Nine Must-Reads for Writers

There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.

1. The Halfway House for Writers, Valley Haggard

The Halfway House for Writers by Valley Haggard is an inspirational book for anyone embarking on any sort of writing journey. It is conversational, honest, and motivational. It advocates for raw, fearless writing, presenting writing as a means of healing, learning, and growing, among other things. The author teaches various writing classes in the Richmond area, and maintains lifein10minutes.com, for which an anthology is due out next year. This book is perfect for anyone looking for encouragement or ideas–or both. Read my interview with the author regarding the book here.

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Valley Haggard’s book for writers, The Halfway House for Writers, takes an encouraging approach toward writing, having been written for “wounded writers.”

2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg

I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.

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Room to Write provides ample protection against writer’s block, offering almost 200 prompts.
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The pages of Room to Write include an introduction to each prompt, the actual prompt, and relevant quotes from recognizable writers.

3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser

My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.

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The conversational tone of this book makes it appealing and easy to read. I read it as a graduate student in a creative writing program, but even my high school students have benefitted from the lessons conveyed in this book.

4. 642 Things to Write About

As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.

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My husband, who clearly knows me well, gave this book to me as a Christmas gift. Like Room to Write, it furnishes writers with weapons against the dreaded writer’s block–642 of them, to be exact. Each page features between one and four prompts, and space on which to write your responses directly in the book.

5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick

This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.

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One of the most interesting aspects of my particular copy of the book was that is was used, and the previous reader had scrawled some very opinionated notes in the margins throughout. While reading, I had the benefit of not only forming my own take on the advice conveyed in the book, but also of comparing it to the takeways of whoever had this book before me. Our opinions often varied, but I found his (I imagine it was a man; I don’t know why) amusing in their cynicism and wit and enlightening in their insights.

6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)

This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter.  The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:

  1. Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
  2. In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
  3. From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject

The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.

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One of the example essays included in this book still influences my writing today.

7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer

This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.

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We all have a story to tell. This book helps us learn how to best tell it.

8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman

This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.

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I credit this book with one of the most revelatory experiences of my undergraduate academic career, as well as my reading and writing life.

9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway

This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with  “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.

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This book is logically organized, beginning with the first idea a writer might have for a piece (or the lack of ideas a writer might have for a piece) and ending with the process of revision, also touching on all the steps between.

 

 

 

 

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My Take on 2666 (so far)

At 854 pages on my nook, Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666 is the lengthiest on my summer to-read list. This post may be slightly premature, as I am only 76 pages into the 854 pages that comprise this novel, but I felt the need to provide my observations as they stand thus far.

One of the first things of note is that one of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is actually mentioned in this book: Salman Rushdie is described as “an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent” (75) . The narrator tells us this during a scene where two main characters, Pelletier and Espinoza, are brutally kicking a Pakistani cab driver who has insulted them and the woman with whom they are both in love. The irony in all this for me is the stance taken on Rushdie. When I heard an NPR story about 2666, it sounded reminiscent of Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, which I thoroughly enjoyed and studied, and which consequently contributed to my desire to read Bolano’s book–yet Rushdie is somewhat disparaged, albeit in passing, on the pages of the book.

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I most recently found time to read Roberto Bolano’s novel, 2666, on the shores of Lake Michigan in Covert, Michigan.

A similar irony occurs regarding the role of translators to world literature. They are viewed somewhat disdainfully–or perhaps pitifully–by the main characters, and yet the English version of the book I am reading is a translation from the original Spanish. I can’t help but wonder what the translators thought as they transcribed less-than-complementary lines about their profession.

On page 70, Bolano makes a delicious use of ambiguity. Two characters, Liz Norton and either Pelletier or Espinoza, are discussing the possibility of a menage a trois with either Pelletier or Espinoza, whichever character isn’t the current conversation partner.

“‘I don’t think we’ll ever suggest it,’ said the person on the phone.

‘”I know,’ said Norton. ‘You’re afraid to. You’re waiting for me to make the first move.’

‘”I don’t know,’ said the person on the phone, ‘maybe it isn’t as simple as that.'”

Of course, by referring to one of the speakers simply as “the person on the phone,” there is no telling if said person is Pelletier or Espinoza. I’ve been wondering about the purpose for this ambiguity, and so far, all I can come up with is maybe it simply doesn’t matter who is talking–an effort to show us how insignificant the individualities of the two men may be to Norton, who is romantically involved with both of them.

While Bolano employs ambiguity in the dialog above, he employs wit and rhythm in a delicious example on page 68, when Pelletier and Espinoza have both come to visit Norton, only to find her with another man, a young stranger (to them) named Pritchard. As you might imagine, the situation is tense:

“‘Are you insulting me?’ Pritchard wanted to know.

“‘Do you feel insulted?’ asked Epsinoza….”

I just love Espinoza’s response.

A third way Bolano creatively expresses conversation is with a deliberate lack of dialog. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it–that you could write a conversation in which absolutely no dialog occurs? But when Pelletier and Espinoza talk on the phone about their relationships with Liz Norton, Bolano presents the conversation like this:

“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship used twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain…. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza)…” (44).

Dialog with no dialog, forcing the reader to infer the use of the words and imagine the conversation.We have to fill in the blanks ourselves, use our own imaginations.

In addition to various treatments of dialog, the book so far has been rife with allusion–to Medusa, Perseus, Rushdie, and Napoleon, just to name a few.

I’ve also noticed some juxtaposition that precisely expresses the paradox of life, such as this example on page 61: “Couples or elegantly dressed single women passed briskly, toward Serptentine Gallery or the Albert Memorial, and in the opposite direction men with crumpled newspapers or mothers pushing baby carriages headed toward Bayswater Road.”

Finally, as little of the book as I have so far read, it has already provided me with six weeks’ worth of Words of the Week. Look for them in September (I can’t promise I’ll have a free Sunday before then!).

Basic conclusion so far: It’s worth the read (at least, the first 76 pages are).

