"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Waking Up to Stories

If you have not heard me wax poetic about why you should be listening to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, you haven't been following me closely enough. Basically it's a podcast in which a well known author reads their favorite short story from the New Yorker archives, and then talks about it with the magazine's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. I usually listen in bed, with ear buds tucked into my ears, staring up at ceiling of my darkened room and letting the words fill my head. There is something immensely therapeutic about falling asleep to someone reading a story, and I highly recommend it to everyone, not just fellow writers. But what I want to talk about today is waking up to stories.

Recently I got an alarm clock that doubles as an ipod player. For I while I set it so I would wake up to my movie themes playlist, but one night when I had been listening to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast I plugged my ipod in an fell asleep without resetting it. The next morning I woke up to the same story I'd been listening to the night before, which happened to be Miranda July's "Roy Spivey", as read by David Sedaris. It's a strange feeling, waking up to David Sedaris's voice, reading a story in which, in one instance, a celebrity pumps Frebreeze onto the underarms of the woman he's sitting next to on an airplane. But what I realized was, that in the space between waking and sleeping the context of the story fell away. I paid attention to the sound of the words. Strange images flashed through my dreams, while all the while the voice of the reader cut through my mind like water. Eventually I woke up enough to identify what I was listening to, but I realized that the important part had already taken place. The words were already in my subconscious.

"Subconscious" may seem like a loaded term for you. I'm not saying that your "inner mind" is going to write your books for you, or that doing this randomly and without thinking about it will make you a better writer. But it's been my experience that you have to pay attention to how stories work, and listening to them, especially in this half-conscious state, allows your brain to detach itself from the emotional context and just listen to the words. It lets you hear the way sentences flow together. It shows you how the emphasis falls on some words and not others. Maybe your dreams change when you wake up listening to a certain story. Pay attention to what happens in these dreams, because that's the kind of vivid and visceral reaction we writers are trying to get from our readers. There is a reason that so many writers make writing the first thing they do in the morning after waking up. In this space we are closer to our subconscious, and when we wake up to stories we wake up with words already in our heads.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

From a Writer's Notebook: Old Photographs and Toxic Language Dumps

My typewriter and my notebook make a lovely pair

One of the first series of posts I did on this blog was about my obsession with notebooks. A short recap of those posts is as follows: I have way too many notebooks for my own good. The From a Writer's Notebook series was a later attempt to get me writing in my notebooks more often and sharing with you what many writers don't: the everyday notes and observations that go into their notebooks. While these posts haven't been as frequent as I hoped, I thought I would use 2013 as an opportunity to start fresh. So without further ado, here are some of things that have been going into my notebook lately:

 First there's this picture. I found it in a pile of other old photographs at an antique store called Uncommon Objects in Austin, Tx. There is so much interesting stuff there and I just know it all has a story. The inscription at the bottom of this photo says "St. Louis, MS. 1925." I guess I bought it because I had so many questions about it. Who is this woman, and why is she all dressed up? Is she going to a wedding, or a house party, or maybe a picnic? Whose idea was it to take the picture next to those hedges? How did it end up at this antique store? The list goes on. I wasn't planning to keep it tucked between the pages of my notebook but that's where it ended up and that's where it's staying (until I find a better place for it, that is.)

 Next up, the Toxic Language Dump. I wrote this down during my creative writing class while my teacher was reading a passage from The Poet's Companion. Here's what I wrote down: "Poetry, which deals not in cliched, worn out expressions, but in new ones that reveal something not before seen in that way." And then, underneath it: "BE THOUGHTFUL" and a drawing of the Toxic Language Dump sign. If I'm remembering correctly, the Toxic Language Dump is the place where all the overused expressions and cliches are kept (or go to die, if you prefer). I remember really liking this idea, and I'm glad I have something in my notebook to remind me of it.

Also on this page I've written several quotes from the poetry we've read in class:
"his beard like matted sea grass"- "Feared Drowned" by Sharon Olds
"fog hanging like old coats between the trees"- "Oranges" by Gary Soto

Finally, I'm going to share with you another temporary installation in my notebook. The index cards in this picture are my notes for a two minute presentation that I had to do on the poem "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" for English. Like the photograph, I'm not sure how long they'll stay in my notebook, but I like looking them over occasionally, just to remind myself about the things I've been learning recently.

I hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into my notebook, and I plan to do more posts like this in the future. Obviously I can't share with you everything I write, but it feels good to let people into my creative space once in a while. The thing about chronicling things like this is that you don't know if any of it will ever be useful to you. Some people use that as an excuse not to keep a notebook, but to me that's all the more reason to continue writing things down.

Do you keep a notebook? What's the last thing you wrote in it?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles blew me away, but not in the way I was expecting. To me the cover and description of this book suggests a playful romp through upper class New York: heavy on descriptions of champagne fueled shenanigans and light on plot. But what I discovered was a book with substance, characters that are flawed but full of hope, and a whirlwind ride through ever changing scenery, from a run down jazz club to a Plaza penthouse.

The book focuses on Katey Kontent, a witty young woman living in New York city. Her adventure begins on the last night of 1937, when she and her friend Eve meet a charming banker who goes by the name Tinker. What follows is a flurry of other chance encounters and a chain of events that is genuinely surprising without being over the top.

The first thing I loved about this book was its main main character, Katey. She is smart with a generous dose of snark, and you feel you are being led through the story by someone who knows all the best spots in town. The other characters (and there are a lot of them) are each drawn in their present state. Each time Katey meets someone new, you feel you are meeting them for the first time also. As the novel progresses, however, the characters gain "weight"and you are able to see them for who they are, and who they will become.

My second favorite thing about this book was the masterful way Towles wraps the reader up in the time period. There was not a second that I didn't feel like I was in 1938, and the details added richness and color to the story. And yet, even with all of the details: the descriptions of clothes, martinis, and even the paintings on the walls, I didn't feel like I was being overwhelmed, or like the author was adding detail for the sake of detail. Everything had purpose and added to the story. One of the things that most surprised me was all the references to books and reading. There are stacks of book in Katey's apartment, from Walden (her favorite) to a collection of Hemingways. At one point she picks up Great Expectations, and at another she goes on an Agatha Christie binge. All of the titles are significant, and I love the way Towles weaves them effortlessly into the fabric of the story.

In the end, Rules of Civility is about how much can happen in 12 months. It is about the people that fate brings into our lives and the hope that each new year brings.

It seems fitting that I would choose to review this book at the start of a new year. I suggest you make it the first book you read in 2013.

In closing, I'll share one of my favorite quotes, in which Katey is admiring the view from her window:

"The little planes no longer circled the Empire State Building, but it was still a view that practically conjugated hope: I have hoped, I am hoping, I will hope." -pg. 323