Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: October, 2013

Speakers for the Dead

Stories and Stones Historical Tour, Missoula Cemetery, Missoula, MT (October 27, 2013)

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The Eyes Follow You

The Dollhouse, Florence, MT (October 26, 2013)

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Not Counting Down

Yep, NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. And mostly I’m trying not to think about the beginning of November because I have a kazillion things going on. And if I ponder deadlines too long, I’m going to drive myself mad.

I’ll probably be blogging rather sporadically here with short updates on my novel progress and archive writing prompts that I’ve tweeted on @NaNoWordSprints. Yes, I’ve been invited to be a sprint leader again this year. Apparently I didn’t scare anyone away last time. For those of you following the sprints, I’ll be starting the sprints at midnight for the Eastern, Central, and Mountain time zones on November 1. For the rest of the month, I’m currently scheduled for sprints every Monday through Saturday 10pm to midnight Mountain time and Sunday evenings (usually 8pm-10pm).

As for the novel itself, I’m trying something different this year in that I’m going to actually blog it. For the masochists who want to read along, my plot manglings will be posted here (also linked temporarily in the menu of this blog).

As a warning, I’ve been unusually scatterbrained this year in terms of novel planning. I only just found a name for my main character last Saturday. None of my other characters have names yet. Maybe when November hits, I’ll take my own advice I gave to someone recently and use a random name generator.

Gamboling Around A State Capitol

Helena, MT (October 20, 2013)

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Smoke But No Mirrors

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (October 19, 2013)

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Wilderness Not Far

Painted Rocks State Park, Darby, MT (October 6, 2013)

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Mountains in the Fall

Grand Teton National Park, northwestern Wyoming (October 19, 2013)

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Stuffed with Straw

Scarecrow Festival and Contest, Stevensville, MT (October 5, 2013)

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Writing Panel Notes, Part 4

On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Babes in the Woods: Nature Writing / Memoir
Panel members: Marjane Ambler, Christine Byl, Jo Deurbrouck, Gail Storey
Moderator: Andrea Peacock
Panel description: Pushing against expectations for nature writing/memoir—too often associated with the male voice–four female writers discuss how their outdoor experiences changed their lives, and their writing. Their personal stories offer a lens to view larger stories.

MA: My husband was hired by the National Park Service and I went as a spouse. We stayed in Yellowstone until 1993. I had a career that I could take with me for long walks although it was not strictly an individual experience. My book is about community in an unintended community of twelve people. It wasn’t strictly about nature. There were snowmobile problems so it was more man vs. machine than man vs. nature.

JD: My Dad was from Montana. He saw no reason to change his ways. He loves people from a distance–and I take after him. My book is set in Idaho with a protagonist who is a bear of a man where freedom is everything.

GS: I think nature should stay outside. My husband had worked in a hospice but his career was in crisis. Eventually he resigned from his job and decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn’t think that I would like it since I sensed it was not my thing. The learning curve was steep. So did I want to stay in bed or go with my husband on the trail? I decided to go–for conjugal rights. One night when my husband was staying up sewing up the gear, I said that sewing for some people was a sublimation for sex. But then sex is sublimation for those who can’t sew their own gear. I think self and the natural world has permeability. It’s the who am I question.

CB: I consider my book as an accident. I did not draw upon myself as a character. I had never written about Montana. But when I went to Alaska, I started writing about Montana. Stories about the crew is like ethnography. It’s an apprenticeship from naivety to mastery and competence. The term “nature writing” is almost meaningless now. I want to drop that.

Mod: You make the point that women are writing these stories. Why is that important?

MA: The subject matter is related to looking at people. Marriages, people working with each other, other communities that were totally dysfunctional. Women are important in the community fabric–they organize potlucks so people don’t dwell on things at home. The majority of books about the park service are written by ranger men. There was no history about the spouses. Spouses are key to the functioning of rangers long before women were hired.

JD: In many books, women are subtext. A male interviewer asked a mountaineer why he climbed the mountain and he replied that he climbed it because it was there. The interviewer didn’t ask about anything else. A woman interviewer wouldn’t stop with that question. A reviewer for my book said that he felt like a voyeur. But don’t you want to know what’s in the character’s mind?

