Practice, Memory, and Song: Invoking the Muses

I’m always curious how the creative process unfolds for other writers. For me it goes like this, and I’m speaking now of when inspiration moves over me, not when I’m staring at a blinking cursor.

Though it doesn’t happen often enough, there are times when I think I’ll come out of my skin if I don’t get the thing that begins to well up inside of me out and onto the page. I am a slow writer, and I think it’s because I rely too heavily on this feeling, this welling up process that happens, not entirely of its own accord–I can and do feed it–but it certainly arrives in its own sweet time.

Something will happen in the world around me that gets my attention. I’ll have a jarring dream or I’ll be talking to a cousin or remember an earlier time in my life or see something out the car window or smell something I haven’t smelled in ages or hear a song on the radio or read an article or someone else’s short story. It could be anything, come from anywhere. But up it comes, suddenly, violently almost. I can’t help but notice. In fact, I can’t do anything but notice. My brain locks in on whatever it is and I obsess over this tiniest of fine story-making particles until it begins to grow.

From whence do these visitations come?

The Greeks liked to assign gods to curious experiences like these, and they referred to this particular strange phenomenon as invoking the Muses. Some sources say there are nine sister Muses, but orignially there were only three. Their names were Melete (Practice), Mneme (Memory), and Aoede (Song). The Muses, being goddesses, could be generous or spiteful to mortals, bestowing knowledge and inspiration or punishing those who questioned their divine authority. The three Muses are tied to the senses. Melete is associated with water, something we can feel and see and manipulate. Mneme is associated with wind, which we can feel and harness. And Aoede is associated, obviously, with sound.

People often ask if a story is true. Yes, always, though it may not be fact. Lately, I’ve been puzzling over an idea, a memory. A collection of memories actually. An experience. I’m not sure this thing, whatever it is, will in fact become a short story–I am never quite sure–though I am looking at it from all angles. To become a short story, I’ll have to transform it completely. This takes some doing. When it’s done, if I’m successful, it won’t look at all like the experience. No one will recognize it except me. In my mind, the two will become one.

I used to think my stories sprang up from character or voice, but lately I’m coming to think that’s not quite right. It’s this welling up of emotion. I think that’s more accurate because emotion is tied to meaning, and stories must hold meaning.

In order to name whatever big emotion it is I’m trying to wrangle, I have to chase it. This is where the Muses come in. I was glad to learn that the names of the Muses were Practice, Memory, and Song because that’s exactly how they assist me in writing a story.

I think of Practice as the goddess of reason and repetition. Habit, you might call her. Practice compels us to learn our craft, to reflect upon our own natures and methods as I’m doing here. To ponder and plot and plan. To sit and try. To toss out and try again. To perfect what can be perfected, to learn to live with what shouldn’t be mussed over. When I’m chasing the big feeling, Practice has me trying to isolate it, name it, break it down.

That’s where Memory steps in, making associations. Nearly every story I write taps into some memory stored away in the tiny lunch boxes of my mind, little meals to be consumed for as long as I’m able to recall them. Or rather, more accurately, I think, Memory is a fuse box containing the live wires of our former lives, lives we can splice into again and draw upon the charges of our former feelings. But stories are not memories dolled up in new Easter outfits. Memory is simply a battery used to boost the imagination. As I’m always reminding my students, literal memory is the enemy of fiction, if you believe what Robert Olen Butler says. And I do. Still, memory is crucial for inducing the writer’s trance, which will faithfully lead to our associative mind and then our imagination if we are patient and trusting enough.

Song is our deepest intuition, that place that thrums when the critical mind is silenced and a story comes pouring onto the page. As with music, we are transported, carried away. We find our rhythm and we sing along. We know all the words, though we’re not sure why. We don’t even think about it. We simply hear the song and write it down just as we hear it.

The longer I practice writing, the more firmly I’m convinced that intuition is a writer’s greatest faculty. I’m learning too that it’s as faithful to us as we are to it. Call it whatever you like, but I think Practice, Memory, and Song has a nice ring to it.

