Everything I do lately seems to have multiple purposes. I read for pleasure, to observe what other authors do on the page, to learn, to find fine examples to share with my students. When I cruise social media, I'm cheering on other authors with books about to publish, looking for great short essays to read and share, keeping up to date about the writing world (and the world!), having a bit of social fun, working here and there on some presence for my upcoming book. And when I'm at a writers conference? The motherlode of multi-tasking! All of the above!
For the mammoth annual AWP Conference two weeks ago in Tampa, I headed down with at least four (not exactly competing) items on my to-accomplish list: Talk to folks about my forthcoming book, Starting with Goodbye,and hand out/sign advance reading copies. Meet in person the literary folks I only know online, but really like. Read from, and meet follow contributors to the anthology, Flash Nonfiction Funny. Attend break-out sessions and other formal activities that piqued my interest, to continue learning.
I did all that, and more.
Having ARC's of Starting with Goodbye was thrilling. To be in the AWP bookfair with those in my hand...well, I can hardly describe the feeling as far-flung writing world friends stopped by to have a look, take a book, and sincerely wish me well. I wanted to hug them all. Come to think of it, I did hug them all!
AWP's bookfair is a sprawling, two-football-field sized maze and can often feel like a bit of a cold place, filled with pressure to accomplish something, to meet someone, to have the right conversations. Last year though I seemed to crack through my own personal shoulds, relax and look at it differently: as a place to find, meet, and talk with writer friends I interact with online, editors who have published my work, former students, and my own fellow MFA alums, and also a place to explore, meet new folks, and not worry one whit about what may come out of those interactions.
While I did attend a few stellar break-out sessions this year, I spent fewer hours than usual in those, opting instead to continue meaningful conversations rather than dashing off to make it to a chilly meeting room exactly on time. Those in-person meet-ups now feel like a more urgent part of any conference experience than before.
One session I especially found interesting was focused on creative nonfiction chapbooks, which I reported on here for Assay Journal; there you'll also find reports on many more AWP 2018 panels. I picked sessions to attend mostly based on what I'm curious about now, including: an excellent panel on narrative medicine (coinciding nicely with an upcoming community teaching gig I have to help those recovering from injuries to write their health stories); one on how authors can collectively help one another on myriad levels; another on effective online teaching methods; and one more on mastering digital book promotion.
Because I had family in the area to visit, and my knees can only take so many hours of hard floors, I missed what I'm told was a masterful keynote by George Saunders, and some other evening events. Time was, I would have been upset about that. Now, I'm taking the long view. There will be other big conferences (AWP in Portland, OR next year?), and other gatherings nearer and smaller.
At my first job, a mentor once advised that if you can leave any professional conference having made at least three satisfying new connections, learned a couple of key strategies you can put into practice, and not come home sick or injured, that will have been a successful outing.
> Finally, if you are one of my local northern NJ readers, come work with me on Sunday morning, 3/18. As part of the Montclair Literary Festival, I'm leading a 90-minute workshop, "Writing from Memory," geared to helping memoir, personal essay, and family history writers pry prose from partial memories.
In a couple of hours, my train pulls in to the station in Tampa, Florida for the annual AWP conference. Really, I made the trip from New Jersey on the rails! (Since I'm writing and scheduling this post four days in advance, I won't know if that idea was brilliant or demented, so check with me later..)
Meanwhile, onward...to the wonderfully ginormous, teeming, swirling controlled chaos that is AWP. What? You think 14,000 writers (and editors, publishers, writing teachers, etc.) descending on an enormous conference center and a slew of hotels is calm and orderly? That 500+ breakout sessions, a few dozen of readings and gatherings, a dozen or so keynotes and special appearances and talks and on-stage interviews, are easy to navigate? Throw in a three-football-field sized bookfair, after-hours and off-site readings and parties (sorry, sponsored meet-ups), biz dinners and lunches and breakfasts, and you've got AWP.
Which I must say, actually is remarkably organized and orderly for all its girth. And also, unruly.
But hey, Florida instead of NJ in March? I'm there. Or here, by now.
