Reading, Writing, Revising

Lisa Eckstein

September 16, 2016

Double Revision

After a wonderfully hectic summer filled with great visits to and from family members, I'm happy to be immersed in writing again this month. I'm enjoying having plenty of uninterrupted time to write, and I'm excited about moving forward on projects with some new goals and motivations.

Recently I received some very helpful advice and encouragement about THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, and that's inspired me to embark on yet another revision. The focus of my previous revision was shortening the manuscript, and I cut over 20% while keeping the plot more or less the same. This time, I have suggestions and ideas about improving some parts of the story that aren't as strong as the rest. I'm planning to add new elements and remove others that aren't working, ideally while keeping the length about the same, which I'm sure will require further use of the compactness techniques I relied on last time.

I started off by rereading the manuscript, which I hadn't really looked at in more than a year. As always happens after time away, I saw plenty I wanted to change, but I was heartened by how much of the novel I was happy with. Before the last revision, my reread of the previous draft put me to sleep at points and left me wondering if gremlins had rewritten my sentences for incoherency. It was an enormous relief to not have a repeat of that experience and to confirm I'm actually making the book better with each edit. I was also pleased to notice that some of my thoughts about improving sentences and paragraphs came out of what I learned from the writing and critique in the class I just took.

I'm now on the next step of revision, the planning stage. I've written before (while in the middle of a still earlier, quite lengthy revision) about the value of planning and the danger it can morph into procrastination. I think I'm doing okay at the moment. I'm outlining the changes I want to make and trying to figure out the best options for the story. Some of my notes are lists of pros and cons for different plot directions. Some include comments like "but is it all just too ridiculously melodramatic?" and "this needs to conclude whatever the conclusion turns out to be". It's a process. I'm making good headway, and the plan is gradually coming together.

I don't think I've blogged at all about the writing software Scrivener, which I began using a couple of years ago, I believe when I was preparing for the previous revision. It's a powerful application with a lot of features, and I'm starting to use more of these than I had before, though nowhere near all of them. Maybe later I'll write about my Scrivener techniques, but for now, here's a screenshot from my revision planning:

September 1, 2016

August Reading Recap

I got the pleasant surprise of reading all my remaining anticipated reads of the season last month, even though one wasn't supposed to be released for a couple more weeks, because Oprah picked THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD for her book club. I was also pleased, but not surprised, to find that these anticipated books were all excellent!

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia: Reshma Kapoor publishes an op-ed about her Silicon Valley high school that catches the notice of a literary agent, who asks if she's thought of writing a novel. Realizing a book deal would look amazing on college applications, Reshma replies to say she's almost finished a young adult novel. In fact, she hasn't started or even imagined writing a book, and she considers fiction a waste of time that could be spent studying, but she'll do anything to gain admission to Stanford. Reshma begins writing her novel, and to keep things simple, she makes herself the protagonist. Since her life of constant studying won't produce a good story, she decides to win friends, find a boyfriend, and undergo a transformation to complete her character arc. None of this goes as smoothly as anticipated, but Reshma is skilled at manipulating people to get ahead. When circumstances at school threaten her chances at Stanford, she incorporates the obstacles into her plot and sets out to overcome them by doing whatever it takes.

Reshma is a fascinating and infuriating character. She recognizes that she's not a nice, good, or kind person, but she doesn't have the self-awareness to realize that she's not always in the right. The shameless way she maneuvers and connives through the world is a propulsive force that kept me reading with gasps and laughter. Reshma's insecurity and anxiety occasionally broke through and allowed me to feel sorry for her, but I appreciated how much Kanakia was willing to make the character despicable.

The meta structure of this novel is a tricky conceit, and I can imagine many ways it might have gone wrong instead of succeeding as cleverly as it does in ENTER TITLE HERE. So much about this book is original and unexpected, and all of it is well-written and compelling. As a bonus, the hardcover looks great, with an eye-catching cover and another hiding beneath the dust jacket. I recommend picking up a copy!

