Actor-turned-writer Gina Sorell: How “Method Writing” led to my first novel

 

Long before I called myself a writer, I was an actor. Even though writing had been my first love, it wasn’t how I made my living. I’d attended performing arts schools from the time I was 9 years old all the way through high school, and I went to college at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Although I’d devoted so much of my life to being an actor, the part that I enjoyed the most were the stories that my characters got to tell. I loved building my characters, writing elaborate histories that explained how they came to be the people they were at the moment the audience met them. A script can only tell you so much about the character, presenting them as they are in the here and now. Maybe there will be clues, or lines about their past, but it’s often up to the actor to decide the rest.

A character breakdown on a casting notice might say, “A divorced, polished, hard as nails lawyer, who clawed her way to the top without anyone’s help, she knows her way around a man’s world.” And I’d wonder: What made her so hard? How did she claw? Intellectually, sexually, ethically, mercilessly? What did that sacrifice cost her? Is she polished in her appearance? Did her Armani pantsuit put her over the top on her credit card, maxing her out after paying student loans and the debt from her deadbeat ex-husband who gambled away all their savings and slept with her best friend?

I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal.

The script may give insight into her past, but it might not, especially if the role is small, and it would be up to me to imagine the rest. I’d write pages about who my character was and what had gone before the audience met her, a back story so detailed that I knew what music she liked, what her favorite drink was, what her politics were, and what her secrets were, even if I never got to share this information with the audience. These details made the characters real, made them complex and fascinating, and I often wondered what adventures they’d have beyond the time I got to spend with them.

Now, as a writer, I still do all of this work, and much of it never makes it to the page. I write the back story and the front story, not just to know where my characters are, but how they got there, and then I wrestle with how much of their history to reveal. But it’s through this exploration and examination of the people in my work that I can come to really understand who they are and what motivates them.

But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together.

In that way, my acting work was no different than my writing work. I strive to make the pages and the people who inhabit them come alive, finding their way into our hearts and minds long after we meet them. But as a writer, my time with these characters is no longer limited by shooting schedules of days or weeks. We get to spend hundreds of pages, years together, and if I’ve really done my work, they will not only reveal themselves to me, but will lead the way I write the story or novel as well.

When I started writing my debut novel Mothers and Other Strangers, I was still working as an actor, but slowly transitioning out of it. On set I had found myself increasingly talking more about the script and the story than about my own particular role in the projects I was cast in, and it was clear to me that I wanted to spend more time creating my stories than acting out someone else’s.

As I began to write, I spent a lot of time thinking and walking and getting inside my characters’ heads, trying to see the world through their eyes. I’d improvise dialogue that they’d say and conversations they’d engage in, and wonder about the people that really lived beneath the exterior they presented. I came to know  intimately the cast of characters that I created, reserving judgment in order to allow them to be flawed and complicated and often broken.

And because of this I think I was able to stay true to them, even in the face of outside concern or criticism. There were times when early readers told me that Elsie, my troubled 39-year-old protagonist, who had endured an unhappy childhood at the hands of her cruel and narcissistic mother, was too depressed, too bitter, her dark humor too biting. Why would anyone want to spend time with her, when she seemed so unlikable?

I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked.

But in my heart I disagreed. I saw her as a survivor, trying to find her way in spite of the scars her childhood had left, her humor a coping mechanism, her struggle with depression understandable and real. I fought for Elsie to be the way she was, resisting suggestions to make her happier, simpler, as if difficult and complicated people are not worthy of being liked. I trusted that by knowing who she really was, I could take the reader inside her head, so that they could understand her, and in doing so, come to love her as I did. I strive to do this for all my characters, so that even the malevolent ones, responsible for the psychological wounds that Elsie carried, would be worthy of some empathy. And I believe that they are.

As an actor, my job was to bring my characters to life off the page, and now as a writer, my challenge is to bring them to life on the page. The medium may have changed, but the goal — creating lives that give us insight into the hearts and minds and world of others — has remained the same.

*****

Born in South Africa and raised in Canada, Gina Sorell now resides in Toronto, and lives in a world of words. Some of those words are: writer, namer, creative director, artist, daughter, sister, wife and mother.

After two decades as a working actor of stage and screen in NYC, LA, and Toronto, Gina decided to return to her first love–writing, and graduated with distinction from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Gina likes to balance out the long solitary hours of novel writing with her work as Creative Director of Eat My Words, a SF-based branding firm, where she collaborates with innovators and entrepreneurs whose identity she establishes with only one word, their name. 

1999-2013: The Short, Sad Life of an Unsuccessful Novelist

  

By Margaret Verble

I noticed my first symptom in 1999. A tingling in my fingertips. An odd feeling, like they were trying to grasp what they couldn’t reach, or, maybe, trying to run away. Definitely doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I, however, was doing exactly what I thought I should be doing: running a consulting business, playing tennis, vacationing in places that suited my self-image. Still, the tingling persisted. There was something wrong with me.

When I wasn’t on the road working, I began hibernating. My basement den is nice. Equipped with a computer, exercise equipment, and TV. The exercise equipment and TV didn’t alleviate the tingling. The computer keys, though, had a soothing effect. That’s what those fingers had been wanting to do. Tap, tap, tap, and so on.