Like last year, I'm here to learn, to listen, to meet up with my far-flung but fiercely valued writer friends I only see once a year (or every few years). To absorb it all, make new writer-world friends, take it all in. To ogle and soak up the wisdom of writer idols (and not be shocked when they get drunk at the after party, no not me), to dream and plan and set some new goals.
While I've marked up the program in a nifty app so I won't miss my must-see sessions, I'm also reserving--as I also did probably for the first time last year--my personal right to follow my nose and not fulfill an agenda. That worked out remarkably well in 2017, so hey, why not!
Officially, I do have a few places to be, things to do at AWP this year:
Three literary journals, which have published my work (Sweet and Under the Gum Tree in the past; Tiferet in a forthcoming issue), are hosting me to sign and give away ARC's (advance reading copies) of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love after Loss (coming May 1 from University of Nevada Press). Even if the books run out, I'd still love to chat with any interested folks who stop by (and there may be some book swag on hand too).
And, for something completely different, I'll be reading with contributors to the forthcoming anthology, Flash Nonfiction Funny: 71 Very Humorous, Very True, Very Short Stories, at the Tampa Marriott Waterside (host hotel), Meeting Room 13, 6:30 - 8:00 pm.on Thurs, 3/8. I don't often get funny on the page, and this short piece might surprise (shock?) some folks. And that's all I'm going to say about that.
Perhaps we'll run into one another. I love whenever I can connect with blog readers; though given the size and scope of AWP, I may just have to wave from here.
Which reminds me, I'll be back here next week (or soon, anyway), sharing some of what I learned and observed. And if I know myself, while there I'll be offering this space to other authors with just-published books, writers with something compelling to say, who I think you may like to hear from in future guest posts or Q/A's. Stay tuned.
Interviewing authors, and loaning out this space to feature guest posts by other writers, are the great pleasures of publishing this blog. I ran the first Q/A interview in February 2008, about eight months after starting up the blog, and the first guest blog post not long after. Both featured authors of memoirs, although I've also spotlighted novelists, poets, and the occasional screenwriter, playwright, editor, and publisher.
When I interview an author of personal creative nonfiction -- both here and when those interviews appear on another site, or in a book -- I like to think up questions that likely aren't the same ones they've already been asked time and again while promoting their books or other activities. That isn't always easy, but it is always fun and interesting for me. It pushes me to look thoughtfully at their work, to think deeply about it, and to get even more curious about the writer.
Now, I'm finding myself at the other end of that equation as PR activities are starting up for my forthcoming memoir. First there was the author interview that's now part of the publisher's press kit and distributors' mailing.
Recently, I've been fortunate to be asked to answer interview questions for future publication. Never have I so appreciated the value of original, probing interview questions. I'm being asked to think about things I hadn't anticipated being asked. These include well-formulated and outside-the-ordinary questions about the book's content, my writing process, publishing with a small/university press, writing about family members, what my writing life looks like, and my hopes and goals for the book.
You'd think I'd have known these interview questions would invite me to look deeper, think more broadly, enter unexplored territory. You'd think I'd have been ready. I was in a way, but not completely. And frankly, that's what's making it fun. With a podcast and a webcast interview also in the mix, I'll get an opportunity to see what it's like to field those questions--gulp--live.
When I ask someone to contribute a guest post here (or I respond to a request), I emphasize that to best serve blog readers, original content is highly valued. (No cookie-cutter blog posts templates culled from the press kit, please!) And I've been pleased time and time again by writers who always come up with something new and worthwhile to say, and allow me to post it here on their behalf.
Now -- you guessed it -- I'm writing some of those kind of guest posts myself. And hoping they will be equally valuable and fresh.
Overall, as this process unfolds, I've never been so appreciative of the thoroughness and generosity shown by bloggers, editors, freelance writers, and others. Their kindness, intelligence, professionalism, and sincere desire to help are striking.
As we get closer to book publication (May 1), I'll post other interviews and guest posts that appear. If you happen to be someone who interviews authors, publishes guest posts, plans author coverage or book reviews, I'd love to hear from you, as the interview and blog post calendar takes shape.
