About Me

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Writers: On Revision

Joyce Carol Oates:

"Editors are sometimes surprised that I entirely rewrite pieces that have been accepted for publication. Often I surprise myself, I exasperate and frustrate myself, by entirely rewriting chapters of novels that had seemed quite acceptable the previous day; and, on later occasions, rewriting these. For always I feel that I have new ideas, always there seems to me more felicitous ways of expressing what I want to say." ~ Quote from The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (Ecco, c2003)


Raymond Carver:

“There’s not much that I like better than to take a story that I’ve had around the house for a while and work it over again. It’s the same with the poems I write. I’m in no hurry to send something off just after I write it, and I sometimes keep it around the house for months doing this or that to it, taking this out and putting that in. It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts…Things like this should hearten every writer whose first drafts are dreadful, like mine are.” ~ Quote from The Making of A Story (Norton, c2007)


Bernard Malamud:

“First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it….The first draft is the most uncertain—where you need the guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Revision is one of the true pleasure of writing.” ~ from The Making of A Story


William Faulkner:

“All of us have failed to match our dream of perfection. I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. If I could write all my work again, I’m convinced I could do it better. This is the healthiest condition for an artist.” ~ from The Making of A Story


Joyce Carol Oates:

"My method is one of continuous revision; while writing a long novel, every day I loop back to the earlier sections, to rewrite, in order to maintain a consistent, fluid voice; when I write the final two to three chapters of a novel, I write them simultaneously with the rewriting of the opening of the novel, so that, ideally at least, the novel is like a river uniformly flowing, each passage concurrent with all the others." ~ from The Faith of a Writer



I read Joyce Carol Oate's novella, I Close My Door Upon Myself, this evening, and the book embodies this concept of a river uniformly flowing- I could not put it down. I can identify with the ideas these writers express. When I write, I write in one sitting the initial draft of a scene, a chapter, or an entire short story, and then I go back to revise, interminably, until all the elements synthesize. Moments, hours, days later, when I think I have finished, a word, a phrase, or an idea will present itself that must be added, and then the work begins all over, re-reading, re-shaping, adding and deleting, and searching for this uniformity of sound and spirit. (For me, the auditory, the sound and rhythm of a work, is as important an element as any, in prose as much as poetry.)


Here's another great quote from Joyce Carol Oates, in her collection of essays that make up The Faith of A Writer:

"Why certain individuals appear to devote their lives to the phenomenon of interpreting experience in terms of structure, and of language, must remain a mystery. It is not an alternative to life, still less an escape from life, it is life: yet overlaid with a peculiar sort of luminosity, as if one were, and were not, fully inhabiting the present tense."

I've read every page of the library copy of The Faith of A Writer, "sticky" noting all the amazing passages. My personal copy of the book is on it's way to me, and should be delivered by tomorrow.


Here's a link to an article I wrote a while back, about my current writing process, and some of the methods I use for revision: http://anniekingwrites.blogspot.com/2008/09/how-i-write.html


Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Spoke With Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates. If I were a man, I'd be in love with her. At 70, she is beautiful, gracious, and authentic. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak yesterday. She read from her newest collection of short stories, Dear Husband, (Harper Collins, c2009). It was a transformative experience, watching the writer's mind at work as she used expressive hands, graceful wrists and long fingers to delineate the rhythm and tone of her words as she spoke them, convincing me my theory is correct: that all good writers are actors, even though most writers have never acted on a stage.

Oates spoke at LitLive, a Day of Literary Feasts, in a large auditorium 3/4 filled, bemusedly, with people mostly over the age of fifty. (I'm being generous, mostly over the age of sixty.) It was not intended to be a performance; it was a reading. Oates spoke about her writing and her writing process for about ten minutes, and then, in a pleasant, modulated, melodic voice she communicated the personality of her first person, present tense narrator in the story, "Suicide by Fitness Center," and her hands, during particularly complicated sentences, illustrated the rhythm in a way that I suspect was unconscious. At one point, a character touches their forehead, and so does Joyce Carol Oates.

What I noted most as she read the humorous story was the intertwining of events with the character's interior thoughts, what she thinks about the people at the fitness center, which is how the reader gets to know the narrator and her foibles, and Oates use of specific detail to make the fitness center, and the characters live in the reader's mind.

Without reading the story yet (I own the book now, and I'll get to that later), from hearing selections from it (she didn't read it in its entirety) this is what I remember: Oates focused on the locale of the fitness center, focused in on the fitness center itself, describes it a bit, the employees, and the people who go there, focuses again on the place, and then builds the story around the place, the events, the people, all filtered through the first person narrator.

