Where Do You Write?

Melville wrote from a bedroom in his Arrowhead home in Pittsfield, MA.

Where do you write? It’s a question that emerges frequently among writers. Next to the imagination, our own personal space is often the most sacred thing we have.

And the answer varies tremendously. Like Herman Melville, Flannery O’Connor wrote from a desk in her bedroom. And although the Mount included a sumptuous library, Edith Wharton wrote from bed, with her little dogs curled up at her feet!

The ultimate introvert, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote standing up from a podium in front of a blank wall, eschewing the distractions of the outside world. And although Carl Sandburg’s family ceded a front room with an expansive window to him at Connemara, he, too, preferred a smaller interior room at a desk turned away from the window.

As for me, I have tried numerous locations, including a little study in the front of the house, surrounded by the books of my favorite authors. As you can see from the picture below, however, Huckleberry Finn quickly appropriated this space for his own watch tower. And in spite of his literary name, he and I have very different job descriptions.

finnatwindowdog/dôɡ/: a domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, and a barking, howling, or whining voice. It is widely kept as a pet or for work or field sports, unless that work includes writing.

writer/rahy-ter: 1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist. 2) Unlike you are Edith Wharton, a writer’s work space rarely includes a dog.

The same barking and whining that makes our dogs so charming does often, regrettably, interfere with the reflection needed to write. In spite of this fact, many a writer owned a dog (Dickinson, Lord Byron, and Wharton, to name just a few) and these canine friends enrich our lives tremendously. But that is the subject of another post, I am sure.

As for me, I prefer to write at our kitchen table overlooking a north window. Being a bit of a literary hoarder, I find it useful to have plenty of space to spread out notes, reference books, index cards, and the like. I write primarily from my laptop, and I appreciate the occasional glance at the natural world, and the little dark-eyed junco skittering across the fall leaves.

From where I’m sitting, I can hear the comforting hum of the dishwasher or clothes dryer, which reminds me that the “other” work of the day is nearly done. And of course, because writing requires much brain power and therefore frequent sustenance, being close to the pantry is always a good thing.

In addition to having a semi-permanent writing space, I also carry a little notebook wherever I go so that I can scribble notes as the spirit moves me. I’m currently consolidating all of these notebooks, cards, etc., into one bigger notebook so that I can more easily draw connections among assorted scribblings.

What about you? Where do you write?

finn at my feet
Despite our different job descriptions, we always manage to end up in the same space, however.



Report from Andalusia Farm!

Main farmhouse – Flannery’s bedroom and writing haven is the front room to the left. This beautiful porch with its wide white rockers was where she met with her many friends and admirers.

“You’re going where?” asked my mom. “Milledgeville,” I told her. More specifically to Andalusia Farm, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Georgia. I also told her it would be a day trip…6 hours there and 6 hours back because I had to be at work the next day. When she still didn’t understand, I said: “It’s a little like Graceland. Remember how you felt when you took the bus to Elvis’s home?”

That did the trick. And while Andalusia is about as far from Graceland as you can ever get, for Flannery fans, it’s a “must-see.” I’m happy to report that we did not encounter the “Misfit” but we did indeed experience a little of the culture that Flannery wrote about when we stopped at a gas station for directions and were told by a charming and bemused  septuagenarian that we simply had to wait for the “bump” in the road (“You’ll feel it, you can’t miss that!”) and to turn right after the speed limit sign.

U.S. 441, the highway leading to Andalusia, with its fast food restaurants and hotels, would have been unrecognizable to Flannery these days, but as soon as we swung onto the dirt road, we were immediately transported back to her world. It seemed as if time had stopped. The sun was bright, the air was balmy, and of course, there was the eerie cry of a peacock who announced our arrival. The house and the interior had changed very little, thanks to the fact that the property had remained in the family since Flannery died in 1964. Her room was intact, even with her single bed and the curtains sewn by her mother, along with the Hotpoint refrigerator she had bought with her earnings from the sale of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

Meet Mr. Manley Pointer, the peacock named after the shyster Bible salesman in “Good Country People.” Talk about the grotesque…too beautiful to be real.

