Mr. Daisey’s Story-Truth

If there’s one thing I never want to be, it’s a liar.

I’ve said many times to many people, “I do not lie.” Sometimes they look at me funny. “But you’re a writer,” they say. “All writers lie.” Trust me, I’m aware of the contradiction, but I stand by my original statement.

Reality can be a fluid thing. Memory, a subjective, slippery lens. I often confuse dream memories with waking memories. I have, in the past, gotten wrapped up in whole universes built on other people’s compulsive lies and my own faulty perceptions. I have become almost phobic about lies and lying, which may explain why I gravitate towards writing fiction. In writing nonfiction, I’m often afraid of all the things I might accidentally skew.

A few semesters ago, I took a fantastic seminar with Greg Martin on works which blurred the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Among other things, we read Lauren Slater’s memoir, Lying. As the name would suggest, it is based almost entirely off of lies. Even though, throughout the seminar, we explored various ways of interpreting “concrete” truths, story truths, emotional truths, and everything in between to twist our stories for artistic effect, I never got comfortable with lying. I was no Slater. I admired her, but I knew I would never have the guts to go as far as she went. I had no reason to.

I was reminded of this class the other afternoon when listening to This American Life’s retraction of their story “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory.” Turns out that Daisey’s monologue about the horrific conditions in Chinese factories that supply Apple is largely fictionalized, and that caused quite a stir since the story was put out under the journalistic standards of “truth.” Daisey came onto the show for an interview and, although the host, Ira Glass, kept fishing for a complete public apology and an admission of Daisey’s lies, he insisted throughout that everything in the monologue was “true.” Maybe some of the events didn’t happen in the order he presented them. Maybe some of the people were composites. But everything happened, he said, more or less. Everything was “true to his experience” in China, and he wanted to convey that experience in a way that would reach people. Really reach them. Emotionally and viscerally. He wanted to stir them to action. As a writer, I get all that. The monologue was originally meant for the theatre, and within the context of theatre, those are legitimate claims. But here, Daisey was in the clutches of a journalistic eye and a very pissed off Ira Glass. More and more of his lies were exposed by the minute.

Part of me sympathized, but I was also horrified at Daisey’s complete inability to express his thoughts on artistic license and emotional vs. factual credibility. Throughout the interview, he continued to lie himself into corners and sounded more and more insane. In the end, all parties concluded that the monologue never should have been aired on This American Life. It had no place within journalism. As a writer, I could care less what the monologue did or didn’t exaggerate, twist, or fabricate, but I was angry that Daisey discredited an entire community of writers who grapple with the ethics of their craft daily. I felt like any one of us who had taken Greg’s class could have done a better job of explaining ourselves than Daisey had, but more importantly, being already mindful of our forms, probably never would have fallen into the predicament in the first place.

(If you have the time, listen to the show, if for no other reason than to learn what not to do.)

Now, I’m not some kind of truth-Nazi or anything. I don’t know what “the truth” is any more than you do. So let us all go and experiment and explore and blur every boundary that we can and twist reality and excavate the story-truths from the happening-truth. But for God’s sake, when we lie, let’s just be honest about it.

Lessons Writers Can Adapt from Popular Culture

I have to begin with a “writer’s confession” of my own: I’d love to plagiarize Sam’s post from yesterday. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve known I have this blog entry to write, and I shuffled through ideas for it but repeatedly found myself face up against a wall. I still haven’t figured out a way around, over, or through that wall. I wanted to write about that wall — an admission that I’d run into it — and then Sam wrote about her version of it first. I imagine my wall as a tall and long row of brick cinder blocks; I’m flush up against it, it’s scraping my skin raw, and neither of us appears to be moving anywhere. But I’m responsible for a blog post, so we’re stuck with whatever is about to come out extemporaneously.

My friend Lisa, who did not sign up for the Writer’s March this go-round, happily reported to me this evening that she’d managed to do a march’s worth of successful writing anyway. I confessed that I haven’t. I’ve written a good bit more than usual, yes, but not what I had in mind or as much. I told her I was having trouble coming up with an idea for tonight’s post. She’s been working on a retelling of the fairy tale “The Beauty and the Beast.” She said, “Why don’t you write about the Beauty and the Beast of writing?”

“Then I’d be stealing your idea,” I said.

“You have my permission.”

