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Hi Stacey, I just read "My Date with Satan." My mind was blown! My question is about MFA programs. Do you think you had to go to a place like Brown (i.e., innovative, experimental) to become the kind of writer that you are (i.e., bold, original, unconventional, idiosyncratic, etc.)? Do you think if you had gone to a more conventional program, they would have squelched your voice or forced you (or at least encouraged you) to conform to a more realistic style? How if at all did your MFA program change the voice that you had before going there? If instead of getting an MFA you could have just taken a grant that allowed you to write for a year or two without having to work, do you think your voice would have developed differently?
Hi Stacey! I am so glad to be back on this site with another set of questions. I divided the post into sections. The questions/sections sort of blend together. If I had to name this post,it might be ďGoing DeeperĒ or ďNext Steps.Ē As usual, this all revolves around writing. Which might be boring for you but you cannot believe how much your advice has helped me. Iíve dabbled in the Three Page exercise. I would say your responses are the number one reason Iím writing daily and beginning to compose pieces I might be able to work with. 1 The Writing Process Plays have helped me write everyday. You know beforehand how the text will look on the page. Youíre locked into a particular place with the characters. In a short story you can wander and take the reader wherever it pleases. A play is mostly dialogue and the dialogue has to carry the payload. Thereís no confusing scene and summary because a play is all scene, the here and now. When youíre composing, you have to commit to the characters and conflict. You have to focus on what they say and do, their journey, patterns of change, connection and disconnection, discovery and decision, the power struggle. I might be 30 pages into a short story and I havenít even introduced a character or situated the story in a specific time and place. Thatís not to suggest plays canít be just as motionless and filled with as much static. Steadily I am writing everyday, 45 or so minutes. The problem is most of it is brainstorming, exercises in The Dramatic Companion and The Architecture of Story, both by Will Dunne. Some of the brainstorming is necessary, helpful and constructive. I am afraid I am putting too much energy and time into the brainstorming though. I fill notebooks yet I canít finish one ten-minute play. I am wracked wondering how to organize what Iím doing. Should I write fiction instead? Should I work on a novel? When I look at the amount of brainstorming this sort of makes sense. Still this might not be a solution because Iím still dealing with the same set of problems. Or should I keep writing plays? You have told me that what you write has to be the thing that you have to write. Even if you publish a novel - be it YA, sci-fi, gothic, literary, historical, contemporary, avant-garde - the number of readers will probably not be significant. How do I fix my routine? How do I force myself to step away from the brainstorming and complete something? How can we be more organized? How do you structure your workday? How do maintain momentum while youíre working on a story? Do you have any techniques or strategies I could try? How do we make the transition from brainstorming to drafting, rewriting and polishing? I should have at least one completed ten-minute play but I donít. I think when youíre doing these exercises youíre being evasive. You can avoid the hard work, avoid mining the deep material thatís complex, confusing, outrageous, fucked up. Itís a lot easier to do an exercise that takes you through the motions. It allows you to think youíre doing a lot of work when really youíre just summarizing repeatedly. You lightly brush over the characters, settings, themes, images, and conflict. Itís like sight seeing from the car. What else do I have besides this. I have no relationships or close friends. I have to continue. 