Books: The Best 75 from the Last 75

Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time sitting out on my back deck in the sunshine, flipping through the Sunday Richmond Times-Dispatch. I was pretty excited to find that the week’s edition of Parade was dubbed the summer reading issue, and featured an article listing the best 75 books from the last 75 years. The article categorized the books by decade, listing the best books from the 1940s through the 2010s, with as few as four and as many as fifteen books listed under each decade (the 1940s fared the worst, with only four books listed, while the 1960s and 2000s performed the best, each with fifteen books listed). I’ll leave it to you to read the list in its entirety, but below are those I have read, as well as those I would have included had I been given the task.

Books I Have Read from the List

  1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty smith (1943)

    I read this delightful coming of age novel a few summers ago, and enjoyed it so thoroughly that the following summer, I offered it as an option for my incoming honors students’ summer reading assignment

  2. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)

    What can I say about this book except, though I have not read it since late middle school, it is one of my favorites?

  3. Night, by Elie Wiesel (1960)

    I taught this book to high school sophomores during my first year teaching. Of all the books we read, this short, readable, and factual book written by a Holocaust survivor was a favorite among my students–even the ones who didn’t like to read. (John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men usually has the same effect on my high school juniors.)

  4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1960)

    I haven’t read this book since I was in high school, but I remember enjoying it, and feeling a particular sympathy for Boo Radley and a particular admiration for Atticus Finch. I am told the latter might change when I begin reading Go Set a Watchman this week, so I am curious as to what my own reaction will be.

  5. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

    My father read this to my three siblings and me when we were elementary-aged. All four of us loved it. I have fond memories of sitting on the floor around my dad, either by the fireplace in our family room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, or in the bedroom my little sisters shared, listening to him read until it was time for bed.

  6. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963)

    Of course I’ve read this one. My brother even had the stuffed animal monster.

  7. Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1980)

    Maus is one of just two graphic novels I’ve read. I didn’t expect much, as it was a “comic book,” and I’m not really into “that sort of thing,” but Maus, written by the son of Holocaust survivors, is really something artful.

  8. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (1990)

    I read this book during the summer of 2013, as Tim O’Brien was one of two authors (the other being Ernest Hemingway) I studied for my Capstone project to complete my Master’s of Arts in Liberal Studies degree with a Creative Writing major from University of Denver. I cannot rave enough about this book. It is raw, it is gripping, and it is honest, though at times hard to read for these very traits. Even in its most difficult-to-stomach areas, I had a hard time putting it down. It left me thoughtful and reflective for months, asking myself questions about the human condition, our capacity for kindness, our capacity for evil, and what I could realistically expect of myself if put into situations like those described in the book.

(Some of) the Books I Would Add to the List

1. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939)

This book is incredibly moving and touching. One of my favorite characters is the genuine and conflicted Jim Casy. I also admire the way the book is structured, some chapters told in an almost stream-of-collective-consciousness fashion, and others narrated clearly and directly about the Joad family.

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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of the books that would have made my list.

2. Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (1946)

Written by a Holocaust survivor in part about what he believed allowed some people to survive the miseries of concentration camps while others succumbed and perished, the book is a philosophical and psychological examination of the human spirit. Despite its many references to the Holocaust, the book is uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring.

3. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (1952)

When students ask me what my favorite book is, my answer is East of Eden. I’ve heard Steinbeck himself cited it as his masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why. The characters and story are enthralling–rich and complex. I have read it three times, and each time come away with a different impression, a new insight, or a new idea to ponder–if not all three.

4. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein (1964)

Next to The Velveteen Rabbit (which can’t be included in this list, because it was published in 1922) and The Ugly Duckling (1844), The Giving Tree has to be one of the most emotionally involved children’s books I have ever read. Despite its seeming simplicity (simple language, simple illustrations), the book discusses the complexities of human relationships–the give and take of love, the meaning of sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, etc. It is one of the few children’s books that still moves me to tears, and I still remember how affected I was the first time the book was read to me in a classroom when I was in elementary school.

5. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie (1981)

A few years ago, a friend of mine suggested we read this together. I don’t think my friend ever got around to it, but I ended up reading the script, as well as the novel. It. Is. Fascinating. I would go so far as to label it epic, actually. The book is about as thick as East of Eden or The Bible, but don’t let that deter you. You’ll love every page and be disappointed to find you’ve arrived at the last one. I enjoyed it so much, that I conducted a deep enough reading of it to create a sample project for the Literature Portfolio assignment my honors students are required to produce for each piece of literature we read.

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Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed seems worthy of the list.

6. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (1985)

Next to East of Eden, this is quite possibly one of my favorite books. It is also the only book one of my most difficult students enjoyed reading, and may have been the only book he actually read during his time in my classroom. This book begs the reader to question the ethics of warfare and survival, as well as brings up questions about “The Other.”

7. Room, by Emma Donoghue (2010)

A fellow English teacher let me borrow this book from her last summer. The imagination of Ms. Donoghue is truly enviable. She tells her story from the perspective of a young boy whose whole life has been lived in a small backyard shed, which he calls Room, with his captive mother.

8. And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini (2013)

There are two things I remember clearly about this novel from my reading of it a year or two ago: 1) It left an indelible emotional imprint on me; it was incredibly poignant, and 2) It did an exceptional job presenting various perspectives of the same situation, illustrating expertly the complexities of human dealings.

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The cover of this week’s Parade Magazine, the summer reading issue, featuring a list of the 75 best books in the last 75 years

Based on a True Story: Why Writers Write Fiction

Anne Lamott writes, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” This advice resonates with me, because one of the struggles I face most frequently regarding my writing life is what I can safely say, and what I would be safer never to say at all. Because of this ongoing internal battle–to write it, or not to write it–I focused my graduate Capstone project in 2013 on arguably semi-autobiographical fiction. Three years ago, I spent six to eight hours of each summer day immersed in research for my Capstone project in order to complete my Master’s of Liberal Studies in Arts and Culture with a focus on Creative Writing from the University of Denver. This process ranks among one of the most arduous, yet most enjoyable and rewarding, of my academic career. If, like me, you often wonder if you might be risking too much by writing this or revealing that, the research below on authors Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien might interest you.

