K Is for Knowledge

You’ve probably heard it so often, repeated with such authority, that you’re ready to throttle the next person who says it: Write what you know.

Likely you’ve also heard, or even yourself said, the common rejoinder, which goes something like That’s crap. Haven’t you ever heard of research?

Well, of course. What we know is fluid, expanding and deepening even without any conscious effort on our part. For writers, research is ongoing. We read, we listen, we travel to a new place, we walk down a street we’ve walked down many times before, noticing some things for the first time.

My hunch is that Write what you know surfaced at least in part as a response to the notion that one could only be a real writer if one had had certain experiences. The requisite experiences — being in combat, for instance — were almost invariably skewed male. At a women’s writing workshop in the late 1980s, a bunch of us got to talking about this. We couldn’t help noticing that experiences common to women, from childbirth to housework to caregiving, weren’t considered worthy subjects for serious literature.

One of us remarked, half-facetiously, that “the only suitable subjects for academic poetry were bullfighting and war,” whereupon several of us set out to write about bullfighting, which, need I say, none of us had ever done. My contribution grew into “The Bullfight Sonnets,” which was published by Sinister Wisdom in 1988. It includes these lines:

. . . Novelists extol
the crowd, the sun, the blood, the kill, the role
of manhood challenged and found worthy. I
am less enthralled. Instead, I wonder why
cerebral critics desperately admire
heroes who hold their shit when under fire.

Can you tell we had Ernest Hemingway on the brain? Not so much Hemingway, however, as the “cerebral critics,” English teachers, and others who held Hemingway’s spare style up as the pinnacle of literary excellence. At the time, writing about New York, published in New York, and taken up by an audience of New York–based literati was also elevated a step or two above “regional” writing. Take that, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty.

I think that the English-language “canon” has gotten more regional, more international, and a lot less white since then. Nevertheless, I continue to take Write what you know as encouragement to start wherever we are, in place, time, and subject matter. Themes of universal — or at least widespread — concern can be reached from anywhere.

One of my favorite axioms is Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

A corollary to that is Your readers will teach you what you need to know more about.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England that you have probably heard of whether you’ve been here or not because it gets written about a lot, by journalists, novelists, poets, and others. Most of them don’t live here year-round, or haven’t lived here long. It’s not hard to tell which of these writers have been listening to the place and the people in it and which either didn’t take the time or just don’t know what they don’t know.

It really is OK to write about places where you haven’t spent much time and people with lives and backgrounds very different from yours. Hell, historians and historical-fiction writers regularly write about times where they’ve never been, and plenty of them do it very well. (On the other hand, if we’ve never been there either, who are we to tell them that they’ve got it wrong?) Research is required for sure, but it can only get us so far: there’s more to recreating a place or time than avoiding anachronisms and getting the street names right. Imagination and empathy are also necessary, along with an awareness that no matter how much we know, there’s always a lot that we don’t.

I Is for Imagery

I loved high school English, but after all those in-depth discussions of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Austen, Fitzgerald, and the rest, I went out into the world with some wrong ideas about writing.

I thought images, symbols, and metaphors were like booby traps. Writers embedded them in their stories in order to razzle-dazzle sophisticated readers, and to trick high school students. Why was there a green light at the end of Jay Gatsby’s dock? Why, to drive us crazy, of course.

My English teacher senior year was aware of the problem. She’d ask what an author was trying to do in a particular passage and then, usually after a minute of nervous silence from the class, add, “This is not a trick question.” We didn’t believe her.

For many years, I wrote mostly nonfiction. Nonfiction, I mistakenly thought, was safe from images, symbols, and metaphors. When I started dabbling in poetry, I knew I was in trouble. Poetry is all about images, symbols, and metaphors, isn’t it?

I am not a gardener, but I do have a little garden. It’s in an old dinghy.

Before long, though, I got it: Images, symbols, and metaphors grow out of the writing. They’re gifts, like sprouts in the spring garden. (Look, look! A simile!) The gardener can nourish them and help them grow, or she can decide the row is too crowded and yank some of the seedlings out. (Metaphor!)

A writer I once workshopped with relayed something she’d heard from a poet she knew: “To be a writer, you have to know one thing well.”

The thing you know well is the soil from which your images, symbols, and metaphors grow. Of course there can be more than one thing, and you can always learn more.

When the garden gets too crowded, it’s hard to see what’s going on.

