In 2010, my overly-generous, wonderful mother, gave me a crazy amount of money for my 50th birthday present. That gift made me decide that I would try to get into a juried writer conference and I aimed high, Tin House. To my amazement, I got in, but couldn’t figure out who to study with – the choices were incredible. At the same time, I was taking an undergraduate creative writing class with Larry Watson at Marquette University, so when I got in, I asked him for advice. He brought my list to CJ Hribal, another creative writing prof at Marquette, who came back and recommended Robert Boswell. I learned SO much that week on the Reed College campus in July of 2010. Boz’s emphasis on “interrogate every word” and to watch out for “filtering” in writing, were newer ideas in my revision techniques at that time. I brought an early draft of my novel to that conference and had an incredibly valuable one-on-one tutorial with Boz’s wife, Antonya Nelson. (The novel has gone through several more drafts, including a major overhaul this year; I’ve been feeling tired as I get ready to launch the next revision, but Boz’s discussion renewed my energy.) It seems the right moment to rerun this pic of me, Boz and Toni at that Tin House Summer Writers Conference:
When I learned Boz was coming to my favorite local bookstore, Boswells, yes – Boswell at Boswell’s, it was a can not miss moment. Then, when I learned that CJ Hribal would be asking questions and sharing discussion, it became an absolutely can not miss moment. I ran in at the last moment, decaf in hand, Boz’s book, Tumbledown, purchased and ready for signing after the talk. He waved at me and said, “Hi, Pam,” and I felt a tad groupy-ish, but pleased that (all thanks to Facebook) he might actually remember me. (Note, Tumbledown is published by Graywolf Press which has published some serious ass-kicking books the last few years. If they’re not on your radar, may I suggest you check them out??)
The opening sentence Boz read from his new novel, Tumbledown, was a killer for me: “There are yet states of being that have no name, anonymous human conditions that thrive at the periphery of powerful emotion the way bedroom communities manacle a city.” Sometimes I read a sentence – or hear a sentence – and just sigh. A contented sigh at the elegance of phrasing, the exact right words, the authority of the author. And, sometimes, the contented sigh also contains a hint of envy and fear — can I achieve such elegance, such confident authority? Later, in a passage dealing with a main character, James Candler, we get, “The more uncertain his mental state, the cleaner his bathroom.” Love, love, love.
Even in these two tiny snippets, you can see the point of view (POV) Boz is using. Before he read, Boz said he was trying to achieve a POV of “unreliable omniscience.” He couldn’t find examples of that POV when he was starting, but realized over time, that there are examples of it in our daily lives. He mentioned SIRI, GPS and the nightly news. As soon as I finish the three books I’m working on for three different book clubs, I’ll be diving in to Tumbledown with joy. I already know I’m in the hands of a master.
In the question and answer period, CJ Hribal asked Boz how does he go from biographical factoids (Boz had been a counselor for a short time and spoke about how some of that experience influenced this novel) to fiction in his narratives. How does Boz decide what to leave behind?
As a specific example, Boz mentioned that when he was a counselor, he lived on a beach. In an early draft of the story, his character lived on the beach, but Boz realized the setting wasn’t working. Life was too good for the character. Some other helpful comments he made in this discussion include:
On using real life experience and memories in fiction:
“…look at things that happened and then exaggerate them to make them useful in fiction.”
“I’m obsessed in fiction with how the past is with us all the time.”
“..a lot of events in the novel really happened – I had to ask myself, why won’t these events leave me alone?”
“How can I torture somebody and make it useful to the story?”
“Imagine the worse thing that can happen….”
On mystery, not knowing as you proceed in writing — how to balance what you know and what you don’t:
“I invest myself in my characters, trying to pursue what the characters want to teach me.”
Boz spoke of a good childhood friend and how the two boys used to play in chapters; they’d create scenarios, mini-stories, get to a cliffhanger and stop. That reminded me of the Hemingway technique of stopping mid-sentence in a story when it was time to quit writing for the day.
On revision, multiple drafts and time:
(Boz mentioned he’d worked on this book ten years and had done probably thirty to forty drafts.)
“In transitional drafts, I’m trying to turn over as much as I can, to look for what’s interesting over what had been the intention.”
“I’m always writing to discover, the story’s not pre-ordained.”
“…the thing that keeps coming up in my books…(and I often don’t realize it until it’s happened again)…is this question of, is it possible to live a life that embodies decency, that embodies integrity and decency?”
On keeping despair away (when doing 30-40 drafts over ten years):
Since I’m a fan of perseverance, I was especially interested in Boz’s comments here.
“I have to write stuff that surprises and entertains me.”
“Being a writer, you’ve got to be in it for the long run.”
“I find it much more pleasant to write short stories. Whenever I start, I think its going to be a story and then I’m filled with dread if it seems to want to be a novel (because I know I’ll be living with these characters for years).”
(It can be exhausting when you get to the umpteenth draft)… “Discipline is overcoming the sense of exhaustion.”
I will leave you with that, my friends. Are you working on the umpteenth revision of something? “Discipline is overcoming the sense of exhaustion.” And, that, is how writers continue to persevere.