I've never been one for good-byes. I'm the person who lingers on the curb at the airport, or stands in front of my house waving until the car disappears around the corner, or runs back inside a friend's apartment to give her another hug. But, whether I refuse to say good-bye or not, the Mark Program is going to say farewell to me on June 29th, the date of our Final Review.
Last week, we had our last workshop and, tomorrow, our final manuscripts are due. In a month, at the Review, we will be challenged to think through and discuss our projects. The program isn't done, but we're in the final phase. I've never been one for good-byes and I know that saying good-bye to this program is going to be no different.
So, as I mold and polish my manuscript to be its best self and contemplate what I might be asked at the Review, I also feel the need to think about what it will be like after the program. My hope is that, in mentally preparing myself, I can make this transition smooth, happy, and productive. Here are some of the ways -- ranging from the small and idiosyncratic to the broad and goal-oriented -- that I am trying to prepare myself:
• Re-subscribing to The New Yorker. (There's something about its arrival each week that creates a nice rhythm and keeps me feeling looped in to contemporary news and writing.)
• Creating a comprehensive reading list of both fiction and craft books for myself. (I know George Saunder's new Tenth of December will be on this list, as well as more Aimee Bender, Toni Morrison, and Denis Johnson. I've been meaning to read Charles Baxter's craft book, Burning Down the House, for a long while.)
• Cleaning off my desk.
• Developing a strong and clear outline of my novel. (This will include which chapters are working as they are, which chapters call for revision, and which need to be written.)
• Seeking and reading books that are successfully narrated from a first-person adolescent point-of-view. (My novel is told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, Lillian. I'd love suggestions.)
• Organizing a calendar of deadlines to apply to conferences and fellowships and to submit to contests and journals.
• Thinking through concrete writing goals and next steps. (For the Final Review, each of us is required to make a list of writing goals. For myself, I'd also like to set some deadlines for each of these: when will I have X chapter written by? when will I revise X by?)
• Reconnecting with writing friends and setting dates for exchanging pages and workshopping together. (I love community and find it so helpful--and fun--to read each other's work and to give and receive feedback.)
I don't look forward to bidding farewell to The Mark Program. Yet, at the same time, I am anxious to launch into the next phase of writing and revising, confident that--as a direct result of this program--I am in a better place to finish my novel. When I have to wave good-bye and pack my bags, I'll do so knowing that a deep, positive mark has been left on my novel and, even more, on me as a writer.
I’m the type of reader who always seems to have a favorite book that I keep coming back to. In the second grade it was The Little House. By the time third grade rolled around, I had transitioned to Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. In fifth grade I discovered Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In the course of a year I must have read the book de jour over a dozen times. Easily.
Junior year of high school I became obsessed with The Sun Also Rises, reading it multiple times. At the time, I probably didn’t even understand half of the subtext. But that’s how it is when I set my sights on a certain book. I can’t leave it alone. The following summer I went to visit family on the Dalmatian coast. Waiting for my uncle to wrap up work at the public library, I spotted a copy of Hemingway’s classic, translated into Serbo-Croat, on his desk. In spite of my limited reading and writing skills in my first language, I wanted to give it a try. My uncle thought it was a great idea. It took me almost the entire two months, but I read it in my mother tongue as well.
I used to think that we choose the books we read. We buy or check out a book and read it. We make a choice using our brain. They don’t magically appear on our nightstands. However, I’m beginning to realize that books choose us as well. There’s a bit of serendipity when we find just the right book, one that seems to speak to us at just the right time in our lives. Once I heard someone say that books are alive. At the time I didn’t understand what they meant. After reflection, I’ve come to realize that the pages of our favorite books are infused with energy. Whatever is happening, all of the joy or pain on the page springs to life in our minds. In this way, the books we love are living entities.
Over the course of The Mark program, I’ve discovered a new favorite. It’s William Trevor’s After Rain. In recent months I’ve returned to Trevor’s book to study the technical elements of his writing. How did Trevor manage to tell a story from differing points of view? I reread “Timothy’s Birthday.” How does he end a story with an image? I look to “A Day.” Returning to our favorites allows us to gain greater depth and understanding. And when we reread a favorite, it’s like being reunited with an old friend we always seem to learn something new about.
These writing tips from thoughtcatalog.com includes everything from getting enough sleep to adding more fiber into your diet. It is a great read for anyone who needs to add some extra structure into their writing approach.
Here are some of our favorites:
Coffee. I go through three cups at least before I even begin to write. No coffee, no creativity.
Make people cry. If you’ve ever been in love, you know how to cry. Bring readers to that moment when they were a child, and all of life was in front of them, except for that one bittersweet moment when everything began to change. If only that one moment could’ve lasted forever. Take them back to that moment.
The last line needs to go BOOM! Your article is meaningless unless the last line KILLS. Read the book of short stories Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. It’s the only way to learn how to do a last line. The last line should take you all the way back to the first line and then “BOOM!”