GS: Following a man into wilderness may seem retro, but it was really a story about marriage. My mother was a feminist. I had the desire to be a great wife, something that my mother didn’t have. My husband already had an ex-wife, a son, and working at the hospice and I didn’t have him to myself. So by hiking the trail with him, I had him 24/7. It’s about trust.

CB: Gender is important in context. Women are a minority in subculture–you have to deal with it as the only woman on a crew. Being a woman is only one part of defining yourself. It’s not really about a woman in a man’s world. It’s anyone’s world. It’s a human story.

Mod: There’s a degree of absurdity in all of your books. There’s “manufactured adventures.” Does that make you lose your sense of wilderness?

MA: Absurd? Yes, indeed. We didn’t realize it was absurd until after the book came out. There’s a certain amount of self protection involved. You don’t get scared on the trail and you don’t admit to cabin fever–because if you do, you can’t do your job.

JD: It’s about how passion shapes and create lives. You have oddball adventures because everything has been done–so what to do now?

GS: While my husband was sewing gear, I threw dinner parties for my friends so it would be the last time I saw them if I died on the trail. I like being a domestic homemaker–I had never camped before. I was terrified of camping. My husband is a gourmet at camping food. So I was in charge of nesting when we made camp. I got the rocks so something wouldn’t get us in the night. I became stronger and discovered the deep feminine in the natural world. One time, I was frustrated that my husband always walked ahead so I ran ahead–and came face to face with a mountain lion. It was then I realized the deep feminine.

CB: Nature is totally absurd. Weather is absurd. The way bushes grow along the roads is absurd. There’s a tension between domestication and the absurdity of wilderness. We’re blurring the lines of wilderness and culture. It’s a good thing we set aside wilderness a long time ago or we’d be fucked. It’s a grounded absurdity, pushing against the perception that we’re in control.

Mod: There’s an undercurrent of Buddhism in your works. What is it about the natural world that lends itself to this mindset?

CB: There’s something about egolessness. You drop your guard. It’s possible when you’re grounded in your body and work.

GS: There’s a chapter in my book called “Blowing Away.” In the middle of the night, a huge wind came up. My husband left me alone and the wind blew me in the sleeping bag across the mountain. This was similar to the three months that we spent at a Buddhist monastery. When it’s quiet, things come up. The old self bubbles up. At the Buddhist retreat, we had a failed experience in camping. We didn’t have tent stakes so were were also blown away. It was raining so we ended up going back to the meditation hall for the night. We woke up with the meditators laughing at us. I’m interested in the essential self–and the awareness that we are deeper than our spiritual selves.

JD: I’ve tried, but I don’t understand it. I just hurt my knees. In one book, there is a cattle guard painted on a highway. It works on cows and humans. Boundaries are for the domesticated. We create boundaries, but the natural world doesn’t recognize them.

MA: Sometimes I get into a deep meditative state. It’s like when a bear is in the area and you become very aware.

GS: I’m curious about the structure of your books.

MA: It was a transition. It took twenty years for the book to become a book. It began as articles in journalism. There were rejections. I set it aside and then got a job where I had time to work on it. I used the structure from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as a backbone to hang the articles on it. But it required me to be the hero–a flawed hero. It was the only way to tie the experiences together.

JD: I love books that transcend type. Good books have layers of reality for different people and tension between the layers. Different tellers each have different truths.

CB: The structure of my book is why it’s a book. The backbone is a musing of what was needed for work. There’s an underlying chronological time line, but there are also pieces. The sense of place is fractured. It’s not linear. A place feels different over time. You don’t necessarily like it more the longer you’re there.

GS: My original idea was to juxtapose my journal with my husband’s journal to have two versions of the same event. But when I started comparing, I realized that his journal was just about food and God. His journal was ecstatic while my own journal was, “What the fuck am I doing here?” Mine was not sympathetic. When you’re hiking, it’s not peaceful. The mind gets busy with old trains of thoughts and issues. So my book showed different parts of life (like the blowing away events). I needed some way to let the reader know where we were. So the events on the trail were chronological. But the interior journey jumped around. My chapters had mileage headings.

