Joyce Carol Oates: Fantasized into Being

By Flora Stadler

I was a runner for half my life. I loved the clarity it gave me. I could outrun the thoughts reeling through my head and clear a space for my mind to wander.

In my 40s, my knees decided they’d had enough. So I felt a knowing pang when I read that Joyce Carol Oates relied on running to clear her mind and think about her writing. She once said that “the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.” Yes, I thought when I read this.

The first of her novels I ever read was The Accursed, and I couldn’t get over the immensity of it. That a mind could contain all of that was overwhelming to me as a reader and a writer. Even though it feels like dark magic, I know it’s mostly work—hours of research, running, planning, building, revising. Something else she’d said, about “the writing itself being the biggest challenge,” made me wonder what that process must be like for someone so skilled at taking giant subjects and building a universe to contain them. So I asked her:

How do you overcome that writing challenge, especially when you’re working on a dense novel with historical contexts and big themes? Where do you start and how do you keep your momentum?

“Writing begins with inspiration, a sudden thrilling ‘idea’—which then must be contemplated, meditated, fantasized into being.

I spend much of my ‘creative’ time running/walking—I never write until I have imagined the prose that I will write, as a sort of film evoked in my head when I am away from my desk.

My day-dreaming/meditation—focuses upon characters engaged in dialogue, scenes.

I don’t, however, think of them as ‘characters’—rather as people.

If I try to write directly—before I have ‘imagined’ the scene—it is much, much more difficult.

Beyond this, I try to outline as much as possible. I amass a folder of notes, scenes, sketches, etc. that can be as bulky as 200 pages, before I actually begin the first chapter.

‘Pre-production’ is everything in a novel, as it is in the making of feature films.

After this initial work, writing is a matter of increments. Weeks, days, hours, minutes—attentiveness to the sentence, that builds the paragraph, eventually the scene, & eventually the chapter, & beyond.”

I loved that her written response to me looked and read something like a poem. I’d expect nothing less from a great runner. As for me, I’ll take her advice and walk through my stories first from now on.

Joyce Carol Oates is a playwright, poet, essayist, and the author of dozens of novels and short stories. She has been a writing professor at Princeton for more than 40 years, has won the National Book Award and two O. Henrys, and truly is a National Treasure. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her latest novel, a dystopian thriller titled Hazards of Time Travel.

Year End Roundup – Our Favorite Posts!

by Jody Strimling-Muchow

 

pexels-photo-92323

In only one year, Get Lit Beacon has become an indispensable part of my writing life. Just the chance to spend a couple of hours a month in a room full of people as passionate about words as I am is a gift. Add thought-provoking and inspiring guest speakers and the chance to share work, and the gifts begin to spill out from under the tree. To torture my holiday metaphor, then the cookies arrive each week via blog posts that I gobble as soon as they land in my inbox. I’ve certainly learned from these weekly posts this year. As I looked back, I wondered what Julie, Kristen, Flora and Ruta had learned by writing them, and which posts stood out for them in 2018. I asked, they answered.

skePluow_400x400

Her interview with Lily Burana is Julie Chibbaro’s choice. In it, she asks Lily what it’s like to go so far out on a limb with her thoughts on so many difficult topics. Lily replies: “I may summon up a lot of nerve … but that’s only because that difficulty is counterbalanced by living a simple, and often solitary, life.” She can be brave in her writing because she keeps her private life very private. Something I find especially encouraging coming from an established author in our current world of personal brands and online self-promotion. But I think my favorite part of the interview is what Lily has to say about shitty first drafts. “Knowing that I can revise it until I’m satisfied gives me the courage to get started in the first place.” Yes!

Kristen Holt-Browning didn’t hesitate when I asked about her favorite post. It’s the one where she talks about reading poetry every day. Partly because she’s still doing it, which means that it’s truly having an impact on her. As she describes it, “in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language.” What stands out for me is how easily poetry can fit into a busy schedule. Like a snack to keep you going, a poem can be a little hit of beauty, emotion, wordplay. And inspiration.

