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I'm doing your story Tiffany from class and I'm confused, what is it about?
It's about phrenology! That's a scientific theory that says that the way someone looks is based on their character and morals. Good luck with your class!
Stacey. I am in a reading group and we are scheduled to discuss you and your story The Cavemen in the Hedges. We usually focus on getting to know the author first, then discuss the actual reading. When discussing YOU, what would you want us to know and remember specifically about you? Thanks for your time! Stephanie
I am smart, vain, funny in a way that makes people say “that’s really funny” instead of laughing, bossy, a know-it-all, impatient, and an introvert who sneaks off at dinner parties to play with the dog or cat. I still like to play and can’t understand why people grow out of this, though it’s true that if I’m playing with a four year-old, twenty minutes is plenty for me (though not for the kid). I do not suffer fools gladly or like to do other people’s homework, as you can see from the answer to the student above, but I try to be fair. Sometimes I’m rude to waiters, which is truly odious. I think it’s because I’m a lightweight so the first quarter glass of wine really hits me—this is not a good time to ask me a stupid question like, “Have you ever dined with us at Outback Steakhouse before?” I am likely to say, “No, but I’ve eaten at restaurants before.” Or, “I’m going to figure it out as I go.” Or simply, “Stop it.”
I am obsessed with my cat. This is because she’s soft and small.
Hi Stacey. Long time listener, first time caller. I happen to like the revision process. More accurately, I enjoy taking scissors to sloppy writing. One of my greatest pleasures is jettisoning modifiers, which makes me wonder - why do I even use them in the first place? I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
Dear Sean Murphy,
You use modifiers because some words need to be modified. The difference between a good dog and a lazy dog is vast, and though the English language is full of juicy vocabulary, there’s no unique term for a lazy dog (I think). Adjectives are useful. Adverbs are fucking useful. The problems only begin when someone writes, “He quickly sped across the grass,” because not only does the sentence say the same thing twice, it generates the additional, distracting meaning: That writer is an idiot. Sometimes, if you’ve already slogged through a lot of sloppy prose that day, it generates the additional additional meaning, That writer is a fucking idiot. Though I recoil from redundancies, I think modifiers are nice. Not everyone agrees. There’s a campaign among grammarians to reduce the occurrence of adverbs worldwide; once they’ve done that, they’ll start on adjectives. Then nouns, like mouse. The little, little mouse. Lastly, articles. A.
I have a different take on the hierarchy of words. My system aims first for clarity, second for not annoying people, and third for staying out of the way (this is an aesthetic aim of mine which I obviously fail at, spectacularly and constantly). This system has two parts. Part one involves writing things down. At this stage, the trick is to write in the way that’s the most natural to you while trying to stay close to the self that you are (rather than the self you wish you were or that some other writer is), using whatever words you have in your head or the thesaurus or that your character likes to use. The idea is to not expend too much effort censoring yourself or pre-removing bad word choices, since writing well requires a certain amount of freedom and also stupidity. The second part involves crossing things out. My crossing-out hierarchy, on the level of the sentence, goes like this: (1) redundancies, (2) prepositional phrases, especially nesting and proliferating prepositional phrases, (3) repeated words, (4) uncontracted contractions, (5) the names of characters, particularly in dialogue, because people don’t call each by name all that often, (6) clichés, (7) limp, uninspired first words in a paragraph, (8) limp, useless last words in a sentence, (8) extra modifiers, (9) stupid verbs, and (10) god awful nouns.
So you see, modifiers are pretty far down the list. Don’t jettison them all! Poor things! Glorious, fantabulous modifiers, I salute you wee fellas. Hi!
Hi Stacey, I read "The Minimalist" two weeks ago and I was curious to know if you considered the "art" really as art or not, and if it should be taken seriously as art? Thanks John R.
Hi John. Your questions leads us into a thrilling, high-art labyrinth! Okay: so I wrote a story called “The Minimalist,” (uncollected) about an artist who devotes herself to making a conceptual piece of a large blue colorfield with no physical existence. It’s present only in her mind—at least when she’s able to conjure it clearly. She has an exhibition that consists of a woman (the artist) sitting in a chair in a gallery while picturing a pure field of blue. (I think there’s a sign nearby that explains what she’s doing).
