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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Writing advice

Illustration: Shared Worlds showcase booklet from last summer, the work of that interesting designer, John Coulthart.

Jeremy Jones, the director of Shared Worlds, has sent me a couple of questions to answer by Tuesday . . . Evidently they will be linked up both to Jeff Vandermeer’s Booklife site and to the Shared World online resources—something like that. (I'll be visiting Wofford for Shared Worlds in July.) So I’m going to fool around with answers here and let them age a day and redo them before I send them off. Unfortunately, I have a terrible memory for just this sort of topic. Perhaps that’s fine; only the big things will stick.

Feel free to criticize!

What is the worst piece of writing advice you've ever received? And how'd you figure out it was bad advice?
I’m not very fond of the advice “write about what you know” because I think it’s too bald and not nuanced enough. Aren’t we always writing about what we know, whether we are writing about another universe or an Anglo-Saxon mead hall? We can’t get away from what we know, no matter how we try.

But I would rather talk about the worst advice that turned out best. One day when I was teaching—I quit teaching as soon as I got tenure and promotion, being of a contrary turn of mind—one of my colleagues said to me, “What does the world need with another poem?” He had no idea of such a question meaning anything to me at all. It was a joke, and I knew it was a joke. But you see, I was a poet until he said those words to me. Then, abruptly, I could not write a poem. It stopped me up completely! So it seemed, indeed, “bad advice.”

Because I could not see how people live without making things, I had to do something else. On the weekends I began writing stories. A year later I was writing a short novel. I was no longer a poet but a writer of fictions. One day I committed a poem—I was a poet again. But something marvelous had happened during the time when I could write no poems. Writing fiction had changed me a great deal. It seemed to me that all my prior poetry was simply too small. I wanted the new poems to be bigger. Sometimes I wanted them to tell stories or to be dramatic. At the same time, I wanted the poems to be as different from fiction as possible, and I picked up all the old tools that I had been advised not to use—the things that we were too advanced to use anymore—like meter and rhyme and delightful, puzzling forms.

Now I move back and forth from poetry to fiction and back again. Each changes the other. Each brings something to the other. The world is always in need of another story or poem—a living story or poem—even though the world does not know it, for the most part. And that is fine with me.

What is the best piece of general writing advice you've ever received? And how did you put it to good use?

The advice I frequently give is to finish what you begin because you learn a great deal by forcing yourself to finish a thing, no matter how ill it looks to you! Solving problems by doing is the only way to move forward as a young writer. “Finish” is advice I dole out often to my daughter, who is a teenage writer and artist and much more.

But what is the best piece of advice that I’ve ever received?

I was a maniacal reader as a child, so it certainly wasn’t advice to read. That is good advice if you’re not much of a reader, but how could you desire to become a writer if you had not been a reader? Every writer has been mad to read at some point.

Writing every day is excellent advice, but I don’t do it. I doubt any mother with three children does.

Probably the best piece of advice I missed entirely was when poet Michael Harper told me with an air of surprise that I was quite good with form. I had tossed off three or four formal poems for an exercise, and everybody else in our group refused to write any at all. If I had taken Michael Harper's remarks seriously, I might have discovered something about myself and what I loved that took me years to find out on my own because I was under the thumb of what the world said was the thing to do.

But you ask about the best piece of advice that I took and used.

“There are no rules that can’t be broken.” I’m sure somebody said something like that to me early on, and it is true. Rules have a kind of fascination for us. We welcome most the ones that seem like something we already believe or do. We enjoy the silly or odd ones. We ignore the rest. But there is almost no important rule that cannot be overturned. (Some of the seemingly minor ones like not overusing adverbs or using complicated dialogue tags like “he gargled through a mouthful of hot soup” are impossible to overturn except in the case of comedy and satire.) I wonder what the biggest rule that I have broken might be. I tend to be violently allergic to doing the same thing twice, and that is precisely what many publishers want us to do: the same thing twice. Or thrice. Etc. Perhaps that is my broken rule.

Or perhaps I have just broken the rule that says that one must answer questions in a straightforward and sensible manner. Yes, no doubt I have just broken that good rule.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My 4th Flea

Scratch my fourth flea at that inimitable house of fleas run by Mr. Paul Stevens, time-traveling roisterer of The Mermaid Tavern. More fleas provided by Mark Blaeuer, Temple Cone, Sally Cook, Kevin Cutrer, Ann Drysdale, Martin Elster, Angela France, Alan Gould, Patricia Wallace Jones, Rose Kelleher, Dane Kuttler, Amit Majmudar, John Milbury-Steen, Timothy Murphy, Shaun Russell, Joseph Salemi, Peter Wyton, and Leo Yankevich. I am, as usual, last: In the Celtic Twilight. And for my new book news, pop down to the next post.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Book news