Any story or poem or essay is bound to have lots of images in it. This is fine. Gardens contain lots of plants, don’t they? All sorts of plants. At the same time, if you’ve got too many flowers growing in a limited space, your readers won’t know where to look. They may miss something that you want them to notice. Keep that in mind when you get down to revising your work.

One last thing to keep in mind: Many, many common expressions are metaphors that have long since come adrift from their literal meanings. This can get writers into trouble. Take the phrase “rein in,” as in “rein in one’s ambition.” I sometimes see “reign in” even in the work of pretty good writers. “Rein in” comes from horsemanship. If you keep horses, reins, and bridles in mind, you won’t write “reign” for “rein.” (Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a reference to “unbridaled passion.” It has possibilities, doesn’t it.)

Metaphors and images can be effectively mixed and matched. They can complement each other or create dissonance. If you use them with care and know where they came from, you won’t inadvertently come up with doozies like “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing” — which also has possibilities, but seriously, you don’t want to do it by mistake, do you?

For a crash course in metaphors, see this post by Richard Nordquist, a retired English professor who is very good at explaining things.

D Is for Deadline

You know we’re off to a good start: I’m writing this at half past noon on the day after it was supposed to be up. Never mind what the button says: Blowing off deadlines is not good practice if you value your income and/or reputation.

But if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never missed a deadline, I’d be surprised.

And if there’s a writer or editor out there who’s never used deadlines as an excuse, I’d be even more surprised. In the last month I’ve avoided two or three events by saying “I’m on deadline.”

It wasn’t a lie. I had three editing deadlines to meet in a two-week period, all on substantial book-length jobs. The real story is a little more complicated. I took on one job with a more-than-reasonable deadline: a little over 200 pages in about four weeks. The deadline was so reasonable that I accepted another job. And then another.

So I was on deadline, but I could have finished that first job in two weeks easy if I hadn’t taken on the other two.

I bitch about deadlines, but in truth I like them. They help me stay relatively organized. And the adrenaline surge can be, well, a rush. For the better part of a decade, from the late 1980s to the late ’90s, I worked for a weekly newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Key ingredients in the weekly rush to deadline:

  • Martha’s Vineyard is an island.
  • The printer was off-island.
  • The “boards” from which the paper would be printed had to reach the printer by a certain time to ensure that the finished copies would arrive on the island early the next morning.
  • In the days before digital transmission, there were only two ways to get the boards to the printer: by ferry or by plane.
  • Ferries and planes have fixed schedules.

The paper came out on Thursday, so Wednesday was deadline day. The boards had to be on the 5:00 ferry, without fail. No matter how much writing, editing, and paste-up got done earlier in the week — the features sections generally went to bed by Tuesday night — Wednesdays were synchronized chaos: stories breaking, reporters writing, advertisers begging to change their ads or get a new one in, and everything having to be edited, proofread, and pasted up.

Me checking the boards on my last day as features editor, October 1993. In 1996 I returned as one-woman copy desk, where I remained till I went full-time freelance in mid-1999.

I loved it. I loved the way we all came through under escalating pressure, right up to the moment that the finished boards were zipped into the big black carrying case and the editor in chief headed out the door.

After that we crashed, of course, and it was a groggy bunch of campers who showed up for staff meeting the next morning. But the camaraderie and the sense of achievement was real. We knew we could depend on each other to come through under pressure.

On the subject of pressure — I was the paper’s main theater reviewer in those days. Theater reviews had to run by opening night, which was usually our publication day or the day after. This often meant that I’d review the last or next-to-last dress rehearsal.

The deadline curbed my perfectionist tendencies, but on one occasion I froze. The play was Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. The lead actress was excellent — but I had no idea what the play was about. I couldn’t watch the play again, or interview the director, or even read up on Beckett. (This was before the World Wide Web, so research options in my small town were limited.) I had to write something, so I riffed on the notes I’d taken, trying to understand what was going on.

Into the paper went my review, and after the paper came out on Thursday, the lead actress told me I’d “gotten it.” I knew her pretty well and don’t think she was just being nice. It was a major life lesson to realize I could wing it under that kind of pressure and not wind up with egg on my face.

Working on a big project without a set deadline is hard. When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, my writers group stopped meeting. Well into the fourth draft of my second novel, I hadn’t realized how much I depended on those meetings to keep going. Sunday night was my weekly deadline. When it stopped, so did I.

