Research Unleashed! And Leashed.

bonehelpcone

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.

*

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

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Rebecca Makkai

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series. 

Today’s novelist is fellow Ploughshares blogger Rebecca Makkai,  the author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House (forthcoming in 2014), and Music for Wartime, a story collection (forthcoming in 2015).

ImageRumor has it The Borrower developed over the course of nine years. Not to sound like your mother, but what took you so long? 

It’s funny, I’m actually a very fast writer, so the “nine years” thing is kind of misleading.

It was really nine years start to finish, the first few years of which were just wimpy outlining. I refused even to refer to it as a novel for about five years—just “this longer thing I’m working on.” I was very young (21) when I started it, and I was fortunately smart enough to realize I had no real business writing a novel. It took nine years not because I was drafting, but because I was growing up and figuring out how to write.

Did writing your first novel prepare you in any way for writing your second?

I think that if your first novel fully prepared you for writing your second, that would be a very bad sign. If it doesn’t feel completely foreign and new and like you’re working without a net, then you’re probably repeating yourself.Continue Reading

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Benjamin Percy

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series.

Today’s novelist is Benjamin Percy, the author of two story collections as well as two novels, The Wilding and Red Moon.  

Benjamin PercyHow long did it take you to write each of your novels? 

That’s hard to track, because I never work on any one project exclusively. I’ll take a break from the novel to work on a screenplay, a short story, an article or essay, sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few months, however long it takes for me to feel renewed and ready to tackle the monster again.

I was twenty-eight when I sold my first novel, The Wilding, but it had a lengthy editorial road ahead of it since the original first-person narrative was more shnovel than novel. I set it aside for a long time before bullying it into shape, in part because I moved from Wisconsin to Iowa and was distracted by a new job and an old house that required a lot of renovation, and in part because the revision seemed so daunting. That makes for two years total? Maybe more a little more than that.

Red Moon was also spaced out weirdly. I wrote sixty-five pages and an outline at the start of the summer of 2010, and I started cranking out the pages in November. I worked steadily for a solid year—I had to, because they had a strict deadline. I was hammering eight to ten hours a day and within a year, I had seven hundred pages. This manuscript went through a brutal overhaul. I threw out hundreds of pages and added hundreds more. The book was considered complete and satisfactory in March of 2012. So what does that add up to? A year and half?

So, at the “One Year In” point— as compared to its published form— you’d say that Red Moon was like…

Ore that required a lot of refining.Continue Reading

Writing is Not Like…

For the past year or so, I’ve contemplated the ways that writing is like many other everyday tasks we undertake. In that time, I’ve reached for some unlikely comparisons. (See baseball, cooking, going on vacation.) As the year comes to a close, I’d like to reverse course and think about what writing isn’t like—besides badminton and motocross, of course.

photo by Bohman

photo by Bohman

Writing is not like magic.

They say everyone has a book in them, and this may well be true. But it’s not really a book until it’s on the outside, and that’s where the writing comes in. Having a good idea, feeling inspired, setting up your desk just-so: all of these can contribute to happy writing. But the only way to write is to write. Sit down and stare at the blank screen for a while and eventually begin.

At the end of every semester, I ask my undergraduate students to start a novel and think about outlining the whole book. Often they are surprised by how fast they shoot through their initial concept and into unknown territory, and how much the story they’ve imagined changes as they write. The writing process depends on thought and creativity, not muses, the right chair, or a killer concept. This stark fact may be why so many people you meet on airplanes have books that remain unwritten. There are no spells or potions; just deep thought, hard work, and the willingness to get it wrong before you get it right.Continue Reading