The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

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Hello, Shredder

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I spent a few hours with an old friend a few weeks ago.  We’re both better off for the time together; him to keep his teeth sharp, and me to clear out my head and the papers that clutter my file cabinet and desk.

Shhhhh… he’s resting up for the next round of destruction.

This wasn’t some impulsive endeavor, though after pulling more staples than I could count, creating a mound of paper clips, and shredding 400-some papers of old drafts of stories and poems, I wish I had been impulsive about shredding a long time ago.  I thought for years that I was doing myself a favor by keeping all those old drafts around.  Never know when you’re going to get back to that half-ass poem you got into in the summer of ’11.  At some point I was going to find time to keep at the novella I started in ’13—why wouldn’t I?  I was already thirty pages in, and I knew where I wanted it to go.  Plus, I can’t tell you how many times I took something out of a poem or a story only to dig back through the drafts to find it again and put it back in (that actually happens sometimes, though not frequently).  I thought the preserved drafts were protecting my ego and proving to the unseen critic looming in the shadows that I work diligently on my writing, and therefore I deserve to be successful.  All the proof was right there in my file cabinet and on my desk and every other place I stashed an ungodly amount of papers.

Turns out most of those thoughts were pure bullshit.  The biggest things happening were that I was cluttering up space and stressing myself out over writing projects that I was never going to get back into.  I came to this conclusion in the waning days of The Writer’s Almanac last fall when I read a little bit about the novelist Andrea BarrettTWA liked to recognize her birthday each year, and I always paid attention since I have met and worked with Andrea and respect her writerly insights.  Here’s what she said about the best writing advice she ever got (this originally appeared in The American Scholar):

“…(it) was extremely simple, initially devastating but actually incredibly kind, liberating, and utterly transformative…  After workshopping my story, Nicholas Delbanco asked me if I’d written anything else and offered to read it…  (he) read my grubby pages, promptly met with me to discuss them, and gently let me know that the novel on which I’d spent so long was rubbish…  the kernel of his advice was simple: Throw it out, and move on. Take all you learned writing that and make something new. Afterwards I cried, I fussed, I crashed around—and then I did what he said. What a huge relief to shed those mauled and tortured pages! And how quickly, freed from them, did I begin to write again.  That advice made me a writer: both in the specific moment and since then as a guiding principle. I throw out things all the time, still; sometimes things on which I have, as I did with that first novel, spent not only months but years. What’s important, what the attempt taught me about writing, the material I’m exploring, where I want to go next, always survives.”

I got to thinking about the reams of old stuff lying around The Seeker luxury headquarters, thought about what I’ve been writing a lot of lately (flash fiction and poetry), and thought of Google Drive.  Everything that was worth anything, and anything that I would ever get back to, was right there.  If I wanted to flash back to stuff I’d edited, I could always go to “revision history.”  So when I got some time near the end of my holiday break, I said “Hello, Shredder,” and fed him so much paper that he overheated and locked up a few times.

I can’t say I shredded everything.  I didn’t.  I have the entire writing process to several pieces that I’ve gotten published, and I keep those for the sake of my Creative Writing students.  I bring them in sometimes to show what it took to get something published, and that usually soothes their jangled nerves about rewrites and reminds them that I’m on their side with making draft after draft after draft (after draft!) of a piece until it speaks effectively.  Also, I can’t say I feel miraculously un-constipated.  I do, somewhat, but I feel more euphoric than anything.  I trust myself.  I have learned a helluva lot about writing, and it’s evident in my cognitive processes as I write.  I don’t need all the evidence sitting around my office practically glaring at me and guilt-tripping me into working on it.  The evidence will appear with the next thing I write.

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Written by seeker70

January 22, 2018 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Fiction That Was

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Soliloquies Anthology vol.22.1 arrived in the mail a few days ago.  I had been anticipating its arrival given that my flash fiction piece “Hardware” was published therein.  Like anything that shows enough promise to merit publication, there was an worthwhile journey to the story getting there.

Cool cover design, eh?

