Saturday, April 26, 2014

Writing in a Voice Not My Own (aka I am not a dude)

Someone recently told me she loved the "voice" of my blog. I thanked her, but I'll admit, I was a little taken aback. In the writing textbooks I studied, as both student and teacher, the concept of voice is all mixed up with several other things, like a writer’s unique way of writing (e.g. her syntax, rhythms, word choice) and with the unique voices of each character, which is of course bound tightly to the story’s point-of-view. All of these things become “voice.”

In this blog, and in the personal essays I’ve published, the “voice” is mine, by which I mean it’s the real me, the way I think and the way I talk with friends. So, having a reader say she liked it made me feel a little bit self-conscious, and saying thanks made me feel a little arrogant, as in, why yes, of course, I have a very nice voice, and have you also seen my elbows? (Hint: They are HOT!)

So, yes, dear reader, here on this blog, this is me, take it or leave it. But, fiction is another beast. Fiction gives writers the chance to try on the voice of someone completely different. At first, this can be a bit scary. Whether you’re a professional writer or not, you’ve probably heard the rule, “Write what you know.” This particular rule stifles a lot of student writers, and they end up writing about other writers, who mostly sit at the computer and gaze out the window (Fun Fact: This action encompasses 3/4 of my own writing time!). They also write characters who drink a lot of coffee, usually in coffeehouses, usually while gazing out the window.

Here's a photo of me on Halloween, as the Publishers' Clearinghouse
Prize Patrol, but don't I look a bit like Alex Trebek?
I think the adage would be better changed to: “Write what you want to know.” Good writers tend to have outsized curiosities. We scrape the surface of a lot of topics in our quests for knowledge, gathering an Alex Trebek-ian list of facts that serve our purposes for a particular scene. Then, we impart this knowledge via our characters.

My two most recently published short stories feature first-person narrators. One, titled “The Adjunct Track” (published in The Rumpus), features an adjunct teacher of English composition who is male and about fifteen years younger than me. Now I, too, have taught comp, and I have been fifteen years younger, but I’ve never been a dude. Another story, "Useful Skills," which you can read here in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, features a man with a marketing business who is trying to patch up relationships with his wife and father. The only similarity there is that I had previous jobs in marketing.

In a lovely rejection letter (the lovely ones sometimes break your heart the most...) that I received from a publisher considering my story collection, the editor was impressed at how well I wrote male voices. My first thought was maybe I should look into boosting my estrogen. But then I took the comment for what it was, a compliment, the highest kind, really because it’s much harder to write about someone who's different from you, to inhabit his or her fictional world so completely that you, as author, disappear. Stories like that transport a reader.

Currently, I’m working on a novel with a biracial protagonist. When I started thinking about the book, I was filled with self-doubts about whether I had the right to speak for this character, but the more I thought about it, the more those fears diminished. Of course, there will always be people who say how dare you. I’m thinking here of some of the flak Kathryn Stockett got for “The Help.” But, the world of books would be very boring if writers only wrote about their own lives. Where would all the mysteries go? Do I have to be a murderer to write about one? An Abraham Lincoln re-enactor? A born-again, pro-life crusader? No. And I’ve written from all of their points of view. Can I tell you a secret? That's what makes this job so goddamn fun.

The most important question is not whether you ought to do it, but did you? Did you pull it off? Did you write a good book, or story, or poem, one that readers want to read? One thing I’ve learned over my years of writing is that no one is going to give me permission to pursue any project, to write in a voice other than my own. You simply follow whatever voice it is that leads you, and you tell that person’s story with as much honesty as you can. And, for those times when you really need to get into character, you keep a spare wig and mustache.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Have a Seat in the Naughty Chair!

It's about time I showed you somethin' purdy, don 'cha think? You can either take this post as an example of my latest DIY painted furniture project, or as a caution against getting high on the sweet, sweet halo of power fumes a person is exposed to at her local PTO meeting (I swear I didn't inhale).

So, there I was helping to decorate our neighborhood public elementary school for a Dr. Seuss-themed Right to Read Week, when someone pulls out a fancy cell phone and starts trolling for "ideas" and sees that someone once painted Dr. Seuss quotes and whatnot on a chair (damn you, Internets!), and I'm all like, "I can make you a chair," and someone's like, "Really?" and I'm like, "Oh, sure, why not," and then I realize that it's Friday night, and I haven't eaten dinner, and probably because I'm low on blood sugar, I promised a magical chair by Monday.

Saturday morning, coffee, and then it begins...

Thanks to a nice lady at a local thrift shop, who was willing to break up a set of dining chairs, I scored this elegant lady:

Then, I began studying it. The arms fairly screamed, well, arms. The indentations would make perfect claws. And why not paint the intricate woodwork on the back to look like a hat? I wasn't going to paint book quotes or scenes, as I'm a poor freehand artist, but Seuss would provide my inspiration.

The chair was lightly sanded and primed in day one. Day two started with the reupholstering of the seat, which was a dumb thing to do next, as will soon be revealed. Then, I spent the whole, carpal-tunnel inducing day painting. The red was looking especially streaky. This is the problem with red paint. I love the color, but loath the process of actually putting it on anything.

At this point on Sunday evening, hubs is in the background saying, "It's late, it looks fine," which is a dumb thing for hubs to say because he has known me since before I earned my driver's license, yet this is just this thing we do...hubs trying to urge me not to be a perfectionist and me rolling my eyes. So, I gave it another coat of paint.

