- I'm a huge procrastinator, too.
- This works.
- You'll have to experiment around and find the best time for you. Me, I write at night….
- The easiest thing in the world is to not write—this is true for everyone
- I hate getting started. But once I start, I'm fine.
- Most of the time we'll never know the autobiographical relationship of poet and poem.
- Poems tend to be more personal than stories—there are fewer places to hide in a poem.
- I would always prefer that students analyze a text rather than talk about their feelings about the text—analysis over autobiography.
- A university class is not a book club.
- As writers we might strive to be perceptive, rather than judgmental.
- It’s (mostly, probably) perfectly okay to find the behavior of a fictional character repellent!
- The super-badass character is also aspirational for many readers….
- The discomfort perhaps comes as we recognize the limits of our empathy and the difficulty of truly imagining the experience of another human.
- Factual aspects of a story can always be researched, and research is always important to a creative writer.
- Take your knowledge of these emotions and give them to your characters.
- It means reading for HOW a text means, not what a text means. It's reading as perception, not judgement.
- It's maybe like when dreams fade once you wake up.
- When you're bored with what you're doing.
- All writers have an internal editor. I sure do! As writers we have to find a way to shut up that voice, dodge around it, suppress it.
- When you've accomplished one thing and want another challenge.
- When your vision of the world changes.
- When you learn something new.....
- Keeping notes is a really good idea! Most writers I know have overflowing notebooks with will all sorts of ideas and inspirations....
- I think this would all have to depend on the writer and where they are at that moment in their lives....
- Said is NOT dead. I would strongly advise you to stick with SAID and ASKED (almost) all the time.
- They are inoffensive little words that become invisible.
- When they are invisible, readers can actually focus on your character's brilliant talk.
- Maybe try skipping the things you're having trouble with.
- Add those things later as part of the revision process...?
- Is this writer's block or is it the voice of your internal editor?
- Not necessarily.
- In a short story, you can get by with only one "round" character. You can distinguish between secondary characters by giving them distinguishing physical characteristics.
- (I learned this from my man Tolstoy, in War & Peace).
- For a long work like a novel, you want to keep character notes just so you don't suddenly change their educational background or eye color or whatever.
- You can improvise as much as you like, but keep notes on your improvisation.
- I feel pretty confident starting when I know more or less how I want the book to end, and I have an outline that will get me at least 40 pages or so into the first draft. But even better is a BIG outline.
- I use both. I love my little notebooks, and I love my phone.
- An advantage of the notebooks: when you're at a meeting (in pre-pandemic times) it's considered impolite to mess with your phone while someone is speaking. But you can write in your notebook and say whatever you feel like saying, even if you're slagging the speaker! It's fun.
- Getting any book out is a big deal. After that, you can't control how many people read it, and you really can't control who likes it.
- So much of what is considered success is luck. But—you have to work hard to put yourself in a position to have luck.
- Research! Creative writers do research!
- Show their character through action. Just like every day real people show who they are by how they act....
- Yes, I think all of us should be writing in response to the pandemic.
- This historical crisis we're going through right now is complicated and exhausting—it calls for writers to pay attention to it.
As usual, all answers, no questions....
I am very sorry to hear of the death this week of Austin newspaper columnist John Kelso. As his former colleague Michael Corcoran said, “He loved his job and so he was better at it than he had to be.”
Kelso was the model for the character Wes Leonard in my story “Bad Guts” and my novel That Demon Life. When he interviewed me for the column below, he said that he approved. He even said That Demon Life was funny--as nice a thing as has ever been said.
Writer's Book Came Together Between Cab Fares
By John Kelso
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Lowell Mick White may be the only author to ever write a 182-page novel while driving a cab.
OK, so he wasn't really driving the cab around Austin while he was writing "That Demon Life", a book full of colorful, sketchy and disreputable characters you probably wouldn't want running your Brownie scout meeting. While writing, he was parked between fares.
"I sat there with my clipboard and a cheap notebook I got at H-E-B, and I'd write," said White, who, from 1998 to 2002, spent time driving around Austin in a Yellow Cab putting his book together. "I'd find a place to park and I'd write 'til I got a call and I'd pick a passenger up. Yeah, I did it old-school with a pen."
Macs are for sissies.
This guy is no slouch with the words. He was the recipient of a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, which includes a six-month residency at J. Frank Dobie's former Hill Country Ranch and a payment of $1,200 to write out in the country.
But most of the book was composed in the cab, on Austin streets. White says you can tell from looking at the structure of the book when the passengers climbed in.
"You might have noticed those little short subchapters. That's where I got passengers in the cabs."
