Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, March 30, 2012

" . . . where the path would lead"

Well I fear I come off as incredibly harsh (particularly as a teacher) at the end of my last blog post. When I say “remember that the first page or two, at a minimum, will be horrible,” and advise readers to take a class with me, “and I’ll force you to deal with it,” I hope it’s clear that I’m really talking about myself here. I’m the kind of writer who has to tell myself this very thing, pretty much every time I sit down to work: Don’t worry if it starts out horribly. Don’t worry if it’s all horrible today. Just start.
At a panel at the AWP Conference in Chicago earlier this month, I was reminded--by Sy Safransky, founder of The Sun Magazine--of Gail Sher’s wonderful One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers, a book I read years ago. It’s good to revisit that calming Buddhist approach to writing, and good to be reminded that I’ll probably do better to find that voice--which I do have, at least at times--if I plan to write about the writing process here. Sher says what I was trying to say at the end of my previous post in a much more soothing way: 
Like a pump (which often brings up muddy water before it brings up clean), a writer (who is a kind of pump for her own personal purifying process), must be intimate with the mechanism--the pressure, the speed, the viscosity--that brings forth her best work and must be patient enough to wade through the muck that inevitably precedes it.
Alas, Sher also says something else a few pages before, which is this: The writer’s desk is a miniature world. Self-contained. Hopefully quiet.
Well, hopefully. But the point I was trying to make is that it won’t always be quiet and self-contained. At least I don’t think mine will be, not for a while--not while my daughter’s still young, not while I’m also teaching. We have to accept where we are, now, and still find that “miniature world,” whatever else might be spilling into it.
The second photo I included in my last post is of the somewhat tidy, if crowded, table in an alcove of the room I work in (my main desk really is too much of a mess to share in public). You can’t really tell, but I wish you could, that most of the pictures I have up in that alcove are of crows. It’s taken a while, but I’ve come to love crows--their awe-inspiring winter rookeries here in Bethlehem, PA (hundreds of them in trees in the middle of town each year--making a horrid mess of sidewalks and cars parked below them), their persistence and ubiquitousness, their noisy banter. Their keen interest in our refuse. 
Crows are wily, and resilient, and in their own way beautiful. They’re a reminder of the value of sticking with things, even ugly or unpleasant things. When I hear a crow, I think: You’re right; I should keep working.
One of the images on my wall is a 2006 photograph titled “they wondered where the path would lead” by a teaching colleague of mine, a fantastic artist named Krista Steinke, from her “Backyards, BB Guns, and Nursery Rhymes” series. Check out this series (and more of Krista’s work) if you’re looking for inspiration.

Friday, March 23, 2012

My Writing Process and My Beautifully Appointed Home and Other Stories I Like to Tell

I’m thinking of posting ideas and suggestions about writing, on my FB page and also my blog, from time to time in the weeks ahead. But planning to do this makes me a little nervous.

First of all, I don’t think of myself as particularly expert at the “how-to” part of talking about writing. This may be an odd confession from someone who’s taught writing, in various contexts, for nearly twenty-five years now--but I’m afraid it’s true. As a writing teacher, I think I’m reasonably good at these three things: (1) putting interesting and valuable things to read in front of my students; (2) creating deadlines and insisting that they produce work on a schedule; (3) reading what they write and taking them seriously by suggesting ways to improve their work. 

But I honestly don’t know how to teach them to do it.

This is a problem for me sometimes. For instance, when I read or speak or talk with book groups, people often ask about my “writing process.” This makes me sweat, because as a long-time writing teacher, I know what I’m supposed to say, which is something along the lines of “I’m at my desk, which is emptied of all other distractions, every morning at the same time; I draft for three hours; I eat a healthy lunch; and in the afternoon I methodically revise for two more hours.” 

Would that this were true. In fact I often leave my desk, even my house, to try to find that kind of clear and empty space we all dream of; I’m lucky to be able to hole up in a study carrel in the library at Moravian College, where I teach, for instance. I have multiple writing surfaces in my study (which is also our guest room--a problem, as Virginia Woolf noted, but one I won’t get into now), but I have consistently failed to keep them clear of notes about my daughter’s camps, school field trips, acting and dance and music classes and lessons and performances and recitals; printed email messages (because I’ll never remember them otherwise) and so on from people I need to write to, etc., as part of promoting my novels; receipts; bills; more printed emails, etc. related to my teaching; recommendation letter requests; coupons; publishers’ flyers about books I need to order; tape paper clips a phone nasal mist a camera old printer cartridges notebooks files and a ridiculous number of books, most of which I looked a little something up in, six months ago or more, for the novel I’m working on and which I can’t bring myself to return to the library because what if I need to check one more thing?

On good days I’ll just take a legal pad and pen, and maybe a few notes, and sit at the dining room table (the single surface in our house that somehow seems to stay relatively clear of clutter), and I’ll do that two- or three-hour drafting-in-the-morning thing. When it goes well, two or three hours isn’t nearly enough. Which is a problem, because I sometimes use this knowledge, that a couple hours is never enough, to talk myself out of even getting started on days when I have a doctor’s appointment or I’ve agreed to volunteer at my daughter’s school or there’s someone coming to do some work at the house and so I’ll be interrupted and that will make me miserable and so why even start?

