to make it good: there’s nothing like it. Tell yourself, as I tell my students, C’mon, break my heart. Meaning: Keep working. Don’t hold back. Make it count. Not for publication credits, not for accolades or money or fame; you want to — must — get it right, for reasons that come only from your own internal pulse.

We can’t know the good of our writing out there in the wide, wide world, only of our hopes for it. Audience is inherent in storytelling, even if the creative impulse is purely personal. Though it’s first important that our stories matter to us, we also want them to matter to others. Something else Woolf mentions in A Room of One’s Own:

“All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded … whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.”

Finding those stories is part of the good. Look in those corners and alleyways, the real ones and the shadowy ones in your mind. Look beyond the obvious. Look and then look again. No, look. Find, as Thomas Hardy suggests, “the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.” Be that kind of writer. Be good. Do your best. Find some aspect of the fragile, shining human condition, and then give it to the world with the faith that someone, somewhere, will find it to be true.

The thunder of the ground sea, or what’s under the boat

One of my favorite things about rereading/reteaching stories is that no matter how well I think I know a work, I always unearth new intriguing bits. This past spring when I taught Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I zeroed in on how Shelley describes the breaking up of the frozen northern ocean where Walton and Victor become trapped: the “ground sea.” What strange, evocative phrasing. It comes up three times, first early, in Walton’s fourth letter, and then twice near the end when Victor recounts his chase of the creature. The third usage is at a crucial moment, when Victor is closing in on the creature:

“A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split, and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished: in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice, that was continually lessening, and thus preparing for me a hideous death.”

Since I’m not — spoiler! — a 19th century sailor, I first had to look it up. From the OED: “ground-sea, n: A heavy sea in which large waves rise and dash upon the coast without apparent cause,” with an early 1757 example: A rumbling noise was heard, like that which usually precedes what the sailors call a ground-sea. It also could be a synonym for ground-swell, whose definition is similar and fits with Shelley’s context.

Beyond the shiver-inducing loveliness of the phrase and Shelley’s imagery, and a more general awe at the ocean’s countless mysteries, I’m also interested in the ground-sea as a way of talking about creative writing.

Every semester in workshop, I (repeatedly) ask students a question: What’s under the boat? Oh, The Boat. It has become how I talk about the complexity of a story’s tension/conflict beyond plot (surface), particularly for a character, adapted from one of my professors. I sketched a — ahem — beautiful drawing (aka demented stick people with cauliflower fronds for hands) that transformed into the beautiful clip art here in my Beautiful Boat Analogy:

beautiful boat copy 2

The “picture” is meant to convey the range of elements that make up a story. Not that all stories include or emphasize each element; each story makes its own rules. The key for me is that these elements are intertwined. There isn’t a set hierarchy. All of them work together and feed off of each other. But yes, notice the size of the word conflict, aka tension/the trouble, there under the boat.

In his wonderful little book Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern calls tension the mother of fiction. Tension is something the reader should feel right away, even if it’s not clear exactly what the problem is. Lit classes often define conflict in terms of versus: character vs. self, vs. person, nature, fate, society (or some combo: as Stern says, characters don’t only face their enemies, they face themselves facing their enemies). Writers often like to think of conflict as the trouble, or the stakes. This is what’s “under the boat,” lurking, threatening to tip that boat over as it makes its way across the water. I’ve heard the writer Tony Earley talk about it as The Thing on the surface and The Other Thing below, and eventually the two Things converge (you’ll have to ask him to elaborate, but I love that baffling analogy because it captures the weirdness and difficulty of trying to talk about making fiction).

This is where the ground-sea comes as an unexpected, delightful elaboration on my analogy: tension is the ground-sea! It’s the rumble below, haunting, lurking, complicating our characters and plot. It may rise and force a character to act/react, or it will complicate or change how a character acts/reacts.

As with a character’s interior landscape, figuring this out may take time. You may be figuring it out as you go, or it may change on you as you discover more about your character and her world. Ask yourself, What’s the trouble? What’s the problem here?  What’s at stake, and for whom? In my new terms: what is the ground-sea, and when will it thunder?

It’s not easy, but you already know that, right? You’re not writing because it’s easy. This is what we writers push for; this is what makes stories so hard for us but so rewarding for readers. We make our seas roar.

