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Getting the Shot—Be Ready and Be Patient

I’ve had a photographic couple of days. I’m visiting San Francisco, one of the most photogenic cities on Earth, even when shrouded in fog, and home to the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most iconic images in the world. Yesterday I spent the afternoon and early evening at SFMoMA, where the special exhibits include a retrospective of fashion/portrait photographer Richard Avedon and a comparative exhibit of Georgia O’Keefe’s boldly colored paintings and Ansel Adams’s austere black-and-white photographs of the natural world. (Meanwhile, my travel companion gave me a primer on how to actually use my new digital SLR. Let the experimentation begin!)

At first blush, the visual medium of photography and the cerebral activity of writing may seem to have little in common. But two of Adams’s photographs from the exhibit—or, rather, the stories behind their making—offer parallels to writing.

The first, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (one of Adams’s most famous images), is a picture of the lunar orb peering down at a scattered collection of shacks and graves.adams_moonriseThe photographer happened upon the shot on the way back to Santa Fe after an unproductive day in Charma Valley. As he scrambled to set up the camera and tripod, the sun was slipping past the horizon, and he couldn’t find the exposure meter. Using what he knew about the illumination of the moon, he clicked. Before he could insert another slide, though, the sun set, and the light on the crosses went dark. Adams got the shot by mere seconds.

Moonrise is the product of pure serendipity. Only for a split second did the light and elements perfectly align. A photograph captures such moments in time, never to be relived, gone as soon as they arrive. There’s no procrastination in photography—it’s now or never.

Writing’s not like that. Writing can be put off to whenever. Or can it? Perhaps “the moment” is just as fleeting for the writer as it is for the photographer—it’s there and then it’s gone. Strong motivation for keeping your eyes open, camera/pen at the ready.

Adams’s other picture, Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California, is also a landscape with large swaths of land and sky, snowcapped mountains soaring over black foothills and a ray of light illuminating a lone horse grazing in the valley below.adams_sunriseWhereas the taking of Moonrise had been a fluke, a stroke of mad luck, Winter Sunrise was carefully composed. The photographer set up the shot, but the horse, oblivious to having its picture taken, wasn’t facing the camera. Rather, Adams’s view was of the animal’s rear end. So he waited for the horse to turn around. And waited. And waited. All the while, as the sun rose, the light changed. But finally, the horse moved into profile, and Adams got his shot.

For writers, it’s not just when inspiration strikes that we need to be ready. We need to set up the shot, like Adams did, and if the image isn’t perfect, wait patiently until all the pieces fall into place.

In writing, as in photography, be ready and be patient—that’s how you capture the moment.

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On Writers Groups: Part III—Rules

Just after the New Year, my writers group gathered at a German tavern in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake to touch base over ale and wieners dunked in steins of pea soup. At that point, we had been working together for a year, but I think we all felt we were in danger of disbanding. As of the end of the fall semester, we had all completed our theses—a major driver for participation in the group—and graduated.

We were determined to stick together, however, and we’re stronger than ever after instituting and enforcing (more or less) some rules. If you want your writers group to last, set the parameters up front:

1. Makeup: Keep it small. For a critique group, I’d suggest no more than four to six people. “Any more, and either the meetings are way too long or not everyone gets equal time,” reasons one of my writers group members. “Too few members, and there’s not nearly as much chance for differing voices in terms of critique. … It’s good to have enough people that you can rotate submissions.” Conversely, you don’t want to have to wait too long between opportunities to share your work.

Only invite writers whom you admire and respect. You want to be challenged by your writers group, and you want to read good work while you’re there. BookFox blogger John Fox goes so far as to suggest “hazing—preferably painful, embarrassing hazing—and guidelines like they have to submit sample papers to join. Groups with porous membership regulations fail easily.”

2. Operations: Once you’ve assembled your writers group, set some ground rules. First, meet regularly. Every other week works well for most groups. “Frequent meetings—let’s say twice monthly—are ideal because they not only solidify the bond among group members by making the activity a regular occurrence, but they also force people to write,” says my fellow writers group member. “Meet too infrequently, and it’s a lot easier to postpone or cancel meetings.” (We’ve had problems with this in the past.)

