Five Things: 2/8/16

Five Things: 2/8/16

Five Things Mrs. Cole Porter

1. It’s okay to be rude sometimes.

So far, what I like most about this residency is how anti-social you’re allowed to be. You can behave in ways that would be taken as rude under almost any other circumstance. Let’s say I leave my computer to walk into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and I’m still thinking about what I’m writing and I find that someone is already there. She’s absorbed in a book while she eats some cereal, doesn’t say hello how did you sleep are you have a good day how’s the writing going? She smiles and returns to her book. I can make myself a cup of tea and walk right out of that kitchen. Or I’m eating dinner with everyone at 6:30 PM, the only time of the day we all come together and eat a nice meal prepared by Chef Linda, served buffet style. It’s sort of like going to a dinner party every night, except you get to wear sweats and slippers if you want to. So, I’m at this dinner party in my slippers talking to the guy sitting across from me about, I dunno, the Lusitania or football or ice cream, and when he’s done eating, he stands up and says, “Back to work,” and I say bye and that’s that. No long goodbyes. No hard feelings. Everyone understands. If only real life could be this way!

2. My space.

"The Beach Room." Not sure why it's called that except that there is a large conch shell on my desk.
“The Beach Room.” Not sure why it’s called that except that there is a large conch shell on my desk.

This is a picture of my room at Ragdale, although I had to move the twin bed against the wall because I kept waking up terrified I was going to fall out.

How long has it been since I slept in a twin bed? College, I think.

Studio with skylights!
Studio with skylights!

And here’s a picture of the studio they gave me, too, so that I can storyboard my novel on the nice white walls.

3. Things I worry about even though I shouldn’t.

A great essay I read this week: “Children of the Century” in the New Republic. Alexander Chee asks the question, “Can a historical novel also function as serious literature?”

Jesus, I hope so.

When I tell people I’m writing a book about Linda Lee Thomas Porter, long-time wife of Cole Porter, I get one of two reactions: 1.) Oooh, I love books like that. 2.) Oh, I didn’t realize you were writing a book like that. Re: #2, by “like that,” they mean what we’ve come to think of as “the wife book,” the “woman behind the man book” like: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, etc. Why don’t the #2s think that I’m writing a book like The Women by T.C. Boyle, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, or Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel? Is it because I am a woman writer or because I’m writing about a female character? Or both? The second set of books are also novels about real people and real events, what I like to call nonfictional fiction, but they were all written by men or have primarily male characters.

Sometimes, as I’m writing a scene or making a decision in my novel, I find myself thinking about how that decision will affect the way the book will be presented to the world–commercial or serious? genre or literary? “male” or “female”?–when what I need to do is just write the damn thing the best way I know how and let my agent (whom I trust) guide me. Every single day, I get anxious about this, especially now as I come closer to finishing, but then I tell myself its useless to borrow worry. Reading an essay like Chee’s reassured me that I’m not the only writer who worries about these matters. Note to self: keep working on my essays related to the subject of my novel and pitch them to The Atlantic and The New Republic; this definitely sends a message about how you want to be read.

4. Nonfictional fiction. 

Linda's first husband, E.R. Thomas, hanging out with Clarence Mackay, the guy in the middle with the enormous mustache.
Linda’s first husband, E.R. Thomas, hanging out with Clarence Mackay, the guy in the middle with the enormous mustache.

Most of the characters in my novel are based on real people: Linda, of course, and Edith Wharton, Emily Post, Bernard Berenson, Elsie de Wolfe, Bessie Marbury, Anne Morgan, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon.

Today, I’m working on a chapter in which Linda is being courted by Clarence Mackay.

The book that gave me permission to write my novel the way I want to write it is Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Which features real historical figures like Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, Harry K. Thaw, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P. Morgan, alongside purely fictional characters. There’s one scene in particular in which Gilded Age “It Girl” Nesbit goes to a socialist meeting where Emma Goldman is speaking and then ends up taking off her corset and allowing herself to be massaged by Goldman.

Now, this never happened. And once I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing a biography, that I could invent, the book started to flow.

5. “altgenres” 

And speaking of genres and subgenres and labels, another great read from this week was this article from last month’s Atlantic, “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood.”  Believe it or not, this article got me going on a essay about “selling” the English major, the humanities, and a liberal arts education. Stay tuned…

Five Things: 2/1/16

Five Things: 2/1/16

Five Things Writing

1.

