Friday, June 29, 2007
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior about Seymour Benzer and his experiments with fruit flies is, among other things, a book about elegance. Benzer is a scientist, but his art is the ability to design extraordinarily elegant experiments. Benzer constructed 'fly mazes' which were rows of test tubes where flies could travel toward a light source or stay where they were. (Flies don't need complicated mazes--they're not complicated creatures.)
I would like to be the Seymour Benzer of writing exercises. (It is perhaps characteristic of me that I would seek to emulate people no one has ever heard of. When I was a kid and everyone else was wanting to be Joan Baez or Carol King, I wanted to be Marie Curie.) When I first started teaching, writing exercises didn't address my biggest problems with writing, and didn't seem to address the problems my students had. I read a book called Beat Not The Poor Desk and it had a writing assignment based on the concept of seed sentences. The student was to fill in the sentence, Was I was __________________; now I am ____________________. That 'seed sentence' was to form the basis of a personal essay. And it worked pretty good. Built into that sentence is the turn--like the turn at the end of a sonnet, another classic structure. And from that sentence, students who had been unable to write much sometimes ended up writing the first essay that fully engaged them and also engaged the reader. It was kind of magic.
I thought of it as the Surprised By Sin method of teaching. ('Surprised by sin' is from the literary theorist Stanley Fish and it describes how he thinks Paradise Lost works--that we get so caught up in the charisma of Satan that at a certain point we are seduced, and then suddenly we realize that we have been seduced and we are 'surprised by sin.' That the poem in fact induces us to fall into sin and then allows us redemption. I'm not convinced that Paradise Lost does that but what a nifty mechanism.) In my ideal world, as a teacher, I would give students writing exercises that were structured so that they allowed the student to be successful at techniques of fiction writing, and then to see themselves successful and to understand the technique by doing it. And in an ideal world, I would build exercises that illuminated p.o.v., voice, story structure, diction, dialogue, etc.
The nice thing about writing exercises is that, unlike Stanley Benzer's work with fruit flies, they are not subject to verification. No one can test my exercises empirically, which means I can tell myself that they work the way I think they do. I'm pretty sure they aren't really as effective as I think they are. I'm also pretty sure that just as Ursula LeGuin's diction exercises don't address issues that are central to me, my exercises don't necessarily address issues that are central to most other writers. Writers work in different ways, and have different issues, and know different things, so I suspect even if my exercises address the issues I want them to, they may only help a minority of students.
They help me, if only because they give me a working hypothesis about how certain kinds of fiction works.
I'm thinking that I need to figure out something about endings. Right now I'm thinking about how to structure a writing exercise that backs me (and students) into effective endings.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Point of View
I've got a great p.o.v. exercise, Leslie. (The picture at left is a completely gratuitous picture that illustrates nothing except how you might not want to pay attention to my advice.)
I start by telling them that I need a name for a four year old. When they give me the name (let's say for example, they say 'Oswald') I tell them, 'Okay, Oswald is cold. I want you to write a paragraph about Oswald in which it is clear he is cold, but you never say he's cold. Show me by what he does and where he is that he's cold.'
1. (3rd person) They write that paragraph (I often do it as a timed writing exercise, they have three minutes and they have to keep writing that entire three minutes even if they're just writing I can't think of what to write or I wish this bitch would drop dead. I will not take up what they write. I explain all this, even the part about wishing the bitch who assigned this exercise was dead.) Afterwards, if people want to share, they can share outloud. We talk about what they did--good details, that sort of thing.
Almost always, they have written this paragraph in third person.
2. (1st person) Then they have to take that paragraph and put it in first person, using the vocabulary of a four year old. Again, the three minute thing. Again, we share, if people want to.
3. (1st person recollected) Then we talk about the tv show The Wonder Years, in which the experiences of Kevin are narrated by himself--but himself as an adult. The narrator-Kevin never says, "Back when I was ten," but rather describes things as if they were happening to him at that moment but with the vocabulary of an adult instead of ten year old. (I hung around Jenny's locker, hoping against hope that she would stop and pick up her math book between classes. I had just about given up hope when I saw her coming through the crowds in the sixth grade hallway, her long and luscious brown hair shining, and the moment I saw her, everything I had intended to tell her, about the misunderstanding with Trish, about how I felt about her, went out of my head and I could only stand, abject, lock-jawed, weak-kneed, and gaping...) Then they re-write the paragraph as if Oswald were thirty and narrating the events experienced by four-year-old Oswald.