Later, in the brief question and answer session, she said the story is in the digression, not in the five events that happen in "Death by Fitness Center." The story's genesis was a real fitness center, that she and her husband used to go to. She also said the story was even more relevant in the waning days of the Bush administration (not meaning to get political, she said), comparing the Bush administration to the darkest middle ages, in a way that made the audience laugh; and that in an Obama administration, where there is more hope, some of the references will lose their relevance.

On a scrap of paper I happened to have in my purse, I scribbled down her words of wisdom about writing, which I paraphrase and consolidate here: Writing is a lonely process. Writing is a sisterhood and brotherhood. Writing doesn't get easier, no matter how long you do it. It is a challenge to find a period of time to direct your thoughts and directly channel them into your work. She believes "writer's block" is really too many thoughts coming in (that conflict with your thoughts about your story).

In the question and answer period, she said this about her writing: She always knows where she is going. She always knows the first line and the last line, before she begins to write; that for her, the first line, the title, and the last line form a triangular relationship. I wish so much, she'd had time to expound upon that concept.

I bought the book, Dear Husband, and a copy of my favorite of her four Young Adult novels: After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread my Wings, and Flew Away. I stood in line for my autographs, wondering what I would say to her, knowing what I wanted to ask. I handed her the books, tongue-tied, and gave her my name. "What do you do?" she asked me. This was my opening to speak. I told her, and I asked her my question, a follow-up to what she had said. "Always knowing the last line. Is that true of your novels, as well as your short stories?" She said that it was, and as she also said during the questions and answers, that is her method, and there are other writers like D. H. Lawrence who write without knowing their ending.

Joyce Carol Oates' husband died last year. She has a novel, and the story collection published this year, and many more writing projects in the works. I'm going to post more about her, links to recent articles profiling her life, links to relevant web sites, and my assessment of a book she published on writing in 2003, that somehow escaped my search for meaningful guides, maybe because it was cataloged as biography.

I am still in awe. I got to hear her voice, and speak with a writing icon, and I found her to be amazing, and ageless. In her photographs, she looks somewhat scary. In 3-D, she is an engaging heroine, and comes across as a woman in her fifties. Did you know she grew up in poverty and her first eight years of school were in a one room school house in upstate New York? Before she learned to read in first grade at the age of six, she wrote her first books, by telling the story in pictures.

The book I hold in my hands, Dear Husband, she touched with her hands, and autographed. I didn't know until I got back to work yesterday, the volume will not be sold in book stores until March 31st, so I own it ten days early, on my son's fifteenth birthday. When she earns the Pulitzer Prize, I will smile, knowing I looked into her eyes. I'm smiling now.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Odes to Spring - Favorite e.e. cummings Poems

Two of my favorite e.e. cummings poems are "Spring Is Like a Perhaps Hand" and "What if a Much of a Which of a Wind." I used to own a volume of cummings poetry, but I can't locate it. I checked all of my anthologies, and I was amazed to find these two poems are not included, so I searched online so I could copy them here. I was reminded of them because I recently read an engaging poem about Spring, and though they are completely different, I thought of these:


Spring is like a perhaps hand

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere) arranging
a window, into which people look (while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here) and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things, while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything.

e.e. cummings



what if a much of a which of a wind


what if a much of a which of a wind
gives the truth to summer's lie;
bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun
and yanks immortal stars awry?
Blow king to beggar and queen to seem
(blow friend to fiend: blow space to time)
-when skies are hanged and oceans drowned,
the single secret will still be man

what if a keen of a lean wind flays
screaming hills with sleet and snow:
strangles valleys by ropes of thing
and stifles forests in white ago?
Blow hope to terror; blow seeing to blind
(blow pity to envy and soul to mind)
-whose hearts are mountains, roots are trees,
it's they shall cry hello to the spring

what if a dawn of a doom of a dream
bites this universe in two,
peels forever out of his grave
and sprinkles nowhere with me and you?
Blow soon to never and never to twice
(blow life to isn't: blow death to was)
-all nothing's only our hugest home;
the most who die, the more we live

e.e. cummings

I first read e.e. cummings, these two poems, and a few others, when I was fifteen. I was enthralled with his use of language, his boldness in arranging the words on the page, instructing the reader how he wanted his words to be read. Cummings along with William Carlos Williams, and later Diane Wakoski, taught me how to use language in a poem to its best effect, with its own internal logic, truly a free verse.

This is one of many sites, where you can read a brief biography, and a selection of cumming's poems: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/eecummings/

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Recommended Books on the Craft of Writing

I’ve been reading The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante (W. W. Norton, c2007). I’d read several chapters, maybe six months ago, and I never had time to go back to it. Now I’m making the time, because I realize, after re-reading the parts I’d already read, how much of LaPlante’s philosophy about writing I’d incorporated into my own. One important idea is that the universal is attained through the use of specific, concrete detail. Another central idea validates my method of writing: I write without a plan, to find out what will happen next. LaPlante has an entire chapter titled: The Splendid Gift of Not Knowing.