Future Workshops

I’m considering starting a new series of workshops, but I’d love to get your feedback first to make sure I offer what you are most interested in. Please take a few minutes to respond to the following poll. Thanks much! ~ sheryl

Jennifer Niven

BecomingClementine_CV.inddEvery writer is a hero on his or her own journey. Each month, I’ll feature a new writer facing brand new territory. These candid Q & As offer insights into working writers’ lives at every stage of their careers. Some writers are babes in the deep woods, others are grizzled old wordsmiths with sharpened axes, but every single one is charting new country. Follow along as they share glimpses of the roads they’ve traveled. And gather wisdom and inspiration as they face down the road ahead.

Next up: Jennifer Niven.  Leave a comment for Jennifer, and you could win a copy of her third Velva Jean novel Becoming Clementine.

jennifer nivenJennifer Niven lives in Los Angeles, where her film Velva Jean Learns to Drive won an Emmy Award and she received her MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute.  Her first book, The Ice Master, was released in November 2000 and named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly.  A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer, Jennifer has ten different publishers in ten separate countries, and the book has been translated into German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Danish, and Icelandic, among other languages.

Jennifer and The Ice Master have appeared in Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, The New Yorker, Outside, The New York Times Book Review, The London Daily Mail, The London Times, and Writer’s Digest, among others.  Dateline NBC, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel have featured The Ice Master and Jennifer in hour-long documentaries, she and the book have appeared frequently on the BBC, and the book has been the subject of several German, Canadian, and British television documentaries.  The Ice Master has been nominated for awards by the American Library Association and Book Sense, and received Italy’s esteemed Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize for 2002.

Jennifer’s second book, Ada Blackjack— an inspiring true story of the woman the press called “the female Robinson Crusoe”— was released in November 2003, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick, has been optioned for the movies, was recently translated into Chinese and French, and will soon be published in Estonian.

Her memoir, The Aqua-Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, was published in February 2010 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and was optioned by Warner Bros. as a television series.

Her first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive (based on the Emmy Award-winning film of the same name), was released July 2009 by Penguin/Plume.  It was an Indie Pick for the August 2009 Indie Next List and was also a Costco Book of the Month.  The second book in the Velva Jean series, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, debuted from Penguin/Plume in August 2011, and the third book in the series, Becoming Clementine, was published in September 2012.  She is currently finishing up work on the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde, which will be released July 2014.

Her first YA novel, All the Bright Places, is due from Knopf in early 2015 (with a second to follow in 2016).  In addition, she has developed television projects with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Wolfgang Petersen, and Charlie Sheen.

With her mother, author Penelope Niven, Jennifer has conducted numerous seminars in writing, mentored writers of all ages, and addressed audiences around the world.

For more information, visit her website:  www.jenniferniven.com

How many stages are there in the writer’s journey and where are you on that path?

As a human being, I am constantly evolving, growing, changing, developing, and as a writer I am doing the same.  I like to think there are endless stages in a writer’s journey and that I am just beginning to learn what I can do.

What single piece of work, published or unpublished, are you most proud of?

I’m proud of each book for different reasons—The Ice Master because it was my first.  Ada Blackjack because I managed to write it and deliver it even as my dad was dying of cancer.  Velva Jean Learns to Drive because it was my first novel.  The Aqua Net Diaries because I wrote it at the same time as Velva Jean Learns to Drive and somehow managed not to lose my mind.  The subsequent Velva Jean books, which all had to be written in VERY short amounts of time.  My forthcoming YA novel because I wrote it in just six weeks, and the subject matter was the most traumatically personal I’ve dealt with to date.  I felt very exposed and very brave writing that book, and very proud of myself for being able to do it.

What are you currently struggling with or trying to master? Some aspect of craft, say, or some area of publishing or finding an agent.

