Word of the Week: Sessile

A couple weeks ago when I was looking up a recent word of the week, fustilarian, Dictionary.com suggested I might actually have meant “sertularian.” I didn’t, but I went ahead and looked up “sertularian,” anyway (because, why not?), and in so doing, exposed myself to another new word: “sessile.” Not to be drawn too far off course from my investigation of “fustilarian,” I resisted the temptation to further research “sertularian” and “sessile,” saving them for a future Word of the Week post. Well, the future is now, and I have found particular poetic potential in “sessile.”

Dictionary.com defines “sessile” within two contexts, the first being botany and the second being zoology. In the context of the former, the word means “attached by the base, or without any distinct projecting support, as a leaf issuing directly from the stem.”In the context of the latter, it means “permanently attached; not freely moving.

Merriam-Webster’s definitions are similar: “attached directly by the base; not raised upon a stalk or peduncle” and “permanently attached or established; not free to move about.”

Though Merriam-Webster rates “sessile” as landing in the bottom 40% of word popularity (so I need not feel so silly for never having heard the word before, or at least not remembering if I have), I think its potential for figurative use is pretty immense. For instance, a character in a story or speaker of a poem could be described as sessile–tethered, for example, to a lover or to the past, or held back by a physical deformity or someone for whom he or she feels responsible. George Milton of John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men comes to mind as a character who might well be–albeit somewhat ironically–described as sessile. Though he and Lennie are migrant workers–seemingly the exact opposite of people whose situations might be described as sessile, or “permanently established,” and they are more than “free to move about”–George is still not “freely moving.” Both he and Lennie are held back by Lennie’s always being misunderstood and doing “bad things” that keep the two constantly on the run. **SPOILER ALERT** Until George must shoot Lennie near the end of the novella, prompting him to realize how much he actually needs and cares about Lennie, he definitely feels sessile–“permanently attached” to Lennie, “not freely moving,” “not free to move about” (forced to move about, perhaps, but not free to establish the dream ranch he and Lennie imagine and settle down).

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

Recent Words of the Week

fustilarian

lachrymose

kalopsia

 

 

 

 

 

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).

Reference List

Adams, Tim. 1998. Novelist leaves his wife and kids. Novelist writes about

why a man leaves his wife and kids. Fiction. Or is it? The Observer May 11.

Calloway, Catherine. 1995. How to tell a true war story: Metafiction in

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

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

recent American autobiographical narratives.

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.

Knight, Annelli. 2011. I believe you, liar: Can truth be told in fiction?

         Journal of the Australian Universities Modern Language Association

116: 45-63.

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

        Sentinel April 06: E4.

North, Oliver. 2012. Why I write…Oliver North: Mysteries and thrillers.

Publishers Weekly 259, no. 47: 20.

O’Brien, Tim. 1990. The things they carried. New York: Broadway Books.

Peterkin, Allan. 2010. Why we write (and how we can do it better). Canadian

         Medical Association Journal 182:1650-1652.

Schoettler, Carl. 1999. At times he put pure gold on paper. The Sun July 21:

1E.

Solomon, Andy. 1990. Review of The things they carried, by Tim O’Brien

The Philadelphia Inquirer Book Review, March 25.

Andysolomonwriter.com.

Smith, Lorrie N. 1994. “The things men do”: The gendered subtext in Tim

O’Brien’s Esquire stories. Critique 36, no. 1: 16.

Trollope, Joanna. 2001. One of England’s most popular novelists reflects on

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

Wesley, Marilyn. 2002. Truth and fiction in Tim O’Brien’s If I die in a combat

        zone and The things they carried. College Literature 29, no. 2: 1-18.

Whitlock, Nathan. 2003. Twisting one’s own arm to write fiction. Books in

        Canada 32, no. 5: 3.

