AWA: Where Did You Learn the Most about Writing?

Each week in my newsletter, I do “Ask Will Anything” where I answer a reader question. Aimee P. of Jacksonville, FL asks:

Other than just doing it, where did you learn the most about writing?

Thank you, Aimee, for your tough but fair question. 

I decided I liked writing in the fourth grade, right around the time that E.T. came into theaters and my teacher Mr. Clark read Where the Red Fern Grows to us. I realized that people actually made stories and that I could do it, too, and Mr. Clark let me read/perform my stories to the class each week.

I didn’t take an actual class in writing fiction until my freshman year of high school, and I got a D in it because I was too afraid to submit my work and threaten my great “potential.” I took no creative writing classes as an undergrad either, mostly for the same reason. I considered an MFA program at UF back in 1994, but I was told with a sniff by the chair that “we don’t DO genre fiction.”

So almost everything I learned about writing came from books, especially these:

  • Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, which is as complete and encouraging a writing book as I’ve ever encountered.
  • Samuel R. Delany’s book of lectures and essays About Writing, which contains a lot of wisdom about going beyond simple competence and trying for something special in your work.
  • Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction simplified the process of writing stories in a way that seemed workmanlike and do-able to me.
  • Stephen King’s On Writing does a great deal to demystify the process of writing, too.

That’s what I needed most: someone or something to tell me how to lower the stakes of writing so it was easier to take risks and experiment while doing it instead of being such a fundamental part of my identity.

In that way, I’m grateful I didn’t seek formal writing education until much later on. I went to Clarion in 2006 when I was 33 and the Stonecoast MFA in popular fiction in 2010 when I was 37.

It’s hard to say which had more impact, though it’s probably Clarion. That was my dark night of the soul: after submitting some terrible stories and receiving some (perhaps excessively) harsh critiques, I realized that I had to either commit to ruthlessly judging my own writing (not being satisfied with merely doing it but with doing it well) or give up altogether and get out of the way.

My MFA from Stonecoast was also extremely useful. Clarion is a sprinter’s education, belting out a short story a week for six weeks. Stonecoast was a marathon where I wrote my first completed novel, and I’m grateful for people like Jim Kelly and Liz Hand who led me through to the end.

The upshot of my long answer: go where you are encouraged to write and told honestly what you can improve.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t write more sooner, and I almost wish that I’d majored in journalism or communications because I would have far rather learned to get words out on demand than how precious and wondrous they were from my literature major.  

The Less-than-Terrible Curse of Nori the Cat

I’m bad at naming animals what they would likely want to be named, but not as bad as my father: the cat who came to be known in our house as Nori (from Mr. Norrell) was known as Cat-Cat in his.

I’m sure a psychiatric professional can make something of my tendency to make my animals reflect my literary pretentions (Oscar, Edgar, Truman, and Sylvia) and his to be vaguely infantilizing and humiliating, but this isn’t about us – at least not directly.

It’s about Nori, a cat I rescued seven years ago from my father’s creepy and depressing house who has lived with us up until Sunday when he was overtaken by a mass around his heart and lungs. He’d been losing weight for a few weeks and breathing heavily, and it was less than 48 hours after taking him to the vet that he was dead.

(Not that I fault them in any way. The doctor came back to town on a Sunday night so we could spend Nori’s last few minutes with him, and it would have haunted me forever if Nori had died thinking we’d abandoned him.)

He came to live with us on October 28, 2013. I’d received a call a few days earlier that my father was dying in hospice so my sister and I went to visit him. She hadn’t seen him in thirty years and I hadn’t seen him in ten, but the visit was disappointing in a way that visits with a narcissist and sociopath almost always are. He complained about the ambulance ride, asked about my car, and ignored my sister, and I was angrier at that than I was at all his other years of evil because it was his final chance to be human and he predictably blew it.

Karen and I drove to his weird little house in his weird little town, and he’d built a peculiar fantasy cabin of a humble Dartmouth alum living out his years with badminton rackets and fake degrees hanging on the walls and shelves of self-help books about power.

He also had a cat.

The cat immediately jumped on my lap as soon as I sat down, and he seemed happy to be there. I worried that he was mistaking me for my father, thinking I’d come back from hospice cured of my creepy sociopathic aura.

Aimee had told me not to bring home any animals from my trip, but I couldn’t leave him alone there in a scary house so I took him with us.

(She eventually came around.)

We had a good nearly seven years together, us and Nori, and he enjoyed sleeping on my chest at night, usually facing outward. The charitable interpretation is that he was guarding me. The likelier one is that he just liked having his ass in my face.

That last day we saw my father, his final words to me were, “I’ll always be with you,” which is the closest I’ve ever been to being literally cursed. I wondered sometimes if Nori was my father’s black magic scheme to infiltrate my life, but if it was, all he got out of it was seven years of naps and sharing a litter box with three other cats.

