Research for Creative Writers

Back in my poet days, it was easy. I could look up facts about whales, anatomy, the violin, crown vetch, whatever obscure item I needed to make my image work. I didn’t have to be an authority on the topic.

If I were a historian, I would know how to breeze in and out of archives to get the information I needed. If I were a journalist, I would know how to call people and get them to talk (in a good way, not in a fake Russian accent mobster kind of way).

If I were an academic, I would have an institution behind me. Instead I have my wavering sense of self. “Hi. I’m a writer? Um. Could I visit your archives? Here’s ten things I’ve published and a sonnet just to prove to you that I’m not an international map thief. And that I’m smart and creative, and never mind.” If I wanted to talk to people for a living I would still be working in bookstores.

If the archives I wanted to visit weren’t in such an expensive place it would all be easier. If my local historical associations awarded gifts to creative writers, it would all be easier. If I weren’t such a fucking introvert, it would all be easier.

But on the other hand, I am not writing the definitive biography of my historical person. I am writing the story of some lives woven together. And my own introverted, curious, poetry-lovin’ self is the narrator. Surely I can pull that off.

How do you do research for what you write? Or create?

Poetry 4-Eva

The other day I was at the dinner table with a group of talky people, most of whom I was related to. The conversations to my right was about spirituality.

“Spiritual work [on yourself, I think he meant] is the most profound work you can do,” my relative claimed.

I’m about as spiritual as your average tree-hugging atheist. Probably less so. I was raised as a secular Jew, became an atheist at 17, and have never looked back. I try to be a good person most days, I love rivers and mountains and stones and woods, but the word “spiritual” isn’t in my vocabulary.

You know what I like better than spiritual work? Sonnets. But I know there are very very few people in this world who give a shit about sonnets. So I don’t talk about sonnets, which are intensely important to me.

And I quietly remember my viola teacher in college who said, “Don’t tell my husband, but I like string quartets better than anything else in the world.” She would understand. (Aside: violas are more obscure than sonnets.)

I am happy that the person at the table has spiritual work. I am glad people are religious, as long as they aren’t being assholes about it. Some of my best friends are married to preachers!

But the thing I find irritating is the utter confidence with which he made that claim. I know line breaks, meter, and metaphor won’t save the world. But it saves my world. What if I had said to him that I thought sonnets were the most important work in the world? He probably would have laughed in my face. (I don’t really think sonnets are the most important work in the word, but it is some of the most important work that I do.)

I wonder if he thinks about other work that is important. I wonder why this overheard comment still bothers me. Is spirituality privileged? What do you think? What bothers you?

Don’t You Hate It When…

One of my work friends told me about the game, “Don’t you hate it when…,” that you take turns playing. This, not surprisingly, is my new favorite game.

Don’t you hate it when you click on an essay that, from the title and header, you think you’d be passionately interested in, only to find it was written by a poet who would rather hear herself put gorgeous images describing her relationship with a friend on the page rather than tell a story and explore the implication of queer women’s friendships as promised by aforementioned title and header?

Don’t you hate it when you anticipate that half your audience will roll their eyes and say, “Man, poets, what can you do?” when in fact you are a poet and you know you can do quite a bit better?

There are times when a person needs to write an essay and a time when a person needs to write a poem. An essay can use imagery and wander, but ultimately its purpose is to inform or take the reader on a journey they can follow. A poem can do all these things; it also should be about something. But the narrative, as a former poet colleague once like to say, can be a bit more buried. The journey can be a little more in the reader’s head than in the poet’s head. The two go on the same journey, but may end up in different places, and that’s okay.

What do you hate?

Writing, Marriage, and Grief

Today Paul wrote about an Iris Murdoch quote.

“Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

Iris Murdoch
“The Sublime and the Good”

At the risk of feeling as if I were doing a school assignment, I would like to respond. It’s been a complicated few months at Fangs and Clause Central. We’re contemplating a move to greener woods, if not pastures, certainly a greener state. This is looking more and more like it’s going to happen. I am excited, terrified, and sorry to leave a few important things about my current life. The rest I will not miss.

I finished the latest edits on the Small Beer book. In order to do this I neglected the dishes, my spouse, and anything that didn’t involve some variation of googling the ABV of a weisse. There has been drama at Second Job. Suffice it to say when I make it to the end of the day, I have no desire to talk to anyone about anything.

But there is my spouse, and he is real. I love him. And so I have to at least make the effort to listen, talk, respond, and otherwise nurture my relationship when all I want to do is crawl into bed with a book, alone.

But more immediately Spouse just went to say goodbye to a friend. His best friend is dying of cancer. How does one support another person through that, especially when he grieves differently than I do? (We all grieve differently of course.)

For 48 hours I am alone in the house. I am only responsible for getting my own self fed, to work, and back home again. (There are some dogs I have to take care of, but they are not too bad, and they are usually happy.) I’m trying not to feel guilty at being relieved to be alone. Books pile up on the spouse’s side of the bed after only 24 hours. Today I would rather stay in bed than go to work, but I am up and around because I love parts of Second Job too.

