September Tarot Reading

For my tarot reading last night, I did a simple past, present, and future spread about creativity. I asked: What can I draw from my past, cultivate now, and develop in the future? I interpreted the spread to mean I have an abundance of talents and experience to draw from, the ability to hone and push these talents today, and the opportunity to deepen my practice, focus, and spiritual center. The world card, one of the best in the deck, I think, means this is a time of transformation, and I have access to the world of my creative talents to draw from to get me to the next stage of my journey. An image of the spread follows.

September Tarot

Space opera. It’s a real thing.

Space opera is a real subset of science fiction. According to sciencefiction.com, “Space opera is a genre of science fiction literature, and the term can also be applied to movies and TV programs. The genre has almost no relationship to the opera music form, except for the similarity of grand scope and dramatic intensity. Typically, space opera occurs on a galactic scale, has multiple types of spacecraft, from speedy corvettes to battleships capable of destroying planets. There is plenty of action and adventure in space opera.”

Well-known Space operas include Doctor Who, The Foundation series, and the Ancillary Justice series (which I just read and would highly recommend).

A Study in Cups and Chairs

Writing is so much more than sitting at your computer, waiting for the words to come. It’s also paying attention to the world around you.

I’ve had a productive writing week, but today I felt dry, used up, and tired. So I put into action advice that I got from Natalie Goldberg’s The True Secret of Writing. I went to a coffee shop, Cups and Chairs, to record what was in front of me without subjectivity or interpretation. For twenty minutes, I wrote in a small red moleskin notebook, recording what I heard, saw, smelled, and tasted.

Here’s just a snippet of what I wrote:

There was a bug on the wall. I turned my head to sip my latte. When I looked again, the bug was gone.

Christmas ornaments hung on the light switches: blue, green, and red balls with glittery accents.

A woman, dressed in all black, delivered a steaming teapot and green mug to a college student sitting on the sofa, fussing with his laptop. The sofa had a linen cover. The walls were painted muted earth tones, grassy greens and brownish-reds. Old pictures, faded and some torn at the edges, of Philadelphia’s monuments hung on the wall. A bullet board hung over a cream and sugar station. Someone had shaped the tacks into a smiley face.

A woman in an Argyle sweater talked on her phone. It took me a few minutes to realize that she had a faint Irish accent. It was only noticeable when she pronounced long vowels like “good day” and “thank you.” After she hung up, she ate soup and crunched on a sliver of crusty bread.

A policeman walked into the cafe. “Did someone call?” he said. His radio was on.

“I did,” the barista said. She was the one dressed in black. “Someone called and said they were from PECO and that we owned them thousands of dollars. They said if we didn’t pay, they’d come turn off our electricity today.”

“Did you pay them?” the policeman said.

“We didn’t,” the barista said. We got their number and said we’d call them back. When we couldn’t reach them, we figured out it was a scam.”

“Did someone come in with a video to tell you it was a joke?” The policeman laughed.

The barista didn’t sound amused, but rather stern. “No sir. Would you like some tea?”

The woman in the Argyle sweater started talking on the phone, and I was cut off from the conversation.

I hope to use this exercise to cultivate specificity in my fiction, which I think is one key to great writing.

cuppainting

Uncreative Writing?

In my last post, I commented on the mash-up of what appears to be constituting our current literary tradition. And to make matters more interesting, I just got a new book in the mail…so this morning I jumped into Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing — a text on the reinvention of writing in the digital age. It’s FASCINATING. Forgive my Friday brain (for I got so little sleep last night) if I oversimplify things (and fear not, I’ll return to this book again, I’m sure) but the text proposes that patchwriting, “a way of weaving together various shards of other people’s words into a tonally cohesive whole,” is the new creative writing.

He argues that plagiarism is now an acceptable option for writers. He encourages undergrads in his class at Penn to utilize techniques such as collage, plagiarism, sampling, repurposing papers, etc. to create projects that turn out to be original works, wrought with self expression.

Goldsmith says, “The act of choosing and reframing tells us just as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation.”

I’ve only gotten through the introduction so far, but my mind is blown. Stay tuned for more on this, for I think Goldsmith has some valid (although controversial) points and isn’t a voice I can (or want to) ignore…

What George Saunders Has to Say About Great Short Story Endings…

For a lit class I’m taking this fall, today I read George Saunders’ essay, “The Perfect Gerbil,” which applies Freitag’s Triangle to Donald Barthelme’s brilliant short story “The School” in an attempt to explain why it works. While it can be futile to diagram fiction oh let’s say with a triangle-shaped chart, Saunders’ POV is that rising action is one of the hardest things to do in storytelling…yet Barthelme’s story achieves it and then some.

So let’s see how “The School” does it.

According to Saunders, Barthelme relies on instinct (and confidence) to boldly keep the action rising. In the text, things at the school die in a pattern. (Spoiler alert: This includes orange trees, snakes, gerbils, mice, a puppy, a young person, people’s parents, etc.) As Saunders states, “A story is made of things that fling our little car forward.” And in “The School,” “once we discerned the pattern, Barthelme is going to fling us forward via a series of surprises; each new pattern-element is going to be introduced in a way we don’t expect, or with an embellishment that delights us.”

“The School” does all the above, but, in my opinion, the way it ends is what makes it remarkable. As Saunders states, “Ending is stopping without sucking.” So how does Barthelme get out of this one?

Here’s what he doesn’t do: keep serving up the same dish of death. He pushes past sub-par endings and writes towards the right (or a great) one: he has the school’s students ask the teacher slash narrator what to make of death. Then they ask him to make love to his assistant, Helen, so they can study it. Bless Barthelme for this, because the story morphs into one about love between the narrator and Helen. As Saunders states, this gives the story meaning, for “Suddenly there is death in the room, but also life, and love.” Perhaps just perhaps the narrator notices Helen in a way he hadn’t before. Perhaps they fall in love. The class gets a gerbil. Everyone goes nuts. Everyone is satisfied.

There are no formulas. But maybe there is a lesson: plotting doesn’t hold a candle to bravery and intuition when it comes to good writing; and this lesson is one that I continue to forget and relearn.