Abstract

This project examines the semi-autobiographical fictional work of two American authors, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien. The research is mainly secondary, analyzing not only pieces written by these two authors, but also dozens of essays and criticisms about the work of these authors. This project seeks to understand what fictional techniques draw writers to work in fiction, despite the fact that their subject matter may be drawn from real life. This piece argues that writers like Hemingway and O’Brien opt to work within the genre of fiction because doing so allows them to utilize techniques such as imagining multiple points of view, creating emotional distance, imposing coherence onto their stories, and preserving not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of their subjects. Works examined include the short stories that make up Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Ernest Hemingway’s shorts stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Up in Michigan, and “Old Man At The Bridge.”

Analysis Essay

Based on a True Story:

Literary Techniques that Make Fiction an Appealing Genre for Writers

Introduction

When I was a freshman in high school, there was a banner on the wall of my English classroom that read in big block letters, “We read to know we are not alone.” Ever since, I have been struck by the truth in that phrase. How many times have I been reading a poem, novel, or memoir (nearly anything!) and been suddenly touched by how true the words I read are to my own experience—even if the experience related in the poem, novel, or memoir is, on its surface, very different from anything I myself have lived? How many times have I read words written by another and thought, “Yes! That’s it! I know that feeling!”? The incidents are innumerable. As I have grown and taken up studies of literature as well as creative writing, I have come to believe that we not only read to know we are not alone, we also write to know we are not alone—and to let others know they are not alone. Fiction writing is one genre among many that allows writers to play their role in the larger human family. Although traditionally thought of as a genre in which occurrences and characters are drawn from the writer’s imagination, due to the many literary techniques it provides, fiction can also be appealing for writers who wish to deal with material drawn from their own real-life experiences. Working within the genre of fiction allows writers to utilize techniques such as imagining multiple points of view, creating emotional distance, imposing coherence onto their stories, and preserving not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of their subjects.

Multiple Points of View and Counterfactuals

Many writers of fiction seem to agree that there are two types of truth, the factual truth and the emotional truth, the latter referring to the truth about the way it feels to be human and the former referring to indisputable facts. Writing fiction allows these writers to imagine and explore the points of views of multiple characters, who, though experiencing the same circumstance, may experience it very differently. None of these perspectives of truth are necessarily untrue (or factually true); they are simply different experiences of the same circumstance. By allowing a writer to experiment with multiple points of views, fiction allows a writer to explore the multiple truths created by various perspectives.

In The Writing Life: Authorship and Authority in Recent American Autobiographical Narratives, Jonathan L. D’Amore argues that even when writing non-fiction, the presentation of truth is “slippery, mutable, and inexact” because truth is “tied to their [the authors’] experience of their lives” (D’Amore 2011, 5). In other words, a writer’s experience is colored—biased—by his or her own point-of-view, regardless of the degree of objectivity he or she is attempting. Fiction writers’ work, however, does not purport be factually true at all. With fiction, there is no need for writers to “overcome their subjectivity and ‘tell the truth,’” which is nearly impossible (D’Amore 2011, 11). Instead, through fiction, writers can expose subjectivity and reveal multiple truths, or multiple perspectives of the same reality. In fact, although the traditional perception of fiction is that it is inherently made up, novelist Anneli Knight asserts that “fiction is an ideal form through which to explore the multiplicity of realities” (Knight 2011,1), or the variety of ways different characters might perceive the truth. This, she claims, is due to the fact that fiction allows “a freedom and flexibility of form that enables the author to present the perspectives and inner lives of multiple characters” (Knight 2011, 6). To illustrate her point, consider the following circumstance: A young woman sits down to write about her parents’ impending divorce. She has many genres from which to choose. For example, she can write a narrative essay from her own perspective, based on her own emotions and thoughts regarding the situation. She can also choose to write a fictional story loosely based on her experience. Choosing the latter option would allow her to include not only her own perspective—perhaps embodied by a young girl experiencing the loss of a cohesive family, but to imagine what her parents might be experiencing, as well. If she chooses an omniscient narrator, she will be free to imagine the way each party is experiencing a singular event, namely, the breaking up of a family. In this way, “fiction can work to reveal, and create an understanding of, the subjective realities of others” (Knight 2011, 2).

In examining the works of two well-known authors, Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the drive for fiction writers to explore and express multiple points of view is clear. For example, in Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan,” readers are made privy to the inner thoughts and feelings of the character, Liz, who pines away for another character, Jim. Readers are also made privy to Jim’s perspective; they learn he does not think of Liz, though she often thinks of him. In its simplest form, this is the circumstance: There is a man and there is a woman and they know each other. The man experiences the acquaintance as just that—Jim knows Liz exists. He knows who she is, talks to her, finds her pleasant, but not much more. The woman, however, experiences the acquaintance much differently. In fact, Liz is so infatuated with Jim that she “couldn’t sleep well from thinking about him” (Hemingway 1987, 60). Had this piece been written in a genre other than fiction, Hemingway would not have been free to imagine the points of view of both parties involved. He would have been confined to his understanding and his perspective of the happenings. By opting to work within the genre of fiction, Hemingway was free to imagine into each point of view whatever worked for the story.

Like Hemingway, Tim O’Brien uses his memory and his imagination to create his fictional works (Calloway 1995, 2), and these works “often offer multiple versions of reality” (Smith 1994, 2). Tobey Herzog, an English professor and Chair of the Division of Humanities at Wabash College, asserts that fiction allows O’Brien to “explore recurring subjects from different angles, especially subjects from his own life” (Herzog 2000, 908). In a review of O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, Andy Solomon of The Philadelphia Inquirer states that the work is “a series of glimpses, through different facets, of a single, mysterious, death stone” (Solomon 1990, 1). O’Brien’s tendency to relate different points of view of the same circumstance is evidenced in many of the short stories included in The Things They Carried.

The first story in the book, which bears its title, is an apt example. As it opens, readers are made privy not to narrator-O’Brien’s[1] perspective, but to what author-O’Brien imagines to be the point of view of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. The fact that O’Brien is working within the genre of fiction allows him to imagine the point of view of any of the characters that people his story. In this case, O’Brien—though he could not possibly know with any factual certainty unless Cross himself told him—conveys what Cross imagines, knows, and wants with regard to his love interest, Martha. “He [Cross] would imagine romantic camping trips…. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there…. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her….” (O’Brien 1990, 1). Although author-O’Brien very well could have observed a fellow soldier tasting the envelope flaps of a letter he had received while in the field, he would have had no way of knowing why. However, fiction allows O’Brien the liberty of imagining why, and of imposing this perspective on his character. In a similar fashion, O’Brien takes liberties with point of view regarding Kiowa’s thoughts after their comrade, Ted Lavender, has been suddenly shot and killed. Narrator-O’Brien explains what Kiowa wished, felt, and wanted regarding the situation (O’Brien 1990, 18), though author-O’Brien can only have imagined this, or imposed upon the character of Kiowa what author-O’Brien himself wished, felt, and wanted.

