Category — On Writing
It’s not only Short Story Month, but it’s also the anniversary of The Pen and the Bell, the marvelous book about mindful writing by Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes.
Brenda and Holly are hosting a giveaway to celebrate the one-year anniversary of their book — click here for details and to win your own copy.
In case you don’t yet know why you need this book, check out my Q&A with Brenda about the book, writing, and more.
May 17, 2013 No Comments
Write about your health (or that of one of your characters). What would you like to change, if anything? And what is there to celebrate?Tweet
May 13, 2013 No Comments
Write about frogs.
(This is meant not to be simple but rather to be broad: Write about whatever comes to mind when you think of frogs, from their colors to their sounds to your perception of them. Think of the frogs you hear in your garden to those really funky ones in the Amazon. Have fun with it.)
May 6, 2013 No Comments
This one is all about falling: Write about a fallen tree. Write about the first time you remember falling. Write about a recent fall or stumble. Write about a time you witnessed someone falling. And keep writing…Tweet
April 29, 2013 No Comments
You’ll find out about upcoming events, a few great resources for writers, calls for submissions, and have a new writing tip and prompt to keep your writing going.
April 23, 2013 No Comments
Happy Earth Day!
Today is a day to celebrate all the glorious things about Earth, from beaches to forests to all its magnificent creatures. And, today of all days, why not celebrate those creatures that don’t get quite enough love the rest of the year?
Write about your favorite insect. And why.
Meanwhile, as you celebrate Earth Day, visit Ashland Creek Press to get a free eco-fiction sampler and to be entered in an ec0-literature book giveaway.
And if you’re a reader as well as environmentalist, check out the online community EcoLit Books, where you’ll find articles, book reviews, author interviews, and resources for those who love the planet as much as they love books.Tweet
April 22, 2013 1 Comment
Write a list — whether a grocery list, a to-do list, or a bucket list.Tweet
April 15, 2013 No Comments
Write about the oldest and wisest person you know. Then write about something you learned from this person, whether it was a simple tip or a profound, life-changing lesson in life.Tweet
April 8, 2013 No Comments
Write about the last time you visited your hometown. What’s different, and what’s the same?
If you still live in the place where you grew up, write about the way things were five years ago.Tweet
April 1, 2013 No Comments
Write about a streetlamp in your neighborhood. Then, describe (or create) a scene that takes place under it.Tweet
March 25, 2013 No Comments
After reading Clifford Garstang’s beautiful story collection What the Zhang Boys Know, I had to learn more about it … and to my delight, Cliff was willing to answer a few questions. I always love to know what goes on “behind the scenes,” especially when I’m so strongly drawn to the writing, and I hope all you writers out there will enjoy learning about Cliff’s process as well.
Here’s a little more about Cliff: Clifford Garstang is the author of the prize-winning short story collection In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009) and the novel in stories What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53, 2012). About his first book, Tim O’Brien, author of The Things they Carried, said, “In an Uncharted Country is an impeccably written, sumptuously imagined, and completely enchanting book of stories. . .” John Casey, author of Spartina, called What the Zhang Boys Know “a wonderful and haunting book.”
Garstang’s work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Cream City Review, Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Tampa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize and has been awarded fellowships by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He holds an MFA in Fiction from Queens University of Charlotte and is the co-founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine. He is also the author of the popular literary blog Perpetual Folly.
Garstang teaches creative writing at Writers.com and elsewhere. He currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Q: What the Zhang Boys Know is “a novel in stories”—and the stories are indeed seamlessly woven together, even though most of them were published as stand-alone pieces in literary magazines. Did you begin with interconnected stories in mind, or did the collection become linked after you’d begun writing individual stories?
A: Unlike my first book, In an Uncharted Country, which just grew as I kept writing stories and borrowing settings and characters from the finished stories, this one was conceived from the beginning as a whole, complete with the overall narrative that ties the independent stories together. The first story in the book, “Nanking Mansion,” which I also wrote first, serves as something of an outline for the whole. It introduces most of the characters—indeed, early drafts included all of them—and also sets out the themes that the book seeks to explore.
Q: Your collection features such a wide range of voices—you write from the point of view of characters male and female, gay and straight, black and Chinese, young and old. Do you have any special way, as a writer, of immersing yourself so completely in these characters?
A: It’s just a matter of authorial empathy, I think. Doing all those voices is part of the pleasure of writing short stories, in my opinion. You toil on a novel for many years, often mired in a single voice. I know! I’ve done that. But being able to shift gears, so to speak, and try on different voices the way you’d try on different clothes, is liberating. As for the “how,” I’m not really sure. Years ago a writing teacher recommended a book by Stanislavsky, the great theater director, called An Actor Prepares. The salient part of the book for writers is a section on finding emotional authenticity by tapping into feelings that the actor shares with the character. I may not have felt the exact same pain that my character feels, or the same love, or the same anxiety, but I have felt pain, love, and anxiety, and so I am free to write about those feelings. With a little research and observation, I think you can make those things come alive for a character who is quite different from yourself. That’s the theory anyway.
