What’s the future for auto fiction?

When my reading group selected Rachel Cusk’s novel Transit as our next book, I recalled reading a review by Elaine Blair of Cusk’s novel Outline in the New Yorker. Blair claims “Cusk has written admiringly about Karl Ove Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives. Continue reading “What’s the future for auto fiction?”

How are writers shape shifters? Read on!

plant-426672_1920During a visit to Calgary, Canada, the city where I grew up, I had conducted a workshop at the event “When Words Collide.” It was entitled “The Origins of Fiction: A Personal Odyssey.” Preparing for the occasion had me thinking about narrative seeds, especially mine. What starts me on these explorations of others’ lives? Continue reading “How are writers shape shifters? Read on!”

Meet guest author Cliff Garstang and learn about his prize-winning fiction!

After Regal House Publishing recently released Cliff Garstang ‘s new novel Oliver’s Travels,  I asked him to be a guest author on my blog and sent him some questions about his writing process, including how he comes up with titles, the origins of his characters, literary inspirations, what feeds his writing, how he researches his books, and more.

Here are his great responses: Continue reading “Meet guest author Cliff Garstang and learn about his prize-winning fiction!”

Thanks to the writing gods!

cat-1045782_1920Someone asked me the other day why I chose creative writing as a career. The truth is, I didn’t choose it. Writing chose me. If I wanted to continue living, I really didn’t have a choice. Okay, I know, this sounds esoteric, and it is! In most careers, we feel a calling: doctors, lawyers, athletes. If we’re tuned into ourselves at all, the need to follow a certain path starts early in our lives. Continue reading “Thanks to the writing gods!”

Meet author Terra Ziporyn in this fabulous interview: “We should stop worrying about genres, reality, and imagination, and think instead about telling good stories.”

Terra Snider_WhatsUp Headshop_No SSL Button_April 2019Meet my guest author Terra Ziporyn, fiction and non-fiction writer.

  • When did you write your first book and how did it come about?

It’s hard to answer this question because I’ve been writing “books” since I was a kid, and the trajectory of my fiction and non-fiction is very different. I guess I completed my first novel during college, but it’s still in a drawer, along with various other novels I’ve written since then that may never go anywhere else. That first novel was inspired by the life of a troubled friend who life story needed telling. Whether or not it’s worth publishing remains to be seen—I’m a bit afraid to unearth it from my file cabinet. My first published book was an adaptation of my PhD dissertation, a historical study of the way medical research gets communicated in the popular media (Disease in the Popular American Press). That was back in the late 1980s. The first novel I published was Time’s Fool (2001), a historical novel that drew on my academic work in the history of science, centered on a 19th century utopian community. Continue reading “Meet author Terra Ziporyn in this fabulous interview: “We should stop worrying about genres, reality, and imagination, and think instead about telling good stories.””

Writing into Life!

notepad-3297994_1920Writing is such an important part of my day that if I don’t get to it, I’m constantly distracted, as if I have a lover I’m thinking about. It’s like a siren’s call, pulling me away. My husband notices it. He comments on me seeming drifty. He’s right. I’m just not there. As happened today. Continue reading “Writing into Life!”

Why Do You Read Novels?

colorful-fireworks-4th-of-july-picjumbo-com copyAs a fiction writer, I often ask myself why people read novels and how can I convince them to read mine? That question occurred to me again recently when I finished a novel that had me questioning why read fiction. The book was engaging enough. The writer was competent and had created characters that seemed believable (though that isn’t necessarily a criterion for me). There was enough tension to keep me reading in order to discover more about these lives I had immersed myself in. But the experience felt flat, and I wondered why I had spent several precious hours on something that wasn’t more satisfying. Continue reading “Why Do You Read Novels?”

What is the REAL story?

Lily Iona MacKenzie

“The artist must be deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and harken to its words alone.”  —Kandinsky.

Several years ago I entered a Masters in Creative Writing program as a poet, but I was equally interested in writing fiction and signed up for several short story Continue reading “What is the REAL story?”

The Tyranny of Show vs Tell

If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve heard many times the bromide “show, don’t tell,” but often the showing part dominates the telling and becomes tyrannical. As a writer friend once pointed out, when we’re writing fiction, we are storytelling and not storyshowing, and there are many ways to tell an engaging story.

Of course, some beginning writers do tend to summarize more than dramatize. They haven’t learned yet how to traverse between generalities and specifics. And in our early drafts, even more experienced writers often are just trying to capture their characters before they can disappear. Showing, then, tends to happen later in the drafting process.

However, it is important to know when one or the other is required, and that’s the advantage of using this shorthand workshop comment. When we show, we try to embellish scenes and important moments through using descriptive details that create images. Dialogue also helps to nail down character traits and interaction. When we tell, we are usually summarizing background information or periods that don’t need to be in the spotlight. We don’t want to call too much attention to some aspects of the tale we’re conveying.

I’m all for using whatever tools are at our disposal, and I don’t reject the idea that knowing how to show and tell effectively are important elements in writing narrative. However, they aren’t the only “show” in town. There are other ways to create drama and develop character that often get overlooked by the overused workshop mantra.

