How Should A Novel Be? Genre And Sheila Heti’s Motherhood

By Kristen Holt Browning

“So, what do you write?” It’s an often heard question at Get Lit. I have my go-to answer of “short stories and poems.” I don’t mention the multi-part essays I’m working on that draw on events from my own life interspersed with musings on historic events (on a good day, I think of these pieces as “elegant” or “lyrical,” on a bad day, “rambling” or “utterly incoherent”). I don’t bother to mention that I write things that mix autobiography, history, mythology, fiction, nonfiction, the made-up, the concrete. It’s much easier to say, “short stories and poems. What about you?”

As writers, we’re supposed to fit into genre slots. Literary magazines, agents, contests, editors—they all focus on poetry, or fiction, or nonfiction. But what if your work falls between the genre cracks?

If you’re Sheila Heti, you draw extremely heavily on your own life, people your novel with characters who share the names of your actual friends, and subtitle your work “A Novel from Life,” as she did with her first novel, How Should A Person Be?

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Heti’s new novel, Motherhood, also barely confines itself to the constraints of the genre. Over the course of 300 pages, the speaker, a writer named Sheila who is the same age as the author, and lives in the same city as the author, debates whether or not to have a child. She talks to her partner, her mother, her childless friends, and her friends with children. She meanders; she posits; she interrogates; she wavers. In other words, nothing happens, except life. This “novel” contains little in the way of traditional plot, climax, or resolution.

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The central question of the narrative—should I have kids?—is the focus of most of the many articles and reviews that have already been written on this book. But for me, as a writer, what I find so invigorating about Motherhood is how unconcerned it is with genre, and with adhering to the rules of what a novel should be. If the genre doesn’t support one’s writing, she seems to suggest, the work—not the category—comes first. So, inspired by Sheila Heti, I’m going to keep writing my messy, slippery little pieces, and I’m going to follow them across whatever boundaries they may transgress.

Craft Book Recommendation: BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

By Ruta Rimas

My first post features one of my personal favorite books about writing. Every month, I will recommend a craft book for our wonderful literary group, one that I’ve suggested over the years to various writers with whom I’ve worked on a professional basis. There’s a lot of shelf-space dedicated to the craft and I hope that by offering up books that I’ve found insightful, helpful, practical, and inspirational, they will help you become the writer that you’ve always wanted to be.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

In Bird by Bird, Lamott, a bestselling novelist and creative writing teacher, invites you to join her for a one-on-one creative writing workshop. She asks that you to put in some work. The point of writing is to write and Lamott shares useful ideas like using short assignments to jumpstart your process. She jokes about the inevitable — and important — shitty first drafts, all while providing encouraging tidbits like this gem: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

The chapters are short and digestible, filled with self-deprecation, writing exercises, humor, compassion, and wisdom. Lamott’s style of narration is relatable and unpretentious as she uses life-affirming and often hilarious anecdotes to relate the, ahem, pleasures of writing (it’s “like bathing a cat”) while also candidly sharing with us her struggles as a human, her failures as a writer, her compulsion to never stop writing. She’s honest and raw about her journey, sometimes sad, but also uplifting and always wry.

Lamott provides practical exercises and writing prompts about developing character, plot, setting, as well as observations on dialogue (“You’re not reproducing actual speech—you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words.”). There’s mention of the importance of writing groups and beta-readers, as well as a brief note on publication. But this book isn’t about getting published, it’s about writing, and so not much time is spent on questions like “Do I really need an agent?” because that’s not the point of writing.

Lamott’s book is a good reminder to us all: Take it word by word, writers. Just take it word by word.

Reading Like A Writer: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By Kristen Holt Browning

My inaugural post for Get Lit Beacon is the first in a series I’m calling “Reading Like A Writer.” Each month, I’ll briefly discuss a book of fiction or poetry that I’ve just read—but rather than a traditional book review, I’ll share my thoughts on what I learned from this book as a writer myself.

So, on to Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion.

