Category Archives: Fiction Writing

Hemingway in Pittsboro

Hemingway - youngI used to think that as a writer I had to hole up in my little room and write and write, and never come out until I was done.

But it dawned on me that unlike in journalism, with creative work nobody really cared if I ever finished something. That gets a little weird after a while. It turns out that’s a bad idea for me to hole up that way, and a bad idea for most writers. Think about it. Even in those first days in Paris, Hemingway got out of his little room and went out drinking, got great coffee in cafes, hung out with a writing group at Gertrude Stein’s place, and got into fights for fun and exercise from time to time.

This Tuesday is the first session of my Fall 2014 Kitchen Table Writers at Rosemary House workshop, and it’s always a great time to reflect on creating a writing community. What we do in workshops like this is provide the structure, the deadlines, the group support–and the coffee and cookies that every writer needs, whether she’s in Paris or Chatham County. It’s important to set goals, to finish drafts, to keep revising until that draft is really really good, then revise again. And it’s important to know that somebody cares if you finish, and if it’s really really good. In this room, we are all each other’s Gertrude Stein. Lucky us.

Some of my students have heard me say the magic number 26. That’s how many deep revisions David Huddle gave his first story, Poison Ivy. It was the story that won him attention, got him a book contract, and made his career. When he was done revising that story, he’d learned that it’s worth it to keep going, and I’m guessing it was just a little bit easier the next time.

So, for 12 Tuesdays this fall, we are going to be keeping each other going. We’ll connect on the level of the work — which is a great privilege. Good writing goes deep, and we get to know each other quickly through its pages. The writers’ passions will show. Also their blind spots. We’ll point them out to each other, but always with respect and support.

By December 2, our last session, I hope all the writers will have completed at least one revision. I plan to be inspired by their passion and discipline to kick in my own revisions on my novel draft. And I hope they will know that although we all have to sit in that little room alone to do the work, it’s actually really fun to come out and share your work when it’s ready to see the light.

PORCH rosemary-house-bed-andAnd it’s especially fun in Pittsboro. To steal Carrboro’s slogan, this is my Paris in the Piedmont.

Something I learned in today’s workshop: in addition to giving your subconscious assignments before you go to dreamland each night (fix this character, what’s my next plot move, etc.), you can invent an imaginary group of mentors. Put your writing problems all in a line on an imaginary conveyor belt (yes, just like the luggage-go-round at the airport), then imagine they are all passing by your favorite writing/life mentors: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Gertrude Stein, Anne Lamott. They will do their magic and your work will be ready in the morning with blessings upon it. Be ready with pen and paper. You never know what might happen. Thank you, Adams!

Michael Jarmer’s Monster Talk

Just read Michael Jarmer’s novel Monster Talk and tweeted about it. It’s extraordinary. Why isn’t it a best seller? Everyone read this book! about love, childhood, the monster within, and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. A young child, Victor, lives in Arizona, grows up with the family story that he is descended from ‘the monster’– the boy goes to school, gets bullied, falls in love with his teacher and when she dies, wants to bring her back to life. Adventures ensue. The writer has given us a meditation on loving, childhood, immortality, and Mary Shelly’s great masterpiece that is worthy of it. If anyone is a Mary Shelly fan, they should read this modern twist on the story. Quite delightful. Jarmer is a new favorite writer.  

Hatching New writing in Siler City

Siler City, once known as a big-town destination for Andy Griffith and his TV sidekick  Barney Fife, is still known for its chicken trucks and trains and livestock auction house. It’s also got many fast food restaurants, a Wal-Mart, and Tiendas with fabulous fresh Mexican food. New to the mix, and growing and thriving now for nine years is the North Carolina Arts Incubator, a cluster of galleries, artist studios, a coffee shop and community college pottery program right in the old part of downtown in whistling distance to the train crossing.

People are starting to get it that something exciting is happening here. Some of the people who are getting it are writers.

In late summer of 2010, I started teaching writing workshops in the back studio of the Incubator in Siler City. Just today I met a couple who are moving to the area from Singapore. I’m not saying they moved for the Incubator–they hadn’t heard of it before today. But I am saying that one of them signed up for a writing workshop because it sounded good and she wanted to write about foreign travels, and well, this seemed like a cool place to write.

It is a cool place to write.

Since Monday, writers have been gathering here for free workshops sponsored by the Incubator and funded by a grant from ChathamArts.

