A Few Questions About Writing
by Jane Eaton Hamilton on July 14, 2014
My colleague Julie Paul asked me to take part in a blog tour in the lit community across Canada; I was tagged by Aaron Shepard. Recently, I was tagged by Cornelia Hoogland.
I am to answer these four questions and tag two other Canlit writers. I don’t know who I’m tagging yet because I dropped this ball, but when I do, I’ll come back here and add them.
What am I working on?
I stopped writing for 8 years, and came back to it just 3.5 years ago.
Most immediately, after an April month trying out NaPoMo for size (that is to say, write a poem a day for National Poetry Month, which I found exceedingly challenging), I decided to try a 31-day mini-novel. I set a goal of 1000 words a day, which brought me to a very concise romance novel by June’s end. Sometimes I battled to get out words until 3 in the morning, but infrequently they were done by 1 pm.
These occasional month-long exercises are what I am doing instead of what I’d call really writing. My capacity for real writing has been stretched very thin by illness for the past 3.5 years. I have little energy, and little ability to concentrate, so writing comes in fits and starts often with long long pauses. Ending points seem to help—I think I can I think I can I think I can for only 30 days before I can let myself drop (and drop the ball).
Have been pottering with a novel, but I don’t even have a second draft yet.
I haven’t challenged myself to write a full-length short story since I’ve been back, but I think it’s a reasonable next goal. Once I do that, I’ll conclude I’m back in the game.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Everyone’s writing is idiosyncratic, but beyond that, I don’t know the answer to this question. Once Linda Spalding called my stories “crisp and clean, tender and dangerous.” I’ve always loved her description and would love to write stories that fit it.
I write mostly queer literature—maybe that’s a difference, at least from the mainstream.
Why do I write what I do?
I write what interests me. Age is a good thing; one of its many prizes is the freedom from caring so much what others think or the marketplace needs.
I am a very personal writer, but I am hardly a memoirist despite having published a memoir. In both poetry and fiction, I am writing fictively, assembling and connecting originally non-connecting materials. It works like those memory trays we used to pass at children’s birthday parties in the 1960s covered by linen napkins. The 30-second reveal: an egg, a lighter, a piece of chalk, an address book, a piece of toast, some white string, a bobby pin, three cat’s eye marbles, four jacks, a hockey logo, a candle stub, five buttons. Write down what you remember. Assembling stories or poems is a matter of taking materials that never before fitted together and building associations between them.
For instance, in writing “Smiley,” the CBC/Canada Writes winning story, I wanted to spend time with weaver birds in South Africa’s Namaqualand. I had spent time there with photographer Freeman Patterson photographing wildflowers, but as on most group travel ventures, I found my interests were elsewhere—in this case I sat under trees colonized by hundreds of weaver birds, where I could watch and photograph their antic lives up close. More recently, I read an article Jonathan Franzen wrote for the National Geographic about the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean; the article has been collapsing the possibilities of my heart every day since. So without conscious thought—or at least without conscious censoring–I conflated those two very separate truths, songbird deaths and thriving weaver birds, though in reality they happen a continent apart. Beyond that, I started with an image of a mother that was loosely-drawn from Charles Schultz, the powerful voice in the background of Charlie Brown’s life. When our mothers disapprove of us, they do seem as huge and strong as wooly mammoths.
Did I tell a real story? Yes and no. When I was younger than this child, in the mid 1960s, before there were LGBT role models, I insisted I was a boy. When I was my character’s age, I bound my nascent breasts with strips from a torn bedsheet during overnights, believing the pressure at night would push the nasty things back in. I made promises to God to stop stealing sugar. Our bathroom didn’t have a lock, so I was always putting the binder on at bedtime, and taking it off in the morning, terrified I’d get caught. So that fragment of the story is more or less true, although my family never found out.
In the story, the little boy experiences a first love, and affixes pendulous bird nests to his genitals as testicles. This isn’t from personal experience, but interestingly, a couple days after I finished the piece, I remembered finding an oriole nest as a little girl, and hatching exactly this scheme for myself—but I hadn’t remembered this even during writing, and I didn’t go through with it.
Even though this story is about a little trans guy, to me it’s just as much a testament to human spirit because of how Jake manages to close the terrifying distance that keeps him from his mother (and therefore her power over him intact). It touched me when his mom finally saw he was a boy and set out to help, rather than hinder.
How does my writing process work?
My favourite of my stories to write are highly voice-driven, such as ‘Hunger’ in my collection Hunger or ‘Too Young Boys’ in my collection July Nights or ‘Cripples’ or ‘Easter’ in my fledgling story collection. They’re a hoot because as a writer I’m just chasing along as someone gregarious takes over my page. Inevitably, these are women I wouldn’t much care for in real life, but as characters they’re lively and flawed, very interesting to work with.
Process, though, depends very much on genre.
When I write novels, I set word limits per day and am very disciplined about reaching them.
If I’m writing a full-length story, and have a very compelling character who is unfolding the narrative well, I’ll try to write it through, full-length and weak, in one sitting (generally a 10-12-hour day). If I am writing a story that doesn’t arrive fully-fledged, I’ll write and tweak for a month or so. I often can’t figure out stories, though, can’t make them yield, in which case I might not come back to one for years.
If I’m writing poetry, my process is all over the place—sometimes it involves long days, but other times I’ll just quickly jot a line I want to come back to at some point.
Non-fiction is the hardest for me. I have no talent for it. I always strive to lift it out of the mundane, but this is for some reason nearly impossible for me.
My editing process is rigorous, but even there, process varies—some pieces go to an outside editor before initial submission, while others don’t. Periodical or anthology editors have their own two cents to add. The important thing for me is to be open to editing (which is easy for me). Editors in my lengthy experience don’t wreck mss. Editors fix them. Editors are artists with large marble boulders, chinking away until they find the statue—the statue I carved—inside.
. Links in the Literary Procession .