Category Archives: memoir

the importance of craft-related reading

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I’ve been busy this year.  From our trip to Thailand and Bali in the winter/spring, to hopping from one place to another into the summer, to finally settling down again in the fall, I haven’t had the time to post very often.  I am hoping to change that now.  

As far as my writing goes, I’ve been hard at work with subsequent drafts of my YA Science Fiction novel.  I started a new practice in July during a break from my writing that has been extremely helpful in tackling the usual problems of world building, plot continuity, and character development.  I read other books in my genre, which is my usual break activity, but this time I also read Stephen King’s On Writing.

on writing  

This book floored me.  

I had no idea that Stephen King, like me, also has trouble with plot and feels that the books of his in which he did plot his way through are actually his worst books.  

“Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”  

~Stephen King

I felt empowered by my own tendency towards character driven stories, because he writes them, too.  

I enjoyed the first half of the book, which was a memoir of how he started out as a writer, but the second half was where his little bits of advice helped to illuminate many of the things I struggle with in revisions.  

He advises writers to write a draft of their book with the door closed first – so that we aren’t influenced by the opinions of others.  Our second major draft should be after a break of 6 weeks (or however long feels right to us) and written with the door open, so we can let the world outside mesh with our world and enrich it.  Both concepts aren’t foreign to me, but King spells them out with brevity and articulation that begs for rereading when needed.  He’s not just concise with his words, he’s actually funny, which makes this non-fiction book stand out from some of the more boring lecture-type books on craft that are out there:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

I’m on yet another shorter break from the revising and I’m planning to reread the second half of this book to uncover some of his jewels of advice I’ve forgotten.  And I want to stress this practice for the writers out there that are feeling stumped during their revisions.

Craft is important.  Craft is essential.  Go out there and find books on craft and read them.  Today.  I guarantee that the more you read, the better your writing will be, and King does, too:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

The whole point of writing in the first place, for me anyways, is to visit another place and time, to gain a fresh perspective on life and what it means to be human.  Nothing does this as well as a book.  To give you a final, wise quote from Stephen King:

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

Yes, I remember feeling as I read that line.  They are magic.  But there are tricks to harnessing that magic.  It’s not all play.  It’s work, but the results are dazzling when we do it right.  

And we can read books within our genre critically, but sometimes it’s easy to forget some of the things we all learned in High School about writing clearly enough for our readers to not only be drawn into our stories, but to forget they are even reading something.  Sometimes, it’s easier when a writer actually spells things out and reminds us of the tools that can make our jobs easier.  And when we do mange to hone our craft, our writing has the potential to become a spaceship or a magic carpet to this other realm where our characters live and breathe, just like we do.

for those who’s passions are divided…

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A friend recently emailed me about feeling like she is pulled between two different directions for life work and graduate school.  It reminded me of my own experiences during my 20’s, and I feel like this is something many people must go through, so I want to devote a post to how I came to decide between my art and my writing.

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I grew up writing poetry and drawing, because my mother used to write poetry and she did a lot of sketching, toll painting, and craft projects that made me really inspired to do my own things with pencils, paint, and pens.  I loved English and Art throughout High School, so when I went to college, I double majored in both English, with a writing focus, and Studio Art, with a painting focus.  The first job I got after college was painting a mural of a sunset and a Robert Frost quote.  After that, I painted a handful of murals in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North India, Kenya, and Key West.  I also taught mural painting to primary school children in Dun Chaoin, Ireland (which was even more fun than painting murals).  You can see these murals on my author website HERE.  I am most proud of my experiences teaching mural painting in Ireland and of the Key West mural, but during all of these projects, I was always writing poetry, memoir, or fiction on the side.

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I was doing a lot of smaller paintings while living on the west coast of Ireland from 2005 until the end of 2006.  It was during this time that I wrote the first draft of my memoir of Animal Care in South India and the life of my dear friend Ann, who I lost to colon cancer in 2005.  I’ll always love that magic that happens when I sit in front of a wall or a canvas and just paint.  Or the magic of travel photography, which I also dabbled in, but I never developed my ability to edit my photos after taking them.  I just loved taking great travel pictures, which made me more of a snapshot photographer than a real photographer.

Anyway—it was through the writing of my memoir of stray dogs, and through the poetry I was perpetually writing about my romantic relationships and my relationship to the world, that I came to realize something important:

I might LOVE painting and photography, but I also LOVE writing.

So how do I choose which to devote my life to 100%, knowing that the “runner up” would probably only get 30% of my attention henceforth?

I decided on the writing because I read my words and I looked at my pictures, and I saw that I was a much better writer than I was an artist/photographer.  I also needed to write far more often than I needed to paint or take pictures of things.  And that’s what prompted me to apply to Goddard College for my MFA in Creative Writing, instead of going to art or photography school.

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So what I’m offering to you with this post, if you are thus “undecided”, or “balancing between” two passions, or three passions) — do the following:

1.  Seriously critique your work thus far in those fields.  Answer this question honestly—which thing do I do better?

2.  Think about your NEEDS.  Ask yourself—which thing do I need to do more often?  Which thing can I live without, and which can’t I live without?

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Don’t think about money, or which would be easier to devote your life to, because we aren’t here to sit back and take it easy.  We’re here to follow our passions and go on adventures—right?

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navigating the waters of poetry and fiction

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I must admit, I write from the poet in me first and foremost, and I’m so in love with poetry, that I don’t want to ever put that part of me aside.  Lyrical fiction has been the “answer” for me, after working for a long time between the genres of fiction and poetry and discovering that my voice pours out more naturally when I either write a poem OR a novel.