This is one of those deals where life imitates art, or steam imitates steam.
"They sat naked on the mussed bed eating greasy chicken and drinking warm beer, and Richard felt like nothing in his life — nothing, nothing, nothing, ever — tasted better," it says on page 35. "He was just so damn happy."
Then, in real cab life, White remembers the time the drunken wealthy attorney got in the back of his cab and did a strip tease as he was giving her a ride home. He didn't say if he had tinted windows.
"Her friends didn't want her to drive and they put her in the cab, and I was taking her home and she was taking her clothes off," White recalled. "And when I got her home she didn't have her (house) keys, so I was taking her back to the party. I had no place else to take her. But her daughter showed up" and let her in the house.
It's not easy writing a book in a cab. Your cab is your office. White recalls the four slobs who got in the cab and messed everything up.
"I worried a lot of the time that I might lose whatever notebook I was working in, or that it might get damaged," wrote White, who is working on his Ph.D. in English at Texas A&M. "I remember once on Fourth Street some older drunk guys got into my cab, four of them, three in back, one in front, and the guy who sat up front plopped his fat middle-aged butt down on my notebook before I could move it. I totally lost my temper — started cursing, yelling, kicked them all out before I even started the meter."
It's a fun book. There's a little round judge named Cantu, who has the hots for a chick named Giselle, who has a gigantic bird tattoo on her back. There's Paige, who will nail every male that breathes. There's a defense attorney named Linda, who hates her job and thinks all the criminals should be lined up and shot.
White appreciates his characters and loves Linda. He says at a book signing recently when a reader came down on Linda, it made him kind of mad.
"This guy said, 'I didn't like Linda very well; she's not a very moral character.' I said, 'I lived with Linda in the cab for years, she's a very moral character. I like her.' "
Hey, at least she didn't throw up in the back seat of his cab, like some of his real customers.
I can't find a link to the column on the American-Statesman website. The story "Bad Guts" is included in Long Time Ago Good. And of course you need to read That Demon Life.
Interview with Slough Press….
SP: Let’s start at the beginning—before the beginning of the book, actually, to the dedication.
The book’s dedicated to your parents. How come?
Professed is a novel about higher education, and it was my parents who introduced me to this world. They were teachers, first in high schools, then in universities. I was conceived in Morgantown when my dad was in grad school at West Virginia University. I grew up in college towns in West Virginia and Nebraska and Minnesota and Texas. Actually, I’ve lived in college towns all my life.
Growing up in the Ivory Tower…
I don’t know about that. Few things annoy me more—or anger me more—than some idiot calling the non-academic world “the real world.”
All worlds are real worlds….
My parents got up every morning and went to work. They voted, they paid taxes. I do the same. Every academic I know does the same. Anybody who says that’s not the real world needs to be punched in the nose.
Maybe people look down on academics because they deal with ideas instead of—I don’t know, pipe fittings, or whatever….
Maybe. Though pipe fittings are based on ideas, too….
And books are objects….
Objects with a variety of meanings. The characters in Professed all get into academia because they love books—they love reading, they love the meanings that books contain, the meaning that books bring to their lives.
But there’s more to the academic world than books.
Of course. Academics work hard. There’s sadly little time for recreational reading. Anyone who teaches at a university is under tremendous pressure—pressure from students, from administrators, from colleagues, from the calendar, from their own idealized teaching self…and the university itself is under tremendous pressure from the contemporary culture at large, from the economy, from the politics. The business of education in the end has little to do with learning and a lot to do with business—and that’s not a good thing for professors or students.
Professed is set at a large unnamed university in Austin, Texas. Your other books are set in Austin, too.
I lived in Austin for a long, long time—I’m haunted by the place, perhaps. The delirious rate of change is sort of a constant—the old golden past is supplanted by a new golden past which is soon forgotten and replaced by another newer golden past, and meanwhile there’s this new new new city rising up around us and stretching out ahead into the future, and this new city is getting—newer. Bigger. Blander. Richer. Stranger. It’s interesting process to watch and to write about.
Your previous novel, That Demon Life, had a protagonist who was trying to isolate herself from the world around her. The characters in Professed are trying very hard to become part of the larger world.
And that world—the world of higher education—is pushing them away, right? In That Demon Life, Linda Smallwood wants to stay at home and watch TV, and her friends—I guess they’re her friends—keep dragging her out of the house and into extreme and ridiculous situations. The three main characters in Professed are forced by the university, by their desires to be a part of the university, into extreme and ridiculous situations—which makes sense, since higher education is itself extreme and ridiculous. And for a lot of people it’s tragic, too, a lot of the time.
But Professed seems to close on a hopeful note….
