Do the Blog Hop

This week I’ve got something a little different for you. My friend Andy aka Mandrew asked me to participate in a blog hop about writing process (#MyWritingProcess). Since Andy looks like Jimbo Jones swallowed Hulk Hogan, saying no wasn’t a consideration. Really, though, Andy and I have been friends for five years and he’s one of the writers I respect the most, so being asked by a writer whose work you admire to talk about your writing process is kind of a big deal. It was also nice to have a prompt to use, since sometimes I have a hard time thinking of where to go in my posts.

You can find Andy at MANDREW’s Blissenblog, where he writes about everything from the fine art of spitting to letting his wife drop him off in the middle of nowhere (aka Northeast Minneapolis) before finding his way back to his house in South Minneapolis and everything in between. Although he scoffs at thesauruses (thesauri?), Andy has the largest vocabulary of anyone I know, and he uses his word knowledge to craft heady, humorous, and at times heart-wrenching prose. He’s worth a look and not just because I said so. http://blissenblog.com/

 

Starting a writing project sometimes feels like this.

Starting a writing project sometimes feels like this.

The premise for this blog-hop/chain letter for writers is simple: answer four questions and tag three other writer-bloggers. But, the reality is in doing it, I thought more about what I’m writing and how it fits into the larger literary world, which is sometimes difficult to articulate.

1. What am I working on?

I’ve avoided talking specifically about my book projects here for a few reasons. I’m not a superstitious person, but I am kind of protective of my writing, so talking about a piece before I’m finished writing it feels like tempting fate or jinxing the work or something. I don’t email people copies of my work very often, not because I don’t trust them or appreciate the feedback, but because the writing could then get forwarded and forwarded and suddenly I run the risk of plagiarizing myself. Seems ridiculous, but it has happened, so even talking about a piece has me worrying that someone could come along and steal my words or even the idea. But, I’m far enough along (self-imposed deadline of June 30!) and have told enough people what I’m doing now that I feel like I can share it here.*

SO I’ll finally tell you that (instead of writing here) I’ve been writing a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) dating memoir called The Cheese Stands Alone. What’s a CYOA? It’s a genre that rose to popularity in the ’70s and ’80s that often featured some exotic location (like Mars) and several obstacles (like unfriendly aliens or spaceship malfunctions) and the protagonist (you!) got to decide what happened next. It was really fun and put the reader in the main character’s spot, which is tricky but magical when it works.

I’ve taken that model and used it to make a memoir of sorts about my dating history. It’s mostly creative nonfiction (I’m sticking to the truth where applicable, but some parts are completely fictitious), and it’s mostly funny. You (the reader) can choose to do what I did or you can choose differently. You might die. You might marry someone (right for you or otherwise). You might jump out the window of a train car and start living underground. (Because of a date? Yes.) It’s been really fun (and scary and, in a few parts, sad) to write, but the finished chapters have also been really fun to read live (audience participation!). Both times I’ve brought chapters to a literary reading, one woman in the audience was horrified and wanted to end the “adventure” immediately. I believe it was a different woman each time, but I can’t be sure.**

Unfortunately, this project is taking up most of my free time and creative writing brain space, which is why things have been quiet here lately. I promise when I’m done I’ll have much more to post about. I also have a few short pieces floating around, which I’ll link to/post about if when they get published.***

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Well, there aren’t many Choose Your Own Adventure books out there, most of which are for kids, and none that I’ve seen (until someone sent me the link to Neil Patrick Harris’s autobiography, which came long after I started–I swear I’ve been writing this for three years!) are nonfiction. The form’s come back into popularity all over the place, but I promise I’ve been writing this before it became cool (again). I have to give partial credit to my brother, Michael, because when I started talking about going to graduate school for creative writing, he told me I should write a CYOA romance novel. Since I write mostly CNF and would have a hard time writing steamy romance scenes, I decided to use the form in a way that would work better for me.

CYOA books people have given me.