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead is mesmerizing in several ways. The story of Cora's escape from slavery on a Georgia plantation is packed with danger, and the suspense of the plot kept me engrossed. Whitehead draws the reader in with sentences that are perfectly crafted but not showy: "George sawed with his fiddle, the notes swirling up into night like sparks gusted from a fire." Most powerfully, the world of the story blends the harsh reality of pre-Civil War America with invented elements presented with such authority that I frequently double-checked the facts of history.

The novel's core departure is the underground railroad itself, an actual system of trains operating in tunnels hidden beneath the ground. The railroad plays a smaller role in the story than I expected but establishes the concept of the not-quite-real. In each U.S. state that Cora visits on her journey out of slavery, she encounters a different form of oppression. While most of these societal practices and policies didn't literally exist as portrayed, they depict truths about the racism of our nation's past and present.

The nature of the subject matter means this book is not a pleasant or easy read, but I'm glad I spent time within its pages. This is a story that will stay with me.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal starts with a clever premise, fully develops a world in which this intriguing idea can exist, and sends great characters on a thrilling, suspenseful adventure through that world. In other words, the novel delivers everything I've come to expect from Kowal's writing.

Ginger is an American medium working with the British Army during World War I as part of the women-run Spirit Corps, a crucial branch of military intelligence. She and the other mediums take reports from soldiers who have just died in battle. It's exhausting, risky work, made more difficult by the army's sexist policies and attitudes. When the spirit program works correctly, ghosts are able to serve their country a final time by providing information about enemy positions that can be sent to the battlefield immediately. Unfortunately, the Germans are starting to figure out how the Spirit Corps operates, and they're doing all they can to sabotage the program. Ginger, her colleagues, and everything they've worked for are in danger unless she can discover the traitor who's passing secrets to the enemy.

Since this is a book about World War I, with an explicit focus on ghosts, there's a lot of death and sadness, and I teared up during the majority of the chapters. The tragedy is balanced out by the gripping mystery and fast-paced adventure, plus well-placed moments of humor and levity, so this ends up being pretty fun for a war story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alison Flood reports for The Guardian about an academic's discovery of significant differences between the US and UK versions of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS: "Mitchell himself explains the reasons for the discrepancies in an interview quoted in Eve's paper: they occurred because the manuscript of Cloud Atlas sat unedited for around three months in the US, after an editor there left Random House. Meanwhile in the UK, Mitchell and his editor and copy editor worked on the manuscript, but the changes were not passed on to the US." The paper by Martin Paul Eve is long but fascinating.

August 16, 2016

A Very Minimalistic Play

It's time to move ahead in our journey through my childhood writing, so I braved my next teenage Steno notebook (#4, for those keeping track). As I read through its pages, many entries made me laugh, and even more provoked cringes. One piece of writing stood out by causing the most of both reactions.

In addition to its other exceptional qualities, this work is noteworthy because it's written as a play. When I started writing creatively in my free time during high school, one of my first efforts was a short play, but I only experimented with the format once or twice more before the piece we'll consider today. I frequently attended theater at the time, both school and professional productions, and I auditioned for every school play, though I was rarely cast, so it's no wonder I had an interest in playwriting.

Like most of my adolescent works, this one is unfinished, exhibiting my usual struggle with plot, so prepare to be left hanging. As you'll see, I put a lot of thought (a lot of thought) into elements that in retrospect weren't the most important to focus on:

(This is a very minimalistic play. What else can you expect from a play that consists entirely of one side of a telephone conversation? Consequently, the set, props, and lighting are of little importance. The play takes place in CAROL's college dorm room. All that is required are some books, notebooks, a bag of pretzels, a can of soda, some other random clutter, and of course, the all important telephone. To eliminate the need for furniture or walls, the stage can simply be darkened, and CAROL may sit center stage in the light of a large spot. Make sure the light is not too bright or harsh, as the audience needs to look at it for the entire play. Another note concerning comfort: Be sure the telephone can be comfortably held for a long period of time. A shoulder rest which attaches to the handpiece may be used, if desired.

What is important in this play is that the audience be able to follow CAROL and NICK's conversation. The actress playing CAROL should determine exactly what NICK is saying at each pause and wait the correct length of time before speaking again. Small changes may be made in the lines as the actress or director sees fit, in order to aid in comprehension or to sound more natural.

