Sunday, January 25, 2009

Yeah, It’s a Good Idea, but Can You Write It Well?

So I read a book last week that, in spite of how much I want to leave it behind and get the bad taste out of my mouth, is worth talking about because it sheds some light on the great MFA/MFYou debate. This book, whose title and author I will politely leave undisclosed, was absolutely terrible.

This was the first novel by a science fiction writer, an MFYou. She’s very public about her writing process and as someone who is fascinated by learning about other writers and how they do what they do, I was interested in reading a first novel by someone who’s writing process I already knew a lot about. It was published by a small press, who apparently didn’t edit it very well because the book is full of typos and grammatical errors, but that aside, the book was very poorly crafted.

This is clearly not a writer who pays much attention to craft. Her focus, I can tell, is on plot. And the plot alone was quite engaging. A fun and funny approach to a classic genre of stories. While there were a few inconsistencies, which she tried to smooth over as best she could without actually going back and rewriting the offending details, the plot was pretty well done.

The craft side of the book, though, was horrible. There didn’t seem to be any thought put into how to tell the story, what perspective to be in, which details to include and which ones to leave out (I’m not all that interested, for example, in the elaborate section where the main character tries to remember whether or not she can go home because she may have locked her front door, only to remember at last that she has a key to her own apartment - it is, after all, her own apartment! And does any of this end up having to do with anything? NO!).

It reads like a first draft, one that has promise, one that you can imagine will be good, one day, but has a long road of revision ahead of it (like any first draft). The problem is, and I should have known this going into it because I did already suspect that she doesn’t understand the difference between revising and editing, that it seems she wrote a first draft, did some “edits,” as she calls it, which seem to be just surface level proofreading, and then considered it done.

But there was a lot more that needed to be revised. She needed to consider the voice of the narrator; she needed to think about perspective; she needed to think about what details we need and what details we don’t; she needed to think about how to describe things (outside of her rampant use of adverbs, we get hardly any description at all); she needed to think about how to tell us the important bits of exposition that we need to know; she needed to think about how to fully develop the characters. . . Essentially, she needed to learn to step beyond what happens in the story and to ask herself how to best express these things that happen and these people that they happen to.

It’s an interesting change from having just read Yesterday’s Weather by Anne Enright the week before. That book was still good; I enjoyed many of the stories and would have considered it worth reading even if I wasn’t picking it apart to find the difference between her older stories and her newer ones. But Enright’s trouble, in my eyes, was too much playing around with craft, not enough attention paid to plot.

This other writer has the opposite problem, but it seems this problem is more inexcusable. This book, even though I liked the plot, was not worth reading. And even though she was able to get it published, I can’t help but wonder about this small press, who put out a book so full of typos many of the lines don’t even make sense (and I haven’t even mentioned that some of the pages are printed crooked and the picture on the cover is fuzzy at the edges, like it was taken with a really crappy digital camera).

But again, it all comes down to that the best sort of writing pays attention to both craft (which I consider the MFA side of writing) and plot (which I think of as the MFYou side that MFAs often forget entirely about).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Balance Between Story and Craft

Last week I talked about Anne Enright’s short story collection, Yesterday’s Weather, and how it shows the importance of personal experience in writing. This is a difference between her earlier stories and her later ones that Enright herself noticed and referred to in her introduction. The stylistic shift that I noticed is more subjective and it may not be one that other people would agree with me about.

Enright has a very unique style: her stories are heavy on exposition and the narration tends to shift back and forth quite frequently from the “now” moment of the story itself and the characters’ pasts. There is also a certain vagueness to the storytelling, which is, I think, an attempt at subtlety that in my opinion often goes too far. I would almost call her writing experimental.

I noticed that, while there are certainly exceptions, I generally liked the more recent stories better. When I tried to put my finger on what it was about the more recent stories that I liked, I realized that many of them used this expositional shifting and vagueness far less than the older stories. A lot of them even had a normal amount of exposition, though some of them still had more than most stories would. And the vagueness, while it was still often present in these stories, was much more in line with what I would consider skillfully placed subtle hints about what it all means and what’s going on. The more recent stories seemed less like experiments and more like stories by a writer who has found her voice and has found the right balance for her voice.

It’s interesting, though, that many of the older stories reminded me of the sort of thing you see a lot of in MFA workshops. Writing that seems to focus more on doing something different than on telling a good story. I often think that one of the main differences you see from MFA writers and non-MFA writers is the attention paid to craft. I think a lot of non-MFA writers think more about the story, the plot and what events will take place. Whereas many MFA writers focus more on how to tell the story, what techniques should they employ and how should they structure this piece.

Ultimately, I think you have to focus on both for a story to be very good. More and more literary journals these days include in their submission guidelines that they aren’t interested in the sort of writing that gets manufactured in the MFA machine. Writing that pays little or no attention to plot, the story part of the story, and instead focuses entirely on employing artistic techniques that often leave the story completely incomprehensible unless you read it several times, extremely closely. Something that few readers and no editors will be willing to do. Really, only other writers have any interest in reading this sort of writing.

While Enright’s early stuff still managed to get published, I would argue that she has improved immensely over the years in large part because she has found a good balance between craft and story. I wonder if this is in part because she went and wrote several novels inbetween and you have to learn to pay attention to plot if you want to write a novel. Even writers looking for artistic inspiration are unlikely to bear with you for 300 pages of no plot.

