Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Tuesday Class Recap for 11/15

We weren't able to hold class in person today (looks like I have strep throat!), so we're holding an online discussion. In addition to talking about the first of our final revisions, I want to offer this exercise:

Christmas is still a few weeks away, but this beautiful prose poem has been on my mind this week:

"A Child's Christmas in Wales" by Dylan Thomas 

One thing I love about it is the way he allows his memories to come back to him on their own terms. This is an especially useful model for memoir, but it works, too, for fictional characters, when you're trying to get them to tell their story. 

Rather than laying everything out in chronological order, Thomas makes the act of remembering, of trying to figure out what to tell, part of the story:

I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six. . .   . All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

At times he allows his personal version of the past to become completely unmoored from the factual:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills . . . 

This personal vision resonates with the image, within the story, of the coloring book he received as a child: 

a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any color I please, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds.

By allowing himself to give us the harp-shaped hills, the sky-blue sheep, and all the rest, Thomas frees himself from having to tell exactly what happened and in what order, and gives us a vivid, personal rendering of his childhood holidays. Instead of plodding through year by half-remembered year, he follows his memories where they lead, and in this way paints a much richer picture. 


Read "A Child's Christmas in Wales." (Or listen to the author read it here.) 

If your character could paint and color the past any way they wanted to show how it looks to them--any way at all--fill the hills with wolves, put red flannel petticoats on the birds, make the sea sing carols--what would they show us? Set a timer for fifteen minutes and let your character speak.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Friday Optional Reading: Bonus

I want to add this short, apocalyptic story. It's about disaster, denial, and not being able to predict the future, and it's been on my mind today.

"The Invasion from Outer Space," by Steven Millhauser

Friday Optional Reading: Cheever Again!

This week's optional reading is the same as last week's: John Cheever's "The Country Husband." Most folks didn't get a chance to get to it last week—which was fine, as it was optional. But I'd love it if you could try to read it this week, and focus on the ending in particular: the paragraphs beginning with the lines "It is a week or ten days later in Shady Hill."

As you read, look for images and ideas he has picked up from earlier in the story. The elephants crossing the mountains is one. Can you spot more? 

And what about the tone of this section? I re-read it just now and was shocked to find no mention of gin in it! In the softened, sentimental, and achingly sad quality of the end--the section beginning with the line "It is a week or ten days later in Shady Hill"--I always get a strong sense of drunkenness--and I feel pretty sure that Francis Weed, like Cheever himself, and probably every other other suburban dad in the 1950s, would be a little drunk at that hour, so I was surprised to note that it doesn't actually say that in the story--the image of him holding a cocktail is so vivid in my mind. Isn't it funny how that can happen? What do you think of the tone? 

This is my favorite line: 

"The village hangs, morally and economically, from a thread; but it hangs by its thread in the evening light."

 Here's the story again:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Step Off the Edge

It's the morning of November 9th, and I'm reeling from the unexpected election results. 

Last night as I lay awake at 2 a.m., I wondered if I should cancel all my writing classes' assignments for the next couple of days. I remembered another big event in my adult life that shocked so many people: 9/11. Afterwards, the idea of writing anything seemed pointless. How could I care about fiction in the face of national tragedy? 

I've lived and grown a lot since then, and one of the things I learned is the reason I didn't want to keep writing that year was that my heart wasn't in it. I wanted my novel to be "good." I would have happily settled for "acceptable." I didn't want to mess up. These things were foremost in my mind. Which is another way of saying that, in large part, I was motivated by fear, not by an honest openness, a desire to apprehend mysteries that don't have solutions, to feel and explore things that are uncomfortable. 

All of that meant that the thing I was writing that year was ultimately shallow, and so of course it didn't matter in the face of a national tragedy. Of course it didn't matter at a time when everybody was snapped back to the reality that we are frail and mortal, that our experts can't predict the future, that our leaders aren't always the grownups-in-charge we want them to be. That we are all standing at the cliff-edge of time right alongside those experts and leaders and everybody else, looking toward a future that's just a big empty space, with the wind blowing in our faces. 

