MFA: well, I’d wanted a challenge

“Those blanks to be filled are like the variables in an algebraic equation, a network of complex relationships, their meaning determined largely by superposition, juxtaposition, and a literary order of operations that requires the computation of successive disparate parts individually first and then in small groups, and finally as one large whole-a lyric equation of the quadratic order, the results of which depended upon the data provided by the reader, but which all reside on the same curve of meaning, subjective iterations of the primary form envisioned by the author.” Joey Franklin. (An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay.)

Oh boy…

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Review: Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane by Nin Andrews

Wandering through the basement of the college library, I was looking for prose poetry collections. I didn’t know who or what exactly but I wanted to see what others were doing with the form. The title Midlife Crisis grabbed me and I smiled. Took it out and opened it. Yes. This was a funny book.

The Truth about Penis Envy was the first title I came to. “If Dick really wanted to know, Jane didn’t like his penis. And she sure didn’t want one of her own.”

Yes, the are many Dick jokes, such as the introduction that there was a “Dick sleeping in her bed, a Dick in the White House, and the god of all Dicks was in the heavens above.”

Oh, yes, such a great start. Andrews isn’t afraid to tackle politics, religions, and gender stereotypes of America’s suburbia. She is exactly what I needed in my search for quirky prose poems. This collection is a wonderfully absurd look at the lives of Dick and Jane in bland white Middle American suburbia. It’s not my background but I get it enough to find it hilarious and also moving, pretty touching really.

She’s written a memoir in a sense, a life story expanded from the first grade books of See Spot Run.

Under Creation Stories, she wrote; “of course Dick knows his story. How once upon a time there was an American Dream, and as part of the dram, Dick was created.” The second paragraph on the same page turns darkly funny though. “Each night, while he slept, Jane’s breasts turned into laboratory rats and gnawed tiny homes in Dick’s heart.”

Midlife Crisis has three sections with a hundred compelling and telling titles for each one-page piece. Instructions for a Little Dick on how to Become a Big Dick gives a list of fifteen actions to take, such as Beat Things, Kick Things, Suck Things, Fuck Things, and Kill Things. On the opposite page, we read how Jane also likes things, “especially new things” and that “her therapist suggested Jane was trying to buy a new Jane. But who would new Jane be?”

Midlife Crisis is full of short paragraphs, or list-like questions, some written like an interview, as well the prose of dreams, nightmares, and descriptions of incidents like visiting that therapist. The pages flow easily and effortlessly building a insightful look into what if Dick and Jane had lived into middle age. Yes, there are many plays on words, on sexual double entendres and although the language is simple and straightforward, that light touch builds into a collection quite heart breaking.

I found it silly, laughing out loud, and also certain pieces made me catch my breath, striking home. Andrews combined forms, tone and language with depth – and beautifully. The story of a regular couple of kids from Ohio and look at them now. I felt for them both, even knowing this is a story of the characters from a children’s’ book, yes, it was that insightful. Hilarious, engaging, and striking.

What do I take from this as a writer and reader? The playful use of titles, sections, and form kept the flow of the story moving in a compelling way. It built a tension and depth while making me laugh and think. The thematic narrative arc set the tempo and held all the thoughts and what-if scenarios together. Andrew’s use of simple and witty language, playful, inventive, creative came across as light but she wrote with poignancy.

Midlife Crisis is a wonderful collection of funny, moving stories of Dick and Jane in a unique snapshot rapid-fire format. I’m glad I found it.

Midlife Crisis by Nin Andrews

Del Sol Press, 2005. Short fiction/ Prose poetry/ poetry. $15.95

Midlife Crisis

 

Flash Fiction: Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you

Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you. Why? Can you hear the stereo? Mine? No, because I can hear your bloody Gameboy. Games, boy. Over and over that damn theme song, it’s not really song is it though? A loop of bass and rhythm but without any rhythm eh? Do you want to be an american idiot? Caught up in the daily routine of work to pay rent to play your games at night? And get pizza delivered? Every fucking night? So when you die, or about to die because you’re unhappy and unhealthy and yes, I’m judging you and I’m okay with that, but when you’re up there with that god of yours are you going to say, man I reached level five, can you believe it, I mean, oh god, it was great the lights blinked twice and then that was it, you got me, was that it? I’d wanted to get to the next level and the pizza, the big one with pepperoni was on its way and who’s going to pay for it? What a waste, oh god, what a waste. And god says, yes, it was. And then me, that neighbour downstairs who listens to your creaking chair and the repeated theme track for that bloody Gameboy will eat your pizza even though I don’t like pepperoni but the dogs do and this music on my stereo breaks my heart so maybe it’s a good thing to get pissed off with you and your bloody Gameboy, games, boy. It breaks my heart.

 

(An excerpt from the collection of prose, poems, and portraits, Clean up on Aisle 23.)

Writer’s Craft: On writing essays

On Essays – Notes from a class by Alexander Chee

From an afternoon spent talking about writing fiction and essays, these are some of the thoughts that held with me. There are many ways to write essays, many forms, and as such there is no right or wrong way. In my opinion that is. Here then are some questions and suggestions to help you as you write your own.

