Stonecoast: The Hobbit

I want to write a couple more posts about my experience at the Stonecoast residency this winter. As you know if you read my last post, Stonecoast is a low-residency MFA Program in which I teach, which means that I go up to Maine for residencies in the winter and summer, and then mentor students during the spring and fall semesters. This past residency, I led an elective workshop on writing fantasy. Most of the workshop was spent critiquing the stories students had submitted. But we also talked about the particular challenges of writing fantasy. The first day we talked about setting, then characters, then plot, then style. I thought I would talk for a bit here about creating setting in fantasy fiction, because it presents problems that realistic writers don’t have to deal with.

Basically, when you’re writing fantasy, you may be setting your story in a world that doesn’t exist. It can be much easier for a realistic writer, because he or she will have points of reference for the reader. “I walked through Central Park” immediately conveys an image to most readers (who have been in Central Park, or more likely seen it in movies or on television). “I walked through the gardens of the temple of Ashera” tells the reader exactly nothing. It conveys absolutely no visual image, except perhaps a green horizontal thing beside a gray vertical thing. So as a fantasy writer, you often have to work harder.

The day we talked about setting, I brought in a quotation for us to discuss. You’ll recognize it at once:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that meant comfort.

“It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill — The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it — and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another. No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had a whole room devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage. The best rooms of all were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows, looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

“This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses have lived in the neighborhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how one Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbors’ respect, but he gained — well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.” — J.R.R. Tokien, The Hobbit

That’s Tolkien at his most brilliant, getting you right into the story by describing where we are, by giving us setting. But notice how cleverly he’s doing it, and what risks he takes. In a hole in the ground lived . . . what? A hobbit. We have no idea what a hobbit is, so he has to tell us, not by telling us, but by describing that hole in the ground. He’s not actually going to tell us what a hobbit is until later. The reference to a hobbit can make us feel displaced, so he’s going to place us: we’re in a hole. He starts by doing something I was taught not to do in writing workshops: telling us what isn’t there, what that hole is not like. It’s not dirty or wet or dry or sandy. No, it’s comfortable. And then he describes it.

One thing I’ve come to understand from teaching writing is that to work, writing needs tension: you need to feel things pulling against each other. Tolkien starts that pulling right at the beginning: the tension between our assumptions and the truth. We think a hobbit hole might be nasty, but it’s not. Look . . .

And then Tolkien takes us on a tour. One continual problem with how writers describe setting is that they stop, and then they describe. We are still. Tolkien describes the hobbit hole, but notice that we are on the move: we enter through the door, move down the hall, hang up our hats. (Just as the dwarves will, later in the chapter. We are the hobbit’s guest before they are. We are the storyteller’s guest, and only at the end do we realize that in a sense, the storyteller was the hobbit all along.) Then we keep moving down the hall as it follows the curve of the hill. We look out the window, over the garden and down to the river. Then we are finally introduced to our host.

And do you notice where the novel begins? At the end of the third paragraph! There it is, bam: this is the story of how one hobbit had an adventure. So we have another source of tension: a hobbit went on an adventure. He found himself doing and saying things, and he lost . . . something. Found and lost, lost and gained: can you see the wonderful balance of the passage? We’re at the beginning, and we’re already talking about the end.

Tension comes from the juxtaposition of opposites, which we have plenty of in this passage. Suspense comes from things we don’t understand: we start by not knowing what a hobbit is, and we end by not knowing what the adventure is. And so we begin our story.

This is one of the most brilliant openings in English literature. By the end of the chapter, a great deal will have happened, and in the second chapter Bilbo will be off . . . no dawdling for the hobbit or Tolkien either. And from that second chapter on, he will always be in trouble. The narrator will be throwing rocks and rings and wargs at him.

These are the sorts of things we discussed in our workshop. In my next post on Stonecoast, I’ll talk about character . . .


A Still Place

I haven’t posted for a while, and it’s partly because I’ve been so busy. Mostly because I’ve been so busy. But there’s something else . . .

I feel as though I’m in a still place, a place of stasis. That’s not necessarily bad. Stillness is also peaceful, and I’ve been feeling less frantic than I have in a long time. It’s a good place: I love everything I’m doing. I love teaching undergraduate writing at Boston University, I love teaching my graduate creative writing students at Stonecoast. I have enough money to cover my living expenses and some luxuries, which certainly hasn’t always been the case. (Graduate school — ugh.) I live in a beautiful apartment, in a beautiful city. I just happen to have the best daughter in the world.

