Fiction & Your Loved Ones

30 09 2018

                                                                                                        Photo: Literary Hub

WHEN WRITING FICTION HURTS THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE

I was sitting in the Science Center Library, reading Paradise Lost. This was in the late 1970s, when I was an English major at Harvard. There are famously gorgeous libraries at Harvard, but I preferred to sit in one of the uglier spaces, beneath buzzing fluorescent lights, with calculators clicking all around me. I was unlikely to run into anyone I knew in the Science Center, though there was no reason for me to be so furtive. It’s just the way I am, habitually keeping to myself. Private and solitary.

I came to the end of the poem. Adam and Eve, our guilty parents, cast out of the garden. But then: “The world was all before them, where to choose / Their place of rest. . . They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, / Through Eden took their solitary way.” The lines hit a nerve and I burst into tears. Loud, gulpy, snot-filled sobs. In the middle of the Science Center, for everyone to hear. I could not stop. I sat in that cubicle and wept and wept.

Guilt has always moved me. I imagine the pain someone must have been in to do whatever awful thing he did and want him to have another chance. Such possibly kind, possibly stupid empathy is useful for a writer, but it’s not the whole story. My mother was a war survivor and I inherited her unspoken guilt at having made it out alive, but that doesn’t fully explain it, either. I feel guilty for being a fiction writer. I’m not referring to the self-doubt many of us feel about making up stories while the world burns. I’m talking about the suffering we cause by writing.

The beauty of fiction lies in the way a story—regardless of plot or setting—communicates to a reader, I am with you. I felt as if Milton had known me hundreds of years before I was born, had known and understood everything I was going to do and was letting me know, the world is still before you. That compassionate recognition, acceptance, love, from an author is why we keep reading, even when we have Netflix to entertain us.

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The Fiction Writer as Ethnographer

5 09 2018

                                                                PHOTO: bized.aacsb.edu

THE STORY COLLECTOR, OR,
HOW NOT TO WRITE A NOVEL
AYSEGÜL SAVAS ON THE FICTION WRITER AS ETHNOGRAPHER

On Friday evenings, Sergei Sergeevich rounded us up from campus in his pickup truck and drove us to the white, wooden house at the edge of a lake. It had scalloped eaves, a porch with rocking chairs; it was straight out of a Russian tale.

Inside, the furnace would be lit. Fugi and Ella, his black Labradors, rambled around in a frenzy. We heard the sound of Sergei Sergeevich’s wife, Dieuwke, playing the cello in the study.

Sergei Sergeevich filled our glasses and put us to work—rolling out dough, folding pelmeni, catching fish from the lake. Once everything was in order, he went to the porch to smoke. If one of us followed him out, he quizzed us: Who did we like best in the group? Who did we have a crush on?

After dinner, we put the plates on the kitchen floor for the dogs to lick and went to the wood cabin behind the house. This was the banya, built by Sergei Sergeevich. If he was in a good mood, he played the accordion or guitar, passing around Russian folk songbooks. We put on the felt hats hanging on the walls, went in and out of the sauna, fell asleep on the wooden benches of the resting room, or went out to the garden to roll in the snow.

Sergei Sergeevich was my Russian professor in Middlebury, Vermont. He had a big mustache and small spectacles, a permanently stained wardrobe of thick shirts and fleece vests. He spoke languages as if he were playing with dough—stretching and folding, breaking words apart and putting them together in new combinations. He would take our class outside, right in the middle of verb conjugations, and roll himself a cigarette. Sometimes, he sent one of us to the dining hall to fetch him a glass of Mountain Dew.

He disliked most things socialist and all things insincere, and he could smell either in an instant. He knew at once whether he liked a person, a song, a poem, or a painting, and he knew even faster whether he disliked them. I wished for his discernment, to know at once what made something real, and worthy. I never took a literature class with him because I didn’t trust my judgment. I was afraid of saying something stupid and lose my standing in the banya group.

The group was made up of Bulgarian, Czech, Kazakh, and other Turkish students. Later, there were Iranians, a Hungarian, an Uzbek, Palestinian, and Latvian. It was a mythical time. In the white house, time unfolded like a story and was itself contained in stories. And with each gathering, our repertoire fattened and grew. There was the story of Fugi, the older, skinnier Lab, who was afraid of the banya because she’d been left inside one night by accident, and shrunk to half her size by the morning. There was the story of how Dieuwke and Sergei met on a flight from Europe to the U.S.; Sergei Sergeevich had performed a magic trick, involving a Queen of Spades. There were stories about all the students who’d come before us, each one with an epithet assigned by Sergei Sergeevich.

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An Inside View on How to Tackle Writer’s Block

5 09 2018

                                                                                         PHOTO: screencraft,org

BEN MARCUS: WRITER’S BLOCK HAPPENS WHEN I’M BORING

THE AUTHOR OF NOTES FROM THE FOG ON CRAFT, JOY WILLIAMS, AND MORE

How do you tackle writer’s block?
Writer’s block, if that’s the name for it, happens when I am boring, when my mind is flat, when I have nothing to add to what has been said and done. Therefore it happens nearly all of the time. It happens when writing is an obligation and not a desire. And I really don’t mind. It’s not clear that I am meant to pump out writing at all costs. The opposite is true. The world will be just fine without anything I might write. Writing is not exactly a scarce resource. There is far too much out there that hasn’t been read enough. So I don’t try to solve this silence. To me it is necessary.

