“Next to trying and winning, the best thing is trying and failing.” – Anne of Green Gables

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I’d heard wonderful things about Anne of Green Gables long before having the pleasure by way of this class of reading the novel. Now I get what all the fuss is about. I laughed, cried, sighed and smiled endless times. As I neared the last chapter, I even slowed down the pace of my reading to a page turning crawl in an effort to prolong the fantasy and wonderment a bit longer.

There were moments which caused me to flash back to a much younger version of me. I, too, was a dreamer often uncomfortable in my own skin. Though I’m grown now with a child of my own, I found myself relating again and again to sweet, sassy, dreamy-eyed Anne Shirley. I felt triumphant for her successes and mourned her losses as if I was living vicariously through her or like she was one of my own children. As an adult, I can relate to her from a place of distance, like a mother watching her daughter experiencing things and feelings she’d once experienced herself. I’m glad I’m reading this story now because I appreciate my memory of myself at that age but had I read this story in my youth it’s likely that it would have helped me more then.

The story fits nicely into the YA category while its third person narrator allows the story to transcend into other genres, too. Its messages and themes (family, loss, love…) are timeless, even if it’s set in an unfamiliar place and time. It would be interesting to see someone take this exact story and modernize it. Wouldn’t it be neat to see another version of this, like say Anne of Newark, NJ? I’m kidding, of course, but my point is that the tale isn’t determined by Green Gables. What makes this story so perfect is Anne. That said; I can’t help but wonder if Annie, another timeless story, was itself written as a modern/theatrical version of Anne of Green Gables. There are so many connections, including the protagonists’ names, orphan status and hair color.

Anne of Green Gables is such a sweet version of the classic American dream story. Anne, our young protagonist, starts out broken and alone yet bold and courageous in the face of some very scary things. On some level each of us is this small, lonely orphan girl with the big heart and imagination determined to rise up and tackle the world. She thinks and often says the things we’re thinking and perhaps wanting to say. It’s not that she’s fearless so much as she’s determined to be herself and willing to put herself out there to reach her goals. Of course, we meet her at a point when she has nothing to lose. We can only imagine her life prior.

I agree with biographer Irene Gammel when she says the author was ahead of her time. Nontraditional families and nontraditional gender roles are things we can appreciate today. Gammel says Montgomery herself grew up in a nontraditional home life and, in turn, she wrote a romanticized account of her own experiences. She created a fictionalized version of what she knew but in a way we can all still relate and connect to it. She wove raw human emotion with familiar themes and managed to do so without rendering any element cliché. She took what could have been a cookie cutter coming of age tale and transformed it through emotion, humor and hope into a touching, thought-provoking, believable story with real life twists and a suitable, happy ending.

Gammel also mentions Montgomery’s childhood journals. Though she wrote Anne of Green Gables when she was 30, I think her journals allowed her to metaphorically travel back in time to her own youth and write Anne from Anne’s perspective. This added depth and authenticity to the narration and positively impacted the voice of the novel. I’m sure the story would have been well written still had she not kept those journals but surely it wouldn’t have been the same. As I set out to tackle my own YA story, I think I’ll dig out my old diaries and journals, too.

A good book allows us to escape our reality but we are more often drawn to stories when we can see ourselves, or parts of ourselves, in the characters. Anne is not just a likable little orphan girl who we get to watch grow up. She is also a manifestation of our own desires, dreams, fears and insecurities. We can all relate to Anne because on some level we’ve all been there. We love Anne and we root and empathize for her because she gives us hope in our own lives.

My daughter is just three, but I look forward to the day I can give her my copy of Anne of Green Gables so we can discuss it. Until then, I’ll cherish having had this opportunity to read it myself.

Time as Detail (A Critical Response)

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Time as Detail: Exploring James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction
In their books How Fiction Works and The Art of Time in Fiction, Wood and Silber, respectively, analyze various elements and techniques in creative writing. While Wood layers his focus on such things as narration, character, language and dialogue, Silber zeroes in entirely on time. I found both books fascinating and their individual lessons useful on practical and even subconscious levels. While each made some similar points, both taught me a great deal about writing and about myself as a writer. Still, for me, it seems each book is missing a chapter.

In reading both, I found their lessons overlapped and converged on the element of detail. Wood dedicates an entire chapter to the topic of detail and he uses the element of time to make a few points while Silber treats detail as a theme and variable of time. It was as though they both danced around but never quite landed on the idea that time itself is a critical detail.

The age of the characters, the century, decade and year a story takes place, the time of year or even time of day a scene is set, as well as the order and passing of time in a character’s life, from chapter to chapter, or from first to last page… all of this shows the importance of time.

