Reading on Enders Island.

Fairfield MFA

Reading today at Enders Island. If it looks like I’m on an altar, that’s because I am. Enders is a religious retreat, hence the cross and pulpit and stained glass. There’s also a relic in that church, but that’s another story entirely.

I’m back from my MFA program’s alumni day, which welcomes alums back to Enders Island for a meal and a hangout and allows us to attend a seminar and pretend that we’re still in school. Today I took a poetry seminar. I’m not a poet, but the teacher of the seminar I took is Baron Wormser, and he’s incredible, as you’d expect a poet laureate of Maine to be.  I’ve now taken two of his seminars, and just like the first seminar I took with him, this one – which explored argument in poetry – simultaneously inspired me and made my brain hurt.

The administration also very graciously allows us alumni authors to come back and read from our work during a special reading period, which is followed by a group book signing. I didn’t expect to be invited as a reader this residency, since I read last residency, but I was delighted to be invited back to the island to read alongside novelist Chris Belden and poet Colin Halloran.  Being a part of that line-up is no joke.

It’s also really cool for me for another reason: although I read primarily from Beware the Hawk, I was also able to read a taster from the upcoming book, The Eagle and the Arrow. One of the beautiful things about being part of the Fairfield MFA program is that it’s a safe place to share new work, and all three of us did that.

My husband was on camera duty for the reading, and I’m posting the fruits of his labors on my Facebook page. We had some technical difficulties with the lens, but he managed to get photos of the other readers as well. Feel free to visit, like the photos, comment, tag yourself and whatnot.

Reading in Mystic tomorrow – with some very impressive writers.

Tomorrow, at 4 p.m. on Enders Island at Mystic, I’m giving a reading with three of my published fellow Fairfield University MFA alumni. Each of them has achieved a huge career milestone this year. And when I talk about “huge,” I mean Godzilla-huge.

Our line-up tomorrow almost sounds like a joke: “So a HarpersCollins memoirist, a Oprah-endorsed writer and the inventor of a poetic form walk into a reading.”

What’s the punchline? That I get to join them up there. Me and Beware the Hawk are joining this trio!

Allow me to introduce them:

David Fitzpatrick was the first person in our MFA program to get a book contract. David was also one of the first people I remember meeting when I joined the Fairfield University MFA program. And he was a member of the first class to ever graduate. Always first, that David Fitzpatrick. He’s also the nicest guy, so when his book contract with HarperCollins was announced, the entire program was beside itself with pride. His memoir, Sharp, which documents David’s battle with mental illness, will come out later this summer. I’ve heard him read parts of it before, and I can’t wait to read the whole thing.

Deb Henry’s novel The Whipping Club made it onto Oprah’s summer reading list. Which is crazy, because during my very first residency, I workshopped with Deb and she gave us the very first chapter of The Whipping Club to read. And now Oprah’s recommending it.

Annabelle Moseley is a poet whose book, The Clock of the Long Now, was published earlier this year. A few weeks ago, she caused a stir when a reviewer realized she’d invented a new poetic form: the Mirror Sonnet. You can read more about the resulting discussion and what exactly a Mirror Sonnet is here.

I can’t even believe I get to share the stage with these writers. Check them out. If you can, come to Mystic and check us all out.

“Dig, Don’t Fix”: Notes on revision from Robert McGuire

Last week, I sat down with one of my  writers’ groups to discuss the novel I’ve been working on.

Stack of edited copies of my novel.

Marked-up first drafts of the novel. I have a lot of work to do.

I’ve posted ad nauseum about my troubles revising this project, which served as my creative thesis when I graduated from the Fairfield MFA program. I tried retyping the novel. I read chapters in craft books. I made timelines. I set goals. I wrote new scenes. Nothing seemed to work. I didn’t feel like I was making the structure of the plot any cleaner or stronger. I felt like I was cluttering it.

So last Wednesday, when I sat down with the members of a writing group who had read the whole first draft of my book, I was a little apprehensive. I’d read it myself and noticed lots of holes where I thought there were none. I noticed lots of mistakes. I was certain that my three colleagues – Daisy Abreu, Robert McGuire, and Ioanna Opidee (who starts her own revisions today) –  would pull the thing apart.

