Thursday, January 19, 2012

Flannery O'Connor Rules

Flannery O’Connor Rules
This is the name of the list of writing tips that came to me by way of a friend, but also a sentence.

Flanner O’Connor rules.

Yes, she does!

I discovered her collected letters, The Habit of Being, not long after I gathered up my courage to try my hand at writing a novel—a task for which I had no preparation, no training, nothing but the fact that I had been in love with novels from the first one I read when I was, maybe, seven.

I loved the matter-of-fact, suffer-no-fools voice in the letters, the way she wrote what she saw and felt and knew about life in the world and life of the spirit in language that was at the same time plain and complicated and deep. I loved her stories—the drudge and pain and horrors of the human condition rendered with a dark humor I’d never experienced before, except in my own heart.

It’s bad, I know—but when the Misfit shoots the grandmother and says to Bobby Lee, "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” I laughed out loud and thought, ohmygod, yes.

Here’s that same voice in these “rules” about writing plucked from her letters.

1. “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

2. “Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.”

3. “I can discover a good many possible sources myself for Wise Blood but I am often embarrassed to find that I read the sources after I had written the book.”

4. “I suppose I am not very severe criticizing other people’s manuscripts for several reasons, but first being that I don’t concern myself overly with meaning. This may be odd as I certainly believe a story has to have meaning, but the meaning in a story can’t be paraphrased and if it’s there it’s there, almost more as a physical than an intellectual fact.”

5. “That is interesting about your reading some Shakespeare to limber up your language before you start; though I think that anything that makes you overly conscious of the language is bad for the story usually.”

6. “It might be dangerous for you to have too much time to write. I mean if you took off a year and had nothing else to do but write and weren’t used to doing it all the time then you might get discouraged.”

7. “This may seem a small matter but the omniscient narrator never speaks colloquially. This is something it has taken me a long time to learn myself. Every time you do it you lower the tone.”

8. “I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas.”

So offbeat, practical, true.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fabulous Indiana Writers: Jean Harper

One of the cool things about my job as the Executive Director of the Writers' Center of Indiana is promoting the work of fabulous Indiana writers. I know a lot of them, which is one of my life's great pleasures. But I'm always discovering new ones--and Jean Harper, who lives and writes in Richmond, Indiana, is one of them. Rose City: A Memoir of Work was published by Mid-List Press in 2005.

Harper went to work as a rose cutter when she moved from her East Coast home Richmond, Indiana to be with a former professor whom she had loved since she was a student at Earlham College. She’s married; he’s married. It’s a difficult time. Harper risks everything for love and love is at the center of Rose City, but this memoir is not a love story. It’s the story of a smart, talented, well-educated woman in her thirties, who takes the only job available to her in this small college town, cutting roses, and whose co-workers accept her, teach her, and help her find her way into a new life. It’s about the rose industry, about roses. It’s about a once prosperous Midwestern town dying as new labor policies of the 1990’s lure American companies to countries where workers are unprotected and drastically greater profits can be made.

“All of it was foreign to me,” Harper writes early in the book. “I was an American, living and working in my own country, but it didn’t feel that way. I had crossed a border. I could have used a passport and a visa, entry stamped JUN 27 1992. RICHMOND, INDIANA, THE ROSE CITY.”

Thia world, which Harper so beautifully created on the page didn’t seem foreign to me at all. I grew up in the Calumet Region in the fifties, in a working class family that struggled to make ends meet—a world I left behind as soon as I could, but which, as time goes by, I realize shaped the strongest parts of me. I recognized Lil, Joy, Sammie Jo, Eddie, Bo, and Hank. They lived in my neighborhood in a different place, a different time, and so I know how well Harper captured the poignant mix of grace and resignation which they faced each day, the deep sense of responsibility they felt toward family and friends, the hope that sustained them even as the world seemed determined to drag them down.

I loved everything about Rose City: the story of this group of workers, which read like a novel; the social commentary about company practices with chemicals that put everyone in danger folded into their concerns about pregnant 17 year-old Sammie Jo; lush, lyrical forays into the world of roses; the deft characterization of Richmond, with its assortment of working class people and academics. The raw honesty with which Harper explored the disappointments and failures in her life that she knew she must face to be able to find happiness pretty much blew me away.

“The greenhouse saved me from an ordinary life,” she writes near the end of the book.