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Unspooling, and the story of now

Of late, I have the word unspooling unspooling in my head. It occurs to me as I type that perhaps this longtime obsessive habit of hearing words, bits of sentences, and lines from stories in my inner ear, is, um, not normal. Is this one of the dangers of reading that “they” warn about? Is this what happens after years of mainlining coffee and diet cola? Should I be worried about my fondness for the smell of pennies? Par example, the other day, as I frowned at the back of a woman who raced to cut me off in a return line at a dread suburban WorstPurchase, a line from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” popped in: “Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptive crybaby in front of him.” Then parts of that looped in my head for awhile — conceived his own towering hatred, presumptive crybaby— even though I didn’t by any means hate this woman (although maybe I wished that she had tripped over a display of coaxial cables, but then I noticed her cheap jeans and the acne scars on her chin, and I thought, What if she’s in a hurry because she’s got a sick kid at home?, and I got so depressed at my pettiness that I promptly purchased an overpriced HDMI cable).

Anyhoo! Unspool. I’ve actually been thinking of it in terms of storytelling, its connection to film: as a reel unspools, the images are projected to the screen, et voila: a story comes to life. On the page, I suppose, this would be unfold. (For digital formats, no spooling, so: uploads? plays? or just projects?) The words seem to suggest an unhurried pace, and for a reader or viewer, that is how it works, even in a fast-paced, action-filled story: the story arrives frame by frame, scene by scene, page by page. We absorb the story in small pieces, splice it together in our minds. In a film, of course, the movie time controls the viewer’s experience; in a book, the reader is in charge of the time-frame.

From the writer’s perspective, creating that sense of pacing, time and movement is work, a essential part of the art of storytelling. To recount literal chronological time, including biographies and histories, settings, actions, changes, decisions — all of the facts and details involved in the story’s past and present — would not only take lots of page space (time), it also likely would be overwhelming, exhausting, and, ultimately, snooze-inducing. In fact, a writer has very little time, both in the sense of space (page/film length) and in keeping readers/viewers’ attention, to convey a story.

Instead, great movement in a story depends on selection and a balance of expansion and compression (scenes and summary). The trick — ah, the tricky trick — is knowing what to select and what to expand and compress to create what I like to the think of as the story of now.

To reach that point of decision, the writer’s first work is — ta da! — to discover as much about the characters and worlds and events as possible. But not all of that information, or even much of it, makes it to the page. That’s Hemingway’s famed “iceberg theory” from his interview with George Plimpton in The Paris Review: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Here’s a great example of selection and balance, from the Alfonso Cuaron film Children of Men (adapted from the P.D. James novel):

That opening scene is doing tremendous work: With those newscasters’ voices against the black screen, viewers immediately hush and listen. When the image arises, showing us a crowd of viewers, all riveted and anguished, we are thrust into tension/crisis, as we learn along with those in the story that the youngest person on planet has died. Simultaneously (simultaneity: one of the writer’s greatest tools), we learn the basic facts about the time, place, and strangeness of the world. Then in walks Clive Owen’s character, pushing through crowd (who the heck is this, and why is he unphased?) We follow him out the door as we listen, puzzling: where are we? Outside, it’s London – recognizable but in the future (we are given, perhaps unnecessarily, a non-diegetic date to affirm what we already know). We see and hear the noise of streets, the grittiness: We follow Owen’s character, who takes out a flask to doctor his coffee, an immensely characterizing action. And then: boom. Conflict/tension, action, characterization, setting, exposition, immediacy, suspense, tone/atmosphere: and all in 2 minutes and 27 seconds.

Imagine if this film had started with everything that had happened to get us to a time when there were no young people on the planet: a narrative “info dump” (aka lots of exposition), the actual “beginning” that led us to the present. That is a choice, but probably a sluggish one, even though the writer certainly knows every in and out of how we got here. Instead, we are dropped into a day of crisis spawned by those other many events. We start with the story of now.

A major question, always, for the writer is where to begin. Another question, which I believe I originally encountered from Margot Livesey, can be useful in solving that conundrum: What is the occasion for the story? Or, Why now? Why today? In this story’s case, the occasion is that the youngest person on the planet has died. BUT: that isn’t what the story is about. Not exactly. We don’t know yet what will come, but since we are plunged into an immediate world of tension and suspense, we are willing to find out.