Silber says: “A story can arrange events in any order it finds useful but it does have to move between then and now and later.” So many ways to contend with time passing and, yet, each way changes the overall shape, look and feel of the fiction itself. In other words, time itself changes the details and the story. Silber says: “Where the teller begins and ends a tale decides what its point is. How it gathers meaning.” She goes on to say: “We read anything looking for patterns of events, and through it a meaning—the reason someone is bothering to tell us this.”

Similarly, Wood writes: “We have the sense that the ideal of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings, and that this is sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid.” Isn’t that another way of saying focusing on moments allows us to notice or not notice the passing of time? He adds: “Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature.” Once we have an experience in life then it is easier to notice details and feelings of the same or similar experiences elsewhere.

Wood says: “We use detail to focus, to fix an impression, to recall.” Silber says: “Much fiction depends on people who never forget.” It’s the details of these unforgotten memories, experiences and moments in time which drive the stories we love so much, making time and how it and its passing is presented in a work of fiction the greatest detail of all.

Let’s face it. Time is important. The passing of time is a critical detail and perhaps the most challenging to tackle. Of course, with time (and practice) we, as writers, get better at details and more specifically with detailing time. I’m with Wood when he says “But I choke on too much detail.” People feel the same way about too much time (years mostly). It’s so easy to take detail and time too far into the realm of enough already. Silber writes: “A bad storyteller will beg just get to the point, and a good storyteller will make us beg for more.” I want to give my audience enough to get it without drowning them in it. And, yes, I want them to want more.

After reading both books, the play “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Becket sprung to mind. In it, Vladimir and Estragon, the two main characters, wait together on a country road by a tree in vain for the arrival of someone (or something considering the infinite interpretations of the play) named Godot. While no physical descriptions or background information are ever given for these characters, time and the passing of time are exemplified primarily through the tree so much so that the tree itself becomes a major point of focus. As Silber says, “Pointing to nature is key in the handling of fictional time.” As the tree changes, time changes. Here time is the most critical detail. The tree is simply a tool used by the writer to get the reader to see time move. The play lives and breathes in the realization of the passing of time.

While Becket uses nature masterfully to show time in Waiting for Godot, I struggle with it in my writing. To stop and notice nature often feels jarring to me and out of character for my protagonists, who are often far more focused on themselves than the world around them. I want to get better at this. I want my characters to stop and smell the roses in spring and see the snow fall in winter. But I want to do so subtly. I write most comfortably in first person and I’ve tried having my characters notice elements of nature but it almost always feels forced to me. Recently, in my novel Private Mommies Society, I’ve started playing around with infant milestones to show the passing of time—it’s still nature just different than, say, leaves falling from trees. It gives me the freedom to point out the passage of time while my protagonist stays self-absorbed.

Silber discusses various ways writers can go about dealing with the passing of time. She breaks down different methods of presenting and passing time, including classic, long, switchback, slowed and fabulous time. She even discusses time as subject and while this idea is similar to the idea of time as detail I wished for a separate chapter on it altogether.

In the unit four lecture, Professor Cain writes: “Silber states (and shows, I might add, in the example that starts off her book) in the introduction to The Art of Time in Fiction, time itself can help determine what a story or novel will look like, but we as authors are often unconscious of the ways in which we use it, so that it exists as an invisible, yet powerful presence in our work.” Is it simply that time is something we cannot see, touch and taste that poses the challenge? We can’t see love and, yet, writer after writer tackles its description and many quite eloquently. Time may be invisible but it is still very much there. We are all aware of it. In fact, it refuses to be ignored. Even some of the most amazing writers struggle with time. I struggle to capture time and more so with showing its passing between moments. In verbal conversations I speak in tangents and rarely worry about how I transition from one story to the next, but in my writing jumping from one scene to the next doesn’t always come so smoothly.

In life time passes through details or lack of details. In literature and in life time itself is a detail even if it’s one we cannot see with our eyes or touch with our hands. We all worry ourselves over how much longer we have left and how quickly it all flies by. We fret over birthdays but look forward to Fridays. As a writer, I think it is just as important how we describe our settings and characters as how we portray time. After all, aren’t our memories the details and descriptions of how we perceive moments in time? Silber says: “The sequence of any fiction is, by its nature, the path of time evaporating.” Wood writes: “One of the obvious reasons for the rise of significantly insignificant detail is that it is needed to evoke the passage of time, and fiction has a new and unique project in literature—the management of temporality.”

Wood uses the Bible as an example. He writes: “Time lapses between the verses, invisibly, inaudibly, but nowhere in the page. Each new “and” or “then” moves forward the action like those old station clocks, whose big hands suddenly slip forward once a minute.” But the Bible has always seemed to me to be more like a compilation of short stories than a novel. As a novelist when I leave out transitions someone is bound to notice or feel turned off by it.