And now, back to answering questions...
This is the sixth in a series following the manuscript-to-published journey for me and Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press, May 1, 2018). Find the others in the series here.
I devour memoirs and novels about horses—but I’m also a harsh critic when it comes to prose about our equine partners. That’s why I was so thrilled to read the stunning memoir, Still Life With Horses by Jean Harper, recently #9 on the Small Press Distributors’ bestseller list. Like a fangirl, as soon as I read the final sentence, I set out to connect with the author, who graciously agreed to answer my many nosy questions.
LR: So you were writing about your horse and how you came to riding as an adult, for a few years, but struggling with shaping those drafts into a coherent memoir—and then had a turning point. What changed?
JH: I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and my studio looked out over a field. The first day, I was standing at the window, staring into space, not writing or really thinking anything at all, and then I saw a horse. A large, black, gorgeous horse. I had an apple left over from lunch and went out to see this horse. He came trotting up and leaned his head over the fence; I took bites of the apple and gave him bites. We shared that apple and I felt as though – even though I’m not really a believer in these things – that this horse was some kind of sign. I remember holding my hand out, empty of apple now, and the horse breathing on my palm. I thought of the James Wright poem, “A Blessing,” the last lines, when the poem’s speaker has been nuzzled by a horse:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
And I knew that moment was how my book would end: with that black horse giving me a blessing, giving me permission to write. I went back into my studio, sat down, and wrote the chapter that would be the hardest to write. The rest unfolded from there.
LR: Your book was published as a result of winning the Howling Bird Press2017 Nonfiction Prize at Augsburg College. I’d love to hear what that experience was like.
JH: Oh my, it was fantastic. I remember meeting the students at AWP in early 2017, and how interesting I found the idea of a publishing project working with MFA students. I liked the students, and liked the books they had on display, and so I decided I’d submit my manuscript. Their word limit was 40,000, which meant I needed to edit out about 15,000 words. Honestly, it was liberating. Whole chapters got the ax, plus anything that I had even slight doubts about. I was killing a lot of darlings. I highly recommend cutting a manuscript by 25 percent, even as an exercise! It will open up your work in ways you might not imagine.
Then, of course, you submit and you wait. Ironically, about a month before I got the call that told me I had won, I had a very disheartening meeting with a literary agent at a conference. The agent had read a portion of the memoir, and in our meeting, she pushed my pages across the table and said, “So, what’s the story?” I summarized it as best I could, and she shrugged and said, “Well, my horse died too. What’s the story?” The implication being, I suppose, that if I wasn’t famous, or my horse wasn’t famous, then the book was a waste of her time. I left that meeting about as discouraged as I had been in a long time.
Fortunately, the phone call telling me I’d won came soon enough. I’m a writer, but I am also a dedicated teacher, and the notion of working with students sounded just perfect. The editing process was the best I’ve ever been through. The publisher, and faculty mentor, Jim Cihlar, is a thorough, gentle, wise, and very particular editor, and the main student editor, Katherine Fagen, was exactly the same.
For me, as a writer, the process of being edited by them, and the rest of the student team, was truly enlightening. Through Jim and Kathy’s guidance, I was able to see where things needed to be tightened, expanded, tinkered with even slightly. And then there’s the experience of working with a small, independent press, where you and your book are given close, personal, scrupulous attention. It was kind of like an intense workshop with very skilled practitioners. I only wish I could publish my next book with Howling Bird Press.
LR: You employ a segmented form within each chapter, and – I loved this – in between chapters, short (flash?) pieces, no more than a paragraph or two. These are visually varied on the page and have a different feel/voice, more like prose poetry, rich in imagery. Some draw on the narrator’s girlhood memories, art and mythology, equine psychology or behavior. When and how did these bits come about, and what did they mean to you?