And on. I spent every spare moment I had from 1999 through 2007 in my basement den at that computer. That’s nine full years. I decided early on that I could run a business and write fiction. But I didn’t have time to run a business, write fiction, and talk about writing fiction. The only person I discussed my writing with was my husband. He was also a consultant; but, when we’d fallen in love, he’d been the Poet in Residence for the Metro Nashville School System. David had once had a fine mind for literature. I’d had a fairly good one. But, you see, we’d chosen, instead, to earn a living.

To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

By 2007, I’d produced a couple of novels. And had tried to get agents for them. But I had no success at that. I began having other symptoms. A sinking feeling. A tenderness. Maybe, a perpetual pout. I decided I couldn’t get a novel published alone. I needed help. I used the handy computer and looked on the Internet. To my surprise, there were writers’ workshops out there. Evidently, other people knew this. It was an industry. But, you see, I’d been in the basement, attending to the reading, writing, and imagining it takes to produce novels.

I picked my first workshop on the basis of dubious criteria. 1. It had to be near New York, as even down in a basement in Kentucky it had come to me that the action is up there in the City. 2. It had to be near enough to drive to, as I fly too much for a living. 3. It had to offer critique sessions, because I had to know if I’d been wasting my time. 4. It needed nonfiction offerings, so I could entice my college roommate to go with me.

We picked The Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, and I was assigned Roxana Robinson as my instructor. I read a couple of Roxana’s books, as I wanted to be sure she could write. (She sure can.) I took the books with me, as you can’t expect anyone to take an interest in you if you don’t take an interest in them. Roxana critiqued my manuscript. After I left our session, I read what she’d inscribed on the title page of her novel, Sweetwater, “For Margaret, Already a good writer.” That’s what nine years in a basement will do for you. You have to write to be a writer. And write. And write. And so on.

You also need a mentor, because nobody, I mean nobody, is successful alone. Roxana was kind enough to try to find me an agent. But agents are running businesses and have agendas of their own. None of the ones we tried wanted to take me on. I was discouraged. Kept writing. By then, not really by choice. By addiction. In July of 2008, I wrote in a journal, “I thought I’d found an agent for my fiction. But I’ve just opened a letter that says I’m wrong about that. Likes the writing. Doesn’t know where to sell it. He’s not the first. I’ve failed at this so much that disappointment feels like destiny calling. Hard work isn’t enough. I need that confluence of forces called Luck.”

Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night.

In October of 2009, I wrote, “If I were inclined toward discouragement, that rock would be rolling me down a hill. Every morning I’m home, seven days a week, I get up early and write for an hour and a half. Then, after supper, I write nearly every night. I still haven’t found an agent. I may have lost sight of the line between perseverance and futility.”

In February of 2010, Roxana came to Lexington for a book appearance. On that trip, she suggested I try writing short stories to build some credentials. I’m a novelist at heart; I didn’t want to do that. And I was busy. I had a contract with the NHS in the U.K., and a new British partner who was going through treatment for cancer. I was also exhausted and frightened. I didn’t take up Roxana’s advice until the next year.

In January of 2011, I wrote my first short story, “The Teller,” and sent it off to the Arkansas Review. I didn’t hear anything for months. I finally followed up with the editor, Janelle Collins. She told me the story was in the “Maybe” pile. But on August 13, she e-mailed me to say she’d accepted it. The news gave me validation and hope. It justified all those years down the stairs.

I got a few more short stories published after that. But I still didn’t have an agent. And I still hadn’t given up being a novelist. By the fall of 2013, I’d finished a new novel, Maud’s Allotment; but by then, I knew I had cancer. Informed by the pathology report after surgery for something else. My cancer surgery had to be delayed until I’d healed enough to be cut open again. I went on to Scotland to work because I had a commitment there, and because, when you’re in business, if you’re not actually dead, you have to show up. While I was in Edinburgh, I had a bad meal alone, and a short story rejected by e-mail. You get the picture here: cancer, rejection, bad food, and half an island away from my partner. I e-mailed Roxana. Mentioned only the bad food, rejection, and novel. She e-mailed me back. Said her agent was taking new clients. To send her, Lynn Nesbit, a hard copy.

When I got back to the U.S., I had two days before surgery, but I mailed that manuscript off. When Lynn sent a request for an electronic copy, I was somewhere in the bowels of the University of Kentucky Medical Center, too ill to sit up. My best friend brought my computer to me, moved me up in the bed, and helped me hit the right keys. When luck comes knocking, you have to answer immediately, no matter what you’re doing, no matter how many pain meds you’re on.

Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see.

I was two days out of the hospital, still heavily doped, and sitting next to a bag of urine hooked over a drawer when Lynn called. She said she thought my book was “About 85% there,” and, before she tried to sell it, she wanted me to send it to an editor she would pick. I tried to sound coherent, and Lynn said she’d call back with a name. When we hung up, I looked at the bag of pee. Wondered if I’d understood. Wondered if I’d hallucinated. Decided to wait and see. Cancer puts things in perspective.