CYOA books people have given me.

I’m also a bit of an odd duck when it comes to CNF authors because I write humor. It’s not that other people don’t, but humor (like comedy in the film industry) is often looked down upon as cheap entertainment and not as worthy of praise in a recognition sense. We love funny movies (I could re-watch “My Cousin Vinny” 100 times and laugh at the jokes each time), but comedies never win an Oscar.**** Similarly, when was the last time a funny book won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Never.***** But writing humor is hard. Anyone can make a cheap joke (look to almost any Jonah Hill movie or the comedic stylings of most middle schoolers for that) but being funny without being crass, being clever without being crude, making a joke that gets people to laugh so hard they snort milk out their noses takes effort, timing, practice. I hone my humor all the time, even though it might look easy.

3. Why do you write what you do?

I’ve always been interested in stories and the family lore that has been passed down forever, and I grew up reading Patrick McManus and Dave Barry, and watching Seinfeld and The Simpsons, so humorous observations and cultural commentary were also key. I originally thought I’d go into fiction, but I fell in love with nonfiction through writers like Sloane Crosley and David Sedaris and Joann Beard and Cheryl Strayed. Looking back, no one was calling Patrick McManus and Dave Barry’s writing nonfiction or “memoir” or “personal essays” when I read them–at least, no one I knew–but technically that’s what they are. There’s something fascinating about true stories, especially true stories that are well-told.

And, of course, there’s the hope of “fortune and glory” and immortality. But really, I write what I love and I love writing, especially nonfiction. This CYOA project has renewed my interest in fiction, so my next book****** is going to be a novel, but I think my first love will always be nonfiction.

4. How does your writing process work?

In theory, like this:

I have a beautiful writing desk that, when cleared off, is the perfect place to craft a story.

I have a beautiful writing desk that, when cleared off, is the perfect place to craft a story.

In practice, more like this:

This is what my writing space usually looks like.

This is what my writing space usually looks like.

I really don’t have a formula except that I write all the time. On receipts, sticky notes, the back of my hand, used envelopes. I carry a little notebook and a pen around, but I also do a lot of writing (or pre-writing, I guess) in my head. I’ll turn a sentence or phrase or idea over and over until I can’t think about it anymore, I just have to write it. This works well, since I can be “writing” while I’m working on other things: doing the dishes, cleaning, even going for a walk (which is where I do my best thinking/writing). I also read a ton. I don’t think you can be a very good writer if you don’t read a lot.*******

These are all the books I read during graduate school.

These are all the books I read during graduate school.

We’re all busy and everyone’s time is precious; I’ve found that I have to make writing a priority, but when I can’t, I can still make it the spackling that fills the cracks of my day: five minutes here, ten minutes there. Sure, it’s better when I can sink into it and fully devote my time and energy and brainpower; but just getting the scaffolding down, writing the gist of what I want to say, or that phrase I’ve been turning over is better than waiting for a solid six-hour stretch in which to write. If I don’t block off that much time (and do a really good job of saying “no” to things), I will never have it. And if I only wrote in six-hour chunks, I’d probably never write. And that, for me, would be terrible.

Thanks for reading! Check out the #MyWritingProcess posts from these three next week:

Charlie M. Broderick aka That Girl Who Reads Books has appeared on my blog several times. She guest-posted a while back, and is my partner in crime in trampolining, archery, and finishing some long overdue projects. She also rocks a mean side-braid.

In her own words:

Charlie M. Broderick spends her days writing and avoiding writing. She can be found blogging at http://thatgirlwhoreadsbooks.com/

Stephanie A.M. Olson  and I met in Groundings in CNF and have been twin-friends ever since. (Seriously, people mistake us for one another all the time). She writes fierce prose and poetry, and I’m excited to hear about her writing process.