So, yeah, I could write about the beautifully romantic notions of what it means to be a writer — for instance, the glorification of the “starving” artist — and the beastly agony that is the real work, but no, no thanks, not tonight.

I watched Dancing with the Stars tonight. I have learned to love this show. It’s happy candy. This is the only second week of the new season, and the dancing is already notably better than in past seasons. But some of the “stars” are nervous, stiff; their limbs fly every which way, they miss the beat (sometimes most of the beats), they lose their place, and their performance smiles are often coupled with a deer-in-headlights look in their eyes. I like this show because of those dancers, because I get to see celebrities I may or may not recognize doing something different, something out of their comfort zone. And I often get to see them progress in their abilities.

I was talking with a student today (Ava, who is also doing the Writer’s March) and mentioned the cut-and-paste process of revision. You don’t do this on the computer. You take your manuscript and a pair of scissors, and you cut after every scene or, if you’re feeling especially bold, into the heart of the scene. Then you lay out these physical pieces of paper in a new arrangement. You shuffle them again and again until you’re forced to consider new ways to develop existing scenes and obviously new ways to structure the overall piece. Ava shuddered at the thought of doing that to her manuscript, and I admitted I’d rejected the idea outright when my own teacher recommended it to me. It sounded like so much work. But my real problem with it, I know now, was that I was doing something outside my comfort zone. I wanted then and still want to be able to write a manuscript successfully from beginning to end. Dear readers, I inform you that that has never actually happened. Only once did a fairly solid draft of a five-paged essay come out in a mostly usable form. As it turns out, every time I’ve dared make the mess of cutting up a printed-out manuscript and laying out the pieces on a table or on the floor, it’s worked to my advantage — or rather, to the advantage of the manuscript needing scrupulous revision.

I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in making the connection to Dancing with the Stars clear for you. Something about pushing yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with to discover other talents or at least other possibilities, that’s the connection I’m aiming for. Try something you haven’t done before when you’re revising. Rewrite a critical section by hand without referring to the original draft. See if anything new and useful results.

More than anything, I’m thinking about Wednesday, the day after you’ll read this post. Wednesday is Lady Gaga’s birthday. If I haven’t told you lately or ever, I’m a huge fan. No, you’re not thinking huge enough. Huger than that. Now think huger. Okay, you’re almost there. Anyway, for the past couple of years, as each semester draws to a close, I’ve brought up Lady Gaga’s musical and performance abilities in relation to writing. Believe me, it matters not one whit whether you like, appreciate, or loathe and scorn Lady Gaga as an artist. My analogy goes beyond that. It’s this: I admire her because she has a far-reaching grasp of the musical and performance traditions that precede her, yet her work also pushes past existing boundaries and shows promise of great advances. Some view her as a Madonna wannabe, but I hear Prince and David Bowie, Queen and Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, KISS and Liza Minelli, and others too. Some may hear party songs, dance-pop, and see an overmade-up bewigged crazily dressed gimmick of a pop star. I see someone in command of the construction of her persona(e). I could go on. Ask, and I will.

But what I want to emphasize is her knowledge of tradition and her ability to transcend it. I believe that the latter is entirely contingent on the former. Novice writers — all writers — should read, read, read. Read deeply and read widely. Read what gives you pleasure, read what you’re assigned, read what your friends and teachers and other writers recommend, read for pleasure, yes, but also read critically. Study the tradition you’re working in. “Read beyond the syllabus,” one of my professors once told me, which seems the most obvious sort of advice. As you discover kinship with writers whose work you enjoy and/or admire, try to find out which writers influenced them, and add to your reading list accordingly, ad infinitum.

Spend some time this week enjoying and studying the writers who have influenced your work or whom you want to influence your work. Steep yourself in the tradition. Consider why you admire their writing. What themes or techniques inspire you? Which characters live for you beyond the page? Where is a writer’s language most lyrical, most precise? Think about it. Then write.

Me, I’m going to call it a night!

Documentation Meditation

I spend a lot of time “writing,” but often not a lot of time producing much of anything. That is, I spend a lot of time journaling and writing letters, but not a lot of time working on and revising real pieces. My Writer’s March goal is to spend an hour a day working on these “real” things to see if I can actually start and finish some fully formed stories or essays. I told myself that journaling and correspondance didn’t count toward that hour.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not still keeping a journal, and that doesn’t mean I don’t find it necessary to the rest of my work.