But it’s a strange place, too, because I’m not used to standing still. I’m used to things happening, to continually moving toward. Or, you know, away from . . . I’m used to a sense of motion, rather than stillness. It’s strange, for me, to think that I could stay here for the rest of my life, and it would be a perfectly good life. If nothing changed, I would be fine. Of course, that never happens. Things always change: if nothing else, I will get older. Nevertheless, if I stayed here, where I am, for a long time — it would be perfectly fine. And sometimes that fills me with a sense of panic.

Winter Storm 1

I think it’s because I’ve spent my entire life moving from place to place, adjusting to new circumstances. Hungary to Belgium to the United States. Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to Boston. To Richmond to New York to Boston again. University of Virginia to Harvard to Boston University. And now here I am, having lived in Boston for a long time, having been at Boston University for more than ten years, as a student and then teacher. A great deal has happened in that time — and it’s really only in the last few months, since I settled into this apartment, that I feel as though I’ve arrived someplace. That I’m not just transitioning from one place to another. There’s something lovely about feeling settled. But I’m not used to it.

I suppose what I should be thinking is, I’ve come to a place that I can build on. Here, where I feel both strangely at peace and agitated from that strangeness, I can finally start to build what I want to, which is books — I want to build out of words. My first full-length novel is already with my lovely agent. I just sent him a synopsis of the second novel. And I do have so many ideas, for novels and stories and essays . . .

So I suppose my advice to myself should be: settle in and work.

Winter Storm 3

The other thing I need to remember, to remind myself of, is that nothing ever stays the same. Stasis is, in the end, an illusion. The world may feel still, but it’s spinning. Everything we do, every choice we make, can change what happens. Who knows what will happen with this novel, or the one after it, or the one after that. The more we do, the more opportunities we are given to do things. And that sometimes means we are overwhelmed with work (ahem). But it also means we get to do amazing things . . .

I have already gotten to do a lot of amazing things. And I intend to do more.

So I need to take this stillness as the gift it is — a time when nothing seems to be happening, and I can maybe catch up, take a breath. Get ready for whatever is to come.

Winter Storm 4

(These pictures are from our snowstorm last week. Today we are having another snowstorm, and once again university classes are cancelled. I don’t remember them being cancelled twice in one semester . . . ever. Not since I arrived here more than ten years ago. This is a particularly heavy winter, just right for being contemplative.)

Stonecoast: Raven Poems

I haven’t written a blog post in two weeks! It’s because I’ve been teaching at the Stonecoast MFA Program. Once I got over the flu, I only had a few days to prepare, and then I was off on the train up the coast, to Freeport, Maine. Stonecoast is a low-residency MFA program, one of the best in the country, and I’m very lucky that I get to teach there. I’m particularly lucky because Stonecoast has a Popular Fiction section, which means that I get to teach not just writing in general (although I certainly teach that), but also specifically writing fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. This time, I led a workshop specifically on writing fantasy and made a presentation on Agatha Christie’s plotting. In a low-residency program, students spend each semester working closely (but at long distance) with a mentor, and then they gather for the twice-yearly residencies. That’s where I was: the winter residency.

But now that I have some time to write blog posts, I’m going to write about my experience at Stonecoast. So I’ll tell you how my residency went . . . And the first thing I’m going to do is post some poetry. I arrived at Stonecoast last Friday and immediately plunged into greeting faculty members and old students, meeting the new students, and of course the work of the residency. That first night, we had our first reading, and I was one of the readers. I read two poems, both of them about ravens. So I thought I would reprint them here! In my next few blog posts, I’m going to describe some of the things I taught. Of course I can’t give you the full flavor of what it was like — you had to have been there. But it will at least give you a sense of what I did during the residency, and some thoughts on fantasy and mystery (the two genres I focused on this time), as well as teaching in general.

(People sometimes ask how they can take create writing classes with me. The answer is: at Stonecoast. That’s it, I’m afraid. It’s the only place I teach creative writing, to the Stonecoast MFA students. But if I teach any place else, I will post that information . . .)

So to start us off, here are the raven poems that I read, with expression of course, that first night:


Some men are actually ravens.

Oh, they look like men.
Some of them in suits,
some of them in shirts embroidered
with the names of baseball teams,
some in uniforms, fighting in wars we only see
on television.
But underneath, they are ravens.
Look carefully, and you will find their skins of feathers.

Once, I fell in love with a raven man.
I knew that to keep him I had to take his skin,
his skin of feathers, long and black as night,
like ebony, tarmac, licorice, black holes.
I found it (he had taken it off to play baseball)
and hid it in the attic.

He was mine for seven years.

I had to make promises:
not to hurt ravens, to give our children names
like Sky, and Rain Cloud, and Nest-of-Twigs,
spend one night a week in the bole of an old oak tree
that had been hollowed out by who-knows-what.
I had to eat worms. (Yes, I ate worms.)
You do crazy things for raven men.

