Edith Wharton on Writing a War Story…or a Love Story…or a Comedic Story…or a Story Story

In September 1919, Woman’s Home Companion published a lovely little nugget of story by Edith Wharton. “Writing a War Story” is the tale of Ivy Spang, a poetess-turned-short-story-writer. Working as a nurse in France during WWI, Miss Spang is commissioned by an editor at the magazine “The Man-at-Arms.” He tells her that he wishes her to write, “A good, rousing story, Miss Spang; a dash of sentiment of course, but nothing to depress or discourage. I’m sure you take my meaning? A tragedy with a happy ending–that’s about the idea.”

In order to write her masterpiece, Miss Spang heads off to Brittany and moves in with an old governess of hers. And, like every writer before her and after her, Miss Spang hits a snag:

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 1

And, if only Miss Spang’s snags stopped at the beginning.

But no, Miss Spang suffers through questions about plot — “People don’t bother with plots nowadays” she explains to her governess.

Questions about deadlines:

 

Edith Wharton Quote War Story 2

Questions about where to find ideas; the difference between subject and treatment; chasing Inspiration; collaborators; what to do once the thing is published. What do you do if no one reads your story? Whose opinions should you listen to? What does it mean to be a woman writer in a world dominated by men?

If you have a hot second, it’d be well worth your time to read this short story — written by the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (1921 — for The Age of Innocence). All of the questions this short narrative poses show up a lot in Wharton’s work, which I’ll be talking about a lot in the next few weeks.

You can find a copy here,which includes a brief introduction to Wharton’s own participation in WWI relief efforts.

So, really, this blog post isn’t much more than a reading recommendation — but it’s an extremely enthusiastic reading recommendation. Let me know what you think when you’re done!

Different Arts, Different Behaviors

As a writer, I fly solo. That’s kinda the name of the game. The decisions made are mine and mine alone. It’s me and the keyboard, my imagination, and whatever command of language I happen to have at the time. If I want to adjust point of view, setting, character, or anything else, I can do it and not have to answer to anyone. 

There are times as a writer where I take in other people’s opinions. The most obvious example is my writers group. I submit pieces and they make notes and hand them back. In return, I do the same for them. And it’s rather satisfying to suggest to other people what they need to do to correct their story. (They should always, always listen to me.)
However, what they do with what I say is entirely up to them. After all, it’s their name on the title page. My name may or may not show up in the acknowledgements page. (Thanks, Fleur!) 
And I can take or leave their suggestions without a committee or an audience. I nod, say thanks, and move on. Every adjustment I make is my own and I’m the only one who has to answer for it. 
Theatre works a little differently. Theatre is collaborative. There is more than one voice going on at any given time: playwright, director, actor, etc. Collaboration has inherent constraints that aren’t present when you’re your own boss.
For example, tonight at rehearsal for Marat/Sade, I was reminded of just how different writing (solo) and acting (collaborating) are. There was a section where blocking was giving some difficulty in which Sade, who is the center man (after all, the play is his big Fuck You to the Man), was getting upstaged by some delightfully raucous musicians. This was understandably annoying to Sade, whose speech is kind of important to the point of the whole play. 
Being in the ensemble, I’m basically opposite the audience and saw that a small adjustment in blocking would keep Sade center man, instead of being brushed to the corner. I made the suggestion to the director — during the break — and he gave me a hug, said thank you, and then passed the suggestion on to Sade. 
Unfortunately, the set being the chaotic place it is, there was really no way to take the time to communicate the change in the time allotted. So there was a stumbling moment while director and actor went back and forth in front of everyone. No one got loud, but you could tell that maybe the better time to discuss this would be later. Which is basically what it boiled down to. 
Throughout the whole exchange, I cannot tell you how hard it was to stay quiet. I can see how it will work and if I had two seconds I could get the picture across. But, in the end, I’m the chorus girl. I’m not the director, or Sade, and their responsibilities aren’t mine. I’m there to fill one slot of the story. I’m not in charge of the whole story. 
And, while other writers can keep or dismiss my suggestions at their leisure (to their peril), theatre means you take the director’s note and adjust accordingly — because someone has to be in charge of this chaos. His tools are actors and sets and scripts. All of those things have opinions of their own. By jumping in further and insisting on my change (which may or may not work, after all) I would just be adding to the chaos. So, with great restraint, I kept my mouth shut. They’ll sort it out. 

Chain Chain Chain

I’ve been a slacker with writing lately.  First, the novel group went on hiatus, which removed my constant impending deadline.  Then, I was looking for a new job, which sucked up oodles of time.  Then, I was moving for the new job and doing all the work that goes along with a move.  Then… I was distracted – I was in a new place, meeting new people, lots of stuff to do.

A couple of days ago, I read this article from Lifehacker.  It talks about some advice the author got from Jerry Seinfeld on how to be productive.  The advice is very simple:

Step 1: Get a big calendar.
Step 2: Draw an X on each day you write.  (After a few days, you’ll have a chain of Xes)
Step 3: Don’t break the chain.

Starting today, I’m going to work on a chain.  Today’s Accountability Tuesday, so that’s fitting.  Also, today I’m going to a Write Brain thingie with Deb and Jenny, so that’s fitting, too.  It’s a good way to get started, and then all I have to think about is getting an X each day.  Easy.  Right?