Except  they didn’t.They gave me lots of good advice and three marked-up copies, and this will sound cheesy, but they also gave me hope for a story I’ve been falling out of love with.

And here’s another thing a member of that writing group gave me: notes on revisions for this blog post.

A few weeks back, I asked my readers for revision advice. Robert McGuire, who interviewed me earlier this year for his blog, Working on a Novel, wrote these notes on revision after I chided him for not commenting on that post. I’ve edited out some of the specific references to my novel, but I want to share his advice with all the writers who happen upon this blog.

Robert’s advice is really on point. He teaches writing at the college level and is very disciplined when it comes to his own craft, and his advice is worth reading. Also, his blog, Working on a Novel, is an electronic journal inspired by John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, the diary/letters/journal that Steinbeck kept while writing East of Eden. I’m reading that now (Robert has kindly loaned me his copy) and I’ve begun journaling in the morning before work, as Steinbeck did. I don’t know if this journaling will last, but right now, it’s helpful. I realized that one of the things I lack now is someone to talk to about my work. When I was in my MFA program, I was constantly talking about my novel. I talked to my mentors and teachers about the work I was doing. I talked to other students. I was immersed in the story and in the lives of the characters. Now there’s not nearly as much chatter about the work I’m doing and if I want to stay immersed, I have to talk to myself. I find that so far, it’s been helpful.

But enough from me. Here’s Robert:

Wheww. Congratulations on writing a complete draft of a complete novel. One foot in front of the other. It’s a big achievement.

First, let me give my response to your blog post about how to revise.

Craft books, of course! No, actually, when I have been at this stage with my books, I discovered that it’s really hard to find good practical advice about the revision process. Drafting, yes. Editing and proofreading, yes. But not RE-vising. The big messy muddle in the middle doesn’t seem to get as much attention.

Nevertheless, a couple sources spring to mind. I really like the Jane Smiley book, Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Novel, and in it she has two chapters especially about writing, the second of them being about how to look at your draft and look at it critically. I also benefited from some focus/prompt questions I found in one chapter of an otherwise unremarkable book by Jesse Lee Kercheval called Building Fiction.

One technique I remember picking up somewhere was to think of the plot in terms of questions that were posed by the book and that the reader was asked to care about. The idea being that you want to provoke questions in the reader’s mind – plot-wise, character-development-wise and thematically – and ultimately satisfy those questions. I had a little diagram, totally unique to my book, that had surface-level plot questions and more implicit thematic questions, some that pulled the narrative along for only a section (i.e. the “acts” in your book) and some that were overarching for the whole book. Then I would go through and ask how each scene interacted with those questions. Was the scene relevant to the focus questions? Keep the reader caring about the questions? Complicating things without digressing? That was a big help in figuring out what each scene needed to make it work as part of the whole.

Another way of thinking about the revision process is to think in terms of SAYS vs. DOES. (I take this from first-year composition texts.) This scene/book/graf/whatever SAYS ____. This scene DOES _____. I suppose it’s another way of thinking about the difference between what’s explicit and what’s implicit. And I suppose it helps connect a given scene to the whole. Because a scene can say something very well within its own boundaries but to do anything effectively, it has to be in communication with the rest of the book. At an early stage of revision, I would worry less about what a scene says than what it does. Ask yourself what the scene is doing to move the story forward, escalate tension, establish character, etc. When the answer isn’t clear, then you know you’ve got work to do. I suppose the follow up question is to ask yourself what the scene should do.

You and I have probably have opposite styles on the issue of “overwriting.” For the sake of getting another POV on the table, I’ll argue for not worrying too much about your father’s warning against overworking the book if for no other reason than it’s easier for writers to erase than for painters. Kidding myself about how good my work is a clear and present danger, and overworking it is only a theoretical possibility.