(A side note: the book from which the film is adapted is told as a diary. The first entry starts with the same event, along with many other details about the diary writer/narrator: http://www.amazon.com/The-Children-Men-P-D-James/dp/0307275434#reader_0307275434. That form — a written form — would be nearly impossible to translate to the screen, but choices for adaptation are another post, I suppose. Still, James knew where to start her story. Not a diary from childhood, but one whose genesis is tied to the occasion. After that, though, the story on the page unfolds with a lot of exposition. Technically, James’ premise of the diary allows for this sort of reflection, but as a reader I’m always leery/overwhelmed/worn out when I’m asked to take in so much exposition at once. Others may have different responses.)

Okay, I believe I have unspooled my rambly thoughts enough for one day. I’ll stop before I latch onto another phrase looping in my brain: Now is the winter of our discontent. (But, seriously, Winter: Can you give it a rest now?)

 

The heart, ‘that bloody motor’

I’ve been wanting to sit down here in Blogsville and compose a new entry to keep my writing engine warm in what has so far been the frozen tundra of 2014, but I’ve been doing the proverbial spinning in my chair. Yesterday I started an entry about time and compression in fiction, which I’m wrestling with in a new story. But early on, I got bored with myself and my ruminations. The process of figuring out what would be “good” to write about felt cold, sterile, stupefyingly dull.

It got me thinking about why I set up this so-called blog in the first place: to give myself a defined space that, because of its weirdly public-private status, makes me work a little harder than my personal notebook. But I realized that I’ve lapsed into thinking too much about what to write, forcing myself to come up with a subject even when nothing comes to mind. Partly this can be a good thing; I need to push myself to keep working even when I don’t have the urge, or when I’m stuck or listless. But my recent pattern feels different. To narrow it to its most reductive, cliched state: I’m writing from my head instead of my heart.

Oh, the heart. I couldn’t help but think of that lovely passage from Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:

Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? … I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions.’ Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.

As much as I love this passage — it’s tacked to my bulletin board next to an Onion calendar headline — the older I get, the more I quibble with the “how easy” part. Were my stars out? Good heavens. Some days I’m not even sure the sun has risen. Writing my heart out? As if it’s breaking out of my chest, exposed to the world? Or until it’s squeezed empty like an old toothpaste tube? Yes, to both. But sometimes, before I can get the old girl back inside, to get back to regular old cardiovascular business, a bird swoops in, tears off a chunk in its beak, and flies away. Sometimes I can’t catch my breath as it tries to fill back up.

A more honest perspective: you will be able to say yes to these questions, but some days it will be unimaginably hard to do so. Some days you will write with boundless joy, your stars like chips of mica at the edge of your sky, your crimson heart as naked as Eve. But some days you will write in the dark, from the pit of your liver — because your heart? she can’t take it right now — and you will do it only to stay alive.

Funny, we don’t say, “I was writing my head out,” even though the head is the metaphoric place of imagination, presumably where our stories begin and flourish. But it is the heart — “that bloody motor,” as Grace Paley so wonderfully calls it in “A Conversation with My Father” — where we lodge desire, courage and fear, love and longing; and those are the parts that make a story live.

And so I must remember to return to my heart, dear reader, even when — especially when — I am terrified to haul it out, afraid that it will be tedious, frivolous, sentimental, bumbling.

Because what if it isn’t?

Resolution redux

Like a kajillion others out there on the planet, I sat down today thinking about New Year’s resolutions: the (in)famous list of things we optimistically hammer out about what we will or won’t do in the coming new year and then give up on around, oh, the Ides of March.

Pretty straightforward, these resolutions, right? A little self-reflection, a little existential freak out (2014! What in the?!?!) and then blam — I dash off my Top 10, and I’m on my way to finally reading Moby Dick and saving pennies for a trip to Italy and dusting the top of the refrigerator.  Easy peasy — until I looked up resolution in my handy-dandy (if rudimentary) computer New Oxford American Dictionary, an old habit when I’m pondering what to write. Guess what I found in that little can of worms? 12 different meanings. 12! Like the months of the year! Coincidence? Yes, but stay with me.

Oh, Language. I’ve lived all the way to 2014 without really thinking about all of the meanings of resolution. How rarely do I think beyond the first meaning, a firm decision to do or not to do something, only occasionally making it to the second, the action of solving a problem.  Of course, the word is connected strongly to narrative, too: traditionally, a plot’s resolution comes after the climax and denouement. Yet how surprising and lovely to see the expansiveness of one compact word, including connections to poetry (prosody: the substitution of two short syllables for one long one), music (the passing of a discord into a concord during the course of changing harmony), medicine (the disappearance of inflammation, or of any other symptom or condition), and photography/video (the degree of detail visible in a photographic or television image).

