Craft Talk: bow and make yourself vulnerable

Nothing is more affecting than a love story set against harsh conditions, such as the landscape in The Farming of Bones, by Edwidge Danticat. The intimacy, tenderness, and purity that comes through in the first four pages of the book, for instance, is so gripping despite Amabelle and Sebastien’s romance not culminating into a Hollywood ending. There is something magical about the way Amabelle describes Sebastien on the opening page: “He is lavishly handsome by the dim light . . . even though cane stalks have ripped apart most of the skin on his shiny black face.”

Having grown up on romance novels in which men’s appeal largely hinges on wealth and power, it is refreshing to come across a strong male figure who manages to charm without the aid of rank or riches.

Someone once told me that when you approach the reader, you have to bow and make yourself vulnerable. I believe this is what Danticat has done with this book. Her main characters are underdogs, yet their frailty— their humility, is their strength, and their triumph.

The Farming of Bones is the go-to book for writers looking to create characters whose simplicity works to reveal the complexity of their existence.

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Kill those trees!

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

I know, I know. But before you pick up your green placards, please hear me out. To begin with, these are not my words (not that I need to pass the blame), but these words come from Amina Gautier, whose work, especially her short story collection, At Risk, I have come to admire.

Yes, Gautier is very environmentally conscious. At the same time, she recognizes that the same way a painter requires a canvas and a sculptor wood, clay, stone or metal, a writer needs paper. Granted, this is the electronic age and almost every industry is going paper-less, but for a writer, the use of paper is still an indispensable part of the craft.

If you have ever proofread, you will agree that it is so much easier to catch errors on a printed page than it is on the computer screen. Gautier’s recommendation to use paper, however, has to do with craft, perfecting one’s work. In the revision phase, she recommends printing multiple copies of a story and revising each stack for a single element of craft. This means components that work together to bring a story to life, such as character, mood, setting, voice, conflict, dialogue, imagery, scene vs. summary, and so forth, must be compartmentalized. In this way, you give undivided attention to each aspect of craft, revising with specific questions in mind.

Practiced writers know that you cannot underestimate the value revision. Reading Isaac Babel’s story, “You Must Know Everything,” in one of The New Yorker’s fiction podcasts, George Saunders said that what he admires most about Babel is that he can tell that Babel was extremely disciplined, a heavy editor and was hard on himself. This is exactly what Gautier says writers must be if they are to produce memorable stories. She says the same way that models and actors spend money on photo shoots, writers must use up reams and reams of paper in the revision process until that masterpiece comes to life.

Listening like a Writer

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

The same way that Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer has become an indispensable craft tool for a writer, so have The New Yorker fiction podcasts. In Reading Like a Writer, Prose says that “in the ongoing process of becoming a writer … [she] read analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how the writer was constructing a plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue.” Equally, if one listens to The New Yorker fiction podcasts analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how the writer constructs plot, creates characters, employs detail and dialogue, one engages in the process of becoming a writer.

Students of creative writing and literature learn that a successful narrative engrosses all of a reader’s senses. To this end, they strive to employ words that bring to life the pulse and contour of the universes they create. The New Yorker fiction podcasts serve this purpose. Who can fail to picture the exchange between Anders and the maddened bank robber, listening to T. Coraghessan Boyle read Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” or the chill in the air when apartheid South African police come to arrest the white man’s colored lover as Tessa Hadley reads “City Lovers,” by Nadin Gordimer?

By vocalizing literature, these podcasts underline the creative writer’s primal and prime function, which is to tell a story.  And herein lies another benefit of these podcasts: because the job of a writer also entails reading one’s own work, it helps to hear established authors read aloud.

Even more beneficial, not only do authors who feature in The New Yorker fiction podcasts read other writers’ work, they also discuss the work they are reading, explaining why they like the stories, what elements of the narrative work, and in most cases, they even throw in tidbits of writing advice and mention invaluable writing resources.

Unpublishable then, masterpiece today

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

When you are trying to get your work published, especially if you receive rejections in the process, it’s difficult to take comfort in the fact that even books we now consider classics, including Animal Farm, Lolita, Moby Dick and Catch 22, were once rejected. What makes it difficult is the fact that creative writing, and by extension, publishing, is not an exact science. What one publisher may consider unpublishable, another may embrace right off. In listening to a number of editors and publishers, various factors have been cited as the reason manuscripts get rejected. Work that is certifiably below par aside, books can be rejected for being too long or too short, too controversial or too safe, too predictable or too dubious—

Publishers can also reject work because it doesn’t suit their sensitivity, the theme overdone, the writer unknown, it’s too mainstream, or in the case of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, too different.

I zero in on The Bone People because I find the story behind its getting published interesting. In the preface to the first edition, Hulme says, “… I was going to embalm the whole thing in a block of Perspex when the first three publishers turned it down … it was too large, too unwieldy, too different…”  This was after Hulme had spent 12 years working on it. In 1984, a Spiral Collective, a New Zealand feminist group, published it. The book went on to win the Pegasus Prize for Literature as well as the Booker Prize.

Today, a good 30 years later, The Bone People, this long, different and difficult to categorize book is among the most discoursed literary works in MFA and other literature programs.