Save a busload of retired tourists who were delighted to see us “young people,” we had the place nearly to ourselves. This gave us plenty of time to walk the grounds and imagine the world through Flannery’s eyes. Later, we were lucky enough to sit down with the executive director, Craig Amason, who graciously gave us his personal attention and answered all of our questions. Flannery didn’t suffer fools gladly, Craig told us, which is proven out by her proclivity to satire. But she didn’t spare even herself from the razor of her wit, as she tended to save her worst for the “intellectuals” and the writers in her stories. However, if you look deeply enough, you can’t help but see a little of yourself in her characters. I admit to sometimes sounding a little like Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Country People,” as I have a tendency to see the glass half full.  And who hasn’t believed in other people a little too much, as did the mother in “The Comforts of Home?”

Of course I had to ask Craig if they ever felt the spirit of Flannery at the farm. While we know that Flannery would have decried the idea of the supernatural, he did acknowledge that from time to time, they felt a special energy about the place.  And as we sat there rocking on the porch talking about her life, her religious fervor and her taste in literature, it did feel as if she might indeed turn the corner and join us. And in that sense, perhaps Flannery never really died, as her legacy endures, in her books and the joy her words continue to give us. I know I’m loving what I’m learning in the book I picked up: At Home with Flannery: An Oral History. 

We ate lunch downtown at The Brick (making sure to stress that Andalusia had sent us there!) and our pixie of a waitress vaguely remembered her own high school journey to the farm but admitted she hadn’t read much of her work. However, when she found out that we had driven all the way from N.C. just to be there, she was inspired enough to say that she might just have to give Flannery another look, we are proud to say.

The journey passed fairly quickly thanks to the recordings of her stories that we listened to along the way. Of course we laughed and were shocked yet again by old favorites such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the sometimes overlooked “Greenleaf.” I loved Jen’s reaction to the end of that one: “Why did the bull have to die?”

So what’s next on our literary jaunts? There’s talk of a drive to Connemara (vacation home to Carl Sandburg in Flat Rock) and perhaps to Edenton for a glimpse into the life of Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. But as Mrs. Hopewell might say, if you can drive to Georgia in a day, anything is possible!

Getting Ready for Andalusia Farm…and Flannery!

ImageAs my readers and friends know, one of my literary heroines has long been Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern writer and master of the short story. One of my goals this year was to go on a pilgrimage to Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, and I’m so happy to say that it will finally come to pass this upcoming week, weather and God willing!   

Andalusia was Flannery’s family home and the place where she moved shortly after earning her MFA from the University of Iowa. The region (and its characters) was the inspiration behind her most famous works, and I hope to gain more insight into the all-too-short life of a woman who crafted such unforgettable characters as the Misfit, Manley Pointer and Ruby Turpin. 

My friend and fellow Flannery fan Jen kindly agreed to drive if I would read aloud Flannery’s short works to pass the time. It’s a six-hour drive so we’ll have plenty of time. We both are half-hoping to run into some of these characters; well, maybe not the Misfit, but perhaps “The Grandmother!” At the very least, we expect to see some peacocks, who are reputedly in their full plumage this time of year.

To prepare, we’ve both read Brad Gooch’s biography, the latest biography, which is chockfull of delicious details from her life and is one of my most favorite literary biographies of all time.

I promise to share an update and pictures soon!

More Musings From Flannery on Writing…and Softball!

Lately, due in part to the amazing short story class I’m currently taking led by my friend and teacher Ruth Moose, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the responsibility of the writer. Is the writer supposed to merely entertain? Or is she supposed to teach the reader something as well?

The reason I’m pondering is because I’m in the middle of writing a short story about a middle-aged man who is the self-appointed captain of a city softball team.  Entertaining the reader is easy enough as humor abounds in the circumstances. But the teaching part is a little daunting because if true, it implies that the writer should have a little wisdom of her own to share. Shouldn’t entertaining be enough?

