Archive | writing practice RSS feed for this section

Not writing? Take an ice bath.

27 May
A clip from's infographic,

A clip from’s infographic, “The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People.” *

Have you seen’s infographic breaking down the daily routines of some much-admired creative people? I stared at it for at least ten minutes, trying to divine color-coded inspiration from all those rectangles. But all I see is a collage of the banal–John Milton spent a chunk of every day walking in his garden–with a bit of the bizarre for spice. Did I need to know that Victor Hugo’s daily breakfast consisted of 2 raw eggs and coffee? Is that going to inspire me to keyboard magnificence?

Books are always my go-to place for guidance, so when I started writing with serious attention, I read an armload of books about writing. And what I realized as I slogged through chapters on how to set up a creative space in my home, or how to access my dreamscape (my WHATscape??) was that of course I wasn’t reading about writing at all. I was reading about some of the things that some writers do. And the more I fretted over where my writing space should be and what inspirational quote I should tape to my bathroom mirror, the less I wrote.

It’s natural to want guidance from those who have succeeded in the same art you’re called to do. And even through all those boxes of color, that guidance comes through, it’s just both obvious and boring. We’d rather know that Kafka had trouble sleeping (big surprise) and Auden fueled his writing with Benzadrine. We can savor those little treats, we can pass them along in conversations about writing. But the real take-away from that graphic is something we know already. Just look at all that pink. That’s the color marking the time these lovely creative people were working on their art. If you want to be a productive writer, you need to make the time to do it. And you need to do that almost every day. Damn.

My year continues to slap me with unexpected challenges–medical concerns, domestic issues, and a host of good friends suffering terrible loss. I should have written through it all, but I haven’t. Do you think if I take an ice bath on the roof, that will help? Worked for old raw-egg Hugo.

I have written about this before and surely I will write about it again, because when a lesson is hard, when I don’t like it, I just have to keep re-learning it: There is no map. There is no checklist. No perfect routine, no ideal creative space. There is only me, my addled brain, and a keyboard or pen. And always–ALWAYS–yet another opportunity to start again.

* Image here, full infographic here.

Writing Revelation

5 Mar
Cynthia's foot.

Cynthia’s summer foot.

In the spirit of my friend and former colleague Cynthia Newberry Martin’s current writing project, here’s one true thing about me: I detest baby showers.

Cynthia’s year-long writing challenge is such a terrific idea that I’m almost jealous I didn’t think of it for myself. Almost, but not quite, because I’m enjoying her work far too much to let it be tainted by anything negative. Her project is as simple as it is rich: She’s sharing one true thing about herself every day for a year at her blog Catching Days, where she also blogs about books, shares thoughts about the (mostly novel-) writing process, and posts an in-depth “a day in the writing life” piece about a different writer every month. Sometimes a “true things” post is just a line or two, other times she writes a mini-essay. All are good reads. Here’s the contents page for the project.

And here’s another revelation: I am incapable of telling the truth if you ask me about your new haircut and I don’t like it. You can say all you want that I should be honest and that you really want, even need, my opinion. I will nod and say of course and smile and lie my ass off. And you will believe me. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.

Back in with Both Feet

3 Mar

289px-Oscar_Wilde_portrait_by_Napoleon_Sarony_-_albumenWell THAT was a long break!

Oscar Wilde said, “One’s real life is so often the life that one doesn’t lead.” Because I didn’t write much in 2014, I could say it was a year in which I didn’t live my “real life.” But that would be claiming a kind of writerly angst I don’t feel. True, it wasn’t a banner year for productivity, and 2015, so far, has been so stuffed with other concerns that I hardly know what it feels like, just now, to settle into a sentence meant to be shared. Just give me a moment.

It feels great! The keyboard is warm, the keys silky smooth. Particularly the N, E, and D, so worn that when I look at them now I see starbursts of jagged silver-gray, rather than the tidy, type-written white letter on black. L, C, and M aren’t far behind. Oh, the joy of thinking on the virtual page, the sublime joining of silent words to faint tap-tapping of fingers to this pretty font on a pale background.

Writing, I am happy to say—whether meant for sharing or not—is the same as it ever was: My one small miracle.

And now to reorient to the writing life in 2015.


*Photo from Wikimedia Commons, here.

Blog Tour: My Writing Process

9 Mar

Lately words are making me feel old. Soon enough “answering machine” will make no sense to people, “carbon copy” is probably all but lost, and “pencil it in” is likely cruising into oblivion very soon as well. With little effort anyone over the age of 30 can produce a dozen more recently retired expressions, then rattle off a series of new words that fall neatly into the gaps. My latest acquisitions: listicle, selfie, and blog tour. Yes, I know, I’m slow on the uptake. That makes me feel old, too, but I can moan about that with the husband. For now I should get on with the tour.

I’m honored to have been invited by my dear (and dearly gifted) friend Suzanne Farrell Smith to talk about my writing process as part of a tour of writers’ blogs (a trip to Google will fetch a slew of the tour’s wonderful posts). Suzanne’s post is so rich that I wasn’t sure why I should add my own thoughts to the tour, but then I remembered the reason I started this blog: To share. To share my enthusiasm for short stories, my energy for writing, and whatever advice or inspiration could be lifted from the documentation of my Daily Shorty year and ongoing writerly thoughts and obsessions. I’m just here to share. So off I go with a smallish splat of Q & A.

1)        What am I working on?

In recent weeks I’ve devoted most of my writerly energy to putting together my first short story collection. I’ve been amazed at how hard it is to select from my files the stories that truly go together, and then to discover the best arrangement of the selections.

I developed my current (tentative) manuscript using index cards, each bearing a story title and notes on voice, length, form, themes, and arresting images and phrases. As I arranged and rearranged and arranged again my stack of cards, I kept drifting, mentally, into the fetal position, marveling that the gift of wordskill can morph into manacled ankles before you can say, “A speculative flash piece in narrative form exploring mortality, confused identity, and ruptured familial ties, with metaphors and analogies using water and blood.”

I’ve conjured countless rationales and justifications in this life—I am the much youngest of three kids, so to make up for my relative lack of strength and stature, I mastered early the arts of argument and persuasion. Which is to say that I can stack the index cards any which way and then explain why the order is absolutely right, and by the third attempt (of many, many) I was overwhelmed by my own spin. The goal is to get behind the justifications to the truth, and that’s something I’ve always struggled with, regardless of context. In other words: I’m not done. And wish me luck.

2)        How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In one of my MFA semester evaluations, my mentor began his characterization of my work like this: “Claire does not write realist fiction.” I was taken aback, and at our end-of-semester meeting I asked—with some pique—why he’d said that. He gave me that “Oh dear, she’s slipped into her native Russian” look, and said, “Well, Claire, because… you don’t in fact write realist fiction??” Somehow I’d read his comment as saying that my stories don’t reflect the cares and worries of real people. Of course they do, dammit. Yes, he agreed, of course they do. But they do that using satire or a sprinkling of fairy tale or the form of a product label.

We’ve seen more experimentation and weirdness in short stories over the last decade+, thanks to writers like Aimee Bender, Etgar Keret, and George Saunders, but it’s still true that the vast majority of the stories I read in litmags are written in the realist tradition. My graduation manuscript didn’t include a single story that could be called realist, though many were written in narrative form. After writing a story every day for a year, I do now have some realist shorties under my belt. And when I get the word-alchemy right, I like these stories just as much as anything else I’ve written.

Realist or not, narrative form or not, I like dark, I like funny. I like weird. Every story I write hits one or more of those notes.

3)        Why do I write what I do?

When I won a literary fellowship from the State of Maine, one of the judges commented that I give life to characters who “live in the margins.” I hadn’t realized that before, but it’s true. I write about these people because no one will notice them if I don’t. I put them in short stories because I’m completely in love with the form, so much so that I have to remind myself to read novels.