This year has been a challenging one.  My literary agent of fifteen years died in April, just as I was finishing the fourth in a series of historical novels for Penguin.  His death made me pause and think about what I really wanted to do next.  As I began talking to new agents, I pitched them an idea I had kept close to my heart for years but had never had the time or courage to write.  Then I spent six weeks writing it—my first experience in the world of YA fiction, which was daunting and scary and fun and exciting and so, so rewarding.  In August, my wonderful new agent and I sold that book and another YA to follow to Knopf, so I am venturing off into completely new territory with a completely new publisher.

Can you give us a short list of tips, a lesson on craft, or a writing exercise of some kind?

Write.  Read.  Write.  Read.  Work hard.  Remember to enjoy it.  Don’t forget to play and have fun with your words.  Write the thing you’re burning to write.  Don’t be afraid of writing twaddle, as Katherine Mansfield said.  “But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”  Learn to love editing, or at least accept it as one of the most important parts of the process.

Who have been your teachers?

First and foremost, my mother, Penelope Niven, a prolific, award-winning author.  She not only encouraged my own writing from a very early age, she taught me that I could be or do anything I wanted to be or do.  In high school, I wrote many (overly long) essays for my Humanities teacher, Joe Kaiser.  I will never forget the time he scrawled “pure economy of word” at the top of one of these and underlined it.  Back then, I overwrote everything, but those four words at the top of that page stayed with me, and ever since I have tried to write leanly and economically, with very little fat on the bones.  I also have to mention Flannery O’Connor.  I may not have studied with her, but I have certainly studied her.  So much of what I know (and so much of what I utilize) involving character, description, and “pure economy of word” have come from her.

Josephine Humphries once said she sacrificed friendships and soccer matches so that she could write. What have you lost or sacrificed in order to write?

I try always to strike a healthy balance between work and friends/family and exercise and taking time to be a person (as opposed to a writing machine).  But sometimes it’s impossible.  This year alone, I’ve written two books, lost my agent, found a new one, battled eye problems, dealt with family illness, and on and on.  I have sacrificed free time, friend time, weekend time, health, fitness, fun, sleep.

When I’m under serious deadlines, I enter what I think of as the Writing Cave, and stay there seven days a week, fourteen or so hours a day.  I can go for days and often weeks at a time only seeing my fiancé and three cats (because they live with me).  Sometimes the schedule just has to be that hard and that tough and that full.  Your friends will either understand or they won’t.  Luckily, most of my friends are just as busy as I am, so they get it, and we commiserate, and then we keep right on going because that’s what you have to do.

Looking back, what mistakes have you made?

I wouldn’t change anything in my career, except perhaps to be a little more forthcoming in my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries.  As a writer, it’s part of my job to put myself out there, to open up and pour myself into the work and the words and the characters.  But it’s one thing to do that in fiction, and another thing entirely to do it in a true story about yourself, especially when you’re a pretty private person.  As much as I enjoyed writing the Velva Jean novels, I would also think twice about writing another series.  It’s hard to find yourself in the middle of book two or three or four when you feel the itch to start writing something completely new and different.

What do you wish someone had told you?

When I was first starting out, the actress Madge Sinclair told me, “Writing, like any art form, takes soul stamina.  You have to be prepared to commit to it, want it more than anything, honor your gifts, and stick it out through thick and thin.”  I was lucky enough to grow up with a writer mom, so I saw firsthand how difficult and stressful and unpredictable the business was.  I also saw the commitment it took.  I’m grateful for that because I think so many people go into the business of writing with unrealistic expectations—not realizing that it is, in fact, a business, and that you have to be ready and willing to do it in spite of everything else.

What scares you about the road ahead?

Nothing.  The road ahead is exciting.  I think the only thing that worries me is that I won’t have time to write down all the ideas I carry around in my head.

If you could write your own obituary, what would you want it to say?

I would borrow a few words from one of the characters in my books:  I was alive.  I burned brightly.  And then I died, but not really.  Because I will always be here, in the writings and the people (and the cats) I left behind.