Second, set deadlines. In our group, we submit on one Wednesday and meet the next, although some members (that’d be me!) tend to push the deadline as far back as the weekend.

Finally, everybody submits. Our group used to be a free-for-all where we submitted work when we had it. The problem with this was if one of us was suffering from writers block, we could go several meetings without seeing his or her work. A guiding tenet of critique groups is the trust that’s built between writers who are sharing sometimes raw work; it’s not fair to critique others without putting yourself on the line. Besides, the guilty parties felt, well, guilty, and that’s not good for anybody. Now we’re on a schedule, submitting two out of every three meetings.

“One thing to keep in mind: rules like these only work if they’re implemented or enforced,” adds my writers group member. We’ve gotten much better about this. It’s probably too obnoxious to actually assign leadership positions, but often they happen naturally: one of us leads groups discussions when we have administrative details to take care of; a couple others gently nudge us with emails or texts when we’re past deadline.

3. Critiques: I had one writing instructor—tellingly, a graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has been criticized for its cutthroat atmosphere—whose guidelines for critique protected the writer’s feelings to an almost ridiculous extent. We were asked not to refer to the writer by name, but to call him or her “the author” during our critiques, and we were not to look at the writer while we critiqued his or her work. I find this approach to be counterintuitive—I want to convey my sincerity during critiques by speaking directly to the writer and looking him or her in the eye.

How supportive comments should be is also up for debate. “Keeping critiques supportive could foster an environment of coddling, but I do think it’s a good idea to keep them constructive. (i.e., not ‘This sucks,’ but ‘Here’s why this sucks, and here are some ways it could possibly be fixed.’),” says a member from my writers group. “Mutual admiration is great, but the really valuable feedback comes when your writers group lets you know what isn’t working.

Again, Fox takes a hard line: “Don’t give supportive critiques. Critiques should be debilitating and harsh. The minute you start cheerleading is the minute you lose respectability. Of course you need to talk about what is good with the piece, and tell someone where to submit it, and how much work it needs (if much) before they send it out, but focus on the negative. That’s what’s helpful.”

Focus on overarching issues. Typos, misspellings, and misused commas can be addressed in later drafts.

During the critique, the writer should listen to the comments of the other group members. Don’t respond. Don’t explain. Don’t defend. If you keep your replies to a minimum, you will get a more accurate critique from your readers and you’ll be better able to absorb their comments.

Do, however, take notes. You might even record your critique to audiotape. Later, you can throw out comments that are useless or irrelevant and keep those that are helpful.

For more tips on writers groups, check out these related posts by Quips and Tips for Freelance Writers and Dames of Dialogue.

For previous installments in this series, check out “Part I—Benefits” and “Part II—Types.”

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On Writers Groups: Part II—Types

The past couple of weeks have been productive ones in my writers groups. Last week, in what I call my writing group, I generated a few pages of new material on a new short-story concept that’s been percolating. And this week, in what I distinguish as my writers group, I got helpful feedback and encouragement on an older piece of writing that I may just polish up and send out.

I’m pretty much in love with my current writers groups, but I have participated in lots of different types over the years:

  • The workshop is a formal writers group led by a teacher or mentor. This is the model found in graduate and continuing-education writing programs, but there are private workshops as well. They usually charge tuition or a fee to pay for the meeting place as well as the leader’s time and expertise. The facilitator sets and enforces the format and tone for the workshop and keeps the group on task. You may provide your work beforehand or read it to the group during the meeting. Usually participants take turns providing verbal feedback with the facilitator commenting last so as not to influence the remarks of the others. Often written feedback is provided as well in the form of marked-up manuscripts.
  • A critique group is similar to a workshop in format but is more informal and usually smaller in structure. In this type of group, there’s no facilitator; rather, a handful of writers decides together how they want to operate. Again, work can be provided beforehand or read out loud during the meeting, and participants take turns offering verbal and written feedback. The advantage of the critique group is that you share and get feedback on your work more often than in a larger workshop environment.
  • An offshoot of the critique group is the writers guild, which operates in much the same way but adds publishing to its activities. One of my friends from grad-school just produced a collection of short stories and poetry with his writers group.
  • Recently I’ve been introduced to a writing group, which gathers weekly not to read and discuss work, but to produce it. In my writing group, everyone arrives prepared with a prompt to share with the group. We spend ten minutes or so writing the exercise; then we take turns reading whatever we came up with. The resulting material can be pretty raw, so there’s no critique, and you can pass on reading it out loud if you want to. Other writing groups have a standing appointment to get together to work on their own material.
  • A reading group, John Fox of BookFox argues, is just as important as a writers group. “[You] can’t separate writing from reading, and you need people to read with as much as you need people to write with,” he says. I would imagine a reading group for writers would function much like a book club but with more of an emphasis on focusing on the author’s craft.