Two more examples of O’Brien’s ability to explore multiple points of view due to his choosing to write fiction appear in “Speaking of Courage” and “The Man I Killed.” In the latter, narrator-O’Brien imposes on a corpse certain fears, memories, and experiences that neither narrator-O’Brien nor author-O’Brien could ascertain in reality. In the former, narrator-O’Brien imagines Norman Bowker’s point of view regarding his thoughts and emotions upon returning to his parents’ home after the war has ended. Either author-O’Brien is imposing his own experiences on the character of Bowker, or he is able to speculate on what Bowker’s point of view might have been using his own imagination and drawing somewhat from his own experience. In addition, writing this story in fiction allows O’Brien to imagine counterfactuals that his character, Bowker, considers.

A counterfactual is essentially an occurrence that could have happened, but did not. It is any happening that did not occur, but could be imagined to occur. The genre of fiction allows writers to use the technique of counterfactuals in their work. Herzog asserts that the use of counterfactuals enables O’Brien “to explore events years after the fact, imagining alternate possibilities, reaffirming previous decisions, and recovering key emotions” (Herzog 909, 2000). For example, O’Brien’s Bowker imagines telling the story of Kiowa’s death to his father, though he knows he will never tell it. The not telling is the fact within the story; the telling is the counterfactual.  As author-O’Brien imagines what Bowker would imagine, and narrator-O’Brien relates Bowker’s musings to readers, O’Brien is able to reflect on his own return home after the war, just as he allows the character of Bowker to reflect on his actions in the war as he imagines relating them to his father.

O’Brien also imagines counterfactuals in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Narrator-O’Brien explains that characters Mary Anne and Mark Fossie had always “known for a fact that someday they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children, and grow old together” (O’Brien 1990, 94). This scenario, ironically, ends up being not the fact, but the counterfactual, as Mary Anne ends up joining the Green Berets and, ultimately, disappearing into the mountains of Vietnam.

Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” also provides an apt example of the use of counterfactuals. Most of the story is told through dialogue, a conversation in which a wife assails her husband with could-have, would-have, should-have elements. The husband, in turn, laments his lost promise as a writer; he is dying, having never written down all the stories in his head. Not only does Hemingway give his characters the opportunity to imagine counterfactuals to their circumstance (they are on safari, an activity Hemingway himself experienced), but the story in and of itself imagines a counterfactual for Hemingway; namely, he could have ended up like the husband-character he creates—having never written any of his stories down. Instead, he seems to say, he is the opposite of this character, having mastered his art and used his talent to the fullest (Harding 2011).

A Safe Way to Explore Threatening Subject Matter: Creating Emotional Distance

In addition to allowing writers the freedom to imagine various points of view and counterfactuals, many writers may choose to write fiction because it allows them to establish emotional distance from their subject matter, thus enabling them to feel safe exploring human experiences (their own, or those of others) that might otherwise seem too intimidating or traumatic. For some writers, the subjects they explore in their fiction may seem too threatening to convey in any other form. Somehow, fictionalizing the topic, whatever it may be—war, domestic violence, crime, regret, disappointment—makes the topic more accessible to the writer as subject matter. In his discussion of some of Norman Mailer’s work, D’Amore asserts that Mailer’s use of the third-person, even in his nonfictional autobiographical work, “allows Mailer freedom” because it distances him from his own experiences (D’Amore 2011, 116). Fictionalizing a life experience can provide further emotional distance for a writer, thus allowing for more fearless exploration of the experience. John Edgar Wideman, another author studied by D’Amore, “has protected himself with…fiction, his ‘memory whiting out what it doesn’t require to construct a representative day’ that lets him keep what he want [sic.] to remember and forget what he feels he needs to” (D’Amore 2011, 166). In fictionalizing a traumatic or difficult experience, a writer is able to choose with which material he or she will work. He or she can consciously decide on which elements of the experience to focus, and can fill in the blanks with imagination. An author studied by writer Anneli Knight explains that with fiction, “you can really answer those bigger questions…. You can explore things that are really difficult to explore” (Knight 2011, 3).

Fiction’s allowance for the creation of emotional distance is likely one reason it is a genre in which Tim O’Brien chooses to work. Much of O’Brien’s writing is self-reflexive, and The Things They Carried is no exception (Smith 1994, 1). In “Notes,” narrator-O’Brien explains, “…the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that really happened…and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that…help to clarify and explain” (O’Brien 1990, 158). Herzog writes with some perplexity as to why author-O’Brien, in talks and interviews, has often “given contradictory responses to questions about his own postwar adjustment” (Herzog 2000, 901). Based on O’Brien’s statement above and his use of fiction writing to help “objectify [his] own experience,” one may wonder if perhaps he himself does not know the answers, but is using the emotional distance he creates through his writing to find them. Narrator-O’Brien says in “Good Form” that writing allows him to “look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God” (O’Brien 1990, 180). In other words, the emotional distance fiction allows O’Brien to create enables him to explore deep human emotions and questions, such as those mentioned above.

One threatening incident author-O’Brien considers in The Things They Carried is the fact that he entertained the idea of fleeing to Canada rather than allowing himself to be drafted into a war he did not support. The actual details related in his short story, On The Rainy River,” however, are not factually true. They are imagined, invented (Herzog 2000, 895). Imagining a scenario in which to express the inner conflict he felt allows O’Brien to achieve the emotional distance he needs in order to relate the real emotions he experienced as a young man. Through a make-believe situation and make-believe characters (narrator-O’Brien and the old man who houses him for six days), author-O’Brien is able to safely explore and express the real emotions he experienced. Narrator-O’Brien relates, “I can still feel the tightness. And I want you to feel it…. You’re at the bow of a boat…. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared….

