Writing Instead of Reading

Cover of "The Huffington Post Complete Gu...
Cover via Amazon

Here’s what I wanted to read today:

Self Editing For Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King

For obvious reasons. It’s already helped me immeasurably with its first instruction on narrative summary and how writers overuse it. Turns out I’d written an entire story using large chunks of narrative summary, and I didn’t even realize it. I was surprised I’d used so much narrative summary given all the practice I get writing screenplay scenes. I’ve gone back to the story to create more scenes in real time. It’s much better now, or it will be.  In the long run, the screenwriting will help me write better short stories. And so will the book Self Editing…when I can get to it. There’s nothing like being down deep in a screenplay rewrite to make me want to work on my short stories.

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging by the editors of the Huff Post and Create Your Own Blog: 6 Easy Projects to Start Blogging Like a Pro by Tris Hussey

Again, for obvious reasons. These two books helped me plan and get started. But I’ve also learned through experience you create your blog by writing a post every week. That deadline, even self-imposed, comes up fast, especially if you have a day job and if you’re working on other writing, as well. So far, it’s scary and fun. Weird and normal. Weird to put out work that’s unfinished, raw, on the fly. Normal, because it captures the authentic flow of life and writing every week.

The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

I’m yearning to start a new script, and I think this is the book to crack open for that purpose. I want someone to tell me how to do it, get me started. But I’m at a place where I need to listen to my own voice and just write. This is the last rewrite before I post the script on Inktip.com and hopefully sell it fast! I’m going to use this wonderful Truby book as a reward when I’m finished.

Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

I read a moving review in The New York Times by Anthony Doerr on this Johnson novella that made me want to run out and buy it and read it immediately. I ended up putting a hold on it at the library, and I’ll go pick it up tomorrow. Doerr writes this about the book, “It’s a love story, a hermit’s story and a refashioning of age-old wolf-based folklore like “Little Red Cap.” It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.”  He also compares it in the beginning of the piece to your favorite “most devastating” place in nature, that you want to share and keep safe at the same time. I’m there. Reading it tomorrow. Can’t wait. The review is wonderfully written, too. Check it out.

Instead of reading all these books I got tons of writing done today. Maybe I’ll read a little before sleep tonight. Big work day tomorrow and hopefully tons of writing, too. But I’ll hit the library early and pick up Train Dreams in hopes of getting to it.

My sis, Kim, studied acting at The University of Texas at Austin (and got her BFA there). The great Sam Shepard visited her playwriting class. One of the students asked him which playwrights he reads. Shepherd answered, “I don’t read plays. I write them.” That quote can float me along while I’m writing but having a hard time getting in all the reading I want to do. For me, it’s writing first, the great, wonderful, difficult, wrenching work. Reading is the reward and inspiration for the labor of writing.

Do you read when you’re writing? What are you reading today? What are you looking forward to reading?

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And Maybe I Love You

Pennybacker Bridge takes Loop 360 over Lake Au...
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This summer I haven’t gone to see my dad as much as I’d like, and I miss him. I’ve got a clunker car with no AC; so, I’m waiting until it cools off. I tend to stay close to home anyway, but I hardly venture out at all these days.

Dad loves to keep moving. He’s a car person. He drives all over, adventuring and visiting friends on Galveston Island every summer in a rented beach house, visiting me and my dogs and my sis here in Austin, and seeing the sites and visiting friends and relatives in the surrounding Texas Hill Country. He also takes day trips closer to his place.

I’m a car person like this:  I need a car; I have a car; I’m thankful for it. Sometimes I wash it. I get it repaired when I can. Dad’s the kind of car person who used to keep several different vehicles for different purposes, mainly making sure my sisters and I had back-up when we needed it. He takes great care of any car he owns; it always looks shiny and clean. When buying a new car Dad researches and gets great deals, and he helps other people get great deals. If you mention in passing that you’d like a new car, or even if it just crosses your mind, watch out, he’ll look up the blue book value and call you with information and ads he’s seen. He wants everyone to have a car. He once told his life-long friend, a wealthy man in Dallas, he should give a car to his long-time assistant. Why, the friend wanted to know. Dad told him, he needs it, and you should be the one to give it to him; you have so much, and he has served you so well.

Once when I was despondent from a break-up, Dad advised me to buy a new car.

“I don’t want a new car. I want my old boyfriend,” I said.

“All I’m saying is a new car makes you feel better,” he said.

“For, you, maybe,” I said.

But I was tired of being stuck, tired of wishing and lamenting. So, I decided to take Dad’s advice. He helped me find a fantastic deal on used 280ZX that had very low mileage and only one previous owner. What use do I have for a sports car? It had never occurred to me. The engine knocked and hesitated in my old truck, and I had gotten used to that. But, I was amazed at how the little Z car handled. Dad was right. The new car really did make me feel better. I felt safe and powerful. I could put that baby right where I needed it to go. When I pressed the gas, no hesitation, no moment of wondering if the car would make it.

I drove all over Austin every night at first, driving past my ex’s house and the restaurant where he worked. Yuck! What a crappy feeling for me and possibly for him if he ever saw me doing that. Soon, I forgot my ex-boyfriend for minutes at a time and began to feel the night air, the dark invisibility that comes from just driving around at night. The vice grip of the mind that I thought was love started to loosen into an awareness of space. In my night drives I experienced how each section of the city was connected to the others. They were not actually separate neighborhoods after all, but one continuous movement of a little brown and gold 280ZX whishing around town, freeing the one trapped inside.

