Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Kirstin Allio on Reading the Newspaper Before Sitting Down to Write

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Kirstin Allio, author of Clothed, Female Figure (Dzanc Books), discusses finding poetry in newsprint.

This post is about writing ritual, and practice.

I still make my sons’ school lunches even though they’re teenagers, and when I get a compliment on a particular PB&J my heart still soars. Then they’re out the door on ten thousand horses—they’re always late, they jump the stairs, the dust they raise, the clatter echoes down the sidewalk. I put the milk away. Silence—as if I’ve been tossed up above the day, and the air holds for a few seconds. Exhale—I lean over the newspaper on the kitchen counter. The material of the world. Leaves of trees, footprints of thought, tight poetry, broad comedy, specific tragedy. It takes 70 pounds of hay and 15 pounds of grain and half a cup of mineral salts and 35 gallons of water to make six gallons of milk, one milking’s worth. How much does it take to make today’s paper?

I grew up without the newspaper: my childhood was counter-cultural, spiritual instead of political. Eyes closed in meditation rather than open on the headlines. When we visited my mother’s parents, my grandparents’ inviolable morning ritual was to trade sections of the newspaper at the breakfast table. (Raisin bran sprinkled with wheat germ, skim milk thin as paper.) My parents stalked off; my grandfather wiped tears of laughter (“lahf-ter”) from his pale eyes as he shyly passed me the “funnies.” My grandparents sent clippings by mail several times a month, annotated in the margins. I never read them.

But here’s what happened in my own story: I moved in with the native newspaper reader who would become my husband. At first I had no idea how to wield it, not to mention read it (the newspaper and the relationship, but this is about the newspaper)—standing up, or sitting down? The wing-sound as the pages turned, the wingspan, the inelegant bird was as big as a tent, unfolded, and caught the slightest draft from an open window. I was, at the time, an MFA student. I assumed the paper was all foreign wars and corporation business, and I considered reading it a kind of safari (Land Rovers, tiger trophies), a visit to another world populated by elites burning cocktail conversation calories. I hadn’t imagined there would be continuity in the news stories—that you were inducted, and rewarded by reading daily—and I hadn’t bargained for the masterful, measured writing.

Beginning my work day by reading the paper orients me, and calls me to attention. Reading, even touching those pages, measures the day, and gives me a barometer of mind and mood. Am I open? Sentimental? Critical? Quick to absorb and empathize, or quick to dismiss, judge, and categorize? Reading the paper brings stories, and words to the fore. New words like seeds suggest, incite, excite me. I wish my grandparents could see me now, a zealot with scissors. I have shoeboxes of ivoried pages like precious textiles, family linens. I hoard stacks of sections in my office, notebooks glued with cut-outs, collages I’ve constructed over years, waiting, ambushing, editing, just like I do with short stories. Text fragments thrill me, photographs of art and dance are, themselves, art objects, I cleave to clever book reviews, ribald reviews of restaurants, tech reviews that portend both the past and the future.

The newspaper, like a poem, is at once whole and atomic, a cosmos and a microcosm. It might be difficult to get the news from poems, says William Carlos Williams, but it’s not so hard to get poems from the news. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Valerie Trueblood on Eudora Welty's Matchless Book, The Eye of The Story

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Valerie Trueblood, author of Criminals: Love Stories (Counterpoint), writes about a literary touchstone.

“If these short sentences have the look of simplicity, let no simplifier try to copy what they do.”
That’s Eudora Welty, writing about Henry Green in her book The Eye of the Story, in which the essay “Henry Green: Novelist of the Imagination” is a literary education in sixteen pages. May every young writer, slow to begin or tempted by despair, find this book in time, with its adages and comforts, its revelations of a mind disciplined and enchanted by story. Just as this writer’s portraits of a plausible goodness move us in her stories, in the essays her profound respect for the books of others seems to come from another critical world, slower and more emotional than the one we have now with our fast strobes of enthusiasm and scorn. “I write about what I like.” Like! It is wonder she transmits in her reviews. In me she awakened the desire to read any book that had produced this luxurious submission, allowed her to possess its secrets as she did in all humility, and confirmed her belief in wonder as the purpose of art.

In the title essay, writing about how Katherine Anne Porter does without a certain kind of scene-setting, Welty finds nothing lacking in a story offering revelation in this degree. A character’s intense inner state has expanded to fill the space, and to Welty what matters is the story’s own path to its end. For her, nothing can hold a strong story back; it must do what it will.