“What would you do?

“Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood…?” (O’Brien 1990, 56). In this passage from “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien uses emotional distance in at least two ways. First, he begins in the first-person perspective. Despite the use of first-person, O’Brien has achieved a small degree of emotional distance for himself here solely in the fact that narrator-O’Brien is not exactly the same man as author-O’Brien. In creating narrator-O’Brien, who experiences a similar internal struggle but in an imagined circumstance, author-O’Brien allows himself to relive and explore this emotional and tumultuous experience. Second, though O’Brien increases emotional distance for himself, he decreases it slightly for his audience. When he jumps from first-person to second-person, O’Brien is demanding that the reader consider how he or she would feel in the same position. He is almost forcing his reader to feel what he felt, to ask the questions he had to ask himself. Marilyn Wesley, an English professor at Hartwick College, asserts that O’Brien’s desire to “engage the reader”—to make the reader feel what he felt—“is so powerful that O’Brien frequently presents his own experiences in the second person” (Wesley 2002, 2).

Another example of an experience for which O’Brien uses the technique of emotional distance is the death of his childhood love, Linda, who died at age nine. Narrator O’Brien explains in “The Lives of the Dead”: In objective reality, Linda is dead, “But in a story…I can revive…that which is absolute and unchanging…. Miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up” (O’Brien 1990, 236). It is very possible that one reason O’Brien choose to render this and other difficult experiences in fiction is due to the fact that the genre allows him not only to create emotional distance that enables him to look back with a little less pain, but also because it provides him the opportunity to imagine the counterfactual: Linda as not dead, but as being saved, and very much alive, in a story.

Hemingway, too, writes in a way that allows him to maintain emotional distance but that creates a very impactful emotional experience for readers. His short story “Old Man At The Bridge” is based on a first-hand experience he had in Spain, and provides an example of this talent. At just 800 words, the story is one of Hemingway’s shortest (Schoettler 1999, 1). The tale tells of an old man, a refugee of the Spanish Civil War, who has had to leave the farm where he was taking care of a few animals, about whom he is very worried, and feels badly about leaving. At the end of the brief story, a reader is left with a keen sense of tragedy and sadness. In under 1000 words, “Hemingway sums up the hopelessness of the refugee and the ultimate tragedy of the Spanish Civil War” (Schoettler 1999, 4). MIT associate professor William B. Watson calls the short story a “portrait of a moment central to the experience of…all wars in which ordinary people are innocent victims” (Schoettler 1999, 4). Although this story aligns very closely with what Hemingway himself was believed to have experienced regarding this old refugee, he still opted to write the tale as a fictional one, allowing himself the comfort of emotional distance.

Coherence, Meaning, and Human Connectedness

Thus far, two techniques usable in the writing of fiction have been discussed here; namely, multiple points of view and counterfactuals, and emotional distance. Another technique fiction writing allows a writer to utilize is imposed coherence in order to communicate a specific purpose, meaning, or theme. While people read to know they are not alone, they also write because they are not alone. “The primary purpose of fiction is to make us feel less alone” (Hallberg 2012, 50). One might note here that whether “us” refers to writers or to readers is ambiguous, and likely, the pronoun refers to both antecedents, because “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist…loneliness” (Hallberg 2012, 51). Fiction writing, then, satisfies one’s own need to feel connected, as well as communicating to others their own connectedness, their own belonging. Because fiction writing allows a writer to add, subtract, or imaginatively create certain scenarios, conversations, circumstances, etc., the fictional story can be made to work for the writer’s purpose—can be made to convey the exact theme or message the author intends. So, why write fiction? Allan Peterkin, MD, the founding editor of Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine; The Arts and Humanities, asserts that many contributors to his publication choose to write fiction because “stories…insist on meaning” (Peterkin 2010, 1650), something humans have always sought. Peterkin goes on to explain that to make a story “comprehensible or…interesting” a writer has to “re-enter and re-imagine” the motivating real-life experience at the story’s core. “Fiction-writing physicians…identify the impetus for a story…. Part of craft is using that detail as a point of departure, then moving onto something entirely new” (Peterkin 2010, 1651). Essentially, each writer’s life is clay. To write fiction is to take each real-life experience, and morph it as necessary to extract the desired message or meaning.

Poet Inger Christensen explains that “One of the most important elements…is the novelist’s message,” the emotional truth he or she wants to impart (qtd. in Calloway 1995, 4-5). Because fiction allows a writer to impose his or her own structure and coherence to express the desired meaning, it is a desirable genre in which to work for writers who have a specific theme in mind. “Narrative structured as fiction can provide clarification and some access to the truth of one’s experience” (D’Amore 2011, 224). Fiction writers who write from their own life experiences then, as O’Brien and Hemingway do, are—because they work in the flexible world of fiction—given the capacity “to select, and then translate and illuminate, everything that has been observed so that it seems to the audience something entirely new, something entirely true” (Trollope 2001, 1). In her critique on O’Brien’s semiautobiographical novel The Things They Carried, Lorrie Smith explains that the book “celebrates the reconstructive power of the imagination, which gives shape, substance, and significance to slippery emotion and memory” (Smith 1994,1). Indeed, much of what narrator-O’Brien relates to readers seems to support Smith’s assertion. In “How To Tell a True War Story,” narrator-O’Brien asserts, “All you can do is tell it…adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth” (O’Brien 1990, 85). In this statement O’Brien confirms the fact that writing fiction—“adding and subtracting, making up a few things”—is what allows him to impose coherence on an experience, and thus to extract meaning, or “get at the real truth.” In “Spin,” narrator-O’Brien fairly states why author-O’Brien might use fiction to impose coherence: “Stories are for…when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are” (O’Brien 1990, 38). In fiction, what is forgotten can be filled in with imagination, and what is imagined is malleable and can be worked into a piece that conveys the author’s specific intent.

For example, author-O’Brien does not have a young daughter named Kathleen, but he makes one up for narrator-O’Brien of the novel. Why? The character of Kathleen, who constantly questions why her father feels the need to write war stories all the time, allows narrator-O’Brien to remember, reshape, and reflect on his war experience (Smith 1994, 4). “All we have are a series of disconnected moments with infinitely discoverable meanings” (Whitlock 2003, 1), and writers can discover and express these meanings through fiction writing by imposing coherence—such as author-O’Brien’s need to create the fictional daughter, Kathleen.

