Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire
Laura Stanfill is a novelist, editor, blogger, and founder of Forest Avenue Press. She's also the force behind Brave on the Page, an anthology featuring 42 Oregon authors sharing their thoughts on craft and creativity.
A couple weeks ago, Laura pulled off an amazing event at Powell's City of Books in Portland, drawing 150 people on a Monday night to hear nine Brave on the Page contributers. The evening was a blast, featuring readings and a panel discussion. I was proud to be part of it, (despite the fact that there was a lot of talk on the panel about me not knowing how women pee when they're in the shower, posture-wise. I promise to get that right in my next book.)
Laura has a recap of the evening here that I won't repeat, but you should check it out along with the rest of her site. And writer and designer Gigi Little, who read at the event, summed it up this way:
"I think Laura Stanfill has something really special going with Forest Avenue Press, and the support she's gotten says loads about not only Powell's and the writing community in Portland but also - and most of all - Laura's energy, ingenuity, and smarts."
I just want to second that -- especially the part about energy, ingenuity, and smarts. Thanks, Laura, for having the vision to imagine Brave on the Page in the first place. And for all the hard work and creativity involved in making it real.
Brave on the Page at Powell's: From left, Yuvi Zalkow, Joanna Rose, Jon Bell, Gigi Little, Robert Hill, Laura Stanfill, Kristy Athens, and me. (Not pictured, Gina Ochsner and Kate Gray.)
The next Brave on the Page event is at The Artist Edge Salon in Sandy, Oregon on January 27, with the terrific lineup of Laura, Stevan Allred, Martha Ragland and Liz Prato. If you're in Oregon, don't miss it.
Confession: I used to be a big Survivor fan. When Zane was young, we’d watch as a family. Sure, each show had a healthy dose of reality-show hoo-hah, but there was also strategy involved. Each week, we'd have some good pre- and post-show debates about whose mojo was working and who was toast.
The craziest part of every season was always the final tribal council, when the two remaining survivors had to answer questions from the outcasts. Inevitably, one of the questions would be, Why do you deserve to be in the final two?
In the four seasons I watched, no one ever answered that question honestly. The responses always had to do with playing the game fair but hard, being true to their values, etc., etc. No finalist ever looked at the camera and admitted what was glaringly obvious: I got lucky. I could’ve been voted off a bunch of times, but the key challenges broke my way, and things worked out.
Instead, it was always about their work ethic or their dedication. In the living room, I’d be calling the posers out. “C’mon, man. It’s 60, 70, maybe 80 percent luck. You stumbled on the Immunity Idol! Michael fell in the fire! That’s called catching a break. Just say it.”
And that pretty much sums up how I feel about being awarded an Artist Fellowship by the Oregon Arts Commission recently. I’m honored, of course. Very much so. And yes, I was dedicated and played the game fair but hard, etc., etc. But so did a whole lot of other very talented people. This time around, I was the one who caught the break. Next time, someone else. Like with a lot of things, you put your name in, and sometimes you get selected.
Or as Zane used to say, back when we were handicapping survivors, life is unfair, but sometimes it’s unfair in your favor.
The Fellowship will help me as I take some time off to work on Dogs Run Free. And the recognition means a great deal to me. Saying that I know I got lucky doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. It means I’ll work hard to live up to it.
You better watch what you do. "You Got Lucky" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
As a writer, I’ve been fascinated by the fundraising emails and pitch letters I’ve received during the presidential campaign. They're especially interesting when you take the politics out and look at them purely from the point of view of craft.
These pitches have changed a lot over time, but the essential requirements remain the same. They have to grab you immediately. They have to connect emotionally. And they must convince you to take action. Those first two imperatives also apply, in a different way, to writing fiction.
In my files I have hard copies of fundraising letters from the 2000 presidential campaign—one from George W. Bush, which was actually addressed to my neighbors (sorry guys—I didn’t think you’d mind if I kept it) and one from Al Gore, which was addressed to me. I’ve studied them from time to time, running them through Word Count, looking at words per sentence, sentences per paragraph, the Flesch Reading Ease score, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score. Both letters seem nearly perfect to me, and I still use them as models when I need to write similar (though non-political) letters at what I call my day job.