JH: I have always loved playing with form in nonfiction, in service of the story, not simply form for form’s sake. In part, these prose poem pieces came about as an experiment, inspired by the “Entre’acte” pieces Mark Doty used in Dog Years. I found those short pieces between chapters to be very effective and intriguing as counterpoints to his main narrative, and thought I would try something like that. I’d also been playing with poetry and wanted to have the feel of poetry in the book, how through poetry we can come at things in a less direct, perhaps more mysterious and visual, even visceral, way.
So I was thinking about all this, and then when I decided to submit to Howling Bird, and had to cut those 15,000 words, I saved a few slices, images, moments, and re-fashioned them into the prose pieces. It was so interesting how it just clicked into place, and I found myself again thinking that the constraints of form—only 40,000 words—helped put a kind of creative pressure on the manuscript that really worked.
LR: In the book, the narrator begins to take control of a disappointing personal life as she’s learning to become a confident, capable horsewoman. Was that connection evident as you were living it?
JH: Absolutely, yes. When I got interested in horses I was about 40, and a complete and utter novice. I was also, and I think the book alludes to this more than once, terrified of just about everything related to horses: riding, lunging, ground work. All this fear, at the same time that I felt drawn to horses in profound ways, you’d think I would have taken a lesson or two and stopped. But I was also mentoring Mia, the young girl in the book, and I wanted, I think, to be a role model for her,to be that strong, determined, committed woman she could emulate and look up to. So I kept taking lessons, and kept going with Mia to hers, kept playing the role of a confident woman.
Then I got Buddy, and suddenly I was responsible for this beautiful, huge, unpredictable, wise, intuitive horse. That was really the tipping point: once I had Buddy, there was no turning back. I had to not simply play the role, I had to embody confidence and capability because he was a funny horse: brave about so many things, but terrified of others. We could trail ride anywhere, and he never shied once, not even the day we turned a corner on a trail and there was a fully opened bright blue umbrella on the path. He just kind of looked at it, and we kept going. But, he was afraid of very specific things: streams and puddles, wash stalls, horse trailers. So I felt my job was to teach, protect, and be his leader.
And when you learn how to be the trusted leader of a thousand pound animal, whose first instinct at any danger is flight, you learn a deep-seated sense of confidence in yourself. It’s confidence at the body level, the cellular level. You learn how to be calm in the face of fear, how to be centered, grounded. All of that did change me as a person, and did give me a new sense of self, allowing me to imagine a different personal life, both with and beyond horses. It also allowed me to be calm in the face of a somewhat turbulent personal life, and see a way past it, and thus, out of it.
LR: You’re a full-time college writing professor, so presumably much of your personal creative writing is completed on breaks, weekends, and other found hours, like other writers with “day jobs.” With each book, does that balance become any easier? Any advice for writers struggling to produce long works in short bursts of time?
JH: During the school year I have a small mantra I repeat to myself: “Touch the work every day.” Even if I only have ten spare minutes, and I can probably find that in any given day, I make a point of looking at what I am writing. I think about what I’ve got, where I’m going. I write one sentence, a phrase, a word. That’s incremental progress, of course, but it’s still progress.
On breaks between semesters, and in the summer, I work to create a large chunk of writing I can edit during the school year. I was fortunate to have a yearlong sabbatical last academic year and so wrote the first draft of my next book. It’s a bit of a mess, but that’s okay. It’s a draft.
You have to allow yourself to write badly. That’s what revision is all about: turning the bad writing into good writing. Now, back in the trenches of teaching, and committee work, and all the rest, I’m touching that draft every day. I would say that this particular process – create a full rough draft, then edit it over time – is something I have learned to do more fluently now, working on what will become my third book.
My best advice for writers is written on two notecards over my desk.
The first: "All real writers go through this." The thisbeing anything related to writing: getting stuck, searching for the right word, getting rejected, getting published, fiddling endlessly with a paragraph, getting it right on the first try. If you are writing and going through whatever you are going through, you have company. You are a real writer.
And, from Chuck Close: "A quilt may take a year, but if you just keep doing it, you get a quilt."
LR: It’s easy to get sentimental when writing about the profound relationships between a horse and human being, but sentimentality usually pulls down the prose. Your book is frequently loving, saturated with memory and meaning—but never sentimental or sappy. What was it like to write about an experience that clearly meant so much to you, without getting nostalgic?