But even without transitions to describe the passage of time, time still passes. Much like leaving out a key descriptor for a character, it often somehow draws our attention to it that much more. Silver says: “When the past is left out, the focus on the present moment can sometimes lead to the intensity of what (she’d) call slowed time.” Bringing so much attention to a moment in time serves the same purpose as detailing a women’s dress or describing a man’s face: The writer wants us to focus on it for a reason. That said; not describing something can have a similar effect. Circling back to Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s lack of character descriptions allow our imaginations to run wild. Suddenly, Vladimir and Estragon could represent anyone; we decide.

A good writer stops time and focuses a reader’s complete attention on one moment or a string of moments hovering ever so delicately in the universe. But time—even when standing still—still exists. Wood writes: “One needs to know every detail, since one can never be sure which of them is important, and which word shines out from behind things.” As writers we choose the details. We decide what’s important to include and exclude. Much like a magician, we direct the reader’s eye toward what we want them to see and away from what we do not want them to see. Or we choose not to direct them at all, allowing the reader to play a more active role in the story. Silber writes: “Life can be led only in small, manageable chunks of experience, one narrow bit at a time.” Even in her description of flashback or switchback time, we still get the details of the story one frame at a time. Silber says: “A story depends on things not standing still, on the built-in condition of impermanence. All the emotions that attach to the passage of time—regret, impatience, anticipation, mourning, the longing for what’s past, the desire for recurrence, the dread of recurrence—are the fuel of plots.”

When I saw The Art of Time in Fiction I grabbed it and immediately started reading. I wanted to learn all there was to know about time in fiction. The techniques taught by Silber are valuable but it wasn’t until I picked up How Fiction Works and read Wood’s chapter on detail when I started to understand the depth of time’s importance in fiction.

It’s not just about the tricks and techniques of portraying time and the passing of time which are relevant. In writing and in life, there is so much more to time.

My Darling Niki

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I chose to write a poem for my creative response to the novel A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I really enjoyed the novel but with all that happened in between the lines, it was a challenge for me to fully process the whole story, both what was said and unsaid. I wound up reading the novel twice (and listening to the audio book once) to fully wrap my head around it.

When I’m feeling highly emotional or confused, I like to write poetry to help me work through my thoughts and feelings. Since poetry can be somewhat nonlinear and ambiguous, writing it helps me draw my focus both inward and outward simultaneously. By that I mean I can sort of feel the topic in a less structured or organized start-to-finish type way but more so in an all-around big picture type way before diving deeper into the nitty-gritty of it.

For this project, poetry helped me process my feelings about the heavy themes (i.e.: murder, depression, abuse, war, loss, destruction, death…). I lean toward light humor when I write so tackling something so dark was interesting for me. Creating a poem allowed me to work my way through the darkness. It also helped me process what Ishuguro wrote and what he didn’t write. The novel itself was nonlinear, like poetry, and it quickly became addictively confusing and, at times, I struggled to fully understand it. I think that was Ishuguro’s intention because just when I thought I grasped what was happening, something would change. For example, at one point the tense and POV shifted entirely and that caused me to lose my footing. Prior to that I thought one thing (that Etsuko was telling a story about an old friend, Sachiko) and after I thought something different entirely (that Etsuko and Sachico are the same person). At that point I knew I had to reread the novel to make sure I didn’t misunderstand entirely what had happened and to catch whatever else I was sure I’d missed. So much was left unwritten and unrevealed in the story that poetry allowed me to work comfortably through the confusion and ambiguity until I eventually arrived at the heart of what I think actually happened. It also gave me the opportunity to fully process the many feelings the author and his story gave me.

The poem is titled “My Darling Niki” and my intention was to write it from the main protagonist Etsuko’s point of view as though she was processing her feelings and writing to her only surviving daughter, Niki. I used elements from the novel itself to pull it together.

My Darling Niki:
It’s so strange
How the brain
Triggers dreams
Tramples truth

Grief does strange things to the mind

When the bomb fell
Hope exploded
Life imploded
My thoughts shifted

Split entirely in two

There was nothing left
In that wretched place
But pain breeding pain
And death breeding death

Helpless… hopeless… less and less

No one left to love me
No place for children so
I chose death to end their
Suffering and my own

I wasn’t the only one.

