My current blog theme is "Flannery will get you everywhere."
I will share gems from Flannery O'Connor's writing and speaking on writing. I may also include some thoughts about whatever I am currently reading or opinions on life events.
September 10, 2017
I had another reading this past weekend. It has been so fun to see family members, old friends and acquaintances and meet new people. That has been the unexpected pleasure of this arduous task of promoting my own book. Saturday, I got to see my junior high English teacher. It was wonderful to hand her my debut novel rather than writing her articulate letters from prison.
At an event at Barnes and Noble recently I had complete strangers stop at my table and ask about my book. An amazing number of people bought the book and a couple people came back to the table more than once, introduced family members, or gave me a hug because of the intimate conversation we had shared.
People were so kind and generous about sharing about themselves and their interests. Loving books was a connection for us, but that connection webbed out into family, experience, and passions/concerns.
Publishing Bend has been a dream come true. The new and unexpected blessings of that keep coming. Thank you friends.
August 21, 2017
3. I believe that there is value and utility in reading voraciously in the domain of literature and being part of a community of other writers in order to learn the craft, produce copious work, support the writing habit, get feedback on work, revise, and write more.
I took a class at The Loft taught by author, Pamela Carter Joern, a Hamline MFA program graduate. When I asked her about the value of an MFA in Creative Writing she said something to the effect that a person can become a good writer without an MFA, but the program can help an emerging writer progress more quickly and competently. I posed a similar question to author, Alison McGhee. She wrote in an email to me, “I have a master's in creative writing/English from the U of M. Honestly, I can't say it helped me that much. . . but I did have one teacher there who ‘got’ what I was trying to do, and his near-wordless encouragement was a good thing. I do believe that you can be taught craft, but that talent can only be nurtured.”
Having read the work of both these talented writers, I chose to pursue an MFA in hopes that I could learn to write better and faster, and that talents I may already have could be nurtured. Being in a community with knowledgeable, working writers who also teach craft, has helped me gain tools to sustain a writing life, adopt and adapt craft elements to be a more effective writer and careful reader, and approach my writing projects with purpose and a sustainable process.
I am grateful for the guidance of author and teacher, Patricia Weaver Francisco. She modeled and made a compelling case about what there was to learn from the creative process of others in art, literature, and science. Being in this community has also challenged my idea that I need to have praise and only praise for my first draft. I now know and have accepted on a deep level that I need to create a great quantity of work in order to move toward my best work. I honestly welcome feedback from trusted readers and I know more insights will come organically with new drafts and experiments. I won’t lie and say I don’t dream of praise and money for my writing. I want to just write it and have the field say it is brilliant—I am brilliant. Now I understand that there is no reason for the outside world to care about my art and that failure is part of the process and that creating lots of work may very well lead to the creation of good work. Since I enjoy the work, I have no need to fight against doing it. What’s more, I now consider revision a fun activity.
I do revision in stages or layers. Initially, I just write and write and try to get the story down from beginning to end. That is not to say that I write in a linear way. I may write a scene from the end of a novel early on if I know that scene. Once I have a basic idea of the plot and have that on paper, I make lists of scenes I need to write to support the plot. Author and teacher, Mary Logue, taught me how to outline a novel in this way. Previously, the thought of Roman numerals made my head hurt. Mary suggested the alternative of writing a list of needed scenes. That works for me. After I have a first draft of the story or novel, I begin revision. I read the work with only a couple tests in mind. Whose story is it? Did I make it clear in the opening pages whose story it is and who is telling it?
I learned from Sheila O’Connor that the author makes a contract with the reader about what to expect in the story and that the contract needs to be established early and it is binding. I read my early draft and ask myself about areas where I could use more active verbs or specific nouns. I look for places where I can add sensory detail.
A word about word choice: read, memorize, and write poetry. I learned the value of poetry from author and teacher, Deborah Keenan. Immersion and instruction in poetry was an invaluable tool for me as a writer because the discipline tuned my ear to the sound and rhythm of words. I read my work out loud in hopes that it sings and I adjust places that clang or are dissonant for no practical purpose. In subsequent readings of my draft I look for places where I can increase the tension or trouble and I look for places where I might add serendipitous connections. Because my novels are about families with secrets, there are lots of ways to connect characters to each other. In my experience that is how life works. We are connected and have similar fears and dreams. We make similar mistakes and triumphs.