Where writers groups meet depends on their size as well as the tone you want to set. Workshops often take place in classrooms, but I have attended these in conference rooms and around dining-room tables. My critique groups have met in bars, restaurants, and, with the economy being how it is these days, our homes. Of course, you can also meet online via email or chatrooms.

What types of writers groups have you participated in? Share you experiences below in the comments section.

And check out the first installment in this series, “On Writers Groups: Part I—Benefits.”

Next week in Part III, MJ will lay out the rules for writers group. Share your suggestions now by email (findtherightwords[at]gmail[dot]com) or on Twitter (@motsjustes).

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On Evan Wright, David Foster Wallace, and Their Reportage on Porn—Why Just Telling the Story Isn’t Enough

I’ve been experiencing a meta-literary moment this week. I’m reading Hella Nation by Evan Wright, author of bestseller Generation Kill, which chronicled his tour as an embedded reporter for Rolling Stone during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (The book was also made into an HBO miniseries that’s on my DVR but not yet watched.) Wright’s latest is a collection of his profiles from Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, LA Weekly, and other publications. Wright got his start as a journalist for Larry Flynt’s Hustler, and a couple of the pieces are set in the porn industry.

These dispatches from the American underground should represent what can be so compelling about magazine journalism—when a writer not only interviews but infiltrates his or her subjects, revealing something neither they nor the reader knew about themselves. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Wright’s work. Admittedly, some of the pieces are from very early in his career, before, perhaps, he had perfected the form. He gets great interviews, and he tells their tales well, but he stops short of, I don’t know, the analysis or insight that makes stories like these required reading.
(Perhaps these limitations in Wright’s writing is purposeful, as he rejects the “gonzo” label that has been applied by some critics to Generation Kill: “… ‘gonzo’ speaks of writing that is more about the reporter than the subject. With few exceptions, my intent has always been to focus on my subjects in all their imperfect glory.”)

Coincidentally, late last year I finally picked up some David Foster Wallace. (Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until his untimely death that I actually read any of his work.) I haven’t made it through his epic-length novel Infinite Jest, but I was pretty much blown away by his Consider the Lobster, another collection of essays featured in magazines like the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and, again, Rolling Stone, among others.

I say “coincidentally” because, it turns out, Wallace and Wright had met. Wright, in fact, lost a story to Wallace when Premiere withdrew an assignment covering the 1998 Adult Video News Awards from Wright and gave it to Wallace instead. A veteran of the event, Wright showed Wallace around the gala and tradeshow and appeared in the resulting article under the nom de guerre Harold Hecuba.

So last night as I was reading “Scenes from my Life in Porn” from Hella Nation, one of the anecdotes sounded familiar. I dug out my copy of Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, and, sure enough, Wright and Wallace had written about the same incident.

Here’s Wright’s version:

A few months before I left LFP, a thief broke into my car and stole a half-dozen XXX videos. They had been shipped to the office in a box with my name on it. The police caught the hapless criminal walking down the street with the box, and I was called to testify about the crime in a Beverly Hills courtroom. I waited in the hall with the cop who was handling the case. He was a detective a few months shy of retirement who, with his New York accent, knowing blue eyes and rumpled brown suit, seemed more like a sympathetic TV character actor than a real cop. He talked about his 30-year marriage, his daughters, his involvement in a well-known case a decade earlier when he‘d killed a murder suspect during a foot chase and shootout. The detective brought up porn videos and confessed that he liked them. His tastes, he said, were specific. He liked the directors who focused on the women’s faces. “It‘s all bullshit,” he said. “But sometimes you’re looking at the girl in the video and she reveals herself. Maybe it’s just a moment in her eyes, but it’s human, it’s genuine.”

