Sunday, January 29, 2012

Short Stories are Not Instruction Manuals

Been reading a lot of student fiction lately and submissions to Philadelphia Stories for the next magazine publication, and there are a couple of hiccups I see sometimes in the work.

One is the impulse to be very specific about which side a person might be using to complete an activity. For example, sentences like this (not from any real manuscripts): "She picked up the fountain pen with her left hand and began writing on the paper while resting her right cheek on her right palm." While I get the impulse here--writer wants to be sure we're very clear on the way the person is poised--it is unintentionally humorous (perhaps she's sitting on her right palm while writing, if you catch my drift) and unnecessary unless the story is actually a Sherlock Holmes-esque mystery involving forged documents by a person who's really right handed. Better just write: "She picked up the fountain pen and began writing." The additional description of her face resting on her hand while she does this...Not sure that it gives us any really substantial information or insight (unless again, we learned in the previous paragraph that she has a bullet hole in her face and needs to staunch the bleeding while completing this note about who has shot her).  What it does do is distract the reader long enough to make her stare off into space to try to figure out exactly which hand is where and in the middle of this, she might be distracted by her cat attacking the yoga mat and get up from the chair, leaving the story to cool on the kitchen table.

Another thing writers can just do away with is the impulse to address the other character in every other line of dialogue. To wit:

Hey, Julie, can you hand me that pencil with your right hand?

Sure, Jennifer, not a problem, Jen. Here it is.

Thanks, Julie.

Any time. Though I am left-handed, you know, Jen.

Think about how frequently or infrequently you use a person's name in conversation. I would say that it happens very little, and the better you know a person, the less you use it. Or you use it only when you really want to get someone's attention, like, Emma! Quit it! Readers are smarter than you think. As long as you have some dialogue attribution (Julie said, Jennifer said), we'll be able to keep people straight and don't need the false ring that comes with constantly being reminded of the names in dialogue.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bad Poetry

In this Penn grad class I"m taking, we get to write a short story and then we're going to also be writing poetry. We had our first fiction workshop this week, and it seemed clear that some of the students might be more comfortable in the poetry realm--lots of heavy imagery and repetition; stuff like :"words, words--what are words? Silent words Words as heavy as snow. Wordsmith-ing of the word in the dark scream of the throat." (Reminds me of Woody Allen's Love and Death, where the characters are parodying Russian literature... "Wheat.....wheat.....fields of wheat.....cream of wheat....."). Of course, I am terrified of poetry--I am sure most of mine will be bad. In fact, I know that I write fantastic at bad poetry. Here's a poem I wrote yesterday after eating lunch at Pod with a writer friend of mine:

The dumplings
sat fat and juicy
Like the heart of an over
weight midget

Maybe I will be okay if we can write narrative poetry ala Billy Collins. You can actually read a post from 2007 where I reference the one time I met him. I am told that I might also like Pablo Neruda.

The first thing I found upon Googling Pablo Neruda:

"A Dog Has Died"

My dog has died
I buried him in the garden
next to a rusted old machine.

Some day I'll join him right there,
but now he's gone with his shaggy coat,
his bad manners and his cold nose,
and I, the materialist, who never believed
in any promised heaven in the sky
for any human being,
I believe in a heaven I'll never enter.
Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom
where my dog waits for my arrival
waving his fan-like tail in friendship.

Ai, I'll not speak of sadness here on earth,
of having lost a companion
who was never servile.
His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine
withholding its authority,
was the friendship of a star, aloof,
with no more intimacy than was called for,
with no exaggerations:
he never climbed all over my clothes
filling me full of his hair or his mange,
he never rubbed up against my knee
like other dogs obsessed with sex.

No, my dog used to gaze at me,
paying me the attention I need,
the attention required
to make a vain person like me understand
that, being a dog, he was wasting time,
but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
he'd keep on gazing at me
with a look that reserved for me alone
all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.

Ai, how many times have I envied his tail
as we walked together on the shores of the sea
in the lonely winter of Isla Negra
where the wintering birds filled the sky
and my hairy dog was jumping about
full of the voltage of the sea's movement:
my wandering dog, sniffing away
with his golden tail held high,
face to face with the ocean's spray.

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.

There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,
and we don't now and never did lie to each other.

So now he's gone and I buried him,
and that's all there is to it. 

Translated, from the Spanish, by Alfred Yankauer  

This has now given me permission to write poems about Henri's dying. Mostly, it would have to have lines line: Lion head, kitten heart, white paw like a ladies glove.

I won't do that. I can just give you the visual proof from 2009. He was always hiding.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


I didn't have much time to take photos of windows this past Christmas, but here is one I captured. It looks like one of those roadside memorials--you know, the place where a car or bike accident happened and someone died. Here, it appears as if perhaps Santa was run over right outside of this house.

Last weekend, Dan and I decided to be nice to ourselves and stay at a bed and breakfast in Lambertville. However, when we got to the B&B, we found it was run by a crazy old lady and her creepy son. For $155 a night, you might expect a luxurious room with a jacuzzi. This place had a TV the size of a shoebox, a plastic stand up shower, and kitschy decorations. The room was tiny, the wallpapers bubbly and water-stained, and the decors was tacky and gross. My biggest fear was that the son had privately drilled holes all over the place and would be watching us as we changed our clothes, took showers, and slept. We left, but not before having a terrible altercation with the strange owner--this older woman with button brown eyes, who refused to give us a refund. She and I got into it, and she finally left and then shouted at us from behind the closed door, You're insulting my home! I'm still waiting to see if we can get a refund. She charged us $204 to be in her house for approximately 5 minutes.