I read through the manuscript several times doing my own work before I ask a trusted reader to look at the manuscript. When I give the manuscript to a trusted reader, I ask for specific feedback. I learned this from author and teacher, Barrie Jean Borich. She gave us very specific structure for how to ask for and give feedback on manuscripts. Her instruction reflected the values in the MFA program that a workshop shouldn’t be an opportunity to tear down other writers or elevate oneself by stepping on the work of others. Emerging writers need the opportunity to ask about what is working in their writing and see if their intentions have reached the page.
I found value in the practice of looking at a manuscript in terms of craft elements: point of view, plot, characterization, pacing, and description. Points of confusion and disconnection are gifts when the writer gets a chance to correct those things before the work is in front of an editor. I am blessed that I have a partner who has a good sense of literature and I have made friends in the MFA program who are able to offer helpful suggestions to improve my work.
I benefitted from the skillful eyes of authors and teachers Patricia Weaver Francisco, Mary Logue, and David Chan who read one or both of my novels and gave criticism. Just as I don’t accept all ideas that come to me, I don’t take all the suggestions made by my readers, but I do carefully weigh criticism especially if it is shared by more than one reader. (These revisions are not line editing although, my friend, Wendy, cannot help but correct many of those errors too. I owe her many pens and have a debt of gratitude for her help improving and clarifying my work.) I make the corrections I notice, but during these drafts I am looking more for issues related to craft elements.
4. I believe there isn’t a one-size-fits-all process.
If there is, it has a lot of elastic in the waist band. There are infinite varieties of artist processes. At the same time, those who have gone before me have left footprints, beaten down paths, and good directions. What’s more, many artists have used the same map. For me, that translates into some best practices: I need to write every day, generate lots and lots of work, expect and accept failed efforts, be open to new information, build supports, protect my creative time and sensitive heart, revise work in installments, read as much as I can, and be generous with other writers.
The idea of being generous to other writers reminds me that the biggest influence on my writing process was my enjoyment of books. I want to write books like the ones I have enjoyed. Through my twenties and thirties I would have said that John Steinbeck was my favorite author. I swooned at his pathos and grew fiery in response to his depiction of social injustice. In my forties I found E. Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Alison McGhee, Pamela Carter Joern, and Kent Haruf. These writers gave me a vision of the type of book I wanted to write and the way I wanted a reader to feel reading my book.
In my fifties I read Anne Dillard who wrote that writers should, “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.” I pray to not waste anyone’s precious breath. What a lovely life I have chosen. I dream, imagine, watch, listen, write, read, and repeat.
July 13, 2017
2. I believe in both conscious and unconscious labor in producing art.
Even if I do not know where a particular story idea came from, I do understand the labor it takes to put the ideas on the page. I write down what I am given, and save information until I can sit down to write the story. I have more novels and short stories queued up in my writing journal. No matter where the inspiration came from, I need to consciously do the work of writing.
My thesis experience mirrors something Rollo May said in his book, The Courage to Create. “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between stimulus and response and, in that pause to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight,” p. 100. The MFA program has challenged me to choose where I will “throw” my considerable weight. The structure of classes has helped me focus my writing.
At the same time, the classes have given me skill to choose and implement my writing plans. I have learned how to write a novel, an essay, and a poem. As I work as a writer, some work is happening unconsciously in the story production side too. I often pose questions to myself with firm assurance that I will get the answer. Sure enough, the solution or at least something worth trying pops into my head after sleep or during a shower. I still have to test the solution. I don’t just use it because it popped into my head, but often it is the solution that makes sense to me.
Solutions also come to me from reading the work of others, listening to feedback, and getting out in the world experiencing art, nature, music, film, and time with my kids. The conscious labor of writing requires making writing a habit. I aspire to write or revise every day and most days I accomplish that goal. I give myself writing assignments from whatever I am working on. As I am plotting a novel, I make lists of missing scenes and use the list as a writing assignment. I also have several books with writing prompts in case I need them. I confess that I have read those books like they were novels and rarely return to them for a prompt because I always have work to do. During the MFA program I finished both the novels I mentioned. The disparity in the amount of time it took to complete each of these novels points to another thing I learned about my creative process which I will share in my next blog.
July 2, 2017
Beginning this week and for several weeks I will share some of my personal beliefs about creative process. I hope these reflections are useful to other writers.
1. I believe in both conscious and unconscious inspiration.
For me, it seems that accessing the unconscious is not so much a trick as a game of whack-a-mole. Ideas are popping up all the time. Often, at least initially, I don’t know where these voices came from. In my day job I work with persons with mental illness, so I know some things about voices. My voices are more like thoughts than they are like auditory hallucinations. They are not mean, threatening voices, nor do they command me to do things that are dangerous, but often they represent a conflict or bit of trouble some character is in and they may have an accent or a specific way of speaking. It is not the same voice every time.
