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  1. The Writing Life 1. I hated Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, when I first read it. I love The Writing Life and need to go back and read Pilgrim again and see what I was blind to I hated the lists of vegetation that seemed to substitute for something else, in my mind—lyricism, or description. I love the Writing Life, and how it enters through specifics the most abstract regions of resistance, and ego, and fear. This book is the most delicate kind of Judo that is designed to forward writing as alive, not me the writer. It makes me fear for every being able to not have myself in the way. 2. Lessons: Alarming patience, almost geologic time. I struggle with deep fear about all of this writing—I stand between myself and work most of the time, and it has kept me paralyzed for years, with such stuttering productivity. For Dillard, that fear is both accepted as inevitable and understandable, but dismissed as chatter and noise, for the sake of the life of the writing, not the writer. Whew! This is hard. 3. This seems to run, perhaps not counter to, but through modeling, and structure and techniques that are foregrounded in this program, aiming for the block, through the wood of the program. It is not instructional, but, in the best sense of the word, inspirational. I am breathing very hard, regretful and fearful. Writing the Breakout Novel 1. Years ago, I read the sci-fi tome 2147. I hated it, and could not put it down. It was high concept, (kind doughy prose), and it seemed so unimportant. And I loved reading it in a way that I have been dismissive of. I have been, my whole life, dismissing so much that falls out of Maass book. So much so, that it makes me feel like perhaps this whole conference is beyond my level. I am coming from a literature background, and my dissertation and interests have been like looking at the pixels on a movie screen, not the movie. I need this. I teach film, but I teach it in units of analysis that do not correspond to knowing how to write a screen play. In fact, I have hated thinking of films in terms of their screenplays and act structures. This book is the novel equivalent of how to write a screenplay. It is the blueprint plan that I am ashamed to have dismissed. I am anxious to have not spent years with this. It is the jazz equivalent of knowing my scales, and chords, and ii/V/I progressions, which as musician I came very late to. I believed in magic, not structure. 2. My habit has been to start a story, and go backwards. Deeper and deeper into backstory. It is embarrassing to think of some of the scenes I submitted, and still have in Fangs that go nowhere near advancing the plot. I am reduced by this book to learning some very fundamental ABC’s. “Over complicate it, and you lose the essential simplicity of narrative art.” (185). That simplicity seems so far off to me at the moment. Again, I enter this conference burning a bit with shame, (that Annie Dillard is a balm for). Also, my snobbery about being formulaic has been battered. Such a difference between formulaic and having form. I have hit upon “conflict” haphazardly in what I have produced. It is there, but gold in the ore. And I have lots of ore that this book encourages me to write, but ultimately keep out of the way. Keep the ore in the ground. 3. This departs, or at least diverges from the program by not breaking out “conflict” as deeply as the program and modules do. The levels of conflict are not anatomized, and layered, even as the book discusses multi-layering in almost every other way. Write Away 1. If all of these books are aspects and facets of the single book of this course, this seems to map the vocabulary of the modules perhaps most closely. This, complementing Maas’s “design” of a character encourages a pre-construction that is not itself precious. It prepares the way for what is precious in a scene. The scaffolding from “idea” to “character” to “conflict” is not prescriptive but very deliberate, and the deliberateness of structure, the use of structure as a kind of test for gold. 2. I teach composition, and tell my students all the time, in academic analysis, if you got the structure right, you would know if the content is right. This provides that kind of assay—do I need a scene? There are ways to tell. There are ways to decide. I have scenes in my novel that I wince at after all of this book. “Do you need a scene at all?” (129) I still don’t know reflexively how to answer that, but I know I have to answer that question. 3. This more closely maps onto the shape of the course, or at least more completely. The other books don’t contradict it, but I am at a loss to find a divergence here. The Art of Fiction 1. The continuous and vivid dream for Garner is the phrase that I keep from Gardner. I read this a before, perhaps 30 years ago, and was both inspired and intimidated. Now, I find it a little less inspirational than Dillard, and a little less useful than Mass or George. His focus on choosing a kind of writing (a fable, a legend, ie) hints at structure, but does not develop it. In fact, reading this again, I feel like it gave me a bit of my false footing. It almost feels like for Gardner, form is a matter of will, but not as clearly technique—form happens when you exert enough energy. (And maybe I am just horrified and grateful at the more pragmatic presentations of form from the other texts.) His focus is, as mine has been, so often on sentences. He advocates traditional fictional structure, but does not, in this reading, answer what that is as explicitly. 2. The exercises. When I was a student, I loved to play with them, and thought I was good at this. He is right, exercises (and the Algonkian course has reawakened this in me) are freeing, and instructive. And his insistence that the goal an un-deviating immersion for the reader, at the word, sentence, rhythm and plot levels is the result to aim for. He works, again, at the smaller increments. 3. The will that falls out of this seems to be Gardner’s personality. He seems angry, and forceful against the resistance of the medium. I think that has played into some of my worst impulses, the sense that this is a matter of sheer force, rather than clear technique. I think the Algonkian course is devastating to me, at this time, because it is not angry, or willful, but simply mapping out clearly what works, and what does not. That has really gotten under my ribs, in a way that Gardner does not. I enter this conference an utter, embarrassed novice, really humbled. Humble does not fall out of Gardner for me.
