Entries in writing (5)


On Identifying with Readers

Several years ago I took a course on writing creative non-fiction. The students were a varied group, and the things that they wanted to write about were all over the map. We read one another's work patiently, all hoping to get some sort compliment from our instructor. One woman was working on the challenging subject of battling cancer while in the midst of a complicated affair, and her work became the most-discussed piece in class.

Her story was unusual and she wrote beautifully, but for the first couple of weeks I found myself at odds with her when I read her work. Instead of being pulled into the story, I was arguing with her. The problem? She had a habit of pulling the reader into the most intense moments of the story and then telling: "You can't imagine what I felt." Everything about her writing up to that point had been helping me imagine exactly what she felt, or what I might feel in similar circumstances. Moreover, her honest emotions were able to get tangled in with my own, and though I had never battled cancer while sleeping with a married man, I had felt that in some oblique way that my experiences were linked to hers. 

But, of course, as soon as she put that blockade between her experience and my empathy, I could no longer read as one with her. 

It is, naturally, difficult to speak or write about one's most extreme moments or thoughts without characterizing them as unique. This is exactly why we want to talk or write about them. But to connect with our readers, we must sacrifice some of that lonesome status for a communal experience. We must pierce the wall and allow a reader, no matter how naive or inexperienced, to be a part of what we are, to benefit by being carried as part of us through our experiences.

Op-eds and similar newspaper and magazine pieces often drive this wedge, generally in response to some ongoing conversation about a subject. The writers are responding to a set opinon, which may or may not be held by the readers, and their arguments are framed around and in contrast to a single viewpoint. Their arguments may be well formed, but they tend to assume that there are only two minds about a thing (though I doubt the writers or readers would usually feel that way). As with my fellow writer in class, what could be magnetizing instead becomes polarizing. 

This week the New York Times published a charged and heartbreaking essay by the mother of a little boy with Tay-Sachs, a disease which will end his life by the time he is three. I have seen this article posted and reposted on Facebook in the past few days, and it is put forth as a contrast to the intense parenting that was much publicized when Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out earlier this year.

You needn't bother catching up on the debate. In summary, Chua's memoir is about being a Chinese mother raising her American daughters. She is of the mind that it is the parent's duty to push their children hard in order that they have opportunities to excel and to make their families proud. I have not read the entire book, but I followed the debate that ensued, and from what I gather Chua was somewhat dismayed at the fact that many people didn't understand that she was to some extent poking fun at herself, examining her own assumptions about how to properly bring up children. Hers was not a parenting book urging her methods, but it was taken as such in the media and amongst parents who used the debate to examine and defend their own practices. 

In the piece published this week by NYT, Emily Rapp contrasts her experience of motherhood with that of parents whose children will, presumably, live to adulthood. She calls herself a Dragon Mom, and she makes the point that by being unable to affect the future of her son, her pure duty as his mother is to love him entirely and fully for the duration of his all-too-short life. It is moving, and it is a good reminder of how trapped we can be in the future. But because Rapp wrote this piece as a response to the Tiger Mother approach to parenting, she made assumptions about her readers. She projected onto parents of non-terminally ill children a set of expectations and behaviors that she will not participate in. She writes that parents enroll their children in music lessons in hopes that "they will manifest some fabulous talent that will set them — and therefore us, the proud parents — apart."

Here is where I am cut out, where instead of joining her, I am pulled into an argument that is entirely beside the point. I want to tell her: I educate my children not in hopes that they are "set apart," but so that they can take part in a part of human experience, that they might find pleasures for their time on earth. I have gone entirely off-track, and my affinity is dampened. Her essay is a reminder of the importance of loving today rather than deferring pleasure for tomorrow's success. But I will not share or recommend this article among the parents I know because I am now engaged in debate rather than in compassion. 

After our last Typetrigger reading, I had the chance to tell Sparklepony what most awed me about her writing, and it was this ability to bridge the gap between unique experience and universal feeling. In writing about things I will never physically expereince, I am encouraged to realize how much my emotional landscape might resemble her own. The singularity of her revelations are not presented as superior, so I am able to set my own ego down and consider our sameness while viewing her difference. She does not hold back from writing about what is different, but she refrains from isolating herself in it.

