Writing “Rules”

Admittedly, upon waking this morning and reading the Weather Channel’s description of the cool temperature and slight breeze, I bolted outside in my pajamas to confirm for myself.  I appreciate every change of season as it comes, but there’s something about fall.  Perhaps it’s the (lifelong, I suspect) association with a new school year, but summer to fall feels like the greatest shift of all.  It feels like a shift that permeates not only the temperature and the leaf color, but people’s lives.  Big things are afoot, my friends, for you and for me.  Even if we don’t know what these big things are yet.

What I have for you today, far from the promised materialism of Friday Favorites, are my writing “rules.”  I typed these out last night instead of working on a short story.  That’s right: I wrote rules for writing instead of actually applying the rules and writing.  Though writing the rules was writing …  just not the kind of writing I was thinking of when I wrote them.

Right.  Or write, if you’d prefer.

Needless to say, I don’t actually believe that my writing rules should be your rules, or even that my rules apply to my writing all of the time (thus the obnoxious quotations around “rules”).  But it was a surprisingly good time to think about how I write and how I’d like to write and how I live so that I might write.

Holly’s Written “Rules” For Writing

1. Never show a first draft.  No matter how encouraging your reader is, the brilliancy of your fragile baby draft will shrink in your eyes once you let another’s eyes judge it.  Wait until a draft is as good as you can make it before you let people tell you how far it has yet to go.

"The first draft of anything is shit." -Ernest Hemingway

“The first draft of anything is shit.”  -Ernest Hemingway

2. When stumped, start over.  And by start over, I mean start a new word document, entirely separate from the stump-inducing one.  Retype the parts you liked on the old document, but do so without looking.  This is how you find a new angle: via blank slate.

3. Find your writing power song and don’t be too proud to use it.  Mine is “Briony” from the Atonement film score.  Because of the typewriter sounds.  Note: your power song does not need to be subtle.

4. Read your work out loud, even when you don’t want to, or are in public.  You will always catch typos and icky-sounding syntax that you couldn’t possibly have otherwise.

5. Write down an idea, name, image, conversation the minute it strikes you.  You will have forgotten it by the following morning otherwise.  See “Marble Memo” post for my portable solution.

6. The power of mulling is highly underestimated.  Not everything to do with writing has to do with the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  Sometimes the solution to a plot tangle is to write until you get it right.  Other times, you simply have to puzzle it out to yourself while circling the local roundabout intersection in your Subaru.

7. Even if you can’t take criticism well, learn to take it and then cry later.  Because you need criticism.

8.  Do things.  Meet people.  Be out in the world.  Be afraid and uncomfortable and awkward and curious.  Let it all filter into your writing.  Emily Dickinson has dibs on the secluded attic writer, and goodness knows we couldn’t do it as well as her anyway.


9. Tell people you’re a writer.  The title “writer” has nothing to do with publishing status or age or degree.  If you love writing and do it often–whether for hobby or for career–then you’re a writer.  Revel in the raised eyebrows that will often follow your proclamation.  Don’t forget to adopt the Hemingway swagger as you walk away.


10. Let yourself be intimidated by the greats.  Let yourself revel in their genius, regardless of who the greats are for you.  For me, they’re primarily Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf.  And they scare me and sometimes make me feel like I will never amount to anything because I don’t write like Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf.  But they also make me proud to be part of this rowdy clan of crazy genius writers.


11.  Write your own writing rules.  Or know them, at least.  Make some standards for yourself and stick to them.  This is how we prove to those eyebrow raisers (and to ourselves) that what we do is as important and as “real” of a job as, say, accounting.

If you do write your own writing rules, share them with me.  Comment with the link.  I’d love to read them.

Written from a Humanities Classroom

I am currently perched atop a desk on the second floor of the Humanities building.  A whiteboard, scrawled with my notes, is behind me, shining with promise.  I swing my legs and peer out the window to my right.  Immediately across the way is the Student Center.  I see Isaac working his Higbies shift (it has to be him; no one else is that tall), I see unwatched TVs broadcasting TLC and football, I see scattered students unwrapping their packed dinners atop Turtle Mountain Cafe tables (they don’t bother to close their laptops while they eat).

