This is my choice. Next week I’ll tell you why. Hang in there, everyone. And wear your masks!
I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you. You have this fantabulously good scene inside your head, practically playing like a movie, so you run to your keyboard and write it down, the words shooting to the screen like rivets, convinced you’ve just birthed genius. Exhausted by the effort, you save and exit, pondering the multitude of ways you’ll expand on it next time. But when you go back to it, whether the next hour or day or week, it reads like something out of a kindergarten class. The transitions make no sense, the characters are running into each other, the continuity seems out of a time warp. What happened to your genius?
The inability to write outside your head is one of the most common causes of angst I see with my young writing students. Oh–no angst for them–for me is what I mean. They don’t see anything wrong because until I point it out, that scene is playing in their head just as fresh as if the action were taking place right in front of them. But what they don’t realize is that there’s blanks they have to fill in, like facial expressions, reactions, settings, time of day, transitioning from one place to another, who this person is they’re suddenly talking to and how they relate to the scene. Then there’s technical things that may relate to a character’s profession or action they’re currently in. Like what is that tripod or data set or NMR tube is for. Sometimes what a writer doesn’t realize is your reader may not understand what comes so clearly to you. I say to my students that sometimes you have to explain things like your are writing to kindergarteners. With the average news site at a sixth grade level, sometimes you just have to dip a bit lower.
This doesn’t mean you have to dumb down your writing. That’s not what I’m getting at. What I’m saying is that sometimes your writing needs you to step back and let it simmer for a little while, so when you go back to it you can look at it with a fresh eye. Sometimes you need to forget it just a bit, to see where you need to fill in the crack. Like mortar, it’ll only make it stronger.
Am I sounding like an alarmist? Maybe. But as I said many times before, if you don’t vote, you have no right to bitch. Here in New Jersey voting is already underway, and I dropped by ballot in the voting box supplied by my county, at the county library, last Sunday. All voting in NJ is by mail, though you can still vote in person if you want at the polls. Since all registered voters got ballots in the mail, voting in person is provisional, as it’ll be check against the paper ballots. Am I worried? No. This is not new technology. Voting by mail has been done for absentee voting and by people in the military for decades. See, it’s not voter fraud that bother me. It’s what can happen if people don’t vote at all. Don’t say you’re not part of the system. If you’re living in the U.S., if you’re paying taxes, your are. Make your voice heard. VOTE!
Hello class! It’s a new school year, and with it comes a new edition of Tips from the MFA Pit, actual advice to actual MFA students. This edition is on Deep POV versus Internal Dialogue, and all advice is from my brain alone, and NOT the official voice of anything outside my head. So please feel free to add a large grain of salt!
Let’s look at Deep POV before we get to Internal Dialogue. Both are intensely personal. You’re literally putting yourself into the character’s shoes. When you write within a character’s POV, you can only see what they see, and all the other character’s actions are just what that character can hear or observe. Deep POV goes beyond that. It’s what they feel, how they react, their gut feelings of pain, pleasure, anger, calm. It’s also how they react cognitively, psychologically and physically to another person, a situation, what’s said, observed, etc. For example:
Lauren opened the front door, the hills rolling out before her. Her fingers tightened around the knob and her pulse raced, tears flooding her eyes as Tom’s car rounded the last curve. Her heart burst with joy. He’s here.
If you’ll notice, no one outside Lauren herself could feel her pulse racing or burst with joy. They could observe her fingers tightening or tears flooding her eyes, but what she feels internally – or the reasons for it – is hers alone. Then we come to the last sentence – He’s here. That’s Internal Dialogue. It’s things that could be said orally, but are kept inside the character’s head. It’s the difference between feeling – Joey knew there was no way he could talk his way out of this – and saying to yourself – I’m sunk.
A best practice, at least the way I see it and no way is this a rule, is to use Deep POV more and keep Internal Dialogue to a minimum. Using Internal Dialogue too much is like “telling” not “showing.” When you’re in a character’s POV, you want to know how they are feeling inside, or what would be the point of being in their head? Usually it’s best to keep the internal dialogue short so it has more of an impact, and most publishers place it in italics to separate it from the Deep POV. It is ALWAYS limited to the character whose POV you’re in, and it is always in first person.
Words of wisdom indeed! Till next time — keep writing because ===> WRITERS WRITE!
I’m back again after a long non-vacation, as what constitutes a break these days? When we get one, we’re largely in the same place, revolving in the same space we’ve been taking up for close to six months now. The college I teach at has gone remote, except for the fewest of disciplines that must meet in on campus, abet physically-distanced, masked, temperature-checked and documented for contact tracing. I get to work behind the desk that’s long spawned my source of income–and served as a jumping off point for my attempts at writing beyond my pay grade. (Hey editors — if you’re out there listening, I’m still at it.) After awhile you get to wonder whether it’s all worth it, writing in this environment. You wonder when it will all lift, and with it your mood and your inspiration.
