Monday, February 29, 2016

Elena Hartwell Interviews Pamela Hobart Carter

This two-part interview with Pamela Hobart Carter appeared on Elena Hartwell's Arc of a Writer on February 1 and 15, 2016. With Elena's permission, I'm very pleased to reprint the complete interview for you.

Author, Playwright ... Geologist!

Pam grew up in Montreal. A geologist by training, Pam taught everything from preschool to science pedagogy for thirty years. She practices timed writing with two Seattle groups. With Arleen Williams, she founded No Talking Dogs Press which puts out short books in easy English for immigrants. She is writing a novel.

You wrote a series of short books for Adults learning English. How did you get started with the series? What was the process of working with Arleen Williams? 

I wrote The Old House on South Sixteenth Street because my friend, Arleen, couldn’t find the texts she wanted for her ESL classes. The Old House … features adult characters with adult problems in picture-book-easy English. It was really fun to write with the constraint of keeping the language simple, so I wrote two sequels and a second series. Meanwhile, Arleen wrote a series of stories centered on American holidays, explaining many of their oddities. We each wrote six stories. We wrote the drafts independently, then read and edited them aloud, together, so they became joint-efforts. Our process involved lots of cups of tea, dozens of brownies, and pounds of walnuts and almonds. In 2015 we published them under the imprint NoTalking Dogs Press.

How does working as a playwright differ from working as a novelist?

I am finding I do a few of the same things whether writing plays or my current novel. I plunk down some stuff, then I sort out actions on index cards and churn out scene lists and diagrams—a repeating cycle of seat-of-the-pants generating of stuff followed by organizing stints. I think of what a drawing teacher in college told me, “Don’t erase the wrong line until you’ve drawn the right line.” I like to have material on the page which I can erase or embellish.

I shuffle the material a lot. My current novel has had a slew of different openings and I haven’t even roughed in a first draft yet.

When I’m writing a script, I hear voices. But they’re useful, so please don’t call in the white coats yet. I read aloud if I’m not hearing them. Before writing their speeches I prepare the script by alternating, or otherwise intermixing, my characters’ names. Sometimes I have to delete these, but sometimes having the character’s name waiting ahead of me makes me come up with how that figment of my imagination would respond to the last remark.

I am lucky to have a wonderful playwriting critique group. We read each other’s scripts aloud so the playwright can listen, and we discuss. I depend on their suggestions to rewrite. I am extra lucky if a group of actors reads my script and I get feedback from them and any audience. From one “mean” reading by an excellent actor, I realized I needed to rewrite her character. I gave her character a softer lexicon so she could not be interpreted as a mean character in the future. Plays become group projects. When my plays have been produced, I’ve been fascinated to see how the director and actors make something new, which may not resemble what I initially imagined.

I broke off from the novel I’m working on to write a one-act comedy last fall. The playwriting buzzed along in a way that the novel-writing had not. The form of a play, as speech-and-response, action-reaction-reaction …, feels natural to me. Now that I’m writing a novel, I have all those other aspects of scene-writing, such as descriptions of person, action, location, thought, and emotion to contend with. Readers of my first section urge me to flesh these out more than I have. Most of all, I have the greater length to contend with. I need bigger stretches of time and longer focus.

So, the biggest difference may involve pace. I’m finding it’s okay to move slowly in writing the novel. I’m learning to take my time and not rush. A novel is big. It’s a lot to figure out and make sense of, but the schedule is wholly my own. This novel will take much longer than a play!

How does your training as a geologist impact your approach to writing?

I am a scientist at heart. My training in geology gives me an experimental approach. If something doesn’t fly, I change it, and send it off again. I love collecting and tracking data, as in, how many times I submit in a year, how many of those are rejections, and so forth. (Last year a poem I had submitted twenty times was published.) I’ve written plays with science content—one thought experiment for Infinity Box Theatre Project about robots, The Robot Decision, and two featuring the endangered parrot, the kakapo. Geological content crops up in a few of my poems.

      What impact does your timed writing practice (with two different groups in Seattle) have on your writing?

