year 2013 archives
Check it out! My novel The Bones of Pele placed 3rd in the Kay Snow Writing Contest at this year’s Willamette Writers Conference.
The winners of the 2013 Kay Snow Writing Contest are:
1st place – “God is Pleased to Hear the Children Pray” by Ruby Murray
2nd place – “Coyote Calls Down the Gods” by Bruce Campbell
3rd Place – “The Bones of Pele” by Bonnie Dodge
A couple of years ago I was attending a writer’s retreat and our assignment was to write a Christmas vignette. When it came time to share, I was frustrated–to cop a cliche–to tears. I had no Christmas memories, no stories to share, and that left me feeling empty inside.
Since then, I’ve tried to be more present in my life, to pay more attention, and here’s what I’ve discovered. I am an observer, rarely a participant. People fascinate me and I love to watch them. I am transparent. Joyce Carol Oates explains it beautifully in this interview. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/06/video-joyce-carol-oates.html?mbid=social_retweet
Phew, for a writer, I’m normal.
Because I watched the movie, I read the book. Because I read the book, I read his mother’s book. Then I wished I hadn’t, and here’s why.
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs and The Long Journey Home by Margaret Robison are billed as memoirs. The subject matter is dicey: gays, lesbians, adultery, alcoholism, and mental illness. Something most of us don’t encounter on a daily basis like this family did. Stuff great stories are made of, right?
One night when there was nothing else to watch on TV I flipped to the movie Running with Scissors. Annette Bening, Joseph Fiennes, Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow, 116 minutes of comedy and drama. What’s not to like? The all-star cast held my attention. The movie was interesting, but it was a movie, right? I wanted to read the book to see how much of the story was actually true.
So I read the book, and when I finished Running with Scissors, I wanted to know more about this mother Margaret Robinson, a poet, teacher and writer I’d never heard of. With a college degree, someone who can probably put words on paper better than I can.
So I read The Long Journey Home, and wished I hadn’t. There is no doubt that there is a lot of talent in this family. All of them write well. Best sellers. But having watched the movie and read both books, I’m still no closer to the truth. Who is lying? Who is exaggerating? Does it even matter?
In most cases no. But in my case, it did. I am a mother. I have a son. I wanted to know why a mother would publicly call her son a liar. Why a son would change his name. I hoped to find the answers in the pages of the books, but when I was finished, I was depressed. Really, really depressed. So depressed I was in a bad mood for days. A mother tries to tell her side of the story, but can’t remember the details. An alcoholic husband and father shouldering most of the blame, is dead. His story remains untold. And the son and his brother are brilliant writers. Amen.
This brings me to why we read in the first place. Some read to escape, others for adventure. I read to understand human nature, and when I finished The Long Journey Home, I felt cheated. I was no closer to understanding the human nature of this family than I was knowing why my dog Emily growls at my husband all the while eating from his hand.
And maybe that’s okay. Maybe I don’t need to understand. But I did learn something. There are better ways to spend my time, better books to read.
Everything I write sucks. My characters talk like robots. No one’s going to read this crap. I need more coffee, something to eat. I could be hanging out with friends, but, no, here I sit in this chair and stare at this stupid blank screen. I’m never going to be a writer.
Sound familiar? If you’ve been writing as long as I have, I’m sure you’ve struggled with the same feelings. Self-doubt is a killer. It will eat you up and squash your creativity. Instead of feeling like a failure, I should be walking in the clouds. I should be dancing, laughing and singing. The book I’ve been working on forever is finished. I did it. An editor is looking at it now. But instead of celebrating, I’m second-guessing. What if my plot stinks? What if my characters lack depth? What if she hates it?
I’ve been writing for years. I’ve even had some of my work published, and yet, I still haven’t found a way to combat self-doubt. This week I discovered two things that help.
First, I finally made time to read Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. Carolyn’s book has been on my to read list for more than ten years. Over the weekend I picked up a copy and as I turn the pages, I find myself cursing. Why did I wait so long?
“Pretend to be a writer,” Carolyn urges. “Do Some Magic.” A writer and a teacher, Carolyn believes in practicing affirmations: I can. I am a good writer. This is going to be a great day. She got me thinking. What kind of magic could I create if just for once I believed I could instead of insisting that I can’t?
I have a picture on my desk a writing buddy gave me years ago. It says IMAGINE, and I have pasted a page from the New York Times Book Review of Best Sellers there, penciling my name in as number one. What a joke. I’m never going to hit the New York best sellers list.
No, I’m not. Not if I don’t try. Not if I believe I can’t. But what if I believed I could? Just today one of my friends hit #1 in free Kindle books. It can happen.
My other tool to combat self-doubt is Owen Egerton’s uplifting article in The Huffington Post, “Type So Hard You Bruise The Screen”, which you can read here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/owen-egerton/type-so-hard-you-bruise-t_b_3052750.html. He begins his article, Write. Now. Go. In Jack Kerouac style, he offers a list of points for prose. Several of them speak to me including No. 16, which says: Do not write from answers. Write from questions. Discover more questions. Our work is not to explain the mystery, but to expand it. His No. 28 made me laugh because several years ago I quit my “day job” believing I could make a living as a writer. Owen says: If you write because you believe the world needs you, you’ll soon discover we don’t. If you write because you are so naturally talented you must, you’ll soon discover you are not. If you write for money… I’m chuckling at you. None of these reasons will sustain you. Listen. Are you called to write? Then write.
I particularly like No. 30: Writing is both holy and meaningless. That’s all the pressure and freedom you need.
Writing is so much harder than it looks. It’s exhilarating to create new worlds and characters, but it’s also exhausting. Are the commas in the right place? Who or whom? Am I showing and not telling? So many rules to follow, so many mistakes to make. But at the end of the day, I can’t fall asleep until I’ve faced the blank screen and did my best, because, in my heart, I’m a writer.
I’ve pasted Owen’s article to my monitor, and my copy of Carolyn’s book rests between my dictionary and thesaurus. I have a fresh cup of coffee, my butt’s in the chair and I’m looking at the screen. I’m ready to Write. Now. Go. This is a bright new morning. I’ve looked in the mirror and recited: I am a writer. I will have a productive day. I say it again. I am a writer. I will have a productive day.
Shortly after seeing the musical, Les Misérables, I ran across this post by Joe Bunting: How to Write a Story Like Les Miserables
It started me thinking. Why do some stories like Les Misérables, Jane Eyre, and Moby Dick have such staying power? They were written over a hundred years ago. What makes them so compelling artists find new ways to retell them, over and over again?
Bunting believes five elements make a story compelling.
- Your character has to change. He calls this test transformation. We want to see how characters change, how they struggle to become better.
- Write about something with historic significance like the revolutionary war, or some other life-changing event for a country, not just one person.
- Have a big cast, many characters people can relate to. Instead of a story about one man’s journey, create a story about many character’s journeys.
- Show what your characters want. Give every character an arc. This gives us more characters to root for. To use Bunting’s example: Jean Val Jean wants to be righteous. (man against self) Inspector Javert wants to catch Jean Val Jean. (man against man) Cosette wants a loving family. Marius wants both Cosette and the revolution. (man against society) Éponine wants Marius, and The Thénardiers want money.
- Sacrifice Everything. In his book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler calls this rebirth. A character who risks everything for a virtuous goal, including his life, returns a hero and someone worthy of respect.
In school we’re taught there are three story types: man against man, man against society, and man against self. If a writer can incorporate all three, his story has a better chance of being compelling, one others will want to relate over and over again.
The next time you sit down to write, ask yourself, why is this story important? What can I add to make it more compelling? Then pick up your pen and begin to write.