JH: When I was first writing about Buddy, it was awful, to be honest. I adored that horse, and right after he died, I was completely wrecked. For months, I wrote in ragged fragments, just flashes of memory, words, images. And then I couldn’t write at all. It was just too difficult. When I finally went to the writing retreat for two weeks, I had the solitude and unbroken time to focus on the chapter about his death. I spent a lot of those two weeks just weeping. But I also was writing. I wanted to get his story right, to honor the life of that brilliant animal. When you love an animal, it's almost a primal thing. Especially with horses, you speak to each other in ways beyond language, through the body; so when I was writing about Buddy, it was as though my whole body was writing. It was exhausting; it was exhilarating.
I also had to give a reading at the end of the residency, and when I finally had a draft chapter, I practiced reading aloud what I had written about 25 times before I could read it without tears streaming down my face. And when I did read it for an audience of my new writer and artist friends, I was not the one weeping. They were. A painter came up to me afterwards and said something like, you know you’ve described the Pieta, don’t you? I hadn’t intended to do that, but I understood what he meant: the death scene I wrote was intimate, raw, a physical manifestation of grief. I think it’s that physicality, the details we can see and touch, that keep us from sentimentality. I know it keeps me from sentimentality.
LR: The artwork on the cover is gorgeous. The horse’s large brown eye, the way it’s mirrored in the sketchy lines, is so hauntingly, achingly lovely—to me it evokes the depth of love between horse and narrator. Is there a story behind how you came to find the artwork or what it means to you?
JH: I have a dear friend who works at an art museum; my friend is also a poet, and she and I were writing back and forth about what we thought the cover ought to look like. This was at the same time that design students working with Howling Bird Press were coming up with their cover ideas. My poet friend found the artist’s website and told me to go look. I don’t remember now if she found this particular painting, or if I did, but it was my poet friend who led me to it.
It took some back and forth between the press as we hashed out what the cover should look like, but I was certain this was the right image and so gently kept putting it before them. I think that’s the beauty of a small press too: they listen to the author, and care about the author’s vision for the cover art. I love this artwork too, and I’ve gotten to know the artist a bit, and she is just a delightful person, who really understands horses on a visceral level.
LR: You describe horse-related activities, behaviors, equipment, and medical issues so that those without horse experience can understand, but without talking down to knowledgeable horse-people. Was that was particularly challenging? Any advice for writers dealing with specialty topics?
JH: It was challenging, yes. I’ve read so many horse books that struggle to do this well, that it became a particular writing goal of mine to write good prose about horse “stuff.” Too often the prose is too technical and dreadfully dull, or overly explained and awkward, or convoluted descriptions of nuanced things that end up killing the nuance.
As a writer, I grew up learning to write by way of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and still keep copies of that thin brilliant book in my office, so I can give it away to students. Strunk (and White) stressed the beauty of plain prose, and that is what I have come to value most. The ability to write plain, luminous sentences comes with practice and patience and more practice. I appreciate well-crafted extravagant prose, but I much prefer plain prose, the kind of writing that becomes almost invisible, allowing meaning to rise from the page without calling attention to the way meaning is made.
I also read widely, looking for this kind of prose, writers like Michael Cunningham, JoAnn Beard, John McPhee, Joan Didion. That, and I read everything that I write aloud, listening for the music of the sentences. If it falls flat on my ear, back to the drawing board.
LR: You mentioned you have a current work-in-progress. Care to elaborate?
JH: I'm writing about five generations of women in my family, going back to a whaleship captain's wife in Nantucket. I am very interested in how women in this family, probably many families, tell stories about themselves and to themselves. I'm interested in how stories of the past shape our present, how stories get passed down, passed around, altered, the alterations becoming accepted as true, about the power stories have over us, how arguments are embedded in stories, yet in a way we almost don't see them, we just see the story.
Currently, I have a draft of this book done, and am slowly but surely working on revisions.