I hate to sound over-serious nor too full of myself, but I am both of those things, so here it is: I write odd, dark, often darkly funny short stories because I want so badly to tell the truth, and pushing art beyond the boundaries of what feels “normal” gets me to that truth well and fast. I could write a hundred essays (and hopefully someday I will) but the whole lot of them couldn’t possibly tell as much truth as I can reveal in one small piece of fiction. Isn’t that just the sort of preposterous thing sniffy, pashmina-wearing writers say? But I truly believe it. At the very same time that I know it’s preposterous, I believe it. And now someone needs to give me a pashmina, because I’ll never buy one for myself.

4)        How does your writing process work?

I noticed long ago that I both love and despise routine. I crave order and feel comforted by rules and frames, but once I know the rules and frames, once I’ve had to bow to order, I begin to chafe. And I will rebel, it’s just a matter of time and style. So with regard to my writing practice, I establish order and then plan for the rebellion.

When I find myself unable to write immediately upon waking, I’ll shift my writing time to after lunch. When I begin to hate my post-lunch commitment, I’ll save writing time for after dinner. Deep into my Daily Shorty year, every month or so for about a week, I addressed my mental exhaustion by giving myself whole days to do everything but writing, which meant I didn’t start writing until 10:00 PM or even much later. I would sneak up on myself and then have to take a headlong rush at the story before I became too incoherent to write. So whatever the context, I just keep adapting to the new me, with ever-changing targets and ever-evolving strategies.

As for the writing itself, I am a vertical writer who has learned how to incorporate some horizontal habits. And I’ll mention one other element of my process because I’ve discovered that it surprises people when they hear it, yet I can’t understand why: I never consider a story finished (well, as finished as possible, anyway, which is more how I see a story that I think is ready for submission) until I have gone through that final draft for the purpose of examining every single individual word. Is this word necessary? Yes, I think it is. Can you justify that belief? Yes, I think I can. Okay, how about this word? You know, now that you ask me, I have to say that this word is unnecessary. There, it’s gone. Okay, how about this word? And so on.


And so ends my part of this tour! Next week, my friend and fellow alum Stephanie Friedman will talk about her process. Stephanie writes short stories that start off quiet but then sneak up on you before you’re quite prepared, which makes the surprise revelation or action or image particularly satisfying. As I’ve told her a couple of times, her work reminds me of Grace Paley, and I don’t see how a writer can ever go wrong doing that. She’s also an astute reader, a generous teacher, a loving wife and mom, and just an all-around thoroughly fantastic person. Here’s a page devoted to the Daily Shorty week Stephanie did with me. Her bio:

Stephanie Friedman is the program director of the Writer’s Studio, a continuing education program in creative writing at the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. Her work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, and online for Hunger MountainBlood Orange Review, and Literary Mama. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.

Stephanie intends to post Saturday, March 15, here.

My friend Cheryl Wilder will do a post for this tour, as well, here. And I particularly enjoyed Diane Lefer’s and Laurie Cannady’s stops on the tour. Happy reading!

February’s Daily Shorty Week

28 Feb
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien is my all-time favorite suspense novel.

In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien is my all-time favorite suspense novel.

I am so uninterested in writing a novel, and so annoyed at those who think of short stories as stepping stones to book-length fictions, that I based my graduation lecture in my MFA program on the declaration that short story writers need never even think of writing a novel. Which likely guaranteed, I thought at the time, that I would, one day, pine to write one. Would I tell anyone, I wondered, when that day came?

Writer friends: That day has not yet arrived. Thank you, World, for Pride and Prejudice and Song of the Lark and Mrs. Dalloway and Lolita and Wide Sargasso Sea. Keep up the good work! I’ll be over here, dancing with Chekhov, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Gina Berriault, Etgar Keret, Aimee Bender, the incomparable George Saunders. Oh, and gulping my latest mystery.

A mystery! Now there’s something I’d love to write. Something? Somethings. A series! One after another, galloping along with humor and only the coziest kind of gore, or maybe slithering in noir shadows dragging along empty whiskey bottles and dirty needles, possibly buttoned into the uniform of a police procedural and slinging a gun with the safety off. Oh, I could get behind a mystery series, hell yeah. Why I haven’t before “counted” mysteries as novels, I don’t know—some silly, delusional genre-posturing, I suppose. Yet how I would love to write something half as good as a favorite mystery.