My favorite new understanding of the word, though, relates to its etymology: from Latin resolutio(n-), from resolvere ‘loosen, release.’  How strange that the root (a verb) creates a sense of letting go, but the most common sense of the noun connotes desiring control, of grabbing hold or wrestling with — a firm decision to do or not to do something.

In writing, my own usage usually relates only to the latter sense. I often resolve to write X number of words per week. I determine to finish drafts, to sit my butt in the chair for Y hours. I try to be adamant in my belief that my writing matters, even if there are no safe or easy outcomes. Some more synonyms for resolute: firm, unswerving, unwavering, steadfast, staunch, stalwart, unfaltering, unhesitating, persistent, indefatigable, tenacious, strong-willed, unshakable; stubborn, dogged, obstinate, obdurate, inflexible, intransigent, implacable, unyielding, unrelenting; spirited, brave, bold, courageous, plucky, indomitable; informal gutsy, gutty, spunky, feisty; formal pertinacious.

Oh yes, those senses of resolution are absolutely necessary in this writing life, where we get knocked around more than we get a hand up. We must be implacable, unyielding, gutsy, unswerving: we must square our shoulders in the face of rejection and envy and disappointment and blocks. We must keep working, keep on, keep on.

And yet: I love that early root, the sense of loosening or release, perhaps because my doggedness also can be a hindrance: I often find myself, in my writing especially, trying to fix or control things, to wrangle some cohesion amid the unsettling, unpredictable chaos of creation. But creation needs chaos; our writing needs to be released or looseneduntied, freed, unfettered, unleashed — from our intransigent grip. We need to remember to let go.

So, this year I will make but one resolution: to try to embrace those wonderfully contradictory states of resolve. To be both unrelenting and unfettered, unwavering and untied, unyielding and unleashed.

Wishing everyone a joyous, creative 2014,

BC

Letter to a Young Self

Dear Little Brynnie,

Oh, dear.

Oh, dear.

It’s been a letter-y semester in my classes this fall as students try forms as a means of storytelling and essay-writing. I thought I’d give it a shot, too, because the truth is, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. Mom just turned seventy a couple of weeks ago, which meant I was sorting and compiling – pardon my French, honey, and the slang – a crap-ton of old photos. Suddenly there were scanned images of our family all over the screen: Dear God, the haircuts! The polyester! The collars! And there you were, that tiny past version of me: mop-topped, squirrel-cheeked, round-tummied, gazing solemnly, squinting, grinning. I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but we are old now, a lifetime removed from the story that inspired that “little” nickname, our family inside joke. I have known these pictures our whole life, but for some reason these days, I can’t stop staring.

I find myself wanting to tell you everything about what’s coming — as if I could prepare you, which of course I can’t. Our life has happened. There’s this trite saying, which you don’t know yet: You can’t change the past. More and more, Little Brynnie, I’m not sure. I’m starting to think we change it every time we see it again, every time we take the time to reconsider – to remember, to imagine, to re-see – what once was there. It can’t help but change, thanks to our infallible memories and our persistent desire to wonder.  And so here I am.

In the interest of time and keeping your attention — we’re both going to need a nap soon — I won’t go into all of the gory details. To sum up: You are going to be an odd kid. An odd teenager. Introverted, smart, melancholy, dreamy, too empathic, worrisome. All those emotions ride right out there on your skin. This will coalesce into a niggling sense that you don’t fit in. That you are on the outside, even with your friends and family. Don’t worry, honey (although I know you will). It’s not all bad. The fact is, you will navigate that tumultuous stream of childhood and adolescence mostly intact, with much love and humor and sunshine in the mix. Some dark things lurk and will snare you, and I’m sorry for this. I cannot stop it.

The good news: you make it. The mixed news: You have transformed into… an odd adult. Well, let’s call it “quirky.” It’s hard for you to be “out there,” as a good friend put it once. Introversion creeps into reclusiveness. Though it may seem that childhood and adolescence are the hardest parts, it’s these later years when the real complications set in. We forge ourselves in this fire. This is where we become who we are.