There are few stage directions. The actress may do whatever seems natural while talking on the phone: sit up, lie down, eat, drink, doodle, do leg lifts, etc. These actions should be spontaneous and unplanned.

August 5, 2016

July Reading Recap

Last month, I happily devoured my first two anticipated summer reads, plus a release from earlier in the year.

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters imagines a version of US history in which Congress passed the proposed Crittenden Compromise, guaranteeing the right to permanently practice slavery in states where it was already legal. The story takes place in a present day where slavery persists in four southern states. Elsewhere in America, the ramifications of slavery affect the lives of black citizens even more strongly than in our own reality.

Victor, who grew up enslaved, works undercover as a bounty hunter for the US Marshals Service, which has the responsibility to track down any "person bound to labor" who escapes to freedom. The job fills him with constant self-loathing, but he's very good at it. His latest case brings him to Indianapolis in search of a young man smuggled out of a plantation by the Underground Airlines (a metaphorically named movement: "Only very rarely is there a real plane involved.") Victor has to find the man before the Airlines gets him to Canada, but the further he investigates, the more unusual the details of the case become.

The conflicts inherent in Victor's life make him a fascinating protagonist, and each element of his character is well-developed and specific. I was glad to have him as my guide through the book's twisty plot and horrifying world. As with the excellent Last Policeman series, what most impressed me about this novel is how carefully Winters thought out every aspect of the premise. He's constructed a complete alternate history for the United States and its foreign relations, applied modern technology to the practice of slavery, and considered how systematic and individual racism perpetuates inequality. UNDERGROUND AIRLINES is an exciting mystery that grows ever more complicated and harrowing as the story progresses, but what kept me most enthralled was my desire to learn more about Victor and his America.

JULIET TAKES A BREATH by Gabby Rivera: When Juliet Palante reads the work of feminist author Harlowe Brisbane, it rocks her world. Juliet writes to Harlowe and scores a summer internship working out of the author's home in Portland, Oregon. It's the farthest Juliet has ever been from the Bronx, and she's excited and nervous about spending the summer with a white hippie writer in a white hippie town, far from her Puerto Rican family and the college girlfriend she's been afraid to tell them about. At the goodbye dinner before she leaves for Portland, Juliet comes out to her family, and the reactions are only the first surprises in what will be a wild, emotional summer.

This is a powerful coming-of-age story about a queer brown girl, and it pulled me in right from the start. Throughout the novel, I was caught up in all the raw emotions Juliet experiences, from joy to heartbreak, and I enjoyed her funny, opinionated commentary on the world and people she encounters. Juliet's summer exposes her to a wide range of approaches to feminism and identity. I was right there with her on that journey, having my mind opened and struggling against the ways white feminism excludes women of color.

While the writing is rough in places and the narrative doesn't always flow well, there is so much to love in this book, and I'm glad Juliet's story is out there.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown: Madeleine is suffocating in a loveless marriage, longing for the life of painting she gave up for her controlling husband. After the couple has a terrible argument, Madeleine returns to her small southern hometown and her mother, another controlling and critical figure in Madeleine's life. While she dreams of an escape from the crushing expectations of other people, Madeleine finds a box of diaries kept by her grandmother as a young woman. In their pages, she discovers that Margie struggled with an overbearing mother of her own and wanted to write rather than get married. In 1924, Margie travels to Europe as a chaperone for a younger cousin, and what she experiences in Paris changes her life.

I loved getting to know the two protagonists of this novel. Both are artists who don't conform to the roles demanded by their high society families, and I wanted to see them succeed in breaking free. Brown does an excellent job with the settings in this novel, delightfully skewering the culture of debutante balls and ladies association meetings and vividly presenting the energy of 1920s Paris. I was hoping for a bit more from the story, because despite the two separate timelines, not a lot happens. Still, this was an engaging read that kept me well entertained while traveling.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Cait Etherington reveals The Secret Apartments of New York Libraries: "In the early to mid twentieth century, the majority of the city’s libraries had live-in superintendents. Like the superintendents who still live in many of the city’s residential buildings, these caretakers both worked and lived in the buildings for which they were responsible. This meant that for decades, behind the stacks, meals were cooked, baths and showers were taken, and bedtime stories were read."

