Be honest: did you even know Piper had a blog? Well, shame on you. Now that you know, there is no excuse not to quickly exhaust our back-catalogue of entries. And then, once you are caught up, check back every other Monday for new additions to the blog! Oh, you’re still dubious? You want to know why you should read the blog? The Piper Writers Blog is a platform for some of the esteemed friends of the Piper Center to write about something that inspires them as a writer, or about a technique that has helped them work past a particularly irksome impasse, or to share a fruitful writing prompt they swear by, or to share something else entirely—it is a place where writers invite you behind the curtains of their craft. If you are a writer, this blog is literally for you. If you are not a writer, this blog is less literally for you but still absolutely valuable to you. Some of the writers who contributed to the Piper Writers Blog: Michael A. Stackpole, Kevin J. Anderson, Jeredith Merrin, Alan di Perna, Tom Leveen, James Blasingame, Michael Schiffer, and many others, and many more to come.
By Melissa Pritchard
In writing fiction, I gravitate to the pragmatic, to what works. Some years ago, when I realized that bringing a short story to completion could be seen as a fourfold process, much of my writing anxiety eased. I still use this as a reassuring measurement of progress when working on any piece of writing.
Nothing will get done if you don’t show up. Resolve, for one month, to write one hour a day, preferably at the same time each day. Write, even if, as Joyce Carol Oates once said, “your soul feels as thin as a playing card.” If what you produce seems terrible on a given day, still, by showing up, you’ve notified your subconscious that you take your writing life seriously. In my own experience, “bad” or mediocre writing one day can turn to fine, even inspired writing the next. The essential thing is to show up, since this trains the subconscious to be ready to write on a daily basis. Once you’ve established this beneficial habit, the prescribed hour quickly turns into two or more, into happily losing track of time altogether.
The art of writing fiction depends upon the preliminary act of deep listening, of moving into a reflective or ruminative state of consciousness radically different from everyday, ordinary awareness. Perhaps you have an image, a scene, an idea or bit of dialogue as impetus for a story. Sit in a relaxed, aware manner until the window of the subconscious opens, then write down whatever comes to you even if it doesn’t make rational sense. During this stage of meditative, hypnogogic, trance-like consciousness, you don’t need to know why you are “seeing” or “hearing” things in your imagination, it is more important to trust the inherent wisdom of your subconscious. This stage is much like dreaming, lucid dreaming, and once you recognize and trust it, you can enter a marvelous state of high, effortless play. I use a large art sketchbook, so I can doodle, sketch out images and scenes, bits of dialogue, diagrams, mandalas. Use what works for you. This is the loveliest, messiest stage of the creation process, when you move from listening to associative thought, to a beginning interpretation of the dream you are receiving.
When you feel ready to write your first draft, write it down as quickly as you can, in one or two sittings. The important thing is to finish this rough draft without allowing your internal critic to judge, slow or stop your progress. Write rapidly in cursive, and trust the process. I recommend writing by hand before transposing the draft onto a computer. Recent neuroscience and cognitive science research shows that the physical act of writing, putting pen or pencil to paper, stimulates synapses, synchronizes the brain’s left and right hemispheres and acts as a kind of focusing filter. Many writers handwrite their first drafts. “I write with a felt-tip pen or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads,” said Susan Sontag in a Paris Review interview. “I like the slowness of writing by hand.” In his Paris Review interview, Truman Capote said, “No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil.) Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”
Revise, Let Go
The fourth step is revision, re-visioning your rough draft(s). Using learned tools of craft and technique, you consciously sculpt your material, make authorial decisions, identify the ethical question in your story, the “wound,” realize which character or characters the story belongs to. You arrange scenes, build momentum toward a narrative resolution, not necessarily a definitive “answer.” Powerful stories often have no answer, they move instead from an opening question or challenge into an even greater, unanswerable question.
When you have revised the story as many times as you need to, when you are convinced it has fulfilled its potential and promise, let it go, send it out and move on.
It is crucial to remember that in working on any story, the fourfold process I’ve described is cyclical, recurrent. You will revisit these four stages again and again: show up, listen, draft, re-draft, revise, until the story is polished, complete, powerful. At that celebratory point, your subconscious is already trained, persuaded, to move on to your next fictional creation.
By Miral al-Tahawy
The many travels that I coveted in my childhood taught me the dilemma of being a model sample of misunderstanding. I am a little Arab woman with broken English, was educated in a school that was basically a berry tree in the garden of my grandfather’s house. Then it was circled by a number of clay classes. The two little classmates in that school used to come from remote villages. They would take off their plastic slippers stained with mud and dung and together we would soar in the wide skies of the lesson. We would devour hot slices of bread and baked sweet potatoes. There I hid in my pockets all the sweets of the village tales and came to subdue them. I haven’t known any other skills. Nobody taught me how to play croquet or tennis. I haven’t drank except tea as dark as kohl and I still feel shy when anybody tells me, “You are beautiful.”