The really bad news— well, I’ll just rip it off like a Band-Aid: We lose our father, when we are 24. Though we will lose other dear family, friends, and co-workers, and we will tumble through a kaleidoscope of romantic heartbreaks, this will be the thing that upends us, leaves us untethered. It is as though someone has replaced the crystalline lenses of our eyes. Everything is filtered through his absence: the world no longer contains him, but his presence persists at the corners of our vision. That contradiction will not cease.

I am leaving so much out, all of the extraordinary fine-grained details, which is ironic because that is how we have come to try to see the world. It’s one of the perks of being on the outside: you learn to see differently. You watch and listen and peer and squint, and you see nuances and strangeness that others miss. The good news: Some people in adult life actually encourage this. The great news: we are married to the loveliest of human beings who also sees this way, who understands and embraces our quirks, partly because he is an artist and writer, too.

I guess I didn’t mention: We are a writer. A teacher, yes, as I did note, which as a job in this country is more quantifiable, easier to explain. Sometimes I forget to mention the writer part. Sometimes I forget this part of us, because adulthood? It’s a busy, busy place, full of pressing obligations and mundane demands. Writing takes a lot of time. Believe it or not, just this rambling little letter has taken hours! We don’t always have that time, or the space in our minds for thinking up stories. At your age, you think of writers, if you think of them at all, as the people who make those wondrous books that Mom and Dad have read to you since infancy, the ones that you start reading yourself at age 3 or 4. Oh, how we loved reading stories. Making those stories – and trying to get them into a book form for other people to read – is another thing altogether. While it can be inspiring and joyous, it often makes us feel desperate, and alone, and no good.

Which brings me (I think) to why I’m writing to you in the first place. It’s about this writer part of us. Sometimes— well, often; well, all of the time— I wonder about the path that brought us here. All of the twisting ins and outs, the moments we could have decided to take a different route.

What I want to tell you, Little Brynnie — adorable child; overwrought, melancholy teen; sad, messed-up, harrowed young adult; fretful, frizzy-haired middle-age woman— is this path that we chose? Remember first that you chose it. Lately you have been trudging along, your eyes on your feet. Look up, honey. Look around. Remember why you chose it. Remember? It’s because you were once, and have always been, the odd little girl who dreamed in stories, who couldn’t stop going into her imagination. She couldn’t stop puzzling and wondering about the inner lives of her family and friends and neighbors and strangers. She couldn’t stop seeing the beauty and awfulness of the world and asking, what? why? how? She couldn’t stop trying to figure it out. She couldn’t stop. She just couldn’t.

Love to us both,

Me

Lengthen or shorten here

Of late, I find myself thinking about sewing patterns: those brown-tissue sheets with dotted and forked lines meant for making clothes that look for all the world like a map of an alien land. My memories of these go back to around the Pleistocene Age, aka Pre-Internet Age, when we had to go to the local fabric shop to browse and buy the patterns for our frocks. For us, in 1970s-80s small-town Arizona, the shop was Cornet (other shopping venues: Revco, Yellow Front, and Bashas’, names that I wish I could take credit for making up). We bellied up to the counter and flipped the pages of the heavy Butterick and McCall and Vogue catalogs, running our fingers on the sIMG_1865ketched illustrations of slim, slouching models and the A-B-C variations of cuts and hemlines. We wrote down the call number and then turned to the giant metal file drawers to dig out the fat, squishy envelope, not unlike digging through a library catalog (ask your parents or grandparents) to unearth a book entry. For me, the instructions on the envelopes were like another language, with their sizing requirements and list of fabrics and notions: bias tape, straight butterick6839_Lzipper, with nap/without nap, front and back darts, topstitching, button closing, pinking shears, crepe de chine, pique, broadcloth, not suitable for plaid.

This curious language was one spoken by my mother, who sewed many of our clothes as well as curtains and other household odds and ends, and who passed that language on to me. (I also took sewing in Home Ec, where I additionally learned to measure a teaspoon of baking soda to within an inch of its life and “got my colors done.” I’m a summer). Unlike Mom, who seemed to intuit the curves and designs on that pattern tissue, who held stick pins in her mouth without swallowing them and sent fabric through the sewing machine with nary a bunched seam, I had a little more trouble in translation. I got tangled up in the instruction steps, or cut out a front section on the wrong line, or sewed together pieces backward. When the sewing machine would jam or my hemlines would wobble and wave, I’d melt to the floor in the fetal position, wailing at my lack of patience, my lack of skill, at the mess I’d made of it. I couldn’t see the steps. I couldn’t see my way from beginning to end.