I want to thank my friend Gail Werner for recommending that I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which came to me–as many books do–right when I needed it most. I’ve never read Eat Pray Love. I didn’t watch her TED talk on creativity (where Big Magic got started), even though lots of people were sharing it on Facebook for awhile, singing its praises. Why didn’t I? Why not read her wildly popular book or see what she had to say? Well, because I knew that a lot of writers I admire didn’t like Gilbert much–as a writer, and/or as a cultural phenomenon–and I really, really wanted them to consider me a good, serious, “important” writer. Of course, I wasn’t thinking any of this consciously. I was unconsciously “pandering,” similar to what Claire Vaye Watkins talked about in this provocative essay which came out a few months ago. Every time I think I’ve stopped “pandering,” something comes along to make me realize that I still am. Man, this shit runs deep in me. In all of us, I think. The older I get, the more I realize that the high school lunchroom mentality never leaves us. Even though I didn’t mind not sitting at the cool kids’ table in high school, I still aspired to it–just in a different lunchroom.

2.

The first month of my sabbatical is over, and I’m happy with the progress I’ve made thus far. I have some self-imposed deadlines: finish the current section by the end of January, finish the next section during February, the last section in March, revise in April. I write every day–at least two pages, sometimes five or six. The manuscript is currently at 400+ pages, and at this rate, might get to about 600 pages, but I don’t think it’s going to end up that long. I’ve been writing very scenically, dramatizing much of the novel in something akin to “real time.” This would be fine if the novel’s “clock” was a month, a year, or even a few years. But the novel covers about 20 years. I wanted to “see” the scenes in my imagination and show them on the page, but now that I know what happens, I plan to go back in and do more summarizing, more telling, which is what I really prefer doing anyway.

3.

I’ve been reading a lot of young adult novels over the last few years. Almost all of them take place over a relatively short period of time and are quite “scenic,” unfolding at a rate of, say, one day or maybe one week represented by one chapter. That’s something I’ve been trying to teach myself how to do better–create a “faster read” by slowing way, way down, create a vivid and continuous fictional dream. Novels need scenes. Novel readers need moments when they can just be “in the story.” But frankly, I get a little bored after a while with this approach–both as a reader and a writer. Another book I read recently was the marvelous Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. This book covers a lot of time, and certainly, there are dramatized scenes, but lots of skillful telling, too. I remember one chapter in particular that needed to cover the first 10+ years of a couple’s marriage. Groff did so by focusing just on the parties they threw in their apartment. The style of party changes over time. The main characters change. Their friends mature. Think about how some of the montages in Groundhog Day work–Bill Murray figuring out how to play piano, how to woo Andi McDowell, etc. The thing I have to figure out, I guess, is how much of what I’ve written needs to be “in scene” and how much needs to be montage.

4.

At the same time that I’m thinking about shortening/tightening the chapters I’ve already written (a process I really look forward to), I’m also trying to draft brand new chapters (a process I dread). I love to edit, but I do not love generating new stuff. Here’s how I’m learning to cope with this: I think of each new chapter like a painting. An oil painting in particular, which is created in layers. First, I sketch. I write about the scenes rather than writing scenes. I free write as things come to me. Then I move things around. Decide on the beats of the chapter. I try not to get bogged down in details like what my characters are wearing or their expressions or what kind of couch they’re sitting on. Sometimes those details come first in my mind, and I build around them, but most of the time, they come last. I use this a lot: xxxx. Reminding myself to come back later and fill in the blank rather than get sidetracked with research–and boy, is it tempting. Every day, I try to add another layer, another level of detail to my painting. Let’s say that my chapter/painting’s not done until I complete 10 layers. Maybe I’m still too much of story writer, and I should move onto the next chapter after I finish step 5, but I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes with getting to about step 7 or 8. I love the feeling of “finishing” a chapter. I usually take a day off  and do something physical, and then I start the next chapter and remind myself (again) not to fuss with the first sentence, the first paragraph, but to just start sketching.

5.

Today, I’m heading to Lake Forest, IL to do a residency at Ragdale. Eighteen days. I’ve never done a residency before. I think I was always afraid that I’d get to one of those places and not be able to write. I also thought that it was kind of silly to go somewhere to write when I live in a relatively quiet house with no kids. I even have a husband who does all the cooking! So why do a residency? But my friends swear by them, and I think it will be good to separate myself from the allure/distractions of my home, my yard, my dog, my cats, my neighborhood, my job, my husband. I’ll let you know next week how it’s going. Here’s a nice video about Ragdale, what it looks like, etc. In the summer of course!