I’m not as compulsive as some when it comes to keeping a journal, but I do think that regular documentation is key to collecting and understanding future writing material. Extraordinary things happen all the time, if you’re paying attention, and those things should be written down. (You might think they were so extraordinary that you’ll remember them forever. You won’t.)

There’s a crazy man who lives next door to me (Or maybe he’s homeless and lives in the alley. If he lives in the apartment next door, someone must be taking care of him.) who I see occasionally doing strange things like laughing maniacally, seemingly at nothing, outside in the middle of the night, or filling a shopping cart with random objects then pushing it back and forth through the alleyway. After the night of hysterical laughter, which I’ll admit was eerily terrifying, I deduced that he is mostly harmless. He always seems to be in good spirits, and when I see him around now, it’s with a certain protective fondness. “Hey! That’s my neighbor! Or…um…some guy who lives in my alley!” As I was leaving my apartment a few days ago to go get coffee and “do some writing,” (that is, sit around and write nonsense in my journal,) I turned out of the alley onto Coal and into a mysterious traffic jam. There was a long line of cars in both stretching in either direction from Columbia. As I inched forward, I saw that my crazy neighbor had moved one of the construction barriers into the middle of the road and was standing in front of it, smiling, and waving an egg timer in the air. (I’m not making this up.) People were honking their horns and yelling out of their windows. Since we’re in the age of cell phones, I’m sure multiple people had already called the police. I thought about stopping and trying to get him out of the road before he could be arrested, but realized that, though I knew who he was, he wouldn’t know me. I kept driving.

As soon as I got to the coffee shop, I wrote it all down. Who knows if I’ll ever use it in future writing.

When I write about things that have actually happened, I like to do it as if I’m writing a scene, with as much sensory detail as possible and good control of time. I’ve often held on to story ideas for years, then looked back at my journals from when I first thought of the idea to find, in some cases, full passages that can be excavated and put into new pieces.

Over the years, I’ve been hard on myself about the amount of time I spend with my journal, and how little I spend on other things. It seems so…lazy. It doesn’t feel like writing because it doesn’t feel like “work.” It remains daunting for me to sit down and work on these “real pieces,” and I know that I think about writing a lot more than I actually write, but I’ve realized that keeping a journal is the hybrid of thinking and writing and often serves to transition my mind into doing more “serious” work. So it’s not only crucial for documentation, it is also a sort of meditation that gets me into the writing zone.

“Something Amazing”: On a Prose Writer’s Appreciation of Poetry

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel, @1558

I began my writing life as a poet. I had just turned eight. A decade passed, more, and I churned out hundreds of poems, possibly close to a thousand. But I was one of those self-proclaimed poets who never read poetry for pleasure or edification; I read only what I was assigned and only for symbolic and literary analysis. That’s as much preamble as I will give at this point. What is important is that in my early twenties, after a few rough critiques by actual poets and people who “knew” poetry, I pretty much put an end to our relationship–or at least the pretense of a relationship I had with poetry. Another decade passed, and I found myself working on a Ph.D. in fiction writing. Ours was not a multi-genre program, so the one and only poetry course I had to take was not a workshop (O, thank you, lucky stars!) but rather a class that went by the daunting title of Form and Theory of Poetry.

The class was made all the more daunting by its professor, a fussy fellow with a fussy mustache who made no secret of his disdain for the fiction writers in the program. His reputation preceded him, and those of us in fiction held off on taking the class until we could hold off no more. He was demanding, that man. He expected us to memorize things about poetry: dozens upon dozens of terms, scansion (not only the metrics but particularly the theoretical aspects), the centuries-long history of the sonnet and all its transformations, metrical and rhyme schemes for dozens of types of poems (yes, there was a time I knew the sestina’s intricacies without having to look them up). He gave us tests. He made us write explications of poems, 20-paged papers detailing every choice the poet had made, and no, we could not use outside sources. Had the poet used internal rhyme, slant rhyme, eye rhyme, and to what effect? If the poet wrote in blank verse, in which lines did the poem depart from iambic pentameter, what was the metrical departure, and what impact did it have on the reading? How was enjambment used? Why, aside from the obvious grammatical usage, were certain caesurae employed? What sort of stanzas had the poet chosen, and what impact did the breaks have? What about line length? Did lines end on masculine or feminine syllables, and why? And don’t forget, under any circumstances, about alliteration and assonance!

I am telling you it was frightening. He was frightening!

