“Whatcha Doin’?”: Surviving a Writer’s Dry Season

I came back from teaching in the Miami of Ohio low-residency MFA program yesterday and found we’re still in the middle of a dry season here in Columbus. The lawns are brown and crunchy, and, truth be told, it depresses me to see them that way. Even those who are watering, or have irrigation systems, are having a hard time keeping up. The landscape makes me think of things ending, and not in that pretty, crisp-air, autumn sort of way. This dryness calls to mind a dormant land and a fallow period, one that suggests that things just might not [...]

By |2019-08-05T07:23:59-04:00August 5th, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

Teaching and Revising

I’m leading a fiction workshop this week—a good warmup for another academic year about to begin—and it occurs to me that the way I approach the discussion about a manuscript may offer a useful scheme for those interested in strategies for revising a first draft. My custom is to first consider—and to invite my workshop participants to consider—what the draft seems to be interested in.  What are its obsessions? To what does it devote the most space? What lies at its heart? Answering such questions inevitability leads to an articulation of the center of the piece. Such intimate knowledge is [...]

By |2019-07-29T08:51:10-04:00July 29th, 2019|Blog|4 Comments

Hot Enough?: Practicing Subtext in Dialogue

We’re having a heat wave. Temps in the mid-nineties. Heat indices well over a hundred. Cathy and I went out yesterday afternoon to do some shopping, and the volume of traffic was noticeably lower. The stores were a bit emptier. There was no waiting for a table at one of our favorite restaurants. If a city this size could ever seem like a ghost town, it came close yesterday. The malaise of a hot day in summer always reminds me of the scene in The Great Gatsby when Tom and Daisy and Nick and Jordan decide to drive into New [...]

By |2019-07-22T08:18:40-04:00July 22nd, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

The Variation in the Habitual: Creating Scenes

We’ve hit a stretch of hot, dry days here in central Ohio, each day like the one before it. The grass is brown, the trees are dropping their leaves, the sun blazes. I long for a variation in the pattern, something out of the ordinary, something to make me say, “Ah, here’s something different.” Such is the lifeblood of scenes in a narrative. A good scene depends upon such dissimilarity. Otherwise, why have a scene at all. A character’s actions or words demand dramatization. We have to dramatize because something extraordinary has happened. This doesn’t mean some grand event like [...]

By |2019-07-15T08:05:15-04:00July 15th, 2019|Blog|3 Comments

Coming Clean: Characters and Their Confessions

Cathy and I went to The Ohio Theatre last night to watch The Music Man, part of the summer film series. The movie is set in 1912 in River City, Iowa, where a con man, Professor Harold Hill, convinces the townsfolk that the appearance of a pool table in the billiard hall is a grave danger to their youth and the only way to avoid it is to enroll their sons in a boys’ band, and of course he’s glad to sell them the instruments, the band uniforms, and the instruction booklets. He means to skip town with the profits [...]

By |2019-07-01T08:20:16-04:00July 1st, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

First Drafts: The Delight of the Surprise

This afternoon, Cathy and I made our first pilgrimage of the growing season to Bambi’s Produce Market a few miles out in the country from where we live. Sunday afternoons, so it seems, are perfect for such trips, partly because we have the time and partly because such drives remind me of similar ones I used to go on with my parents when I was a child in southeastern Illinois. “Let’s take a ride,” my father would say, and off we’d go. We had no destination and no purpose. We merely drove for the sake of driving. We never knew [...]

By |2019-06-24T08:07:52-04:00June 24th, 2019|Blog|5 Comments

Pressure Points in Narratives

I’ve told this story before, so please excuse me for telling it again. It has so much to do with everything I want to say about pressure points in narrative. On the last night that my mother lived independently, a package addressed to her neighbor was accidentally delivered to her. My mother was a kind woman who believed in being a good neighbor, so she put on her coat and a rain hat—the kind women of a certain generation kept folded in their pocketbooks—and prepared to take the package to its rightful owner. This was in early March in southeastern [...]

By |2019-06-10T07:59:28-04:00June 10th, 2019|Blog|4 Comments

We Were Here: Subversive Precision

I was eighteen in 1974 when I picked up my now-wife, Cathy, for our first date. It was the era of 8-track tape players in cars, and I had a Craig in my Plymouth Duster. The tape I played that night, as I drove to the Avalon Theater, was Elton John’s Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player. Its best known tracks were “Daniel” and “Crocodile Rock.” I was particularly fond of the latter, and am to this day. Cathy doesn’t remember any of this, but trust me, it’s true. I told her as much today when we were [...]

By |2019-06-03T13:13:44-04:00June 3rd, 2019|Blog|6 Comments

Decorating a Scene: Description in Narrative

Here we are on Memorial Day, and our peonies are in bloom. These showy, fragrant flowers were in every bouquet that my mother always made to set upon our family’s graves on what we then called Decoration Day. I look forward to their buds opening this time of year, not only because I enjoy their colors—ours are hot pink and creamy white—and their perfume, but also because they connect me to this family tradition. The flowers, then, are more than decorative. They’re also evocative. They summon an emotional response that comes from my mourning for a childhood, now gone, as [...]

By |2019-05-27T09:10:09-04:00May 27th, 2019|Blog|0 Comments

Time and Narrative in Memoir

When it comes to writing memoir, we can never give full expression to an entire life. We have too much from which to choose—too much time, too many moments, too many characters, too many questions. We can, though, find a narrative arc that, if handled skillfully, will contain more of the past, the present, and the future than the literal timeline of the memoir can dramatize. I call this timeline, even though it may be happening solely in the past, the dramatic present. I’m talking about the narrative arc comprised of events happening in chronological order in a select period [...]

By |2019-05-06T05:49:33-04:00May 6th, 2019|Blog|0 Comments