The story came to me after having gone to Home Depot one day last summer to buy a bucket.  My writer brain was engaged like always, and even though I was out of there in ten minutes, my experience that day kept playing in my mind.  I was particularly focused on the woman who helped me—she seemed friendly to the point of being a little too friendly, and I wondered if that was a cover to somehow kick-start herself into being happy with how she was earning a living.  I got to thinking about our brief encounter from her point of view, and I was weaving that in and out of my mind with what I would do if I worked there and I wasn’t happy but I wanted to find a way to make myself happy.

This is somewhat vague and at least a little complex, I know, but it’s how my writing mind works.  I started writing some thoughts down as if I were the woman who helped me, who I named Dawn.  I was mindful of how I was developing her voice, though.  I know from previous experience that first-person narration relies heavily on how interesting the narrator’s voice is, so I was perhaps more mindful of developing voice than I was anything else.  Some of the other elements that come into play in fiction and narrative non-fiction pretty much took care of themselves.  I stuck only to Dawn’s encounter with me, which was about 5 minutes in real time, so the plot was very short and entirely forward-moving.  But I was mindful, too, to create a tone that made it apparent that it’s not the job Dawn doesn’t like so much as some of the people she works with who she feels don’t care about their job as much as she does.

Through the drafting process, I was able to find the language to make Dawn’s voice sound real for her station in life, but I also tried to come up with some quirks and nuances to make it more idiosyncratic to her.  Plus, there had to be an unexpected thing or two in there along the way to surprise the reader and keep them interested.  The practice alone with creating this kind of language made the story worth writing, but I wanted to take it further.  James Wood’s excellent text How Fiction Works told me that if I’m using a first-person narrator, I’m also using an unreliable narrator.  Woods references, “…the unreliable first-person narrator, who knows less about himself than the reader eventually does.”  So what was the reader going to realize about Dawn by the end that Dawn doesn’t realize about herself?  I settled on something, but there’s no use in telling you the whole damn story.  Buy Soliloquies Anthology vol.22.1, or holla at me and I’ll hook you up.

Once I felt I had this thing nailed down, it was a matter of finding a place that publishes flash fiction.  I came across Soliloquies Anthology, and told them that based on their name alone, I thought I had something they might like.  Turns out I was right.

I realized long ago that there is no formula for writing a story that an editor will think merits publication.  If there was a formula, writing would be a helluva lot easier and a helluva lot less meaningful.  But I can’t shake the feeling that “Hardware” came together like a formula for me.  Maybe what I’m finding out is that the longer I practice, the sharper my writer instincts and abilities become, and the more likely I am to write something worth reading.  It seemed this time around that I was plugging pieces in because they felt like they belonged in certain places.

P.S.  Speaking of Wood’s insight into the unreliable first-person narrator, I can’t close this out without mentioning my recent favorite example of a narrator not having a clue about the biggest issue in his life.  Thank you, Thomas McGuane, for writing a story that has had a huge impact on me:  The Casserole.

Written by seeker70

December 22, 2017 at 8:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Another One-off From the PAD Challenge

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It’s that time of year again.  Not that turkeys, football, and pumpkin pies are passing before my eyes, but the Poem-a-Day Challenge.  I consider myself a salty veteran of the engagement anymore, this being my fourth year attempting it.  Each year presents its difficulties, and this year’s is that I’m so busy and stressed with school that I can barely find time to scratch out a few thoughts.  Still, I soldier on.  Part of the lesson each year, too, boils down to seeing how much time you have that you don’t use that you could use to write.  There’s the strange phenomenon, too, of producing some things you’re happy with even though you rushed that shit through when you started it.

Anyhow, it’s all blah-blah-blah angsty writery bullshit.  So one of the prompts last week was to write a sonnet or other traditional form, or write an anti-sonnet or anti-other traditional form.  I decided to write a tanka and wasn’t too displeased with the results.  I’ve written these before and even posted them on The Seeker, so it’s not a strange form to me.  I missed the two-way flexibility the third line is supposed to embody, but I not too concerned with that.  It’s seasonal, too!

Leaves
Green then yellow then
red then brown before tumbling
to the cold, wet ground.
We should all be so vibrant
surrendering to the fall.

