Wednesday, March 27, 2013

NaNoWriSpr: On Guilt, Conference Season, and Novel Writing

Okay, so no new pages lately--teaching and other academic endeavors have been winning the cage match lately, with two academic conferences this week and next at which to present my dissertation research, subs to get and prepare for when I'm gone, midterm grades having just been finished and handed back, various professional development opportunities to apply for, etc., etc., etc.

When it comes down to it, Livelihood has quite the right hook, especially just after spring break, when midterms coincide with Conference Season. It's a good thing an amazing stack of well-written midterms softened the blow. I love seeing my students learn and begin to grasp difficult concepts in depth.

But that doesn't mean Creative Writing and the DNiP are down for the count, by any means. For one thing, I just workshopped my third and last novel installment of the semester in my fiction writing class yesterday, and it went well. It feels good to know I'm on the right track. And I'll be taking the files with me while traveling in case of a spare hour or two. Hotel rooms can be good places to write.

Furthermore, it's not like my academic activities are really divorced or separate from my creative writing endeavors. My diss was about author-audience relationships in storytelling situations, after all, and I love that I get to go talk to others who are interested in the same things.

Plus, after a week away from the novel-writing absorption of spring break, I was reading through my current manuscript again last night and could see the benefits of the down time. I'm a bit worried about spending TOO much time away, but I'm in a really good place with it right now, so a couple of weeks of lower writing activity won't hurt, I don't think.

Plus, talking to other humans who are interested in similar things--and hearing interesting papers about a wide range of topics--will be good for me, and I'm sure to enjoy it. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, stimuli that doesn't always seem to move my immediate projects forward can inspire me in ways I would not have expected. And as I've been realizing more and more lately, one of the things I most love in life--that animates me the most, and drives projects stemming from all my selves, whether professional or creative or social--is a good nuanced dialogue about interesting and important things.

[With great effort, picks up boulder of DNiP guilt and sets it outside of the suitcase she's packing.] This will be a good week and a half.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How Teaching Has Helped My Writing, Part Deux

So I'll admit it--when I went on Spring Break a little more than a week ago, I was very ready to bid Teaching goodbye, to thumb my nose and bid adieu (or at least au revoir for 10 days). Other than a few necessary academic tasks, I wanted to absorb myself fully in my novel process, which was tugging me toward it with the force of a very insistent small child.

I assuaged my guilt about this treatment of Teaching by writing my most recent post. But while I meant it, I was thrilled that the DNiP* had won the Writing vs. Teaching cage match for a short while.

And I'll tell you, I thoroughly enjoyed my week with the DNiP. I dove in full force. I vised. I revised. I read source materials and writings from my era. While I never seem to be able to achieve the 20 pages per week I long for, I won through to 74 pages of draft and felt confident about the first 50 of them. It was great. I realized that if I stay on this pace I'll be at a very respectable 150 pages by the end of the semester, which would leave me on track to finish the manuscript this summer.

And then it was Sunday, and I emerged from my cave. Someone asked me a simple question. I'm pretty sure I gave an answer that might have made sense. I wasn't sure. But at that point the pit in my stomach clenched up a bit, knowing that the upcoming summer of time alone with my DNiP might become a problem. See, it's possible that too much time alone with one's fictional creations and absorbed in that world could potentially be a bad thing for my social skills.

After the summer, will I be able to pull out of this daze I develop in these hermit-like spates of writing? Will I remember how to interpret and create appropriate non-verbal stimuli? Will I be able to converse on normal subject matter?

These questions are real (if slightly hyperbolic). At any rate, they drove me to very much enjoy the sociability of my teaching interactions yesterday. It's good to practice stringing sentences together orally so that an immediate audience can understand them. To focus on subjects that aren't associated with this all-consuming project that has such strong pull. To have a break from some of the heavy subjects and emotions that come with the research and writing.

Yup, this might have been the biggest reason for Marilynne Robinson's aversion to the writing life sans teaching I mentioned in the last post. I'm going to have to schedule some good regular social time this summer to balance out the solitude and absorption inherent in my writing time. Yes indeed.

*Dear Novel-in-Progress.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How Teaching Has Helped My Writing

I'll never forget what Pulitzer-prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson said once during an interview at Calvin College's Festival of Faith & Writing. It boiled down to the fact that she doesn't do well when she can't teach along with her writing.

At the time, not having had much experience with teaching, I thought it was sort of a funny thing to say. But now, having had several more years of teaching experience under my belt, I'm beginning to get it. I'm not sure that teaching is quite as indispensable to me as it is to Marilynne. But then, right now I'm deep into a particular project, and quite enjoy the times when I can be fully absorbed in its world.

But I can also see that my experience with teaching--and I do love teaching--has definitely helped improve my writing, both that for academic audiences and creative projects. This semester I'm really seeing the fruits of teaching in these seemingly non-teaching-related tasks.