I’ve been rereading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and I’m absorbed by her characters’ inner lives. Not only does Woolf violate many of the strictures we hear in writing workshops about the dangers of switching points of view within a chapter, but she also rarely resorts to showing or dramatizing a scene. Instead, she seems to inhabit her settings and characters’ interiors, taking the reader with her inside their inner worlds, portraying how complex they are. I feel as if I’m watching a movie of their internal processes.

Of course, Woolf isn’t the only writer who takes a different approach to creating compelling narratives by not depending on show versus tell. W. G. Sebald’s hybrid “novels” have their own narrative logic that also disrupt the usual notion of what constitutes a story. And there are many others in this category: Samuel Beckett, David Foster Wallace, Proust, and other likeminded authors who aren’t afraid of a character’s introspection. In fact, I’m often bored by passages in some naturalistic works that race along, fueled by external action, forgetting to linger and let their creations sink down into the unconscious from which we have emerged.

What’s your take on this topic?


PDS versus PDF


I sent an email message to family and friends recently that the publisher of Fling! had offered me a three-book contract. It will include my novel Freefall: A Divine Comedy (to be published in 2017), Tillie: Portrait of a Canadian Girl in Training, and a third that also will feature the Tillie character (she appears in Freefall as well).

One long-time friend responded, “You have worked harder as a writer than anyone I know and I’m proud of you!”

I replied, “I’ve learned that perseverance and determination and self-belief are essential to succeeding as a writer.”

But what does this mean?

writer copyLet’s start with perseverance. We persevere when we continue doing something even if we have no assurance of success. If writers want to be published, they must endure self-doubt, rejections, and blocks to eventually be published. Writing a novel takes a long time. I started working on Fling! in 1999 and it wasn’t published until 2015! Of course, I wasn’t focused on Fling! all those years. I wrote other novels in the meantime. Yet if I hadn’t persisted, the book would not be out in the world, seeking its readers.

And determination? Clearly, it takes considerable resolve in order to follow this torturous path. Writers have to get up each day, sit down in front of the computer screen, and face the blank page, intent on moving the narrative forward (or even sideways if that’s the direction it wants to take) in order to complete the work. It requires considerable grit, doggedness, and courage to pick up the metaphorical pen and keep writing, no matter what.

By now you can see why self-belief is so essential. If you don’t have basic confidence in yourself as a writer, and that only comes from proving to yourself you have the right stuff by writing regularly, it will be more difficult for you to press on. The more we do something, the more our skills at that task improve. If I want to become a good tennis player, I can’t just go out a few times and swing at some balls. I’ll never develop belief in myself as a tennis player with that approach. But if I take some lessons and pursue the game consistently, I’m bound to improve. The same is true of writing, so that these three words—perseverance, determination, and self-belief—create a circle. Inside that ring is the writer who one day will find publishing success because s/he’s pursued his/her dream.

Hence, Perseverance, determination, and self-belief (PDS) versus Passivity, Doubt, and Fear (PDF).



Timing: Giving Birth To a Novel

I’ve completed another novel. It didn’t come fully formed like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. I’ve been working on parts of it for years, but in the past few months it has solidified and taken its final shape. As is often the case for me, it took awhile for the main character’s voice to fully emerge. It’s a little like a partial birth, if there is such a thing. Legs and arms came first. Eventually the rest followed.

The central character Tillie is the younger version of the main actor in Freefall, a work that I hope to see published soon. Freefall’s Tillie is 60 with the heart of someone much younger. Like her older self, the young Tillie is quirky and precocious and loves to wander. The working title for the new novel is Tillie: Portrait of a Canadian Girl in Training. For those who don’t know about the organization, Canadian Girls in Training actually exists, and I joined it for a while when I was young.

Of course, attending meetings was an excuse to get out of the house at night. But the real training happened on my way to and from the church where we gathered. We smoked all the way there and back. We played white rabbit, a “game” that involved ringing doorbells over and over and then disappearing. We raided gardens. And we also visited the local park where the boys were hanging out. I learned many useful things during those excursions.

And I’ve learned a lot from writing this novel. It can take years for a character and a story to emerge. It’s not unlike raising a child: there are developmental stages, and each one is important. So though at times I despaired that the work would ever cohere, it did. And it was worth waiting for.

Trusting Ourselves as Writers

“I write to make sense of my life.” John Cheever

I’ve been reading Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life, and it’s been extremely illuminating in many ways. John Cheever, considered one of the best 20th Century short story writers, struggled at times, as most writers do, to trust his impulses in creating short stories and novels. Many of his works first appeared in the New Yorker, and for much of that time, William Maxwell, long-time editor at that magazine, was both his good friend and editor. This relationship eventually became a problem for them both.

