In one of Stephen Elliott‘s recent e-mails, he wrote about becoming a Stanford Fellow. I wish I’d kept his exact words so as not to misquote him (sorry Stephen), but the gist was he’d submitted a different kind of story in his application. He’d written from the perspective of a 15 year old mental patient. After he was accepted he figured it was his originality, more than perfection of prose or command of craft, that got him noticed.
I thought about this last night at my Peninsula Literary Series reading. There were 6 of us, and the one that stood out the most for me, and for friends I talked to afterward, was Richard Lawson. He read 2 short pieces on the following: A retirement community arguing about whether to put out a flag on the 4th of July, and a gentleman in an elevator who can’t figure out what the “ground floor” means anymore.
What’s missing here? Death. Mother issues. Abuse. Addiction. Missing fathers. Teen angst. Childhood fear. Not to say these aren’t worthy subjects — hell, I’m writing about most of them myself, as does Stephen Elliott — but there must also be something else, something off the generic mark, something surprising, that makes it worth telling.
That was Reminder Lesson #1.
I got this lesson a second time as I browsed around the gallery. A lot of beautiful art (paintings, sculpture, photographs, texture) but there were a few pieces that stood out. My friend Bonnie (thanks for coming Bonnie!) led me to a series of paintings — all paths-through-the-woods images — and said, “All of these look basically the same, but there’s only one that speaks to me.” She was right. Of all the scenes, only one had just the right sunlight dappled through the trees, just the right depth of darkness down the path. Bonnie raised her hands and opened them outward, “This is the only one inviting me to walk through those trees.”
I have to close this post, of course, with huge thank you’s to my support system. Because of you I was only a smidge nervous. I almost forgot how to put my glasses on my face, but other than that…
Rex and Bonnie, of course.
Tommy, who brought Jason as the best surprise of my night – I’m so proud of you, kid.
And of course you, my blog crew, for your constant encouragement and advice. Lyra, I wore uncomfortable shoes and they worked: who can be nervous with pinched toes? Shanna, over at Betsy’s, who said “remember, nobody will mind if your reading is too short.” (Here I was worried about only having 7 minutes, yet when I was up there at the mic, looking out at those 50 quiet faces, it felt like 7 hours). Laura, who said “practice!” and I did enough practicing that I almost felt I could read it without the paper. Erika for the purple Carnvial Mask, which I carried in my purse, folded into my pages, as a talisman. It all worked.
Now, the morning after, looking at this photo, all I can think is: Tie your scarf next time – you look like a priest! And I desperately need a haircut, lest I start channeling a brunette Florence Henderson.
There are no new stories they are new in the telling.
I’m listening to A Thousand Acres on audio for the millionth time: sisters clashing, abusive father, dead mother, etc… But I still can’t get enough of the narrator’s point of view and the way she tells it.
I think you make a valuable point. As an example, my first novel found almost immediate placement, both with a literary agent and subsequent publisher because — I now think — it was about a young teenage girl moving to Kenya in East Africa.
I’d never fully considered the idea that it was the subject matter, more than the writing itself, that grabbed agents and editors.
This is truly good advice for writers looking to publish. Now … umm … are you following your own excellent advice???
We’ve missed you, Jody. I hope you’re writing is going well.
This is what I think about when I get bored with my book: If I’m bored, the reader will be in a coma. Why would anyone publish this? … which lights a little fire to keep me going.
You did it, Teri! You did it and had a good time. What an inspiration!
And a great post, too: ” . . .there must also be something else, something off the generic mark, something surprising, that makes it worth telling.”
Very, very good point.
What Sarah said.
And no you don’t look like a priest. You look like a writer dammit!
Good on you, Teri. and thanks for the post.
I absolutely look like Father Huels from St. Mary’s, circa 1977. He must have been watching over me, appalled at my use of the F word.
You look like a writer. A beautiful writer.
Yes, she does.
Yes, you do!
Yes, you do like a writer, snnaaaazzzyyyy! And from the land of scarves plus a life raised by priests and nuns, you do NOT look like a priest. Brava!
My new book is Set in Oklahoma in the early 70’s, not Africa, not ever. Trends, timing, of course those factors are at play. Now that Oprah’s off the air the angst they want is steam punk gothic not a girl in the backseat of a rambling car. So does that mean we write the story they want or tell it now and tell it true?