Every chapter past the general introduction, so far, has been a jewel of discovery, including concrete information, specific writing exercises (which I review, but do not do), and full text short stories and creative nonfiction pieces exemplifying her ideas. This excerpt from a Booklist review says it better than I do:

“Comprehensive in its coverage of inspiration, craft, aesthetics, veracity, and purpose, this one-stop guide to writing is casual in tone and rigorous in content, elucidating the nature of fiction and nonfiction and clarifying the qualities unique to each and common to both. Each chapter contains an explication of such subjects as point of view, creating characters, and narrative structure; writing exercises, and an illustrative story by the likes of Tim O'Brien, ZZ Packer, Lorrie Moore, John Cheever, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Expansive, clear, and sophisticated, LaPlante's richly resourced guide is destined to become a standard.” - Seaman, Donna

I highly recommend this guide. Over the past several years, I’ve read and studied twenty-five or more books on fiction writing, fantasy writing, and playwriting. These are a few of the better fiction writing titles I can recommend:

Burroway, Janet, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Longman, c 2003. I own the 6th edition of this book, but a 7th edition came out in 2006. I don’t like the author’s introduction, but other than that, this expensive college textbook is extremely useful, and also includes full text short stories to illustrate its points. Because of the price, you may want to check your local library for this one.

LaPlante, Alice, The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, W.W. Norton, c2007. Discussed above. List price $29.95. Amazon Price $19.97.

Morrell, Jessica Page, Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, Writer’s Digest Books, c2006. This is one of the better popular guides with ideas for the intermediate fiction writer.

Sexton, Adam, Master Class in Fiction Writing: Techniques from Austen, Hemingway, and Other Greats, McGraw-Hill, c2006.

There are many popular writing guides, available in any major book store that can be useful, depending on your particular stage of development, and your affinity with an author’s delivery style. I recommend perusing the shelves, and also checking your local library for out-of-print guides. I like to buy them, so I can highlight the ideas I find personally useful. These are two of the popular guides I’ve found particularly helpful. Note: Few of these guides are useful, unless you’re actually writing, or have written a substantial body of work, so you can mentally apply what you’re reading to works-in-progress, or stories you’d like to revise:

Kress, Nancy, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, Writer’s Digest Books, c2005.

Rosenfeld, Jordan, Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, Writer’s Digest Books, c2008. Rosenfeld’s style is deceptively breezy and simplistic, but the information is concrete and useable. She repeats herself, but it serves to reinforce her ideas. Chapter 8 on plot is perhaps the weakest chapter, but the overall content is well worth the price for the intermediate fiction writer.


Classics or Soon-To-Be-Classics That Should Not be the First Books on Writing You Read:

Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, Tarcher/Putnam, c1938, c1981, Foreward by John Gardner. Dorothea Brande would advise you to read her book before you begin your career as a writer, but I personally recommend waiting a bit, until you've mastered a certain amount of technique. Otherwise, in my opinion, though she intends to encourage the novice or struggling writer, her tone can be a bit discouraging, in that, if you don't follow her method, she claims you are not a writer (the very kind of discouragement she otherwise rails against). Otherwise, her ideas are extremely useful and encouraging.

Forster, E. M., Aspects of the Novel, Harcourt, c1927, c1955. Though it is tedious reading, this book is often cited by popular and academic writing guides, so it’s useful to read the original yourself.

Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Vintage Books Edition, c1991, c1983. Gardner’s tone and condescending attitudes will drive you crazy, but you will learn. This book and the next, by Gardner, are considered essential reading for every writer.

Gardner, John, On Becoming a Novelist, W.W. Norton, c1999, c1983.

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Portland, Oregon: Eighth Mountain Press, c1998. I just love Ursula LeGuin. Don’t you?

Yolen, Jane, Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, Writer’s Digest Books, c2006. You will either love or hate the way she’s organized her thoughts.


Essay Collections for Intermediate to Advanced Writers:

Tin House, The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House, Tin House Books, c2009. This essay collection includes valuable insight from established writers on the craft of writing fiction, with one essay about poetry.

Jauss, David, ed., Words Overflown By Stars, Writer's Digest Books, c2009. This collection comes from the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A. Program, with sections on both prose and poetry.


Overall, I’ve found that the act of writing coupled with reading books about writing, everything from mundane texts on revision, to popular guides about mainstream fiction and genre writing, to tomes on literary fiction, is the best way to learn how to write, all with the goal of forming a personal philosophy of writing, and finding your own unique style. Of course, reading quality books is also essential, and allowing your work to be read by others and critiqued, and your willingness to analyze and critique other author’s writing, will also aid your development as a writer. Published or unpublished, those of us who are devoted to the craft are all writers-in-progress. And that’s a great place to be.