But fate had other plans
With blood still on my hands
I got another chance
To be a good mother

But it was too late for her

Your sister witnessed death
I looked up and saw her
Standing, waiting her turn
But her gaze changed my mind

Those eyes looked into my soul

I wished they wouldn’t have
For she suffered slowly
Like kittens left to starve
When drowning’s more humane

I knew she’d never be happy

I vaguely recall a
Time when I was happy
When I lied to myself
Waiting for a better life

I met your father, then I

We decided to start over
Leave pain and death behind
One world for another
But they followed me here

We thought our love would fix it

I ran off and played house
When I should’ve saved her
The rope around her neck
Was the one I gave her

New life suggests new hope but

We blamed her for the pain
When it wasn’t her fault
She’s a victim, like you,
Like me, products of war

With infinite destruction

The dead have it easy
Those who remain are left
To pick up the pieces
Or hide them behind doors

Your sister’s Purgatory

My Love, it’s a riddle
You’ll never comprehend
For there are two of me
And too many of you

Too many secrets to hide

I have the answers to
The questions you won’t ask
Hidden deep but instead
You request a postcard

Of a place you’ve never been

A picture for a friend?
You say you’re proud of me
Now how can you be proud
When you don’t know the truth

And you won’t let me tell you?

If I told you my truth
Would you even hear me?
If you could see my soul
Would you follow her lead?

Could you ever forgive me?

The nightmares never stop
Lifeless child on a swing
Body dangling from a bridge
Noose tied around her neck

Madness sets in to save me

Memories loop my mind
Dreams and lies intertwine
Make me confess, repent,
Absolve me of my sins!

Unconditional love is

What I took from them
And gave to you but
If you knew the truth
Would you hate me, too?

More so than I hate myself?

My darling Niki,
I’ve lost it all
But somehow you’re
Still here with me

Doesn’t that mean something?

Please don’t leave
Me alone
In this house
With nothing

But a pale view of the hills.

“Tickets, Please” and the Revision Process

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I read and enjoyed D. H. Lawrence’s story, “Tickets, Please.” It was a simple and straightforward story but one that captured some large and rather far reaching themes such as lust, jealousy, rejection, revenge and even (though the term is more modern than the story itself) sexual harassment in the workplace. It was, I think, also the perfect piece to read while contemplating the revision process.

While the introduction was long and loaded with description and back story, it felt necessary since we’re looking back at people from a foreign place and point in history. Lawrence took the time to patiently provide details, like the drivers usually being “cripples and hunchbacks” and the girls being “fearless young hussies… in their ugly blue uniforms, skirts up to their knees…”who “fear nobody—and everyone fears them.” Without these details, the story might have fallen short for me.

Lawrence really captured his characters and set them up in such a way that made the story relevant and timeless. I don’t need to know everything about the people, time period or environment a story is set in but I need enough detail to get me intrigued. Lawrence grabbed and held my attention by paying attention to the right things.

As I read this, my own story and thoughts on revision puttered around in my head. I wondered how many revisions Lawrence went through to write this story. Though I doubt he was overly concerned about readers in the distant future, like you and me, understanding it, it is clear that he wanted to make sure the readers of his day got it. This story felt to me like a sort of sneak peek into a world not many people knew existed or got to see. Plus, since this was written in the early 1900s, I can’t help but think Lawrence was breaking new ground with such gender empowering themes. But more so than anything else, I think he got it right (then and now) in the way he told this story.

He captures human emotion perfectly with lines like: “Then she wept with fury, indignation, desolation, and misery. Then she had a spasm of despair.” This is exactly how it feels to be dumped! Centuries may pass but that feeling will always remain the same. His descriptions are spot on.

And regarding the plight of women in this day and age and in particular the way these women bound together to revolt against this one man, it had, for me, a quality about it that was reminiscent of the children’s nursery rhyme The Little Engine (That Could): “I think I can… I think I can…” Not only do both stories talk about trains and have that “I think I can” message but both stories are also about something improbable taking place; the seemingly smaller, weaker characters (the women in Tickets, Please or the little engine in The Little Engine) conquer all because what they lack in size, speed and physical strength, they make up for in spirit.

I certainly see this as a sort of literary manifestation of the frustration and pain the women of this age must have felt.

Lawrence also landed on the perfect ending. It’s juicy and thrilling enough without ever going too far in any unrealistic or dissatisfying direction. It’s an ending that can withstand the test of time. I’ve always been a fan of the sort of girl power stories where the female protagonist succeeds in the end. I also love it when the bad guy (or girl) gets taught a lesson and the hero (or heroine) is victorious. While I’m not typically a fan of violence as a means to an end, I think Lawrence handled this well. It was shocking but the physicality was handled delicately and felt necessary. I’m glad Lawrence exhibited restraint by not taking the violent lesson to the next obvious level. I think it would have ruined the story.

I can’t help but wonder if his perfect descriptions came to him right away or if they were the effect of a few (or even several) overhauls. I also wonder if he got stuck on the ending. I can see so many different routes that could have been taken. For example, I wonder if any of his drafts included a version with the girls actually killing Coddy or turning him into a cripple to sort of bring the story full circle to that intro.