Picture credit and Edison's Frankenstein:

The picture at left is nabbed from Cate Gardner , who says that I have "the most gorgeous signature in the known universe." That's an unusual subject for praise, but I thank her. (Go to "A Little Man of Letters" to find out the truth about my once-horrible handwriting.) Catherine J. Gardner has a story in the anthology, Edison's Frankenstein from P. S. Publishing. That is her very own copy, lying on what I presume is her very own bedspread. I just got my big fat signed-and-slipcased copy only a couple of minutes ago so I haven't read hers yet. My story, "The Horse Angel," is on the Locus Recommended list for 2009. There's a longish discussion of it at Tangent. I notice that Tangent picked "The Red King's Sleep," another story of mine from a P. S. Anthology (Enemy of the Good), for their 2009 recommended reading list.

Monday in truth and metaphysically

I'm ransacking the house for documents lost after a trip to the DMV. It's definitely a Monday. Since I wasn't along on trip or return, I'm just looking everywhere... Meanwhile I just got a letter that I was a semi-finalist for the Donald Justice Poetry Award. That's a book award for formal poetry from the West Chester University Poetry Center. I would have preferred to win--hate that bridesmaid feeling. But I haven't submitted to a book contest in years and probably won't again. I don't really care for contests. More of that Monday feeling. No doubt I shall enjoy the books by the two winners, Ned Balbo and Amit Majmudar.

News on upcoming books

I'm starting to look for early fall events for 2011's The Throne of Psyche (Mercer University Press), so anybody who wants to put an event on my dance card can write me at camellia [at] If I don't write back, you were eaten by the filter and can leave me a note at facebook or here. I'll be doing readings or talks at bookstores and other places--will visit local groups under certain conditions.

In 2011 and 2012, I'll have two more short novels out from P. S. Publishing in the UK. One is Glimmerglass. Despite the fact that I have not lived in Cooperstown for the requisite thirty years, I have once again written a book related to the place, although it is more related to some of the stories I have written about it. Glimmerglass plays with the fictional quality of Cooperstown--this weird place where people regularly talk about Cooper's fictional places, where we have our own lake monster, where we have Kingfisher Tower in the lake and a Norman tower in the woods, where the line between fictional and real is a little frayed. This is a story about an unmarried woman at mid-life who considers herself a failed painter but who has a kind of resurrection in this landscape. I've imagined her living in a charming old gatehouse near the Fenimore Museum. There is an embodied Muse, a flood, a house that leads into a hill, a labyrinth, a love, the possibility of murder, and much more.

The other book is Maze of Blood, a nice pulpy title for a short novel inspired by that unhappy writer, Robert Howard. He has an "E." in the middle, but evidently the name is trademarked! I've long thought his life fascinating in its peculiarly Southern frustrations and limitations, and I understand the place and time--it feels so kindred to my summers in Georgia as a child, moving from a sharecropper's flimsy house to a romantic Queen Anne and back again. I also feel that I understand his nature, having spent much of my life with people who are neurologically interesting, as he appears to have been.

And I ought to say thanks to Pete Crowther and Nick Gevers for pursuing my work. I adore being asked and of late have had the fun of more requests that I can fill.

In which I write Botendaddy

My attention has been drawn to this amusing note on my Wikipedia page under the "Discussion" tab. I didn't know there were discussion tabs, so this is interesting.

"Borderline but sufficient notoriety to be included as an entry. I do object to inclusion on the [[Cooperstown]] entry as it implies that she is a Cooperstown Writer. This is a very elite group and requires Upstate New York essence and authenticity. She may be an accomplished interpeter of the Lousiana experience and an excellent writer, but mere residence in America's greatest village does not qualify one as a Cooperstown Writer without more objective criteria to support this contention. With great respect and kindness...the Botendaddy.[[User:BotendaddyBotendaddy]] ([[User talk:Botendaddytalk]]) 20:33, 9 September 2008 (UTC)"

Dear Botendaddy,

Well, somebody pointed out this curious note to me! The fact is that I published a novel set in this area as far back as 1996 ("Catherwood" from Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and that I have published many, many stories and poems with a Coopertown setting. My tenth book will be set in Cooperstown. Botendaddy, you loyal native son of Cooperstown, I'm afraid you know absolutely nothing about my work. I have published precisely one short story about Louisiana. And having looked up your comments on Cooperstown-born writers, I would just like to say that you do not have to exclude another writer in order to praise the native-born one you would prefer to put forward. There is room in the village, in the round world, and in the great sea of words for many. In fact, it is precisely because we are many that the sea of words becomes rich and bright.