Herzog refers to O’Brien’s somewhat muddled mixing of his real life with his fictional Tim O’Brien narrator’s life as “literary lies” (Herzog 2000, 895), and discusses readers’ frustration with their inability to discern what is fiction from what is fact. He asserts that what many readers may be missing, is the fact that O’Brien’s goal through his fiction is to “make readers feel rather than know” (Herzog 2000, 911). Author-O’Brien is not interested in whether or not there was a real man named Henry Dobbins who always wore his girlfriend’s stockings tied around his neck for comfort and good luck. He is not interested in whether or not when, upon learning that “his girlfriend dumped him…he went quiet for a while, staring down at her letter, then after a time he took out the stockings and tied them around his neck as a comforter” (O’Brien 1990, 118). What author-O’Brien is interested in is that his readers are made to feel, through his constructions, the loneliness of all soldiers at war. What writing fiction does in allowing for imposed coherence, is allow the “use of imagination to transform facts and reveal emotional truths transcending the limits of his or her [the writer’s] memory” (Herzog 2000, 906). As O’Brien’s character Mitchell Sander’s says after telling his own story to some of the men (which is then retold by narrator-O’Brien to the reader), “I had to make up a few things…But it’s still true” (qtd. in Calloway 1995, 3). Similarly, as narrator-O’Brien explains regarding “On The Rainy River,” “Some of it’s true,…not in the literal sense,” but “in the way I worried about it” (qtd. in Mehren 1990, 2).

O’Brien’s short story “Speaking of Courage” is an apt example of O’Brien’s using imposed coherence on a story in order to communicate his desired meaning. The story tells of character Norman Bowker’s experience after he has returned home from Vietnam. It predominantly traces one evening, which Bowker spends driving around and around the same seven-mile circumference of a lake near his house. In the story that comes after “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” narrator-O’Brien confesses his use of the fictional device of imposed coherence, explaining he had used a letter from Bowker as the “emotional core” for the story, and then, “To provide a dramatic frame, I collapsed events into a single time and place” (O’Brien 1990, 158). He also created a “natural counterpoint between the lake and the field. A metaphoric unity….” (O’Brien 1990, 159). O’Brien’s reasons for choosing to express this story in fiction are clear.

“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” also hints at O’Brien’s reasons for writing fiction. In this short story, narrator-O’Brien relates to readers a story he heard from another character in the story, Rat Kiley. Rat is narrating the story to Mitchell Sanders, and at one point asks Sanders to predict the outcome of the story. To explain why he predicts the outcome he does, Sanders lists the occurrences and clues provided in Rat’s story, and then says, “—all that had to be there for a reason. That’s how stories work, man” (O’Brien 1990, 102). Sander’s response is telling.

Preservation of Privacy

In addition to allowing writers to explore multiple points of view and counterfactuals, create emotional distance to explore and reflect on difficult subjects, and impose coherence for the purpose of extracting meaning, writing fiction also allows writers to preserve their own privacy, as well as the privacy of others who may somehow play a role in their literary works. “Whether labeling their work fiction or nonfiction, writers who use their own lives as source material…work within the same constraints they live; namely, that we are not alone” (D’Amore 2011, 69). In other words, people will read what has been written, and people’s lives may be affected by what was written. Fiction, however, can guard against some negative effects of possible public scrutiny of an author’s personal life, or the personal lives of his subject, because fiction allows far more than the simple changing of names and dates; in writing fiction, an author can alter entire situations, as needed. When writing fiction, “A writer can use his or her own life as  material…in a way that distances the finished text from the private person” (D’Amore 2011, 56). Because there is no need to be honest—factually truthful, that is—in writing of one’s life in the context of fiction, a writer of fiction can take creative liberties that a journalist or other nonfiction writer may not be able to take (Herzog 2000, 894).

David Ignatius, who writes spy stories based on experiences he has had working as a journalist overseas, sometimes in precarious situations, says he writes fiction to protect not only the identities, but also the safety, of the people who inspire his stories. He explains, “I learned…the inner details of the operation [the CIA’s recruitment of Yasser Arafat’s intelligence chief in the 1970s]—including the names of people who were still at risk…. [T]he best way to narrate what I knew as in a novel” (Ignatius 2011, 1). Ignatius’s decision to write of his experience in fiction was pragmatic; it allowed him to get at the emotional core of his experience while avoiding the endangerment of those involved.

Former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and author Oliver North, who writes mysteries and thrillers inspired by people he considers real-life heroes, chooses to write fiction for a similar reason. He explains, “…telling these stories presents the prospect of disclosing information or identities that would put brave men and women in…peril. That’s why these are novels—where actual names, dates, places, and classified tactics, techniques, and capabilities are altered” (North 2012, 1).

Hemingway, too, likely chose fiction in part to preserve his own privacy and the privacy of many of the women in his life. In his short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” discussed earlier for its use of counterfactuals, Hemingway’s character Harry considers why he never wrote about all the good times and bad times he had experienced with his various past lovers. Ultimately he comes to the conclusion that “He had never written any of that because…he never wanted to hurt any one” (Hemingway 1987, 49). If, as discussed above, Harry is somewhat representative of Hemingway in his talent for writing (despite his lack of ability to now use that talent), and is in fact a sort of anti-Hemingway in that Hemingway seems to be declaring to readers that he himself has not squandered his talent as his character has (Harding 2011), readers can also deduce that while Harry did not write of “any of that” to avoid hurting people, Hemingway did write it; he just wrote it in fiction, in a way that would still preserve the privacy of those who had been involved.