Part of what was frightening, as you may suspect, was that I’d abandoned my relationship with poetry altogether. I could toss off a few quasi-intelligent remarks about Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” but beyond that, I knew very little. I dreaded that class.

Then that dreaded professor read Robert Frost’s “Birches” aloud. He’d assigned it to us for one of our first class meetings, and I’d read it diligently, several times, something about a boy swinging through trees or something. All I could think was how ill-prepared I was for this class; I felt my own ignorance. But when my professor read the poem, I understood it perfectly. I followed along as he with his sonorous, reverent voice made music—no, poetry—of Frost’s words. I even got the joke.

Poetry—it’s from the oral tradition, right, so wouldn’t it make sense to read it aloud?

One of the two poems I was given to explicate was W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I confess that I was dumbfounded by it at first, as with most of the poems we read. I was supposed to scan the poem and write a 20-paged explication with no outside sources. I felt like an impostor. I have no idea how many times I had to read the poem—and read it aloud, hearing its music and rhythm—before I started to grasp it. I could pick out its symbols, sure; I’d done that sort of thing bunches of times in high school and college. But what did it mean that Auden had chosen to begin his poem with a line in which the word “they” had no antecedent? What did it mean that he had provided that so-called antecedent in the second line? How did his 21-line poem’s structure echo sonnet structure, and for what reason? You get the drift.

It was a dreadfully difficult class, and much as I came to love the sound of my professor’s voice as he read aloud the poems he had assigned, he remained a dreadfully difficult professor. But damn it, I worked harder than I’d worked in any other class, ever, and I earned A’s on every assignment (this from a professor who didn’t generally give them), and my fiction professor/dissertation director told me he’d gone and praised me behind my back.

This memory came up today after a conversation I had at work with two MFA students in poetry who are set to graduate next spring. I let them know I’d be glad to be on their dissertation committees if they needed another reader. Then I mumbled a disclaimer about how, despite being a prose writer, I’d still be able to give their poetry a fair read even though I wasn’t as familiar blah blah blah. Why, I wondered later, had I taken myself down a notch or two or twenty, diminishing my potential value as a reader of their work? Even though writing poetry doesn’t come naturally to me, the fact is that I know how to read and appreciate it. I know how to plumb its depths. What I learned in Form and Theory of Poetry stays with me to this day, moreso than most of what I learned in my Ph.D. fiction classes.

Today I’d like to share Auden’s beautiful poem with you, one I can almost quote from memory because I long ago had to write that arduous/worthwhile explication. Read the poem aloud, slowly, feeling the music and the meaning of the words. Pause in your reading when you reach a caesura, not when you reach the end of a line. Then have a look at the painting by Brueghel and read the poem all over again.

Once again, I see I’m writing for an audience of prose writers. Poets won’t need the instructions I gave above! But it’s my wish today to have those of us who identify one way or another, poet or prose writer, seek appreciation from a genre we may shy away from. Now click HERE to read Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts”

Leap Day Gives Us One More Day to Rest before We March

Hello out there from Marisa! Yesterday I wrote a Facebook post about my resolution to march again this year, if only by myself, and sparked the interest of numerous writers. As it turned out, Writer’s March inventor Sam T. already had plans in the works to get the blog up and going again. I haven’t told her about my decision to take the initiative and add a blog entry today, but here goes.

Sometimes I like to try out my students’ ideas. Someone suggested (using the anonymity of end-of-semester evaluatory forms) that I should continue to give my students new creative assignments once our workshopping was underway and all they were required to write was letters to one another. Okay, so my position is I’m not stopping anyone from going forward with creative endeavors. I just can’t do all that additional grading when my focus is so entirely placed on evaluating workshop essays. Nevertheless, this semester I’m asking my creative writing students to keep an “image journal” — short, tight descriptions of people, places, and objects. One of my teachers back in the day asked her fiction workshop students to do keep such a journal, and by the end of that quarter, I was “seeing” in ways I hadn’t seen before. Ordinary features of my daily life popped and scintillated, pushing forward their extraordinary qualities and demanding to be described!

Later this week, I’ll be writing the assignment for my classes. I may also notify them about this site and ask whether they’d like to participate. Oh, and I’ll try to encourage them not to feel thwarted in their creative pursuits just because we’ve come round to the culmination of our class: the full-fledged ESSAYS!

Why I (And You) Need to Be Writing Now. But Nothing.