 

 

Songs to Write to: Playlist

I recently realized that certain songs tend to get me in the mood–to write, that is. I decided to keep a list of these inspiring, creativity-inducing songs, and noticed a particular pattern: It seems I am most inspired by songs that include piano, and/or by mellow melodies rich with melancholy, and/or by heartbreaking lyrics I wish I had written myself. Here is my ever-lengthening Writing Playlist:

  1. Fine Frenzy, “Almost Lover”
  2. Coldplay, “The Scientist”
  3. Gary Jules, “Mad World”
  4. The entire soundtrack to the film Dances with Wolves
  5. Counting Crows, “Colorblind”
  6. Bob Dylan, “Boots of Spanish Leather”
  7. Adele, “Someone Like You”
  8. Ben Folds, “Fred Jones Part 2”
  9. Evanescence, “My Immortal”
  10. Rhett Miller, “Come Around”
  11. Straylight Run, “Existentialism on Prom Night”
  12. Dashboard Confessional, “So Long Sweet Summer”

What kind of music awakens your muse?

Writers Unite: A Community of Creatives

Since I have begun authoring this blog, attending writers’ workshops and conferences, submitting more of my works for possible publication, and working on my novel, I have been amazed at the outpouring of support, encouragement, and advice I have received from fellow writers–as well as how much their faith in me has motivated me to really put myself out there. I am a fairly motivated and ambitious person anyway, but there have been many times the last several months when just that one person telling me to send an article there or write a piece for that publication made the difference between my considering doing something, and my actually doing it.

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My talented brother-in-law designed the preliminary cover for my novel-in-progress. The logo for this blog and for the W.O.W Network are also his work.

I credit fellow blogger Millie Schmidt with encouraging me to continue my quest for novel completion and publication with her post The Big 5. I credit a dear friend for a piece of mine that ran earlier this week in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. She let me know the column was looking for submissions and encouraged me to submit–and then fueled my fire by telling me some of her own work had been accepted. I also credit her for the fact that a piece of mine is scheduled to run in the same publication, though in a different column, next month. I credit my incredibly talented sister, freelance writer Anne Shaw, and my fellow W.O.W Network blogger, Charlene Jimenez, as well as my willing interview subjects, Kris Spisak and Valley Haggard, for the fact that writeHackr plans in August/September to republish two interviews from this very blog (one here and one here). I also credit Charlene Jimenez for the existence of this blog, and for encouraging me to use wattpad as a platform for my novel-in-progress. Earlier this week, I began to publish chapters of the novel in serial form there, and this post is an invitation for you to join my ever-growing network of supporters, friends, and readers. I invite (implore, beg…whatever) you to read my novel as it appears on wattpad. If you like it, please follow it, vote for it, tell your friends about it, etc.

Thank you!

Summer 2016 Reading List, Addendum

It is June 9. There is just one more Monday left in the school year. The countdown is really on now–but with the decreasing number of days, there is an ever-increasing number of books on my summer to-read list. I mentioned in my initial Summer To-Read post that I would likely end up writing an addendum. Well, here it is!

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Why I want to read it:

The movie trailers for the film version of this novel are intriguing, and I have heard the book is phenomenal–touching, poignant, thought-provoking.

How I heard of it:

When I first saw the movie trailers for The Help, I wanted to see it, but I follow a strict book-first policy that mandates I read a book before I see its movie, so, when I found out the film was based on a novel, I couldn’t see it: I had (still have) to read the book first.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Why I want to read it:

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One of the famous six-toed cats living at Hemingway Home, August 2014

Quite simply, I love the line “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” At least, I think I love it. I can’t really say for sure until I have read the book. The line can stand alone, and mean a million different things, but I want to know what it means in the context of the book.

In addition, I already know I admire and enjoy Hemingway’s writing. In high school, I found A Farewell to Arms deliciously depressing and tragic. I also relish his short stories, with their clipped and realistic dialog, their symbolism, their tragedy, their flawed characters and ambiguities.

Finally, I feel drawn to Hemingway in that I have close ties to his two haunts, Michigan and Florida. I spent the early days of my childhood in Michigan, and still visit at least once a year. I have been to Petsokey, Michigan and other areas of the upper peninsula, as well. I also travel to Florida multiple times a year, and in the summer of 2014, drove all the way down to Key West where, among other sites, I toured Hemingway’s home.