A couple things stand out as I look at those letters now. One, they’re long—several pages each. And two, they were delivered by snail mail. What the hell were we thinking back in 2000? We still read stuff on paper?!?
In contrast, this year’s emails from the Obama campaign were marvels of concision. They came with perfectly conversational subject headers and rarely sounded canned, though of course they were. Sometimes, three would come in a single day. Maybe I have a high tolerance for this sort of thing, but it never bugged me, and the call to action worked on me more frequently than I expected. Maybe Romney was sending out great stuff too—I don’t know; I still get my neighbor’s mail once in a while, but the Internet never sends me his email—but it strikes me that the Obama email campaign will be used as a model for years to come.
Yet none of these modern pitches can even come close to the one I’ve saved from 1972. It’s a Western Union Mailgram from George McGovern. It arrived in early November, and though Nate Silver had not yet been born, we all knew the cause was pretty much lost at that point. At yet the Mailgram did its job of creating hope.
GETTING ASTOUNDING REPORTS FROM EVERYWHERE, it read. MASSIVE SHIFT AWAY FROM NIXON TOWARD OUR TICKET.
For sheer jaw-dropping amazement, look at the call to action. No “click here to donate,” no prepaid return envelope. They were asking me to go down to the freaking post office to wire money! Would that approach even raise a dime in today’s world?
Another thing I notice, reading it now, is that it wasn’t true. There was no massive shift. And I’m guessing McGovern, Frank Mankiewicz, or Gary Hart or whoever composed these sentences knew it at the time. Which, in fairness, makes me reluctant to pile onto FOX News and the Romney campaign for pretending to be winning when they knew they weren’t. Democratic or Republican, losing campaigns always put on a brave face. What else would you expect them to do?
I was a student at Antioch College when I got this Mailgram—which means I was young, an idealist, maybe a little naïve—but I was still well informed enough to read, as Nate Silver tweeted the other night, “On The Wall, The Writing.”
In other words, some part of me knew Nixon had it in the bag. But I walked down to the post office anyway, and I sent George McGovern twenty-five dollars. There was no election eve telecast, and history has not yet saluted me. The act of giving the money was its own reward. Sending it drew a miniscule connection between me and a man I admired, a man whose memory I honor more than ever. I’ve never regretted it for a moment.
Time moves on, of course. Those much-admired Obama emails were brilliantly constructed and yes, they worked like a charm.
But if you still have one 40 years from now, let me know.
Rose is one of my favorite characters in W2W. At one point, she stands up. I might have said she took to her feet, but instead I wrote “Rose rose.”
The sentence is one of my favorites. In fact, I have frequently joked with noted humorist and Sherman Alexie defender Zane Sparling that I wrote the 193 pages preceding that sentence and the 199 that follow simply to make a place for “Rose rose.” That the whole 20 years I spent on W2W was about building a home for that sentence. And while that’s not quite true, the sentence does have roots that go back to the beginning of my writing life.
The inspiration for “Rose rose” came from an early Richard Ford novel—The Ultimate Good Luck, I think, or maybe A Piece of My Heart. As I recall it, there’s a sentence in one of those books that goes something like this: “She took a drink of her drink.”
I remember how that sentence stunned me. A lot of Ford’s sentences stunned me, of course, but that one especially lit up my brain. Here was Richard Ford—a writer’s writer, everyone said—using the same word twice in one short sentence. She took a sip from her drink, or she took a drink from her glass, or simply, she took a drink all would have served, but Ford consciously and assertively decided that “drink” was exactly the right word, both times, and so he used it both times—in full defiance of all bugaboos and small-minded prohibitions.
Wow, I thought. I want to do that. And later—much later—when it came time for Rose to stand up, well, the opportunity arose.
It is, I acknowledge, kind of a showy sentence. When Tin House got the manuscript, I wondered whether Tony Perez and Meg Storey, two brilliant editors who worked on W2W, might put a red pen to it. But “Rose rose” survived unscathed—partially or maybe mainly because the scene deserved some showiness. By standing up at that particular instant, Rose lay claim to Lane’s affection and took control of a situation that might otherwise have gone differently. So I like to think it was earned—though, honestly, I would have tried to sneak it in anyway. I mean, how often do you get a chance to imitate Richard Ford, even approximately?