July 21, 2016

Mornings and The Open Road

At the previous stop on this expedition through my childhood writing, we visited steno notebook #3. In addition to the piece of fiction I shared last time and the angsty journal entries I definitely won't be sharing, a couple of other stories from that period are worth pausing at before we move on.

As I've read my old work, some pieces are immediately familiar, and I recall where the stories are going, or more often, failing to go. Others come as a surprise. An untitled story about mornings fell into the second category, and I was pretty engaged and curious to discover what was going to happen. Disappointingly, after seven pages written over the course of a few weeks, the story comes to an abrupt end.

More disappointingly, at the end of this notebook in an entry reflecting on the fiction it contains, I wrote, "Whatever happened to the mornings story? That was a damn good idea with an ending in mind. I'll have to work on it." I regret to say that whatever I planned is lost to the mists of time. It's always possible the rest will turn up in another notebook, but I don't expect it to.

So I present this work with the warning that it's unfinished. That property, along with some stylistic and character elements, makes it a representative example of my (non-death-related) writing at the time.

The sudden onset of bad music at full volume started her out of a vivid dream. Driven by the screaming voices and merciless electric whine, she leapt out of bed and lunged across the room for the clock radio. Her fingers fumbled automatically for the "reset" button, located it, and depressed it. The sudden silence felt as if she had been struck deaf. Then her brain registered the traffic sounds of the city that never sleeps three stories below.

Her mind cleared of the heavy metal noise, she encountered an overwhelming desire to stumble across the room and crawl back into bed. But as she was already at the door to the bathroom, she dragged herself in there instead and turned on the cold water to the shower.

Willing herself not to think, she stepped into the shower stall. The blast of icy water shocked her awake and sent her groping for the hot water knob. The daily struggle for consciousness was over.

Putting the alarm clock at the other end of her one-room apartment had been her father's idea. The moments between getting out of bed and getting into the cold shower were the toughest part of her day. After two weeks in her apartment, with the snooze button at her fingertips and no parents or roommates to make sure she was up, she had been late to work four times. A long phone conversation with her father had resulted in the wake-up solution and the rescue of her job from threats of dismissal.
 

Mornings.
 

Her first memory:

There was a hand on her shoulder and Daddy's voice in her ear whispering, "Julie, wake up. Mommy's going to have the baby!"

Three-year-old Julie got out of bed and put on her sneakers. The routine had been carefully rehearsed several times in the past month. Julie picked up her duffel bag, which had been packed and ready for two weeks, just like Mommy's. She took Daddy's hand and went downstairs.

Mommy was putting on her jacket. She handed Julie her windbreaker. "I called Aunt Jenny and the hospital. We're all set," Mommy said.

Daddy brought the car to the front of the house and came to get Mommy and Julie. Julie looked at Mommy's big stomach, but it looked the same as ever. She hoped the baby wouldn't come out too soon.

Julie had never ridden in the car in her pajamas before. It was dark outside because the sun hadn't woken up yet. No one was awake except Mommy and Daddy and Julie and Aunt Jenny and the hospital.

July 15, 2016

Classing Update

A couple of days after I posted about having no ideas for the second story I had to submit for class, I found a seed that gradually grew into a viable premise. Much of the concept was vague when I started drafting, and the lack of a plan for the end made the writing process especially harrowing. I did figure out a conclusion before I had to write it, and after several frantic days of work, I completed a story I'm quite pleased with.

I might be getting the hang of this short story thing. I still have novel ideas churning in my head, and I want to focus on those soon, but it's certainly satisfying to create something that can be finished in a few days or weeks. I hope I can continue to generate ideas for stories without the pressure of a class deadline.

Even before this class, I've been inspired to return to short story writing by my friend Christopher Gronlund, who like me, has put most of his time into novels for many years but recently set himself a short fiction challenge. He produces a monthly podcast, Not About Lumberjacks, in which he presents one of his short stories. Some are older pieces, but the project has gotten him writing a lot of new stuff as well. I especially enjoyed listening to his latest release, "Standstill", a sad and beautiful story about a couple faced with the problem of time.