For an individual or two, sure. There’s always hope. That’s why we teach—that’s why I teach, at least. Education will find a way! We want to believe that. But I also think that if you look close enough, you’ll see that universities are full of broken dreams. And when I look at those broken dreams I find stories....
Seadrift was wonderful, the writers who participated were terrific--superlatives everywhere! I love the intensity and cameraderie of events like this, places where words and ideas flow together and become something new....
And we'll do it again next year. ABWW15--in New Orleans....
It's coming: Alamo Bay 2014, in Seadrift, Texas. May 30-June1, featuring instructors environmental activist/memoirist Diane Wilson, poet Lee Meitzen Grue, and myself.
There is still time to register: http://www.alamobaywritersworkshop.com
It's going to be a great event. I'll be talking about place, and how it affects writers and writing. Come to Seadrift and hang out with us!
A couple of years ago a guy who said he was from the Harris County Public Library contacted me and said he was asking various Texas writers to make short videos explain why they—we—write. So I agreed to make one….
It was the summer of 2011, in the middle of an eye-poppingly hot heatwave, day after day—weeks!—of temps over 100 degrees. But one day, just as I was getting out of the class I was teaching at the prison, a storm was building up—the first rain in a long time, and the last rain for a long time—and when the big storm broke, I pulled off and parked and made the video.
I don’t know if the library guy ever made use of my little self-interview—I’ve never seen it on the library website. But I was looking for something else on my computer this week, and came across it, and decided to share it with the world….
You have to stop here and look at your phone.
Along with her homework assignment this week, a student in my fiction writing class asked what I did to overcome distractions....
Well. Huh. Well! I had to think--it's a distracting question. I checked Facebook. I looked at my phone. I pondered--distracted, yeah--and then I happened to put down my phone and pick up a collection of my boy Ralph Waldo Emerson's writings. And I saw that he had experienced the same problems.
Today, carpets; yesterday, the aunts; the day before, the funeral of poor S.; and every day, the remembrance in the library of the rope of work which I must spin;--in this way life is dragged down and confuted. We try to listen to the hymn of gods, and must needs hear this perpetual cock-a-doodle-doo, and har-tar-kut right under the library windows. They, the gods, ought to respect a life, you say, whose objects are their own. But steadily they throw mud and eggs at us, roll us in the dirt, and jump on us.
So what is my advice to the young writer? Pretty basic, I guess—do as I do. Write in short, intense bursts. Work from an outline of some sort so that, once distracted, you know where to start back up. Keep a towel handy to wipe the mud and egg from your face, and keep on trying…..
I will be leading some sessions at Alamo Bay Writer’s Workshop in Austin, Texas, from July 19th to 21st. This is going to be a really good and worthwhile--and fun--event.
The other instructors are National Book Award-winning novelist Larry Heinemann, environmental activist/memoirist Diane Wilson, and award-winning poet Lee Meitzen Grue. Dr. Hazel Ward will moderate afternoon discussion sessions.
The workshop will be devoted to sparking writerly creativity—how to find ideas, how to get writing started, how to stay focused, how to get finished. Every participant will have a chance to work with each workshop leader, exposing the participants to a variety of ideas and techniques.
The venue will be Rio Far Niente, located on 36 acres just east of Austin, overlooking the Colorado River, pecan groves, and the downtown Austin skyline. Instructor readings and music by Claudia Voyles and Lee Edwards will kick off the weekend Friday evening. Cello music by Randall Warren will accompany Saturday night entertainment. Our own Austin favorite bookstore, Bookwoman, will be selling books. The cost is $325 per workshop participant….
You all need to attend!
Alamo Bay Writers' Workshop, Austin 2013
At AWP we had a wonderful panel discussing the 21st century relevance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Below is my presentation....
The goal of this panel is to offer new, personal readings of Emerson’s work, pointing toward ways in which these works are relevant to writers, readers, and teachers in the 21st century. I’m joined up here by three other fine scholars and writers….
§ Lindsay Illich holds a Ph.D. in English from Texas A&M University and is an Assistant Professor of English at Curry College in Milton, MA. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Rio Grande Review, Buddhist Poetry Review, and most recently, Improbable Worlds: An Anthology of Texas and Louisiana Poets.
§ John Domini’s books include the novels A Tomb on the Periphery and Earthquake I.D. In 2009 Tomb was listed with "the best of international publishing" at the London Book Festival, and Earthquake, in Italian translation, was runner-up for the Rea Prize. Other awards include an NEA grant. A selection of essays, The Sea-God’s Herb, will be published in 2014. John will also be appearing tomorrow on a Hawthorne panel—9:00 am—nine in the morning?—in room 303—everyone should go!