At first, I don’t know how these characters form and take shape in my head. I just listen a while and jot the information down. I carry a notebook with me almost all the time for just this purpose. I’m also not above jotting things on napkins, receipts, and popcorn boxes. Later, I may notice that there was a thematic connection to something I have been noodling or worrying about. A reader may catch connections that I haven’t noticed yet. It is not my job at this stage to analyze the source of this inspiration. I see it as my job to pay attention and decide when to expand the material into some sort of story or essay. This unconscious material keeps coming as if as a human I cannot help but be a conduit to the material that I’ve taken in and the material I hold in common with the universe.
At the same time, the bulk of my writing comes from my own experience in the world which includes some biographical content and things I’ve heard and seen in the lives of others living and dead, real and fictional. Sensory details come from my experience in the world, but are not limited to my experience. Like other writers I love literature and see writing as a way of creating anything I can imagine. I will continue to write about things that have never happened to me, places I’ve never been, and people I’ve never met.
After the first draft of my thesis was nearly complete, it occurred to me that it was no big surprise that I wrote a story about a mom who lost custody of her little girl and yearns to get her back. My partner and I have adopted two children. Both of them have grieved the unknown birth parents who let them go. As a parent I have tried to comfort my children by saying that their birth parents made that decision from a place of love. At the same time, I balance my ferocious resolve that I never want to give either of them back to their birth parents (even if that process was a possibility), with the heartbreak I feel in seeing my children grieve. I vacillate between grieving for those birth parents and their loss being my gain, and anger at them and myself because their loss was my gain. Some days I feel guilt at the racism and classism of my good fortune, but most days, I am just very grateful to have my two children. Adopting them was more important and rewarding than anything I have ever done or can imagine doing. Having my daughters is better than a guest spot on Oprah or Ellen.
Given the significance of this adoption event in my experience and the parts that noodle around in my unconscious awareness, it is no surprise that I have written a story with a birth mom losing her daughter and another woman gaining a daughter. What is surprising is that in my novel, the plot includes the birth mom getting her daughter back again. My fiction has accomplished a practical and moral advancement that I have not achieved in my personal life. I surprised myself that this was the story I needed to write.
June 20, 2017
How do you promote your own book? That is the question I have been asking myself. I had the mistaken notion that once my book was written and found an agent and publisher that bookstores would order it and reviewers would talk about it and it would sell. How do you promote your own book when you are an introvert?
Some people hire a publicist to market the book. I didn't because I didn't have the money for expenses like that.
The truth of publishing for minions like me is that I have to promote my own book and even buy my book for readings in bookstores. Sad, but true because bookstores need to protect themselves against inventory that doesn't sell. They stock books that can be returned to publishers. Mine cannot be returned. I have to buy the books for bookstores and readings and take the risk if the book doesn't sell. I don't mind that so much because my book has sold well at events. It is a stretch for me to keep soliciting events, reviews, and readings, but I am doing it and learning from the experience.
I chose to write on this topic to dispell the myth that when a book is finally published that authors just sit around and wait for the royalty checks to roll in. Authors have to hustle and hope that word of mouth or notable reviews boost the book buzz. This reality makes me a pest and really gets in the way of my opportunity to complete new work.
June 5, 2017
The end of May and early June is a bittersweet time for me. My parents were born then within a week of each other. This year they would have been ninety years old. I am keenly aware of missing them everyday, but there are these auspicious days that make me heave an involuntary sigh at the enormous hole that is their absence.
This was particularly poignant for me as I attended a great poetry reading by Deborah Keenan and Katrina Vandenberg. Poets, really great poets capture into words a tune that hearts can hear and souls sway side-to-side. It is lovely to read poetry as a solitary moment, but when it is a public reading, many of us gathering at the community well, we then bear witness and sigh and groan together in our communal knowing of life and death, the truth of the words and reality of the experience.
Poets are prophets, town criers, reporters, interpreters, translators, priests, bartenders, counselors, mediators, and historians. They hold and mitigate the intense experiences of life and distill them into brief pictures in words that we can carry with us in our pocket or mind. Poetry connects us in our humanity.
May 24, 2017
Today I will depart from my usual musings on the words and work of Flannery O'Connor and turn to E. Annie Proulx one of my favorite novelists and short fiction artists. Last week I read her novel, That Old Ace in the Hole and her third collection of Wyoming stories, Fine Just the Way It Is. She has a gift for specific sensory detail. Her talent with this aspect of storytelling made me interested in her education. There is a lovely interview of Proulx written by Katie Bolick in the November 12, 1997 issue of The Atlantic Online.
