When I studied Spanish in high school, we had an assignment to write a recipe and present it in class. One of the recipes was for Homemade Ranch Salad Bandage – you know, that white stuff you put on a salad when it skins its knee.
Yes, they actually meant salad dressing. But guess what. The English-to-Spanish dictionary entry for “dressing” listed venda (wound dressing) first. That dictionary, just like a thesaurus, didn’t include any definitions. And high school students are prone to copying down the first word they find.
How many times have you seen a sentence that uses the wrong word, and the wrong word is a thesaurus synonym of the right word? I see this all the time. It often happens when the right word has already been used in a previous sentence. I understand the desire to avoid repetition, but repetition is better than not making sense.
Okay, usually the wrongness of the word isn’t as terrible as “salad bandage,” but still. Don’t you want to say what you mean?
You have the power to keep your writing free of salad bandages. All it takes is a dictionary.
I met a lady at a class one time, and we ended up staying after to talk about her novel idea. Her idea was great. Her material was fascinating historical novel stuff, with current socially relevant themes, compelling characters and situations, dramatic, literary — a book I want to read.
But I found myself bored for half the time she was talking. Why? Because I was saying to myself, “She’s never going to write it.” I was listening with rapt attention to the details of the novel, but when she talked about the writing part, I felt my attention slipping. Maybe it was fun for her to have the idea for the novel, fun to think of herself as a (potential) novelist. Maybe at that moment she thought she was going to write it, because I was sitting there listening, encouraging her, showing her the face of a reader begging to read her book.
But I know the other face, the one she was showing me. I’ve seen that face on some of the people I’ve invited to the writing group, but who have never come to a meeting. I’ve been inside that face talking about one of my own unfinished (barely started) novels. I’m pretty sure she’s not going to write that book. Maybe she doesn’t actually like to write; she just thought of a great idea for a book. And there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s fun to think of ideas for books. Most people I talk to have thought of at least one. And most of them will never write it.
Except I always have hope, because I want to read this lady’s book, and because I believe that everyone has it in them to create.
Please, dear potential novelist: If you actually want to write, prove me wrong. Everyone I’ve ever thought this about, prove me wrong. So you never contacted me. So you never came to the writing group, or you never came back. I don’t care, as long as you’re writing.
You have my card. When your book comes out, or when you have a complete draft, or even when you reach the anniversary of the day you actually started writing, drop me a line.
Read this excerpt from a short story I’m working on:
“A pleasure,” I said, and he must have heard me, for he bowed his head. Then he turned and walked down the stairs.
“A pleasure,” I said, and he must have heard me, for he bowed his head. He turned and walked down the stairs.
Which version do you prefer? Do you think something different is happening in each version, or do the characters’ actions and reasons seem to be the same in both?
Next time you’re editing a piece and you come to a “then,” try taking it out and see what you think. I’ll bet in some cases that it will improve your piece by making it cleaner, and in others it will make your piece worse because it will make it mean the wrong thing. Unfortunately for my story, it seems to do both:
1. Style: This excerpt seems cleaner if I take out the “then.”
2. Meaning: With “then,” I read this passage as narrating two separate events: the characters interact, and one character leaves. Without “then,” the two events seem to be connected: It’s easier to interpret his leaving as caused by their interaction, rather than simply happening after it.
I want it to be clean (no “then”), but I also want the events to be unconnected (yes “then”). Probably the solution is to rewrite the whole section so that this question goes away.
I started writing this essay because some uses of “then” bother me. Jonathan Franzen has a whole essay arguing against the use of what he calls “comma-then.” I find myself marking certain uses of “then” when I beta read, even though I sometimes can’t figure out why they bug me.
I don’t want to make some kind of free floating writing rule about “then.” It’s very likely that the question must be solved anew for each story and each situation. Maybe for one story you’ll need a first-person narrator who frequently says “then” as part of his narrative voice. Maybe another story will be so clean after you take out all the “then”s that Hemingway’s ghost will come to your house and bless you. Maybe there are effects of “then” that I haven’t yet discovered.
Here’s what I say, which is what I always say: Try it. Write more. Keep going.
