Saturday, June 19, 2010

What if no one ever read another word I wrote?

Writing used to be my secret. It used to be my confidant when I was alone, afraid, overjoyed or perplexed. Then, I decided to major in it, and for awhile it became something else. It became a vessel for me to share said emotions with a select group of people who used writing in the same way. Writers became my community, and my confidant became not only the page but also the audience of teachers and fellow students who read my work. The expansion from solitary act to public act was exhilarating at first, even addictive when, say, some one “got it” and gave me positive feedback.
Then I went to graduate school where my audience expected more than honesty—they demanded something intangible and complex, and I became part of a community that expected things from work that hadn't yet been written. This time was, in fact, when I began to publish and refer to my writing as work.

Something changes when a writer begins to call her stuff work, to write with the knowledge that her confidant has become something else, it has become an art that carries with it the expectation of production. When writing becomes work, it becomes tempting to lose honesty and begin to write to expectations.

I bring this up because I think it's important for my professional writing career to be ignored when I write, especially those first drafts, but I wonder if this is really possible after one takes the leap from solitary action to public output. Ive read writers interviewed who say that they had to stop writing after a while, to try and get back that initial honesty before it will fully mesh with what they've studied of the craft. And I'm beginning to see why. It seems that work is being accepted or gently rejected (less form letters) by literary journals that used to, I thought, have standardized rejection notices with my name on them preprinted and ready for my next submission. Now that I have a fighting chance, that I can put together coherent sentences that reflect my honesty and love for writing and somehow still manage to tell a story, I have an even bigger audience and this audience can often infiltrate my thoughts, even as I write my first drafts.

As an exercise, Ive decided to begin again, to write for the rest of the summer as though no one will ever read my work, just to see what happens. I'm not sure it will work, but I have to try because I feel that even though I have some strong stories forthcoming in journals that publish work I love, I don't want to write for any of them. I want to try and get that initial motivation back, to write for no other reason than to figure things out, to question and assess on my own terms. We'll see what happens. Perhaps it's not possible. But I think it's important to try. Publication is a beautiful thing, but for sensitive types like me, the thought that I will be evaluated and judged before a story is even written makes the process less about what propelled me to write in the first place. I'll record my process, but not my work, and we'll see what happens.    

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Don't Think About It, Jen

It's a wonderful thing that the process of publication has become more obtainable to the average Joe or Jane.  One needn't watch the nepotism of literary families from afar, reading some works with awe and others with a cinched brow, wondering why, and knowing that s/he will never infiltrate the circle, no matter the talent or drive.  Now, beginning outside of a circle is still tough, but doable.  Small publishers are finding lower costs and taking on new voices in a desire to find the next best thing.  And, if a writer is truly confident (and in a financial position to do so) s/he can even self-publish, which I suppose was always around but is now a more consumer-friendly process.

OK, so publishing is more obtainable.  This is good because it allows a greater variety of voices, not just the mentally tormented upper-class or literary namesakes.  BUT it also means that it can be very, very tempting to publish prematurely.  To write a book for the sole purpose of publication.  This, to me, is pointless.  Publication should be something to consider after the work is birthed, in my humble opinion, anyway.  Publication is a side effect, a privilege of having written a damn good story.

My point?  The art of writing can only be fully realized if it is done for it's own sake.  When I wrote Musical Chairs, I didn't think of publication because I didn't know it was an option.  I thought, the business would come later, if at all.

I'm talking to myself here.... Let me explain why:  I have a few hundred pages worth of short stories, and I've found the little devilish version of myself on my right shoulder, barking that I should work on it because it would be publish-worth sooner.  The little creative, angelic version, on the other hand, is telling me to work on Absurd Hunger, which won't be done for a year or two or three, because this is the project that consumes my artistic self right now and it is likewise a project that would be compromised if I abandon it for the short story collection, which promises sooner publication.  Absurd Hunger is a work I want to spend years on.  I want it to be exactly what I envision, not one word short, and I will follow my favorite writers' examples (Jeffrey Eugenides, Vladimir NabokovJonathan Franzen and others who have not compromised their vision for the business, despite their opportunities to publish (I say this because of interviews I've read by these particular authors)) and work on it for ten years if I must, to get it where it needs to be (God, I hope it doesn't take ten years!) to ensure that it's wholly my own work and not the hodgepodge of my vision and an editor's over-worked hand.

