Tag Archives: writing

The Story Behind the Story

My short story, Lavender, is included in the Best of Boston Literary Magazine, Volume II. I am deeply honored.A Story Published in the Best of Boston Literary Magazine Vol II

If you feel like supporting a wonderful literary magazine, consider buying this paper book.  You’ll get a whole mess of short stories and poems that you can enjoy forever and ever.

About the story: It’s about grief and it is more nonfiction than fiction. I changed the names and the family’s nationality  and some smaller details but otherwise….

I based the story on a visit to my mother shortly before her death, and a few months later helping my widowed father move into a smaller apartment.

It took three years before I could approach the subject of my mother’s death. The urge to write it came while I was cooking–stirring tomato sauce with one of the wood  spoons my mother used in her kitchen. I thought: she made countless meals with this spoon. No, not countless.  Eminently countable. I put down the spoon, went to my desk and jotted down the line and the rest of the story was born from that. I wrote maybe three drafts of Lavender and the piece came together very quickly. That’s not to brag; the piece is very short, and for me, the shorter the story, the less time I spend on it.

I sent it around and the Boston Literary Magazine published it in 2008. It was the first time my fiction had been published anywhere.

And that’s the story behind the story.

Big huge giant thanks to Robin Stratton, who selected it back then and selected it for the Best of.

More writing here.

Banner photo by Peter LaMastro.

New Writing: The Red Mug in Compass Literary Journal

I am delighted to announce that a piece of short fiction I wrote, The Red Mug, has been published by Compass Literary Journal and you can read it online. This is the fifth story of the collection to be published and the fourth story to be published that began its life during my stint at the Playa Summer Lake residency in 2012. I’ve said it before, mostly as a joke, but now I’m beginning to take it seriously: There is some serious creative mojo emanating from that place.

Here’s the inspiration for the story. I once owned a red mug. It was my writing mug. I had it throughout the 1990s, and I was so attached to it that I took it with me to Washington State where I did my first artist residency  in 2001. If it’s possible to love an inanimate object, then I loved this red mug.  At the end of that residency I had a feeling that I should leave it in my studio. I felt like this idea came from the mug. It had served me well and now, it told me, it was time to spread its magic to the artists who would be in that studio after me. So I left it there, without remorse and with some pride.

You should stop here if you haven’t read the story but plan to.

This is a rare instance when I don’t have anyone to thank for helping me out with my work. I didn’t give it to anyone to read for feedback or comments. I had the latest draft  on my computer and read it on the plane to Arizona a couple of weeks ago. I thought all it needed were a few small changes. I made those and submitted it to Compass the first day I was at Arcosanti, one day before their submission deadline. What drew me to Compass? Their mission statement includes this sentence: “We as a magazine aim to explore how individuals experience and articulate loss (whether in their lives or others).” Oh yes, the collection is very much about loss.

Okay, really, don’t read any more if you haven’t read the story. 

This is now my favorite coffee mug, used on days when I'm doing my work.
This is now my favorite coffee mug, used on days when I’m doing my work.

STOP!

Okay, here’s the rest of the story.

In 2004 my mother died. Six months later I was kind of pulling it together. Still numb, but not crying all the time and not terribly depressed. One afternoon I went to a Bed, Bath & Beyond shopping for I don’t remember what and I came upon shelf after shelf of that brand of mug, same style, multiple colors, blue mugs, white mugs, black mugs, green mugs, yellow mugs, and red mugs.

I stood in front of them, paralyzed and overwhelmed by a sense of loss. Not only of my mother, but of myself.  I felt like my life had gone off the tracks, though I couldn’t say how or why or when, and that the person I was,  the person who was creative, funny, smart, curious, the person who had so much potential, that person was gone. Gone forever.

It was part of my grieving and it seemed right for this character in the collection to have a similar experience.

Thankfully in my case, that person was not gone forever.

Other stories in the collection:

There Is Joy before the Angels of God 

Wonder

Other Leevilles

12-Bar Blues (Sorry this one is not online.  You’d have to buy it from the publisher, Pilgrimage)

Want still more writing?

