For my eleventh birthday, my father gave me Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. The book is composed of 316 unanswerable questions, a mix of comic, surreal, poignant, and Orphic. “What color is the scent of the blue weeping of violets?” writes Neruda. “If I have died and don’t know it of whom do I ask the time?” “In what language does rain fall over tormented cities?”
Later, in my twenties, when I worked as a journalist, my job, essentially, was to ask questions. Perhaps those years as a newspaper reporter fine-tuned my ear for questions in fiction, because whenever I come across one, something shifts inside. The distance collapses between the protagonist and me, and I find myself standing alongside the character, pondering whatever question has been posed. It’s almost as if the character and I are in limbo, a point in which we are lost, either having risen to a hilltop of false promise or descended into existential despair. It’s a wonderful point in a story, because now it feels like the narrative could head an entirely new direction. Continue reading
Pigeon Feathers led to Problems and Other Stories, to Trust Me, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Seek My Face, and The Widows of Eastwick. I didn’t set out to make a knick in Updike’s massive oeuvre; rather, I got sucked in, his writing mesmerizing me with one explosive image after another. Ultimately I was humbled—my writing felt anemic compared to his—and inspired to work harder, see more.
Donald Trump’s presidency has ushered in a new era of protests, with people flooding the streets to resist his agenda. In just six months we’ve seen the Women’s March, the March for Science, the Not My President March, the March for Truth, and the first ever protest in space, by the Autonomous Space Agency Network—along with many others.
Sunil Yapa wonderfully captures the visceral experience of a protest, albeit one that turns violent, in his debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It’s November 30, 1999, when tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in downtown Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization conference at the city’s convention center. Continue reading
In nearly every creative writing workshop I’ve taught, someone asks for more—more details, more specificity, more singularity. Rarely does anyone recommend vagueness or imprecision.
In story, you need both. Specificity brings your characters to life, moving them from cliché to a complex, idiosyncratic individual. Specific details also flesh out the narrative dream, helping the reader experience your fictive world.
But lack of specificity, giving only a partial glimpse, can create suspense and an opening for the reader to engage more fully in the story. By being imprecise, you spark a reader’s imagination, and the result is a richer, more engaging experience. James Baldwin uses lack of specificity to great effect in his stunning short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Continue reading
When I first read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I felt as if she’d scooped me up and placed me in her imagined world. On my second read, I was enveloped again, but this time, I was aware of the plethora of commas, semicolons, dashes and parentheses, and how effectively they not only knit her sentences together, but pinned me to the page, propelling me deeper into the character’s mind.
Punctuation. So easy to neglect, so necessary to create style. Some of our most famous writers have strong opinions about punctuation. Gertrude Stein said of the comma, it’s “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.” José Saramago refuses to douse his prose with punctuation: “Punctuation is like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you traveled.” Continue reading
In a recent interview, George Saunders said, “Writing is about charm, about finding and accessing and honing one’s particular charms.” For me, humor has overwhelming, alluring charm. Anyone who can make me laugh instantly takes on a special, shimmering gold aura. As one student once wrote in my teacher evaluation, “I learned a lot, but she laughs a lot.”
Alas, usually I’m the audience, laughing at the joker, because the only person in the world who thinks I’m funny is my husband. (Though everyone thinks he’s funny). It’s a sad thing, since my work-in-progress novel is supposed to be a romantic comedy.