Sunday, August 30, 2009

Male Writers

By Laura P. Valtorta

Men. What are they seeing? What are they feeling? Why is Woody Allen a sports fan? They act so bombastic and inscrutable that I must read their fiction to understand them. Here are three of my favorite writers:

RICHARD FORD. For the past 20 years he has led us through the life of character Frank Bascombe, the hero of the books The Sports Writer, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. He won the Pulitzer Prize. He also has written several short stories, some of them in collections. His latest short story appeared in The New Yorker magazine about a year ago.

When Richard Ford came to speak at USC as part of the Jeanette Turner Hospital program, I wondered if he would be snobby after so much success. He is a Louisiana native who writes about New Jersey, a child dying, two divorces, and growing old in the real estate business. Funny and poignant. I thought maybe he wrote about himself. Turns out, Frank Bascombe is not much like Richard Ford, who has been married to the same woman for many years, has no children, and divides his time among homes in Colorado, New Jersey, Ireland, and Louisiana. His talk was entertaining and never condescending. He seemed happy with himself and his life.

Richard Ford is short and compact, unlike his writing which is sprawling and unedited. He is about 60, has clear blue eyes and is part Native American. He talks to his fans; he talked to me! As the studio executive once said about Carole Lombard: “Me likee.”

HARUKI MURAKAMI (say it fast) is the master of existential fiction. I can’t get enough of him. Luckily, all of his novels and short stories have been translated from Japanese to English.

The best way to meet Haruki is through the short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Reading and re-reading the same stories. They draw the reader along. The characters are rich, the metaphors come to life. The intrigue is that these stories are difficult to understand. "The Poor Aunt" is a good place to start. The narrator doesn’t just feel like he has a poor aunt on his back. He actually does, which makes life cumbersome. I see the poor aunt as a metaphor for depression. The other stories are more complex. What happens in “Birthday Girl?” What does “The New York Mining Disaster” have to do with New York? Why the obsession with cats?

Haruki Murakami has written an autobiography called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which doesn’t shed much light on his stories but says a lot about being Japanese and loving jazz.

TOM PERROTTA. This writer is not someone I want to meet. He is too preppy and reminds me of the frat boys in college. He probably drinks beer and uses pick-up lines. He might think he’s good-looking. Maybe he is.

What strikes me about Perrotta’s writing (Election, Joe College, Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher) is that he has mastered the art of creating characters through alternating points of view. In The Abstinence Teacher, he writes from two minds: a woman, a sex education teacher, who wants to be able to teach freely about birth control in public schools, and a man who has been “saved” by a fundamentalist Christian Church. The characters clash. Perrotta makes them both likeable. How does he do this? He understands how women think. How? Maybe men and women are not so different after all.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Thing

By Brian Butler

How many times have you sat down to write with that blank receptacle before you and yet nothing to plug into it? A common occurrence for many of us, I am sure, yet the passion to write continues to lure us. The void stares back at you, emotionless and cold, but still begging for input, silently crying for existence. And you possess the power to grant it, to create something out of nothing. Much like mad scientists, we as writers are drawn by the ability to conceive our own Frankensteins, giving birth through our fingertips.

When words are put to the page, the creature begins to take on unique characteristics, traits only this monster owns. As days pass and it is fed more and more words, it begins to stand on its own. It grows from its barren space to a starving infant craving nourishment and attention. It feeds relentlessly. Spawned from the depths of our brain, it becomes one of our offspring, developing a distinct personality blended from our experiences and imagination. We start to care for this…thing.

The monster continues to grow and becomes its own entity, gorging on our time. Its greedy voice speaks to us on an unconscious level as it evolves. We respond with all the love such a child needs to develop into a healthy adult. But soon, it becomes too large to contain.

To retain command, we assign schedules and ration its intake to keep the beast from spinning out of control.

The creature rebels.

It is used to over-indulging, taking all we can give. It has had no set of laws to follow to this point. With a life of its own, the progeny stops communicating, punishment for the application of rules. Alone, we slump into a state of apathy. The roles have reversed, and now instead of us being the care-giver, we look to our creation to fulfill our needs. We look for it to give in return.

But it doesn’t. It won’t. It can’t.

It is up to us to continue the relationship, to reconnect and finish what we started. Without us, creations such as these will never reach maturity. They will sit dormant in drawers and in closets and in dead computer memories. They will become abandoned orphans whose creators were too cruel to put them out of their misery.

Be a good parent. Stay in touch with your brood. Feed them incessantly at birth to bring them to a healthy life. Then mold them with subtle refinements. Yes, rules are necessary, but do not let them confine you or condemn your offspring. Instead use them as guidelines to bring your creations to success, where they can survive on their own, and be introduced to the world, not as a monster, but as a beautiful work of art for all to adore.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A View Point on Point of View

By Alex Raley

Just when I think my brain has finally gotten a grip on writing, something jars the hold. Early in my writing attempts I heard repeatedly that writing in the first person, especially long pieces like a novel, was so difficult as to be avoided at all costs. You know the problems – how do we avoid portraying only one dimension of a situation? whose head are we in? how do we give the reader a glimpse into the feelings of the various characters?

While on vacation recently, I read five novels which were published within the last five years. All of them used the first person singular. In each case, there was a hint of memoir, but you knew that this was not the recounting of facts from someone’s life. There was a compelling story to be told and enjoyed. The story was filled with interesting descriptions of places and events. Most remarkably, “I” appeared just often enough to remind you of who was telling the story and, in at least one case, a principal character was not the narrating “I”.