I wanted a world, and a book, where things were controlled, reasonable, okay. But that is not what art is about. Art is about going to that place where you go when you almost die, and realize death's been this close all along. The place you go when you learn something that pulls the rug out from under everything you knew. The place where you're transported and split open by love and then discover the one you love isn't who you thought they were. The place where you're asking questions that don't have answers. 

This is true of fiction, even when it feels like you're just playing, making things up like you did when you were a kid, having imaginary friends and pretending they're real. The point isn't to approach it like a serious adult who knows exactly what to do and what comes next, but like a child standing before a vast and unknowable universe. If you're working on something, don't let today's events stop you. Let them remind you to do it honestly. Be vulnerable. Write about the stuff that hurts. Be scared, be thunderstruck. Be brave. Grab the hand of the person next to you, even if it's someone you made up, look out from the cliff, and step forward into that wild blue space.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for November 8

Today we continued to talk about revision. We discussed the logistics of getting rewrites done and read by the class in the next few weeks. Then everybody read their tarot card revision exercises which we'd written last week. 

We touched on last week's optional reading, Cheever's "A Country Husband, " then did some new exercises in stakes and goals, loosely based on the ones here and here

We also found ourselves in a fascinating discussion about objects, toys in particular, and what they can tell us about the characters who own, cherish, or in some cases, decide to let go of them. The homework this week is inspired by that: 

Set the timer for two minutes. Think of an object that was important to your main character in childhood. If your character is a child, it can be something that matters in the story's present.

Set the timer for ten minutes. Show your character interacting with that object, if they still have it, or if they don't, thinking about where the object is now. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Friday Optional Assignments: Stakes, Goals, and Omission

This week's reading is "A Country Husband" by John Cheever. There are so many angles from which we could approach this story, but since we'll be talking about stakes and goals in our next class, and how those ideas can help shape your revision, that's what I'll ask you to look for as you read. 

What is the main character's goal in this story? Does it change? 

What's at stake for him; that is, what does he stand to gain or lose depending on whether he achieves his goals? 

Just hold these questions loosely in your mind as you read and enjoy this great story of midcentury middle-class midlife crisis from the Ovid of Ossining

Read "A Country Husband" by John Cheever

And here's the essay mentioned in the last class: "Writing by Omission," by John McPhee, which will also transport you back to the upper-middle-classy part of the middle of the last century. One of my favorite parts of this article is this quote from Ernest Hemingway:
“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Have a look, too, at what McPhee says about the practice of "greening," which he learned in his days as a writer at Time, and which he now uses in revision exercises for his class at Princeton. 

Cover of the issue of The New Yorker in which "The Country Husband" first appeared: November 20, 1954

Write the Story @ Ferguson Library: Tuesday Class Recap for November 1

This week's class recap:

In Tuesday's class, we began by discussing where everyone is in the writing process, what challenges they're facing, what they've learned. We discussed individual strategies for moving forward, personalized for each writer and the stage they're at. 

Then we discussed revision in general: the importance of not judging an early draft, or letting it define your idea of yourself as a writer; of pushing through to the next draft; of reading over your work and taking an impartial look at what you'd like to change, without first needing to know how you're going to change it. We then did the tarot card exercise we'd done on our first day, but with a twist: this time, the cards were used to rewrite a scene. You can do it at home by clicking the link in the homework below.

The homework I gave was these three revision exercises. Those of you who aren't yet at the revision stage should keep working on your first draft. Save these and do them when you're ready. 

Homework: Revision Exercises

You Are Not Going to Cry (reading through your rough draft)

What's Wrong (the revision checklist)

How to Fix It (the tarot card rewrite exercise we did in class: use as often as you like!)

Thursday, November 3, 2016

November Classes

One more day to sign up for the final session of Year of Your Book at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY. The class is aiming for a (messy, imperfect) draft by mid-December. If you're doing NaNoWriMo, this would be a good support for you. Sign up here

Write the Story at Stamford, CT's Ferguson Library continues through November. It's full, but everyone can follow the assignments and readings here