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Q and A

Oct 07, 2014; Goat Like Head Asks:

Is being ok ok? I say I'm ok but I'm more used to being much more... or less... like, I'm fantastic, unbelievably terrific... or I'm pretty fucking far from ok... ok? So Stacey, is it ok to be ok? Sorry about the three dots... old Herb Caen reader.

Stacey answers:

It's okay with me. Sorry to get all philosophical on your ass, but maybe the question your question implies is if it's okay not to be okay... Usually it isn't, I find. When people say, "Are you okay?" they kinda want you to say yes, at least if we're talking about the realm of emotions. (I've found people to be incredible eager to help when there's a physical emergency, when the okay in question refers to the alive, not-bleeding-profusely or injured-internally-sort of okay.) Sometimes, obviously, asking after someone's okayness is simply a way of saying hello, as in, How ya doing? However, I'm sure I'm not the first person to point out the rudeness of asking a question for which there's only one acceptable answer. If you really want to know if someone is "okay" (i.e. not cracking up), it's probably better to ask in a way that leaves the possibilities open, such as, "How're you holding up?" This, however, implies some responsibility on the part of the asker: if the answer is "not good," the asker can't really say, "bummer dude," unless she's trying to bolster her reputation as a sociopath; the question implies that the asker is prepared to be helpful in a concrete way. Often, this is not the case. That's why "Are you okay?" is a rude, stupid question, on par with the wait-person's line, "Is everything tasting delicious?" Which always makes me want to say, "Fuck you, you fucking fuck," though usually I simply tell them that everything is okay.

Oct 07, 2014; Slowpoke Rodriguez Asks:

If I am the slowest mouse, who is the fastest?

Stacey answers:

Speedy Gonzales, the racially stereotyped rodent!

Aug 13, 2014; Beth Asks:

Thanks so much for your response to my question about naming characters. All of your suggestions are helpful. I was taking into consideration nationality and culture, but hadn't considered the era at all. For some reason, I frequently lean toward S names and L names for female characters. That is usually just a spontaneous process. I'd like to explore a more thoughtful process, and still not have the end result feel forced or inauthentic. Thanks again!

Aug 04, 2014; This Curious Human Wears Rose Colored Glasses Asks:

Do you think it's better to be IN love, or HAVE love in your life?

Stacey answers:

I think it's better to have love in your life, but I'd rather be in love.

I'm talking about romantic love of course, the either /or love, since you can remain devoted to your dog and/or your mother and still fall for someone else. Your dog can even stay in the room while you have sex (depending on the dog). I like to believe there are people out there who manage to skirt the either/or nature of romantic love—bohemian libertines who do whatever moves them without leaving destruction and ruin in their wake—but I've never actually met anyone like this. I’ve only met people with rubble crashing behind them. This does not look so good to me and makes me value love in one’s life even more (which is what being in love turns into with time anyway). However, I am a white middle-class suburban lady, so what the fuck do I know?

Let’s take a minute to review being in love. Yes, it’s incredibly exhilarating, enlivening, and fun, but it gains a lot of its luster in retrospect. While it’s happening, it’s incredibly disruptive, self-disintegrating, and so terrifying that people go to great lengths to avoid it. Maybe you've noticed the symptoms among your friends—picking the wrong person, running away, sticking with a dud, weird obsessing, and refusing to see what’s in front of their faces—even as they insist that love is what they want. Real love is hard to find, hard to get, and hard to keep. I am trying to write the sentence, “It’s probably worth keeping, usually, even though you have to give up the possibility of falling in love EVER AGAIN,” but I’m having trouble. Meow. I guess most of us face either/or love with some grief and ambivalence. This must be why at least a third of all works of fiction touch on it; cf. John Updike.

Jul 30, 2014; Beth Asks:

I'm tangled up in how to name a couple of my characters. How do you pick names for all of yours? And last names... oy!

Stacey answers:

Oy, yes. I pick names by impulse or instinct, but I do use a few guidelines and tools. I try to write down names I like when I come across them—usually they have some sort of interesting sound thing going on, like "Carla Laser." If these turn out to be the names of real people, I change or recombine them—it's fiction, after all. I also want my characters to have names that are plausible for their age and era, so I almost always consult the Social Security Administration’s official website, which lists popular baby names by decade going back to the 1880’s. Names are subject to fashion like everything else: in the 1950’s, mothers named their baby girls Barbara and Mary, while in the 1990’s they went for Jessica or Taylor. Choosing one that fits the ages of your characters is a nice touch. It also make me happy, since anachronistic and vaguely portentous names drive me crazy, as do names that occur in fiction waay more than in life. Please do not name your character Claire.