And I’m in here, and my gentleman caller (is this getting ridiculous?  I still think it’s funny, but you tell me) is in the next room.  I had to leave because sometimes I need to sit atop the teacher’s desk and talk myself to a thesis, as if I were teaching a class:

“Now, you may think that Fortune is a simple entity, but actually, she’s a dichotomy, as evidenced in Greek and Roman texts…”

I worked my Writing Room shift from 3-5, and I was reluctant to go, as I often am on Sundays when schoolwork has piled up and I know that it will be a late night.  As always, however, I had more fun helping students to brainstorm theses and gather evidence and arrange outlines than I have at any other time during the week.  Sometimes I think that I should be a teacher after all; I derive such great joy from helping other people learn and improve.

Anyway, I walked out of the Writing Room, having crafted three theses for peers, and feeling confident that I could now craft my own.

And I did.  I’m currently sitting on a decently solid thesis, and a ten-paragraph outline.  I’m sitting on it because my goodness what a jump there is from outline to paper, from planning to executing.  I’d like to bask in the complete before I move on to the daunting.  At least for a while.  At least until Isaac finishes making one drink, until the girl in TMC finishes her slice of reheated pizza, until I finish my own meagre dinner of apple and Kashi crackers.

It has been a lovely weekend (I think as I bask and creep): The G.C. (is it too, too weird to abbreviate?  You tell me) and I finished watching season two of Game of Thrones.  I think we both just about sobbed at the end, not only because it’s a dramatic finish, but because what will we live for until Spring, when season three premieres? What is our relationship without weekend Game of Thrones watching to ground it?  Winter is coming, my friends, and I suppose we’d best start preparing for it (major GOT reference, don’t worry if you’re confused).

As I mentioned in my last post, Friday night was also the Anne Panning reading on campus.  What I didn’t mention was that Butter sounds just like Minnesota, and that even though I didn’t get home until 2 a.m. on Friday night/Saturday morning, I stayed awake for another hour blazing through 86 pages of that wonderful book.  It’s written from the perspective of pre-teen Iris, so the true intrigue stems from the fact that she can’t figure out what’s going on with the grown-ups, and by extension, neither can we.

Last night, G.C. (maybe I’ll just ask him if I can use his name in here.  Or make up a fake name.  That might be more fun) and I went to see UMM’s production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.  The play dealt with the murder of Laramie, Wyoming resident Matthew Shepard (a hate crime; Matthew was targeted for being gay), and its effects on the town of Laramie and its citizens.  It was fascinating and inspiring and relevant, but mostly very sad.

After Laramie I attended a birthday party.  Theme?  Drunk authors: guests were asked to dress as their favorite alcoholic writers.  We had a Hunter S. Thompson, two Oscar Wildes, a Bob Dylan, a Sylvia Plath, a Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, a Stephanie Meyer (pretty sure that one was a joke), and a Truman Capote.  I don’t think I need to tell you who I dressed as.  Hint:

And now, I plan to stop procrastinating and to start drafting the darn paper.  At least until 8, when our entire Woolf Lit. class will pile into our professor’s living room to watch the movie version of Orlando.  He’s buying us pizza and cutting up veggies and letting us sprawl on his living room rug and enjoy the hominess that just cannot exist in a college house.  Only at UMM, I tell you.

Reflections on the GRE and Neil Diamond

A Haiku in Fifty-Seven Parts.

Just kidding.

Reflections on the GRE:

It was much more high security than I thought it would be.  The ACT, I remember, was most of my high school senior class packed onto tables in the cafeteria.  We were allowed several breaks, during which we could stretch and chat and wander freely.  The GRE was me in a cubical with a computer and some scratch paper.  No interacting whatsoever was allowed, and entering/exiting the testing site meant a security scan and “turn out your pockets.”

The test itself wasn’t so bad.  I’m glad I took those practice tests, because I generally knew what to expect, how to use the provided calculator, etc.  Right off the bat was the Analytical Writing bit, which I, admittedly, had been dreading even more than the math.  Writing I have no problem with.  Writing under pressure, however, having to make coherent, organized, snappy arguments in a short amount of time, is not always my strong suit.  It went really, really well though.  I had a lot to say, but I had sufficient time to say it, and even to read it over a few times for good measure.  That made me feel confident heading into the rest of the test, and I have to say that if my Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning scores aren’t up to snuff, I’ll be crushed to have to retake the test and lose those beautiful (if you’ll allow me the presumption) Analytical Writing scores.