There was a time, before taking this class, when I might have assumed Lawrence got it right on his first try. Or maybe I wouldn’t have even thought twice about it. But now I think about it… a lot.

Even though on some level I knew better, I think I thought I was in the minority of obsessive revisers. I rarely picture other writers struggling through yet another revision. The thought of revising, though obviously necessary, is also taxing. It’s far more romantic to assume they got it right the first time. It’s every writer’s fantasy… isn’t it? Well I’m currently on my fourth try for one novel and my second try for another. As I write and revise (and continue to revise again and again) my manuscripts, they continue to get better and I continue to grow stronger. I become a better writer with each new draft.

Even though there have been times when I’ve questioned my sanity, some of my best work rises to the surface during the revision process. I never used to think about revising while I was writing. Now, thanks in large part to this class, I am constantly thinking about revising. Even as I was writing my chapter for workshop, I was already contemplating revising it and even overhauling it entirely. Now I totally get what Annie Dillard means when she says the process of writing and revision “are one and the same.”

Professor Hurt, my current workshop instructor, says to think of the revision process as re-seeing. I love (love love) this concept. In fact, I’ve been “re-seeing” quite a few things lately. For example, I’m re-seeing how I perceive other writers and their revision processes. I’m also re-seeing my own process as a writer. A couple of those 4AM Breakthroughs have even caused me to (re)see some of my stories in new ways. One in particular breathed an entirely new intro into one of my novels. And the constructive feedback I received for my workshop piece has opened my eyes on various levels, as well.

While I read and enjoyed “Tickets, Please,” I was aware that I was reading and enjoying it on a new level. I’ve been told that film students can never just “watch” a movie without thinking critically about production elements and cinematography. As a writing student, I am starting to think the same way.

I can’t wait to get started on my revision, though in a way I guess the process has already begun.

“The Writing Life”

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Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and many of its messages have stayed with me these past few weeks as I continue to read and write, and a few in particular have even carried over, playing like background music, as I live.

There’s no denying the fact that Dillard hits the nail on the head when she describes what it’s like to be a writer. I mean, wow. I felt this way in the early chapters when Dillard spoke of the pain and importance of rewriting, chopping, developing the “courage to tie off the umbilical cord” of first drafts, pushing through mistakes, and even as she touched upon writing habits like drinking too much coffee. So many times, I saw myself in Dillard’s stories and explanations.

Honestly though, I could do without so many personal anecdotes. While a few have been spot on and managed to open my eyes wider and make me think, there were those, too, that left me scratching my head. Some of Annie’s stories missed quirky and landed on mundane. I still don’t understand the points in sharing the coffee pot story, the butterfly mating story or the dream in chapter four. I found those to be confusing in general and, at times, even a little boring. That’s not to say I won’t have some sort of eureka moment later and suddenly understand.

Still, I love when writers share with us these types of personal insights into their own lives and explain why and how they write. I love the sneak peek into their writing processes, methods, thoughts, fears and quirks.

That said; when I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or King’s On Writing, I got the feeling that these writers lived and wrote. They ate, drank, traveled, experienced different cultures and people… they lived (and in King’s case continue to live) full, satisfying and interesting lives. But I don’t get that same message from Dillard. Dillard says “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.” By her own description, she locked herself away and missed the fireworks (literally). I find that sad. I also think that feeling comes across in her writing. While I think Dillard writes beautifully and intelligently, I wish her stories came from living rather than from hibernating. She’s such a strong writer, I’d be curious to know how much more wonderful her stories might have been if she allowed herself to live more.

I want to live and write. In fact, I put off writing (full time anyway) for a long time so that I could live. Rather than pursue a writing career straight out of college, like I always thought I’d do, I chose another route—a fun, scary and far more adventurous route. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a conscious choice to collect stories and experiences to later write about. I simply craved knowledge and experience. Looking back, I know my writing is a product of my experiences, old and new, and my relationships, those I’ve nurtured along the way. If I don’t live my life, I’m not sure what I’d write about. And while I, too, lock myself away these days to write (and though Dillard hates the idea of “trancelike” writing that’s often what I do) and, in doing so, I ignore and shut out the rest of the world, I still take breaks from writing to live, love, laugh and learn.

For my own writing, specifically the novel I’m currently overhauling (for the fourth time), Dillard’s many messages are both poignant and practical. Dillard gives me perspective and a welcome shot in the arm when she says things like “what would you write if you knew you were going to die soon?” but she also gives me hope with things like “it takes between two and ten years” to write a book and “it is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion.”

Sure I’m obsessive and completely bullheaded, dreamily optimistic and borderline nuts, but those qualities are normal for a writer with a dream. Those qualities, I believe, eventually pay off and take us where we want to go.

