Blog Hop: I Almost Never Write and Tell

A few weeks ago, I was tagged in a blog hop by writer and friend Sally Cooper, asked to talk about my work, my process, my current projects.  advice mod verbsApart from the fact that I feel there is way too much talk about writing these days–who does what, how often, how–which I almost never relate to, though may find interesting–I am, at base, against the concept of the writer as public figure, asked to pronounce truisms about the writing life, give advice to the aspiring, or lay down wisdom derived from his/her own struggle with the written word.  I am not saying that I’ve never engaged in these activities: as an instructor of creative writing, that is half of my job, and even this blog has such pondering, such pronouncements.  So here I am, after several attempts, some contempt, and a good deal of procrastination, with my answers to the questions posed, by whom initially, I am not sure. Make of them what you will.

What are you working on?

PR-SecretsI am, by nature, a secretive person.  This may not be evident given how social and garrulous I can be on occasion, but no matter how much of a story I tell, there is always something I leave out.  This is true in all aspects of my life–in my relationships with family and friends, in my intimate relationships, and even in my relationship (when I had one) with my therapist.  Part of this might have to do with a fear of being judged and found wanting, but the greater part has to do with keeping a tantalizing something for and to myself.  This also holds true in my writing life.  I will generally only speak of my work in any sort of detail once it is complete.  I don’t consider it a superstition that a work can be damaged or talked out by speaking of it too soon, before it and the writer have grown a skin thick enough to resist both skeptics and detractors, not to mention the well-meaning critics who are only too willing to offer what more they desire from it.  But mostly I am just happy to selfishly guard it, like a fabulous secret life, full of passion and conflict, created to suit myself, since I write first and foremost for myself.  So I’m not going to talk about what I am working on.  That is, as they say, for me to know and for you to find out.

I can, however, talk about what I have almost finished: a collection of magical and wistful stories called In Love with the Dead, which are mostly about people in relationships that may or may not be real. They are fairy tales for adults and, as such, will come with illustrations by South African friend and artist Lynne Lomofsky. Why should only children’s books be illustrated? Do we not all desire and require a little more art and colour in our lives? I do.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I have no idea.  This seems like a question for academics and agents, not for writers.  Answering that kind of question would likely stop me in my tracks. Are fairy tales a genre? Then there is not always a happily ever after to my stories, at least not the expected kind. Is literary fiction a genre? Then that’s what I’m doing, at least I hope I am. Is magic realism hallucination-selfhelp-012413a genre? Well, the stories are somewhat magical, and somewhat realistic, and do exactly what they are supposed to do: they explore and reveal human desires, wounds, psyches, conflicts, and consequences without being tied to the literal and mundane aspects of physical reality. On the other hand, a reader might be tempted to conclude that many of my characters are suffering from mental breakdowns; this might be the one difference. But those types of conclusions or interpretations are also not my responsibility.  I have been known to entertain magical thinking in my life, so who am I to judge?  I just tell my character’s stories as they come, without much of an agenda–at least that is true of this book.

Why do I write what I do?

Sometimes I have a question that I want answered. In my last novel, The Goodtime Girl, I wanted to know what it would have been like to be a female singer in the 1920s tavernas and hash dens of post-war Greece.  In Love with the Dead was a reaction to such research-based writing, which often made me feel shackled to reality, to history. I wanted freedom and less tragedy. I wanted imagination to be the driving force in the lives of the characters. I wanted anything that happened, no matter how unlikely, to be acceptable.

I also tend to write the types of stories that I want to read. I try to fulfill my own wants and needs for emotion, for amusement, for certain types of narrative the best I can. Curiosity, hunger, and self-satisfaction sum it up best.  If I could simply find other books that perfectly satisfied those three needs, perhaps I would stop writing. Or maybe not.

How does my writing process work?

