A Writer Learns about Creative Process from Two Artists: Hopper and O’Keeffe

“So much of every art is an expression of the […]

Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch

I posted earlier on the brilliant, beautiful novel The Goldfinch.  […]

Vivian Gornick on Situation and Story

  In her short book called The Situation and the […]

What the Reader Needs…

  “…to be conscious of what the reader needs and […]

Henry James’ Weak Specification–eek!

I live in fear of weak specification.  I consider it […]

Colm Toibin and “What is Real is Imagined”

In an essay called “What is Real is Imagined” in […]

Lorrie Moore’s Too “Referential”

In a blog post on April 2nd of this year, […]

On Sentences, Part I: Jhumpa Lahiri

The New York Times published several pieces on Reading and […]

Cheryl Strayed on WILD, Her Writing Life, and Memoir

While Cheryl Strayed was in Minneapolis as part of her […]

Writing about Other People in Autobiographical Writing

One of the things that comes up a lot when […]

Russell Banks’ Descriptions and “Try Harder”

I’m reading the new Russell Banks’ novel, Lost Memory of […]

David Huddle’s Four Categories of Prose

One of my favorite books about writing is David Huddle’s […]

Eudora Welty on “Place in Fiction”

One of the pleasures of reading French Lessons recently (see […]

Louise DeSalvo’s Stages of the Writing Process

In an earlier post (July 24, 2011) I mentioned Louise DeSalvo’s […]

William Sloane on Density in Writing

to discuss because it is not a separate element like […]

Wallace Stegner’s Thoughts on Teaching Creative Writing

In a comment on my recent post called “Shape in […]

Shape in Writing: What is it and How do you achieve it?

Sometimes when I’m critiquing a piece of writing, I find […]

Elizabeth Bowen’s Brilliant, Impossible Notes on Writing Dialogue

I had intended this piece to be about how brilliant […]

Donald Murray’s Essential Delay in Writing

In my last blog, One Big (Dictated) Whine, I mentioned […]

“Brainey” Ways to Write a Novel

I wish one (or more!) of you would tell me […]

Show AND Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most well-worn saw in teaching creative writing, supposedly originating with Aristophanes.  It’s not bad advice, of course.  The ability to dramatize action, characterization and relationships in scenes is essential to most engaging story telling.  Mastery of the well-crafted scene in which the reader is able both to experience the situation at hand, and also interpret it – “read” it for meaning and understand its implications and reverberations in the story as a whole —  is necessary if one is to ever be a successful writer.  So why is it then, that I have come to want to kick something (or someone) whenever I hear that particular phrase trotted out?

What Exactly Is a Literary Memoir

First let’s define a few terms:

Journal – just that.  A collection of dated entries that gather force by accretion of experience, always chronological. Many people, myself included, keep private journals for their own amazement and amusement. Some journals, however, are meant from the start as public works (Sue Hubble’s A Country Year, Rick Bass’ Oil Notes, May Sarton’s At Seventy).  The preface of  Reeve Lindbergh’s No More Words, about her experience seeing her mother succumb to Alzheimer’s, reads thus: “These pages represent a kind of journal, with chapters taken from my own diary entries, written off and on between May 1999, the time my mother came to live with us in Vermont, and February 7, 2001, when she died.  I first began to keep a record of this period for myself alone, hoping to make some sense of my turbulent thoughts, feelings, and moods surrounding my mother’s presence and care…This is not, however, an exact reproduction of my diary…I found myself expanding upon the original entries as I typed them into the computer, adding a new thought here or an old memory there, as these thoughts and memories came to me.”  Journal material often finds its way into memoirs.


Implausibility and the “Point of Improbability”

I’ve been revising my (endless) novel, and wringing my hands […]

What is Voice in Creative Writing?

Voice Lessons

“Voice” is a term that gets bandied about in the writing world a lot, as in “He hasn’t found his voice,” or in reviews, such as: “She has created a unique, lovely and deceptively unsophisticated voice for her narrator.”  Sometimes readers will exclaim to a writer, “I love your voice!” or an editor will reject a piece because “the voice isn’t fresh or original enough.”  Voice seems to be a crucial yet elusive aspect of writing.  Is it simply personality in writing?  Like personality or style, don’t you either have it or not? Can it be developed, or learned?  What is it, really?

Writing a Book-length Memoir

For starters, you’re going to be overwhelmed. We might as well get that up front. Writing–or trying to write a book-length anything–is overwhelming. I know, because I’ve written several, and it was hell. And I’ve worked with a lot of other people who have written books, and I’ve never heard a one of them say, “Hey, that was easy.” Or if I did, I fled the other way. I did hear a few of them say it was good work, and certainly many of them said it was entirely worthwhile, possibly life-saving, and deeply satisfying. In other words, worth it. But still overwhelming, especially in the beginning (also in the middle, not to mention the end…). So, okay. Now you know. You’re going to be overwhelmed. Other people have been overwhelmed and lived to tell about it.