When I write, I doubt I think often enough of this. I try avoid repugnancy by avoiding writing about how I feel. I don't think it always works. As writers, we must at some point come to peace with the fact that our audience will be specific. Very few of us write in such a way, especially about personal experiences, that we will be universally liked. But no matter who our niche audience is, we must take care to keep them close. 

How much do you consider this in your writing? Whose work do you admire for being able to transport you into an experience very different from your own? What are the limits of empathy, and how much should a writer strive to work toward that? 



Methods: Copying Masters

Last week I attended a dinner for Matthew Stadler's newest book, Chloe Jarret's La Cucaracha. Stadler wrote this book as a "cover" of John LeCarre's mystery novel A Murder of Quality. While in Mexico to work on another book, Stadler stumbled upon Le Carre's book and decided that he wished to write the same book. 

To embark upon the writing of a "cover" book is, of course, to embrace the formulaic (by definition), and to set aside concerns about authenticity. (Anne K. Yoder wrote a thorough review of Stadler's work as a cover on The Millions, which is worth a read even if you don't plan to read Stadler or LeCarre.) Listening to Stadler talk about wanting to break free of his own conventions, I realized that whether we are novices or have boxes of books with our name on them, we all continue to practice learning the form(s). 

Stadler started by making a complete, chapter-by-chapter "score" of Le Carre's book, in which he framed the major events of each chapter, as well as the entrances and departures of characters. With this framework in place, Stadler set out to flesh out the story with his own characters, set in his own book in Guanajuato, Mexico (Le Carre's book was English in place and manner). He held up the score, a couple of sheets of paper taped together with tidy boxes holding all pertinent information. When his book was finished, some of his friends were dismayed, wishing for a "Matthew Stadler book." So he self-published La Cucaracha under the pseudonym Chloe Jarret (he had reclaimed authorship since, hence new title).

It seems clear to me that Stadler's book is a cover notionally more than anything, no more a mere adaption of another author's work than one person is an adaptation of her parents. A shared set of characteristics does not make two things identical, and an antecedent is not inherently more valuable than its descendant. But the idea of a cover is, as Stadler himself claims, an homage to the original as well. Homage is central to creativity, whether the tribute is paid to other works, or to people or ideas or places. Nonetheless, a cover book seems radical when undertaken openly by an author whose own work already had fans. 

Was Stadler merely escaping the constraints of his own name? This is a real challenge to established voices, as discussed in a recent New Yorker article on the author John Banville/Benjamin Black.

What can we learn as cover artists? Have you ever studied the score of a favorite work? When you practice through copying, do you feel it is your own work? There was a time when no visual artist worth the title would deign to deny intimate familiarity with the masters. To copy and copy and copy was the way to learn. One would imagine tracing to know how it felt to hold a stick of charcoal the way the masters had. Only by knowing how each effect was achieved did someone learn how they wanted to do it differently. We don't value such labors as much, and the painting factories in China that crank out flawless oils by the hundreds are supplying gauche McVillas rather than discerning collectors. The understanding of the masters has not rendered the copyists valuable, even thought their iterations are to some extent their own covers. Copying may be tolerated as a private practice, but it has little respect in the literary world as a method. In music, on the other hand, remixing and covering are a rich part of the culture and deft plays are celebrated.

Where does creative authorship begin?



Q&A with Galen of Six Minute Story

Several months ago, we found out about a kindred site on the internet, Six Minute Story. We are kinda glad that we had never heard about it, because the concept is similar enough to Typetrigger that we might never have started if we'd known what founder Galen Sanford had created.

Six Minute Story issues prompts in the form of words or images, and instead of having a word count, members have a timer. While most of the responses are fiction (the header of the site calls it "a flash fiction experiment"), there are some writers who venture in other areas. Six Minute Story is as fun to read as it is to write on, and an active core community seems to be keeping tabs on who is doing what. 

Luckily there is room enough in this world for many communities of writers. We asked Galen, a fellow Seattleite, a few things about his community and the short-writing experience.

TT: First of all, why six minutes?

Three minutes was too short, 12 too long.

TT: What is your writing background?

My AP English teacher told me I could write and, gullible as I was, I started writing. Pretty soon, friends bugged me if I didn't write. Now I just avoid my friends. 

TT: In your FAQ  it says that Six Minute Story is dedicated to constraints, as well as preventing "death by revision." both concepts that are central to Typetrigger. How do you think this improves writing? What lessons have you learned from six-minute writing?