For last names, try looking at lists of names wherever they may lurk--indexes, yearbooks, the membership roles of professional or charitable organizations. Make a list of the ones that feel right; change a letter if you want, wait a day, then pick. Here, too, you could try to focus on the era or background of your character, but be careful not to get too close. You don't want to accidentally pick the name of someone well-known in a field that overlaps with your character; if you call a biologist Lamarck there will be some snickers, unless he goes on and on about his name, which I will talk about below.

Names have an implied backstory regarding what kind of mother or family your character came from, and you can muse about this while you decide which one to use. In my opinion though, it’s best to leave this backstory out of what you’re writing. (“Kelly’s mother gave her the name because she was conceived on the 9th hole of a golf course, and her affection for greenery and outdoor coupling never wavered…”) Or if you do use it, be sure to make it advance some other aspect of the story, rather than making it an indwelling on name and identity. Dwelling on how a character got her name is common, but I’m always suspicious that it’s a veiled reference to the author’s process, and I find this distracting or boring or both. (An example in the same vein is what I call the dialogue of doubt. This is when a character says, “I don’t know what to say,” or “this is just boring,” or “where is this going?” —not because it’s germane but because the insecurities of the author are leaking through to the page.)

A few more general guidelines: Remember that the main purpose of the name is the same as it is in real life—identifying someone quickly and efficiently. But on the page we don’t have the benefit of visual and aural cues, so it’s even more important to pick names that are distinct from one another. Try to vary the first letter and length of the names you choose (my brain seems to only register the first letter and the number of letters in a name—Colin and Carey pose a problem); using names from different languages can also help keep them distinct, since readers are less likely to confuse Flossie and Chai Yenn than Flossie and Francis. And ponder long and hard before you pick wild or wildly symbolic names (like Oedipa Maas from Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49). Yes such names are memorable, but they can be distracting, and they impart a sort of unreal, fairytale-comic-book tone. If this is what you want, great. Just be sure it’s what you want.

Jul 29, 2014; Fuck Mulligan Asks:

Uh, no? I've never messaged you before. Perhaps there are others who find cloying, quirky, monumentally unnecessary writing as annoying as I do. (Not nearly enough, of course, but there have got to be some.)

Jul 29, 2014; Fuck Mulligan Asks:

"You are writing an author, not texting your friend." Holy shit, you are the worst. Get over yourself, you workshop drone. Do you honestly think you're worth anything either as a person or a writer? You are staggeringly irrelevant, which is about the worst thing a writer can be. Just stop. There's already enough look-at-me garbage writing cluttering up the world. Lord knows we don't need more.

Heavens! I noticed a typo in my first post! I'm sure as sensitive and profound a literary sensibility as yourself will get the positive VAPORS from that! btw, your writing is shit.

Stacey answers:

Dear Fuck,

I haven’t heard from you in a long time, but I recognize your voice. As I recall, you were quite charming and sincere in your pledge to leave me alone and I’d like you to honor your word. It seemed to me, back then, that you were the type of person who had surges of feeling, both bitter and amiable, but that the amiable side was the more authentic part of you. So I’d like you to be the decent, rational person I know you can be and leave me alone, please, in all media. I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that turning someone down for a coffee date twenty years ago is an absurd reason to nurse a grudge, and perhaps that’s not the whole story. I know you also find my writing mediocre and pretentious—your opinion has been duly noted. However, we’re not going to be enemies over it. We are also not going to be friends. We are going to be unconcerned with one another in proportion to how well we know each other—which is hardly at all.

Jul 29, 2014; Fuck Mulligan Asks:

You're a seriously mediocre writer and have an unearned sense of self-importance. "Life-fodder for your art?" Do you listen to yourself? How far up your own ass do you have to be to think that's something worth putting your name to? Someone who writers something as shallow as your first book, I guess. (Didn't bother with your second; never will.)

Jul 11, 2014; Michael Henry Asks:

Hello Stacey Richter, I hope others reading this message board are as appreciative as I am. You asked for a rewrite on my last question and this is it. Hopefully you still have the notes from the last question, and I am so excited to be here and hear whatever it is you want to say.