Reflections on What Happened Afterward:

Immediately following the GRE, after I breathed a few long sighs of relief on the sidewalk, where the sun was beating down like nothing had happened, Mom picked me up and shuttled me downtown to the St. Paul Grill.

Now, when my Aunt, who is the only other person in the family who was excited at the prospect of seeing Neil Diamond, said that we’d have dinner at the St. Paul Grill, I thought of outdoor seating, sandwiches and salads, paper placemats that we could doodle on if our meal took an hour to arrive.  What I didn’t think of was this:

Possibly the best restaurant in the Twin Cities, stationed inside the St. Paul hotel, which was built in 1910 and features the likes of crystal chandeliers, roses, tuxedoed men, and darkly-papered rooms lined with rich wood.

People like Gene Autry, Lawrence Welk, James J. Hill, and Charles Lindbergh have stayed at the hotel.

That pales, however, in comparison to the person whose picture was hanging unassumingly on the wall of the Grill.

I know you’ve guessed it.

This guy ate at the St. Paul Grill back when the mirrored bar wasn’t lined with gem-like bottles of alcohol:

And so, of course, my night was made even before we got to the concert.

Neil was wonderful, though, as I suspected he would be.  Not only does he still sound (for the most part) the way he did in the 1970s, but that man knows how to work a crowd.  He would stop in between songs to tell stories, or to say something gracious about the audience, or to voice a ridiculous notion like his mission to ‘earn our loyalty’ through his performance.  You’ve already got it, Mr. Diamond.

Several of the people we ran into, for example, mentioned that they had been coming to see Neil since he first played the Twin Cities over forty years ago. “Some of the old folks have died off since he was last here,” quipped the twinkly man in front of me.

Another thing I’ll say for Neil is that he didn’t skimp on the classics.  “Sweet Caroline” (BUH BUH BUH), “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Shores” (my favorite), “Forever in Blue Jeans,” “Cherry, Cherry,” “I Am…I Said,” and of course…

I couldn’t resist making an illegal recording.  Neil Diamond was singing my song, for heavens’ sakes.

I’ve Found My Grounds

This morning was the third morning in a row to host a 3 am thunderstorm, and I’m afraid I’ve developed a routine: leap out of bed at the first boom of thunder, frantically unplug all electronics (fan included), get a drink of water while peering sleepily at the sky, and then fall back into bed, grateful to have a few more hours before my alarm goes off.

Unfortunately, said routine leaves me exhausted throughout the day, and when I’m exhausted, I tend to do stupid things.  This afternoon, for example, I was making my way through the tunnel toward the post office (to drop off a package for work).  A man walked by in front of me, and in the nanosecond of distraction it cost me to smile and say hi, I ran straight into a wall, face first.  I know he saw, because I could hear him chuckling around the corner.

And then, making dinner, I left the stove burner on and promptly set and oven mitt on top of it.  I wouldn’t have noticed until the whole kitchen was on fire, but my roommate smelled something burning and came to investigate.  The poor mitt is currently recuperating by an open window, and I’m sure she resents me greatly for the large black char that has taken the place of her lovely stitched holly berries.  Ironic, I suppose.

I just finished reading The Great Gatsby, and then spent a few moments basking in the perfection of that novel.  The beginning and ending mesh together, as if the middle were one tooth of a cog spinning very slowly, until on the last page another tooth fell into place next to it, with an echoing ‘click.’  I sound stupid now, but I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that I still like Gatsby.  I’ve been saying that Scott Fitzgerald is my favorite for years, based mostly on one read in eleventh grade.  I’ve always felt a little guilty about this, as if I’ve had no grounds for my claim.  Now, twenty-one, I’ve found my grounds.


I was going to post much earlier this afternoon, while riding one of the many lulls that invades the division office during the summer.  I decided on a whim, however, that I would wait to write until tonight, by which time I would hopefully have something interesting to say.

