8/21/2019

13 Books for Writers, by Writers, about Writing


I was recently speaking with a friend who's also a writer, and we got to talking about the things we do outside of working on our current WIPs (works in progress for those who collect acronyms) to support our growth as writers, our sanity, or our connections to other people and other writers.

My answer was that the most useful and enjoyable piece of "Homework" that I give myself every month is to read a book in preparation for leading a discussion with a writers bookclub at my local library. The bookclub focuses on books by writers about writing. We have a great time reading and discussing the books, learning about how other writing professionals approach the art and science and life of writing.


We get together at the Keene, NH Public Library, which is a nice central spot for the group of regular attendees (by which word I mean they attend every month, most of aren't regular in any other sense of the word), but when I lived in the Adirondacks, before moving to New Hampshire, I ran another similar bookclub and we met in a local coffee shop that was more than happy for the business.

The important thing isn't the location, it's the books and a group of people engaged in writing sharing their thoughts about those books... I come away from every meeting refreshed and invigorated and eager to bring the new items in my writing toolbox to bear on my work the next morning.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of books that you could read and discuss with your bookclub, but the list below contains books that we've read in the last few years that those of us participating in the bookclub enjoyed particularly (my favorites are bolded).
  1. Zen In the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
  2. The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron
  3. Wired for Story, Lisa Cron
  4. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
  5. On Moral Fiction, John Gardner
  6. Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert
  7. Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
  8. On Writing, Stephen King
  9. Bird By Bird, Annie Lamott
  10. Writing Magic, Gail Carson Levine
  11. Steering the Craft, Ursula LeGuin
  12. The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp
  13. Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the NYT
I'd love to hear from other writers, or bookclubs, that have read and discussed books in the same vein, to hear which books you really enjoyed.


Thanks,

Jamie

5/15/2019

MFA Winding Down... What's Next?

I heard from my advisor yesterday... she's happy with my thesis.

{imagine the release of a breath held for months, a breath I'd not been aware of holding}

The collection of stories that I'll be submitting to the archives and archivists at Goddard College went from 27 stories to 15; I think it's a much tighter collection, more in line with what I wanted to serve up to readers, and with the revisions all of my readers helped me to find my way to is very close to the stories I had in my head when I started each one.


More than anything, I've learned that my writing needed, and needs, more (and more thoughtful) revision than I had previously done (or even considered). I've never had a problem with writing productively, but before my time at Goddard, I was unwilling to push myself to edit my work to the degree I've become accustomed through the last two years.


This semester was far and away the most challenging at Goddard, for me. 

I found myself wallowing in fear and self-pity after a sobering review of my first thesis submission by both my advisor and my second reader. It wasn't that they said the work was horrible, far from it, but they didn't love the still-rough stories so much as I wanted them to. This was a hard pill for me to swallow and process (rationally).

Taking their advice for tuning, and in some cases chopping, my stories was a freeing process though, and one I mixed in the feedback from another collection of readers I was able to take a step back from my fear and ego and hubris and address the shortcomings of my work. 


The result is a better collection, and 15 stories that are all objectively, markedly, improved since February. Through my editing and revision process, I've considered them singly and together and played with ordering how a reader experiences them to hopefully craft a better overall effect.


With the help of my family, I was able to carve out three days to disappear into northern Vermont to a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere to give the work a final read-through shortly before handing in my "final" submission (""s added because although I'm finished with the thesis/collection so far as Goddard is concerned, I'll likely give it another round of polish before either shopping it around or self-publishing it). 

The quiet and time away from (my admittedly pretty idyllic) life allowed me to dive into the stories and collection and swim around in the ideas and people I wanted readers to experience when they pick up the book... it bolstered my confidence in the work at the same time it illuminated a few more changes I wanted to make.


Starting the day I first turned in my thesis and then recommencing after the final submission, I've been shopping some of the individual stories around to various magazines... to date four of the stories have been picked up (and I'm hopeful for more in the coming weeks). 

