Jane Eaton Hamilton

"At the bottom of the box is hope." – Ellis Avery.

Tag: article

Sarah van Arsdale is a straight writer. Or a lesbian writer. Or a bisexual writer.

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Over at Guernica, Sarah van Arsdale explores her writing career through the lens of her sexual orientation.

I Was a Lesbian Writer

Here’s Sarah van Arsdale’s article from this January about literature and keeping oneself to the work and jealousy. Highly recommended; in fact, this may be the best article I’ve read about how a friend’s success affects those of us still deep in the trenches.

My Famous Friend, Bookslut

Writing About Trauma While Female…

…is slipping on banana peels.

Kelly Sundberg: Can Confessional Writing Be Literary?

100 times yes re: “On Pandering” by Claire Vaye Watkins

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photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton, Paris, 2014

Tune in to Tin House to read this exceptional essay by short story writer Claire Vaye Watkins on writing towards the big boys.

Tin House

How to Interview a Woman Writer

Required reading from the Toast by Beulah Maud Davaney.

 

The Adequate Writer: Writing 101

Here are some tips for folks who are getting pieces together to submit (to the antho I’m editing or elsewhere).

1.  Write like a motherfucker.  Full out.  Don’t stop.  A good way to do this is to not allow your pen off the page, or your fingers off the keyboard.

2.  Wait.  Two days, minimum.  A week.

3.  Start editing.

EDITING:

1.  Announce your topic right off the bat.  You don’t need to be shy because the reader is eager to be situated.  You can be blunt:  This story is about a girl whose mother doesn’t love her.  There are 10,000 subtle ways to do this, too, but however you do it, do it.

2.  Get specific.

3.  Use your senses.  What does your narrator (even if that is you) see, smell, taste, hear, feel, touch?  Is there a pebble by his feet?  Are the leaves streaming down off a nearby tree?  Does it smell like cinammon?  If you want readers to be there with you, you need to tell them this stuff.

4.  Look at each paragraph.  Are they tight and organized there at the beginning, or are they flabby?  Lots and lots of people do something called “pre-writing.”  Novelists find the intro to their novels five chapters in and toss out the first four.  Short story writers find them a third of the way in and chop that preamble.  Did you just write a bunch of paragraphs before you really got down to business?  Cut them.  (You won’t die, trust me.)  Cut them mercilessly.

5.  Look at each sentence you’ve written.  How can you make it shorter?  What words are not pulling their weight?  If you drop, say, the first four words, could the sentence be stronger for it?  Or the last four?  Or four in the middle?  Chop your sentences back.  Get used to looking for the good parts in a sentence.  Keep those parts, toss the rest.

The thing is, your brain is an always-running font.  You don’t have to save what you cut, because your brain will generate something new.  Toss liberally.

6.  Use active tenses.  John was jumping.  WRONG.  John jumped.  RIGHT.

7.  Look for academic language (buzzwords like intersectionality, cisgender), clichés and jargon and cut them.  Yes, this means you cannot use the word “authentic.”  Apply this rule:  You cannot use any terms you heard in therapy or university; it’s all flab with little communicative value.  Your job with creative writing is to think of a fresh and unique way to say what you want to say.

8.  I wasn’t kidding.  Really.  Go through sentence by sentence and think up a new way to say what you just said.  This is all about re-inventing the world, folks.

9.  Kill the adverbs.  (We’re assholes, we editors.  We hate adverbs.)  Pretend you are a spy and your job is to rout out adverbs.  Start with your own writing, then do us a favour and get rid of them in the whole world.

10.  Invent some imagery (metaphor/simile).  We use either the same or connected imagery through a piece.  Through a short story.  Through a whole novel, even.  It is one of our super secretive ways to create connections that the reader doesn’t notice.  You need imagery because imagery is an individual author’s interpretation of the world.  Similes.  Metaphors.

11.  Kill the adjectives.  (Yup, we’re really demanding assholes.)

12.  Stick to “he said, they said, she said” to indicate speech.  “Don’t look at me like that,”  young svelte Becky chortled gleefully.  WRONG.  “Don’t look at me like that,” Becky said.  RIGHT.

13.  Strive for clear, clean, icy, sharp.  Could your writing knife somebody?

14.  Can you go home now?  Well, not quite.

The piece as a whole has to make cohesive sense.  The beginning starts somewhere and marches towards an end.  The piece still has to hang together as a logical whole.  There are things called narrative arcs. Here is a simple explanation: Arcs

15.  There.  You probably got rid of 50% of your text, or more.  Pat yourself on the back.  That is supposed to happen.  That means you’re doing it right.

