Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Mon 18 Jan 99 22:50
<scribbled by thaisa Mon 18 Jan 99 23:16>
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Mon 18 Jan 99 23:03
Big typo there. Let me try again. It's a fair question to wonder whether writing a novel has changed my teaching. But as I think about it carefully, except for building a better vocabulary for talking about the workings of the novel and for having more empathy for people who are finishing novels, I don't think it's changed my teaching at all. First I think that the short story is an art-form in itself and not a novel without growth-hormones--and I've always thought that. So that hasn't changed. Also, I think most writers are fired up by one of three things: plot, character, or something else. In the 'something else" category we put everything from image-driven fiction, to idea-driven fiction, to voice- driven fiction. I am definitely in this 'other' category, which is why in my teaching I've had to learn to be so tolerant of people I teach. Most of my students can't comprehend that I would write a story just because a title appealed to me or because I had the phrase "dream envy" tacked to my computer for two years. My own fiction doesn't really seem to work according to the Laws of Fiction that are taught in most writing programs--although I don't think I'm that different from a lot of other writers in admitting that. But on one level I just don't "get" wanting to writing something because I think of a character. A room might turn me on. Or a woman becoming a dog might turned me on. Eventually I'll deal with plot, and character, and relationship, but I think that what characterizes a writer is how they start, what makes them want to write a story in the first place when they know they're going to fall flat on their face at some point. I worry a lot about the way people who teach writing impose themselves on their students. I think the reason that I like to work with voice is that this restrains me the most and lets the people I teach become the writers they really are, instead of imitations of me. I mean if voice is who you are and how you express yourself artistically, that's a very wide range. A voice is as unique as a thumbprint. And it's not just the words, or the music of the story--it's the whole shape, the voice of the story, if you will. But maybe you were thinking of something specific, Steve--and maybe I haven't gotten to it.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Mon 18 Jan 99 23:08
In a way, I was prepared for writing a novel because I always think of my collections as whole books. I dislike sending a lot of stuff out when I'm working, which is not a good thing: I often ignore solicited requests, and I shouldn't. It's an impulse to keep my whole family at home before they're assembled between the covers of a book. But the good thing is that I knew what it was to think about a whole book. And this was helpful. Still, there is something about the novel: I remember taking organic chemistry and making polymers. I think that's what they were called. They were plasticky, stringy things and they seemed alive and multiplied, and got all over the lab with an incredibly sense of chaos and disorganization. I think of the novel like that. And that's different from a collection of short fiction. So it certainly has increased my sympathy for people who are writing novels. And I also think that the finishing the novel, maybe more than any other form, puts one under tremendous stress. One is really called upon to assemble a coherent world. I've actually thought that 3/4 of finishing a novel is stress-management, and I've thought of teaching a course in it. Meanwhile I haven't talked about my novel at all. (Maybe I've learned about suspense.) But I'll tell you a little tomorrow. /
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Mon 18 Jan 99 23:13
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Mon 18 Jan 99 23:19
I think all these scribbles (including the scribble that somehow got written in as a scribble) reveal my mortifying sense of how jumbled my manuscripts look! These are great questions. By the way...what do you want to know about my novel? (Without question, it is a love story)
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Mon 18 Jan 99 23:26
I did want to say something about Alex's way of writing, and the notion of a plan that Iris Murdoch talks about. I think that's a wonderful way to work. It's just never worked for me. The great thing about teaching from voice is that it leaves room for those lucky writers who are able to plan and work well from a plan. I envy such writers. I would happily be their mascots. But there's also something exciting about the thing coalescing in the middle and announcing its plan to my great surprise.
Gail Williams (gail) Tue 19 Jan 99 10:40
Hmmm. One thing I'm wondering about now... How do you deal with length when envisioning a novel? How do you know you have a novel's worth of story? I'd guess that would be especially hard after writing short stories and short online posts.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Tue 19 Jan 99 11:05
That's a great question, Gail. I don't know how other people know. I do know for me it's a different feel--and it's not content, it's a sense of the shape and size and even elasticity of material. Compare a small piece of paper (a work on paper) to a stone. You have to do different things with them. The sculpture selects the media, of course. For a writer, in a sense, the media is selected by the imagination. But it's not so different. For me, the sense of trajectory and motion is different even with a prose poem than a short story. Here is the shortest prose poem on earth, by Ana Hatherly, translated from the Portuguese. She gave me permission to use her poem in the FINDING YOUR WRITER'S VOICE and I think would be very happy to be quoted online: Once upon a time there was a landscape where there weren't any clouds. To make rain, it was necessary to wash the horizon with feathers. Premise: no clouds Hidden assumption: there must be rain Conclusion: Wash the horizon with feathers
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Tue 19 Jan 99 11:14
The above piece, from the TISANA series (note the anagram on her name) demands to be resolved by the motion of the imagery. From no clouds to feathers that wash the landscape. If Hatherly had been Kafka, though, she might have sense a situation in which people petititioned for feathers, and in which a hapless man named K. went in search of them. A short story, even if a page, involves characters, some uncertainty, and even a relationship between characters that can take off like a tumbleweed. When a writer has what feels like a prose poem, the writer doesn't sense this sort of resolution. Imagery will do. And when a writer has a novel, 3 or 10 or even 30 pages doesn't "tell the story". And I think that most writers, all writers in fact, have an innate sense of what has to happen and move around for the situation to be resolved. That's the only thing that determines length, in my opinion. A story or a poem is finished when the writer has no more business with it. And I always liked what Elmore Leonard said about revision: It's taking out all the parts that people skip over. i.e. some of the stuff you do to create the resolution turns out to be filler
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Tue 19 Jan 99 12:28
I love your trust in intuition.
Joe Flower (bbear) Tue 19 Jan 99 13:10
>3/4 of finishing a novel is stress-management Hah! That's wonderful, and quite true.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Tue 19 Jan 99 15:16
Thanks, Jennifer and Joe. Gail, that's an interesting observation about online posts. I wonder if cyberspace is ultimately going to alter the length of fiction. I conceived of my novel in major sections, with an arc running through those sections, but there are many chapters within those sections. Over time, and with revision, the sense of a section began to dominate the sense I had of short chapters. So I supposed I led myself into a longer piece of work. This was a different from a novella-in-stories, which just seems to write itself and which I had done, before. So, I guess the answer, Gail, is that I partly tricked myself.
Steve Kaye (skaye) Wed 20 Jan 99 20:11
What are you working on now? I know you don't like to talk about your work in progress, but how about a few hints?
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 21 Jan 99 11:11
prose poems: I've put them aside and I love doing them; they seem to be longer now a new collection of short stories; I hope they will be loosely linked-- or that you will get to follow the same character--but I'm not sure it will turn out that way two other things--and something just finished; more on that later
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 21 Jan 99 17:40
I am also--and reluctantly--working on a new novel. I say reluctantly because of the polymer-factor that seems to plague novels. Also, in fits and starts, I seem to be writing a book about language-- what it is and how it talks about itself. I was a philosophy major-- logic and philosophy of science (although Heidegger bent my mind)-- and something about that way of thinking has always seeped into the way I think about my fiction, as well as the way I teach. People complain that I'm secretive about the stuff I'm working on, but really, I'd love to talk about it. I find that when I do, though, it seems to take the lid off the alchemical pressure-cooker. I've always envied people who can go to writers groups and read works-in- progress.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 21 Jan 99 17:42
But, Steve, when you asked me what I was working on, did you mean what I'm working on now? Or what I just finished? By the way--I just did finish a story that I know is finished, and I can even tell you the title, if I haven't already: It is Heidegger's Glasses, ,
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 21 Jan 99 17:59
And yet you teach... you must work with people who don't have that lid on/off issue. Does teaching help your own creative process, or hinder it?
Steve Kaye (skaye) Thu 21 Jan 99 18:20
(The question I meant is the one you answered. Thanks.)
Cynthia Heimel (plum) Fri 22 Jan 99 12:11
Thaisa, that is the GREATEST title!
Joe Flower (bbear) Sat 23 Jan 99 20:13
I love it. You have an incredible way with titles.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Sun 24 Jan 99 20:25
Thanks, Cynthia and Joe. I love titles. Sometimes I write a story, just because I think of a title. > And yet you teach... you must work with people who don't have that lid on/off issue. Actually, many people have it. I try to teach so that people can work with that issue. I give people the option of working on a deadline or working without one. And I try to work carefully with workshops on the novel, since people are seeing so little of the elephant and not all of it. I think it's very hard writing in a school setting. I see the best writers get around it in all kinds of ways: Sudden disappearances. Cryptic letters about their process. What I look for, then, is how a writer is working rather than what they're putting out. That's a good question, Gail. And it's a good question, too, as to whether teaching helps or hinders my creative process. Both, and sometimes neither. Rarely does it help it--in the sense of inspire. Writers are just on different waves lengths, I guess, although last semester I had a student where there was a kind of creative click between us. But it certainly helps the loneliness, and it's fun to articulate parts of the process. I don't think it hinders the process anymore. I used to compare myself with character-driven writers who were imitating people like Ann Beattie, and think that I should be doing that, too. But somehow I developed a compartment in my brain that held other peoples' writing and I stopped feeling mired in a more linear way of writing. I also got more confident. Its _always_ exciting to meet a writer who has found their voice, so to speak, on the page. And very exciting to work with a writer who is in that process and who has a real voice and may not know it.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Sun 24 Jan 99 20:31
I have a sort of secret zealot in me, and I can get very fired up about the fact that writing programs stifle voice. So I really like to do things to allow writers to work from their own visions, and their own way of putting things. I think more good writing programs could rattle the cage of American fiction. One great thing about teaching is that I always know what's going on in the literary world and in the literary zeitgeist. I can learn more about that by reading student work than I can by wading my way through any number of mediocre novels. So teaching keeps me tuned in to what people want to do with language and how they're thinking about literature.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Sun 24 Jan 99 20:40
I just realized that the last paragraph contradicted what I said about teaching not helping the creative process. Obviously it does, in that it helps me see the boundary of what most writers in American writing programs want to be doing, and that helps me see the boundaries of a lot of American writing. It's hard to say how that helps my writing, but it somehow does. I get a sixth sense of what people think narrative is, where the limits of vision are in general. Teaching a class of writers, especially writers in their early twenties, is a little like traveling in a space ship. There are times when I need a break from teaching, but I really love to do it. And maybe it's interesting for me to see the boundaries (obviously viewed very subjectively) because I like pushing people past them and thinking how to push past them myself.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Sun 24 Jan 99 20:42
Writing in the vernacular of the ghetto is very big now. We're past the PC disputes about whether a straight guy from Idaho can write about a gay woman in New York (there have been a lot of those in my classes), and people are just writing from their neighborhoods. Writers who can't draw on that kind of vernacular sometimes feel disadvantaged, but then there's the voice of the street and the rumbling voice of what we think of as "literature" and when those two voices come together for a writer, the writer usually says "Wow! I'm really writing like I'm talking and talking like I'm writing." So even though the emphasis in some programs is on the language of the street, writers are always looking for a synthesis of written and colloquial voice.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 3 Feb 99 12:05
A fine, thought-provoking discussion of writers' issues, Thaisa. Thanks for all the considered posting. Thanks, Steve, too, for arranging the interview. A quick aside for anyone reading from off-WELL, who may have bookmarked this topic specifically, please have a look at the current inkwell guests by going back to <http://www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue> or have a look at the Inkwell conference topic list here: <http://engaged.well.com/engaged/engaged.cgi?c=inkwell.vue> And I'm glad I bought Sleeping In Velvet. It made me want to write stories, which says it all.
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