In her own words:

Stephanie Olson is a mother, writer, Twin Cities native, and farm wife who lives in beautiful northwestern Minnesota on the farm that her husband’s family has worked for the past four generations.  Her writing has appeared in Sacrifice Press and Versus Literary Journal, and her chapbook, Canon, is available with Red Bird Chapbooks. She blogs at http://uptownerupnorth.wordpress.com/

I met Jordan Wiklund the first day of graduate school and I liked him instantly. He recently moved into my neighborhood (yay!), and I’m looking forward to late nights talking about writing in his basement.

In his own words:

Jordan Wiklund is a student in the MFA program at Hamline University. His essays have appeared in PankFourth Genre, Brevity, and elsewhere. He is a contributing editor to Paper Darts, and assistant nonfiction editor to the 2014 edition of Water~Stone Review. He works in Minneapolis as an editor for Quarto Publishing. He is also co-author of Craft Beer for the Home Brewer. He and his wife live in St. Paul, Minnesota. He Tumblrs and Twitters at Jwiklund.tumblr.com and @JordanWiklund, respectively, and can also be found most Sundays at the St. Paul Curling Club, working on his takeouts and draws.

*This is a safe space, right? I mean, you all like me and wouldn’t steal my ideas, would you?

**Mom, was that you?

***I’m trying to be more confident; attitude is everything, as they say.

****Even though Marisa Tomei won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the movie, “My Cousin Vinny” wasn’t nominated for Best Picture; the nominees for BP that year were: “A Few Good Men,” “Howard’s End,” “Scent of a Woman,” and “The Crying Game.” Not a lot of humor.

*****This isn’t to say that there aren’t funny moments in the books that have won. But the list of winners, including Lonesome Dove, Gone With The Wind, Beloved, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Middlesex, The Hours, and The Color Purple is heavy on the gravity.

******Yep, I already know what I’ll be writing next. But I can’t tell you…yet.

*******That doesn’t mean you can’t be successful; I can think of some bad writers who don’t strike me as very well-read but who, for some reason, have sold millions of copies of terrible prose. I’m looking at you, Stephenie Meyer.

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About Sarah in Small Doses

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7 responses to “Do the Blog Hop”

  1. Bill says :

    I’d love to know the publication dates of those CYOA books in the photo. I read a lot of them in the early ’80s, and some of the covers (especially “By Balloon to the Sahara”) look vaguely familiar. I used to read every possible ending, sometimes cheating by looking ahead to make sure that my choices panned out.

    If you enjoy semi-autobiographical comedy writing from the perspective of single female, check out “Dork Whore: My Travels Through Asia as a Twenty-Year-Old Pseudo-Virgin” by Iris Bahr. Iris was a friend of mine at one point, but we’ve since lost touch.

    • Sarah in Small Doses says :

      “Space and Beyond”: 1980, with a quote from a Melanie Armstrong (a relative of yours?)

      “By Balloon to the Sahara”:1979
      “Carnival of Terror”: 1986
      “Isle of Illusion”:1983
      and “Vanished!”: 1986

      I think everyone read all the endings–how else could you know you made the right choice? I’m trying to write mine so that reading all the endings is fun but not necessary for those who only want to read one selection.

      I’ll have to check that book out. I’ve scaled back the reading time for writing time at this point, but after June 30…

  2. Bill says :

    1979-1980 sounds about right. I can’t imagine that I read any of the later ones. By 1986, I’d moved on to “real literature,” like James Bond novels.

    I can’t say that Melanie is any relation, although I often claim that Louis is my great uncle (and let’s not even talk about Lance).

    • Sarah in Small Doses says :

      I read up on the genre; it’s pretty interesting. The name “Choose Your Own Adventure” is trademarked, but it started out as The Adventures of You. I haven’t read any James Bond novels, but I’m trying to make it through all the classics, so I’m sure I will at some point.

      And what about Neil??

      • Bill says :

        Neil is kind of the black sheep of the family, since the whole moon landing this was a hoax. 🙂

        What about your? Kathleen Turner. Tina Turner. Turner and Hooch. Ted Turner. The Turners are every well represented.

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