Q: While the collection’s anchor is Nanking Mansion, the condominium in which the characters live, many of the stories also take readers to distant places, such as China and Paris. Have you been to these places yourself—and if so, do you find that you get story ideas from traveling, or does the act of writing bring you back to the places you’ve visited?
A: I’ve been to Paris a few times and to China many, many times. I can’t recall having story ideas while traveling, exactly. I think it’s when I sit down to write that the places flood back. For example, as I began this book, I had recently visited Nanjing, China, and had seen the memorial to the victims of the Nanking Massacre. (Nanjing is the modern spelling of Nanking, which means “Southern Capital.”) That was a moving experience, and it occupied my thoughts in the crucial, formative stage of the planning for the book. That gave me the name of the building and also some of the themes that I come back to in several of the stories.
Q: You bookend the collection so beautifully with Zhang Feng-qi—was he (and were his sons, the Zhang boys) always in your mind as the central character to the story? And how did the other inhabitants of Nanking Mansion begin to take shape as characters?
A: Feng-qi came first, simply because I wanted to create a central character who was unfamiliar and so unpredictable. Then came his sons, because I was interested in the diversity of the building specifically and in Washington, D.C., generally, and what better way to show diversity than with biracial children? And of course they were crucial to Feng-qi’s goal, which is to find them a new mother. As for the other inhabitants, they too were manifestations of the diversity of the population. I’ve joked about this, but it’s more or less true that I imagined the doors of the apartments of this building and started opening them one by one in my mind. Every new door revealed a new character, and ultimately a new story for the book.
Q: The same old question I love to ask: What’s your favorite place to write, and what time of day? Do you have a regular writing routine?
A: I have a nice office in a loft at my house. It’s quite spacious, lots of natural light from skylights. My dog has a comfortable bed there, and that’s where I do most of my work. I do escape to coffee shops from time to time just to shake things up a little. And I also try to go to a writing residency once a year to get some really hard, concentrated writing time in when I’m immersed in whatever I’m working on. Much of What the Zhang Boys Know, in fact, was written in first draft in a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. But regardless of where I am, my routine is to get to my writing space pretty early in the morning, right after breakfast, and to work until lunch time. After lunch I’ll turn my attention to other things—submissions or teaching preparation or whatever.
Q: What are you working on now—and where can we find some of your recent work?
A: I’ve recently completed a novel set partly in Virginia and partly in South Korea, where I lived years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But now I’m working on a novel set in Singapore, where I lived for almost a decade. Because I’ve been writing longer things for a couple of years, there isn’t a lot in the way of new work available to read, but I do like a story that appeared in Joyland last year, “Cousin Barnaby is Dead.” That’s available here: http://www.joylandmagazine.com/stories/midwest/cousin_barnaby_dead.
Thanks so much for asking all these great questions!Tweet
March 19, 2013 2 Comments
So, I learned a few years ago that my dad never chews gum. As in never. I am not sure why I never knew this, but it struck me as interesting, in a family of gum chewers, that he is the lone non-gum person.
Write about bubble gum … from the first time you tried it to whether you still believe it’ll remain in your stomach for seven years if you swallow it. Then go on to write about other kinds of gum. Include everything you can think of in your history and relationship with chewing gum.Tweet
March 18, 2013 No Comments
Write about something you wear for good luck — a certain pair of shoes, a lucky sweater, a pair of earrings. Describe how you adopted the ritual, and then write a scene about a time this good-luck charm helped you.Tweet
March 11, 2013 No Comments
Write about a something in which you’re a member … a club, organization, writing group, etc., including how you came to be a member, how long you’ve been one, and how you like it (or don’t). Then write a scene that depicts one of your recent gatherings.
March 4, 2013 No Comments
A few weeks ago, my dear friend Judy Reeves was telling me about one of her amazing workshops, in which they worked in 90-minute intervals, then took a break, and then got back to work, and so on. It sounded so wonderfully efficient and productive — and in fact it was.
Then I came across this New York Times piece on the benefits of taking breaks — and while the article’s main focus is on the benefits of naps and vacations (of which I am also a big fan, though I never seem to take them), it also reveals the benefits of working in 90-minute intervals, which studies have shown lead to maximum productivity. Florida State University’s K. Anders Ericsson has studied elite performers (including musicians, athletes, actors, and chess players) and has learned that they do best when practicing in 90-minute sessions, with breaks in between.
I have noticed, very unscientifically, that when I have more than two hours of writing time, I start to flag as I approach the second hour (I never take breaks because this is, after all, precious writing time). In fact, my waning energy always made me worry that, since that sort of uninterrupted time is such a luxury, I’d never get anything done if I couldn’t use my time well when I have it. But this article offers evidence that we need to apportion our time to our advantage — and include the necessary breaks we often don’t allow ourselves.
So, here’s a call to action for all you writers out there … or rather, here’s several:
- Schedule your next writing session at exactly 90 minutes (if you can).
- If you’ve got more than 90 minutes of time, take a break … or several.
- When you’re feeling uninspired, take a nap — even if it uses up your writing time.
- Take a notebook with you on your next vacation, and write for pleasure (not out of guilt or obligation — just jot down anything you’d like, for the fun of it).
I’m looking forward to trying this (especially the napping part). Happy writing!Tweet
February 26, 2013 4 Comments