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Apr 18, 2014; Michael Henry Asks:

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.

Stacey answers:

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.

Apr 16, 2014; Pat Wright Asks:

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

Stacey answers:

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.

Feb 25, 2014; littleshirlybeans Asks:

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?

Stacey answers:

Hello littleshirlybeans!

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).

Feb 18, 2014; Tom Asks:

When will you publish more work?

Stacey answers:

You can read a new essay I wrote in the Spring 2014 issue of Willow Springs magazine.

Feb 05, 2014; Feelin' Darrow Asks:

What's your favorite Woody Allen movie?

Stacey answers:

Annie Hall, no question. It's fucking brilliant. Not that you asked, but I seriously doubt he molested his daughter.

Jan 30, 2014; Caul Shawdy Asks:

Stacey Richter: Where can I get some of that good stuff?

Stacey answers:

That's what I keep asking myself whenever I see that someone has a PET FOX: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_AtP7au_Q9w

Give me one now!

Jan 29, 2014; Elizabeth Asks:

Will you be at AWP? I'll be working a table for Superstition Review and would love to meet you, Stacey!

Stacey answers:

No, I'm not going to AWP. I'd like to go sometime, but I'm waiting for someone to assure me that when I get there I will find a mess of cute guys who think I'm really sexy and cool because they like my writing--my writing--and thus fawn over me and make cow eyes and linger and stand too close and generally tempt me to what square people call "cheating" and "immorality" but what great artists call "inspiration."

In other words, I want to be treated like a male writer, then act like one.

Jan 29, 2014; Boob (Not a nickname for Asks:

The problem with your BLOG, Stacey, is there's not enough "boob talk" here. Let's talk BOOBS. Here's the thing: I am fascinated with boobs. Breasts. On a woman. (I don't care to see man-boobs, not even good ones.) Why? Help me. Why can't I stop looking at boobs? Thinking about them? What is wrong with the male gender, or at least me? If I meet a woman eventually I am going to wonder about her boobs. Every time. If she's a very old woman, I will wonder what her boobs were like when she was younger. I draw the line at under-agers. I don't think about their boobs. It makes me feel bad to begin to, and I say no to myself. But when that female person turns adult, and has been adult a while so you can forget the person was recently a non-adult, pretty soon I wonder about her boobs, and then I feel bad about it anyway, because come on, not long ago she was a kid for god's sake. Stacey, where do you draw the line between healthy male sexual feelings and a man being a perv? I don't want to be a perv. I can't help it if I am fixated on boobs. Several of my best memories in life are of boobs. (I like other parts too. Not as visually oriented though.) Stacey, as a woman, what do you make of men and boobs?

Stacey answers:

C'mon Boob, you can do better than that! Looking and thinking about breasts is not pervy. Taking baths with your mother until you're nineteen is pervy; installing a camera inside a toilet is pervy, but looking at boobs is pretty much part of being human. Girls like them! Babies are obsessed! So feel free to indulge in your interest (please use discretion at work), and while you're at it, try to cultivate some fun perversions that your lady can enjoy too--like shoes, rabbits, swing sets, and Nixon masks.

In the meantime, don't worry too much if every now and then, in a non-work environment, a woman asks you if you're looking at her boobs. Women do this because they're nice. They do it because they're smart and interesting and observant and funny and kind; they do it without judgement, to make you laugh, and because they know that having a nice rack is fun and they want to share the fun. Because everyone likes breasts.

Jan 14, 2014; Pickles Asks:

So, did Darren have any offers on the inscribed copy of your book? If so, how much?

Stacey answers:

It was in a used bookstore. A friend of mine bought it for his sister and took a picture of the inscription with his cell phone. It was probably about six dollars retail which means he got about three bucks in trade credit for it.

Jan 08, 2014; Darren Asks:

Sometimes screaming is good.

Stacey answers:

Especially when it's a scream of apology and includes taking me out to dinner and plying me with flattery.

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