Summer Writing Classes Are The Only SPF You Need

Stretchy long summer days might seem like a great time to strap on a pack for a 400 mile hike or nail an inter-oceanic kayaking record. Hate to break it, but those activities are high impact, expose the skin to harmful UV rays, in addition to which you’ll get thirsty.
What, you ask, is a better way to spend a San Diego summer? Why, honing your writing craft from a pleasantly air-conditioned room with a beverage fridge. Duh!

To help keep you free of sunstroke, I am offering the following classes at San Diego Writers Ink:

Writing Complex Characters

Sign up for one or both days:

Saturday 8/06, 10a-1p — Heroes Who Fail Us

Sunday 8/07, 10a-1p –Villains We Love

bat baby

A frequent complaint in writing workshops is that a character is “unlikable.” Similarly, a memoirist may be flummoxed by hearing that the characters from his own real life are not “believeable.” What these complaints really point to is character flatness. The characters may be too readily known, leaving no sense of discovery for the reader. Or they may be impossible to know, so perfect or so demonic that readers cannot comprehend their basic motivations. So how do we breathe life into our characters while maintaining their authentic personalities?

The Art of the Sentence

Perfect partner to The Craft of Page One

Saturday 8/27, 10a-1p

penmanship

What difference does a sentence make?  “Saturday afternoon the mother drove to the bakery in the shopping center.” –Raymond Carver, “The Bath” 

“Late yesterday afternoon a friend came over unexpectedly to sit at my kitchen table and try to find some measure of language for his state of mind.” – David Wojnarowicz, “Postcards from America”

Both pieces deal with the subject of death, but sentence-level choices make us, the readers, feel rushed or numb, put us in our bodies or in our heads, compel us to read on or hurl the book across the room…

The Craft of Page One
Perfect partner to The Art of the Sentence
Sunday 8/28, 10a-1p
kafka

“So much depends upon/a first page,” William Carlos Williams should have written. To the agent, editor and reader, the first page declares whether this story deserves further reading. Without a killer first sentence and well-honed first page, no reader will reach the story’s beautifully developed the story’s middle or its brilliant final line.

What’s it gunna be, team? Turning yourself into zinc oxide beach zebras, or hanging–indoors–with the cool cats?

Upcoming class at Writers Ink!

cameralens

Hey SD writers! I’ll be teaching this 5-week class (Point of View: Who’s telling this story anyway?), starting 4/10, on the challenging-yet-thrilling art of Point of View in fiction and memoir, and would love to have you there.

“Point-of-view has been called the story or essay’s “camera lens.” If so, the narrator is our cameraman, shuffling around the edges of the frame, zooming in, panning out, applying filters of language and emotion that color the reader’s view. You can write well without having a clue what’s going on behind the camera—but knowing your cameraman makes it a heck of a lot easier.

In this five week class, we will read point-of-view masters like Zadie Smith, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore and Junot Diaz, to see how narration works in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person. Through structured exercises, lecture and discussion, we’ll cover the elements of narration and point-of-view as they apply to fiction and memoir. Students will leave class with a strong grasp of the basics and the answers to their burning questions, including when to use an omniscient narrator, how to stick to a given POV, when to break the rules and how not to get swallowed up by a 1st person narrator.

*Some prior familiarity with point-of-view is helpful but not necessary. We’ll start simple.

**Plan for ~30 minutes of at-home reading/writing per week.”

Register early!

AWP 2016 Survival Guide

AWP Survival

Every year 12,000 book nerds, introverts and agoraphobes with vulnerable egos pack a big city convention center to see writer-friends, sell books, get drunk, attend AA meetings, consider the state of literature and give local lunch restaurant waitrons a collective stress-induced heart attack.

If this sounds like your idea of fun, there is probably something wrong with you. Then again, literary writers are people who choose to devote thousands of hours to a largely unpaid pursuit whose most reliable product is an abiding feeling of failure, so, you know, AWP has their target market nailed.

I actually happen to love the AWP Conference, because a) high book-nerd factor, b) low agoraphobe factor and c) brilliant AWP survival strategy (see below). In the past, however, I narrowly escaped hating AWP/having a weekend-long anxiety attack, rescued only by my brilliant survival strategy (see below). Since it’s brilliant and all, I thought I’d share it with you.

(Nota bene: if you are in any way book-nerd famous or even moderately successful, I apologize for all the people trying to tear your clothes off/have sex with you/season you with envy, then kill and eat you. I also apologize for being one of those people. My only advice is to crouch down behind someone more famous/moderately successful than you for the duration of the conference.)

YOUR AWP 2016 SURVIVAL GUIDE

 a completely biased listsicle for getting the most out your annual nerdfest

  1. Know why you’re going.

There are a lot of reasons to submit yourself to the shitshow described above: You run a lit mag and want to connect with writers and readers. You just published your book and want people to know about it. You have no clue how the literary industry works and want to learn. To meet the nice editors who keep rejecting your epic prose poems and maybe find out why. To see your writer friends. To hear about new teaching strategies. To find  presses that would be perfect for your work. Etc. These are legitimate reasons. Reasons that will allow you to respect yourself. There are also plenty of other reasons, though, and you should be honest with yourself about if yours include the following:

  • to renew your dislike of other writers
  • to kindle the fires of jealousy
  • to reunite with a residency “friend” who used to be more successful than you but is now much less successful and feel the happy brain chemicals flow
  • to prove to yourself that you can put on clothes and leave the house for three consecutive days
  • to give out your business cards, because it’s your only chance all year and you have a really sharp design
  • to have unrewarding sexual encounters with strangers
  • to have unrewarding sexual encounters with old friends
  • to have unrewarding sexual encounters with your literary heroes
  • to find out which of your literary heros are currently having unrewarding sexual encounters with one another
  • to get far drunker than responsibilities of partner/job/children will allow you to do at home
  • to foster the self-loathing that tbh is your primary motivation to keep writing
  • to meet the nice editors who keep rejecting your epic prose poem so you can disapprove of their taste and intelligence with greater accuracy
  • because everyone else is doing it and you’d rather be a lemming than a lone wolf with FOMO

Whatever your reasons for attending, determine how realistic your goals are and if they can reasonably be achieved.

