When I first met with a new counsellor almost five years ago, I didn’t start with that. What was on my mind at the time was family drama, being gay, social anxiety, and my decades-long failure at finishing my undergraduate education. In the weeks that followed, we began to address what was underneath all my frustration, confusion, and fear. To tell you the awful truth, my issues stemmed from a cliché: an unhappy childhood.
The kind of rotten childhood that invades an adult is best uncovered, I think, by an impartial third party, and best addressed by a resolution to listen to them and try what they suggest. I had tried before. The first time was when I went away to college, eighteen years old and on the other side of the country from my family. In a Catholic campus group and then in group counseling provided by campus health and a counselor, I lost my religion and any hope that counseling would help.
Mostly. Friends can be pretty good counsellors. Siblings who experienced the same physical and emotional abuse, though they are often angry at you, too. A parent who years later leaves the other and acknowledges that, yes, none of that was any good. They’re not professional counsellors, though. They’re not impartial. They’re not willing to dive into the tangle of your mind week after week. Going into my forties, what I really wanted was to confront my past once and for all and move on to who I really wanted to be. That demanded the right counselor, someone I had never met before, someone with the right tools to help me figure out what was going on inside of me and in a positive and productive and caring way help me to confront, adapt, and change. Tall order.
If you seek a counselor—sometimes I think all of us should have our own personal counsellor to help guide us—I suggest you find the right one for you, even if that means meeting with several until you do. In fact, I went to two that first week. I thought one counsellor would help me with my family, anxiety, and school, and the other, preferable gay themselves, would help me with being gay. The gay counsellor suggested I pick one. He said if things didn’t work out with the other counsellor or if I really thought it was necessary to have two, then I could contact him again later.
I didn’t have to. The straight one, quite unrelated to sexuality at all, turned out to be the right counsellor for me. He helped me reexamine my past and uncover the ways it had shaped me, for better or worse. He also helped me to reshape myself, for the better, with a new perspective on my painful childhood that didn’t ignore it but allowed me to rise above it and move forward.
The results? I have better relationships with several of my immediate family members, and no relationship with others, which is actually for the best. I have set clear boundaries, avoided a lot of drama, and prioritized my own wellbeing while better managing the demands of being a member of a family with an unhappy past.
My counsellor’s acceptance and engagement with my sexuality helped me to better embrace and integrate that side of myself. Being gay has become both a nonissue and a integral part of who I am. My sexuality, like my hazel eyes, my average height, my aging, my interest in robots and emerging technologies, my love of superheroes, and my writing, is, well, me, in all due complexity and stark simplicity.
My counsellor’s work with me on social anxiety took me off a brief experiment with Paxil and led me toward comfort and ease with being the way I am instead of turning me into a sudden extrovert. I’m simply more comfortable in social situations now, whether or not I’m being particularly talkative or demonstrative. The spotlight of attention that always seemed to shine on me and left me feeling excessively self-conscious and prone to embarrassment and fear is much, much dimmer now.
And my writing? That’s the awesome outcome of this entire journey. It was clear from the beginning that what I really wanted to be was a writer, a writer who writes, a writer who writes and revises and frequently submits finished works. Within a year of starting counseling I had completed the first draft of an entire novel. Soon after, another. And another. Within three and a half years I had gone back to school and finally finish my undergraduate degree, this time in English and Creative Writing. Nearly five years later, I’m writing regularly, I’m committed to writing, I’m building my writing process, I’m finishing projects, and I’m sending them out to potential markets.
Counseling, when you find the right counselor and when you engage with them honestly and with a willingness to do what they suggest, can work wonders and reshape your entire life. Perhaps the most shocking result of these past few years in counseling has been how much simpler my life has become. When I first met with my counselor, there were just too many things I was trying to do, trying to be, trying to hold on to or understand or ignore. What rose to the top with guidance was me, and I’m now the person I want to be.
I also think I don’t need to see my counselor any more. Someday I’m going to mention that to him and see what happens.
Reading a second time Jordan Rosenfeld’s A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice, what I find myself focusing on is that subtitle. A year ago, I was most interested in learning how to be persistent, write daily, and “love the [writer’s] journey on the way to your destination” [pg. 13]. There is wonderful advice throughout Rosenfeld’s book about sticking with and cultivating a writing habit. This year, I feel ready to develop my writing process, one tailored for me, to help me start and finish first drafts, revise them, and, when they are ready, send them out to potential publishers for consideration. I again turn to Rosenfeld’s book; it’s just that fantastic. I prefer the word “process” and will mostly use it here in my post, but I appreciate the reasons why Rosenfeld uses the apt phrase “writing practice.”