In the article Proulx talks about having been "immersed into academic research" when she was studying history as a graduate student. She said that the, "research habit is one that does not go away." She also credits her natural curiosity for "how things work and how people are." You see this in her writing and it made me think about dreaded writer's block. Taking time to research and read first source accounts of history give us as writers a chance to work on our work even when the narrative work isn't coming easy.
The other cogent point that struck me from the interview was that Proulx pointed out how much popular and critical attention competes for a writer's time. She states that "writing is utterly absorbing for me, and I resent anything that pulls me away from it."
Proulx knows about attention. Her second novel, The Shipping News won both the National Book Award (1993) and the Pulitzer Prize (1994). Suddenly, she received countless requests to read and judge contests. She said that often institutions were head-hunting for "trophy writers" and don't necessarily care about the writier's work or intent. "It gives you a very odd, meat-rack kind of sensation."
I think of this insight on the eve of my first reading for my debut novel, Bend. I crave attention for this book in hopes that it will sell well and that I will sell my other novels. I collect, copy and paste every kind review to my website and social media. I want the opportunity to work my day job less because I am a "real" writer with books selling more to be written.
I know the folly in this thinking. Publishing isn't what makes a writing, writing does, but I want to be published. Believe me, I have allowed myself whopping dreams of success beyond what I have admitted here.
Each milestone of writing and publication process is followed by another distance to travel. First, I wrote a complete draft of this book. Then I needed to find and agent. When I finally found an agent (I had probably at least 200 rejections) that was incredibly exciting. Next, more revisions. My agent then sent out the novel. More rejections. Finally, the book sold to a publisher. This was thrilling. More revisions.
My book was released May 8th. I have my first ever bookstore reading and signing tomorrow night and I wish to have the problem Proulx describes. I wish to be in demand and have the challenge of learning to say, "no, I can't do that event because I am writing." I want to feel the obligation to carve out time for writing more books.
May 13, 2017
Reflections of a blog tour. I never expected to title anything like that, but now I have had the experience of having a blog tour. I appreciate the work Riptide Publishing did in setting up the tour for me. I'm grateful for the bloggers who shared their time and readers with me. I am grateful for the people who visited the tour and left their comments, encouragement, questions and contact information.
My favorite part was responding to the comments. I am so unknown that it was possible for me to personally email or respond to each of the people who stopped on the tour. I had a tough time with creating my google profile and I will blame my lack of tech savvy if I accidentally missed replying to someone. I realized that I liked that part best because it reminded me of being in graduate school with classrooms of people who loved to read and write. Class time was all about reading and writing. Our trips to the pub after class were all about reading and writing.
Once I was done with my MFA I didn't see classmates as often and had fewer opportunities to talk about reading, writing and artistic process. I miss that. The blog tour was a flashback to that time at Hamline University. It is important to find your people. I'm lucky because my wife is an avid, astute reader. My daughters have great narrative imaginations and will probably write more stories than I have. I love to talk books with my mother-in-law and my uncle's friend, Mil. I have great colleagues at my job who read and stay informed in the arts. I also have a great community in the Twin Cities where I can go to readings, plays, and art exhibits every day of the week.
My take-away from this blog tour experience is that I am grateful for these new experiences and the way a new thing reminds me of things I already have in my life. It feels good to be thankful.
May 8, 2017
My book has been released. I have watched Facebook as countless friends have reported receiving it in the mail or waiting patiently for its arrival. Every stage has been about waiting. Waiting to find an agent. Waiting to find a publisher. Waiting for the edits and production of the book. Waiting for the release date. Waiting for people to buy it, read it, and hoping they like it. All of this waiting makes the writing of it seem so quick and easy. The writing of it was not quick or easy of course, but it was satisfying. And each completed wait was exciting in its own way, but I am glad that I will always have the writing. For that, I do not have to wait.
May 7, 2017
It is the eve of my book release and first ever blog tour. I had let myself dream of publishing a book, but had never pictured a blog tour. I wonder what Flannery O'Connor would say about publishing in its current incarnation. She is perhaps spinning in her grave to see the mountain of books published each year and that people can get those books in so many formats and even publish themselves. I think she would celebrate the creative spirit and be shocked at what passes as tame writing compared to the description of her writing being too violent and therefore, grotescque.
She writes in The Fiction Writer and His Country, "In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider."
