The Autobiography of the Imagination: Toward a Definition

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The autobiography of the imagination writes itself, one could say. It writes every time we write, every time we dream or daydream. It is its own captain’s log, the transaction and receipt. It reveals the self to make the self into a stranger, twisting the I to wring out a you. With every persona poem I write, every autobiographical lie, I manifest a self-portrait in silhouette, not so much an accurate depiction of what I look like or who I am, as much as a chart of where my shadow falls.

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If I were to tell you about my childhood, I could tell you about my parents’ divorce, how many dogs we had, that I liked to draw. I could tell you I went to St. Peter’s Episcopal School and spent afternoons with my grandparents playing cards. Or I could tell you I wanted to grow up to marry Don Johnson from Miami Vice; that I fantasized in Wednesday chapel about a flood leaving me stranded for days in my school in which I’d carve a pew into a canoe and paddle the halls with a crucifix; and that I believed the cemetery near my house would “leak” ghosts like radon up through the ground into my bedroom. The autobiography of the imagination is as vital, as personal, to the self-revelation of oneself as the autobiography of one’s experience.

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In his 1986 introduction to A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, with an air of pseudo-Freudianism, said, “It is the novelist’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.” The autobiography of the imagination then is an autobiography of our base desires, the things we haven’t done but have longed for. It is our fantasies, our secrets from which we curate by redaction how someone else sees us. It is an autobiography of instinct, desire.Continue Reading

On Building Believable Characters in Fiction

bw-934485Before I picked up a copy of Offshore last month, it had been years since I read Penelope Fitzgerald, a British author who didn’t start writing until she was in her sixties. But the characters in this Booker Prize-winning novel caught my attention and I soon became completely emerged in Fitzgerald’s cleverly constructed world. Set on the Thames River, multiple houseboat dwellers share their stories of connection, loss, love, and confusion, all with a wry dose of Brit humor. This text might be nearing forty years old but the characters are dimensional and compelling. Reading through it, I discovered why they felt so contemporary: they were as present, conscious, and complex as real people are.

By the second page, a character named Richard reluctantly heads up a group of neighboring houseboat dwellers to discuss a communal problem. As the meeting is in full swing, Richard thinks, “Duty is what no-one will do at the moment.” The omniscient narrator’s voice in a following statement gives the reader details on why Richard might draw this conclusion:

Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.

Later, when Richard has an encounter with a pushy associate who works in real estate, the narrator guides us once more:

Richard wondered why living on largish boat would automatically make him interested in small ones.

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Majestic Endings

 

majestic endings

As I closed in on the first draft of a novel, I wrote toward an ending I’d held in my mind for months. It was a quiet climax in keeping with the, ahem, literary nature of my novel. I knew that when I finished the draft, I’d have to smooth out the road between, say, pages 75 and 300, maybe even rewrite them completely. But that final scene was divine. Tears would probably fall to my keyboard as I wrote it, and readers, in turn, would weep.

Instead, when I reached my perfect ending it was dead. After a period of mourning, I pulled out my trusted writing books and flipped to the sections on endings.

I began with Robert McKee’s Story, a book about the principles of screenwriting, which is to say it’s about plot. It’s peppered with references to Aristotle’s Poetics, including Aristotle’s requirement that an ending be both “inevitable and unexpected.” McKee’s prescriptions can be reductive but his confidence is overwhelming. If nothing else, I figured his advice on the matter of endings would be clear.

“If…as the protagonist takes the climactic action, we once more pry apart the gap between expectation and result, if we can split probability from necessity just one more time, we may create a majestic ending the audience will treasure for a lifetime. For a climax built around a Turning Point is the most satisfying of all.”

I want to give my novel a majestic ending, and so I read this passage over and over. It was kind of vague, wasn’t it? It wasn’t what I’d expected from McKee at all. (Do you see what I did there?)Continue Reading

Research Unleashed! And Leashed.

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German Shepherd in a cone.

I knew I had a problem when I started envying my dog’s cone collar.

Now, my dog’s problem was a hot spot. Allergic, itchy, hot, and double-coated, my German Shepherd had chewed her hind leg raw over the course of a single evening.

My problem was research. Engrossing, surprising, discomfiting and endless, my novel-in-progress was generating fact after fact, but very little story.

Neither of us could resist the itch of our obsessions, which were self-ruinous and spreading. For my dog, the vet imposed a “cone of shame”—a demoralizing, and mostly effective, plastic barrier denying her access. This is what sparked my envy, for what kind of restraint could I impose on myself, a writer whose project requires research—research that also derails the project at every turn?