In “Looking at Short Stories” she examines five in detail—by Crane, Hemingway, Chekhov, Lawrence, and Faulkner—and when she finishes, we’ve gone from technical matters into style into beauty. Speaking to us as like-minded seekers (reader and writer ought to be companionable, she says) rather than as a cohort in need of what she knows, she examines what makes us think something is beautiful. She goes into all this in an everyday voice. No gushing. Beauty is not, she says, “a blatant or promiscuous or obvious quality.”

In 1941 a reviewer struck by the beauty of the stories in Welty’s own first book refused to comment on their form, saying to do so was as hopeless as “saying a tree is right in form.” This rightness exists throughout her work and steers her criticism out of its surface matter-of-factness into vision.

Henry Green: "the look of simplicity"
Before I read The Eye of the Story I had some school-learning of her stories, often presented (as with the mysteriously oft-anthologized “Why I Live at the PO”) as comedies packed with that Southern knowledge of what people would do. “She would do that, wouldn’t she.” Asked about her progress as a writer, Welty said she improved “once I got some sense.” In the South you’re raised on the word. “He’s got no sense.” “What was the sense in that?” To a child listening to the marvelous litany of what people would do, “no sense” had an endless store of effects inside it like seeds in a pepper. Some of them were just flavor, some of them burned: desperate acts, rape and incest and murder, abrupt intensities in lives called ordinary—the ground of Welty stories. “Trouble, the backbone of literature,” she wrote. She was not a comedian at heart any more than Chekhov was. Our comic writers are funnier today, lacking her boundless sympathy. Our paranormal is thin compared to her normal, and much of our criticism, lacking her wonder, just advertisement. Not just her visionary stories but her way of reading enlarged my reading and my life. I go on and on learning from The Eye of the Story.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Serena Crawford's Nine Tips For Authors in Search of Characters

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Serena Crawford, author of Here Among Strangers (Lost Horse Press), discusses character.

Never be better than your characters. If your character falls into a vat of slime, you should have experienced that firsthand, either figuratively or literally. If your character is jobless or homeless, you should be jobless or homeless, or understand that you could be with a small turn of events.

Pick two or three distinctive details about your character, no more. How do these details evolve from scene to scene? Does a cut get infected? A tremor become more pronounced? The development of detail in itself is a story.

Find your character’s voice. When developing a character, try to imagine what she sounds like. Is her laugh a snort or a wheeze? The vividness of a character often lies in his or her noise.

Don’t let your characters munch, or even worse, nosh. Careful word choice strengthens characterization, whereas incongruous word choice pulls the reader out of your story.

Try to have a trait in common with your character. Do you both have a fear of heights? Are you both deaf in one ear? If you can relate to your character on some level, it’s likely your reader can too.

Make sure your character isn’t you in disguise. Autobiography limits the possibilities of a story.

Give your character a desire. Is he desperate to do right by his son? Does she want to tell her husband about a dark time in her past? A character’s desire hooks your reader by raising the stakes of a story. Your reader will want to know how it turns out.

Expect your character to fail. Complex characters need time to come into their own. Don’t be discouraged if this takes several drafts or more.

Let your character surprise you. As the story progresses, and you have a good grasp of your character, allow him to dictate what he will do next. At this point, you relinquish control and the story takes off.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Maryse Meijer on the Frivolity and Necessity of Clothing and Books

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Maryse Meijer, author of Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), compares writing stories to designing clothes.

Once upon a time the fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen filmed himself making a wedding dress out of a men’s suit. I can’t think of a better metaphor for what writers do—for what I try to do—than this. Taking something commonplace and finding within it the shape of something unexpected, discovering all the things hidden within something familiar. It’s as if the dress is a secret the suit had been hiding all along, waiting for just the right pair of scissors to reveal it.

Editing can be like this: looking at the perfectly serviceable and handsome suit you’ve just created and then slashing through to the story that is less serviceable, less handsome, until you have something wearable, but only just. The best clothes are the ones that make you hesitate—can I wear this? Should I?—and writing is like that for me, too. I like to be a little uncomfortable when I dress up, and I like to be scared when I write. I like to feel the boundaries of what I am and of what writing could be. And yet, while good clothes and stories cast you beyond yourself, they also remind you of very simple things closer to home, much the way a corset, drawn very tight, reminds you that you have lungs, a ribcage, a diaphragm. Suddenly you’re just trying to breathe, to not break anything, taking care even as you are taking no care at all, looking batshit fucking crazy while eating tacos in a wedding gown made of trouser legs slapped with white paint. You’re finding the spectacular moment in the ordinary one. You’re finding out they’re kind of the same thing.

