Into Each Life Some Damned Annoyance Must Fall – Be Grateful!

In his poem, “Sunday Night,” Raymond Carver advises writers to “Make use of the things around you…put it all in, make use.”

Carver himself told about working on a short story when he looked up and saw a man walking down the street. The next thing he knew, he said, “the damned guy was in the story.”

Actors are told the same thing. If something unexpected happens on stage, “Use it!”

I mention this because life has a way of upsetting whatever plans we might have and those plans include working on our writing.

We carefully lay out a schedule for our writing – every day, every other day, mornings from 8:00 a.m. to noon, evenings from 7:00 p.m. to midnight, all day Sunday – a schedule that works for us and seems just right.

Then life knocks on the door. Much as we try to protect our time and our privacy, something happens, somebody interrupts, an emergency that can’t wait pins us to the wall. Even writers who live alone and feel well-insulated are not immune to these happenings.

You know exactly what your characters are going to do next and why and how and then – bingo! The knock on the door.

I’m here to suggest that you think about Carver’s advice. And the advice to actors. Use it. Use it all. Live your life like a writer and make use of the world around you.

What was it that caused the interruption, that blasted through your schedule? Who was it who ignored your “Writer at Work, Please Don’t Disturb” sign and wrecked your afternoon or evening? What was said? Who did what and why?

Yes, it’s annoying, who would disagree? But you just might have been handed the key to a difficult scene or a narrative problem you’ve been trying to solve.

I speak from experience. Recent experience. I was hearing too much about a particular person and being compared to the person (yes, you guessed right if you guessed this was some kind of romantic involvement and the person I was hearing about was an ex). I hated it.

Then I thought about giving a character in the novel exactly the qualities I was hearing about – and exaggerating them (writers get to do this). From that moment, I didn’t want to hear less about her – I wanted to hear more. I wanted to hear everything. For now, I’m even using her name in the novel. I’ll change that later to protect the guilty, but two things have happened.

1. I like what’s happening with the story now that this slightly altered nuisance is in it.
2. It’s terrifically cathartic.

So, don’t let the world impinge on your writing and drive you to distraction. Use it. Make use.

Put the damn guy in the story.


Filed under Literature, Writing

The Big Three – Choices, Distractions and Trade-Offs

I was reminded today of a couple of poems that describe a life in the arts, which of course includes the literary arts. The poems speak of trade-offs, the kinds of trade-offs serious artists, musicians, writers all make in order to do their work.

Now, I realize that not every writer or painter or guitar player wants to have a serious career in the arts, but the poems speak to us even so. Because there really is no such thing as doing art or writing or music even as a hobby that doesn’t require of us some attention to that work, serious attention.

I’ve never understood people who want to “dabble” in the arts. That is, people who want to “fool around” with writing or visual art or music or any other form with no desire to learn or get better or produce anything they want to show to another person.
What’s the point?

Life is short and we each have only so many days on the planet. If we’re going to spend our time doing something – anything – shouldn’t that something mean something to us? And if it means something to us, wouldn’t we want to do the best we can with it?

Or are we like the man I read about long ago who said he already knew what he wanted to know about things and didn’t need to learn anything new?

These two poems speak to a life in the arts, but they could be speaking of a life in any field – auto racing, baking, map making, fishing – you name it. If we are dedicated to something, we stick with it. We keep learning and getting better.

How are you doing with your writing these days? Still learning? Getting better? If not, maybe you want to think about another line of work. Or do you already know what you want to know and don’t need to learn anything new?

Here’s the thing – attention to our chosen work takes time. Time. And if we start giving away our time all over the place to this thing or that, distraction or good deed, we run out of it. I’m not telling you how to spend your time. I’m just saying think about it and make the choices that mean something to you.

Here are the poems. The poets own the copyrights.

You Want a Social Life, with Friends
Kenneth Koch

You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn’t time enough, my friends–
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.


The Art Of Disappearing
Naomi Shihab Nye

When they say Don’t I know you?

say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say we should get together.
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them any more.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.

Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.

When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

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The Flowered Cow Revisited

Following up my last post on the fine art of revising, I’m re-posting here something I wrote for an earlier websketch/blog called The Flowered Cow. (You can still read the old posts on that site at if you’re interested.)

Posted on November 2, 2012

Today, working on revisions to my novel, I decided to play a little “Let’s Pretend.” Let’s pretend it’s not the Age after Typewriters.