But the sailing has been smooth seas from there. The editor, Adrienne Brodeur, had good judgment and was helpful. I slowly regained my health. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought the book, and, Lauren Wein, my editor there, has been lovely to work with. Maud’s Line (the title was changed in New York) has a Pulitzer Finalist badge on the paperback cover, and is selling. I have a new manuscript with Lynn right now.

Fifteen years isn’t really a long time to learn a complicated task like novel writing. It really isn’t. It’s not painting by numbers. That unsuccessful novelist is dead and buried. For now. I am alive and healthy. Again, for now. My fingers still tingle. But I’ve gotten used to that.

* * * * *

This essay is reprinted from The Authors Guild Bulletin, Winter 2017.

Margaret Verble is a successful businesswoman and novelist. Her consulting work has taken her to most states and to several foreign countries. Upon the publication of her debut novel, Maud’s Line, Margaret whittled her consulting practice down to one group of clients, organ procurement organizations, tissue banks, and eye banks, to devote the rest of her time to writing. Maud’s Line was a Finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is available in hardback, audio, and paperback.

The Pulitzer Prize committee praised Maud’s Line as “[a] novel whose humble prose seems well-suited to the remote American milieu it so engagingly evokes: the Indian allotments of 1920s Oklahoma.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Verble, herself a member of the Cherokee Nation, tells a compelling story peopled with flawed yet sympathetic characters, sharing insights into Cherokee society on the parcels of land allotted to them after the Trail of Tears.”

 

Roxana Robinson: The Two Worlds of the Writer’s Life

Roxana-ROBINSON-2-C-David-Ignaszewski-koboy

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta and Cost; three collections of short stories; and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, which was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Most Notable Books of the Year. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s MagazineThe New York Times, The Washington PostBookForum, Best American Short Stories, Tin House and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and divides her time among New York, Connecticut, and Maine. She has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation and is the President of the Authors Guild.

This essay is reprinted from the Winter 2016 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.


 

While you’re working on a book, you’re living in two worlds.

There is the world that you inhabit with everyone you know—your husband, your children, your friends, your colleagues. This is the tangible world, and you inhabit it easily. You don’t have to try. You can e-mail people, or call them or talk to them at dinner. The things you share with them are immediate. But your presence there becomes increasingly insubstantial: you realize that it doesn’t really matter if you’re there or not. This world will go on without you.

The other world you’re living in, the world of the book, is just as vivid. You’re living with people you’ve never seen, though you know them as well as you know everyone else in your life. But it’s not always easy to connect with them. Sometimes it seems as though a translucent scrim separates you, and whenever you’re not writing, you’re worried that you won’t be able to get past the scrim.

In the novel Time and Again, the protagonist is asked to live in circumstances that exactly mimic those of a century earlier, in hopes that he’ll be able to slip through a portal into another era. He does, of course. I think about this when I’m trying to move into the world of my novel. I’m never quite sure if I’ll be able to get there. “This novel” is the place that I inhabit while I’m working. In this world, I’m necessary. It won’t go on without me.

When I began writing fiction, the rule for young writers was, “Write what you know.” It’s a good rule, meant to avoid the inauthentic use of places, people, and feelings. The idea was that the writer should know herself first, examine her own world before she begins to examine others. It’s still a good rule for young writers. But it needn’t hold true throughout a whole career. It is beginning to seem that contemporary novelists have used up what they know. The present seems over-explored, so why not write about the past and the future?

Futuristic and historical novels are becoming all the rage. There are lots of distinguished ones: Frankenstein, The Handmaid’s TaleNever Let Me Go and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five. And of course Wolf HallMary Reilly and The Blue Flower. (I know, I know, I’m naming mostly works by women, and I’m sorry. It’s just that there are so many more good books by women than there are by men! If I could think of more by men, I’d name them, of course.)

When you are writing a contemporary novel, you’re already living a covert life. You talk to your family as though you’re all occupying the same place—the kitchen. And you are in the kitchen, but you’re also in that other place, the place where the novel lives, with its great rolling landscape of emotions and conversations and characters on their way to the unknown destination at the end of the narrative. Those people in that other place are all around, constantly swimming through your consciousness.

But when you’re writing about another time, you are in even more trouble: you’re doubly removed from the tangible world. The words and sentiments from the people of that other time become more and more real. You’re fascinated by them. You’re bemused by people who talk in today’s language, the one you’ve stopped speaking. You’re deep in another era. You can hardly believe that your husband wants to discuss this year’s politics, when he could be talking about those of that other year, which are so much more vivid, those candidates so much more astonishing in their declarations, their dastardliness, their ambitions, their facial hair.

And all the time you feel as though that other world, the one where you’re writing, is elusive. It is slipping through your hands like water. You can’t quite close your fingers on it, yet that’s the place you’re living. You can’t quite close your fingers on it, yet you’re swimming through it. It’s become your medium. It’s all around you, but you can’t quite breathe.

One afternoon, when I was writing my biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, I was driving down the street in the small town where I then lived. A man was driving toward me, and I recognized him. He was handsome, with a square face, a dark, serious gaze, metal-rimmed glasses and a mustache. I knew I knew him, but couldn’t think of who he was in time to wave. After he’d driven past, I realized it was Alfred Stieglitz. The funny thing was that Stieglitz never learned to drive.