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve embarked on an independent study of Flannery O’Connor, one of my most favorite authors. She died at the too-young age of 39 which makes her musings on the subject of writing all too brief. However, those that exist are all the more poignant because of their paucity. So, when I need a little help, I turn to Mystery and Manners, a collection of prose cobbled from Flannery’s lectures and the like.

The book is chock-full of wisdom but today I’m drawn to this statement in an essay titled The Nature and Aim of Fiction.”If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than can ever be to his reader.”

What I take from this pithy sentence is that yes, the writer may start with an aim to entertain, but the story that emerges may end up instructing the writer. In the same essay she writes: “It’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb dropped on Hiroshoma affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it.”

As I ponder further, Flannery’s comments strike at the heart of what it is like to be writer. It explains a lot about why we do what we do. Sure, we wish to record our impressions of a softball-obsessed control freak, but we also long to write stories that give meaning to such impressions and in our own way, make sense of the world. This is why, as Flannery also concludes, that writing is so difficult to teach; it’s constantly evolving, even in the best of writers. It’s not easy work but the pay-off is every bit as rewarding as hitting that elusive grand slam!


Inspiration from Flannery

I’m sorry for the long hiatus from the blogosphere but it’s been a busy few months with a lot of change! First, the publication of Born Again, Dead Again, has been put on hiatus. My previous publisher has decided to scale back the number of novels they release next year, and unfortunately, my second book was one of those casualties.

However, in my typical glass-half full approach, I decided retreat into the best refuge known to writers — the refuge of the mind. After a busy year filled with marketing and promoting Naked and Hungry, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to focus solely on my writing and the joys that the act itself brings to my life. With the help of a wonderful group of Pittsboro writer friends, I’m rediscovering my love of short stories, which, ironically, is what led me to write a novel in the first place. I’ve also enrolled in a class taught by celebrated local author Ruth Moose and am having a blast.

In between penning new stories, I’ve also embarked on an independent study of the works and philosophy of Flannery O’Connor, one of the icons of Southern literature. She is also the author of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” one of the greatest short works ever penned.

Yesterday, I came across a great quote from her. Drawing upon the wisdom of the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, she writes that “fiction writing is something in which the whole personality takes part — the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. Art is the habit of the artist; and habits have to be rooted in the whole personality.”

I discovered this gem last night when trying to explain to my son where writers find their inspiration. As for me, my ideas come from real life but they only sprout into stories once that idea has lain semi-dormant in the unconscious mind. I say semi-dormant because as I discovered in Imagine, the right hemisphere is never really dormant. The habit of writing is also important, as Lehrer would certainly concur, because true creativity occurs at the end of hard work.

So what’s next for me? In between my writing pursuits, I’m planning a journey to Andalusia in Milledgeville, Ga., Flannery’s homesite in the not-so-distant future. l’ll also be speaking at the N.C. Writers’ Network Fall Conference on November 3 in Cary on a more practical topic, writing for the internet. In the meantime, because many of you write, I welcome your thoughts on the joys of the writing life.



Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

Whenever I hold readings of Naked and Hungry, it never fails. Someone always asks me just where I found the name “Bermadean,” which is the name of an African pygmy goat in my book. Believe it or not, I always say, I let my fingers do the walking.

Desperate for a name for the goat, I happened upon on old phone book. As soon as I saw the name “Bermadean” my search was over. I can’t speak for the inadvertent donor, but for me the name conjured up the perfect touch of  Southern quirkiness. Done!

It goes without saying that the fiction writer shouldn’t lift both first and last names from a single person but you can cobble together some rather memorable combinations. Try pairing a first name such as Maxine with a last name such as Brown or Thomas. Need something more exotic? Change the spelling to Maxzine and add a last name such as Thorvelder or Fortenberry and you suddenly have a completely different character on your hands.

The phone book is also a great source of inspiration for story ideas in general. What do you imagine a woman who spells her first name Maxzine is like? I see an officious receptionist who insists that everyone signs in before being helped. What do you think? And what does a man with a last name of Bobo endure? How many schoolyard bullies did he encounter? And what is a family like who lives on Running Cedar Drive? I see them going in separate directions from the moment they wake up.