A writing practice or process is individualized. You pay attention to your own patterns and preferences and begin to select the steps and tools that work best for you. You carve out your own space and time for writing. You reject what isn’t helpful and you practice what is. I’ve spent the past few weeks doing all of this and with my fledgling new writing process I crafted the first draft of a 5000-word short story. I’m not offering the details of my writing process as a model for what will work for you. Mine is just one example of a writing process that will hopefully inspire you to build your own.
Space and Time Enough
I’m fortunate to be single, have a flexible day job, and have lots of free time to carve out my own space and time for writing without having to negotiate or compromise with other people. You will have your own circumstances and responsibilities to navigate as you attempt to do the same. In chapter 6 of A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Rosenfeld describes a lot of the boundaries writers may need to build in their own lives so that they can focus on writing. From creating “a do-not-disturb zone” to shunning people who are “energy suckers” to confronting your own negative behaviors, these boundaries let you divide your life between writing and everything and everyone else. I find it useful in my own process to carve out a very sacred space devoted to writing that is also devoid of distractions. It’s called Story Land and it’s a quiet and affordable writing space in Tucson, Arizona. I recently signed up as a member and it has transformed my process. I can write at home, but I’ve experienced much more productivity for longer periods of time by coming to Story Land afternoons after work. The benefits go far beyond the quietness. I find under warm lighting in the cozy corner I’ve picked out for myself upstairs a bubble of time and space that frees me from thinking about anything other than writing. Because my time at Story Land is so distraction-free and focused, I’ve discovered that I’m free to focus on work at work and on relaxing when I’m home. I had no idea that restricting overlap would improve all areas of my life!
No, you do not need to rent a space to write. That’s barely within my own budget. You can, however, carve out for you and your writing a place that is separate from your other activities and responsibilities. Be it the guest bedroom, a corner of a room, the hour before or after everyone else goes to bed, your lunch break at work, etc., the physical and temporal drawing of boundaries around you and your writing does wonders for your mental commitment to writing.
Why do you write? What is its value to you? Chapter 2 in Rosenfeld’s book is about building your own writer’s code as a foundation for your writing process. Rosenfeld asks you to first contemplate “What is the value of your writing?” [pg. 13]. I found that for me personally, writing is a part of my thinking things through. Writing helps me better understand the world and other people in the world. It’s been that way since I can remember. If I never published anything or made any money from writing, it would still be valuable because it’s part of how I process things. Writing as a process for another process. Neat!
After I discovered this, I found writing about writing to be especially helpful for my craft. That’s why I now have a section on my site titled “Writing Process.” I’m happy to share these essays and I hope others find something useful in them, but the act of writing them really does help me work out what is important to me about writing and how to improve my craft. What is my writing process? That’s what I’m discovering by documenting and articulating it here in this post.
I don’t think making money or finding fame are bad reasons for wanting to write, but they certainly aren’t the only possible reasons. Whatever your reasons, listing them will help you turn writing into a habit, into a process, into a persistent practice.
The Where and When of Writing
The next question Rosenfeld asks in her book as you build your writer’s code is “What is your writing rhythm?” [pg. 14]. I wasn’t really able to answer that last year, but this year I think I know. I prefer it quiet, so cafes and noisy restaurants don’t really work for me, and Story Land is perfect. I prefer writing in the afternoon and evenings, though I have enjoyed writing first thing in the morning on occasion. I seem to be able to write for about two hours before I need a break, and it’s often difficult for me to come back and continue writing, unless I switch from my current project to something like a blog post.
In the past two weeks, I have discovered additional patterns that feel natural to my process. For example, I found that I can generally write two days in a row but on the third day I often enjoy taking time away from writing to think about and research my story further, which sets me up nicely to write again on day four. This pattern will likely change dramatically depending on the project and genre I’m working on, but it was cool to see that pattern emerge so clearly now that I have given myself the space and time to write regularly.
Taking time to figure out your own patterns of behavior will give you a starting point for your writing process. The more responsibilities you have, the harder it might be to adapt your patterns, but at least you will have a better understanding of the where and when and other details of your writing, and a sense of the writing process you will want to aim for eventually. With this start, you will also be able to address the last two questions Rosenfeld asks that will lead to your own writer’s code: “What are you willing to risk?” [pg. 15] and “Who is your creative support team?” [pg. 16].
The Balance of Research and Writing
I’ve been writing on and off for decades and I’ve been finishing projects in just the past few years, but only in the past two weeks have I been working out how to do the necessary level of research for my stories. I started a short story about artists in Portland, Oregon even though I don’t know a lot about fine art or artists and I haven’t lived in Portland in decades. I was writing about an artists collective but I realized I didn’t really know much about them, let alone how they operate in Portland. I had written quite a bit of the story over a couple nights, but I decided on the third night to go home and spend a few hours reading up on artists and Portland and other details. The protagonist is loosely based on a real artist, so it was easy to find interviews with him and study his website and portfolio. I used Google Maps to explore downtown Portland and figure out where the locations in my story should be. I found Craigslist listings for artists and artist collectives. I reviewed a few studio websites. None of my research was that in-depth, but it provided the right level of information I needed to improve my story and avoid glaring errors. I also didn’t spend more than a few hours that evening on that round of research. I returned to my story with my head full of new ideas and jargon the next day, and I immediately sensed as I wrote how the research had improved my story.
