Monday, April 1, 2013

Happy National Poetry Month!

I am doing something exciting for this year's National Poetry Month. I am attempting to write poetry every day for the month of April. Perhaps some days I'll be revisiting previous poems or adding a stanza to the previous day's work. At the end of the month I'll share the best thing I wrote in April.
I'm inviting my college friends to join me and I thought I would extend the invitation to you as well. I'll share my best poem on my blog and would love it if you link your work in the comments. National Poetry Month isn't just about appreciating great poetry that's come before. It's also about being brave enough to try your own hand at poetry.
So who of you will join me? Let's make this a productive month of reading, writing, and searching our souls.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

College Students: So You Want to be a Writer?

As a soon-to-be-graduate from an English program, I feel moderately qualified to give some advice to youngsters about embark on or early in their college career. More and more I'm meeting freshmen and students recently accepted to the English department who tell me, "I'm going to be a writer." Kudos, I'm on the same page, but sometimes it feels like they haven't really thought this career decision through. They seem to think it's an obvious, easy decision. To be honest, saying that you're going to be a writer is the wrong attitude to begin with. Either you are a writer or you aren't-- being published or paid doesn't determine that.
Here's some candid advice from someone who is about to face the big scary world with the degree you're going for.
1. Taking English classes alone do not prepare you to be a novelist: Taking creative writing classes and workshops are a great way to hone your skills. You can get great feedback from your professors and fellow students which can be incredibly valuable. In class you learn techniques and theory that are important foundations for good writing. However, if you never do any writing outside of class, there's little hope of you achieving much professionally. It's hard to make a living writing five short stories or ten poems a semester. It's when you're not writing for an assignment, but harnessing the skills you developed in class, that you can take the time to experiment creatively.
2. Writing a novel is not part of an English BA program: Very few English programs actually have writing a novel as part of the curriculum. Most undergrads don't write novels while in college. It is a time-consuming process that few students can make room for in their busy schedules. NaNoWriMo is great fun, but most of what you end up writing probably won't be usable, not without heavy editing. I organized my own independent study to allow myself the time to really focus on drafting a novel while still a student and got academic credit for all my work.
3. Writing is hard: I feel like I don't need to say this, but apparently I do. Writing a novel is a lot of long hours of thankless work and frustration. A first draft is not a finished novel either. You must toil through edits and revisions for more thankless hours. No one's first draft is publishable. Not really.
4. Selling your writing is even harder, so educate yourself: Hooray! You've completed something that you are proud of and that others have given you strong feedback on. Now you have to begin the brutal task of writing queries and summaries, sending out to agents and/or publishers. Yes, self-publishing is an option, but not an easier option. If you want to be a self-publishing success you have to be willing to put a lot of time and effort into it; basically you have to be your own marketing and sales team. Whatever route you choose, you have to understand social networking, the publishing industry, and what market you're entering. Do your research. You should be as well versed in your chosen profession as a surgeon is in theirs.
5. You don't have to be a writer: If you think you must be a writer simply because you love reading and language and aren't sure what else to do with yourself and your English degree; you're wrong. There are so many other options out there for you. Yes, there is always teaching. There's also library sciences, copy editing, marketing, technical writing. You can go on to a complimentary Masters program, English is a great starter degree if you want to move on to study law, another humanities field, or social sciences.

After all that, if you still do want to be a writer, if in fact you can't help yourself, here are a few tips that have been helpful to me:
Read everything: I mean, within reason. So you want to be a fantasy writer, that doesn't mean you can't learn about characterization, thematic arcs, and strong writing from historical fiction, commercial fiction, or 18th century satire. Don't pigeon-hole yourself. You might be struck with inspiration for a story in a genre you've never even considered before. It might be your masterpiece.
Explore things beyond the English department: I like to say that writers should know a little bit about everything. People don't want to just read novels about other people reading novels. If that's all you know of life, you won't have much material. Go to an art gallery, a rock concert, read a psychology journal, talk to a stranger in a bar (but be safe guys), go hiking, do something that scares you.
Travel: One of the best things that happened to me was getting out of my home community. Along with the above tip, travelling is a great way to gather material and get outside your sphere of understanding. Travel in the country, out of the country, anywhere. Again, unless you're going to set every story in the town you grew up, you need to see what else is out there. Even if you are going to write about the area you're from, sometimes it's easier to put it in perspective when you're away from home.
Have a social life: It's really easy to think that if you spend all of your off-hours in front of your laptop (or in true vintage style, typewriter) that it will be the most effective way to be successful. Those work hours are very important, but it's okay to have a social life. In fact, though many hours are spent in solitary confinement when you're working on a project, writing is still a surprisingly social profession, or at least it can be. Meeting with other writers and discussing your work can be really useful. Meeting with other people and discussing almost anything can help relieve some of your work anxiety.
Carry a notebook always: Always be prepared to write down any sudden ideas. Inspiration can strike anywhere-- on the subway, in the grocery store, while having lunch with friends. Don't be afraid of looking neurotic. Scribbling furiously in public can only help in giving people the impression you're a serious writer, after all.
Write something: Even if it's not up to scratch yet, write. Have a brilliant idea? Take the time to work on it. Don't wait until you're graduated to finally put pen to paper. Use your college years to make a start at finding your voice. Take random prompts, go to local writing groups. Just do it. Don't wait until you're "good enough" or else you will never get the practice you need to be good. You will write some crap. Everyone does, but you'll get better and you might even find that in a bad story, there's a good character or a great bit of dialogue that can be salvaged for something else later.

