Happy 2021 and welcome to The Burning Hearth. I hope, as always but especially during this time of COVID, you are safe and well. Already 2021 has presented me with writing rejections and acceptances. I’m learning to understand that equates with balance. On January 1, I received 2 rejections. On January 11, however, I had a micro creative nonfiction accepted for the column Small Gratitudes at JMWW (it will be published later this month), and I’m happy to say I have a few things pending that I am hopeful will be out in the wider world soon.
As a writer, studying form and craft, are wonderful fun. At least, I think so. But it appears that for January’s guest blogger Kim Suhr, it is as well. She is the director of Red Oak Writing and author of Nothing to Lose (Cornerstone Press, 2018). I hope you enjoy her list of Go-Tos and her brief reviews and comments of each.
Dog-Eared Reference: Go-To Mentor Texts
On my writing journey, I have had more than my share of gifted mentors. Judy Bridges taught me to Shut Up and Write! Randall Kenan taught me to push for the authentic voice, and Steven Huff helped me let go and embrace the slightly odd. Sterling Watson reminded me of the importance of the dramatic question in fiction. Among many other things, Sandra Scofield taught me the value of interrogating my sentences—to make them clear and rhythmic and worthy of the ideas they conveyed. The other marvelous writers on the Solstice MFA faculty pushed my writing in new directions both big and small.
But you don’t have to be in an MFA program or a member of a writing studio to work with a mentor. My bookshelf abounds with wisdom from people who have been there, and I turn to each of them at different times for different needs. Here are just a few:
When the heart of a story eludes me: Story Genius by Lisa Cron. Cron reminds us of that all-important emotional through-line that gives our plot twists and turns meaning. “Story is what happens internally, not externally…the protagonist’s internal struggle is the story’s third rail, the live wire that sparks our interest and drives the story forward.”
When I need a writing exercise to go deeper into my character’s perspective: Now Write, Nonfiction! edited by Sherry Ellis. Yes, the fiction writer reaches for a nonfiction exercise book. I write in the voice of my character and instantly feel closer to their motivations, fears, and aspirations. My absolute favorite is called “Starting in Solitude” by Richard Hoffman. It has yielded some great insights and, once, a story, “Leave Taking,” that was published in Grey Sparrow Journal.
When I’m stumped by a question of craft: Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. Point of view, filter words, story arc, dialogue, imagery, plot structure, characterization: you name it, Burroway boils it down to a clear explanation with terrific examples to help me see what she’s talking about and apply it to my own writing.
When the pressure to give away my time/creative work/editing skills is too much: The Creative Professional’s Guide to Money by Ilise Benun. She reminds us to set goals before setting prices, so when we are approached with that great opportunity for “exposure” (instead of money), we can measure it against our goals. Sometimes the trade-off is worth it; sometimes it’s not. It’s okay to say no. And to say yes.
When my scenes lack forward motion and purpose: The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield. The wonderful little book unpacks the difference between scene and summary and reminds us how to use each to its greatest benefit. Showing isn’t always superior to telling.
When I’m having difficulty letting go of something that isn’t working: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. She writes, “Courage, exhausted, stands on the bare reality: this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get over it now. (Are you a woman or a mouse?)” I’d love to get a look at her waste basket and see what she demolished along the way to her beautiful, honest writing.
When I’m pretty sure everyone in the world is more creative than me, and I should go back to waiting tables—which, of course, involves its own type of creativity and includes instant gratification in the form of tips—and I don’t think I can handle one more rejection and…: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. This book is packed with anecdotes and hard-learned lessons that really resonate. I especially appreciate her recollection of a short story that was rejected early in her career because the ending “didn’t work,” then was later accepted by the SAME EDITOR WHO HAD FIRST REJECTED IT because she “adored the ending.” If you haven’t seen Gilbert’s TED Talk about Genius, I highly recommend it.
Some people scoff at books about writing and suggest they are used as a way to procrastinate and avoid the hard work of actually writing, but, well-chosen, they can be the perfect vehicle to get your project back on track. No fancy graduate degrees or friends in high places necessary.
Kim Suhr is author of the Nothing to Lose (Cornerstone Press, 2018), Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice Mom (2012) and co-author of the as-told-to memoir, Ramon: An Immigrant’s Journey. She holds an MFA in fiction from the Solstice Program at Pine Manor College where she was the Dennis Lehane Fellow in 2013. Her writing has appeared in various publications. Kim is Director of Red Oak Writing where she leads Writers’ Roundtable critique groups, provides manuscript critiques and coaching, and leads the summer Creative Writing Camps for youth. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys gardening, time outdoors with her family and being a fan-girl for her a grown children in their various pursuits.
Please, stop by on January 20 to view this month’s In Conversation…with Kim Suhr. We sat down together and enjoyed talking about her go-to craft books, her journey to becoming the director of Red Oak Writing, and chatted some about her book. We end the conversation with Kim reading from Nothing To Lose. Hope to see you then!