"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ohio University, which is home to the graduate creative writing program local to my area, hosts an annual literary festival each spring. Last year the headliner was Tobias Wolff, and the year before, George Saunders. We’re talking big time names. There’s always a lot of excitement in the air during the festival, and since I know several people who are affiliated with the program, I get to hear a lot about the authors who come—what they were like during lunch and the genre specific colloquiums they run with the grad students.

This year, I had never even heard of most of the people coming. Amy Hempel, I was told, was sort of the headliner, but Susan Orlean is hugely famous too (having written, it turns out, The Orchid Thief, the book that’s being adapted into a screenplay in the film Adaptation), as are Denise Duhamel, Richard Rodriguez, and Terrance Hayes, this year’s obligatory sexy male poet, who I actually was previously aware of, but only because he had been a visiting writer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks when I was in the MFA program up there. 

Regardless of the fact that I was shamefully unfamiliar with this year’s amazing cast of writers prior to their coming, this year was, in my opinion, the best Lit Fest I’ve attended—and I say that even though I only, really, was able to go to Amy Hempel’s events (though I caught a little bit of Terrance Hayes and Denise Duhamel—completely missed Susan Orlean and Richard Rodriguez. Rodriguez, I hear, was absolutely REMARKABLE).

I’m not, as you probably know, a student at OU, but my friend Jolynn, who is going for her PhD in fiction there, got me into Amy Hempel’s fiction colloquium. During the colloquium I pretty much kept my mouth shut because I hadn’t read any of Hempel’s work and didn’t, as a result, know what to ask her. I kept my ears open, though, and very much enjoyed listening to her answer the questions the others asked about her writing process, her experiences publishing, and so on. She’s a real sweetheart, Amy Hempel, and incredibly friendly and down-to-Earth.

I picked up a copy of her first book, Reasons to Live (I know, great title!) and had her sign it for me, and I slowly worked my way through the stories last week. I say “slowly” and “worked” because, though these stories are incredibly short—most of them would definitely fall into the category of flash fiction—they are dense, and not in a bad way. They’re the kind of stories you have to sit and reflect on after you finish, the kind you read more than once just to make sure you caught everything, or because the ending sends you back to the beginning with a new filter through which to process the prose.

The most striking thing about Hempel’s writing is her close attention to the rhythm of each sentence. She said she focuses on the sentence, not the story as a whole, and you can definitely see this shining through in her stories. She, like me, is the sort of writer who begins with a line, a killer line that you just have to get down and that you know will inevitably lead to another line, and another. But, unlike me, she is able to feel her way through her language the way a poet can—in fact, many of her stories read as much like prose poems as they do like flash fiction.

She also knows exactly what not to include, how to give the reader just the bare minimum and let him or her put it all together from there. Hempel’s style of writing would be frustrating, I would argue, if she were a novelist. But she isn’t. She has never, she told us, had any interest in writing novels. She wouldn’t know how to go about it, she said. And as a short story writer—particularly a short-short story writer—her bare bones, sentence over story style works fantastically well.

Once, in a workshop, one of my UAF professors, David Crouse, mentioned that he could see his own writing as being on the same plane of existence as Rick Bass’s, but another writer—I can’t remember, now, which one—was on a different plane of existence altogether. He could admire what she was doing (I do remember it was a female writer), but knew he could never do it himself. That’s the way I feel about Amy Hempel. Hempel is, perhaps, the first writer who I felt that way about. Other writers whose work I admire I’ve admired in that, I-can-see-what-you’re-doing-and-I-think-I-can-learn-to-do-it-too sort of way. Not that I think I’m as good, say, as Rick Moody, but I feel like I can understand the mechanism behind Moody’s work, and if I keep at it and keep practicing, maybe someday I’ll be able to pull off what he can. Hempel’s work, though, is so unlike anything I would ever write, could ever write, that it really is like we exist on two completely different planes: I can see her from where I am, but as much as I keep walking forward, I’ll never reach her.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from her.

I love this idea of focusing on the sentence. It’s, to be honest, a fairly foreign way of writing to me. From the workshops I’ve taken, with the varied and all fabulous workshop instructors I’ve studied under, I’ve grown accustomed to looking at story more than sentence. Character. Scene. All of these things tend to come before sentence. Focusing so much on each sentence is much more of a poet thing, I’ve always thought, but I think there’s a lot to be gained from picking a story apart the way you would a poem—paying careful attention to each individual word, each image, spending as much energy deciding what to leave out as what to put in.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Fellow UAF MFAer and good friend Shane Dayton recently made his MFA thesis, a novel called My Brother’s Keeper, available as an e-book on Amazon. I’m sure the decision to self-publish wasn’t made lightly, but after numerous personal, encouraging responses from editors and agents but still no book deal, I think Shane came to the conclusion that it was time to put the book out there and move on.
Personally, I was excited to finally get to read the book. Shane’s work was always among my favorite in workshop. His prose is somehow both gritty and lyrical at once, and his stories take on topics that a lot of other literary fiction writers don’t tackle. He doesn’t write about ailing marriages, about mundane situations causing great epiphanies. He’s not, like so many writers of our generation, trying to be Raymond Carver—I’m sorry, guys, Raymond Carver’s stuff is great, but you need to find your voice.