Once you’ve finished the book, you stop living in that world. It’s lost to you. People ask me afterwards if I’m thinking of writing a sequel. Don’t I want to know what happens next, they ask? But I can no longer find the portal. Sometimes I’ll hear from a reader, years later, reminding me of that place, telling me how it felt while she was reading it.

Then I remember what it was like when I lived there.

Differently Motivated: In Defense of the Slacker-Writer

Monica McFawn 2016   Bright Shards of Someplace Else

By Monica McFawn

I wasn’t—and have never been—a particularly good student.  In fact, the best way to describe me as an undergraduate was as a slacker—and an unrepentant one at that.   School, for me, was a dance of strategy and deception.  Do as little work as possible but give the impression of working hard.  If your mind drifts, nod more vigorously to feign engagement. Write showoffy, passionate essays to hide sloppy research and logic.  Laugh at the professor’s jokes to build up goodwill you can later leverage for assignment extensions.  If class is held in the library for a “research day,” dart down the stacks and scurry to the exit when the professor isn’t looking.  Be sure to sign the attendance sheet first, of course.

I enjoyed the drama that my slacking created—the exhilarating all-nighters, the perfectly calibrated performances of my bogus excuses, the passable grade wrenched from the maws of failure.  I like to believe that I may have written one of the first emailed excuses to a professor in a time when it was still a novelty.  I remember it to this day:  Due to a series of complex misfortunes, I cannot attend class…. The pleasure of school was not in learning the material, but learning—outwitting, ideally—the game of school.   I was a bullshitter, a brownnoser, a layabout, a faker—but, in my mind, free.  Every time I skipped class, I felt the thrill of shirking a responsibility, of rejecting others’ expectations in order to follow my own interests.   Slacking seemed like a way to preserve my selfhood, even as I was told my life would be defined by how well I did in school.

I’m a professor now, and now I’m the target of the expertly performed excuses, the fake laughter, the bullshit.  I also see now what I didn’t then—that a college education is a privilege, and my slacking itself was the behavior of someone lucky enough to have a supportive, soundly middle class family.  Still, even with the wisdom of age, I admire the old slacker version of myself.  My eighteen-year-old self may have been ruled by sloth and mischief, but I’ve come to believe that “slacking” can actually be beneficial for writers—especially women—for two main reasons.

  1. Slackers know how to prioritize and protect their boundaries.

A slacker’s day is a series of refusals.  No, I won’t get up before noon.  No, I won’t clean the dishes, make the bed, do the laundry.  No, I won’t study.  No, I won’t go to class.  No, I won’t visit the professor during office hours. And like that great slacker of American Literature, Bartleby, I didn’t even bother with an excuse if I could avoid it.  I preferred not, and that was all the justification I needed.

Nowadays, I realize how important this slacker-skill is, especially for women. Saying no is critical to the creative life.  Saying “no” is a way of protecting one’s boundaries, of leaving time for the art and people we truly care about.   When my book,  Bright Shards of Someplace Else, came out, I overextended myself, taking on every reading, article, or interview request.  I’d forgotten what I learned from the depths of slackerdom: that I needed to protect my time and passions, even if that meant I outwardly appeared less active.   When I skipped class years ago, it wasn’t always about simply revelling in my idleness (though often it was about that).  It was also about freeing up time for what I cared about, which back then was riding my horse, reading, arguing with friends about ideas.  But as I got older and more ambitious, I forgot the simple teachings of the slacker: that saying no is not only okay, but required.

The problem is that women have been culturally conditioned to overachieve and overcommit.  It’s no coincidence that the iconic slackers of film (and TV) are historically men (think Ferris Bueller, The Big Lebowski).   Even though female slackers are finally making an appearance on the screen, research shows that women in real life find it hard to say no to excessive workloads.   Slacking is a form of power.  It’s a way of saying: “My time is worth more than this task or duty.  I’m worth more than this task or duty.” Perhaps that wasn’t exactly my inner monologue when I was lying in bed reading teen novels rather than attending class, but the argument could be made that my slacking had a feminist bent.

  1. Slackers Use Cunning to Pursue Pleasure and Avoid Difficulty

The most frequent advice that writers get is that writing is hard work that demands unwavering discipline and a willingness to embrace difficulty.  Writing is about putting in long hours, powering through discomfort, self-disgust, and boredom.  On  the face of it, the slacker seems to have no hope as a writer.  Writing is about work and difficulty, and slackers avoid those things at all cost.

Lately, however, I’ve started to see that the slacker’s ethos can even be applied to the writing process.  For years, I used to believe that I should simply keep writing when it became difficult.  This was the message I used to send to students, too, but now I find myself saying something more in line with the old slacker me. “If you feel yourself really struggling to write a section, if it’s really boring or difficult, see if there’s a way you can avoid it.  Maybe it isn’t needed.  Maybe if it’s boring to write it will be boring to read.”

