Inspiration comes very slowly and quietly. Say that you want to write. Well, not much will come to yo the first day. Perhaps nothing at all. You will sit before your typewrite or paper and look out the window and begin to brush you hair absentmindedly for an hour or two. Never mind. That is all right. That is as it should be–though you must before your typewriter just the same and know, in this dreamy time, that you are going to write, to tell something on paper, sooner or later. And you also must know that you are going to sit here tomorrow for a while, and the next day, and so on, forever and ever.
“If art or poetry is your goal, you’ve got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self stylized obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it’s you—nobody else—who determine your desitny and decide your fate. Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anybody else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There’s the artist’s responsibility; and the most awful responsibility on earth. If you can take it, take it—and be. If you can’t, cheer up and go about other people’s business; and do or undo until you drop.”
from the e.e. cummings non lectures
“Whatever the method I end up choosing, and whether I “communicate” something true (my childhood) or something wholly made up (the childhood of Godzilla), it works or not depending on how it feels. This does not mean that all one feels uneasy about should be abandoned. Perfectly comfortable art is dead art, the product of an embalmed mind that has nothing to say to anyone, even the aesthetically dead. One is frequently uncomfortable telling the truth in a new way or for the first time.”
From On Moral Fiction, John Gardner
I spent some time talking with a former student today over coffee. He’s a serious writer and has just had his first acceptance for publication. He’s applying to MFA programs and I told him that I thought the most important thing he could do between now and the time he started at whichever school he attended was to practice daily his craft. It seems that many people want to write, but think of writing only in vague terms, vague longings to be heard, to have an audience. Those folks get to the MFA thinking that it will make them writers. The deadlines, the classes, the instant community, all of these things make it easy to be a writer during the time one attends the program. Some folks don’t really write before they get there, and many don’t write after they leave. The reasons are complicated and quite varied, and I can’t state that I know for sure what it all means, but unless you are willing to do the work before you attend school—do the work while attending to the daily life of chores—the school will be but a busy interlude of letters. Same goes for after school—the long, sometimes lonely work of filling blank pages. It’s tough to approach the page day after day knowing that the reality of writing is quite different than the dream of writing. Part of this revolves around revision. It’s taken me a long time to learn how ruthless I have to be in revision. I have to maintain vigilance against the “okay” sentence and dismiss the voice that tells me a sentence is “fine.” I don’t want okay and fine, but I find myself skimming over okay and fine sentences all the time. I’m trying to approach writing differently now than I did in my thirties. Here are the first two pages of the third story of my recent batch. As with all the stories I wrote for this collection, I wrote the whole story longhand, transcribed it into the computer, fixed it as best as I could on the screen, and then printed it out. Now the real work begins.
Plus, a picture of a pit-sawn barn board uncovered during the renovation of our home.
The revisions for “Purple Jesus” are finished (aside from a few small changes, obviously) and I’ve moved on to story number two, “Houses for the Dead.” It’s surprising to me that the two stories can be so vastly unequal in the amount of revision they seem to require. “PJ” required weeks of work and whole sections are new. Even though I felt confident in the story’s structure, it needed serious wrangling to make it work. At one point, I switched point-of-view and retold the first few pages in third person. Although the switch was unsuccessful, it did allow me to see the story unfold without the limitations of first person. When it became apparent that third person wasn’t the right POV, I went back to first, but started over, with new knowledge of how to approach the narrator. I have to be careful in first person to work against solipsism and to focus on the image and the action. Less thinkin’ and more observin’. “PJ” feels very personal to me, although it is not at all autobiographical.
I wouldn’t have thought “Houses for the Dead” would feel personal, but in rereading it, I’m struck by how much of my world is there even though it isn’t autobiographical either.
Perhaps it is autobiographical. Perhaps they both are. I suppose all fiction is of the author, even as we invent and rearrange. “Houses of the Dead” isn’t my story, but it is full of my stories, if that makes any sense.
“Houses” is also in need of much, much less revision. It’s already in its third phase, so maybe this is one of those stories that comes from the creative state/dream in a more complete form. It needs work, too, but nothing like the teardown and rebuilding of “PJ.”
“Houses” is a ghost story, sort of. It’s full of ghosts, at least. It has a cool little dude as a main character. Timothy. I like him a lot. He has a big heart. Today, I think I’ll wrap up his revision and maybe post a little reading of the story tomorrow.
Step 1. Work the daily practice. Just write.
Step 2. Adopt 3×5 cards as a method because some very great writers have done just that. The next Nabokov? Hmmmm….
Step 3. Figure out that the notecards don’t work for stories, but do work as a prelude for writing.
Step 4. Label notecards for each day of the month and clip them together.
Step 5. Get up. Get silent and centered. Don’t be too awake. Don’t pound coffee. Block out the voice that tells you to do bills or laundry. Take out notecard. Write whatever comes–image, journal entry, rambling self-absorption. Fill front and back of card. Put in drawer.
Step 6. Immediately pull out the notebook into which you are writing stories.
Step 7. Read the last paragraph you wrote (and always end your daily writing with an unfinished sentence) and write your daily allotment. No stopping unless absolutely necessary.
Step 8. Finish the project this way. Day after day, compile hand-written stories.