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This isn’t true for everyone, and I LOVE some of the cross-genre writings I’ve studied (anything by Bhanu Kapil, a friend and fellow AROHO 2011 women’s writing retreat presenter, who was also one of my advisors from Goddard College).  I’ve also read a lot by Carole Maso and Anne Carson.

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My first novel, Makara, was initially cross-genre, but through numerous edits, it became clear that lyrical fiction was the way that story needed to be told.

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Now, I’m working on yet another fiction project, and this time for Young Adults, and I’m working faster than my usual pace (Makara took 2 years of serious, full time writing, and then 4 years of submitting and small edits here and there).

I’ve started my newest novel only 15 days ago, and have written a total of 27,048 words (almost half the minimum length it will be upon completion).  For this book, I’ve been thinking through the entire plot every night while laying in bed, and all day while doing other things.

Within a few days of starting, I knew the “log line”, which is a one sentence description of the whole book.  This is essential for anyone writing a book-length work.  I’ve heard this from agents as well as fellow writers, and it’s why I haven’t been able to write a good-enough draft of my memoir-in-progress (because I still can’t figure out what that one sentence IS yet).

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I’d like to not discuss my current project’s plot yet, but I can say that figuring out the plot before really getting into the story was essential.

The book I wrote between this one and Makara was something I wrote day-by-day, without thinking about plot until a few drafts into it.  It took me one month to write a rough first draft of that one, one year off, then one and a half years of intense editing to get a “finished” draft (draft fifteen!).  But the market isn’t biting for that one, so, it’s going on the shelf for a while, and I am now conducting a writerly experiment with this current project:

HOW FAST can I write a GOOD WORKING DRAFT of a novel in a new genre?

Some smaller questions to consider would be:

Will it be fun, or hellish?

How much will it suck?

How much will my friends and family end up hating me for ignoring them for 4-6 weeks?

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Because it would be safe to say that this blog might otherwise get pushed aside in the coming weeks as I work hard to write an entire manuscript, I will use this blog to update on my progress.

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I’ll also be posting more on AROHO women’s writing retreats, which take place every two years at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  I’m going for the second time this August, though I won’t be presenting this time, just attending, and soaking up all that amazing writer/artist energy at the ranch.

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Wishing everyone the best of luck in all of their creative endeavors.

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how much of our fiction is “true”?

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I was once asked during a reading if some of my fiction novel, Makara, actually happened to me.

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 My answer was complex, because some exciting events in the novel were stories that a friend told me about his own life, and many of the locations were places I’ve lived in for a period of days to years.  And the myths I stole from?  The myths were real one day, long, long ago, weren’t they?!

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In all honesty, all of my characters were probably people I knew at some point in my life, and it’s like my brain was a blender, and I threw in a little of my dad, an ex lover, a close friend, mixed it up and got one character.  Then I did another blend for someone else.  I don’t always know I’m writing about specific people at all—until someone I am close to notices it, and then tells me.

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I love writing fiction (and poetry), because we can be artists with our memories.  We can write very close to a real story, but surround it with something different, another country or make it happen to an old god or goddess.  We can do anything with our writing.  I believe fiction is more true than non-fiction, or memoir, because we aren’t limited by our realities, and our emotions themselves can be allowed to speak unrestrained.

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One of my favorite books as a college student was The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, where he often blurs fact and fiction.  He wrote an amazing passage about killing someone, then later, he actually admitted that he didn’t kill anyone in Vietnam, but his experience was so vividly horrific, that it FELT like he did kill someone.  He describes that feeling as “story-truth” in these quotes from the book:

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“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

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“It wasn’t a question of deceit.  Just the opposite; he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.”

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His words were—and are—incredibly powerful to me.  I realize that through my fiction and my poetry, I am perhaps telling a deeper “memoir” of my life than the actual memoirs I’ve written.  If you ask two or three siblings to tell a story about the same event of their childhood, you will probably get two or three different stories that may not even appear related.  I don’t think any of us truly remembers things that happened in our past accurately.  But I believe the way we remember is more true to our hearts and minds, because that’s the scene that plays over and over in our heads, that’s the memory we are haunted by, that’s the memory we grow and learn from, that’s the memory we believe.

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What O’Brien is talking about when he describes how one of his characters liked to “heat up the truth” is the importance of writing an exaggerated story in order to make the reader FEEL the intensity of a moment without actually being there in the jungle with him.  I’ve done the same thing in my own writing, where I describe something with over-dramatization so that it brings the action right into someone’s mind and makes them feel what the characters are feeling.  Jeanette Winterson does this via magical realism in The Passion, when she describes a woman sneaking into her lover’s apartment to steal back her own heart.  We don’t physically give our hearts away when we fall in love, but we certainly do it emotionally.  Magical realism is all about emotional truth.  In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez uses magical realism like a literary  surgeon:

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“He pleaded so much that he lost his voice.  His bones began to fill with words.”

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“Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.”

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I believe in all stories—even the ones about dragons, unicorns, or shape-shifters, because they may be fantastical or unrealistic, but they come from someone’s memories.  All of our myths and fairy tales come from a blend of our lives, our dreams, and our nightmares.  We are emotional creatures who are rarely limited by our bodies.  Through our stories, we tell each other about what has already happened to us and what we wish would happen or what we don’t wish would happen.  That, to me, is much more valuable than simple facts, or what O’Brien calls “happening-truth.”  I want the “story-truth,” the emotional tales we can only tell through characters, through dogs or gods, through twisting the facts into something we can sing, weep over, or shout out in prayer, because we’ve taken a memory and we’ve transformed it into a legend.

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Four books you should read if you liked this post:

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez