Short story

Of all the gin joints in all the towns...

Two years ago, I wrote a story based on someone who slipped in and out of my life in a matter of weeks, set in a place where my heart swelled, then shattered. The short story was published earlier this year and I was so pleased. But it's an unfinished work. It is the foundation of an idea I'd considered developing into a novel, before I settled upon the tale I'm writing now. The characters knock around in my head, waiting. When the time is right I know they'll still be there, ready to tell me what's been happening since we last met.  

Round about the same time my short story found its way to print, a slim and elegiac novel landed on bookshelves. It came to my attention over the summer and a few weeks ago I read it. I hadn't heard of the author, but the novel had solid recommendations. The high praise is merited. It is an introspective, fragile story written in quiet but lyrical prose. It's a book I'm glad to have read.

 

Except.

 

There is a French word which combines disappointment with a feeling of having been set up, somehow: déçu. I read this lovely novel and I said, "Je suis déçue."

 

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

 

The similarities between the novel and my short story are striking. All the more so because the similarities are completely coincidental.

 

Which writer hasn't heard the maxim, "There are only seven basic plots, but thousands of variations"? But I'm not just talking plot here. We each wrote a story with the same evocative setting, about a woman struggling in isolation who meets a vulnerable soul in need of rescue. The same kind of rescue, through the same means and bureaucracies and from the same sort of community. And in the distance stands another character, eager to help, if she'd only drop her defenses and let him in.

 

There's a certain beautiful karma to the thought that perhaps we worked on our stories at the same time, that there are ideas, a place and themes big enough to carry us both in similar directions but which allow us to explore different emotions, interactions and outcomes.

 

But there's a part of me that says,"Well, shit. Now what do I do?" Change the setting? No way, José. It's as integral a part of the story as any of my characters. It is a character. And if I changed the story, well, that doesn't work for obvious reasons. I feel deflated. Flattened.

 

Deçue.

 

And yet. The story I have written, the one that rattles around in my heart saying "Write more of me" is still mine to tell. As much as the other author owns the story that appears in the novel. Our stories may not be unique, but our voices are. I'll admit, I'm relieved my short story was published before the novel appeared, so there can be no question that any similarities are coincidental should I ever take my plot and characters further. But I believe once I begin writing it again, something very different will emerge. I will, as Melissa Donovan advises (paraphrasing),"Forge ahead and believe in the story I want to tell." 

 

Here are a couple of posts from great writers/writing coaches which help me keep perspective.

Melissa Donovan, Writing Forward: Are There Any Original Writing Ideas Left? (this is the post where I pulled the paraphrased quote above).

And because every writer keen on storycraft should read Chuck's rockin' blog

Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing

 

And thanks to Casablanca for having the best quotes at the right time.

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

Twenty Words

As I grind through The Novel, with thousands of words behind me and just a few thousand more ahead, I am aching to write short fiction again. There is such challenge and satisfaction in crafting a complete story, with fully formed characters facing obstacles and arriving at some sort of resolution, in fewer than 10,000 or 5,000 or 1,000 words. Excuse the running metaphor, but short fiction is a speed workout that leaves you trembling with endorphins, legs wobbly from those fast-twitch muscle fibers that fired you through quarter-mile repeats instead of the measured slog of a long-distance run. The fast-twitch fibers in my brain were reawakened during the workshop I attended yesterday during the Port Townsend Writer's Conference: Flash nonfiction: Writing Memoir in 750 words or less led by the delightful Sayantani Dasgupta, a writer and a professor in the Department of English at the University of Idaho (Side Note for Grammar Geeks Fewer vs. Less - I'm straddling the fence here. Since we're discussing word count, I'm sticking with fewer than, but I'm open to being persuaded in the direction of less if you can make a compelling "bulk" case. Oh my goodness, I heart Grammar!).

I am preparing myself for the emptiness I will feel when The Novel is complete. Not finished, mind you - months of revisions and multiple drafts undulate like an ocean before me; I'm already a little queasy at the thought - but the characters will have done their work and will either walk away forever or lie down to rest until their time comes 'round again. I'm braced for the "Now, what do I do?" feeling that will hit about the time the year turns away from autumn and hunches its head to the oncoming winter. So, I let my mind wander away from the Languedoc just a bit and feel around for new ideas. I return to jotting down those snippets of my life or overheard bits of others' that become fodder for new tales to tell. My autumn/winter goal, to break up the tedium of editing editing editing, will be to complete several pieces - from flash to shorts and whatever is between.

In short fiction, each word carries great significance. This is true of all writing, of course, but there is the luxury of development and backstory in long form prose. Flash fiction in particular is a kissing cousin to poetry. Each word pops, stings, zings, shocks, compels, evokes, hearkens. There is a rhythm - a poetic flow - but also a tightness to the structure that makes it a complete art form, distinct, difficult and powerful.

To get us thinking about the power of words, Ms. Desgupta presented this writing prompt during yesterday's workshop:

What if you were only allowed to use twenty words for the rest of your life? List these twenty words. How will you write a story of your life so far and of your vision of the future by weaving in and out of these twenty words?

In my tendency to overanalyze even the simplest of exercises, I wanted to make certain my words could convey multiple feelings, needs, desires, and experiences. These four came immediately to mind:

  • earth
  • fire
  • water
  • air

Then I thought of the things I do that make up the who I am:

  • write
  • run
  • read
  • wander

What I value most spilled out:

  • marriage
  • health
  • peace
  • present

Random things I cannot live without:

  • coffee
  • wine
  • vision (another one of those multiple meaning words, but suffice to say I'm epically near-sighted)
  • home

Words I would not want to give up, even though I could convey their meaning by pointing my finger:

  • I
  • You

And it struck me that I included these two words:

  • Fear
  • Fuck (this one appeared on several lists; I think we all need one good curse in our arsenal. This covers so much ground in four letters: perfection)

But I didn't include Love. I reckon love is implicit in words 1 -18. 19 & 20, too, really.

Can I write the story of my life using only twenty words? I think I just did.

Which twenty words would tell the story of your life?

How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine

Ten thousand words swarm around my head; Ten million more in books written beneath my bed*

Yesterday I penned  typed the final words of the final project of the writing program in which I've been engaged since late autumn 2010. From her studio in Salem, OR my writing mentor has assigned a dozen projects designed to build writing chops in someone who wrote her last piece of fiction when she was twelve. In eighteen months I have written, edited and revised thousands of words. A few thousand of those became six short stories, three of which I have submitted for publication. Two were published and one was short-listed for a national literary award. I need - must - do the slog work of getting the others off my hard drive and into an editor's in-box. Many editors' in-boxes. Rejection is an execrable and universal certainty of writing for publication. The form rejection letter is why God made the shredder. But soon, after I receive feedback from this latest attempt, I will be on my own. No deadline, no direction, no word limit, no encouragement, no criticism. If I felt writing to be a solitary pursuit before, well, welcome to hanging in the wind.

I move forward with the unshakeable feeling that the small successes I've achieved thus far are cosmically laughable, that at some point my writing will gather dust and lurk in the corner next to my abandoned acoustic guitar. My stories will suffer from skills as short as my stubby fingers; like my "C" chord, they will almost - but not quite - make it.

What will keep me writing are the moments when I lose myself in the page, when the story takes over, when the characters wrench the outline from my hands, tear it into shreds and run off in their own direction and I can scarcely type fast enough to keep up. I write for the calm which comes over me, when I have no desire to eat, drink or move for an entire afternoon, yet when I finally rise from the chair to stretch, I am replete and relaxed. I write for the one true sentence (merci, E.H.) that may appear among hundreds of attempts, the sentence for which I can't quite believe I was responsible when I read it later. I write because I have a loving partner who responds to my comments said in jest or dream about wanting to write full-time by catching my hand, looking me in the eye and saying, "I think you should, Julie." I write because I'm afraid of what will become of me if I stop.

I know that really, I'm not alone. In the brief time I have explored my voice as a writer, I have discovered the heart of Seattle's writing community: Richard Hugo House. The handful of Hugo workshops in which I've participated have inspired and terrified me. I have walked away from each with ideas, resources and a sense that I'm not entirely insane. Now that I am free from the obligations and pressures of my writing program, I can't wait to enroll in a long-term Hugo House course. Twitter, of all places, is a community of infinite possibilities. I encounter writers every day and take part in weekly discussion groups with writers of all experience levels. This blog - these pages of rambling, navel-gazing drivel and book reviews - have brought kindred souls into my writing life. My writer's to-do list includes next weekend's Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, exploring the online courses offered by the Gotham Writers' Workshop and the real-time workshops at Port Townsend's The Writers' Workshoppe.