Shane’s work also never sacrifices plot to focus solely on the sentence. His sentences are good, but so are his actual stories, and My Brother’s Keeper is an excellent example. My Brother’s Keeper takes the reader into the mind of sixteen-year-old Gyle, a misfit with only three friends. Gyle is tired of being pushed around by the other kids at his high school, tired of being ignored by his father in favor of his athletic brother, and otherwise bored with his humdrum teenaged life. Gyle’s life is such that, as he puts it, “The days everyone ignored me were the easiest to get through.” It’s no surprise, then, that when Gyle meets Brent—a mysterious, Tyler Durdenesque boy who appears to be not much older than Gyle himself but who lives alone in a cabin in the woods—he is instantly drawn to the excitement and danger a friendship with Brent seems to offer.  

As Gyle begins to spend more time with Brent, it becomes clear that Brent views their relationship as that of a mentor to a protégé, yet Gyle, at first, is fine with this set-up. He admires Brent, even fears him, a little. Gyle wants to be strong and brave like Brent; he wants to be the sort of person who doesn’t get ignored. Slowly, Gyle finds himself changing in what he at first sees as positive ways, but as the story unfolds, Brent’s mental instability begins to rise to the surface, and Gyle begins to feel less comfortable with the new person Brent is pushing him to become.

When the story reaches its thrilling conclusion, all the loose ends are not neatly tied in a bow. The ends are frayed; they’re damaged and broken from the events of the story. The ending is complicated and messy and real. When asked, in the last scene, by one of his three friends if he is the person he was before this all began or the person she came to detest during the height of Gyle’s progression towards Brent-ness, Gyle doesn’t know what to say: “She wanted a quick answer, but I didn’t have one for her.” Finally, he tells her, “Neither,” but he can’t really elaborate further than that. I won’t give away the last line, but it’s beautiful and perfect and leaves you highly aware of just how changed Gyle is.

My Brother’s Keeper is a psychological thriller with the sensibilities of literary fiction. It’s darkly comic at points, intensely frightening at others, and it maintains the steady momentum of a plot driven novel, though not at the expense of character and sentence. It’s well worth the $2.99 Shane is charging for it, and I highly recommend it to anyone who really values story—plot—not just elegant writing.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy, happy Mother’s Day, everyone! This is my first Mother’s Day as a mama, and it also happens to be my little Ami B C’s eight month birthday—happy birthday, baby bean! This week, I bring you the close of my discussion of the AWP panel, “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life.”

Hope Edelman is a nonfiction writer with five books to her name. Like Kate Hopper, Edelman said that before motherhood, her writing days were unstructured. Not so, now that she’s a mother. To work her writing time into her hectic mommy-life, Edelman keeps an office outside of the house and schedules writing time around the family schedule. In addition, Edelman has become a binge writer: she’ll often check into a motel something like 100 miles out of town—far enough to justify not popping home for dinner, but close enough that if a true emergency arises she can easily get back home—and spends the entire weekend just writing.

Edelman said that she sees her life as a sort of pendulum, which swings back and forth between her life as a mother and her life as a writer. She doesn’t seem to have much trouble maintaining the right balance between the two, and she says her kids really don’t have a problem with her disappearing sometimes to write—though her husband, she pointed out, doesn’t always like it.

Edelman gave a hilarious list of things she can’t do because she’s a mother and a writer, but she followed it up with a list of things she can do only because she’s a mother and a writer: her writing is enriched with details and a range of emotions that she’s only privy to as a result of the experiences she’s had as a mother; she’s much better now at budgeting time (though part of that is a result of reduced expectations); she can help her kids with their English homework way better than most parents can; she can offer her kids the exciting, interesting experience of going on a book tour.

Edelman said that of course motherhood has cut into her writing time—of course she could have written more books by now had she chosen not to have children—but she doesn’t mind. She’s focusing on the children she does have, not the books she doesn’t. I LOVE this attitude—this is exactly how I feel. I know I’m less productive now that I have Amalie, but that’s okay with me. I’d much rather have Amalie than the extra stories I could be writing.

Jill McCorkle is a fiction writer who has published eight books to date, five of which appeared on the New York Times notable list. Immediately after becoming a mother, McCorkle noticed the effects of motherhood on her writing. She’d been struggling with a novel that was just not working. After having the baby, she was able to go back into the draft from a new angle, focusing her attention on the character of the mother in her story, and suddenly the whole novel came together.