  1. Be realistic about how many off-site events you can attend.

Base this on your real life habits. If you go out twice a week in real life, you should easily manage 1-2 events a night. If you live in cave with your dog and a 90s-era booklight for companionship, you should attend a panel Thursday morning and then fly home.

  1. Have a quiet place to decompress.

If you’re sharing a hotel room or airbnb, agree on quiet hours and whether you will be bringing friends/literary heroes/frenemies back to party and/or have unrewarding sexual encounters.

Ideal AWP hotel room quiet hours would be “from the time I arrive in LA until the time your plane leaves the tarmac”. Make a yes-no-maybe list, in each column including the disruptive activities you are both comfortable with happening in the hotel room. For instance, “tiptoeing in well-padded socks” should be on your yes list. On your no list, “coughing multiple times in an hour or after 7pm.”

An inflexible roommate, or one with a head cold, may refuse to adhere to even these simple rules. Fortunately, convention centers have many out-of-the-way, carpeted nooks. (If you’re making your living off either writing or teaching, the convention center’s carpeted nooks will be much nicer than your hotel room anyway. You may even opt to sleep here.) Use these comfy spaces to write, tweet, organize your notes or curl into the fetal position. Because your fellow writers are observant (if nothing else), expect others to follow your lead. When this happens, be friendly. Make some amiable small talk! You will soon have your cozy nook all to yourself.

  1. If you don’t like the panel you’re at, leave.

Some people go to a panel, grab a seat in the front and stay there, no matter if the panel is called, say, “How To Teach A Riveting Composition Class”, and the first presenter whispers his entire presentation into the carpet, then cries himself to sleep at the podium. Actually, that would be interesting. What is much more likely is that either the panel turns out to be on a completely different topic than it claimed, the panel called itself a “probing discussion” but is actually a guerrilla reading of conceptual poetry, or the participants will obviously have thrown together a completely arbitrary panel only to get discounted registration [no I have never tried to do this, I’m offended you would even ask] and are monotoning their way through a badly organized presentation whose subtext screams WE WOULD LIKE TO RETURN TO THE HOTEL BAR NOW PLEASE.

This is one of those times when you really should do what everyone else is doing. See them? They sat right by the door and are now slipping quietly out the side doors and heading to Hip-Hop As Poetic Form or 5,000 Reasons We Rejected Your Manuscript. Some of you feel guilty just reading about imaginary conference attendees walking out of an imaginary panel. You feel terrible for that imaginary panelist who cried himself to sleep. That’s wonderful! You have lots of empathy–which is great for your writing. You know what else is great for your writing? Going to a panel that doesn’t suck.

  1. The book fair I: make friends.

Take advantage of your first dud panel experience to visit the book fair. Ideally, this will happen at 9:15am, when the book fair tablers are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and have not yet remembered how much they would rather be at home collating something. Book fair people–editors, journal readers, faculty–are really, really nice. Astonishingly nice. THIS IS THE ONLY TIME DURING THE WHOLE YEAR WHEN PUBLISHERS WILL BE NICE TO YOU. Take advantage of this friendly environment to learn about presses that might be a good match for your work. Apply any dating advice you’d give to a hetero teenage boy to your own behavior: express a genuine interest in the girl, ask thoughtful questions, give more than you take and no matter how much you want to get laid, do not assume she owes it to you or that your horny attention is necessarily a compliment. (Analogy legend: girl=small press; take an interest= buy something or at least consider buying something; laid = published; horny = what your impersonal desperation to be published looks like to an unpaid editor.) As in teenage dating, the bar is pretty low, so be a gent and vault it.

  1. The book fair II: shop early and shop wisely.

Before you arrive at AWP, consider your budget, setting an amount you can afford to spend on books (versus food, drinks, entertainment and cab/lyft rides). Quadruple that number. That is the amount you will spend.

Prioritize what books you want to purchase in roughly this order:

  • books by your friends and/or teachers
  • books you know you will buy anyway (and this way your $$ doesn’t go to paypal or Visa or amazon or other form of unspeakable evil you subscribe to)
  • books and magazines from presses you think might be right for your work
  • books by a panelist you liked or someone you heard read at an event
  • books you like the cover design of
  • books that include a free tote bag or at least some candy
  • books that are near someone cute and/or book-nerd famous who you are hoping will be impressed by your purchase
  • books you are gripping so tightly you have broken the spine because there are 3,000,000 people crammed into this book fair and it’s got to be against fire code and if there is a fire you will get trampled and die of a combination of shattered bones AND suffocation which have to be the two most painful ways to die

It’s smart to buy books you want by Friday, as they do tend to sell out.