What’s A Life’s Work about? It’s a documentary about people engaged in projects they won’t see completed in their lifetimes. You can find out more on this page.

We recently ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to pay an animator and license half of the archival footage the film requires. We need just a bit more to pay for licensing the other half of the archival footage, sound mixing, color correction, E&O insurance and a bunch of smaller things. When that’s done, the film is done! It’s really very VERY close!

So here’s how you can help get this film out to the world. It’s very simple: click the button…

Donate Now!

… and enter the amount you want to contribute (as little as $5, as much as $50,000) and the other specifics. That’s it. No login or registration required. Your contribution does not line my pocket; because the film is fiscally sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, all money given this way is overseen by them and is guaranteed to go toward the completion of this film. Being fiscally sponsored also means that your contribution is tax-deductible. So why not do it? The amount doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you’re helping to bring a work of art into the world. And that, I think, is really exciting!

Questions? Email me at d a v i d ( aT } b l o o d o r a n g e f i l m s {d o t] c o m


 

 

New Writing: Practice, Practice in Helen Literary Magazine

I’m pleased to announce that I have a new piece of nonfiction, Practice, Practice, on Helen Literary Magazine’s blog. It’s about the things we pick up and hold dear when we’re young that we let go of when we’re a little older, and then return to when we’re older still. In Practice, Practice that thing is the guitar.

guitar grabThe post also includes a link to me playing a piece which, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have seen before. And if you’re a regular reader with a good memory and you spent a few minutes reading the piece, you may recall a post called From Guitars to Typewriters and Cameras. That post was the starting point of Practice, Practice, but it didn’t address why I picked up guitar again and how my relationship to the instrument has changed.

If you have a few minutes, consider giving it a read, and if you have even more minutes at your disposal drop me a line and let me know what you think.

Thanks to Audrey Ward for giving it an early read, Caroline Wright for helping to bring the idea of “practice” into focus, and Meredith Miller for the super insightful comments. And thanks again to Peter LaMastro for shooting the video and taking the photo above.

More writing links here.

 

 

 

 

New Writing: 12-Bar Blues in Pilgrimage

A story I wrote, 12-Bar Blues, is in this fine publication.
You’ll find a short story I wrote, 12-Bar Blues, in this fine publication.

I’m very pleased to announce that one of my short stories, 12-Bar Blues, has been published by Pilgrimage. Right now, it’s only available in print. Consider ordering a copy and showing your support for this fine literary journal. Though the Pilgrimage Press website needs updating to include this issue, you can still order it by going to this page and entering Volume 38, Issue 1. It’s $7.00 per issue and they accept PayPal. There is talk of an updated Pilgrimage website that might include some of the stories and poems they’ve previously published. If/when this comes to pass, and if 12-Bar Blues is one of the stories they publish online, you can be sure I’ll let you know.

In case you’re new here, I’ve been working on a short story collection in addition to the documentary, A Life’s Work, and this is the fourth story in that collection to be published. Personally, I like this one the best so far.

If you’re interested, here’s the story’s convoluted history. I began writing 12-Bar Blues at a residency, Playa Summer Lake, in February of 2012, but a key component of the story goes back to the fall of 2010 and another residency, Blue Mountain Center. It was there that I came across a hand-crafted classical guitar. (You can listen to me try to do the guitar, and Chopin, justice.) That guitar was the inspiration for making one of the characters in the story an apprentice to a luthier. And I suppose I could take this story even further back, since it is a sequel to There Is Joy Before the Angels of God. (Published in The Literary Review in 2010 and begun prior to 2007 [I know I worked on it at Jentel, a residency I attended March-April 2007]).

Now let’s jump forward. In March of 2013, while at Ucross (another residency), I picked up the story again and thought it was close. I sought feedback and received suggestions from friend and valued reader Jessica Roth. I revised it and submitted it to three journals over a few months time, including Pilgrimage, which had put out a call for work for their “Grace” issue.  I thought 12-Bar Blues fit that bill perfectly, but Pilgrimage had other ideas; they wanted it for their “Labor” issue. Who am I to argue, it fits that bill well, too.