2 Improve Our Writing Great writing is an emotional experience as much for the writer as it is for the reader. If youíre ever going to write at least one great fucking page thatís more than just adequate or an exercise to slog through a class or workshop, you cannot repeatedly go through the motions. I think this idea is not addressed in a lot of creative writing books. If I ever write a book about writing, Iíd like to look at these topics. Art is a lie that takes you to a truth if youíre ready to go there. How can you teach something like this in a lesson or a workshop? You have to be able to shed the bullshit, niceties, anxieties. This leaves us vulnerable, open. When youíre writing it isnít just imagination youíre chasing. Itís you. I donít necessarily feel a lot when Iím writing. I havenít hit a nerve yet. If youíre writing plays and screenplays that may not come naturally. How do we get there? How do we push ourselves? How do we avoid going through the motions when we sit down? If I did all of exercises in all of the creative books ever published, I still might not be able to elevate my writing. There is no map, no set destination. We are left by ourselves. How do we light a fire? How do we deepen our scenes, characters, dialogue? Moreover how do we create characters that are not copies of ourselves? This is a problem I keep coming across. When Iím working on a scene with two characters, one character sucks up all the lines. They take up the space in the room. I end up mostly writing from that characterís point of view while the second character is just a witness to the monologuing. I spend time brainstorming the needs/wants of both characters but to little avail. And this is why it might take so long to write one or two pages of a play. Because one of the characters talks endlessly. On this site, youíve stated the thing is to write about your truelove subject matter. What if you write a novel or a play and there is no conflict or characterization. And I say this as a person that spent four or five months producing 300 pages of a handwritten play in which virtually nothing happened except the characters sitting on a couch talking about a variety of topics. Luckily I am starting to move past this. You could conceivably write about the subjects, people and places that interests you most and end up with no characters, conflict or a sense of setting If you write fiction, I think you can have limited success writing this sort of thing. Thereís space for the experimental, the avant-garde, an explosion. Itís why Samuel Richardson, Tristram Shandy, Moby-Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, Proust, Gide, Woolf, Joyce, The Man Without Qualities, Finnegans Wake, Nightwood, Gravityís Rainbow, the Malone trilogy, The Golden Notebook and Infinite Jest are still read outside of English departments. Thankfully the experimentalists will have a place at the table. If you write prose or poetry in this tradition, there are journals and online venues that will publish your work. Still there are only so many people clamoring to read Beckett. 3 Publishing and Performing So you donít know if your work will amount to jack shit. Iíve been working on ten-minute plays and I have no idea if these will ever be read or performed. The trajectory when publishing fiction is a little more straight-forward but not easier. You send short stories to journals/small lit magazines and work on a novel, find an agent, an editor, a publisher. When you feel confident about a piece and itís been thoroughly revised, what do you do next? How do we grab the attention of our readers? How can we write scripts that have a chance, a shot at catching someoneís attention? When youíre starting from scratch youíre sort of fucked. You donít know if someone will ever read your writing. With dramatic writing, itís dicey. Writing the play is 75% of the process. The other 25% is the hustle, the marketing and selling. Even if you write one of the great plays of the decade, there are no guarantees. Do you agonize over this? This must be very different for you because you're published a lot. Imagine spending a decade writing a novel and when youíre ready to have it published, you cannot find an agent, an editor, or publisher wanting to bite. Maybe that's what I should write a play about? Should writers spend a lot of time thinking about publishing/staging their work? Should we persevere even in the face of likely failure, disappointment, loss? Am I overanalyzing this? I hired/paid two playwrights to critique my ten-minute plays. Do you think this is a good idea? 4 The TV Show Would you ever consider creating/writing your own TV show? You have commented on TV shows before (Mad Men, The Wire). If Netflix or HBO or another venue made an offer, the chance to create and write a series, would you say yes? If you said yes, what would the show be about? This question might be weird but it makes you think about the big picture, the forest. Youíd be compensated for your work. Would your writing process change if you had to write scripts for a show? When you move from one genre to another, does your process change I ask because reading H.P. Lovecraft or Bleak House is very different experience than watching Stranger Things or Mr. Robot. TV shows are not novels.
This is horrific! I am sitting here in my big comfy chair in Tucson and I've been suddenly seized by the desire to read Rules For Being Human. Yet both my copies of My Date With Satan are back in NYC. Can you help?!?!