Fiction is when we give ourselves the chance to empathize with characters and ideas we normally wouldn't – usually because our own subculture ridicules us if we do. The six minute constraint forces us to draw from what's obvious: the icebergs we navigate around if given the time. We might attempt this normally, when we decide to create, but when we revise we gradually push our treatment of our characters towards the middle, to make them salable. The impoverished irony is true human experience outsells pandering. And the real is beloved a whole lot longer.

TT: Is there a most popular genre or style of writing on Six Minutes Story? 

According to our Genres cloud Drama, Fantasy and Romance are tops. Some of the most active members, like Tommy-Louiseskymar1998, and recently TimSevenhuysen of 50WordStories have led the way in these Genres. 

The most popular style of writing is dialog. It's a compact, rapid, fluid way to convey exposition, character development and plot movement all at once. Some of the best examples come from bespectakate and davidjmcgee.

TT: What is the community on Six Minute Story like? Do your members know one another offline?

I'm not sure if they know each other AFK or not, as the majority seem to find the site through their friends on Twitter. At the moment the community is a loosely networked group of flash-fiction writers and a few rather anonymous and rather talented outliers. 

TT: How do you write a six-minute story? Do you plan it out before you start or does it come to you as you type?

I usually get a single strong image and write around that. Six minutes only really gives you time for one scene. 

TT: Galen asked members of the Six Minute Story community how they approach it, and here are some of their answers.

I ignore second thoughts, or self criticism on the six minute timer,
and I write only the first words out of my gut. Writing on the timer
forces me to take a single photograph, or premise, which I decorate
with the ideas I would typically ignore as being too far-fetched to
use. It prevents me from being left with a malformed manuscript and
opening paragraphs I excessively tend to.

-Cee Martinez (@dazedpuckbunny)

For me, the key is to relax and go with the flow. If I over think a prompt I start to panic and my mind goes blank, so I take a deep breath, click Write and go with my first thought. Some stories are more successful than others, of course, but I write better under pressure. I like knowing that I have a time limit and I have to get something down, because it stops me procrastinating. I rarely get everything I want to write down in six minutes, but I have a lot of fun trying. The main problem I have is repetition of words, which is frustrating on the read through but by then, it’s too late. I have to try harder to get it right next time.

-Katherine Murphy (@murphykam)

The six-minute stories I write tend to end up in one of three categories – stories I already have a vague idea about (possibly percolating in the back of my mind for a few days, before being shaped by a prompt), stories I have a clear idea for after the prompt appears, and stories that catch me by surprise. That last one is probably the most interesting – stories where I start off writing one thing but a chance phrase takes me by surprise and into a much more interesting direction, or where I get another idea that I like much more halfway through...
Ultimately, though, I just write – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There are times when I just close the window, and times when I write something that I love that nobody else seems to. 

-Kate Evans (@bespectakate)

When I sit down to write a six-minute story, I intentionally avoid giving myself any time to think. I navigate to the "Write" page, check one last time to make sure I'm not likely to be interrupted, then click inside the writing area and get started. I think anything else is not only cheating the system, but also cheating my own creative process. What I mean is that, for me, forethought and, er, "backthought" are very useful, but they can hamper the freshness and the uniqueness of my work. So I focus on pure creativity, and I only tweak my writing if I think I have a bit of time afterwards.

-Tim Sevenhuysen (@TimSevenhuysen)www.FiftyWordStories.com

I never have a story in mind when I start the prompts, but most of my stories are true and/or are from experience. I click "write," look at the prompt, and sometimes the story comes to me right away and I can type for six straight minutes (I always run out of time before I can proof read). Sometimes, I write a few words, close the prompt, and go back to it. Other times, I read the prompt, close it, and think about what story I want to tell to accompany the prompt. My favorite prompts are the Images; it's much easier for me to write to what I can visualize, although my favorite 6ms submission ever is called "New Year, New Love," that I wrote to a free form prompt. Those prompts, to me, are the hardest; in the case of this story, the subject was just on my mind.


TT: I am curious, dear Typetriggerers, how these experiences compare to your own. I (Lily) gave Six Minute Story a try, and while I felt less intimidated because of the Typetrigger experience than I might have, it was a very different experience. I would love to hear from our community how you all approach a trigger, and if you try Six Minute Story I'd love to hear about the ways in which it is the same or different. Thank you Galen for taking the time to talk to us, and thanks to all the Six Minute members for sharing your insights!


