Posts Tagged Short Stories

On Revision

“This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again.”
~ Oscar Wilde

Here we sit, my novella and I. It’s dusty and yellowed from spending a few sedentary years on the bookshelf. It was half-buried under a growing stack of magazines and portfolio clippings I’m too lazy to digitize, the articles, newsletters, and case studies pushing the thesis and its stories further down, out of my line of sight.

A friend reminded me recently of the story I’d written for my MFA thesis, suggesting I revisit the work and see what happens.

It’s been a good 5 years since I’ve done any real writing. That “thing” that makes the stories happen is dusty and yellowed, too, it seems. But we’ll see. (Never mind that I’m here with this blog post rather than re-reading…)

While procrastinating, I made a few observations to help wrap my brain around the project ahead. Because that’s what the older me does. Makes observations first. (And will that hinder creativity?)

  • About 95% of the actual words need to be rewritten. It no longer flows off my tongue.
  • On the other hand, every once in a while there’s a turn of phrase so delicious that it shapes an entire chapter. (Oh, admit you like your own work sometimes. Don’t reject the manuscript before you submit it.)
  • And even with those few delectable pieces of prose, there’s always just one more little tweak to make. With every reading.
  • The revision process is interesting from the perspective of the writer’s relationship to the text and to the reader, and even more, how the revision process fits into that paradigm given that the writer then becomes her own reader.
  • Either the perspective or the structure of the narrative will change in the next draft. In other words, I see the story differently now, as both reader and writer.
  • There are at least two subplots that had not been explored at the time of thesis binding. (Or since then, of course, but it sounds better to blame the print medium for a story abandoned after it printed ‘cause the ink’s already dry.) How will this affect the overall story?
  • I “hear” the narrator more clearly now, and she may have grown a few years older, too. (She’s about 17 or 18 in the current version.)
  • If this thing ever does get published, how/will it affect my professional writing career? Would I care?
  • This project is long overdue.
  • Do I have to read the whole thing before getting started? (It’s called The Raining Tree, if you’re curious.)

There will never be a final draft of any writing, of this kind. Even if it’s something as simple as Oscar Wilde’s comma. it matters because it’s part of how we get there—to that thing we create, the conversations we start, the questions we ask, and the roads we travel.

Thanks, tt, for reminding me to clear the dust.

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Tight Lines: 12 Reasons the MFA is a Solid Degree in the Technology Space

Tonight I had the pleasure of sitting around a table drinking wine and sharing crème brûlée with some friends from graduate school, specifically the MFA program in creative writing at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Pulling up in my minivan I realized it had already been a good 5 years since my last writing workshop around that blessed, beat-up and beloved table in Weld Hall library.

One discussion stood out over the Cabernet and custard, perhaps because of where I’m at academically, professionally, and personally. It was whether an MFA degree had any value in today’s workplace for those not interested in teaching at the college level, and how those skills might be applied in the workforce.

At the table for tonight’s conversation were four MFA graduates and a faculty member. The grads included a software developer, a local magazine editor, a PhD student/professor, and a marketing director. Not a bad as products of the program, I’d say.

This post outlines some key areas where the MFA program directly relates to the creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills that are very much in demand in today’s job market. It’s time to start that dialogue around how those of us in the arts and humanities can create some pretty kick-ass careers for ourselves.

The perspective here is from a fiction writer (as opposed to poetry or nonfiction), and it’s from the marketing point of view (versus a visual art like design or a sales role such as business development).  It deals mostly with applied professional writing—as a “creative” on an in-house team or at an agency, for example. (I’m sure the linguistics or communications theory-laden post will soon follow.)

One more disclaimer is that I have split personalities when it comes to writing about marketing.  I’m a B2B marketer marketing an advertising product to folks who market B2C. But at the end of the day, we’re all fucking human. Write that way and you can sell a product or service or otherwise inform and persuade an audience. That’s all we really need to do.