Take my academic writing task for this morning. Since I'm going to present at the Popular Culture Association conference in a few weeks, I had to take an aspect of my nearly-300 page dissertation and turn it into an 8 page paper to present in 15-20 minutes. The fact that the last few years of teaching has given me experience in just how much complex information I can translate for students in a short amount of time helped me to complete this task in a short amount of time. (And of course the fact that I regularly teach public speaking didn't hurt either: I've planned several spots where I hope to draw the audience into the presentation through asking them questions, for instance.)

But academic writing isn't the only way that my teaching experience has been useful. In my NaNoWriSpr novel manuscripting project, I've noticed that my practice in persuading students to be interested in learning subjects they see to be boring or difficult has helped me in writing my novel as well.

After all, one can't assume one's readership comes into a novel automatically liking it, and so you have to make a strong case for their attention both at the beginning but also throughout the story while dispensing the right kind of background information at the right times. Watching where my students' attention flags--and knowing the same material strikes different classes in different ways--has helped me to be aware that my reader is likely doing the same with my writing at times.

Unlike with my teaching, I don't have immediate non-verbal feedback with my writing. My teaching experience has taught me, therefore, to get feedback during my development process from as many readers as possible to see how different types of people respond to my story. This, like my students' faces, helps me to see how well I'm doing to engage a range of people without relying too much on a single reader experience. And when a theme pops up over time in my reader feedback--as it tends to both in students' faces and in student evaluations--I know I need to consider how to adjust to better engage my audience.

Yup, I'm beginning to get a sense of why Marilynne Robinson said what she said about the teaching. Without the feedback, the practice in translating things for others, the face-to-face interaction with others in a setting like teaching, the process in writing can become a little disconnected from these crucial concepts. Like Marilynne, I'm thankful for the teaching experience I've been granted so far.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

NaNoWriSpr: On Vising and Revising

Here's the primary difference between what I'm doing this spring in what I'm calling NaNoWriSpr, in which I'm trying to write most of a 75,000 word novel in 4 months, and what is usually attempted during NaNoWriMo, in which writers try to write 50,000 words in a month: I'm researching, planning and especially revising as I go.

Of course, this doesn't mean I hadn't planned and researched in advance. I didn't have an outline, but I'd first conceived the novel (and written the first two paragraphs) in 2007. I've been researching on and off since then. And starting last fall but particularly over the Christmas break I tried to finish reading what I thought were the primary research texts, having all the supplementary ones (I thought) ready to go for when I needed them. I had a big picture idea of what might happen in my story, at least the first part, and the primary characters were coming into view.

And I am so glad I wasn't thinking I had done enough to plow this out in a month or two.

See, this is a complex novel, and as I'd mentioned, it's set in a different place and time. I had looked into the era a little bit--read a book or two--and had done a heck of a lot more research on certain aspects of the story and its genre, but that didn't mean I'd read enough memoirs of the time or the times before that my characters would have lived through or had read through enough books or articles about my setting and events of the period. I'd spent a lot of time developing my main character and getting into his head, but I still felt some distance from him and was still working to get to know the others.

And so the first stages and drafts of the early chapters have taken a lot of what I've come to call vising time: others might call it visioning or planning. I've needed to immerse myself by researching the era and reading memoirs and watching documentaries, much as one seeks to learn a language by immersion.

And like learning a language, I've of course tried writing about these people and their times and given the early efforts to a few other people to see whether they felt I was getting it right to communicate engagingly with the modern reader (which is of course the bigger trick, as in this case I'm learning a language only for translation to those who aren't familiar with it). The workshops in my fiction-writing class have been tremendously helpful in this, as have a few helpful friends.

As with learning a language, they've been kind in these early efforts to point out the places where I wasn't quite getting it right. This has supplemented the clarity a sleep can bring to my own distance from my writing to see where it can be improved. And both processes have encouraged me to go back and hone my writing to make sure I was going in the right direction. I'm still working on this, but I can already tell the efforts have borne fruit.

See, for me, I really can't imagine trying to make a draft without all of these processes involved at once, which is why NaNoWriSpr feels so much more reasonable and manageable than NaNoWriMo to me. At the same time, I'm thankful for the NaNoWriMo model, as it reminds me it's okay to push myself and that immersion in the writing act is a useful way to go.

So even though I haven't technically hit my "new pages" limits,  I'm pleased to announce that I've written 60 on-their-way-to-good pages with six weeks down and ten to go.  I'm thrilled about this, in fact, as the early parts of the novel are the most important to get just right in so many ways, and now that I know where I'm going and I've introduced most of my characters it will go faster, I hope.  But even if I stick to my 10 pages per week average (which wouldn't be surprising as I expect to continue to revise a lot as I go, and the amount of pages for revising continues to grow) I'll get to my goal within six or seven months, with a much much better draft than I had for my Novel in a Drawer after I finished the first draft in 18 months.

I'm getting better at this. And faster. I can tell. Which is encouraging, as this is a much more complex project than the previous one.

Man, this is fun. Exhausting at times, but fun.