The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Archive for August 2017

Under the Station Clock… (scenes from the conference)

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Chicago writer Lynne Sloan ran a fine session at the NorUSumWriCon about different ways to convey character emotions.  Here’s the thing:  Several of these sessions were replete with things I have known about writing for some time, but session leaders successfully put a name and label and schematic to a lot of those things.  The result was that I was went from knowing these things (or, “kinda knowing” them), to understanding them much better and knowing why they are what they are and why they are the way they are.  Same applies to Sloan’s content.  She went rather deep on the concept of “show, don’t tell,” and it all went to different strategies on how to show.

Slim Goodbody telling The Captain about body-based descriptions.

She talked about body-based descriptions, like directly communicating what the character is feeling by describing their physical sensations, and followed that with the use of figurative language to convey feelings.  The new stuff for me came when she talked about using words, syntax, and rhythm to convey emotion.  I’m always struggling with dialogue, so it helped to get some insights there.  And then there was the matter of using extended passages to describe complicated feelings.  The idea of getting into a character’s head by rolling out a long narration or internal monologue is something I’m familiar with, though again it helped to have a different set of eyes born from extensive experience to lay out the territory.  I’ve used this before to decent effect, and maybe that’s why I defaulted to the extended passage when Sloan gave us time to write.  Here’s my regret:  I wish I had gotten into areas where I’m weak or underdeveloped (like using words, syntax, and rhythm).  I’m not quibbling over the results, though.  I was happy with what I came up with, and I owe it mostly to the flash fiction writer emerging in me and the growing notion of how much a character’s voice plays into successful first-person narration.

The prompt was “Under the station clock, she’d said.  It was twenty past and everyone had gone.”

Under the station clock, she’d said.  It was twenty past now and everyone had gone.  So what if she doesn’t show?  Is it as simple as taking the train back home and calling it at least a decent day because you spent a few hours on the train and got some writing done?  You call these your defense mechanisms.  Your learned ability to not invest a lot of emotion into these situations.  You’re excited, sure, but too much of that equates to desperation, which is practically a fucking pheromone that singles you out.  This is what you learn when you’re this age and your history is a jigsaw puzzle with notable pieces missing.  So she doesn’t show and doesn’t call and doesn’t text and doesn’t DM you on Facebook and she can’t hit you up on SnapChat or Instagram because fuck those because texts and Facebook are enough, but she doesn’t do any of those and you’ve been ghosted.  Normally you’d try to be understanding and forgiving because forgiveness is so so sooooo critical and you’d try this again and you’d say hey, as a show of faith, how about you come my way this time?  Yeah, normally that would work.  But normal is fuckworthy right about now.  You know what you’re going to do if she doesn’t show by the time you hear the squeak of metal on metal and smell burning brake pads.  You’re going to go home and get out Black Magic and take some cuts.  Work on your stance and your follow-through so when she does call or text or whatever the fuck you put some good wood on any pitch she grooves down the middle and that fucker flies into the gap.

So why not go back and practice the weak areas I mentioned?  Nah.  I’ll pull it out when I think I need it when I’m writing something.  That’ll be practice.  It’s all practice anyhow.

Written by seeker70

August 27, 2017 at 9:35 pm

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Your First Constraint (scenes from the conference)

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Part of the intent of attending the NorUSumWriCon last weekend was to bolster some areas of my teaching of creative writing.  As such, I took some workshops that by preview alone offered content that I was already familiar with, but that was okay because it helps to get content from a different set of eyes, especially some higher up on the writer food chain than a high school Creative Writing teacher and part-time writer.  Almost to a person, the people who lead these workshops are college professor types who have a book or two under their belts.  That was exactly the case with Jarrett Neal, who lead a workshop on Point of View.

Point of View left. So I guess it isn’t there anymore.

How you answer the question of who is telling your story is going to be the first and biggest constraint you put on your story, and Neal did a great job of exploring the consequences, both positive and negative, of each POV.  One good point he made was that world-building narratives need to be in 3rd person.  I had thought that for some time, but had never had the wherewithal or demands to verbalize it as such.  It makes sense:  A world new to the reader needs to been seen in its entirety so all the details are known and so the reader can fully experience that world.  The most immediate example I can think of was 1984.  The dystopian future of Oceania is only effective to the degree it is because it comes from an all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.  We can’t experience that world the same way if it’s only Winston relating events and thoughts.  We’d be lost because Winston certainly wouldn’t tell us the dirty details that he already knows as part of his everyday life (who would really do something like that?), and we’d also only get what Winston saw in his mundane daily existence.  This world-building idea is ambitious, though; too much so for the students who usually take my Creative Writing class.  As such, I ban world-building stories because it really is too much for a young writer to handle.  No joke—I literally have a “do not write” list I give students!

