Tag Archives: Writing

Congratulations–you’re the worst. Love, The Voices in Your Head

17 Jul

Participating in the Connecticut affiliate of the National Writing Project, where I am a teacher fellow, has required that I produce more original, first-draft writing in four weeks than I ever did in a whole semester of my M.F.A.

That means that I have to do what it often so hard to do: produce text, not just talk about it. Sit down and reflect on it for one to two hours, daily, with people. Show off the glory of what Anne Lamott calls those shitty first drafts. Lose any sense of writerly posturing. Show something half-finished. Think about how my students must feel when they come in exhausted from their nine million activities and show me the draft they managed to squeak out somehow–the one that reflects some, but not all, of their best efforts.

But really, what I have to do is sit down and write. And to do that, I have to confront the voices. The same ones that giveth taketh away. Or: the same ones that create projections of characters onto the bluescreen in my mind interrupt, pause, and paralyze.

During a reflective moment in the program, we had to sit and jot down–to be as honest as possible–and this is what I wrote, in the heat of the moment:

The voices say: I see what you’re getting at, but it’s not quite clear. You need to amp it up a bit. What’s at stake? How can you write a story about something you don’t know? Who are you speaking for, and what is the impact of your words? Why are you writing this? Could you live without writing this? Because if you could, you probably should. No need to add to the clutter of bad writing. Is the toilet clean? Wouldn’t sticking your hand down a toilet right now seem more productive and pleasant? At least you’d be accomplishing something you could see. Have you gone running today? You should probably do that; you’re going to gain weight if all you do is sit around and write all day, and then how would your book jacket author photo look? But wait, you’d have to write to get to that book jacket. Why aren’t you writing? Try just a few sentences. OK, you did it, congratulations—you’re the worst. Delete. Backspace. Start again. 

Somehow, with strict deadlines, I manage to shut those voices up long enough to get a word in edgewise. I’m grateful I wrote a weekly column that I knew would be read by a wide audience in a dozen New England papers for nine years. It forced me to write weekly whether I wanted to or not. Some weeks, the ideas came early and with great wit; other weeks, I had to stare down the screen with 30 minutes left before deadline. Yet somehow, 800 words jumped onto the page. 50 weeks a year. For nine years.

Am I proud of all I wrote? No way. I do think it would’ve been a better investment to have stuck my hand down the toilet some weeks. But at least I wrote, I reason, as I look back at some of those columns and cringe. 

Fellow writers, what are the voices telling you?

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The writer’s search for meaning–in text and in life

6 Jan

One of the biggest insults I’ve ever received was meant to be a compliment. When discussing with someone what I consider my life vocation (writing), he/she responded that he/she was as upset as I was that society often doesn’t see value in the arts. He/she responded that when he/she was done with his/her day’s work, he/she needed the arts to provide a venue of entertainment; there was value in bringing people comfort in this way.

In the moment, I smiled, speechless in my own existential turmoil over the worthiness of my vocation, as a well of deeply buried fury began to bubble inside me. While this person actually meant to soothe the sense of existential turmoil I’d revealed about the meaningfulness of my own writing, he/she had hit a nerve. The question is not: what is the meaning of life? to me, but instead, it is: what is the meaning of fiction–of the fictions we create on a day-to-day basis and of the literature we produce?

*     *     *

In an effort to defend literature, I’ve heard people argue for its didactic value (which we can see in journalism, textbooks, theory books, non-fiction how-to guides, etc) and its entertainment value (fluff pieces meant to distract us from the troubles of the world, small pieces to make us laugh). There is, of course, a place for these two things. I, too, value them, and I think there is meaning to be found in a life devoted to creating them.

But the existential crisis I have been reeling toward over the past several years is this: I prefer, as it were, to write about the ‘tough stuff.’ My inheritance as a writer and as a person came in a the form of fragmented narratives my grandmother told me about her life in the former Yugoslavia before, during, and after World War II–and my mother’s stories of immigration to Connecticut as a child. These stories–not my own–propelled me to write and pursue an MFA; I was drawn to fiction because I felt a greater truth existed when I placed myself in my mother and grandmother’s shoes and imagined–and made up–details and plot twists, leaving behind a strict fidelity to what really happened. In essence, I rejected the didactic testimony (“I will detail to you what happened so you will know the facts of what I’ve experienced”) in favor of shaping those events in my own mind and heart toward some kind of meaning. After all, as Viktor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, it is not the events of a life (or story) that are inherently imbibed with meaning; it is the individual’s ability to interpret significance and assign worth that constitute meaning. Thus, I have believed that merely writing without a sense of purpose is useless, as it can only ever be, expressly didactic or entertaining–and I, and many other writers I know, strive for much more.