During one of the most stressful times in my life, I spent a couple of hours every day reading Philip K. Dick novels. I did this for three or four months. Novels such as Martian Time-Slip and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said allowed me to spend time being insane, and I think that helped me be sane the rest of the time. I suppose this would be classified as “escape,” which is one of the uses of fiction that people often cite. I think of it more as “medicine” or “treatment,” but I guess I can accept “escape.” This is the only time I can think of that I’ve used fiction for something resembling escape.
My main use of fiction is the opposite of escape. It’s to wake up, to be here, to open myself to the wonder and beauty of life and this world. A story like “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” produces this effect and is also about it at the same time.
Another way I use fiction is to know what matters and to have an example of how to live. Janet Kagan’s “The Nutcracker Coup” shows me how to keep standing as myself in the face of hate. I read this story before I was much interested in “real life,” but later I also found the same strong and beautiful truth in the story of Rosa Parks’s “no” and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Fiction shows me how to live as my best self, to do what’s right, for all of us, even when it’s not what’s easy.
I also use fiction as a source of human relationships. I read The Plague to hang out with people whose company I enjoy; I read Sherlock Holmes to participate in the friendship I have with the narrator. Reading 1984, I experience unconditional love, something uncommon in non-fictional human relationships. What about Ender’s Game? My original use of this book was as an initiatory experience, a rite of passage. But I re-read it for many of the uses I’ve already mentioned. Most of the stories I love serve more than one of these uses, maybe all of them.
A final use of fiction is something that can come from any writing: a pure sensual experience. I read Julio Cortázar for his stories, but also for his language, to be flowed along by words, to be treated by a sentence as though it were a lover; it’s the same feeling as following somebody who really knows how to dance. I read Cortázar in Spanish, and sometimes I don’t know half the words, but I still enjoy it. Maybe enjoyment is the overarching use of fiction. Could that possibly be true? Could the world really be as loving as that? I will have to think about this and get back to you. I will have to write about it.
For now, it’s your turn. What do you use fiction for?
When somebody tells you to take something out, sometimes the solution is to do it more. This often works in visual art: That area of purple in the upper right corner of your painting, the one that’s “ruining” the composition? Instead of removing it, put more purple in other parts of the painting. Suddenly it all comes together.
I think this applies to many writing situations as well. For example, I’m editing a story right now where the first-person narrator uses a few puns and plays on words. I’ve worked with this author before, and I know she loves this sort of thing, but for some reason I wanted to tell her to take out one of the puns. Then I noticed that the ending of the story hinges on a pun as well. Okay, I admit that I had originally wanted to change the ending, too. But I’m oversensitive to puns because I usually remove them from my own writing. This narrator probably should keep these two puns, but in order for them to work, she probably needs to have more. At least one more, toward the beginning, to establish this habit in her voice and character, and set us up to accept the ending.
Of course, this sort of free-floating advice must be applied carefully, because nothing works in every situation. I’ll see how I feel after the story is done. But I think it’s worth trying out.
What about you? Do you have a piece where some element seems out of place? Maybe a character, a certain way of talking, a scene? Why not try adding more and see what happens.
We used to meet at Barnes and Noble when Barnes and Noble used to close at 11 p.m. Now we meet at places that close at 10, because nothing closes at 11. Most places close at 9. This means that if there are a lot of people, like tonight, or if we are all writing long and amazing things because the group is in a state of communal flow, like tonight, sometimes the last writing session ends just about the time IHOP closes. Usually when this happens, we each choose one sentence to read aloud as a token of our writing, and it is not enough, but it has to be enough anyway, and everyone hopes that this situation will not be frequently repeated.
The unread session also has the unexpected effect of letting you write something that maybe you wouldn’t have written if you were hearing the voice in your head that is the voice of yourself reading out loud to the group, which is the voice I usually hear, and the voice I am hearing right now. I don’t know if we will read this session out loud, but we might, because that’s what we did last time: stand around outside and open our laptops and read.