Something else we did was play around with POV a little bit.  I was tasked with starting a third-person omniscient passage based on this prompt:  “My wife and kids are gone for a week.”  The issue right off was that the prompt was voiced in first-person.  So how to convey the idea of an absent spouse and offspring without saying it directly?  And then there was the problem of having another character in the passage, too, so it wouldn’t be confused with third-person limited.  And speaking of constraints!  Neal said 100 words was all we had to work with.  I managed to get what follows down in my journal.

That was fast.  Unexpectedly.  It had been too long, which was why.  But now that he had worn out Tube8 (and himself), Rick was left wondering how he was going to spend the remaining 167 1/2 hours.

On the other side of the city, Kathleen was gunning the engine to outrun the semis that would slow her entrance to the freeway.  Once she merged, she thumbed the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel.  Eighty-six wasn’t too fast, was it?  Even with three kids?  But the sooner they were in Reno, the more time they had to do…  nothing.  By her estimate, they’d have 164 hours.

But that wasn’t it.  Once I had a workable passage, I had to rewrite it in first-person POV.  This is something I encourage my students to experiment with, but I don’t mandate it.  After experiencing the benefits of this exercise, I think I am going to demand it in the future.  The benefits of switching POV are things I’ve known as a writer for some time, but still manage to forget or neglect when I’m writing.  It was good to be reminded to play around with the writing every now and then and see what happens.  I like the third-person POV better because I got in some free-indirect discourse, but the first-person POV wasn’t too bad, either:

Holy shit that was fast.  But it has been a while.  Because the girls are old enough now to know about browser histories and Kathleen’s lecture on exploitation isn’t worth sitting through.  It doesn’t mean anything anyhow.  Just casual browsing.  I thought I’d get more time in, but the temptation was too great.  I still have 167 1/2 hours, which means I can likely watch more.  But not before I Google how to discreetly and permanently delete browser histories.  Kathleen is probably hitting the freeway by now, and no doubt risking a speeding ticket to get the hell away from here as fast as possible.  You go, girl.

So what to do with all this?  Nuttin’, honey.  Or maybe something.  Who knows?  The seed for a story is there.  It’s up to me to do something with it if or when I feel like it, though the practice is far more important than the product.

Written by seeker70

August 23, 2017 at 10:35 pm

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How to Start Writing Poetry (scenes from the conference)

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To say something is nothing is actually maximizing that thing. Because poetry.

I’ve been kickin’ it these last few days at the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference (or NorUSumWriCon if you dig banal conference abbreviations).  It’s been worth the time and money, and one side benefit is I’ve gotten the motivation to wrap up a few pieces and start a few more.  I started this one a few weeks back and have been having fun with it, moreso now that I have its shape and intention.  I don’t know what else I’d do with it (because practice, duh!), so I thought I’d put it up here.

How to Start Writing Poetry

Auden said poetry makes nothing happen, so you have to find out amongst all the everything, what is the nothing?  Don’t expect an aha! moment, but do listen for the return of echoes.  Steer yourself in their general direction.  There’s a blind faith involved:  You never know what’s there, exactly; you just trust it’s nothing and that you can make it happen.  It might be the dogs you paddle boarded past at the beach this morning, all crooked paw angles and slow-motion grasping toward bobbing tennis balls juxtaposed against their everything is okay, nothing to see here nonchalance above the water.  It might be their inelegant turns back to the hands that feed them and how they look at you and practically wink—we weren’t born to this, but we’re pretty good at it, huh?  You trust that these things really are nothing and you’re going to make them happen.  You just don’t know when or how, exactly.

Written by seeker70

August 19, 2017 at 9:20 am

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I pose a question to my Creative Writing students at the end of each semester:  What is your identity as a writer?  They have the option to respond to it as they compose their final exam, which is a reflective essay on their creative writing experiences over the previous eighteen weeks.  Not many have ever chosen that avenue of exploration because I offer other options that are easier, but my writing identity is something I consider regularly.  Having had my latest story published last week at Knock Your Socks Off Flash Fiction, right now has been a good time to consider all things identity, but more on that later.