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One of the famous six-toed cats at the Hemingway Home in Key West, Florida, August 2014

How I heard of it:

Of course I had heard of it in passing–it’s pretty famous and I’m an English teacher. But what really placed it at the forefront of my conscious mind, separating it from the other famous classics we have all heard of at one point or another, was the suggestion that one have the line “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” tattooed somewhere on one’s body. A book line worthy of a tattoo has got to come from a book worthy of a read.

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A view of Hemingway’s studio, August 2014. Our tour guide informed us that Hemingway would get up in the morning, spend a few hours writing about 600 words, and then venture out in the afternoon and evening to local bars and restaurants.

 

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Why I want to read it:

While I have never read this book in anything close to its entirety, I have been exposed to excerpts enough times to know it tells its story from several different perspectives. My own novel-in-progress attempts something similar, so I think I can learn something from the structure of this piece. In addition, the writing style is rich and the characters of which I do have some knowledge seem diverse and well-developed. I simply want to know more.

How I heard of it:

A leader at one of the workshops I attended at the James River Writers Annual Conference used excerpts of this novel to illustrate various writing techniques and skills. My  parents also read it aloud to each other during a long road trip, and both liked it.

On a Side Note…

My initial Summer To-Read List includes Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. If you live in or are going to be in the Richmond area next week, you might be interested in Fountain Bookstore‘s Harper Lee Themed Dinner on Wednesday, June 15. It will feature a three-course meal and a discussion on the controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman, led by Charles Shields, a biographer of American novelists.

 

You Know You’re a Writer When…

Many people who write are hesitant to call themselves “writers.” There are various reasons for this. “I haven’t been published;” “I just write for myself;” “I write, but I’m not good at it;” “I’ve never written a book;” “I can’t write poetry” are just a few. I almost titled this post “You Might be a Writer If…,” but the fact is, if you write, you are a writer, much like if you read, you are a reader and if you run, you are a runner. You wouldn’t say of yourself, “Oh, no. I am not a real reader. I only read a couple books a year.” There is no set amount of books one must have read in order to be classified as a reader. You just have to read. There is not a certain number of miles one must have run to be a runner. You just have to run. Similarly, there is no true criteria to qualify as a writer–other than, of course the obvious: You write. There are, of course, various degrees of writers, readers, and runners, but they are all safe under their parent label.

Still, in the interest of closet-writers everywhere, I have composed the list below. If you can relate to any of them, you are probably a writer, despite your best efforts to shirk the label.

You Know You’re a Writer When…

10. you narrate others’ lives for them as they happen. For example, one of my students might come into the classroom and say, “We don’t have a test today, do we?” Instead of a simple yes or no, my response might be, “He says as he stares at the board in horror, noting where his teacher has scrawled ‘Test Today’ in red marker across the white board.”

9. you wanted a Master’s degree in writing just so you would have a reason to write. Okay, I admit it: I stole this from a meme I saw on Facebook. But it’s true. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons I myself hold a Master’s of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing. I realized I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted to. What better motivation to carve out the time to write than a writing prompt that costs over $2000 a semester? (Plus, it’s pretty cool to have a Master’s in creative writing!)

8. you have a constant narration running through your mind to help you make sense of the world. Admit it. You experience your day-to-day life as a story in your mind. You are constantly thinking in dialog, poetry, or narration.

7. you keep a pad of paper and pen(cil) near you at all times. And when you for some reason find yourself without these most basic of writerly tools, you text yourself your ideas–bringing us to number six…

6. your phone is full of texts you sent to yourself about things to write down because you somehow did not have your paper and pen(cil) with you

5. you dream poems and stories–and usually can’t remember them when you wake up…

4. your own story ideas keep you up at night

3. you agonize over the nuance of one word in a line of poetry or a sentence

2. you read books with a pen or pencil in hand–always–to jot down notes in the margin and improve your own craft

Lastly, most importantly, you know you’re a writer when…

  1. You write.

Achieving Emotional Impact: Advice from Experts

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From left to right: Moderator and author Robin Farmer listens as authors Shadeqa Johnson, Anne Blankman, and Ginger Moran respond to questions at the monthly James River Writers Writing Show. The topic of this month’s Writing Show was “Editing for Emotional Impact.”