Here’s that list, from my own experience as an MFA graduate with a pretty sweet career. I may not have been placed on that path because my credentials state this particular degree, but the skills needed to get there tie directly to experience in a creative writing program.

Copywriting

1. Tight Lines. These people have the ability to write tight lines that are both creative and persuasive. In fiction, the writer needs to create believability and truth, or verisimilitude, in the story.

2. Plot Lines. Web copy, for example, needs to drive a visitor along a certain navigational path that results in that person taking an action, whether it be submitting a contact form, calling a business, or even moving on to the next page. Creative writers, too, drive their visitor—their reader—along with intent. The audience is brought on that proverbial journey, as the business writer strives to both pull a prospect through a sales funnel and engage them in interactive content, and a fiction writer so convincingly delivers a narrative that can pull the reader along the story’s path without question of the reality or the characters created—they simply must get to the next part of the story.

3. Buyer Personae. This one is huge, but it’s covered in the Marketing/Sales Cycle section below.

Public Relations

4. Positioning. PR positions the company, setting the scene for the action to take place. It’s important in PR to be completely transparent, to stay away from embellishment, but this is where command of English language comes in handy.

5. Storytelling. These are the folks that tell the company’s story, and they need to do it well. Hire a storyteller. Or become one. Enough said.

Marketing/Sales Cycle

6. Audience. Identifying and understanding a target audience for marketing efforts is akin to developing characters for a work of fiction. You know who they are, what they make a year, their educational level, where they eat and shop.

3., Part Deux. Buyer Personae. The ability to serve up content that’s relevant to the business audience is critical to everything from generating interest to keeping a customer. To do this, marketers need to create what’s called a buyer persona to guide their efforts, to know what makes that target audience tick. This is literally an outline or profile of a character—for me, it’s all those characteristics scribbled on sticky notes across my desk and color-coded to indicate mannerisms or role in the story. But again, working within the framework of buyer personae is where the ability to create and develop characters in a fictional work becomes a skill that transfers nicely.

For these writers, it goes well beyond the numbers that identify age, location, and income— the ability to create and give voice to these buyer personae, understand their pains and how to manage their egos, and bring them along on that storied journey are inherent in those who’ve spent time writing fiction in first person or as a member of the opposite sex, to name just one exercise in character development.

7. Lead Generation and Nurturing. Think like the characters do. Where would you place the ads that would reach you if you were that character? Where would you be located? And engaged in what media? Where and how do you participate online? Think of what content gets the most downloads, and later, analyze what content was downloaded by the most qualified prospective customers and focus your editorial efforts accordingly.

8. Content Strategy. Oversimplified, this is creating, running, managing an editorial calendar.

In addition to providing the right content for your audience, this includes understanding how to work with people in order to elicit guest posts and suggest changes that keep the contribution on par with the quality of other writing on the site while maintaining author’s style. Experience in MFA program workshop dialogue, copyediting, and working with any published or up-and-coming authors are all great ways to develop a foundation for business content strategy and how to execute on it successfully.

9. Engaging. For marketers, this means creating dialogue around a topic or issue, whether in person or online. For MFAers, it’s the ability to deconstruct, put back together, and discuss what we read. “Nice work” is a comment that brings nothing to the table.

10. Case Studies and White Papers. The former is an in-depth profile that tells the story of how a business solved a problem or made more money using your solution. The latter is a paper that also solves a problem, typically research-intensive and from a thought-leadership perspective looking at improvements that can be made overall in an industry (and of course, in the About section in tiny print on the last page, how the corporate author is positioned to solve those problems).  Naturally, these are my favorite pieces to write.

Software Development

11. Stories. Using sticky notes and whiteboards to piece together the story of how functionality or a process will work in a software application is similar to performing this exercise in order to piece together a novel, story, or poem, or even the core argument for an essay (for the creative writer, it’s possible the whiteboard is instead a Moleskine®). This also applies to telling the story from the end-user’s perspective and the actions they take during the software testing/QA process.