Put differently: You cannot hit a reader with a list of terrible things that happened to someone and expect that reader to do anything but fact-gather from the experience and walk away. Most readers won’t even be willing to sit through a 200+ page account of terrible things; many mediocre writers know this and thus help trauma survivors create narratives that play on emotions (drama, tragedy), relying on previously scripted and accepted narratives: insert trauma here; evoke emotion here; succeed in creating mildly traumatizing but somehow entertaining reading experience; package and sell for $14.95. Impact: minor, oftentimes forgettable. I generally dislike these sorts of books; you know the kind–they come out months or a year after a major event and seek, most often, to capitalize on a media frenzy in hopes of selling copies. The greater tragedy is that many of these stories are worthwhile–and, had the writer waited a few years to have adequate space to reflect, he or she could have presented the events of the story in way that transcends didacticism and entertainment. Again, I turn to Frankl, who writes: “Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…” I would similarly assert that if your aim as a writer is to move readers in a way so as to inspire action, you have a limited chance of success. Inspiration, and true connection, between written narrative and the reader occurs when it ensues and is not pursued.

That’s because the best writing reaches toward the universal–so that somehow, we can see ourselves in characters unlike us. How else can we explain the connection that Azar Nafisi‘s students in Iran had to authors like Henry James and Jane Austen–so far removed historically, socially, and culturally from their present situation? Or the fact that one of my memoir writing professors–who wrote about her memoir about getting pregnant at 16–received letters from many readers who saw themselves in her–despite the fact that they came from different states, economic brackets, different families–and had never been pregnant? Good writing reveals that connection with the universal; it lifts a mirror to human nature so that we can see pieces of ourselves and make meaning of the world around us regardless of genre.

The reach of bibliotherapy, practiced by so many informally, is real: simply reading a well-written book about someone else’s quest for meaning in the world has had proven, long-term effects with relieving depression for some readers. And I’m not talking about a “How-To” book that prescribes life actions; I’m talking about literature: the art of the metaphor: the way that writers, knowing the meaning their characters are aching to find, give the readers just enough information to connect the dots themselves without doing it for them–simultaneously requiring the reader to be active, not passive, in the process of reading while also leaving room for each reader’s experience to expand in a way that is most meaningful to him/her. In this way, there is as much value in a memoir that speaks thoughtfully about the existence of suffering in the world and how the author overcame it (Frankl) as a novel that borrow from science fiction and refers to war and other worlds with humor (say, Vonnegut). Meaning can be serious, happy, contemplative, sad, or laugh-out-loud funny. Entertainment and teaching ensue at times–but not because they were pursued as a primary goal by the writer.

*     *     *

I return, now, to the conversation that inspired the months of thinking that resulted in this post. I hesitate to supply the gender of this individual with whom I spoke, the timing of this conversation, or  the context of the relationship I have with this person, much less his/her vocation (which is quite noble); in fact, I respect this person, and his/her work and ambitions immensely. And it is because I so respect the work of others that has a direct, quantifiable impact on people–doctors, nurses, lawyers, politicians, activists, anyone in a ‘helping profession’–that I often feel uneasy about my work as a writer. In fact, I respect this type of work so much that I’ve contemplated giving up writing to do any one of these things, researching nursing programs and even buying an LSAT prep books and studying them.

This instinct is why, perhaps, I initially pushed aside fiction and pursued a career in journalism. I could help people more if I was a reporter, I could hold up a mirror to the world’s injustices and using my writing skills, allow people to see and understand things they might not have otherwise. I also respect many journalists–particularly those who are thoughtful and take great person or physical risks to bring truth to light that helps shape public opinion and public policy.

But in the end, I could not deny  my urge:  I am a writer of fiction–one who toils over craft, erasing sentences, deleting paragraphs and pages, spending days dreaming up a single line of prose, and in an epiphany of love and self-loathing, sit at my computer and create a world in which meaning is exists, drafting in bursts of 10 – 20 pages at time.