Timed writing practice is the opposite of writer’s block. Writing to the clock, allowing the writing to be ugly and/or raw, and writing with company keeps my pen moving and words falling onto the page. If ever I’m feeling stuck, I know to give myself a time-frame, to sit, and to write until the alarm sounds. Practicing timed writing keeps me optimistic. Practicing timed writing with a group transforms my solo activity into a social one and has given me community.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about color, art, and creativity. My novel’s heroine protects art and color in her beige-dominated world where Color Rules restrict. It’s a mess and it’s going to take me a long time to arrive at a first draft, and I’m having a blast.

The poem I’m wrestling with is “All Lines Dissolve” which features a goddess and waiting.

And I’m hoping for a couple of play readings this year.

Final Words of Wisdom

Wisdom is a big ask! Are final words of randomness okay?

When I’m scared or too serious, I remind myself:
No one is making me write. I do this because it is a good time.
I can make it anything I can imagine, and I can imagine much. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Past is Never Dead. It's not Even Past.

I recently read Paula McLain's memoir, Like Family - Growing Up in Other People's Houses. Abandoned by both parents, McLain and her sisters grew up in foster care. As the middle sister, McLain offers her perspective of their shared experience.  I was drawn in and held tight by McLain's vivid, flowing prose, her unflinching honesty, and her tenacity in overcoming her childhood challenges as a ward of the Fresno County, California court.

As a memoirist struggling with the family dynamics of publishing stories of shared experiences,  A conversation with Paula McLain in the final pages caught my eye. This particular question and answer feel so close, so real, I'd give my right arm to have written it, to be able to write it, for it to be my own truth. While the first half of the quote is not my truth, the second half haunts me. To deal with those haunts, I suppose I need a reality check now and again. I'm grateful to McLain, and to Faulkner, for just that.
How do your sisters feel about Like Family?  How were your personal experiences different from those of your sisters?

My sisters have been very supportive of the book all the way along, and proud of me for undertaking the project. I'm deeply grateful for this, particularly since I know they would never have elected to be revealed in such a way. Both of them have said that reading certain passages - even from the distance of twenty-some years, and the additional buffer that the telling was my version of events, not their own - was like reliving memories, experiencing them and the attendant pain and disappointment afresh. Being aware of their feelings has caused me some unease. My sisters have their own versions of our childhood, as well as their own strategies for dealing with the fallout. My sense is that they both feel more comfortable with the past behind them, or at least at a manageable distance from themselves. While I respect this, I'm more inclined to agree with Faulkner, who said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Monday, February 15, 2016

History Repeats

My husband is a history buff. There are countless documentaries awaiting him in My List on Netflix. More recommended each time we open the app: Because of your interest in. The other night I plopped down at his side as he watched the conclusion of Ken Burns' The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

That's when I learned Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a column called My Day six days a week for twenty seven years between 1935 and 1962. On January 23, 1939 she wrote the quote below, a quote as fitting today as it was when it appeared in her column seventy seven years ago, the eve of U.S. involvement in WWII.

...What has happened to us in this country? If we study our own history we find that we have always been ready to receive the unfortunates from other countries, and though this may seem a generous gesture on our part, we have profited a thousand fold by what they have brought us.
                                                                - Eleanor Roosevelt


Monday, February 8, 2016

Muddling Memoir: Confession

I began the Muddling Memoir series on November 16, 2015 thinking I'd track the writing of my third memoir from beginning to end. But here's my confession. In the last thirteen weeks I've spent more time focused on process than on memory. An avoidance mechanism, I fear, because I cannot say that all these memories are happy ones. But all I learned and experienced in the process, made every moment worthwhile. Made me who I am today.

They are memories of a young woman trying to find her way alone in Mexico City in the 1980s. The memories of a young woman searching for self and love. A young woman who felt more comfortable in a foreign culture, speaking a new language than in her own.

I will likely return to this series with updates from time to time on the progress, but for now I need to take a break from this self-imposed weekly post schedule. I need to shift my focus from describing and analyzing the process to engaging in the process of writing memoir. I need to write. 

Book marketing gurus tell writers we need to blog on a weekly basis to build readership. With less than a thimbleful of knowledge about marketing, I cannot argue with that. They also tell us that getting out the next book is essential. One of the realities most writers face is the challenge of prioritizing such contradictory activities within the limitations of the 24-hour day.

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Prior posts in the Muddling Memoir series: 
La Flor de Noche Buena