Monday morning, I reminded myself that it didn't absolutely have to be there first thing. I really should give it a coat of polyurethane if I wanted the paint job to last (the idea was to use the chair for many years' worth of guest readers and students, not just for this special week). So, I did that.

And then, I looked at the seat, which I'd covered in a turquoise chevron. I had picked this out because I originally planned on a black/white/red color scheme and knew the turquoise would pop. However, after adding yellow to the mix, the cushion looked wrong. Also, why not use faux fur instead?

So, I tore the fabric off, bought new, re-re-upholstered, and screwed the seat back on. It was finally ready to go. And do you know what happened next?

I didn't want to give it away.

Truth is, I've not yet created anything that wasn't meant for my own home. My evil twin (the one who inhales the power fumes) started to whisper to me, tell them you didn't have time, what are they going to do, fire you? you're a volunteer, KEEP the chair..."Where would I put it?" I asked her, but she didn't answer. Even she had to admit I had no spot for this chair.

So, I took the chair to the school, and it provided a cushy seat for the tushies of local dignitaries, including the mayor and school superintendent. While it's awaiting its next important function, I heard it has found a spot outside the principal's office. I suspect there's not a more stylish "naughty chair" to be found anywhere.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The DIY Writing Residency

I’ve just returned to Ohio from wonderful Austin, Texas, where I completed a five-day “writing residency” at the house of friends. While there, I managed to draft the first chapter of my new novel, as well as spend much quality time with old buddies, eat empanadas from a food truck, buy a local author’s book from the fabulous BookPeople and soak up some desperately needed vitamin D.

I was in “residence” at a place other than my own home. I did “writing” (lots of it, and it’s not half bad). And so, by my estimation, I completed a “writing residency.” Unlike more traditional residencies, there was no application fee, no recommendation letters to procure, no statement to write about my “artistic vision,” no writing samples at all. And perhaps most importantly, no WAIT for a decision (for six months or even longer) from the esteemed panel of judges. There was also, thankfully, no form rejection letter explaining that there were thousands of entries for a handful of spots.

My residency came about with the realization that I had a hot-off-the-laptop novel outline and could really use some time to get myself immersed in the book, figure out the proper tone, and get the thing off the ground, so that, once home, I could just pick up with the next scene and be on my way. My prep work involved an email to friends I’d been wanting to see, followed by the purchase of a plane ticket. Total cost, approximately $300. Time wasted with applications? Zero.

Now before you think I’m all sour grapes about residencies, let me offer some background. I once completed a traditional residency, at the Vermont Studio Center. It was pre-kids so I was able to get away for a full month, and it was indeed transformative, in that it came at a time when I really needed to reaffirm my goals and status as a writer with other like-minded folks. But I didn’t have a good plan for my work while there, and so, although I ended up producing a lot of pages, in the end it was just a hundred page writing exercise. VSC offered me a fellowship to attend, not a full ride but enough to make it worth my while.

That was a decade ago. Today, I’m in a different place, with my life in general and my writing life in particular. I don’t like wasting time. I’m not interested in resume building, at least not in terms of listing residencies on a CV. I’d much rather impress people with my published work. As a busy parent and very part-time writer, what I most need is time. I know the precise moments during a project when I could use concentrated hours away from home. That’s one of the problems with applying for residencies that won’t happen until far in the future.

And that’s where the DIY residency comes in. Sidenote: Consider the odds of receiving a more traditional residency. The current talk in the writers’ Twitterverse is the “Amtrak Residency.” For those who haven’t heard, Amtrak recently decided to offer 24 writers a ticket for a multi-day trip in a private cabin. The small print explains that Amtrak will choose writers who already have a large social media presence, and those writers will then blog about the fabulosity of train travel. It’s basically free advertising for Amtrak and kudos to them, I guess, for seeing an opportunity, but what amazes me most is the number of writers who have applied (more than 9,000 as of this writing). It’s a train ticket, people.

Some writers might choose to buy their own train, or plane, or boat, or buggy (I live in Amish country) tickets, but that’s often difficult for writers strapped for cash, and most of us are. The DIY Residency doesn’t have to cost you anything. I’ve completed many of them over the years. It’s so, so easy. Just tell all your friends that you are available to house sit or water plants or give Mr. Fluffernutters his thyroid medication…for the use of their dining room table to set your laptop on. You can put a call out right when you’re getting to a critical juncture in a writing project, right when the work hours would most benefit you. Assuming these are local friends, you can spend a few hours, maybe a whole day if you can swing it. Maybe you can even spend a night.

Your friends? They will love that you are taking care of whatever they need taken care of. They will also like feeling they are “supporting the arts” without even opening their checkbooks. A long time ago, artists had wealthy patrons. Now, we have nice friends who give us spare keys. I have three such keys in my possession, and am always open to receiving more. In the past, I have worked in 24- to 48-hour marathon stretches at a house right around the corner from my own. If my family needed me, I could run home in under a minute. But they didn’t need me. And I got tons of distraction-free work done.

If this appeals to you, and you haven’t tried it, don’t wait! If, however, you feel you cannot write unless you have a cabin in the woods, at which, approximately noon-ish, someone will arrive at your door with a recycled paper sack containing your gluten-free, sustainably harvested lunch items, knock quietly, then disappear into the forest so as not to disturb your genius, then you need to apply for a traditional residency (writers…you know which one I’m talking about). If you can make do with much less, you are in luck. Your DIY residency awaits.