Saturday, November 03, 2007
One Friday in August,1996, I watched two women sitting across from one another at a table in Stauf’s Coffee Roasters. Each woman, bent over a spiral notebook, steadily moved a pen across the page. After a few minutes, they took turns reading their writing aloud to one another. When one of them looked toward me, I quickly turned away. I’d just returned to Ohio from a workshop with Natalie Goldberg where we spent a week writing and reading aloud to each other. One of these women had Natalie’s bestseller, Writing Down the Bones, beneath her chair.
The question I’m asked most often is, “How do I find a writing group?” I have many long answers, but the simplest is this: know what you need and ask for it. There are many types of writing groups. Some share work and give feedback. Others write and read aloud. Still other groups simply get together to talk about writing. There are as many potential variations as there are writers. The most difficult part for me was asking for what I needed. Here I invoke one of Natalie’s rules of writing practice, “be specific.” If you want to meet weekends, don’t hedge when someone wants to meet on a weeknight. If you’re not ready to have someone else see your work, don’t join a group that’s bent on critiquing everything it reads.
Where shall you find these writers? Start with the list of Ongoing Writing Groups on my website. Take a class to look for prospects. Tell your non-writer friends that you’re looking for a group. Keep your eyes open. We’re everywhere. If you still can’t find a group that suits, don’t be afraid to start your own. A carefully worded flier posted in libraries, coffeehouses, and bookstores works wonders.
In 1996, I’d been writing at Stauf's nearly every day for months, yet I’d never seen those women before. If I hadn’t been tuned in to the many shapes a writing group can take, I might have not noticed them at all. I mustered more courage than a shy person is supposed to have, courage born of desperation, and introduced myself. They invited me to join and the three of us wrote together for a year. That was my first writing group experience. After I moved to New Mexico, they continued writing as I’d found them.
It’s normal for a writer to want connection whether to share work or just talk about the craft and mystery of writing. If you haven’t yet found your “writing tribe,” it’s not too late.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Anyone remember the back room at Nickelby's bookstore? I attended a booksigning there one October more than twenty years ago. I hadn't intended to stay, but as I leafed through a Writer's Digest text on magazine articles, a man began reading a poem about a tree he'd cut down by hand. As his voice brought the words to life, I fell into the nearest overstuffed chair and spent the evening sipping mulled cider as he read.
This month there are twenty-three writing-related events listed on the Write Now Newsletter website. As the leaves turn, authors will read from their work, professors will lecture, and writers will conduct workshops on everything from creative journaling to making a living as a writer. Ohio State will host Dave Eggers and Margaret Atwood will trek to Gambier for the Kenyon Review Literary Festival.
We might not be able to sit by the fire at Nickelby's anymore, but we have a bounty of alternatives. We can listen from a plush seat at the King Arts Complex, write at a conference table in the Upper Arlington Municipal Building, or lean forward in a wooden chair in Denny Hall 311. We can still hear an author read aloud, bringing the words to life.
I hope you'll take time away from leaf raking and join me at one of the many upcoming events. The horn of plenty has long been a symbol for Autumn. What better reminder of the wealth of opportunities we still have here in our own backyard.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
This month Ed and I flew to North Carolina to attend the funeral of one of his former colleagues. We walked out of thick heat into an air conditioned room filled with strangers. I had never met any of the people gathered and Ed had not seen them in more than thirty years. We approached the casket and a woman Ed believed to be the man’s wife shook Ed’s hand. “Thank you for coming.” Her eyes did not engage. She turned to me and Ed said, “This is Nita, my wife.” As the woman heard Ed’s voice, she turned back to him, eyes wide and flooding, “Ed Sweeney! It’s Ed Sweeney.”
She led us through the room, tapping an arm here, touching a shoulder there, and the strangers began to greet us. A man in a russet blazer became Bob, the company’s banker. A silver-haired gentleman in a navy suit turned into John, the engineering expert. And before our very ears, the tall man in the brown suit became Larry, Ed’s beloved former boss from so many years before. After each introduction Ed said, “I didn’t recognize him until he opened his mouth.”