There are, I realized, different kinds of difficulty.   There’s the difficulty that comes from trying to represent nuanced emotions, from dramatizing the ethics of a thorny relationship, from breaking up the “frozen sea within us,” as Franz Kafka put it. This is the type of difficulty a writer should lean into.  But then there is the difficulty that comes from having to write a dull, but logistically required passage to move your characters through time and space.  This was the type of writing I encouraged my students to slack on.

Slackers don’t work hard, but they do work smart.  A good slacker is cunning, always looking for steps that could be skipped or streamlined so she can get back to what’s pleasurable or fun.  A slacker’s mindset leads to formal innovation and experimentation as she tries out all avenues to avoid any writing that feels like a slog.  A slacker’s mindset creates a story that is all high points, since all the slacker really wants are the highs. A slacker is playful and rascally, two qualities a writer needs at least as much as a work ethic. And finally, a slacker, like a good writer, finds satisfaction in dodging an expected route.

I wrote this essay to remind myself of the value of slacking, so in the interest of full disclosure I need to report that I have succeeded and failed in this in equal measure.  I said “yes” to writing this essay—a clear breach of the slacker code.  However, I redeemed myself by both pushing back the deadline twice and pulling a near all-nighter.  My plan is to work on being a better slacker—but if I fall down at even that job, I figure I can still count it as a success.

***

Monica McFawn’s story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, won a Flannery O’Connor Award and was named a Michigan Notable Book, a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award and an NPR “Great Read.” Her stories have appeared in journals such as Georgia Review, Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review and others, and her screenplays and plays have had readings in New York and Chicago. She is also author of “A Catalogue of Rare Movements,” a poetry/art chapbook, and host of the Nathaniel Hawthorne-themed comedy podcast, The Hawthorne Effect.  A recipient of a NEA Fellowship in Literature and a Walter E. Dakin fellowship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, McFawn is an assistant professor of English at Northern Michigan University, where she teaches fiction and scriptwriting.  She can be found online at www.monicamcfawn.com

Guest blogger Kristiana Kahakauwila on The Writer’s Family Tree: A Tribute to Joyce Carol Oates

kahakauwila   This is Paradise cover art

Win a SIGNED COPY of Kristiana’s brilliant short story collection, THIS IS PARADISE!

Simply comment below with the name of your mentor (or the writer you’d like to be mentored by) AND share the link to this essay on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. and you’re entered. A winner will be randomly selected by number generator on Dec. 31. 

Short link for social media sharing: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-qe

Kristiana Kahakauwila is one of the brightest lights among young writers, one who is in my “5 Under 35” category (even if the National Book Foundation hasn’t chosen her as such yet). Her first book, 2013’s This is Paradise, is a compelling look into the lives of people who live in Hawai’i, the land of so many others’ dreams. She pulls back the curtain and shows us the real Hawai’i and real Hawaiians. Although her father was born and raised in the islands, her mother is Norwegian-American, and Kristiana was raised in Southern California (though she often visited family in Hawaii). She earned a BA in Comparative Literature at Princeton and an MFA from the University of Michigan. 

She has worked as a writer and editor for Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, and Highlights for Children magazines and taught English at Chaminade University in Honolulu. An assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University, Kristiana splits her time between Bellingham, Washington and Hawai`i.

This is Paradise was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Summer 2013 selection of the Discover Great New Writers program, as well as for the Target Emerging Author program. 

Recently I returned to Princeton University, my alma mater, to celebrate the retirement of Joyce Carol Oates, who was my creative writing instructor and undergraduate thesis advisor, and has remained a mentor. A collection of her former students, spanning more than two decades of teaching, spoke of Oates, her influence, and their own work. Walter Kirn, who wrote Up in the Air, detailed the oddity of seeing one’s fictional self represented by George Clooney; Jennifer Anne Kogler described the frenzied responses of her YA fandom; Pinckney Benedict debated the term “regional fiction” in his warm Appalachian drawl. Each writer had a completely different aesthetic and set of interests, yet we all had Oates— her teaching, her editorial sharpness, and her presence.

Several themes arose from this disparate group of writers. One, that Princeton was a socially awkward endeavor for all of us, and that as undergraduates we felt, in one way or another, outside of the social constructs of the university. And yet, this “outsiderness” influenced our writing, shaped our observational skills and ability to empathize, and made us more resilient to criticism. Too, we all owed a debt to the teacher we were honoring, for her early support of our work (and of us, as nascent humans) and her insistence on the two-fold goal of excellence and production. (The woman publishes a book-length project annually and still finds time to Tweet! She embodies productivity.)

The third theme of the event was that of lineage, of feeling—even in one’s outsider-ness—a part of something larger. To read Oates is to read her early mentors, which included the works of Faulkner, Thoreau, and Dickinson. More than that, to read Oates and be taught by Oates is also to read and be taught by her students. I was introduced to Benedict’s crystalline stories in Oates’s class, first read Jonathan Ames’s hilarious essays as I was graduating from college, and discovered, more recently, Julie Sarkissian’s fantastic plays with voice. In reading these authors I deepened my understanding of place, humor, irony, point of view, and other craft techniques, both those particular to these writers and those influenced by our teacher. After the retirement party, when I returned to my own classroom, I was reminded of how significantly Oates shaped my pedagogy and how my students, in years to come, will continue the growth of this writerly family tree.