[By Guest Blogger Elizabeth Tannen]

A couple of weeks ago I met with my adviser about my dissertation. It was, in a word, traumatic.

A year and half–midway through–the MFA program, I had finally decided that, rather than compile a bunch of vaguely connected essays and call it a day, I was going to set out to do the thing I came here to do: write a book. The family memoir I’ve wanted to write since long before I came here.

For a long time I convinced myself that, because of what I don’t know, I couldn’t write it at all: I tried writing it as fiction, but soon realized that’s not what I wanted to do. I wrote a twenty-page essay that I reasoned was all I could possibly produce on the subject.

And then I realized that was bullshit.

So I got permission from the necessary people and began to conduct interviews. For days I walked around campus feeling elated. I was going to write a book! You know, once I’d gotten all the information and knew what it was really going to be about.

And then I met with my adviser, Greg.

“I’m going to start doing interviews once a week!” I proudly pronounced.

“That’s great,” he replied, unimpressed. “And you’re writing, too, right?”

“What do you mean, writing? I don’t even know what I’m writing about!”

It was then that Greg turned my world upside down and transformed my excitement into sheer, unmitigated terror.

“You need to be writing every day,” he said. “Of course you don’t know what it’s about yet. You’re only going to figure it out by writing it. All the time.”

As a teacher of creative writing, I know this. All the time I tell my students that they shouldn’t know what’s going to happen in their stories before they’ve written them–things get discovered on the page. That’s the way writing works.

Which I tell you only to illustrate that one can know something, teach it, even, and still, when necessary–by which I mean when trying to evade writing, aka most days–completely, aggressively, totally unconsciously, forget it.

“I don’t understand,” I insisted to Greg, petulant and aggrieved as a hungry toddler with twenty minutes before snack. “How can I start writing when I don’t know what the structure’s going to be? Or what the scope of it is! Or the point of view!?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he shot back. “I could give you ten prompts right now.”

At which point he did, in fact, offer about ten writing prompts with which I easily could, and thankfully, have begun, to gather substantial writing material.

The other thing he did, which is often a thing he does, was to throw a book at me: this time, “The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction,” by Stephen Koch

“You can borrow this until you take one look at it and realize you need it and order your own from Amazon the next day,” he said. Dutifully, I took it. And dutifully, I did.

Mainly because of this quote, with which I will leave you, and bid you good, if uncertain, writing:

“‘But–you may say–‘I don’t even know my story yet.’ My answer is: ‘Of course you don’t know your story yet.’ You are the very first person to tell this story ever, anywhere in the whold world, and you cannot know a story until it has been told. First you tell it, then you know it. It is not the other way around. That may sound illogical, but to the narrating mind, it is logic itself. Stories make themselves known, they reveal themselves–even to their tellers–only by being told.”

Happy revealing!

Writer’s Brain, Not Writer’s Block

[By Guest Blogger Randi Beck]

According to randomly chosen sources with important sounding names, these are the 10 most frequent warning signs of early memory loss:

  1. Disrupts daily life
  2. Problems planning or problem solving
  3. Difficulty completing tasks or managing a budget.
  4. Confusion with time or place.
  5. Difficulty judging distance, contrast, or color.
  6. Problems with words in writing or speaking, not sure how to finish what one is saying.
  7. Misplacement and difficulty retracing steps.
  8. Decreased or poor judgement.
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities.
  10. Changes in mood and personality.

Now. Read that list again and thing about writing a novel. Or a poem, essay, blog, to do list, or short story for that matter. Think about what it means to be a writer. Creepy, huh?

I’m not suggesting we’re all doomed to early onset Alzheimer’s (though it does run in my family and Sam can attest to my displaying a large number of the above “symptoms” on a daily basis.) What I’m saying is that memory is frustrating. But memory, I think, is also the writer’s golden ticket, like a shiny badge of specialness, or like a t-shirt that says “I’m with the band.” Though in this case, it would say “I’m allowed to have difficulty judging distance, contrast, and color in my characters.  I’m allowed to not be certain how to finish what I’m saying.  I’m allowed to let my characters display poor judgement. Because I’m a f*#@*ing writer, dammit.”

So where am I going with this? I forget.