To me, what was real and unreal had ceased to be clear.

And here’s Wallace’s:

Mr. Harold Hecuba [aka Wright], whose magazine job entails reviewing dozens of adult releases every month, has an interesting vignette about a Los Angeles Police Dept. detective he met once when H.H.’s car got broken into and a whole box of Elegant Angel Inc. videotapes was stolen (a box with H.H.’s name and work address right on it) and subsequently recovered by the LAPD. A detective brought the box back to Hecuba personally, a gesture that H.H. remembered thinking was unusually thoughtful and conscientious until it emerged that the detective had really just used the box’s return as an excuse to meet Hecuba, whose critical work he appeared to know, and to discuss the ins and outs of the adult-video industry. It turned out that this detective—60, happily married, a grandpa, shy, polite, clearly a decent guy—was a hard-core fan. He and Hecuba ended up over coffee, and when H.H. finally cleared his throat and asked the cop why such an obviously decent fellow squarely on the side of the law and civic virtue was a porn fan, the detective confessed that what drew him to the films was “the faces,” i.e. the actresses’ faces, i.e. those rare moments in orgasm or accidental tenderness when the starlets dropped their stylized “fuck-me-I’m-a-nasty-girl” sneer and became, suddenly, real people. “Sometimes—and you never know when, is the thing—sometimes all of a sudden they’ll kind of reveal themselves” was the detective’s way of putting it. “Their what-do-you-call … humanness.” It turned out the LAPD detective found adult films moving, in fact far more so than most mainstream Hollywood movies, in which latter films actors—sometimes very gifted actors—go about feigning genuine humanity, i.e.: “In real movies, it’s all on purpose. I suppose what I like in porno is the accident of it.”

But, where Wright’s anecdote comes to end, Wallace continues:

Hecuba’s detective’s explanation is intriguing, at least to yr. corresps., because it helps explain part of the deep appeal of hard-core films, films that are supposed to be “naked” and “explicit” but in truth are some of the most aloof, unrevealing footage for sale anywhere. Much of the cold, dead, mechanical quality of adult films is attributable, really, to the performers’ faces. These are the faces that usually appear bored or blank or workmanlike but are in fact simply hidden, the self locked away someplace far behind the eyes. Surely this hiddenness is the way a human being who’s giving away the very most private parts of himself preserves some sense of dignity and autonomy—he denies us true expression. (You can see this very particular bored, hard, dead look in strippers, prostitutes, and porn performers of all locales and genders.)

But it’s also true that occasionally, in a hard-core scene, the hidden self appears. It’s sort of the opposite of acting. You can see the porn performer’s whole face change as self-consciousness (in most females) or crazed blankness (in most males) yields to some genuinely felt erotic joy in what’s going on; the sighs and moans change from automatic to expressive. It happens only once in a while, but the detective is right: The effect on the viewer is electric. And the adult performers who can do this a lot—allow themselves to feel and enjoy what’s taking place, cameras or no—become huge, legendary stars. The 1980s’ Ginger Lynn and Keisha could do this, and now sometimes Jill Kelly and Rocco Siffredi can. Jenna Jameson and T.T. Boy cannot. They remain just bodies.

Granted, Wright uses the story to lead into the conclusion of his essay and a riff on real versus unreal—he doesn’t completely buy the police officer’s interpretation like Wallace does. But Wallace, writing about somebody else’s anecdote, in a footnote, no less, not only gives a much more complete picture of the entire scenario by not glossing over the details—that the detective had sought Wright out, that they went out for coffee—but by digging deep and using this snapshot from Wright’s “Life in Porn” to expound on the entire adult-entertainment industry.

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Deadlines Are Our Friends—Part II: How to Function Without One

As discussed at length in yesterday’s post, I handed in my thesis last week. As the deadline approached, I was writing furiously, madly. Now that the deadline has passed, however, I fear I may stop. (I prefer to think of my current lapse as a “break” or a “pause” as I consider my next step.) How will I function without a deadline?