I am fortunate to have studied directly with Oates, and I delight in the time I spent in her presence. But I am not bound only to her influence. In fact, I can take a cue from Oates, who had no direct contact with her models. We choose our mentors, and even if we can’t know them in person, we can know them through their work.

JCO Fest 11-7-14Former writing students of Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton pay tribute to her guidance and inspiration at her retirement in November 2014. L-R: Christopher Beha, Walter Kirn, Oates, Kristiana Kahakauwila, Pinckney Benedict and Jonathan Ames. Photo courtesy of Kristiana Kahakauwila

I have, for many years, adored the writing of Michael Ondaatje. I’ve never met him, and can’t imagine I will, but he has become a mentor of sorts. When my prose lags or becomes too dry, I turn to his and read a few pages to remember what lyricism and poetry can sound like in fiction, and what narrative can do in poetry. I recently learned that Ondaatje studied under John Berger, so I’ve decided to read Berger. A new project for the new year! Similarly, when I discovered a conversation between Colum McCann and Ondaatje (in conjunction with the PEN World Voices festival in 2008), I set upon reading McCann. No surprise, I found his novels to be lyric, imagistic, transportive, and otherworldly– just as I find Ondaatje’s.

The choreographer Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, calls this method of studying along lines of lineage or influence “scratching.” In one of the many excellent exercises in her book, she encourages artists to “read archeologically.” By reading backwards in time, moving from a contemporary work to a text that predates it (sometimes via the author’s direct mentors but also around the author’s themes, style, obsessions, and sources) a reader can travel alongside the writer. We can glimpse the evolution of what will become the artist’s style, genre, philosophy or other artistic hallmark, and if we read back far enough, we often find an idea in its embryonic, unadulterated form. Then, if we dare, we might borrow that idea, attend to it, and make it our own.

What I love about Tharp’s exercise is the reminder that we can place ourselves inside any artistic lineage we please. We do not have to be born into a lineage, nor do we have to luck into a classroom led by a master. Instead, we choose a writer we love, we read their work, and then we look to who inspired them, and whom they inspired. We read our way into that lineage, and by reading deeply, with engagement and breathless wonder, with admiration and a critical eye, by focusing on craft as much as we do the tidal shifts of our own emotional response, we teach ourselves how to write like those we love.

A Tree Born Crooked author Steph Post: Writing Under Fire

steph-post  A Tree Born Crooked

Steph Post is the author of the recently published novel A Tree Born Crooked. She lives, writes, and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida. Connect with her at http://www.stephpostfiction.com. 

BOOK GIVEAWAY! To win a SIGNED COPY of A Tree Born Crooked, share the link to this post on Facebook or Twitter (by using the links at the bottom of this post) and leave a comment below with your Twitter handle or email so I can contact you if you win. The winner will be chosen randomly on Friday, November 7. You can also use this short link in your share/tweet: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-nH

 THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. The lucky winner is Courtney Whisenant of Lacey’s Spring, Alabama. Thanks to everyone who participated! 11/8/14

For me, the dreaded question of “What’s your book about?” has always been paralyzing. Most people who ask are looking for about a ten-second synopsis, even shorter than an elevator pitch, and I find it challenging to sum up an entire novel, an entire year’s worth of work, in the amount of time it takes a person to unwrap and start chewing a stick of gum. Or check a text message. Or look over my shoulder at something more interesting. All of which that person is most likely doing while I’m trying to explain one of the most important things I’ve ever created in my entire life.

I’ll admit that I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve distilled my novel down into short, easy to manage, 21st century sound bites that hopefully catch a spark in the listener’s eyes, depending on what he or she is into. Southern. Literary. When the eyes start to drift, I ramp it up. Thriller. Crime. Guns. Then I narrow it down, hone in on what the reader is really looking for. I’m getting somewhere. Florida. Dirty Motels. Alcohol. Road Trips. Banana Moon Pies. I sold a book last week just because the woman had a huge crush on Timothy Olyphant (well, who wouldn’t?). She had no idea what my book was about, but she hauled out the cash as soon as she saw the word “Justified” on the cover.

So I thought I was nailing it with the sales pitch. I was feeling pretty good about it. And then I had a true deer-in-the-headlights moment the other day. The question was the same as always — “what’s your book about” — but I froze. “Um. Er. Stuff. And then some stuff happens. To these people. In this place. And then some more stuff. There’s all kinds of stuff in the book. Yep. That’s right. Lots of stuff.” I don’t have to tell you that I lost that sale…. But it wasn’t because I didn’t know how to pitch my novel. It’s because I suddenly couldn’t remember which novel I was talking about. And now an entirely new author challenge has been thrown my way: how to balance promoting a novel, shopping a second, and writing a third. All without losing my mind.

I have always thought of writing as a war. In addition to being an author and editor, I teach high school students how to write. When we get ready for the state writing test, my students have their battle faces on. During writing boot camp, we plot out sneak attacks, counterattacks, revision strategies, grammar arsenals, weapons of diction, hand-cramping survival tactics, and the ultimate ways to blow up the enemy (the state-appointed essay scorer) and win the war (be eligible to graduate). Some of my students look at me warily and edge away, some roll their eyes, but those who struggle with writing get it. Those who struggle and those who have the demon of a novice writer stirring deep inside of them.