It’s coming down to the wire. One more week. That’s it. My plan is to pull some marathon writing sessions, but will that work? I’ve been working steadily all along, writing more over the last five months than I probably ever have in my life. But the more the characters develop and the more I uncover, the more there is to write about. And the more I write, the more I need to re-write. Now that the stories are truly linked, I’ve become aware that I may need one or two more new stories to fill in certain holes within the bigger collection. Is one week enough time?
Last Sunday, I had most of the day free and thought I’d get a ton done. But all morning everything that came out felt flat, dull, informational, and not very literary. I took a break, played some tennis, ate lunch, cleaned my room, made some coffee. When I returned to the story, I went back through the flat, boring stuff, and, with the general idea intact, began to rewrite the work sentence by sentence, until I went into a whole other realm. This time, the words were coming out looser, and what seemed trite or cliché before began to take a new shape. After a couple hours I read it over. Decent. Better. But it also occurred to me, it might be a whole new, as-yet-unworkshopped story. And, as I’ve learned from this process, a first draft is still a first draft, no matter how good I think it might be.
All day for four okay pages. At that rate, one week is only going to produce 28 pages. My book is probably over 200 pages by now, most of which still needs some re-writing.
I have found that with looming deadlines, I’ll kick into gear. That’s one of the best parts of doing The Mark Program. I’ve had to rewrite stories in a week, and I’ve used every possible hour of every day to meet that deadline. While it may be true that cramming at virtual gunpoint doesn’t necessarily always produce the best work, it does produce work, and sometimes that’s the important part. I can always polish and finesse later, but it’s nice to have a good base upon which to start.
Realistically, I won't be satisfied. This won't be the final draft of my manuscript. I’ve come to terms with that. But I do want it to be as good as I’m capable of making it within this time frame, and that will mean some late nights/early mornings and a lot of coffee. As I’ve expressed previously, sometimes the process can feel endless, and knowing when something is ready may just mean being ready to abandon it. It’s just nice to have a set date of temporary abandonment, so I can go back to doing what I do best: nothing.
That’s a joke. I love doing things. In fact, I get uncomfortable if I don’t have some kind of creative project to work on. Long vacations, rather than relaxing me, can make me more anxious, like why am I wasting all this time when I could be working on something?
During the month break I have before the Final Review, I have two projects in mind: an album and a screenplay. No rest for the wicked. And I like it that way.
Amy Hempel is an American short story writer, journalist, and teaches creative writing at Bennington College and Harvard University. Here is an insightful interview addressing poignant questions on every writer's mind.
Her Strategy for Short Story Writing:
"Take on a large subject or concern and find a small, personal way in."
"It is not about talent... necessarily. It has more to do with how badly you want to do a thing, and if you will work harder than the next person because you want it more."
What She Looks for in Stories:
"I will read stories where the stakes are high. I will read any story about somebody getting through a hard thing. I want to know how that person did it."
On the Importance of a Good Sentence:
"I don't like to see a bad sentence on the page. What if I was hit by a bus and that's what people saw? They wouldn't know I was trying to make it better. They would think that was the best I could do."
I've discovered that it's often difficult for me to describe a work-in-progress in any way that satisfies me.
I've heard that it takes an hour to write an hour-long speech, two hours to write a two-hour speech, and three hours to write a ten-minute speech. One has to really know what one wants to say in order to make it concise.
For a very long time, I have struggled with how to articulate what my novel-in-progress is about. As part of the Mark Program, we've been asked to write and revise log lines and brief synopses of our manuscripts. (Natali and Eric are writing story collections, and I'm writing a novel.) In large part because of the Mark, I have a much surer sense of how to articulate what my novel is about, in terms of both plot and thematic concerns.
Oftentimes, I struggle to answer the related question of where my novel-in-progress comes from. How much is true--born of real life--and how much is fabricated? I like the response of my former teacher, Pam Houston, who says that everything she writes--regardless of its classification as either fiction or non-fiction--ends up containing about 82% truth. In another variation, Mark instructor Antoine Wilson likens life to a lemon and the fiction that emerges from it to the zest. I've been extending the food metaphor: If life is a cookie, then stories are the chocolate chips. You nibble out the bits of life that catch your breath--the distinctive emotional truths--and they, I believe, are what make a work of fiction.
I don't know where I'm coming in with my truth percentage but I do know that, through every hour that I sit with manuscript, I am discovering with greater intimacy what my novel is about. I am learning the rhythms of my character Lillian's heart, I am learning about the overarching obsessions of the manuscript and, this weekend, I also, perhaps not by chance, ate many chocolate chip cookies.
At workshop a couple of nights ago, Antoine asked us if we were planning extra time for revisions before the final review. The manuscripts are due at the end of this month. There’s just one more workshop, early next week. The weekends will have to be marathon writing sessions. Other than that, I don’t have large blocks of time I can allocate to revisions. The only solutions I can think of are to block off shorter segments throughout the day and to set writing dates. Writing dates are something I learned about from Mae, an Emerging Voices fellow.