Margaret Atwood on Her Creative Process

Okay, here’s a great little interview from Big Think, asking Margaret Atwood all those questions that we writers love to ask other writers…especially those more successful or smarter than us.

Something interesting that struck me in her methodology was the ‘rolling barrage’ – because I do this. As she describes it: the rolling barrage is the process of writing by hand, typing that in, writing by hand, typing it in, and on.

Check it out, it’s only four minutes and she just might help you figure out which idea you should be
writing about….

Good Omens/Collaboration

*This week’s Monday post is brought to you early by Really-Busy-Tomorrow Cereal!

In a post the other day, Jenny asked me what I thought of our new collaborative adventures. To Jenny, I say, Good Omens. Oh my, how I love when things sync up like that. The book in question is a delightful collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. In a copy I read, or maybe an interview, Gaiman reflected on the process of collaborating. It’s been a while since I read it, but the jist of what he said was that as they went along writing, their main goal was to write something that would make the other laugh. So, it was kind of like a game/conversation. I thought that was pretty cool

Now, to talk about me and Jenny. So far, we’re still early days, so a lot of the collaboration is focused on questions like, “How do we want this process to work?” Piece by piece, we’re working that out. For those of you who are interested, here’s how we’re tackling it:

In the book, we’ve got two timelines that relate to each other. I really liked the stuff and characters in the earlier timeline and Jenny had cool ideas about the later timeline. So, we decided to divide and conquer. We had an outlining/note making session to get on the same page about who the characters were and what our major plot points in both timelines would be. Now, we’re working on the drafting stage.

For our respective timelines, each of us is responsible for writing the rough draft. Then, as we get a chapter or two finished, we e-mail the draft to each other. The other person reads the draft and tweaks it, adding what they think should be added, re-wording, etc. Then, it goes back to the drafter to review and see what they’d change about the other person’s tweaks. I think the process should work well, and it’ll help with things like consistency of voice & character and all the other logistical things that get tricky when you have two people driving the boat.

The blog follows a similar process. We’ve got an outline of mentors and we’ve divvied up the posting schedule and features, i.e. Tuesday Accountability posts are Jenny’s domain, the Saturday Pages are my pet project. I think we’re getting our rhythm, and it’s fun to have someone to have a conversation with as I write. It’s all about that idea of the Ideal Reader, and Jenny fits the bill nicely.

The Great Scroll Experiment!

In honor of Kerouac, and in attempting to learn what I can about writing from him, I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon trying to create my own scroll-of-fiction.

First, I gathered my paper (10 sheets…my thought process being that ten sheets of single-spaced typewritten paper made a more-than-decent length short story):

Then I glued all of that together into one long piece:

Fed it through my typewriter:

And began writing:

I’ll tell you how the writing itself it went tomorrow in my accountability post. Now — have you guys ever tried to copy a Great Writer’s method? Wrote with quills? Fountain pens? Standing up like Hemingway is reported to have done? How did that work for ya?

Notebooks!!

A book was recently released called Agatha Christie’s Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making, by John Curran. Check out Curran’s deal: he got to spend hours in a room, pouring over handwritten exercise books, reading page after page of difficult notes, deciphering faded pencil marks, and losing his eyesight while reading Christie’s plots in her own writing.

I know. What a great deal! I’m so jealous.

Curran put all of his interesting discoveries into this book. I’m not going to go into all the deets (mostly because you should go buy this book for your-own-self to peruse at your leisure) but I do want to talk about the thing that was most interesting to me: 76 notebooks.

Yeah, that’s a lot, huh?

Apparently she was neither neat nor orderly in keeping them either. Notes for some books are mixed into notes for others, which are all mixed with packing/grocery/Christmas lists. Christie used the notebook closest at hand to plot, write treatments, jot ideas, or list housekeeping details.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty disorderly and I’ve always felt guilty for it. If I didn’t label/date my diaries or if I forgot to write in it once I started a diary, I felt like the world was going to end. I beat myself up.

In January, when I was reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries, I started keeping another one…only I told myself that I didn’t care if I didn’t write every day. If I wanted to jot down other people’s quotes, I could. If I wanted to I could whine about writing, or plot stuff, or do exercises. Whatever. It’s worked well for me. I don’t date pages, but I am trying to fill one notebook at a time – and I’m almost done with the first one.

Sounds pathetic, right? Almost done with the first one.

Well, if we count how Agatha Christie kept notebooks, haphazard and without organization…I think I might be able to take her. I’ve filled cheap spiral notebooks with lists, plots, outlines, first lines, random thoughts, blog ideas, character names, etc. And, to the detriment of future scholars (who will, of course, study my work with the same interest and passion as Curran has done for Christie) I’ve tossed a lot of notebooks out.

Some of Christie’s notebooks were filled, others only had ten pages. This makes me feel better as a writer. Less unfocused.

I’m gonna stick with my more ‘disciplined’ notebook keeping for the moment – mostly because I want the satisfaction of completely full notebooks. But it’s nice to know that the bestsellingest author was creating at all times, with what she had on hand. Makes me want to go write stuff!

How’s about you guys? You notebook keepers? Or computer screen fillers?