How to Read Short Stories as a Writer

Perhaps the best and maybe only advice one can give someone trying to learn to write short stories is to read a lot of them. Eventually, if you read enough of them, you begin to get the picture. You begin to get a felt-sense for what a short story is like, what the form can do, what other people are accomplishing. But getting beyond admiration or intimidation, to see why and how good stories work, and even better, to learn from them, is not something most people have a lot of instruction in. They read as consumers, not as writers. But reading as a writer is a different deal. It’s the kind of analytical reading that can move one along in terms of developing one’s own skills and talent. I’m not talking academic reading here. You don’t need to write a term paper. But as a writer, it does help to know what to look for in stories, to see how certain common denominators are handled. Then hopefully you absorb those elements to the point where you don’t have to think about them (at least not until revision time). They’re available to you, integrated into the self out of which you write. But first you have to be aware of them.

3rd Person Narration

It’s quite possible, and common, to tell a story in third person with almost no narration.  The “camera” is simply centered in the head of the third person main character, and we experience the story as if we “are” that person, experientially.

“The girl Ryan Callaway was following turned off the Boulevard St. Michel, where Ryan knew every shop and office, and onto a side street that he hadn’t been on before, even though he had been wandering the city streets for weeks.  She walked past a papeterie and an abandoned shoe store and an art gallery selling glossy prints of American movie posters and then led the way into a dimly lit office that once might have been used by an insurance salesman.  To Ryan the room smelled like his parents’ basement back in the states, a wet and musty resting place for the broken appliances and old clothes the family couldn’t bring themselves to part with…”

                        Opening from “Numerology” by Christian Michener

Here about the only concession to a narrator is to call Ryan by his first and last name, which he would not do himself, internally.  Otherwise, we experience everything as Ryan does, in a scene.  The only information we are provided is through his senses.  We are thoroughly limited to his head.  Later in the story, there is some background information provided, but it is done as “daydreaming” on Ryan’s part or sort of memory on Ryan’s part — events he has lived through, such as news of his parents’ separation.  Many stories are told this way.  They have the advantage of putting you right in the character, “suspending your disbelief,” and making you experience right along with the character.  On the downside, they limit you as the writer to a plot-driven, scene by scene story.  You are limited in terms of getting through a lot of background information quickly, or having some angle on the character that he or she might not have on him or herself.  There’s no real narrative “voice” to this story.  We are not being told a story, we’re being shown one.

“Not Nice” in Writing

What do I mean by “not nice” in terms of writing? Certainly it’s a value of mine to be “nice,” in person and in writing; I want people to like me, to like my writing. And certainly I don’t have as a value “not nice” for its own sake. But I do find that I’m very interested in exploring with you the notion captured in the phrase “not nice.” It seems to me an important concept to consider. I’m sometimes aware, when I read student or client writing, of a feeling I have that the writer isn’t going far enough, or has more to express — more feelings and emotions — than are getting on the page. I feel a sense of constriction, constraint, convention perhaps. Other times I don’t think along these lines, because the notion of “not nice” doesn’t apply. It’s not an issue in whatever is being written. But I’m interested in our looking at subjects or places in our own writing where some internal censor pops up — either consciously or unconsciously — and shouts “don’t go there — not nice!” and the writing suffers for it.

Humor in Writing

Just as humor is a saving grace in life itself, so can it be in writing. Granted, life is serious, writing is serious, WE are serious, but we can also be funny sometimes, if we let ourselves. There are definitely plenty of things that just are not funny and it would be insane to try to make them so. But what I’m interested in is expanding or stretching the range of your voice so that when the time is right, when something has some comic, ironic, absurd or just “light” possibilities, you’ll be ready. Also, just inviting you to practice hitting this note, so to speak, might open up some writing possibilities for you you’re overlooking. You might actually find a voice or tone you can use by consciously trying on something you don’t normally do. Opening up this aspect of your personality more in writing might allow you to write things you wouldn’t otherwise write. And that would be good.

How to Critique Creative Writing

A Few Thoughts on Critiquing or One Size Doesn’t Fit […]

Capturing Childhood/Engaging the Adult Reader

Capturing Childhood/Engaging the Adult Reader The world of childhood is […]

Memoir Writing Bibliography

Memoir Writing Bibliography Living to Tell the Tale:  A Guide […]