Maxwell, a fine writer himself, wore blinders when his writers attempted to move beyond the traditional realist fiction that he favored. At a critical time in Cheever’s life and career, Maxwell refused to publish any Cheever stories that didn’t fit into this narrow groove, causing Cheever to doubt his craft. He somehow managed to regain his equilibrium and found publishers who were interested in his deviations from the naturalistic mode. But because Maxwell had so much power to influence his friend, it was difficult for the latter to break away.

He eventually did, but Cheever’s evolution reminds me of problems I also faced while enrolled in San Francisco State’s Creative Writing Program. Like him, I ran into teachers/authorities who didn’t encourage my fabulist tendencies, urging me to focus on the mainstream story. I wrote about this experience in the following blog: “What Is the Real Story?” http://www.nowwhatmfa.com/guest-articles/

As I mention there, “As writers and teachers, we need to be more aware of the range we have available to us so we don’t limit our own or others’ imaginations.” I also quote Eudora Welty who wisely has pointed out that “Writing is such an internal, interior thing that it can hardly be reached by you, much less by another person. I can’t tell you how to write, no more than you can tell me. We’re all different from one another even in the way we breathe. Writers must learn to trust themselves.”

I’m grateful that Cheever fought back and eventually did trust his own voice, a distinctive one that still inspires short story writers from all traditions. Making sense of one’s life requires us to explore new modes and find alternative ways to express our discoveries.

I would love to hear from others who have had similar experiences. Even better, I would like to hear from writers who ran into those rare teachers who could help the writer find his/her unique direction.






Timing and Perseverance: the Keys To Success as a Writer

I’m thinking today of timing—how important it is to success. Timing and perseverance: the two go together. If I hadn’t persisted as a writer, writing daily and sending out queries to potential publishers for my various novels and poetry collections, I would not have a poetry collection in print (All This) or be anticipating the publication of Fling, one of my novels in July 2015.

I’m also noticing the seasonal aspect of creativity, how cyclic it is. That too is hard to grasp. I want it all the time. I’m afraid if it isn’t there, it won’t return. But I need to remember that if I pursue my creative impulses, and if they’re in accordance with my abilities, then there will be success. Maybe not financially, though that would be nice. But I’ll experience the satisfaction of achieving what I’m capable of.

I must keep in mind that the cup will empty, fullness will recede, as happens each night with the waxing and waning energies of the moon. I can’t help but hear “moo” when I write moon, those old nursery rhymes of the cow jumping over the moon still playing in my imagination. Of course, cows are very much moon creatures, with their emptying and filling, the various stomachs they have for digesting food that turns into nourishing milk. They’re a wonderful symbol for the creative person.

But perseverance is the key word. I need to keep this in mind to combat the bombardment of negative things I’m reading about being a writer. Not only is publishing like finding a needle in a haystack—especially publishing fiction—but also only five percent of novelists support themselves on their writing.




Writing’s dialogue with myself and my life

I’m interested in an interview I read in Border Crossings with Canadian artist Betty Goodwin: She says, “A work is a deeply personal mixture of your earlier experiences and also your life at the present in this world. But I can’t shred it and say it’s absolutely this or that. It’s based in something you don’t even realize yourself until it gives you back information. It’s like you’re pulling and pulling and trying to get something. And then there’s that magic time when it begins to pull you. If that doesn’t happen, you can’t push it any more and it dies.”

This quote captures my feelings about how my writing connects with my on-going life, that somehow it’s shaping me as I shape it, just as dreams do. What do I mean here? Dreams speak to us from the depths of the unconscious. There is not past, present, or future in the psyche. Often, then, they not only dredge up moments from our past but also reach their tentacles into the future. Poetry and fiction seem to have a similar dynamic. The poems that interest me the most are ones that don’t follow a traditional narrative movement. They seem to take elements from multiple places, including memories as well as outer and inner experiences. In fiction, I feel I’m expressing aspects of myself as well that I become familiar with as I write. Emotions, ideas, images surface that enlarge my understanding of myself and the world.

It’s essential for my well being to have this dialogue with the work and my life.




Dear Fellow Readers (and Writers): Why do you read fiction?

I recently finished a novel that had me questioning why I read fiction. The book was engaging enough. The writer was competent and had created characters that seemed believable (though that isn’t necessarily a criterion for me). There was enough tension to keep me reading in order to discover more about these lives I had immersed myself in. But the experience felt flat, and I wondered why I had spent several precious hours on something that wasn’t more satisfying.

So why do I read? For me, reading isn’t necessarily to escape my daily life. I read to deepen it. If a book doesn’t take me somewhere new emotionally and intellectually, I feel cheated. Why would I go on this literary journey if I remain the same person at the end?

I also want my knowledge of the world broadened and intensified. I love many naturalistic novels—ones that recreate everyday life and give me new glimpses (novel=make it new) of familiar settings and things. Often that happens through the writer’s expert use of metaphor and symbol, devices that automatically expand our perceptions. Or s/he has a masterful way with manipulating sentences and images.

But I also love works that employ magical realism, as many of my fictions do, because they point to something other, something not quite articulable. They lift the lid on ordinary experience and suggest other possibilities.

I hope I’ll hear from others on why they read. That too will expand my horizons!