Going Back to College…Sort Of
I’m attending the month-long New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. It’s like summer camp for nerdy people who love books.
The cafeteria food is just the same and everyone walks around in shorts and flip-flops. But instead of horseback riding and making lanyards and friendship bracelets, we attend workshops, craft talks, and readings by National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. These writers generously share invaluable advice on writing that I am already applying to my daily practice.
The attendees at the Summer Writing Institute range greatly in age – from college students to individuals in their 70s – and backgrounds. Some are first timers like me who have other “day jobs” and are pursuing their dream of writing a novel. Others are working writers who have attended the Institute for years and meet up with old friends. We have a bunch of participants who are enrolled in M.F.A. programs, and still others are sleeping on the couches of friends or relatives while they pound out that first novel. We share the common purpose of seeking to improve our craft by having others critique our writing and give us feedback we can use for revision.
What I find most helpful is that the authors debunk pieces of conventional wisdom offered to newbie writers such as myself. I am quickly learning that adhering too closely to some of this advice and treating it as gospel has unduly restricted my writing. For example, the aphorism “Show, Don’t Tell” is a staple of writing workshops. At a craft talk, author Francine Prose pooh-poohed this notion. “Thank God no one told Melville or Jane Austen that,” remarked Prose. “Can you imagine if someone had said to Melville, ‘This Ishmael guy, he’s just telling us, not showing’?” I can’t tell you how many times I was given this piece of advice in my graduate writing workshops. The result is that I have pages of dialogue in my novel-in-progress, but I am missing physical descriptions of people and places; it lacks physicality. Moreover, my characters don’t seem to have any type inner life or reflection because I was so worried about narrating what was going on in their heads. Now I’m going back through my novel to weave in all of this, no longer scared that the “Show, Don’t Tell” police will come knocking at my door.
This past week I had the privilege of working with the novelist Cristina Garcia. I was particularly excited to work with Garcia because we share similar backgrounds; we are both the children of Cuban immigrants who grew up in New York City. Perhaps the most important thing that Garcia taught me is that I cannot approach my fiction writing as I do my work as a lawyer, for which I have to be methodical and unambiguous. Garcia advises to “cultivate chaos and mystery in your work. Generate some randomness. Don’t be afraid to make a mess!” Garcia encourages fiction writers to have a poetry anthology at their side to combat writer’s block, as you can “harvest” the imagery in poetry to kick start an entirely new direction in your prose.
Garcia also reminded me of the importance of being attentive to the conversations and happenings around you because of the great ideas you can gather: “If you move through the world with your antennae up, you’ll receive all these little gifts.” The short story writer Amy Hempel, who is my teacher this week, put it this way: “Be always open for business.” Hempel told us a story of walking into a nursery and before she could utter a word, the person behind the counter asked her “Are you here for all the things that I don’t have?” That remarkable phrase inspired her story Tom-Rock Through the Eels.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned thus far is that although I have 250 pages written for my novel, and the typical novel is 300 pages long, I have a lot more “raw” writing to do. Many novelists write hundreds of pages more before they actually get to those 300 final pages. I have met authors here who said they wrote up to 1400 pages before they got to their final, 300-page novel. Garcia likens writing to playing the accordion. First you are expansive, you write out, as if you are stretching an accordion. Then you push in to compress and cut down the work. Next you build up again, pulling at the accordion, and then again compress. And you continue this process until there is little give in the accordion.
So right now I’m pulling that accordion wide, seeing what I can pull out of myself. Once I’ve “written out,” I’ll then do some gold panning to see what valuable nugget I can find among all those pages.