A week later, I started writing about another character in the story and I realized that it was time for another evening of research. Research this time was a documentary I found on Amazon Prime. The documentary convinced me to modify the details of this character quite significantly. The character came alive not as someone who might have appeared in this documentary but as someone very different on the page. Research is great not just for confirming or enhancing details, but for discovering what details you might need to change or remove, too.
Research also happened unexpectedly while I was involved in other activities. I’ve been reading literary fiction recently, such as David Constantine’s In Another Country: Selected Stories and a couple stories in 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Best of the Small Press. I realized while reading Constantine’s “The Mermaid” that his description of the wood carver’s activities provided a nice prompt for how to write about my own artist’s activities. How Zadie Smith crafted and used the third person narrator in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” suggested to me ways I could focus more on my protagonist’s thoughts and concerns related to his art and his understanding of success.
I was so struck by how my unrelated reading provided help with my current writing exactly when I needed it most. Rosenfeld refers to these unexpected parallels and that sense of a hidden order between your writing and other activities as “synchronicity” [pgs. 67-68]. Rosenfeld suggests keeping a synchronicity diary; I started a writing diary in which I also include any synchronicity that may have happened that day. The very idea of keeping such a diary led me to highlight the “Writing Process” section on my blog. Whatever forces are at work, I’m finding the various activities in my life inform each other in wonderful and unexpected ways, and this is leading me to new creative horizons.
So how much research is necessary? I knew that great detail about the subject matter was not particularly important in the story I was writing. It was enough to make sure I got the details I did use right. The next project I start, however, will likely require much more research. It’s a science fiction story about chimeras and if you have been following the latest research, the breakthroughs have been quite stunning while the ethical questions these creatures pose have been staggering. I don’t believe I can get away with a quick Google search about chimeras. I plan at the very least to read recent science papers and books about chimeras and related topics. I think there also might be opportunities to request interviews with local scientists who are involved with this kind of research. Interviewing makes me anxious and nervous, but I have interviewed experts before, so I know I can do it if I determine it will be useful.
Your writing projects will determine how much research is necessary for each, but one thing to remember: don’t use research as a procrastination tool! I really like the idea of spending a weekend doing substantial research before starting a new story on Monday, and then spending a few hours every few days doing a little more research, until the first draft is finished. I can then determine how much more research is necessary before I start the second draft.
I’ll admit here that the hardest part about coming up with my own writing process has been fitting in research. I’m only taking baby steps, but I’m slowly learning what works for me without becoming overwhelmed. I’ve discovered that I need to be flexible about how I spend the time I otherwise devote to writing. Most evenings I will indeed write, but an occasional evening spent on further research keeps me informed, motivated, and ready to tackle the next part of the story.
The writing process I’ve experimented with so far during two weeks of weekday evening writing, punctuated by a few hours of research, and devoting a few more hours to reading and being inspired has left me weekends to relax, plan, research, and, yes, frequently do some writing. I like this process so far, but what I haven’t added in yet, and will do so this week, is time for major revisions.
When I finish a story, I like to let it sit for a week or two before I jump into significant rewrites. Tonight I will start working on the fourth major draft of a fairy tale I plan to submit to Fairy Tale Review in March. I started this story back in September 2015, but since last summer I’ve been coming back to it again and again and finishing new drafts. For the third draft, I focused on the overall structure of the story and I fixed some glaring plot holes and confusing details about the proximity of various objects and locations in the story. Time away from this draft and focus on other projects lets me return to it tonight with fresh eyes. For the fourth draft, I plan to focus even more on each sentence and things like tone and mood. I’m giving myself two weeks, though I have no idea if that is more than enough time or not enough. And there’s the submission deadline.
I happen to like editing and revising a lot. I’ve found it exceptionally helpful to occasionally (usually with the second or third draft) waste the paper to print out a physical copy of a piece and with a pen and even a pair of scissors get down and dirty with my edits. Laying out scenes on my carpet at home gives me a very different view of my story than I get from scrolling through it on a computer screen.
I’m also developing a preference for the order of my revisions. For me, a first draft is really a series of drafts that eventually leads to a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It’s about getting the story out of my head and onto the page. The second major draft is about the overall structure of the story and refining the plot, characters, and other elements. Third drafts might be about structure again, but I also start to refine my language. Fourth and later drafts, as necessary, might focus on just one or two elements of craft at a time, such as one focused on characters, one on atmosphere, mood, and tone, and other on spelling and grammar. I’m really just beginning to immerse myself in revision, so I’m sure my process will change and be refined as I do it more and more.