Sadly, last week Ed and I flew to California for yet another funeral, this time for Ed’s father. I watched Ed, his mother, sister and brother make arrangements amid grief and exhaustion. After four days of planning, we found ourselves in the reception hall after the funeral mass. This time we both knew the family, but Ed had difficulty identifying the faces of his parents’ friends. Again, he said. “As soon as they began to speak, I knew them.”
That’s the experience we writers must create for our readers when we write dialogue. Each human voice is distinct, recognized by the listener through tone and inflection. Our readers do not have this luxury. Each writer must make our characters “heard.”
We can use speech tags (Jane said) but tags alone make the dialogue flat. And some writers rely on adverbs (Jane said excitedly), but adverbs simply inflate the tag and do not add the type of inflection the reader needs to intuit who’s speaking from what is on the page.
In the final chapter of her award-winning novel, Larry’s Party, Carol Shields shows how to write dialogue by capturing the essence of a dinner party: conversation. Shields writes ten consecutive pages (pp. 306-315) with nine characters speaking unattributed dialogue. Amazingly, the reader always knows who is speaking.
Shields uses several techniques to manage this feat. She gives some characters a distinctive pattern of speech such as a unique vocabulary, particular throwaway words and phrases, tight or loose wording, and run-on or staccato sentences. Shields also uses types of speech such as sarcasm, dialect, cynicism, poor grammar, inappropriate modifiers or jargon. And sometimes Shields relies on a particular subject matter to cue the reader into who’s speaking. A golf pro might turn every sentence into a golf analogy while a college professor might recount only experiences involving his students. Once Shields identifies the character’s unique way of speaking it becomes obvious to the reader.
Even in memoir, writers must avoid making all “characters” sound the same. My father, for example, paused between sentences and looked away before finishing. But my words run together, tumbling over each other, sometimes causing him to ask me to repeat myself. If I play up this contrast when I write scenes between my father and I, the reader will easily follow the dialogue.
If your characters were in the dark, could you tell who was speaking? If someone else read your dialogue aloud to a third person, could that other listener easily follow? In revising dialogue, I try to stay awake to the nuances of speech and to hear the voices in my head. I want to do them justice, to bring them alive on the page. What better way than to let them be heard?
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
I had the pleasure of being accosted by Ms. Allison, author of best-selling books such as Bastard Out of Carolina and Trash, at our July creative writing residency where she was the visiting writer. Her class, billed as "Character Driven Fiction," displeased many of my classmates who didn't appreciate her uncut style. Perhaps they expected to hear a lecture on the technical aspects of plotting a novel by using character development. But Allison wasn't interested in giving us what we expected. She's out there. Openly lesbian and flamboyantly southern, she uses the "f" word when she talks about sex. She talks about sex frequently, and when she's not talking about sex, she uses the "f" word about everything else she is talking about.
"I'm here to tell you what no one else may ever tell you about writing," she explained to our startled group of students, faculty and staff. She proved more interested in developing our character as writers than in helping us develop the characters in our books.
"What is the book you most want to write?" she asked. We mumbled answers. Her volume increased. "Are you writing THAT book?" A few of us nodded, but most looked down at their spiral notebooks. When Allison's fist hit the table, I jumped. "Why The F**k Not?" she shouted. The room expanded with the silence that followed.
She continued, calmer, confident that she now had our full attention. "What is the one thing you know that it seems the rest of the world doesn't?" This she said is the story we must tell before we die. In a tone that bordered on pleading, she urged us, "Find a character you love and a story you must tell. That is how you write."
Her gritty manner notwithstanding, Allison's class came at exactly the right time for many of us. After six days of listening to our excellent Goddard professors teach the meat and potatoes of the writing craft, Allison's sermon rolled like a salty gale waking us from our exhausted slumber.