I’ve been a William Kennedy fan for well over two decades, ever since I read Ironweed.  That novel only has only a little to do with my fandom, the strongest roots of which go back to meeting Kennedy in 2011 while attending the writing institute he established with some of his earnings after being awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.  I saw the man most every day for a month, and enjoyed a reading he gave from Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes before it came to publication.  Since then, I’ve been a casual consumer of anything I could find about Kennedy—reviews, critiques, interviews.  A few years ago I read an article titled “Still Bill” that I can’t  find just now on the Googles.  Nonetheless, the writer, who was a friend of Kennedy’s, related an episode he witnessed in which someone told Kennedy about a real-life young politician who asked where one gets the money to run a political party once one takes it over.  This was in some way related to the infamous Albany Democratic machine.  According to the writer, Kennedy busted out a little notebook and wrote down the episode, and then stashed the notebook in a box.  Some time later, the episode appeared in Kennedy’s 2002 city hall political novel Roscoe, with the quote and context pretty much verbatim.


William Kennedy, about whom Jack Nicholson said, “That man can drink.”

I’ve always remembered this because I love to see a professional writer still adhering to the basic steps of writing and turning them into great reward, especially when I have direct experience with that professional writer.  To me, that episode stands as a great endorsement to keep your feet on the ground as a writer and to keep practicing the scales, as a concert pianist might say.  The idea of that simple journal notation is something I’ve talked about before herein, and without my adherence to it, I couldn’t have written “Last Time.”  The story started in part with a wiseass comment I made to my girlfriend last fall about toilet paper usage.  The idea of a person asking someone to bring their own toilet paper when they visited struck me as hilariously absurd.  What kind of person would ask someone else to do that?  I grabbed my bedside seed journal and took a few quick notes on the notion, and those notes sat there for nine months.  It wasn’t until I mistakenly thought I saw hairs stuck in my copy of The Paris Review that the story dropped in my lap (it wasn’t hairs, by the way…  it was pine needles in a picture TPR published).  This will make some sense if you check out “Last Time.”  I paired some thoughts on pine needles with the previous irreverence about toilet paper, and the story fell out of my head onto the paper.

I’ve also remarked to several friends that I broke an important writing rule with “Last Time.”  Here’s the thing:  Nobody looked at the story before I sent it off.  One dude looked at it for shits and grins, but I didn’t ask for any feedback.  So there were no editorial comments from anybody.  No feedback.  No edits.  I wrote a few drafts, felt good about it, and shotgunned it to several different publications.  The editor from last one I queried replied the next morning:  “Got a kick out of ‘Last Time,’ which is a great way to begin my day.”  From start to finish, the whole thing took about a week.  I was stunned, and quite pleased with myself for finding a home for the story while working on instinct 95% of the way.  I mentioned in a previous blog that, like most stories, there came a breakthrough moment.  It wasn’t all about juxtaposing pine needles and toilet paper; when it was at first, I figured the story would just be practice.  But my prior experiences with publishing flash fiction told me that a compelling final image would help take the story where I wanted it to go, and that image came to me when I was doing yoga a few days after writing the initial draft.

So I said “prior experience publishing flash fiction.”  Yeah.  I’ve said that to myself a lot the last few weeks.  Enough to think that flash fiction is where I am as a writer.  I started that way as a fiction writer seven years ago in Imitation Fruit, and over the last two years my three publishing experiences have all been flash-related.  Why is that?  Poetry, methinks.  I write nothing more than poetry these days (and have a damn fine poetry workshop member, by the way), and I think the greatest Bennett-fit has been how practicing it has informed my other writing to the point where I can flesh out singular episodes, or make apparent the underlying ideas behind unusual and absurd circumstances, while trying to work on a subconscious level with the reader.  You know what writing so much poetry is not doing, though?  Making me a poet.  I can’t get that shit published to save my life.  But that’s okay.  I was heartened by what Percival Everett said in a recent interview:  “I write poetry to prove I can’t write poems.”  Does my experience tell me that I should focus less on verse and more on prose?  Hell no.  It’s the verse that got me here, and I’m happy with where I am.  I’ve got to keep practicing the scales, just like a concert pianist.  What about writing a novel?  Don’t I want to be a novelist?  Fuck that shit.  But I used to say the same thing about poetry.



Written by seeker70

August 8, 2017 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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