Five Things: 1/25/2016

Five Things: 1/25/2016

Five Things

For a long time, I enjoyed reading my friend Ashley Ford’s “Five Things” posts. I’ve decided to give it a try, too.

I’m hoping that doing this will:

  • help me stay off Facebook
  • force me to share my thoughts and interesting links but won’t involve me getting sucked into the Borg
  • help me start blogging again
  • give me a place to put my thoughts so that I can come back to them later

Note: I’m not on social media much these days and don’t plan to “push” these posts via social media. So: if you’re reading this, it’s either because you subscribe to my blog or some nice person shared the link for some reason. 

  • My novel is about Linda Lee Thomas Porter, who will eventually marry Cole Porter in 1919, but right now, I’m writing about her before she meets him. She was married from 1901-1912 to a rich dude named Edward Thomas. I like to refer to him as “the Charlie Sheen of the Gilded Age.” Ned and Linda were friends with the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who will eventually discover King Tut’s tomb, but in 1910 he was just getting started as an Egyptologist. Carnarvon and Ned both loved horses (they bred and raced them), racing cars, and had really automobile bad accidents that almost cost them their lives. 
  • I finished a chapter on Saturday night that I’ve been working on for a week or two. It’s set at Carnarvon’s country estate, Highclere Castle (which you know as Downton Abbey) in 1910. I’ll admit that when I realized that there was a connection between Linda and Carnarvon, I got really excited about the prospect of “visiting” Highclere in my imagination. Because of the popularity of Downton Abbey, there’s a great deal of information on the web about Highclere: blueprints, detailed descriptions of the furnishings and architecture and the grounds, historical background. And thanks to this book, I know what what happening at Highclere around the time of my fictional visit. For example: on September 10, 1910 (my birthday as a matter of fact) a famous aviation innovator named Geoffrey de Havilland successfully flew a bi-plane prototype, and so I made Linda’s visit coincide with that that event so she could bear witness.
  • I purposely did NOT start watching season 6 of Downton Abbey while I was writing this chapter; I was afraid I’d lose my nerve or that I’d see the “real” space on the screen and think “I haven’t described the place enough!” or “I got that wrong!” or even “I’ve included too much!” The trick  is to balance the real and the imaginary, to keep yourself from over-researching, to use the real as a springboard. I’ve always enjoyed this quotation from Mario Vargas Lllosa, who was asked by the Paris Review to explain what he meant when he said he “wanted to lie in full knowledge of the truth.”

“In order to fabricate, I always have to start from a concrete reality. I don’t know whether that’s true for all novelists, but I always need the trampoline of reality. That’s why I do research and visit the places where the action takes place, not that I aim simply to reproduce reality. I know that’s impossible. Even if I wanted to, the result wouldn’t be any good, it would be something entirely different.”

  • I’ve written before about how writing fiction is like time travel to me,  and that’s a lot about what this chapter was about, actually. On top of the hill where de Havilland’s plane began its journey is the spot where Carnarvon wanted to be (and is) buried—Beacon Hill. He’s buried within the walls of a prehistoric hill fort, a place where people lived before England was England, even before Rome invaded. I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that Carnarvon was a time traveler too, someone who wanted to connect with the past, not through fiction writing but through archaeology and artifacts. It’s kind of meta, I know—a writer in 2016 imagining people walking around in 1910 who are imagining people walking around in 1000 B.C. 
  • So: I watched a bunch of movies and TV shows set in distant past. The Eagle with Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. Ironclad with James Purefoy. The Vikings TV series on the History Channel. Holy crap are these shows violent. I watched them in my home office. My writing regimen was this: I can’t write at a desk anymore because of my back, so I kick back in a chair and ottoman. When my fitness bracelet buzzed me that I’d been sitting for an hour, I got up and hopped on my elliptical and watched 15-20 minutes of people hacking each other up, then sat back down and wrote some more. Man, I’m glad I’m done with that chapter. I celebrated last night by watching Downton Abbey
How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now

How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now

Teaching

Last April, I was on an AWP panel moderated by Joseph Scapellato which included Matt Bell, Jennine Capo Crucet, Derek Palacio, and moi. The title was “How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now,” a subject that is near and dear to my heart.