Conclusion

Although popular thinking on the genre of fiction seems to imply fiction is imagined or otherwise untrue, many writers choose to write fiction for the flexibility it offers in terms of the use of artistic literary techniques. Working within the genre of fiction allows writers to imagine multiple points of view, thus enabling them to explore multiple emotional (as opposed to factual) truths. Fiction writing in particular allows writers to explore multiple truths or points of view, because they can create and access the perceptions and perspectives of the various fictional characters they create. In addition, because fiction allows for a certain amount of creation and imagination, it permits a writer to imagine counterfactuals, or the way things could have been. Exploring the way things are not allows writers to explore possible reasons for the way things are. Fiction also allows writers to establish emotional distance from their subject matter, thus enabling them to feel safe exploring human experiences (their own, or those of others) that might otherwise seem too intimidating or traumatic. Some fiction writers use their works of fiction to explore the meaning in their own experiences, as well as to give significance to their lives and the lives of others, as D’Amore (2011) asserts of Norman Mailer’s novel, Armies of the Night: History as the Novel, the Novel as History[2]. Because fiction allows its writers to create emotional distance between themselves and their subjects or topics, these writers are able to explore otherwise difficult topics, as may be the case with Tim O’Brien’s war stories. While exploring the way things are and expressing truths about the way things are, writers of fiction are also able not only to discover they are not alone in a myriad of ways, but also to express this grand and comforting truth to their readers. Fiction enables a writer to do this because it allows a writer to manipulate occurrences for his or her own artistic purposes. In other words, fiction allows for the imposition of coherence on a story and thus can allow the writer to more effectively communicate his or her intended message, theme, or meaning. In this way, fiction writing becomes not only a selfish act of self-reflection, but also a selfless act of communicating to others their own connectedness to a larger human family, a family that shares similar emotions and experiences. Lastly and perhaps most simplistically and obviously, some fiction writers choose the genre based on their need to protect their own privacy and/or the privacy of those about whom they write and from whom they glean inspiration.

[1] In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien gave his fictional narrator his own name. To distinguish between the real Tim O’Brien and the narrator of the novel, the distinctions “author-O’Brien” and “narrator-O’Brien” will be employed when necessary. The former refers to the real man, whereas the latter refers to the speaker in the text.

[2]  Although Norman Mailer’s novel, Armies of the Night: History as the Novel, the Novel as History is often labeled nonfiction, Mailer says “The idea that non-fiction is reality and fiction is fiction is something I have been trying to disabuse people of for 50 years…I have always liked to mix the categories…to the point where they [the readers] will begin to see there is not that much difference” (qtd. in D’Amore 2011, 67).

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The things they carried. Critique 36, no. 4: 249.

D’Amore, Jonathan L. 2011. The writing life: Authorship and authority in

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David, Dan. 2004. Why do they write? Windspeaker 22:18.

Hallberg, Garth Risk. 2012. Why write novels at all? Riff January 15: 50-51.

Harding, Jennifer Riddle. 2011. “He had never written a word of that”:

Regret and counterfactuals in Hemingway’s “The snows of

Kilimanjaro.” The Hemingway Review 30:21-35.

Hemingway, Ernest. 1987. The complete short stories of Ernest

         Hemingway: The Finca Vigia edition. Ed. Charles Scribner, Jr. New York: Scribner.

Herzog, Tobey C.  2000. Tim O’Brien’s “True Lies” (?). Modern Fiction Studies

        46, 4: 893-916.

Ignatius, David. 2011. Why I write. Publishers Weekly 258, no 18: 25.

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116: 45-63.

Mehren, Elizabeth. 1990. Fiction rings true in O’Brien’s Vietnam. Orlando

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what writers do and why fiction matters. The Washington Post September 30: WBK.8.

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Author Interview: Valley Haggard

V. Haggard
Founder of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard is a Richmond, Virginia-based author and writing teacher.

My first introduction to Valley Haggard took place when I was a participant in her Master Class, “LIFE IN 10 MINUTES: Writing the personal essay,” at the 2015  James River Writers Annual Conference in Richmond, Virginia. I was struck by her deeply metaphorical writing style, as well as her generous, forgiving, encouraging, and inclusive view of writing—not to mention her beautifully thick, dark hair, and her eclectic fashion sense. All of this intrigued me so that when, a few months later, in February of 2016, a friend of mine gifted me with Valley’s book, The Halfway House for Writers, and invited me to join her in one of Valley’s Life in 10 Minutes Writing Workshops, I was quick to accept.

In her book The Halfway House for Writers, Valley writes about learning to “transform my self-talk…into gentle, soft, loving words, the same words I would give to anyone else” (116). This statement is so telling of the kind of person and writing teacher Valley Haggard is. She is an ally of the “writing scared” (121), an advocate for the writer who doesn’t yet know she is one, and a champion of all who are willing to risk themselves through the written word. Writers from every walk of life and every level of experience are encouraged to submit to the Life in 10 Minutes online literary magazine. Valley shares her 10-minute pieces every week here and publishes the work of her students and writers from all around the world every weekday here.I am absolutely honored to present below my interview with Richmond-based author, writing teacher, and founder of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard.

Mind the Dog: You are the founder of Richmond Young Writers. Tell us a little bit about this organization. Where did the idea come from? What is its mission? What are some of its programs? How can people get involved?

Valley Haggard: Our mission at Richmond Young Writers is to share the joy and craft of creative writing with young people. We started out with a few kids and a few classes in the summer of 2009 in the art gallery of Chop Suey Books and now we are a year-round program in our own space- The Writing Room- right next door to Chop Suey Books in Carytown. All of our teachers are also writers and our classes are lively, interactive, crazy-fun, and out of the box. We do everything we can to bring storytelling, poetry, fiction, movie-making, surrealism, and all types writing to life for kids outside of deadlines, grades, and all the pressure of perfectionism. We are always trying to spread the word about the awesome things we do and raise money for our scholarship program so every kid in this city who wants to participate can.  Here’s a link to our scholarships page! http://www.richmondyoungwriters.com/scholarships/

MTD: The Halfway House for Writers is dedicated to your students, in particular, “wounded writers.”  What do you mean by that? What particular wounds are writers susceptible to?

VH: I have found that 99.9% of the writers who come to my classes have some sort of hang-up around writing…and by hang-up I mean everything from crushing insecurity, neurosis, and paralysis, to simply questioning whether or not we are actually  real writers. Somewhere along the way someone told us we weren’t good enough or that to be a real writer you have to look and act and talk and think a certain way. We think our lives are too boring, our words aren’t big enough, no one wants to hear what we have to say. These are our writing wounds. I think writers are sensitive people who feel things with a certain intensity. We crave a safe place to experiment, to play, to share our words without being shot down. The Halfway House encourages people to find or create that safe place, a place to cultivate confidence, to take creative risks and to heal.