12. Complexity. Being able to understanding complex processes and communicate them is useful skill. The correlation? A research paper on something like “Burnt Norton from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets or Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

Other Skills

  • Interviewing for a job (MFA: Engaging conversation and defending position in MFA workshop.)
  • Taking (and applying) feedback and critique of professional work (MFA: Feedback from professors and peers during workshop.)
  • Working independently (MFA: We write alone.)
  • Write simple code for web development, design, and animation (MFA: Knowing how language works.)
  • Research skills (MFA: If it’s out there, we can find it.)

Thus ends my preaching—for now—on the virtues of an MFA degree for those who aren’t ready to or have no plans to teach.

It’s interesting to note it wasn’t until later in the evening that said software developer, local magazine editor, PhD student/professor, and marketing director observed that none of us had actually graduated the MFA program together and were, pretty much, barely classmates. This attests to the community surrounding writing programs such as these and the craft itself.

If you do nothing else in life, perfect your craft. If you have a talent, use it. Get involved with the community around it. As fellow MSUM MFA graduate Kristen Tsetsi writes, “I no longer know the grass of forbidden lawns, because I drive past it.”

Exploring the craft before that forbidden lawn of unbridled creativity becomes unfamiliar is an experience that we’ll draw from inevitably in our careers, whether we realize it or not. We MFA grads had the opportunity to develop a mindset that allows for creative, critical, and analytical thinking–a stage on which to practice freedom in our art, engage in healthy debate and discussion, and advance our writing abilities both technically and creatively, all while participating in good conversation and community.

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A Bit of Vodka & Sauerkraut

Since it inspired the name of this blog, here’s an excerpt of the short story Vodka & Sauerkraut. It was written quite a few years ago, when my writing style was a little younger, so to speak, and I’m fighting the urge to edit and revise as I copy it into this post. Remind me to write about that later – being a constant revisionist. It comes with the territory.

Here are the first couple sections of the story. Enjoy.

Vodka & Sauerkraut

Had I thought of it, I could’ve counted the time by the growth of the tiny cracks in the wood that makes up my windowsill, the years’ passing into a downward spiral etched into the green paint.  One winter, a hairy spider lived in the center, where all the little cracks came together.  But then it died.  Margaret killed it with my cane.

Summer is the worst.  The sun shines right in my window and dries the wood even more.  The cracks grow faster and sometimes little slivers of green come off.  Good for my philodendron, the sun.  The only plant I can keep alive.  A hardy bastard, that one.

And now I pass my days at the window, watching the cars outside always driving back and forth but never really getting anywhere.  As if it weren’t bad enough I laid there on the church floor with my bloomers blaring big and white for all the congregation to see, my shattered hip cemented to the floor like tuna casserole to the bottom of a cake pan.  If Jeremiah—my son—had been in church to help me into the aisle, this wouldn’t have happened.  My hip wouldn’t have broke and I’d still be at the farm, watching the wheat fields instead of this damn window.  But here I am, forced to eat three squares a day, and people always ask about my bowels.

During the day I watch the cars outside.  Once, I saw a cat get run over while it was crossing the street.  A white one, too.  Have you ever seen a white cat get run over by a Studebaker?  There’re not white for long, I’ll tell you that much.  I watch Bob Barker on the television just before lunch.  In the afternoons I sit by the window to watch the tumbling clouds, the treetops lush and full in the summer, then the first frost, bare branches shivering in the northern wind.

Suppertime can get pretty strange, when folks start their sundowning, and I go right back to my room.  The ones who are already a little off slide a bit closer to the edge, hearing things, feeling things.  But it’s no wonder, all the pills they pop into us old folks these days.  I take mine at six.  There’s one for this, and one for that, and this one’ll help you sleep at night, and this one gives you energy and makes your heart go thump.  None for me, though.  None of those that monkey with the mind.  Just a couple of vitamins and something for my arthritis, which gets pretty bad on account of my hip.

