Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Bit About Writing Anway: Process and Progress

If you are going to be a writer, you have to write because you love to craft sentences.  You should be driven to do it.  Because strangers are likely not going to read what you write.  Even people who know you will likely not read what you write.  And it's not because what you write is just plain awful.  Necessarily.  It's hard for good stuff to get to people.  Even the wildly popular book The Help (now a major motion picture) was turned down 60 times by literary agents as unmarketable, even "tiring writing."

Your family will not read you.  You will stop asking.  People will tell you what you wrote was good and won't mean a word of it, or they will mean it but you will not believe them.  You will love the work and the product only to find you can't even bear to keep the file on your jump drive when you look at it later.  You may constantly open up one little poem from the drive that you feel things for that you haven't felt since you got your first pet or watched your child snuffle loudly in her sleep.  That poem will be your darling.  It will do things for you that haven't been done to you since you stopped making out in the back seat of Pontiacs.  Your little poem or novella will look like Dobby from Harry Potter more than it will look like Harry Potter to a literary agent. 

You must still write or you are no writer.  Moms across the world make children and raise them to adulthood with no credible expectation that those children will paint the Sistine Chapel or become president of the PTA.  Still, they raise their darlings and spend time on them and love them and do the work of momming because they are Mothers--capital M.

You, a Writer, must write words that are shuffled into coherent, clear sentences which may never be read among others of their kind that you will sweat over, turning them into poems and novellas.  If you are a writer, you do this or you are no writer.

And now, if you are good at predicting plot--and we become good at predicting plot from creating so many of our own--you will expect me to come back to the beginning of this tiny essay and tell you how Kathryn Stockett got The Help published anyway, thereby freeing it to become beloved by others in the way that she alone loved it through so many rejection letters.  I won't do it.  The link above tells that tale. 

I will tell you about rewrites.  This is the other task of the writer.  You must tear apart your darling and remake it, leaving it's tiny phonemes and syllables scattered across the breadth of your hard drive after decisively clicking "delete." You will leave those bits to be overwritten with other sentences that will be hard-born and well-crafted into more poems and novellas.  And so it goes on.  And likely the jump drive will fill with these, and the hard drive will fail before someone reads them.  But if you are like me, you are not a bit sad right now.  You love the writing.  You'd rather do that than anything else.  You'd rather write bad drafts than rest or make love some nights.  I am not going to be Kathryn Stockett or write a Harry Potter series.  My work is not that good or marketable.  Or it is, and I'd rather be writing short stories than cover letters. I will definitely be writing.  And some of the process will be here for the world to totally ignore.

Friday, August 26, 2011

I'm in fiction workshop and exploring place

Our professor asked us to send her a paragraph with five things we want to work on in our fiction writing during this online workshop.  Four of the five that I sent to her:

1. Capture the feel of place by describing the area where the action is occurring so that it informs the story and reveals the characters that inhabit it.

2. Make place a character.

3. Learn to more seamlessly explain things that may not be familiar to my reader.

4. Recognize what may be problem areas for the reader earlier in the writing process. I would like to pre-workshop my own work as I go along. I will be paying close attention to what confuses other participants in my drafts. 

After sending that, I received our first writing assignment which included, by coincidence, a prompt on Place. We are to write about our home place (real or imaginary), being vivid in description. 

I have been thinking how I am going to get a character in my collection of short stories back to Tennessee, where she will be writing the stories that are included.  So far, she has resided in my head.  I've only written down the stories she writes, not the elements of her story that tie them together.  Here is a part of the first draft I batted out to get me started thinking about my home place, which not-so-coincidently is Tennessee.

How She Gets Home...

The idea opened itself into a certainty on my way home from meeting Mischie for supper. The radio was playing a song—strange because it usually is tuned to news on NPR. But it was a Friday night, and there was music. At first the idea flittered around the dashboard and lit on the top of the steering wheel, teetering between no and yes as I steered the familiar way to Laurel Canyon Drive. It was because I finally understood that lyric from the song playing that night—“On Broadway.” The glitter rubs right off and you’re nowhere. How had I known that song all my life and just understood that line? What had I thought it said? As the words were seeping deep into my mind, I remembered walking into Times Square in the spring of 2005.

“It’s much smaller than when they drop the ball on TV on New Year’s Eve.” I even told that to the vendor selling me the cheap t-shirts. Six dollars apiece or three for $15 for “New York” written out in big letters over a skyline without twin towers. The black guy with the dreadlocks took my twenty, gave me change, and assured me it was a common opinion.