Toward the end of her talk, Allison openly discussed her abusive childhood. "If you had a violent past," she said, "make peace with it. You've got to be sane to do the emotional work of writing a book." A quiet life supports the sanity it takes to write. Then she chuckled, pushed her hair back from her face, and said, "Move to the suburbs. It worked for me."
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Isaac gave good advice to authors. . . . [H]e sent me his two laws of writing: 1. Thou shall finish what thou startest. 2. Thou shalt not judge thyself.- Janet Jeppson Asimov, author of Notes for a Memoir on Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing
Some days it feels as if I'm never going to finish this book. It's sitting out everywhere all around me. Bits of it in notebooks. Bits of it on the computer. Bits of it still living vividly in my head. I work on it sporadically and it never feels like enough.
That leads me to the second of Asimov's rules. "Thou shalt not judge thyself." There, I flunk out cold. My mind races with judgment. In 1994, I stepped away from a lucrative job as an attorney with a speciality law firm in Dublin, Ohio. Since 1997, I've worked with many different writing teachers, always asking the same question, "Just how DO you write a book?" Most recently, I began MFA school with the same question. Every last teacher has been a helpful step along the way, but I still don't have a book.
Of course, I'm asking a question only I can answer. I remember a cartoon strip in which a man walks into an editor's office and asks, "Can you help me with my book?" The editor says, "Maybe. Let me read it." In response, the man drops his head, droops his shoulders and groans, "Oh. I was hoping to have it surgically removed." The book is inside me. No one else can write it. Some days I fear it will kill me. I imagine a scene from Alien. I'm innocently eating my oatmeal, talking to Ed about the dog. I begin to feel nauseous. As I reach for a glass of water, the book bursts from my abdomen, ripping my body to shreds.
On better days, I find peace in the daily-ness of writing, the sheer practice of it. If I look back over my shoulder, day by day, the writing gets done. Little by little, I am bringing the book to life. At first I found exhilaration in the sheer number of pages I could churn out. Now that I'm editing, quality counts. And day by day, the pages become bright and shiny. There are huge holes I don't know how to fill and passages I know belong but not where. Regardless, I put my head down and keep pulling the wagon.
On the best days I remember that I always feel this way no matter how big or small the project. In the middle of every essay, short story, graduate school paper, blog post, and even these little newsletter essays, I feel the same hopelessness. I start off blank as a sheet. Then an idea forms. I begin to write. Somewhere in the middle of the piece, it takes a turn I didn't expect. That's when I get scared. I think, There's no way I'm going to finish this thing. I don't know where it's going. But I keep writing anyway, keep following my mind, and something takes form. I print it all out, begin to edit, and the clay begins to shape itself. It comes together. It feels like magic. But it's not magic. It's work.
"Thou shall finish what thou startest. Thou shalt not judge thyself." Perhaps there was a third rule Asimov forgot to mention: "Thou shalt never give up."
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
The program, Scrivener, does a lot of what yWriter, the novel writing program I use, does plus a few bits more. And, it has an elegant interface that looks like an actual corkboard. The index cards look like index cards and things move around all WSYWIG and lovely. I was smitten.
Luckily it was just a crush. It passed. I'm not going to go buy a MAC - yet. I still love my IBM thinkpad. But for a few moments today, the earth stood still.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
The following is an excerpt from McSweeney's June update:
As you may know, it's been tough going for many independent publishers, McSweeney's included, since our distributor filed for bankruptcy last December 29. We lost about $130,000 -- actual earnings that were simply erased. Due to the intricacies of the settlement, the real hurt didn't hit right away, but it's hitting now. Like most small publishers, our business is basically a break-even proposition in the best of times, so there's really no way to absorb a loss that big.
We are committed to getting through and past this difficult time, and we're hoping you, the readers who have from the start made McSweeney's possible, will help us.
Over the next week or so, we'll be holding an inventory sell-off and rare-item auction, which we hope will make a dent in the losses we sustained.