  • Research your home town, when was it founded? Why? Famous for? Population? Changes in demographic? Architecture?
  • Your life in that town was within the life of that town, they affect each other
  • Context, know the context of each essay, story
  • Place your experiences within the historical context of place and time
  • Treat yourself as a subject, step outside and look from that perspective
  • Forensics of self: dig deep, ask others, interview people from that time or event
  • Memory is shaped by words so look for emails and letters you wrote at the time
  • How much do you want to open up and risk in the essay?
  • What are your obsessions?
  • Are you writing about what you read about? Are passionate about?
  • Examine your verb choices, circle them, make them dynamic, specific, detailed
  • Write in response to what you search online
  • Write in response to your dreams
  • What moves you? Angers you? Delights?
  • You will unconsciously know what form it will take on the page, trust the essay and subject
  • Read things that will explode your sense of possibility
  • Don’t hold back.
  • Dialogue, sit in a café and write down verbatim random conversations to notice the variety of rhythms, cadences, syntax unique to each person
  • Face your inner critic, deal with it, and carry on.
  • Trust yourself. Write.

 

Flash fiction: Is this what you meant?

Is this what you meant?

When you said dogspeed, did you mean big dogs or little? Remember Freddy, the old chi-mix I took in from the shelter? With the grey face, bad arthritis, and his red winter coat? He was slow, feisty but as slow as you are in the mornings. And Harold, my sweet Harry, bless him, he’s not as fast as he once was. It’s his hips – isn’t that true for all of us? But Rosie, she doesn’t bloody stop, does she? Putting her on a leash to walk around the block is like asking a marathon runner to skip to the traffic lights and back. Oh. You said godspeed? I don’t know what that means. Sorry.

Writer’s Craft: A Credo for Creativity

A manifesto, a mission statement, a credo, they all help to focus us on why we do what we do as writers and artists.

1. Say it with a Punch and a Tickle.

2. Provocative Pratfalls: Please don’t take anything for granted. Challenge those assumptions and let us see you fall into the puddle. We’ll love you all the more.

3. Time Capsules: When was that? Are you sure? Take us with you. We want to eat from the same plate so feed us the right snacks and pour us a drink of the day.

4. Backdrops No More: Locations claim a place as characters. They affect everything from the weather, speech patterns, coats and hats, and how we walk through the world, so yes, your environments speak to all of it. Make us shiver.

5. Sink Into The Muck: Immerse yourself. Take a breath. Jump in. Hold on tight. Swim with all your might. We’re hanging onto your swim trunks.

6. Mirrorless in the Mainstream: Give those outsiders someone to mimic, to care about, someone like them, a story that resonates with them. The rest of the world can watch Fox News and Friends.

7. Constraints by Underwear: Show the absurdity of gender roles and stereotypes.

8. Passion, Kiss them with Kindness. If you don’t care about what you’re writing and creating, why should we? Exactly. Give us a decent smacker on the lips and make us wet and needy for more. That’s all I ask of anyone.

9. Grab Life. If you want to write, then write, don’t wait. You might be dead when you wake up in the morning.

10. Stay Human. We write to connect, to find meaning, and by telling a good story. It’s that simple.

Why do you write? Create? It was a great challenge to think about the whys and wherefores of doing what I do. Take the idea and run with it. Make it yours. Claim your own process.

And thanks for reading!

Writer’s Craft: On Fiction and Character Development

On Fiction: Knowing your characters is key to a writing an insightful novel or short story. 

It’s true, the more we know the protagonist, the side characters, everyone mentioned, the fuller the sense of story we take the reader into. We’re less like to have pawns, stereotypes, and more likely to have believable people reacting to the world we’ve stuck them into.

Alexander Chee came to VCFA in 2017 and talked to us in the MFA program about developing his own characters and how much research he would invest in each one. He inspired much of this list, some are his ideas and others are mine that came from the inspiration of listening to him talk.

The list is in no specific order. It’s a collection of random questions and suggestions that help me when I’m writing fiction. It helps me in revision too, I can go back to each character once the story is finished in my case, and look more carefully into their backgrounds and make sure it rings true or if more information is needed for the reader to understand their actions and reactions.
It helps me. I hope it helps some of you too.

  • Trust the magic
  • Let the story out
  • Trust the characters
  • Write everyday
  • Get it out, remember?
  • Drop in deep
  • Fall into the spell
  • Trust your intuition
  • What’s the reason for living that lfie?
  • Who’s in control in the story? The protagonist’s life?
  • Ask questions of your characters
  • Follow those questions in each chapter
  • Access the urgency
  • Create a playlist
  • What do you have to say?
  • See the world through their eyes
  • Trust intuitive structure
  • Write what you should write, what you know
  • Don’t worry about externals
  • Don’t be in good taste
  • Let the characters act true to themselves
  • Don’t censor them
  • Or yourself!
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • Poignancy, find it in each character
  • The story is its own editor
  • Do you know enough to tell this story?
  • Commit to writing two hours per day
  • Dive in, swim, float, paddle in that story every day
  • Write out all the sories and later work on how it fits together
  • What are you interested in?
  • Who do you want to hang out? You’ll be spending a lot of time with these characters
  • Research the context, era
  • Find those odd details
  • Clothes, politics, food, houses, music, transport, hairstyles, shoes
  • Don’t control the voice of each character, they are unique
  • What is the social place your character lives in? class, access, education, goals, lifestyles
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Know them so well that you can deeply know the motivations at all times
  • Find the intimacy of character details, the gestures, walk, look specific to that person
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves? To others?

If you have more ideas, then add to the comments below and we can share the info. Thanks again. Be well. Be creative.