Anyway, here’s my sage-spiced advice du jour:  For the writer, memory (or loss of it) means something more than a lost set of keys. It is repression, regret, remorse. It is love, panic, trauma, ecstasy. It is a temporary storage container.  Don’t think of it as forgetting, think of it as a UHaul into the next chapter of your life (or your book) where you can finally unload those memories and sort through them, and repack them, make money off of them, or attractively display them on a shelf with a doily.

These things are true of us and must be true of our characters if they are to be human beings and not paper dolls. But don’t think you have to tell the truth.  In fact, the acknowledgment that our memories may be fallacious, exaggerated, embittered with hatred, or disturbingly and unapologetically true, may tell more about the truth than the “facts.” And on the same note, let me say this before I change my mind about it’s validity:

Forgiving is not forgetting–whether it is for yourself or others.  Forgiveness is remembering, and being okay with that.

(Just a little something to put in your pocket. You can sneeze on it later if you wish, or paste it in your scrapbook.)

But enough philosophical BS. Whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, or experimental sonnets to be performed through interpretive dance, memory and what you have chosen to do with it or not do with it is important. For the author, for the character, for the reader. What do you remember? What do you pretend not to remember? What don’t you remember? And equally important: What will your reader remember about this thing you’ve insisted on telling them?

Tasks for today:

  1. Set alarm to wake up for morning writing.
  2. Forgive Randi Beck for late posting, but remember to use it against her later.
  3. Drink ginseng tea.
  4. Change your mind about ginseng tea. Drink coffee instead.
  5. Write in this order: Your earliest memory.  Your most recent memory. Something you wish you didn’t remember.  Discover why these things are irrevocably related to one another. Now do it for your protagonist if the protagonist is not yourself. Do it until even you believe it.
  6. Make a t-shirt that says: I’m a f*&#@ing writer

When Conflict Is a Killjoy

by guest blogger Marisa P.

Conflict is the first encountered and the fundamental element of fiction…. In life, “conflict” often carries negative connotations, yet in fiction, be it comic or tragic, dramatic conflict is fundamental because in literature only trouble is interesting.

Only trouble is interesting. This is not so in life. Life offers periods of comfortable communication, peaceful pleasure, and productive work, all of which are extremely interesting to those involved. But passages about such times by themselves make for dull reading…. They cannot be used as a whole plot.

        –Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

Screw you, Burroway.

         –me, lately

So I’ve run into a conflict with my writing.

I’ve been working on the same novel for years – or not working on it, depending. I scribbled my first notes for it in 1993, began drafting it in earnest in October 1998, and put it through twelve drafts by the summer of 2003. It’s a good novel, good enough. An earlier draft was a finalist in a pretty big contest judged by Pat Conroy some years ago. Joyce Carol Oates read it, sent me some pointers on how to improve it, and invited me to resend it to Ontario Press. Her suggestions inspired my twelfth draft and stalled the thirteenth. Late last spring an essay of mine caught the attention of an agent who’s been in the business nearly 40 years and handles at least one Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He wrote asking if I had a novel. That got me plugging away on the thirteenth draft, except in mid-July I stopped about 10 to 15 pages before finishing the overhaul of the last chapter. I have to get back to it – I put it in my goals for Writer’s March: “look at the behemoth.”

Notice how I said “look at,” not “finish” or “continue revising it.”

The novel has two narrative arcs, one action-oriented, one psychological. In the first, a twelve-year-old girl has killed her thirteen-year-old neighbor (add a softball bat and white German shepherd to the equation), and months pass before her part in the crime/accident is discovered. She’s a sullen little thing, this girl, and never talks, ever, about what happened. In the second narrative, the overarching narrative, her mother has spent more than five years trying obsessively to reconstruct the events of that fateful fatal day and the events leading up to it. She’s an unreliable narrator who didn’t witness many of the events she’s piecing together, though she more or less has the story right, and her real goal is to justify her daughter’s actions, to find the “rightness” in it. By novel’s end she succeeds in her endeavor, at the expense of all the other characters. This woman, this mother, the first-person narrator of my novel, is a judgmental bitch.

Years ago, years and years ago, I grew tired of living in her head, of seeing my flawed fictional people through her cold, cruel eyes. So last summer when I couldn’t decide what happened on one small-seeming plot point in the last chapter, I put the whole thing aside again.

Then I pitied myself my self-sabotage. That’s what I did instead of writing.

Dear readers, some advice: Don’t be like me. It’s not necessary to stop writing altogether.

