Monthly Archives: February 2012

However You Can

Every so often, when I’m speaking to a group of teachers, one of them asks if I outline my novels before writing.  “My kids resist outlining,” the teacher confesses.  “I want to go back and tell them you agree with me that outlining is the correct way to start.  You do outline, don’t you?”

My answer always begins with something along the lines of, “I hate to disappoint you, but…”

For years, I wanted to be an outliner.  For my first novel, I followed a plan in a craft book that promised I could write a novel in three months.  Not only did I outline my novel down to the level of the scene, I also wrote up a production calendar that specified exactly how much I would accomplish every day.

I was determined, bordering on desperate.  I was going to make this work.  And I followed my plan to the letter.

Unfortunately, about a quarter of the way through the first draft, things began to fall apart.  I got a niggling feeling in my gut that something wasn’t quite right, but I gritted my teeth and stuck with the program.  The not-right feeling grew stronger and stronger, until I no longer believed in what I was writing.  I was still putting words on the page, but the story had long since given up the ghost.

Yeah, I finished the draft in three months.  And then spent a year and a half crashing through the underbrush trying to figure out where I’d killed the story and attempting to raise it from the dead.

And yet the urge to outline persisted.

Of writing novels, E. L. Doctorow has famously said, “It’s like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

For some of us, this is a scary journey.  We want to reach for a map or GPS to assure ourselves that if we invest so much time, hope, and heart in this project, we’re actually going to get somewhere.

The poet Kim Stafford once quoted a jazz musician (whose name I forget): “Creative people are comfortable not knowing…yet.”

I tried outlining my next three books.  The most useful thing I learned was how to tumble more quickly to the exact moment when the thing keeled over.

Then I gave myself over to not-knowing.

I can’t say it’s been exactly comfortable.  While many writers seem to have some kind of inner sonar to guide them, I tend to stumble into quagmires and pit traps, taking vast amounts of time and energy to extricate myself and find my way back to solid ground.  Panic is familiar territory — the gut-level feeling that I’m stuck, that I’ll never get out, that this whole thing has been a massive waste of time, that my career as a writer is over.

But so far I’ve always (knock wood) managed somehow to find my way home.  And doing this repeatedly has given me the perspective to stand back and say to myself: Oh, I see you’re in that scary, not-knowing place again.  Well, carry on!

This would have been the end of the story, except that before beginning my current novel I took a class from a friend and decided to give outlining another try.  For two weeks I sat at a card table with stacks of index cards, and in the end I had a scene-by-scene plan.  The cards held for about three-quarters of the way through a draft, which spared me no end of blundering and panic.  Only time and readers’ reactions will tell if I brought the thing home alive.  But I’m feeling hopeful and excited right now.

So, to that teacher, I say: Tell your students to experiment. Tell them to try outlining, try partial outlining, try writing scenes in no particular order, try crashing around in the bushes without a map. Tell them that it’s part of their job as writers to find a way that works for them, and this might take a while. Tell them that fear and confusion are part of the drill. Tell them that the correct way to write a novel is just however you can.

Susan Fletcher


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A Room of One’s Own

I’ve been thinking a lot for several months now about “a room of one’s own” to work in, to read in, dream in, just be in. Last May I moved into my new husband’s house and moved all my furniture and boxes of books into his garage. In June the builders began work on a new addition that would also hold my study, be my workplace, and contain all my books. On Saturday night, they finished. I get to move in this week. My husband, a former librarian, will arrange my books and I will set up my desk, hang my pictures, and readjust my desk chair to just the right height. Ah, then I’ll be ready for anything, right?

Right. And yet…

While it will be wonderful to have a steady place to go each morning to read my email and read student work, I’ve learned through this process that I don’t have to be as chained to my desk as I once felt I had to be to produce my writing. Or maybe I should say I’ve been reminded of that. When I began writing, I did all my work in longhand on yellow legal tablets that I then revised once before committing the story to the computer. As I was typing it in, I did another revision, adding, deleting, changing, getting new ideas. That, then, became my first full draft. Before I was ready to sit down at the computer, I wrote all over the house, in the yard, in the car, at my children’s ballet lessons. It was catch-as-catch-can and it was all I could manage back then. I printed out the revisions and took them with me, doing new revisions by hand on the printout, using the backs of the sheets to add or expand upon scenes.

Somehow, once my children all left home I came to the notion that I should sit at the computer and do all the work on it, revising the same document over and over there on the screen in front of me. I suppose I thought I was being more efficient. Maybe I was, but maybe efficiency wasn’t the object I should have been seeking. Since May, I’ve worked on my writing and on my student packets on family trips to Arkansas, Missouri, D.C., and Italy. I’ve worked on airplanes and in airports, on guest bedroom beds, in baby’s room rocking chairs, and even in the back seat on car trips. At home I’ve worked in an Adirondack chair on a shady porch, upstairs in a small attic room, and sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of a flowing brook with my bathing suit on and feet dangling in the water. I’ve written in longhand and on the lap top, in notebooks and on the edges of a sudoku puzzle book. I’ve also dozed and dreamed and gazed up into the blue and white of the Vermont summer sky. I love that I am no longer chained to my desk.