Best wishes fellow writers. I'll see you on the other side.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Italy: Il Bel Paese

I'm back from Italy. For more details on the trip, you can feel free to visit my new travel blog.
This was a different sort of trip for me. I wasn't really sure what to expect from it. There was something slightly dangerous about it-- navigating through the streets of Rome, knowing only a few words of the language. Florence was much nicer, more romantic. Next time I go there, I'd like to be with someone I love.
I spent an incredible amount of time in museums and churches. I've also discovered that while I have a good head for beer, drinking wine at dinner every night makes me a bit silly.
Everything in Italy draws the eye up--domes, balconies, painted ceilings. You find your head tipped toward the heavens constantly. And I made my pilgrimage to the Protestant Cemetery to visit Keats and Shelley, then to the Keats and Shelley Museum by the Spanish Steps. We also stood at the corner around which Dante is said to have first seen Beatrice in Florence.
It was all too brief, but inspirational none the less. I took many notes, nearly filling a new mini Moleskine. There is, I believe, fodder for at least two short stories and a handful of poems within these fevered scribblings. Though it doesn't perfectly match the image given to me by 19th century literature, it is country whose nature lends itself to an amorous nature. The combination of delicate beauty along with wildness stirs the poet, the artist, the architecture.
It poured with rain the whole time we were in Florence, but that was beautiful too.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Sounds of Storytelling

When I'm not weeping over my future prospects, or doing school work, or preparing for my Italy trip (less than two weeks now!), I'm working on my new story. It's the historical fiction piece I mentioned a few weeks back. I almost always write with music. I like arranging playlists for specific stories, having music that reflects the atmosphere or some aspect of character and story.
Even though this is historical fiction, it's mostly very contemporary music. Most of the vocalists are female in this playlist, quite by coincidence, but it works since it's about a primarily female group.
Since I've been a little lax at posting these past few months, I thought I'd share a few of my writing songs with you. Feel free to link your own favorites for the creative process in the comments. I'd tell you how each song relates to the plot or theme, but that would be giving it away.

Friday, February 15, 2013

14th Century Italian Literature: The Inferno vs The Decameron

My final seminar, the course I need to finish my degree, is on Italian Literature, and English language authors in Italy. It's an interesting syllabus full of titles and authors I'm not previously familiar with (which is always a little bit exciting). We read 20 of the 100 tales of The Decameron and now we are reading all of The Inferno, part one of Dante's Divine Comedy. I'm about to go full literature nerd. You've been warned.

In many ways, Boccaccio wrote The Decameron as a secular counter point to Dante. Where Dante wrote a divine comedy, Boccaccio was writing an earthy, human comedy. He uses a similar religious conceit in the structure of the story. Dante's Divine Comedy has 100 cantos (1 prologue canto, 33 within the Inferno, 33 in Purgatorio, and 33 in Paridiso). The Decameron consists of 100 tales told over ten days by ten tellers.
The Decameron as a whole has a subversive feel to it. It shows authority figures to be corrupt and those with the quickest wit, not the best morals, prosper. Boccaccio also subtitled his work, "of Prince Galehaut." This is a reference to the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and Guinevere's illicit love. Galehaut arranged the tryst between the two lovers. In this way, Boccaccio is signalling his audience that his tales will be of this bawdy nature.
Lancelot and Guinevere are referenced in The Inferno. In circle II, The Circle of the Lustful, Dante encounters a couple called Francesca and Paolo. Francesca tells him how she was deceived into marrying Paolo's brother. She and Paolo would meet to read together. They read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere which moved them to, in a moment of passion, share a kiss. Francesca's husband catches them and kills them both.
Basically, by subtitling his work with a reference to the that tale, Boccaccio is saying that he is writing immoral stories. He's writing the kind of stories that can land you in Dante's hell.