The name Stephanie Vanderslice often comes up when discussing best practices for teaching writing. I’ve happily hosted her here on the blog before, and am pleased to welcome her back. Her latest book, The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, is chock full of solid, writer-tested, smart, and innovative tips on living a writing life in the 21st century. Stephanie holds an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University and now directs the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas.
Please welcome Stephanie Vanderslice
I originally put the book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, on my reading list last summer because the title was so tempting, because I am a victim of the modern culture of “busyness” as much as anyone else, and because I thought I might find in its pages the secret to managing my time.
Instead, what I found more than anything else was a history of artists and the creative life over the last several centuries, a history with a surprisingly common thread: walking. Walking, or some kind of meditative physical activity undertaken without distraction, without trying to multitask or do anything else but put one foot in front of another.
I was astonished to learn how important walking had been throughout history, how many of the world’s great writers and artists have been walkers. Jefferson, Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis. Alice Munro, Barbara McClintock (Geneticist), Lin Manuel Miranda. They all got their best ideas walking.
I am no stranger to physical exercise. I ride for miles each week on a stationary bike while staring at my Kindle or reading a magazine, and I power walk around my neighborhood while listening to podcasts. Anything to keep my mind occupied, because even though I’ve exercised for 30 years, I still find it pretty boring.
The kind of exercise advocated in Rest was different. The kind of physical movement that inspired the creatives of the past was exercise for its own sake. It was supposedto be boring. That was the point. As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reveals, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”
After reading Rest, I became so enamored of walking that I first began scheming to make my commute to the university where I teach on foot—a 20-minute prospect each way—but the problem of figuring out what to do with all the stuff I’d need to schlep back and forth persisted. In the end, I decided to start smaller, with a 45-minute neighborhood stroll after my morning writing sessions. The new caveat: headphones not allowed. I had to give my mind as much freedom to roam as my body.
The results have been impressive. Each walk has ended with so many writing ideas, especially development ideas for my novel-in-progress, that I quickly had to start a file called, “walking ideas,” to keep track of them. Moreover, I am learning not to pressure myself on these jaunts, telling myself that my mind can go wherever it wants, even if that means perseverating on what I should have said at yesterday’s faculty meeting. Still, I have yet to return home, even on the most stressful of days, without a revelation about something I was writing.
It’s not just Rest that’s onto something. Recently at a reading at my university, a student asked renowned poet Maggie Smith how she generated her ideas. “Put your phone away and take a walk,” she said.
No wonder the Romantics spent so much time wandering the moors. So, while Rest (the book) has not necessarily granted me an extra hour a day or helped me maximize my REM sleep, it has changed my creative life. See for yourself—read Rest and give the “daily constitutional” a try.
> On Tiferet Talks (podcast for Tiferet Journal), Gayle Brandeis, author of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis, chats with one of my former mentors, Leslea Newman, author of the poetry book, I Carry My Mother, and many other significant works, including A Letter to Harvey Milk and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.
> Anyone else love dissecting short works by looking at their opening and/or closing lines in isolation? In this post, the editors at Brevity are luring readers in with the first lines of essays published in their newest issue.
> Finally, this one's just for my New Jersey/NYC/Eastern Pennsylvania writer friends: looking for a relaxing place and atmosphere to disappear for a day and write? Check out next Saturday's Cedar Ridge Writers Series mid-winter retreat.
I guess in the past debut authors talked in person about the trajectory hurling them toward launch day—and the rolling emotions and endless details that accompany that journey. Today, we find one another in specialized Facebook groups and exchange intel. That’s how I got to know Anca Szilágyi.
Anca is the author of the newly published novel, Daughters of the Air, which Shelf Awarenesscalled “a striking debut from a writer to watch.” Her writing appears in Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Lilith Magazine, and she will be teachingWriting Contemporary Fairy Tales at Portland (Oregon’s) Literary Arts and with StoryStudio Chicago while on book tour. She received the inaugural Artist Trust/Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award, and earned grants and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, 4Culture, Made at Hugo House, and the Jack Straw Cultural Center. Originally from Brooklyn, she currently lives in Seattle.
