Some Pearls…

turning life into fiction hemley

Yes- I am reading some novels right now but I’m heavily submerged in craft, since I’m teaching it. My biggest gem lately emerged: Robin Hemley’s Turning Life into Fiction. Why is this text such a big deal? It doesn’t only apply to fiction. In fact, I applied its exercises to Memoir.

The “M” word. It’s fiction backwards. It’s reconstruction of a story given only half of the painter’s palette.  So why do we continue to write memoir? I believe for the same reason we write fiction: to send a message to the souls who need it.

Hemley is practical in his direction. He describes the focus in your writing as the “handle.” In fact, “Anything can be a handle. What we’re ultimately after is focus. Your handle is simply your focusing element.” But besides the handle,  Sue Silverman (of Fearless Confessions – More of this in a later post) calls this authenticity  “writing along the bone.” The story of our lives emerges from our bones. Both Hemley and Silverman refer to that focus but also that it might not emerge “organically” until after you have written the entire memoir.

I always direct students to go to the emotion and exploit it until drained. Go to the bone. Or it doesn’t have to be dark. Go to what you remember. Hemley champions mining the childhood “places” of our past. He writes, “Lift your grandmother’s teapot off the mantle – you know, the teapot that played ‘Tea for Two’ when you lifted it. Notice the aromas. What’s your grandmother cooking? Take a peek outside. It’s a fair day, take a walk. Go through the neighborhood. Wave to your friends and acquaintances. It’s been a long time.”

This might seem like memoir 101, but go and do it. You’ll be surprised at what you get by remembering one room in particular.

Robin Hemley is at LitFest Lighthouse this week. If you can get a chance to see him, please do.


Image(David Copperfield and Micawber)

“Go upstairs, give my complements to Mr. Dick, and say I wish to speak to him,” declares Betsey Trotwood (Dickens 159) who opens the scene where Charles Dickens first introduces the character of Mr. Dick. Dickens’s most revealing early self-portrait, David Copperfield, lies on a couch, exhausted from his journey, in his Aunt Betsey Trotwood’s front parlor while Janet heads upstairs to gather Dickens’s later self-portrait, Mr. Dick: the memorialist, the mirrored self as traumatized outcast. This scene compounds two sides of Dickens’s personality: the wronged orphan (Forster 126), lost to his parents, and the eccentric “self-mastered” perfectionist author (Shore 27) endeavoring to save himself.

This is the beginning of my final essay “Two Selves of Mr. Dick: A ‘Self-Revealing, Self-Concealing’ Portrait” I just submitted for my Virginia Woolf and the Victorians Class at the University of Denver. We had the pleasure of reading with a critical eye at least eight novels from Victorian England’s authors and made connections not only to their time in society but to how this current moment connects to the turn of the century.

I delved a little too deeply into Dickens. As I researched him, our lives were too parallel.  No, I never was turned loose from my family to glue labels on jars, nor did I live in a debtor’s prison with my father.  But I did suffer through insufferable jobs, was often scoffed at for being my original, whacky self, and am too sensitive for my own damn good. Also, the whole parents flying by their financial pants thing…well, suffice to say, I get it.

I feel like I should defend the man from all of his attacks of being overly sentimental or a caricaturist.

Here’s one of my favorite passages of all time. I recently posted it on facebook because I dared anyone to write such a caricature.

From Great Expectations:

My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbors because she had brought me up “by hand.” Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.

Charles Dickens. Great Expectations (Kindle Locations 130-133).

Isn’t the mark of a great novelist gesture? How about vernacular? We have her saying presented to us, and we also can see her saying being spread around the neighborhood. The hand becomes heavy and denotes cruelty, and we haven’t seen her face yet!

My favorite character from David Copperfield was Mr. Dick because I jolted up in the middle of the night after finishing the novel and realized, “That’s Dickens – that’s how he sees himself!”

Mr. Dick rescues and is dumb; he is wise yet silent; he gardens with relish and flies his kites to connect with a greater knowledge that’s beyond the realm of society. Ideas are better, he seems to say, than words.

“Mr. Dick and I soon became the best of friends, and very often, when his day’s work was done, went out together to fly the great kite [failed attempts of his Memorial fashioned into a kite]. Every day of his life he had a long sitting at the Memorial, which never made the least progress, however hard he labored, for King Charles the First always strayed into it, sooner or later, and then it was thrown aside and another begun. The patience and hope with which he bore these perpetual disappointments, the mild perception he had that there was something wrong about King Charles the First the feeble efforts he made to keep him out, and the certainty with which he came in, and tumbled the Memorial out of all shape, made a deep impression on me. What Mr. Dick supposed would come of the Memorial, if it were completed; where he thought it was to go, or what he thought it was to do he knew no more than anybody else, I believe. Nor was it at all necessary that he should trouble himself with such questions, for if anything were certain under the sun, it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished” (179).

