Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alumni Voices with Jackie Hesse: Falling into the Void

As I was blow drying my hair today–after adding the special conditioner for the ends and the thick opaque gel uniquely formulated to smooth and oh, and a few pumps of volumizer to the roots–as I stood there, pulling the round brush forward and then twisting it just so, I lamented my fate.
If only I were somewhere isolated where I didn't have to get dressed and fuss like this.

If only I were somewhere I could just get up and all day long focus on writing.

But that's a lie, isn't it?
Isn't this hour-long hair prep what I really want? Isn't it somehow saving me from some worse fate? Something ... dangerous?
Aren't I actually grateful not to be holed up in an isolated cabin in a rainy wood, with no excuse not to write and nothing to get between me and that blank computer screen?
Yes. I am. And you probably are too.
Because here in our busy lives we are able to procrastinate.
Procrastinate. Such a Minnesota nice, innocent word for such a menacing, massive obstruction to our success.
Andrew Steeves is frank, and funny, and insightful about his ability to procrastinate. "We have all these fantastic stories in our heads," he says "and the only obstacle to sharing them with the world is the hours and hours sitting at a desk translating the language of your brain into something other people can understand."
Peter Pearson is endearingly honest when he writes that even when he was in a place, "where all quotidian roadblocks between me and Transcendent Genius™ have been removed" the words did not flow. Up in his literal tower at the Anderson Center in Red Wing he did not spend hour after glorious unmolested hour at the keyboard pounding out what was sure to become a "triple Newbery."
Instead, he came face to face with that thing we fear.
Steven Pressfield calls this thing, or blockage, or obstacle, resistance.
I call it the void.
And the void is not a thing, it is a feeling.
The void is fear.
H.P. Lovecraft
H.P Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Scarier still is not the unknown that is lurking somewhere out there, but the unknown that inhabits the deep jungles of our own interiors.
When we stare into the void the questions rise and are released: What am I really made of? Really capable of? What if I am less than I believe? What if there's nothing more than me and this fear?
And so I cling to my busyness. That's probably why I got up to sharpen my eyeliners in the middle of writing this. It's why I take an hour to fix my hair, clean the sink drain, organize my sock drawer, pick a neighbor up from the airport. Doing any of those is so much easier, familiar and secure than whatever questions, whatever answers might be of asked or escape from the void.  
I asked a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction what addiction is at its heart. "Addiction," he said, "is the thing we do so that we do not have to face the thing that scares us." The scary thing is usually a deeply buried belief about ourselves, one that no matter how silly sounding, just might be true. We avoid it because to acknowledge and face it would be overwhelming. It may even destroy us. And so we keep ourselves distracted with booze, shopping, sex, gambling, the internet. Much like what we do to escape writing.
But there is no friend needing a ride, no socks needing organizing, no imminent trip to Walgreens pressing on us when we are alone in an isolated cabin in a rainy wood or up in a writing tower.
Instead, we have to sit with ourselves, with the void. F.E.A.R., it has been said, is nothing more than an acronym: false evidence appearing real.
But something greater than fear brought us to write, brought us to Hamline. This thing is love: a love of story, a love of writing. Love is not false, love is real. And love is stronger than fear. It is what allows us to get to the chair, to face the screen and write. 

Jackie Hesse is a January 2013 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota and teaches at Normandale Community College.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Publication Interview: Liza Ketchum

Out of Left Field, the latest novel by faculty member Liza Ketchum, was published this month by Untreed Reads. To learn more about Liza and her writing visit her website.

Please describe the book.

The summer of 2004 is full of promise for Brandon McGinnis. He has a job, a spot on the varsity swim team, loving parents, and loyal friends. Brandon and his dad, ardent Red Sox fans, wonder: could this be the year the Sox end their eighty-six year drought? Then Brandon’s father dies suddenly. A new will, signed just before his death, reveals a secret kept for thirty years. As shadows of the Vietnam War bleed into the escalating War in Iraq, Brandon sets out to solve the mystery his father left behind. His journey takes him to Canada’s Cape Breton Island, where he uncovers bittersweet truths about the past, and a family facing its own hidden demons. Brandon’s courageous search throws him into life’s game with its devastating losses, unexpected curve balls, and thrills as wondrous as a home run on an autumn night.

