- Keeping notes is a really good idea! Most poets I know have overflowing notebooks with all sorts of ideas and inspirations....
- Prose or poetry, I write to come to a better understanding of the world I live in....it's an absurd & ridiculous & mysterious place! Writing helps me sort it all out....
- I didn't write my first poem until I was 42 or so years old. I was in grad school, and I was working at a really fine literary journal, Callaloo.
- The editor was a poet, the managing editor was a poet, and the young woman I shared a workstation with was a poet. And so I started writing poems, just to keep up with them all. And I was so lucky, because the managing editor, Adrian Matejka, is a really really fine poet, and he was around the critique my work. And I got a few poems published right away....
- But! My first poems were all narrative poems. They were short stories that didn't work as short stories, and so I stripped them down layer by layer until there was only 12 or 14 lines left. You can do this too!
- I don't know. But a lot, I hope, because you deserve a lot!
- (All of you deserve a lot!)
- We learn from Alice Flaherty's Midnight Disease, my favorite book about writing, that "writer's block" is a real thing, related to depression, and can be treated with SSRIs like Prozac.
- —most people do not have true writer's block. They have an interior editor that tells them that their work isn't any good and will not be any good.
- 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.
- A trick that works for me: timed writing sessions. Set the timer on your phone for 20 or 25 minutes (no more than 25). Then just—write—until the timer beeps. Do not stop to think! Do not pause at all! DO not take your hands from the keyboard or pen! And when the timer beeps and you're done, go do something else.
- This works. I've written several books this way.
- You'll have to experiment around and find the best time for you. Me, I write at night, and I'm most productive from @1100pm to @100am.
- I'm a huge procrastinator, too. 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 relationship of poet and poem. (Or writer/writing of any kind). Once you get to grad school you'll have theory dealing with the "implied author" but until then just assume that the narrator is the narrator, unless the author tells you differently.
- Poems tend to be more personal than stories--there are fewer places to hide in a poem.
- Poems seem best drawn from any sort of concrete (not abstract) human experience--for experience that is physical and involved with the world....
- I would always prefer that students analyze a text rather than talk about their feelings about the text—analysis over autobiography. (I’m thinking this is somewhat of a pandemic problem, since if we met three times a week ftf, I’d be bugging people about this constantly). When a person says that they “like” or “don’t like” a story, they’re not really talking about the story—they’re talking about their own feelings.
- (Liking or not liking a text is of course fun when you’re reading like a civilian, but a university class is not a book club).
- The discussion of likeability in female characters is something that has been floating around the literary world for the past ten years or so. We can all see that the patriarchy puts constraints on “acceptable” standards of women’s behavior. Many readers carry those constraints over into their reading, and negatively judge female characters in a story or novel or film. Male characters are usually judged far less harshly than women characters, even when they are doing much the same thing.
- As writers we might strive to be perceptive, rather than judgmental. To wildly paraphrase Anton Chekhov, ‘I don’t need to say that stealing horses is evil. Everyone knows stealing horses is evil. I want to write about why people steal horses.’
- (So…why does Monica behave the way she does? (Hint—whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s not really hypocrisy)).
- Roxane Gay has written a terrific essay on this topic. A quote: “In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be. Characters who don't follow this code become unlikable. Critics who fault a character's unlikability cannot necessarily be faulted. They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability… Why is likability even a question? Why are we so concerned with, whether in fact or fiction, someone is likable? Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn't behave in a way the reader finds palatable.”
- In short—as a reader, it’s (mostly, probably) perfectly okay to find the behavior of a fictional character repellent! But as a writer you should be analyzing how and why the author created this character the way they are and how they used language to get the character across….
- Having a super-badass character kind of removes any tension to the action/plot or opportunity for character “growth” if you’re interested in that. The character becomes—flat.
- 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. But it can be done! My advice: make your character an individual first, and a social construct second.
- Factual aspects of a story can always be researched, and research is always important to a creative writer. You don’t just go around making things up. The emotional aspects of a story…that’s another job for writerly empathy. We can learn this by watching how people behave in different situations, by imagining how we would behave in a similar situations.