100 Rejections a Year
The point of developing a writing process is, for me at least, to eventually finish stories and send them out to potential markets. A variety of sources have suggested that instead of measuring your success by how many stories you have had published, it’s much healthier and more helpful, especially as a beginner, to measure your progress by how many rejections you have received. I happen to love rejections. They make me feel a little sad, but they also make me feel really productive and accomplished. A rejection reminds me that I have successfully started and finished, revised and finalized, formatted and submitted a complete story.
I have a few rejections already, but this year my goal is to receive 100 rejections. Nearing the end of February, I’m beginning to think I won’t come anywhere close to that number by the end of December, but I’m going to do the best I can, learn what I can about this part of my writing process, and keep the same goal in 2018 and beyond.
My Writing Process
The writing process I’m building covers the writing, research, revision, and submission of short stories. I’m only a couple weeks into a preliminary idea for my process, so I’m being flexible and kind to myself while I work things out. I’m really happy to be at this stage in my writing career, and I hope this focus on process will eventually lead me beyond daily writing to many finished stories and frequent submissions to potential markets.
Books like A Writer’s Guide to Persistence are also a part of my process. I’ve spent decades reading books about writing to try to inspire myself to write more. Now that I’m writing regularly, I’m reading these books to help me build my writing process, to improve my craft, to be persistent, and to take the next steps toward the next milestones in my writing career.
The first step—learning to write regularly—can be a very difficult one to take and maintain, and I recommend you reach that habit, that dedication, that persistence, first. It seems like it took too long for me to get to this point, but I’m also thankful it didn’t take me any longer. What develops next is, in my opinion, the fun part: your very own writing process and taking the next steps to finished pieces ready for submission.
David Constantine’s short stories in this collection are fascinating. They are full of images and thoughts and they meander across beautiful landscapes while their characters contemplate death and life. I loved several of the stories and the rest, though somewhat opaque to me, were generally thought-provoking, evocative, and beautifully written.
Let me start with my favorites. I picked up the collection specifically for the short story “In Another Country.” I had read an article about how it was loosely based on a tragic true story and was being adapted into a movie titled 45 Years. The idea is immediately compelling: a long, apparently happy marriage is abruptly threatened by news that a body has been found in the ice. What follows is the deterioration of mind and marriage. “In Another Country,” in addition to being a compelling drama, is also a very tense read, somewhat like a thriller or horror even without those trappings.
Constantine doesn’t use quotation marks or separate dialogue into separate lines. He also uses lots of run-on sentences and incomplete sentences. In the stories I enjoyed the most, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. In more opaque stories, I struggled. The effects of these techniques are the frequently disturbing proximity of thought and speech and a blurring between characters. In “In Another Country”, I would say the lack of quotation marks heightens the emotions of the characters and the mood of the story. These are characters who have been married many decades, who can practically finish each other’s thoughts, and are only now confronting something that poses a real danger to their marriage. Their dialogue and the growing madness and the unsettled past blur together in a frightening way. When the cliff of emotions and sanity is finally breached, it’s because of a small but important detail that comes to light. “In Another Country” is an incredible story, masterfully crafted, and well worth the price of this collection.
“The Mermaid” is another favorite of mine. In addition to a strong sense of setting, a compelling domestic drama, and sharply drawn characters, “The Mermaid” stands out because of the metaphors Constantine chooses and the way he brings back objects mentioned earlier that have even greater import later in the story. A nativity scene carved out of pieces of wood stands out in particular. There are many lines I love in this story. Speaking about wreckage the protagonist hopes to salvage from the shore after a storm: “the breakers coming in like friendly hounds with timbers in their mouths.” To describe the loss of his sense of time: “the sky outside either lightening or darkening.” To describe losing himself in his art: “After such work he came into his own house like a stranger.” I found the ending a little strange, and I’m not quite sure what parallels Constantine was working with, but “The Mermaid” really stood out for me.
My cynical mind suggested to me that “Strong Enough to Help” would turn out to be a horror story, but it was really a sweet story about being drawn out of isolation and finding love. I also really enjoyed the darker “Under the Dam” with its vivid descriptions of a viaduct and a dam and complex relationships. And the last story in the collection,”Mr. Carlton”, left me with tears in my eyes and a strong sense of place.
I think the stories that worked best for me were those that really focused on setting and pulled back occasionally from the dialogue and thoughts of the characters. Stories I struggled with were often close to stream of consciousness, ended abruptly after little forward movement, or described people and settings I couldn’t immediately identify with or picture. “Asylum” was one of these. It’s set in a mental asylum but I couldn’t get a good sense of the place and the characters didn’t really have an arc, though I think the end was supposed to be hopeful. “Wishing Well” seems to be tracing the start of new love, but I didn’t really understand the characters or why one in particular was telling the stories she was telling. I couldn’t quite grasp what was important about this story.