Whenever I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I always feel like I’m deep in the trenches. I’m slogging away, looking out over no-man’s land, wondering if I’ll ever see daylight again. It’s messy and can be disheartening, though filled with explosions of brilliance and moments of adrenaline-fueled panic and triumph. I sit in front of my notebook or computer and imagine what people out in the “real world” are doing. Having fun. Going to parties. Interacting with other human beings. But I’m stuck in the trenches with gritted teeth, banging out chapters because the characters won’t let me sleep until I’m finished. Sounds like fun, right?

Now, I’d give anything to be back, safely ensconced in my trench, shutting the rest of the world out with only my notebooks and my keyboard, my music and my dogs for company. But there’s no going back. I’m running across the field now, grenades being lobbed in my direction from all angles, bullets whizzing past my head, the ground on fire. I thought writing was a battle. No. Writing is a walk in the park on a summer day. Being an author is a battle. Being an author is a fight to death.

Instead of being able to focus, with blissfully intense tunnel-vision, on one story, I have three jostling around in my head at all times. My debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, was just published in September. I had moved on from the story and its characters in the year’s time from writing to publishing, but now the world of Crystal Springs and its bedraggled inhabitants are right back in the forefront again (and being packaged into ten-second pitch-bites). During this past year, I wrote another novel, so on top of promoting one book to readers, I’m promoting a second book to agents and editors. And then I’ve spent the last three months working hard on research for my third novel, which I hope to begin writing this month.

So when the unassuming reader asked me what my book was about and I provided the elegant response of “stuff,” what was really going through my head was a frantic moment of trying to remember which book they were asking about. The one with the crazy Pentecostal preacher or the one with the Alligator Mafia? Or the tattooed snake charmer? The one set in rural Florida or in a traveling carnival? Wait, is there mythology in this one or is that the one I’m working on now? Literary, noir, Southern Gothic? It must have all shown on my face, because the potential buyer of A Tree Born Crooked carefully set the copy down and backed away slowly.

Three books, one part-time job as an editor, one full-time job as a high school writing coach, occasional forays into book reviewing and short story writing. I’m not claiming to be a multi-tasking soccer mom, but I do have a lot of writing- and reading-related activity going on. I’m taking fire on all sides, so it’s time I created a new battle plan. Hunkering down in the trenches just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Reserve the weekends for working on the new novel. It’s the most important thing, and will always be the most important thing, because writing is, well, the point of being a writer. Period.
  • Do everything else (promoting, querying, blogging, tweeting, editing, reviewing, teaching, living) during the week.

Also:

  • Stop sleeping.
  • Forget about ever having a clean house.
  • Teach my five dogs how to take themselves for a walk.
  • Tell my husband that I’ll see him sometime. Maybe in the next year. Possibly.
  • Ditto to all my friends.
  • Hold off on having kids.
  • Pretend holidays don’t exist. (Plus side: save money to buy wine)
  • Sell the television.
  • Buy a wine cellar. Fully stocked.
  • Remind myself over and over that I’m an author not because I have to be, but because I want to be. I’m doing this because I love it. It’s frustrating and irritating and painful and heart-wrenching and has completely ruined my social life forever. But I love it.

And I’m open to suggestions. For now, I’m suiting up, checking my ammo, and heading into battle.

“Pencil and Paper” — Author Lily King on her hand-crafted creative process

Lily King

Lily King grew up in Massachusetts and received her B.A. in English Literature from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and Creative Writing at several universities and high schools in this country and abroad.

Lily’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second novel, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Her third novel, Father of the Rain (2010), was a New York Times Editors Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year, and winner of both the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Maine Fiction Award. It was translated into several languages.

Lily’s new novel, Euphoria, was released in June 2014. [Read my review here.] It has won the New England Book Award for Fiction 2014 and has hit numerous summer reading lists from The Boston Globe to O Magazine and USA Today. Reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Emily Eakin called Euphoria, “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace.” The novel is being translated into numerous languages, and a feature film is underway.

Lily is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies. (http://www.lilykingbooks.com/about/)

Lily King winkylewis-3617Photo by Winky Lewis

I write by hand with a pencil in a spiral notebook. That’s how I’ve been writing  ever since grade school, and it’s how I’m writing these words right now, though when it gets to you, all traces of that initial draft will be gone.

I like the feel of lead scraping onto paper; I like the way the pencil tip starts to slope in one direction, creating a thick side and a thin side, and how with those two surfaces you get a subtle calligraphic effect. I like the way my brain works when I have a pencil in my hand. Just holding it seems to make the thoughts come, like the way putting food in front of your mouth makes the saliva run, or just smelling coffee makes you feel more awake. On paper you can write in the margin or squeeze ideas in between lines; you can use arrows and balloons and carets to rearrange and to add; you can draw pictures of what you’re trying to describe and you can read what you’ve crossed out and realize the way you said it that first time was better than all the other attempts, and you can run on and on because writing by hand does that, makes your sentences long and serpentine, like a river whose ending you don’t see until you turn the last bend.