And in a small back room, with a lamp, a bookshelf full of favorite books, and a laptop, I’ve been cooking up writing exercises, consulting on manuscripts, and having heady conversations about Jack Kerouac and the hitchhiking adventures of fictional and actual people (okay, including my youthful self).

What a great way to spend a week! More to come!

The Writing Insurrection

Every Tuesday morning I walk into the General Store Café and set up my books and timer on a round table in the back room. Joyce and Vance have kindly given permission for me to run a workshop for writers back there, during a time when the room is closed and mostly quiet. We are a motley crew—among us are retirees, engineers, moms and dads, several Ph.D.s, a rock and roll musician, a musical theater actor, a nurse, a patent attorney, and a practicing Santa. What do we have in common? A devout adherence to the practice of writing. Every week I give a prompt or two, and we write. And write.  Sometimes I have a hard time getting people to STOP writing. Sometimes I just let them go.

As one of my writers says, “It’s yoga for the mind.”

I like to call it a Writing Insurrection. Because there is something powerful released, something that was waiting to come out into the open and take charge—and because more and more people are doing it, in Chatham County workshops and elsewhere, in my workshops and others. How do we survive hard times, fractured lives  and communities? We write. Sometimes we write together.

The results are always surprising. To paraphrase The Shadow: “Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men?” Well, the page knows. Because one of our writing rules is confidentiality, writers feel  able to release the deepest parts of their hearts. Because we are careful to nurture tender writing, writers gain confidence to express more and more.

A couple of months ago I gave writers a prompt that had an interesting result. We had been mostly writing about our own lives. This time we were going to make something up. We were going to write fiction. Fiction! How do you do THAT?

The assignment follows. You can try it at home—or at the General Store Café!

Prompt: Wander at a café and find a person who catches your eye. Describe this person in detail. Then make up a problem for him or her. See what happens next. Write in third person, present tense. Write for 12 minutes.

Here is what one writer wrote–first draft, right out of the chute.

The Girl in the Yellow Hoodie

By Sandra Gabor

            She’s walking toward the ladies room just now.  She has on a great yellow hoodie – hood down, of course, because she has beautiful long, dark honey-blond hair, not totally straight, but without curls.  She is drawing a strand of it across her face and putting into her mouth.

In her job as a nanny, she cares for two-year-old twins, Ayden and Ellie.  They are rambunctious and can sometimes be a real trial. But the active, ever-challenging twins are not the thing that’s causing her to chew her hair while heading for the General Store Café’s ladies room this morning.  That kind of trouble can only be caused by a man, as any mature woman knows instantly when she sees tresses being gnawed.

This morning at breakfast, her boyfriend said, ‘What’d you do to these eggs?  They’re hard as rocks and the bacon is, too.”

——

All of a sudden our girl in the yellow hoodie is in trouble. Sandra went back to this story and kept going, exploring the troubles of the fictional nanny. Sandra’s voice—a wise, often witty, sometimes sardonic voice—came to her aid as usual. But this time her writer’s mind got “caught” in the web of invention. How cool is that?

Good writing  seeks to delve into what lurks in the minds of men and women—our own minds when we write memoir, the minds of characters when we write fiction. It opens the heart to the swirling, confused, troubled, joyful minds around us. At its very best, it teaches compassion.

Writing can be an insurrection of the hearts of men, and women. Who knew?

Hard to let go

It’s hard to let go of a book! Especially this one: Accidental Birds of the Carolinas. I have sweated over the words, the characters’ lives, their very souls, for almost 20 years.  I gave the okay to my publisher yesterday afternoon to send to the printer. And though there’s yet another “proof” to come, there’s no turning back, no rewriting, no words of wisdom remaining to say, as I let this piece of my life and mind and heart go into the world. Like sending 8 kids to college at once! I had empty nest syndrome for about six minutes. Then I immediately started cleaning up the piles in my office….worry not, there are many to keep me occupied!

A few phone calls to friends, a weak margarita, a dinner out with Sam, and finally a sweet sense of freedom, a glimmer of free days, before the weight of book promo comes crashing on my head. Okay, parts of that are fun too!

Celebrate with me! Read the title story, which Dawn Raffel kindly published at The Literarian at the Center for Fiction. Dawn is one of those New York editors who’s been shepherding fiction writers for years. I responded when she put out a call for manuscripts–and lucked out. Because it really is luck, in a magical combination with strong writing, that keeps this publishing machinery moving.

More on writing and book promotion to come, as I struggle through the maze.