Monday, 17 July 2017

On Editing

I’ve recently been contacted by a former student, asking if I’d like to read the novel he was getting ready to submit to an agent. As I’ve been going through the process of finding an agent myself and frequently call upon the support and advice of my own writing community I wanted to offer him a bit of encouragement. And so I said yes.

This situation has happened plenty of times before so I have no excuse. I should have known better.

Normally, things pan out like this:

The budding novelist (either student, former student, or friend who has a story to tell) will ask me to ‘glance over’ their project. They’re excited that they’ve completed their short story or novel and they want to share it with someone who can appreciate it for what it is – a soon to be discovered masterpiece. Then, the moment I open their document or turn to the first page my editing instincts kick in.  Things generally go downhill from there.

Ten or twelve years ago, a neighbour gave me the manuscript she had written. It was a memoir of sorts, telling of her youthful struggles with her sexual identity and a crush she had had on a teacher. It was a story which was difficult for her to write on many levels, and it was deeply, deeply important to her. What she wanted, I realise now, was validation and empathy. But that’s not what I gave her.

The memoir recounted her growing awareness that she was attracted to ‘the wrong gender’ and the confusion and domestic trauma which resulted. It was an honest portrait of how she came to be the person she was. But I only saw the poor narrative structure and the lack of tension and the awkward syntax. I hyper-focused on her incorrect use of semicolons (writing the rules for their use in the margins so she would know better next time) and pointed out inconsistencies in verb tense. And I helpfully crossed through lengthy passages which served no narrative purpose or repeated information already given.

I scrawled my corrections and suggestions all over her story in bright red biro, then handed the manuscript back to her, telling her that more work was needed. Much more.

And she never spoke to me again.

It is not my intention to go squashing the hopes and dreams of budding writers and even less so, to hurt the feelings of someone who has worked up the courage to share their personal journey with me. That experience with my former neighbour taught me to distinguish between ‘serious writers’ and people with a story to tell, and to treat them differently when it comes to providing feedback. And I have learned to sandwich my constructive criticisms between thick slices of wholemeal praise.

When I was teaching Creative Writing, I put a lot of emphasis on the need to ‘craft’ a story. The first draft might come swiftly or it might need to be wrestled onto the page, but in either case it will – without exception – need to be reworked to some degree to get the imagery and the characterisations right and to ensure the pitch and pacing suit the overall narrative. Raymond Carver, I told my students, regularly did 20 to 30 drafts of a story – and that was before handing them over to Gordon Lish. And Alice Munro claimed to do as many as 80 before she was satisfied that a story was finished. I impressed upon them, in Hemingway’s words, that ‘first drafts are shit’ and that ‘good writing is rewriting’. Writing is not easy, I told them. It’s graft. Hard graft.

So when my former student sent me his novel recently, I knew he’d been taught about the process of writing. I also knew he had a gift for creating vivid and fantastical worlds and that he was highly prolific. Since graduating from university three years ago he told me, he’d written four novels. Four. Novels.

I began making notes almost as soon as I opened his document and started to read. ‘The voice sounds too young for a sixteen-year-old boy’ I scribbled onto a notepad. Then moments later, ‘now he sounds far too old – would he really use a word like “curmudgeon”?’ I soon switched to using Tracked Changes so I could make annotations right on the script. And then I really got going. I began changing the syntax and substituting words. I highlighted whole paragraphs which contained too many, too long and complex sentences, and commented about the benefits of varying sentence length and structure. I reminded him that short sentences helped to create tension, and asked whether it was important the reader should know what the character ate for dinner last night in such precise detail. And I corrected one comma splice after another. By the time I’d finished the first chapter, I was exhausted. And when I looked back through the pages I saw there was more red text on the screen than there was black.

I tried to be gentle with my feedback. I apologised for my pedantry about semicolons and assured him the story itself was ‘great’. I told him that this, the third draft, was ‘almost there’ and that he should ‘keep going’.  But more work was needed. Much more. 

To his credit, he took my comments well. He’s developed the necessary thick skin to protect himself from being mortally wounded. And he agreed with many of the points I'd made. But still, I know he was disappointed. He’s worked hard on his novel and he’s ready to move on to the next. 