Please welcome Anca L. Szilágyi.
When I was just starting to write seriously, I fetishized notebooks—and, like an eight-year-old—stickers. I preferred black, hard-backed notebooks with graph paper that forced my writing into small, neat boxes. My favorite treat was popping into a stationary store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to buy a cheap book of Dover Art Stickers depicting famous paintings by Michelangelo, Kahlo, Goya, and the like. I was trying to write the first draft of my first novel, Daughters of the Air, using Hemingway’s supposed model of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence and all that jazz. The mid-sentence idea was cool; there’s always something to come back to. (And if you didn’t remember what you were coming back to, maybe it wasn’t all that good to begin with.)
Aside from the word count, I didn’t have a very language-oriented approach to writing, which, come to think of it, is kind of strange. I don’t like complicated writing prompts. (Write a dialogue between a mother and a cat. The mother should be in a sour mood saying sweet things, and the cat should be doing something that is both like and unlike a cat. Include the words mousse, temperament, and proclivity.) In addition, the blank page was your typical blank-page nightmare, even with all those calming blue gridlines. So, in came the art. I would shuffle the stack of sticker books with my eyes closed, randomly open one and choose a sticker. Then came joy, disappointment, or bafflement at my selection. The tiny reproduction took up a square of space on the page, and then I had to write. Whatever came to mind. Hopefully related to the book. Sometimes not.
The really famous painters oozed their egos all over the page. I had little to say about Michelangelo. Kahlo demanded I only write about Kahlo. Which is fine, because I love Kahlo, but my novel has nothing to do with her. It was the lesser known painters, to me at least, that gave me an opening. Sad, dark flowers by Nolde. Chagall’s gold-hued and green warmth. Modigliani’s eyeless women. Kandinsky’s colorful abstractions, suggesting messy, unarticulated internal conflicts.
Over time, Nolde faded away, but Chagall fueled the father in my novel, Modigliani the mother, and Kandinsky their daughter, Pluta. Through all this groping in the dark with my shuffling, I learned to return to these three artists in particular. (Goya dropped in sometimes.) In retrospect, I can see how these painters shaped the novel’s characters in personality and to some lesser extent, their biographies.
The father in my novel is warm and is an Ashkenazi Jew. Modigliani didn’t paint eyes as he felt they were too intimate, and the mother in my novel is cold and distant. And, like Modigliani, a Sephardic Jew. (These two demographic tidbits also aligned with the Jewish cultures of Buenos Aires I had been researching.) Writing from Kandinsky’s works was a special challenge (no gestures, no objects), but somehow, they suggested a path for my protagonist, Pluta, in her emotional and actual journey: messy, indirect, all scribbled up.
When I finished the first draft, this ekphrastic process gradually fell away. The raw material was before me, and it was time to make sense of it. A couple of reviews have called my book surprising (in a good way, thank goodness), and I think in part the surprising quality came from the experiment of engaging with art in this way.
It was hardly the most efficient way of writing a novel. That first draft took several years, and then I went to graduate school and rewrote the book. But I’m not sure efficiency is something we should necessarily value in art. It’s art, after all—not paint-by-numbers. Even as it is painful to grope around in the dark looking for the shape of a story and its meaning, even as it could take longer—much longer—than you would expect—if it wasn’t a surprising process with surprising results why would I even write?
You can find Anca at her website or on Twitter. Her book tour is taking her to Bainbridge Island, Spokane, Portland, Boston, New York, Chicago, and Tampa (for AWP) this winter, with additional spring and summer West Coast events, all listed here.
> Finally, watching this video/song parody both calmed and worried me, as I'm currerntly asking bookstores and libraries to host me when my book publishes this spring. Forget that Waldenbooks has been gone for eons; author Parnell Hall nails the angst (and, if you're smart, good humor) that accompanies author appearances.
Have a great weekend!
Read Full Article
Read for later
Articles marked as Favorite are saved for later viewing.
Scroll to Top
Separate tags by commas
To access this feature, please upgrade your account.