Comments

  1. November  2, 2013 2:01 PM EDT
    I’m so honored to have gone to Richmond High with Jennifer. You sure have made a wonderful name for yourself. Many great wishes for your continued success.
    - Darla Ferguson Hill
  2. December 28, 2013 5:29 PM EST
    I feel quite lazy as a writer after reading this. Congrats to Jennifer for her great success.
    - William Trent Pancoast

William Trent Pancoast

Every writer is a hero on his or her own journey. wildcatEach month, I’ll feature a new writer facing brand new territory. These Q&As offer insights into working writers’ lives at every stage of their careers. Some writers are babes in the deep woods, others are grizzled old wordsmiths with sharpened axes, but every single one is charting new country. Follow along as they share glimpses of the roads they’ve traveled. And gather wisdom and inspiration as they face the road ahead.

Next up: William Trent Pancoast. Leave a comment for our guest and you could win a signed copy of his novel Wildcat.

william trent pancoastWilliam Trent Pancoast’s novels include WILDCAT (2010) and CRASHING (1983). His fiction has recently appeared in Steel Toe Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Revolver, Monkeybicycle, and Night Train. Pancoast retired in 2007 from the auto industry after thirty years as a die maker and union newspaper editor. Born in 1949, the author lives in Ontario, Ohio. He has a BA in English from the Ohio State University.

How many stages are there in the writer’s journey and where are you on that path?

Writing has always felt the same to me, from the first story over fifty years ago to the one I finished last week. My first real story was for a seventh grade assignment—write a fifteen hundred word story. I had Attention Deficit Disorder and my MO with any homework was to get it done, breeze through it so I could daydream or sleep, just have my time for myself. So I plunged into the writing to get it out of the way and a strange thing happened—this was hard work, this writing was hard to do. But I had to do it—that was the rest of the MO—homework had to be done and then my parents could live with my not-so-good grades and leave me alone. I wrestled that story. I plotted and revised and cussed it and ended up with a little piece of writing that everyone understood and liked. And I had an A grade.

The stages for me have been in the recognition of my work. There was never any doubt that I could and would write stories and novels, but without a place to publish the work, did the writing even exist? I had written a few decent stories when I turned to novels. In 1975 I finished Valley Real Estate, and in 1979 I finished Crashing–both 80,000-word novels. I had no success in getting the attention of agents or publishers. The car factory ate me about that time, and for a lot of years I went to work and came home and drank beer and then went back to work.

The last few years have been fun for me. During that time I have been able to get my writing in front of a lot of people. Publication, invitations to writers conferences, and the opportunity to introduce myself to a lot of good people have been gratifying for me. If where I’m at right now would be the final stage, that would be okay. But I’ve got a lot of projects underway, including a collection of stories I’m just now ready to try and find  a home for. I hope folks stick with me long enough to see what I have written and what I am writing.

What single piece of work, published or unpublished, are you most proud of?

WILDCAT, my novel published in 2010, is my favorite. It has been embraced by working folks as an honest portrayal of them and their work. Some folks here will find it interesting that the United Auto Workers Union has banned my book from its Walter and May Reuther Education Center in Michigan, ostensibly for use of the F-bomb in portraying factory language. The book is banned from the UAW library, the book store, and from use at any UAW educational conferences.

What are you currently struggling with or trying to master? Some aspect of craft, say, or some area of publishing or finding an agent.

In the last year, I have written almost exclusively in first person. That has been fun and I think I’ve finally got the hang of it. One thing I have realized, and it may have been present for 50 years, is that my story writing is about simply trying to share my feelings about human beings, characters, with the reader. To accomplish that, I need to control the tone of the entire story and that lends itself to a comparison of writing to music, as I correct and revise by making sure there are not any sour notes.

And, of course, I need an agent. We all need agents. The world needs at least another 1313 agents.

Can you give us a short list of tips, a lesson on craft, or a writing exercise of some kind?

Pretend you have ADD and just write like crazy.

Seriously, what I mentioned above—tone. Make sure to make the tone consistent. Use your musical ability to revise your work.
One other thing: write, and especially revise, like you are the last editor who will ever see your writing.