Latest Findings: Novel Research Leads to Pornography

How does research become a problem? Well, for one, it’s larky. You wonder if your character’s pants would have buttoned or zipped, which means you need to know about the invention of zippers, and then, hours later, you’re pouring over sketches of Victorian pornography.

A surprising number of research inquiries lead to vintage porn.

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Writers with Responsibilities: I’d Like to Click My Heels Three Times…

256px-The_Wizard_of_Oz_Garland_Lahr_Haley_Bolger_1939Dear Sally,

I’m a single mother with four kids—everything from tweens to a would-be adult—and I just went back to work full-time. I tell people I’m a writer, but lately I’m a just a thinker, collecting details and perhaps inspiration but never transposing them to the page. I read your sage advice but I still feel like Dorothy when she tells the Wizard, “I don’t think you have anything in that bag for me.”

Your friend,

Need Some Ruby Slippers.

Dear Ruby Slippers,

Girl, you can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan! Don’t kid yourself, though: “writers with responsibilities” is not exactly as fun as “friends with benefits.” For those of us with living, breathing, wanting, crying, sneezing, vomiting dependants, there are always strings attached. When my kids were little, I was sure God was mocking me. In fits of boredom he’d throw obstacles my way: three kids, one on the way and a house renovation—can she do it now? Four kids and a dislocated shoulder—can she do it now? Four kids, one divorce, one thesis to write and a broken wrist (yes, of course my dominant hand)—can she do it now?  I sometimes feel like a modern day Job. I quell the why me with the realization that God has a lot more on his plate than to taunt me.

So where does this rant get you? All I can say is that you’re not alone. Every day someone says to me, “I don’t know how you do it.” Me neither, but you do what you have to do. To be a writer, you have to believe you’re a writer. That must be your first practice.  The reality is that if you’re a writer you are in the world in a different way than most. You are watching high school lacrosse games listening to the conversations of other moms on the sidelines, you are walking from the T to your office building in a winter vortex trying to internalize the way the snot freezes in your nose, or cleaning the kitty litter box noticing the acrid ammonia smell of cat pee.

256px-Dance_with_spinning_plates2(js)There are only so many hours in a day. Sometimes your day to day has to be your prewriting. It is necessary to fill the tank. Are you reading? Then you are prewriting. Can you make sure you carry a pen and paper or write a note on your phone when you notice the ants marching counter clockwise in your kitchen? It’s all writing. Granted, all that living doesn’t accumulate pages, but its fodder.  So perhaps that’s what I have in my bag for you.

Above all, don’t beat yourself up.  If you’re living in the world with all five senses tuned into the universe, and collecting morsels of dialogue, and thinking about characters. and even sometimes making a list of those thoughts: you’re working.

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socks

Dear Sally,

I have three laundry baskets filled with unmatched socks.

Enough said.

Dear Enough Said,

C’mon, Pinterest is filled with hundreds of ideas for unmatched socks: puppets, wreaths, dog clothes… The possibilities are endless. The real quandary is why. Why do the socks run? Why can’t they stick it out? When it comes to writing don’t go the way of the sock.  Instead, think of Pablo Neruda and his “Ode to My Socks.” There is inspiration to be found everywhere.

Matched socks are overrated anyway. The goal for each day should be two socks, I think the matching bit is over the top. Granted, I was the kid in gym class with one black knee sock and one white ankle sock but it comes back to what I’ve been saying all along. You must lower your expectations.

Here’s a thought. Why don’t you pitch those three baskets of socks and start new. A six-pack of Hanes is $8.99 at Target. Why let the unfinished business taunt you? Stop rooting through the baskets on a daily basis trying to make some semblance of order. It’s just another way to beat yourself up. Empty basket, empty page—full of hope and promise and no judgement.

I’m in Love With a Writer: A Survival Guide

Being in a relationship with someone in the same profession is tricky business. While there is a shared understanding of the ins and outs, it can also cause friction, particularly in competitive fields. Dating a writer was one of my bigger relationship snafus—his ego often made our duo a trio.

My spouse is a reader but not a writer, so though he has literary knowledge, he is what I call an Innocent Bystander: while he wisely dwells in the science world, he has the arduous task of being involved with a woman in a crazy-pants profession. He patiently waits while I pause movies to talk about the brilliance of the writing. When I publish something new, he promotes it with pride and diligence. And he doesn’t flinch when I’m working on a project and become the Angst Monster I was a few weeks ago.