In revisiting these stories for this review, I find I appreciate all of them very much, and some I struggled with are beginning to make more sense now that I’ve had some time. Some of the difficulty could be because I’m American and Constantine is a British writer. The relationship between his characters and the landscapes seemed decidedly European to me, though I’m not really sure what I mean. I also think he is making very complex and adult observations about people and their relationships, and perhaps I’m a little too immature and inexperienced to grasp these details.
Reading what is difficult is such a powerful way to learn, though, and I loved the experience of reading this book. There are some books that are fine to give up on (sorry, The Complete Cosmicomics) and there are others that reward you after you struggle with them. I will want to return to “In Another Country” and the others stories someday, to see what they have to say to me then.
There’s this moment after watching one of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies (there are four and I’ll have more to say about them later on in this review) when I think to myself “I really should read the original novel by Jack Finney.” Well, after watching all four adaptations again recently, I finally read the book, and what a surprise it turned out to be.
You know the story: seed pods from space arrive in a small town on Earth and begin replacing people while they sleep. What surprised me about the 1955 novel was how faithfully it was followed by the 1956 film adaptation starring Kevin McCarthy as Dr. Miles Bennell and Dana Wynter as Becky Driscoll. The first half is essentially the same between novel and film. About halfway through, details and plot points begin to diverge slightly, leading to a different ending. To be honest, the book’s climax seems a little silly, and it’s much less horrifying than the fate of the main characters by the end of the film. The film has its only silliness, in the shape of a framing device tacked on when the studio decided the ending was too dark, but what I view as the film’s real ending is absolutely bone-chilling.
The novel has more room for exposition than the film, and in general this additional information is really interesting. The novel is told in first person by Dr. Miles Bennell, who is even more cheeky and self-centered in the novel than he is in the film. He’s also much more progressive in the novel, which I didn’t expect from a male character created in the 1950s. Dr. Bennell makes particularly incisive observations related to race and gender. The novel cannot avoid all stereotypes, though. Becky Driscoll is primarily a passive and emotional damsel in distress, but there are several great moments in the novel when she becomes much more active and heroic, including coming up with a particularly great escape plan from a seemingly impossible situation.
The pod people plot from the movies is one of my favorite delicious terrors from horror and that creepiness and consistently frightening progression is definitely there in the original novel. The only thing that really disappointed me about the novel was the ending. The film adaptions tend to lean toward darker endings and more ambiguity. They make me feel like the horror has only just begun. The book’s ending instead is lighter and conclusive. It just doesn’t pack the same punch. Until then, though, the book is genuinely creepy and frightening.
The first three of the four movies based on the novel are some of my favorite movies of all time. They work because they capture the fears of their time. The 1956 film directed by Don Siegel is perhaps the best, and the fear it evokes with its seed pods and pod people is the fear of communism, in which your neighbor might turn out to be a communist plotting against America. As I mentioned, the ending gets really dark, though the framing device undercuts this. All of the actors are fantastic, and there is a scene with McCarthy and Wynter near the end of the movie that is one of the great chillers of all time. The film is a masterpiece of paranoia, the practical effects are still amazing, and the chase scenes are much more frightening on the screen than they are in the book.
The second adaption arrived in 1978, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Brooke Adams and Donald Sutherland as the leads. They are joined by a great cast, including Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum, as well as a fun cameo by Kevin McCarthy from the original movie. The fear of the 1970s seems to be of pop psychology and the effects drugs like Xanax prescribed for anxiety and depression have on emotions. The 1978 film doubles down on the special effects and paranoia, and the scream-screech of the aliens when they spot humans will always be frightening to me. The film departs from the novel in many ways and changes the characters quite radically, but it retains the paranoia and creepiness.
The third adaptation from 1993, Body Snatchers, was directed by Abel Ferrara and stars Gabrielle Anwar, Meg Tilly, Terry Kinney, Billy Wirth and Forest Whitaker. The movie departs from the novel in many ways. The protagonist here is a teenage girl dragged to a military base by her father, an Environmental Protection Agency agent investigating the impact of the base on the local environment. The fears of the early 1990s seem to be of the military, stepparents, and the environment impact of humans. While the plot is simplified quite a bit compared to the earlier movies and the novel, what elevates the movie in my opinion is just how frightening it becomes. Making the protagonist a young woman and part of a family with a stepmother and half-brother leads to truly horrific moments that make me jump in my seat every time I see them. Meg Tilly is frightening as hell, especially during a monologue in which she asks “Where are you going to go?”
