On a stoop

The Writing Process Blog Tour: freedom and work

My PhD exams are finally done! My brain is slowly recovering. A great pile of books keeps refusing to remove itself from my desk and return to the shelves. Thank you greatly to everyone who wished me well! I’m very appreciative.

Today, I’m answering the four standard questions of the “Writing Process Blog Tour.”

First! Thank you to the wonderful and inspiring Eva for tagging me in this viral writing process description experience.

Second! Apologies to the amazing multi-talented Sara Henning, who tagged me months ago, only I didn’t quite get what was happening, kept asking for clarification, and must have been a bit annoying to deal with. It was a slow month for Daniel’s brain, is all I can say.

So. Eva has tagged me and our modern-day Isis, Tawni Waters, who talked about neck hollows and mermaids — you should really go read her post.

If you are still here, here is my humble attempt, below.

1) What are you working on?

I’m working on a novel, This City is a Clock. It’s set in 18th century Edinburgh, at the time of the Scottish enlightenment. When Edinburgh’s leading architects discover that a young boy, Hand McLeish, has a strange gift with counting and time, they enlist him in the building of the highly rational, classically proportioned new city. Hand is delighted to help them, desperate to get his family out of poverty and away from Granny Wynd, the terrifying witch who lives next door. But when the architects run into a series of vested interests who oppose their plans, Hand has no choice but go to the witch and ask for her help: each time he asks, the cost to him and the city grows. The novel takes place in three sections: we meet Hand as a boy, as a young man, and in middle age, struggling to free himself from the deals he made with Granny Wynd.

That’s the plan! I’ve drafted the first third, when Hand is a boy, and have working all summer on the second third, exploring exactly how to start it the right way.

All writing work, however, has been stopped for the past few weeks, as I’ve been doing PhD exams. I was planning to submit a piece to Creative Nonfiction’s “Waiting” contest, but the exams swallowed their deadline without even blinking. I’ve also written another funny submission for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, but I haven’t shown the piece to anyone nor sent it in, worried it’s too depressing, and not actually funny.

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

This is a big question and a temptation to megalomania.

In terms of the creative writing world I’ve spent the last several years in, my fiction attempts to cross the literary / popular divide, to be firstly well-written, deep, intensely profound and so on, and, secondly, structured around a quick-moving, thrilling story. That, at least, is the goal.

My best story, for instance, is a tale about Billy Joel and time travel. It’s still unpublished, sadly, possibly because it’s 8,000 words long, or possibly because writing contests don’t like stories where Billy Joel is the protagonist. Let’s see where that story ends up.

And yet, I’ve begun wondering if I will keep thinking about fiction like this. I’m aware that part of my focus on keeping things popular is a reaction to being for so long in creative writing environments, where, I sometimes feel, there is a unhealthy focus on “art.” Now, I like art. In creative writing environments, however, the term starts to take on a funny echo, an odd shadow. I’ve long felt that if I write a story and no one really understands it, I am, as a writer, in a state of mortal sin. I must keep the focus on the reader, and how she reads.

But, now that I’m out of workshops forever, I feel my interest in “craft” declining. I will at least for the near future be reading only the work of my good friends (all great writers) and actually published work, and so the old impetus to talk about the gritty nuts and bolts of fiction may fade. And over the summer, reading for my PhD exams, I found myself thinking afresh about my old opinions. During the actual writing of those two exams, I found myself putting down answers I didn’t quite expect from myself. I discovered I felt more sympathy for the “market = bad; avant garde = good” view of fiction than I ever anticipated.

I hope this doesn’t mean I am simply turning one opinion on its head, swapping one view for its inverse or a milder, muddier version — with luck I will be able to keep all my old ideas but in a larger, more generous form.

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3) Why do you write what you do?

The world is not in a good shape. The job of the artist is to offer a vision of freedom.

Through that vision, the author hopes to break through the illusion of necessity, to show that we don’t have to keep reluctantly marching to our doom.

I think I take this view from Northrop Frye, who I first read in Taiwan. His book on William Blake and his “anatomy” of literature transformed my view of everything.