Meetings resumed in warm weather, when we could meet, socially distanced, outside. In the fall we finally made the transition to Zoom. By then I’d put the novel aside and taken up another project: The T-Shirt Chronicles, a blog organized around my formidable T-shirt collection. Will I pick the novel up again? Not sure, but as time goes on I’ve been thinking that maybe the weekly deadline was getting in the way, and what I needed was time to step back and consider the structure of the thing. The novel’s ingredients are all fine, but the whole isn’t doing what I want it to. I’m not even sure I know what I want it to do.

Short version: Deadlines can be powerful motivators, and that includes the ones you set for yourself if you take them as seriously as the ones others set for you. But pacing yourself so that every deadline doesn’t become a crunch is important too. Leave your mind time to meander a little off the track, to follow up on leads that might take a while to bear fruit. And when you meet a deadline and know you’ve done a good job, pat yourself on the back.

Back to Wolfie World

OK, I’m back — I think.

This morning I got back to Wolfie.

Postcard from Mary Likes Postcards. Check out her Etsy shop — lots of good stuff!

Word, which never lies (though it rarely tells the whole truth either), told me that I’d last opened the file on October 2. That sounds about right. That’s when I pushed it aside to focus on doing my bit for the Blue Wave while completing enough paid work to buy groceries, pay the rent, and rationalize the campaign contributions I was putting on my credit card.

Despite some high-profile disappointments, the Blue Wave was pretty spectacular. How spectacular wasn’t immediately obvious, but it was looking pretty good when I gave my “Post-Election Pep Talk” a couple days after the election.

In November I busted my butt to meet deadlines that wouldn’t have been so pressing if I’d done more work and less politicking in October. Now the deadlines are mostly met, accounts receivable are up, and the political outlook is brighter than it’s been in two years, so it’s all good. At the beginning of the month I swore off buying beer till I’d paid down my campaign-related credit card debt. I didn’t miss the beer as much as I thought I would; the campaign-related credit card debt is, if not quite liquidated, then well under control; so that’s pretty good too.

So this morning I finally got back to Wolfie. I didn’t do any writing — after two months away I had to get reacquainted first. I’m maybe two scenes away from finishing draft 3, which was a dangerous place to leave off. Drafts 1 and 2 didn’t go through to the end because until I was well into draft 3 I didn’t know how it was going to work out. Well, that’s not quite true: I had a good idea of how I hoped it would work out, but I didn’t know how my characters were going to get there.

Before I put Wolfie aside to devote more time and creative energy to politics, a promising path had appeared. Whenever I thought of getting back to it, a seductively sensible inner voice said, “Why bother? Your characters have figured it out, you know what’s going to happen, why waste your time writing it?”

Compounding that — well, with the country in desperate straits, how could I possibly justify spending hours upon hours upon hours on completing a novel that only a handful of people will ever read?

Word, which never lies, tells me I’ve so far spent 14,988 minutes on Wolfie since the file was created on March 20, 2017. That’s about 250 hours. Once again, however, Word isn’t telling the whole truth because I’ve been working on Wolfie for considerably longer than that. I started draft 3 on March 20, 2017. I could open the hibernating files for draft 1 and draft 2 and learn how many minutes I spent on each, but no, thanks anyway, I’d rather not.

So this morning I took a deep breath, opened draft3.doc, and jumped in about a hundred pages from the end. Within minutes I was back in Wolfie world, reading critically enough to be trimming words here and there but mostly remembering why for something like four years now I’ve been determined to do justice to these characters and their stories.

Last week on impulse I ordered not one, not two, but three new fountain pens. I already have too many fountain pens — like eleven. Fountain pens are for first-drafting. With Wolfie I’m deep in revise-and-rewrite mode, except when I’m brainstorming in longhand to get through a stuck place: then the fountain pens come out. But three new fountain pens? It’s almost as if the muses are sure that there’s another project coming after Wolfie and they want me to be ready.

Ink blot #1

Ink blot #2

Group(s) Work

Allison Williams’s post about organizing a writers group for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which writers aim to complete the first draft of a novel in one month) has useful tips for starting writers groups in general. Note especially that in her NaNoWriMo group not everybody is working on a novel, but one guideline is “Set a big goal” — something you’ll have to stretch to complete in a month. Write on!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

We’re gonna write…ya wanna make something of it?

Remember that class where the teacher put people in groups and everyone shared a grade? How there was always that one person who slacked and drove everyone else crazy, and someone (possibly you) who worked double overtime to get the project done so you didn’t all fail?