What is the female equivalent of the beard--something that can completely change a woman's appearance yet easily be shaved away? I'm jealous that men have this option. Hearts, Beans
Hello Professor Stacey Richter. I notice in one of your answers, you say you "no longer believe in the coming end times." I am interested in what this means. Does it mean you used to believe in the coming end times? Or that you never really believed in them to begin with, but now you believe in them even less so? Or, alternatively, does it mean that you don't believe in the "coming" end times because they're already here? Do you believe the human world is going to be subject to global catastrophes, at least? Severe climate change? Mass problems in access to food and water sources, as well as Flint-like or Zika-virus-like adverse, high-population-affecting problems from toxic pollution and epidemics that are exacerbated by modern human activity on the global scale? Is it too upsetting to think about -- especially since there's so little that can be done about it? Do you actively choose to ignore it out of a survival need to prioritize your emotional and thought investments of time and energy? Do you see humanity as a force that ultimately has no internal self-regulating power? Is that defeatist or realist? Do you think it's a conspiracy? Do scientists over-state their forecasts out of desire to promote themselves and their research groups? (That's the line perpetuated by right-wing, think-tank, industry-sponsored, anti-science groups, but far be it from me to completely dismiss the possibility of cycnical motivation from any field of human endeavor.) Do you think "end times" is too psychically upsetting to acknowledge, too hurtful to young people who had no say in the processes that brought us to this alleged brink of cataclysm? Are you disturbed by the possibility that there's nothing "post" post-modernism -- that all the modes have been used up, churned and burned, thrashed and cashed? Why do you say you no longer believe in the coming end times, Stacey Richter? What DO you believe? I want to know what you believe. Stacey Richter's mind-life matters.
Thank you for the question, Rescue. I've been hoping that someone would ask me this.
I do not believe society is on the brink of losing its mastery of technology and plunging into tribal fractions as in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, or Far North by Marcel Theroux; I do not believe weíre headed for a global catastrophe dystopia. I used to believe something like that, or at least be afraid of it, but that changed when I realized that people have always believed that the apocalypse was imminent, wholeheartedly, in pretty much every society at every point in human history (with the possible exception of the Greeks). Humans have always been convinced that we are living in the last days; soon, very soon, we will pay for our pleasures and sins in a huge ball of fire that roasts high and low alike. Yet despite what people have believed, and despite the horrors created by man and nature, civilization as a whole has not yet ruptured. (Actually it has, once, in 1346-53, when the Black Death killed 30Ė60% of the population of Europe, hitting China and India in the decades before that. But not recently.)
When I actually stopped and thought about it, I realized that the evidence for the coming apocalypse was equivocal, emotional, and influenced by fads as much as by science. During the cold war, our doom was going to arrive as mutual assured nuclear destruction; now itís going to come as global warming and emerging viruses. But itís not as though someone is weighing these risks objectively. During the cold war, influenza was (and still is) the virus with the deadliest potentialóand it may have been higher then because vaccines werenít as advanced. But no one worried about it. The risk of a nuclear catastrophe might be as high now as it was in the 80ís, or even higher. But no one worries about it.
The fact that our fears follow fashion does not exactly boost my credulity. Itís not that I donít believe the science of global warming, etc.óI do. I just donít assume that the worst-case outcome will automatically result. It is scary, and fear drives us to think of the most extreme result; our culture does too. The idea of Armageddon is deeply engrained in the Christian worldview. That gives us our conclusion: the world is evil and it is about to end. Once thatís assumed, all we have to do is figure out how itís going to end. That changes with the times.
Thatís just shitty logic. Someone could just as easily claim that weíre living in a golden age of progress, information, convenience, and resourcefulness. The evidence for this is actually better. The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa was appalling, but it was not a global catastrophe. Now, two years later, a vaccine has been developed thatís 100% effective, as well as this improved protective suit.
So anyway, Pet Rock, if everyone always believes the world is about to end, and if the world continues to not end, there must be something else going on. I think something else is going on inside peopleís heads. None of us know the future. No one knows whatís going to happen before it happens. But I do know that you and everyone you know and love will perish, not in a moment of high drama and dangeróin an apocalypse, with everyone elseóbut in silence, slipping below the surface. I know that after you die, everything will go on without you pretty much exactly as it did before. Youíre dead, and people keep getting up and eating breakfast. Itís a terrible thing. Itís so terrible that we crave a kind of sweeping mythology to protect ourselves from the deepest confrontation with it. Wouldnít it be sort of great, in a gruesome way, for our ends to be extraordinary? For me and everyone I know and love to perish together in the final moments of mankind? A big boom is the only kind of event that even begins to approach the dark, unbearably sad feeling that comes with the knowledge that you are going to die, everyone is going die, and the world is going to keep on going without you.
So yes, what Iím saying is that I think itís a metaphor. I think itís a displacement. The end of the world may seem scary and horrifying, but the alternative is worse: the world doesnít end. It simply ends for you.