Grief is coming. The only reward is that we also have love.

Happy Equinox!

I am not feeling terribly happy, but from today on, the days will get longer, and since it’s actually spring, I will try to not get so mad about the unseasonably warm weather that makes plants bloom at the wrong time. It’s not just, “Oh, my poor crocii”; it’s “holy fuck, crops are not getting fertilized at the right time or are getting damaged in the cold, we’re all going to die.” As you can see, I am a tiny ray of sunshine.

I wrote a plot treatment for the fucker. Yes I should have done that years ago, but I couldn’t have. I needed to write it all out to see what I really knew and what I really had. My brain hurts, but I am cautiously pleased with my process.

This spring I hope to finish the Small Beer Book. I want to make some real process with The Fucker. Right now I am in research phase, which is a pretty good place to be. There is a whole new chapter I have to write up, and I know nothing. Fortunately the librarian at Second Job and I are members of the mutual admiration society. She ordered me a book about a store my grandfather worked at in California (take that, Cougar).

What are you doing this spring?

Reengaging with the Fucker

The first rule is that there are no rules that are not fit to be changed. A few days ago I bravely claimed on this public forum that I would write 2000 words a day. Well, almost every day. Well, maybe not really. Here’s what happened between then and today.

After working on Chapter 3 and writing my last blog post in a flush of new writing, I decided maybe I should go to Chapter 1. So I sat and my desk, opened a new document, opened the old document, and cut and pasted a few things. And it sucked. It began somewhere in the Depths of Boredom and then meandered through a deep grove of No Fucking Plot At All, wait have some Pretty Sentences!

I despaired. But because I am an optimist without a current paper to edit, I persevered. I checked out Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I have mostly stopped reading writing books, because I understand (at least intellectually) how to get to the page and how to get words down. I understand the basics of the craft of poetry. But something clearly is missing in my understanding of the craft of nonfiction.

Ms. Gornick does not disappoint. She talks about how you have the situation of the book. In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald loses her father and adopts a goshawk. But that isn’t the story. The story is that Macdonald, in her grief, tries to rid herself of all humanity and live wild like a hawk. (This is a brutal simplification. Please don’t decide not to read this book based on my description. It is such a good book.) Then she finds her way back to being a feeling, hurt, complicated human. That is the wisdom.

This is why Julie Powell’s memoir Cleaving sucked so bad. The situation was amazing. She cheats on her husband in what appears to be a perfectly happy marriage. She goes gets an apprenticeship as a butcher. Excellent! But by the end of the book Powell still does not know why she originally cheated on her husband in what, according to her, was a happy marriage. There is no story. The narrator is not to be trusted because she doesn’t know what the fuck she’s doing. This is why you don’t write a memoir in a year even if you get a fancy contract after the sale of your first book (Julia and Julie). Maybe she fucked up her marriage in order to have something to write about.

Gornick insists that you have to know why you are telling the story and thus create a persona that is able to tell that story. The persona is not a lie, it is the character that is you. “In each case [of the books she mentions earlier in the chapter] the writer was possessed of an insight that organized the writing, and in each case a persona had been created to serve that insight.” Powell does not know her insight, so we don’t really arrive anywhere. We get that she likes rough and/or dangerous sex (thus the affair). We don’t know why or why at that moment of time did she begin on the affair. (For a good review, read this.)

Macdonald knows she is writing about her journey into wildness and back again. She does not mention details that are not closely related to that story, even if they are related to the situation (the author, her dead father, the hawk).

I am hoping I can take my story and tattoo it to my fucking forehead keep it in my brain long enough to fashion myself as a persona. I might come up with some key words. Maybe this is how the ADD memoirist figures out finally what is important to the story and what is not. Does this tidbit fit my key word? No? Delete. (The ADD memoirist can’t figure out what is not important to the story because the gaps in her executive function give her no ability to discriminate.)

What books do you hate and why?

End of February

I gotta come up with some better blog post titles, but for fuck’s sake have mercy. I turned in my beer book yesterday. After that I walked my dog, and then went out and bought one of my very favorite slightly expensive, but not embarrassingly so bottles of bourbon. No beer was drunk last night.

This morning I looked at the ten index cards that contain notes for each chapter of The Fucker Remastered. My plan is immerse myself in my own private nanowrimo (thanks, Downith, for not suing me for plagiarism. Yet.) There are some rules.

No writing on the weekends unless I feel moved to.

No reason to be formal. Get the ideas down on the page, write notes to myself. Make dumb jokes I can delete later. Or not.

Don’t use Scrivener! Although I love it as a program, I am tired of looking at it. Plain old Word. 2000ish words per day or so. Before you become too impressed, remember that between one-thirds and two-thirds of the manuscript is written already. Cut and paste is easy and fun.

Print out every day. Carry to Second Job to edit, add notes, doodle, or use to start one-match fires (Thanks, Paul, for not suing me for plagiarism. Yet.)

Be disciplined, but don’t kill myself over this. Work hard, but do not despair.

Try to be a nicer person to my spouse. Keep walking my dogs as it is good for all of us. Do dishes every once in a while.

What are your rules?