At our state conference last year a reviewer told me that my short story was about the male character and not the female character. I had tried to make the female the main character. While the reviewer did not specifically tell me to let the male tell the story in first person, I said, “Umm.” The rewriting is going smoothly with the fearsome “I” occasionally presenting problems. Now if I can just write with a minimum of “I’s”, I may be able to make the story what I want it to be.

Another dictum for us as writers is to make sure that the reader knows who is your main character. That does not seem too complicated, but I have found myself trying to write a novel in which several characters are “main.” It was important to me that the reader know the feelings and thoughts of several people who were affected by the story. Letting the principals each have a section of the book in which they were portrayed seemed like a reasonable solution. I was well into the process of redirecting the novel, when I read Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital. In that wonderful book, Hospital even helps the reader by giving chapters the names of characters so that we know the seminal person or event.

We are always told that writers learn by reading. This summer I have reaffirmed that notion. Looking for help? Read, read, read.

Monday, August 10, 2009

First Impression (Why I Wish I Could Write My Life)

By Celinda Barefield

OK, I was originally going to write a follow up to my last article about how to integrate a good writing guide into your work, but in light of recent events, I’m changing my topic. I will do the follow-up at a later date. Instead, I’m going to write about meet-and-greets.

The big challenge here is: How do you get your main characters to meet? This is where setting, motive, and actions come into play. There are many types of meet-and-greets ranging from preplanned stalkerish to randomly weird and everything in between. Maybe one of the characters sets it up. Maybe it’s an act of fate. Sometimes it can be pure coincidence. It is up to the writer to decide. The point is that they eventually do have to meet.

My favorite type of meet-and-greet is the Meet Cute. If you are familiar with old romance comedies, you know what I’m talking about. In a Meet Cute, two people are looking for similar things. For example, a girl and a guy are in the men’s suit center. The girl only needs a jacket, the guy just needs a pair of trousers, but the clerk has to sell the set. They both blurt out their requests at him at the same time and realize that they can solve their problem together. This is a Meet Cute, a random act that leads two people to meet, and in most cases fall in love.

Another type is the Serendipity meeting. After spending a large amount of time almost side by side, two individuals finally encounter each other via a random act of fate, most often years later. An example is a guy and a girl live in the same apartment building but on different floors, they work in the same office building again on different floors, and they frequent the same deli for take-out but at different times. It is not until they are both on vacation in Maui that they run into each other waiting at a taxi stand in the middle of a thunderstorm. They fall in love and realize that they were close for years and never knew it.

As writers, we do not have to write a good first impression. Take Pride and Prejudice for example. Here we have a great meet-and-greet in which the two lovebirds get the totally wrong impression of each other. Mix-ups like this make or break some stories. So choose your first words with care. The thing to remember is until it’s published you can always write a new first impression unlike in real life when you’re stuck with the ones you make.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Latest Addition

Meet A New Writer

David Sennema

Dave was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, graduated from Albion College, and then spent the next two years at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, courtesy of the U.S. Army. He met his wife Marty on the stage of the Town Theater in Columbia, where he got his start in arts administration as the first director of the Columbia Music Festival Association.

He became the first director of the South Carolina Arts Commission in 1967, and in 1970, went to Washington, D.C. as associate director of the Federal/State Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1973, he was invited to Springfield, Illinois to become the founding director of the Community Arts Management Program at Sangamon State University, and later returned to Columbia as director of the South Carolina State Museum.

In his retirement years Mr. Sennema has taken up short story writing and was announced as one of twelve winners of the S.C. Fiction Project in June, 2009. His short story, “Harley Takes a Chance” will be published in The Charleston Post and Courier newspaper in September of 2009. Mr. Sennema and his wife Martha are also authors of the book, Columbia, South Carolina – A Postcard History, published by Arcadia Publishers in 1997, and can be found in bookstores in the Columbia area.

Dave's first blog entry follows.

Planning to Improvise

By David Sennema

As a barbershop quartet singer one of my favorite things to do is what barbershoppers call “woodshedding” a song. No printed music is used. The “lead” sings the melody, and the tenor, baritone and bass improvise in an effort to create four-part harmony.

Many years ago I played the trombone, and during my college days I jammed with a small ensemble. Jazz groups are known for improvisation and that’s what we were doing, although I must admit that it was at a very basic level.

And then there’s theater. One of the methods that drama teachers use in training actors is to give them a topic and have them improvise a scene.

So what does all this have to do with writing? I started writing short stories before having had any formal, or even informal, training. I just sat down at the computer with the grain of an idea and started typing. I was improvising and the computer keyboard was my instrument. I finished a few stories that way, but in the meantime I began to read about how one is supposed to write short stories.

“You must have a plan before you sit down at the computer,” I read. “I always write the ending first so I know where I’m going” some authors wrote. “It’s best to outline the entire story before proceeding,” others suggested.

Such pronouncements gradually wore me down, and I began to feel like an undisciplined clod, so I started following their advice. I made lists of characters that would appear in stories, noting some of their distinguishing features. Then I either made an outline or wrote a narrative summary of the entire story. And only then did I sit down and start writing.

I have been writing short stories for only about a year, and so I make no pretense of having any expertise whatsoever. I can only say that having tried two different approaches I prefer the “improv” method and I think I’ve had better results going that route. However, I am loathe to completely ignore the advice of proven authors, so as I move forward I will probably experiment, trying different combinations of the two approaches.