§ Amber Foster is a doctoral candidate in English with a creative writing emphasis at Texas A&M University. Her creative work has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, and two of her short stories will appear later this year in Echo Ink Review and the University of Texas Press' Beat Anthology. She is currently working on a novel about a traveling scuba diving instructor.
§ I’m an Assistant Professor of English at Pittsburg State, in Kansas. I’m the author of two books, Long Time Ago Good, a story collection, and That Demon Life, a novel, and I’ll have another novel coming out later this year….
I kind of came up with the idea for this panel last year, when I was teaching an American lit survey course, Colonial through Civil War. One of things I often do in a lit class is ask students to add a question about the text to their reading response. Ideally this gives me a place to start discussion in class. But what I got a lot of last year were questions like “What would Melville think of our modern world?” “What would Poe think of our modern world?” “What would Thoreau think of our modern world?” “What would Phyllis Wheatley think of our modern world?” “What would Emerson think of our modern world?”
This wasn’t a whole lot of help to discussion. I couldn’t get past the image of recently reanimated Thoreau totally freaking out about not being safely dead…while Poe would be interested in the reanimation process….
I felt there was a sense of entitlement and arrogance to these questions—an implication that our modern world is the pinnacle of creation and progress. It seemed like the students were asking, Wouldn’t these long-dead writers be stunned at how cool we all are?
So, late in the semester, in an attempt to turn this idea around on the students, I gave the class an essay prompt: Are Emerson’s ideas relevant to the 21st century? By that time we had read quite a bit of Emerson—Nature, Self-Reliance, The Poet, and parts of his very political essay, Fate of the Republic. I was hoping that the students would reflect on our modern world and what it means, and ponder whether a voice from the deep past, from a time of increasingly cutthroat capitalism and post-Jacksonian white supremacy, had anything relevant to say to us.
One of my students, MK, writes:
Emerson would view our conformed society as blind for we do not see the endless opportunities and freedom that we have been offered in this world. We are limiting ourselves from the unique and creative contributions we could be giving back to our society by conforming “to large societies and dead institutions” (535). Not only would he be thoroughly frustrated with the way our society has turned out, I personally feel that he would feel helpless and overwhelmed by the amount of potential and capabilities that have been restricted to each individual. This issue of conformity relates back to his main idea of perspective. The more perspective we allow ourselves to have, less blind we will be to our society that is constantly progressing.
Student CR writes:
…The current school system talks like Emerson with motivational posters and the occasional motivational speaker, as well as teams of teachers to pat you on the back the whole way and say “You can do it!” Yet, sadly, it walks very different from its talk. When a single failure in High School made by a budding young man, who is still trying to figure out who he is, will very likely exclude him the top colleges of his choice, there’s no way to get back up to where you were. When a similar young man, in a similar stage of life, has a single failure he is likely to be excluded from many law schools and medical schools, because it’s just so difficult to resuscitate a GPA after a hit like that. If the same mistake is made in law school or medical school and you manage to stay in school your chances to get a good job may have just disappeared.
You’ll notice that these are not really answers to the question of the relevance of Emerson’s ideas—they’re really kind of expansions on the reaction of re-animated Emerson to our modern world. But they’re rather dark answers, as well, and filled with a surprising level of anxiety. These students—and the essays of these two students were typical of that class—seem to take a view that society is powerful and irresistible, that our wonders of technology are not everything we might think they are.
MK, I think, tries to empathize with what she imagines as the feelings of the reanimated Emerson. He might well think us blind for not seizing the opportunities open to us. But would he really feel “helpless and overwhelmed by the amount of potential and capabilities that have been restricted to each individual”? Maybe not. Emerson felt that each self-reliant person, each non-conformist, created a ripple that could cross and dislocate the pond of society. There are some dark Transcendentalists, like Melville or Poe, who posit a more chaotic world where individuals are often helpless before the forces of nature, but Emerson wasn’t one of them, and he believed in the agency of individuals.
CR worries about the effect—the power—that institutions have over the future of the noncomformist. Emerson anticipated that worry: “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure. And therefore a man must know how to estimate a sour face. The by-standers look askance on him in the public street or in the friend's parlour…[but] when the unintelligent brute force that lies at the bottom of society is made to growl and mow, it needs the habit of magnanimity and religion to treat it godlike as a trifle of no concernment.”
But I find that anticipation lacking a little bit. Will the “habit of magnanimity” really overcome the power of an institution to screw up someone’s life? Probably not. I think you also have to reject the authority of the institution, and brave the disappointment of family and friends, and live with the consequences.