Pet Rock, you asked me what I believe. I would call belief in the coming end times a protective mythology. I believe that a feeling of impending world doom is a metaphor, a displacement of the fear of our own mortality. I believe that optimism is as realistic as pessimism, but that pessimism contains a heightened illusion of control (i.e., you canít cut off my arm, Iíve already cut it off myself). I believe that people use fear as a means of power and control, for example assholes such as Warren Jeffs, and I question that way of seeing things. I believe that bad shit happens all the time, and that having a picture of an on/off switch in oneís head is, strangely, more comforting than trying to follow the fluctuating degrees of brutality and coercion and injustice and stupidity and chance as they happen. Iím not optimistic, but I believe itís reasonable to be optimistic. I believe that the automatic assumption of doom is as foolish as a cheery, blanket denial that anything is wrong.
What I believe overall, my biggest belief that guides many of my other beliefs, is that itís my duty to try to see the world as clearly as I possibly can, and that in this I must use my intelligence and intuition and books and reference works and what people say. I believe itís my obligation to try as hard as I cannot to fool myself. This is very difficult. People fool themselves by nature; itís a useful adaptation. I would say Iíve pretty much failed. But I try.
Hello Stacey! So glad to be back. I was going to segment and number my questions but decided against it. This post will be brief.
Show, donít tell. What does this mean? I know how teachers and/or writers define and analyze this creative writing slogan. But Iím curious how you approach the topic of showing versus telling. Should writers worry about showing versus telling? Do you worry about specificity and detail in your work? How can writers get more detail into their writing? How can their writing be more specific, concrete? That gets to another question about genre. An essay wonít work with just showing. And so the amount showing and telling is determined by what youíre writing, the genre. A play or a screenplay is all showing. Whatever telling is in the text Ė research, digressions, stage directions Ė remain invisible during a performance. Essays tell, generalize, the writer meditating, assaying, swerving on the page. And there are plenty of novels with little showing. Poetry should have the most imagery and sense detail. And yet Ö Iím skimming through a number of past volumes of the Best American Poetry. You know what: the sense details are limited. Look at whatís being printed! In a lot of fiction, thereís as much summary as scene. An essay requires as much telling as showing Ė reflection, summary.
There are two subjects when we write. Thereís the subject we write about, what address in the piece Ė a broken heart, a shirt, a Chinese restaurant, family Ė and then thereís the subject underneath what we write about, a deeper meaning and purpose. The deeper subject can be a depth charge. Itís the stuff that matters. Iíve thought about writing YA or horror or sciĖfi novel or a paranormal gothic romance. But am I being authentic? I think this is a theme in your answers. Being authentic. This divide between whatís on the surface and what else is there. You encourage us to think about and dig into whatís underneath.
What scares us? What turns you on? Whatís wrong? I know I hide a lot in both my writing and in life. I avoid writing about myself Ė likes and dislikes, loses and wins. I worry about not having anything to write about. When you said I should write essays or blog entries, I felt elated and scared. I love the idea of writing essays. Essays are fact. They are the author addressing their life in some way. If you write, you canít evade writing about what you know Ė your opinions, emotions, ideas, experiences, observations. Write a tenĖminute play and you can avoid writing about yourself directly. In a short story, you can hide. Maybe I have it all wrong here. I should write about the deeper subjects. In an essay making yourself the center is what itís all about. I have no friends, no social life. Iíve never had a girlfriend, never been on a date. Writing scares me because I know this limits what I have to write about. As Iím writing this question, I can see clearly why you told me to write nonfiction.
I abandon story ideas and plots. I can spend all day generating ideas Ė be it YA, romance, horror, sci-fi. I feel a surge of excitement after writing a page or two of summary but then when it comes to writing an opening to the novel, I freeze. I could probably will the words unto the page. Writing poetry is sort of the same.
Whatís always depressed me the most is that there is so little to write about when it comes to my life. I donít think I could ever write a memoir. It would be impossible to actually gather up enough material to write about. Playwrights canít really spend a great deal time on description. When I took a playwriting course a couple of years ago, we wrote two tenĖminute, two monologues and a threeĖpage play (your exercise!) and half the writing in my plays was stage directions. You get the description of a shirt or chair or asparagus or the names of chess pieces but then you donít get as much language out of the characters.