And just in case you forget–never give up.

Who have been your teachers?

The best instruction I ever had in writing came from Moulton DeWalt, my advanced composition teacher in high school. What little I know about high-end grammar and correct language usage comes from his class.  My best learning experience was delivered to me courtesy of Merritt Clifton, editor of Samisdat in the seventies and eighties. He wrote me a long letter trashing the manuscript of my novel Crashing. I was mad for quite awhile; then I set about the hard work of revising and rewriting. He taught me to hone my work, to write like I was the one who had to clean up the mess prior to publication. The teacher who really lit the fire for my writing was Poet Jim Reiss. The only college creative writing course I ever had was a two-hour-credit gig with him in 1969 at Miami University. He loved my little stories and made me believe I could be a writer. I never knew whether to thank him or cuss him for that. Now I do know: thanks, Jim Reiss.

I also consider editors who have liked my writing and accepted it for publication as teachers: they condoned and encouraged the writing path I was on by that publication. At the top of that list is Rusty Barnes, editor and co-founder of Night Train and the proprietor of Fried Chicken and Coffee. Dave Elsila, longtime editor of the UAW’s Solidarity magazine, always helped me on the path by appreciating and publishing my work.

Just as important as the above teachers are the writers whose writing has shown the way—Don Pollock, William Gay and Cormac McCarthy lately.  D. H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, and Ken Kesey in the past, to name a few.

Josephine Humphries once said she sacrificed friendships and soccer matches so that she could write. What have you lost or sacrificed in order to write?

This is difficult to answer since I have always felt like a writer, an outsider, even at an early age, and my entire life is therefore seen through the prism of writing. In that sense, I consider the propensity to write to be a genetic affliction and recently wrote in an autobiographical novella, “What did my writing cost me? Or I think a more honest way to phrase the question: what did my birth as a writer cost me? This distinction is important, I think, because a writer is no more responsible for his genetic urges than a gay person. To suppress is to distort and torture, and to suppress completely is to kill the human being that is the writer.”

So it is complicated. My writing has been at the center of some very bad things that have happened to me. I wanted it all. I was the twenty hour a day man, like my narrator in Oxford Town. I could work full time and do my student teaching at the same time. I could take a machinist’s job with no machine shop experience. I did not do prerequisites. There came a day when I found myself completely isolated with my typewriter and a ream of paper. This was 1979, the year I wrote Crashing. As the circle took shape, after doing the writing to be alive, the writing ultimately became the way to stay alive.

My writing never came easy, never came without a price. I had to mostly back away from writing fiction for many years when I was a labor newspaper editor, but I always produced some stories, kept the ember alive, knowing that writing of any form would keep me sharp enough to do the fiction again.

The finish line for me and my writing is in sight because of my age. The last several years have been gratifying. I have found some readership through publication of Wildcat and my recent stories (five so far this year). I like the novel I published in 2010 because the people it is about get it and appreciate it. It is an honest, unpretentious book—working class writing for the working class.
My writing has stopped charging me admission.

Looking back, what mistakes have you made?

I’m pretty sure I’ve made a nuisance of myself a few times on Facebook. I don’t know. It’s always been go toward whatever daylight there is. I would say I should have had a more disciplined approach to seeking an agent and publisher. And that is probably still true.
I should have gone to some writing conferences perhaps. But I wouldn’t have even known where to go. I always love the discussions about MFA programs and degrees. My two cents’ worth is that the contacts made in MFA programs look to me to be very valuable.

What do you wish someone had told you?

I wish someone had told me early on that we need to love all our characters, like God loves all his children. That doesn’t mean that some characters aren’t flaming assholes. It’s an acknowledgement of the need for love in all humans–that folks, and our characters, generally have done the best they can.

What scares you about the road ahead?

Nothing about my writing world really scares me. I’ve been writing for 50 years with little recognition. Right now is just plain fun for me.

As for the future, all I need to do is look around and I will see at least one human I empathize with, and whose story I need to tell, whose life is deserving of vindication and tribute.