Yeah, groups can really suck. Even writing groups, where we’re all there voluntarily…but so is That Writer. Plus the people who read too long, or ask for professional-level editorial feedback for free, or are all at wildly different levels.

But writing groups can also be great. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which writers all over the world shoot for 50000 words, from scratch(ish). I was on the fence about whether to participate: I’m really more of a memoirist…it’s a big commitment…my mom’s coming to town and I want to take her…

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Mini-Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk

This caught my eye on Facebook because I’m intrigued by flash fiction and tempted to try it. A new member of my writers’ group writes it, and I’m finding it challenging as a reader — in very good ways.

tommydeanwriter

headshot, serious.jpgWhy do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

I don’t think of myself as a natural flash writer; I generally write novels and long short stories. I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it. But six-ish years ago, I started thinking about flash when I was working on THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, a book of stories that plays around with form. I challenged myself to write something short, to tell a complete and harrowing story in as few words as possible. (Here’s the result.) Now, I love the compression and the gut-punch of a successful piece of flash, that sense of illumination like a firework ripping through a dark sky. I like the power of what’s missing, of the ripples of what is suggested and implied and hidden. I explore the role of silence a lot in my fiction, whether real or…

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On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

Says the author: “I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.” Exactly.

At the moment I’m doing the kind of research that almost anyone would call “research”: finding out what happens at the local hospital when an 11-year-old survivor of sexual abuse shows up with two adult friends and (eventually) her mother. The next step is to go sit in the ER waiting room for a while and just take it in. It’s always easier for me to write a scene when I can visualize the setting. Sometimes the setting becomes clearer as I write.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz Coffelt photo 400x600By Allison Coffelt

“Excuse me.  Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone.  “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge.  “Research.”

This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential.  I love research.  I love research so, so much.  Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions.  A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification?  Research.  A trip to the museum?  Research.  A rock concert? Sure; that’s research.  I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.  Though I do…

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Slender Trends In Modern American Horror: How Original Are We Really?

I don’t write or read horror (so I tell myself), but horror or dark fantasy elements are working their way to the surface of my mainstream novel, and this blog post (essay, really) has given me valuable insight into what I’m dealing with and how to develop it further. If you deal with myth and archetypes in your work (don’t we all??), do yourself a big favor and follow the Zombie Salmon.

Zombie Salmon (the Horror Continues)

For most of us older Horror writers and readers, the whole Slenderman takeover of youthful Horror audiences has remained slightly under the radar. Were it not for the heinous attempted murder trial of two unbalanced young girls which keeps resurfacing, it probably would have remained so…For many it is shocking, alarming…coming from nowhere – which makes it even more terrifying to contemplate.

Except for one thing: this whole scare-the-kids business with men in suits has been done before.

It might come as a shock – if not a disappointment – that the whole mythology of Slenderman is as old as, well, dirt. The fact that it tends to resurface in each generation or so is of mild interest, and often fanned by spinners of paranormal legend-making, offered often as proof that there are some paranormal “things” which have some basis in reality…thereby escalating the level of fear with which we…

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Flash Fiction

The  A to Z Challenge has been keeping me very  busy in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, but directly or indirectly I’m blogging about writing, so I hope some of y’all are dropping by from time to time.

For the challenge I’ve been rereading some of the poetry I wrote in the 1980s, especially in the years after I moved to the Vineyard. Gradually my lines got longer and longer and turned into one-act plays, short stories, and eventually a novel. Still, I have to admit that some of that poetry is pretty good, and also that writing short and concise, often in meter and rhyme, had lasting and beneficial effects on my prose.

So lately a guy joined my writers’ group who’s writing flash fiction. Although, or more likely because, I tend to write long, I’m very tempted to give it a try.

And just now I discovered that Spry magazine’s blog is doing an “ABCs of Flash Fiction” series. Clearly the muses are trying to give me a message! They’re only up to D so far. If you’re interested, here’s where it starts.

Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

Characterization was a stumbling block in two fiction manuscripts I critiqued recently. One was a novelized memoir — a novel closely based on the life of the author’s best friend from childhood. The other, also a novel, took more liberties with “real life,” but the two main characters were stand-ins for the author and her longtime partner. Both authors had a ways to go before their characters came to life for the reader. This blog post offers great tips for making this happen, whether or not your characters are, or are based on, real people.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my…

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