Saturday, November 13, 2010

Q & A with Joseph Nalbone, Future Initiatives Director Here at Our Stories

Joseph Nalbone is from rural northeastern Pennsylvania, where he grew up exploring  the little piece of the Appalacian mountains outside his family's back door. He eventually went off to study computer science and psychology and worked at the local Knight-Ridder owned newspaper as a systems administrator. Remarkably, working closely with writers and editors left him with a good impression of the field.  He currently works as an Instructional Designer at Wilkes University. He earned his M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes with a collection of science fiction stories.  His MFA academic paper looked at how  the psychology of mindfulness provides a new perspective on a writer's goal, specifically that state John Gardner described as the "vivid and continuous dream." The internship here at Our Stories will complete his MFA.

Q: A lot of us love John Gardner here, so I'd like to ask: what are your thoughts on his writing about writing?

A: My experience with John Gardner 's writing is through The Art of Fiction. It was the first book on writing I read and today at nearly thirty years old feels like a faded classic. Looking at it again I wonder how many beginning writers it put on indefinite hold with its abundance of musts. The writer "must enable us to see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel;", and then again on the very next page, "The writer's characters must stand before us in a wonderful clarity…" Virtually every page contains a directive writers cannot ignore. I wonder now if this is a good way to encourage creative writing or if in fact it discourages any sort of experimentation. I didn't dive into writing short stories after reading it many years ago. I filled journals with my anxieties, but never wrote stories. To be fair, Gardner could be trusted to never steer you wrong, his book just reads like a term paper. Seriously though, his labored, academic discussions on aesthetics, truth, and metafiction were engrossing, but now seem joyless exercises written to please the trolls that inhabit English departments. Everything is dutifully compared and contrasted with a least three supporting examples because, well, it would come back as incomplete.  I picked up my little red hardback "How Fiction Works" by James Wood, after pushing through Gardner a second time to refresh my memory, and find it all the more exciting in its optimism about a writer's choices. Still, Gardner managed to say important things about writing that have stuck with me. He clearly had a comprehensive knowledge of the craft that probably worked better in workshops than in book form. Today, I enjoy reading Charles Baxter's essays on writing.

Q: And what is your own process of writing; in particular, how do you go about capturing your own "vivid and continuous dream"?

A: My writing process isn't something I can approach directly, like cooking dinner. Well, maybe no one approaches it that directly, but I don't outline or anything. It's more mysterious than that, but don't mean to imply glamorous. When other writers talk about their methods, I'm completely captivated. It's like watching travel shows on TV. I want to visit their part of the world. Seriously, though, for me the whole business of writing is fraught with emotion: bewildering, frustrating, agonizing emotion. It's like reliving every failure, every embarrassing moment, every disappointment I've ever had while sitting quietly at my desk. If getting it right didn't feel as good as it does, I wouldn't continue. I've made some progress during my MFA in Creating Writing. I found I work best if I put myself into a state of euphoria where I love whatever comes out on paper, ignoring the clunky writing. Of course the problem is I hate looking at my first attempts to find a scene or character, so I let myself become enthusiastic to the point of silly to get past the harshness. It's really not a workable method. I revise my writing pretty quickly. I cannot go on for pages and then read it the next day for revision – at least not yet. I'd like to develop that habit. One important discovery I've made along the way is where some writers fill me with awe others inspire me to write. There's something important in that trait, of coming away wanting to write a story, that I need to uncover. These last few weeks being away from writing, unforgivable according to many writers, I recall what a highly productive author said about writer's block. It's simply a lack of confidence. From this distance that sounds great, I just have one emotion to deal with.

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