MTD: In your book, you thank the writers who helped build “a writing world you actually want to live in.” What does that world look like?

VH: Ah, yes! The writing world I want to live in is a world where we can be honest about who we really are without being shamed, ridiculed, or stared at like we have three heads. Where we can find points of connection and overlap through our words and stories. Where we can break the isolation of hiding our true thoughts and feelings and experiences and put them down on paper  in our own words from our unique points of view. I have found the connection, the safety and the freedom of expression I always craved in my classes. As a group this is what we create together. And for me, this is truly writing heaven, writing nirvana.

Writers from every walk of life and every level of experience are encouraged to submit to the Life in 10 Minutes online literary magazine. Valley shares her 10-minute pieces every week here and publishes the work of her students and writers from all around the world every weekday here.

MTD: There are seven “Rules of the Halfway House” (7-11). How did you come up with them, and do you have one that you believe is your favorite, or the most important?

VH: I came up with the seven Rules of the Halfway House by making a list of all the things I found myself saying most frequently at the beginning of each new class. Surrender your weapons, seek shelter, free write, hand-write, skip the small talk, listen, and don’t apologize. Having put these rules to the test for some time now, I have found them solid, sound, and truly effective. The writing that pours out of students in my class when they have this structure in place has been mind-blowing, deeply beautiful, and profound. Loose structure gives us the freedom to run wild, experiment, be honest, and create. It’s hard to suss out one favorite over all the others, but perhaps I’ll choose the first because it’s also the hardest: Surrender your weapons. This is where we stop following the dictate of the voice in our head that tells us we suck, we should stop writing, that we’re wasting our time. Without this I don’t think we really have a chance at the rest.

MTD: You have written ad copy and product descriptions in the past. How did you make the move from that type of work, to writing your own magazine column and teaching writing classes?

VH: This was an overlapping, intertwined, and long transition without clear demarcation lines! Young and hungry for absolutely any kind of paid writing that came my way, I was still writing ad copy and product descriptions for the first few years that I had my own column. And then, when I had my column and was still writing ad copy, I started teaching first kids and eventually adults. My plate got so full something had to go and luckily that something was the tedious, laborious work of ad copy. Not that I regret doing that for a minute…it taught me so much! But writing a first-person column and helping people access their own story and voice and find themselves staring back from the page has been so exciting and so gratifying, I feel insanely lucky that I was eventually able to let everything else go.

MTD: In “Publication,” you write in part about a generous editor who, having accepted a story you wrote for publication, essentially rewrote it, but who was also willing to, as you put it, walk “me through the most egregious of my errors” (88), giving you the chance to write a second article. I’m sure other writers could learn from your experience and avoid the same errors at the outset. What were these errors?

VH: My basic errors were ignorance and hubris. I had not made myself familiar enough with the format of the essays and articles this publication already published. I thought I could invent a whole new style of writing and storytelling for an established magazine that already had a very particular style. Inventing new styles and voices and formats is great for creative writing, but when you are trying to submit to a publication that already knows who it is, you have to get to know them rather than expect them to get to know you. After the editor rewrote my article, I studied the changes she made, the format and style she wanted, and then imitated her basic structure after that. Each publication is different, so my best advice is to make yourself intimately familiar with what they have already done in the past so you can fall in line with what they want to do in the future.

Mind the Dog would like to thank Ms. Haggard for her generously giving of her time to answer these questions.

 

Book Review: The Path

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The Path,
by Laurie Beth Jones, is a nonfiction book designed to help readers craft their own personal mission statement and vision statement, as well as provide them with the tools and confidence to reach their goals.

I began reading Laurie Beth Jones‘s nonfiction book, The Path: Creating Your Mission Statement for Work and for Life at the recommendation of a friend with whom I shared the questions that have been dogging (no pun intended!) me for the last few years: Why does it matter? What is my purpose? What am I doing here–and why am I doing it? A year or so before, the same friend had also recommended to me Viktor Frankl‘s deeply inspirational, moving, and thought-provoking work, Man’s Search for Meaning, so I trust her judgement.

 

I am about two-thirds of the way through The Path, and have found it motivational, informative, and uplifting, as well as somewhat enlightening.

There are two key elements that make this book engaging: the case studies and examples, and the exercises.

Jones pulls examples from two main pools: her own friends, colleagues, and clients, and Biblical and/or historical characters, such as Joan of Arc, Ruth, Jesus, and Nehemiah–just to name a few. With each example, Jones achieves two goals. First, she demonstrates that the advice described in the book has worked for many people, and can work for us, as well. Second, she illustrates how all these people applied–whether they realized it or not–the step-by-step process she details in the book, giving us insights as to how we might do the same.

The second helpful element of the book is the exercises, which keep me engaged, interested, and actively reading. They consist of personal and searching questions designed to help readers dig up their true passions, interests, influences, skills, and selves. Using the answers to some of the questions, Jones provides a formula for readers to create their mission statement, which she advises be short and sweet. One should be able to easily memorize and recite her mission statement. The longer piece is the vision statement, which may stretch longer than a paragraph, and details what one’s life will be like once she begins actually living out the mission statement. The vision statement expresses the ideal life of the reader, allowing her to imagine the results of living her mission, as well as helping her to remember the higher goal when living out the mission gets tough.

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After completing a few exercises in The Path, I crafted the first draft of my own mission statement: To remember, nurture, and write about a love for animals. While it is still a work in progress, the process of creating it has proven mostly enjoyable and completely intriguing.

In addition to my own personal interest in uncovering my individual calling, I have recently begun a certification course in the field of life coaching, which will ultimately license me to help others live their best lives. To my delight, the information and ideas in The Path are remarkably relevant to much of the course material I have covered so far.

I have not yet completed my reading of this book, nor have I perfected my mission or vision statement–but I am much closer than I was before I began reading, and I am looking forward what I will learn from the remaining pages. If you are seeking purpose, missing meaning, or looking for a way to uncover your best self, I recommend this book. What you learn might surprise you!