Praying Like a Novelist

The most well-known fiction-writing exercise comes from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, in which he asks us to describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war—but without mentioning the son, war, or death. The goal is to inhabit a character so completely that you see how they see, and you bring to bear on your seeing their history and loves and losses. It’s a great practice. When I’ve used the exercise in classes, I add other scenarios as well: Now describe the barn as seen by a teenage girl who’s just developed her first crush. Now describe it as seen by a weary farmer who’s recently gone bankrupt. Now by a weary cow…

Fiction writing is an exercise in empathy, or perhaps a state beyond that—a thorough imagining our way into the lives of others. (more…)

Writing as a Dialogue with Creation

When I was teaching seventh grade and also going to night school for my masters degree, one synchronistic day I taught a lesson on writing dialogue to my twelve-year-olds only to show up at my evening class—to a lesson on dialogue. Of course I told the kids the next day. The lovely (and ironic part) of practicing any art is that you’re never done. Every facet of the literary craft has infinite depth. I’ll be learning how to write dialogue for the rest of my life. (more…)

Finding Acceptance in Surprising Places

I read this story recently in Poets & Writers. It may be a parable about stick-to-it-iveness, or perhaps it’s an invitation to apply the vision of hindsight to our current ambitions. Bear with me.

Daniel Wallace, the author of six novels including a New York Times bestseller, has tried for more than thirty years to publish in The New Yorker. When he first began submitting work there in 1984, The New Yorker defined literary success for him. His stories landed on the desk of the fiction editor, Daniel Menacer, who eventually began jotting “a little something” on the rejected pages. “I had no idea who this person was,” Wallace writes, “and it didn’t really matter because at that time in my life, editors were all-powerful demigods whose approval would allow me entry into the world I hungrily watched from afar.” Over the first six years, Menaker’s rejections grew personal and encouraging. One story he even called “very good…as far as it goes.” He actually invited Wallace to continue submitting. Writers call such comments “good rejections.” (more…)

The Small, Accessible World of Publishing

A few months ago I led a workshop at a church; only five people showed up so we sat around and swapped writing stories. One an older member shared has stuck with me.

Every Sunday morning while she curls her hair, she composes a haiku. Then she goes to her desk and fills out her offering check. She places it in an envelope, seals it, and writes her haiku on the outside.

In the past she’d been on the committee which tallied money after church. “It’s boring,” she told us. “I want to make those volunteers’ day a little brighter. They love it. They always let me know how much it means to them.” (more…)