The last Wednesday of every month, my local writing organization, James River Writers, puts on their Writing Show. Last Wednesday, I attended my second Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” hosted by author Robin Farmer, and featuring author Shadeqa Johnson, young adult author Anne Blankman, and author and book/creativity coach Ginger Moran.

I arrived at the Writing Show at 6:51, six minutes after the 6:45 start time. The lobby of the Firehouse Theater (the venue for the Writing Show) was empty, the 6 o’clock social hour in the lobby having already morphed into the presentation and moved into the auditorium. Someone from James River Writers quietly and warmly led me to what seemed to be the very last seat in the very first row. I didn’t get a program because they had already given away all 76 of them. I sat down gratefully, and settled in, optimistic that I would learn a few things I could apply to my own novel-in-progress. Despite my tardiness, my optimism was rewarded. Below, I share my lessons with you.

On Finding the Emotional Truth

As writers, part of our job is making sure our writing resonates with our readers. The most effective way to achieve this goal is to make sure our work elicits genuine emotions, and provides characters our readers can relate to. To keep a reader interested, we must make sure to hold their emotional attention–our readers must be emotionally invested in our characters. They have to cheer for them, cry with them, laugh with them. But how can we create characters and situations that foster this type of character-reader connection?

Johnson

Ms. Johnson advised that writers get themselves out of the way and listen to their characters. After you have your basic story idea figured out, she recommended you write character bios that include the characters’ vulnerabilities, what they want, and what they are willing to do to get it. She also reminded us that “the best fiction comes from truth.”

Blankman

Ms. Blankman said we need to ask ourselves: What one thing matters to the character most, and how can you threaten the safety of that one thing? She also advised to be careful to begin at the right part of the story. Make sure to reveal the character before he embarks on his emotional journey and change. What is he like before he starts to change? She cautions us not to start too late, but instead to allow our reader to meet the character before the story arc begins.

Moran

Ms. Moran, who spoke largely about nonfiction, reminded us that fiction rules also apply to nonfiction. She says her rule of thumb for plot is: It starts bad, gets worse, and then gets resolved.

On Achieving Emotional Variance

Our hostess, Robin Farmer, introduced this topic by explaining that one of the most common mistakes new novelists make is creating a protagonist who is too unhappy. Or too happy. Or too angry. Or too bitter. In short, new novelists sometimes create a character who is dominated by one character trait or mood, and is thus somewhat flat and static. Emotional variance, however, refers to the variety and spectrum of emotions people feel. In one day, even the most stable person likely experiences multiple emotions, ranging from concern to serenity, from fear to calm, from contentment to frustration.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s advise was simple: Your character needs to be likable before she is miserable.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman said she often creates an emotional checklist for her characters. One technique she uses is color coding. She assigns a certain color to each emotion, and then goes through her draft, highlighting or changing font colors accordingly. “You want a rainbow,” she said, indicating that a variety of colors implies balanced and believable emotional variance in your character.

In addition to color coding her drafts, Ms. Blankman discussed the method of creating what she termed a “peaks and valleys graph” by chapter or section. She describes plotting points on a graph according to high points (positive emotions) and low points (negative emotions). This visual can help you get a sense for how often your character is happy and how often she is sad–as well as the intensity of the joy or sorrow. A higher point would indicate a higher intensity of elation. A lower point, a deeper pit of gloom. Ideally, your chart would show several peaks and valleys, indicating you have achieved emotional variance.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson advises that the character’s emotion should change with each plot point in the outline of your story. She also recommends considering your own emotions throughout the day and “following the rhythm of life.”

On Knowing When You Are Done

While our ultimate goal is to always have that finished, polished piece, ready to send out for publication, or maybe just share with close friends and family, it can be very difficult to discern when a piece you have been working on is done–or at least as done as it’s going to get. The three authors on the panel explain how they decide when they are done below.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson described the feeling of being done as reading her work, and experiencing the sensation that someone else wrote it. She describes how the hair on her arms will stand up and says it seems as though the finished piece is “singing” to her. She knows she is done when she has nothing left to say. She also cautions us not to let our egos get in the way. Do not think, “I have to get the story out right.” Instead, realize that you are merely a conduit for the story. Sit down. Listen. Write.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman admits that she can often revise until she can no longer see her story clearly, and it becomes too familiar. She reads it so many times, she can no longer tell if it’s good or not. When she reaches this point, she either puts the piece away for a while, or sends it to a trusted critique partner.