Good cheer, Marly


As I've had a request for a book of poems, I imagine that will be my next announcement, bookwise.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Alice, the Mother of Invention

Tenniel, Alice and the Dodo


I am Red-Queen wroth with Richard Corliss. In Time, the much-published film critic starts out a lively article on Burton’s treatment of Alice with the question, “Did many children truly love Lewis Carroll's Alice books? Did they embrace the absurdities and antique wordplay of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass with the same rapt fervor they invested in other favorite stories, or did they find the Carroll works dry and remote? Couldn't it be that kids were listening out of politeness to the big person sitting by their bed? Martin Gardner, author of the 1960 The Annotated Alice, thought so. ‘It is only because adults — scientists and mathematicians in particular — continue to relish the Alice books,’ he wrote, ‘that they are assured of immortality.’ Make that scientists, mathematicians and '60s potheads, who saw Alice's descent into the rabbit hole, the EAT ME cake and the mushroom-borne caterpillar as evidence of the first great psychedelic trip.” He ends his feature by referring to “the kids who find this film much livelier than earlier versions and easier to warm to than the original. And is Burton's vision trippy enough to serve as a hallucinogenic blast? Go ask Alice.”

High, all right.

Very high dudgeon.

I haven’t seen Tim Burton’s movie yet. N, age 12, saw it today and liked it. R will see it tomorrow with the group of high schoolers who are doing “Alice” as the senior play--and she will no doubt be more measured and analytical than N. In the senior play, R is playing the Dodo, although I would guess that in her heart of hearts she is Alice.

No doubt the rest of us shall get around to seeing the movie some time. Of course, it would be difficult for me to like a movie better than the original.

And that leads me back to Richard Corliss. He asks, “Did many children truly love Lewis Carroll’s Alice books?”

Dear Richard Corliss, I was given a slipcased copy of the two books when I was five years old and living in Gramercy, Louisiana, a suitably down-the-rabbit-hole kind of place where our tomato plants grew up into the live oak trees and giant spiders lived in holes in the back yard and where I wore earrings that were live lizards, their throats pulsing helplessly. And yes, I “truly loved” the Alice books. If love means to read them over and over, then I loved and loved dearly. I read them under the covers. In the tub. Down the rabbit hole and up in a tree. And over many years. The Alice books taught me the fine art of re-reading, which is the very best sort of reading and should never be discouraged in children.

“Did they embrace the absurdities and antique wordplay of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass with the same rapt fervor they invested in other favorite stories, or did they find the Carroll works dry and remote?”

a.) Yes, this “they” did—and with the fervor of a March Hare in intoxicating spring grass or a Mad Hatter spinning in a mercury hat.

b.) Dry and remote? Dry and remote?

Despite all of your charm and all of your fame as a movie critic, Richard Corliss, I am in the highest of dudgeons.

These are fertile books. Little boys and girls have grown up to draw and paint and write and compose who drank at the sparkling fount of Wonderland. Have any other books intended for children given birth to so astonishingly many illustrators? Or to so much opera, fiction, and art of all sorts?

“Couldn't it be that kids were listening out of politeness to the big person sitting by their bed?”

This is a very odd conception of children and is entirely too coy, Richard Corliss. Children do not listen to “the big person” out of a desire not to be rude. They just don’t. Any book that doesn’t hold its own is quickly jettisoned, either by being clearly rejected (verbally or by tossings) or by the child tumbling into that other Wonderland, slumber.

Mr. Corliss, I want to tell you in all confidence that there is something rather creepy about “the big person” you imagine sitting by the child’s bed. Perhaps “the big person” has crawled out of that horror zone under the bed with the dropped books, socks, and dust bunnies: the lair of monsters. To your imagined “big person,” I say to keep altogether out of my children’s rooms!

On a side note regarding rejections, it is wrong to think that any book can be the right book for every child, just as it is wrong to think that any book can be the right book for every “big person.”

I am not a “big person.” For once, I am relieved and satisfied to be 5’3”. And maybe a tad over that mark? But not more than a tad.

“Martin Gardner, author of the 1960 The Annotated Alice, thought . . . ‘It is only because adults —scientists and mathematicians in particular — continue to relish the Alice books,’ he wrote, ‘that they are assured of immortality.’”

And now I must go head-to-head with Martin Gardner, it seems . . . This is wrong-headed. What assures the immortality of the Alice books is that they are wonderfully, impossibly fecund! They give birth to new works of art and have done so over many years. That is, Richard Corliss, why you are writing a review about a movie sprung from Alice for Time: because a little girl called Alice is the mother of invention.

So there, dear Mr. Richard Corliss.

It’s a rather nice name, Richard Corliss.

I wonder if he would let me borrow it for a whirl of adventure . . .