Found wrapped around a recently-purchased sheet set, and no, I can’t say that’s precisely the way I prefer my dinner:
Sometimes I write stuff and no one pays attention. Okay, a LOT of times I write stuff and no one pays attention. The following post is one of those, that I wrote a few years back, but it’s reflecting exactly how I feel right now. So with a few updates (in italics) you can see easily how this writer is feeling on this mid-summer night’s eve…
Been working hot and obsessively developing another project (actually, the same one I’ve been working on for the past two years, wound like a bitch in editing hell) the last few weeks. When I do this I so live in my head I’m apt to leave lights on or subsist on string cheese and blueberries because I can eat them with one hand. Because of that I’m giving myself a pass tonight to let my mind wander. I have too many topics rolling around the fertile landscape of my brain to settle on one, so I’m treating you to a virtual sampler of each. Think of it as the Jones version of the Olive Garden’s ‘Tour of Italy,” (more like a keto snax box filled with cherries, hard boiled eggs, any nuts I can find, and an everything bagel and cream cheese to blow all good intentions straight to hell) except not about chain restaurant Italian food or really anything to do with food at all. Please don’t ask me to explain…
~ Why is it harder to write in the summer when it should be easier? Okay, I”m a college professor, right? And I “theoretically” have the summer off (except for the [three] summer class[s] I’m teaching, which really is cake next to my usual load). So my brain should be my own (mostly), and I should be able to sail through what I’m working on, producing so many pages a day I’d best keep a fire extinguisher near my desk. Wrong! Phuque moi! Could it be the sun shining through my window? The fact I have no schedule? The lure of the beach? Distraction by a shiny object? Or I’m still trying to get to know my characters? Hmm…I going to have to think about that one. Where’s the string cheese? (Yuengling)
~ You can lose weight on summer fruit. (All right; I lied about the food reference) I live in the heart of the South Jersey farm belt, and you can’t drive more than a couple of miles without either passing a farm or a farm stand. This morning I happened to visit the latter, where I purchased tomatoes (early, but there’s nothing like a Jersey tomato!), cukes, blueberries (another iconic Jersey crop), cantaloupe and peaches, both yellow and white. Lately I’ve been gorging on berries and melons and cherries, instead of the usual snacky-type foods, and in the past month I’ve lost seven pounds! (gained three on summer ice cream) Of course, this may have something to do with the 1725 calories I’ve been allowing myself to eat, the half-hour of daily exercise, and the frequent swims in the ocean (haven’t visited the beach yet, but swam in a pool once. Yeah, it was only four feet deep, and I was hooked to a pool noodle, but I was out in the sun–Vitamin D, you know) BUT! I have had more than a couple Bacchanalia events and let me tell you, the Yuengling hasn’t been lonely!
~ Beer tastes better in summer. That’s all I got. Any other commentary on that topic would be redundant.
~ Socks suck in summer. I haven’t worn a pair of socks since, oh…probably early May. I hate the fricking little cotton casings anyway–hate the way they bunch up under your instep, hate the indentations they make on your shins, hate how the heels always wear out when the rest of the sock can go for another 10,000 miles. But MOST of all I HATE folding them. (Hate! Hate! Hate! still) Just sayin’.
~ I love the sound of birdsong at dusk. The sun has set, the western sky is stained red, outside a soft breeze is blowing and you can finally shut off the A.C. and let in some fresh air. You venture out on your porch or you open your car window, or maybe you’re out for a walk and there in the bushes, the trees or on an overhead wire is a whip-poor-will or a mockingbird or who knows what kind of bird, only that their song is lovely, a tiny gratis pleasure on a soft summer night. What else can you possibly need?
(Except it’s as hot as balls out there tonight and there’s no beer in the house. Still, there’s watermelon in the fridge and I don’t have to work tomorrow, unless you count working on the edit again, which I’m enjoying so much it’s not really like work at all. Life is good, peeps.)
My friends, even the writer ones, must think I’m insane. Because I think I’ve told everyone I know–I mean EVERYONE–about the utterly delightful, witty, and completely sagacious style book by chief copy editor at Random House, Benjamin Dreyer called Dreyer’s English. Why, you may ask? Because I’ve read a lot of style, grammar, craft, and instructional books on English in my writing and academic careers. And among those books, there’s a few I would recommend whole-heartedly. But Dreyer’s English is the only book on style I’ve read that was truly fun. Making it the only book of its kind I actually want to go out and buy for my writer friends. I don’t mean just for their birthday or Christmas. I mean I want to run out NOW to Barnes and Noble and buy a stack of them, ensuring that each writer I give them to will pay attention to the rules he outlines so hilariously. Truly the written word could only get better for it.