I enjoy reading books about creative writing. I don’t know if these craft books actually help. I think in many ways the writing books create the image of the writer. I spend a lot of time on the Writer’s Digest webpage and think about what it means to be a writer and how much I want to publish a novel, a personal essay, a play. At the same time, I spend little to no time actually working towards this goal. Should I abandon the craft/writing books and shift my reading to actual writers of fiction and drama? What do you think of books about writing? Should emerging writers read craft books and articles about writing, creativity, publishing? Or should new writers read in the genre they are most interested in pursuing? Should we read more Chekhov, Lawrence, Munro, Oates, Joyce, Tolstoy, Bowen, and O’Connor? To give you a sense of the number of craft books I read, I have read three or four different editions of Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway.

Although I admit to this addiction to reading books about writing, I have snapped the habit a little bit. Right now I'm starting Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates, Force Majeure by Bruce Wagner, Voss by Patrick White, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, The Dramatic Writer’s Companion by Will Dunne, Writing on the Wall by Tom Standage, Dispatches by Michael Herr, an assortment of works by Willa Cather, the Cambridge Companion to American Novelists, White Noise, The Brothers Boswell, The Uncommon Reader, Genesis by Bernard Beckett, and Serena by Ron Rash. Will I finish all of these? Doubtful. I'm not even including all the books pilled inside my car and beside my bed. I may enjoy listening to contemporary writers talk about the process more than I like reading their actual stuff. In April, I discovered the Millions blog and their list of the best works of fiction of the new millennium. They sort of made the list to update the New York Times Book Review list of the best works of fiction from the past twenty-five years. The other list I want to read through is Time’s top 100 nonfiction books since 1923.

A month ago I checked out My Date with Satan and Twin Study from the Salt Lake City Library and will finish both soon. Of the short stories in My Date with Satan and Twin Study, how many of them did you consciously analyze and understand when you started? Did you knowingly rely on certain techniques – subtext, sensory details, etc.? When we write a draft, how much of the time are we actually saying to ourselves "Oh, I have to write a scene now and add sensory details." In the beginning very little of our writing is done at a conscious, analytical level. It is done in the gut and the heart. And when we have this endless, looping, strange discussion about teaching writing and whether or not it can be done or if it's worth it or not, what we might be really addressing is the subject of the subconscious and the trials and the near impossibilities of accessing such a place. You know a lot more about this subject than I do! You've been through an MFA program and I haven’t.

Of course revision matters! Would we have novels and poems without rewriting? We would not. Even movies are made in the editing room and not during the actual filming process. A novelist also pieces the scenes and summary together to make something. I do like the revising part a lot. Especially because I find it mostly involves cutting, cutting, and cutting. But we have to start with a draft. We have to have something to work on before you can rework it. Getting there past the resistance, the excuses, to the draft, is the hard part. I am being careful here to stay on track and get to the point.

I didn’t word my thoughts about revision correctly. Originally I had intended to discuss the way we approach revision in a writing workshop. I was thinking of those times when we workshop a poem or a story in class and get lots of feedback from the teacher and students. You have had more experience than I have in these types of situations. Initially it feels great being the center of attention. We get to hear our fellow peers talk about us! But the problem is we get a bunch of desperate thoughts, suggestions, ruminations, responses, pointers, keys, variations. It is up to the writer to decide what to do next after the critique, but I find this whole process almost as stifling as it is nurturing. Most workshops depend upon an analytical and intellectual approach to understanding the human imagination. Writing should be deeply personal, right? The language should be alive and well, meaningful and loud, driving and observing. You can feel the words and sentences flow right through you surging, erupting. Art is an escape into reality, not a step away from it. The words on the page either work or don’t work. Writing is a great equalizer, able to sort out the touched from the pretenders.

There’s a reason it took me so long to respond. About a month ago I found out I have Churg-Strauss Syndrome. It affects the lungs, breathing, and skin among other things. I’ve had breathing problems for over a year now but am getting better. Churg-Strauss is rare and hard to identify so I’m lucky to receive treatment. I only raise this issue because I believe you may have experienced some health issues too and thought you could relate. My laziness also contributed to the lapse. You should know that I plan on going back to the three-page exercise you gave me last year. Since I don’t have any friends you would think that would leave me with plenty of free time, but these recent health problems are a setback. I look forward to reading your answer!

Warm regards,

Michael

Stacey answers:

Dear Michael Henry, I think you’re a born writer (which is a kind of rare disease of its own, though one I suspect you want to have). You love language and structure and ruminating about the way things are put together, you love writing lists and letters and notes; you think in words and use writing to help organize your thoughts—it’s important to you. But I’m not convinced you’re a born fiction writer. You don’t finish the novels you start, you like nonfiction and craft books better, your reading list sounds medicinal, and you hardly ever write anything, including the three page exercise I gave you. Not to scold, just to state the facts.