Lo and behold, I was invited by a housemate to go to dinner at a friend of hers’ house.  I had never met the friend before, and was thus a little wary, as I tend to be when I sense a possibly awkward situation is on the horizon, but it turned out to be a really nice evening.

We had caramelized pineapple, roasted asparagus, strawberry and almond spinach salad, good bread, and cake for dessert.  It was ten times more delicious than anything I’ve cooked for myself lately (think pasta and tuna salad on toast).

It was lovely just to sit on the porch and chat, and to hug everyone goodbye at the end of the night.  I’ve been needing such a distraction; the grad school decision has been looming darker every day.

I met with my advisor (an English professor) today to talk about the decision, and he told me that when people come to him about grad school, he usually starts by giving it to them straight; telling them the bleak facts of the matter.  Then, if they come back after that, he knows they’re serious about attending.

The bleak facts were bleak indeed.  My twenties will likely be spend alone, poring over research and writing papers in a basement corner of a library.  The odds that I will actually get a teaching job after I graduate are slim.  In fact, he said that if one attends graduate school for English, one can’t do it for the job at the end.  One has to attend for the sake of attaining a Master’s or PhD.  Everything else is up in the air.

And I don’t know, folks.  I love English, but what I want to be is a professor, not a PhD-holding-hobo.

So I’ve been walking around Morris rather introspectively as of late.  This is the next eight years of my life, and if I throw myself into something that I don’t believe fully is the right thing for me, I will be miserable.  On the other hand, what have I ever been more passionate about than this?  I’ve loved to read my entire life, and I’ve loved to write for almost as long.  If given the chance, I could analyze a piece of literature until the cows come home.  I adore research; it makes me feel like Nancy Drew in the best possible I’m-now-going-to-ride-off-into-the-sunset-in-my-baby-blue-convertable kind of way.

But still; is this what I’m meant to do?  Is this the life’s work I’ve been dreaming about for twenty-one years?  Is this going to be my mark on the world: writing articles discussing the Freudian undertones in Scott Fitzgerald’s novels?

I have absolutely no idea.  I hope I will soon.


The Wi-Fi Void

The internet is back on, after an admittedly stark weekend without it.  I tried not to mind too much, fancying myself beyond such petty interests.  But I missed my daily sweep of Itunes Movie Trailers, various blogs, HuffPost, and yes, Facebook.

Successfully relieving my woe, several events filled the wi-fi void:

1.  I discovered the power of bribery when interacting with small children.  Don’t get me wrong; this was an accidental discovery, and one I certainly don’t plan to often utilize (it doesn’t exactly encourage a solid moral foundation).  But it was nice at the time.

We had been at the botanical gardens for a few hours.  It was in the high 80s, and the paths were long, so I think the kids were a little sluggish (I was too).  They perked right up, however, when they saw the fish pond.  Ponyboy (names have been changed, obviously) enlisted my help searching for frogs in the weeds.  Once I spotted one, he would crouch at the edge of the water and reach for the half-submerged amphibian.  He wasn’t deterred by the frogs’ constant ability to hop away just before his fingers could clasp their slimy bodies.  Cherry, on the other hand, amused herself by hiding among the exotic flowers, sniffing them exultantly and plucking their velvety petals when I wasn’t looking.

We might have stayed for another two hours, but I noticed that the kids’ faces were growing a bit pink.  I could feel my own nose beginning to crisp, and I shuddered at the prospect of bringing sunburnt toddlers back to their parents.  There was no sunscreen in the diaper bag, and none in the car either.  Ponyboy, I could tell, as I asked him to climb up into his seat so we could head back to home and shade, was on the verge of a breakdown.  There were still frogs to catch, after all.  That’s when Cherry, who was peeking into the center console, noticed a pack of bright orange Tic Tacs.

“Can I have one?”  Ponyboy asked, looking longingly at the garish candy.

I thought for a minute.

“If both of you get into your seats and let me buckle you in, you can each have a candy.”

Without a second’s pause, they both scrambled up, slipping their arms into their straps.

I put a Tic Tac into each outstretched hand, and that was that.