One great novel, three great movies. And then there’s 2007’s The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig as gender-reversed versions of the novel’s protagonists. This movie is terrible! The fear of the Aughts seems to be of pandemics and bodily fluids. The invasion spreads by vomiting on other people; it’s even grosser on screen than it sounds. There are no pods, just gross skin effects. No other fears are that well developed. Veronica Cartwright is always great, but her cameo here is wasted. The movie isn’t all that frightening, there aren’t any particularly captivating or scary scenes, and the talents of all of the actors are completely wasted. Unlike the earlier movies, The Invasion doesn’t really seem to have much to say. It doesn’t offer any compelling parallels to the contemporary world. It just seems to exist as an exercise to distill the novel to the very basics; it fails miserably.
But three great movies out of four is an incredible track record for any franchise. I think this rate of success is the result of Jack Finney coming up with a timeless and frightening plot particularly worthy of film adaptation. It’s one novel I think should be adapted about once every decade, because pod people are a great device for reflecting on our changing times and fears. What would an Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie look like today, in 2017?
It occurs to me that I haven’t written much about The Writers Studio workshops I’ve been attending regularly for the past year. It has been such a positive experience that I think I have been trying to keep it all to myself. No more. This is the real deal and writers no matter what their level of craft may find The Writers Studio helpful.
The Writers Studio was founded by the poet Philip Schultz in 1987 in New York City and the Tucson, Arizona branch by the poet Eleanor Kedney, a former Writers Studio student, in 2005. You can find out more about the history of the program here. I first heard about it from acquaintances, but it wasn’t until after I finished college in fall 2015 and started to search for local writing workshops and meet ups that I decided to give the 10-week beginners workshop a try. I immediately fell in love with the program.
What’s unique about The Writers Studio is their focus on voice. Every week we are assigned a short excerpt from a poem, short story, or novel that demonstrates the author’s unique voice and writing craft. We then try their techniques in our own page-and-a-half response, relatively short because there can be up to twelve students in a workshop and we have one 2.5 hour session a week to fit in everybody. We bring in our work, tell the rest of the class a little about our experience writing it, let someone else read it out loud, and then sit quietly while the class and instructor provide constructive criticism, particularly feedback about how our work is like and not like the assigned excerpt.
One thing I never learned or understood from my college creative writing classes is that the narrator of the story, that first, second, or third-person point of view telling the story, can be a crafted character in their own right! This personal narrator is an entity separate from the writer and in third-person stories can be quite separate from the protagonist. The personal narrator is filled with attitude and has their own distinct view of the characters and story they’re telling. It took me many months to really get this and start developing this skill in my own writing.
In workshop we also focus on the difference between tone and mood. I think I only now understand the difference: tone is the personal narrator’s tone, how they are telling the story, be it matter-of-fact or with great affection for the characters, etc., and mood is the feeling with which you want leave your reader. Pairing the right tone and mood in a story is a powerful technique. For example, a matter-of-fact tone used by a personal narrator to tell a story that horrifies the reader, or an affectionate tone toward a character who is being abused can bring out deeply felt emotion and narrative complexity that a different approach might not.
In addition to the workshops, there’s a craft class that focuses on reading like a writer. Over a nine-week session, we read and analyze short stories, poems, collections of poems, and novels. For those who live in New York City, they meet once a week for a guided discussion about what we read and the elements of craft the authors used. For the rest of us, we listen to a digital audio recording of this weekly discussion. This week we are reading “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” by Zadie Smith and “Vision” by Tiffany Briers, part of the 2016 Pushcart Prize XL Best of the Small Press anthology. I read both stories on Friday and they are excellent. I was deeply moved by the stories and by the techniques the authors used to craft them.
The Writers Studio program might not work for everyone. I love the format, but not every writer will. The program is also pretty expensive, at least by my standards and budget. I feel it is worth the investment, though, and intend to continue at least through the end of this year. In addition to everything I’m learning and the great feedback I’ve received, I’ve created quite the repository of my own stories, a few of which I have finished, revised, and sent out to potential markets. In the intermediate workshop I’m currently attending, we recently read the poem “An Oral History of Blind-Boy Liliko’i” by Garrett Hongo from his book Coral Road. I wrote in response to this wonderful poem the beginning of a short story about an artist in Portland, Oregon. I didn’t stop at a page and a half (around 470 words); I kept going and now I’m over half way through the story with about 2500 words and a clear idea of how it will end. I’m using techniques demonstrated by Hongo in his poem such as unique and local languages and color, drawing on my own life and histories, and using a first-person narrator yearning or searching or doing something interesting. I think I have crafted an interesting character on his own particular journey through the art scene in Portland. It’s been a fantastic experience crafting this story and I hope to finish the first draft this week.