Tony Earley

Tony Early’s interview is Flora Stadler’s choice. Mine, too. The open discussion of how depression affects Tony’s process affected me deeply. First, that he’s willing to put his experience out there, especially if it might help someone else. And then, because I have this fantasy that everyone else is writing daily in a wholly disciplined way and I’m a total slacker. My reasons may not be the same as his, but sometimes I just can’t make myself work. To hear a successful author say that he sometimes goes years without writing was something I really needed to hear.

Having someone from the publishing world give an insider’s glimpse is invaluable. I have learned a lot from Ruta Rimas’s posts. Her favorite, it turns out, isn’t about the industry itself but about improving your writing. In July she reminded us to pick up Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Yeah, yeah, whatever, said my inner bratty teenager. Then I did pick up my copy. Yeah! Yeah! Going back to the basics can be a great catalyst. Now I’m hoping that every word in this post counts.

What stood out for you this year? Let us know in the comments below.

George Saunders: Under Pressure

By Flora Stadler

UPDATE: When I received George Sauders’ response to my question, I reached out again to ask him if he could tell me about a new pressure-relief method he’d learned for his novel. I didn’t expect to hear back, so I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t. But then a holiday miracle happened and he responded! Scroll down to his original response and see what else he had to say. 

In a piece for The Guardian last year, author George Saunders described the obsessive grind of his writing process: “My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I’ve been a Saunders fan-girl ever since I read his short story collection, In Persuasion Nation. So when his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, came out, I was excited to walk around inside a novel-sized version of his brain.

In that same Guardian article, Saunders wrote about his transition to novel-writing, which he thought would require lots of hidden meanings and more complicated plans than his short stories. He eventually realized that wasn’t the case.

But I could see his point. The two kinds of writing seem to exercise different muscles. A short story is a sprint through an idea, but to hold onto that idea for hundreds of pages can feel like a marathon. If a short story is the work of a quick mind, a novel is an expression of its stamina. So when I somehow got George Saunders to agree to sprint through a question with me, I asked:

Was there something in the writing process for Lincoln in the Bardo that your previous work hadn’t prepared you for? And if so, how did you overcome it (if you feel you did)?

“I suppose it was the earnestness of the narration. In my stories (and because of the contemporary voice I use) I can narrate serious stuff with a constant option to toggle momentarily over into the comic. This functions as a sort of pressure relief valve. The subject matter of this book (the 19th century death of a child and his father’s grief) complicated that — I found myself needing to do longer stretches of narrative the purpose of which was not overtly comedic. So this was a good thing—it taught me other ways to do that pressure-relief work.

Essentially what happened was that, by bearing down on what ‘the comic’ meant, I found out that it is more than just ‘being funny’ but can also include ‘paying closer attention to what you’ve already said.’ In this case, there was a moment when, in the midst of some earnest expositional stuff, I recalled: ‘Hey, that one ghost — you’ve said he has a huge and permanent erection. And that other one — he’s supposed to have thousands of eyes and ears.’ So then, without any change of tone, just by ‘recalling’ those things and writing them calmly into the text, the tone shifted — it wasn’t ‘funny’ exactly, but it wasn’t boring historical exposition, either.”

George Saunders is a professor, author and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and everywhere. His writing has won countless awards, including the National Magazine Award for fiction (1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004), a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, the PEN/Malamud Award in 2013, and most recently, the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo. His many books can be purchased or ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Craft Book Recommendation: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

by Ruta Rimas

July is coming to an end and so the back-to-school sales are on. These dog days of summer seem the right time, then, to recommend a back-to-basics text, one that plants the roots of good writing: The Elements of Style. It’s an informative, straightforward writing manual from the grandfather of writing instruction, William Strunk, Jr., and updated by one of his former students, E.B. White. Yes, E.B. White, author of the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. The Elements of Style is generally used in college or upper-level English courses to instruct young writers on how to clearly communicate.