When I was in high school I took a creative writing class for two semesters, junior and senior spring. We had to hand in a short story, three and a half pages of “polished prose,” my teacher said, every Monday morning for five months. I would often wake up Sunday mornings with a story already running in my head, the voice of it clear and sure (the editor, that savage critic, wakes up more slowly), and I’d grab my notebook and pencil and start writing it down. I don’t have a lot of memories from high school that are warm or pleasurable to me now, but thinking back to those Sunday mornings writing a story due the next day is one of them.

Lily King winkylewis-3531 copyPhoto by Winky Lewis

I still write like that, at first, when the story is new and I wake up with it and reach for a notebook. It connects me to my younger self, that sixteen-year-old girl with a broken family, big fears, and terrible hair, writing, it would seem (if you could see her from a high corner of her room—a new room, because her mother just remarried and she’s moved into her stepfather’s house) for her life. Writing about her old family and her new families, writing about her father’s anger and second divorce and breakdown (they won’t take that story for publication in the school’s literary magazine, “too personal”, she’ll be told, though “write what you know” is the mantra in her CW class), writing about unrequited love of all kinds, over and over.

I write the first draft of my novels in pencil in spiral notebooks exactly as I used to write those first short stories. I start at what I think is the beginning of the book and move mostly chronologically through to the end. Occasionally there is a back story, or a side story, but mostly I move forward through the notebooks. I section off the last 20 pages of each one for notes, for ideas I have for future chapters or for chapters I’ve already written. These ideas can be general (“Everything needs to feel relentlessly claustrophobic in this house”) or specific (“Have him give her his dead brother’s glasses”). They can be whole scenes, lines of dialogue, a fragment of detail. When the notes start to accumulate and confuse me, I make a timeline by drawing a line across the top of a page and little vertical notches along it and I make a list of all the things I think will happen, little and big moments I am trying to get to.


Lily King photo - Version 2

E.L. Doctorow once said, in a Paris Review interview, that he tells his students that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The timeline is one moment followed by another, my few feet of illumination at a time. Some of those ideas, once I get to them, are ignored. Others I try out and quickly know they don’t work. I go down one road, then another. Often I have no idea where we’re going to end up. I know where I want the characters to be emotionally, but I don’t know yet what needs to happen to get them there. I thought my novel Father of the Rain was just going to have two parts, until I woke up in the middle of the night, the night President Obama had been elected, and realized there was a whole third section to the book. I’d handed in my most recent novel, Euphoria, to my agent when I was turning off a highway exit, late to meet a friend for lunch, and saw a whole new ending play out in my head. At the stoplight I scribbled it down on a pad I keep in my car.

At the back of my notebooks I keep a log, a punch clock of sorts. When the writing day is done, I write the date and how much I’ve written. A good day for me is 3-5 notebook pages, but there are days, many, many days when I don’t write that much. Some days I write one page, or a half page, or one line. I do not force myself to stay in the chair until I’ve written a certain amount. I cannot do that. I know there are writers who force themselves to stay in the chair until they’ve written a certain number of words each day, but those writers, I am certain, don’t have children who need to be picked up at school. I try not to beat myself up about the days of few words. A lot of work is being done that is not writing, a lot of thinking, note-taking, and listening. Because the imagination is always working, churning up something. It’s the writer’s job to listen carefully.

Lily King IMG_1936

No one else can read my handwriting with much success. I can barely read it myself. It is small, mostly finely calibrated squiggles. Sometimes I have to trace these marks later with a pencil to figure out what I’ve written. But the transfer of my handwritten words to the computer is my favorite part of the process, and the most valuable. It is the closest I can get without weird anachronistic imitation to the days when writers had to retype each draft before handing it in to their editors. That step, rewriting every sentence, holding each word up to scrutiny, deciding what is good enough to go on the computer and what needs to stay in the notebook, is essential. And it’s joyful. Before this, when the page is blank, writing is scary and stressful. The unknowns too great. And afterward, there are too few unknowns, and things feel locked in place and small changes can unravel too much fabric. But in this stage it’s still fluid, not yet set, still receptive to reshaping. When I type in that rough draft I can hear it like I did not hear it as I was slowly, day by day, writing it, and like I will not hear it again as I read it over. I can hear it and play with it—it is both a fully creative process and a fully editorial one. It is the one time when the critic and the creator are both working full steam and in harmony. The rough draft relies solely on the creator, the critic banished from the room, while the future drafts demand more and more from the critic and less from the creator who shrieks at every change and chop. But in this step they are in balance. They are a team, passing the ball up the field easily and swiftly.

Sometimes I type up each chapter when it’s finished. Sometimes I go months without typing a thing. Once I spent sixteen weeks putting a whole notebook and a half onto the computer. Eventually everything gets transferred and printed out and read and edited, read and edited, many times.  The notebooks have been forgotten by then, pushed off the desk, flung in some corner of my study like empty chrysalises, dry husks of words.  The story has moved on, the scrape of pencil against paper forgotten. Until the next time, the next idea, the next Sunday morning when a new story starts spooling out and I have to try to catch it before it’s gone.