Iím going back to the threeĖpage exercise. Except I wonít write prose. At least not yet. I write threeĖpage plays. I have no idea what this will be like. It scares me. I like the idea of staying with it even if I only have weird, poorly constructed, silly, sloppy, pointless three-page scenes. You took the time to write these amazing entries. You lay out such thoughtful responses but I donít run with your advice right away. Thatís what Iím doing now. I know that many of the three-page scenes will suck. I wonder though if the excise will do any good if it is dramatic writing and not prose. Should I revise the three-pages? Should I worry or think about the structure and arc of the characters? Should there be patterns of change, beats of discovery and decision? At what point can I pivot and write a tenĖpage play? Something I can send out. Iím always wrestling with how much time and effort should go into outlining, planning, summarizing and gathering feedback.
Should I show the threeĖplays to anyone? Ask for feedback? Or just press on? Should I write one threeĖpage scene a day? Or tinker and play with each one until I end up with one a week? Whatís the end game? Usually I write pages and pages of stage directions. Thereís dialogue but a lot of it ends up being the characters discussing events and ideas. Monologuing. I donít know why I feel like I have to write threeĖpages of dramatic writing. Because Iíll stick to it? Because I want to write plays more than short stories and novels? What if this exercise only works if you write prose fiction? When can I stop writing the threeĖpages and write a tenĖminute play instead? Any additional advice? At least the scenes wonít be as bad as the play I worked on for six months or so.
Iím also going to slow down or completely stop reading creative writing books. Iím reading mostly plays right now, slogging my through the list of the 100 best plays in Daniel Burtís Drama 100 and the additional 100 recommendations in an appendix.
I am also going to blog. Youíre right. Itís something that could be immensely satisfying even if no one ever reads it. I worry about publishing. This is a topic you know a lot about. But then I also realize that if all you ever do is think about publishing or stress, let it prevent you from doing anything, then youíre missing the point. The point is the work.
Youíre overthinking this and underestimating yourself. Itís like youíre seeing yourself through a dark lens that drains away your considerable color and brightness, and when youíre done with that you tamp your inner life down into a dark corner and just kind of stomp on it until itís flat.
Itís not flat. Itís interesting and singular. I donít anyone else who can boast of having no friends, no datesóitís like a Kafka story. Youíre not in a boring world; youíre in a rich, unusual, strange one. Thereís a lot there, if you look around. Thereís a lot in you: to write about, to live, and to offer other people. Youíre a sensitive person with a broad, persistent, searching intelligence. You have no time for self-pity and a sort of reflexive kindness and concern for otherís feelings that I really admire. You know, MH, thereís no correct stuff to write aboutóthe ďwrite what you knowĒ mantra annoys me. If youíre emotionally honest in your material (i.e. not totally faking it and phoning it in according to what you think youíre supposed to be writing to be a good boy), you canít avoid writing what you know. Another way to say it is writing who you are. Metaphors seep out. Thatís the depth charge you talked about. You donít even have to try to bring it up; it emerges as you go if you donít stop it. This is one of the many reasons why I keep encouraging you to just GO: to write, to experiment, do the three pages, whatever. To stop avoiding it by thinking thereís a right way to do it. Thereís no right way. Sorry.
The crux of the three-page story is to practice, play, and experiment. Itís an exercise, like a musician playing scales or an artist sketching. Thatís why the stories (or plays) are not supposed to be good, like the sketches an artist makes donít have to be good: they just have to be made. So no, you should not rewrite, or polish, or even read the stories over when youíre done if you donít feel like it. Thereís no weight on the finished product. All the weight is in doing.
The other point of the exercise is to release yourself from the pressure that comes with the idea that everything you produce is significant, i.e., that your shit is golden. Everything you make does not need to be cherished or read or even preserved. Thereís a lot of value in letting go, playing, lightness, non-attachment, and improvisation. At a certain level, making art is play, a version of cowboys and Indians, or Barbie, or dress-up, or whatever it was you loved to play when you were a child. Give yourself permission to fuck around without agonizing or overthinking. Or you can try it with agonizing and overthinking one day, then try it without the next. You can worry about specificity and detail for a few stories, and then give it up for a while. Plan ahead and donít plan: try both. See which works better and which you like better.