She also advises that we need to do terrible things to our characters, and make them suffer.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s advice follows closely to the last tidbit from Ms. Blankman. To ascertain whether or not her work is finished, she asks herself the following questions:

  • Have I gone deep enough?

  • Does this hurt badly enough?

  • I let my character suffer, fail, take risks. Can I make it worse?

If she can answer yes to the first two and no to the last one, she is done. If not, she has more work to do.

On What to Avoid

It is one thing to make sure we are doing everything we should be doing, and quite another to make sure we aren’t doing everything we shouldn’t be doing. Here are some “don’t’s.”

Blankman

Ms. Blankman warns us not to be too easy on our characters. She also recommends reading books we don’t like, figuring out why we don’t like them, and then not doing whatever that is.

Moran

Ms. Moran cautions us not to focus solely on an external or an internal conflict. The best writing incorporates both.

On Books We Can Learn From

You may have heard the adage, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Surely it is solid advice to say that one can become a much better writer through reading good authors. Below are some recommendations from the panel.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson has two requirements for books she reads: 1) they must entertain her, and 2) they must teach her something. She recommends reading Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom and Diane Whetstone’s Lazaretto.

Blankman

Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia is an excellent model because it is simple, spare, and stripped down. Raw, honest, and emotionally true. For YA she recommends Karen Cushman and Karen Hesse.

Moran

Moran’s list of models included:

Joan Didion

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Anne Lamott

David Sedaris

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

On a Publisher’s Role in the Editing Process

Navigating the waters of publishing can be tricky. What are the steps? Who are the people? How do I do this? The unfortunate truth, and the reason why this process is so tricky, is: It’s different for everyone. Here is how our panelists have followed their pathways to publication.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson recommends hiring an outside editor, one not affiliated with a publisher, because they have more time to work with you than an in-house editor might.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman works with an in-house editor through Harper Collins, but says she has her manuscript pretty polished before her editor ever sees it. After she sends the work in, her editor responds with an editorial letter, which usually starts by listing all the piece’s virtues, and ends by explaining what needs to be improved or addressed. Ms. Blankman has never hired an outside editor, but she does share her work with trusted critique partners, and her agent is a former editor.

Moran

Ms. Moran advises that writers of young adult literature may not need to hire an outside editor. Because YA literature is so popular right now, a YA piece is likely to receive a lot of attention from in-house editors.Literary fiction, not so much–so if that’s what you write, you might want to consider finding your own outside editor. Lastly, Ms. Moran says you are wise to “invest in help.”

On Cutting Copy

Cutting copy is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process. How do you know what to cut and what to keep? What if you feel you must cut something you love? We all know the pain of trimming down our work.

Johnson

Johnson laughed as she said that what she was about to advise us to do, “none of you are gonna wanna do.” She was right, but it seems good advice, nonetheless. As part of her revising process, Ms. Johnson re-types every single draft. She prints it; reads it, taking notes as she goes; and then retypes it. This is helpful in cutting copy she says, because “you’ll only want to retype the good stuff.” If you find yourself thinking, as she sometimes does, “I’d rather kill myself than retype this paragraph over again,” you might not need that paragraph.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman reminds us to trust our readers. They don’t need the entire backstory. Let them fill in blanks while you drop clues for the first couple of chapters, or use flashback. She also advises not to use a prologue to tell backstory. The other authors concurred: prologues are often one of the first things an editor or publisher will cut.

Johnson

Give flashback and backstory when you need it to move forward. In other words, write your story forward until yo must go backward in order to go forward again.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s very straightforward advice was that most writers will end up needing to cut the first 40 to 130 pages of their manuscript.

(At this point in the show, an audience member recommended a book called Five Editors Tackle Twelve Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing.)