I admire Wolitzer for situating “women’s issues” as the central theme of a large, ambitious novel. Although, unlike Wolitzer, I write short works—stories, poems, essays—like her I’m primarily interested in writing stories about women. Even in a shorter work, I want the experiences of my female characters and subjects to be central, not secondary, and to resonate as big, essential narratives that speak to and reflect the world.

This novel covers feminism, ambition, idealism, money, sexuality, aging, death and grief, and generational divides. The story centers on Greer (a college freshman when we meet her, a celebrated 31-year-old author by the novel’s end). Wolitzer uses this focus character from which to dive deeply into the lives of Cory (Greer’s boyfriend, who suffers a massive tragedy that throws his life off its comfortable course), Zee (Greer’s best friend, who stumbles through jobs and a variety of activisms before she finds meaningful work), and Faith (a star of second-wave feminism who runs a foundation financed by a venture capitalist, and struggles to balance her activism with her funder’s bottom line).

As a writer, I’m impressed by Wolitzer’s ability to not only trace, but delve deeply into, the storylines of all of her characters, each of whom have full storylines of their own, beyond their relationships to the central character of Greer. Wolitzer clearly cares about all of her characters, and believes they each deserve a full story. And, she trusts herself to write a wide variety of characters: young and old, male and female, straight and queer.

We may write in different forms, but Meg Wolitzer provides an excellent roadmap for writing women’s stories as the complex, essential narratives they are.

Lauree Ostrofsky, of Simply Leap

By Julie Chibbaro

We were lucky to snag author and speaker Lauree Ostrofsky for our April 11, 2018 Get Lit Beacon event. I asked her to answer a few questions for us – we all know how writers are curious about other writers’ processes. In this blog, she does a terrific job of revealing what keeps her coming back to the page. Read her books for more about Lauree and her incredible journey.

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1. What keeps you coming back to the page and not giving up (your sources of inspiration)?

Three things help me stay motivated and focused on writing: deadlines, knowing what I want to say, and the desire to articulate a feeling. 1) Working with a writing coach, professor or respected colleague, has been invaluable to making writing a priority. The deadline must be applied to someone outside me, otherwise I can negotiate around it. I don’t want to let someone else down. 2) Knowing what I want to say encourages me to fill the page. I completed the draft of my second book, “SIMPLY LEAP: Seven Lessons on Facing Fear and Enjoying the Crap out of Your Life,” in one month, because I spent valuable time before imagining my audience. I was eager to “talk” to them and felt compelled to share my message, believing it would be useful. 3) It’s a wonderful and frustrating challenge to articulate a feeling to the point that someone else can feel it too. I worry about my vocabulary lacking and it’s tough to sit long enough in pain or sadness to speak from experience. Writing especially the opening chapter of “I’m scared & doing it anyway” was definitely that way. But, it feels so good after! Having moments when I achieved what I wanted as a writer encourages me to dive deeper on new work.

2. Who is your mentor (you mentioned studying with someone – can you tell us more about that?)

One of my college professors has become a good friend and mentor.
David Hicks now runs the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver, but we met when he was teaching at Pace University. Last July we read together at Oak Vino Wine Bar while he was on a 40+ city tour for his first book, “White Plains.” (Also reading that night was Joselin Linderfrom her new book, “The Family Gene.”) Leading up to it we bartered: I coached David on developing his tour and committing to a regular writing practice, and he edited both of my books and blog. Having him in my corner has been invaluable.

3. How does it feel to have written a book, and what made you want to write a second one?

It felt incredible to finish a book, seeing the last line on my computer screen. I never allowed myself to imagine writing one. It seemed like something only “real” writers did, but not me. When it happened and I could see that it was a full story with a beginning, middle and end, I was shocked and then proud. I knew I’d write another book the moment I signed, “I’m scared & doing it anyway,” at my first book party. It felt so good to share this personal story and see first-hand that it was helpful to others. I knew I wanted to do it again, and halfway through that book tour the next book idea came to me. And because I’d already written a book, had proven to myself that I could, I didn’t doubt it as much this time.