This seems as good a segue as any to let you know that I'm spending the first week of March in Italy with others from the class. We have plenty of literary stops planned.
I've just started a new travel blog, so most of my photos and whatnot will be recorded there. I'd love it if you guys would check it out!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Film Review: Like Crazy (2011)

Anna and Jacob meet in LA where they're both going to college, and they fall in love. The only problem is that Anna's from England. When she overstays her student visa and is barred from coming back to the US, they struggle with keeping their relationship alive across the distance.

The premise of this film is one I appreciated. As I'm gingerly stretching out into traveling I'm meeting great people. Keeping those connections alive, even if they aren't romantic in nature, can be challenging. A friend of mine is currently trying to make a transatlantic relationship work and I've been a sympathetic ear for her as much as possible; our friendship is also a slightly long distance one as she lives a few hours across the country from me. So the subject matter of this movie seemed relevant.
Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones play the two young leads. We watch them age believably from child-like students to adults developing careers and relationships. I've enjoyed both of these actors in previous roles, notably Yelchin in the new Star Trek movie and Jones in The Tempest and Northanger Abbey. Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead appear as Anna's delightful parents who provide a sounding board for the couple's relationship.
In spite of a strong cast and intriguing premise, the film was a bit lackluster. I found it to be missing something emotionally. We keep being presented with evidence of the couple's love for each other through Anna's scrapbooks and Jacob's furniture making, but something doesn't connect.
It seems that the writers Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones wanted to bring realism into the scenes. The speech patterns sound like a transcript of everyday conversations (apparently using some improv on set) which resulted in conversations often lacking eloquence, full of awkward moments, and stammering. Combined with the sometimes random, choppy time lapses and montages, what ended up resonating with me most was the disconnect between the characters. Even when Jacob and Anna are in the same room together, they seem to be an ocean apart. There's something uncomfortable about much of their interaction.
When they're apart they seem to quickly fall in with other lovers, making me doubt their devotion to each other even more. Yet they display jealousy at the thought that the other might be seeing someone else as well. Perhaps that's why the ending of the film leaves us with some uncertainty, it isn't a brick wall happy ending, but it isn't entirely without hope. We're unsure of how they'll end up. I do have applaud the sophisticated, mature way it was ended without crushing or soothing us, showing the audience something a little more difficult, a little more real.
I wanted to like this film and it wasn't terrible, it just didn't strike me the way I had hoped. The romance it revolves around was hard to have faith in. I kept wondering why the characters didn't move on, if they were trying and force something more out of a youthful fling. It was first love, but maybe not permanent love.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Acquired Tastes

As a child I tried a sip of wine at a wedding. After I had wrinkled my nose in disgust, my mother told me it was an acquired taste. Someday I would feel differently. Perhaps I was just a precocious or challenging child, but I had to ask, "Why would anybody take the time to acquire a taste?" And I couldn't understand why you would drink something that wasn't quite pleasant.
As I grew older, I did in fact acquire a taste for many things that I initially couldn't tolerate: beer, wine, cheddar cheese, tomatoes. In fact those are practically four of my basic food groups currently. I've found that tastes other than those in my mouth have developed as well.
In high school, I couldn't stand Virginia Woolf. My advanced placement English group read To the Lighthouse. I found it tedious. I didn't like Woolf's style. The whole thing felt rather pointless to me. Last year I came back to it. I admit that I was reluctant to revisit the novel, I only did so for a British literature class. Imagine my surprise when I found that there was something in the novel I had missed the firs time around: humor. With the space of a few years between me and my previous experience with the book, I found it to be a very different text. This summer I read Woolf's Between the Acts and found that to be a very interesting, if somewhat fatiguing book.
That's the strange thing about novels. They may not be factual, but they tell us truths. Usually truths about ourselves. Many readers will have one book they return to over the years that stands as a sort of gauge for that. The text remains the same. We're the ones who change.
Literature is not entirely unique in this way. I've had similar experiences with music as well. When I first heard The Decemberists, I wasn't sure about them. There was something odd about their sound. It was like my ear needed to be calibrated to their music. And eventually it was. Now they're one of my favorite bands.
Perhaps that's the difference between disliking something and needing to acquire a taste for it. Things that you acquire a taste for are unsettling. You don't like them at first, but there is something intriguing about them. Something deeper to the taste, the sound, the text. When you spend more time around it or return to it later, you begin to uncover that depth. It's almost like you have to work for your appreciation of that that thing. That makes your attachment to it greater in the long run. Maybe it's a little like falling in love? But, matters of the heart are not my area of expertise.
What things have you had to acquire an appreciation for over time? Or what things have you considered trying again after finding it initially unappealing?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Ironies Abound