I'm not a podcaster, but I would like to get some of my stories out into the world. The class is wrapping up now with a final week about the publication process. I intend to use what I learned in class to revise my new stories, plus some others languishing on my computer, and then I'm going to try submitting to literary magazines.

I've only made one tiny attempt at story publication before, because it's another time-consuming avenue for rejection on top of the agent querying I'm already doing. But this week I received such a kind and encouraging rejection for my novel that I'm actually looking forward to collecting more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Katie McLain reports that Librarians Don't Read All Day and tells us what they actually do: "When I'm at the reference desk, I can usually be found answering technology questions, helping high school students with research papers, showing someone how to create a resume, making book suggestions, notarizing documents, and restarting the public print station for the tenth time in an hour. And when I do have time away from the desk, you can find me planning the summer reading program, training coworkers, relabeling books, writing blog posts, or prepping for a high school book talk."

July 5, 2016

Releases I'm Ready For, Summer 2016

This season brings the publication of five books I've been anticipating for quite some time. I can't wait to finally get to read these new novels!

UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters (July 5): I adored Winters's THE LAST POLICEMAN and its sequels, a trilogy about a New Hampshire detective who's still intent on solving crimes even though the earth will be obliterated by an asteroid in a few months. The new book is an alternate history, set in a present-day America where the Civil War never occurred and slavery is still practiced in four states. I'm fascinated by the premise, and I'm sure the story will deliver more horrifying worldbuilding, great characters, and gripping mysteries.

THE LIGHT OF PARIS by Eleanor Brown (July 12): Brown's debut was a wonderful story about a family of Shakespeare fans, THE WEIRD SISTERS. I've had the chance to meet Eleanor a couple of times to talk about writing, and I was thrilled to learn that she has a second novel coming out. THE LIGHT OF PARIS is another family drama, this time about a woman escaping an unhappy marriage who finds the diary her grandmother kept during a summer in Jazz Age Paris. I'm looking forward to lots of family secrets and historical detail.

ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia (August 2): I know Rahul from Bay Area writing circles, and through his blog, I've been following his journey to publication. The novel sounds like a lot of fun: The overachieving main character decides she can improve her chances of getting into a top university if she lands a book deal, so she somehow obtains a literary agent and then sets out to write a novel. The whole plan goes wrong in a way that I'm confident will be both smart and hilarious.

GHOST TALKERS by Mary Robinette Kowal (August 16): I'm a big fan of Kowal's Glamourist Histories, a series that concluded last year after five amazing books set in the Regency period, but with magic. This new novel, which will potentially launch another series, takes place during World War I and features a medium who contributes to the war effort through her work with the Spirit Corps, which gathers intelligence from soldiers who die in battle. Kowal writes excellent characters and plots, and she never shies away from facing difficult realities in her fantastical stories, so I'm expecting great things from this book.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead (September 13): I've read and enjoyed two of Whitehead's strange and beautiful novels, THE INTUITIONIST (my review) and ZONE ONE (review). His next book has been getting a ton of buzz. The story follows characters escaping from slavery, and it's alternate history of a subtler type than the Ben Winters book at the start of my list. Whitehead sets his novel in the real pre-Civil War South, but the Underground Railroad is a literal railroad of secret tracks, tunnels, and stops. I'm very intrigued by the descriptions I've heard, and I'm eagerly awaiting the book's release.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Kim Liao recommends aiming for 100 Rejections A Year: "My rejections became tiny second-hand ticks on the slow-moving clock of my writing career, counting down to an acceptance, another revision, a long rest for the piece in the bottom of a drawer--or possibly, a return to the clay pit of my subconscious."

July 1, 2016

May/June Reading Recap

I was too busy at the beginning of June to deal with book reviews, but now I've caught up on my past two months of reading. There's a ton of variety in this big list of books, and I hope you find something that piques your interest.

→ I'd encountered several rave reviews of HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi before putting it on my list of anticipated spring releases, and I continued hearing great things that got me reading as soon as the book was available. This novel is indeed as amazing as everyone says.