I haven’t held a sewing pattern in my hands for years, and I never did get any better at it, but for some reason my brain today wants to connect those old sewing days to the writing process. I’m thinking about how we do use patterns in writing, but they are of our own making. In other words, we don’t usually start out with a prescriptive set of 1-2-3 instructions on how to write a story (if someone tells you these steps exist, be very, very skeptical). We have craft elements and examples that guide us in development, yes, but the pattern for every story differs; a skirt is not a vest is not a pair of gouchos, even if they are all cut from the same plaid gabardine cloth. Also, we don’t move step by step through a pattern. Story writing sometimes starts at the end — with the zipper, if you will, then switches over to early stages of cutting out the front right bodice, then shifts to the middle of pinning, then returns to that g-d zipper that you had to rip out, then focuses on ironing a seam flat for awhile. There is no beginning-to-end in the process. There are no set steps. There’s only the pattern that we discover as we go, the one that works for each particular writer and for each particular story. We are both the pattern maker and the seamstress.

At the same time, patterns in the sense of forms can be incredible productive. Using a pattern/form as a way into a story– as a “constraint” as Alice LaPlante calls it — can catalyze creativity better than a blank page; it counter-intuitively frees up the writer to forge ahead in unexpected ways. Right now, I’m teaching a Forms of Fiction class, in which students are trying their hands at a number of forms based on model stories. Thus far they have read and tried out monologues (internal or external), letters, diaries, how-to narratives (second-person), photographs, plural first-person (“we”), exaggerated repetition, and lists. Next up: folk tales or supernatural, science fiction, speculative, or post-apocalyptic story. The stories that these writers are coming up with are wildly fresh and original, with impressive improvements in imagery, characterization, voice, and other craft elements. I had a hunch that this would be the case, but they are far surpassing my early expectations.

With forms, writers start with the pattern but then make their own version of it. From the tissuey paper, they cut out the parts they need, even veering off the dotted line. They pick colors and fabrics that defy logic, lengthen a sleeve or shorten a hem on a whim, turn a Dickie into a cravat, change the empire waist into a dropwaist with a sweetheart neckline, add a row of buttons just for the heck of it. Voila: a new story. The stitches may be loose, and the hem might be crooked, but that’s okay. We’re also the tailor, but that’s a wacky analogy for another day.

Staying inside

Mercy. It’s grown a bit cobwebby here at U-Leaves HQ. I think I just saw something scuttle under the floorboards. Apologies to the spammers who keep landing on the same old posts. I know that you are awaiting more of my “extreme informational posts that exceed great influence.” I appreciate the “A+ for simply excellence composing.”

I have been keeping my head down, trying to keep up the rigorous summer writing pace I set for myself. I gave myself until Aug. 1 to work this way, to ignore the outer world that is starting to tap on my locked door. Alas, that deadline hits tomorrow.  That means I’m about to get jiggy (is this how one spells jiggy? Quick: to the Ridiculous ’90s Slang Time Machine!) with all manner of fall teaching prep. I will keep writing, of course, but will have to add other tasks. The ever-precarious balancing act.

Despite the intensity of the semesters, I am ever grateful for the summer to work, for the uninterrupted time to immerse, which can be difficult, if not impossible, at other times. All told, factoring in travel and other whatsits, I had about eight solid weeks of immersion: sitting down every day, getting quiet, thinking, typing, rereading, taking notes, stringing story boards across my office, staring out the window with “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as the poet Elizabeth Bishop called it. Some days were a bust, but most were productive, and I met my self-imposed goal.

Even if I hadn’t finished what I planned, I think (hope) I would find myself mostly content as I transition back into a different pace. Because it’s not really about the tally. It’s about the extended time that I got to spend in my fictional spaces, dreaming and puzzling and mucking about in the stories I created.

In the study of a second language, immersion is commonly understood as the best way to reach fluency. Live in a place where everyone speaks the language. That seems analogous to creative writers: Our place is the page (or stage or screen), and we, too, must live there. Primarily that means 1) years of reading and studying others’ books/plays/films, absorbing the craft of storytelling; 2) years of practicing our own stories, poems, and plays; and 3) hours daily/weekly going inside individual projects — going inward to the imagination, to the heady twilight space of creation.

For all of it, we need to carve out time from this insistent world, the one that will always tap — knock, rap, pound — at our doors and call us outside. Some days we must heed the call — some days, the outer life trumps, as it should. But some days, we must resist. Keep the door shut. Stay inside.