It is exhausting to be obsessed and driven and full of some pressing need to write—and it doesn’t happen very often. I also don’t write so sharply if I don’t care about what I’m doing, and caring is hard to fake. So, to me, writer’s block is a sign that I probably ultimately don’t give enough of a shit. This is my own flaw. I should care about more than I do. Or what I care about doesn’t fit so obviously inside the boundaries of what I consider fiction. Part of the beginning of any project is the discovery of what matters to me, followed by an attempt to conceive of it in terms of fiction. That’s what it is to start a project: engineering a set of delusions that the act of writing has consequence and simply must be done. When I’ve finished, it’s hard to believe that I ever could have cared so much, but I did, for a little while, and then it’s time to hunt down something new to care about and to hope that I have the ability to make it exist in fiction.

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Writing Advice from a Great Writer

30 05 2018

ESSENTIAL WRITING ADVICE FROM
VIRGINIA WOOLF

“FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, PUBLISH NOTHING BEFORE YOU ARE THIRTY.”

Who wouldn’t love to write like Virginia Woolf? (Well, some people, probably, but I’d wager not many of them are looking at this page.) Woolf was a once-in-a-generation mind, and as both a writer and publisher, she had strong opinions about what made a piece of literature great (or, more often, mediocre). Luckily for us, she wrote many of her ideas down, in some of the many essays and letters she penned over the course of her life. Below, I’ve collected a few of Woolf’s thoughts on craft and the art of the novel, as well as inspiring advice for aspiring writers and established writers alike. She is not quite as pithy as others when it comes to doling out advice—but I think her advice is all the better for it.

To write a novel, begin with character:

I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire—that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved. —from the essay “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown,” 1924.

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An Extraordinary Demonstration of Narrative Dexterity

3 05 2018

THE CHALLENGE OF WRITING ACROSS
TIME AND VERNACULAR
Gregory Blake Smith in Conversation with Bonnie Nadzam

Gregory Blake Smith is author of The Maze at Windermere (Viking, January 2018), already critically acclaimed for its breathtaking scope and beauty. The Washington Post’s Ron Charles has called it “staggeringly brilliant… an extraordinary demonstration of narrative dexterity.” It is those things and more; it is timely, it is important, it made me cry and sit very still when I finished it, and it is among the best American novels I’ve ever read. I would say so even if Greg weren’t a former college professor of mine, and now friend. Among his other books, his novel The Divine Comedy of John Venner, was named a Notable Book of 1992 by The New York Times Book Review and his short story collection The Law of Miracles won the 2010 Juniper Prize for Fiction and the 2012 Minnesota Book Award.

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Writing Advice by a Great Author

3 05 2018
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“INTUITION IS ESSENTIAL.” WRITING ADVICE FROM GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

In the face of the literary world’s ongoing fetish for youth, I often like to remind myself that Gabriel García Márquez didn’t become famous until he was 40. That’s when he published his fourth novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Now, of course, he’s a household name, beloved for his storytelling ability and fantastical imagination (though as he’d tell you, everything in his most famous novel happened—somewhere, to someone). García Márquez is a master of storytelling, but he’s also a master of discipline: above all else, he put in the work. For that alone, we should all listen to his advice. So on the anniversary of his death, here is some collected literary wisdom from one of the all-time greats.

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On the Art of Flash Fiction

13 04 2018

ON THE VERY CONTEMPORARY ART OF FLASH FICTION

Lord Chesterfield called the novel “a kind of abbreviation of a Romance.” Ian McEwan described the more compact novella as “the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant.” William Trevor considered the short story “essential art.” Writing a story, he said, is infinitely harder than writing a novel, “but it’s infinitely more worthwhile.” And now we have the even shorter story, a form that was validated, if it needed to be, when Lydia Davis, whose stories are sometimes a sentence long, was awarded the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. In their citation, the judges said of Davis’s works: “Just how to categorize them? They have been called stories but could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apothegms, prayers or simply observations.”

The short-short story is narrative (or it’s not) that is distilled and refined, concentrated, layered, coherent, textured, stimulating, and resonant, and it may prove to be the ideal form of fiction for the 21st century, an age of shrinking attention spans and busy and distracted lives, in which our mobile devices connect us to the world as they simultaneously divert us from it. And on the screens of our smartphones and our iPads and our laptops, we can fit an entire work of flash fiction. It’s short but not shallow; it’s a reduced form used to represent a larger, more complex story; it’s pithy and cogent, brief and pointed, and like the gist of a recollected conversation, it offers the essential truth, if not all the inessential facts.

The market for flash fiction is extensive and it’s growing. A Google search for flash fiction markets nets 719,000 hits in .55 seconds. Duotrope lists 4,700 publications looking for flash fiction, and a few of those outlets publish 365 stories a year. Your chances of finding a home for your short-short story are considerably better than they are for your novel. What better way to break into the world of publishing, to get your name out there, to earn the endorsement of editors, to introduce your beloved characters to an appreciable number of readers? If your dream is to write a novel, consider that flash fiction might be your first small step. I learned to write novels by writing short stories and learned to write short stories by writing very short stories before they had a snappy name.

While flash fiction may be quickly read, it is not often quickly written. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” To be brief takes time. But the obvious fact is that it does take less time to write a short-short story than it does the longer forms. It might take years to write a novel (it does for me), months to write a story, but only weeks, maybe days, if you’re lucky, to write a very short story. And an occasional morsel of sweet short-term gratification won’t make you sick. Promise! With the end so close in sight, you are emboldened, and you learn to finish. If you don’t finish, you can’t revise, and if you don’t revise, you won’t learn to write.

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