Let’s pretend I’m not writing on a computer but on my old red Selectric. Let’s pretend that I can’t easily fix a typing mistake. Let’s pretend that every time I make an error, I have to either start over or make a messy erasure and let’s pretend I’m making two carbon copies at the same time, so I not only have to erase the original, but the error on both those copies.

Writing a novel on a typewriter is nothing at all like writing a novel, or anything else, on a computer. I know. I’m old enough to have done both, beginning with the manual Underwood I used in Mr. Haase freshman typing class at Walla Walla High School and moving forward to the classy Selectrics we used in the law offices of a large corporation years later. I was good. I could type 100 words per minute with no errors. It was a highly marketable skill in those days.

Then we got computers.

A lot of things changed when PCs became the standard in offices and for writers. Studies have been done about the quality of writing (or lack of) that accompanies the use of computers. I know all about that, so today I decided to go back in time as best I could. I don’t have a Selectric any more and I gave my old Royal manual to the son of a friend a few years ago. He was more interested in the mechanics than the quality of the typing, but I was fine with that. I liked the kid’s sense of curiosity.

I began a complete rewrite of the novel today. I’ve been picking away at it for weeks now and making good progress. Today, I wanted to start from the beginning and come up with what used to be called “fair copy” – clean, error-free copy, beginning with a clean white page.

Without a typewriter, I can only play Let’s Pretend, and I’ve been at it all day. I’m retyping the entire novel. Yes, there are sections I could cut and paste, but that defeats what I’m after.

In the Age of Typewriters, the complete retyping served many purposes not the least of which was giving the writer an opportunity to re-think the entire project, start to finish, in one whole piece. And that’s no small thing.

This business of computer cutting and pasting, moving single lines or big clumps of lines from one place to another is creating too much fragmented, error-filled, redundant writing that never quite recovers. You see it all the time in newspaper stories and online. I’ve seen it in my own work when I’ve tried to delete a few words but the computer takes out an entire line instead or I’ve repeated myself without hearing it.

We can do better, and on behalf of my novel, I decided to do better. So I’m retyping start to finish. I’m not cutting or pasting anything. I’m completely revising some sections. I’m seeing problems that I didn’t see before. I’m noticing places where I was overwriting and places where I need a little more detail.

I’ve got 300 more pages to go, but I’m already seeing the result, and it’s just what I’d hoped for – a tighter, cleaner manuscript that flows smoothly and will, as John Gardner advises, keep the dreamer dreaming.

I’ll be happy to have my computer when I do the final edit, I know that. I’m as attached as anyone else. But for the process of revising, I suggest you give the “fair copy” idea a try. Start at the beginning and retype the entire novel or story or play or article. As my old auntie would say: “It’ll do you good besides helping you.”

If only I could pull those clean pages out of the typewriter and stack them neatly again, one by one, on the table beside me. What a great sense of accomplishment. Despite the advertising and the hype, computers really can’t do everything.

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The “Flowers of Afterthought”

A writer friend does something she calls “book divining” (I’ve forgotten exactly what she calls it but that’s close enough) in which she opens a book to a page at random and finds something of value – a poem, a line of prose, anything.

In one of my favorite movies, “Next Stop Wonderland,” Hope Davis, the leading character does the same thing, a trick her late father taught her. The trick plays a major role in how things turn out, but that’s a different story (and one you might like, especially if you like Brazilian jazz).

This morning I pulled a book from my long shelf of books for writers and tried the trick. The book is from the Modern Library Writers Workshop series and is A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch, former chair of Columbia University’s creative writing program.

This is one of my favorite books for writers – straightforward, encouraging even as it calls on writers to be serious about their work and pay attention to the meaning of the word “craft.” Koch invokes many well-known writers and offers their own words of wisdom about the process. Koch has been described as a “benevolent mentor” and, judging from the book, I’d guess this is exactly right. Even on paper that benevolence comes through.

When I opened the book at random, I found myself in the middle of a discussion about “working and reworking.” Two paragraphs on the page offered thoughts by two writers whose work I admire: Bernard Malamud and Raymond Carver.

Reworking a piece of writing is not something a lot of writers enjoy, but Malamud and Carver offer insight into the particular pleasures of reworking, revision, redrafting – call it what you will – that many of us, myself included, like best about the process.

Let’s be honest. Any fool with a wordprocessor at hand can spew out words and call it writing. But it takes a serious mind coupled with a love of language to turn those words into something anyone else wants to read.