Publishers Weekly says: “Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, presents a splendid book that is part manual, part memoir, and chockfull of suggestions for tightening and clarifying prose. These begin with his first challenge to writers: “Go a week without writing ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ ‘really,’ ‘quite,’ and ‘in fact.’ ” (“Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually,’ ” he says.) Dreyer goes on to write with authority and humor about commonly confused or misspelled words, punctuation rules, and “trimmables,” or redundant phrases (the most memorable he ever encountered was, “He implied without quite saying”; Dreyer was so “delighted” he “scarcely had the heart” to eliminate it from the manuscript). But Dreyer’s most effective material comprises his recollections of working with authors, including Richard Russo, who after noticing a maxim posted in Dreyer’s office from the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs—“Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style”—later called him to ask, “Would you say I am an author? Do I have a style?” This work is that rare writing handbook that writers might actually want to read straight through, rather than simply consult.”
Go buy it now. Or you run the risk of my blathering about it again.
Students in our MFA program understand that one of the most important skills a professional writer can have is versatility. Students choose a primary (creative) genre as well as second (professional) genre.
Here, there is no genre hierarchy or arbitrary boundary between genres. All students take workshops and courses with writers of all genres and styles, learning how different approaches and craft techniques can inform their primary and second genres. Our students are poets and grant writers; playwrights and copy editors; horror novelists and technical writers; investigative journalists and speech writers; young adult authors and PR specialists; and so much more!
Our low-residency model allows students to build a writing habit into their professional and personal lives. Through internships and teaching practicums, students apply their coursework in their field of choice. These features, in tandem with our emphasis on multiple genres, are some of the reasons why our student success rate is so high: 87% of graduates go on to publish books and/or work full-time as professional writers.
You first felt it when your were in grade school. You had an assignment to write a poem for Valentine’s Day, like for a greeting card. You got a little tingle down your spine because you knew you could do it. You started right away, scribbling in your notebook, those cutesy-sweet words that moony-eyed fifth-graders would love. But those words linked together, as made-for-each-other like a daisy chain, and that tingle reappeared, because you knew you’d done it so well. So well, your desk mates noticed. “I wish I could write a poem like that.” You got that tingle again, but this time in your brain. “You could,” you said. “For a quarter.” A quarter later, you made your first sale. Four more, in fact.
You knew you couldn’t stop there. You had to write short stories. Adventure and love and mystery filled your notebook. Soon, you got a special one you filled in the summer, more poems, more stories, and one notebook later, you started a novel (about a girl and her horse, of course). You got a library card and you read. And read and read and read. The more your read, the more you learned how the words played off of each other. They more you learned how a scene can bleed into the next, the more you built secret lives around each character. And you wrote. More and more. A diary. Essays. More poems. For the school newspaper. You graduated, and entered the real world. This time writing for a small-town newspaper, in the days when small-town newspapers existed. From there you graduated again, from college and into a “real” job. You wrote copy. Press Releases. Advertisements. More short stories, and started a novel for real this time.
It was awful. But still you wrote, finishing it. But as awful as it was, after dozens of tries, it got you an agent. (Who apparently didn’t believe you could do awful. Who probably believed in unicorns, too.) But the real world was more realistic. You parted, still friends.
You wrote. Another novel, and another. Three, four. More agents, more parting as friends. All those finished books, all going nowhere. But still you wrote, asking yourself why over and over. You wrote more. Wrote a thesis. Graduated again. You hear other people say they don’t know why they write. They just do. But you know why. You found this out after years and years of practicing going nowhere. You also found out your reasons for doing it sound too hokey for words. That you write because to not write is worse.