Learning how to write on Typetrigger

In the past five months, I have read almost every piece of writing on Typetrigger, and I have written a few dozen. I knew that the tool of Typetrigger would be a good chance for me to tighten my writing, but I didn't know what particular lessons I would learn along the way. Every day I realize something new about writing and about my expectations as a reader. We at Typetrigger want everyone to make their own discoveries through participating, but we also think there is so much we can share with one another so that we who write here (and elsewhere) can continue to improve our work.

So what have you learned? Or how do things you already knew come into play on Typetrigger? What are the strengths of the word limit? How do you apply what you do in short form to longer form work? Are there lessons that translate? We would love to hear from writers and readers about what you have learned or relearned on Typetrigger. In the coming months we will work on ways to spread these tips so that newcomers and old hands alike can benefit. Email us {info (at) typetrigger (dot) com}, comment here, or start a discussion on this blog.


My audience is dumb and I'm uniquer than them.

Several years ago, I (Lily) took a great writing class from Seattle writer Nick O'Connell. For the month or two that we met, each of us worked on one main piece. I attempted to write about two scenes of men and food and me. The whole thing was an embarrassment, and Nick kindly hinted that I needed to find the "universal truth" (a.k.a. The Point) of the stories to tie them together and to draw the reader in. I never quite got there, and I scrapped the whole thing, but I revisited one half of the story on Typetrigger not long ago.

In writing again about something I had struggled with before, I had the embarrassing epiphany that I had never quite gotten the concept of universal truth right. I had somehow assumed that the "average" reader to whom I was supposed to address my writing was expecting something moving, or lovely, or sweet or maybe profound. No one wants to be hamfisted. Plus, I didn't want to write something that would fit the bill for the "average" reader. I didn't really think they'd understand what I really wanted to say, so I overexplained, to position myself as somehow exceptional. Needless to say, this led to heavy navel gazing.

Typetrigger is helping me escape my own innane definition of universal truth, because in 300 words I don't have time to think too much about it. All I have room to do is to try to write something good, and to do that I have to write something that carries. (This is what I meant when I referred in my interview with Paul Constant to looking "like an asshole.") I don't worry about what it carries, but lo and behold: what tends to work best for me is the simplest observation. I can't tell my reader what to think of me or my story, and I realize no one will like me more for being the most incredibly profound, meaningful, sweet, unique person ever. It's rather refreshing.

I am sure that this epiphany of mine is well understood by folks all over, but I also think it is hard to get a hold on until you truly try to engage a reader for the first time. Once you realize how quickly 300 words go by, you realize how much can be wasted. The next time, you go back and tighten it up. Before you know it, you've got universal truth, right there. I have noticed that Typetrigger has opened things up for several writers. It is a real pleasure to read improvement in writers, to see good ideas develop into good storytelling as they get a handle on pacing and point.

I have really enjoyed a lot of the writing by itsalrightma, a writer from Georgia who has been on Typetrigger for a while. She writes personal things that don't make me disdain her or myself (which confessional writing can often do).

Waking at ungodly hours with a racing heart and a heavy mind, I find it strange to think that these are the best years of my life.

Maybe if I was content with getting drunk and fucking the first man to enter my line of vision every night, I would understand why people classify these years as such. But really, why do I find myself desiring, even momentarily, the things I’ve never wanted from life? It all comes back to Henry David Thoreau for me, as it often does. I sometimes feel I use his words more than my own. Anyways, he once wrote that “a stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind." Social novocain works for some, but the constant pursuit of such empty affairs just leaves me hollow. Whether or not the insignificant conquests are there, the despair will remain. Try though I might, I've accepted that some voids cannot be filled with liquor and lust.

Despite the inherent anxiety and occasional anguish of such transitional periods, I am determined to believe that these are some of the best years of my life. Not because of the supposed absence of responsibility, not due to the prevalence of revelry among my peers, but because these are the years that will prove that my own two feet are more than adequate enough to carry me through the years to come. Thoreauvian self-sufficiency isn't about the exclusion of others, but the importance of acknowledging and supporting yourself- and I'm starting to realize just how much I've neglected her lately.

And really, when it comes down to it, I’d much rather have a lifelong relationship with a dead author than a one-night stand with a deadbeat.