I’ve been so many places. Miles underground to float on an underground lake in the salt mines of Austria. I stepped from a train onto the siding at the Gare du Nord, which is still a train station, and stared at Renoirs in the Musee d’Orsay which used to be Gare d’Orsay, and is not now a station for anything other than art. So many train stations, but I walked the whole of Paris, except for a short boat ride on the Seine. Holland for Tulips. London for wax statues and stiff palace guards. The little mermaid seemed to float alone on the cold waters of the harbor in Copenhagen. Købnhavn…barely two syllables when the natives say it. A skilled European engineer had steered our train right onto a ferry from Puttgarden in Germany to Rødby, Denmark. The night crossing was confining, even off the train and on the deck, smelling of fuel oil and fishes. There was no Danake coin required by Charon on that trip, just Deutschmarks or Kroner for hot chocolate at the ferry’s imbiss.

By the time I rounded the corner that Friday after dinner with Mischie, words of the song fading into syllables—doo doo doo doo doo, yeah yeah, on Broaw-awd Way-ay—and got close enough to open my garage door with the push-button controller, I knew I was going home soon. Not to this house where I live with my husband of 29 years but to Tennessee and the past that I had buried deep underground in the pit mines of childhood, back to where I floated on an underground lake of my own creation, ever eight years old, stiff like a statue, liable to melt, past memories that smell of Aqua Velva and wood smoke. Guiding the car into the garage, I turned off the engine and the song. I heard again the jingle of mule harnesses. I always and ever do.

That's it.

It's the first draft, so none of it may remain by the time the collection is done.  It all stems from reality except for the London reference.  It's a way for me to start putting the writer into the stories in a concrete way.  She has resisted appearing up to now.  Wonder why?  Not really.  I can use this exercise to lead my brain into thinking about place for my assignment and the stories.  My fictional Tennessee setting--Chickahatchie County--needs to step into the stories in a big way.  I think they will all fall flat if the countryside doesn't walk and talk and take no prisoners.   This county is a big presence in my mind.  It's like the country sherriff in some movies--quiet but decisive.  Deadly even.  Understated to the casual glance, but with a handle on everything.  If I write it wrong it will be awful.

I hope it won't be awful.

Betsy and the mules are counting on me.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How a character is revealed to me: Send them shopping

My writing group of friends, "Write, Post, Eat, Bathe," is working on this prompt this week.  It comes from a technique that I use when I have a character in mind but can't quite grasp what he or she is about.  I find that writing reveals more writing.  I can't work everything out in my head and then put it down.  I have to write to write.  Literally, putting my fingers on the keyboards brings words out of my head, which bring with them more words.  Ideas form in the blank white spaces and at the end of lines.  The character tells me things through the writing. 

Here is an example of my exercise of writing to get the character.  The book of short stories I am writing includes a story about a mule driver.  I sent him shopping, as is my habit, to find out what he would tell me about himself.  As I sat down to type, I realized right away that this man would shop for precious little.  He would shop for something his mules needed or a thing that he used in his work.  So, he went to the leather goods shop.  He is in a very small town that is a row of shops facing a railroad, circa 1965.  

[The mule driver at Frank’s Leather Goods]

The mule driver stood to the side of the main aisle near where the transactions were made, holding a mule harness. Four people came and went. Not one of them spoke to the mule driver.

Dr. Mason brought his daughter Letitia into the store for a pair of soft slippers—pink—ordered in from Memphis. The mule keeper watched in the mirrored front window as the reflected girl twirled about in her new shoes.

“Ok, take those off now, dearest. Mother will skin us if you get dirt on those slippers before you get them home.”

Just as the doctor left, two farmers came in talking ninety-to-nothing about cotton pickers and hands and how they couldn’t get a day’s good work from twenty that they used to get from ten. They stopped to say nothing to the mule driver and precious little to the keeper except that which was necessary, their own discussion being the prime mover in the morning’s errands.

“Here for your boots, Eddie Lawrence?” The keeper held out his right hand, his left clutching the tops of a pair of well-worn but serviceable work boots sporting new heels and soles.

“Yep.” A tall farmer slapped his yellow ticket onto the counter on top of the sign that proclaimed: Claim ticket must be presented when picking up shoes. No exceptions.

The keeper tilted his head to the right and looked over a pair of half-glasses at the farmer. A fly buzzed in the ear of the second farmer, who swatted absently, looking from his companion to the keeper, who kept his right hand out, empty and demanding.