What art is really art, John, is one of the more interesting and enduring questions raised by contemporary art, particularly the out-there kind. This is where the labyrinth begins. The art I describe in the story isn’t a real piece that someone has performed; it’s an idea I came up with for fictional purposes. But since, when I was writing the story, I did actually picture a blue colorfield in my mind, and since it’s a conceptual piece with no physical presence, I suppose one could argue that I really made it and therefore it does really exist. In a sense.
However, I probably wouldn’t make this argument myself, so I guess I’m not expecting the piece to be taken all that seriously as art. (Though if you want to perform it in your art class or local museum, I’d be delighted). It’s kind of a shitty idea for a work of art. I have much better ideas for art I will never make, like the Furby Gauntlet (a ten foot high, narrow hallway lined with fully operational Furbys—one visitor at a time, please). But I like how the art works in the story, as a sort of question about what is and isn’t a symbol for something else. “The Minimalist” was partly inspired by a very skilled, talented painter I met once who insisted that the beautiful still lives she painted were meant to be pictures of fruit only. Just fruit, no metaphor, just FRUIT; she was tremendously firm about this. This stunned me. I have such a strong belief in metaphor—that it underlies everything we do, language and dreams and most of our thoughts—that it was heresy to me. But this artist had spent a lot of time painting fruit—a lot—so she probably had a point. I just couldn’t understand it. Or else she was fooling herself.
Dog,you feelin' me?
Yes Dog. I am feeling you.
This is not my first time on your site. I have asked questions before and your responses always bring great joy. Your responses give me something to look forward to. Going through previous answers is always enjoyable too, and strangely enough I learn a lot by reading these posts. Although I'm not entirely sure why or what exactly. We learn by oasis, soaking up the littlest things here and there. There are a number of personal issues sorted out and a few craft questions to accompany the personal ones. I like the mix here. Today I'm coming with a craft or composition related question. Isn't composition more formal than writing? Writing sounds like something that can be brutal or fun, break your heart or make you a ton of buttloads of cash. Really when you get DOWN to it, are there any definite or easy answers to questions about writing or issues of craft and art? That's what I want to address today.
I have probably read close to two-hundred books about writing. These are the types of books you can visit in the reference section of the bookstore. They are also the types of books you might read in a workshop. I'm thinking of Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway, The Art of Fiction John Gardner, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, The Sounds of Poetry by Robert Pinsky, The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind, and so many more. I love to read these books. Over the weekend, I checked out of the Salt Lake City Library The Dramatic Writer’s Companion by Will Dunne, and I almost finished MFA vs. NYC edited by Chad Harbach. I am unsure about your feelings or opinions regarding books about writing. Do you think they hurt or help? Should beginning writer's read more of them? Should they stop reading craft books and shift their focus to just reading actual collections of short stories and actual novels? Classics, contemporary stuff. Does it matter? One thing I keep wondering about is what writer's should read in general. I would say strive for everything - every subject, every author, every genre. Don't let a book slip through.
Maybe none of this makes any sense. And if does I'm being obsessive and asking all the wrong questions. More than ever, I'm believing that writing cannot be explained or analyzed. At least not what we would call the artistic or creative process. All of that has to be left up to a source, a spark, an engine. Ok, but once we start down that road, then everything can be left up to the Muse, and making a short story is nothing more than waiting by the hillside for inspiration. Even the Romantic poet didn't entirely sign on to this notion. So let me say it another way. After years of workshops, critiques, and lectures, assignments, deadlines, and grades, I am still by myself when it comes to writing. For all the discussion about the need for a group and feedback, you are ultimately still left to your own devices to somehow spin something out of nothing, left to live and roil inside your own fucked up imagination. Great art comes from a place unseen. It is mysterious, dark, and depressing. But when the words do come, then that's when everything, the work, the sweat, the waste, clicks together and the whole thing falls into place. Almost all of the above is vague and broad and general. What am I talking about here?