I will regard this ending as a beginning. Whatever I write from this point forward I write for me, on the steam of my imagination and commitment to practice.The blank pages loom large. The feeling is delicious and disturbing.

*title credit to the brilliant songwriters and musicians The Avett Brothers and their song "Ten Thousand Words." I end my post with additional, painfully fitting, lyrics from this song:

"Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different We love to talk on things we don’t know about"

Just A Homework Assignment

I'm currently enrolled in an essay writing course taught by writer and journalist Amy Paturel. Our first assignment was to craft a profile of ourself as a writer. How's that for a stretch of the imagination? Profile of a Writer-in-Progress

I ran my tenth half-marathon three weeks ago.  I completed my first long-distance race in November 2003 and I have run at least one half-marathon every year since.

So yes, I run. But I stumble when calling myself a runner. Runners are sleek, long-legged creatures who speak of fartleks, negative splits, performance shoes, PR's. Runners are "A" personality types who train to qualify for Boston, layout their gear the night before, and eat meals calibrated to maximize protein and carbohydrate loads.

Me? I've got ten pounds I can't seem to outrun, no matter how fast I sprint on interval days. I've followed several Runner's World training programs, but in all these years I've never broken out of the Intermediate Category. My running togs are crammed into a dresser drawer; early mornings find me cursing quietly as I sort out black shorts from dark blue shirts. I finally sprang for a fancy Garmin GPS sports watch a few months ago. Now I have an accurate-to-the-footfall accounting of how slow I am. Yes, I run. But I feel ridiculous saying "I am a runner."

I was in my early thirties when I first felt compelled to cross a finish line. Yet,the desire to write has been in me since I could tie a pair of tennies on my own. I have wanted to write since 1975, when I read Louise M. Fitzhugh's classic "Harriet the Spy," at the age of six. But the intent faded over the years to a "Wouldn't that be lovely?' dream as I pursued graduate work and created a career developing study abroad programs. I traveled, I schmoozed in various ivory towers, I had articles published in Transitions Abroad, a chapter in a textbook, and I contributed to our department newsletters.

But that was work; it didn't make me a writer. Writers attend Tuesday evening writer groups; they have bulletin boards covered in Post-Its that detail characters and plot threads; they have MFA's, manuscripts, agents, and a folder full of rejection letters that prove the prodigiousness of their efforts.

Two years ago I stopped keeping a journal, a practice I had started in 1975, inspired by Harriet and her notebooks. After a year's hiatus, I was aching to write. I wanted to be free from recording the minutiae of my day, yet be accountable to an audience. So last summer, I began this blog. I construct essays and book reviews and my reward is a writer's rush such as I never experienced scribbling in my journal. It's like a runner's high. Even when it hurts, and I suck, and I'm injured, and it rains, and I'm just not in the mood, running feels ridiculously good. Similarly, once the page begins to fill with words, the literary endorphins flow.

I am a self-taught writer; my classroom is the endless library of fiction and non-fiction that I live to read. I can conjugate the past conditional of irregular ˆre verbs in French, but I can't keep straight when, in English, to use a semi-colon or when a simple comma will do. I absorb the advice of the accomplished: Stephen King makes me think twice before employing an adverb; Natalie Goldberg fills me with guilt for not writing enough; William Faulkner compels me to murder my darlings; William Zinsser just scares the crap out of me.

Returning to the page in this blog has given me the courage to find my voice and to pursue fiction writing. I enrolled in a two-year, non-residency fiction writing program late last autumn. My writer-mentor critiques my assignments. I bask in or shrink with her feedback. I rewrite and carry on. I attend the occasional workshop at The Richard Hugo House, a writing center in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. I soak in the amazing writer juju and soothe my sense of inadequacy when we read our efforts aloud with the knowledge that I am taking essential risks. By risking, I will learn.

I find myself using the essay to mine my memory for inspiration. I search for sensations, images, encounters, even fragments of conversation that I can pin to my mental bulletin board. I am learning to listen and to look for the smallest details that will spark my imagination and ignite a new story. Based on the work I have submitted as part of my writing program, I am now working on a series of short stories inspired by my experiences living in Appalachia, the Rockies, central Africa, France, Japan, and New Zealand. And I dream of a stone cottage in the Languedoc where I would write to the sound of goat bells in the garrigue.