So. Here I am, excited about soon having this new room of my own, my desktop computer back in its place on a real desk, my books in shelves made especially for them on the wall behind me, a view of rural Vermont before me. I will use that space, of course, but I hope I don’t lose the mobility (and actually pen-on-paper handwriting) that I have regained in these months. I do want to lose the feeling of needing a particular book and knowing it is four boxes deep in the garage. I look forward to knowing exactly where it is on my shelf. I want  to lose the unsettled feeling of having my life stored in the garage, but I don’t want to lose the new/old freedom of writing in the world, writing about the real water running over my real toes, the real little fishes darting through the shadowed water, those little fishes only hints of the much larger ones well hidden in the shade of the rocky pools.

I hope I don’t forget to let my mind wander, doze, dream…and remember:  I met Eudora Welty two times in my life. Once with a friend in an otherwise empty hallway after her appearance at the University of Chicago; another time at a luncheon at the Southern Confederation of Writers in Chattanooga where she pretended to remember me from the Chicago meeting. What a gracious lady! Before I met her the first time, I had read much of her work, but between the meetings I found THE EYE OF THE STORY in which she paraphrased something Virginia Woolf had said about making discoveries in subsequent drafts: “The fishes get bigger the deeper you go.” By the second meeting, I’d begun to understand what those two writing women meant by that and in all the years since, I’ve known I had to keep going deeper to find my real story and I’ve taught my students the same things. Funny what putting your toes into some cool brook water can do for your memory, your writing, your teaching, and your sense of the self you have become as a writer and a woman.

I hope this new room of my own never closes me in, but encourages me to wander, to dream, and remember. I hope it becomes the whole wide world.



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Tough Love from an Old Poet

My friend Andrea Nachtigall recently took me to see Mary Oliver at City Arts and Lectures in SF. There was a wonderful anticipatory hush before the poet came on stage, as if we were going to hear a really wonderful orchestra. Magic was hanging in the air, just waiting to be evoked. Mary Oliver read her poems, interspersed with talking to us about writing. Some of it was her way of writing, some of it was advice, some admonition. She had the whole auditorium completely mesmerized. I thought I’d share a few of her words of wisdom. Here are a few quotes and paraphrases:

·     *   I am very disciplined about working. You don’t accomplish anything without discipline. I write every day. It is an invitational.

 T    * The creative part of your mind is always there. You’ve got to keep a schedule. If you say to it “let’s meet at seven a.m.,” it will be there. You will struggle less.

·       * I go to the woods. They are my primary sources.

·      * I always carry a notebook. One needs to capture an idea as soon as it occurs.

·       * Silence is the door into the temple. If you ever go into the woods with me, I must love you very much.  (Adored this one. I only go into the woods with people I dearly love as well.)

And here, a poem by Mary Oliver.

Sleeping in the Forest

I thought the earth remembered me,

she took me back so tenderly,

arranging her dark skirts, her pockets

full of lichens and seeds.

I slept as never before, a stone on the river bed,

nothing between me and the white fire of the stars

but my thoughts, and they floated light as moths

among the branches of the perfect trees.

All night I heard the small kingdoms

breathing around me, the insects,

and the birds who do their work in the darkness.

All night I rose and fell, as if in water,

grappling with a luminous doom. By morning

I had vanished at least a dozen times

into something better.

 © Mary Oliver


May your pockets always be full of lichens and seeds and, of course, a notebook.


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Which of You is Which?

Which of you is which.doc
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The Quirky Universe

In John Green’s remarkable new novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” the main character and her father are discussing what they believe, the purpose of life and the dad says something that I’ve been mulling over for the past month, since I finished the book. The dad says: “I believe the universe wants to be noticed.”

Huh. The universe? Wants to be noticed?

The “elegant universe in ceaseless motion,” as Green puts it? That one?

You mean, starry skies and slippy slugs? Fuzzy peaches? Squashy mud?

Yup. And I realized this: I’m pretty lousy at this noticing thing.

Oh, yeah, I can attach words to other words. I can create strings of words. But I’m not convinced (and I’m just speaking for myself here) that I’m really “noticing” when I do so. Attending to. By naming, do I type and compartmentalize too quickly, too slickly? Do I label peaches “fuzzy” and mud “squashy,” sum up the experience, move on? Do I but glance at that yellow shape, that brown stuff, call the first “peach,” the second “mud,” and that is that?

As writers all we have to work with are words. But the universe offers itself, a quirky gift. Am I giving back but an easy package?