The truth is, I’ve always had a high tolerance for repeated words and a somewhat low tolerance for people who complain about them, particularly between 8:30 and 5:00 on weekdays, when I often find myself writing for people with very specific communication needs—people who sometimes refer to my efforts as “wordsmithing” or “supplying the verbiage.” I have not killed any of these people yet, which I think testifies to my good nature and to the fact that they are paying me. Some of these critics, I understand, do not approach writing with the same energy and passion as fiction readers. Poor schools, misguided parenting, or just plain bad luck has caused them to regard writing the way I regard math—as something to be dreaded, a beast tamed only through the application of rules. Most of these rules have been supplied by their seventh grade English teacher. She didn’t approve of using the same word three times in two sentences, so neither do they.
Look, I want to say to them. There is nothing in the beautiful mess you’ve made of your life that your seventh grade English teacher would approve of—and you should celebrate that. She was wrong! About everything!
If you want to hold me to her stupid rules, first clean up every other aspect of your life that she would frown upon—get that shirttail tucked in, stand up straight, wipe that grin off your face. Do you think Mrs. Graham or Tuttle or Swinehart or whomever you got saddled with (and by) would approve of your sex life, your tax situation, your propensity to eat cold cereal for dinner, or your voting record? Get all that stuff arranged to her satisfaction and then come back here and browbeat me about word repetitions. Even then I’ll be tempted to put my fist in your chest cavity and pull out whatever I find so we can watch it beat while we think up synonyms for heart. When it’s the right word, it’s the right word.
I never say any of this, of course. But sometimes I do email my tormentors the Deadbeat Tattoo.
The Deadbeat Tattoo is a piece of writing from another work of fiction that has influenced me from the start—A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone. It goes like this.
This never convinces anyone, of course—generally, it confuses them—and I always end up making the requested changes. Although that’s not quite true. It convinces me that I’m right. Five repetitions in four sentences. If Robert Stone can do it, I tell myself, so can I. And yes, I recognize that that assertion has never proven itself to be true. But the point is I can try. With as many word reps as I like. The name of my book, after all, is Wire to Wire.
"Yes Yes," by Jon Dee Graham. "Talk Talk" by the Music Machine. "Rebel Rebel" by David Bowie. "Mercy Mercy" by the Rolling Stones. "Stop Stop" by the Black Keys. "Hello Hello" by Claudine Longet. Pick your pick. How about "Jumble Jumble" by The White Stripes?
At my Wordstock workshop next weekend, one thing we’ll talk about is sniper dialogue—that short burst of speech in the middle of narrative that manages to totally redefine a particular moment or scene.
Writing good sniper dialogue is tough—for me, anyway—because you can’t rely on the back-and-forth interplay between characters. Everything depends on one line, or two, and then it’s back to narrative.
Since you have to do a lot with a little, there’s a tendency to overdo it. But it’s the underplayed dialogue that often works best in that situation.
One example I always think of is from Jon Raymond’s short story “Coast.”
A screenshot from "Coast" by Jon Raymond.
Three bursts of dialogue—four words, five words, three words—and the relationship between these two characters has changed.
I don’t know if I’ve ever written any really good sniper dialogue—when my characters start talking, they tend to keep talking—but I’m always on the lookout for it.
I’ll be talking about all kinds of dialogue at Wordstock in PDX on Saturday, October 14. The workshop I’m leading is called “Keep Talking.” Now that I see it in the program, though, I kinda wished I’d called it “Say What??” Regardless, there’s sign-up info and more details here.
“Tyrants and kings do their usual things and you try to stay out of their way.” Listen to the sniper attack of electric guitar that animates the acoustic background of Seger’s “Won’t Stop.”
Seger: “I'm using a lot of acoustic guitar and then saving the electric stuff for these real razor solos, kind of like sneak attack songs." May 14, 1998, The Oakland Press
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- My Essay on Bloom: No Other Way Out
- Playlist in LargeHearted Boy
- A Book Brahmin Essay for Shelf Awareness
- Powell's Blog: Sex & Money
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