If you should read 12-Bar Blues, or any of my work, I invite you to let me know what you think, ask questions, start a dialogue, whatever. I try to keep the links current, but sometimes things get kerflooey. If you can’t access a piece, email me and I’ll hook you up.

 

Related:

Writing

Get Thee to an Artist Residency: Advice from an “Expert”

Why Artist Residencies

New Writing: Other Leevilles in Paper Tape

I’m delighted to announce that Other Leevilles, a short piece I wrote has just been published by Paper Tape. (How short? Very short, 466 words, takes about three minutes to read.) I’ve been working on a collection of related stories for years, and this is the third story of that collection to be published. (Wonder and There Is Joy Before the Angels of God are the other two.)

When Kristy Harding at Paper Tape discovered I was making A Life’s Work, she asked if she could conduct an interview with me about it.  Naturally I said yes. (And yes, I’ll let you know when that’s published.) In my response to her question “What is its [ALW’s] origin story?” I mentioned the origin of Other Leevilles as an example of how I can usually pinpoint the origins of my stories.  Here’s that bit.

NJ_NYC_map

For example, I can trace the origin of the story Paper Tape published (thank you), Other Leevilles—I was at an artist residency (thank you, Playa Summer Lake), working on this story collection. One day I was in the common room and started flipping through an atlas of the U.S. Then I started looking through the index and I wondered if there were towns in other states with same name as the town I grew up in. Boom! The story was born.

If you read the other two stories you’ll start to get a sense of what I’m trying to do with the collection — explore grief from multiple perspectives and over time. You might also notice that Wonder and this story take place in the fictional town of Leeville; after reading those stories you might be able to spot its real life counterpart on the map. If we know each other from my high school years you’ll recognize the place immediately.

Thanks to Paper Tape and Kristy Harding for helping me start 2014 off on the good foot.

Related:

Outstanding writer, invaluable reader, and dear dear friend Jessica Roth conducted an interview with me about Wonder, the process of writing, the collection, and the relationship between writing and filmmaking.  

More writing here.

Gimme Some Truth: Conversation with Essayist Randon Billings Noble

I met essayist Randon Billings Noble at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. As I remember it, all of our conversations were either about music (she studied classical violin and plays piano) or “nonfiction.” That’s how it is at residencies, and man, am I missing that now. Anyway, back in June 2013 Randon posted this as a Facebook status:

randon_noble_FB

 

… and write about. I asked Randon if she’d engage in an email conversation about matters nonfiction. Here’s how that went.

DL: So, these books and the Hemingway quote challenged your way of thinking about truth. What were your thoughts on truth and writing previously?

RBN: When I taught creative writing I used a terrific book — Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola — that had a whole section on creative nonfiction ethics. They claim that the essayist “pledges, in some way, both to be as honest as possible with the reader and to make this conversation worthwhile.” This to me speaks to the two halves of the term “creative nonfiction.”  “Creative” refers to the style (which uses the same techniques as fiction: scene, character, dialogue, etc.), “nonfiction” to the content.

Human memory is fallible but in many cases it’s all we have. Besides, our individual memories are what make our individual stories. We could both be in the same room at the same time and experience the same thing, but our memories (and retellings) of that experience could be very, very different.

I always told my students to “be loyal to memory.” And if you have to stray from it, let your reader know. I still believe that. But reading David Sheilds’s Reality Hunger made me a little more … flexible in my expectations.

DL: “Flexible in my expectations.” I like that. Has it made you more flexible in your nonfiction writing?

RBN: Not at all!  I still stick to (what I know as) the truth as closely as I can.