Sadly, not everyone who ends up loving a writer is as well prepared. For those not-so-lucky Innocent Bystanders struggling with your blessing and your curse, here are some things to help you navigate these treacherous waters.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Learning To Write Plot Matters

A few years ago, my cousin was just about to graduate from a small state school with an English degree. He told me he wanted to be a writer. I had never read any of his writing, so I was unbelievably discouraging. Try a job in the real world, I said, before you fill out all those MFA applications. Move to Pittsburgh, and work at a newspaper. Maybe you’ll like it. A few months later, my mom told me he had finally gotten into some program, but it was only some small one in the Midwest…. Maybe Idaho?

“Can you find out if it’s Idaho or Iowa?” I asked. “It kinda makes a difference.”

Turns out it was Iowa.

dhulsddI was pretty excited for my cousin, because he’d always have that stamp of approval, and he was going to make good connections. But I didn’t tell my mother (or his) that I didn’t expect him to actually learn everything he needed to learn.

Hanif Kureishi also thinks writing teachers cover all the wrong things. The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was a widely circulated article about him in The Guardian, which included the amazing quote: “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.”

In fact, I agreed with Kureishi so much it made me realize something about my slush pile. When I get something in from a writer, seeing he or she has an MFA can sometimes make me dread reading it. 

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WORKSHOP OF FIRE!!!!

BobBouty6It’s your senior year of college. What kind of writer are you? Do you start writing a story eight hours before it’s due? Do you fictionalize your latest fight with your jerk-face manager or diva housemate? Does every one of your stories read like a screenplay? Like a poem? Do you write to make your mother proud , or prove your high school teacher wrong?

Whatever your habits, young writer, I know you. I have been you. Even after two story collections, two graduate programs, and 11 years as a professor, I am you, still. My habits are unseemly, like borrowing clothes from my kindergartner. But you, my undergraduate self—with your first taste of validation, your first buzz of obsession, your first writerly highs and lows, your need for deadlines—you formed the writer I am now, for better and for worse.

Now I’m hoping to teach you better—and teach my students, too. It’s time to build habits of consistency and, at the same time, to release the handle of the trapeze. Behold, the WORKSHOP OF FIRE!!!

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Blitz Writing: Writing When There is No Time

This time of year, many of my friends start looking for summer shares, beach houses, and too-good-to-be-true getaways. While they litter Pinterest with snapshots of cozy cottages within walking distance of the ocean, I drift away on a different flight of fancy: writing retreats and residencies. I pour over the websites and ads in writing magazines, like a teenaged male with his first copy of Playboy. My fantasy is not a bungalow with a view or a hot coed who likes sunsets—it is the time and space to write.

I live in a world where there is never enough time—my alarm goes off most days and I hit the ground at a dead sprint. This particular semester I’m teaching nine courses with over two hundred students. My husband and I have two young children and a growing menagerie. (And sometimes like to spend time together that doesn’t involve watching Dinosaur Train for the ten thousandth time, too.)

In no way am I lamenting my choices; I love my life. However, until I get my hands on a Delorean or a Time Turner, writing often comes in dead last on the priority list.

Last July I decided to overcome my graphobibliophobia and begin my first novel. As summer languished, I found the time to go through my rituals and write when I felt like it. Once school hit, though, that time was tossed aside like last year’s sunscreen. The scarce minutes I did have for writing were given over to other projects with more pressing deadlines. My novel lapsed into limbo. In late December, while fantasizing about a week at a writer’s retreat in Maine, I came to the realization that my desire for a writing escape was a castle in the air. I might want it, but right now it just can’t happen. I have to be a writer in the life I have, not in the life I want.

January saw the debut of my new approach, which I call the Blitz Writing. It’s not pretty or romantic, but for those of us who have to eat standing up (when we remember to eat), it makes time for writing even when there is none.Continue Reading

Eye Want

"Cupid in a Wine Glass" by Abraham Woodside. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Cupid in a Wine Glass” by Abraham Woodside. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In honor of Valentine’s Day later this week, and my first post in a series of writing prompts, I present to you this ever so schmaltzy “Cupid in a Wine Glass.” (More on that in a minute.)

Between drafting my first novel and teaching creative writing to undergraduates and adults, I’ve been happily cavorting with visual writing prompts for about ten years now, because they so often provide a welcoming spring board for new work or even continuing works-in-progress in unexpected ways. Beginners seem to like the visual as a concrete starting point; writers who’ve been at it for a while seem to like the experience of shaking things up, refreshing the palette, feeding obsessions or finding new ones. Regardless of where you are in your writing life, you might consider what Edward Hirsch has said about looking at art in Transforming Vision: Writers on Art: “Works of art initiate and provoke other works of art; the process is a source of art itself.”Continue Reading