One of the main principles that make sense to me is the idea that revision is re-envisioning the book. Seeing it again. Seeing what it is and what it needs and what it could be. Seeing it differently. It’s really easy to get lost in line edits and feel like progress is being made when what’s really needed is a bigger picture re-evaluation. Of course, there aren’t bright lines between these stages, and it probably happens sometimes that struggling with a line edit reveals the larger structure of the book.

Last bit of experience: When I was drafting my first book, I noticed that I kept myself motivated by a kind of unconscious mantra. Just add sentences. No matter what, keep moving forward. Don’t worry about how good it is. Then when I was bogged down during the revision stage I figured out I needed another regular, simple reminder of what the work was. I finally settled on one. Dig. Don’t fix. Whenever I was tempted to fix something, it turned out I was avoiding something more essential. I needed to get down in the mud and make some more mud pies first.

There’s some of this POV that I think applies to your draft, and I’ll share that when our writing group gets together to discuss it. Good luck!

Life after the MFA, or Where has all the writing gone?

Every morning I write myself a to-do list.

The list usually reads something like this: Walk dog, email insistent but upbeat reminders out to students, check in with Editor A, remind Editor B I am still alive, call sources, haul trash to car, RSVP for two weddings, call more sources, go to work.

And then, down at the bottom of the list, written in tiny, introverted letters is one word: “Write.”

Lately, it hasn’t been getting crossed off.

Recently, I was talking to a writer, who asked me about my habits. “I try to write 500 words every day,” I said, with great gravitas.

Yeah, that’s a crock. I used to write 500 words a day. This time last year I was writing 500 words a day. All spring and some of the summer, I wrote 500 words a day. But in the last several weeks? I’ve been writing 0 words a day. I feel it my body. I feel the words I want to write building up like venom in my system all day.

So why am I not writing? No idea. I have lots of good reasons for not writing more than 0 words of fiction a day: I’m working again. We have a major building/repair project happening at our house. My husband’s truck broke down and I sat on the side of the road with him for an hour and a half. It’s the beginning of the school year and I have to devote a lot of time to my students. My friend just had a baby the other day and we’re off to go visit her.  These are all completely invalid as excuses, because I clearly have the time to write if I’m writing this blog post.

I think it might have something to do with my MFA program being over. Right before graduation, several professors ran a panel called “Life After the MFA.” At this panel, the profs first machine-gunned us with gloom and doom (“you’re graduating, you’re losing your monthly kick in the pants to produce work for a grade, you’ll lose your support system, you’ll write in a vacuum, everyone who supported you during this program is going to now expect you to come back out from underneath your MFA rock and contribute to your household while single-handedly publishing novels”).*

Then the profs attempted to offer us hope (“write every day, only your own willpower stands between you and literary greatness.”)*

Here’s the part that was not said: “If you don’t possess the willpower to write daily, you’re not a writer and you’re a bad person with low moral character because you will lie and tell people that you’re a writer when you’re not writing. You will never be one of those alums that we brag about in the brochure. Instead you will become one of those other creatures, the ones we don’t talk about, the ones who have an MFA but aren’t making a living with their art. Good luck with that.”

It wasn’t said, but I heard it.

So what’s happened? Why did I stop? Well, I scoffed at the panel and graduated in July. And then I spent several weeks rewriting a novelette and then I decided to give myself a nice long, happy break. It seemed well-deserved; two of my short stories have been accepted for publication this fall in various literary journals, the novelette has been submitted, and I’ve been doing well on the freelance front. I mean clearly, I can afford to be lazy. Right? Wrong. Without a kick in the pants from a mentor, or a prof or an editor, the words have dried up. Thank god for my writing groups. They are the only folks pushing me forward with my work right now. Because I know they’re waiting for it, I make the time to sit down and write for them.

A couple days ago I rewrote the intro to a chapter I was submitting to a group. I was in a better mood all day. So I’m trying to get back on track. Yesterday I jotted a few lines of my novel down in a notebook while I was waiting for my students. I decided to blog more often in an effort to prime the creative pump. I need to create some sort of schedule so that I can revise my novel while creating new work – I have an unfinished zombie piece which I think is very exciting. Tomorrow I’m going to place “Write” at the top of my to-do list, and I will write it in all caps.