 

What Kid-Lit Classics Taught Me About The Perils & Pleasures of Making Art

milo.jpg

As a kid, I read obsessively and exclusively in two distinct genres: 1) books about magic (e.g. The Phantom Tollbooth, The Neverending Story) and 2) books about surviving in the wilderness (Lord of the Flies, Hatchet, Julie of the Wolves). The magic stories offered a hopeful sense of possibility and an escape from a daily life which I, not unlike Tollbooth’s Milo and Neverending’s Bastian, experienced as alternately boring or scary. The survival stories offered reality with the volume turned up, life-or-death to-do lists, skills to be painstakingly mastered, stark isolation and the certainty if one is be saved, one must become the rescuer.

I’ve always considered this divided taste as proof of early quirkiness—two opposing literary moods that represented my split selves. One self: a sad, fantasy-prone kid whose waking hours divided themselves between eating and lying stretched out on the carpet. The other self: a pragmatic overachiever who enjoyed hammering together bird feeders and pulled myself out of a suicidal depression at age eight.

The other day it occurred to me, though, that my binary premise is constructed on mistaken grounds. Survival stories are magic stories. Magic stories are about survival.

Let me explain.

The typical magic story goes like this: ordinary kid discovers powerful object and/or portal to another world. At first, she makes mistake(s) that brings her up against the magical world’s limitations (and often trigger later problems). Eventually, through painstaking trial and error, she  masters magical skills and completes a quest that seems to have been waiting for her alone.

The survival story differs only in the details. Through tragedy or bad decision-making, ordinary kid ends up alone (or with other kids) in harsh environment. Early mistakes nearly kill him, but eventually through trial and error, he masters basic skills and saves himself.

Both narratives contend with isolation, disorientation, new limits and a gradual education in handling those limits. Though both narratives are escapist, the story is about what the kid fails to escape. Grief for his mother tails Bastian through Fantastica where it takes form in stony giants and a ravenous, world-consuming Nothing. The Lord of the Flies boys have been cast away from a world war which they brutally re-enact on their lonely island.

swamps

***

When I teach a writing class, I begin by emphasizing how marvelous and necessary it is to let oneself get lost. I employ the cliches of fantasy and survival fiction, ushering students into the unknown wilderness where assumptions must be left behind, where old defenses and tools must be forgotten etcetera etcetera. Yet by the class’ midpoint, we’re discussing and thinking almost entirely about craft. Sometimes I feel silly using the name “Wayward” Writers, when my teaching style is not exactly loosey goosy. There are many fine teachers whose classroom style embodies porous exploration: swirling colors on canvas, quiet reflection, free-writing, yoga, breathing. I’ve taken classes like these myself and found them useful. Being prone to worry, I worry that students attracted to the idea of waywardness will sign up here hoping for relaxed free-ranging, only to be met with my high energy and highly structured approach. At the peak of such worries, I convince myself I should change the name of Wayward Writers to, perhaps, Writers With Tools!, Writers Who Love To Read, Writing Architects or The Pay Attention To Metaphorical Surroundings School of Writing. (These are not the real name ideas—the real ones are much much worse.)

Planning this January’s characterization classes, I asked myself again, Should I really be calling this Wayward Writers?

Then I remembered the magic stories and survival stories and what they taught me about getting lost.

***

angry tock

Do you remember, age three or four, being separated from your mother in the grocery store? Aisles full of long, adult legs. Craning for a dark head that stood out as particular, known, hers. Feeling the shopping carts, the shelves of food, the cheery bright cartons grow large around you. Loom.

It’s scary to be lost. That’s why in real life we avoid it. It makes better sense to stay with the known dangers than the bewilderment of that which we aren’t yet equipped to understand.

***

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young

To make art you have to get lost, and do so repeatedly. Novelists often say that each book is a new and more difficult challenge, which means that no matter how much experience you gain, in the context of a new project, you will return to a beginner’s fumbling and awe.

Artists cling as much to the familiar as anyone else. But at some point, the urge to create (or the pain of not creating) exceeds the fear of flailing in darkness. If anything makes you a “real” writer, it’s that writing matters enough to you to take that risk.

***

When you decide to head into the wilderness, here’s a map/compass from my childhood reading list:

  1. First will be delight and relief. You have escaped from the bullies, from the war, your arranged preadolescent marriage and/or the empty feeling of a life without art. Enjoy this. Write like crazy as long as you can.
  2. The early wonder is a form of shock. Which means as it fades, you’ll realize you’re in over your head. Night is falling, it’s cold, you don’t know how to start a fire and, oh look, it’s raining. This is the part where some beginning (or returning) writing students stop showing up to class. You might write and get “blocked”. You might write and hate it. You might want to scream at anyone suggesting ways to improve. You might decide you’re “not a writer” or quit outright. This is all normal.
  3. If you’ve gotten yourself truly cast away–meaning you want to write at least as much as you want to quit–this is where the learning begins. Like the Phantom Tollbooth’s Milo, you’ve survived the Doldrums and can begin to take stock of your surroundings. What are the local customs? What can you do here that you couldn’t do at home? What can’t you do here that works in your daily life? You may note with appreciation that in this strange world, you can read minds and speak in the voice of a man twice your age. You may be dismayed at the difficulty of simultaneously thinking and moving, or seeing and talking. Doors can be hard to open. Time may rush by or refuse to pass. At this stage, reading other people’s work helps, especially work by writers you admire. Consider them your Tock. Like Milo’s new friend, these writers can show you (through close observation) how to navigate this often overwhelming world.
  4. Step-by-step skillbuilding and its attendant setbacks. You make fire. You let your fire go out. You find edible berries. You make yourself eating too many berries. You build shelter. Shelter leaks. You repair the leak and catch a fish. This is the nuts-and-bolts part of the process, the writing and crossing out and writing again. As you get used to writing in multiple (3 or more) drafts, you feel less precious about your successes and more curious about your failures. You feed your curiosity with craft essays, interviews with writers, discussions with other writers, writing classes and/or more reading. Learn to keep yourself interested in this process. It will keep you going.
  5. Challenge. You are hunted by a band of feral boarding school boys and must save yourself once and for all. You might delete your nearly-finished manuscript at this point (don’t). You might abandon the project. A seasoned journeyer will take a break here, or work on something different for a while. The problem is, you’ve hit the limit of your capabilities (for now). This is a good sign. It means you’ve challenged yourself. You’re growing as a writer. That may not be much comfort when you’re pretty sure you’re going to fail. Go back to the reading and craft essays. When you have more distance, observe your own text as you have learned to do with other writers’ published work. What can you see now that you couldn’t before? You will need to use every skill you have.
  6. Mastery. You broker a peace treaty between Rhyme & Reason and beat back the Nothing with the power of your imagination. You start a fire that catches the eye of a rescue plane. In other words, you finished! It may not be a perfect completion, but it’s your completion.
  7. Rest for a while. And when you’re ready (or can’t stand the silence) return to step #1.

If you want to get lost with company (and trust kid-lit: it’s nice to have friends in the wilderness), join Wayward Writers for one of our upcoming writing meetups or creative writing classes on character, dialogue or POV. Fiction, poetry, memoir and playwriting workshops follow the form described above (albeit the condensed version): open-ended triggers followed by discussion, lecture, close-reading of published texts and more writing. Students leave with craft skills, increased confidence and a body of work to continue developing beyond class.

 

Connect-Disconnect: A Plot Approach for Plot-O-Phobes

ICE

This image comes from the blog of a teacher at Dingwell Academy, which is such a perfect name one of you better steal it and put it in a story. I’m including solely because this drawing delights me. Especially the trees. If someone writes an 200 word essay about those trees I will publish it on this blog. Come on. I dare you.

If you’ve been writing a while, you’ve probably encountered the Freytag Triangle. At the triangle’s first corner, you’ve got your first conflict, the rising action (or complications) slope up the to the peak–your crisis. That’s followed by a downslope of falling action, and finally the story ends.

If you just puked a little in your Earl Gray, this post is for you.

I personally find the ol’ triangle useful-ish–but not with every story. And really, you can bash in some of the most interesting artistic impulses by trying to fit them into such a neatly labelled container.

At “Making Plot”, my recent Writer’s Ink class, we all got especially excited about this more intuitive–some might say dumber–model. Dumb because once you get it, you only need to think about it for like three seconds. (Unlike the Freytag Triangle, which is responsible for entire neural networks in my personal brain.)

So, connect-disconnect (which comes to me by way of the incomparable Matthew Clark Davison and Janet Burroway‘s Writing Fiction) works like this:

Any moment in your story (or memoir or segmented essay or bricolage poem or interactive novel or wtf-ever you crazy kids are writing nowadays) can be considered either a connect or a disconnect.

A connect = Something positive, something your character likes. E.g. an appreciative observation, a warm exchange, a funny joke about a bad situation, a mouthful of  food when your character is hungry. Any form of approach–something that brings your character nearer to other people or her/his world.

A disconnect = you got it. The opposite of everything above. If a bunch of roses reeks of dead cat, that’s a disconnect. If the mouthful of food is rancid and has to be spit out, again, disconnect. Any time your character retreats from the world/others, disconnect.

This works on any narrative piece, but is ideal for emotionally driven stories or pieces that seem to meander or flop or circle their way to an ending, rather than ascending a cute lil’ storybook mountain (as pictured above). You may know that I’m medium-obsessed with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Her weirdo plays (which have won the Pulitzer, so there) evade any paradigm. And yet they–even they–can’t resist the dumb hypnotic stare of connect-disconnect.

Now, let’s practice with this excerpt from “Wants” by Grace Paley.

I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.

Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.

Ok, we’ve got the narrator moving toward the husband, so even though it’s quiet, I’d call that a connect.

He said, What? What life? No life of mine.

Ouch. Disconnect.

I said, O.K. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.

Debatable, I guess, but I’d call it a connect, because she’s agreeing (sort of) and approaching the library to resolve a problem.

The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.

She owes $32 and doesn’t feel super about it. Disconnect.

My ex-husband followed me to the Books Returned desk. He interrupted the librarian, who had more to tell. In many ways, he said, as I look back, I attribute the dissolution of our marriage to the fact that you never invited the Bertrams to dinner.

This guy, really. We should just call him Mr. Disconnect.

That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them any more. But you’re right. I should have had them to dinner.

a series of small disconnects (memories with air of sadness), then a small connect (which is humorous even if we think she’s sarcastic).

I gave the librarian a check for $32. Immediately she trusted me, put my past behind her, wiped the record clean, which is just what most other municipal and/or state bureaucracies will not do.

Instant trust! Connect!

The story goes on, and you can read the rest here. And though the connect-disconnect pattern never becomes predictable, it continues shifting back and forth. Toward the end, you get a few very large connects and disconnects, but still, nothing you’d call a climax unless you were being incredibly generous to Paley’s reverence for our good friend Freytag.