DL: I had a similar encounter with Werner Herzog. I was itching to make a documentary, but I had no interest in making a call to action film or an issue film. No interest and I wouldn’t know how to. I’m not a journalist, I’m a storyteller. Still, I thought there are “nonfiction” stories I want to tell. At some point I came across a phrase Herzog likes to use: “ecstatic truth.” Here it is in context:

“There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” [http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/herzogs-minnesota-declaration-defining-ecstatic-truth]

 This was liberating. It’s not so much that it gave me the freedom to play fast and loose with facts, but it gave me the freedom to structure the documentary how I wanted — I didn’t need to adhere to chronology; it gave me the freedom to be more impressionistic than journalistic. One example: in one part of A Life’s Work, one of the subjects, Jill Tarter, is talking about her childhood and the gender roles that existed in the 50s. She recalls a conversation she had with her parents and how her father told her she could buck those roles and become an engineer if she worked hard enough. During her telling of this story I show home movies of young girls in dresses curtseying, and a shot of a man encouraging a young girl to walk. A viewer might think these are Tarter’s home movies, because that’s how they’ve been conditioned to think about such juxtapositions, but they’re not. They’re my family’s home movies. And to be clear, my goal in using those home movies is not to fool anyone. I actually want to do this and similar things throughout the film so that the viewer comes to realize the film is not only about Jill Tarter and the other subjects, but it’s everyone’s story.

But reader’s/viewer’s expectations are tricky. I’m thinking about that James Frey book. People were drawn to A Million Little Pieces because, “holy crap, this really happened!” And when they found it didn’t, everyone felt betrayed. I’m curious to hear your take on that whole affair.

RBN: To me, the sad thing about the Frey affair was the potentially high stakes of his readers’ expectations. Frey presents himself as stopping his addictions based on a simple decision and not any kind of process or program. This could be a very dangerous (and false!) example to others. Frey also breaks the rules that Miller and Paola set out in Tell It Slant —  he aggrandizes himself by intensifying his drug and alcohol abuse, lengthening his time in jail, and fabricating his near-rescue of his suicidal girlfriend.

When I was teaching creative nonfiction I used two examples from Annie Dillard’s work to explore creative nonfiction ethics. She has revealed, in interviews, that she made up the cat at the beginning of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the date of a future solar eclipse in her essay Total Eclipse. I ask my students which fabrication bothers them more — a cat used to make metaphors or a specific date? After some discussion I reveal that both bother me. It’s the essayists (and documentarian’s?) job to spin meaningful gold from the hay of everyday life. You don’t get to just make it up!

I like what Herzog says about “poetic, ecstatic truth” but I still want to have at least some hint that I’m entering that zone.

The purpose of David Shields’s Reality Hunger is to question the line between fiction and nonfiction, and to ask who really owns ideas anyway. Shields was required by his publisher’s lawyers to list as many of the uncredited sources in Reality Hunger as he could, although Shields makes a direct plea for the reader to ignore this appendix and there are even dotted lines to encourage the reader to cut this section out of the book entirely! Because of the aim of his book and his cheeky response to the demands of legality I admire what he achieves even if I’m not sure I agree with it.

I feel rather the same way about writers who cloak autobiography under the subtitle of “novel,” like Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted or Sheila Heti in How Should a Person Be? I’d rather read a story that’s mostly true but called fiction than a story that claims to be true but is partially made up. But then I feel like this isn’t fair to novelists who spend a great deal of time and energy creating fictional worlds instead of harvesting broad swaths of their own experience.

So although my thinking may be becoming more flexible, I’m not double jointed.

DL: So do we need to come up with words for these slippery genres so that readers/viewers are more flexible in their expectations? (Personally, I think “documentary” is inadequate.)

RBN: Maybe. Or maybe there just needs to be some kind of acknowledgment in the work that parts of it are speculative. I admire the way Scott McClanahan does it in his recent book Crapalachia. In the “Appendix and Notes” section he thoughtfully and stylishly lists the places where he veers from the truth and explains why he did it. Perhaps because it was thoughtful and stylish I wasn’t offended at being misled but grateful for McClanahan’s honesty and rationale.

Do you have a term for these “slippery” genres?  Especially within the larger genre of film?

 DL: I wish I did. Film essay is pretty good, but sounds a little pretentious to my ears.

Here’s a gift a friend gave me. I keep it on my desk. 

painting? photograph?
painting? photograph?

I’m looking for a word or phrase that conveys what this object is doing. Here is a “real” place captured during a “real” moment (the photo), but there is artifice surrounding it. It is neither photograph nor painting, but both. (Side note: And then of course there’s the painted snake. In this image you can’t make out its head from its tail, but in the original its head is approaching the photo. And  it has its tongue out, no less.)