Suddenly it wasn’t summer any more, and I was working again, and late one Friday afternoon in October, I found myself sitting outside with some graduate students who were speaking excitedly about their research assignment in Dana Levin’s zeitgeist class. They were so happy generating ideas for it. I couldn’t help wondering what I would write about if I were in the class: “No doubt it would have something to do with Lady Gaga,“ I said.

Within the month, I had 8600 words of a half-draft of my Lady Gaga paper (think meat dress and metaphor and DADT, lots of online research and primary sources). I had a blast working on the thing. Energy! Freedom! But when I realized how very much I had to say on the subject(s)—I imagine its finished form running 15000 – 20000 words – I worried: Where would I send this essay? Who would want to publish something so long?

Such questions can be killjoys.

I’ve grown tired of allowing killjoys to stop my writing. The Gaga paper need never be published. It gives me pleasure to work on it. DADT has been repealed (!!!), and the meat dress has long since rotted, so part of my point might well be obsolete, but so what?!?—I’m happy investing my writing time in this project.

Last month I started a blog about my three birds, who bring happiness and peace to my life. I’ve grown tired of not writing about them just because there’s no major “conflict” to propel a narrative.

Earlier this week, I got out the two novels I wrote when I was a teenager. More than a thousand pages of words in my tiny, controlled handwriting—there’s plenty of “conflict” in these novels, but I didn’t suffer any conflict in writing them. I experienced only the pleasure of the practice of my imagination.

And so to my point, in my usual peripatetic way: Today allow yourself some conflict-free writing. HAVE FUN! Write about whatever makes you happy. Enjoy the gift of your imagination. Write because you love to write.

And if it works for you, try it again tomorrow.

BIO: I am a teacher of creative writing and thus by definition a teacher of dramatic conflict. I am sometimes a writer. I am an owner of three birds and one dog and a bevy of good friends. I like pretty sunsets, full moons, travel, good food, summertime, and idling on my front porch. I like hearing my first name pronounced properly (MaREEsa) and seeing it spelled correctly (one “s”). I prefer as much conflict-free living as possible.

Trust Your Instincts

by guest blogger Bob Sabatini

I was in a playwriting class a while ago, having the first five pages of a ten-minute play workshopped. Without going into too much detail, the play begins with two people with a complicated romantic history who wind up seated next to each other in a crowded theatre. In the workshop, I was being congratulated on a bit of “stage business” that I had written in: The woman, to avoid addressing their uncomfortable past, uses the earbuds of her iPod to try to shut the man out, and both characters have actions in the stage directions to play with those earbuds.

Somebody in the class mentioned the earbuds, which lead the instructor to point out the difference between giving the characters an activity (which, in playwriting, is bad) and an action (good). “This wasn’t just thrown in at the last minute,” she said. “It isn’t ‘oh, I’ll have them play with the earbuds just to give the actors something to do.’ Do you see that they are an essential part of the conflict between the characters?” To which a roomful of students all nodded or made little affirmative grunts.

Now for the dirty little secret. Less than 12 hours earlier, I had only two pages of the five that were due. Worse than that, those pages were nothing more than two characters sitting next to each other, talking. I don’t want to see that play, do you? I decided I needed to give the actors something to do. “What if she has an iPod?” I thought, “I’ll have them play with the earbuds.” In other words, I threw them in at the last minute.

Here’s the point. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Trust your instincts. I was never thinking about “how do I go about making these earbuds essential to their conflict?” I wrote what felt appropriate, and people who had never read my play before recognized that the way the characters were using the earbuds was a good illustration of that conflict. These are characters I am very familiar with, a story that’s been bristling to get out for months now, and a conflict that I know all too well in “real” life. So, were I to introduce a mutant armadillo on page 3 (Señor Trujillo, I’m talking to you), you’d better believe he’d add something vital to the story.

Tell your story and trust yourself to say what’s really important to you. Finding problems with believability and characters’ motivations–not to mention cleaning up the craft–that’s what workshops, proofreading and revising are for. But getting that story onto the page–that’s all you, and if you believe it, you can do it.

Bob Sabatini is an undergraduate who is about to (finally!) complete his BA in Creative Writing. He wants to be best known for the three years he spent at his dream job: Hawking peanuts and Cracker Jack at Isotopes Park. He has worked tirelessly in some capacity for the last three editions of Blue Mesa Review, and although his work has yet to be picked up by any magazine with national distribution, his mom loves it.