We have now been doing writing dates for close to three years. It started when our kids were still toddlers. I was so sleep-deprived in those days that it was hard to start writing again on a consistent basis. Writing dates were something that Mae had heard of from a friend who learned about it during an MFA program. There’s not much to the notion, but there is a method.
Once you have a partner, you need to decide on the logistics of the writing date. Mae and I chose to devote a forty-minute block of time for one evening every week. It’s important to always stick to the same day and the same beginning and end time. In this way, a habit is formed and you always know that no matter what is happening in your daily life, that chunk of time awaits your writing life.
The next component of a successful writing date is to set up a routine as to who is the initiator and who is the time-keeper. The initiator is the person who calls at the agreed-upon time. During this call, it’s important to exchange writing goals for the block of time you’re about to begin. Even if you plan on spending the time doing a writing prompt, it needs to be stated. I’ve found that verbally committing to an activity keeps me focused and accountable. It’s less tempting to get side-tracked by a different story or to switch from, say, drafting to revising.
The time-keeper is the one who (obviously) times the writing session and then calls the other writer at the end. During the closing call, it’s imperative to be honest about how it went. There are some days that are filled with fabulous focus and the writing goal is achieved. There are other times, when the writing didn’t go as well; maybe it was like walking through molasses. Either way, it’s all part of the process and that’s all right.
Writing dates transformed my writing life. They’re instrumental to building momentum. There’s something about being accountable to another writer that makes a person rise to the occasion—even if they’re sleep-deprived.
From The Paris Review:
In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?
The pages here feature a number of the surveys in facsimile: Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ralph Ellison, Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer. Each responder offers a unique take on the issue itself—symbolism in literature—as well as on handling a sixteen-year-old aspirant approaching writers as masters of their craft.
The first decision a writer has to make is “who exactly is telling this story?” And, in many ways, the entire book becomes about answering this question. Since the traditional narrator, 3rd person omniscient, has largely fallen out of favor in modern literature, close-third or first-person narration has become the new standard, meaning we’re seeing the story through the eyes of our main character. Which also means the person telling the story is the story that the story is about. Get it?
Not only that, but also many authors employ an alter-ego narrator, meaning they’re writing versions of themselves, making a conscious effort to mirror their own lives, to explore real events or people through the filter of fiction.
In my alter-ego explorations, I’ve discovered one of the pitfalls tends to be my tendency to obscure the very things that I should be illuminating, hiding from a deeper truth that I have a hard time facing about myself. Such are the hazards of navel-gazing, I suppose, but it’s a well-worn path many writers I admire have taken and, now that I’ve started, I’m not sure I can go back.
Some writers will purposely alter their alter-egos, creating a parallel life, at least on paper. Willa Cather in My Antonia uses a male alter-ego, perhaps as a way to connect closer to the truth of her life as a lesbian at a time when to write honestly about it would have been too controversial. John Updike’s Rabbit shares a lot of Updike’s personal history, but becomes a used car salesman, an exploration of “What would happen if…?”
Another method is to employ an alter-ego as a secondary character, such as Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, who appears in several books and whose biography changes throughout each one.
And then there are alter-egos that sit so closely to the writer, it’s hard to identify them outside of it, such as Bukowski’s Chinaski or Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, whose descent into madness closely mirrors Plath’s own.
A big decision writers have to make about their alter-egos from the get-go is whether or not to make them writers. On the one hand, it feels more truthful, like, all right, this narrator isn’t bullshitting us, he’s admitting to being a writer, which, duh, he must be, since we’re reading his book. On the other, it’s become a cliché, and how interesting is it to read about someone who spends most of their time writing?
Some get around this by portraying the alter-ego in their formative phase, showing what inspired them to become writers. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is one famous example of this, as well as Sal Paradise in On The Road. Another tactic is to employ a writer alter-ego who’s a lot less successful and prolific than the writer himself, like Updike’s other alter-ego Henry Bech.
In the end, it comes back to story and which method returns the greatest result. An author’s alter-ego can still tell a story that has little to do with writing, leaving their writer-selves as more of a background element. In Junot Diaz’s recent collection, the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” is, as it states, mostly about love and the effects of a breakup. In the end, a friend suggests the narrator should write “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” and it becomes clear that, well, yes, he has, and we just read it.
I’m not sure the story needed that self-reference, but it is about the only redemption the character gets. He’s fucked up his whole life, and it’s still a bit of a mess in the end, but at least he got a book out of it…
"If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything." - David Foster Wallace
Here's an interview with David Foster Wallace by Leonard Lopate recorded on March 4, 1996. In it, Wallace discusses perfectionism, receiving (and neglecting) constructive lessons, and ambition.