So if you've had your eye on anything we've produced, now would be a great time to take the plunge. For the next week or so, subscriptions are $5 off, new books are 30 percent off, and all backlist is 50 percent off. Please check out the store and enjoy the astounding savings, while knowing every purchase will help dig us out of a big hole.
Many of our contributors have stepped up and given us original artwork and limited editions to auction off. We've got original artwork from Chris Ware, Marcel Dzama, David Byrne, and Tony Millionaire; a limited-edition music mix from Nick Hornby; rare early issues of the quarterly, direct from Sean Wilsey's closet; and more. We're even auctioning off Dave Eggers's painting of George Bush as a double-amputee, from the cover of Issue 14.
I hate to be alarmist, but, well, I'm alarmed. Think I'll surf over to McSweeney's now and see what I "need."
Sunday, June 10, 2007
While my attempts to use various types of software to write my book have not been completely productive, according to the recent New York Times article by Rachel Donadio, "Get With the Program," other much more successful writers have had great luck with computer programs. Most of the authors included in the article, however, didn't mention software specifically designed for writing. They credited Excel, Microsoft Project, voice recognition software, Mindjet MindManager, Microsoft OneNote, and even the Logitech io2 pen for their assisting in their success. Only one writer quoted in the article used actual "writing software," Dramatica Pro.
The Times article failed to include, yWriter, the free (yes that's right - free) writing software I mentioned in a previous post. I wish I'd kept working with yWriter when I first test-drove it more than a year ago. yWriter has the features I most want, is easy to use, and like I said, it's free! Simon Haynes, creator of yWriter, and author of a series of humorous sci fi novels featuring Hal Spacejock, has an update in the works which has tempted me to try it again. Simon correctly guessed that I had moved the entire document too quickly to Word Perfect and yWriter2, the version I was using, didn't have an easy way to switch back and forth. In yWriter3, available in beta, Simon has added that and other features. I'll let you know how it goes.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Twenty-five percent off everything at Liberty Books and News in the Shops on Lane Avenue!
Okay. I know you're not reading this blog to see advertisements, but one of the few independent bookstores in central Ohio is in trouble. I hate to admit this is no surprise. It seems to be the fate of independent bookstores across the country. And, if recent news is correct, it might be the fate of bookstores in general. I recently read a blog post suggesting that even Barnes & Noble and Borders aren't doing that well. Just the same I'm foregoing this month's essay space to send out a cry for help on behalf of Liberty Books and News.
Located in the Shops at Lane Avenue, Liberty Books & News is a sweet space with free coffee (the sign says they're here to sell books, not coffee) and nice chairs and a lovely table on which to write or study or lounge. They have a wide range of cards, magazines and books with nice people to help you find what you need. The store also offers a venue for author readings and provides the space for Rattlebox Poetry's monthly events.
Again, my apologies if you find this plea offensive. I just can't imagine the day when there are no bookstores left in which to browse. I hope you will swing by the store and spend a few bucks. And if you don't live in central Ohio, find an independent bookseller in your area and go drop a few bucks there. Please!
Saturday, May 12, 2007
All the people you've told about your book will now ask you about it when they see you. . . and every time you will get a new knot in your stomach. You will say one thing, and one thing only, when they ask: "I'm about half done." And every time you will rationalize this to be true.I have not begun smoking, yet. I have not left my husband nor moved across the country. I moved across the country (and back) once before and I don't recommend it. And I have not gotten any new pets. Powazek promises that this step will last three months. He lies. I'm well into my second year. But really. I'm about half done. Really.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
I haven't yet figured out the true secret of writing memoir, but my struggle with this book has clued me into what went wrong in my early personal essays. When I first began crafting essays, I simply culled events from my writing practices and stopped there. I edited each piece down to the details of funny or sad things that had happened to me, my family, our dogs, my friends, the neighbors, etc. While these events were funny or sad, they didn't really have a point. The resulting pages were anecdotes, not essays.