  1. Set new deadlines. For example, I might say to myself that I am going to complete the second draft by the time I walk for my diploma in May. Of course, deadlines are hard to enforce if there are no consequences for missing them—like, say, having to extend (and pay for) your studies for yet another semester.
  2. Join or form a writers group. If the group meets regularly, you’ll have regular deadlines, and you will be held accountable.
  3. Get and enforcer. I learned this trick of the trade from Mark Sarvas over at the Elegant Variation. When he was writing his first novel, Harry, Revised, his goal was to write two pages a day. Upon completion of this goal, he sent an email to a friend with a simple “done” in the subject line. If he didn’t check in, his friend got after him.
  4. Schedule writing into your daily routine. Set aside time. This should be as important as grocery shopping, or showering. More important.
  5. Set goals—a number of words or pages or hours to be met every day or every week. Think of it like a job—if you miss your quota, you have to make it up the next day. Monthly goals are less effective, as it’s hard to make up three-and-half weeks’ worth of missed work over the last couple of days.
  6. Join a support network. I caught on to Facebook rather late, but many of my “friends” are fellow writers. I see through their status updates, and they see through mine, whether they are writing. Mutual encouragement and support ensue.
  7. Don’t make writing so precious. If getting to work on that second draft of your novel is too intimidating, spend some time with your writers notebook instead.
  8. Shift gears. Do some research. Or switch to short stories.
  9. Attend readings. There’s nothing more inspirational than being in the presence of other writers.

Caught in the ’Net

The newspaper industry is feeling the effects of the economic crisis: Tribune Co., parent company of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, has filed for bankruptcy, and ad sales at newspapers will likely be even worse next year. One pundit makes the case for the resurrection of the New Deal’s Federal Writers Project.

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Deadlines Are Our Friends

Hello again! Yes, Mots Justes is back online, having survived the thesis throes. And yes, as a commenter on the post below notes, unfortunately it is well past November 4. Here’s what happened:

As noted in my last post, I decided that during the last month before my thesis was due, I could ill afford any distractions. I had to cut out anything unnecessary-i.e., anything that didn’t pay the rent. Unfortunately, that meant the blog had to go on hiatus.

MJ wasn’t the only sacrifice, however: I stopped freelancing, too (which arguably does help pay the rent, but not much). I stopped cooking, which resulted in a late-night run to Ralph’s by my desperate significant other, who never goes grocery stopping, and a fridge full of frozen pizzas, pot pies, and Lloyd’s Barbeque Pork. I stopped cleaning my house. That has yet to be remedied.

What I did do is write, as many as 1,000 words a day, which is epic for me. It was frantic. It was stressful. It was really kind of great.

At no other point in my career had my creative writing taken center stage. At no other time was it the most important thing that simply had to get done. There were no other articles to write, no other assignments to turn in, no blogs to post that took precedence over my novel. It was wonderful.

And then, with just two-and-a-half weeks to go, I got a month extension. I didn’t even ask for it; it just arrived, uninvited, in my inbox. My thesis was now due on December 3.

I expressed joy and relief at the time, of course—deadlines are the bane of any writer’s existence, and extensions are always welcome. Inside, however, all I could think was “Oh, no …”

You see, for the past year or so I had been building toward this November 3 deadline. I had put MJ on hiatus for it. I had pushed back the ship date of Southern California Review, of which I am editor-in-chief, so I wouldn’t have to turn it and my thesis in at around the same time. And truthfully, I liked the idea of handing in this major project on my birthday. Now, my blog would be offline for two months, I still had to turn in SCR and my thesis at the same time (literally on the same day), and the new due date was, well, insignificant.

Then I did what I feared I would do, what I knew I would: I stopped writing. Less than two months before my thesis was due, I didn’t write. For two whole weeks.

Yes, I could have stuck to the original deadline. I could have finished the draft by November 3 and given myself a whole extra month to revise and edit. But I don’t work that way. I don’t do anything until I absolutely have to.

Eventually, I found myself in the same position as the day the deadline was extended—running out of time and writing like mad. And again, it was great.

Today, now that my thesis is turned in, SCR is at the printer, and my gig at the Writing Center has come to an end (alas, you have to be a graduate enrolled in classes to stay on the payroll), my life looks completely differently from just five days ago, and my goal is to hang on to some of that momentum, to not stop writing again now that there’s no deadline.

I’ll explore ways to do that in tomorrow’s post. In the meantime, how have deadlines been your friend?

Caught in the ’Net

How to

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