The Writing Process Blog Tour: Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Over at his blog, Lower American Son, Peauxdunquian Maurice Carlos Ruffin has posted his response to the Writing Process Blog Tour questions; we repeat them below, in all their awesomeness!

1) What are you working on?

Quite a few things. I think I get more done when I have too much on my plate, so I tend to take on as many writing assignments as possible. I just wrote two essays, by request, one for a lit mag and the other for an anthology a colleague is putting together. I always have a short story in the oven because I love the smell of it when I come home.

But the real thing is the novel. I started the book about a year ago. It’s a majestic and terrifying beast. It’ll be a blast to ride when I manage to bring it to heel.

Writing a novel is like being a safe cracker trying to escape an underground prison that’s quickly filling up with water. Every ten feet there’s a new foot-thick, iron door that you have to find a way through. But there’s no better feeling than hearing those tumblers fall into place and breaking into the next room. Every time I push into an untapped section of the novel, I fairly float around town for the next week or so.

What’s it about? The novel is what would happen if Ralph Ellison and Vladimir Nabokov got into a fist fight in heaven and then made up and had a lovechild. I hope.

2) How does the work differ from others of its genre?

I guess we have to define the genre first, huh? I think of genre in terms of teams. There’s Team Thriller, Team Hogwarts, Team Quiet Family Novel. I like to think I’m on the same team as people like Mat Johnson, Victor Lavalle, Danielle Evans, Tayari Jones, Colson Whitehead, and T. Geronimo Johnson, although I’m probably the water boy, for now. Maybe Percival Everett is the coach. Who knows?

All of these contemporary writers make some seriously off-the-chain literature. It’s a golden age. The obvious similarity among us is that we’re all African-American, but everyone has a distinct style and world view. A Mat Johnson book and a Danielle Evans book have different key signatures, but they’re all great reads.

Of course, we’re all descendants of Charles Chesnutt, Richard Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison. I like to think that my work is different enough that if Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were still alive they would come upon each other in an airport lounge and have this exchange:

Ellison claps Baldwin’s shoulder.

“I read the craziest book on the flight up, Jimmy.” Ellison searches for a vacant table. Not seeing one, he heads to the bar. Baldwin sits, too. The bartender wonders aloud if the men are semi-famous jazz musicians. They ignore him.

“Don’t tell me, brother,” Baldwin says. “The one by that Ruffin cat, am I right?” The men share a look of recognition. On the concourse, a golf cart full of elderly passengers rolls by, whirring, beeping. Ellison and Baldwin laugh and then laugh some more. Baldwin downs a shot of whiskey. Ellison glances at the overhead television and decides he doesn’t give a damn about the latest iWidget.

“But it was good, right?” Baldwin says. Ellison sighs.

“Hell, I wish I would have written it.”

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because it’s fun! Plus, I’m a writer who is lucky enough to live in one of the strangest cities ever. Today, I saw a man, his skin painted white, ride a tricycle past my office downtown. No one batted an eye. Last week, a guy took over a major intersection and played the bagpipes while wearing a kilt. People loved that guy.

I hope that long after I’m gone folks will read my work because they want to know what it felt like to live in a time and place where all of our national hangups were magnified by the third world, farcical, frontier quality of New Orleans. Most of America is troubled by racial tension, housing discrimination, economic inequality, vicious criminals, law breaking police, and governmental indifference. But down here we do it all backwards and in heels.

There’s simply no better place be a writer. If this city’s bizarre beauty doesn’t get your literary juices going, maybe take up gardening.

4) How does your writing process work?

I gorge on stories. I’m a story gourmand. I read a lot. I watch a lot of movies. I read fancy pants graphic novels and watch seventh-rate sci-fi shows. I talk to strangers in the line at the supermarket. I talk to strangers on airplanes. I talk to myself. I do all this to ensure that something is in there when I sit down to write. That something is voice. It’s kind of creepy actually. I write a few truly awful paragraphs and stop, sure that I’m a fraud. I come back the next day, erase most of it and then suddenly this other person is telling me what really happened. I become a glorified stenographer just trying to keep up. Later, I’ll go out for a jog and ask myself if I’m sure that I heard what I thought I heard. It’s during those jogs that the voice comes back and says, “listen up, bruh. You doing aight, but you jacked up the best part. This how it really went down.” That’s where the danger comes in.

I think a story is basically voice times danger squared. The voice must be so compelling that you would listen to it in a snow storm while wearing only underwear. And the danger must be so real that you get queasy and want to stop reading, but can’t.