In this week’s lecture, Professor Hurt selected the quote: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book; or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things will fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

That quote really spoke to me, as well. In fact, I typed it up, printed it out and taped it to my laptop. I need to read this message every day. I also made it my Facebook status. I wanted to share it with other writers and even non-writers. I want to remember it as I write this draft, as I try my best to “give it all” this time. And while it’s a lesson on writing it’s also a metaphor for life—another twist on the classic “live life to the fullest.” Not only is this a theme throughout Dillard’s book but it’s also an important life lesson. Isn’t living life what we all want to do? Writers are no different except we need to live life and write about it to the fullest, too.

Over the break, I finished reading Miss Hempel Chronicles. The novel turned out to be wildly different from what I expected after reading that first chapter. The book is a compilation (or chronicle) of multiple stories and that chapter was just one of them. It didn’t take long for my quirky, fun and funny middle school adventure to morph into a wacky, strange, sometimes sad and heavy flashback of this woman’s soured life and disappointing youth. I wasn’t expecting any of that. Without revealing too much and ruining the literary experience, which really was a good one, the book was really two stories—two completely different stories—in one. But this works perfectly because, in a nutshell, Miss Hempel Chronicles is a story (or two stories, really) about a woman who lives two different lives. Circling back to Dillard and her message, Miss Hempel Chronicles captures Miss Hempel’s whole life, not just her life as an elementary school teacher. It succeeds because it doesn’t save the good stuff. It leaves nothing out.

In my writing and in my life, I plan to do the same.

Ms. Hempel Chronicles

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In the first chapter of Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, we meet our young protagonist, Beatrice Hempel. Ms. Hempel is a middle school teacher but by her own self-proclamation not a very good one.

The chapter is titled “Talents” and it takes place during a school talent show. This setting is very clever because it gives Bynum an organic opportunity to introduce characters one by one as they appear on stage. Also, by showing us the talents of the students and faculty, we also learn, by comparison, that Ms. Hempel, as she admits to a student, has zero talents herself.   

Ms. Hempel is an interesting character, made up of many positive and negative qualities, though it seems she is only aware of the negative ones. That is the thing that really grabbed my attention as a reader. Her self-awareness and defeatist personality quirks are not simply part of her charm and likeability but it’s obvious they also serve as a sort of foreshadowing for things to come.  

Ms. Hempel does not believe herself to be a good teacher. When one of her students described her as an “affable” teacher, Ms. Hempel “was moved, but knew that affable, while a vocabulary word, was not synonymous with good.” At one point, we learn that she became a teacher because of “tremendous opportunities for leisure and the satisfaction of doing something generous and worthwhile.” But after a few years teaching seventh graders she started to think of teaching as an “infection” as she realized “her students now inhabited her dreams, her privacy, her language.” Her decision to become a teacher, she believes was a “mistake” and she feels that in becoming a teacher she lost what was left of her “potential” and any talents she may have had.

Awkwardly self-aware (she worries about her teeth when smiling at parents and about her panty hose rolling down beneath her dress), insecure (she was happy sitting in a dark auditorium because it meant no one was watching her), lazy (she gives pop quizzes because they’re easy to grade), insecure (she bribes her students with chocolate) and immature (she wonders if she should laugh when students fart) are just some of her negative qualities. Ms. Hempel also seems depressed and lonely, and she even gets inappropriately excited when a popular male student touches her hand. At the same time, she loves her students and knows so much about each and every one of them. With so much depth, Ms. Hempel is more like a real person than a character.

I can already tell I’ll be able to use this book as a lesson on character creation and introduction. In chapter one, we’ve already met Ms. Hempel as well as numerous students and faculty members. Bynum does an exceptional job at smoothly introducing these characters and providing all the necessary detail about them both physically and emotionally without making it feel force-fed. She makes it seem so easy but as an aspiring novelist I know this is no small accomplishment. It takes knowing your characters truly and deeply, and it also takes patience. These are good lessons for a writing student like me.

Even with all the detail, descriptions and depth of characters, the story remains an easy read and the pace is fast and fluid. It’s told from an omnipotent point of view, something I personally tend to often dislike. But in this case it really worked for me. This all-knowing narrator tells Ms. Hempel’s story in such an engaging way that it made me feel like the story was being told directly to me, like I was a teacher or other faculty member, standing around the water cooler in the faculty break room listening to gossip about another teacher, Ms. Hempel. In that way, I felt like I, too, was part of the story.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Ms. Hempel’s story.

Happily Ever After

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This exercise came from the book 4AM Breakthrough by Brian Kitely. The instructions say to write a 250 word story without repeating a single word. Each word must be different, even the title.