Having read Rose City, it’s hard for me to imagine that Jean Harper is a person capable of being ordinary. In any case, I’m glad she found work in the greenhouse and very glad she wrote this book about it.

Jean Harper grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. She earned her B.A. from Earlham College and her M.F.A. from Emerson College. Her short fiction, essays, and memoir have been published in The Iowa Review, Living Forge Journal, and Cimarron Review, among others. She is an assistant professor of English at Indiana University East and lives in Richmond, Indiana.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Kiss? Essay? Essay? Kiss?

Okay. It is probably not a good sign that I sat down to work this first morning of the new year, opened my email to download a file I’d sent from my other computer, and could not resist clicking on “Best 2011 TV Kisses.” I don’t even watch TV, though I got the first season of “Glee” for Christmas last year, watched all the episodes in a couple of days, then rented and obsessively watched all other available season—and the “come-on” picture for the AOL teaser was of Blaine and Kurt. It was a great kiss. Still.


Maybe my first New Year’s resolution should be to start using my Mac e-mail, even though I find the me.com address extremely annoying. Me, me, me. But which is better? An annoying e-mail address or the constant temptation to waste time on stupid shit like “Best 2011 TV Kisses?” Plus, according to my daughter Kate, having an AOL address pegs you as an old person, which of course I am, but, hey, why broadcast it?

Okay. Resolution One.

On the other hand, it seems like a lot of trouble. Can’t I just not click on that stuff? And stop checking my e-mail I hate to think how many times a day? Not to mention Facebook. The New York Times, the Huffington Post. Whatever.

Years ago, leafing through a fashion magazine in some waiting room, this jumped out at me: “Discipline is remembering what you want.”

No doubt, the context was losing weight, buffing up your body, creating your own style. But I was teaching creative writing to high school students at the time, constantly talking (them to death, they probably thought) about the importance of discipline, and I think that’s why the “you” in the sentence hit me so hard.

Especially when you’re a teenager, “discipline” is something parents, teachers, coaches—grown-ups—are constantly saying you need to have. Naturally, then, it feels like being disciplined is something you do to please them, if pleasing them is important to you. If the grown-ups in your life are controlling, not being disciplined is one way you can have some control over your own life. They can ground you, give you a bad grade, kick you off the team—but they can’t make you have the discipline you need to achieve the goals they’ve set for you.

Weirder, and even more destructive, you actually want what they want for you, but there’s no way you’re going to try to achieve it because trying feels like pleasing them and there’s no freaking way you’re going to do that.

I wrote the quote, underlining the “you,” in the journal of a kid I was pretty sure fell into that last category, based on what he wrote about his life. The next time I saw him, he said, “That quote totally blew me away. I wrote it on my bathroom mirror with my mom’s lipstick.”

Not that he immediately became a disciplined person. But it gave him a new way of thinking about what discipline was, which was a start.

In fact, we all carry the residue of the dreams and goals that people had for us when we were young and they get all tangled up in the dreams and goals we have for ourselves. It’s hard to unravel them, though once you understand they’re there you begin to recognize them in the nasty little voice in your head that directs you away from the work you want and need to do. You’re no good, you’re unworthy, you’ll never, ever succeed—so why bother?

You don’t have time. You have to clean the house, rake the leaves, clean the closet, take your sick neighbor a casserole.

The voice can be sugary sweet, too. You deserve a trip to the mall? How about a movie? A nap?

Whatever it's telling you, once you identify it as the residue of what others wanted you to be, you have to remember what you want every day, every hour, every minute to keep it at bay. (Not only New Year's Day)

It’s a constant balancing act.

“Best 2011 TV Kisses?”

Work on the essay you set aside this time to work on?

Seems easy, but it’s not.

For one thing, anyone deeply involved in the creative process knows that sometimes the best stuff comes from an unintended seque. Yielding to temptation can trigger a light bulb moment in your head.

For better or worse, I did get this whole blog post out of yielding to the temptation of TV kisses. And, writing, I found focus for some thoughts I’d been pondering. New ideas floated up—as they always do.

But what if I’d resisted the temptation and spent the better-part-of-an-hour I’ve just spent writing this on the essay I sat down to write?

Can't know. The time is gone.

Seriously, this stuff can drive you crazy.

Still, remembering what you want can be useful in those moments of temptation.

And the old cliché, “Just Do It.”

Just write.