I think, too, of the frivolity and necessity of clothing and books, the meaningless of fashion, the possible redundancy of writing—so you take some words and make more words, so what? So you take some silk and make yet another sheath dress someone will wear maybe once or twice and then abandon at the back door of a charity shop. You don’t need more than one warm outfit to survive. You don’t need to read any books at all, strictly speaking. Does anyone really need to write? To make clothes? I don’t know. Writing feels necessary to me, but I also can see beyond it, the way I can see beyond my desire to wear beautiful things. I could live without books and I could live without dresses. But I also live a lot through books, and I’ve lived my whole life through clothes. I feel that I live more when I’m writing, as I do when I am wearing my favorite things. Words bring the world to me, and clothes help me find my way in the world, and vice versa. These words put together in this way become art to some of us. This satin cut into this shape becomes a fantasy, a nightmare, a story. We do need, maybe, some art, somewhere, at some time.

When I am looking for inspiration or beauty I often go to McQueen, lately. Watching him work makes me want to work, helps me think about what I do. And wearing his clothes, or looking at pictures of his couture, helps me think about what I would like to be—helps me imagine the many bodies I have inside me, the many women waiting to be worn, the way that wedding dress waits inside its suit. From just one thing—the sky, a tree, love—comes a thousand stories. The writer has her materials, too, and she cuts her work from them, wears them, gives them to others to wear, to judge, to discard, to live in. Aren’t there some stories you never want to take off? Some you hate because they make you feel fat or cheap or stupid? Some that make you feel incredibly lucky to be a body in the world?

To make something that moves, that envelops and exposes, that reflects the body as it transforms it—that is what I would like to do as a writer. It is what McQueen did as a designer. We should be able to enter a story the way we do a demanding piece of clothing, sometimes struggling with it, sometimes made breathless or uncomfortable by it, sometimes blinded by it, the way a sweater blinds us when we pull it over our heads. But there is always a way in, always a way out. We reach for the holes, we pull ourselves through, we enter and we exit, but if the dress is beautiful enough, the story strong enough, we leave it changed creatures, wiser and more wonderful for having inhabited the skin of a ruthless imagination. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lynn Stegner's Answer to the Question: "Why Stories?"

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Lynn Stegner, author of For All the Obvious Reasons (Arcade Publishing), discusses why she's written a book of stories rather than a novel.

Why stories? Why not a novel this time, like all the last times? What is it that compresses a tale into this narrow frame, rather than brushing it across the sprawling canvas of a novel?

At some point in every novelist’s writing life, he or she begins to notice a silent accumulation of narrative passages, conceits, a measure here, a few chords over there, a lyrical line that keeps singing somewhere in the background. Each of these might have grown into the longer composition and commitment of a novel, as well as the complexity that a closer, more leisurely look exposes. After all, a novel must negotiate with Time, portraying its passage, conjuring the moods that characterize change, as well as generating the sense of movement that reflects the way lives are actually lived. But a short story begins after most of the developing action has taken place. We meet the players almost as they are walking off the stage…one last scene, one duet or ensemble and the curtain will drop. So everything that has come before this final scene must be already distilled within character, emblematized in a handful of causatively related events, or even left just out of reach and merely glimpsed in the imagination, or metaphorically presumed, the way you can almost feel the muscles of large birds as they fly overhead.

Someone I knew well used to say that short stories are a young writer’s game largely because they offer many more opportunities to try things out as a writer is maturing. To experiment without spending too much time. I’m not sure I agree with this. In a sense, there is a kind of extravagance to the form, and not because stories are dealing with truths and situations and characters nearly equal to what might be discovered in a novel but because each story has to be a whole world, just as in a novel. That’s quite an investment in a remarkably small piece of turf.