This passage is telling. There are three Dickens’s. All three contribute to the whole. Dickens was writing an “autobiographical fragment” before he began David Copperfield and used Mr. Dick’s character to portray the author within the author, beheading his own efforts and ultimately spending his whole life in pursuit of a dream.

Robert Douglas Fairhurst wrote Becoming Dickens, which I highly recommend and couldn’t put down once I started it. He also felt that Dickens wrote himself as “Dick” into many roles. Some Dickensians professed King Charles the First as a beheaded version of the author himself.

Hands down, Mr. Dick and Betsey Trottwood are the most fun loving characters that seem on the outskirts of the action, but when the real life-changing events go down, they rush in.

I do not believe that Dickens was a caricaturist, “grossly distorting” people from his life. Quite the opposite. He revealed their demeanor in the concrete. If anything, he was a gesturist.

To Be Continued…

I’d like to take some time with my next entry: Dickens. So please stand by for that heart-breaking and world-shaking entry. Coming soon!


He Had Grown Gaunt From Time

The Years

It occurred to me as I turned the last pages of The Years that the number of people in the act of reading Virginia Woolf in the world might be an easily acquired number. In fact, the amount of people reading The Years, during this last week of 2013, might be slimmer. What does this have to do with my post? I suppose it’s my particular reaction to her, this many years after her death. She has crumpled me, turned me inside out and instead of having the effect that people who almost kill themselves experience, which is to declare a new lease on life, I feel like I’ve turned around and seen myself aging and am unloosed at that picture. And this thought contributes to the whole thought “Who is reading Woolf? And why aren’t they reading her if they aren’t?”

Reading The Years, I heard time pounding forward, a train pulling me too quickly through my life. Beyond that identity crisis, Woolf, like Dickens or Hardy doesn’t merely describe a character to introduce them, but the description contributes to the whole. In The Years, EVERYTHING moves forward and reveals this theme. No one can escape time. Not the brilliant. Not the rich. Not even the well-respected. Here is Uncle Edward in the Present Day section:

“He was spare and thin. He looked as if his face had been carved and graved by a multitude of fine instruments; as if it had been left out on a frosty night and frozen over. He threw his head back like a horse whose bit no longer irked him. His movements were from habit, not from feeling. What had he been doing all these years?”

Woolf historians have written endless commentary and research of her novels, so I won’t attempt to cross-reference or compare. I only want to declare the utter affect her words have on a passerby like me and stand at awe. The novel is broken into years, like one’s life, so that you can engross yourself and forget that time is passing. This is her design. Also, you get to see how homes change, belongings begin to stand for time, and the family dog never has a good end.

The Years looks at the moments of life in which Buddhists would advise us to hover. However, Woolf seems to say that no matter how you look at it, however much you try to hold it down and observe it, life rushes by and can never stop for mortals. To Thornton Wilder’s question, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?–every, every minute?” Woolf seems to answer in The Years with: It doesn’t matter. We all end up with dead dogs, sad servants and children singing off key to stand for a future we won’t inhabit. (My interpretation, of course.)

My Boss Saw Me Naked



Whenever I’m stuck writing abstracts and long confessional passages that bore my reader, I pull my fingers back from my keyboard. How to get back into the present? How to touch, smell, see and maneuver through the mundane minutiae of life?…Say that ten times fast. I usually pull Raymond Carver off the shelf and remind myself how a room full of dysfunction looks. What objects give the reader hints and what actions build to a story?

The recent Sun Magazine’s short story Marvel Sands did the trick. Emma Duffy-Comparone must have channeled Carver for this tactile world she created. There are times while reading this story where I thought, “This is real life.” I don’t think that a lot, and in fact, stories like this one make it hard to read others that aren’t as well rendered.

In this whole short story of the main character’s first job, there’s not a lot of telling going on. But I did find a show and tell example. It’s during a conversation with her boss:

I felt a vague flutter of laughter in my chest and swallowed it. I watched him pick bits of garden detritus from his green state-issue shirt and flick them out the window. One of the front pockets had an iron-on state park patch that looked like a kid’s police-badge.

“And tell them they have to park in a normal spot,” he continued. “Unless they really don’t have legs or something. Obviously, show those people where the handicapped spots are. And don’t argue with folks about whether they have working legs or not. I already made that mistake.” He scratched his chin for a moment. “I mean, how the fuck was I supposed to know some cars have pedals for your hands?”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt like I was dealing with an insane person. I watched a sea gull peck under its wing. Two feathers sprang loose and floated to the pavement. He was the fattest one of the bunch. I decided to name him Gus, like the mouse in Cinderella.

 This last description reflects back on the main character’s innocence, which we need because near the end, her boss opens the shower door on her naked body. I bolded the parts in the above passage that could be categorized as “telling,” but they are amidst so much “showing,” we don’t even notice the word “felt.” The whole story could have been told in a few sentences: “One time my boss opened the shower door and saw me naked. It was embarrassing and enthralling at the same time.”

Instead, the whole story takes us by the hand, through her first job so we experience her follies of leaving sand on the floor and not putting the bills all the same way in the till. The backdrop of seagulls and silence reveals her maturing view and reflects her world that she’s still learning.

It’s times like these, when I read something so great, that I wish I had access to writing help earlier on, in my teens so that I could have been writing this way for years. I feel, though, that I emerge to sand every day, and have to feel each grain anew, or I’ll never get past the telling to really show.

What’s Your Scene?


In this brilliant craft book for fiction (and I would say any writing), Scofield offers writing exercises throughout that I’ve never encountered. They are fresh and gave me a way to analyze my scenes as if I put on visceral vision goggles. With the goggles on, I can go through a checklist to make sure my scenes live and go somewhere.

One fantastic exercise in particular has the writer conjure a favorite scene from a movie. Now, go write that scene. So far, everyone who’s done this has come up with action and descriptions surrounding that action. The goal is not total recall, just your memory of the scene as it unfolds in your mind.

My favorite scene that I re-wrote was from the movie version of The Shipping News (originally by Annie Proulx). The scene doesn’t exist in the book, but borrowed from several scenes. While in the act of writing it, the characters and actions were chiseled in my mind, hard edges and easy to dictate. Here’s a sample of Annie Proulx’s description (from the text):

“One night he worked a crossword puzzle in bed, heard Petal come in, heard the gutter of voices. Freezer door opened and closed, clink of the vodka bottle, sound of the television, and after a while, squeaking squeaking squeaking of the hide-a-bed in the living room and a stranger’s shout. The armor of indifference in which he protected his marriage was frail. Even after he heard the door close behind the man and a car drive away he did not get up but lay on his back, the newspaper rustling with each heave of his chest, tears running down into his ears.”

The scene I wrote was just after this, and doesn’t exist in the book, only in the movie. Here’s my take:

The front door slammed against the wall downstairs. Quoyle had fallen asleep to wrestling again, his socked foot just touched the tip of Bunny’s night gown. At the noise, they both rose like cats, alert and ready to decipher further noises.

“Fuckin’ door,” Petal laughed and her high-pitched scream pierced up through the staircase. A man’s voice laughed with her as Quole and Bunny heard bumping boots against the floor.

Quoyle tip-toed downstairs, showing his palm behind him to Bunny. She wasn’t allowed to follow just now.

“Petal?” As Quoyle turned on the landing, he just caught Petal’s pink stiletto heal fly off and the door slam behind her and the stranger in the guest bedroom. He tip-toed back upstairs to Bunny who sat mumbling, “Mommy?”

The morning came quickly since Petal had brought her new beaux home at four. Quoyle got Bunny up to brush her teeth and cleaned up the mess of coats that had fallen off the front hooks. He found Petal pulling on jeans that were too tight over her fish nets.

“Fuck,” she jumped around and stripped them off into a ball in the corner.

“Petal. How long are you staying?” Quoyle rubbed at the square patches on his elbows.

“I’m leaving. Why don’t you find a girlfriend?” Petal pulled up a pink plastic skirt to meet the puffy sweater.

“I only want you. I love you,” Quoyle said and stretched a hand to touch her sweater. Petal pulled herself out of his grip and blew a pink bubble from her magenta lips.

“I will only destroy you,” Petal pushed at her red bangs in the mirror. She was still porcelain, with high cheek bones and eyes that glowed under dark mascara.

“When will you come back?” Quoyle followed her out into the hall.

“Mommy? Petal?” Bunny stepped out of the bathroom in her bare feet. She almost tripped over her night gown to hug her.

“Hi, Bunny. What’s a thumper doing in her pajamas?” Petal kept walking down the stairs and Bunny’s arms broke free of her. Bunny hopped down each stair, grasping after Petal.

“Mommy’s gotta go.” Petal stuffed another scarf into her bag and opened the door. By then, Bunny took her by the hand and pulled her to a stop. Her brown hair was in small snarls around her  face. Her nose, Quoyle’s, scrunched.

“Don’t go.” She pulled on Petal’s necklace that hung past her full cleavage.

“Here.” Petal stooped and put a beer can pull-tab around Bunny’s pointer finger. “Pretty.”

“Petal. No.” Bunny pulled once again on the necklace that hung in her hair as she was given a last hug and it snapped into an explosion of beads, baubles invading every space of the landing.

“Shit. Look what you did?” Petal pulled her auburn hair behind her and slammed the door. Quoyle didn’t say a word more except to hunch on the landing’s linoleum to help gather every last bead Petal left in her wake.

So my scene doesn’t touch the Proulx style, nor does it scream art, but what this activity showed me was if I put my own characters in that immediacy of film, they will have conflict, they will embody the 3-D world of clothing, behaviors unique to them, and sounds/sights that push the plot.  Now, you try.

(P.S. If you haven’t read or seen the Shipping News, read it first, then watch the movie.)

Summary Masquerading as Description


Brenda Ueland said once about her writing, “For many years it puzzled me why so many things I wrote were pretentious, lying, high-sounding, and in consequence utterly dull and uninteresting.” That changed after approaching writing in a “careless and reckless” way which brought Ueland to what she called writing with “microscopic truthfulness.” The discovery of the “living, true, touching, remarkable,” writing came after much dull stuff. For me, the “how” of the above statements was still missing until much soul-searching and re-writing (sometimes not only second drafts but hundredth drafts). What I found in what Anne Lamott calls the “down-draft” or the “shitty first draft” is that we leave ourselves markers and they’re cleverly disguised as descriptive writing.

       What I mean is this: I might miss a scene that blocks the reader from entering it because it seemed like I used image and description, when in fact, I just told the reader without knowing it and the whole passage was actually summary. For example, the passage:

“I would sit with my best friend at poolside, reading a New Yorker, watching the afternoon reflecting against a wide Colorado sky.”

Maybe parts of it are recoup-able? The changed passage turned out to be a page and a half of the actual meeting of my friend, describing her, describing her apartment building, the pool, then the moment at which I put down my New Yorker, and sang a song to the radio. Then I describe a bee in the pool and open up the meaning behind the scene, that basically we don’t have any more than this physical world and can only guess at the afterlife.

I learned to comb through my manuscript to look for the breadcrumbs I’d left for myself. When I came across an “I’d” or “I used to” or “We’d” then I looked for the summary of a scene. Did the scene need to exist or could I cut it? If it needed to exist, then I’d write out the physicality of it.

Here are some notable “physicalities.”


From Peter Schneider’s Eduard’s Homecoming:

“Having climbed a flight of stairs flanked by green walls, he opened a steel door beyond which everything had been suddenly, freshly whitewashed, and he now recalled the feeling that had overwhelmed him on going to the window. The newly painted and carpeted room might have been dangling from a gigantic crane above a cityscape destined for demolition.”

That description not only captures the room the character views, but reflects his doom, which develops character and moves plot.




ImageFrom Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus:

“Bailey spends the entire day willing the sun to set, but it defies him and keeps its usual pace across the sky, a pace that Bailey has never really thought about before but today finds excruciatingly slow. He almost wishes it were a school day so he would have something to help pass the hours. He wonders if he should take a nap, but he is far too excited about the sudden appearance of the circus to possibly sleep.”

This is an excellent example of “telling” and “showing.” We are told “he almost wishes,” but the “almost” reveals a little character, as does the description of the school day’s mechanism to “pass the hours.”



I know this is disparate, but Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree:

Image“Farmer Shiner’s was a queer lump of a house, standing at the corner of a lane that ran into the principal thoroughfare. The upper windows were much wider than they were high, and this feature, together with a broad bay-window where the door might have been expected, gave it by day the aspect of a human countenance turned askance, and wearing sly and wicked leer.”

Hardy doesn’t even get to the character or actual being of Farmer Shiner, but reveals his character through the long description of his house. We know all we need to know about Farmer Shiner and we haven’t even been introduced to him.

Look for the woulds, coulds and any summaries masquerading as description, and you’ll get to the “microscopic truthfulness” Ueland so well names.