If you could write your own obituary, what would you want it to say?

What a question. I have been lately thinking about writing my own obituary. I was 64 on May 9 so I’m closer to needing one than most of the readers here. It would have to say that I did my best to be a good father and husband. It would also have to say that I was a writer for over 50 years, that I left some scattered published writing, including three books and a bunch of stories (hopefully it will say a “collection”). One important part of my obituary would be that there would be free books by the author for anyone who wanted them at the funeral. It would say that my ashes were to be scattered on Gull Island Shoal on Lake Erie and that I would forever haunt anyone who did not accomplish that last task.

Comments

  1. May 20, 2013 9:04 PM EDT
    I’ve enjoyed getting to know you and your work, Bill. Those stories WILL be gathered into a collection, believe that! I love your answer, “That doesn’t mean that some characters aren’t flaming assholes. It’s an acknowledgement of the need for love in all humans–that folks, and our characters, generally have done the best they can.”
    - Jason Kaufman
  2. May 21, 2013 8:56 AM EDT
    Thanks, Jason. I appreciate your optimism! My comment could easily be summed up in three words: “Child of God.”
    - Bill
  3. May 21, 2013 11:20 AM EDT
    Bill, your work is a strongly written, powerful statement from a perspective that is not often represented.  It is not a political polemic, but a genuine experience from the point of view of humans we can identify with.  But it’s not familiar or hackneyed, it’s new.  I always look forward to reading your next story.  Please keep sharing your work.
    - Jennifer Hurst
  4. May 21, 2013 11:51 AM EDT
    Bill : I have enjoyed Your writing skills. Your down to earth style  may have offended some but real  life always offends some body.To be politically correct is not always real life. The ideals you stand for are simple and sincere . You proved that when you stopped teaching because Administrators insisted You concentrate on a percentage of failures rather than success of students . those same standards are reflected in your books. Keep up the great work !
    - William Cameron
  5. May 21, 2013 11:57 AM EDT
    You said it, my friend: “I have always felt like a writer, an outsider, even at an early age, and my entire life is therefore seen through the prism of writing. In that sense, I consider the propensity to write to be a genetic affliction . . . a writer is no more responsible for his genetic urges than a gay person. To suppress is to distort and torture, and to suppress completely is to kill the human being that is the writer.”
    Yes. that is a perfect description/definition that fits me just fine. Thank you.
    - Ginger Hamilton
  6. May 21, 2013 12:15 PM EDT
    Ol’ Lester Ballard did try the best he could to love! Or tried the only way he knew how. Disturbing. Is that what happens when a whole community heaps their darkness on one man’s shoulders. My mom’s started raising chickens, and poor Wanda is at the bottom of the pecking order. She makes me think of Child of God.
    - Jason Kaufman
  7. May 21, 2013 12:33 PM EDT
    Ginger, I hoped that statement would ring true. Thanks for validating it for me! Thanks much, Jennifer! You have been a true friend to me and my writing. William, thanks  for your compliments!
    - Bill
  8. May 22, 2013 7:43 AM EDT
    “I wish someone had told me early on that we need to love all our characters, like God loves all his children. That doesn’t mean that some characters aren’t flaming assholes. It’s an acknowledgement of the need for love in all humans–that folks, and our characters, generally have done the best they can.”
    Especially love this, Bill, as well as what you say about empathy. So very true. Thank you for sharing your writer’s journey with us.
    And thanks to all your fans for stopping by to say hello. Much appreciated.
    - Sheryl Monks
  9. May 22, 2013 9:52 AM EDT
    I hope you have more writing years left in you than you predict, Bill. This interview alone proves that you have plenty more to contribute.
    - Alison
  10. May 23, 2013 6:37 PM EDT
    Thank you, Sheryl. I appreciate being included in your Writer’s Journey series. Alison, I’m hard at work. Thanks.
    - Bill
  11. May 27, 2013 4:15 PM EDT
    I love that WILDCAT has been banned in the places you named. Says a lot.
    - Laura