Writer friends: Correction. The day, I fear, has arrived. I do not wish to write a book about coming of age on a motorcycle road trip or battling cancer in a remote fishing village or weathering a mid-life crisis in Italy. I don’t have a new perspective on the Holocaust or a tale of three mothers or a fascination with Wall Street. But I’ve got some mystery-love to pour on the page. And so was born in February a new approach to Daily Shorty.

I love Sara Gran’s fresh approach. This second Claire Dewitt is particularly good and I’m really looking forward to the next.

My assignment the first 7 days of February was to do a freewrite, each day, on a mystery idea that’s been sitting in the back of my mental filing cabinet for a few years. After I wrote one freewrite, I’d give myself a specific assignment to tackle in my freewrite the next day. The overall goal was to finish the week with a set of plot possibilities and character sketches to inspire some research I’ll have to do to pursue my rough idea for the mystery. So not my usual Daily Shorty week, and no Story Facts to share. Just my confession that I might yet lurk in the land of the novel. Packing heat, of course.

First Week of January 2014: Done!

7 Jan

800px-Mmm..._fish_sammich_(4620256228)Celebrate my final story of the week with me by feasting on this gorgeous fish sandwich and onion rings. Mmm. Today I learned from my mistake the last two days and prioritized writing, and because I did I was reminded, once again, of how much joy it brings me to sit and compose, compose, compose. I do a lot of staring and re-reading, editing heavily as I go. I think hard, distract myself, think hard again. I re-imagine that turn, try something new, discard it, try something else, and so on and on, at a fat, sleepy snail’s pace. Sure, occasionally a story comes raging out, words tumbling to the page faster than I can type them almost, but typically drafting for me is just that slow and meticulous, and it is never, ever tedious. Anyway, I’ll save my reflections on the week for my next post and finish here with a note on the day’s shorty: For some unfathomable reason, I went wandering into sci-fi territory today, of all things into post-apocalyptic land. I had a pretty full picture of the world I was in and I was determined to write a piece that rendered that world in as few words as possible. I don’t know that I was successful—the piece is strange and maybe confusing. But I loved writing it and I hope I’ll come back to it, see how I can make it better. For now, big congrats to me for another glorious week of writing a story every day! It was a lovely way to say hello to 2014.

Working Title: “Deliverance”
1st Sentence: A woman stood at the front of the room, wearing a floor-length, plush, glittering scarlet robe, its train as long as she was tall and snaking behind and then around to curl at her feet.
Favorite Sentence: The almost-thought that had been born in her an instant ago, wordless, unacknowledged, the… impression that had already transmuted into mental vapor, it had at first the shape and texture of “why.”
Word Length: 405

Scrumptious picture found here.

Hint Fiction!

6 Jan

I have heard of “hint fiction” but have never dared to hope that I could write a successful story in fewer than 100 words. I can’t say this little bitty shorty works—it doesn’t. The material is flat. But I do like the way I played with language to merely hint at a situation. Sadly, the imagined situation is just not that interesting. But I like pushing for as short as possible, so I’m happy with this bit of practice. I wrote the shorty by starting with an image that came to me with attendant words, then writing from that to a natural end, which is the most common way I generate stories. I probably should have done a better job of imagining what might lie behind that image if I wanted to capture emotional truth, something compelling. Next time! Oh, and it couldn’t have helped that I woke up with the husband’s announcement that the toilet wouldn’t flush. Another day packed with other concerns and story coming up only at the end of it….

Working Title: “Odds”
1st Sentence: That tight-lipped smile, the one with her chin up, her arms crossed over her chest, the one that sat on her rigid face for a long, slow count to ten, easy, probably longer.
Favorite Sentence: Same as above.
Word Length: 52

Art + Story?