The old folks can get pretty worked up.  Calling out, an imagined conversation with inanimate objects and uninterested aides.  And if you listen real close, it’s like music from the past, the ribbon of what was that tangles in the brain, frayed at the ends.  It makes an electricity in the air that lifts the hairs on my back.  On nights when it’s real bad, I leave the dayroom to spend the night in my room, alone save for the occasional nurse’s aid barging in on her rounds to make sure I’m still kicking.  So far, I am.

*

“Ms. Opal?”  Margaret knocks softly on my open door, three times.

“Yes?”  I sit up on my elbow—wasn’t really sleeping—and reach for my glasses on the nightstand.  Damn near blind without them.  I pull myself up by the siderail on the bed and offer Margaret a tired smile.

She hands me my teeth and helps me swing my legs over the side of the bed.  I like when Margaret works.  She waters my philodendron without dripping on the bookcase, and sometimes she sits in my room with me to watch Lawrence Welk.  Sits right there on my corduroy couch while the rest of the aides do the rounds.  Laziness, if you ask me.  Her hair’s always funny, too.  Dyed two colors.  But she doesn’t get too excited about anything, and I like her just fine.

Margaret holds out my wool sweater and tells me it’s time for supper.  I prefer my housedress.  Who the hell goes to supper in a slip and a sweater?  Those loonies might, but I won’t.  Not me.  No siree.

“We’re having turkey and mashed potatoes tonight,” she says.  “And apple crisp.”

“Whoopee.”  I grab the cane leaning on my siderail and hoist myself up.  Used to be taller, back in the day, walking upright and proud through the halls of my school, shiny chestnut hair raining down my back.  Now I’m a shell, curled inward and looking forward to nothing because I already know.

I tell Margaret, “We have that same crap at least three times a week.  It’s just that sometimes they call it something else,” I tell her.  “Like that turkey hotdish when they take the same old dry potatoes and the brick of stuffing and mush it together.”

Margaret laughs and her smile shows the gap in her front teeth.  I grin, then pop my teeth in and chomp them together.  She seems to think it’s pretty funny.  To me it sounds like banging a couple of butterdishes together.  I settle into my housedress and follow her into the dining area.  I stop next to the chair furthest from the piano—only two big pillars and a few tables to separate me from Bertha wailing “Remember the Red River Valley” as she accompanies herself on the piano, her fingers bent and shaped like bolts of lightening.

Margaret pulls the chair out for me.  The little old lady with the white hair, white sweater, and glasses.  That’s all of us.  And I take my pills at six, at the table.

From the dining room I hear, “Vodka and sauerkraut!  The spices of life!”  Phyllis.  She gets stuck on a phrase and says it all day, chanting it again and again, a nursery rhyme with no apparent rhythm, flat and familiar like the food they serve.  It’s funny like that.  There’s hardly a one of us that’s ever done anything wrong, and here we are, inmates on death row with nothing but three hot meals, a rubber mattress to sleep on, and a pot to piss in.  If you’re real lucky, you get one by your bed so you don’t have to get up at night.

Margaret helps Clarence sit down across from me.  He lives down the hall, close to the nurse’s station.  The poor old fellow wanders for hours, searching for his wife, Irene.  He calls her name all the time, short and quick like a dog’s command, then a drawn out plea—Irene!  But she had passed giving birth to their only child.  Lucky for him he doesn’t remember that.

“Goddammit ya wh-whore!”  Rose’s raspy voice rises over the dirge of activity, the rattle of pills in the medicine cart, the splashes of juice spilled on the floor, the urgency of call lights down the hall.

“I do not have to sit here, you.  You floozy,” Rose erupts again.

Margaret smiles across the tables at the other aide, a gesture of support.  A kind soul, that Margaret.  The aide, a plump young woman with her bangs in her eyes—how I hate that—pushes Rose up to the table and backs away, blushing.  But Rose keeps at her.  And the worst part of it is that my ears have become accustomed to her foul mouth, and I dare say that sort of behavior no longer strikes me as odd.