Don’t even get me started on what it’s like during normal years (unlike this sabbatical year), when I’m also teaching.

I’ve been stuck on a theme of full exposure vs. harmless half-truths lately, and so I guess that’s prompting this confessional post. This is the honest truth: I can’t teach other people to somehow use my “process” because I don’t think I have one; I honestly don’t remember, for instance, precisely how the two novels I’ve published happened. Basically I’m a scattershot writer, of necessity, writing in the little gaps and windows of my life, and shoving aside the pile of crap on my desk to do it. At least that’s how it is on the good days.

I was kind of mortified when visiting one of the book groups who read In Hovering Flight a couple years ago, to hear what people in the group had decided about me and my writing life. They’d read the bio that was on my web site, and so they were picturing me in a beautifully restored old farmhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside, writing happily every day in my perfectly appointed study (I don’t know where they put the husband and daughter and pets that were also referenced in that bio). I’ll confess that I didn’t disabuse them of this picture. It was so pretty! Maybe, I thought, that really was my life and I just couldn’t see it clearly myself!

But no, it’s really not. Our house really is a restored 18th-century farmhouse, and it really is in a pretty, wooded area with lots of big old trees. But we live in a development within the city limits of Bethlehem, PA, our house has a lot of charms but won’t be in Country Living any time soon, and did I mention the part about having a hard time finding a surface that isn’t buried under my stuff or my daughter’s stuff or my husband’s stuff (except for my husband’s desk, which is somehow always immaculate--but don’t get me started on that either).

If I have any advice for writers to finish off this confession, I suppose it’s this: Shove the crap out of your way, and get your ideas down. Scribble them in a notebook if that’s all you have time to do, and see if the pressure of a notebook bursting with ideas doesn’t, eventually, force you to shove the crap out of your way again (or to pay for that service that blocks the wireless access from your computer) and start writing the story or essay or novel or memoir or whatever it is that the pressure of those notes is building toward. 

Also remember that the first page or two, at a minimum, will be horrible. This is a given, and not to be worried about. Write it all anyway, and know that, diligent writer that you are, you'll deal with it later. (Or, take my class and I'll force you to deal with it.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

I'm not quite ready to retract my last blog post, but I'll admit that listening to last Friday's episode of This American Life left me kind of confused. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around what went on with Mike Storey, but I do see a connection with my admitting to a certain comfort with "stretching the truth" for a worthy cause in Friday's post. If only he'd made it clear, in every context, that his story about Foxconn and Apple in China WASN'T journalism . . . . Very weird (weirdly hubristic?) that he left that detail out.

These things keep happening, of course, and keep capturing our attention. In this case, though, it must feel like such a blow to people who are doing thoughtful investigative work, in China and elsewhere, on what it takes to feed our appetite for sexy digital devices.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Harmless little lies? Depends on who's telling them . . . .

I want to say a few more things about “stretching the truth,” about yourself or about your past. The credential-puffing of the slash-and-burn president of Kean University in NJ aside, who hasn’t exaggerated at least a bit on a resume, for instance? Can there be a uniform standard--for academic honesty, for professional honesty, for the borrowing of intellectual property--in a digital age? Of course David Shields and John D'Agata and others in their camp would laugh--have laughed--at questions like these.

I find that my standard goes something like this: It depends on whether I like, or deep-down trust, the person who’s doing the stretching or borrowing.

Next fall I’ll teach Helon Habila’s novel Oil on Water, which is going to be interesting to talk about for all kinds of reasons, but mostly for what it has to say about the various forms of complicity with the oil companies who have wrecked the Niger delta. One detail from the novel is particularly interesting to me though: the novel’s narrator, a journalist, gets his first big break after publishing a story in which he does not report on his father’s guilt in connection with a tragic pipeline fire (“No, it was not a pipeline accident, as I told the white man, as I wrote in my published piece. But it might easily have been one, as in countless other villages.”). 

This narrator is someone you trust completely, and feel for deeply. He has a journalist’s eye and a journalist’s objectivity  --and by the end of the novel, it seems completely beside the point that early on he published a less-than-truthful story. (It also seems absolutely right, and significant, that, as he has said, “it might easily have been [a pipeline accident]”--something that happened all the time.) You kind of forget this detail about the narrator, which appears quite early in the novel, and so when I read reviews of the book after finishing it, I found it surprising to see that detail mentioned; it seemed sort of irrelevant to my experience of reading the novel. And yet of course it wasn’t; it added to the morass of culpability, the air of real despair that the book evokes.

These kinds of questions are of particular interest to me because the character at the center of the novel I’m working on now routinely lies about her past; she even makes up fake academic credentials at one crucial point. It’s occurred to me that this could, in “real life,” make her someone that a lot of people would immediately write off as corrupt. But in my mind she’s quite moral, or at least ethical, and basically good. It seems central but also strangely insignificant to me, that she has told lies about herself and her past. 

But can any motive for doing this, for stretching the truth, for somehow cleaning your work, or yourself, up for public viewing (including the very human one of wanting to look healthy and rested and attractive and, yes, a few years younger, in FB photos or book jacket photos, for instance) be not just understandable, but okay? I’m curious about where most people would draw the line these days. (And I do know that I'm conflating several different things here--textual appropriation and the massaging of one's autobiography among them--yet it seems to me that these things are all connected, in our increasingly virtual world.)