5 Jan

In keeping with my practice during my year of story, I haven’t always blogged a shorty this week on the same day I wrote it, but once I write the post that goes with the shorty, I date it to match the date I composed the draft. I’m writing this post now late evening January 7, after having written my final story for this Daily Shorty week, so my reflections here are influenced by a few days of hindsight. In any case, one question that came up for me this week is whether doing arts and crafts feeds my writing—a friend recently asked me that question and I was surprised to find that I had no answer. On Sunday January 5, I had an appointment first thing in the morning (when I usually take my first crack at the day’s story), then spent the vast majority of the day working on a craft project, something like 8 or 9 hours. Then I wrote the day’s shorty just before bed. My answer, for that day, is no, my other creative work didn’t feed my writing. I was tired and drained from focusing on my project for so many hours and I’m sure that didn’t help me with story-brain. But in general I have to believe that doing anything creative feeds not only other creative pursuits but our spirit otherwise. Do I have to believe it because I sense that it’s true or just because it suits me to believe so? Not sure. Anyway, I’m surprised to find that although I struggled to come up with the day’s shorty, definitely regretted all those hours spent on something else, and felt no great love for the writing that night, I’m pleased with it now. It’s very short and has a nice little punch at the end. A submittable keeper maybe not, but I have some affection for it. Success!

Working Title: “Tearless”
1st Sentence: He’s seen her cry over a fallen cake, a broken shoelace, the first birdsong of the season.
Favorite Sentence: She once teared up over a fortune cookie and she has been brought to shuddering sobs, twice in his presence, by a nature show.
Word Length: 123

Already a tough one!

4 Jan

I didn’t expect to have to push hard for a story when doing only one week of shorties, but I’m crossing a lot of other things off my list, too, this first week of January, so my energy level is not so high. I stayed up later than I wanted to with absolutely no ideas, then finally wrote something in a rush. It’s not a keeper but I do like the idea, so maybe I’ll come up with a better version one day. Still, easy ones or tough ones, nothing compares to the high of producing a story every day for any stretch of time. It’s just lovely to be making things.

Working Title: Being Tammi
1st Sentence: Since regression therapy she had insisted on being called Princess Mariponi.
Favorite Sentence: Still it was Prima this, Prima that. And so Princess Mariponi did what any self-respecting princess would do, she put a princess foot on the back of the old lady’s chair and gave it a princess push.
Word Length: 405

More Brutal Cold, More Disconnect

3 Jan

Winter Campus AveI think for writers all personal experience inevitably lends itself in some way to our stories but I wonder about things that feel so abstract as landscape and weather. It’s been TOO COLD here in Maine these first few days of the year, so I have been spending all my time in the house, cut off even from my beloved snow-shoveling–despite quality snow boots and socks, my crummy toes can stay out in sub-zero weather for only about 45 minutes before I’m in danger of the first stage of frostbite. And as it happens, the shorty I wrote each day starred a deeply disconnected person. Coincidence?

Working Title: “Basically Poison”
1st Sentence: She had declared her love for the Russian novelists and he had stuttered something about Conrad and she blinked, tensed.
Favorite Sentence: Did he know that tomatoes were in the nightshade family and would he eat the second cousin of hemlock, no he would not, so why do we eat tomatoes and eggplant when they’re basically poison?
Word Length: 256

This is one of my favorite snow pictures, taken by my husband on a street very near our house, in a far less brutal winter.

A Day To Bundle Up and Write!

2 Jan

imageSerious sub-zero weather, today. I had to come back in from shoveling snow after only 45 minutes of fun because I realized that my toes had moved from ordinary uncomfortably cold to really hurting. That kind of cold is sneaky. Most of the day I was fortunate to be inside, peering at the falling snow and windblown branches while I wordsmithed this little shorty. I hope I always remember to be grateful to be a writer.

Working Title: “Just So”
1st Sentence: If here and inclined to comment, Saul would agree.
Favorite Sentence: The William Tell Overture was “too full of itself,” even if that was the point, still, just… too.
Word Length: 195

Here’s a recent picture of our house. I was trying to get a good photo of that tree covered in ice to the right, the sun sneaking through… anyway. That was just a few days ago and already we have twice the snow. I have no idea where we’re going to put it all.

A Week of Story for 2014

1 Jan

Laptop peek sized iiI couldn’t resist. I’m doing a Daily Shorty week these first 7 days of January. I’ve taken a really long break and it’s time to jump back into my writing world. What better way to do it than to write 7 stories in 7 days?