The Writers Studio workshops have been extremely beneficial to my writing. I love working on the exercises, I love going to workshop each week, I love receiving and providing constructive feedback, and I love how my own voice is emerging. I’ve met many local writers and instructors who inspire me weekly. I highly recommend The Writers Studio if you find this approach to the craft of writing in any way appealing. If you are located in New York City, Tucson, San Francisco, or any of the growing number of branches, there are writing workshops available. The Writers Studio also offers online workshops for writers who live elsewhere or who prefer the online format to face-to-face classes.
The August 2016 (I’m a little behind) issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction is a really good collection of stories, poems, and essays.
The essays include “Discovering Women of Wonder” by editor Sheila Williams, “The Software of Magic” by Robert Silverberg, “Thinking About Dinosaurs” by James Patrick Kelly, and “On Books” by Paul Di Filippo. All of them are fascinating and I’ve now got a huge list of new books I want to read.
The poetry was a little less interesting to me, a little too cute and a little too focused on science in poetic form rather than being poetry of the science fiction genre. “On the Death of Classical Physics” by Michael Meyerhofer nicely jumps scale from trees to the quantum world before being domesticated, in my opinion, by nevertheless interesting observations about the rigors and stress of daily life. “Your Clone Excels at You” by Robert Frazier has an imaginative form that leads to a too-clever, in my opinion, final line that I’m not sure achieves the poem’s aims. “SETI” by Andrew Paul Wood is nicely yearning but the poetry of it didn’t really, in my opinion, add anything to the questions asked. “The Martian Air Merchants” by Ken Poyner also makes me wonder what is gained by positioning these facts and questions in poetic form. But perhaps I’m being too harsh; I’ve been spoiled by my recent exposure to some of the poetry I’ve read in association with the Science Fiction Poetry Association, where the craft of poetry is always top-notch and science fiction and fantasy are just different genres poetry can explore. That is, I seem to prefer what’s important to poets writing the poetry collected by SFPA to what the poets emphasize in this issue of Asimov’s. Feel free to ignore my ramblings.
I’m much more comfortable in recommending the many great short stories and novelettes in this issue. “Wakers” by Sean Monaghan is about unlucky colonists awakened from hibernation on board a starship after an accident makes it impossible to reach their destination exoplanet. The latest person helping the ship’s damaged A.I. has gotten old and he needs to awaken someone else to replace him. That’s a tough choice to make for someone. The relationship between him and the A.I. and the expectations he has about who he wakes up next are really fascinating. The story takes a turn that was unexpected and a little opaque to me but it explores ethical dilemmas that I hadn’t realized I held positions on until the final choices of the story are made.
“Toppers” by Jason Sanford has secondary world fantasy tendencies despite it’s hard science fiction premise, and I really enjoyed it. Time and journeys are involved and they nicely loop in satisfying ways throughout the story.
“The Mutants Men Don’t See” by James Alan Gardner is one of my favorites in this issue. It has superheroes, the inception of superheroes (one of my favorite things about the genre), danger, angst, and surprise, with a wonderfully satisfying turn I didn’t see coming.
“Kit: Some Assembly Required” by Kathe Koja & Carter Scholz is another favorite. I did not expect one of my favorite playwrights, Christopher Marlowe, to show up in a story about an emergent A.I. That history, Doctor Faustus, and A.I. should combine in such wondrous fashion seems like a miracle, but really demonstrates the creativity and talent of the authors. The final line gives me chills. If you are a fan of Doctor Faustus and the subversive way Marlowe crafts his anti-hero, then you are in for a treat.
“Patience Lake” by Matthew Claxton is straight-up bad-ass science fiction western and it might remind you of Cormac McCarthy’s work and noir fiction. In a dystopian future of bionic people struggling to survive, Casey Kim, former military, badly mutilated in a chemical attack and now outwardly more machine than man, just wants to make it to a town where there might be work for him. A request for water leads to friendship and then much worse. The story is bleak, the characters are sharply drawn, the world is vivid, and oh my goodness that ending.
“Kairos” by Sieren Damsgaard Ernst challenged me in ways I didn’t expect. I happen to be hopeful for radical life extension someday, but Ernst’s protagonist takes a decidedly dim view of the prospect soon after her second husband tells her that he and his research company have developed the technology and he wants her to join him as one of the first immortals. What follows is her grappling with the prospect while visiting Aachen, Germany and remembering her first husband. I was absolutely fascinated by the character’s process of thinking through her issues with life extension and her husband’s request. At the end she approaches the issue in her own unique way and it leads to some really fascinating and unexpected if open-ended final thoughts. I’m really happy I stayed with the story and it gave me a lot to think about concerning my own rationale for immortality.
“President John F. Kennedy, Astronaut” by Sandra McDonald was both what I expected and not what I expected. He is indeed an astronaut in this story, there is some alternative history at play, but the main protagonists are other characters on their own unique journey. The story is a little silly, funny, a lot of fun, and leads to a satisfying and hopeful ending.