You sit in that chair until the words pour out and you have a short story or an essay or a poem. Yes, poetry. It's emblematic of this whole discussion. No one is going to do the writing for you. We have to stitch it together. That may mean we get most of it right the first time or it could mean long periods of revision are called for. My whole feeling about revision is that’s overrated. Do we give rewriting and revision too much credit and authority? The truth is a writer, especially a beginning writer, can only revise a piece so much. I think if you're starting out, then you’ve got to hit most of the notes early on. Put the thing on the page almost entirely in-tact the way you imagine it and want it to feel on the page. No matter how many years of school you have or previous books published, we are still left to fend for ourselves. It is scary, and it should be. So many of us want to write a novel or a play. All of this sounds very strange moving forward, because what I'm about to tell you is a bombshell. Actually it may not be a bombshell. Instead it may only be a confirmation. I hardly write anything at all. This is the most writing I’ve done in a long time, and it feels good. When I do sit down and write, it’s usually just brainstorming, lists, notes, fragments. Nothing of any value or importance. That stuff, the good stuff, the stuff that lasts and begs to be read, is far away from an actual product I could send out to the world. What's it like? I suppose one of the my problems is the desire to skip ahead. Part of writing, part of any profession, is paying your dues, working hard at the weaving, the making, the breaking and the unbreaking. And I don't think I've done any of that yet.
Which brings us back to books about writing, the craft books. Do they hurt or help? Am I asking all the wrong questions? Should I put my nose somewhere else like the center of a garbage bin on Saturday night? Would a car wash work on a human being? When will the aliens get here? Are other writers going through the same thing? I’d like to think so. Then again, I've already admitted countless times here that I don't write a damn thing. And yet you’re observation about me being a wordy writer is spot on. It’s just that part of me afraid of sitting down and actually letting those words pour forth gnaws at me, won’t go away, liggers long after I should give up, surrender, go home, pay the bills, find a job with savings plan. Maybe that's what needs to change. My writing here is both a way in and a way out. I'm sitting here moaning, twitching, bobbing around ... all to avoid composing something real, honest, a foot, a heartbeat, a bee sting, a lie, a truthful explanation and to the point a step away. I've stumbled on another subject. Whether or not the writer has to tell the truth in their work. But we'll save that for next post. Tuesday was my birthday.
Dear Michael Henry,
Revision is not overrated. Almost everything you read has been revised, often extensively, including this answer. You in particular, Michael Henry, need to find focus in your words because you think/write. You are a think-writer—a person who explores ideas while he actually writes—and what’s more, you’re a wordy think/writer. This is exhausting. Pulling the meaning out of your long, long questions requires me to labor like a coal miner digging through the slag of clues and inferences. For you as a writer, this is not a good strategy. You may know what you mean, but I don’t, not really, and by asking others to do all the work of interpretation, you leave yourself open to the horror of misinterpretation—if you’re lucky. Mostly, people will not misinterpret your unrevised work. They will simply not read it.
You do have a very good point when you say revision can be a waste of time, especially for people who end up tinkering with their sentences over and over. Let’s make a plan: Michael Henry, you can leave your sentences alone. Instead, revise as a whole. Write a draft—of anything, a text message, a grocery list—then read it. Now stop. Sit down. Without changing anything, just ponder this question: what’s the center of what you’re trying to say? Not the asides and contradictions and ambiguities; not the groping for an idea and the thinking-aloud-writing—the center. Picture it. The center doesn’t have to be a monolith, or symmetrical, or even familiar; it can have lopsided parts or be a blob. But it’s a one-piece blob, a blob of unity. When you find that, go on to imagine your paragraphs as a stack of bricks rising toward this center. They should be like the columns of a building or wheels on a bicycle or legs on a tarantula—they lead up to the main thing and they’re also part of it. Now look. Are there bricks sticking out of the stack? Are there deranged potholes or crooks meandering back on themselves? Are some of the bricks identical to other bricks (i.e. an unnecessary repetition)? Is there a whole side-pile that has nothing to do with the center, in the manner of a spider leg that’s been pulled off the spider by a sadistic bug-boy? Take it out. Out! Delete it! All the extra stuff—sweep it away. Right. Now, look at your pretty blob-leg-unrepeating-structure thing. Look at your clear and focused writing.