Steampunk gothic. I am so never going to be sitting at the cool kids’ table. I don’t get it.
I’d take the Oklahoma or Africa journey any day.
CJ (your initials are the opposite of mine!):
In my opinion, it’s not a choice. You do both.
You look beautiful, Teri! We’re all so proud of you.
i agree (this father huels must have looked like hot female writer…)
Teri, I’m so proud of you. You know how terrified I would have been in your place, but you look confident and stylish, like you’re owning the room.
“This is the only one inviting me to walk through those trees.”
GAH! YAY YOU!!!
Those are wonderful examples (the elevator guy and the retirement community flag debate) and a great reminder. When I’m reading, I love the concrete. You know how people feel by how they handle a situation, not because the author is telling you how they feel (yeah, I’m looking at me). You get the macro in the micro.
Thanks for the reminder.
And the scarf makes you look tall! Look how tall you are!
The tall boots! Those damned pinching boots! Ha.
Look at you! It really happened and you survived and now you’re a veteran of a reading. That is so cool. You look very smart in every sense of the word.
BTW, I know which email you’re referring to and it struck me as something critical to remember, too. Did you see the trailer for his movie?
I thought about you last night, Lisa. I see you as a rock star, ready to own that stage. That e-mail from Stephen Elliott has stuck with me. Because he’s right, of course. Can you imagine the number of submissions agents get where they say, “Oh dear lord, another dead mother! Another addict! Another missing daddy!” Right up there with the vampires. Of course we’re going to write those stories, but they really need to be different and have a reason to be. It was a good, and timely, lesson for me.
I guess to a certain way of seeing Hamlet is just another revenge story.
when i saw the photo, i imagined the audience members in future conversations saying things like, “I got to see Teri Carter a few years back, before her bestseller came out. She was a fabulous. I love the story she read. I can’t wait to go see her again on her book tour.”
I think the scarf looks perfect. That could be your thing. (my thing is going to be wearing t-shirts with rock lyrics on them.)
congrats. you’re beautiful. I’ll make one of these readings one day.
You’ll be wearing a rock t-shirt at one of our panel discussions … Lyra will be wearing her unicorn t-shirt, etc… I promise to tie my scarf.
You were in my thoughts Friday night, and I imagined you in your glory (what’s this talk of Flo Henderson? You look gorgeous, lady!) and hitting all your notes.
I wish we all weren’t so far that we couldn’t share in one another’s nights. Many more await you–we’ll have our chance. (And so glad the mask offered some comfort–but we all know the magic came from you.)
A little magic … “Roberta Bayonne lifted the bottle of dove’s blood over the shallow white dish and poured.” – p. 26, LITTLE GALE GUMBO
You did look great and I loved your hair. I thought you were trying a slightly new look!
Your voice added a new depth to your story for me and I hope that your book will be read and listened to by many.
Your story is beckoning me to take that walk into the woods. I want to read all of it. To the end. Can’t wait!
Bonnie, when I started writing this post, all I could think about was that painting you picked out. I wish we could have taken that Richard Lawson home with us — funny and adorable, he was.
Your hair, the scarf, everything is perfect and beautiful. The big question is: Did you wear your gray rubber bracelet???
As I told you before, you’re a goddess for taking this big step. So proud of you, Teri!
Thank you, Sherry. Painful as it was, it was great practice. I spend so much time in my little writer cave (aka, the dining room table) I forget what real people look like!
Congratulations!! I’m glad the practicing helped. And thank you for the reminder about being original and innovative in our work. (Spoken as someone who also enjoys writing about issues involving mothers and death and so on.)
I agree that you look very writerly up there. Wish I could have been there!
Hi Teri, I’ve looked everywhere on your site for a way to contact you and I can’t find it. Which certainly doesn’t mean it’s not there. Can you shoot me your email address? shanna (dot) mahin at gmaildotcom. xoS
Teri you are leading me through the woods! And the priest and brunette Florence Henderson, that cracked me up. Nahh! But you did it! How do you feel now? Able to handle another? Do you think another reading might possibly be… easier? Did they ask questions? Did you know what to say? I am half-terrified even to think these things – I have that writers’ festival in July, maybe another. Teri, you are leading the way!