There aren’t too many things that have remained constant over the course of my life, but one of them is that I have (somewhat) consistently been some kind of a writer. When I was younger I wrote poetry, until graduate school squashed 0ut of me any creative urge I might have had. At least for a few years, anyhow. I spent some time exploring memoir. Those were the staring at my navel years. Not. Good. I’m published in a professional journal for nurses, where I condensed research findings into readable news bites for a year or two. I’ve also been a ghost writer, floating around in the background of someone else’s story, helping them find structure and cohesion and the right words. Currently I write proposals for my business clients.
But when I tell people I’m a writer and they ask me what I write, I always answer that I’m a fiction writer. Why? Because I am. My fiction may not be published yet and I may not have earned one penny for it, but my love of writing is firmly grounded in making shit up and writing it down in a clever, interesting, unusual, beautiful, funny or evocative way. Sometimes I do this successfully. Sometimes, not so much. Perhaps if I were a more structured person (or committed?) my second manuscript might be complete. Nevertheless, complete manuscript or not, I’ve walked a long road paved with poetry and research and autobiography, haunted by ghosts. And I’m a fiction writer.
How about you? Do you define yourself by what you produce or by what you say about yourself?
On her blog yesterday Betsy Lerner, agent extraordinaire and author of The Forest for the Trees (a link to her blog is in my sidebar) posed the question, “What did you write in college?” My first thought was “poetry,” but after a second I thought perhaps the word “vomit” might be more accurate. The drama, agony and angst of my 17th to 21st years was duly recorded by my IBM Selectric typewriter, late, late at night, in sparse, tormented poems tapped out through many tears and snowstorms in Buffalo, New York. They were not so much creative expressions of thoughts, ideas and feelings as a purging of what ailed me. There are a couple that I can bear to look at today.
While I serial dated college boys, I fell in love with one of my English professors who didn’t get tenure and moved on, despite my letter of recommendation for him. I met my cervix in a Women’s Studies class and wrote an ode to vaginas. I read Shakespeare and gave a nod to faeries and donkeys. I waded through a mire of 17th century poetry, not understanding or caring for it a bit. I fell in love with a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater. I drowned in Science fiction. My love poems were all about the heartbreak of splitting up or what an asshole he was after all. I vomited more poems and got a great letter of recommendation for graduate school from Robert Creeley, who read my work but with whom I never took a class.
The other day a classmate from the English department friend-requested me on Facebook. He found his college notebooks in the attic with some of my poetry in it. He told me after reading them that he thought they still held up. Imagine that. After college I went to graduate school for a MFA in Creative Writing. After 2 semesters I left the program and didn’t write another poem for 10 years. Now I write fiction. I’m much happier.
What did you read and write in college?
I read Brunonia Barry’s The Map of True Places this past weekend. Oh my. What a delight. Barry is also the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Lace Reader, which I now must read. As I was reading, I tried to notice exactly what the author was doing, how she had written, what elements were in place, that were making the book so engaging. But I couldn’t sustain the noticing. I kept getting dragged back into the story, swept away by the images, gripped by the seamless dialogue. So I’d stop actively noticing what was working and by the time I remembered to start noticing again I’d find I’d read another 20 or 30 pages.
So that’s it, really. I think that’s ultimately the key to writing a great novel. Write it so your readers forget they’re reading. So that they forget the dialogue you’ve written is written dialogue. So that they forget your well-worded descriptions of images are words strung together to evoke an image. Can you do that? Can I? Brunonia Barry can.
What book has dragged you in, swept you away or gripped you so effectively that you forgot you were reading?