Of course, such grand talk is easy to remember when feeling well-rested, confident, comfortable, and encouraged. Much of the time, I’m not thinking about visionary freedom, but rather — can this piece get published?? Please, God, can I finish it and then can it be published so people think I’m amazing??

4) How does your writing process work?

I used to be a more regular writer than I am. I used to be a strict morning writer, avoiding the internet for as long as possible each day. Now, however, try to see writing as a rhythm of higher and lower energy, something one shouldn’t try to fight. Particularly with novels, or particularly with the novels I try to write, you have to figure out the right way in. Just slogging away doesn’t seem to work for me.

It’s still a good day, however, when I have breakfast early, bid the lady goodbye as she leaves for work, walk the dogs, then come home and get writing. I unplug the internet from the wall, open up Scrivner, and write until an early lunch. During the hours of such hard, good work, I feel the great gift that art brings, that vision of freedom.

Then I cook lunch and try not to be useless for the rest of the day.

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That’s it!

I will politely invite anyone who wishes to answer these four questions to consider themselves tagged. I will gladly link to you or, if you prefer, I can host your post here. Johanna Deane? Richard Hermes? Brenna Layne? Joe Ponepinto? I’d love to see your replies.

Daniel Wallace

Steps of Beitou

My Second PhD Exam Is Here…

Dear readers,

Sorry for the slow posting this week. I’ve been reading plays and poems in preparation for my second PhD exam, which starts in about 30 minutes. My first exam was on the history and theory of the novel; this second exam is on contemporary literature: novels, stories, plays, and poems published since 1945.

Before I took the first exam, I didn’t realise how physically intense it would be. It was strangely less of an intellectual challenge than a physical one. The sheer bodily exertion of planning, writing, and revising four separate essays, imagining all the time how the professorial committee would react, searching through scholarly books and novels for that half-remembered quotation–it was quite an overwhelming experience.

If anyone is preparing to do such an exam, I would recommend, alongside all the reading, a period of athletic training. Take up spin, or regular running, just so you can push through, late on the Saturday afternoon, a third or four re-write of that paragraph about 18th century metafictional novels.

Despite everything I’ve said about the gruelling nature of the experience, I found out at the end of last week that I passed the first exam with flying colours–a pass with distinction, the highest possible mark. It was a great relief, but I’m still in a small amount of denial that I have to devote a second weekend to the same process. And I had imagined I would happily settle down, during the week and a half gap between exam one and two, and in great ease work my way through the best British, American, and African plays of the last sixty years.

Instead, I mostly spent the time recuperating–although I have now read, finally, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — an amazing play. The exam begins imminently, and once its three days are up, all my PhD’s scholarly work will be done. I will have completed all general requirements–coursework, languages, exams–and will focus exclusively on my writing. This is a wonderful anticipation.

Best wishes to you all and your own creative and scholarly endeavours. See you on the other side,

Daniel

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Don’t Miss Out! Last Day for the Hands On Literary Festival in New Orleans!

Dear readers: today is the last official day to propose a reading, panel, or paper presentation at the Hands On Festival, in New Orleans, over New Year’s Eve.

After today, the schedule will be initially penciled in, and then chiseled in stone, and while late proposals will be considered, there’s no guarantee that space will still be available.

Or, instead, something awkward might occur, like your reading of extreme-formalist poetry being added to a session entirely made up of naively-historicist flash-memoir.

Ugh! I get chills just thinking about it.

Plus, today is the last day for the early bird discount.

The festival takes place from the 28th of December until after midnight on December 31st, New Year’s Eve. Mark Twain says that no American can understand the United States until she has been to New Orleans. Although not American, I agree with that claim. Plus the festival itself is great fun and an excellent way to meet new writers and readers. Plus the food is wonderful.

You can submit a proposal for a reading, paper, or panel here.

You can register for the festival here.

You can watch the festival’s video here.

Modern fiction, it's often said, is merely competent. Here's to some "incompetent" fiction.

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