Which, as curses go, worked out pretty well for both me AND Nori.

We’ll miss him terribly, the best curse we ever had.

Postcard Story: Mascot

There was no denying that Mr. Gandy was smart – there probably wasn’t a chemical compound in the world he couldn’t whip up like a diner cook – but golly, he was slow with the talking, especially in an emergency.

“A lot depends on what you’re trying to kill,” he was saying while Mason examined the label of Mr. Gandy’s latest guess at what he needed, something called Ratinol. “Is it big, is it little, does it have thin skin or thick fur, scales or a shell…are you sure you have no idea what you’re dealing with?”

The truth was that Mason had a very good idea of what he was dealing with, though not really how it came to be. What he did know for sure was that his folks were coming home from the tractor show in Duluth in the next two hours and the thing under the house had to be gone.

“No, sir,” Mason said, rubbing his hand through his hair. “I mean, just from what it leaves.”

“What does it leave? Nesting materials? Some kind of spoor?”

“Nothing like that,” Mason replied. “Just these wavy lines in the dirt coming out from under the house when it kind of flops or slithers out at night. Also, it seems to like to gnaw on the clapboards.”

“Who wouldn’t?” Mr. Gandy asked. “The houses in this town are built from some of the finest lumber in these United States. Can you get any sense of the size from those, uh, lines? Or the teeth marks?”

The thing under the house was exactly six feet two inches long and weighed the same amount as a middle linebacker on the Artonville Armadillos football team because that’s what it used to be, Otis Doransky. Whose parents were going to be so mad.

“I think it’s pretty big,” Mason settled on saying. “Like, person-big.”

“Oh, dear. That’s going to require a few pounds of something, then. Otherwise you’ll just make it sick and angry.”

Otis, when he was human, was not someone to be made angry. Which is why they chose him for the experiment to begin with. If anybody would psych out the Wrighton Wildcats, it would be Otis looming in his uniform and pads, his skin gone gray and scaly and his already-porcine face now turned blunted and pink. The trouble was that he psyched all of the guys out first and they jumped in their jalopies for home.

Leaving Mason with a backyard full of beer cans and a human-armadillo hybrid snuffling under the house for whatever armadillos snuffled for.

Mason checked his watch. His dad was probably turning the old Ford onto Highway 58 by then, less than an hour from home.

“I think this’ll do the trick,” Mr. Gandy said, taking a yellow can out from under the counter with a faded skull and crossbones on the side. “You’ll want to wear gloves when you’re handling this. I mean thick rubber ones. And you’ll want to bury them deep into the ground when you’re done along with the empty can.”

“Do I need to just spray it on him or what?”

If Mr. Gandy noticed that Mason seemed to know the gender of the thing under the house, he didn’t show it.

“Ingestion’ll be faster. You’ll need to prepare some kind of bait that it will really enjoy.”

As far as Mason knew, Otis’s favorite foods were T-bone steaks and milkshakes from McCrory’s. He’d have to stop there next.

“It’s not going to be pretty, just so you know,” Mr. Gandy said. “This basically jellies them from the inside out and it leaves the nerves for last. Nasty stuff. Invented by the Germans, of course. A couple of days after it feeds, whatever’s under your house will be a glob of reddish-yellow lymph that you’ll probably want to scoop out with a shovel.”

That was fine. Mason’s folks went to church on Wednesday nights, and there’d be plenty of time to—

“Or you can wait for it to just dry up and blow away. It looks a little like mushroom spores.”

That was an option, too.

“Anyway, I’m not really supposed to sell this to a minor, but you seem like you’re in a jam so…let’s call it five dollars.”

Mason pulled the bill from his jacket pocket. He couldn’t believe his luck. An adult who wasn’t going to rat him out. It was amazing.

Mr. Gandy snapped the bill taut between his fingers and slid it into the register. He didn’t press any buttons.

“We’ll keep this off the books if it’s all the same to you,” he said.

Mason nodded.

“Now good luck, young man. Don’t get any of it on you.”

“Thank you, sir!” he said, taking the can from Mr. Gandy. He tucked it under his arm like a ball on a short running play and headed out for his Nash.

After the bells on the pharmacy door stopped jangling, Mr. Gandy shook his head.

Boys would always be boys.

We’re All Fine Here Now

A few days ago, I resolved that I would blog and write more, but when I dove in to do just that, I completely destroyed my previous website.

(Technical wonkery: Botched upgrade to a new version of WordPress despite my web provider having the wrong version of PHP.)

After a couple of days of tinkering, I’m pleased to say that we’re all fine here…now.

What does this mean for the page? Well, I definitely plan to use my new site better than the old one, which probably means:

  • Posting more personal news.
  • Presenting more writing advice.
  • Returning to my Postcard Stories (where I write a short story in a single sitting based on an image from online).
  • Reposting some of my best-of entries (about my mother, Norman, and other things)

Come join me again!