2.  A friend of mine, knowing all too well my fascination with F. Scott Fitzgerald and with anything relating to that era of romanticised writing (i.e. one hand around a sweating glass of scotch, one hand clacking away at typewriter keys), brought over his own circa 1930 typewriter for me to use for the summer.

It’s a beautiful machine, too heavy to sit on my flimsy rubbermaid container “nightstand.”  I have it on the floor, where I sit with crooked knees and punch the keys, stopping to listen for the ‘ding’ at the end of each line.  I’ve written two letters on the dear thing so far, taking care to do so before 11 pm.  No complaints from the roommates as of yet, but they have to be able to hear it; I’ve never lived in such an echoey house.

3.  I worked my first solo ticket selling shift at the Morris Theatre.  It’s a fairly straightforward job: count the money and tickets before and after each shift, make change when necessary, dispense tickets to waiting guests, generally look pleasant.  I was only worried about making change (my mental math is laughably sub-par, especially when I’m under pressure), but even that went fine.

At one point a young father came in holding his three-year-old daughter by the hand.

“Do you take card?”  He asked me.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t.  Just cash and checks.”

He looked anxiously at the clock behind my head (it was ten minutes until the show started), and then went back out.

I hated the idea of him having to explain to his little girl why they couldn’t see Madagascar 3 after all.

Just as the trailers were rolling, however, they came back in with recently-ATM-ed cash, and all was right in the world.




The Great Gatsby

Oh. Man.

We all know I adore F. Scott Fitzgerald, so the fact that this movie brings to life his most well-known novel is the main draw.

I also happen to like Baz Luhrmann a lot.  If anyone can capture the glittering decadence of 1920s high society, it’s Mr. Luhrmann.

My only doubt at the moment comes from the presence of Mr. DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby.  Obviously, Mr. Luhrmann has a bit of a soft spot for Leo, as he cast him first in Romeo+Juliet, and now in Gatsby.  I, however, am not so certain.  This is just the type of film Leo constantly chooses: an epic period film.  And he always, always plays the tortured protagonist.  Leo’s a fine actor, really, but when one does the same movie time after time, one must find a way to be different in every one.  And I don’t think he is.  In fact, I can imagine exactly how Leo will be in Gatsby.  The tone of his voice, the bulldog wrinkles when he’s breaking down emotionally, the facade of nonchalance…I hope he’ll surprise me.

On the upside (someone stop me I’m critiquing this movie and it’s not even out yet), the choice of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway is intriguing.  Admittedly, I’ve had a soft spot for Mr. Maguire since I saw Seabiscuit several years ago, and then Spiderman and Pleasantville not so many years ago.  What’s fantastic about him, I think, is that it always seems like he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing.  You get a sense, while watching him, that he’s improvising every single line he delivers, drawing his intensity not from a script, but from the force of the story and the character.  It’s subtle, but it makes you forget you’re watching an actor act.

I don’t want to not mention Carey Mulligan, but I also don’t feel like I have to; she’s been steadily good in everything I’ve seen.  She and Michelle Williams, as a matter of fact, are my favorite actresses right now, and actually remind me of each other in terms of their eclectic choices.  I like an actress who’s established, but who isn’t afraid to do an indie film.

Okay I’m done.  Done with the film talk, but not done counting the days until December 25th.  I’d say that gives me enough time to reread Gatsby.

I’ve Survived

I’m happy to report that I survived finals week, and am now sitting comfortably on my own living room couch, dog sprawled at my feet.

Here’s what’s happened since I last posted:

1.  I wrote five papers, which, honestly, didn’t seem possible while I was writing them.  What finally worked was for me to sit myself down in a corner of the library and write at least one page an hour.  At that rate, it was nice to be able to say that I’d start a paper at 10 pm and have it done by 1 am.  Further, if you don’t mind me bragging a little, I’ve written 40 pages of papers over the past 16 days.  This figure is maybe not so much for someone like, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it’s a lot for me.  Especially considering I have a job and class and student government.  F. Scott just…partied.