Malamud says the first draft of a story “…puts the story in place. The second focuses, develops, subtilizes. By the third most of the dross is gone…First drafts are for learning what your story or novel is about…” He concludes his thoughts with this line which I might just have to put on a bumper sticker or tee-shirt:

“I love the flowers of afterthought.”

Brilliant! Anyone who’s ever wished he or she could replay a conversation and respond with a “flower of afterthought,” a perfect bon mot (“I wish I’d said…”) can do just that as a writer. We call it reworking the material.

Raymond Carver is known for the number of drafts of his short stories, some of them very short indeed. He believed his “real work” began only after the first draft was finished and then he went on to do three or four revisions. He hurried with the first drafts and left space for material that didn’t come quickly.

“Some scenes I save until the second or third draft, because to do them and do them right would take too much time on the first draft.”

Koch writes about fast and slow drafts and suggests that if you are a fast first-drafter, your second draft should go very slowly. Work on every sentence and paragraph and choose carefully the second time around. If you are a slow first-drafter, you’ll be able to move much more quickly through a second draft with a deeper understanding of your story from the get-go.

There’s no right or wrong way to work on our writing. The critical thing is to work on it.

Over the years, many writing students have presented me work that “just came out finished.” I’m always skeptical. I’m skeptical for two reasons.

First, I don’t believe there are many writers who can produce work that just “comes out finished.” I know there are a few exceptions but they’re rare, really rare, and neither you nor I are among them.

Second, I believe deeply that real writers love language. They relish the opportunity to play with words, to write and then re-write. Not to the point of never producing anything – that’s a different problem. But because the first draft is like a lump of clay that begins to take the shape of something beautiful. It’s the reworking and molding and tender attention that turns the lump into what it was meant to be. And writers who want to get the words down and be done with it (damn it!) are not real writers at all.

If I’m stepping on any toes, I apologize, but don’t expect apologies from Bernard Malamud or Raymond Carver. Or, I expect, from Stephen Koch.

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Shameless Self-Promotion and Super-Human Writers

Forgive me, please, but I’m about to do a little shameless self-promotion to remind you of my E-workshops for writers after which we’ll get back to this week’s thoughts about writing.

I often teach writing workshops near the place I live, but since you and I don’t live in the same places, E-workshops are a way for us to connect without so much as a short walk required unless it’s the walk from your refrigerator to the computer.

I’d love to work with every Skylark reader personally, but this is the next best thing.

E-workshops for writers are designed to get you started if you’re a beginner and keep you going if you’ve been writing a while. These are four-week personal communications from me to you around a particular theme. E-workshops are appropriate for writers of fiction, nonfiction or poetry.

Current themes are “Among My Souvenirs,” “Make Mine Music,” “Poetry in Motion,” and “Places I Remember.” Choose the one that sounds interesting to you, and every week for four weeks, I’ll send a variety of writing prompts. You’ll use them to write wherever and whenever you like. Write at your desk, in the local coffee shop or in your pajamas at 3:00 a.m.!

I’ll write to you on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each of the four weeks. You can send me a couple of pages of prose or a couple of poems at the end of each week, and I’ll send you a little feedback. I don’t do a full critique but I do send back thoughts about the work. Some writers send something every week and others send nothing. It’s entirely up to you.

Writers who’ve done the E-workshops have found the prompts particularly helpful when applied to work in progress or in getting them started on pieces that either will, or already have, become longer.

The fee for four weeks is $40. If you’re interested, you can drop me a line at I’ll let you know where to send your check (sorry no credit cards or PayPal), and once I receive the check, I’ll send you a welcome message with more details and we’ll begin the following Monday.

Okay, end of commercial. Now back to our regular programming.

A would-be writer friend and I have been talking about writing lately. He’s led an interesting life and met a lot of colorful characters. I love listening to the stories he tells. He wants to write about them, but finds it daunting to sit down and write an entire story or memoir-type chapter. And yet, these characters and their stories are too good to lose.

I’m encouraging him to think about sketches instead of stories or chapters. He likes the idea and sees that writing can be much less daunting when you break it into pieces. And I’m sure once he gets the sketches – one or two pages – about each of these characters, he’ll find the rest of the material just waiting in the wings to be introduced and to shine.

If you feel daunted by your writing, ease up. Maybe sketches are a better way for you to go. In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard notes that stories about writers who are so prolific it hurts add to our anxiety about writing.

She says, “Some people lift cars…Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.”

Don’t be intimidated by writers like Faulkner who supposedly wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working a full-time job. You don’t have to write like that and God knows you don’t have to eat a car, go over Niagara Falls in a barrel or leap tall buildings in a single bound either.