Audience question: It’s difficult to balance the nature writing of elegiac disasters with hopeful memoirs. Can you speak about it?

CB: The elegiac mode is a certain strain of modern nature writing. Older nature writing is more optimistic. Me, I’m still trying to figure out the balance between hope and despair.

JD: I got defriended by a nature writer because I said that nature writing is not just about nature. It’s not just about the non-human centered world.

CB: It’s a web that we’re changing and destroying.

GS: Hope arises when change begins with ourselves. Despair is when people are still in deconstruction. We need to deconstruct the physical, the emotional, the psychological and finally the spiritual. If we’re collective, there’s hope.

JD: I’m bothered by the term “wilderness” in nature writing and the natural world.

CB: Despair is capitalism since you need to medicate. For hope, you don’t have to buy something to solve your problems.

Audience question: I don’t see a collective. I see conflict and people in denial.

GS: I agree, but we’re letting ourselves collectively fall apart. Even though people are different, there’s the shadow self of our culture.

Writing Panel Notes, Part 3

On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: The Art of the Short Story
Panel members: Greg Spatz, Sarah Stonich, Shawn Vestal, Claire Vaye Watkins
Moderator: Robert Stubblefield
Panel description: Sometimes short stories serve as laboratories for ideas that evolve into a longer form. Sometimes their workshop-friendly length attracts young writers and their teachers. And sometimes the short story format is just the form that feels right—ask John Cheever or Anton Chekov. Four writers discuss their new short story collections and how they came into the world.

Mod: Every few years, critics call it a Renaissance of the short story. I argue that it isn’t. Short stories have more than a novel. Alice Munro primarily wrote short stories. Can you talk about your newest collection, your influences, and whether you will continue to work in the form?

CVW: I’m pragmatic. I didn’t know how to write so I learned by writing. Battleborn was my thesis for my MFA. I wanted to try new things every time. It’s exciting. The pressure was to take advantage of the time that I had. The short story is demanding. You take risks. It’s freeing but you also have to be ruthless because of the form.

SV: I had a similar experience although I did my MFA later in life. I like the short story because of the compression, intensity and density. It’s like poetry. Short stories feel like they’re perfectible–even though it’s probably an illusion. A novel doesn’t feel perfectible. The health of the short story is more about the economics of publication. I can’t keep up with all the short stories out there. I wrote Godforsaken Idaho in my 40s. It was helped by my MFA–half of it I wrote as a student.

SS: I’m primarily a novelist. The short story is freeing–it addresses things you don’t in a novel. It’s fun. The publishers talk about the demise of short stories, but now with Alice Munro winning the Nobel, there’s more discussion of short stories so we’ll probably see more. Short stories feel like a vacation. Novels are hard. Short stories feel like a walk in the park. You can write a short story in a month while a novel can take a couple of years.

GS: The viability of the short story is more about marketing. Publishers have difficulty talking about short stories (since they’re about many different things) so they find it difficult to sell. Many authors break out with short stories. I started with short stories–most of it was my MFA thesis. In my most recent book, I gave twice as many short stories to my editor who picked the stories to go in the book. In my first collection, the stories were organized chronologically. There’s a narrative arc and it shows how my writing developed. In my current collection, it’s ordered by my editor. Alice Munro and Andre Dubus are my influences.

Mod: You address that it’s economics on how short stories are presented, but every year there are excellent short stories. How did you bring your collections from the imagination to the table? What’s your process?

CVW: Maybe I was freakishly lucky? I sent a few stories to an agent. They asked me what I wanted to do. I said I had a short story collection. The agent said, “Great!” I didn’t feel abused.

SV: I had the typical trajectory of 20 years of rejections. Then I published short stories really quickly. I didn’t feel abused, but they kept asking, when are you doing a novel? I got an agent who submitted stories for me because she believed in the short story. Seems like a dream come true.

SS: My first two books were novels. Then I did short stories. My agent refused and so we parted ways. Another agent didn’t tell the publishers it was a short story collection but then marketing couldn’t do it. So I took it to a university press and they didn’t change anything. Small and mid-sized presses pick up a lot of authors who are maligned by big publishers. My short stories are structured around a resort so it reads like a novel even though each story stands on its own. I would probably not go back to a big publisher.

