Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Notes from Barcelona: Jake Lamar

Jake Lamar.
First word that comes to mind is happy. The man is genuinely happy. A pleasant, positive, smiling fellow--putting to rest all the rumors that real writers are depressed recluses. Picture the opposite of Edgar Allen Poe.

Palau de Musica. My friend Kathy and I ran into Jake and his wife attending a Flaminco Opera show here. 
"How did you get started as a writer?" we asked after cajoling with him for almost two weeks. And he told us about working for TIME, writing a memoir, and moving to Paris on a grant and never leaving. Some prodding wrenched out the following:

He's Bronx born, Harvard educated, and Jake's debut book, a memoir about his absent father called Bourgeois Blues, earned him the Lyndhurst Foundation Prize, awarded to, oh, you know, people like Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy! What. The. What. Just when I thought this program couldn't get any better.

Where I wrote at Ateneu Barcelones.
The view from the cable car as we were hoisted up Montjuic.
Jake taught us about dialogue, fitting since his current WIP is a play. Here are my notes on improving dialogue.
  • Be aware of the weird music of how people speak. 
  • Every character is composite. 
  • Date everything you write. Revisions too. 
  • Write a story off of a voicemail. (Guess who is now self-conscious of her voicemails? This girl.)
  • The details are never as important as the overall feel. 
  • Kill the darlings, as they say. 
  • Writing exercise: begin a story with the line, "I love you, but..." (my sentence read, "I love you, but I draw the line at home enemas.")
  • From Jake's memoir and something his dad once said: "I'm an escapee from a garbage can."
l'Sagrada Familia
Here are bits of dialogue I heard or recalled after his lesson:

  • "Want to see my nose flute?"
  • "You don't want to be sued by the Village People."
  • "Teens have the proclivity to...and the hormones to..."
  • A Spanish man strums an air guitar, says, "tacka tacka tacka". 
  • "Language is archaeology." 
  • "I am telling my son how to build the Guggenheim, but I am not telling anyone's son." --Cesar Martinell
  • "The only Sting that comes to mind is 'do-do do, da-da da da dad'." --Aleksander Hemon
  • "Once upon a time" is the promise of something extraordinary.
  • Pauses are ok, but story needs fuel. 
  • "I was sitting next to you last night at dinner and you had a...loaf of meat?" Fred asked.
    • "It was more of a log." 
    • "But you liked it."
  • "For newspapers [in Spain], der is an agreement not to speak about suicides." --Ramon Olle
  • "Unfortunately dey pendulum is swinging from Christ to none." --Ramon Olle
  • "But how will I know what everything is?"

The ceiling. How does this building even exist? It's an enigma. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Notes from Barcelona: Gwyneth Lewis

Parq Guell
At the residency weeks in Barcelona, our days were divided up by classes, workshops, and tutorials. (I'll get back to that in a sec.) During the mentorship months this fall and spring, I will have the pleasure of working with Gwyneth Lewis, a Welsh poet and memoirist with a delicious British accent and no-nonsense approach to teaching. She is the author of Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book on Depression.

This is the knocker on the door to our classroom building in Barcelona. To seek entrance to l'escola, you must take the apple from Eve. Gwyneth says the pinkies raised slightly are an indication of vanity. She says the knocker is a little joke, a smirk. You must fall before you can learn. 
— at Escola d'Escriptura (Ateneu Barcelonès).

The mentorship will be completed online via hard-core writing deadlines, webinars, and professional line-edits (etc.). The design is convenient because I can keep teaching and writing for DH in Utah while Gwyneth completes a visiting poet stint at Princeton.

Dragons were all over the city, but I like this picture as a simile for having your work critiqued by other writers. Sometimes it's like shoving your head into a dragon's mouth and thanking the beast when you bleed. That said, my Cedar Crest cohort was amazing, respectful, helpful, and encouraging. Teachers too. I love this program. 

...Back to Barcelona (sidebar: the natives pronounce it Barthelona).