Step 9. Transcribe each story into the computer. Don’t think. Just type. Don’t worry about grammar or making it awesome. Don’t worry about formatting or whether or not you should double space. Don’t return to a story until you’ve typed them all.
Step 10. Work your way through each story. Make each one as good as you can.
Step 11. Print the stories.
Step 12. Now the real work begins.
Step 13. Work on one story at a time.
Step 14. Be ruthless in your reading. Make each sentence count. Don’t accept the lie that it’s “okay.” Work it hard.
Step 15. Open a blank document and retype the story.
Step 16. Move onto the second story.
Step 17. Move onto the third, fourth…etc.
Step 18. Read stories aloud from the screen. Make changes as you go.
Step 19. Print stories, read each one aloud, making changes on the hard copy as you go.
Step 20. Retype each story again.
Step 21. Send stories to literary magazines for immediate acceptance, quickly followed by wealth and power.
I’m playing a game. How slowly can I revise a story? Bit by bit, I’m clawing my way through “Purple Jesus.” In a way, it seems more like my own story than any story I’ve written before now, although it is not autobiographical. At least not on its surface. I’ve spent nearly two weeks on the first seven pages and the transformation is still in early stages. I’ve mentioned before that the summer’s blast of writing left me with stories that felt complete…but complete stories don’t mean good stories. I can see the story clearly in terms of structure, but it’s the details, especially in short fiction, that make the structure seem unstructured and organic. When I read through the story after typing from my notebook, it read as forced, inorganic, and solipsistic. It’s a first person story and the voice needs that strange balance of revelation and withholding that particular point-of-view requires. Finding that balance is taking a long time, each sentence exposed and laid bare until it looks like it was born in its refined form. In a way, that’s probably the reason it’s taken me so long to figure out my own writing life. Who knows if these stories will ever see the light of day, but when I’m done with this collection (I think a possible title for the collection comes from the second story, “Houses for the Dead”) I will be able to say that each piece of the puzzle fits just right.
I love revising. It’s always where the story begins to take shape. The work I did over the summer felt complete in many ways… or at least felt as though it was arriving fully conceived. All eight stories flowed as I was writing them. I didn’t think too much about them, I just wrote. I typed them into the computer, did initial revisions, and still thought they felt complete and whole. Thinks me: Wow, you might be able to have these stories done and out by December. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaaaaaaaa. So, I printed them out and was set to run through the revisions quick as you please. But reading them on paper, as I should have known, revealed all sorts of flaws. The stories still feel complete, but having a solid story arc is not the same as having a good story. There is still much to be done. Over the past four days, I’ve worked on the first few pages of story #1. I’m beginning to nail it down. It is requiring way more of my creative energy than I would have liked. But that is the nature of my writing. I’m just not able to crank out the work like some authors. If I expect the story to work, I have to put in the time. The photo is of the first page of the story. All the pages look like this. Some worse. It’s a good story though, I think, as long as I’m patient enough to let it happen.
Working hard on new stories. Eight stories. I’ve just printed them out for the first time. I feel like I’ve got them to a place that they are workable. They are whole stories that need refinement. How would I describe the process of getting to these eight stories? I started each day with an attempt to quiet my mind. It wasn’t always successful, but the mediation practice settled me, despite the noise my own mind generates. I’ve been sitting in meditation for about a year now. For months, I could only do five minutes. Then, last summer, I decided to really give it a try. I jumped from five to fifteen minutes and as soon as I finished sitting, I moved to my desk. I had this idea at first that I was going to write on index cards because so many of the greats seem to have done this. Robert Olen Butler has an entire regimen devoted to the use of notecards. These small cards were a way for me to break out of the trap of writing on the computer. But I couldn’t tell a story on a card. That process eluded me. But I liked the cards. I wrote the date at the top of a month’s worth of cards and set out to fill one, front and back, each day, M-F, before I sat down to writing a story. Then, as soon as I’d put down whatever I needed to put down on the card, I moved to my notebook. I wrote longhand, and quickly, trying to tap into something greater than my everyday mind, what E.M. Forster would call the creative moment. Did I find the creative moment? I don’t know. I wrote and didn’t think. That was key. Not thinking. I tried to get out of the way. In doing so, I think I’ve written some of the best material of my life. A mixture of memory and imagination that is truthful, or will be truthful once I’m done revising. What does that mean, truthful? It means I tried to be honest in my stories, tried to tell real human stories full of love and hope and redemption without sounding sappy or sentimental or cloying. I was able to do things in these stories that I’ve never been able to do before and I think it happened in part because I wasn’t worried about where to publish them or who might like to read them. I haven’t shown them to anyone and I doubt I will, not until they are done. This is about me and the words. Most likely, in this day and age, they will not have a wide audience. That’s okay. Much like the novel I finished last year, I wrote these to meet my standards, because I wanted to hear these stories. Maybe someone will buy them and publish them, but if they live only on my hard drive and see only a few reader’s eyes, that’s okay too. It’s not easy to say that. It IS easy to get down about writing when there is no audience. So, my mantra must be, writing for the sake of the work. Writing for the way it focuses my attention. Writing for the way I tell my own story by telling the story of imagined characters. Writing to join the conversation.