In return,
he spent six nights a week in my arms.
His black feathers fell around me.
He gave me three children
(Sky, Rain Cloud, Nest-of-Twigs,
whom we called Twiggy).
And I was happy,
which is more than most people achieve.

You know where this is going.
One day, I threw a stone at a raven.
I was not angry, he was not doing anything in particular.
It is just
that raven men are always lost.
Think of it as destiny,
think of it as inevitable.

I was not tired of our nights together,
with the moon gleaming on his feathers.

Or maybe he found his skin in the attic?
Maybe I had taken his skin and he found it,
and he picked three feathers from it
and touched each of our children,
and they flew away together?
Maybe that’s how I lost them?

I don’t even remember.

Loving raven men will make you crazy.
In the mornings I see them hurrying to their offices,
the men in suits. And I see them in bars
shouting for their baseball teams, and I see them
on television in wars that have no names,
and I say, that one is a raven man,
and that one, and that one.

Sometimes I stop one and say,
will you send my raven man back to me?
And my raven children?
Some night, when the moon is gleaming,
the way it used to gleam
on long black feathers falling
around my face?

And here is the second poem:

Raven Poem

On the fence sat three ravens.

The first was the raven of night,
whose wings spread over the evening.
On his wings were stars, and in his beak
he carried the crescent moon.

The second was the raven of death,
who eats human hearts. He regarded me
sideways, as birds do. Shoo, I said.
Fly away, old scavenger. I’m not ready
to go with you. Not yet.

The third was my beloved,
who had taken the form of a raven.
Come to me, I said,
when darkness falls, although
I’m afraid you too
will eat my heart.

This is where I was staying last week, at the beautiful Harraseeket Inn, in Freeport, Maine:

Stonecoast 3

And this is a bird’s nest I saw as I was walking down the snowy street, the last day I was there. It was filled with snow . . .

Stonecoast 5

Calling in Sick

Yesterday, I called in sick.

Since it’s Winter Break, there was no one to actually call in sick to . . . so I had to call in sick to myself. In the ten years I’ve been teaching, I’ve only called in sick to cancel a class once, on a day when I could barely crawl to the phone to make the call. (This was back when I still had a landline.) Usually when I get sick, but not very sick, I have a conversation that goes something like this:

Body: I’m sick.
Mind: No, you’re not sick. I have a lot of work to do, so you can’t be sick.
Body: I’ll put off being sick until the weekend. But then I’ll really collapse.
Mind: Deal.

I’m very good at not being sick for a couple of days. And then I really get sick when I have time to. It’s something I learned back when I was in college, taking exams. I would study study study, take my exams, do well on them. And then I would go to bed for a week, sick from exhaustion. Nowadays I don’t have exams anymore, but the ends of semesters are just as intense, and I tend to overwork myself just as much. What’s changed is that I cut myself less slack. I assume that I should be able to (a) grade papers and submit final grades for almost sixty students, (2) make sure my graduating MFA students get in their final theses, (3) send a finished novel to my agent, and (4) prepare for Christmas, including the shopping and cooking and decorating, without getting tired or feeling ill. Gracefully, like some sort of academic Martha Stewart.

Instead, of course, I wake up one morning and decide that showering and making breakfast both sound like way too much work . . .

The problem with being a doctor’s daughter (and I’m the daughter of two doctors) is that one was never allowed to be just a little ill. When I told my mother that I felt sick that day, she would come take my temperature. And if I didn’t have a temperature that said “fever” to her, I had to go to school. After all, she dealt with children who were genuinely ill, who were being treated for diseases like cancer. What I was doing fell under the category of malingering. Now when I feel ill, the first thing I do is check my temperature. If it’s normal, I immediately say to myself, “I’m not sick.” The problem is, I never have a fever. The useful thing about being a doctor’s daughter is that when you call a parent and say that you have a pain in your side and it’s probably nothing, that parent can say “Go to the emergency room.” Several hours later, you are being prepped for an appendectomy. At first, the doctors didn’t think it was appendicitis, because . . . I didn’t have a fever. (Not having a fever when you have appendicitis is apparently some sort of bizarre medical anomaly. So I can say with some confidence, seriously I never have a fever. If I ever did, I would probably be convinced that I was dying.)

But if you feel ill, you are ill. The feeling itself is a symptom. If you’re so tired that you don’t want to do anything but lie in bed and watch British crime dramas, you’re ill. If you think a piece of toast and a boiled egg sound like a perfect dinner, you’re ill. If showering sounds like way too much trouble . . . Well, it’s time to call in sick. Also if you’re coughing and blowing your nose, but I tend never to trust physical symptoms.

Mind: You’re just coughing and blowing your nose to fool me into thinking you’re sick.
Body: Go. To. Bed.