After seven drafts of my own novel, I understand that. I'm ready to move on, too.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Creativity as a Process

I've been going through some of my old writing journals, lately, and I came upon this entry, written in 2008 while teaching a class on Autobiography to first year Creative Writing students. 

What is creativity and where does it come from?  How do we recognise it?  How do we nurture it and how does it grow?  Ghiselin describes the creative process as a process of evolution, of taking something that already exists and turning it into something new or something better.  It is a cause and effect relationship, where the effect may not necessarily be recognised or valued at first instance: 'Because every creative act overpasses the established order in some way and in some degree, it is likely at first to appear eccentric to most men' (1997:3).  We are reminded that in his lifetime, Van Gogh never sold a painting (a claim which is disputed by the experts), yet today we know he was a visionary, experimenting with colour and form, taking what he had learned from the artists who went before him and moulding it into something new.  Van Gogh transcended the old older; he grew beyond it. But he did not do so by chance or through 'talent' alone.  Any form of artistic endeavour takes a lot of hard graft.  That is the message I have been attempting (and failing, I fear) to get across to my students - the need to study.  And study takes effort and time in order to dissect and decipher other writers' work.

Writers write, but writers also read.  They must read in order to learn how good writing works, to internalise those lessons, and to push their own efforts forward.  There is an unappealing arrogance in the argument I hear too often from budding writers who say they don't like to read because they want to be 'original' and don't want to be influenced by others.  Worse yet is the claim that they don't have time.  And worst of all is the bold admission that they are simply 'not interested' in reading what other people have to say - and yes, I've had a Creative Writing student tell me this in a completely matter-of-fact way and without any hint of embarrassment. In my mind, all of these statements smack of laziness and a denial that a writer must learn their craft.  Creativity is nurtured by discipline - not a discipline which contains or limits thought, but a seriousness of purpose, a focussed mindset, a dedication to the craft and a willingness to work something over and over (to craft it) until it is right.  Too much confidence, I fear, is a hindrance to a writer's development.  

Recently, I have been marking first year students' Autobiography portfolios and every single one has neglected the crafting/redrafting process - the importance of which I have stressed throughout the term.  A number of these students are desperate to be taken seriously as 'writers' and believe they have something important to say.  They are very earnest in their aspirations but they have the mistaken belief that the artistic merit of 'self expression' is unquestionable.  Once or twice I have been challenged by students who want to know how I can possibly critique their writing, believing that any analysis of creativity can only be subjective.  In my feedback, I try to take them back to the idea that creativity is a process and that very few serious writers would ever be so bold as to reject a first draft's need for further development.  And I try to show them that the best way of knowing that a piece of writing has artistic merit is by reading widely.  Sadly, only one student cited one writer in his discussions, and that was Terry Prachett - not entirely relevant in a class on autobiographical writing.  

Monday, 19 December 2016

A Glimmer of Hope

~ in the short stories of Eddie Chuculate’s Cheyenne Madonna

We are different people at different times in our lives, and the experiences we have and the lessons we take from them shape us into the people we become. In Eddie Chuculate’s debut collection, Cheyenne Madonna, we dip in and out of the life of Jordan Coolwater, glimpsing some of his many identities: devoted son, runaway convict, gifted artist, and grief-ridden husband. 

Galveston Bay, 1826, which won the O. Henry Prize in 2007, gives historical context to Jordan’s life and provides the overall backdrop to the collection. Eager for adventure, Cheyenne chief Old Bull and his three companions set off on an equestrian road-trip to the sea – "the absolute end of the earth." Through the shimmering heat haze which rises off the desert, we watch the landscape change: herds of sand-coloured antelope springing in "long graceful arcs" and a wildfire which appears "like the bluffs of a red canyon, lapping and advancing with thirsty orange flames." When, after days of riding through a relentlessly arid landscape the four men reach the great expanse of Galveston Bay, we feel their wonder as they tease one another and play like children in the surf.