On Discovering your Characters

While our readers may not need to know every little detail of our characters’ lives, in order to tell an accurate, honest, and believable story, we do. Here is some advice on getting to know your characters.

Johnson

Write a letter to and from your character, or hold an imaginary conversation with your character.

Blankman

Write a scene where the main character isn’t the main character, a scene told from a different character’s point of view, as if he or she were actually the protagonist.

Moran

Consider all the mundane details of your character–from the kind of car she drives to the kinds of clothes in her closet. And read Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist.

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The monthly James River Writers Writing Show takes place at the Firehouse Theater in downtown Richmond. Above, writers pour out of the building after the May Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact.”

 

 

 

Author Interview: Vernon Wildy, Jr.

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Vernon Wildy, Jr. is the author of two novels, and has a third in the works.

Vernon Wildy, Jr. is a Richmond, Virginia-based, self-published author who has managed to complete two novels and begin a third while juggling a full-time job, along with many other obligations. His first novel is entitled Nice Guys Finish Last, and his most-recently completed work, which is not yet published, is entitled Reunion at McBryde Hall. It takes place with a backdrop of Virginia Tech. He also recently began working on a third novel, a sequel to Nice Guys Finish Last. On a recent Saturday morning, Mr. Wildy and I spent a leisurely hour and a half soaking up the sun on the patio of Urban Farmhouse, talking craft, creativity, and community. Below is our conversation.

Mind the Dog: Where did you get your inspiration and idea for Nice Guys Finish Last?

Vernon Wildy, Jr.: Hanging out with my friends. A lot of the material came from things I saw or heard when we went out to clubs and get-togethers. I heard a lot of things that made me think, “Where did that come from? I’ve got to write this down!”

MTD: How long did it take you to write it? To self-publish it?

VW: I worked on it off and on for about six years. In the interim, I went back to college for my MBA and changed jobs. Once I got all of that together, it freed up time to finish it and pursue its publication. Since I’d earned my degrees, I thought, “Let’s chase after some other goals.” Publishing took over a year. It was a matter of finding a publisher, having it edited, getting all the information together. Getting the cover designed was a nightmare. The first version looked like an Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement, which isn’t my vibe. My painter friend came up with the cover art and my editor agreed that it fit. I am looking to eventually, by the end of year or the start of next year, get it to paperback.

MTD: What did you enjoy (or not!) about the writing and self-publishing process?

VW: I should have gotten more information and found out about more places to go. Looking back, I so wanted it done, that I made the decision too quickly. If I had been more patient, I might have gotten a better product and better marketing opportunities. I didn’t know about Amazon doing their own publishing, or about self-publishing through Ingram-Spark.

MTD: How many edits/drafts did the book go through before publication, and what was the editing process like?

VW: Three different drafts. I could’ve done more, but I got to the point where I was tired of looking at my own story. Lulu offered editing, but it was expensive. Then I met Kris Spisak, through James River Writers, who did the edits.

MTD: What did you learn that will help you with your next novel?

VW: I am in the final stages of my second novel and just stated my third. My main

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Mr. Wildy and I met up at Urban Farmhouse in Richmond, Virginia, on a recent Saturday morning to conduct the interview published here.

take-away is to take care of your characters. Keep them consistent and give them space. I don’t like stories where characters fit right into stereotypes. I don’t want cookie-cutter characters. Treat them as real people with real emotions. Give them conflicts and choices.

MTD: Tell me about your next novel.

VW: The second one is Reunion at McBryde Hall. I used Virginia Tech as my backdrop. It’s  a story I’ve been playing with for quite some time. It’s a reunion of two people who have not seen each other since they graduated twenty years ago. It takes them back to their relationship to each  other, and with the university. It describes how they split apart and the lives they lead and what got them to that point. Romance plays a part, as does race. There is an interracial component in their relationship, as well as a discussion of the dynamic of expectations of the communities that they come from. At college, you learn there are other ways of viewing the world, and other expectations.

MTD: How did you become interested in writing romance novels?