I think youíre definitely on to something with the play writing. Yes, itís all dialogue and therefore all showing. To me, showing is dialogueóthatís the essence of it (for me). Itís also important to report the significant actions (and inactions) of your characters, obviously. The significant actions. I donít really think in terms of specificity and detail, though yeah, that stuff is good. Telling can be good too.
You are under no obligation to write what you know, especially not in the sense of friends and ice cream socials and working as a door-to-door salesman. What if you wrote about your isolation? It's fascinating. Maybe your relationship with your family members is unusually intense; maybe your social interactions are charged in a certain way. It doesnít have to be about YOU, exactly; in fact, it probably shouldnít be. This is one of the secret ways that fiction works. You have something you want to write about, something you need to say but itís too painful or confusing or large to say it flat out. But what if you made up a story that encompasses this stuff in an oblique or exaggerated way? Or what if you let the story youíre writing wander into that area on its own? Alone-themed stories come in any genre, any formójust off the top of my head, I can think of The Shining by Stephen King, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson, and Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. (Then thereís Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrandóher essay ďA Sudden IllnessĒ is hands down the best piece of writing Iíve ever read about being sick. Sheís been very ill for most of her adult life and doesnít get out or see people, ever. But sheís written two wonderful books about overcoming adversity. I love her.)
Anyway, there are a lot of books about isolation. Really, writing doesnít have to be about your external life. It can be about your inner life, your way of seeing and experiencing the world, of making meaning. Now go do it.
Hi Stacey, I'm leading a discussion of The Cavemen in the Hedges for my fiction class next week. I was wondering if you had any interesting backstory tidbits/inspirations or advice about creating such unique characters and situations I could share with the class. Thanks!
Hi Christian. I think I missed your deadline but I'll still give you an answer. I just have to think of one. More coming soon.
Okay, it's later. The only thing I could think of is that this one particular Pizza Hut by I-10 fascinated me. It was in a large area of abandoned farmland, the most ecologically devastated land possible, and whenever I drove by its cheery red roof, I thought, "What the fuck?" You know? Then there was the fact that I had a basement. A friend told me a story about someone he knew who had a psychotic break. Part of the way it manifested itself was in a refusal to go down into the basement. I thought that was poignant. I also worried that when I had my own psychotic break, I would become freaked out by my own basement.
That never happened. It wasn't really a basement--it was more of a cellar with an outside entrance. Basements (and cellars) are rare in Arizona because the ground is so hard that it's not worth it to build them. But I had one and I thought I could go down there in the coming end times (I no longer believe in the coming end times, by the way) or in the event of a tornado. The interesting thing that did end up happening with my basement was, because of its steep steps and small entrance, it began to function as a giant animal-trap My neighbor's kitten went missing for a day. She was in the basement. I once found someone's pet tortoise at the bottom of the stairs. I have no idea how long it had been down there, but it looked pissed off. I happened to have been digging in the yard that day and had a big, writhing pile of grubs. I consulted a tortoise expert (who adopted the little guy in the end) and she told me that this particular type was carnivorous. I fed it grub after grub. It was beautiful.
Hello. God bless you. I am a Translator and have a huge team of Translators. If you have any material you want to get translated into Yiddish, my first and native language, also into Hebrew, Spanish, German, French, Chinese, Georgian, Greek, Hindi and other 50 major languages, please let me know about it. I will wait for your answer please. Thank you. In Christ, Linda Jane.
Why hello there, Linda Jane. There aren't that many native speakers of Yiddish around anymore, that's for sure, and certainly not ones who are "In Christ." Thank you for your kind offer. I'll keep it in mind.
Have any of your short stories been adapted for screen? If not, are you open to that idea?
Yes, Brie. Benjamin Keegan, a Columbia film student, adapted The First Men into a fantastic film. Here's a link with some info: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-first-men#/
Other stories I've written have been optioned and even sold to film companies, but no one has made a movie of any of them yet, and probably they never will. That seems to be how things go in the film business. Lots of stuff happens and then never happens. Still, it's nice to get paid.
You feelin' me?
No, today I am not feeling you, Pickles. Not even a little bit.