April 9, 2017
In The Fiction Writer and His Country, Flannery wrote, "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate."
I don't think Flannery would have thought much of social media. Sure, she could have composed an abundance of pithy posts and tweets if she wanted, but I think she would have wanted/needed a bigger canvas to make clear her meaning.
I don't comment much on social media not because I think I am Flannery O'Connor, but because short bits don't tell enough of the story and often spur on such vitriolic exchanges. Tweets and posts don't leave enough room for the both/and of things. I mostly post cute animal pictures because I think they will make someone smile or laugh. I'm not likely to post arguments against the opinions of others. I try to maintain relationships recognizing that we are more alike than different and it is the tolerance of those differences that make a society great in my opinion.
In my fiction and poetry I want to examine the tough stuff that can't be summed up in 140 letters. I have humor in my novels, but I also talk about bias, violence, abuse, disease, and poverty. Not every conflict will be resolved or tied up pretty, but it will be written with the honest intention to depict the way I think life works. It will be messy. There will be laughter and sadness.
April 5, 2017
Flannery wrote, "I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe. It is not a set of rules which fixes what he sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery."
I was at Half Price Books this weekend and noticed a large section with signage that indicated the books on that shelf were "Christian Fiction." I didn't check for other categories of a specific religion's fiction. Perhaps there was a Muslim Fiction section or a Buddhist Fiction section.
I suppose I prefer sectioning and sorting to censorship, but I wondered if there were people who limited themselves to only Christian fiction and stayed away from general fiction or vice versa.
March 26, 2017
When Flannery O'Connor was asked whether writing programs stifle young writers she said, "Not enough of them." That makes me laugh. It reminds me that writing programs are a business and they survive by attacting students who aspire to write and be published. It is an expensive opportunity. At the same, I value the education I purchased at Hamline University. I credit their MFA program with helping me to work efficiently and effectively. I honed my creative process and added a community of writers to my circle of friends.
March 19, 2017
Flannery wrote, "I hate the racket that's made over a book and the reviews. The praise as well as the blame--it's all bad for your writing."
Are you able to resist reading reviews and comments? In my MFA program we practiced giving feedback about writing with a structured format. I was never part of a feeding frenzy of criticism. Comments were made about specific aspects of the work. You didn't get extra credit for tearing apart the author. With the Internet there are countless opportunities for people to show their cleverness and hatchet the work of others. The commenters don't have to have any credentials other than access.
Will you weigh all feedback the same? Will you allow negative feedback to keep you from writing? Consider limiting or eliminating your reading of comments if they keep you from writing. Choose trusted readers to give specific feedback on specific questions about your work. If your trusted readers come up with the same things that are unclear or not working you need to give that feedback more attention with the goal of making your work better and more clear.
In her letters Flannery wrote, "If you have only written it three times, it is still, supposed to be no good. You have a defect of patience, not a defect of energy."
Maybe you can relate, but sometimes I expect my work to be perfect immediately. Graduate school taught me the value of feedback and talking about what works and what doesn't work in a particular piece of writing. What are the memorable sensory details? Where is there movement? Are there places that lack specific nouns or strong verbs? It may feel good to receive lots of vague praise, but honest, precise feedback about what is working in your writing is much more valuable in the long run.
Again in her letters Flannery wrote, "It has always seemed necessary to me to throw the weight of circumstances against the character I favor. The friends of God suffer..." A good story has trouble. A good story has conflict. Tell a story where the protagonist faces an obstacle and then another set-back followed by unexpected delays and stumbles. As a reader I will follow along and cheer for that protagonist to defy all odds. Our tragedies join us together as family as certainly as our celebrations.
Flannery wrote, "I think you are wrong that heroes have to be stable. If they were stable there wouldn't be any story. It seems to me all good stories are about conversion, about a character's changing..."
Flannery wrote, "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc." Does your story have a "moment of grace"?
March 29, 2017
Her catholic faith played a major role in O'Connor's writing. In her lettters she wrote,
"Remember that I am not a pantheist and do not think of the creation as God, but as made and sustained by God."
How does your faith, spirituality, or religion show in your writings? Can a reader know for certain where an author stands on spirituality based on writing? Are authors obliged to write characters that have only certain beliefs or beliefs consistent with the world view of the author?
These are heady questions and I don't have the answer for all of them. For me, my spirituality comes out in my writing, but hopefully in a dynamic way. I am still learning, growing, and experiencing my sense of spirituality in this world. I want to write characters who are complex people, neither all good nor all bad.