Written by seeker70

November 22, 2017 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Fiction That Wasn’t

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It’s a strange thing, writing.  I’ve said that enough herein over the last few years that I could justify changing the name of this blog to It’s A Strange Thing, Writing.  I’m not going to do that, even though writing is a strange thing.  Maybe even the strangest.  Case in point:  Third Wednesday declared my piece “Thirteenth Birthday” the runner-up in the first-ever George Dila Memorial Flash Fiction Contest.  That wouldn’t be so strange if not for a couple of things.  One, I didn’t remember submitting “Thirteenth Birthday” to the contest, and then when I got the good news, I couldn’t find the piece in my “stories” folder on Google Drive.  Da Fuh?

First, I remember sending a few pieces to Third Wednesday’s contest early last summer.  I got “no thanks” emails back on two of them in about the same amount of time it took me to click “send” on Submittable.  No big whoop.  Rejection is the rule on submissions to journals, especially for contests, so I wasn’t surprised.  In fact, I’ve conditioned myself to submit and forget so when I get a rejection, which I do about 97% of the time, I’m like, “Meh…”  But there was a third piece, “Thirteenth Birthday,” that Third Wednesday held onto, and I’m glad they did even if I had written it off in my head.

So why couldn’t I find the piece in my “stories” folder?  Because it wasn’t a story.  It was a prose poem, so it was in my “poems” folder.  Dunno what inspired me to get it out that day I made those submissions, but I did.  In fact, my writing process showed that I made a few tweaks.  The opening went from this:

You’re floating on your back out near the bouys.  Your legs stick straight out from your body; your arms angle out from your shoulders and float next to you.

to this:

You are an arrow.  You can see yourself in your mind’s eye.

This is an issue worth noting because I listened to my instincts, which told me to move the central image of the writing to the front, especially since the piece is so short (only about 100 words).  Those instincts have been honed these last few years as I’ve worked more and more on flash fiction and poetry and have learned the value of a central image first, last, and/or recurring.

Sterling may have been thinking, “As far as this Burd fellow…  fancies himself a writer.  Second place suits him.”

So how does the piece win second place in a flash fiction contest if it’s a prose poem?  That’s an issue judge Phillip Sterling addressed first thing in Third Wednesday.  When asked to delineate the difference between a work of flash fiction and a prose poem, Sterling replied with cheek:  “Let someone else worry about that…  Just concern yourself with the integrity of the individual work.”  He does, however, go on to point out the commonalities between the two genres, most notably conciseness and the use of sensory detail.  But fiction also has to have things like characterization, situation, and complication.  Poets know that you can knock a few of those items off the checklist before your poem even begins if you work as hard on the title as you do the rest of the poem.  For me, the title “Thirteenth Birthday” establishes the situation and implies a significant conflict, that being the passage into one’s teenage years.  The prose did the rest of the work, with the idea of baptism figuring heavily into the narrative and the image of the arrow working as a toy, a weapon, and a directional indicator in the narrator’s life.

I surprised myself with this one, and what a pleasant surprise.  I remember telling a writer friend about two years back that I am trying to writer mode-less pieces, to me meaning things that I think of or cull from my life experiences or in some way come up with that trigger my poet instincts and that I start writing with the intention of creating a poem.  Funny thing is, I when I start writing poems, they start as prose.  I will chisel that prose a dozen times or more if necessary to get the words and sounds I want, and to tease out some images and symbols and to craft an adequate ending.  What I end up with, before it is “poetry time!” is a concise paragraph.  I’m starting to realize now, though, that some things don’t need to be turned into poems; they need only ever be paragraphs.  Like pretty damn concise paragraphs.  In the case of “Thirteenth Birthday,” I started it as a poem and lost interest in bringing it into verse format.  Is it fiction?  I guess so.  I made it up.  It’s not something that happened to me.  Then is it nonfiction?  Sure, because  of the “emotional truth” (gag!), and it speaks to a universal experience.  That’s what did it for Mr. Sterling to rate it as second best.  And is it a poem?  Hells yeah.  Because I started it with that intention, used sundry poetic devices, and because I said so!

So I guess it’s possible to write mode-less pieces.  But they better be a helluva lot like poetry.  Writing will remain a strange thing, but what happened with “Thirteenth Birthday” and Third Wednesday has made it less strange by a small degree.  I’ll take that.

Written by seeker70

October 14, 2017 at 3:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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

Posted in Uncategorized

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