“—seven kids and three dead husbands.  Took care of them all by myself!”  Rose is never too clear how many kids she had, five, seven.  Once she even said ten.  “And look at you!  Still wet behind the ears, telling me when to sit, sleep, eat, and shit!”

But none of the aides are around to hear that sour old Rose, and she’s not hollering at me, or even looking my way, but sort of up and to her left, her toothless mouth twisted into a grimace, as if a little angel or, more likely for her, a devil, sits upon her shoulder, and she disagrees with its counsel.

Sometimes the past, well, it just comes up and takes a little bite out of the present, steals little slices of time and replaces them with things that have already happened, in a different life, a newer life.  Some of those old timers don’t even know their own kids anymore.  I swore I wouldn’t know Jeremiah no more, until he got me my private room.  At first I was thrown into a room with a miserable old bat who did nothing but complain about her arthritis or her gout or the corns on her scaly feet or the rash on her be-hind.  You get the idea.  A person could get old sitting here naming all the things that’ve gone wrong with old Ethel Schlightenburg.  So I told Jeremiah I’d dissolve the trust and leave everything to the pet shelter downtown if he didn’t see to it that I got a private room.  I would have done it, too.

Margaret is over by the piano, passing out trays of turkey slop.  She ducks her head quick to dodge a spoonful of mashed potatoes.  Amos always throws his food.  Crabby old bastard.
The nurse starts to walk toward my table, shaking pills in a medicine cup.  I wonder what’s in the dixie cup in her other hand—juice or water.  Either way, they never give you enough drink to swallow your horsepills.  Mine come at six.  About three or four of them, two blue, one red, and one purple.  And sometimes a white one, too, but mostly just at night.

It’s that young nurse tonight (so many come and go—talking about little Tommy’s first day at school, the evils of wayward men, the aide who threw her back out lifting old what’s-her-name—they go on talking like we can’t hear, or if we can, we can’t make sense of twentieth century speech anymore, like we crawled out of some giant abyss, a rip in the Great Ribbon, some black hole where our ways, our worth, don’t translate across the generations).  And tonight it’s the young nurse with short, choppy brown hair pinned back at her ears.  She’s got this look about her eyes that she really, really cares about the arthritis burning in your fingers, your bad hip, but you can tell her sympathy is a costume, as much as her pink lipstick and white uniform.  It doesn’t stay white for long.  Not when she walks past old Amos.  But the mashed potatoes shouldn’t show too bad on her.

This nurse, she set the two little cups on the table in front of me, one with my pills and another filled halfway with amber liquid, either apple juice or a urine sample.  Bad enough the cups are so small, but then they only fill them halfway.  Won’t have to take us to the can as much then, I suppose, or change too many diapers.  I don’t particularly care for this gal.  The insincerity of her smiles of reassurance and her pats on the back almost offend me, leave a bitter taste in my mouth.  She moves my long braid from my shoulder so that it dangles down my back.  She always does that, as if I need it.  I like it on my shoulder—it keeps my neck warm and I can’t reach that far behind my back on account of my stiff arms.  So I sit here, in my chair, and suffer with a cold neck and the sight of Rose sloshing pureed turkey through her pink gums and onto her dry lips while she hollers at someone no one else can see.

I empty the pill cup.  Colorful beads rolling around on the table.  One is small and dark gray in color, the iron.  It makes your poop black.  Scares the dickens out of you the first time it happens.  There’s a shiny red one that almost scooted itself right off and onto the floor, and two white ones that just spin in place on the tablecloth. The bright orange horsepill is all the vitamins in one, just to be safe.  I take them at six. The prettiest one is half white and half blue, but there’s all kinds of tiny beads inside it, too.  This one I slip into my pocket for after my supper.  It goes down a little better with some decaf.

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