There is no parity in quantifiable terms between my vocation and that of my sister’s, for example; she is a brilliant mind, and as a medical school student, she sacrifices much to study so that she may one day help others; she always puts other before herself.

Among the many things I admire about my sister, however, is her unique ability to affirm her vocation while not disparaging mine, and vice versa; going into her first year at MIT, she asked for a reading list and dutifully read a dozen long novels that I’d given her. She found meaning in the equations of her chemistry major but also in the books she read, eventually earning a dual degree in chemistry and humanities, and agreeing with me that the meaning of life maybe really could be summed up in the  contemplation of a Persian rug. She has often made me feel that my work is as valuable as hers–albeit in a different way–and for this, I am beyond grateful.

You cannot gather up and quantify the impact of a good book, and thus it is often easy to dismiss literature–or to see it only for its quasi-quantifiable parts (teaching, entertainment value). But like the quest for meaning itself, literature is more the result of an alchemy than a science. Dissecting a social interaction or coming up with an adequate explanation for a break-up, for example, has never been satisfying. But give me a single page of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and life starts to make sense again.

What is writing?

5 Dec

I give myself a hard time sometimes because when  I look in the mirror, I am forced to realize: I call myself a writer–and yet I don’t write. It’s Christmastime, so I’ll go ahead and make the comparison: I’m a misfit from the Island of Misfit Toys who has a supposed purpose she is unable to fulfill. Should be writer. Instead is grad student.

But then: what is writing? Perhaps my problem is that I’ve often defined it so narrowly. Does it count as writing if I produce 25,000+ words of critical analysis each semester? If I write a 1,000 word newspaper column weekly? If I journal 500 words a day?

Sometimes I forget that, based on word count alone, my production rate is at the very least, moderate. While none of these things I’m writing are the novel I want to write, part of me has to realize: I’m not ready to write that novel. I was annoyed when a professor encouraged me, at the age of 21, not to apply to MFA programs. While I didn’t follow his advice, and I’m glad I didn’t, I can sort of see his point. While some writers are ready to pump out a stellar story collection or novel at 21, I wasn’t. Not even close. Five years later, I’m still honing my craft, and I’m learning to accept that writing is a process–and one which involves developing a core of what I want to say, not just skill in drafting sentences.

Could I write 500 – 1,000 words a day of fiction? Yes, I could, if I had a different job, or a different lifestyle. But I have to remember that I actively chose the life of a graduate student because reading literature and being forced to analyze it helps me, personally, with my craft–and with my conception of story and character. I’m not only interested in the alchemy of how words end up on the page but in deconstructing the myriad of influences that make a writer pick up a pen–and then write the words he/she chooses to write. Other writers are staunchly opposed to the academic world, and I can understand why. It is all-consuming, leaving little time to write fiction. It pays poorly. And while I disagree that engaging critically with literature in the specific way that MA/PhD programs require somehow misinterprets writer-ly intention or tarnishes a story, I can see that literary theory too often leaves the practice of writing behind.

Perhaps I’m just uncomfortable with my identity as a writer who is in graduate school. How much must you write, and what type of writing must you compose, to be able to introduce yourself as a writer? How many of us use that as our tag line in real conversations–and not just in our minds?

I suppose, in the end, the identity I’m most comfortable with is “student of writing.” I read often enough, and write consistently enough, albeit in non-fiction genres, to at least call myself that.

Quote-worthy Hemingway

8 Nov

First:

Many people have a compulsion to write. There is no law against it and doing it makes them happy while they do it and presumably relieves them.

And:

A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave out or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff is that you, not your editors, omit.

 

On short-short stories

31 Oct

Short-shorts. Flash. Very short stories. Micro-fiction. Vignettes. Fragments.

There are countless names for stories that want to be told–but whose characters don’t feel like talking for very long. They’re not any less important; they don’t say any less than stories 10 times their length. They are just satisfied with presenting you with a scene, or an image, and asking you to infer what you will, rather than collaging many scenes and images together and asking you to do the same.

To be clear, I love long-form fiction, journalism, and stories. Tell me to settle down with a novel, and I’ll happily pull out the latest one I’m working through, and sit for hours. Last Wednesday, for example, I read Lolita straight through, in one shot, without so much as getting up to shift positions. Yet I most often choose to write, and to read, short-short stories. I say this for no other reason than to emphasize that flash fiction is not the result of laziness, and it’s not written in an attempt to appeal to the mass market’s waning attention span. Short-shorts are not the ‘commercial breaks’ between longer works.