Like the other authors, McCorkle said all of her established rules for writing went out the window after she’d had a baby. She had to really convince herself that writing is a legitimate way to spend her time, that it does count as work and it’s okay to set up boundaries to make sure she has time to do it. Still, she noted, “Some of my best work has been written in the carpool lane or outside the grocery store . . . No one ever seemed to mind if I said, ‘I’m going to the grocery store to get dinner.’” So she would drive to the store, spend five minutes quickly shopping, then spend another half hour sitting in the car writing in a notebook.

She would also just take little notes throughout the day—everybody can find a minute or two to jot down an interesting idea, an image that really strikes them, a sentence or two that will evolve into something greater down the road. She would store these notes away until she was able to scrape together a chunk of time to write. Writing, for McCorkle, is not like a faucet that she can turn on and off, but rather, “a slow, steady drip.”

Like Edelman, McCorkle felt that being a writer enhanced her as a mother, and her children have developed a true appreciation for literature. No doubt the same will be true of Amalie. At a reading this weekend, someone was marveling at how well Amalie does at these events, and I pointed out that she went to her first reading when she was only two or three weeks old. She attended her first conference at five months old. She’s growing up in a house with overflowing bookshelves. She’s growing up surrounded by writers—not just her parents, but the vast majority of her parents’ friends and colleagues, too. She’s getting a very different view of literature than most children do, and I just don’t see how this all could not affect her (I believe in a good way).

Sunday, May 6, 2012

It’s been two months since AWP, but I finally want to talk a bit about one of the two panels I managed to attend while there. This panel felt like it was tailored to me. The panelists talked about the exact issue I’ve been struggling with these past few months. The panel’s title? “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life.” When I saw that this panel was being offered, and furthermore, when I saw that it was in the morning and so before Damien would be on duty at the New Ohio Review table, I almost, sort of wanted to believe in a higher power (well, not really, but you get the idea). It felt like destiny.

I told Damien, “If I only make it to one panel during the entire conference, it should be this one.” And I was right. I won’t go all hyperbolic and say this panel changed my life, but it did help me, and I came away with some concrete ideas on how to be a mom without giving up my writing self. I’m going to break this up into two posts because there’s so much to share from this one panel.

Katy Reed is a journalist who, since becoming a mother, has carved herself a niche writing articles about motherhood. Reed talked about how, when she first became a mother, she thought she was “doing it wrong.” Parenting guidebooks, she said, would lead you to believe if you aren’t stimulating your baby’s brain every second of every day, your baby will turn into a brain-dead zombie. She described, also, the “rosy, blissful, peaceful glow” parenting books and articles seem to think all mothers are supposed to emanate when they’re spending time with their babies. This didn’t match Reed’s experience at all. Sometimes you’re tired. Sometimes you’re busy. Sometimes you don’t even know how to stimulate your baby’s brain, since (in my experience), half the suggestions they offer in the guidebooks don’t even get your baby’s attention.

So Reed took her own feelings of shame over “doing it wrong” and began to write about them. She offered, as a result, mothers like me, who are struggling with the same sorts of feelings and uncertainties, an alternate way of looking at motherhood. I imagine, too, that in the process she came to terms with her own style of parenting and accepted it as legitimate.

Though Reed didn’t offer any concrete suggestions on how to juggle motherhood and writing, hearing her talk about her own feelings of inadequacy made me feel much better about my own. This is exactly what I’ve been going through. For the first couple months of Amalie’s life, I’d pass into hysterics fairly often, frantically telling Damien over and over, “We aren’t stimulating her enough. We’re messing her up! We’re terrible parents!” It was incredibly reassuring hearing someone else talk about having felt the same way, and knowing that her kids turned out just fine.

Kate Hopper is a nonfiction writer and a contributing editor for Literary Mama. Hopper shared her experience juggling writing a book while raising her young daughters. At one point, when she told one of her daughters, “I love you more than anything,” one daughter asked, “Do you love us more than your book?” Ouch! Hopper calmly explained to her girls that if she had to choose, she would choose her daughters, then added, “But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.”

Hopper found that the time is there to write—when your kids are at preschool, for example—but you do have to make writing a priority. She recommended that writing parents should figure out what they can realistically do as far as writing goes—what goals and schedules can you reasonably expect yourself to keep?—and then really commit to it. Writing as a parent is different from writing without children in that way. You have to be very disciplined. Before she had kids, Hopper could procrastinate and waste time waiting for inspiration. Now, when there’s a window of time, she has to use it.

While finding the time to write can be difficult as a mother, Hopper, like Reed, seemed to feel that writing helped her to deal with the struggles of motherhood. “The truth is,” she said, “I can’t imagine motherhood without writing.” I can’t, either. As fulfilling and rewarding and all those other cheesy things as motherhood is, writing is a much needed break from it all; it’s a means of thinking through and understanding yourself and your child(ren); and it’s a way of hanging on to your old self, of being more than just a mother.

Next week, I’ll tell you about nonfiction writer Hope Edelman and fiction writer Jill McCorkle’s takes on the subject.