Whoa… this was hard! Not being able to repeat words like “the” or “a” and “an” proved pretty challenging! But to make it easier I chose to write it about my favorite muse: my daughter, Lyla. Awwww!

(Let me know if you spot any repeats!)

Happily Ever After:

Once upon a time (this one right now), there was an incredibly sweet, sassy, beautiful, bright, happy, healthy (thank God) 3-year-old little girl named Lyla Rain Henderson.

With passionate adoration for some pretty random if not wildly ordinary things, including but not limited to: vanilla ice cream, hugs, kisses, apple juice, family, friends, preschool, stars, triangles, octagons, shapes in general really, princesses, puppies, pirates, picnics, fairies, racecars, road trips, running, singing, dancing, ballet class, bologna, butterflies, baseball, the moon, stars, Looney Tunes, rainbows, horses, squirrels, cupcakes, castles, spaghetti, school busses, clouds, laughing, fruit (specifically bananas, strawberries, apples, pears, blueberries, cantaloupe…), vacation, movies, milk, McDonald’s, muddy puddles, playing games, reading, coloring, flowers, snacks, snow, knock-knock jokes, make believe, glitter, buttered toast, Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, toys, her hair, airplanes, fairy tales, scaring people, dresses, candy sprinkles, yogurt smoothies, green grass, taking baths, going fast, flying over railroad tracks, big trucks, hay bales, helping, holding hands, cornfields, carrots, crocodiles, edamame, using chopsticks (well, trying), magic, cardboard boxes, pancakes, presents, unicorns, Dora, being best friends, talking your ear off, telling stories, learning math (not me!), eating graham crackers (AKA: yummy rectangles), giving mosquito bites (you might say “pinching”), food shopping, swimming, smiling, stirring liquids (yeah!), swinging on swings, spinning herself dizzy and, finally, all things pink, she makes our world so much better just by being part of it.

Run-on? Maybe. Long list? Definitely. But it’s okay.

Another fortunate mommy, I love my daughter more than anything. Oops. Check that. Everything.

Word Count=250

More Prose, Stuff She Says and How It Relates

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When asked by her students to share one final lesson on writing, Francine Prose replied: “The most important things (are) observations and consciousness. Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means.” As writers and as writing students we should take this advice to heart. We often hear the words: “Write what you know.” This is basically another way of saying that. Prose is saying write what you know but she is also saying think critically about what you know and what you think you know. In order to write, we need to truly know what we’re writing about. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Octavia Butler makes it a point to know what she’s writing about. Not only does she clearly research the past and incorporate what she has learned about that distant time and place into her novel but she also incorporates her own experience and feelings into it. In Kindred, The Storm (page 191), Butler writes: “Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch.”

Butler’s working knowledge of the past and the present (1976: Dana’s present and Butler’s) is profound. She shares what she knows about both settings and she incorporates her own raw human emotion so that we can be right there with her, feeling with her.  I believe this is what makes great writers—the ability to emotionally connect the story to its readers.  

Prose also says: “I told my class that we should, ideally, have some notion of whom or what a story is about—in other words, as they say so often in workshops, whose story is it? To offer a reader that simple knowledge, I said, wasn’t really giving much. A little clarity of focus costs the writer nothing and paid off.”

In Kindred, Olivia Butler never loses sight of whom and what her story is about. Dana’s journey, the people and places she encounters, and the lessons she learns along the way are not simply revealed but they are carried throughout the whole novel and interlocked thematically. We can’t lose sight of things which are always there and which stay with us as we turn each page. 

Butler does not write for the sake of writing or give us anything that isn’t critical to the story’s progression. Every element she shares has a purpose. As a student who is studying Butler, I’d love to know if this is something that comes naturally to her or if it’s a product of stringent editing. My gut tells me it’s probably a combination of the two and as I nurture my craft that gives me hope.

When I write I often get lost in the writing and I sometimes lose track of the big picture. Sometimes I don’t even see the big picture until I’m editing. Because of that, I often have a lot to chop. Chopping these days isn’t as painful as it used to be (these days I think of editing like getting a haircut—if the ends are dead, why keep them?). Back when chopping was more painful, I used to keep a growing list of my chopped lines and phrases. I didn’t want to throw them away altogether so instead I saved them so that I could later turn to them if and when I felt stuck in a story. I stopped doing that because I realized it was holding me back. Those words and sentences were cut for a reason. Recycling is great for the environment but I’m not so sure the same can be said about recycling words or relationships. In my opinion, it’s better to say goodbye for good to an old flame (or old words and sentences in this case) instead of holding on and hoping he or she might eventually be right for a friend.  

