Monday, September 18, 2017

Geeta Kothari Takes Her Time

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Geeta Kothari, author of I Brake for Moose (Braddock Avenue Books), discusses her approach to getting writing done.


In her essay,“That Crafty Feeling,” Zadie Smith, writes that she finds other writers’ working methods “incomprehensible and horrifying,” so I present this post with the following qualification: Tracking time works for me, in my particular circumstances, circumstances that include a spouse, a dog, full-time teaching, friends and family members scattered far and wide.

One day, around the time my parents died, I finally understood that time isn’t an infinite, renewable resource. After the grief, came the despair. I added up all the wasted hours. So many, with people I didn’t like doing things I didn’t care about. Of course, I couldn’t actually add up all my wasted hours because I never kept track of them. This was a period when I didn’t keep a journal or a schedule on paper. Even when I began writing seriously, I paid little attention to how I used my time. I measured my progress by how many pages I filled, how many drafts I wrote, publications. This last item seems a little insane now because rejections for my stories far outnumbered acceptances (and still do).

For a while, I tracked the number of words I wrote daily. Then came the day when I realized I’d written over 150 thousand words and had nothing new to read at a conference I was attending, and counting words lost its charm. I draft quickly and revise slowly. Word counts give me a false sense of progress when I’m drafting and no sense of progress when I’m revising.

Why all these attempts to measure productivity? It’s not as if I work in an office or report to a manager who wants to know that company dollars are being well spent. I report only to myself, and if I want to spend my writing time eating chocolate and watching Netflix, no one will know.

Maybe I’m trying to make sure I spend what time I have left on things I find meaningful. I wasn’t one of those children who kept a journal or wrote stories to amuse herself. I came to writing late as an adult with the idea of being a writer but no practical sense of what this meant. I had no idea that thirty years later the best birthday present would be five days alone in an apartment in Toronto where I wrote and talked to no one except strangers I met in the elevator.

Pomodoro: Break time
In that apartment, the empty days stretched before me like a crisp new notebook on which one is afraid to make a mark. I worried I wouldn’t use the time well, that I’d waste it, though without Wi-Fi in the apartment, it would take more effort. I wrote down what I wanted to do in the five days, keeping my plan modest. Instead of counting words (though I did have a word goal), I tracked time and how I spent it using the Pomodoro Technique, which suggests four timed intervals of 25 minutes of focused work with five minutes break, followed by a longer, 15-20 minute break. There’s nothing sacred about the 25 minutes. For writers who are struggling to write daily, like many of my students, 5 minutes is a good place to start. I use a cube timer that has 60, 30, 15 and five minute intervals, so I usually work for 30 minutes with a five minute break.

At home, where there is rarely a blank slate of day, I have found writing daily works best if I aim for two short sessions, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. Because I work on several projects at once and some are deadline driven, the night before I decide what I want to work on. That way I don’t waste time in the morning trying to decide what to do. I keep my list small and modest. “Work a half hour on Lahore section,” one recent entry read. My Freedom app is automatically set to block social media every morning.

I mark each interval in my journal. It’s ridiculous how much pleasure I get from making an X next to the previous X. Later—when I’m low perhaps, feeling underappreciated and scolding myself for NOT WORKING HARD ENOUGH, I’ll go back over my weekly record of Xs and reassure myself that I have spent my time well.

That younger self who wasted so much time used to believe the reward for writing was publishing. The reward, it turns out, is knowing you have spent your days well on something you love.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Caitlin Hamilton Summie's Office with No Door

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Caitlin Hamilton Summie, author of To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts (Fomite), embraces disorder.


I do my best work amid chaos. Or perhaps it’s best to say that I have no choice but to work amid chaos.

I am the mother of two young people. My office has no door. Let me repeat that. No door. It has a window from which I glimpse our beautiful maple tree in the front yard, and off to the left is the front door. Straight ahead of me is my children’s desk, which is their second place choice for homework after the kitchen table. But on occasion, a small person sits at this desk, mastering multiplication or writing essays about books or reviewing the life cycle of plants. My husband has an office space across the hall, and I hear his radio. I hear trucks outside on the road wheezing (sometimes thundering) up the steepish hill upon which our house sits. Sometimes children come over to see my kids and play. Phones ring. Emails ping. Even at night, as I type away, I hear the same rush of cars and often also dialogue or music from TV shows. Water in the pipes. Pounding upstairs if my son is playing basketball in his room, shooting a teeny basketball into the net he has hanging off his door. Dogs barking.

Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
This is where I write.

I write at night, on weekends, on a lunch hour, before work. My desk is an old melamine board laid across two file cabinets. Around me are manila files for work, bookcases, supply cases, the kids’ desk, and walls covered with their artwork, a few photographs, and imposing torn-out calendar pictures of various large cats, one a lion, the other a tiger? A lynx? Behind me, a beautiful gift from a client-author-friend: feathers meant for a free spirit, offering me good luck and special wisdom. I’ll take both.  I don’t know now if I could write in quiet again. For the last many years, since 2002, my spaces for writing and work have all been similar: open, shared, slightly cluttered, colorful. In the past, I have been reduced to sleeplessness when things are too quiet. Would I be reduced to silence if there wasn’t always a hum and a roar?

All of my work is driven by emotion, by character rather than plot. I write it all amid the chaos of a busy family life: the bus going by, neighbors knocking on the door, testy football radio commentators, birdsong. All of it. And rather than distracting me, it keeps me grounded in my subjects, reminds me of what compels me most: connection, family, history, togetherness.

I don’t want a private office. I don’t need a door. Quiet would unnerve me. Keep it open, I say to myself. This is your truth.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Joseph Scapellato and the Story’s Intention

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Joseph Scapellato, author of Big Lonesome (Mariner Books), shares his process.




In the first year of my MFA at New Mexico State University, I was taught a concept that transformed my approach to writing and reading, a metaphor that I reach for every time I’m on the page.

I was in Robert “Boz” Boswell’s class. I was 22, with a tangle of facial hair that almost met the minimum requirements for “mustache,” with a tangle of short story drafts that almost met the minimum requirements for “readable.” I used every fiction assignment to try something different—I was writing to figure out what my writing was and wasn’t, what it could and couldn’t be, and despite the fact that nearly everything that came of this was caca, I was excited. I was in grad school: If I wasn’t failing, I felt, I wasn’t trying.

Someone asked a question, I don’t remember who, I don’t remember what.

Boz nodded. As usual, something in his posture said, “I’m sitting outside,” even though we were in a classroom. His body seemed to want to be at a baseball game. He stood up to write on the board.

“I only know a few things,” he said. “This is one of them.”

He wrote:

The Writer’s Intention

The Story’s Intention

"When we first write a story," he said, "we have one or more intentions for it. Our intentions might be vague and simple, or specific and complex."

(The following examples are not the ones Boz used.)

We might say to ourselves, “I want to write a story about baseball.”

Or, “I want to write a first person story where a mother and a daughter go to a baseball game.”

Or, “I want to write a third person multiple-viewpoint-character future tense story with a simile in every paragraph and lots of foreshadowing, and it’ll be about a mother and a daughter who go to a crosstown series baseball game in Chicago and discover that every player on the White Sox and on the Cubs is a werewolf, and so are they.”

Whatever our initial intention happens to be, that’s what Boz would call the Writer’s Intention. It’s what gets the story going.

As we continue to write the story, however, there can come a moment when the story starts to “want” to be about something else.

The story that you wanted to be about “baseball” begins to want to be about “loneliness.”

The story that you wanted to be about a mother and a daughter going to a ball game begins to want to be about the daughter’s relationship with her best friend, who also happens to be at the ball game, sitting one row up, with a stranger.

The story that you wanted to be a third person future tense multiple-viewpoint-character story about a mother, daughter, and ballplayers who are werewolves starts to want to be a first person past tense story, told in one paragraph, from the point of view of the mother of one of the ballplayers, who also happens to be a werewolf, a werewolf who eats other werewolves.

This isn’t to say that a story literally has desires, volition, or agency, but that’s how it feels when this happens—like the story is alive, like the story is coming to life.

Whatever the story starts to want to be or be about, that’s what Boz would call the Story’s Intention. It’s where the story’s going.

This distinction is important, Boz said, because whenever the story’s intention is in conflict with the writer’s intention, we need to abandon the writer’s intention in favor of the story’s intention.

“The story is smarter than you,” Boz said.