Description:

Matt Bell discusses "the privilege of early access."
Matt Bell discusses “the privilege of early access.

When experience forces us to challenge the assumptions that underpin our teaching philosophies, how do we sensibly revise our syllabi, course element by course element? In this panel, five teachers of writing share what they grew into knowing. They will describe how an active awareness of their changing assumptions changed their courses for the better. Practical before-and-after examples of course materials promise to make this panel useful for beginners and veterans alike.

Topics covered:

  • Matt talks about what he calls “the privilege of early access,” a way of framing workshop discussion.
  • Jeannine had some great suggestions for teaching students how to better analyze craft.
  • I talked about helping students to develop a writerly identity.
  • Derek describes a semester-long reading/craft project using Prezi.
  • Joseph read a great and hilarious essay called “Respect.”

Many thanks to the folks at AWP for turning our conversations into this podcast.

 

I actually ran out of time and didn’t get to talk about all the items on my list, so here it is.

How to Help Students Feel like “Real Writers”

These days, I’m less interested in teaching students “to write” and more interested in giving them the chance to feel like “real writers.”

That means helping them to:

1.) form an identity as a writer (or realize that no, they don’t want to “be” writers)

2.) take the next step in their career (toward a writer’s life or toward a writing-related career)

Story about when that moment happened for me:

I can tell you exactly the moments in my life in which I felt like a real writer. Most of them happened at the desk, from the inside out, but one happened when I got my first full-time teaching position at Minnesota State University Mankato.

My mentor Rick Robbins was helping me with my taxes, and he said, “You should file a Schedule C. Profit or Loss from a Business.”

“What business?” I said.

“Your writing,” he said. “You’re like a small business owner, really.”

That’s the day I realized that, in addition to being a college professor, I was the owner of a small business called Being the Writer Cathy Day.

Another example: It’s become common practice in creative writing classes to require students to submit work to a real literary magazine. These are the kinds of active learning assignments I like to use in order for my students to feel like “real writers.”

Here are some other ways:

Help them join a community writers and readers. Change what they see when they look at FB and Twitter.

  • If there’s a class you teach regularly, create a group on FB and require them to join. Or create a hashtag on Twitter and require that they use it.
  • They will meet each other and former students, even alumni.
  • These groups have become communities in which I can easily share advice and opportunities. They are places where we continue discussions we can’t finish in class.
  • Changing what they see on Facebook or Twitter helps them to see themselves differently.

Show them that writing isn’t “homework” and social media isn’t “private.”

Show them how to buy a domain name and/or start a blog. WordPress. Tumblr. Whatever. Because there’s something about becoming “Google-able” that’s important to identity creation in a networked age.

Use Google Docs in your class rather than Blackboard—because Blackboard is “school” and Google Docs is not.

Require them to create a professional email address such as cathyday@gmail.com instead of their edu address and instead of their first email address, which was probably something like ColtsFan287@yahoo.com or OneDirection4Ever@me.com.

Make them sign up for your Google Docs folder with that email address.

Have them use this new email address to sign up for their blog and create (if necessary) new Twitter accounts as well as LinkedIn, etc.

Show them how to transition to a more professional use of social media. Give them a few writers to follow who you think do it well.

Dedicate one of your classes (intro, intermediate, advanced) to helping students develop a regular writing regimen. In most classes, we put the most points at the end, in the portfolio. We assess the work that’s been revised and revised. Try this instead: require students to write 2 or 3 thousand words a week—of any quality. Put the most number of points in your course into the process, not the product.

Teach your students not just how to submit to literary magazines but to agents and editors as well. That’s something we almost never talk about in creative writing classes–not at the undergraduate level, and not even at the graduate level. So what if they aren’t ready for it? Someday they might be. And even if they don’t ever publish a book, they will be more informed readers when they understand the process a book goes through from artist to reader.

Teach your students how to pitch their novels. Every week when my students turn in their words, they have to preface them with a logline—one or two sentences that describe the story’s premise, like a film description in TV Guide: When BLANK happens to BLANK, s/he must BLANK or face BLANK. Or something like that. I look at their words, but I give feedback each week on those loglines.

