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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Yoga Writing Retreat in Jamaica

Would you like to spend a weekend connecting with mind and body in lush, tropical Jamaica?

Visit Natura Vida Retreat to find out more!

In Service of Story

I have been living in the land of fiction this semester. This is different country than the nonfiction landscape I am accustomed to. I am no longer in my familiar backyard, with its loquat trees and saw palms. With fiction, I am exploring new territory: the Badlands of the West, water-less and harsh. Or sub-zero terrain on which little life can grow. I am a stranger here, taking notes as I roam.

I'm learning that my process for writing fiction is much different than my creative nonfiction. With memoir, you know the story already. You may not be 100% sure who you will tell this story, but you lived it so you know it intimately.

I'm finding that writing fiction mainly looks like this: me, staring out my window, pen in hand, thinking. What am I thinking about? The story, of course!

I am learning now more than ever what my teachers have been saying - it's all about the story! The writing has pretty much fallen away at this point. This journey is no longer about being a good writer. It's about telling a good story. As my teacher says - you can write pretty sentences all day. But those are useless if you are not putting them in service of the story.

With fiction, you need to know the story in order to write it. Not know it but know it. Really, truly, intimately, from the inside out. And this takes time. Hence, the staring out the windows watching the blue jays fight the cardinals for bird seed while I ponder - should my main character have a best friend or fly solo? How does she experience the world? What does this character want more than anything and how can I show that without telling?

Sometimes, knowing the story means writing to figure it out, following the story down sandy paths or chasing after the story through a wild jungle. You must go wherever the story takes you, even (especially) if it takes you somewhere unexpected.

I am also finding that fiction looks like this. Let's say you've spent all afternoon raking leaves into neat piles. You're nearly done with the job when, all of a sudden, a strong gust of wind sweeps across your yard, sending thousands of leaves flying. All of your hard work, undone in one fell swoop.

What can you do but pick the leaves back up again? And along the way, you will put leaves together that you never thought to bring together before. You will see things in a different way. You will make new connections, draw new formations. Re-envision your story. Same parts, perhaps from a new angle.

You can only write from a place of truth. Even fiction must be born from an essential truth. What is at stake for you, the writer? What emotion are you writing to explore? What question within you are you seeking to answer?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Welcome to a Community of Writers

We live in an age of constant digital interaction thanks to our various gadgets and social networks. I'm no technophile but I recently became the owner of an iPod Touch, which is basically an iPhone without the phone. (All I wanted was a music player... but apparently they don't make them like they used to!) Thankfully, this strange Apple product makes listening to podcasts extremely easy which means I have been geeking out on past On Being episodes as well as the newest, coolest podcast, Dear Sugar.

Dear Sugar was an advice column started on The Rumpus a few years back by Steve Almond who later gave the reins over to Cheryl Strayed. Now they have switched over the radio (because radio is all the rage, didn't ya know?) and I am hooked.

Now, this isn't just your regular advice column. When you've got two powerhouse writers running the show, you better believe things are going to get interesting. Almost every show, they call up their friends to weigh in on a question. Luckily for us listeners, these friends also happen to be people like Roxane Gay, George Saunders, Steve Elliott, and Elizabeth Gilbert. Only some of the greatest writers of our time... So yes, these podcasts makes me giddy like a schoolgirl because it's like eavesdropping on a conversation between your favorite writers. We get to hear them being candid and wise and funny and it's simply glorious.

Which brings me to the point of this post: writers and their online presence.

The internet presents several challenges for the modern artist, but it also provides a communal space for sharing and connecting with one another - whether you're a Pulitzer prize-winning author, an avid reader, or a hopeful writer.

Whereas before there was a barrier between writers and their readers, that gap is narrowing everyday, in large thanks to the interweb. Although not all writers partake in the digital world, you'd be surprised how many of them do take advantage of social media.

For example, Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) has one of the most fascinating and inspiring pages on Facebook. She posts almost daily about whatever is on her mind that day, whether it be an idea from a book she's reading or a thought provoked by a walk around her neighborhood. She usually includes an uplifting message for aspiring artists/anyone. Not only does she share her thoughts with the world, but she responds to her readers personally, encouraging dialogue between her readers.

Some other examples: Roxane Gay tweets hilarious messages all day and edits an online magazine, Butter. Jesmyn Ward keeps a blog. Joyce Carol Oates is an active tweeter. Even dead writers have an online presence! Raymond Carver and Sylvia Plath both have Twitter pages.

Although some can take social media to an extreme, I appreciate the communal space that it provides  writers and readers to connect. It brings everyone onto a level playing field, in a way. The barriers come down on the internet. Writers are able to communicate informally, which also allows us to get an insider's view into their lives and psyches.

Good art should provoke healthy dialogue, and the internet is a place where those conversations can be held. Thankfully, we can all be a part of this huge, beautiful, messy, artistic world.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Author Spotlight: Greg Neri

I had the good fortune of meeting Greg Neri this week in my Middle Grade Novel class. He is the author of Ghetto Cowboy, Yummy, Chess Rumble and many other middle grade faves! We read Ghetto Cowboy in my class and I must say it has been one of my favorites so far. I've been recommending it left and right!

He spoke to us about his writing process, and you know how much I love learning about other writers' process! He told us he stumbled into writing from a career in animation mainly because the story he was trying to tell through film wanted to be told in another form: a graphic novel. Since then, his work has spanned many genres from free-verse poetry to urban prose.

My favorite thing about Neri's process is that he lets it flow organically. Every idea begins from an article he read or something he learned about that intrigued him. He calls these nuggets of gold. But when he starts digging, he realizes that these nuggets are actually massive boulders and he wonders - why doesn't anyone know about this? That's where he comes in.

After immersing himself in the research, he begins to write, letting characters and scenes flow from his pen. He keeps his first drafts as basic as possible in order to simply get the material on the page. He learned this in animation - you must keep the momentum going! Once you have it, then you can start working it. This reminds me of the analogy I always make when I talk about writing. Unlike a sculptor who starts with his wood or marble, writers have to create our own building material. Once we have it, then we can cut away and carve and mold it until it becomes something meaningful.

Sometimes, his characters take him to places he never imagined going and he ends up chasing after them. He told us that the most important part about telling a story is to let it have a life of its own. You've got to follow the detours and keep up the momentum. Forcing a story to be what you believe it should be will kill the story. He said that each story has it's own destiny, and it's up to us writers to find out what that is and make it the best story it can be.

My take-away message from Neri's talk was that writers have to be open and receptive to the world around them, but also to the world they are creating on the page. We must let go when we write so that we may access that unconscious wisdom that lives within. Trusting my intuition is a skill that I hope to develop as a writer and as a human being.