The only downside was that I didn’t get to spend time on the first part of the immersion: the reading. I normally devour one book after the next in the summers, nary an annotating pencil in sight. With travel and work through the days and into evenings, I kept to mostly to shorter nonfiction: pieces in the NYT and the New Yorker, mainly. Here’s what I did, happily, get a chance to read:

All of them were good —  heck, look at the writers — but I was engrossed/delighted/left a little breathless by Bender, Goodwin, Livesey, and Saunders. This fall, I will be digging deep into the short story, both for a sophomore lit class and a Forms of Fiction workshop. Another kind of immersion, I hope.

As for fluency: um, I think my analogy may fall apart here. I have no idea at what point anyone reaches this, if ever. Does any writer ever feel mastery? Perhaps. I don’t foresee it in my case. Regardless, I will keep struggling with the strange syntax of this writing life, stumbling over its irregular verbs, its subjunctive tenses, hoping that one day I will dream in the language.

Re-Vision

Here is where I’m writing right now:

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I’m not gonna lie: It’s dreamy. I’m at the Penland School of Craft in the mountains of North Carolina; the incomparable TW is an instructor here right now, teaching a letterpress class, and I got to tag along. If you’re a visual artist, this is one of the best places in the country to study and practice. I am astonished by the talent and creativity of the people running around here. I can’t thank the Penland folks enough for their generosity and inclusion.

Though I had the chance to take an art class, I opted to use the time as my own writers’ retreat. I’ve never done a writer’s residency, but I imagine that it’s much like this. I hike in the mornings and write midmorning and all afternoon. I eat three meals a day– healthy, exquisite food served at set times. It all feels quite decadent, actually, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

As for the work itself: In May, I got feedback on the first draft of my novel from my readers — again, the wondrous TW and my dear friend and wildly talented writer Elizabeth Wetmore, both of whom donated their time to read and offer critique. It’s no small thing to drop the draft of a novel on someone’s desk, especially when those someones also are artists and have their own work and lives, and I can’t thank both of them enough for giving me their invaluable input. Since then, I’ve been working at an intense pace, about 6 hours a day, with maybe one day off a week, for about six weeks, feeling the end of summer nipping at my heels. This full-throttle pace is not my natural state, but having a job in academia has changed how I work. Summer is the only time that I can immerse fully, so I’m trying to keep my head down and do as much as I can, for as long as I can.

The revision process is a complicated but important one: I’m both trying to stand back and see with a critical eye and also immerse in the world of the story to figure out what it needs. Re-vision: Re-seeing, re-imagining what you have already made. I know some writers resist this phase, but for me, I finally feel like I’m getting ahold of what I’m trying to do. It’s not that I didn’t work hard on the first draft; I did my best to work carefully and closely. But it’s this phase where I’m finding out what’s best for the story. For example, I gave one whole character and plot line the ax. And I liked that character. But she wasn’t doing the work she needed, and the story is better without her. Getting rid of her allowed me to more fully develop a different character, who is doing important work, esp. in helping me understand the protagonist.

Writers tend to fall into two camps in their writing processes: “eking” vs. “gushing,” a concept that I borrow from Tayari Jones. Ekers are those who tend to write minimal early drafts and need to elaborate in revision; gushers tend to need to go back in and pare. I’m definitely an eker. Much of what I’ve been doing is fleshing out and developing: place, character, and tension — especially tension. Much of the major overhaul has happened early in the book, but of course, everything’s connected. Changes to the beginning mean changes everywhere. I’m stitching and ripping seams and patching and nipping and tucking all over the damn place.

Before we came to Penland, I printed it out so that I could work long hand on edits. It’s a real pleasure to work on the actual page. Thanks to my graduate students, too, who bought me a lovely fountain pen at the end of the semester. I love it. I sit in a rocking chair on a porch, put my headphones on (for the record, if there is such a record: I have been wearing out Mumford and Sons), and go line by line, page by page. Once I have those, I go back in and work through the changes.

The good news, I suppose, is that I don’t feel in the least bit frustrated by the process. It’s invigorating to puzzle things out, to see your work anew and figure out how to make it better.

Home soon. The work will continue, minus the smoky mountain views, alas. But as Richard Bausch says, we should train ourselves to write anywhere.

Wishing everyone a creative summer,
BC