Have your students write the jacket copy of their own novel or someone else’s. It’s very hard to synopsize a whole novel, yes, but it’s also like a scale model of the larger architecture of the novel. Summarizing can teach them a great deal about what’s going wrong and right in the novel as a whole.

Now that they have logline and jacket copy, they have what they need to write a letter to an agent. This is where I try to use a cross-class assignment.

  • Class A studies Agent Profiles online. They create a faux agent profile with photograph, bio, and the types of books they’re looking for.
  • Class B (the novel class) studies these profiles and submits their manuscript to the appropriate agents.
  • Class A receives vets their manuscripts and corresponds with Class B via rejection or acceptance letters.

My novel-writing class is the most unorthodox class I’ve ever taught. And the most popular. My evaluations are always positive, even though it’s the class in which I spend the LEAST time responding to their writing on the sentence level. – an example of how using the “privilege of early access,” Matt’s term, can lead to interesting learning outcomes.

The biggest difference between how I taught then and how I teach now is that the more I get out of the way and let my class be like a club, the happier my students are. And this astounds me, because I grew up learning in an entirely different way.

Final Note:

Some of you know that I’m on sabbatical this semester. I deactivated my FB and Twitter in November, but I reactivate them every 2-3 weeks just to check in, see my nieces and nephews, and deactivate again. But I wanted to come up for air today because I saw that this AWP podcast was up and wanted to share it with you!

I’m sorry that I haven’t been blogging a lot for the last few months. I started a blog post about why that is, but then I didn’t finish it. :-) Suffice it to say that I will be back soon, and I appreciate your patience. I’m on Instagram (I find that it doesn’t devour as much time because it’s not conversation oriented) and you can always reach me via email.

On Turning 47

On Turning 47

General

Two years ago, I wrote about turning 45.

Last year, I didn’t have much to say about turning 46.

But this year, I have thoughts about turning 47.

I have a lot of thoughts.

Today I decided to look through my calendar to refresh my memory from the past year. What I saw was a whole lot of doctor’s appointments.

  • Mine—I have a very bad back.
  • And my husband’s—he has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

This has been a year of “coming to terms.”

I’m coming to terms with the fact that: Continue reading

A Lesson about Sentimentality

A Lesson about Sentimentality

General

Tonight, I was going through a bunch of files and found one marked “Sentimentality.” It’s a craft lesson I once used in beginning creative writing classes to talk about cliché, abstract vs. concrete language, and unearned, Hallmark-y emotion.

It’s a one-page sheet. I’d pass this out and read it aloud.


 

Family

Oh, what a wonderful thing God has created. There can be no other thing in the world that God created that stands for anything more beautiful than the family. Everything else in life–money, friends, houses, cars, school, sports, jobs–can come and go, but the family is always there. God didn’t make it easy for the family, but he made it possible–with hard work and everyone working together, caring for each other and working as one. Yes, God made man, then woman, then said, Be a family. This will be my most beautiful creation. 

This family means more to me than life itself. 


 

Then I’d ask the students to respond. How did these words make you feel?

Some claimed that they were very moving.

Okay. Show me where you find it moving.

That last line. “This family means more to me than life itself.”

Who is saying that?

We don’t know.

Who is “this family” in the last line? Continue reading

Publishing in Print and in Pixels

Publishing in Print and in Pixels

Writing

I published my first short story in 1995. Twenty years ago. How can this be?

In Print

I was a graduate student at the University of Alabama. I’d been sending out my stories for two years without much luck. Then, over Christmas Break 1994, I went with my mother, a hospice nurse, on a “death call” in suburb of Cincinnati. The experience stuck with me, and when I got back to Tuscaloosa, I tried my hand at writing a “short short story,” or what we might call now “flash fiction.” 742 words. I sent it to Quarterly West. and they accepted it immediately.

When I got the magazine in the mail, I marveled at it for awhile, and then I put it on my shelf. My poet friend Tim kept the journals in which he’d been published in a place of honor on his desk, like a trophy case, and so I did the same.

I also added a line to my very brief curriculum vitae.

“Hospice.” Quarterly West. 41 (Autumn/Winter 1995): 6-7.

A year later, I published a story in The Florida Review about a man raising his daughter alone. Another magazine on the shelf. Another line on the vita.

“Leon’s Daughter.” Florida Review 21:2 (1996): 88-98.

Slowly, I kept adding more journals to that shelf. More lines to the vita.

Out of Print

Continue reading