My first short story - and I mean first, as in written and submitted - was published last month.Thirty-six years after a precocious eleven year-old from Manhattan's Upper East Side - sporting black-rimmed spectacles, with a penchant for tomato sandwiches, and mentored by a Dostoevsky-quoting nanny - entered my life and inspired me to write, I have published my first story. Just don't ask me to call myself a writer.

N.B. I am now four weeks into Amy's essay writing course and preparing a couple of non-fiction pieces to submit to magazines in the coming months. The class been hugely beneficial - I highly recommend it - Amy is an amazing writer and teacher. And I'm keeping a journal again. 

 

Book Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King My rating: 4 of 5 stars

96.9 percent loved this. I may even knock it up to "It was amazing" as its treasure trove of advice sinks in.

Here's the thing: Stephen King knows how to tell a story. From the early to late 80s- junior high through mid-university- I read nearly everything he'd written. His novels are the only of the horror-genre that I've read; it's never been my cup of tea, either in print or film, but King's writing is a cut above. He is the literary equivalent of Bruce Springsteen. I don't own a Springsteen album, but when I hear one of his songs, from any era, I know I am hearing pure genius. Story-telling genius.

I believe King's mainstream success has little to do with his ability to scare the bejesus out of his readers and everything to do with the emotional chords he twangs with his characters, his dialogue, his everyman dilemmas that arise from the most bizarre circumstances. As he counsels in On Writing, don't worry about writing what you know, write what you love to read. So, King loves sci-fi and scary stuff. And he is able to write about with such astonishing skill that even the most avowed detractor of popular fiction is held captive by his pen.

This writing guide is divided in two parts. In the first, King takes you through his hard-scrabble childhood, focusing on the events that shaped him as a writer. I enjoyed the heck out of this. He recounts his past in a sweet, sad, funny, and completely natural voice. I didn't know anything about his personal life, which included years as an alcoholic and coke addict.

Then he turns to offer practical writing advice, which can be summed up as: Read A LOT; Write A LOT; Create a space of your own; Blow up your television; Use the active voice; Limit adverbs; Watch out for dialogue attribution; and, above all, Write stories. Not plots. Not themes. Just Stories. King believes that if you have a good story, the rest - character development, plot, theme- will take care of itself. King presents his advice with such clarity and conviction that you believe it's all possible.

I have to contrast this concise set of advice with another masterful work on the art of storytelling: Robert McKee's Story. McKee's guide is 466 pages. I took a couple of months to read Story and used a ream of post-its to mark the meaningful passages. McKee's approach is the antithesis of King's. He advocates careful plotting and sub-plotting, character studies, outlines, and a tried-and-true structure that respects the desires of the audience. True, McKee writes about the craft of scriptwriting, but his directives are relevant to literary stories, as well.

As different as these two approaches are- King's organic, McKee's structured- their bottom line is identical: Write stories that people want to read.

King loathes adverbs. This hits home because I am decidedly guilty (see!) of using adverbs copiously (see!!). I've just finished reading James Joyce's The Dead, which is often cited as the best short story ever written (and lauded by King). Here is its last sentence:

"His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Delicious irony. Well, to adverb or not to adverb? Only one way to find out...

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Dead, James Joyce; The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín

A pair of Irishmen made up my reads this past week... just in time for St. Pat's. Sláinte, gentlemen. I'll toast you with a draught Guinness tonight at Kell's. Long may your stories endure.

The  Dead (The Art of the Novella Series)The Dead by James Joyce

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Volumes of literary analysis proclaim The Dead as the perfect short story. The instructor of a short-story writing workshop I recently attended made the same assertion. He admonished our gathering to read The Dead as soon as possible and to reread it at least once a year, as an example of writing at its most sublime.

Hyperbole? I don't know that it matters. It moved me to tears.

I knew nothing of the story, nor have I read Joyce beyond an aborted attempt a dozen years ago at "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." I expected to slog through complicated language and dry prose.