Funny, that months ago I found myself falling into a rut. I’d get up, go to work, come home, grade grade grade (the real work of a writing teacher), attend to household things, write. In between I’d sprinkle in going out to dinner, meeting up with friends and family, shopping, movies, and occasionally, there were conferences, lectures, and club meetings, and a sprinkling of short vacations. Most were repeat events, things I’ve done in the past, but however enjoyable, there was little variation. Oh! for something exciting to happen! I’d lament, as anything out of the ordinary would be welcome to shake me out of the slog my life had become. Then–and I remember the exact day, March 13, the last day before Spring Break was to begin–I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I ought to stay home. That day was a Friday, and the day itself couldn’t be more portentous. It was more or less the day New Jersey drew into itself and suddenly the world, my world at least, shut down.
For six weeks I didn’t leave my neighborhood, the first week not going further than the end of my block. After two weeks in, my husband an I took a ride to a dairy farm a mile or two away. The early spring dampness hung chilly and dank over the fields, doing nothing for my mood, but it got me out of the house, so even the manure smelled sweet in its rankness, but at least it was outside and not in my backyard. Without anywhere to go, I read and read, binged Mad Men, Schitt’s Creek, and Outlander, kept to a rigid exercise schedule.
I never cooked so much in my life, big complicated meals full of sauces and cheeses and all kinds of veggies, via Shop Rite at Home. We got so many deliveries from Target the back of my husband’s van became filled with cardboard boxes that never did make it to the packing shop who always had taken our used boxes before (back before they believed they carried the virus). My kitchen and closed in porch filled with fresh fruits and vegetable from another local farm where you texted in your order for curbside pick-up, and because of shortages all around, our meals consisted of what we could glean. When the glean was fat I’d make cookies out of whole-wheat flour, filled with dried fruits, coconut and dark chocolate, energy food I’d tell myself. I made heavy pound cakes I’d toast and slather with butter, homemade ice cream, and soups so thick a spoon would stand up. I’d scour The New York Times cooking section for new and ever-complicated recipes, which I’d start preparing not too long after lunch. I’d make banana cake, rice pudding, home made apple and cranberry sauces. At one point I realized I’d made every bit of food we put in our mouth for two months straight, and the idea so horrified me, we planned on taking the enormous step to get take out for my birthday in May. Takeout Chicken Francese had never been so good.
Then as the weeks wore on, somehow the pressure got a bit lighter. I ventured out to the supermarket for the first time, left the state to visit my sister, took a day trip to the shore, finally got my hair cut. While the virus picked up in other parts of the country, it calmed down here in New Jersey, and life returned to a kind of new normal. We wore our masks, kept our distance, Zoomed, and washed our hands, and spent a lot of time outside. Before long I submitted one book to my agent, then made the decision to start another next. Which leaves me where I am today, thinking: How does one write in a pandemic?
I’ve discovered something odd: that as much luster as my day-to-day has lost, that no matter how many times I’ve been depressed and lonely, wondering when the perennial touchstones of my life will return, I know that retreating into a world I create will never fail to bring me joy. That losing myself in that world brings me purpose, knowing it is possible to venture into faraway places by never leaving your desk. I’ve learned that after all these years of varying success, writing is something I’d still do even if I never have any success at all. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but maybe it really is more about the journey. That’s not to say I wouldn’t argue with an eventual destination or two. Even amidst this pandemic, with all its restrictions, there are still places I’d like to go.
I met John Lewis at an author breakfast at BEA in New York in 2012 for his book “March,” where Diana Gabaldon and Chris Matthews were also featured. After their panel, the authors stuck around for to sign the books we all received gratis, his being a thin preview copy. He was the first one I went to, and bending from the stage, Mr. Lewis graciously took the time to talk to me as I told him I’d like to teach his book in my classes. It was so noisy in there, I can’t exactly recall what he said. Or maybe it was just I was so awed as I knew I was speaking to history. The dedication in the book he signed for me still speaks today.
I love it when the back-to-school planning committees are held on Zoom. If it’s so safe, then why not meet in the usual meeting rooms with ass-to-ass seating, bad ventilation, and everybody spitting out their usual contention? Yes, children have a lower frequency of falling ill from the virus, but as usual, the some people seem to think that schools (and Higher Ed), run on autopilot. Education is not only about learning–it’s about teaching too. And believe it or not, teachers are real people who can catch viruses. And file lawsuits, too. I’m happy I work for an institution that believes in science, has pushed the Fall semester to remote, and values the health of all its employees and students. That’s pure Jersey.