Effia is born in Fanteland (part of today's Ghana) in the middle of the eighteenth century, and when she grows into a beautiful woman, she's married off to a British colonizer to help her village prosper. Her new home is a castle on the Gold Coast where dungeons hold people captive before they're shipped across the Atlantic as slaves. Esi is born in Asanteland to the best warrior in the village, but her prosperous future is ripped away when she's captured during an attack and forced to march for days to the slave dungeon. Effia and Esi are half-sisters who never know of each other's existence. The novel follows their respective descendants through the generations, depicting the impact of slavery and its lasting repercussions in both the United States and Ghana.

We spend only one chapter with each character in the book, providing a snapshot of life on both sides of the Atlantic before we proceed to the next generation. With this structure, the novel presents an incredible range of experience across 250 years, but Gyasi writes with such care and efficiency that every character's story feels full and individual. All of the places and times are vividly portrayed, with the extensive historical research woven tightly into the narrative. As I read, I was always torn between slowing down to savor my deep investment in each life and hurrying to discover what the next chapter had in store.

HOMEGOING is an intense and fascinating read. I recommend it highly.

IMAGINE ME GONE by Adam Haslett also appeared on my spring releases list, and soon after the novel came out, my writing class happened to read one of his short stories. I was impressed by the strong writing in "Notes to My Biographer", a story dealing with mental illness through generations, so I quickly started the novel, which explores the same subject. Haslett is skilled at conveying the complicated emotions of a difficult family situation, and his characters are real and engaging.

IMAGINE ME GONE follows a family across decades, often jumping wide gaps of time to visit the big and small events that shape the characters' lives. The earliest event leads to all the others: After Margaret's fiance John is hospitalized with what's described as an "imbalance" in 1964, she makes the decision to proceed with the marriage. Margaret and John go on to have three children. The oldest, Michael, is an anxious, tightly wound child who remains a source of worry for the family as he grows into an odd and troubled adult. Michael's brother and sister find their own adulthoods overshadowed by his problems and their desire and obligation to help him attain a bit of happiness.

Each of the five family members narrates some of the chapters, and they all have their own storytelling style. The narrative takes on unusual forms in places, which helps the reader get deeper into the mental states of the characters. Every time the perspective switched, I was glad for the opportunity to get to know a character better. I cared about everyone in this novel, I felt their pain through the many hard scenes, and I kept hoping things might turn out okay for some of them. This is a rough and honest family story.

SPEAK by Louisa Hall had some buzz last year, and I'm glad I went back to discover the pleasure of this unusual and absorbing novel.

The story revolves around the themes of memory and artificial intelligence, and it's composed of multiple interconnected narratives. Through prison memoirs of a convicted inventor and chat transcripts presented as court evidence, we learn about the rise and fall of babybots, lifelike dolls with powerful AI that a generation of girls bonded with, causing disastrous effects. Two sets of letters chart the lives of a fictional couple involved in 1960s AI efforts and the real computer science pioneer Alan Turing. Finally, a diary from 1663 follows a young adventurer on her pilgrimage to America.

I quickly became caught up in each of the stories and enjoyed spotting all the ways they intersect. Though the book has a philosophical bent, each storyline possesses a compelling plot. My desire to understand the full story increased as the connections became clearer, so I was somewhat disappointed that so much was still unknown at the end. I'm not sure I grasped everything Hall was aiming for with this novel, but I still found it a worthwhile read.

→ I was curious about THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM by Victor LaValle because of a synchronicity with Matt Ruff's excellent LOVECRAFT COUNTRY: the books were published on the same day and both grapple with the racist work of H.P. Lovecraft. After I heard a great Fresh Air interview with LaValle, in which he reads the opening pages of his novella, I knew I wanted to read more.

June 24, 2016

Classing Up My Writing

The online class I'm taking with Gotham Writers Workshop is more than halfway through, and it's serving the intended purpose of helping me think about short fiction and generate new writing. Granted, having a deadline to submit a story for critique didn't save me from excessive procrastination, but eventually it did force me into several long days of writing. It's been a while since I've been deeply engrossed in a project, and I was happy to be back in that space.