These are notes from Gwyneth's class  as well as some helpful comments on my WIP, A KISS WITHOUT A MUSTACHE, in both the workshop and tutorial.

  • "Trump up the action. Don't cloud it with rhetoric." 
  • How much does the writer know? The narrator has access to childhood memories.
  • Make it more active. 
  • "What is the framework? What shape is your work going to be?" 
  • The reader should know the stakes from the beginning. 
  • Plan out the trajectory of your characters.
  • "Try flip-flopping the first paragraph. Put the last sentence on top." 
  • Remember to have a reflective narrator.
  • "Don't defuse the punch."
  • "Don't let the humor get in the way of the story." 
  • Consider setting first. Think about the "wide shot". 
  • In chapter titles, don't give away the plot. 
  • For intense scenes, "write it like a bombshell. Don't let me know that you're leading up to something." 
  • Emotion leads to thought, which leads to plot or analysis.
  • Don't be mysterious for mysterious's sake.
  • In non-fiction, consider "is this interesting to me because it's my family or will the anonymous reader find it interesting too?" 
  • "Make sure you get the choreography clear for the reader."
  • "Keep it life-and-death simple." 
  • "Very effective, but prune words."
  • "Pacing--The intro to [this chapter] is uncharacteristically slow, so we're alerted to [what's] coming. For maximum impact, be more casual on the approach--so that the reader, like you at the time, has no idea what's coming. That will make it more lifelike."
  • "Assume you have a secular audience and explain some of the Mormon terminology." 

Port de Diablos. Little kids with fireworks on pitchforks. Just something you might see on the streets of Barcelona. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Notes from Barcelona: Aleksander Hemon

I always knew that if I went back to school it would be to get a degree in creative writing. That's how I ended up in the Cedar Crest College Pan-European MFA program. That's how I ended up in Barcelona.

When I wasn't bingeing on gelato and calamari, I was immersed into the culture (religion, architecture, pop-culture, art, language, and literature) of Catalonia.

On weekdays I attended classes at Ateneu Barcelones where lessons ranged from writing in the vernacular to flash fiction. My professors, who I had already anticipated would be great, BLEW MY MIND. (When I explain it to my family and friends, I literally do the explosion gesture off my temples.) In the spirit of sharing the love, I'll be posting my favorite morsels over the next few posts.

We're kicking off with Aleksander Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives and The Lazarus Project. He also writes for The New Yorker and showed up to class in shorts and a grey tee with two pigeons printed on front. More than once he dropped the cap of his dry-erase marker, and more than once he nicked his shirt with the ink tip. Erasing it smudged the spot. I wish I could've captured every last word from his mouth and bottled it to chug like some sort of writing Mt. Dew. But since he's a native of Sarajevo, I had a two-second delay interpreting his accent. This'll have to do.

  • Consider having an organizing principle or composite structure to your piece. Make it a shape.
  • As writers, we can only represent one part of humanity. Much of literature does just that.  
  • Literature gives a window into humanity that no other vehicle can. 
  • Can you add metonymy? A part to represent the whole? 
  • Literature helps us understand something about the human mind and appreciate the artifice or "cathedral". 
  • We build "cathedrals" so that we can draw people to the emotion. 
  • "Language is biological." 
  • "We are composite people."
  • "Discontinuity is the default way to process the world. It's an acquired skill to put it together."
  • Imposing order on the chaos is what literature does.
  • We create to compensate for the things we can't forget. 
  • In life, in non-fiction, forgetting is an editing principle. You only remember the important things. The remaining montage is the story. 
  • "We are not passive, especially as writers. We create culture."
  • For memoirs, lay down the memories you feel compelled to write. You'll gravitate to some scenes. Enter the space and spend time there. Motifs will rise from the words. Organize by delineating and select "furniture" to go with the space. 
  • "The only Sting song that comes to mind is 'do-do do do. da-da da dad." 
  • "Nostalgia has the veneer or sheen that life was better".
  • When writing, remember that "it's all [crap] until it isn't. Editing requires stamina. And we're entitled to our failures."


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