Graduation is in June. I'm working on my CV and looking for teaching gigs in the region; in the meantime, I'll be working on my next novel as well as evaluating and polishing some of the hundred or so stories that didn't make it into No Man is an Island... Except Me.

I'm excited for what's next and grateful to all of the people I worked with during my MFA at Goddard, who helped me improve my approach to writing.





2/20/2019

My thesis will be finished. Not yet, not soon, but someday, and looking at the collection of stories I've put together in the semi-final stages makes me proud, and happy, and excited ... for what's next.



I found my way to Goddard two years ago, hungry to change my approach to writing, eager to improve and professionalize my stories and the way I produced and shared them with the world. My take on me was that I was more storyteller than writer, and what I wanted to get from my time at Goddard was to slide further along the continuum towards being a writer, while not losing the storytelling.

Goddard's been nearly perfect for that, for me, in that it gave me what I wanted as well as what I needed. The magic of Goddard exists in two areas: intellectual freedom, focused on learner desires and outcomes; and a community of people to learn with who are brilliant and engaged.

I was able to define my goals, choose my path, and make my own way, comfortable knowing that my teachers and advisers would support me and help me with course-corrections as needed along the way. Living and working and learning with a vibrant and vital community of motivated thinkers and creators only served to pull me higher and faster, along narrow paths to summits I'd never visited before.


My process has been to read and write, supported and nurtured by my peers and faculty. With their guidance, I've read and annotated an eclectic mix of books (fiction, poetry, and books about writing by writers), many of them titles and authors I never would have encountered on my own. Before, during, and after reading these dozens of books, I wrote ... and wrote ... and wrote.

Since starting at Goddard, I've written between 80 and 100 short stories ... lots of them pretty horrible. Some of them, however, were informed by something I'd read, a discussion I'd had, or a seminar or workshop I'd attended during one of the residencies; these stories are generally the ones I circled back to again and again to tweak and polish and prune and graft.

Of those many stories, I sifted and sorted about two dozen that I felt were both representative of my work and growth while at Goddard, seemed to hang together as a collection, and also meant something to me on a personal level.


One of the joking/not-joking taglines at Goddard is to "Trust the Process" ... the process of becoming a writer, or at least my process of becoming a writer, involved reading a lot, writing a lot, talking with smart people who enjoy both reading and writing, and drinking lots of coffee.

Goddard has supported me, and my growth as a writer, in all facets of this process.

For me, that process included finding the time and energy to love editing and revising my work more, much more than I had previously done. As Storyteller-Jamie I loved the creation, making something from nothing; as soon as I was done with the initial creation I'd be ready to move on to the next thing, only grudgingly editing and revising my work as a necessary evil.

Post-Goddard, more-of-a-Writer-Jamie still loves the creation, but sees, and acknowledges, editing and revision as a part of the creative process ... that the creation isn't whole until it's as good as I can make it. That probably seems like a subtle difference to anyone still reading this interminable blog entry, but it's made a big difference to my writing, and to me.


Long story still long, I picked 27 stories and submitted them to my advisor and second reader at Goddard.

The feedback is still coming in, but I agree with what I've consumed and digested so far:

  • a number of the stories don't work as well either on their own or with the collection as a whole, so I'm dropping five (my advisor lobbied for a couple more, but I know what the stories can be, and I'm trusting myself to get them there in time for my final submission)
  • I need to work to polish and reorder the remaining 22 stories to present them in the best possible light ... only then will they, and the collection be done.

I can feel "what's next" floating out there, in front of me, stories waiting to be told ... but I'm not done writing these ones yet, so I'll wait, they'll keep. 

{a detective novel, a fantasy novel, another collection of short stories, more Tyler stories, a cookbook, etc.}



Thanks,

Jamie
Westmoreland, NH

1/22/2019

MFA, Short Story Collection, and what I'm working on this morning ....