Now the girl who resides in me has to carry her bag from a plane to a coach and sit on some stage and read out from her books, which turned into symbols. It became difficult to decipher the languages to which they were transferred. But every time she got on a stage, she would tell the same stories she knows…”Fatma climbed the well, she started weaving tents out of her hair and she started sitting down to write….”
Following every tale they would ask her insistently… “You from the beginning, how did they allow you to write? You are a Muslim, why don’t you wear a veil on your head? You are a mother; do you leave your kid behind?” The question marks that stand in my face-I avoid them by telling more stories, “Nada was the daughter born to a family that was dubbed a tribe. Nada put on more that a head cover. She dreamed of being a butterfly. During her flights she fell from many swings. In her face, there are several scars; one from when she went out without taking permission, another when she wrote in her papers poetry about a man she loved. A third scar appeared when she decided to cut her braids and flee with the gypsies. ”
I feel the scars deep in my soul and I do not answer the questions… “You are a writer. Does writing change your social status? You are married. Is an Arab man satisfied with just one woman? You are a translator. Do you think that Arabic literature can be accepted by the other cultures?”
These questions that open wide question marks are bent over their bafflement. The marks stand before me so I start from the beginning of the line to answer questions nobody asked. “Muhra was the descendent of a noble lineage. She used to walk in narrow streets and the old ladies would sing for her….Ye daughter of the sheikh of the Arabs, Ye of the scented forehead, Ye daughter of the sheikh of the Arabs, ye of the golden embroidered belt. Muhra used to look in her papers for answers to her many questions. Her grandfather would stand on the road, lighting up fires for the cars, which traveled on ignoring his fires. He used to slaughter his lambs and speak proudly of his horses’ breeds. His fires were known very well by the passing caravans. Now caravans do not pass anymore. Days went by and Muhra remained with a braid of insomnia. She remained to write her agonies into the night and to tell stories….once upon a time….”
The audience-packed theatre did not know that she does not ever know how to answer questions. Neither did the lady who stood angrily before me, ” Why don’t you answer my questions? Why do you talk about things that are unrelated to the subject? Can’t you understand?”
They were looking at me, I was looking at them, and silence fell to hide my confusion. I said maybe because I am a bad student, maybe because in reality I am unrelated to the subject myself. Maybe because you, too, cannot understand me. We need someone to explain to us, you and I together. The applause was not resounding and the threads that were between the answer and the questions confused me no more. I used to like the essay lessons because they had no questions or answers. I would only hold the pen and write. I do not abide by the script because I am the one who writes it.
I write, “An Indian was sitting on a mountain of memories. He never knew the street numbers, nor maps of cities or the chiming of huge clocks. He used to impersonate the soul of a sunflower and observes the way the light falls on his shoulders as he turns in search of the directions of serenity for his body. A pipe in his mouth, he would puff its smoke, contemplate the scene and suffices with the brightness of the questions..”
Mrs Morgan, the lady who hosted me, bids me farewell with a sunflower. She seems sad because they were not welcoming enough to me. Then Mrs. Morgan puts my photo besides Ethel Adnan (a Lebanese-American poet) in the album of guest authors. Ethel Adnan stretched out her hand for me from the frame and she pointed to “there.” Then she stood facing me and recited her poem:
“Who are we…?!
Descendents of a tribe, a herd, a passing phenomenon
Or are we a traveler still searching for someone to discover him…?!
Where are we
There is a where somehow because we in all pain exist.”
We had a fantastic time with esteemed author Edwidge Danticat on October 15th. The Piper House held a morning Q&A session with Edwidge that was attended by writers and scholars across the ASU community, as well as by Piper Friends. It was led Sebastian Terneus, a PhD Candidate in English and the founder of the Postcolonial Studies Reading Group, and covered topics ranging from the writing craft and the creative process to identity and Haitian history and culture. About the session, Sebastian says,”meeting Edwidge was a great honor because I admire how her work voices the perspectives of immigrants. In particular, Edwidge’s writing is powerful since it’s able to describe what it feels like to live within two nations simultaneously. Being an immigrant provides you with an identity that is so diverse that you often have difficulty fitting into one location. However, this situation is also powerful since you can speak and think with a hybrid mentality.”