- Also: Flannery O’Connor argues that by the time you’re 17, you’ve experienced everything there is to experience in the world—love, hate, anger, joy, fear, etc.
- Take your knowledge of these emotions and give them to your characters.
- Good question!
- I would like it if students would “read like a writer.” What's reading like a writer?
- It means reading for HOW a text means, not what a text means.
- How the writer used language, sentence by sentence, to construct the story under analysis.
- How language is used, not necessarily whether it is successful or unsuccessful.
- It's reading as perception, not judgement.
- point of view
- Every student in this class can learn about these aspects of fiction from the stories we’re reading this semester.
- It's maybe like when dreams fade once you wake up. it's probably important to strike while the iron is hot, before the forgetting mind takes over!
- I like much of the King book (I like King in general), but I have a few reservations. He doesn't seem to understand that his success gives him a level of privilege that less successful writers do not have. But--many students have gotten a lot from it. Read it and make up your own mind.
- Here are two craft books I like a lot:
- From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler.
- Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See. (We're going to read her chapter on revision in a few weeks).
- When you're bored with what you're doing. When you've accomplished one thing and want another challenge.
- When your vision of the world changes. When you learn something new.....
- I think this would all have to depend on the writer and where they are at that moment in their lives....
- I would strongly advise you to stick with SAID and ASKED 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.
- Please don't distract your reader.
- (For a similar reason, it's a good idea to avoid connecting action to dialogue).
- Try skipping the things you're having trouble with. Add those things later as part of the revision process...?
- Also—is this writer's block or is it the voice of your internal editor?
- Not necessarily. The stranger can certainly be the focal character—the protagonist's first day on a new job, the first day at a new school, a traveler stopping to get gas in a new town....
- (All the same story, rebooted over and over again...).
- (Also—the focal character doesn't have to be a guy!) (Or a gunslinger/samurai)....
- 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 boy 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 40 pages or so into the first draft. I will work on and expand the outline almost every day, so that it keeps that 40-page buffer always ahead of me. It's like driving at night with your headlights on....
- 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! Really, they don't go around making things up....
- So—say you're writing a novel set in New Mexico at the time the atomic bomb is being built. You want to stay pretty close to facts, but you could have your (fictional) characters interacting with real people. Or you could have an alt timeline where everything goes off in a different direction. Or....
- But still—base your story around research....
- Show their character through action. Just like everyday 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.
- But—you don't have to write about the big picture, and maybe probably shouldn't. Focus on the personal and the small.
- Don't make it the last six months--make it 15 minutes out of the last six months....
- A student wrote a FANTASTIC story about pandemic roommate conflict....it can be done!
- That's what fiction does best—focus on how people live their lives.
As always, BYOQ...
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.
So—I finally finished the first draft of the sequel to Professed. Now what?
Well, revision, obviously. Which I will document on Twitter and Instagram.
Then—my plans will be a little different. As of now, I think I am going to serialize the novel on a website throughout 2018—fifty installments, beginning (tentatively) January 6th. Then, when the serialization is over, I’ll pull the website down and publish the book as a paperback and Kindle. I’m inspired here by the example of Tom Wolfe, who serialized Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone in 27 installments beginning in July 1984. A difference here is that Wolfe actually wrote the novel as it was being serialized—incredible pressure on a writer who’s seen as stonecutter-slow. (Another difference is that, uh, obviously—I’m not Tom Wolfe). So I will have the advantage of presenting a work that will be in pretty good shape—though I’m also seeing the serialization itself as a form of revision and extended workshopping.
Now the fun begins….
I feel good when I get close to what is probably the end of a long project—especially the project I’ve been working on for the last year, a sequel to Professed. I can see it the end—I think. It’s there. Might take a couple of more weeks to get there—or maybe three—or maybe a couple of months—or, who knows? Willpower is not the source of productivity. Life gets in the way of art, sometimes. But—the end is there, and it’s closer than it was at the beginning….
Follow along if you want: I’m documenting my daily progress on twitter @lowellmickwhite #amwriting
Of course, once I write THE END! in my notebook, it’ll just be the end of the first draft. There’ll still be a lot more work to do….
But I’ll think about that later.
In the meantime, work is also progressing on the long-awaited story collection. It will be out soon!