Working Title: “Ancient Greek for Doom”
1st Sentence: This last year in particular she had looked for it, the thing that would finally lay her flat.
Favorite Sentence: “Marketing Coordinator” in black and white but really administrative assistant, those lunch-and-learns on ancient Greek thus entirely wasted.
Word Length: 341

Ahh. Typing out those story facts was almost as satisfying as writing the story. Thank you, 2014! I love you already.

In Defense of Scribble

23 Jul
A scribbled page in one of the notebooks I carried around during my Daily Shorty year.

A scribbled page in one of the notebooks I used during my Daily Shorty year.

I’ve been brainstorming names for a writing project, and one of the words I played with is “scribble.” Not a good idea, said my husband, “Scribbling is bad.” The word “scribble,” said my friends, should never be applied to a professional enterprise. Nor, for that matter, to an adult one. I expected my smart sounding board to object to the word because of course I know just as well how it’s used. Yet scribbling is such an important part of the writing process.

If, unlike most writers, you are an excellent manager of your time, and you maintain a daily writing practice, say every morning from 6:00 to 8:00, you will, of course, reap benefits. But if you reserve your writing energy for that timeframe alone, you will miss opportunities to spice up your stories. Sure, Scribble doesn’t always dot her i’s and cross her t’s. Scribble badly needs a haircut, and a manicure wouldn’t hurt. But these are surface concerns. Harried, slovenly, too impulsive Scribble earns her right place in the writer’s work life by capturing inspiration in the fast-food line, on the stretch mat at the gym, in the produce section of the grocery store. Just caught yourself staring at a really bad polyester dress from Mrs. Brady’s closet? Did I hear you laugh because the guy in the car ahead of you ordered his burger in the cadence and volume of a Barnum & Bailey ringmaster? That’s Scribble-worthy.

Scribble rescues your story when you’re at a friend’s house for dinner, and between the salad and the salmon, you realize exactly what drives your hero to throw that jar of raspberry jam at the kitchen wall… but your keyboard didn’t come to dinner. Your purse containing that tiny pad of paper and pen, whispers Scribble, is in the foyer. Or you could use your phone to take notes, right, that fancy phone you use for GPS, for restaurant reviews, to check your e-mail? Maybe. But I’m convinced that pushing buttons that in turn print perfect letters neatly across your screen does not access the same bubbling mess—sweet mess, spicy mess—that comes from your scribbling pen, hand to page.

Professionals scribble. Adults scribble. The more scribbling the better. But I get it. Scribble doesn’t have a driver’s license nor a checking account. Scribble wears the same shirt three days in a row. Because she has no idea how to show a little decorum, Scribble will come only to those of us who don’t mind her bare feet and scraped knees. Okay. Until we play Pygmalion, dear Scribble—will you consider bangs?—you will have to tiptoe in the margins. But then again, I think that’s just how Scribble likes it.

Prompt Power and Objectivity Fail

24 May

I just realized that all five of the shorties I have published so far have two things in common. (1) I wrote each one with the use of a writing prompt. The prompts I used included a photo, a paragraph I had written and stored in my idea file, and three paintings. The shorties are “Her Postcards” from September 18, “Reflections” from October 17, “High Water” from December 5, “Vanilla” from January 17, and “Imaginary i” from January 19.

Honeymoon Bay SunsetInterested in writing prompts? I often used a “Picture of the Day” at Wikimedia Commons for inspiration. Here’s one for you, if you’d like to stop right now and let it inspire a story. Go!

(2) Despite my understanding throughout my Daily Shorty year that the challenge was about process, and my insistence that the Inner Critic must be banned during the drafting phase, I habitually (and reflexively) commented in story posts when I considered a story a “keeper.” So under the “What the hell do I know” file: I made no such comment about any of these five shorties. Apparently I was underwhelmed when I first wrote them and only discovered their worth later, when I selected them for submissions. Good to be reminded that initial judgments should always be questioned.

Photo of Honeymoon Bay, Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia, by JJ Harrison 7/2009.