It says something to writers whose work continues to receive rejection after rejection, doesn’t it?

Fiction and history

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

How many people can say the 1993 slaying of Fulbright scholar, Amy Biel, in South Africa, is an event that has remained fresh in their memory? And for those too young to have been exposed to such brutal news, how many can say they have, in recent years, heard it talked about or written about in the press? Not many, is my guess. You might argue, and understandably so, that it’s been so long – 1993 – that’s a lifetime ago! Maybe so, especially because equally horrendous crimes have continued to make headlines.

This blog, though, is not about the Biel tragedy, for the Biel tragedy is merely a fraction of the countless moments in our course of existence that recede to the rearmost space of our collective consciousness. This blog is about art— fiction, in particular. It’s about how, long after news headlines have turned their attention to the next moment’s happenings, fiction grabs hold of that moment, immortalizes it, so that not only do the ‘facts’ endure, but that the moment never runs out of breath— it remains in the present tense, ever living and breathing.

Amy Biel’s murder, for instance, has struck me anew. It feels raw again because I’m reading Sindiwe Magona’s book, Mother to Mother, in which a fictitious mother of one of Amy’s killers ventures to write a letter to Amy’s mother explaining the root of her son’s violent act in the hope that this, according to the author, “might ease [hers] and the other mother’s pain … if a little.”

This event, now interlaced with fictitious characters whose humanity you and I can relate to, and scenes so photographic you’d swear the author had to have witnessed the event firsthand or at least known Amy or the young murderer’s mother intimately, no longer remains only about the murder. Now, it becomes an occasion for self-examination. We ask, “How do we see ourselves in this story?” “How are we to react to it?” And because we discuss fiction in the present tense, Amy Biel’s story lives to the end of time.

The Weird

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

Enthusiasts of supernatural literature must be ecstatic over the May 2012 release of the first U.S. edition of The Weird, (A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories), edited by Hugo Award winner, Ann VanderMeer and World Fantasy Award winner, Jeff VanderMeer. Published by Tom Doherty Associates, The Weird is an anthology of 110 stories by a stellar line-up of authors from all over the world and across centuries.

Here is how varied the spread of stories, authors and subgenres of weird fiction this book holds: There’s everything from the 1907 supernatural horror story, “The Willows,” by Algernon Blackwood, the English writer said to have helped usher in the modern era of weird fiction, to “Worlds That Flourish,” by iconic Nigerian writer of African magic realism, Ben Okri. American horror novelist Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People,” also features, as well as “The Colomber,” by Italian novelist and short story writer, Dino Buzzati, and not to mention “Saving the Gleeful Horse,” the 2010 story by Australian writer K.J. Bishop.

I must admit that until I picked up The Weird, paranormal literature never appealed to me. Yet, when I saw this voluminous book and read that inside were tales by some authors I know, such as Franz Kafka, Stephen King, Angela Carter, Jamaica Kincaid, Jorge Luis Borge and Joyce Carol Oats, to name a few, I had to read it.

Now, I’ve picked up new favorites, among them Mervyn Peake, whose story, “Same Time, Same Place,” about a smitten 23 year-old man who decides to marry a mysterious woman after eight dates – with weird consequences – has left me wanting to read (or tell) the story to anyone who will care to listen.

If I’ve piqued your curiosity, you can learn more about The Weird as well as Ann and Jeff VanderMeer on www.weirdfictionreview.com

The Practicing Writer

By Perpetual Murray

*** This post first appeared in The Tampa Review Online

There exists an expansive array of online resources for MFA students and practicing writers, and one that I find beneficial is Erika Dreifus’ daily dose of e-mail updates of The Practicing Writer.

Each morning, I awaken to an inbox of Monday Markets/Jobs/Opportunities, which feature jobs in academia as well as the publishing market, internships, fellowships, contests, deadlines, and more. On Tuesdays, I’m treated to a Quotation of the Week, not only by long-gone or famed authors, but also by emerging and new writers. Wednesdays send me on The Wednesday Web Browser, where I hear about or catch up on all the buzz in the writing world, while Thursday’s Work-in-Progress gets me up-to-speed on what Erika is working on, which usually involves a much-coveted freelancing gig, speaking or writing engagement at a festival or school. Finally, Friday Finds features treasures for practicing writers, such as Twitter tips, etc.

Whereas most writers’ resources focus on a single or few aspects of a writer’s life, say prompts or contests, Erika encompasses it all. Not only does she send out these daily e-mail updates, she also produces a comprehensive monthly newsletter.

I stumbled upon Erika while researching MFA programs, i.e., the benefits, renowned schools, and so on. Of all the places I visited, I found her website most informative. Not only did she discuss what one can expect during and after an MFA, she also listed various scholarship, fellowship and funding sources, which I could not find elsewhere.

What makes her a relevant resource, especially for UT MFA students, is that she is a graduate of an inaugural MFA program; she understands what it is like to be part of a new writing program.

Most of all, she is a practicing writer. Not only is she a resource maven extraordinaire, she is an author, teacher, reader, reviewer and freelance writer. Isn’t this every MFA student’s dream portfolio?