When I began graduate school in creative writing, I made the same error in my critical papers. Recognizing that an author had used a particular technique excited me and so I simply pointed it out. I didn't analyze it, ruminate over it, roll it around in my mind. I didn't explain what it meant or voice my opinion. I didn't go far enough.
Now, when I revise, I reread the pages and question each section: What's the point? Why does the reader need to know this? How does this contribute to the theme I'm presenting? What am I really trying to say?
In the early days, I found these questions daunting. Reticent to let the reader know what I felt or thought about each interaction, I stuck to the facts. As I push toward the third year of work on this project, opining becomes easier and easier. Without this musing aspect, the work is lifeless. My job as a writer is to filter the material and shape it in a way so that the reader knows the point I'm trying to make. I don't hit her over the head, but gently guide her. "Over here," I say. "The point is over here."
If you find that your essays are lifeless and dull, don't throw them out. Just ask some simple questions. What does this mean to me? Why do I think this is important? What do I really want to say? That's what your reader really wants to know.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
- Robert Heinlein, science fiction author (1907 - 1988)
Okay. I want to encourage each of you to enter a contest or submit a piece of work to a market. I often err on the side of encouraging folks to access wild mind and write, write, write. But there's another part of the equation as well. Once we've written our buns off, we need to let the world see what we've done!
There are so many opportunities. Check the back pages of Poets & Writers Magazine. Flip through Writers Digest. Pick up a copy of last year's Writers Market at Half Price Books or splurge and get the current one at Liberty Books & News. And don't forget all the on-line markets popping up. Google "submission guidelines" or "writing guidelines" and see what you get. Double dare your friends to submit something if you do. Send off your best work, forget you sent it, and get back to writing.
This month I vow to send out three things. I know which pieces I'm going to send and where they're going. It's a long shot, but the effort of putting a manuscript in the mail makes me feel even more like a "real" writer. I bet you'll feel the same.
The main tip I can give you is to read the publication and follow the guidelines. If the magazine is filled with short fiction, don't send your poetry. If a contest says no simultaneous submissions, only send your submission to that magazine until you hear otherwise. Chances are you wouldn't get caught, but this is a small world. We need to avoid pissing people off. If a literary publication says it does not accept email submissions, pay the postage and put it in the mail. If a contest limits submissions to 5,000 words, don't send them your 27,538 word novella. Don't even send them 6,000 words. Read the rules. Read the writing guidelines. Follow them.
So send, send, send this month. Let's show the publishers of the world that central Ohio writers are alive and well. And let me know how it's going.
On a final note, thanks to the many who sent condolences concerning the death of my niece. Your support means more than you will ever know. Jamey was in it to play hard and, for the short time she spent on the planet, that's exactly what she did.
Friday, March 30, 2007
Saturday, March 03, 2007
As many of you know, my beloved niece Jamey Ax, passed away on February 6, 2007. She was 24. It's no wonder I was having trouble writing last month! Jamey was at the end of her journey and my entire family was deep in the throes of pre-grief. But anticipatory sadness did not diminish the pain I felt when I heard the words, "She's gone."
I'm letting myself grieve. I continue working on the book and reading for school, but I'm also doing lots of pure undirected writing practice as well as spending time with Jamey's mother, other family members, and alone. Just like writing, grieving is a process. It will take its natural course whether I want it to or not.
I hope when something devastating happens in your life that you will allow yourself the time it takes to heal. Life slows down when we're in pain. As a writer, I pay attention, take notes, and let time do its work.
Thanks for your compassion - now, and always.
Nita (calling all angels) Sweeney
©Nita Sweeney, 2007, all rights reserved
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Carey Tennis about his MFA school experience. Here's the line that jumped out at me:
. . . take care of your writing as you would take care of an animal or a child. Do not send it out into the world to do an adult's job. Just take care of it and, in its own way, it will take care of you.Over the break between semesters, my inner critic escaped it's gilded cage and nearly ate me for dinner. This was due in part to the death of my dear niece, but also just because I'd let my guard down. By the time I arrived here on Sunday afternoon, I'd mentally eviscerated myself.