Presently, Eddie Lawrence picked up the yellow ticket and placed it into the keeper’s palm, and in so doing, the farmer covered the keeper’s smaller hand with his larger, rougher, tobacco-stained one. For just a moment, the keeper’s hand was obliterated by the farmer’s hand. Eddie Lawrence, his companion, and the keeper were attentive on each other’s eyes, Eddie Lawrence staring into the keeper’s blue ones, the keeper slowly blinking while raising his eyebrows such a tiny fraction of an inch.  The farmer-companion, who had been switching his gaze from one to the other of the men, missed the tiny detail of the transaction and the responsive lowering of the eyebrows of the farmer as his withdrew his hand from that of the keeper. Eddie Lawrence could feel the tips of the keeper’s fingers curl to take the yellow claim ticket. The keeper placed the boots on the counter and turned to the cash box.

“That’ll be two dollars to settle, after deposit.”

Eddie Lawrence pulled out his wallet and chose out two bills, dropping them onto the counter and sweeping his boots up. The conversation about field hands resumed as the two friends walked out. When the shop was empty of all but the mule driver and the keeper, the mule driver still waited. Not a muscle flinched.

The keeper grabbed a broom from the corner behind the counter and walked the main aisle. He swept at real and imaginary dust and grass particles that had hopped a ride in on the farmers’ boots and those of the workmen of the morning’s trade.

Still the mule driver stood, mute, immutable, like a chiseled statue brought in from the grassy area between the railroad siding and the place where ladies waited under cover of sun for the 10 o’clock run to the county seat. This particular statue had brought himself into the store on his own two feet. No town hands touched his bulk. His hands touched precious little save harness tack and mule flanks. He represented no one of renown and was son of no town father. No father at all anymore.

“Well, what you want?” The keeper had swept every inch of floor save those inches covered by old leather boots which were astonishingly free of any field dirt.

“Girth near clean broke just here. I needs a new one sewed up.” The mule driver relinquished the harness pieces, staying rooted to his spot on the tidy floor.

The keeper looked up at the face of the mule driver and down at the girth. “I reckon you ain’t got another spare?”

“Nah, sir. It’s the one of four matched.”

“And I reckon you cain’t plow up Aunt Annie May’s garden for her if you ain’t got this one. “

“Nah, sir.”

“No, three mules won’t pull.” The keeper swept passed the mule driver and pulled on sleeve covers. He checked his rolls of leather straps. “I reckon I got what you need. Fittings seem ok. I just punch this up pretty quick.”

The mule driver turned to look over at the keeper, seated at an old sewing machine, table covered with awls, sharp knives of all shapes, and shaved bits of leather.

The keeper turned to look at the black face of the mule driver. “You gonna stay while I work?”

“Nah,sir. I got another job o’ work to do down to the gin.”

“Well, then, you come on back about half past noon, thereabouts. I have this done.” The keeper turned to his table, selecting an awl and punch. “’Cain’t have Aunt Annie May late on putting out her tomato slips.”

“Nah, sir. I be back. What you take for the leather work?”

“You bring me my dinner from over to the café. They know what I want. It’s all on my account. Be here about half past noon with my dinner and this will run you about a dollar.”

“Thank you, sir.” The mule driver turned and walked down the center aisle toward the door. His particular walk was unlike that of any of the others who had trodden the aisle that day or any other. His legs seemed to brush the floor with his feet. Shoulders rolled and biceps rippled under his faded blue work shirt. There was no sound to the whole affair of his leaving save the click of the door hardware and the tingle of the door’s bell.

The keeper looking up from the leather watched him go. He strides real smooth for a man carrying what he does.

The mule driver was nice enough to bring along some other characters for the book. He also tells me what Betsy saw under the dashboard of her grandfather's Impala. Maybe someone else will tell me his name.  Note that I don't have all of the information that I need for this to be included in the story. I don't know for sure that the keeper of the store is "Frank" from Frank's Leather Goods.  He might be a son or somebody who bought the shop already named.  I have no idea what is up with Eddie Lawrence and the keeper.  But they tell me there is something.  I know that the mule driver carries burdens and has lost a child.  He is patient, not unliked, and he is definitely black.  The way he stood still and other people went about as if he didn't exist told me that. Ok, I already knew that.  But he is a real person for me now.  He has revealed himself. Sometimes, the shopping excursion makes the final cut, sometimes it just reveals character and is cut entirely. I can't wait to see what the mule driver does.