Robert Shapard writes about the ‘remarkable reinvention’ of short-short stories in the most recent issue of World Literature Today. Most interesting to me, as a young writer, are his comments on the art of learning to write via flash:

Is this a good way to learn writing? It can be. Consider Jayne Anne Phillips, whose reputation was made with a legendary collection of short fiction, Black Tickets, and whose recent novel Lark and Termite was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. As a young poet, long before the Internet, she taught herself to write by writing one-page fictions, finding a “secretive and subversive” freedom in the paragraph, because she filled its “innocent, workaday” form with powerful, lyrical images, which build on each other. “Good one-page fictions have a spiral construction: the words circle out from a dense, packed core, and the spiral moves through the words, past the boundary of the page,” she says. “Fast, precise, over. And not over. The one-page fiction should hang in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke.”

In my scholarly life, I’m working on an essay about fragmentation in literature post-World War I. Does the story of the short-short begin here–just a few decades after short stories were popularized due to the advent of weekly and monthly magazines which featured both stories and longer works split into serialized segments? Do they owe at debt to the vignette, or to the age-old fable or parable?

The short-short format is of interest to me in both fiction and film. Take, for example, this piece “Saying Good-bye” (“Rastanak” in Croatian).

Could you say the same thing with a feature film? Of course. Should you? Would it enhance the message? Would it change anything? Sure, you could get more details with a longer, more developed piece. You could get inside the character’s head more. But the humor comes from not getting in the character’s head. From watching the scene unfold as if you were a spectator. From joining the writer and director in a knowing, and empathetic, chuckle at young, over-zealous love.

While I plan to continue to read, write, and translate short fiction as time allows, I also plan to explore more short film. It’s a form favored by the avant gardes of the 1920s and ’30s, whose work I am studying now for one of my M.A. reading lists. But it’s also ongoing and evolving (in more straightforward ways) all around us. On November 24, the Cable Car Cinema in Providence will feature an 80-minute selection of international short-shorts in its Short Short Story Film Festival. If you’re in the New England area, I highly recommend checking it out!

Reading, reading, reading… when I’d rather be writing.

27 Oct

Image

OK, that’s not entirely true. I’m completely immersed in many wonderful, wonderful readings for classes. That does mean, however, that I’m not doing nearly as much writing–creatively, or otherwise (say, for instance, on this blog).

What’s a busy girl to do, amidst readings, term papers, PhD applications, conference paper drafting, and just about 9,000 other commitments? Take to GoodReads–to at least review the books I’ve read, for classes (Reading Lolita in Tehran, Alice in Wonderland…) and, well, in an excuse to be better prepared for classes (see: Lolita, Daisy Miller, Washington Square, etc.).

So, go to the right of the page.  Yup: —–>

There. 

My GoodReads tab. 

If you want to read about what I’m reading, or, put differently, what I’m writing about others’ writing, that’s where to look. I even linked it and stuff.

Be impressed. I am not normally this technologically advanced.

Woolf, Woolf, More Woolf.

3 Oct

Today, I am torn. Between the urge to edit and re-write a story I began last week, in the midst of things. How can we write and re-write so continually, when we are so drawn into other worlds, into other tasks? Here, after too much coffee, I am euphoric in my research, finding digitized archives of rare journals from the 20s; here in my research, I am fulfilled, and yet I am longing to write. I am not inspired to write by reading contemporary prose, for some reason, but by the heady debate that is stirred up in an English classroom. Talk of beauty and verse drives me to research; talk of research makes me want to compose. How is that so contradictory? That all I wanted to do as an MFA student was read Woolf and theorize about her novels? And now that I can–I want to fill blank pages with words.

Again, I turn to Woolf and The Waves:

I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found the story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?

Writer-ly Loveliness

10 Sep

One of the best gifts you can give a writer is (aside from reading his/her book) a note, however brief, which tells the writer that you’ve enjoyed or related to his/her work. I try, whenever possible, to write to authors whose work I’ve enjoyed not expecting a response, not to try to make connections or network or anything, but just to say hi and let him/her know there are readers out there. I especially try to do this when I read a story in a journal. I know first-hand how many hours go into crafting a story, and there is a moment of euphoria when you realize that story will begin its life outside of you–and that others might read it. But then, once the words are in print, I sometimes wonder: is anyone reading this? With a few exceptions, that’s why most of the writers I know publish: not for some (relative) fame but because they hope someone might read their work. They hope their words might resonate with or have meaning to someone else in the world besides themselves. Writing is a solitary, private activity; a sense of community outside the writer-ly world only arises when that activity is shared through some form of publication.