Listening to this, I felt like I was leaving my body. What I was hearing was the confirmation of a feeling that, until then, I’d had no vocabulary for. What I’d thought had been a crazy and inadvisable impulse to trust surprise—to trust the moments when the story that you’re writing raises the bar on itself, and at the same time, raises the bar on you, its writer—was, in fact, advisable, if not perhaps a little crazy. It was a process that I could trust.

I started trusting it right then and I’ve been trusting it since.

Without it, I wouldn’t have been as open to radically revising the beginnings, middles, and endings of every story in my story collection, over and over; I wouldn’t have stuck with the troublesome passages, poking them, prodding them, looking for ways to make them alive again; I wouldn’t have re-entered the stories I’d written six, seven, eight years ago, and with my editors’ help, used the old intentions to rework the stories from the inside out.

Above all, this metaphor reminds me that whatever I think the story is going to be is never as compelling as what the story wants the story to be. And if surprise, discovery, and delight are part of the process, for the writer, then maybe there’s a better chance that surprise, discovery, and delight can become a part of the product, for the reader.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Orlando Ortega-Medina Taps Into His Subconscious

In the 14th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Orlando Ortega-Medina, author of Jerusalem Ablaze (Cloud Lodge Books), discusses the messy process of writing his first drafts.


How do you approach writing a first draft?
I’ve always found that accessing my subconscious is the most critical aspect of my writing of any first draft of literary fiction. Tapping into this dark, bottomless reservoir as a primary source is more important for me than any character study, plot outline, or clever turn of phrase.

Why do you consider this subconscious approach to be more critical than the traditional “conscious” methods such as plotting or outlining?
The only way for me to be productive at this early stage is to try and disconnect myself from my internal edito—the cause of most writer’s block in my view—so as to vomit a first draft onto the page. I deliberately use the emotive verb vomit to emphasize that a first draft is meant to be messy, elemental, something out of which to eventually fashion a story. It is not the story itself. In my case, it is only after I’ve poured out the stuff of my subconscious onto the page that I revisit what I have written—with the merciless mind of an editor—and commence the revision process that will ultimately refine the story into something publishable.

Do you have any special method for accessing your subconscious?
In my student days, I employed various techniques for plugging into this source, including sleeping with a notepad on my nightstand to record my dreams upon waking for use as a story starting point, isolating myself in a room with Philip Glass (or similar) playing in the background and writing the first thing that came to my mind, driving to the desert and writing longhand in the shade of a Joshua Tree, or even depriving myself of sleep for several days and then writing nonstop for hours - something I understand David Bowie did when he wrote his seminal album, Aladdin Sane. These days, I necessarily take a more practical approach – something better suited to my workaday schedule as a lawyer: I set my alarm two hours before the official start of my day. When the alarm jars me awake, I roll out of bed half-asleep, proceed directly to my dedicated writing space, and spend the next two hours writing non-stop. I literally wake up in front of my computer as I write.

Are you saying that you never know what you’re going to write in advance?
Not exactly. Writing off the top of my head doesn’t mean I don’t have a story blueprint in mind. I sometimes use my two hours of writing to dream up a storyline that I will use as inspiration for a later writing session or, perhaps, to invent a protagonist’s biography and family tree, or to write a protagonist’s backstory. The beauty of the process at this early stage is that there are no rules; so there are no mistakes. Everything is about the writing, digging deep and pulling a story out of myself, learning about my characters as I write about them, never doubling back, pushing the narrative forward come what may, and then setting aside what I’ve written for another day—after I’ve written the word END.

What role would you say your subconscious has played in the composition of your stories? Is there something particularly dark inside of you that you’re working out in them?
There’s something dark inside all of us—some more than others, of course. Many of us, however, suppress the very idea that we have a dark side, as if admitting to this will somehow make us worse human beings. It’s the same mental game many of us play when it comes to the subject of death. We’re all marked for death, but we do everything we can to avoid thinking about it. In my view, hiding from something that is so close only makes us more vulnerable to it when it inevitably asserts itself. When it comes to my fiction, I draw from the dark part of my subconscious the raw material I need to tell my more dramatic stories. When I’m successful, writing that first draft is both creative and therapeutic. Put another way, I‘ve chosen to work out my dark side in my stories, casting out my demons on paper. Once all my demons are gone, I imagine I'll have nothing left to write. That's both my greatest hope and my greatest fear.
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