  • Why is a guy who's written and published four novels back in school pursuing an MFA?
  • Why is that same novelist laboring to produce a collection of short stories for his thesis?
  • Where is he in that process ... it's been a long time since he published anything?
  • What's next ... why ... when?
Those are all excellent questions, especially the first two, and rather than Sir Edmund Hillary-ing my answer, let me try to think my way through them in this blog entry ... if you promise to read it, I promise to write it thoughtfully.



I went back to school (yet again, some might say) to get my MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College because I felt that I was more a storyteller than a writer. This may seem sophistry or pretense, and perhaps it is (I've been accused, and guilty, of far worse), but nevertheless that was the fulcrum I needed to get myself back in the classroom (on the student side of the lectern, at least initially). Over the course of the MFA program I think I've stretched and grown as a writer ... trying new things as well as getting better at things I was already doing.

I felt confident in the structure and process of the four Tyler Cunningham novels, and had concerns that while I could likely produce another novel, it wouldn't stretch me in the ways I wanted to be stretched in an MFA program. A novel is one example of a thing, one chance to practice new strategies, one opportunity for growth; I wanted dozens. To that end, I wrote a gazillion (nearer to 100 actually) short stories; two dozen (ish) of which will be in the collection that is my thesis project: "No man is an island ... except me, I'm definitely an island".


Having the luxury to write, and subsequently select from, a large number of short stories, I was able to pick both my favorites, and further, from among those was able to pick a sampling that all seem to row in the same direction when taken as a whole. The stories (including the title piece) are all about people both outside of human society and aware of that outsideness, and (I hope) explore the condition from a new, or at least interesting, perspective.

Last week, upon my return from my final residency at Goddard, I took the time to make a final  selection of the stories that will be in the collection ... final-ish, it may be that after my advisor and second reader take a look at the collection, they suggest I drop or pickup a story or two.


I printed out all of the contenders, reread them so as to climb back into the various worlds presented, and then tried to establish a reasonable order in which to offer the stories. some of the strongest works at the beginning to grab readers, an undulation of pacing and type and mood throughout, and another of my favorites with which to end the collection. Three of the stories have been published in literary journals (so far, I have hopes for a couple more being grabbed, including two submissions to The New Yorker ... why not dream big?), something I had previously thought was verboten, but have learned actually makes the collection more attractive to potential publishers.


My plan for the rest of the semester, including this morning once I've finished this blog entry, is to polish the stories and the collection within which they float. In a few weeks I'll send it to my advisor and second reader for their thoughts and guidance. I have some administrivia and paperwork to do for Goddard in the assumption that I'll be graduating in July. Once I hear back from my advisor and second reader (and any other wise eyes I ask for help with the collection), I'll spend the intervening time trying to deal with bumps in the road that is my collection. I'm a big believer (now) that editing and revisions are never done, just due.

Although I'm mostly focused on the completion of my thesis and MFA, I am looking beyond Goddard and this collection of shorts to what's next. I've got two thirds of a very rough draft of my fantasy novel, Oasis, written, and that's calling to me. Readers of the Tyler Cunningham series have been (mostly) patiently waiting for three years for the next installment; I have a couple of stories waiting to come out, possibly novellas, possibly interwoven as a novel. I've also gotten to know a new detective duo who have set up shop in the back of my head, providing an amusing distraction when I'm stuck on other projects; they have a lot to offer, and feel as though they'd be great fun to work with, so I'm tempted to open with them. A (the?) cherry on top of future projects is a cookbook that's not a cookbook, something more along the lines of a lifestyle and gadget and gift guidebook for the kitchen adventurer; I've never done non-fiction writing, never worked with graphics in a book, never formalized/organized my explorations in the kitchen beyond fun and a love of food and drink.


It should make me nervous or scared, but really I'm just excited ... I hope you'll come along with me on the next steps, and the ones after that ... I'm really looking forward to sharing these stories, and the next ones, whatever they are, with you.

Thanks,

Jamie