As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
The novel actually had its inception in the late ‘90s, when Lois Duncan asked me to write a short story for an anthology entitled “On the Edge.” The story I wrote—“Sables Mouvant”—featured a boy named Brandon, whose father has just died. In the short story, Brandon learns that his father—who moved to Canada to escape the Vietnam War—may have had a son during that time, a fact he kept secret from everyone. The short story takes place in France, near the D-Day beaches. It involved quicksand (sables mouvant, in French), shifting tides, and a boy’s need to understand his father. For years after the story was published, its background nagged at me. I wondered about the supposed half brother in Canada. Did he exist? And I thought about the father. Why would he hide this truth from his family? Years passed, the Red Sox finally won a World Series title after a drought of 86 years, and I found myself jotting ideas in a notebook. My husband and I had visited Nova Scotia many times, and I realized I could set part of the novel in that beautiful area. I recently unearthed my first handwritten draft, dated 2007, so the novel version took almost seven years to complete (though I also worked on other projects at the same time).
The major changes that took place involved the characters themselves. Though Brandon is the central protagonist, I wanted to include characters on the Canadian side of the border, and I decided to let their story evolve through phone calls. (The story takes place in 2004, so texting wasn’t as common then.) I also needed to understand and deepen the father’s side of the story.
The novel’s structure also changed as I revised. Because baseball is an important thread, I decided, during a late revision, to divide the novel into nine “innings,” and to title each scene—within the inning—with a baseball phrase that also relates to the scene’s action and/or emotion. In addition to the phone calls, the novel also includes letters written by Brandon’s father while he was in Canada, as well as e-mails between Brandon and a Canadian friend of his father’s. Decisions about the design of typeface and fonts, for the different textual elements, took place during the final moments of copy editing, just before the book went live.
What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?
Though I lived through the Vietnam era myself, and was deeply affected by it, I didn’t know much about the men who fled to Canada to escape the draft. My Hamline pal and colleague, Marsha Qualey, was tremendously helpful as I researched that aspect of the war. We talked about the era and shared valuable readings. I needed to know what life was like for those who crossed the border. Where did they live? How did they find jobs and housing? Were they in hiding there or living openly? I didn’t realize that the Canadian Mounted Police worked with the FBI to track down deserters, and that not everyone was welcomed when they arrived. I read books about the period, studied newspapers from the time, and also watched old TV footage of the draft lottery that took place in 1969.

I decided to make baseball an important element in the story, not just because I love the game but also because I wanted to balance Brandon’s grief and confusion with something he loved and was passionate about. Though my husband and I followed every moment of the Red Sox World Series championship, I read sports writers’ accounts of the season and also kept a schedule of the games—with wins and losses—pinned up above my desk, so that I followed the season along with Brandon.

Finally, the story required medical research as I solved the mystery surrounding the father’s death.

Why does the Vietnam War cast shadows over this novel? What caused you to write about that period?

My friend and teaching colleague, Jane Resh Thomas, tells her students, “Write what haunts you.” The Vietnam War, and the events surrounding it, have haunted me since 1968-69, when my cousin and a dear friend died in that conflict. I became politically active against the war during college and worked for anti-war candidates after graduation and in subsequent elections. Though the war has been over for decades, I never stopped thinking about it. I have visited Maya Lin’s beautiful memorial in Washington, D.C. many times. Lin’s polished granite wall honors the 58,000 American men and women who died in Vietnam. But I knew that thousands of young men who were opposed to the war fled the country and went to live in Canada. What happened to the war resisters—as they called themselves—after they crossed the border? What was it like for those who came home after President Carter granted them amnesty? I often write novels to explore questions I can’t answer. Out of Left Field is no exception. In 2004, when our government launched a second war in Iraq, I decided it was time to write this story.

West Against the Wind, your first book, was published in 1986. What have you learned about the business of writing since then?