Is this the right thing to do? It is terrible for everyone not to read and not to hear what people wrote. It is also terrible to write something embarrassing because you found you wouldn’t have to read it, and then to read it anyway. However, it is worse to skip a few of the most embarrassing sentences and then wonder forever if someone might have read them over your shoulder and now knows not only that about you but also that you weren’t willing to read them out loud. But the thing is, I am over this. I share nearly everything, and I am not embarrassed that there are things I choose not to share. It is not necessary for me to share the depths and range of every obsession explicitly, because what matters will always come out anyway, eventually. Fiction reveals everything, whether you want it to or not. I am okay with that now. I am willing to be revealed.
I have read my dreams here for years, and they reveal everything, too. What small particulars of my life reveal is nothing compared to what is revealed by the metaphors of my dreams. On the other hand, why write an essay about this if I’m over it? So, again, you see how everything is revealed. Even if I don’t read this, it will be revealed. Even if I do read this. Even if I never write again or see anyone here again, even if I die or disappear. All moments are saved, irrevocably, into the past. Victor Frankl says this with joy. I see it with joy, too: all moments are published. You have to try your best in each moment, and it is done, it is published, whether you want it to be or not; that is the magic of the physical, the tyranny and the miracle. It forces you to commit; it forces you to be done; it forces you to publish, what you have, the best you can, right now. That is the magic of the writing group, too. But the magic of the unread session is different, and I think it is a dangerous magic. It allows us to think we can hide ourselves, it allows us to believe in being unseen. It allows us to return to our pre-writing-group concept of ourselves, the writer who can perfect something, the writer who doesn’t have to reveal everything, and this is a lie, because everything is revealed unless you quit, unless you chicken out, and even then it is still revealed, but it is changed – what is revealed is what you became but didn’t want to be. So have faith. Keep going. Eat pancakes or don’t eat pancakes. Type anything. Write anything. Stay here. Stay present. Don’t care about the future. The future will take care of itself, will be published in its own time. Focus now on this moment as it writes itself, as it publishes itself; make it the best and truest it can be, because it will last, it will be revealed, for all time.
The first book I ever bought about how to be a writer was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I still have it, and I just looked inside the title page: it is a first edition. So I was lucky, because really you probably don’t need any other book on writing, ever, except for that book. I am rereading it yet again, and it’s as though she’s right there, speaking only to me, telling me just what I need to know right now, just like all the other times I’ve read it.
So, if somebody writes a book like that, even if it is non-fiction, it’s natural to get this urge to say thank you. And what that looks like for me is writing hundreds of unfinished letters inside my head, and rehearsing what I’d say if I ever met the author, revising it over and over, to try to convey how much her book has meant to me. And believing that if I could just say thank you that I would feel relief from this terrible debt of gratitude and be able to accept the gift of her book and go on with my life.
But here’s the thing: I met Anne Lamott last spring, and I got to talk to her twice: once just passing by in the bookstore where she was teaching, and once after I’d waited in line for 45 minutes to get her book signed. (Not the first edition! Can you believe I couldn’t find it? More on this another day.) And both times, I tried to say thank you. I did say, “Thank you.” I said, “Your book changed my life.” I said, “I got your book when it first came out.” I said, “I’ve reread it many times, and it always makes a difference for me.” I said the right things the first time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. I said them again the second time, but I still felt the need to say thank you. She was gracious and kind both times, but Anne Lamott is wise, and I got the feeling that maybe she knew I was attempting something futile. I know I did the right thing to try, but I left feeling worse than ever, because there was no way I could convey, even to the author, my experience of her book and how much it has meant to me. There was no way I could make her experience what I experience when I read her book, no way to make her feel the love she transmitted to me through her words. She wrote it; she is herself. She can’t read it as me. She can’t feel what I felt and experience how she changed me. I hope you understand what I mean, because I can’t say it any more ways.
So, while I was sitting outside the bookstore, bombed out on having totally failed to repay the debt of gratitude I felt I still owed, I thought of the title of this piece, and I realized the reason you can never say thank you. In order to repay your debt, you need the person to experience what you experienced. That is impossible, so you are out of luck.