  2. Algonkian Assignments: First: Did Fran’s long-ago dead sister introduce him to miracles, or torture him out of her own terror? Second: Carol, 10-year-old Fran’s older sister, kept her impending death a secret from him. But between March and December of 1972, between the time of her prognosis and the time of her death, she took Fran under her strange, painful tutelage. On their final “adventure” up to the peak of Maine’s Mount Katahdin, Carol leaves something hidden, telling Fran it is for him to find “later.” Now, forty years later, Fran is torn between two visions of Carol—the deceiving, sadistic, “sick-in-the-head” Carol who lied to him, scarred him with chains of cigarette burns, drugged and tormented him out of her own sheer terror. Or the Carol who introduced him to a world that everyone else seemed to ignore--a world of catastrophic awe, and terrible beauty whose presence only she seemed to see. Fran is stuck in the gap between the facts he now knows about Carol, and the story from so long ago that he is just starting to remember. Fran, reluctantly accompanied by his own sixteen-year-old delinquent son, re-ascends Mount Katahdin, to find the message Carol left behind, and determine which Carol is the real one. Third: Fangs A Mountain I Will Show You Moriah Fourth: Comparables: Mostly Dead Things—Kristen Arnett. Like Arnett’s Jessa Lynn, Fran is desperate to resuscitate his stalled life, and his relationships with his wife and son. The only way to do it is to look into and through the eyes of the dead. Mostly Dead things too is a story about how a small shift in perspective can cause a life changing quake. My Absolute Darling—Gabriel Tallent. Tallent’s Turtle and Fran are both torn between two visions of the most important person in their lives--are they divine, or are they the worst kind of demons? Turtle’s hyper-alert young eyes reveal how beautiful and seductive pain can be. Fifth: Between the facts a man knows about his dead sister, and the story he is starting to remember, a chasm yawns into which everything he loves might fall. Sixth: Inner—Fran poisons a joyous Fall day with his wife and nine-year-old son Noah by picking a fight at the recycling center. There, his wife and son have found an unlikely pumpkin, growing on trash. Their glee is met by Fran’s accelerating resentment that turns to rage. Reflecting on it, years later, Fran begins to see that what angered him was the sight of pure, spontaneous glee, as he has long ago buried his own. To reclaim it, he needs to face the shock and loss that is entombed with his own childhood glee. Secondary—On his return to ascend Mount Katahdin, forty-five years after his sister’s death, Fran is forced to take along his delinquent sixteen-year-old son, Noah. Fran dislikes what Noah has become--a boorish, hulking and angry brat—he is also ashamed of disliking him so much and hopes that somewhere beneath his contempt is something like love. But it is hard to find. Fran tries to engage Noah in the story that has brought them here, as they make their way up the peak, and is rebuffed and ridiculed at every opportunity. Fran--“I want to tell you something about your Aunt Carol.” Noah-- “Who the hell is that?” Fran—" You know about her. She died when I was ten.” Noah—“Then she’s not my aunt.” Every step up is friction that eventually ignites. Seventh: Much of this takes place on the dual ascents up Mount Katahdin—one in 1972 with ten-year-old Fran and his older sister, and one in 2011, with adult Fran and his sixteen-year-old son Noah. Both ascents occur when the rocky peak above tree line is technically closed for climbing because of fog and impending storms. But both times they sneak around ranger stations, and trail blockades, and climb anyway. Katahdin can generate its own weather, spawn its own storms, strong enough for large hail on what would be a calm summer day at the base. A mile high, the peak is stark and forbidding. Though neither ascent occurs along the famous Knife Edge Trail—an impossibly narrow trail across what looks like the back of a stegosaurus, where one misstep can have you fall hundreds of feet--in the fog, Fran must venture out to the Knife Edge to look for Noah. Other locations: a dump in Greenfield Maine, where bears used to come feed in 1972, but has long been bulldozed over: a fast river along Vermont’s Long Trail, where Carol takes young Fran for a weekend, and teaches him to “swim;” railroad tracks along the Connecticut marsh, where vultures feed on the flattened carcasses of raccoons and opossums,
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