So, grading these papers, while roughly at the same time putting together this panel proposal, I started thinking that understanding self-reliance and achieving it are perhaps two different things.
I have a book coming out this summer titled Last Educations. It’s an academic satire. The first section is called “Fate,” and, as you might pick up on, given this panel, the title is a reference to Emerson’s essay of the same title.. The focal character in “Fate” – my “Fate,” not Emerson’s essay—is Tom Holt, a post-doc at a big university in Austin, Texas. Tom has problems with his life—with his circumstance, with his character—with his ex-girlfriend, with his students, with the administration, with Nature—with the world. The epigraph is taken from Emerson’s “Fate”: “A man’s power is hooped in by a necessity, which, by many experiments, he touches on every side, until he learns its arc.”
I’ll read a couple of short passages….
At the end of the semester, the week after a cheerless and lonely Thanksgiving, on a dreary, rainy day, I was trudging along with mobs of students through Parlin Hall, the English building, when someone called my name. I looked around. Damp, dripping students were coming and going in the hallway, many chattering chatting texting on cell phones, some hooked up to iPods, alone, jostling along with backpacks and books. Then I saw Dr. Camille Braddock, a professor I’d had in graduate school.
They go back to Braddock’s office and she asks him to take care of her cats while she goes out of town.
The void opened up again. Despair seeped out. I do too much, I don’t follow through enough. It was the end of the semester: in a few days I would have 150 or so papers to grade and a job search to organize. A life to lead. Despair seeped out of the void, enveloped me. I was going to say Yes, of course I was—I couldn’t say No, ever. My parents raised me to be nice, to be agreeable, to be helpful, and I am. It’s a quality that has never served me well. When friends need help moving, I move. When students think their grade is too low, I raise the grade. Dentists and doctors schedule my appointments at weirdly inconvenient times. Butchers sell me bad meat. I paid too much for my car, and pay mechanics too much for not fixing it. I can’t say No. If I was a girl, I’d be pregnant all the goddamn time, with a half-dozen or so brats from previous favors—previous Yeses—squalling around unfed in dirty diapers. It’s just the way I am. When I look in the mirror I see a very weak man.
So, Tom takes care of the cats, and, of course, it doesn’t turn out well—it turns out disastrously—all sorts of absurd and ridiculous things happen. (Though I will point out that the cats survive!) What’s important here is Tom’s awareness of the arc of his power—or, his lack of power. He is a weak man who hides behind his weakness, behind what he sees as his fate of character. He gets the last line in the section: “People can’t escape who they are.”
Emerson says, “Tis weak and vicious people who cast the blame on Fate. The right use of Fate is to bring up our conduct to the loftiness of nature. Rude and invincible except by themselves are the elements…Let him hold his purpose as with the tug of gravitation. No power, no persuasion, no bribe shall make him give up his point. A man ought to compare advantageously with a river, an oak, or a mountain. He shall have not less the flow, the expansion, and the resistance of these.”
Emerson argues that this Fate is only half of what goes on in a human life, that people have the power to change their fates, and that fate and power are locked in a symbiotic embrace that functions in all our lives. Emerson says, “We have two things,—the circumstance, and the life. Once we thought, positive power was all. Now we learn, that negative power, or circumstance, is half.”
But—it’s only half. Circumstance, Fate, is not all
Right now, in America, we are facing one of the great crises of our history. Political stalemate and the forces of anti-rationalism are dismantling the governmental, educational, and social institutions which have served this nation well for the past 80 or so years. It is our fate to live in this unfortunate and dismal time. Yet—if you were to go outside right now you’d see clouds scudding overhead, birds flopping around, cars and buses on the streets—you’d see life going on, people bustling from one place to another, writers talking about poems or stories they’re writing while at the same time fantasizing about hooking up with someone at the bar tonight--
This is our world, our fate. But it’s not everything.
Some of the people at this conference—in this room—are go-getters, hard-workers, while others of us are lazy. Some of us are exuberant and outgoing, while others are quiet and introverted.
This is the fate of our characters. But our characters are not everything.
Emerson says, “…though Fate is immense, so is power, which is the other fact in the dual world, immense. If Fate follows and limits power, power attends and antagonizes Fate. We must respect Fate as natural history, but there is more than natural history.”
We are fated to live in this time, this place. We are fated to be who we are. But we’re not limited by our fates—we have power, we have authority, we have agency. And I think this is one of Emerson’s main lessons for us as he speaks to us through the deeps of time—that we can act in opposition to our fate, that we can defy our time, that through power—through perseverance—through self-reliance we can rebuild our institutions, we can act for social justice, we can create art, we can create our own lives….