In the same conversation my dad told me to buy a new car to forget my ex, he also told me he loved my mother. I’d been going on and on about my boyfriend and how much I loved him, how bummed I was over the break-up. The regrets, missed opportunities, even my other struggles within the web of my friendships. Then suddenly Dad and I were really conversing, not just the back and forth monologues that happened sometimes. I’d always known my mom loved my dad. That was part of the family story. It had been spoken aloud numerous times. And both my parents had told me and my sisters they loved us. But that piece, Dad loving Mom, I’d never heard it before. I was 29. They had divorced when I was 9. My dad had remarried when I was 12 and divorced again when I was 14. My mom had remarried when I was 15. She had divorced when I was 23, and she died very soon after that when she was only 46.

We also knew Mom had done some calling before she died. Settling old scores, telling the truth, making a general disturbance for which our culture likes to crazify women. I figure sometimes people talk too much about love and relationships, but the echo chamber is lonely, and maybe they just need to hear their own voices come back around to know there is love. Maybe Mom was making one last ditch effort to hear the words spoken, even if they were going to have to be hers alone, this time, not just words of love, but other words expressing anger and regret, the parts of her relationships with friends and family she struggled with.

I never wanted to be the one fishing for love, grabbing at at, trying to fashion it out of the thin air of a relationship that’s ending. I never wanted to be the one who talked so much about love it left no space for the other to speak. Or, the other felt compelled to speak, and his words of love were forced and fell flat, not love at all; or the other felt so judged for his love he chose to keep it quiet, lest that be judged, too.

I never wanted to be the one who drove by the ex’s house and had a tough time letting go. I identified so strongly with the parent who seemed the strongest and most in command of himself:  Dad. But the truth was I ended up like Mom. I was lost after a break-up, feeling just invisible enough to drive by a few nights in a row, looking at the facades of a duplex and a restaurant for the spirit inside I couldn’t see or feel. Not realizing then that’s what that relationship had become. It had been a worthwhile experience. It was simply over. I just didn’t know it yet.

Sometimes I think I might not have chosen some men who pushed away my love if I had known earlier that my dad actually loved my mom. But it’s good news to find out when you’re 29. And it was extra nice, seeing it as their struggle, not mine. Dad says it often, now:  they loved each other but were too immature to rise above their problems, and their break-up was devastating to him, as well. We just didn’t know it back then.

In those free, breezy nights driving around Austin in the Z car, literally moving through the grief of a break-up and its corresponding origin in my childhood, I realized I believed certain stories just because they were spoken. There are other stories not yet told. But they’re lived. They’re real. And the storyteller has to tell them when he’s ready. When the listener is relaxed and open. Defenses down. Judgment tucked away. I’m glad for that moment in the car, talking about cars and the way they can help us move through pain. And I’m glad my Dad told me he loved my Mom. It was a story I was ready to hear and believe. And it was true.

Did any of your family stories catch up to you at the light after driving around for a long time?

Faulkner’s Flames Light the Way


Since Texas is burning, and our friends and neighbors are evacuating and losing their homes, this morning I was drawn to William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning.” As you may know or imagine, the story is not so much about a barn burning as it is about relationships, power, conflict, identity and “the terrible handicap of being young.” Nevertheless, I feel drawn to the element of fire in the story. Faulkner was too. It’s a stunning tale, not of heated passion, but the blazing effects of cold methodical rage.

I recommend the story for it’s rich detailed rendering of a life of despair, not only due to economic and class oppression, but due to the particular suffering one ruined person inflicts on everyone else, all the time, without end. For my narrower purposes of learning to write from one of the greats, I want to mention one small device Faulkner used that helps me solve a problem in the writing of one of my stories.

I notice Faulkner jumped forward in time in a couple of instances by letting the narrator tell us early on how the young boy main character would have responded to certain abuses if he were older. This allows the reader to have a spark of hope the boy can’t possibly have in real time as the story unfolds. The narrator may be omniscient, but the story stays with the boy’s point of view, keeping it intimate, immediate, and terrible. Faulkner’s use of the narrator’s wider scope is small and measured, like the father’s campfires and his spirit. The few tiny sparks from the future indicating the boy’s adult self are brief but significant expansions of awareness needed to keep readers buoyant, even as they feel the despair of the characters.

The takeway for me:  in my story “Heat Wave,” I need my main character to move forward in time and come back to the present, not just in a flight of fancy, or a wish or hope for the future, but as a premonition, a state of being brought on by great exertion during the heat. One member of my writers group pointed out one instance of a premonition in my piece that was distracting, seemingly plunked there from another story. She was right. At first I thought it wasn’t working because it was a premonition. I wondered if it was too new-agey and didn’t fit the story. But I’m trying to blend magical moments with normal experience; that’s what my story is about. In truth it didn’t work, because I hadn’t written it well. There are two other premonitions in the same piece that do work. Keep the premonition, but observe Faulkner:  cut the part that announces it’s a premonition, and simply let the narrator state what is true in the future of the character’s life.

The talk of writing feels like dry tinder near the circle of heat such a story as “Barn Burning” radiates. I hope I catch some of Faulkner’s flames, even as I hope the wild fires around us soon burn out.

What’s your favorite Faulkner story, novel, or screenplay/movie? Or better, yet, what stories catch you on fire?