On believing in what you do

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Yesterday I did something I've never done before--I wrote, revised, and submitted a story all in one day!  It was a short-short, right at 500 words, but I'm really proud of it, especially because the short-short has always been something I admired (when done well) but never thought I could do.  I've only written one other piece of flash fiction before, something for my thesis that didn't make it in.  I even tried sending that piece out once (to Flash Fiction Online, which sent me a really nice, personal rejection), but despite the helpful comments I received, I never revised or submitted it anywhere else.  I honestly wasn't that invested in the piece, had tried to write it more as an exercise than anything else, and I figured I had more important projects to focus on.

Last spring, however, I got another idea for a short-short.  It was an idea I was really invested in and wanted to make work, but I just couldn't figure out how.  It's a story told in reverse, and when I tried to write it I kept thinking that it would make a better short film, that I could just imagine watching the events happen in reverse while a voice-over read the story.  When I went to New York in May, I happened to catch the last weekend of Marina Abramovic's retrospective at MoMA.  (If you didn't hear about this, you have have to check it out.  Her work is out there, but it's absolutely stunning stuff.)  Abramovic is a performance artist, and looking at her work, at the artist herself ("The Artist is Present" is literal), I was stunned into silence and inspired beyond words.  My desire to turn this short-short into a short film came back full force, and it's a project that I would still love to make happen, but I know that it isn't realistic right now.  So for the past few months I'd abandoned the story, frustrated that I couldn't do what I wanted with it and not knowing how to make the story work on its own without a visual component.

Then something amazing happened.  After my Terrible, Horrible, No Good Travel Day, I spent the next two days revising another old story of mine.  It's one that I've tinkered with for years, even sent out a couple of times, but I never could get the ending right.  And then I suddenly knew how to fix it.  I knew what the final scene had to be.  I finished it Thursday and finally, for the first time in the five years (that's right--five years!) since I began writing it, it finally felt done.  I felt this amazing joy, this sense of completion, that I'd never felt with that story before.  So I gave myself the night off, made a nice chicken tikka marsala curry for dinner, and spent the evening relaxing on the couch.  

When I went to bed, though, my mind was racing with ideas, and I jotted some in my notebook before going to sleep.  The ideas were disconnected, all dealing with various stories and essays I'm working on right now, but when I woke up the next morning they were all focused, and I was only thinking about one thing--the short-short I started months before, the story in reverse, and I suddenly knew how to make it work.  I spent the morning writing, the afternoon revising, and after receiving feedback from T and Mo, I submitted the story.

So now it's waiting time, but I feel really confident about this piece.  It's not necessarily that I believe it will be snatched up by the first place I sent it, but I know that I will stick with it this time, that I'll keep sending it out no matter how many times it's rejected, because I believe in it that much.  


Travel Woes/Whoas

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Yesterday I had perhaps the worst travel day of my life, although that isn't saying much, considering I typically have amazing luck when I'm traveling.  Until yesterday, I'd never missed a flight or had a flight cancelled, and I'd only ever had one significant delay--about four hours when I was flying to Rochester two years ago.  So of course yesterday my luck ran out.  To summarize, my travels yesterday involved four airports, two trips through airport security, an hour and a half taxi ride from PNS to VPS, a 45 minute delay at VPS and another 45 minutes on the tarmac at ATL (meaning I got off one plane just five minutes before the next was supposed to take-off), sprinting through ATL (okay, more like power-walking) and barely making my flight to BWI (last person on the plane, the door closing just as I got there), and a four hour long car trip.  It was chaotic, and it was frustrating, and twice I almost broke down in tears.  I got a headache, I got dehydrated, and I didn't eat anything for nine hours (not a good idea for someone with hypoglycemia).  But in the end, I survived and I realized it could have been so much worse.

After all, something positive came out of my horrible day--when I wasn't frantically running around airports and sweet-talking ticket agents, I was just sitting.  And reading.  And thinking.  

What I was reading was Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, which somehow, in the midst of PhD studies, I just hadn't made the time to read.  I read Interpreter of Maladies right after she won the Pulitzer and bought The Namesake as soon as it came out, but for some reason I didn't rush right out to get Unaccustomed Earth, probably because I'd read several of the stories before in The New Yorker and figured that I'd already read the best works in the book.  I was totally wrong.  

Yesterday gave me the opportunity to read the first half of the book, and with each story I grew more and more in awe of Lahiri's ability to convey the subtle details and difficulties of family life and individual desire.  I realized why I had fallen in love with the short story form when I was in college (partly thanks to Lahiri's first collection, partly because I was consuming volumes of Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and Ann Beattie), and I realized why I've struggled with writing in that form ever since.