The word short then is mightily deceptive. A collection of nine stories, like mine, for instance, is nine worlds complete unto themselves, and each and all are creatively more work, entailing nine times the research and preparation, nine times the heart, and nine times the charge. They must exhibit economy and precision, penetrating to the central meaning with the flash and speed of a laser finding its mark. By means of a few brushstrokes, the writer provides enough to reveal what we need to know about a character—what he worries about, what she yearns for, and some of the life that they have seen before they show up on page one, even if that life can only be inferred. If in a novel details do double and even triple duty, in a story they are even more burdened with the job of communicating what is essential to making final meanings. Verbs cannot simply say what the action is, they must also qualify that action in such a way as to capture character, mood, habits, and even health. A woman who staggers into a meeting is clearly more interesting than one who walks. She’s got trouble; she has problems. And let us say that she slouches into that same meeting—that tells us something about her attitude, her position in the pecking order.
Meeting: Enter staggering, no, slouching

So for stories compared to novels (and with the exception of Time), the rules are the same, only more so.

Over the course of the years it took to write four, book-length narratives, I found that I had accumulated a number of story threads that, for one reason or another, did not want to be the fully rendered tapestries that are novels. Actually, that’s not quite true: One of them was supposed to grow into a novel, but the instant I sat down and began to write it, I realized that what was essential could be dramatized and brought to the light in less than twenty pages. It did not need a long distance to execute the necessary turns in the journey toward meaning and truth; it turned on a dime, or two. But another of the stories in the collection could have expanded into a novel easily, if I had wanted to spend that kind of time with those characters. I didn’t. I wanted to encounter them only at the borderline between the fictional life before and the suggested fictional life after—suggested because that fictional future is only gestured toward. It is there by implication and no more. Latent action—present, past and future—along with its import, is naturally occurring in novels and helps to inform the action that is front and center. But in short stories latency composes a whole ocean of content, while on the surface a few islands, a carefully arranged archipelago visible to the reader’s eye, comprises all that is actually available—the story on the page. Which turns out to be quite a lot.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Jensen Beach on the Likability or Unlikability of Characters

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Jensen Beach, author of Swallowed by the Cold (Graywolf Press), explores the issue of seemingly unlikable characters in fiction.

The other day I was talking to my students about “The Dead.” I’m often talking about this story in classes; it’s so good for demonstrating such a wide range of issues related to the construction and analysis of short fiction. Following the discussion, one my students said he disliked the story. Fair enough, I said, you don’t have to like a piece of writing to learn from it. Another student interrupted to ask the first student why he disliked the story. The characters are awful, the first student said. I don’t like Gabriel at all. I guess I agree with this sentiment. Gabriel is pretty awful—selfish, self-aggrandizing, interested primarily in his own social and physical pleasures at the expense of everyone else, his wife in particular. If he wasn’t like this, of course, the end of the story wouldn’t work at all, the story would be less a story than an interesting summary of an evening in Ireland at a particular time with a particular group of people. I explained this to my student and we moved on and I didn’t, to be honest, think much more about whether I liked Gabriel.

What's not to like?
Someone recently asked me, after having read “The Apartment,” a story in my new collection, Swallowed by the Cold, whether or not I liked my characters. The story is about a woman named Louise who drinks too much and who is convinced that her new neighbor is the daughter of a former lover. Louise gets drunk and visits this neighbor, a young woman named Sara. It goes without saying that the interaction is somewhat awkward. Louise is obviously in pain; but her actions are odd, off-putting, and render her selfish and deceitful. She’s not as awful as Gabriel, nor is the ending of story centered as forcefully on such a significant self-understanding as Gabriel achieves. Still, I suppose there is something likable about Louise, or if not likable, at least its suggestion, arrived at mainly through our sympathies.

Maybe good characters (if I can make the arrogant assumption here) resist such simple summary? Should they? Is likability, as in attraction, as in appreciation, as in electability or dateability or go-for-a-beer-ability, something the writer should at all concern herself with? What kind of a story would “The Dead” even be if Gabriel, madly in love with his wife, understood and sympathized with poor dead Michael Furey? If he fell asleep thinking how nice and fulfilling it must be for his dear wife to have been loved so much and so purely in her life? What if we liked Gabriel because he was such a good person? At the end of “The Dead” I’d argue we don’t like Gabriel, but we feel for him, we get him. We see his sadness and, if even for just a moment, forget that he has for so long been so blind to the life around him. Maybe there’s something in that that’s likable, because it’s familiar to us.