Except that they did experience what you experienced. They read something else, by someone else, and they experienced it. And then they wrote the thing that passed that experience on to you. And therefore, the only way that you can ever repay this debt is by writing something that passes it on to the next person. And then maybe they will try to say thank you and fail. And you can never know if what you wrote succeeded, because even when people say thank you, they can never convey their experience, and you will never experience it back from your own work. You have to have faith that what you write could touch someone. You have to try. There is no guarantee. But you owe the debt already, so you must try. It is the only way you might ever get the chance to say thank you.
Purple Passion Press is seeking submissions for our first anthology on the theme of “the dead.” Submit poetry and literary flash fiction dealing with the dead that walk alongside us, the afterlife, ghosts, spirits, hauntings and the supernatural—the theme is open to interpretation. Deadline is December 1, 2014.
From the Call: “We like vibrant language with stunning imagery and emotional impact. Send us work that surprises and resonates. We seek literary poetry and prose where imagination, beliefs, and humanity lead us to examine and explore the lives of the dead. Where have they gone? Or are they still here? Purple Passion Press seeks to include a variety of distinctive voices.
How We Know Them It’s a “friend of a friend” situation: Some Write the the End members attend the Flash Fiction Forum in San Jose. Two key contributors to the Flash Fiction Forum are involved with Purple Passion Press.
I had a dream that I was in a workshop where we had to practice giving a presentation off the top of our heads. I chose gardening, even though I have not succeeded at that. Here is my presentation. I came up with the tips as I was talking.
“Have you wanted to grow a garden but you haven’t done it? Maybe you fenced off an area in your yard years ago, but that’s as far as you got? Or maybe all you have so far is the dirt that was there when you moved in? I was the same. But I’ve been watching my mom, who does have a garden. Here are three tips for how you can have one too.
1. Schedule specific times to work on it, including regular weekly hours AND a start date.
2. Don’t worry if things don’t turn out how you wanted. In fact, plant one vegetable you don’t like, on purpose, and then you will see that what comes out of your garden in any one season matters less than having a garden. (And you might be surprised – you might like that vegetable when you grow it yourself.)
3. Join a gardening group that meets regularly in order to get and give support, advice, and motivation to keep going.”
I considered and rejected: Give it enough water but not too much. Go organic. These may be important, but they are tips for people who are already gardening. My tips are for people who want to garden but aren’t yet doing it.
After I finished my presentation, I thought, “Hey, this would work for writing, too.”
I am not working at a job right now. I accepted a retirement package from work and am taking this time (and money) to write. I plan to return to work in about 6 months, and right now I write.
I have been writing since May 1. For me, every day, every morning is a new “in the beginning.” With a cup of tea or coffee I sit at my desk and plan my day. There are three themes to my plans: doing some kind of social event (otherwise I will start answering myself when I talk to me), some kind of social event for Bella, my German shepherd, because I don’t want her to go nuts either, and writing.
It’s 8 a.m. (or 7:30 a.m., if I really have my act together), and I write random thoughts. Some of those thoughts become what I will write about. I am writing a short story that has mutated into a long and longer story, so I figure out what I am going to do there, and I also spend some time writing about whatever comes into my head.
Regardless of whatever I write about, I usually remind myself in the first 10 minutes of my morning ritual how blessed I am to have the opportunity to do this.
Stephen King wrote that he writes 6 hours a day 6 days a week. When I decided to dedicate myself to writing, I thought I would do that. On my first day, I lasted 15 minutes and decided some serious time management and writing restructuring would need to be done. And, I have been restructuring my time and writing and restructuring my time and writing ever since. In other words, doing whatever it takes to get myself in the chair and write ANYTHING.
Then something happened last Sunday. Two days ago. Sunday was my day off from writing, but when walking Bella I had an idea. I wrote for about an hour, and this idea became a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I spent some time on this story yesterday and today, while writing other things too, and this afternoon I declared it finished.
Finished. Now, you may not like the story, I don’t know. Here is what I want to say about it — it wrote itself. I was the one who sat in the chair, but the story really just happened.
And I know that it would not have happened if I and not spent the last 2 months sitting down almost every morning and writing.