Don’t Despair

In his excellent book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee at one point compares writing to being sequestered in jail by your own story: “You in a small dark room with no answers to any of your questions, and no one seems to hear your pleas, not for days, months, years. Indifferent the entire time to all requests for visits or freedom. Hard labor too.”

Or, as my student Christola puts it: “I’m writing at writing.”

They’re both describing a distressing place many writers end up in at one time or another. You’re not so much stuck as you’re lost. You type and type but you don’t get anywhere. You cannot see your way forward.

If you find yourself in that cell, don’t despair. Here’s a few steps you can try:

First, let your story rest. Put it away, and give your befuddled brain a break. Leave it alone as long as you can—a day or two if you’re on deadline; weeks if you’re not. As Stephen King says in On Writing, it should be “safely shut away, aging and (one hopes) mellowing [until] it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk shop where you can barely remember stopping.”

Next, write out—by hand, I’m not kidding, use pen and paper—a short list of things you want for this story. Avoid superlatives here, both grandiose (“Greatest screenplay about a meerkat ever,”) and self-flagellating, (“Nice plot, loser”).

Make this like a Saturday morning errands list, or if it works better for you, write it out as if it were an email to your best friend. Remember Grandma’s story about meeting Buffalo Bill, or Eat more eggs. 

Now that you have a guide with your hopes and goals clearly spelled out, go ahead and read your story. When something resonates with you, highlight it or underline it. Most likely, those moments are taking you closer to your hopes and goals. When you dive back in, build on them.

Keep an eye out for what’s missing, too. Where does your aim completely miss your target? Where have you missed ripe opportunities to introduce scenes or sentences that work in those hopes and goals in sooner?

Where is the first resonant line? And where is the first missed opportunity? How can you build a bridge between them? Start there.

Think of it as a rescue and recovery operation—decide what’s most important, look for the solid ground and the critical flaws. And get to work.

Kelly Caldwell, Dean of Faculty

Practicing Topophilia

Bentley: What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?

Lawrence: It’s clean.

You might think of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia as an adventure story, or an epic drama, or even a hagiography of colonialism, but try thinking of it, instead, as a romance between a man and the desert.

It’s a story grounded in topophilia.

Topophilia, perfectly illustrated in the above exchange between Peter O’Toole and Arthur Kennedy, is a profound and deep love for a landscape, a location, a geography. It is a love for place.

Are you thinking of grandma’s kitchen, or your college campus, or the street corner where you fell in love?

Yeah, that’s not it. That’s place attachment, which is love for A Place. Place attachment is “a cognitive-emotional bond individuals develop toward places.” It’s love borne of experience and memory.

Topophilia is more mysterious and more challenging to describe. It doesn’t require much experience, and memory is optional. It defies logic and explanation, as love so often does.

And it’s so rewarding, and fun, to write.

Start, of course, with the landscape that brings you the most joy. Again, not a place you love because of special moments, but that you love, because it exists. Maybe it’s the plains, or the Sawtooth Wilderness. Maybe it’s Michigan. Maybe it’s anywhere with a waterfront.

Next, take novelist Chuck Wendig’s advice, and avoid describing the terrain and the climate and the feel or smell of the breeze. Instead, “Think of setting as just another character. It looks and acts a certain way. It may change over the course of the story. Other characters interact with it and have feelings about it that may not be entirely rational.”

Sarah Broom did this in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir The Yellow House, describing summer in New Orleans: “The malicious New Orleans heat could seem to crawl inside, affecting your brain so that walking felt like fighting air. New Orleans humidity is a mood. To say to someone ‘It’s humid today’ is to comment on the mind-set. The air worsened the closer you came to the Mississippi River and wet you entirely so that by the day’s end, my hair was zapped of all its sheen and my clothes stuck to my body in all the wrong places.”

Last, don’t explain; swoon.

“For most surfers…waves have a spooky duality. When you are absorbed in surfing them, they seem alive. And yet waves are of course not alive, not sentient, and the lover you reach to embrace may turn murderous without warning. It’s nothing personal. Wave love is a one-way street.” — William Finnegan, Barbarian Days.

Your turn, writers. Write us a love letter to your favorite place. Tell it happy Valentine’s Day from me.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Nutrition Facts for Hermit Crab Stories

Nutrition Facts
for Hermit Crab Stories 

Serving Size: One writer, one at a time
Number of Servings per container: Infinite
One subject the author feels moved to write about;
One desire to experiment or play;
One familiar form of writing that the author can
borrow for their story;
One imagination.
Calories (spent while writing) — 350 to 500*
Calories (consumed while writing) — 350 to 500**
Percentage (%) daily values
Subject                                                          15%
(These are flash stories, so keep your focus narrow.)
Borrowed Form                                            75%
(You want your reader to recognize the form immediately, but you should also feel free to play around, take literary license.) 
Narrative Arc                                               100%
(This is still a story with a central character and a clear beginning, middle, and end.)
Voice                                                              50%
(You’ll want your hermit crab to sound like the form you’re borrowing, but don’t abandon your own voice, either. This is still your story.)
Creative Exploration                                    50%
(Your borrowed shell is firm and imposes some limits; but wearing it enables you to wander further afield, play more, and find a fresh take on something familiar.)
Subject to Shell Matching Ratio                 ??%
(You might generate a nice frisson of resonance when subject and form share some symmetry. But it’s not necessary. Authors have written about romantic break-ups as auction item catalogue listings and WebMD entries, and I’m borrowing an FDA-regulated label for packaged food for a work on creative writing, so who knows, really?)
Key Sources of Inspiration
Flash fiction as obituary                                   100% ***
Flash essay as resume                                      100%
Flash fiction as Facebook group rules      100 %
Further reading                                                   100%              

† “A hermit crab essay borrows another form of writing as its structure the way a hermit crab borrows another’s shell. Its subject might be something soft or vulnerable, (like the crab) that seeks the form of something harder or more rigid to encase it. The form must be written but … something less literary and more utilitarian such as a list, recipe, field guide, instruction manual, address book, multiple-choice test, horoscope, Web MD entry…” — Randon Billings Noble

* Will vary based on how angsty a writer you are, and how many times during the writing process you stand up, pace, walk the dog, go for a bike ride, and clean your kitchen.
** See above.

*** If you recognize Deesha Philyaw’s story “Mayretta Kelly Brunson Williams Bryant Jones (1932-2012)” from last June’s Writing Advice, you get a gold star! If you don’t, because you didn’t read it then, consider this your second chance and take the hint.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty