The past week has been a busy one for me. On Saturday night, I returned from the 8th grade class trip to New Mexico, where we visited ruins and living pueblos, ate delicious New Mexican food, and saw breathtaking sights. And the day before we left, the inspiring and entertaining A.S. King came for a thoroughly successful school visit!
I organized the visit earlier this spring, and since that time, A.S. (Amy) King has won an L.A. Times book award for Ask the Passengers and joined the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I got my MFA. She was an energetic, engaging presenter who gave students some excellent advice about writing and life. There’s no way I could capture all of the highlights of her presentations, but I’ll share a couple here.
The teacher side of me especially appreciated the way Amy told students that their middle and high school experiences won’t define them. She didn’t minimize their current challenges and successes at all, but she told them that they get to choose which people and moments they let into the “personal suitcases” they carry around with them, and she emphasized the importance of how they respond to setbacks, rather than the setbacks themselves. She also urged them to journal about the experiences that have shaped them and tap into their own emotions, so that they won’t hide anything from themselves, and so that they can use those emotions in their writing and other creative endeavors.
As a writer, I especially enjoyed Amy’s discussion of her writing process. She explained that she doesn’t tend to write with a strict outline, and she told the story of how surprised she was when she was writing Please Ignore Vera Dietz and realized that Vera had a bottle of vodka under the driver’s seat in her car. When Vera reached down for something, Amy genuinely didn’t know what she would find there. At first, it was perplexing to her that practical Vera would drink while driving, but then it became Amy’s job to tell the story of why this practical girl would have a vodka bottle under her seat. I love that idea; that if a character does something that doesn’t fit with the writer’s vision of him or her, maybe that seeming contradiction becomes the seed of a compelling story.
Amy also explained that in Everybody Sees the Ants, she initially included a house fire, which forced her protagonist, Lucky Linderman, to leave his ruined home and spend the summer in Tempe, Arizona. She ultimately realized the fire didn’t work, but if she hadn’t let herself go where the story took her and write that fire, Lucky might not have journeyed to Tempe. The fire got cut, but it got Lucky where he needed to go for the story to take off.
Usually, when a writer talks about “listening to characters” and “letting them drive the story,” I get the same feeling I’ve had on the few occasions I’ve gone to yoga classes, when everyone around me is breathing deeply, relaxed, and in the moment, but I can’t shut off my brain. I feel anxious and a little inadequate. Why won’t my characters whisper their stories in my ear? Sometimes I’ve thought they might be talking to me, but half the time when I’ve tried to sit back and let them tell me their story, I’ve written flabby, meandering scenes that go on and on without any forward progress. So when people talk about staying open to what their characters want the story to be, I usually begin to worry that I’m approaching this writing thing all wrong.
But I didn’t get that anxious feeling during A.S. King’s presentations. Maybe that’s because she was so warm and funny. Or maybe it’s because she wasn’t saying that there isn’t any place for strategizing and cutting in the writing process. In fact, her description of her writing process matched up with a lecture that Tim Wynne-Jones gave at Vermont College before I was a student there, about how writers should embrace their inner geniuses. I’ve listened to a recording of the lecture, and Tim urges writers to look for interesting seeds that they have subconsciously planted in early drafts, and then decide which seeds they might develop.
I don’t think this approach means that everything that your “genius” subconscious plants in a draft is going to work. In my current work-in-progress, I planted some hints that the main character might become a runner, so I tried to cultivate a running subplot, but it just clogged things up without adding anything valuable. But I also subconsciously mentioned baking and pastries in an early draft of the beginning, and one of my VCFA advisors, Mary Quattlebaum, helped me to realize that my main character might have a passion for baking. While the running idea flopped, my story started to come together after I embraced the idea of my protagonist as a baker.
A.S. King didn’t downplay what hard work writing is, and she gave students (and me) the sense that writing, or any creative pursuit, involves a balance of openness and strategizing, embracing and cutting. She was a hit with 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students, and current VCFA students will be in for a real treat when they get to hear her lecture this summer!