Revision is what separates the girls from the women. Any writer can poop out better than average lines, but going back and thinking very particularly what you want the story to be—and then chiseling away until you have actually created what you envisioned: that’s dedication; that’s writing. Simply stated, writing is, like, 103% revision. Sorry, 107%. I forgot to adjust for inflation.

I wrap a story when I think I’ve nailed down a true voice telling a dangerous story. But really I have no idea whether what I wrote works until months or years later when some editor somewhere accepts it. Writing is a strange calling.

The Writing Process Blog Tour: Emilie Staat

Next Peauxdunquian up on the Writing Process Blog Tour is Emilie Staat!

What am I working on?
I’m finishing The Winter Circus, a novel I’ve been working on for about a decade, and a memoir about what Argentine tango is teaching me about my relationships and myself. The novel is in a much more “final” stage than the memoir, which is in the first, rough stage of its life.
 
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s too easy for me to get obsessed with this question and I think it’s healthier not to worry about it until the work is closer to being published. That being said, my work owes a lot to traditions that have come before, of course. I read a lot and very widely.
 
There have been a handful of “circus novels” that have been published in the decade since I started writing The Winter Circus. But each of those books is different—from each other and from my novel. They each deal with a different era or aspect of circus culture. The Winter Circus explores the tension between circus life and “normal” life, between family and identity, stories and lies.
 
As for the memoir, since it’s in the rough draft stage, I’m still learning a lot about it and genre is far down the road. I didn’t really allow myself to do any reading or academic research into tango for the first few years I was learning the dance. I love research! But, I needed to get out of my head with tango and stay in my body as long as possible. I’m only just now starting to read “tango memoirs” (they exist!) and other books about various aspects of tango.
 
Why do I write what I do?
How much time do you have? How many words do I have? I’m not sure there’s a way to answer this in a non-flippant manner, except to get really dark. I’m obsessed. All artists are. There are moments, thoughts, relationships, images and characters that rotate incessantly in our heads. Sometimes we can get them out through art, sometimes we just re-work the obsession in another project, another form. I’ve written fiction, poetry, screenplays, essays, tried to write short stories, so I write in whatever form I’m called to at any particular moment.
 
How does my writing process work?
I’ve always felt compelled to fit my writing around my day job, so my process has been a response to whatever was paying the bills at the moment. It involves a lot of journaling and jotting down notes here and there, stealing time in the evenings, on weekends and vacations to stretch the notes out into beefier work, to edit. That’s part of why the novel has taken ten years to get to this point. Also, I was teaching myself how to write during that time. I’m currently spending a month at a residency called Soaring Gardens and part of what I’m figuring out while I’m here is what my process is without the daily grind. We’ll see what I learn.
 
Emilie Staat’s novel, The Winter Circus, is about an aerialist who grows up in the circus, runs away to New Orleans and learns the value of falling. She is also currently writing Tango Face, a memoir about what learning Argentine tango is teaching her about personhood, gender dynamics and relationships.

The Writing Process Blog Tour: Zach Bartlett

It’s funny about names. Or maybe it isn’t. In the beginning of Peauxdunque, there were two Bartletts, Bert and Tad. And now there’s another Bartlett, the excellently insightful and multi-talented Zach. And none of them are related. OK, so maybe that really isn’t funny, but just a coincidence. In any event, taken from his original posting on his blog, Zach B Is Tall, here’s Zach Bartlett’s turn on the Writing Process Blog Tour:

1) What are you working on?

I’m working on a novel I don’t talk about much because I still kinda
believe in the idea of jinxing yourself. But it’s going to be a genre
farce involving things I miss about New England: local culture,
artsiness, snobbery, and existential dread given physical form.

Outside of that, I regularly write short narratives and light verse
for performance at a biweekly literary event called Esoterotica. This
includes an ongoing series of bawdy limericks for cities in Rhode
Island as an attempt to free the form from Nantucket’s tyranny.

Some of the Esoteroticians and I are also collectively writing a play
to be performed at this year’s New Orleans FringeFest.

2) How does the work differ from others of its genre?

For the novel:

I like to present absurd concepts played straight, and let humor arise
naturally from the rift that creates.

A good amount of the humor I’ve seen within scifi/fantasy/horror seems
to rest on fandom pandering and self-referential in-jokes, or a
protagonist who’s oh-so-quippy and smarter than everyone else around
them. I’ve never enjoyed fiction that simply did what I expected it to
and I don’t believe in escapism, so I hope to not do any of that with
my own work.