I have a very long gestation period for any idea.  I collect tidbits for it while I’m waiting for the moment, for the motivation, for courage to begin.  Sometimes I am plagued by a first line that I know I must write down, which repeats in my brain like a disembodied, obsessive voice, and more often than not pushes me towards a notebook, just to shut it up.  That line often has momentum, at least for a paragraph, if not more.  I can also, on a disciplined day, have an intention to write and begin putting something down on paper scriptcrumb(yes, I still write on paper) just for the sake of doing it, so I can say that I tried.  If I can hang in beyond the awkward stiltedness of the first lines, I can sometimes get into a rhythm, begin to feel the flow of language, let the writing take me beyond my mechanical intentions.  I used to work 3 or 4 hours every day, no matter how I felt: inspired, uninspired, tired, resentful, hopeful.  That really is the way things like a novel get written.  Now, I have less time to dedicate to my writing, but when I am ready to dive into my new project, currently waiting patiently in the ether, gathering strength, momentum, urgency, I will clear my schedule again. Writing is not a thing I can do part-time, or in stolen moments.  It completely takes over, and I need full days, with no other distractions, to surrender to the new relationship.

So that’s my two bits, and now I pass the baton over to poet Una McDonnell, whose contribution will appear on this blog in a few weeks, and poet, publisher, and dandy rob mclennan.

Thanks for hopping by!

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No Cure for Ignorance (or Writing)

Most of the major projects I have undertaken in my writing life have been preceded, if not encouraged, by a sort of blissful ignorance. When I wrote my first book, Stories to Hide from Your Mother, for instance, I had no idea how difficult it would be to create and perfect 14 self-contained worlds, let alone how difficult it would be to sell a collection of stories to a publisher. With Ariadne’s Dream, my second book, I was happily unaware of the gargantuan task of keeping all of a novel’s details, characters and subplots straight, let alone the sheer laboriousness of reviewing 400 pages at every stage of the publishing process.

Having written and survived one novel, I felt primed to take on another one. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that twaddle… But instead of sticking even a little bit closely to what I had just taught myself to do, I chose to burden myself with an extra layer of difficulty without truly understanding what was I was doing. No, I didn’t write and entire novel without using the letter “e”– I mean, isn’t it challenging enough to tell a great story in beautiful language without excluding five of the last ten words, Monsieur Perec?

Due to that pesky thing called inspiration, which we all know is only 1/10 of the work involved in writing, so it can afford to be charming and frivolous, I decided to take on a historical novel, set in a time I knew almost nothing about, and about which there wasn’t much written in English. My third book, The Goodtime Girl, which is set in Greece and Asia Minor during the 1920s, took about ten years to complete. It’s safe to assume that had I known I would spend a decade working on one book, I would have chosen to do something, almost anything, else, like go to med school. In fact, I used to make fun of my novelist friends and their ten year prison sentences, as I called them. But I’d heard a song from the period that intrigued me, and the next thing you know I was researching music, fashion, drug culture and war, then writing character sketches and preliminary chapters, and by the time I realized what I’d gotten myself into, it was too late to bail (I tried, I’ll admit, but the story wouldn’t let me. It warned it would haunt me FOREVER!).

Don’t get me wrong, I love all my books like parents love their children, even after the teenaged years. I have no regrets. But I have to wonder, had I known how tough the process after inspiration and before publication would be, would I have persisted?

Possibly.
Probably.
Yes.

There really isn’t a choice when you have a story in your head that must be told, that takes over both your waking and dream worlds, that suggests lines to you when you are about to fall asleep and makes you turn on a light and pick up a notebook, all the while cursing, but also feeling a little exhilarated when the words appear, as if channeled, on the page.

No one ever said literature was easy–it’s just worked on until it looks that way. But there’s no use thinking about writing as a never-ending and unavoidable chore–like dusting. In the end, a bit of ignorance, willful or pure, is indeed bliss, and perhaps vital to my creative development. It allowed me to write three books, each one different and more ambitious than its predecessor, and a fourth (yes, difficult-to-sell short stories) is almost finished. As for the fifth, though I have sworn up and down over the last decade that I will NEVER EVER write another historical novel, the other day a reader asked me whether I was going to write a sequel to The Goodtime Girl, set in another place, another time. I have to admit I’m considering it.

It has to be easier the second time around, right?

Cross-posted at 49th Shelf