Whatever I’ve learned about “the business of writing” always comes back to craft. Though the business has certainly changed—Out of Left Field is my first novel to be published simultaneously in an ebook and Print on Demand format—the quality of a story is still what matters most. Readers—and editors—still want a gripping story with interesting characters and a situation that keeps them turning the page. I’ve been lucky to teach with inspiring colleagues and to work with talented students over the years.  I learn something new from the writing community every residency and semester, and each book I write is a new experience that presents me with different challenges. Stories now come in many different forms and that’s exciting. I’ve never written a graphic novel, but who knows? Perhaps that will be next.

If very good friends are visiting for one evening, do you cook or go to a restaurant? If the former, what would you cook? If the latter, what restaurant?It depends on the season. Right now, our vegetable garden is laden with fresh veggies, and the farm nearby has fabulous sweet corn, so we’re eating fresh-picked vegetables at home with visiting friends and family. In the winter, we like to sample many of the different ethnic restaurants in our Boston neighborhood, from Indian to Thai to Persian. If we eat at home, dinner is likely fresh fish, caught locally and grilled, and veggies from the farmer’s market that is open year round.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Faculty Voices with Jane Resh Thomas: Patience

Jane Resh Thomas

At the Hamline residency's discussion of the writing life in July, Laura Ruby and Claire Rudolf Murphy talked about the virtue of patience. Nothing could be more important to us as we learn the craft, write our books, and struggle to market them.

Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, yet a woman telephoned one of my writer friends, wanting her to put the woman in touch with a publisher: in the few months since God told her to make books for children, she had written a hundred-odd picture books; the only thing holding her back from publication of these treasures, she assumed, was the right connection.

Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, yet many people who enter MFA programs in writing believe that, by the end of two years, their work will be publishable, if not already published. Many writers send out their work way too soon, when it still requires several more drafts before an editor will read it all the way through.

The need for patience is borne out by several friends' recent experience. In the face of rejections by the dozen over the years, Cheryl Blackford, who spoke last winter at Hamline, found a publisher for her new novel, Lizzie and the Lost Baby (Houghton). Twelve years after Jane St. Anthony completed Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart, she found a publisher who will bring out that book and paperback editions of her previous two novels (University of Minnesota Press). Several years after their graduation from the Hamline MFA Program in Writing for Children and YoungAdults, Maggie Moris found an agent for the novel that was her thesis, and Jane O'Reilly landed a two-book contract for her fiction (Egmont). All of these women kept on writing their fiction, despite incessant discouragement for years from agents and publishers.

The kind of patience these writers exhibited was prodigious. In the first place, they had the patience to develop their talent by learning their craft. They all write clear flawless English in distinctive voices. They know how to build an English sentence, a character, a theme, a chapter, a through line, a novel. They stay with a manuscript until they've learned what it wanted to say, what they wanted to say through it. They set aside draft after draft, until their writing sings like a choir, all of its parts working together. People who publish their work, in addition to native talent and skill, have to be drudges, able to persist in a project until it makes them want to flush it and cut their own throats. Then they go on again anyway.

People who publish their work also have given up publication as their reason for being. They've learned to live their lives in the world, not shackled to their desks. They've made writing one of their pleasures, independent of whether it ever sees the inside of a library. They've divided their creativity from the misery of locating agents and editors. They can play the hardball of publishing, where a rock flies past their noses at ninety miles per hour every time they raise their heads. Writing for them is a daily practice, however the world responds to their work.

Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship. The writer continues to develop, even as she markets the work of the writer she was last year. Patience, stubbornness, determination, if not the keys, are some of the keys to our finding joy in the work.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Alumni Voices with Shelly Jones: PACING

Pacing = an author’s manipulation of time.
Writers manipulate time to enhance the reading experience.
A story has three different time elements which are interrelated: Real Time, Plot Time, and Reader Time.
  • Real Time is the actual period of time encompassed by the story and the chronological sequence of events during that defined time. 
  • Plot Time compresses, expands, and rearranges Real Time to allow better dramatization.
  • Reader Time manipulates Plot Time to accelerate or decelerate the velocity of reading. Velocity of reading includes the actual speed at which the reader moves down the page, as well as the reader’s subjective feeling of momentum. 
Real Time Versus Plot Time
A story may span three generations. It’s not possible to relate all the events of three generations within the confines of a story. Therefore, in Plot Time the writer must shrink Real Time by skipping needless information, highlighting only moments crucial to the story. Conversely, a novel could focus on a single day. In this example, the author stretches time with more scenes, increased description, introspection and digression.