16.  Yay, you.

Somebody’s going to be thinking, “What does she mean?”  They’re going to be thinking that calm and reflective writing, writing that could rub somebody’s back is real writing, too, not just sharp and edgy stuff.  I’m going to agree with you, whole-heartedly, because none of what I was just talking to you about has to do with style.  You will have your own style.  You are allowed to kill your reader with beauty as well as daggers.  Good sentences come in a thousand varieties.  Some are hard and jabby.  Some are long and windy.  Some are one-worded.  Some are mockers.  Some are like old driftwood, full of holes and craziness.  Some are blasé.  Some melt the reader like microwaved butter.  Some are like bullets.   Some are squishy like cream cheese.  Some are sticky like toffee.  Some are popcorn.  Some are so soft they creep by on baby feet.

Whatever use sentences are put to, though, whatever mood you create, you still need to care that each individual sentence is pulling its (considerable) weight.  And that they’re pulling in a piece that makes sense and carries a reader through it.  Readers have a choice of a gazillion cnf pieces, poems, short stories.  Why should they read yours?  Because you did the work.

17.  One more thing.  Rules are made to be broken.

 

The Adequate Writer: On Editing

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I just finished a travel essay, The Blind Warthog, about a trip I took to Namibia.  The essay grew too big for its britches, fast, and broke off into the possiblity of multiple essays, even a book of essays if I include other countries.  I pushed and pulled and snarled and snarked and moaned and groaned, tried this, tried that, and eventually, over days, a 2000 word piece strung itself together because writing is, at its essence, allusive, and the secret to getting the first draft is just staying put and getting any words on the page.  I didn’t ball those up, all those wrong words, and toss them.  I hung tight with them because one wrong word suggested another wrong word eventually suggested another right word in that freeway pile-up way words have if you let them have their heads.

Eventually, that gave me a schematic from which to go forward, a hint of a piece.  A friend offered an ear so that I could identify the flaws while reading aloud, always, for me, a productive process (because the embarrassment of having my mistakes seen by someone else highlights them for me).  A little too much this.  Not enough that.  Stylistic blunders.  Bits that got dropped in but not expanded.  Bits that need to be moved out.

Back to the hopper it went.  Squash this this way.  Squash that that way.  Tinker this, tinker that.  Absorb central metaphors; working?

Leave some time.

Rinse and repeat.

At that end of all that, I had a first final draft of just over 3000 words.  This is the one that’s good enough to submit.  This is the draft that’s like a small goat proinging through a meadow; all joy and exuberance.

But here is where the best person in my world comes in:  My editor.

I’ve had hundreds of these folks, and working with each is different than was the last, but working with each is also, always, deeply satisfying.  All those things that were suggested in your piece but didn’t make it to fruition because you were busy with nuts and bolts?  She will find them.  She will ask you to enhance them.  The things that kinda sorta worked but really didn’t?  She will ask you to turf them.

DO WHATEVER SHE ASKS is my rather-strongly-held opinion.  If you don’t trust her, keep a copy of your piece as it stood before the changes.  But make the changes she suggests with an open heart.  And here’s why:  Your editor is engaging your work with fresh eyes in a way that you have not and can not, and because of her suggestions, so will you.  It will open your work up.  You will learn things.  Your piece will very likely get much better.

You can see it as criticism.  You can see it as plundering.   You can see it as mean.

But trust me when I say if you participate, your work will come alive (and if it doesn’t, you still have that original to fall back on).  Understand that you and your editor share a goal:  to make the piece the best it can be.

Here’s how I see it:

An expert’s got her fingertips on my work–for free.  If she doesn’t pull her punches–please, editors, give me a hard edit–luckier still, the luckiest author alive.

I can’t wait.

The “ecstatic, shattered, staring beast” that pain makes of us

The Sunday Rumpus Essays are uniformly excellent writing about intriguing topics, and this week’s is no exception.  But it goes where most of us suffering with chronic pain fear to tread–into describing what it’s like to be sucked in and never back out of it.  Author Sonya Huber ‘s brilliant foray into metaphor:

The Lava Lamp of Pain

 

The Great Christmas Tree Heist

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“No one has ever become poor by giving.”—Anne Frank

“There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life – happiness, freedom, and peace of mind – are always attained by giving them to someone else.” —Peyton Conway March

Sarah rattles the chain link fence and breaking icicles shatter like bells. I look back at J in the driver’s seat of the Micra, drumming mittened fingers on the steering wheel while the car puffs determined smoke rings into a swirl of snow. This is not going to work. The tree lot still has lights on, but it’s late Christmas Eve, the roads are skating rinks, we’re in the middle of a white-out, there are no people around and the place is locked up tight. Except, maybe, for police trolling up and down Hastings Street eyes peeled for burglars.

I blow on my hands and say we can keep driving, check somewhere else.

