On the beach in Santa Barbara with Jane Smiley and Robert Olen Butler
I will be pleased to appear in late February 2013 at the Santa Barbara Author-Mentor event with two giants of American fiction, Jane Smiley and Robert Olen Butler. I’m a presenter and partner but also a participant, learning what I can from these two masters of the novel craft.
Last night I could not sleep so I got up to continue reading Butler’s book From Where You Dream. Butler teaches creative writing at FSU. His methods help writers navigate the realm, or psychological state, or unconscious, out of which powerful fiction springs. I have already begun using some of his ideas in my own workshops and in my own writing. Especially since I have begun working with director David Ford at The Marsh, I see the connections between Butler’s work and the Stanislavsky method.
The craft problem is not so much how to get into the unconscious and get the material down on the page, but how to move from that shadowy world of half-remembered images and conflicts out into the world of form and presentation, and how to understand what one encounters.
And there is the question of form and tradition: How does what you are doing fit in the world of narrative fiction? What forms are available? What has been done? What are appropriate models for you?
Like Butler, Jane Smiley has also won a Pulitzer. And yet a while back, when trying to write her next novel, she got blocked. Jane Smiley got blocked and so decided to read 100 novels and think about what a novel is and how it operates. Then she wrote 13 Ways of Looking at The Novel. It talks in plain language about complicated things. It makes novel structure accessible by showing what all novels are: They are all long, written, prose narratives with a protagonist.
I’ve studied novels in literature courses at the graduate level and in creative writing classes in pursuit of craft expertise, and as a scholar have harbored many complicated ideas about what a novel is and how it operates, but as a writer, a craftsperson intent on making a novel myself, I find Smiley’s formulation breathtaking in its simplicity.
That’s really basically what a novel is. It is a long written prose narrative with a protagonist. “Long, written, prose narrative with a protagonist” has become my mantra.
But even when and if you get your novel finished, then you have to negotiate the real world of agents and publishers. All my life I have written fiction, poetry and songs. But for much of that life I have also been terrified and paralyzed by the choices and difficulties of putting that work before a public.
So I have worked extra hard to try and confront my own weaknesses. And in the process I have latched on to Michael Neff, truth-teller, abrasive, straight-up, honest motherfucker that sometimes you don’t want to listen to because he may tell you the truth. At which point you can confront the possibility that you may be on the wrong track, which can move you out of paralysis into honest self-assessment, which can lead to change and eventual success.
Michael Neff has definitely helped me. See, I have this novel I have been working on for basically forever. And our conversations, and the method Michael advocates on his own Web site and in his workshops, have helped me move forward — in admittedly glacial and painful ways at times, but also in joyful ways. I have had breakthroughs, breakthroughs that have not only been artistically satisfying to me but which I believe may just eventually give this “forever novel” of mine the characteristics that actual novel-reading people require: a story; tension; stakes; shape; emotion; believability; characters we care about; a satisfying feeling of movement toward resolution … all within the realm of my own crazy dreamworld where the magic lives.
Believe me, I have no trouble accessing the unconscious. But how to shape it and bring it to the world, that’s where Michael Neff and these giants of the literary world come in. You will also meet other real-world professionals who can tell you what to expect in the marketplace – approachable, knowledgeable pros who will be available to answer questions and make suggestions.
So I suggest that if you are trying to finish a novel and get it published that you attend this thing. The worst that could happen is you spend a few days in a beautiful Santa Barbara inn on the beach with two famous novelists and some other folks who want to help you in your writing career.
Here’s a link to Michael’s page where you can sign up.