Other attendees spoke about how exciting it was to have close access to a writer of such brilliance and renown: :
“It meant so much that someone of such respect and prestige was just here in this intimate setting with only a handful of people. Something that was probably only a small part of her life is now something I will likely remember for years to come.”– Edward Nolan, Barrett Honor Student
“I learned so much from Danticat in that hour-long conversation about writing, craft, and dedication. Not only is she an incredibly gifted writer with a strong and necessary voice, she is also a wonderful storyteller, an intellectual, and humble and thoughtful person, someone who is obviously in love with the craft, constantly finding new ways to challenge herself and follow her own advice by writing dangerous, vital fiction.” – Kathryn Hill, ASU MFA Creative Writing, Fiction
“I truly appreciated the opportunity to meet Edwidge Danticat in the setting of a small group of other writers at the Piper House. Thoughtful questions fueled an informal discussion that gave me insight into her creative process and self-discipline, which I will carry into my own writing. I doubt that I would have found this with a larger audience at a formal reading. I was inspired by her achievement in the presence of the many challenges of normal living.” – Bob Buchanan, Piper Fellow
Later in the day, Edwidge spoke to a class taught by Marcus Cruse, Associate Professor of French:
“Edwidge Danticat’s writing may recount Haitian and Haitian-American experience, but it is in fact universal. I teach a course on Haitian history and culture, and Edwidge’s visit to ASU offered my students and me an extraordinary opportunity to learn about her creative process, her moral vision, and her understanding of Haitian history and society. Her work is a testament to literature’s power to educate and inspire, and I am grateful to the Piper Center for bringing her here.” – Marcus Cruse, ASU Associate Professor of French
During the evening, Edwidge gave an inspired reading at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, who were a wonderful partner with Piper on this event.
“What I admired most about writer, Edwidge Danticat, was her humility. She spoke with a careful graciousness, she read with powerful eloquence, and yet she remained accessible to those who sought to speak with her. When I praised her on her reading and noted how humble she seemed despite her many accolades, she laughed and thanked us for our support. Humility is a rare gift, one that Edwidge Danticat possesses in large abundance.” – María Alvarez, ASU MFA Creative Writing Candidate, Fiction
“Edwidge Danticat is, in a word, inspiring. Her kindness and humility were markedly genuine, her writing beautiful and haunting. The candidness with which she spoke about migrant life in Haiti and The Dominican Republic was refreshing and surreal. Danticat’s reading from The Farming of Bones (Soho Press) brought forth images of Haitian women dancing only to be confronted with a parade of caskets carrying the returned bodies of their dead husbands. This turn in the festivities was both unexpected and stirring; hearing her read it aloud brought the moment out of the pages of the novel and into the auditorium some thirty or forty of us shared. It was chilling.” –Ernesto Abeytia, ASU MFA Candidate in Creative Writing, Poetry
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By Sarah Hynes
Ironically, the first of many travel experiences that entangled me in the politics of personal space began with an unexpected space-upgrade. Thanks to a delay at Sky Harbor Airport, I got bumped from economy to business class for the long flight from LAX to Hong Kong. I was in a middle seat, but it was a bigger seat. More legroom. More overhead space. All awesome. Until I had to use the bathroom.Read More
By Sara Sams
When I first heard the word “voluntourism,” I envisioned a nineteen-year-old packing for somewhere tropical, deciding which bathing suit to bring. In my cynical vision, the teenager is quickly sunburnt on arrival, about which she complains, trying to learn how to use a hammer with her sticky, aloe-d hands. The house she attempts to build might have been bought for the cost of her trip, a decision which would have employed somebody local.Read More
By Deborah J. Ledford
There is no such thing as writer’s block. You’ve heard this, right? Well, I agree. You may be stuck, but never truly blocked. We writers are coming up with ideas all the time. We’re proud of, and often daunted by, our notebooks and files jammed with flashes of inspiration. But everyone has an idea. It’s up to you to decide on the proper cohesion in order to actually write your killer story…..Read More
By Barry Lyga
Someday, you’re going to be dead.
I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you. If it does, you are either extremely young or extremely naive. Neither situation bodes well for great writing. Try to overcome them. Become old, like me. Acknowledge that someday you will be dead.
Given that certainty, consider this: What do you want to leave behind?
Sure, we all want to leave a lifetime of great memories, a pretty corpse, and — ideally — a string of satisfied sexual partners, but really think about it: What do you want to leave behind?
If your answer is anything but “Truly great writing,” please close this browser window. I hear there are adorable cats on YouTube…Read More
By Mary Sojourner
You’ve run out of inspiration. You’ve run out of anywhere to run. It seems impossible. You set out days, weeks, months ago on a journey that was intended to bring you into new country, into new stories. At first, the miles and the words raced through you.
Now, as you wake to a dawn you have never before seen or smelled or heard, you realize you might as well be safe at home. You sit at the window of the tiny hotel room or at the edge of your campsite or even at your own desk and you remember something about gaps; something about the places where not just the familiar or the amazing, but everything is missing…Read More
By Nova Ren Suma
I’m about to let you in on a little fantasy of mine. I think quite a few writers will share this fantasy with me, including, maybe, you.
It starts with me getting an idea for a new novel, as usual. I research, I outline, I do all the “right” things. Then I go ahead and write a draft of the novel, reach the end, read it over, and realize that it says everything I wanted to say. It explores everything I’d hoped to explore. It’s ready. All I have to do is go through and fix a few typos, add or subtract a few commas, and then I can pass it on to my agent and editor and out it goes into the world. My fantasy is to have a book done and baked in a single draft, like a miracle.
Wouldn’t that be astonishing?
I can say, however, with full confidence that this will never happen. My fantasy is never the reality, nor should it be.Read More