How to use this in your own writing

So let’s say you’re novel-in-progress has flatlined. You feel dead when you go to work on it, you feel dead when you give it to your writing group. In your barely beating writer’s heart, the novel is an endless sea of blah and you’re a fisherman without a license in a sea filled with lethargic sharks who might eat you or might not but you wish they get it over with already. Sound familiar?

Great.

Connect-disconnect is your happy recipe for breaking up the monotone-arama. It is your flying fish brigade leaping amongst the unmotivated Jaws extras.

Here are three ways to use it:

  1. When you’re just messing around or want to start something new. Using your own life or fictional characters, write 5 consecutive mini-paragraph (or 1/2 page of dialogue for drama) scenes. Alternate connect and disconnect. Goal: practice juxtaposition and get a feel for how it heightens/intensifies opposing emotions.
  2. During the first draft. Analyze your own connect-disconnect pattern so far. Does your character only report things that make her disappointed or angry? Your assignment for the next scene is to write a connect. E.g. A memory of something she loved; a sensory delight; an overheard conversation that she finds entertaining; a passing conversation with a stranger in which she feels fully herself. Goal: Keep yourself awake and remind your reader why that other stuff, the disappointing, angering stuff, matters.
  3. On revision. Cut-and-paste. Get out your red been and label each chunk or scene as connect/disconnect. If you want, use lowercase ‘c’/’d’ to denote quiet moments and uppercase to denote intense ones. Now, check out the connect-disconnect rhythm. If you have long stretches of only connects or only lowercase, try inserting a disconnect or “uppercase” chunk. If you don’t have enough variety to work with, write a few new, contrasting chunks and consider whether you really need all those similar ones. Goal: orchestrate a lively rhythm that will keep your reader engaged throughout and always wondering what will happen next. (Even if basically nothing is happening.)

 

You did it! You mastered the skill you will never have to consciously think about again. See how easy that was?

Want to learn more cool sideways approaches like this–and get a whole helluva  a lot of writing done? Want to lope around with the sharks and rocket over with the flying fish? Aren’t you in luck, because Wayward Writer’s January/February classes are open for registration. Now available as 1-day workshops for you non-committal types. You know who you are.


 

Wayward Writers offers creative writing classes for all levels of writers from beginner to advanced. We believe that our poetry, fiction, memoir and playwriting skills improve when we seek new creative challenges, get out of our comfort zone and steal craft techniques from contemporary writers. Click here to join us in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego for our next class series, or here to find out about free weekly writing meetups.

Why Essays Need “Pictures”: An Argument in Quotes

There are few things more excruciating than reading a memoir or essay where the author has settled for explaining past events to the reader rather than letting the reader immerse herself in them. These pieces are like a conversation with a friend minus the person you like enough to get coffee with and the part where someone actually wants to hear your opinion. Because of its failure to consider the reader’s experience, memoir that’s heavy on the tells feels like narcissism. Informative nonfiction, like history or science, feels dry and textbooky without image, and argumentative essays become someone bashing you over the head with a bullhorn. Awesome.Megaphone2

Me personally, I don’t think memoir sans image is any more “narcissistic” than its pictureful cousins. It might be lazier though (or just less experienced). Coming up with images, then rendering them clearly and accessibly takes focus, practice and multiple drafts. Sometimes, essayists feel silly acting like poets. But the best essayists act like poets all the time–and look damn fine doing it.

Sometimes the key arrives before the lock. Sometimes a story falls into your lap. Once about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. They came in three big boxes, and to keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There they resided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed. They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-gold zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums. The ripe ones had the faint sweet perfume particular to that fruit.

I had expected them to look like abundance itself, and instead they looked like anxiety…

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Writing Experiment #102: Sketch It Like Solnit

a) “I had expected them to look like _____, and instead they looked like _____”. Fill in the blanks, then write the image that illustrates your sentence.

b) Find an abstract idea in a piece of nonfiction, yours or someone else’s (e.g. “sometimes the key arrives before the lock”) and push it until you hit a visual (or sensory) memory that develops what you’re trying to say.

Mars has two small moons whose names mean “panic” and “terror”. Phobos looks like a potato that experienced one terrible, and many average, concussions. Phobos hurtles around Mars every eight hours, which is three times faster than Mars rotates, which means Mars pulls it back and slows it down. Slowing down makes a moon lose height; in the end Phobos will smite its planet, or else get wrenched apart by gravity into a dusty ring of aftermath. Mars’ other moon Deimos is a slow and outer moon—someday it will be a scrap moon, rattling around in the outer darkness where drift superannuated spacecraft and exhausted starlets.

—Amy Leach, “Sail On, My Little Honeybee

Writing Experiment #103: Limn It Like Leach

Use visually suggestive language to describe a sequence of seemingly dry technical events.

Variation: Do the above, then turn the volume up. Repeat the exercise, making your language and analogies even more extreme.

The gringos have done an excellent job instilling immigration fear.

In a scale from 1-5 where 1 is like flying from Bogotá to Bucaramanga and all you gotta do is wave at the mister behind a make-believe machine, and 5 is like flying from Bogotá to San Francisco but connecting in Houston and having German shepherds and bald white men waiting for you plus that quote from Sarah Palin waterboarding is how the U.S baptizes terrorists on repeat, I give it… drumroll: 4.5 stars, baby. Top-of-the-line fear. Gringo fear. So when you’re sitting in that grey building, with the grey chairs, grey floor and one water fountain you’re shitting your pants, your girlfriend’s pants, por Dios, you’re shitting everyone’s pants. You’re scared. Inside those buildings you’re smiling at the damn grey walls, sipping water like you read British women sip their tea, because qué carajo, it can’t hurt right? You’re peeing like a freaking lady, sitting on chairs like there was a wooden plank on your back because, pela’a, you don’t want to give them any reason to send you back, you’ve waited three, ten, twenty berracos years for this one appointment and motherfucker you’re here to kill it. Where’s my green card, carajo.