What was that? You didn’t actually do it? Hmmm. Why not? Oh, okay. You don’t wanna. When you say revision is overrated, what you actually mean is that you don’t like to revise. Ah ha! Well, I don’t like to scamper through the slag pile of words myself, so I know what you mean. But it’s like bathing. You kind of have to. Okay, here’s the next plan. First of all, I want to say I’m deeply interested in your question. I glimpse something in you, Michael Henry, something about your destiny as a writer, your calling, and your intelligence. I’ve been formulating an intriguing answer for you and have several pages of notes, but before I embark on the hard work of making my blob of ideas clear for you, I’d like you to make yourself clear for me. I’d like you to revise your question, the one above, and send it to me again. Yes, the same question. Make it shorter and more direct. You can do it. I know you can. Let’s not talk about not doing things anymore—let’s get this party started.
Hello I was searching for information about a Swiss artist with your surname. A Georgian friend has an oil on wood painting that had been bought some years ago by her grandmother, in an auction apparently. It is signed G Stachly-Richner . Would you have any connections to him (or her) . Regards Pat Wright
No. My family on both sides were Jews who lived in the Russian Pale of Settlement in present-day Russia-Belarus-Ukraine-Poland-Lithuania. The name "Richter" is from German (it means "judge"): it was not uncommon, I've heard, for Jews to adopt German names during the 19th century, though I've never actually confirmed that. So no.
Hello! How do you feeling about writing conferences and paying to go to these conferences and paying authors you adore to read and comment on your fiction? I'm considering applying to a few that happen this summer, but there are application fees and then there are reading feels and of course class fees. I'm tired of writing in a bubble and these conferences are sounding very good to me at the moment.
I'm sorry about what is happening in your state with this "refusing service on the basis of religion" business. Are things getting crazy in Tucson?
I was happy to stumble over your moniker a few weeks ago when I was re-reading Catcher in the Rye. (Little Shirley Beans is the name of a “very old, terrific” kids’ record sung in a “very Dixieland and whorehouse” manner, not at all mushy. Holden buys it for his sister but breaks it before he can give it to her. So, like, it’s the BEST thing, forever LOST—and who ruined it? Holden did).
Okay, writing conferences: go! I feel good about paying for them and paying authors you respect to read and comment on your fiction—I even feel good about paying to submit to literary contests sponsored by little magazines (they need the money). It’s a form of education, after all, and you want good teachers, right? Kid, this is America; you get what you pay for and you gotta pay for expertise (but I bet it’s free in France). I haven’t been to a writers’ conference so I don’t know exactly how they go, but I agree that there are times when writing in a bubble can dampen one’s panache—especially for a very Dixieland and whorehouse writer. That does not sound like a writer of quiet isolation. So go! Criticism can be painful but enlightening when it’s on the mark. Just remember that it might not be on the mark. Sometimes writers you adore are assholes, or weird, or reject you from their class, or are jealous and afraid of your youth and talent, or are just wrong. If your inner homunculus says they’re full of shit (or that they didn’t read your story, are drunk, have a twisted agenda, or are bedding one of your fellow students), listen up! And keep in mind that being a great writer and being a great teacher are not always the same thing; it's not obligatory to take anyone's opinion of your work--even that of an adored writer--too seriously. In the end, art is art and no one knows how it happens, so don’t let your heart get stomped on, okay? I am a heart-stomper myself; I often wish people wouldn’t take me so seriously. They’re OPINIONS, people, not legal decrees.
As for what is happening in my state: pretty much all politicians in Arizona have been so crazy for so long that I've gone from stunned amazement to casual unconcern. Tucson is the most liberal part of the state, basically a college town, so I'm more likely to be confronted by drunken kids than touchy religious brethren. So yes, things are weird here but no weirder than usual. Anyway, Jan Brewer vetoed the stupid bill (S.B. 1062, which would have given businesses the right to refuse service to customers on religious (gayness) grounds--vague, vague, vague, uptight weird vague, anti-gay, anti semitic, unclear, vague).
When will you publish more work?
You can read a new essay I wrote in the Spring 2014 issue of Willow Springs magazine.
What's your favorite Woody Allen movie?
Annie Hall, no question. It's fucking brilliant. Not that you asked, but I seriously doubt he molested his daughter.