GS: A National Book Award winner also did small press for short stories. Ann Close, Alice Munro’s editor, had to rescue a manuscript because another publisher wanted to change Munro’s stuff. Close became her editor ever since. Publishers can wreck something good. Another author was out of print for a long time because a publisher refused to print until he wrote a novel. It nearly derailed the author.

CVW: 99% of what’s published is a market driven phenomenon. A short story is very challenging to the reader compared to the novel. For example, I have to read an Alice Munro story again and again before I get it. It’s demanding and artistically tough.

SV: Everyone says they don’t like short stories. That they want to get into a bigger story and that short stories don’t sell as well.

SS: Make the short story interactive with the reader. If the author revisits something, the readers like it, especially if they want to read it again. Short stories can be difficult to read especially if they’re all different. So do things in common with each short story.

Mod: When you choose to write a short story, you can experiment with pacing and use unique and bold point of view even though that point of view couldn’t be sustained for the length of a novel. Are there stories that are perfect for short stories but not novels?

SS: I had a short story about a man in Sarajevo which couldn’t be done for a novel but I could do a short hop. Short stories allow many different characters.

GS: Something you can do in a short story but not a novel is experiment with tone and pacing. In a short story, you put the character under more pressure than a novel–push them to the brink faster and get out faster.

SV: You can’t do fracturing in a novel. In a short story, you can manipulate time. In shorter form, manipulation can gain power. Experiment in short stories.

Audience question: You’ve talked about short stories in the context of not being a novel. How about oral storytelling?

CVW: Short stories have been described as a new form, but if you describe it as oral storytelling, it becomes much older.

SS: I would rather call it all as “fiction.” We should drop the term “novel.” The reader should decide.

Audience question: Novels usually have a beginning, middle and end. Short stories don’t do that. It doesn’t have to resolve like a novel.

CVW: It’s not about you being comfortable as a reader. It’s more about the negative space. Short stories are sexy. Novels are boring.

GS: People read to escape–they want to disappear for a while–so a novel can do that and resolve happily. But people actually read for different reasons (intellectual stimulation, want to be challenged, etc.) so they read short stories.

Audience question: What is the effect of online publishing on the MFA? Are just writers reading other writers? Do they read in a different way compared to regular readers?

SV: Sometimes it feels like it’s other writers reading writers.

CVW: It can be a good thing. I’m lucky to sell 6,000 copies. Who cares with the stakes so low?

Audience question: How do you develop characters in short stories since there’s a tight time frame? Are characters important? Plot? Or does it depend?

SS: Most successful short stories are character portraits. I had a book club where the reader didn’t find the plot interesting but he couldn’t forget the character. Be the character when writing. characters need to be interesting.

Audience question: Do you focus on one character in a short story?

CVW: Not necessarily. Every short story has different rules. Everything is free. You can keep developing the character. They change. They can be anything. We make the decisions.

Audience question: So the problem is with marketing the short stories. What if the publishers were smarter?

SS: With the short attention span–you’d think it would be embraced.

CVW: But the form is hard.

GS: If they can think of a way to sell it, they’ll sell it. The problem is that they can’t say one thing about it. They’ve tried but failed.

SS: But if the publisher rallies behind a collection, it will sell. Bestsellers are predetermined.

Audience question: What’s the revision process of a short story? I’ve heard that it’s okay to wait one year to revise, but people can write novels in that time.

SV: Revising is the most important part of writing. I can’t see what I’m doing until I’ve already written it. I learn as I write. I’m working on the psychology even late in the story. The first draft doesn’t count.

GS: Some stories take different times to write it. I published one story but later revised it for the short story collection.

Audience question: What about marketing short stories with historical content?

Panel: It can be done.

CVW: Short stories can do anything. There are no rules. You can’t start with the market. Write what you want.

Mod: You start with the assumption that there is no market.

Audience question: Do your characters in your short stories want to live on and come back in another story?

CVW: Not mine. There are thematic tendrils recurring in the stories. But I don’t want cameos. I wanted to see images of the expansiveness of the West. It’s not like Seinfeld.