It’s all clear to me now, Michael Henry. You are a nonfiction writer, an essay writer, a diarist! You have the energy and motivation to write about yourself and your experiences, your world and your struggles. How do I know this? Because your questions are so long! It’s a boon. What you write should be the thing you can’t stop yourself from writing, the most fun and compelling thing (even if it’s depressing), something that sweeps you up and throws you down whether you chose it or not. It shouldn’t be something you have to force yourself to do (though you may have to force yourself to start), something that doesn’t come naturally or that you don’t turn to when you pick up a book. I mean, if you loved stories and novels, I think we’d know by now. Really.

The trick is to find a way to write about yourself, a form and a forum, and I have a hunch you could be a natural-born blogger. (Remember, blogs can become books.) I love the idea of your blog for several reasons: (1) you can get immediate feedback for your efforts, and you like that. (2) It’s a way for you to connect with the world intellectually, socially, and immediately, which is even more important for you now because illness can be isolating. (3) You have a lot of words in you, lots of thoughts, and blogging requires lots of word-thought-energy. (4) The casual form of the blog rewards energy and intelligence without a ton of the revision and planning which you’re ambivalent about; and most importantly: (5). Now you have something to tie it all together with, a theme or direction: how being diagnosed and treated for a rare, serious illness affects a young person’s life. (I’m assuming you’re young—that’s not the most important part anyway.) Start a blog, Michael Henry! I want to read about how you’re negotiating your terrifying Churg-Strauss Syndrome! (And I am so sorry to hear you’re sick, though I’m glad you got a diagnosis quickly—that can be difficult with something so rare. What a fascinating topic to cover in your blog—how did they figure out what you have? It’s really interesting, and I bet you have a lot to say about it.)

Now, on to your questions. I was impressed by your revision—I can see how much and how deeply you’ve been contemplating the process of writing. Craft books have served you well. If you love them, read them. Reading is a love relationship, and though it’s nice to branch out, you’ll kill the pleasure if you start making yourself read things. Books are intimate, they’re mind-to-mind, and there’s no reason to spend a lot of time with a mind you’re not simpatico with and no reason to avoid books you like. Yes, I do think one needs to read in their chosen genre too, absolutely. But if you like craft books, read craft books. Don’t let anyone take that away from you—including yourself.

I think you’re right about revision too. It can be disruptive, in the middle of composing something, to send your mind foraging for what other people have told you might be missing. It’s better to just do it and know you can always revise. I tend to overthink it. For me, there’s no way to avoid the interruption. Here’s a link to a short essay I wrote for Willow Springs that goes into these issues. But my overthinking problem is mostly on the level of the sentence. It really is impossible to consciously analyze a story while you’re writing it, not if you want it to remain alive in any way. A lot of writing, for me at least, is just seeing what comes out of me. I may have a plan, but I usually don’t stick to it—but even a little bit of plan helps. Usually when I start a story—now—I’ve thought of at least two characters who do not want the same thing. Without that, it would be an aimless mess. Like my novel!

As for workshops, I share some of your misgivings. There’s plenty to learn in a writing workshop, but most of what you learn isn’t what you spend time talking about in class. It’s important to get those kinds of intellectual and analytical tools—for revision, and to show you your choices—but most students in workshops just need people to read their work. They need a reason to write something, a deadline, and readers who pay attention. The critique session is mostly just a way of everyone saying, “I read it, I read it, I read it.” It can seem a little pointless, and if I ruled the world I’d do it differently, but those desultory hours do help you develop your judgment. Or your taste. And students seem to crave a place where they can experiment, test ideas, and rank themselves against other writers to see if they’re any good. It’s hard to know at first if your writing sucks or not. Workshops can help—though you might just end up thinking that yes, you suck, but at least you don’t suck as much as everyone else.

Jul 09, 2014; julie Asks:

stacey we're discussing your story tiffany in class if we're asked what we like about the story what are we going to say? why would you want someone to like your story? how is it likable? what literary devices have you used?

Stacey answers:

Dear Julie,

Do your own frickin' homework, you lazy cur! Tell you what, if you send me some of your own theories, I will help you refine them. And while you're at it, please capitalize the first letter of every sentence, titles, and proper names. You are writing an author, not texting your friend.

Love,

Stacey

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