Since literary fiction is actually a genre too, I’ll say that I differ
from some of that because my affluent aimless twentysomethings don’t
bathe in gravitas, and nobody falls victim to a quiet revelation.

For the erotica:

Mine probably differs in that it’s intended to be laughed at?

3) Why do you write what you do?

I write humor because I take a droll Wodehouse-like approach to
everything in life, so I suppose I’d find it either impossible or
unenjoyable (and therefore nearly impossible) to write in a more
outwardly-serious mode. Writing is a hobby for me and it’s
counterproductive to have a hobby you don’t enjoy.

Also, the idea that using humor means you don’t take a topic seriously
is only pushed by people who often find themselves the target of such
humor and it should be disregarded. I see my writing as being a
fireplace poker; not for some belabored  ‘stoking the flames’ analogy,
but because it can be wielded as a bludgeon against the haughty.

I actually do own a couple fireplace pokers for just that purpose.

4) How does your writing process work?

I won’t begin to discuss the idea-generating process because so much
of that part seems to result from idly overthinking my own
experiences/interests and trying to derive some practical levity from
them. I also think epiphanies are a totally valid way for ideas to
emerge. But regardless of origin, once the idea does exist, there are
technical processes you need to subject it to before it’s worthwhile
to somebody who isn’t you.

My process for writing the book kind of resembles backstitching. For
example I’d write all of chapter 1, give it a look over to tighten up
basic things, then write chapter 2, give that a look over, then go
through chapters 1 and 2 together for more thorough editing — seeing
any character traits I used in one that should continue across other
chapters, noting any points I could bring up again later or should
have foreshadowed earlier, things like that which you need a longer
period to notice and develop. When I finish chapter 3 I’d give it a
look over, then go through chapters 2 and 3 in that fashion, and so
on. It gives me steady breaks between writing and editing so that just
doing one for too long doesn’t seem overwhelming.

I work from a brief chapter-by-chapter outline so that I have an idea
of how things should be progressing as I write and don’t get caught up
in tangents too often.

The Writing Process Blog Tour: Terri Shrum Stoor

And now for Terri Stoor‘s refreshing take on the four questions of the Writing Process Blog Tour:

What am I working on right now?

I’m working on a novel that is kicking my ass. I continually question whether or not this is what I should be writing now, whether it’s worth writing, and whether I’m the person to write it. I’m also inadvertently working on a collection of short stories that surprised me. If I weren’t so stubborn, with the novel, I’d probably give up and try to write something else, but what else is there?

How does the work differ from others in its genre?

Does it differ from others in its genre? I don’t know.  I know that what I write is personal to and from me, so perhaps it differs simply by virtue of being mine.

Why do I write what I do?

I don’t think I have a choice. There’s a voice inside me that dictates what I write and how. I’m not a trained writer; I write the stories that come to me.

How does your writing process work?

I write on the page only when I absolutely have to, because I have a deadline or because a story is kicking the shit out of me to get into the world. I write in my head continually, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, but getting it onto the page is a struggle for me, perhaps because as long as it’s inside me, it’s perfect, and putting it on the page exposes all its flaws and shortcomings. When I do come to the page, I write stories all at once, beginning to end, no matter how long it takes. The few times I’ve done otherwise I’ve wound up with a horrific mess. The final story may not even resemble that first outpouring, but it has to begin that way for me.

The Writing Process Blog Tour: J.Ed. Marston

The next stop on the Peauxdunque leg of the Writing Process Blog Tour is J.Ed. Marston:

What am I working on right now?

I’m finalizing a coming of age short story that uses technology as a trope for exploring the question of identity. Man, that sounds pompous, but the conceit of the story is kind of complicated, and I’d rather let the story stand for itself rather than trying to describe.

How does the work differ from others in its genre?

Genre is always a difficult question for me. I’ve had more than one experience in which I wrote something and then struggled when asked how it should be categorized. In critiquing an earlier version of the aforementioned short story, Sean Ennis, who was leading a workshop I attended, called it science fiction. I was surprised because the story is set in the present and involves events that could be happening as we speak.

If the story is science fiction, I would say it differs primarily in attempting to use technology to delineate character rather than deploying characters to illustrate something about technology or society.

Why do I write what you do?