Basically, I’ve exhausted myself. My body is completely out of whack, and I need to get it back in again. (Is there such a think as in whack?) And that means giving it what it needs, which is a lot of sleep, and rest, and time completely alone. So I’m letting it sleep whenever it wants to, as much as it wants. And I’m still doing the work that needs to get done before next week, but more slowly. I’m not bothering with going out, or seeing people, until I want to again. (I’m an introvert, so this is very much what I need.) Luckily, I have several pairs of pajamas. I have at least a couple of days until I run out of food. I will probably take a shower today . . . I have books and Netflix on my computer, so basically, I’m set.

I think every once in a while we just have to call in sick to ourselves. We just have to say, “I’m going to be sick. I’m going to be sick until I’m well again.” And then we have to sleep and sleep, and binge-watch British crime dramas, and drink herbal tea. I’ll know when I feel well again because I’ll decide that I’m just so bored, and I’ll want to see what the outside world is doing. I don’t think it will take long.

But until then, I’m going to be well and truly sick.

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green

This painting is The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green. I am nowhere near this elegant when I am sick. But let’s just pretend I am . . .

Why I Write

Last night, I stayed up late finishing the final edits to my novel manuscript before sending it to my agent for the second time. The first time I sent it to him, it was in the “well, I finished the novel but I’m still working on it because it’s not quite right, but here you can see that it’s finished” stage. This time it was in the “I hope you like it because honestly I can’t stand to look at it anymore” stage.

If you’re a writer and you’re sending manuscripts out, you know the stage I mean. It’s where you read through the manuscript on screen and decided to take out “that,” and then you read it on paper and decided to put “that” back in. And as you’re putting “that” back in, you stare at the screen, trying to read it both ways: with and without the word “that,” which really is only one of approximately 108,700 words in your manuscript. But there you are, agonizing over the one word. (“That” is one of my particular, personal problems. I did not realize this until an editor pointed it out and I did a word search on the short story she was editing. Sure enough, there were an awful lot of “that”s, about half of them unnecessary.)

These are the sorts of questions you ask yourself when you’re at that stage:

1. Should she have “dark brown” or “darker brown” hair?
2. Have I used the word “monkey” too often? (Word search for “monkey.”)
3. Do I need to mention that she left her umbrella at home? It wasn’t raining that morning.
4. How many characters are snoring? Is that too many characters? Do I need to cut some of the snoring?
5. Wait, where is her revolver? Is she holding it all this time?

I did, in fact, cut some of the snoring.

I sent the manuscript out around midnight, as an emailed document file, about 370 pages long (double-spaced). And then I celebrated by eating chocolate and watching two episodes of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which took me to the end of Season 2. Now I have to wait until they film Season 3, which is entirely too long . . . If you haven’t heard of it, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is an Australian television series based on the books by Kerry Greenwood. If your taste in stories and television shows is anything like mine, you will love them. I adore Phryne (pronounced Fry-oh-nee), her 1930s Lady Detective, and I have to admit that I’m in love with Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. But that’s based just on the television series, since I haven’t read the books . . . yet.

So there I was, sitting in bed, in pajamas, eating dark chocolate with sea salted almonds in it, watching Miss Fisher on my computer (I don’t have a television). Thoroughly enjoying myself. And I thought: this is why I write. Because someday, someone might need something to entertain them, or cheer them up, or even just pass the time. And maybe my book will do that.

I think that’s worth all the agonizing over “that.”

It’s fair to say this novel took me two years to write: the first few chapters were written earlier, but I had to rewrite them after I finished my PhD and moved into my previous apartment. I had been thinking about the novel in the wrong way, and it took the mental freedom of having finished my degree to get it right. That apartment was where I really wrote the novel, finishing it last summer in Budapest and then adding the final chapters when I moved into this apartment, in August. Since then, I’ve been revising. And of course there has been a lot of revising along the way . . . Sometimes I think it’s pretty good, sometimes I worry that it’s awful and I just can’t see its awfulness. But I figure, it’s only the first full-length novel I’ve written, so if I mess up the first time, I’ll get it right the second time. Or the third. Or fourth. I’ll just keep writing . . . Someday, there will be a woman in pajamas, with chocolate, and she will stay up late to read something I wrote. Or maybe even watch something based on it, on her television screen!

So thank you, Kerry Greenwood, for doing that for me. You don’t know me from Eve, and you’re all the way on the other side of the world, in a country I’ve never visited, but you gave me two lovely hours. Oh yes, a television show is always separate from the book, although based on it. But it would not have existed without you, sitting in a room, probably in front of a computer, agonizing over that final draft. Just like me.

Miss Fisher

Phryne Fisher

These images are from the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries television show and the first book in the series, which I now want to read . . .