Instead I slipped quietly in the door of an early 20th century Dublin home, as an unseen guest at a party held by two aging aunts for their petite bourgeoisie friends and family. The scene unfolds gently, in the glow of the Epiphany and lantern light. There is dancing, drinking, feasting, a few social gaffes...It is the latter where Joyce balances on the razor's edge between social satire and devastatingly keen observation.

This seemingly innocuous setting has aching scenes of lust, love, and longing. In a few short paragraphs, Joyce shows a marriage laid bare, infected by disillusionment and disappointment; it is as honest a portrayal of modern love as any I have read. It is a moment of self-awareness and revelation of perception that we would do well to hope never happens to us. Ignorance is bliss.

The Empty Family: StoriesThe Empty Family: Stories by Colm Tóibín

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Colm Tóibín has a breathtaking range, from the modern Irish voice in The Blackwater Lightship to Henry James's cultured and tortured 19th century tones in The Master to an immigrant naïf coming of age in 1950's Brooklyn. His writing is exquisite, resonant, and pure. He writes with incredible compassion for his characters, but allows them to fail of their own accord. He shows the reader the beauty of imperfection.

This latest collection of stories The Empty Family was a mixed bag for me. The theme of returning from or entering into exile appears in most of the stories. The characters are seeking redemption or facing rejection as they return to familiar places or attempt to settle into new lands. Yet, as someone who has moved hither and yon, across borders and languages, I felt oddly distanced by some of Tóibín's stories, including those that seemed the most personal.

Most touching were The Colour of Shadows, where a middle-aged man returns to his small Irish hometown to place his aunt in managed care; Two Women, which features a famous, aging set designer who returns to Ireland after nearly a lifetime away and confronts the ghosts of a past love (pages I will reread in months to come as an example of a perfectly rendered short story); Silence for which Tóibín again assumes the narrative voice of a 19th century writer; and One Minus One, where the main character relives the days before his mother's funeral. Confronting one's mortality in the face of aging relatives and wistfully remembered love affairs resonate deeply in Tóibín's tender prose.

A few stories, including the long Barcelona, 1975 and the longer The Street were perfectly written and captured my attention, but not my heart. These featured, at times, careless love, passionless sex, obsession, and the ugliest of human behavior that elicited neither sympathy nor outrage, just exasperation and contempt.

Tóibín is one of my favorite writers. He writes humanity with such clarity; man, woman, gay, straight, modern and of the ages- he speaks their Babel of languages as well as any native. He seems to embrace life with ferocity, but also holds Death closer than arm distance, accepting its inevitability with equal passion. How very Irish of him.

View all my reviews

Water Child

I have fought of late to keep my balance. I am dashing in and out of work projects, blitzing through study sessions for a wine certificate, planning in fits and starts for our April adventure in France, trying to get my hostess act together for friends' arrival in June for the Seattle Rock-n-Roll Marathon, signing up for a swim clinic as I pursue a goal of an autumn sprint tri, getting back my running mojo now that eye surgery is behind me. Doing all these things with gusto, but not doing any of them very well. I'm scattered, at loose ends. I'm not unhappy; in fact, I feel outrageously alive and annoying cheerful. But I do feel a little out of control. For a Virgo, this is Situation Intolerable. And I have not been writing with direction. Nor reading with purpose. I recently posted elsewhere in my virtual world that I used to read 2+ books a week; now it takes me 2+ weeks to read a book. My center has been knocked astray.

But today, brought in on a warm southerly wind, the muse appeared. She was off in the distance when I began working on a story last weekend, but this morning she decided to pay me a proper call.  I have the distinct feeling that she prefers me slightly hung over, revved on caffeine, and mildly hysterical from lack of sleep.

And now the wind is tossing the rain so hard that the windows seem covered in wrinkled and twisted plastic wrap. I feel a November need to nest, even though the rhododendrons in the front yard are ready to burst with magenta blooms. It is a day created for writing and I gratefully showed up to the page at an early hour.

I am working on a story I have titled Water Child, set in Tokyo and at the Kamakura complex of shrines about an hour outside the city. Last week I fought for control of my protagonist's voice. Today I let go and let her speak. I had chosen a name for this character, but as I read through my draft, I discovered I had typed another name, one that belongs to a different person. At that moment I realized I had set myself aside and allowed in the woman whose story I am trying to tell.

And now I return to her, to discover what she has learned on our journey together, where she will go next, and if I will be allowed to follow.