—Juliana Delgado Lopera, “Proving I Love You or I’ll Have Sex In Front of an Immigration Officer For You”

Writing Experiment #104: Draw It Like Delgado Lopera

Write an clear, argumentative statement (“The gringos have done an excellent job instilling immigration fear”) or find one in one of your own drafts. Follow that statement with a series of images that lead into one another via association. Variation: Write the series of images in a single, run-on sentence.

Liked this? More on images, including prompts, in Playing Telephone: Pictures Without Stories and What Is An Image?: Lynda Barry, Saeed Jones and a Writing Experiment for the Senses.

Better yet, sign up for San Diego’s Immersions: Writing Image and Sensory Detail in which you will try new things, discover new talents, make new friends, and leave with a skillset for turning all your writing into vivid, emotion-triggering gems.


Wayward Writers offers creative writing classes for all levels of writers from beginner to advanced. We believe that our poetry, fiction, memoir and playwriting skills improve when we seek new creative challenges, get out of our comfort zone and steal craft techniques from contemporary writers. Click here to join us in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego for our next class series, or here to find out about free weekly writing meetups.

Playing Telephone: Pictures Without Stories

What is an image and what can it do?

I always think it’s a little unfair that visual-based artists (painters, dancers, actors, illustrators, filmmakers, etc) have the market cornered on imagery. The nature of text is that there will always be an obstacle between reader and image. A skilled writer can provide the ingredients for a reader’s imagination, but she can’t pin him down and make him picture it, an act which requires mental commitment and a few neurological leaps. A videographer on the other hand has immediate access to her viewer’s brain. The image, requiring no translation, is immediately seen and responded to by her audience.

“Sequential Interactions 1” video still by Anna Garner

Like most writers, I’m the kind of art viewer who frustrates visual artists by wanting to turn every picture into a story. This isn’t always a useful habit. My favorite images in literature are those that confound me. They are vivid and visceral, create a charged atmosphere but don’t resolve into easy meaning, like this paragraph from Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen:

Carrying the trash to the dumpster, I passed the Rat Graveyard. Most of the twig crosses had been stepped on and what was left leaned sharply and dipped towards ground. Someone tied the Buzz Lightyear doll to a new cross, the cross of the pregnant rat. Under Buzz Lightyear’s dangling feet were blue marbles and around the mound a circle of pennies. I stopped and sat on the half-tilled soil. The sun was low and across Buzz Lightyear’s helmet tawny light fell. Water soaked into my underwear. On the grave itself someone had pressed beads into the dirt. Hundreds of them sprinkled, set and flashing like pyrite in a creek. It must be a Rat Queen, I thought, what else?

This scene plays out at the edge of the narrative. The narrator, Della, a waitress has walked outside mid-shift to throw something away. At this moment in the story, neither the plastic toy nor Della’s fantasy about an invisible Rat Queen add up to anything you can put your finger on. And yet, it’s compelling, isn’t it? The strange tiny graves. The glittering plastic beads. The decrepit toy. The conviction of Della’s fantasy (“It must be a Rat Queen”).

gravesiteThe indecipherable image, the image that refuses to be more or less than the sum of its parts. Visual art can teach writers this open-mindedness to our own urges. What’s the image that boils up from inside you? What surfaces as you write, seeming maybe not to fit? What if you let it in to the work?

The work (see top of post) of videographer and performance artist Anna Garner consistently gets under my skin and into my body in an interesting way. I always want to look. I always want to look away.

Yesterday, Garner generously answered some linear, writerly questions about where these images come from, how she lets them into the work, and the struggle between control/loss of control which she’s attempting to capture in the image above. One of the coolest discoveries from this interview was that for at least Garner, idea precedes image. So it may not be any easier for visual artists, though I think I’ll keep pretending it is. (Every writer deserves at least a small chip on their shoulder, right?)

  • San Diego Writers: Wayward’s will be hosting free, weekly North Park writing sessions starting next Tuesday. Discount on beer/wine.
  • San Diego writers who want to continue this conversation (and see/read more strange, cool images like those above) check out Immersions, which begins Oct. 29. (Register now to save your spot!)

Writing Experiment #101: Telephone Game

Goal: To develop skills for conveying an image or scene to the reader.

Prompt: Take a static image from visual art (like one of Garner’s video stills) that compels you. Translate the picture into words, as if you were describing the image to a very old or very young person over the phone and you wanted them to have a good idea of what you were seeing.

Variation: Try this verbally with a partner and then have them draw the image you’ve described (without your input).

Notice: How much detail do you need to get the image across? When does detail become confusing? How did the image transform as it moved from physical representation into language?


Wayward Writers offers creative writing classes for all levels of writers from beginner to advanced. We believe that our poetry, fiction, memoir and playwriting skills improve when we seek new creative challenges, get out of our comfort zone and steal craft techniques from contemporary writers. Click here to join us in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego for our next class series, or here to find out about free North Park writing meetups

On control and the inability to maintain it: an interview with artist Anna Berenice Garner

smoking brushing popping

In pursuit of IMAGE, I spoke with videographer and performance artist Anna Garner. (More on this tomorrow.) For now, here is our interview.