Just sit down now and write one (1) single page and call it your own little miracle for today. It will be that.

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What’s On Your Summer Reading List?

May is upon us and it’s not too soon to start making your summer reading list.

Hey, (I hear you say), I’m a writer not a reader! Hey, (I say right back), if you’re not a reader, you’ll have a heck of a time being a writer.

One of the Skylark maxims is “Writers write and they also read. A lot.” The first question I usually ask new workshop participants is “Who are your favorite writers?” and the second question is “What are you reading now?”

We don’t read to copy other writers. We read because reading like a writer informs our practice and helps us understand how writing works. We become critical readers not in the sense of saying flat out, “This is bad writing,” but in the sense of asking “What can I learn from this?” whether the writing is “bad” or National Book Award quality.

We read to learn how other writers have worked with their characters and with setting and with backstory and with plot developments. And the only questions to ask ourselves are “Did it work?” and “How did it work?”

Reading for pleasure is very much a matter of taste – you like one kind of novel or one writer and somebody else likes a different kind of novel or different writer. Well and good. As Mark Twain once said, “A difference of opinion is what makes horse races.”

But reading as a writer is something else. Beyond the hundreds of books about writing and beyond the burgeoning number of workshops and increasingly pricey conferences and MFA programs, our best source of help in becoming better writers is in the novels and short stories and poetry we read.

You must become familiar with what you want to write. Want to write romance novels or chick lit, fill your table with the best romance novels and chick lit and read them all as a writer. The same with any other genre including literary fiction. If you want to write the next great American novel, read the greats and stop wasting your time with graphic novels or sci-fi.

If you want to repair classic cars, study classic cars and not tricycles. As I said above, you can learn from even bad novels or from tricycles, but not nearly as much as you’ll learn from the best.

So think about your summer reading list. Visit your library or bookstore (there are still a few of them around) and browse the shelves. Bestseller lists are not necessarily your best guide for this as they’re mostly based on which publishers have the best marketing campaigns and not the best writers.

Get a little out of your comfort zone and find newer or less familiar writers who might give you a new slant on things. Read a few things by writers from other countries or regions of your own country. Read a classic you hated as a student but might find stunning now that you’re old enough to know more about life.

I love libraries, but if you’re a serious writer or would-be writer, you’ll want to own copies of the books you like best so you can make notes and mark passages that sing to you.

These will be your Chilton’s manuals as you work to tune-up your writing and move it from tricycle to classic.

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On the Field or Off the Field

All is forgiven!

I was able to get back to the novel this week for a little conjugal visit. I couldn’t stay long as I still had things that needed my attention, but I did have a chance to spend a couple of hours with my characters and even had occasion to meet a new player who had materialized in my absence.

I love it when that happens.

The ball is rolling again, and I’m confident that whatever absence from the writing I’ll endure over the next two or three weeks will be temporary and not fatal.

Meeting the new player in the novel brought to mind the basic premise of Skylark Writing Studio – the two rules for writing which I first read in a book by Peter Elbow:
1. Get the words down.
2. Fix them.

As I wrote about the player, a man, I made sketchy notes about his appearance and demeanor, his thoughts and actions both in the particular situation in which he first appeared and in a little back story – very little. As I wrote, I knew full well that these were, in fact, simply the framework. The first draft. I didn’t fall in love with any of it.

Later in the day a friend called, a friend who is a good listener and likes the idea that I’m a writer. I read a little of it to him and he listened, as always, without offering any comment. He’s a wise friend.

Too early in the game, while a draft is fresh, even a comment like, “That’s very good,” can derail a writer. Maybe it’s good and maybe it’s not in the bigger picture of the story, and only the writer can make that judgment in light of the – uhm – bigger picture. Often just the act of reading a few paragraphs aloud is enough to let a writer know what kind of work he or she needs to do. That was definitely the case tonight.

My friend occasionally asks a question when I read something to him, and that’s helpful as it lets me know what I’m leaving out. I’m not writing a mystery, so there’s no point leaving out anything at all, and it’s good for writers to remember that readers don’t have the whole story and the details that are in our heads. We have to fill them in. My friend’s question today helped me do just that with a particular technical point.

Writing is an act of love on many levels. If you feel otherwise about your writing, let me remind you of something someone once said of football:
“The day you stop enjoying the game, get the hell off the field.”

How do you feel about writing? You’re either on the field or off the field.

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