In contrast to Enright’s collection from last week, this week I read a downright terrible book that has the opposite problem from Enright’s earlier work. I’ll talk about that next time.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Question of Experience

Anne Enright’s short story collection, Yesterday’s Weather, compiles stories from her 2008 book, Taking Pictures, her 1991 book, The Portable Virgin, and two stories that appeared in 1989 in Faber’s First Fictions: Introductions 10, a British anthology of new writers. A friend of mine did a presentation on Yesterday’s Weather in workshop last semester and I borrowed it from her to read over the break, thinking it would provide some interesting insight into how we progress as writers.

Anne Enright earned her MA from the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing program (incidentally the same place my thesis advisor Gerri Brightwell, author of The Dark Lantern, earned her MA before coming to UAF to earn her MFA, and for that matter, the University of East Anglia is the place many acclaimed British writers earned their MAs). In her introduction to Yesterday’s Weather, Enright says that she chose to organize this collection in reverse chronological order, where the more recent stories appear first, followed by the 1991 stories, and those early First Fictions stories finish the collection.

Enright says she organized the collection in this way in part because it is funny for her to see how much her view of the world has changed over time. Many of Enright’s stories are about being a mother and being a wife – two topics Enright openly admits she knew nothing about when she started as a writer.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this shift can be seen when you compare two of Enright’s stories on the same topic: a story about a woman who realizes that her husband has had an affair. Actually, this theme recurs quite frequently in Enright’s stories, but for the sake of comparison we’ll look at one that was from the 1991 set and one that was from the 2008 collection. In the story originally published in 1991, the woman reacts by dying her thinning hair blond and stealing another woman’s purse at the salon only to drown it in the river. So. She goes a bit nutty, in other words. In the story published in 2008, the woman’s struggle is not so simple and the woman herself seems far more bothered by her husband’s infidelities . . . and yet, she is somehow also more accepting of them.

The more recent story feels realer to me. It deals with the issue in a more complex way and even though the feminist side of me (though I would never identify myself as a feminist!) is frustrated with both characters for not simply leaving their husbands, I believe the newer story (it’s actually more believable than my fantasy that the wife would just leave) and the story is laid out so that I feel I understand the character’s reaction. The character's reaction in the 1991 story is a little too dramatic in my eyes. In Enright’s defense (or at least, in defense of the writer she was 17 years ago), I’m simplifying the 1991 story dramatically; it is certainly still a complex story, but compare it with the 2008 story and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Looking at these stories in this way is intriguing since many of us get really serious about writing before we get really serious about life. That is, we lock ourselves in our rooms and write, write, write, the only problem is we’re spending all of our time at the computer and, consequently, have very little to actually write about. And some common life experiences (you know, those seemingly insignificant little ones that the ordinary reader will have experienced for him or herself and will, then, be able to tell if you’re speaking about something you don’t understand) just don’t really happen until you get a little older, have a little more perspective.

There is also an interesting stylistic shift that I noticed in Enright’s stories but I’ll talk about that next time.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On the Importance of Momentum

It’s easy sometimes to forget the role momentum plays in our everyday lives. We talk about addictive behavior, or habits, or even decisions based on a sense of identity, but often what we’re really talking about is just continuing to head in the same direction we’re already headed, for better or worse, because we’ve built up a certain momentum.

I’ve really noticed the value of momentum as a writer lately. The past several months, close to the past year, really, I’ve had a really good momentum going as a writer. First I was working on my thesis, then I set that aside to work on revisions of a children’s book I had written previously, then I went back and forth between my thesis and several short stories, then short stories and the first draft of a new novel . . .

I’ve kept myself busy with a lot of different projects and never went more than a day or two without writing, and if I did for some reason miss a full day or two, I’d make up that lost time as soon as possible. Writing gets to be so automatic, when you’ve got that momentum going, that you no longer feel like you have to find time to write, it gets to a point where you have to find time for your real life. Writing is always the first thing on your mind, everything else feels secondary.

So secondary, in fact, that this past semester I spent so much time writing and daydreaming about my stories and novel that when crunch time hit I was wholly unprepared. I realized that writing had become almost like a bad habit, an addiction that was getting in the way of the things that were actually mandatory in my life (grading papers, writing papers, oh, I don’t know, feeding myself and my husband???) I figured that I had to stop writing for that last couple of weeks so I could finish up my school stuff --- but of course, that wasn’t possible. I was too addicted.

I managed to get everything done, and keep writing on the side, but once the semester officially ended, I turned in all my final stuff, posted my students’ final grades, and completely shut down. I had to do my Christmas shopping (after all, Christmas was only two days away by that point), and I needed to put together the first issue of MFA/MFYou. So I decided that just for, say, a week, I would stop writing and instead I would sleep in during the mornings, play video games, read comic books (and regular books, too). Just relax.

Now that I feel rested up, though, I’ve been having a bit of trouble getting back into my groove. It’s funny how quickly that momentum can dissipate. I didn’t end up taking the whole week off, instead I took two days off, wrote one day, then took two days off again. But the trouble is, I went from writing almost every day for close to two hours (and never, as a result, having my stories very far from my mind), to writing in one small two hour block in the middle of a five day stretch. And now all the stories that used to bounce around in my head all day every day are much vaguer to me; they’re more like distant memories than the crisp, vivid, detailed things they once were.

I’m already starting to get that momentum back up, but I can’t help but take it as a lesson on how much we rely on momentum to get things done. Maybe the truth is what makes us writers is that we’ve allowed ourselves to become addicted to writing, the same way some people are addicted to chocolate or to TV. And while some addictions may be “healthier” than others, we have to find the right balance in life, and, once we find that balance, we’ve got to keep that momentum going.