Drawing upon the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Charles Dickens, you can also use last names to plant clues. What would the last name of Brickhouse imply? Someone who is solid and perhaps a bit staid. How about Fairweather? Friendly but changeable. For me, the name Scattergood conjures up the image of a disorganized do-gooder, perhaps known for random acts of compassion.

It can also be fun to use irony. Imagine that someone named Maryann Bakewell is a terrible cook. What if she can’t even make a sandwich? What if a family who is forced to sell their farm and move to the city ends up in a neighborhood called Meadowcroft? And what if a love-starved spinster has lived all her life on Amoretto Way?

Not only does the phone book offer a handy resource for a writer, I find it to be very entertaining. My own is dog-eared with notes and flags, just waiting to breathe life into my latest work. Let your fingers do the walking and you’ll see that the phone book is an instant cure for writer’s block. And the best part? It’s perfectly free.

Fans of Bermadean will be glad to know she reappears in my sequel, Born Again, Dead Again, which is coming to a bookstore near you in September 2013.

A Little Menace

Got writer’s block? Don’t try to conquer it on your own. Find a little menace.

“I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story.” — Raymond Carver. On Writing. 1981.

The legendary short story writer Raymond Carver held Flannery O’Connor in such high esteem that it’s easy to imagine he was thinking of her most famous story when he penned these words. Here he outlines the perfect recipe for a rich and satisfying story, and the fiction writer would do well to study this advice within the context of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” While a violent criminal known as “The Misfit” does emerge, this classic story is driven by the “menace” of the protagonist. The scheming grandmother delivers the conflict, the motion, and the tension.

A first lesson for any beginning writer is to recognize the importance of conflict to a story. This one provides a textbook example of how to establish it quickly and effectively. In fact, in what other story is the conflict so quickly laid bare? With the very first sentence, “The grandmother did not want to go to Florida,” the stage is set. Although she is unsuccessful in changing the destination of the family vacation, she does manage to control the motion by engineering a detour.

In an attempt to relive her youth, she baits the children into convincing their father to take them off the main highway in search of a mysterious plantation house with secret hiding places. By the time she remembers that the house is actually located in Tennessee, the cat she had stowed in a basket suddenly springs forth and causes the wreck that delivers them directly into the path of the Misfit. Their doom is sealed by her arrogance. Her desire for supremacy overrules any sense of caution for as soon as she knows who he is, she immediately confronts him. “You’re the Misfit!” she says. The Misfit’s reaction is calm but ominous: “It would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”

The menace is also responsible for simmering tensions in the form of family dysfunction, which heightens the conflict in the story. The grandmother is a master of manipulation, and her weak son is easy prey. Bailey has many opportunities to stand up to her but fails. In the end, once they are at the mercy of the Misfit, he tries unsuccessfully to take charge but finds himself immobile. “ ‘Hush! Everybody shut up and let me handle this!’ He was squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward but he didn’t move.” To the end, even as he is pulled into the woods to be shot, he acknowledges his mother’s hold over him. “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!”

Either tyranny skips a generation in this family or June Star and Wesley are simply emulating their grandmother but nonetheless these two are despots in miniature. They are more than disrespectful to their elders; they use aggression—both verbal and physical—to have their way: “John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over her mother’s shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do.” In spite of their obnoxiousness, however, they are nothing more than their grandmother’s pawns. She knows precisely how to rally them to her cause. “ ‘There was a secret panel in this house,’ she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, ‘and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . .’ ”

The story reaches its climax when the grandmother locks horns with the Misfit, and the story’s most meaningful showdown ensues. Here she has met her match. While she continues to employ manipulation as her weapon, there is a new desperation. Helpless against the physical power of the tall Misfit, his henchmen, and their guns, the grandmother’s superiority dissolves into obsequiousness: “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people!”