So in the interest of transparency, I should tell you that I'm graduating in May. I'm on the cusp of embracing my adulthood, taking responsibility for myself, and figuring out what these years of study are truly for. No pressure.
If any of you have followed this blog for a while or read my sidebar -->>>> you'll know that I rejected the idea of being a high school English teacher fairly early in my academic career. Last week, thanks to a number of factors, I settled on what I want to do when I graduate.
Ironically, the plan involves teaching (and oh, how my father teases about that). But not quite in the way most English majors do it. I've decided that I want to live abroad for the next few years and support myself by teaching English as a second language. I want to travel and write and unfortunately, that needs funds. Teaching ESL might be the way to it. I think that might be more enjoyable for me anyway. I won't be convincing bored American teens to care about Shakespeare and To Kill a Mockingbird. No, I'll be sharing language and culture with students around the world. And yeah, some of them will be bored, but I feel like in an ESL curriculum there's more room to be inventive and incorporate technology and digital culture. If they're bad in class, I can always Rick-Roll them.
The job climate in the US is depressing to say the least. I don't want to run off to NYC to intern at a magazine or be an assistant at a publishing firm like every other graduating writing student on the east coast. Confession: I don't even like NYC that much. I'm more of a country girl.
Of course the hope is that I'll start publishing my fiction and make an income from that. But I don't live in fairy land (or even the world of Hemingway's A Movable Feast). Writing doesn't pay that well. Even if you're good. You have to be both prolific and popular
I know I want to write and travel and I'm afraid that if I don't do it now, I never will. I'll fall into some job that I don't really like that will sap my energy and my time to write. I'll get too settled to leave. Like most of my family, I'll end up living the rest of my days within 20 miles of the place I was born. That's why I have to go now. I can't give myself a chance to fall into a rut because I'll stay there.
And yes, I know that this lifestyle I'm describing has many drawbacks and challenges. Arranging visas, tax forms, language barriers, being far from the familiar, not being able to have many material possessions, etc. I'm not saying I'll do this for the rest of my life. I feel like I should spend the rest of my 20s with rich eyes and poor hands. I should sleep on other peoples' couches around the world. When I hit 30, I'll reevaluate and see if it's time to buy my own couch.
So that's my manifesto of the moment. Updates on this painful process of arranging my future will trickle in. Thanks guys.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"...Or you'll end up in my novel"

"You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better."
--Anne Lamott

The first time I came across the ethical question of blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction was as a teen. A slightly paranoid friend in high school told me that her ex-boyfriend based a character in his play off of her and that she thought it was morally reprehensible. More recently, while reading the manuscript of a friend, I came to the realization that one of her characters was based off me. An odd sensation to read a fictionalization of yourself, but she was just a side character with my physical traits who would occasionally slip in literary words of wisdom to the narrator (in fact, the worst thing I might say is that I read a bit dull as a character).
In my own writing, however, after leaving behind the sadly autobiographical stories I wrote in childhood, I've tried to avoid basing characters directly off people in my own life. Working on some of my more recent projects however, I've discovered that it's inevitable. As writers, our minds are our landscapes. Everything we've read, seen, or experiences is what we funnel into our stories. Most importantly, the people we meet shape us.
I doubt there is any writer who can honestly say that nothing they've written has some basis in an experience they had or a person they've known. I think we often end up playing the "what if?" game. You start with an amusing or interesting situation from life and invent from there. Say, a late night volleyball game on the beach with your friends. Now you say "what if a treasure map had washed up on the shore that night?" or possibly, "what if Gary and I hated each other more and took out our animosities during the game?" There must be a story in that. The game in real life might have been tame, but throwing in those other variables makes it plot.
Some characters will become a composite of people I know. They might have one person's occupation, another's penchant for compulsive cleaning, but I develop completely fictional relationships for them within the story. Sometimes, if a close friend is being used as any sort of basis, I'll clear it with them first. I'll let them know that I'm lifting a bit of their physicality, or a circumstance from their life and using it in my story. So far no one has objected.
In most cases, I doubt someone reading my novel would pick out what they had been the inspiration for. I do have ethical qualms about making a direct transcript of a real person from my life to a character. But I can't pretend that my stories don't have the occasional non fiction basis. As a writer, I feel I have a sort of duty to capture the reality of human experience. Fiction is real in that sense, it can be a recognizable truth about life from a story that didn't happen, at least not exactly. It didn't happen, but it's still true.
Even more problematic can be injecting a "me" character into stories. It can be so easy to slip into writing about a hero that is basically your own self, especially when writing in the first person. I think a little bit of yourself will always be present in your characters. After all, what they say and do are filtered through you. But, sometimes it's really liberating to write from the perspective of someone totally different. A different background, different stance on issues, different race or gender, different age: I think experimenting with that can help you get outside yourself as a writer. And that can be so good for the work.