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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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What I’ll Read When I Have Time

So far the Marble Memo keeping is going well, thank you.  I only have a few pages filled, but I think it’ll take me a while to get used to thinking in terms of the notebook.  It took me a while to get used to thinking in terms of a blog.  You know, in days gone by, when I drove around the gas station three times because I forgot which side of the truck the tank was on, or when I slipped playing broomball and concussed myself, I would just think, “Wow, that’s unfortunate.”  But now, I think, “Wow, this’ll make for a great post.”

Eventually, beyond merely listening to people talk or observing something unique, I’ll learn to write down what I see and hear.

In other news, I have some richness in my bookshelf that I’d like to share with you.  As much as I’m dreading graduation because it means the end of college (yes, Dad, I went to the resume-writing workshop today.  And yes, I know what J-O-B spells), I’m also looking forward to reveling in delicious books every evening.  I’ve spent the last four years (well, really the last twenty-two, but the last four especially) amassing piles and piles of books that I haven’t had time to read yet.  Here are the ones I plan to devour first (and yes, I seem to associate books with eating…):

1. The White Forest, by Adam McOmber.  I met him!  I met him!  He was at the Literary Festival, and I had the honor of taking a workshop with him, and of introducing him later when he gave a reading.  I gave a rather creepy introduction, referencing last Spring, when he Google chatted with my fiction writing class.  People laughed, but honestly, it was creepy.  He came up to me afterward to say thank you, which was nice.  And he signed my book, which was awfully nice.  

2. Coop, by Michael Perry.  I swear I’m not deliberately plugging the Lit Fest, but Michael Perry was one of the authors last year.  I also took a workshop with him, but didn’t get a book signed because I was too cheap to pay full price, and opted for Amazon instead.

3. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  A friend gave it to me for my birthday, with a nice inscription citing a George W. Bush quote.  Can’t beat that.

4. One the Road, by Jack Kerouac.  Also a birthday present.  Boy, people know me well.

5. Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.  NOT BECAUSE OF THE MOVIE.  I’m way more hipster than that.  No, seriously.  I’ve been meaning to read it for years.

6. Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin.  Various family members have been telling me about this book for quite some time now.  Also, I met David sophomore year, when he spoke on campus … I am so sorry about all this name dropping, you guys.  But it makes sense, right?  That I’d want to read books written by people I’ve actually had contact with? 

7. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.  For the zillionth time.  But now I own the Penguin Threads edition, which is just about the prettiest book edition I’ve ever seen.

Rachel Sumpter Penguin Threads Little Women cover

Marble Memo

I think I’ve missed my window to blog about UMM’s third annual Prairie Gate Literary Festival, held on campus last weekend.  Maybe I shouldn’t admit to my short interest span in this department, but I find when I don’t blog about something right away, I lose the desire to blog about it, even if I know it should be blogged about and deserves to be.  This event really, really deserves it.

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If you can hear a common inhalation of breath after a poem is read,

If you can wear a real, plastic name tag that identifies you as somebody important,

If you can chat with a published poet and blogger while attempting to gnaw spiced beef off a stick with as much grace as you can muster,

If you spend a whole weekend steeped in the literary,

If you’re invited to your college’s librarian’s house for beers to celebrate a successful weekend,

Then you should probably blog about it afterward.  At least a little bit.

Here’s my little bit:

I had the chance to take a 75 minute workshop with Patti See.  At one point, she pulled a little notebook out of her bag.  It was black-and-white marbled, cloth spined, and filled with writing.  She explained that she’s been carrying around notebooks like this for years.  In them, she scribbles ideas for future stories, whether they be in the form of quotes, names, imagery, etc.

Later that night, I sat on a couch, clutching a beer and trying not to giggle at the fact that my professors were doing the same.  (The whole “teacher must sleep at school” illusion never goes away, does it)?  I chatted with the winner of the festival’s short story contest, a middle-aged man who had attended UMM once, and now drives a UPS truck and freelance writes on the side.  He had been in Patti’s workshop as well, and noted casually that the kind of notebook she had used to be called a Marble Memo.

Being someone who couldn’t ignore advice from established writers if she tried, I googled “Marble Memo” when I got home.  It took a while, but eventually, buried in Amazon, I found them.  Little marbled notebooks, just the right size for a pocket.  It cost $3 for two of them, but because Amazon didn’t think it made sense to ship something so cheap, I was forced to buy Michael Perry’s Coop and the film Blue Valentine just to get the notebooks.  $30 total.  Don’t laugh.

They came today: the notebooks (one red, one green), the book, the movie.  I’ve been meaning to start a writer’s notebook for years, but this is the first time I’ve encountered one that is small enough and convenient enough to be habit-forming.  I hope someday I’ll have a drawer full of them.


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