In Real Time, an event happens for a specified amount of time—the protagonist’s school day lasts eight hours while her birthday party only lasts two hours. Plot Time, on the other hand, discriminates events by their importance. In Plot Time, the entire school day can be dispatched with the phrase “After school…,” whereas the birthday party fills a chapter.

Another manipulation of Real Time involves changing the chronological sequence of events, because a linear presentation is often not the most intriguing way to tell the story. The writer may begin at that sinking-of-the-Titanic moment then regress in time to explain how such an event occurred. Commonly, writers travel back and forth in time, providing flashbacks or backstory when past information is required, or letting the reader glimpse future events through foreshadowing or flashforwards.
Plot Time Versus Reader Time
Some stories are leisurely in their telling, while others are fast-paced. But all stories, whether quiet or action-packed, must provide variation in Reader Time. Good writing has a rhythm, fast and slow, ebb and flow. Though, if the feeling of forward movement slows down too long or too often, the reader will become bored.

What are the techniques for changing reading velocity?
  • Scenes accelerate reading velocity while narrative summary slows it, therefore narrative summary must be kept to a minimum. Scenes show events through action and dialogue. Narrative summary tells necessary information that cannot be optimally conveyed through dialogue and action, i.e. not events, or events that would be monotonous in their telling. Setting descriptions and internal musings of characters are usually best related through narrative summary.
  • White Space = Faster Pace
  • Anything that increases white space on the page speeds the reading velocity. Blocks of narrative summary slow forward momentum while dialogue speeds it up. Similarly, short sentences and short paragraphs accelerate the pace.
  • Action accelerates. “Babette climbs hand over hand across the jungle gym,” gives the reader a feel of momentum, as opposed to “Babette is a pretty girl with thick, curly hair.”
  • Active verbs accelerate. “Babette climbs hand over hand across the jungle gym,” feels faster than “Babette is climbing hand over hand across the jungle gym.”
  • Filter words bog down the pace. “Jules grabbed Babette’s ankle and pulled her off the jungle gym,” moves faster than “Babette felt Jules grab her ankle and watched him pull her off the jungle gym.”
  • Adverbs slow the pace. “Jules quickly grabbed Babette’s ankle and mightily pulled her off the jungle gym.”
  • Qualifying words slow the pace. “Jules actually grabbed Babette’s ankle and then pulled her off the jungle gym just like that.”
  • Flashbacks stop forward momentum.
  • Lastly, writers can use word choice to manipulate reading velocity. Short, staccato words (containing short vowels and consonants b, d, k, p. q, t, hard c, and hard g) beg to be read quickly. Long, soft words (containing long vowels and consonants f,  h,  j, l,  m,  n, r, s,  w,  v, x, y, z) slow the reader down.
This discussion of pacing doesn’t venture into picture books which have additional tactics including illustrations, rhyming, and page turns. However, I found picture books useful to understand the concepts of Real Time, Plot Time, and Reader Time.

Consider Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Reading clues about time in both the words and illustrations, it’s likely that Max was misbehaving for an hour or two, when his mother sent him to bed without supper. The parents likely ate their supper and then Max’s mom brought him food which was still hot. This Real Time scenario would look something like this:

However, only four pages of the book are devoted to Max’s elaborate mischief-making, while twenty-eight pages are devoted to his time with the Wild Things. But Max’s perception of the time spent in his room, and the part of the book that most interests the child reader requires Sendak to stretch time. Sendak does this first by increasing the space devoted to the Wild Things event. But he also lengthens time with phrases like “a forest grew and grew—and grew,” and “he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year.” Plot Time looks different than Real Time:
 Finally, Sendak alternates action and short snippets of dialogue with moments of gentle language and quiet reflection—accelerating and decelerating Reader Time:

Shelley Jones is a January, 2014 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. She lives and writes in Johnston, Iowa.