4. (3rd person) Last but not least, I have them narrate the whole thing by someone else, someone famous. I've always used the Crocodile Hunter as an example, although now that's a little sad. We're coming up on little Oswald now, freezing in his backyard. Crickey, he's a skinny one! George Bush is one, Barbara Walters and Spock get used a lot.
Then we talk about how every story has a narrator and how the 'voice' of the story is actually the voice of the narrator. The narrator is the invisible character in every story, the one we both know best and least.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Write By The Lake
Here are some of the exercises we did this week.
- Someone walks into a room where someone is dead in a kitchen chair at the table--and generate what might happen next if the character is a detective, or if the character is a twenty-two year old governess who thinks of herself as plain, or if the character is a psychopathic killer, or if the character is a child. (I'm very interested in the conventions we have established and in what reader expectations are in these situations, and how we deal with reader expectations. I think that a lot of plot is a tightrope walk between the cliché and the completely unexpected.)
- Describe an object that is emblematic or essential in the story. A gun. A dress. An animal. You don’t need to know why it is important, just that it feels really important to you. Then write a scene with that object in it. The object doesn’t have to be used in the scene—it can be in the background. Or it can be essential to the scene. Just don’t write the climactic scene of your story or novel.
- A two part exercise:
- Write a list of five different possible, interesting characters; sullen Goth girl, 55 year old plumber with prostate problems--whatever. Then write a list of five interesting situations where someone might have to act; a bedroom on fire, someone wants a divorce. Pick one from column A and one from column B. Write the scene.
- Write the next scene and have a new person arrive. Start over again and write the next scene and have someone (maybe the main character) leave for a journey. Write the next scene and have a ghost appear. Write the next scene and have the worst possible outcome to the situation you’ve set up, for your character, short of the character’s death (i.e., someone else is caught in the fire, the divorcing couple don’t split up and their situation makes everyone more miserable.) Write the next scene and have a natural disaster occur (i.e. a tornado, a hurricane, and earthquake. Don’t let it resolve the character’s problems, make sure it makes things worse.) Write the next scene and reveal a secret. Try at least three of these and see how the story develops differently each time.
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Saturday, June 16, 2007
It's Always Nice to Breathe
Skye's skin suit was a royal blue so hot it glowed. It covered every inch of her body, from the toes up, snugging around her like the smooth, thick hide of some water creature. The hood dangled in neat pleats behind her neck. With gloved hands, she reached back and grabbed it, pulling it up and over her short, wispy brown hair, then down across her face. The fabric became clear where it arched over her eyes. Like a living thing squirming into its proper posture, it bent again, to form a stubby muzzle over her nose and mouth. Then it sealed itself at her neckline, the fabric of the hood knitting with the fabric of the suit, so that the seams vanished.
For two seconds there was no fresh air to breath. Then the suit's Dull Intelligence — a machine mind that was fast and functional but not truly self-aware like a human being — spoke to her in its soft, feminine voice, "Activating respiratory function."Well, it was always nice to breathe.
From Skye Object 3270a by Linda Nagata.
Linda Nagata, writes interesting science fiction novels. She draws comparisons to Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson. Her novels, Vast, Tech-Heaven, The Bohr Maker, Deception Well, Memory, work at the edge of extrapolated science out where science becomes nearly indistinguishable from magic and the results are often marvelous and strange strange. (I remember in particular the pilot of an interstellar ship who had his memory of the previous couple of hours wiped every couple of hours so that the task of piloting a starship over long periods of time would not bore him to insensibility. Wouldn't that be handy?)
She's offering her YA novel online, as a PDF download for $5.00. I'm watching with interest both because I like her fiction, and because I'm curious to see what kind of response she gets. She's got the first chapter available for reading. It’s a young-adult novel, aimed at an advanced middle school audience.