We went back to Dan's house, but then returned to Lambertville the next day so that it would kind of not seem like a lost weekend. Lambertville has lots of antique stores and below, you will find an example of some of the art available, not unlike the art in the B&B we fled:

Why? And I think the picture cost something like $300. We didn't love the town. Had lunch at the Blue Moon Cafe and the waitress hated us because there was a misunderstanding with the soup. Went into a store for dogs and the owner warned me not to pet her Yorkie. Some of the townspeople were nice, but overall, it felt like a town that resents the traffic of tourists it needs to not be a total slum.

It snowed last night, spoiling Emma Carol's desire to roll on the back patio.

I had this impulse to go ahead and throw her out there just to see what she would do. I resisted. If you look to just outside of the door, you'll see the indent in the snow of when she stepped out and broke through.

Could not adequately explain to her why her life is so hard.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Last Pictures of Henri

I had to put Henri to sleep last Monday. He was about 17 years old--give or take six months. We took him to Penn Vet Emergency Hospital and they were very nice--gave me all kinds of options about euthanasia--if I wanted to be there or if I wanted to just leave; if I wanted his ashes or not, gave me time to say goodbye (too much time. When you know you're about to put your cat to sleep, it's difficult to do anything like enjoy your time with him. I just wanted it to be over); they wrapped him up so he was cozy in these nice blankets.

I had to do this one other time with Gretel, and that was terrible and this was terrible too--not terrible as in traumatic, because he was so out of it, he didn't seem all that upset. Just terrible to have to make that decision. What that must be like when the creature in question is a human? I can't imagine. 

I stayed in the room. It helps to see it happen. Otherwise, I could imagine myself worrying about how it went down, if he was distressed or hurt. And this other fantasy I could see happening--someone at the vet hospital falls in love with him and they keep him alive by extraordinary measures. Or he's shaking and crying and a dog is barking and they forget about it and he suffers. So, yes, being there made sense. And it also seems like the nicest thing to do for this animal who has been in your life for years and years--through Chicago, and grad school, and moving to Philly--you know, the least you can do is to be petting his head when he dies.

The hardest parts are the afternoons after work--he's not there anymore when I get home and it takes me a second--oh, he's gone. And then the same thing happens again in the morning--I walk down the stairs and he's not there again. How strange to think that he won't ever be there--that is still a hard concept to grasp.

These photos are from November. The two cats sitting together--unbelievable.

It's happened a couple of times recently that I've glimpsed Emma Carol out of the corner of my eye and thought it was him. Here, you can kind of see why.

I miss him. I don't believe in heaven--not for Joan of Arc, or other saints, not for ordinary people, and not for bashful cats who spent 40% of their lives hiding under things to escape notice. But I do have pictures of him and even a video or two, so that is what is left. It reminds me to always take pictures; I wish I had more, I'm glad for the ones I have.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

"My Little Hands"

We'll start a new fiction writing workshop tomorrow night with Philadelpia Stories; the class that I teach. Ten students signed up, all women. Funny, but most of the fiction classes I take or teach mostly consist of women.

I've been thinking a lot this weekend about what to discuss for the first night. My impulse is to tell them everything that they shouldn't do---to talk about the things in writing that don't work---mistakes that I see writers make frequently. But then, that seems negative and too many warnings can leave you feeling stuck every time you sit down to start writing. It's hard enough to write with your own voices of doubt in your head, let alone new rules given to you by an instructor. Instead, we'll talk about what a story is--what makes a good short story, how you get started, maybe a few ways to turn off the negative internal voice so that you can keep writing.

But, can I just mention to you a few pet peeves I have in fiction writing, just to you?

1. Day in the Life Of...These are the stories that begin with the alarm going off and end with the person going to bed or some variation of that theme. In these stories, we see a slice of life of someone--usually someone slightly unhappy (that's good--we want our characters to have some despair. Otherwise, how can we hope for redemption), but we also tend to get his story on the day that nothing much happens. It's like the writer mistook her own detailed character notes for an actual story, forgetting for a moment that this story should be the day that something exceptional happens--a day when the character's life is altered in a significant way. Often though, this leads to another problem, which is...

2. The Day That All Hell Broke Loose...Stories wherein the central action centers around a disaster--an earthquake, a suicide attempt, a car accident, a murder. While these stories are preferable to the Nothing Happened tales, the problem can be that the story gets enveloped by the action--the disaster--and there's no time for other elements of fiction, such as character development, internal conflict, description, or epiphany. It's simply a Really Shitty Day. You can save this story, however, by knowing what the really bad thing was and writing the story about a character who struggles with her entire self to get over that terrible thing. That plot line allows for change and growth, for insight and revelation.

3.  The Precocious Child First Person Narrator. This is so hard to do well and so hard to do without "cute-ify-ing" the voice.  These are the five year old kids who have adult observations and use adult vocabulary interspersed by somewhat age-appropriate language, something like, "My mommy sobs in the front seat of the Ford Tempo, big hippo tears that stream down her face in rivers of wa-wa. My mommy is sad. My mommy is inconsolable." Then you'll have sentences where the writer has the younger narrator describe herself in ways she would never be able to do, having no sense of perception, like, "My little hands patted my mommy's jiggly arm, my fingers like star fish on her flesh." Unless the child's hands are unnaturally small, they wouldn't seem little to her. It's too precious. Be careful of writing precious children. We don't want to be smarter than the characters we read about--we want in some ways for them to be capable of being smarter than us.