Guest post: A writer learns to write

Marnie Mueller is the award-winning author of three novels: Green FiresThe Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador in the early 1960s, a community organizer in El Barrio in NYC, and then a member of Mayor Lindsay’s administration, responsible for programming cultural events in all five boroughs. She left city government to become Development Director and later Program Director of WBAI-FM radio; after WBAI she ran her own business producing citywide events, concerts, benefits, and weddings. Today she’s a full-time writer (and MacDowell Colony Fellow), working on a nonfiction book about her friendship with a Japanese American woman who–though interned during WW II–had a long career as a showgirl, dancer, and actor.

Read more about Marnie here, where you’ll find links to buy her books from Barnes & Noble. They’re also available from Powell’s Books.

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How I Taught Myself to Write Fiction

In the late 1970s I began a self-imposed sabbatical from a high-pressured, all-consuming job. Within two weeks of stopping work I had purchased a typewriter and, for no reason that I could discern, started to write. Before this I had never composed more than letters and grant proposals.

One day a narrative began to emerge, about a white family’s experiences in a Japanese American internment camp in Northern California. I wrote scenes of an uprising and an eventual army takeover of the camp and of a traumatized Caucasian child who was separated from her parents during the disturbance. The words poured out with such intensity that the tips of my Smith Corona’s keys kept flying off, and I would have to rush to the typewriter repair shop around the corner on Amsterdam Avenue. The owner, an Auschwitz survivor who knew of my background, would stop everything to solder them back on and send me home to continue writing.

The pages piled up, but soon I saw that I didn’t have the skills it took to form complex autobiographical and historical material into compelling fiction. All I had was a rambling, disjointed mass of incidents. Before I could proceed further, I had to learn the rudiments of narrative techniques. In order to do so, I devised for myself an assignment of writing a short story a day.

I decided to employ characters who had nothing to do with me so as not to get emotionally caught up in and distracted by substance from my own life. I created Bernie, an eighty-year-old dreamer, and Rose, another octogenarian and former vaudevillian, who met every morning on a park bench on the island in the middle of Broadway in upper Manhattan. Each day I applied a fictional technique to their exploits. On Monday I would tell their story in the omniscient third person. On Tuesday I would reconstruct the story all in dialogue. On Wednesday I’d have Bernie’s first-person account, and the next day it would be Rose’s turn.

Some days I restricted myself to descriptions of the Broadway malls and the surrounding streets, stores, and pedestrians; or to descriptions of how Bernie and Rose physically looked to each other; or to how they looked to me from afar and how their gestures told an unspoken truth. Later I concentrated on conflict between the two and saw how a narrative arc emerged out of attempting a resolution.

At other times I relied only on their internal thoughts, shifting and alternating their perceptions, illuminating the lies each told the other, to create an arc without an actual confrontation. I devised back stories for them, deepening their characters, embedding these flashbacks within the forward thrust of the tale.

Eventually my subjects took on lives of their own, no longer easily contained within my prescriptive daily control, as their narratives insisted on greater breadth and length to encompass their own autobiographical material. They had outlived their usefulness to me as a fiction primer.

The moment had arrived to say goodbye to Bernie and Rose, which I did with some sadness. Armed with new skills I returned to the story of the white child born in a Japanese American internment camp.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Rainy Day Books, Fairway, KS

That Bookstore in Blytheville, Blytheville, AR

Monte Cristo Bookshop, New London, CT

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