I finished my story on time, and I'm pleased with how it turned out. Receiving feedback from my classmates was, as always, a thrilling and nerve-racking experience, and I spent the week constantly refreshing the class website to see if anyone new had commented. The students in our group bring a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives to their thoughtful critiques, as well as to their stories, and it's been fascinating to see how everyone reacts to each other's work. The feedback for my story gave me a lot of information about what resonated with people and what didn't work, and it will all be useful when I revise this story after the class is over.

Now, though, I have to write something different, because my second turn at the workshop is in two and a half weeks. So far I have no solid ideas for my next story, but I remain overly confident that the approaching deadline will spark inspiration soon enough. I may produce something promising in one of the short writing assignments we have for class each week, though more likely a decent idea will occur to me at some random moment. If I get desperate, maybe I can complete one of the unfinished stories from my teenage notebooks.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah S. Davis of Book Riot shares her experience of growing up as the English teacher's daughter: "I was cocky in English class, slaying the classic white male authors and tossing around literary jargon I'd gleaned from my father's theory books in his office. I thought I knew everything. I didn't."

June 17, 2016

Fear Itself

I'm aware that the earliest examples of my childhood writing were fun because they involved cute drawings and hilarious story concepts. Now that we're into the high school era, I hope nobody minds that it's all death and angst. I was prolific during high school, and most of my work from that period has been preserved, so we're going to be here a while.

While the Steno notebook I reported on last time is nearly all stories (or at least, story beginnings), the next one contains quite a few journal entries mixed in with the fiction. Among the raw adolescent emotions on display in these, there's the ongoing pain of that unrequited love I mentioned before: "When I am away from him I am seized with terror, and I imagine that he is hurt or dead." Also of note is the admiration I express for a friend's writing, coupled with doubt over my own: "She showed me her poems and stories all the time, and they were so good that I knew she would think mine were pitiful. Next to hers, they were."

At other points in the notebook, I'm more confident about my writing. Early in the summer after my sophomore year, I enthusiastically proclaim, "Well, today I finally began committing some of my stuff to disk. It's so nice now that I have Puck, my wonderful little Mac." (Puck was a Mac Classic, a one-piece computer with a handle, easily portable at only 16 pounds!) I write about looking through my notebook entries and deciding what to type into the computer and revise, and then I reflect, "I realized that I've got some good stuff. However, nearly everything I like is about death or dying. How totally morbid! The problem is that this morbidity is so typically adolescent that it's embarrassing." Very perceptive, Teen Lisa.

Here's one of my rare stories from the time that's not about death, though I'll warn you, it is a little scary. I suspect it's no coincidence that I wrote it just before Halloween.

Fear Itself

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheer terror. The American media thrives on the culture's love of being frightened. Stephen King, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Unsolved Mysteries spawn books, films, and episodes in rapid succession, making money off our desire for horror and fear. And I'm the biggest sucker of all.

After seeing The Silence of the Lambs, I couldn't sleep without the light on for a week. I haven't gone near a graveyard since reading Pet Sematary. "Laura, I wish you'd stop reading those ghost stories," pleaded my mother after I woke her up after a nightmare for the third night in a row. "They're really unhealthy, honey."

But I couldn't stop. It wasn't teenage perversity that drove me to devour every thriller in the library, but a burning need to feel my heart beat faster and my breathing quicken as I reached the climax, then slam the book closed and remember with relief that it was just a story. The terror is only fun, of course, if it goes away.

Except it didn't. It got to the point where not only couldn't I walk outside in the dark, even with other people, but I couldn't sleep with the light out, and finally I couldn't be alone, not even in broad daylight.

I tried to hide my fears from my mother. I would go along with her every time she ran errands, rather than stay home alone, claiming that I had to buy something or wanted to talk to her. I declined her invitations for moonlit mother-daughter walks, explaining I had too much homework. I waited until she had tucked me in and closed the door before turning on my bedside lamp. Sometimes I got my little sister to sleep with me, promising to tell her all the high school gossip as we giggled late into the night.

But still I read the horror stories. I couldn't explain why. It was my secret addiction, and I walked around with a guilty conscience. The stories were becoming more real to me, too. I would become so absorbed in the book that I would become oblivious to everything else. When I stopped reading, I would be drenched with sweat and shaking.