I'll follow my writing instincts, but I just had to share... I figure if I write it publicly, I'll have to live up to it.  And, to acknowledge the distraction, the lure of publication, gives it less power.  I've rushed into things my whole life.  But right now, I don't have the luxury.  One day, perhaps I'll write full-time and won't have to make such difficult choices.  But for now, while I'm working full-time and writing on the side, it's a crucial choice.  Should I feed creativity or should I feed the dream of being a writer?  No easy choice, but I chose art.

Friday, June 11, 2010

ATTMP Blog Tour: The Greer Agency

The Greer Agency

The Greer Agency is 75k words of gritty detective fiction presented in 15 separate but connected stories. The reader follows the development of private detective Mike Greer, the only PI in the Altoona, PA phone book. It’s tough to make a living in a decaying old railroad town, but with the help of an anonymous benefactor, Greer lands some interesting cases—cases that he solves with guts and determination. Throughout the stories, his budding romance with Susan grows. Eventually they realize they are right for each other.

Readers will find Mike Greer an accessible everyman with luck, pluck, smarts and a host of interesting friends. He finds his way into and out of problems large and small. Greer narrates the stories in a refreshing and original voice. Each story has its own plot and can stand on its own but, as the book progresses, the mysteries pile up and the plots get more complex until the explosive last story.

Mike Greer is a protagonist with a low tolerance for bullshit and an easy touch for the emotional pleas of the downtrodden. He works alone and struggles against an uncaring world. But throw no pity party for the man, he will have none of it. His melancholy is tightly wrapped inside his tough guy exterior, and pity just bounces off as he walks away, down the dark sidewalks of Altoona into the next story.

Now available in print and e-book format from All Things That matter Press or from from Amazon.
You can read what others are saying about The Greer Agency by clicking here.

To learn more about Harris Tobias, The Greer Agency and his other exciting novels, you can go here, here, or here.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Back to Basics

There seems two schools of thought on what makes a writer great: a strong education (self or institutionally-guided) or a sort of gift that, like height or a high metabolism, is something that you either have or don't.  I bring this up because I'm currently masterminding the syllabus for my first creative writing course, which will begin fall semester.

This particular course is an introduction to creative writing and it will encompass numerous genres, including drama, fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction.  Truthfully, this feels like play for me--it's so much fun to sift through endless literary shorts, to decide which works I want to include in my course reading.  I have a large compilation of works that I'll have to pare down a bit before fall, but I'm confident that the end result will be an eclectic collection that will appeal to a wide array of tastes and sensibilities.  But this is the easy part.

I have been putting off constructing the craft lessons and writing assignments because I figured this would be the cumbersome work.  Perhaps this is due to a slight bent toward the idea that to teach writing is a limited venture, after all, so much depends on voice and the writer's motivation, ability to create.  Creativity, I hate to say, can be exercised but not taught.

That said, I began today--I began putting together assignments that go back to basics: character development, types of conflict, ways to raise tension, how to avoid cliches, etc... And guess what?  I realized I hadn't really broken writing down to the basics in quite some time.  Not that I forgot the basics, but I just didn't think about them much.  I figured they were all just coming out, naturally.

As I sketch potential exercises for my students, I've found myself taking time to pause and reflect on my own works-in-progress with a newfound (re-found) focus.  So, for me, the education is not necessarily a formula to create a bestselling author or literary phenom, but it does contribute to the perspective I need to have to round out my own work.

Regardless of any creative gifts a writer has, the formula for a strong work will always be there.  X(believable narrative) + Y(defined conflict or topic) + Z (specific descriptions) = A complete work.  Experimental structures and the all-elusive 'voice' can take this simple formula and make it look more like calculus than simple algebra, but the basics will endure; and they can be taught.

                                                                                                         Kurt Vonnegut's story graph for Cinderella

Observations: Dublin Vacation

Dublin seemed the obvious destination. We would be close to various restaurants and tourist attractions. It would be easy to call a cab or...