This impulse to want to like or dislike seems distinctly human, or perhaps distinctly contemporary. Fiction, to reduce somewhat clumsily, is the art of rendering lived experience, so maybe we need to face these impulses. Or maybe, better, we need as writers to understand them, to subvert, challenge, break them. We should be writing characters who may or may not act in ways that are cruel, or slanderous, or kind, but still allow if even a moment for readers to see something of themselves, their own consciousness, their own decision making. A recognition, in other words. And in that recognition there may after all be a complicated kind of likability.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ronna Wineberg's Ten Rules for Writing a Short Story Collection

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Ronna Wineberg, author of Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life (Serving House Books), shares what she's learned.

A collection of short stories is a celebration of a writer’s body of work. I’ve been fortunate to have had two published. Every writer has his or her own methods for creating a collection. Here are mine:

1. Write lots of stories. Enjoy the process.When I started to write, my goal was to write a story that worked. This can take years. It did for me. Each story idea felt like a gift, a journey into the unknown.

2. Perfect each story. Write draft after draft. Work on a story for as long as needed. You may have to start over. This can be difficult, challenging work. Finally, when a story seems ready, submit it to a literary journal. Brace yourself for rejection. Submit the story again.

Writer friends told me you have to be tenacious; rejection is part of the writing process. “Don’t be discouraged,” they said. But I was shocked by all the rejection. “A Celebration of the Life of the Reverend Canon Edward Henry Jamison,” a story in Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, was rejected by several literary journals. Then I submitted it to Moment Magazine short fiction contest. The story was chosen as a finalist. Finally, The Laurel Review published it.

3. When you’ve written stories that please you and have published some, begin to compile the collection. Read the stories. Shuffle them. Choose those that fit together. Decide which give you variety and reflect the book’s themes. The themes may emerge as you read the work. The selection of stories may change over time.

On both collections, I decided which stories I loved, which needed revision, and which were too similar to others I’d included. I ended up leaving out some favorites.

4. Write more stories. Your collection may go through many drafts. Mine did. When I wrote a new story I considered strong, I inserted it into the manuscript and removed a weaker story.

5. Choose a title and epigraph.
You may have already done this. The book’s title may change as the selection of stories changes and depending on what the publisher or editor suggests. The epigraph may change, too.

6. Arrange the stories. The arrangement of stories isn’t prescriptive. A reader participates in a collection and can choose which story to read when. Even so, the arrangement creates a flow for the book.

While working on my first collection, Second Language, I came across David Leavitt’s introduction to his Collected Stories. He quoted Gordon Lish’s advice: “…start with a pisser and end with a pisser.”

7. Create momentum. Consider Leavitt’s words. He wrote that record albums helped him decide on the order: “…particularly Joni Mitchell’s—that I turned to find a model for how to arrange nine or ten seemingly unrelated pieces of prose into a coherent and meaningful whole.” Albums, CDs, create a momentum. A book is an organic whole, greater than the individual pieces.

8. Make sure the details in each story are unique. The unconscious has a will of its own. Read the stories again in the order you’ve placed them.

As I read the manuscript for Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life I was surprised to find I’d repeated some words, images, names, and descriptions from story to story. I’d described many buildings as “red brick.” I had used the word “terrible” eighteen times. I found replacements.

9. When you’re satisfied with the manuscript, look for a publisher. Finding a publisher can take a long time. Most agents and large publishing companies aren’t interested in collections. Small presses and contests can be the best route.

Second Language, was rejected by publishers. Then I submitted it to a contest and, to my surprise, it won. Part of the prize was publication. A small press published my second collection. Both publishers took great care with the books.

After the manuscript is accepted, you may have to revise it again, depending on what the publisher or editor requests and how you feel about the work. You may even revise stories previously published in literary journals. I had considered published stories finished, but I found revision at this stage improved them. I added scenes and dialogue, changed endings.  

Finally, you’ll participate in the many steps involved in preparing a book: working with the editor, writing acknowledgements, a dedication, gathering blurbs, incorporating copy edits, doing proofing and promotion. Each step took longer than I’d imagined.

10. Celebrate. After the book is published, a reader may tell you the stories seem as if they were effortlessly connected, and you’ll be thrilled. You’ll say, “thank you,” as I did. You won’t describe the details of the focused, sometimes hard, sometimes exhilarating work. You will have forgotten most of it. Forgotten the joys, the doubt, time and labor, the rejections, revisions, the struggles, changing of names or descriptions or words, the deadlines, decisions, commas inserted, last-minute typos corrected, the glitches, all the glue you felt you used as you shuffled the stories, trying to fasten them together into a logical whole. These things are in the past. You are the author of a beautiful, published book. A collection of stories. You will be grateful, as I am.