I've spent the past few days just pulling myself back together. Every morning and evening I give myself the gift of writing practice ala Natalie Goldberg, timed writing on topics that pop into my mind. I take long walks on the beach down to the lighthouse. I have lunch with a friend when I can. I stare out the window of my second-story room that looks over the water. I walk as slowly as the schedule will allow. And I breathe.
So far so good. I feel better. Surrounded by other writers and a good friend, listening to readings and lectures and water and mountains, I feel renewed. I am grieving and healing from various wounds. Regardless, I will continue.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
For now, I am making notes about what I heard, saw, felt, smelled. Making lists of colors and names. And I am letting myself rest. It's been a long 500 days and yet they went by too quickly. I am so sad, but the written word cannot encompass all I feel. Even these precious words are not enough.
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Inspiration Won’t Come!
Best Wishes, Amen.”
When I was in grade school, I memorized that ditty from one of those little books of quotes intended for writing in yearbooks. Yours Till Niagara Falls or something like that. That’s how I feel today. Can’t Think. Brain Dumb. Inspiration Won’t Come.
I’ve been on a break from graduate school and have been catching up on what I’d put off during the semester. I filed insurance claims, made annual medical appointments, gathered tax documents, fiddled with my website, and booked my trip for the February residency. I’ve been productive, but I haven’t been doing enough writing. And it’s difficult to write about writing when you’re not writing!
For the past few days I’ve been asking everybody I see what I should write in the essay. I asked some friends. I asked the dog. I asked my sister. I sat down and wrote questions to myself. No one, including me, had a half decent idea. Finally, I asked Ed.”Tell them you don’t know what to write,” he suggested. So here I am writing about not being able to think of anything to write. See, you really can write about anything.
That’s my message for you today. It’s sort of like the old adage, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” If your mind surrenders nothing, pour that onto the page. Put it down honestly. Write down the details of how it feels. Explain your emptiness to the world. Get your hand moving and, eventually, something will appear.
Friday, January 26, 2007
9. Do Google search for various disease symptoms. Become convinced you have every single one. . .
8. Each chocolate chips straight out of the bag. Use several to make semi-sweet morsel replica of Stonghenge.
Read the rest here. Scroll down to the post for December 6, 2006.
Friday, January 12, 2007
Alas! If only I had a novel stashed in the bottom drawer of my desk!
Here's the deal. First-time authors can enter for free by submitting a manuscript for a full-length work of fiction. The first chapter of each submission (hence the contest's name) will be posted on Gather.com. Members of the site will vote on the chapters.
For more information, surf to http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976883192
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
What’s your way? I ask myself this question all the time. I don’t think it’s static. I once thought I had no way, that I couldn’t write anything except legal briefs, memoranda, personnel policy manuals and client letters. But I was wrong.
In 1987, I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s writing practice. Setting a timer, moving my pen across the page, not stopping, not crossing out, not thinking, that became my way. I haunted coffeehouses with a spiral notebook and a purple rollerball pen, spewing ink across pages, across years, across several states.
Now I’m learning another way. Editing. It still scares me. In a chapter in Writing Down the Bones entitled, “The Samari,” Natalie wrote, “William Carlos Williams said to Allen Ginsberg, ‘If only one line in the poem has energy, then cut the rest out and leave only that one line.’” Learning to edit is a skill handed down from one writer to another or from an editor to a writer. I’m learning it the same way - by direct transmission. My MFA advisor reads my writing and sends it back to me covered in blue ink. I bristled against this for a decade. Now I am ever thankful for the direction. I want to know what she has to teach.
So what’s your way? Don’t worry if today your way is to simply write lists of writing ideas in the back of your notebook. Keep making those lists. Eventually you will become brave enough to take one of the topics and go. And someday, you’ll be ready for something else.