There are times, however, when Chuculate’s research rises to the surface of the story and obscures the characters’ points of view. When the Cheyennes meet a local Indian band who invite them to a feast, the author’s voice intrudes into the narrative, jarring us out of the story: 
"Platters of roasted scallops, shrimp, and oysters were passed along to the guests. The headman showed them how to shuck out the meat with a wooden, spoonlike device and dab it onto sea salt that had dried out in a depression on a stone slab."

Old Bull is living on the cusp of change, aware of the "white men from different worlds" but not yet realising that the "absolute end" of the Cheyenne world awaits. The following six stories jump forward in time to reveal what that change means for Jordan Coolwater and his family. 

In YoYo, we see thirteen-year-old Jordan living with his grandparents outside of Muskogee,
Eddie Chuculate
Oklahoma, separated not only from his parents and siblings, but from his Native community. Isolated, lonely and bored, Jordan spends his time fishing with his dog, Butch, and lobbing dirt clods at turtles. When he first meets Yolanda, the sexually precocious fifteen-year-old who has moved into the house across the field, she stands above him with "both hands on her hips…swaying sideways, like a cobra sizing its hapless victim." Chuculate deftly captures awakening youthful passions, at once innocent and knowing, and like the Jordan, the reader is powerless to resist YoYo’s charms. 

Winter, 1979 marks another turning point in the young Jordan’s life. After his best friend, Lonny, falls into an icy pond while trying to save his dogs, Jordan’s drunken uncle grabs the boy by the throat and calls him a "fucking nigger." It is a shocking and tense moment because Lonny himself is already hurt and vulnerable, and for a moment the world hangs in a balance with both boys stunned and silent. "It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the word," Jordan tells us, "but it was the first time I’d heard it said with venom." Years later, when Jordan returns from art college, the two friends meet again by chance and begin to reminisce. Though Jordan feels the need to apologise for his uncle’s words and "right some sort of wrong," the moment passes and the two men return to their separate lives, the silence between them too broad to be spanned.

Sherman Alexie, the most commercially successful Native American writer working today has built his career on portraying the lives of contemporary Indians, struggling to find a place for themselves on and off the reservation. While Chuculate's characters do not suffer from the same questions of identity as do many of Alexie's mixedblood characters, comparisons between the two writers are inevitable. As in Alexie's stories, alcohol is a constant presence in the life of Jordan Coolwater. We see him opening cans of beer for his grandparents in Yo Yo and his uncle swigging from bottles of whisky in Winter, 1979. By the time we get to A Famous Indian Artist, where we meet a second drunken uncle, we begin to understand the extent of the devastation which alcohol has brought to Jordan's family. In Dear Shorty, we see the family's dependence come to fruition in Jordan's own life as he tells us: "You can trace the progression of alcoholism in my family like a flying arrow and I'm the bull's-eye." 

Alcohol, poverty and a sense of dispossession form a lethal mix, but family bonds – however dysfunctional that family may be – remain strong. When he learns that his father, "Shorty", has been found "slumped over a toilet at a city park, unconscious, with bottles of Listerine scattered about his feet," Jordan heads home to Oklahoma. Soon, however, his own life careers through a series of drunken binges which ultimately lead to prison.

In the title story, Jordan’s dreams converge. He is now a successful and respected artist, and through his art he has found redemption. His life has been transformed with Lisa Old Bull, and with his addiction in check, the couple look forward to the imminent birth of their first child. At last, he has found peace and calm and purpose in his life. But tragedy thrusts Jordan back to the bottle and when his new world implodes he is tested to the point of self-destruction.

Despite their bleak and sometimes desperate appearance, the stories in Cheyenne Madonna are not – as one might expect – full of despair. "How can you drink that shit?" Jordan asks his father after he has nearly died from consuming mouthwash. Without a hint of self-pity, Shorty replies, "Practice, practice, practice." It is this wry humour, Chuculate’s acceptance of his characters’ weaknesses, and the chance that life will one day turn around which lifts this collection out of misery. Chuculate takes the reader to the edge of ruin, but he does not leave us there. There is always a chance of recovery; there is always a glimmer of hope. 

This review was first published on The Short Review.