In any case, I’m happy and grateful always to get comments on my blog but am even happier when readers of my weekly column write to my personal e-mail address, which I publish at the end of each column.

This week, after writing about my complex love/hate relationship with the iPhone I don’t have (try to make sense of that psychological state), I got a kind note: “Dear Kristina, I just would like to write to say I completely agree with your piece in the Tribune. It is so very true. In respect to reading that, I myself found myself thinking, where or when it was that I ‘f’ell victim’  to my iPhone…” The note goes on, but without re-typing all of it, there are several reasons why it’s kind:

1) It goes into some detail about the piece, and the author shares her experiences with me. (I love to hear about others’ thoughts about or experiences with the things I write about.)

2) In it, the author tells me that she passed along my writing for someone else to read.

3) The author wrote the email in the first place–and then hit send.

To this author: thank you for your kind note! I responded via email, but when I get a note from a reader, I try to reciprocate the gesture to other writers I read. That means I’ll send out a note to the writer of the next journal/magazine piece I enjoy.  Writers: pay it forward!

 

Reading my way through summer

27 Jul

What I wish I was doing:

“In 2012, the world is coming to London for the Olympics and I’m going out to meet it,” says British writer and Cambridge graduate Ann Morgan. “I’m planning to read my way around as many of the globe’s 196 independent countries as I can, sampling one book from every nation.”

Check out her reading list here, which has links to the reviews of the books she’s already completed. What a project!

What I’m actually doing:

Stumbling through a reading list of 90+ books, wondering why I’ve chosen the avant garde as my focus within modernism for my MA exams. Well, OK, I love the avant garde from the early 20th century. However, when one begins to memorize details from books one is faced with the following difficulties:

– avant garde modernists wrote monumental tomes (why, hello, Ulysses, The U.S.A. Trilogy, etc.)

– avant garde filmmakers are interested, often, in fragmented images (meaning that I have to memorize somewhat un-related bizarre things with no tradiational narrative plotline to keep things organized in my brain)

– I love books like Woolf’s The Waves,  but it takes me about four times as long to read books that are this difficult than it does to power through a more traditional novel

What I plan to do:

Write mini-reviews or notes on each of the books, films, plays, poems, etc., that I’m reading along the way, in hopes of keeping myself accountable and having some kind of record besides my trusty purple-ink-stained journal come January, when these exams will take place: three days, three hours each day, 30 books per session. Ay!

Can’t. Stop. Posting.

15 Mar

It’s spring break week. I’ve vowed to myself that I would do a number of things this week:

1. Write a blog post every day.

2. Write a piece of my new project every day. 500 words or less: flash fiction, if you will, or lyric non-fiction full of lies. (That is the only way to categorize 90% of my writing: fiction, or non-fiction full of lies. They are the same thing, no?)

3. Grade all 50 of those horrid mid-terms. I do not mean to say that the exam was horrid; in fact, I thin it was fair and balanced. I do not mean to say that the class is horrid; in fact, I like it a lot. Reading The Aeneid gave me a major break-through. I made my students translate a Catullus poem from Latin to English, which was great fun. (Bonus: re-directed their smart phone use toward classroom purposes by having them use wifi to access Latin-English dictionaries online). What was horrid was that there were 50 exams to grade, 80 points of which on each exam was essay-based. Ay. It just takes foreverrr.

4. Write my conference paper, due at the end of March.

5. Read a Spanish novel to get ahead.

6. Write my Spanish annotated bibliography and prepare my presentation for the Wednesday after break.

7. Go running with my sister.

8.  Finish translating the three Slovenian poems I was given to translate for an upcoming anthology of international poetry by survivors of the Dachau concentration camp.

9. Visit my grandparents.

10. Sleep.

So far, I have been a great success at numbers 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Bonuses: I’ve also planned a visit to my old office mates at UNH for tomorrow, which I’m really excited about, and completing #8 meant I got to talk to one of my best friends on Skype for 3 hours today. Success!

It’s just a shame I left all that paper writing and Spanish homework for the end of break… Full days ahead. I’ll start it all of by… going to bed.

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