That for some weird, bizarre, sadomasochistic reason it makes your fractured self seem whole. That it gives you a raison d’etre not only in the morning but in the middle of the night. That once in a while you write the perfect turn-of-phrase and when you do, it’s akin to an orgasm. That your moving and arranging of words around a page can sometimes move you to tears or laughter or unfiltered fits of rage. That sometimes those words shoot out of you like rivets to steel, and when they do oh my fucking Lord you need to get out of their way — because you need to get those words out before they stop like a crash into a brick wall. Because inevitably they will stop and when they do, the only thing you can do if you want to call yourself a writer is to keep your ass in that chair until your Muse and your own determination break through. Because there is no magic cure for creative constipation. There’s just you and the words and no magic formula, just a million monkeys at a million keyboards who sometimes, sooner or later, when the planets all line up and you finally get it right, and there’s the world waiting for you to step right up.
So you want to be a writer, huh? Then you can be. But only if you’re not afraid to say it out loud. Can you?
All right, I have a cold, and my head is so stuffed it’s clogged my brain. I’m living on tea and Smith Brothers Cough Drops, so expect no words of writing wisdom from me this week. So lieu of that, here’s my cat Gracie, who never met a pair of unoccupied pants she didn’t want to sublet. Did I mention she’s exceedingly cute? I believe it goes without saying. She’s my cat, after all.
It’s now 6:47 PM and it’s black as midnight outside and the sun isn’t supposed to set for over an hour and a half. We just went through a tornado warning, and they’ve now issued a tornado watch, until 8:00 PM. Outside it’s all lightning and thunder and pouring cats and dogs, the rain coming down in sheets. There’s flash-flood warnings (my garage is probably already flooded) and if a tornado doesn’t strike, we’re to watch out for straight line winds. The photo you see just above was taken yesterday of a waterspout off the coast of New Jersey, and after an 80 degree day, tonight it’s going down to fifty-nine. WTF is going on with the weather in New Jersey?
Jeez, if I wanted weather like this I would’ve moved to Iowa.
The MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University and its alumni organization, the MFA Alumni Writers Collaborative, are proud to present the 2019 Housatonic Book Awards.
The Award will be given to book-length works in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and YA/Middle-Grade. Books must have been published in 2018. The Award carries a $1,000 honorarium in exchange for appearing at the winter or summer residency of the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University to give a public reading and a one-day, three-hour workshop with MFA students. The Award also includes a $500 travel stipend and hotel stay during the residency.
For more information and submission guidelines, visit: Housatonic Book Awards
What do you base a story on? Do you have a plot that’s been rolling through your brain, based on an historical or life-changing event? Or is it based on a certain person, grappling with a foible of the human condition? Fiction writing texts tell us most stories are plot-driven or character-driven, but I tend to think of it another way. Not in all stories but perhaps in some, it’s the character’s own tendencies that drives the plot.
I recently read A Handmaid’s Tale (I believe I’m the last person in North America to actually say “I recently read” it), which no doubt can be considered plot-driven. In short, it’s set in the dystopian nation of Gilead, where a patriarchal and militaristic society subjugates women, most notoriously the young, fertile kind who must bear the society’s children for those who can’t. The story is told through the viewpoint of the handmaiden Offred, and it’s through her eyes that we learn firsthand of the totalitarian regime’s constraints. For much of the first part of the book we see how Offred bends to the will of the society, but as we learn, through flashbacks, about her personality and the way she lived her life before a government coup, we see how much her rebellious and questioning nature was suppressed. So when she is allowed some liberties and is taken to a skewed but still viable throwback to the way life used to be, she becomes bolder and starts taking chances again, her rebel proclivities driving the narrative to a precarious yet daring end.
So how does her inherent nature drive the plot? Without revealing too much of the story, if Offred was more reticent, if she remained subjugated, if she wasn’t willing to take life-or-death chances, the plot may have veered to a more tragic ending. Instead the character pushes the boundaries, drawing on her past experiences to use them as a catalyst for her forward actions. As a reader we get to know the Offred of the nation of Gilead, but also who she had been before it (there’s some conjecture what her real name is–some have said Kate, but she’s referred to as June in the the Netflix series). When we learn what was important to her in the past, how she handled certain situations, and most tragically what she had lost, we can better understand the decisions she makes when handling the situations she confronts now.
In effect, she’s acting in character, and it’s her intrinsic likes, dislikes, fears, and foibles that direct her actions and reactions, thus steering the plot. And it’s her own character flaws and attributes that make those plot twists and turns all the more believable. For the writer, delving deep into the personality of the character, really knowing who they are and what they’re capable of, is essential to the change that must come over your protagonist as they’re propelled toward the conclusion, and thus one wholly satisfying ending.