Anna Garner (b. 1982) is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice includes, video, performance, sculpture, and installation.  Anna received her B.A. in Liberal Arts from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and her MFA at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. Recent exhibitions of her work include a solo exhibition, Mishandle Mishap, at the Phoenix Center for the Arts Gallery in Phoenix, AZ and a three-person exhibition, Therapeutic Drawings, at Haunt Gallery in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Her video works are screened at festivals and galleries including Trestle Gallery in Brooklyn, NY and Graffit Gallery in Varna, Bulgaria. Anna’s work has been supported through a Contemporary Forum Artist Grant from the Phoenix Art Museum and participation in artist residencies including The Showhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and Anderson Ranch Art Center in 2014.

“Sequential Interactions 1” video still by Anna Berenice Garner

Luke Dani Blue: The detail in this image [Sequential Interactions 1] is so visceral: breast-like orbs heavy with thick milk, liquid splattered on hair, exposed/vulnerable throat, the surprise of seeing someone (you) offer themselves up to the experience—passively or intentionally inviting a soaking. Why put body at the center of your images? Is it the physical experience itself your after, or is the body an entry point for something else?

Anna Garner: My artistic practice centers on the body and on physicality, in video performances of illogical or aberrant actions. [It] looks at various manifestations of control and/or the inability to maintain it, to which I find the body central.

LDB: In most of your work that I’ve seen, you put yourself in physically uncomfortable situations. You explode water balloons in your own face, you sit on a two-by-four and then saw through until you fall to the ground, you and a collaborator painstakingly brush each other’s teeth or blow smoke into each other’s mouth. As a viewer, I find these images difficult to watch—and yet I feel like I have to watch, in fact watch them over and over. What is it about discomfort (awkwardness) that compels you? And why can’t I look away?

AG: I feel that discomfort or awkwardness is a good tool for dealing with control, and questioning the ability to maintain it. When I put my body in an uncomfortable situation or state, it is much harder to control my reactions. In particular when I perform with another person…the borders of control and personal detachment are even blurrier; not only am I susceptible to my own…discomfort, but also to my collaborator’s actions and reactions to our awkward/uncomfortable [exchange].

LDB:  I can’t help but notice you speak about your work somewhat abstractly, from the idea place rather than the concrete.  I had thought of abstraction as a writer habit. It seemed like visual artists, engaging so directly with image, would be very intuitive in their creative process, and begin from the image itself. For you, though, this sounds like not the case…?

AG: I approach my work through both theoretical research and intuitive process-based studio practice. I research the ideas I want to convey in my work and other artists who have dealt with similar subject matter. At the same time I make sure I am always active in making, even when I’m not sure what I’m doing or where it’s going. I find that the process of making always leads my work to places I wouldn’t have planned. When I made Sequential Interactions, I was researching Freudian theory and Myth of Sisyphus, looking analyses of control and personal perfectibility. In the work, I undertake a physical challenge…toward the aim of revealing personal limitations. Through this, it was my intention to address the tension between the self-governing individual and unconscious drives, between the assertion and loss of control.

LDB: Experimental playwright Suzan-Lori Parks says this thing I love. She says she doesn’t try to understand her own work—she just “witnesses” and then “write[s] it down”. In practice though, a lot of artists and writers struggle with giving themselves space to not know. Your work, like a lot of performance art, demands a lot of your audience. The viewer is asked to watch the performer repeatedly do messy, sloppy, uncomfortable things to her body. The viewer is asked to pay attention to a person engaging in behavior that makes no logical sense. And the viewer is promised nothing in return. I mean, they probably won’t “understand” what the experience “meant”, or be able to explain it to someone else. How much do you think about audience when exploring a new set of images or conceiving of new work? What, if anything do you hope a viewer takes from your art? Either through the audience or otherwise, how do you measure your success? Does the idea of audience help or hinder your work?

AG: [This] is a good question and something I have been thinking about recently. I know that even when I have an idea for a work, that the [viewer] may or may not see what I am trying to convey. I am not very interested in work that’ s easy to read, that gives all the information right away. I am much more drawn to work that allows for multiple understandings and gives room for interpretation…The way an audience influences my work is through decisions about how transparent or opaque I want to be about the subject matter. My work has started to use forms that are much more abstracted from their original reference and/or minimal in execution, and this has propelled me to really consider…how many signifiers need to be put in…

You can see Garner’s videos for yourself here. Tune in tomorrow for a handy writing prompt about using images from visual artists to hone your image writing skills.


Wayward Writers offers creative writing classes for all levels of writers from beginner to advanced. We believe that our poetry, fiction, memoir and playwriting skills improve when we seek new creative challenges, get out of our comfort zone and steal craft techniques from contemporary writers. Click here to join us in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego for our next class series, or here to find out about free North Park writing meetups!

“What Is An Image?” – Lynda Barry, Saeed Jones and a Writing Experiment for the Senses

The writer and artist Lynda Barry asks this question throughout her various books on creativity: What is an image?

The first time I opened What It Is, Barry’s doodle-filled meditation on images and where they come from, I kind of thought that was a dumb question. What is an image? What is an image? It’s an image. It’s a picture. Enough. Done.