Sarah scouts the perimeter. It’s so cold the inside of my nostrils freeze.  We’ve just come from delivering a hamper to a sole support mom and her kiddos. When Marsha said that she couldn’t find a single Vancouver taxi willing to deliver a tree to her, and her kids held up strings of homemade popcorn and cranberries, their eyes blinking, well, we were goners.

Sarah finds a spot where the chain doesn’t meet and manages to slide inside, elfin and thin. I’m a hundred pounds bigger and 23 years older, and when she holds open the gap, for a minute I just pray for a cop, anyone who’ll bring this illegal foray to an end just in order to stop me from getting stuck. At least I’m charged up with holiday spirit and reckless, but breaking and entering, me? But it’s Christmas eve, our motives are altruistic, so kind of it seems like we could never get caught. Sure enough, yup, I get stuck as if the fence is size 10 pants. Can’t go forward, can’t go back. Just for a second, I despise J safe in the warmth of the getaway car.

Sarah says, “Mom, come on,” and yanks my coat.

Like that will work.

Suck it in, I tell myself and surprise myself by popping out like an overgrown ping pong ball. Now, at least, I am the most graceful thief in all of Vancouver, betcha.

Green boughs beat in the wind like weird angel wings, but we soon discover there aren’t actually any real trees left. I think, Why lock the place up then? There are needles and wood chips and chunks littering the ground, heaps of string, dangling ropes that once anchored trees. I’m cold, shivering. Around Vancouver, no one dresses for the weather, and I’m in a spring jacket. Sarah finds tops that have been cut off other people’s trees, woebegone trees, and holds them up for my appraisal (which surely I could have offered from the legal side of the fence, so she could go to jail while I provide bail). Finally, I just nod, because really, they all look the same—like not real trees, just like Charlie Brown trees that no one could love.

The tree cries sap as we drag it back to the opening. I tell Sarah we should leave a twenty stuck in the door of the shed, but she says I’m insane, so I reassure myself the tree-top was going to be pulped. Sarah slides out. She tugs the tree out. I, on the other hand, heave and ho and suck in my gut and finally stumble free ripping the back out of my coat. J lifts the sorry little mess into the back of the car. We skid out on the slippery roads with the tree shushing out the hatch-back like some clear-cut’s Paul Bunyan wanna-be.

But little kids are happy.  Little kids are very happy.

 

Vote for your horse here–it’s not the Booker

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/aug/03/not-the-booker-prize-2012-vote-shortlist

from my non-fiction piece “Salt”

This is solely my baby’s clock, clock of my little lost one, my tiny underappreciated one, my evermore gone one, little warm wet egg, miniature planet which used to reside inside me all my seventeen years and even before, in its own grandmother, in my mother during the eight months when I resided inside her, little eggy peggy, eggy peggy pudding and pie, kissed the boys and made them cry. My egg of red bundled oh so soft and sweet and safe inside my oriole’s nest with her sisters like so many pomegranate seeds, waiting, drowsing, waiting, sleeping, waiting, waking in the instant of monthly explosion, pop! flung out into the unknown, alone, single celled, spinning, egg of wild waving filaments, tumbling through the void to land in the drinking straw of the fallopian tube, woah, nelly, hang on nelly! Somersaulting, vertiginous in slo-mo, down the ropey rabbit hole, brim full of her genetic self—great great Gramma Ilene’s eyes, great uncle Edward’s bum kneecap, great great Grampa’s long black eyelashes, Gramma’s sweet disposition and great aunt Emmaline’s intelligence. Sucked along the red river like flotsam and jetsam, evolution and instinctive lifeforce, somersaulting and picking up speed before skidding to a stop. Yowsers, it’s a plethora of swain, ten thousand tiny wavering arrows on a wet war field. One sperm hits her head on, plonk! he’s in halfway up to his neck. And then the moment of genetic answer down through his X and Y, Yippee! yippee-yi-o, life! My gal has a stitch in her side, and woah, woah nelly what is that? Some leaping in her cellular gut, some binging and banging, caterwauling, thudding, rattling, thumping, slipping, sliding, toboganning through flesh, burrowing, turning around to thumb his nose at the wanna-be’s, the coulda’s and woulda’s! Little ingratiator, minute courtier, full of his own genetic dice toss plus a pollywogal tail, Daddio Steve’s great gramma’s sense of humour and Auntie Simone’s swanlike neck and great great Uncle Pierre’s bad kidneys. Hunka, hunka burning love that can change history just.like.that, that has just made a new person. Ovum, sperm: they join and become the proceeds of conception, hidey ho and drum roll. They tumble fallopian, roll off one-celled towards my womb, headlong into my gummy, treacly, syrupy, icky, gloppy, mucilaginous uterine wall.

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