The two do forge a bond of some sort, and the Misfit unburdens his heart. He apologizes for his lack of a shirt and divulges details about his upbringing and his supposed injustices. The tension escalates as the members of the grandmother’s family are shot, one by one, and in a futile attempt to save herself, the menace turns evangelist. “If you would pray,” she says, “Jesus would help you.”

Their conversation ends abruptly when she goes too far and hits a nerve. “She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.”

Even though she has to die in this story, the grandmother and the Misfit appear to have an enduring impact on one another. She may indeed have found salvation, as indicated by her smiling dead face and he, by acknowledging his own distaste for his crimes, does confess to owning a conscience of some sort. The story’s most famous line reinforces her murderer’s role as redeemer: “ ‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ ”

Much has been written about religious symbolism and the question of grace in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but for the student seeking to understand the more basic elements of a story, he or she can learn volumes about conflict by studying the role of the grandmother. Such characters can propel the conflict, tension and even the plot of a story. The menace may be annoying, despicable or even downright evil, but such a character is never dull. And their appearance is sure to help you solve even the most stubborn case of writer’s block.

The Turning Point

I’ve blogged before about the key elements of a novel.  Tonight I’d like to touch on the short story. For its brevity and eloquence, it’s one of my favorite forms, both to read and to write. Some of the world’s best-known novelists continue to experiment with this short form and for good reason. She’s a tough and relentless mistress, but once a writer succeeds with one, he feels as if the curtain separating us from the divine has parted just for a moment. That all-too brief glimpse is a wonderful and terrible moment because once you have experienced it you are forever trying to capture it again. The rewards for the reader run in parallel. The curtain parts and for the briefest of moments we are in sympathy with each other.

What makes a great short story? As much as I enjoy them, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve studied enough of the classics to know, however, that these masterpieces share something. They all have a major turning point for the principal character. The point at which this character realizes that their world will never been the same. Novels may have multiple turning points but short stories only have room for one. The author, and Flannery O’Connor is the best at this, may hint at the turning point, but it is up to the reader to figure out just when it actually happens.

In a “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” we know that the grandmother is malicious and scheming. We know that she has misled her family into veering off the main highway and causes them to fall into the hands of the notorious criminal, the Misfit. The turning point for the grandmother is the point when she lays eyes upon the Misfit. “His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.” And while later in the story, she will ask the Misfit to pray, she will touch him, call him one of her “babies,” and ultimately be shot by him, for me this first moment of recognition is what sets the wheels in motion for the grandmother.

Another example is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace.” In it, this master of the short story also foreshadows the end of Southern belle Sally Carrol’s engagement to northerner Harry Bellamy. The moment that it ends for Sally Carrol, however, is the moment she finds herself lost in a palace built of ice. “It was an icy breath of death; it was rolling down low across the land to clutch at her.” At that point, you know, you just know that she will not marry Harry and that she will happily return to the Southern “boys” that were beneath her before. And when she does, for the reader, there is that delicious little tickle in the pit of your stomach that tells you that you were right!

One story that I will also love forever is Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog.” And not just because I have a little white spitz, and not just because of the main character’s ironic observations about the people around him, but because of the way Gurov describes the moment he knows that this love affair will be different. “Anna Sergeevna looked at the ship and the passengers through her lorgnette, as if searching for acquaintances, and when she turned to Gurov, her eyes shone.” I’m sure this is even more beautiful in Russian, but for me it’s indelibly lyrical in English.  If you have never read this story, you simply must. The ending paragraph is one of the most exquisite of all short stories, even rivaling O’Connor’s fabled (and very different) ending of “A Good Man.”

There are many other key parts of a good story: unforgettable characters, pivotal scenes, and a strong sense of place, but what brings them all together for me is that turning point. I’ve been told several times by good writers that “there’s no money in short stories.” Perhaps that’s true, but the rewards of writing them are endless and lead to the kind of skills that will help you write longer works. So, if you’re like me, who’s working my way through two short stories (not to mention the sequel to my novel), take some time to read over your favorite short stories and identify that crucial turning point. But beware. It’s the moment where your world may also change forever.