As I spent more time with the book though, moving through Barry’s woven-together questions, stories, self-interrogation, my own questions came to meet hers.

lyndabarryIn creative writing, we call any writing from the 5 senses (taste, touch/texture/temperature, sound, hearing, sight) an image. For example, Saeed Jones, utilizes taste and touch “images” in his poem, “Sleeping Arrangement“:

…I will do right by you:
crumbs brushed off my sheets,
white chocolate chip, I think,
or the corners of crackers.

Count on the occasional dropped grape,
a peach pit with fine yellow hairs,
wet where my tongue has been,
a taste you might remember…

Can you feel the grit of those crackers crumbled into the sheets–or maybe that gross-but-intimate sensation of hair on a sweet-sour peach pit? Our body (via our brain’s limbic system) is placed into the center of the poem, making us feel like we’re up-close witnesses or even participants. We know an image is at work when we can get that kind of physical hit off of plain old text on a computer screen.

When Barry repeats her question–“What is an image?”–I don’t think she’s requesting a technical definition. She means something more, something bigger. She means how do we find these alive-feeling sense pictures inside ourselves? How can we train our imaginations to find something as vivid as what Jones has created in the poem excerpted above? How can we get a reader to feel she could live inside our work?

This is the question I’m going to be exploring on this blog for a little while. For those of you in San Diego, I’ll be teaching a whole 4-week class on this very subject, Immersions, which begins Oct. 29. (Register now to save your spot!)

Writing Experiment #100: Pictures of Shared Beds I’ve Known (adapted from Lynda Barry’s What It Is)

  1. For 3 minutes, jot a quick list of shared beds (eg: “cousin Jai’s bunk bed”, “tent with other 4th grade girls at end of year camp-out” “first night with Sam” etc.), starting as far back into childhood as you can remember.
  2. Choose the item from the list that feels most sparkly and alive to you–i.e. the one that stirs up the most details.
  3. For 5 minutes, without writing anything down, imagine yourself back into the memory: Where are you in the bed? Are your eyes open or closed? What’s the quality of the light? What position are you in? Hot or cold? What’s touching you? What can you smell? What do you hear? Who is near you? How do you know they’re there? (i.e. do you smell their feet? Hear their breathing?)
  4. Only when the memory feels close and vivid, begin to write. Go for 7-10  minutes, focusing on physical details only. (If you feel you’ve written everything, get closer to the sensation. Write the rhythm of the breathing or what the smell of the sheets reminded you of. Don’t worry about facts.)
  5. Repeat with other shared beds from your list.

If you have a question about concrete detail, images or how to write more vividly–or a favorite example of images in fiction, essay, poetry or playwriting, please post below! Otherwise stay tuned for our next post in which we get wet with performance artist Anna Berenice Garner (and end with a brand new writing experiment).


Wayward Writers offers creative writing classes for all levels of writers from beginner to advanced. We believe that our poetry, fiction, memoir and playwriting skills improve when we seek new creative challenges, get out of our comfort zone and steal craft techniques from contemporary writers. Click here to join us in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego for our next class series!

Ch-ch-ch-changes! San Diego, San Francisco and East Bay News

Yes, the rumors are true…

Wayward Writers is an amoeba (sort of)! Starting in August, we’ll be subdividing into two different creative writing schools. Wayward Writers itself will be flying south to live in San Diego, along with its intrepid leader (me!). In the Bay, Carson Beker will be leading the Escapery out of our regular East Bay locations in the Mission and North Oakland. Registration is open now for the Escapery‘s August and September classes.)

If you’re following us from afar, all news is good: there’s now a second writing blog to follow! Expect more inspiration and entertainment from Carson, like her forays into Zombies, Daemons and the Devil of writer’s envy. Don’t wait, sign up for updates now at The Escapery.

Wayward Writers is taking a summer vacation while I go analog to work on my novel in the woods. (If you love lakes and low-tech living be as jealous as possible; if you hate mosquitoes, no-see-ums and black flies, please burn a candle in my name.) If I get inspired, I might post some writing experiments (aka prompts) from the road. I will for sure be back and blogging away in September with a series of posts about getting published and writer career paths as well as plenty of thoughts on the writer’s craft.

Weep not! Like Madonna, I can’t leave you empty-handed! Writers, to your pens!

Summer Writing Experiment #1: Setting the Scene

For creating a stronger and more vivid sense of place in poetry, fiction and memoir.

1. Brainstorm ten places (a bathroom, a public pool, a field, etc.)

2. Make each of the places more specific (“the green-tiled bathroom”, “the public pool crowded with shouting children”, “the field behind the highschool”)

3. Choose the place from your list that most grabs you/feels alive to you

4. Make a list of 5-10 objects found in your chosen place (“used up Sharpie” “pile of file folders” “a plastic bin of yellow fins” “a threadbare pink towel with a bleach stain”).

At this point, you can have some characters you’re working with already show up in this location, or add on another character-based prompt, such as this one…

Summer Writing Experiment #2: In or out?

For stirring up power issues between characters in fiction, playwriting or memoir.

Imagine two people who work in your setting (see above), at the same or different jobs (e.g. lifeguard, doctor, janitor, canvasser, babysitter, school sports coach, Avon lady, girl scout leader, papergirl or -boy, a homeowner doing a home plumbing job, etc.). A third person enters who doesn’t not belong.

Consider

Does the outsider want something specific (directions, a can of Pepsi, an appointment with the CEO?, to play on the team)? Does the outsider “offer” anything, spoken or not? Of the workers, who leads and who follows? Who wants approval and who gives it?