MTV Real World meets Golden Girls
This past week, I've been residing at a residency for writers. St. Nells, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was started by writer and illustrator Emily Flake, to provide women with a space to write their humor, without having to cook or clean or answer questions like, "but are women even funny?" Coincidentally, that question didn't come up all week.
I'm grateful to the other women involved in this social experiment -- Emily, Wendi Aarons, and Johanna Gohmann -- for their company and comedy. After a stressful year-plus of hiding inside our homes, I found it curiously enchanting to hide in someone else's home, do laughing with two other women, listen to vinyl records on a phonograph machine, and dilute our humors with spirits. I guess the biologists were right: We are primates, after all. Side note on the topic of evolution: The pandemic seems to be over in central Pennsylvania. Like we say in the red states: Delusion is 90% of the law. I did have to deal with some rather funny looks for wearing a mask in the grocery store. Or maybe it was my Burberry trench coat. I guess we'll never know!
The scene outside the front window. Rural! America!
I could write an entire blog about my juvenile eating habits this week -- there is apparently no ceiling on peanut butter sandwiches, when I don't have to cook -- but instead I want to send a shout out to the creative writing class at Lycoming College, taught by Phoebe Wagner. We, the golden residents, visited them on Friday, and talked about industry and craft. The kids were super cute. The mom in me just wanted to make them all soup, and pinch their faces, and make sure they're using sunscreen. Fortunately for everyone involved, the writer in me stopped the mom in me from being cringey like that. Unfortunately for everyone involved, I was cringey in a totally different way; more like the degenerate cops in Super Bad.
But we did talk about writing! They had great questions. All were on point for a blog about the writing craft. So for learning reasons, I want to share some of the topics we covered.
How do we write about people who ARE NOT US? It's a big question and one I've obviously brought up on this very blog before, specifically in regards to my historical novel, and race. And I talked about that a little bit. But putting aside identity categories, their question prodded at something more mystical: How do we imagine things? And where do our ideas come from? Trust your imagination, we said. There are universes in there. But to generate ideas, it's also important to get out and get some of that life. Life fills in our experience and exposes us to difference and dimensions. As Voldemort says in the new James Bond movie: The goal of man is to live, not exist. And so on.
How do you deal with imposter syndrome? We smirked because of course, we'd just been texting -- from our respective work spaces -- about how insecure we felt. Almost every writer I know feels it, super bad. It's hard work, fishing through the memorabilia in your brain, and communicating it intelligibly and cleverly to other people. I suggested that the student try to block out that noise, and focus instead on being authentic, figuring out their voice, what they want to say. We would compare our lives away, and for what? Because we believe the gatekeepers? That's a purely rhetorical question since the gatekeepers, whoever they are, probably don't even believe themselves.
How do you change a character you've already written? One student discussed a character they wrote as "a ball of rage," and wanted to know how to give the character more dimension. We talked about how external events and other people can change us in real life -- none of us is forever constant -- and so they do in creative writing, as well. We also discussed how a character can FEEL one way, but a narrator can SHOW them as more complex. Maybe she's a ball of rage in her mind, but in a scene with another character, demonstrates patience and generosity. But I also said, and I stand by this, who isn't a ball of rage these days? Look at the world.
Do you ever feel like you're just a bad writer? I mean, lol, I wrote one book which I love that almost nobody bought, and another book I love that hasn't sold at all. I am a successful author like the pandemic is over in central Pennsylvania. Believe whatever you want! Just keep at it. There will always be better writers than you, but also many worse ones. That's my hope, anyway.
Last but not least, the practical question: How do you deal with not being able to write? Classic dilemma. Everyone is different. You have to trust your process. I think deep thoughts a lot before and during the writing process, which from the outside, probably looks like I am just napping on the couch with my dog. Some stuck writers take walks, runs, showers. These are all good strategies, and also keep you healthy and clean! Don't forget to put on your sunscreen after your shower! But at the end of the day, the best answer is just, keep working. Get in the chair. Practice, practice, practice. Muscle Memory. Ten thousand hours. All of that.
That's the residency report. All the news that's fit to print, anyway. Thanks also to the Otto Bookstore and its customers, for letting us crash your space, and read to you. I am especially grateful to the woman who wanted to buy a copy of my book, which I didn't have, because Jeff Bezos owns all of them now. And Williamsport, next time you want an expert from Wisconsin to regale you with wisdom, may I suggest you invite Aaron Rodgers to present his ground-breaking research in the field of epidemiology?
Doctor Rodgers, MD, PhD, maybe VD.