the writer’s notebook

IMG_2027The Writer’s Notebook, with its title taken from the journals of Somerset Maugham, consists of 17 essays on the craft of writing. Some, but not all, are based on craft seminars given at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. I did not read them in order, but read the ones first that I thought might help me with a story I was working on called “Hidden Tracks.”

I’ve been working on this story off and on for years. The language is dream-like and more complicated than my normal writing. So the first essay that jumped off the Table of Contents was “When to Keep it Simple” by Rick Bass. “Your ideas can so easily become tangled in your words….begin breaking apart the truths…What is the one thing, the main thought, the simplest thought?” So I went through the story, breaking down sentences and deleting. Keep it simple, I told myself.

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the front of my t-shirt from 2004

People who’ve read this story in workshops kept saying, Why would she do this? So the next essay I read was “Character Motivation” by Aimee Bender. “I don’t always know what a character wants. I know some things about the character, but to know what he or she wants feels like the final answer, why I’m writing in the first place.” When I began writing the story, I didn’t know where it was going, but after I wrote the ending, I knew. What I had neglected to do was then to go back and set up the beginning.

I also have to admit that this is a weird story, as in doesn’t exactly follow the rules of this world, also unusual for me. Readers complained they didn’t know how to read the story. So, I thought Kate Bernheimer’s essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” might be useful. In a fairy tale, she wrote, “The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous.” The trick, it came to me while I was reading, was to somehow signal the reader that they were reading a sort of fairy tale where the rules would be different.

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the awesome back of my t-shirt from 2004

In “Performing Surgery Without Anesthesia,” Chris Offutt wrote, “I have one story with drafts that run back eighteen years–but it’s getting better.” Well, that certainly made me feel better about having such a hard time with my weird story.

I put off Susan Bell’s “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” because well, I loved The Great Gatsby, but what does that have to do with my writing in general or this story in particular. Wrong. Best essay of the bunch. Listen. “Although Gatsby needed to be enigmatic, his mysteriousness had to suggest something precise behind it, and Fitzgerald had to figure out what that was.”

This was the problem with my story. I was leaving it up to the reader to figure out something that I myself had not yet figured out. Which was precisely why the readers couldn’t figure it out. Well, I took my story, and I took a stand. I took hold of it, and we’ll see. I just sent it out to my writing group for yet another critique.

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details, details

IMG_2027In the car yesterday, I was listening to the CD that came with The Writer’s Notebook. On it are two recordings. One was a discussion on character. On the panel were Ron Carlson, Dorothy Allison, and Dennis Johnson. There was no introduction; it just started. Some of it sounded familiar.

When I got home, I looked up my notes from the two summers I went to the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. This recording was from the summer of 2005. I had actually been there.

What was sticking in my brain this time, though, was largely different from what I had taken notes on then. Ah, I thought, I’m in a different place now with my writing–hopefully a further-along place.

Which is an argument for rereading everything.  Who knows what you will notice the next time.

Which brings me to my point…This time, the main thing that stood out was Dorothy Allison saying, “I’m a watcher.”

Until I started writing, I was not a watcher or a noticer. Now I am. And that’s a good thing. Being a watcher helps me catch days. It helps make things stick. And character, as well as life, is all there in the details.

“She bought throw pillows, for example, and buying throw pillows is in my experience the single best indicator that a female human being is feeling pretty good.”  from Sight Hound by Pam Houston

“A pot simmering on the stove helps my father to believe we are still a family.”  from Fugitive Blue by Dani Shapiro

Details, details…

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