Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” How We Spend Our … Continue reading
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard wrote, I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we … Continue reading
Alone With All That Could Happen is a collection of 7 craft essays by writer David Jauss. I had read some of them when they were first published in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, but it was time to read them again. I should probably schedule time to reread craft essays because I can’t ever get it all. Or, because I’m writing in third person this time, something else falls into place that I didn’t notice when I was working on first person…
Here are a few of the words from this book that have made a difference in my writing:
…imagining the other is ultimately a way of discovering the self.
Perhaps the most important purpose of point of view is to manipulate the degree of distance between the characters and the reader…
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow”
Thus, altering our syntax…allows us to get our thoughts off the normal track on which they run…so if we change the way we think, we can sometimes change what we think.
“Remembrance of Things Present: Present Tense in Contemporary Fiction”
We use the generalized present to talk about an act that is repeated throughout time, as in the sentence “I write every morning.” The tense is present, but the events described are not. Hence they are unmoored from their actual places in time.
…the best epiphanies approach their revelations indirectly, through imagery, metaphor, and symbol rather than through direct statement. In short, they arrive with some elusiveness, like insight itself.
“Stacking Stories: Building a Unified Short Story Collection”
Because our choices of words, characters, and plots arise from our own obsessive concerns and themes, from our own individual selves, it is inevitable that there be unifying relationships between the stories. But we must discover them and then, to heighten their effects, strategically add connecting details, parallels, contrasts, repetitions…
And finally, this excerpt from the last essay in the collection, possibly my favorite because it’s about process and it’s a way of thinking about writing that had never occurred to me before, “Lever of Transcendence: Contradiction and The Physics of Creativity.”
My students don’t hesitate when I ask them to write their actual names, but they do when I ask them to make up fictitious ones. The creative process, I tell them, resides in that hesitation, that moment of uncertainty.
My second residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts…
Monday, 6/28/10: Up at 5:15 to fly from Columbus to Atlanta to Boston. I rent a car in Boston and drive 3 hours to Montpelier, arriving just in time for the last few minutes of the fifteen-minute Orientation. Then a meeting for 2nd semester students and at 4:30, the first lecture–“How We Know What’s Done is Done” by David Jauss: Anne Lamott says that finishing a work of art is like putting an octopus to bed. You pull up the covers and there goes a leg slipping out. At 8:00 Connie May Fowler, new faculty member, reads from her recently published novel.
Tuesday, 6/29/10 (my anniversary and my son’s birthday!): The first workshop–I signed up for a special workshop on publishing led by Domenic Stansberry. In addition to discussing manuscripts, we will each do a presentation on a literary publication. Doug Glover gives a lecture on “Symbols and Image Pattern.” Look at Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood to see how she uses the title image to unify and add layers of meaning to the novel. Follow an image each time it is mentioned to see what story emerges. When you write, let your characters have different responses to an image.
Wednesday, 6/30/10: A poetry lecture by Leslie Ullman on “Dialogue: Engine of the Practical and the Mysterious”–there can be a dialogue between the title and the body of the poem and dialogue between parts of a sentence by using phrases and commas, dialogue between the known parts of ourselves and the unknown, between will and imagination. Our second workshop with presentations on City Lights and McSweeney’s and a impromptu visit by VCFA graduate Vivian Dorsel, Editor of Upstreet.
Thursday, 7/1/10: A lecture by Philip Graham on how to bring everyday skills to writing. A wonderful lecture on landscape by graduating student Robin MacArthur, who is also half of the band Red Heart the Ticker–“our obsessions are key to our art.” Our faculty preference forms are due by 3:00–as a 2nd semester student I list 5. Advisers are posted at 7:30 on a bulletin board. So excited to be working with David Jauss this semester.