2.  Took two final exams (world history and statistics).

3.  Dressed up as Theodore Roosevelt for my world history final.  The prof promised extra credit for whoever dressed up, depending on the calibar of the costume.  I had a khaki shirt, tie, boots, mustache, Bull Moose Party pin, big stick, and a bottle of ibuprofen with “pure” scrawled across it (props if you get the reference).  It was a little ridiculous, but TR is one of my favorite presidents, and I figured he deserved representation.  Even if two people did ask me if I was supposed to be Stalin…

4.  I began to compile my summer reading list, which is one of the true joys of my life.  Here’s what I have so far: The Great Gatsby (haven’t read it since eleventh grade), Population: 485 (this is the Michael Perry book I ordered shortly after I saw him at UMM’s literary festival), Under the Banner of Heaven (I loved Into the Wild, and have heard that this Jon Krakauer is even better), Lolita, Crime and Punishment (I’m reading a Russian novel this summer.  It’s time), Slaughterhouse Five, and The Author’s Theory (a book recently written and self-published by a friend of mine at school.  I’ve read an excerpt in my fiction writing class, and am eager to read the rest).

5.  Got a job volunteering at a local movie theater.  It’s old and historic and lovely, and they rely heavily on volunteers and donations to keep it running.  I’ll be working concessions and ticket sales at first, they told me, and as I’ve expressed interest in running the projector, I will possibly  be trained in that once I’ve proved myself in other areas.

6.  I’ve breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I’m slightly sad and nostalgic as I always am when school ends for the summer, but mostly it’s nice not to have a huge to-do list weighing on me at all times.


Lofty Aspirations

It’s a beautiful thing, really; I have no stats to do, no history, no honors.  I only have a fiction story to finish, and all night with which to finish it.

This will probably be my third night in a row with only a few hours of sleep, but honestly, if I’m going to stay up for anything, I’m going to stay up to write this story.

I’m going to see it through to the end, as they say, and then if what I have in the morning is crap, at least it will be crap that I believed in intensely while I wrote it.

Although I don’t know what that says about me.  That I believe in crap?

No, here’s what I believe:

“From things that have happened and from things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.  That is why you write, and for no other reason.”

Well…that’s the aspiration, anyway.  I’m not quite at Mr. Fitzgerald’s level, admittedly.

Searching for F. Scott (and other adventures)

I’ll keep this brief, as I have an awful lot of story writing to do tonight.  I’m at seven pages, which has seemed like a huge accomplishment these past few weeks, but not anymore; I’ve just done my math and realized that seven pages is not even halfway to fifteen pages.  And fifteen pages is what I need.  I also need them quickly so that I can edit and make more drafts before actually turning the thing in.

My day, although only briefly mentioned here, was wonderful.  Mom and I took our show on the road at 11:30, and returned at 5.  Here’s what we did (in and around St. Paul):

1.  Ate at The Nook, a bar/burger joint that has been featured on everyone’s favorite show, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.  We both ordered the Juicy Lucy with sweet potato fries.  Deliciously messy, let me tell you; I had to dive under the table a few times to hide the fact that there were gobs of hot cheese clinging to my chin.

2.  Hunted down Garrison Keillor’s bookstore Common Good Books.  The first thing I appreciated was that the poetry section was front and center.  The second thing I appreciated was the framed photo of F. Scott and family.  The third thing I appreciated was that the place looked like this:

The fourth thing I appreciated was finding a copy of Mr. Keillor’s “Good Poems, American Places,” signed by the man himself (which I bought, obviously).

3.  Got ice cream at Grand Old Creamery.  Half a scoop of chocolate peanut butter, half a scoop of raspberry lemon sorbet, and I was a happy camper.

4.  Hiked from Grand Avenue to Summit Avenue.  Summit Avenue is the street I want to live on some day, when I’m a grown-up lady English professor with enough books to fill a proper library.  Summit is lined with old, frosted Victorian mansions.  It used to be (and still is, I suspect) the classiest address you can have in the Twin Cities.  James J. Hill’s house-turned-museum (which I drag my family to once every few years) is there, and the Catholic Cathedral, and the Governor’s Mansion.  F. Scott Fitzgerald lived in a few different houses on Summit.  Having learned this, I may or may not have jumped out of a moving van in order to take a few pictures of his former residence.  I may or may not have followed up with a James Bond roll into the bushes.

I’m not a stalker.  I’m just a fan.  Really.