As with most things in life, my writing is getting better with practice and, of course, reading the work of other writers helps too. By studying novels like Kindred and paying close attention to such masterpieces and deconstructing them with the help of the lectures and lessons, I’m learning the importance of the big picture and how that concept relates back to my own writing. It’s not just about telling a story, manifesting themes and communicating messages. It’s also about creating something—not just a sum of parts, but rather something whole—that delivers on its promise and ties all the pieces together without leaving anything important out or stuffing anything irrelevant in.

Gesture Abuse

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In  the chapter on Gesture in “Reading Like a Writer,” Prose says: “Perhaps I should say that my definition of gesture includes small physical actions, often unconscious or semi-reflexive, including what is called body language and excluding larger, more definite or momentous actions. I would not call picking up a gun and shooting someone a gesture. On the other hand, language—that is, word choice—can function as a gesture: the way certain married refer to their spouses as him or her is a sort of gesture communication passion, intimacy, pride, annoyance, tolerance, or some combination of the above.”

In the story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” Flannery O’Connor is very descriptive. Through his vivid descriptions he makes it so easy to picture settings and characters in our mind. In fact, he describes each character in his story so explicitly that he inevitably uses gestures to continue his descriptions. Throughout the story, he bounces back and forth between description and gesture, peppering in at least one or the other (and often both) into every single sentence.

Flannery begins the story with multiple descriptions and gestures. In the very first line, he says: “All week end the two girls were calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter and getting so red and hot that they were positively ugly, particularly Joanne who had spots on her face anyway.”

“Temple One” and “Temple Two” are gestures similar to Prose’ example of “him” or “her” being intimacy gestures for a married couple. In addition, “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” are also gestures. These gestures get O’Connor’s message across more eloquently and pointedly than any description could. We know immediately that these two girls have a close connection since not only do they have pet names for each other but even their pet names are tied together (the names themselves reminded me of Disney’s Thing One and Thing Two). Then in the same sentence “shaking with laughter” and “getting so red and hot” gives the reader images of hilarity and an overall giddy BFF-ness that cannot be misinterpreted. These two are not just friends; they are best friends.

Prose also says: “Even the greatest writers may use stock gestures or employ gesture badly.” When O’Connor writes, on page 462, “…and the child was convulsed afresh, threw herself backward in her chair, fell out of it, rolled on the floor and lay there heaving” is a good example of this. It was just too much. While each phrase is familiar and gets the message across that the child was hysterical, the sum unfortunately breaks the believability of the story. Basically, he went too far with the gestures. 

As I grow as a writer, I’m learning that overusing gestures, putting them where they don’t belong or stuffing them in useless spots where they do nothing for story progression are all easy things to do. Perhaps too easy.

Prose explains:  “Too often gestures are used as markers, to create beats and pauses in a conversation that, we fear, may rush by too quickly.” I do this all the time. In a misguided attempt to find a nice cadence, I often lean on gestures. I wasn’t aware of it until now but I’m guilty. To break up dialogue or to add action where none exists I’ll throw in the unnecessary hair flip or the occasional eye-roll. I shudder to think how many times I’ve made a character glance down at the floor or sigh in disbelief. Not only do I agree with Prose that we employ gestures when we’re seeking a certain rhythm but I think we also lean on them during times when we’re simply at a loss for action.

I want to keep this lesson and some others in the forefront of my mind as I approach my revisions. Reading Prose’ chapter on gestures and realizing that even highly successful writers, at times, lean too heavily on, overuse and downright abuse gestures altogether is helping me come to terms with my own gesture addiction.

Reading Out Loud

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I often read out loud.

In fact, I feel the need to read everything I write out loud, not just because I like to hear my own words (though I’m sure that’s part of it) but more so because I have to hear the words in order to know for sure whether or not they’re right—contextually, rhythmically and, if it’s dialogue, right for the character speaking. No matter what I write, I need to hear the words.

For similar reasons, I recently started purchasing audio books and listening to the narrator read out loud while I visually read along.

I like to read others’ works out loud, too. In workshops, I often read the submissions of other writers, those I’m meant to critique, out loud. Doing so helps me focus entirely on the words and phrases as if my own voice cancels out distracting noises. Just the act of reading aloud helps me better absorb the information and it keeps me connected to it instead of spiraling off into my own head to add bullet points to any number of mental ‘to do’ lists.

I once lost my voice (literally) reading a 300 page manuscript out loud before submitting it for consideration to an agency.

For the past few weeks I’ve been reading Kindred by Octavia Butler to my three-year-old. I’m reading and analyzing it for a class and since I read to my daughter everyday anyway, I guess you could say I’m killing two birds with one stone (you’d probably only say that if you love clichés as much as I do).

Anyway, it’s not your typical toddler story but Lyla doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seems to enjoy hearing me read it to her. Maybe she somehow knows how much it’s helping me.