Friday, 7/2/10: In our third workshop, we’re discussing manuscripts. Graduating student Rachel Mullis gives an interesting lecture on the novella. Visiting poet Claudia Emerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Late Wife, reads six poems from that book, a brand new poem she wrote this week, several poems from her book, Figure Studies, and an amazing poem from her book in progress, “Secure the Shadows,” about the photos that used to be taken of the dead. The highlight of the reading was the finale when her husband joined her on stage with his guitar and they put her poem “Aftermath” to music, adding the captivating refrain–if I had a gun, I’d a shot her dead…
Saturday, 7/3/10: I take the day off and drive a little over an hour to Ferrisburg to visit the Kingsland Bay State Park, which used to be the French Camp Ecole Champlain. I was there the summers of 1970, 71, and 72.
Sunday, 7/4/10: An exciting lecture by new faculty member Trinie Dalton on “How Easy It Is to Enter” the abject, the place where meaning collapses. I meet with Dave Jauss to discuss my semester writing and reading. In our workshop, we hear presentations on Kore Press, Glimmer Train, The Paris Review, the Iowa Review. I talk about One Story. There’s a softball game (poets vs prose writers–prose wins!), a craft fair, BBQ on the Quad and later the Talent Show–Red Heart the Ticker plays two wonderful songs. Later Montpelier fireworks.
Monday, 7/5/10: Lectures by new faculty members: David Treuer on “The Art and Sense of Style” (“we want to make style work for us”) and Connie May Fowler on “The Necessary Evil Called Exposition” (“we want a balance between exposition and scene and we want to render exposition in exquisite detail”) We’ve been here a week and everyone (including me) is starting to wear down. The heat wave is not helping. Vermont does not do air-conditioning as well as Georgia does. At the student reading, I read part of my recently finished story, “The Blue Parrot.”
Tuesday, 7/6/10: Wonderful lecture by new faculty member Patrick Madden on “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things” (“I’m in love with essays”). More student lectures and faculty readings and another workshop.
Wednesday, 7/7/10: Last workshop with presentations on Esquire and Harper Collins. Signed semester study plans must be turned in before we leave. At graduation, after the graduate’s name is read, an excerpt of their work is also read. Lovely. It’s time to hit the road for Boston. I arrive in time to see the sun set over the harbor.
[you might also be interested in the first residency]
In an essay entitled “Artful Stealing” by Steven Schwartz in the current issue of “The Writer’s Chronicle,” he writes, “…you break into your own material by finding the key to someone else’s.” Each time I take a story apart, I’m adding to my knowledge of the possible ways to put a story together.
- What type of beginning is it?
- What type of ending is it?
- What type of story is it?
- What is its structure?
I answer these questions the best I can, using names that have meaning for me. The naming seems to makes the writer’s choice a concrete one, giving it shape, and making it visible. Other than that, there’s no magic to it. There’s just doing it. And I’m doing it so that the next time I sit down to consider my beginning or my ending, I’ll think what are my choices?
At the AWP Conference in Atlanta in 2007, there was a panel discussion on endings. To give you an idea of some of the names you can use as you take a story apart, here are some of the ones they used to describe endings: the barely there ending, the epilogue ending, the turns-on-an-event ending, the weird ending (seems to have nothing to do with the story yet actually reinforces the themes), and the Keystone cops ending.
There are, of course, a million more questions to ask. Here are some of the ones Douglas Glover mentioned in his lecture: (5)How many pages is the story? (6)How many sections does it have? (7) What does the white space signify? (8)What is the point of view? (9)What is repeated? (10)How many times is it repeated?
Each story may suggest slightly different questions, but I’m working on a list and/or a form to start with for each story. I hope to eventually have a notebook full of options. What was really important for me was to realize that this is a physical exercise.
It’s numbering the sections and seeing (11)when the characters are introduced, (12)when backstory is used, (13)when the story is moving forward.
The more I got into the story–the nuts and bolts–the more I learned something. And this surprised me. I thought I was getting it with some underlining and some circles and a few notes in the margins.
Learning how to write well is a process. I’m sure there are many ways to read like a writer. But “seeing how they did it,” as James Salter put it, is a way I can teach myself how to be a better writer.
Other posts in this series:
Part 1: Reading like a writer
Part 2: Taking it to a new level
Part 3: Questions to ask
Part 4: Reading a story
Part 5: Taking a story apart