The fourth edition of the classic writing book.

Though it’s an introductory text, it’s invaluable to those of us who have been writing for a very long time, too. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” says Roger Angell in his introduction to the fourth edition. It’s true. Writing is hard, and it’s smart practice to remind ourselves of the basics.

In this slim volume, Strunk and White take us through the rules of rhetoric. It’s not a comprehensive text, but instead offers easy-to-understand rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused words and expressions, and a list of approaches to style. Strunk and White remind readers to embrace the Oxford comma, use the active voice, and put statements in the positive form. My favorite edict, one that I share with the writers I edit, is to Omit Needless Words (S&W consider one phrase, “the fact that,” to be particularly excruciating to encounter, and offer a chart with other options to use).

This thin and mighty reference allows us to reflect on our own writing.  Are our sentences convoluted, complicated, or overstuffed? Are we more in love with the purple of our prose rather than the information we are conveying or the purpose of the passage?  S&W value definite, specific, and concrete language (ex: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward” is vague and wordy; rewrite that in definite terms and you’ll have “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”). Word choice matters. Sentence construction is important. Style and mechanics go hand in hand.

After reviewing The Elements of Style, pick up Charlotte’s Web. You’ll notice that E.B. White takes to heart all that Strunk taught him. His storytelling is clear, written with deliberate precision, utilizes varied sentence length, and is never overabundant in its descriptions.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Consider this excerpt, when Charlotte, a spider, begins weaving a new web to praise her pig-friend, Wilbur:

And so, talking to herself, the spider worked at her difficult task. When it was completed, she felt hungry. She ate a small bug that she had been saving. Then she slept.

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word, “TERRIFIC.” Another miracle. (p.94)

Perhaps find inspiration from the book’s arachnid star who weaves simple words into her web to describe her porcine companion. One word, sometimes two, was all she needed. Maybe it’s what your writing needs, too.

Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I am a sucker for any book that promises a glimpse into “the writer’s life”—books that, in discussing the daily practices of authors, will (I hope) offer a clear and well-trodden path to I can follow to literary accomplishment.

There are plenty of books that offer this big-picture, life-of-the-writer perspective. I’m often dipping in and out of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from The Paris Review Interviews. Each section opens with a question—“When Did You Begin Writing?,” “How Important Is Plot?,” “Are You Friends with Other Writers?”—and contains brief responses from a variety of writers. Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, devotes chapters to the value of writing partners, of keeping a journal, and of finding one’s own writing rhythm, interspersed with examples drawn from the writing lives of Virginia Woolf, Stephen King, and many others.

And then there’s Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, a book not, at first glance, about how to write—and yet entirely about writing. In her early 50s, Levy is divorced, living in a shabby apartment with her daughters. She writes about lugging a space heater into the shed where she writes. She describes biking home from the grocery store with a chicken tied to the seat—only for the chicken to fall off and get run over by a car (she rescues it, brings it home, and cooks it anyway). She ruminates on the dissolution of her marriage, and the death of her mother, and she worries about paying the bills.

“I no longer had a study at the most professionally busy time of my life. I wrote where I could and concentrated on making a home for my daughters. . . . to be making this kind of home, a space for a mother and her daughters, was so hard and humbling, profound and interesting, that to my surprise I found I could work very well in the chaos of time. I was thinking clearly, lucidly; the move up the hill and the new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”

Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life. Levy is a woman, a mother, an ex-wife, a friend. She befriends an elderly neighbor, she reminisces about Greece, she rides a bike up a hill in London. She is cold, she is frustrated, she is elated. And always, she is a writer.

 

The Cost of Living doesn’t offer any tips or schedules. It offers a single, ever-shifting perspective on a specific life of writing. It reminds me that being a writer isn’t about habits or word counts; it’s in the living, and it’s in the writing.

Do you have a favorite book about the writing life? Comment below with the title for a chance to win a free copy of The Cost of Living!