I’m fascinated by how we use stories to give meaning to our real-life experiences. This is more fundamental than what writers attempt to create for readers. For good and ill, we all tell ourselves stories all day long, sometimes to motivate ourselves to do something constructive, sometimes to justify ourselves, sometimes as a distraction or to relieve boredom, sometimes as a way of understanding why reality diverged from our expectations, and sometimes for other reasons too plentiful to categorize.

My ambition as a writer is employ my own impulse to tell stories to enact the things that bother me and make me wonder in a way that will capture other people’s imagination.

How does your writing process work?

By fits and starts. There’s a lot of pondering and futzing around. I always think I can come up with a story in the abstract, and then write it. In reality, my work usually starts with a sentence that begs another. I’ve found that my starter sentence will come whenever I spend time on the page (even though it likely won’t be the first one I write). Once that sentence snares my imagination, the process becomes a matter of problem-solving. What sentence would come next? What kind of character would say that? Etc.

I also find that self-imposed constraints help me find the story. When I think, “I could write something about anybody doing anything in any place at any time,” I freeze. But, when I make myself narrow the focus, the words start flowing.

The Writing Process Blog Tour: Emily Choate

Ganked from her personal blog over at emilychoate.com (with her gracious permission, of course), here are Peauxdunque’s Emily Choate‘s excellent answers to the Writing Process Blog Tour queries:

What am I working on?

The novel I’m currently writing is, at its core, a tussle between mother and daughter. I see them locked in prideful conflict, wrestling with what they’ve inherited, how far from their origins they’re willing to stray, and what forgiveness ought to look like. I’ll go light on the plot details just now, as I’m in full-bore composing mode (aiming to have it in shareable form by year’s end). Things can change quickly once the characters really let you in. That said, I’ll share that the book takes place in the late 80’s, set largely on a South Georgia catfish farm and in the Smokies of East Tennessee.

Among the swirl of things that currently appear in the book: naturally-occurring salt licks, solar eclipses, neglected orchards, blasphemy, your first microwave oven, homemade halter tops, Pigeon Forge pancake houses, catfish harvesting, what comes after you torch your life, scar tissue troubles, Minor Prophets, bobcats, and Purple Rain.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This looks to be a question about point of view. I tend to write stories that concern southerners making mischief under the nose of religion or the natural world, or both. I always want the voice to take on some flavor of the characters’ physicality, to build tension and conflict through that physicality.

Asked to draw distinctions between my work and others I’ve read, I would say that I never want my stories to read like intellectual exercises or demonstrations of the author’s cleverness. That bores me. Obediently cool fiction bores me. I want readers to develop loyalty to my characters, which is a visceral process, not an intellectual one. I agree with Flannery O’Connor that we convince through the senses.

Furthermore, I try to account for the life of the spirit in my fiction—for the possibilities of transcendence. But I want to achieve that through the physical world. For now, anyway, I’m only intrigued by writing fiction set in our world, rather than ventures into magical realism. Our actual world is wondrous and terrifying enough.

I’m still working to uncover whatever may be unique to my voice. That’s a life’s work.

Why do I write what I do?

I write the stories that show up at my kitchen door. What I mean is that the origins are not always clear and not always my business.

I have an ornery streak, to be sure. That part of my nature informs the work. I want stories that have some fight in them, that will misbehave a bit. For me, this is how the surprises are shaken loose. I don’t trust that I have a real draft until it’s got at least one good surprise—some element that jostles my approach.

Sometimes my nature gets into conflict with the fiction’s nature. So I try to keep a healthy respect for the works themselves. I try to shift the emphasis away from me and my bullish ego, so that I can see what the materials need. When I remember that I’m not the point, then the stories energize me. The privilege of spending time with this fiction is reason enough to keep writing it.

As to why I write at all (as opposed to, say, doctoring or competitive bass fishing), I don’t have a true answer, or even a noble-sounding pretentious answer. (I still tried coming up with one. Trust me, it was insufferable.) Writing is my most natural activity, and I cannot imagine myself otherwise. The Why is bigger than my ability to perceive it.

How does my writing process work?

Speaking of perceiving, one of my biggest concerns as a writer is figuring out how to stay open and receptive. A crucial aspect of the work is keeping my imagination alert. I always want to be willing to enlarge or redefine my vision, to be more awake to possibilities. That’s the long-haul process.

I’ve kept a journal for most of my life—sifting and shaping observations into sentences is now second nature. The journals also taught me to prioritize making time for the writing. Internalizing those matters long ago has made the discipline easier. I didn’t start the journal for those purposes (I suspect that, back then, I was preserving a space where my imagination wouldn’t get evicted once the social pressures of adolescence kicked in). But that training was invaluable and continues to be so.