I've never really written short stories "for fun."  Even when I was a child I wrote novels or novellas.  The first story I ever wrote--when I was seven--was eight pages long, and that was by far the shortest thing I ever wrote until I went to college.  Short stories have always been associated with schoolwork to me; they are what I had to write during years of creative writing classes as an undergraduate and graduate creative writing major, but I always saw them as keeping me from the work I really wanted to do--writing a novel.  

The only time in my life that this wasn't true was during my Advanced Fiction Writing class as a senior in college, when I was studying with the amazing Jennifer Fremlin, the best creative writing teacher I've ever had, who guided but never stifled my creativity.  I was also reading lots of Lahiri, Carver, Munro, Beattie, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Ethan Canin, and Sandra Cisneros--among many, many other short story writers--so I guess you could say I was learning from the masters of the form.  With the exception of Atwood (who is brilliant in every genre), these are the names of a rare breed of fiction writer--those that are better (at least in my opinion) at the short story form than they are at the novel.  They deliver the short story form to a place most of us can only dream of achieving, a place of honesty and truth, a place I rarely find in short fiction today.

And here is the real problem:  when I'm reading literary journals today, I'm rarely taken to that place.  Instead, I see far too much emphasis on quirkiness and shock value, and not enough on mining relationships to uncover those little truths we all subconsciously know and relate to.  And quirkiness and shock value do not inspire me.  So I haven't been writing short fiction.

But yesterday, sitting in one airport or airplane after another, I rediscovered the kind of short stories that I once loved, and I re-realized the power and potential of the form, and I started thinking.  And jotting down notes.  And...writing.  I thought back to stories and characters in my graduate thesis that I had loved and never published because they never seemed "right" to me, never complete.  And I suddenly understood things about those characters that I hadn't understood before, that the stories felt unfinished because the characters hadn't fully revealed themselves to me yet.

And so I'm writing short fiction again, or at least heavily revising old stories, and in some ways I'm counting my blessings that I had such a horrendous travel day yesterday, for it means I get to have an amazing writing day today. :-)


On where the ideas come from

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

It's been nearly a month since my last post, and a lot has been happening.  Unfortunately, not as much writing on The Novel as I would like, but I hope to rectify that this week.  A little more than two weeks ago I left PA for Alabama, spent about two and a half days at my home in Auburn where I met with my dissertation director and academic writing group, then went to visit my parents, then went with some family to Orlando (for our annual trip to Disney World and a visit to Islands of Adventure to see the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter [too hot and crowded right now--there are lines to get into the Wizarding World and even lines to get into the gift shops!]), then went to Mobile this past weekend with other family, and now I'm back at my parents' house.  This afternoon I'll head back to Auburn for two weeks, so hopefully I'll be able to get back into a better writing routine during that time.  I've been taking notes and jotting down scenes and lines as they come to me, so I'm itching to get back to Alyssa's story.  I'm also working on a new short story that came to me on Sunday, much to my cousin Brittany's amusement. 

On Sunday I went to the restroom to remove a tag on the new skirt I was wearing.  I had forgotten the tag was there until I was already wearing the skirt (it was hidden inside), and when I ripped it off the first thing I noticed was that it said "Made in India" in large black letters on one side.  These three words stuck out to me (perhaps because I have a bit of an obsession with India and am writing my dissertation about it), but they got me thinking about the fact that our clothes (and most inanimate objects we own) are often better traveled than we are, hailing from distant, exotic (poorer) places we probably will never journey to.  For some reason this (perhaps silly) thought saddened me a little, and I was mentally bombarded by images--a woman cleaning out her closet and noticing the labels in the clothes she is throwing away, all the places she has never been; a bed and breakfast on the coast of southern Maine--Kennebunkport, perhaps--and its annual spring cleaning day after a long, harsh winter; the woman and the inn's owner, her best friend since high school, a gay man who, with the exception of the occasional trip to Boston, hasn't left Maine in ten years.  Within ten minutes these people had names and histories, and the story had a title and an opening.  As I sat scribbling ideas furiously in a notebook, Brittany asked me what I was writing, and I told her I'd had an idea for a short story while I was in the bathroom, and I told her my ideas.  She laughed, of course, trying to make sense of how my mind had jumped from a label in a skirt to a gay man running an inn in Maine.  Of course, I couldn't make sense of it myself, but that's one of the most exciting things about the mind--it makes unexpected connections and sends writers in directions they may have never anticipated but that the stories are better for.

This is the way many of my stories are born--a real life image, such as a weird hairstyle, a cool tattoo, an awesome car, will suddenly spark a new image, of a (fictional) time, place, character, who soon has a history, something to tell, of his or her own, and then I go searching for the best vehicle (story) through which the character can speak.  I love these moments, when the ideas come effortlessly, endlessly, and I relinquish control of the story and just let the character dictate where it goes. 

So now I have two fiction projects on my plate, as well as an ever-growing stack of comps books to read, a book review to write, and an article to revise.  It's going to be a busy summer. :-)


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