So I decided to do this, every day. For five minutes. That’s all.

Focus on something. Attend to it, with all five senses (well, within reason). And the tricky part: try not to label the sensation, to put it into words. Just be with it.

Today I ate a leftover burrito. Cold. In a styrofoam container. It was amazing! (The burrito, not the container.) Gummy cheese … but, no, no words, no writing. Just be.

Do you want to try this, too? Pick a thing, an experience … waiting for the bus in the rain, patting the dog, holding an apple. Five minutes. Be prepared for questions, if anyone sees you. (My daughter: “Mom, why are you staring creepily at that tree?”)

What gift has the universe given you today? And how might you notice it?
~Mary Quattlebaum


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In our family we give extra points for Good Use of Existing Materials. Mostly this means stuffl like utilizing a paper towel when the coffee filters run out, or opening a wine bottle with a screw and a hammer when you can’t find the corkscrew;


pajama bottoms that double as capris, an old sweater sleeve that makes a good winter hat;certainly duct tape and bungie cords put to inventive use qualify.

I appreciate make-do ingenuity in the outer world, too: a handyman’s trailer fasioned from the detached back of a truck,


a log-house style tower built of bananas for display at the cash register at Starbuck’s.


In November our family lost our beloved Aunt Norma. She was a model of economy and ingenuity. Consider her reuse of milk cartons, for instance. Like many, she used empty milk cartons as containers to freeze soup. But she also cut them lengthwise into longboats to hold chicken breasts as they defrosted. She’d line these up on the floor in the front of the refrigerator to take advantage of the warm fan there to hurry the defrosting process. On her kitchen counter, flattened milk cartons found new life as cutting boards. In her storeroom, she organized stuff into more empty milk cartons. To celebrate the Fourth of July, we staged a Milk Carton Regatta, motored and non-motored classes, racing across her swimming pool. No milk carton went to waste at Aunt Norma’s.


As a writer, I value Good Use of Existing Material in my own work and others’, too. It provides the authentic stuff – like Aunt Norma herself – that is given to you to shape with zest and ingenuity. There is an economy that applies, as in a reduction of balsamic vinegar, where the flavors are reduced to their delicious essence. You get down to the metaphors, details and even the words that carry the most story; the material and language that take the story deeper.

~ By Laura Kvasnosky



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Challenge, Counter, Controvert: Subverting Expectations — Uma Krishnaswami

In Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Divisadero, the narrator says, “I look into the distance for those I have lost, so that I see them everywhere.”

Elsewhere he writes of a steeple:

“Built in the thirteenth century, the belfry had been constructed like a coil or a screw. It had one of those unexpected, heliocoidal shapes–the surface like a helix–so that as it curved up it reflected every compass point of the landscape.”

It’s the surprise in this text that keeps me reading. How can you look into the distance and see those lost people everywhere? How does so expansive a word as “everywhere” manage to loop me back so close to the narrator’s consciousness? How can “everywhere” conjure up personal, proximal space? The belfry, too, curves up in a single sharp, clear image. Yet its multiple reflections seem created purposefully, to reflect “every compass point” and thus to distract the reader’s mind into attentiveness.

So how does all this internal contradiction work in narrative, given how much we’re taught to prize logic and order? Shouldn’t the work of crafting a story be all about trying to figure out what makes sense?

I will admit that I love complication and contradiction. I love the places in books where meanings rub up against one another and create new and mind-boggling patterns. Always did, even as a kid.

I’m writing this from India where continuum and contradiction are present in tandem: Republic Day flag-buntings and traditional rice-flour kolam on thresholds and sidewalks, the whir of ceiling fans and the shrieking of tropical birds at daybreak. Here, controverting meaning is part of daily life.



Take the other day, for example, when I went to the bank. A young woman was seated at a table as people came and went. She was creating mehndi designs with henna paste on customers’ and bank employees’ hands. A caricaturist was working away in a back room. A bank employee directed anyone who caught her eye: Mehndi? Quick sketch? Naturally, I volunteered.

The bank, it turns out, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. This birthday bash could last a week, a couple of weeks, or a month. No one is quite sure, but a party is promised at some point soon.

This mega-promo deliberately sets out to disrupt your sense of what is normal, so you’re compelled to ask, Why is this happening? What could it mean? That asking keeps you guessing, and more to the point, it keeps you from walking out. Maybe you’ll open a new account, or refer a friend. See the parallel with a reading experience?

The henna went on cool and dark green. Within an hour the leaf paste had flaked off, leaving a pale orange tattoo. A few hours of later, it turned a deep, glorious brick-red, the pattern having been fixed by the heat of my palm.

So it is with challenge, countering and controverting. It heats text up. It shifts expectations. It disturbs the rhythms of normalcy. When it’s done right, it can keep us turning the page.

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