One of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation is each of us working in the “nonfiction” realm need to decide which lines we are comfortable crossing and which ones we are not. I’m not comfortable with re-enactments. I think when Errol Morris does them they work, but he’s the exception (and exceptional). I don’t really “stage” things, though I’m sure relative to some hardcore cinema verite dudes, what I do is very staged. I will ask a subject to do something (“Can you walk through that door?” “Can you look through that record bin again?”) but I will never ask them to repeat an answer “this time with more enthusiasm/anger/sadness” etc. That being said, there are times when I do ask a subject to repeat something, when a police siren ruins a take, for example. And I will ask a key question a few times, phrasing it differently so I have a range of responses to choose from. But that’s a journalist tactic, too. It’s all pretty gray.

Do you have lines you are more comfortable crossing and others you are not?

RBN: I love the photograph in the painted frame!  I was thinking about using the word “frame” as part of a new term to describe a work of nonfiction with something not 100% nonfiction about it. Instead of a word I kept thinking of an image of fabric, where one thread of many was slightly different. Still, maybe something like “la realite encadree” (framed reality)?

My lines are pretty firm. The one thing I think nonfiction writers can safely do is omit things. But even then you have to be careful not to let the omission skew the story you’re trying to convey or the idea you’re trying to explore. But a writer  — even an essayist  — has a right to privacy.  And sometimes you need to protect the privacy of others. But any other time I stray from the truth I try to cue the reader. “I was probably six years old” or “I imagine she must have said …” or “Perhaps I went to the park or perhaps I went straight home.” I try to give a quick cue and then get out of the way so the scene can continue. But I imagine it’s more difficult with film!

Still, I think it’s vital that we try to convey the truth as we know it, while acknowledging that all truths are always “as we know them.”

Thanks, Randon!

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; The Millions; Brain, Child; Rain Taxi Review of Books and elsewhere.  She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, and was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts.  You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

 

How do you handle the truth? What do you call it? Nonfiction? Creative nonfiction? Memoir? Essay? Documentary? Film essay? Does it matter? Get it on the conversation.

More interviews here!

 

[cross-posted on ExtraCriticum.com]

New Writing: Wonder in R.KV.R.Y Literary Journal

I’m thrilled to announce that my very short story Wonder (892 words),  has just been published in R.KV.R.Y Quarterly Literary Journal. It’s the “Shipwrecked” issue and it includes some esteemed writers (Robert Boswell!) and gorgeous artwork by Elizabeth Leader; I’m humbled, honestly. And here’s more good news, you can read Wonder online. For free. No registration or nothing.

"...and a Shorts On Survival piece about wonder in the midst of tragedy."
“…and a Shorts On Survival piece about wonder in the midst of tragedy.”

Wonder is part of a collection of connected stories I’ve been working on for years, usually when I’m not working on A Life’s Work. The Literary Review published another of these stories, There Is Joy Before the Angels of God,  and you can read that online, too. The collection is about what happens to a community when one of its members is violently removed from it. The event in Wonder sets the rest of the stories in motion. It may wind up being the first story in the collection. We’ll just have to see.

I began this story at Playa Summer Lake Artist Residency back in March 2012. I was writing 1,000 words a day there and it’s likely I wrote the first draft over two days. (That draft was at least twice as long. I’m one of those writers that writes a whole mess and then cuts, cuts, cuts.) I let it sit for a while and started revising it in spring, 2013. The main image in the story was based on something I walked by the day my mother died (September 28, 2004). Curious bit of timing there.

Thanks to Jessica Roth for reading an early draft and giving me invaluable feedback, and extra big thanks to R.KV.R.Y. editor Mary Akers who believed in the piece enough to publish it. And yet more thanks to Ms. Roth who interviewed me about the story for R.VR.R.Y.

I’d be honored if you read it, and if you do, why not drop me a line and let me know what you think or ask a question. I’d love to hear from you.

More writing can be found here.