All in all, the August 2016 issue of Asimov’s is very enjoyable with some particularly well-done stories.
When I was in my mid-twenties and the World Wide Web was still new, I eventually found writing and critiquing communities like forums and Critters.org. What is so useful about these communities for writers is the opportunity to learn from others, learn about how to give and receive useful feedback, and learn that we are not alone in the struggles and challenges of being a writer.
The problem with some (Many? Just me?) men in their twenties is that they often won’t shut up and listen; they pronounce. Loudly. I pronounced on a writing forum one day that only writers who sacrifice themselves painfully and entirely to their art will be published and successful. To defend my pronouncement, I called out people who I believed would probably never be published. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but I’m ashamed that I called out housewives and retirees specifically.
As you can imagine, the writing forum members from different backgrounds, identities, and writing experiences reacted with outrage. The more people responded negatively, though, the more I dug in. I insisted that art was sacrifice and many people simply couldn’t or wouldn’t make the necessary sacrifice. I felt very libertarian. Very Ayn Rand. Very suffering artist. Very martyr. Very young. Very convinced and convincing.
Yeah, I was a complete idiot.
It’s horrifying to admit that my sense of righteous rightness about writing was driven most by those hurt personally by my statements and those who reacted with shock and anger. They’re just reacting to being called out, I thought at the time, these women who only have a few minutes to write in the morning before their children wake up. Of the retirees who I told wouldn’t ever be published because they had waited too long, I thought they can’t take the truth spoken so bluntly. Truth is truth, A is A, and getting emotional about it isn’t going to change anything.
Yeah, I was a mean fucking lunatic.
All that bluster and proclaiming was me trying to convince me to write. I got caught up in the writing communities online because I thought that would make me feel like a writer, even though I wasn’t actually doing much writing. I wasn’t a disciplined writer back then. I’d get excited about a story, write for a few hours over a few days, and then not write again for months or years. I was afraid I had neither the talent or discipline to write. I thought being published was the only measure of success. I cowardly used the forum in a selfish way that hurt others to try to convince myself to write more. I used my posts to set myself apart from the other writers and found in alienation and controversy a fantasy of my own future success: I don’t have any kids and I’m still young, so I’ve got plenty of time! Next stop: bestselling author!
I’d like to say that as I got older, I learned to keep my mouth shut and showed more restraint and empathy. Maybe. A few years ago, I joined a local Tucson meetup for writers. Most of the attending writers were retirees. They all told a similar story: always wanted to write, but work, family, life got in the way, and now in retirement, finally have the time and space. I didn’t speak out loud, thank goodness, but I thought the same old tired, irresponsible, dishonest, and uncaring thought: none of you are going to be published because you waited too long. That’s not going to be me, though, because I’m only in my forties.
What utter bullshit. It was typical obnoxious white male bluster and prejudice to hide my own deep seated fears behind hurtful pronouncements about others. In an America where that type of idiocy is on display 24-7 and threatens the very foundations of democracy, it’s a blast of frigid air to look and find in me all the ways I haven’t behaved any better than those idiots I now condemn.
Pronouncing dogmatic and arbitrary rules without any basis in reality or consideration for others is a reoccurring theme in my life, often perpetrated by others, but also committed all too frequently by me. That ignorance is what comes with privilege and prejudice, and it causes great harm and suffering to others. I’ve experienced how it also binds me and gives me tunnel vision, how it leads to me setting the wrong goals, using the wrong measures, and failing to make any progress. Rules like these (“You have to sacrifice yourself for your art”) have never lead me to any kind of success.
I eventually sought help from a counsellor who pointed out just how many strange, useless, and impossible rules I have tried to live by that I created out of pure fantasy. These rigid, arbitrary rules have prevented me from obtaining any of the goals I set for myself. It took longer for me to see how these rules are born out of fear and prejudice. Seeing this kind of behavior in the news every day recently has opened my eyes to the ways in which I have been just another awful person making up bullshit and trying to force it on others to somehow make myself feel better.
Twenty years after I posted bullshit on a writing forum, felt alienated, and drifted away quickly. How many years of good advice, inspiration, and companionship did I give up because I acted like a dick? Some sacrifice. I hope my ignorant posts have been deleted or at least buried by time. I hope most of the forum members who read my posts back then just ignored me, and I hope those who pointed out my bullshit forgot all about me eventually. They didn’t deserve to be treated like that by me.
Writers write, but the details are up to the individual writer, not some stupid blowhard who makes up and pronounces fictional rules about art and sacrifice and insults a bunch of devoted writers in the process. I’m only now beginning to figure out what works best for me. I might have learned a lot sooner but I didn’t listen to the very people who could have inspired me the most: housewives and retirees and many others writers in all sorts of situations with all sorts of experiences writing with all kinds of definitions of success.