Now, to take the piss out of my high-mindedness self. (See? Ornery.) At the desk, what I trust is good old fashioned trial and error, emphasis on the “error.” I find I get the best results when I’m the most willing to fail. I make a lot of notes, fill a lot of yellow legal pad pages, hoist it all up into a messy typed draft, and then revise, over and over. It’s an unruly process, but when it’s cooking, there’s nothing in the world I’d rather do.

The Writing Process Blog Tour: Cassie Pruyn

Peauxdunque’s Cassie Pruyn started us off on The Writing Process Blog Tour over on her personal blog, and we’re cross-posting her entry here:

1) What are you working on?

I am working on a manuscript, while several ideas for future manuscripts percolate on the back-burner. This current manuscript will be composed of sections of poems on rivers, history, and relationships. I am working on one of the sections in particular at the moment––a monologue in the voice of the Mississippi River (She’s angry, she’s prepared, and she wants to tell you the story of the greatest love affair in the history of North America.). Get ready.

 

2) How does the work differ from others of its genre?

This is an interesting question. I’m always looking for similarities between my work and the work of other poets, past and present. I’m always searching for models and mentors. However, in searching for models, I’ve realized, to some extent, where my work fits into the conversation: I am interested in books of poetry that operate as books. Of course, the arrangement of poems within a manuscript––their order, their groupings––have always mattered; this act of curation has always been important. But I’m most interested in poems that converse with the surrounding poems more directly––that are woven into the larger work in a particular way, so that the experience of reading the book is like stepping back and viewing the whole mosaic for a moment, and then stepping forward again to read the next poem, to study the next stone. This zooming-in and -out, this dynamism between part and whole, really excites me. In short: I like series. I like books of poems that have the coherence of novels (although novels seek to sustain tension through narrative, and poems through music).

Also, I have to have history in my poems. Nothing that happens to me, or that happens in my poems, has any resonance for me unless it is in conversation with history––particularly with history of place. 

So, I think I would have to answer this question by saying that my work doesn’t bear that much resemblance, I don’t think, to the short, smart, syntactically-curious, “contemporary”-feeling poems I come across in journals these days, mixed in among poems of many other styles. I love these poems. I’ve noticed them lately for how different they feel from my own. They belong in singles; they glow singly, like geodes. Although sometimes I envy these poems for how portable they are, I remind myself that it’s a good thing there are so many different minds out there, to write so many different kinds of poetry. And then I go back to my own messy compilation of poems that won’t stop talking to each another….

 

3) Why do you write what you do?

I wonder this all the time, myself. It’s probably something that I should have figured out by now. I know I have a very good reason for sitting down and writing poems every day––and sweating, and swearing, and failing, and maybe sometimes getting somewhere. I can feel the reason––it lives in my body and never leaves. But I find it hard to define it for myself sometimes.

Is it to make a connection? To communicate? Of course. What else could it be but that?

Is it for some greater good? Humans + Art = Better Humans, or some such formula? Yes. That seems true. I think I would be a far worse person if I didn’t write and read, and I can only assume the same for others.

Is it because it’s fun? Yes. But it’s also distinctly un-relaxing.

The best reason I can come up with today is because I love books so much. I love authors. I just really love authors. Sometimes I want to lick my books, or sleep with stacks of them in my bed, or empty my bank account acquiring more. And, like a child, I want to imitate those I love.

 

4) How does your writing process work?

It’s highly erratic.

I write in one place, primarily––by myself at home, with my dog next to me. The space has to be clean, with everything in its proper “stack,” or category. One piece of mail out of place will drive me to distraction. I think I have to have this kind of routine, these strict atmospheric rules, because the process itself is so incredibly unwieldy. I do a lot of “following my nose”––picking up that book, and reading that poem, and then this one, until––! I realize something about how to go forward! And I write it down!

This is when it’s helpful to have series. Otherwise I think I would just spin off––starting everything and finishing nothing. If I don’t feel like working on this or that series or long poem (“No….The Mississippi doesn’t feel like talking today,” or, “No, I don’t want to remember that just now…”), I’ll pick another one to work on. All the poems in my manuscript are in varying levels of “done-ness”: basically done forever (yeah right), done until next month, not at all done, and as-yet-completely-unwritten.

Click here for our entry from Susan Kagan.