VW: I didn’t. My real goal was to create a new men’s fiction genre, but I ran into a lot of road blocks. When I pitched Reunion at a one-on-one session with an agent at the James River Writers Annual Conference,  she labeled it contemporary romance. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around it. I re-pitched it at Pitch-a-Palooza at the conference and the crowd went nuts. It took me about a year to finally embrace writing contemporary romance. I don’t like the way the genre is stereotyped. There are very few men there and the stories are catered towards women. My characters are male-centric. They talk like men. They have feelings like men. They pursue women like men.

MTD: You have a full-time job in sales. How do you make sure to find time to write?

VW: Time management is key. My job requires a lot of time. It’s not an 8-5 job. I work early mornings and late evenings. What’s important for me is to make sure that I set enough time aside to write. I tell myself, “At this time I am going to write.” I do that every morning. I get up around 5:00 every morning and I write for about an hour and half, get ready for work, and go to work. On weekends, I try to get better at telling people no.

MTD: What do you like about writing, and how did you discover your love for writing?

VW: I have been writing since high school. It started out with discovering hip-hop and journalism at the same time. I then wrote for my high school newspaper. The ability to tell stories and use them to tell how you feel about things appealed to me. When I was working on my Bachelor’s degree in engineering in college, writing was  a break from my coursework. After college, I thought, “Oh, I’m just gonna work and be successful.” But then I got laid off. Writing helped me figure out what the heck just happened, and what to do next.

MTD: Who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book? Why?

VW: Walter Mosley is my favorite author. I love several of his works. I love the pace of his stories. I love how there is conflict within the male protagonists. There are things they must discover about themselves. He does that through mystery, erotica, and science-fiction.

MTD: What do you wish I would have asked you that I haven’t asked you yet?

VW: I would have liked if you had asked me about my relationship with other writers. Having other writer-relationships has really helped me because I don’t have an English and writing background. When I’m with other writers, they throw out authors and devices and tools and it has been quite a learning experience. I was not a part of that world until I joined James River Writers. I’ve been science-based. My sales job has nothing to do with creating writing. It’s technology-based. Networking with other writers has helped me gain exposure to people who are in that world.

MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?

VW: Tell your story. Don’t get caught up with what’s in the market. Don’t get caught up with what people say is popular. If you have a story, go with it. Don’t be afraid to tell it or journey with your characters. I heard a great thing recently: The key to getting published is to write something good. If you have a good story, someone will want to read it.

Mind the Dog would like to sincerely thank Vernon Wildy, Jr. for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview.

 

A New Pathway to Publication: Kazabo

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The first James River Writers Writing Show I attended took place in March. The focus was blogging.

I love the Get Your Word On e-mail newsletter put out by my local writing organization, James River Writers. I learn so much every time I read it, and last night was no exception. Not only was I reminded of the upcoming Writing Show, Editing for Impact, near the end of the month, but I also learned the Annual Poetry Festival and Conference, put on by  The Poetry Society of Virginia, is next weekend. I plan to take advantage of both of these events, and a third: Kazabo.com. I had never heard of Kazabo Publishing until I read about them in Get Your Word On less than twenty-four hours ago, but I am sure glad I know about them now! The site has resources for new authors, established authors, and readers–something for everyone!

If you are a reader, you can visit Kazabo.com and fill out a profile. As soon as a book or author that they think you will enjoy emerges, they’ll notify you.

Kazabo has a phenomenal program in the works for emerging authors, as well. As an emerging author, you can send them your book. They will then send you five books to review. You have a certain amount of time to turn in your review of each book, and after you have done so, your own book will be reviewed. Beyond that step, one of two things can happen: either they will seek you out for a publishing contract (!) or they won’t–but you will still have several reviews of your work, and from there, you can revise it, and potentially try again. Even if your work is not selected for publication, the feedback would be invaluable for future success. For more information on how to get involved, check out their FAQs.

As for me, I have already completed my New Author Registration (it was super quick and easy), and just as soon as I finish revising draft three of Goodbye For Now, I plan to send it in! It’s a win-win: I get to read several new books and help other aspiring authors, receive unbiased feedback on my own work, and maybe even see my novel published.

If you know of any aspiring authors, please share this information with them by sharing this post on your social media sites, or otherwise sending them to my blog!

 

 

Author Interview: Valley Haggard

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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.