Friday, June 15, 2007
Thursday, June 14, 2007
What To Wear
I'm thinking of turning over a new leaf and getting interested in clothes. At Rio Hondo I said I wanted to maybe get some clothes because I didn't have enough clothes for a week. Not a problem at home where there is a washing machine, but you know, kind of embarrassing on a week long trip.We went down the mountain to Taos where Karen Fowler took me firmly in hand and picked out something and then when I said, 'This looks good, I don't even think I need to try it on," looked me squarely in the eye and said, "you do."
I ended up buying clothes! That fit! And then when I told Bob, he took me shopping and bought me MORE clothes. Granted, if you saw me in these clothes you would not think, DAMN. On the other hand, you wouldn't think I was homeless, either.
What is it about clothes? I find that when I try on clothes at the store I am appalled by the fact I don't look like me. Me, of course, is thirty. That's what I look like in my head or when I'm dreaming. I've always prided myself on not being obsessed with aging--I don't dye my hair, I'm not thinking about skin peels or botox injections, and I don't lie about my age. But here, underneath where I wasn't looking, is this thing about how I look.
Granted, when I lived in New York I mentioned to someone that when I bought a new item of clothing I always felt as if I were, in some sense, reinventing myself. You know, trying on clothes used to be an exercise in trying on personalities. (Although I came from a family that did not shop recreationally and was so poor in my twenties that I just didn't buy clothes.) I mentioned the trying on personalities thing to someone in New York and they looked at me through narrowed eyes and said, "You're beyond all that, surely."
So now I'm curious. Is the clotheshorse thing genetic? Is shopping in one's DNA? Or can it be learned? And what will it mean for Bob and our checkbook if I do?
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Plot Plot Plot: Take a Writer to Lunch
I teach next week at Write By The Lake at University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Plot, plot, plot. At first I thought that it was kind of insane for me to teach plot. I mean, it certainly isn't my strong point. But then the more I thought about it, the more I decided that 1. it would help me be a better writer and 2. it's good to have someone who has had to figure it out teach it rather than someone who does it naturally. Take Walter Jon Williams. He plots. He plots easily. He plots in his sleep. That doesn't mean he thinks about how he plots. Au contraire, I believe that for Walter, plotting is like breathing. And imagine you had to teach someone to breath. I on the other hand, would be unable to teach someone how to write depressing fiction.
This didn't stop me from asking people for tips on plotting. I've got lots. But one of the ones I hope to suggest is that people keep in touch with other people from the class, or find a local group. Find someone (like Walter) who is good at this. Take them and maybe one or two other people to lunch, and do what Walter and Daniel Abraham call a plot break. That is, sit down and you're doing this long distance, by IM, I don't know what you do--except that maybe they'll need you later on down the line.
It wouldn't work for everyone. But hey. It would be a godsend for someone writing, say, a mystery.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Technorati Rank: 89,518 (for blog)
I think I have found my level.
Taos in the early morning--skies clear as only mountain high desert can be. Magpies flash white tipped wings. Dropping a mile through the mountains in two hours. Like swimming in oxygen. Gasoline in Clovis, just before the Texas border.
The Texas Panhandle. The giant Azteca grain elevator in Muleshoe, silos arrayed and painted like a giant bag of cornmeal. Lubbock at 4:00 in the afternoon. Too early to stop. Who wants to spend hours in Lubbock in a hotel room watching bad television? Snyder, Texas. A miniature black and tan male dachshund standing in the middle of the red brick street, panting in the heat. Tehano on the radio.
Post, Texas. Driving south past oil wells, pumps bobbing, and miles of windfarms. Always seems that in the forest of giant white, three-bladed windmills, one isn't working.
East towards Abilene. 7:00 pm. Rock on the radio. Last chance for a hotel. A mile and a half lower than Taos. Still drunk on oxygen. Abilene, Cisco, Lubbock, Muleshoe, names from books made real.
South into the hills of Central Texas at Cisco. Speed limit 70 daytime, 65 night. If I can see stars, I guess I should slow down.
Rising Star, Texas. Brownwood. Lampasas.
Austin. 11:00 pm.