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Entries in Leah Stewart (5)


Writers on Wednesday--Leah Stewart

This week I have the musings of Leah Stewart on the process and craft, the delicate art form, really which is editing. Since I'm up to my eyebrows in revisions and spent the better part of this afternoon helping my senior student reshape her flash fiction, this couldn't be more appropriate. Enjoy!


In my experience the more convinced writing students are that not a word of their work should be changed, the worse their writing is. That resistance to editing is usually a sure sign of an amateur, someone fervently convinced that writing is about the pure rush of inspiration and expression, and not about the hard work of learning a craft, of taking editorial advice, of revising and revising and revising. How to explain, then, the much-admired and well-known writer who told me that when he got the marked-up manuscript of his last book from his editor, he sent it back in the box it came in, saying he couldn’t bear to have it in his house? They published it exactly as he’d written it, to much acclaim.


It’s worth noting that he himself said that, had he not been too “raw” to look at his editor’s suggestions, he might have been able to make it a better book. Still, even as a young writer, he chose not to publish a piece rather than take the editor’s suggestions, a choice it’s hard for me to imagine making, especially at the beginning of a career. When my first agent sent me the marked-up manuscript of my first book, I called a writer friend in despair over the changes he wanted me to make. My friend said, “Well, you know you don’t have to do everything he says.” No, I didn’t know that. I was an unpublished writer. He was an established agent willing to take me on. The notion that I didn’t have to do everything he said had honestly never crossed my mind.


In the end, thanks to my friend, I didn’t make every change my agent suggested, especially on the sentence level. But I did make at least one rather significant change I still regret, even now, ten years after the book was published. I went against my instinct to make that change, because he insisted on it, because he seemed so sure. My own convictions about my work waver. I have faith in myself as a writer, but not always in the writing I produce. There’s incontrovertible evidence, after all, that even the best writers write bad books. And then there are those supremely confident students as proof of the lack of relationship between certainty and skill.


My books are better for being edited. When I think about the changes I made to my second and third books, I feel no regret, only gratitude to my thoughtful, conscientious editor, who helped me make the books so much better than they were. I’m lucky to work with an editor like her, someone who offers feedback on plot points and lines of dialogue and everything in between, which not all of them do these days. There are times when I do exactly what she suggests, and other times when I balk. Some of her ideas might work for the novel at hand, but not for the writer I am. When I don’t want to make the change she suggests, we talk until we determine why she’s suggesting it. If we can pinpoint the problem, most of the time we can come up with a solution I can execute.


My better students, the ones so riddled with self-doubt they might actually become writers, sometimes come to me after workshop confused by their classmates’ contradictory assertions. They ask how they’re supposed to know which comments to value, which to ignore, where your own convictions about your work should give way to other peoples’. My advice is vague and clichéd, if accurate: Go with your gut. You have to doubt yourself to get better, but you have to have faith to write at all.


Did the writer who sent his book back to the editor act out of faith or doubt? I don’t know. Some writers are high-wire artists; some are bricklayers. He’s a high-wire artist, and maybe having reached the other side of the wire he couldn’t bear to tempt fate by stepping back on.


I wish sometimes that writing was like math, precise and indisputable, instead of the messy, subjective thing that it is. I’m a believer in pragmatic advice, of the “move this scene here” variety. But there are places where technique alone fails you. Writing well is not math but alchemy, a disputed and mysterious science, a chemistry of faith and doubt.  

* *** *


Leah Stewart is the author of the novels Body of a Girl, The Myth of You and Me, and Husband and Wife. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati.


Monday Musing... Up and Coming

Quick post to let subscribers, lurkers and the random passerby know what things will be looking like here for the rest of February and March.

For one, FAVORITES ON FRIDAY and MONDAY MUSINGS might be sporadic while I am hustling to get Book Number Two ready for the big dance. These next six weeks I’ll be trimming the fat, tightening-tightening that corset and making her into the belle of her own ball. So while I might not be musing much or waxing poetic on the virtues of things like Due Uve (tell me you’ve all tried this amazing white wine blend) I will still be bringing you amazing voices.


First up this week is Leah Stewart. Leah and I shared Sally Kim at HarperCollins who introduced me to her incredibly sharp writing. I talked about Husband and Wife here, how incredibly she captures the realities of early parenthood, gender roles, putting a fresh spin on infidelity. And while her subject matter might seem to be directed at women, J read The Myth of You and Me while down in Cayman in two rapt sittings because of her deft handling of plot and true-to-life characters. So that’s this week, and I’m excited to have her.


Then starting on Friday, (because she is absolutely one of my favorite things), each day this coming weekend, I’ll showcase my very best writer friend Linda Davis’ short story This House in three stunning segments. I promise it will blow you away.


After that, we'll have Diane Lockward, Caeli Widger, Darin Strauss, Julianna Baggott and my senior mentor student Rebecca Gyllenhaal. 

Thanks to all the subscribers and new fans who have written kind notes about CHOSEN these past few weeks, cheering me on and encouraging me on this coming book. You have no idea how much it motivates me to know that you’re out there, waiting.



LEAST Favorite on THURSDAY--bad hobby blogger review

Tomorrow is Friday, and I was planning to write my Favorites on Friday post as I fly over the southeastern United States about how much I love my winter sojourn to the warm, to my old stomping grounds in the Caribbean where my sister and friends and sunshine and glorious ocean wait for me. I was going to talk about how my kids have been debating for the past week what they will do very first: Run to the Climbing Tree--a wild and gnarled sea grape up the beach, or catch lizards or hermit crabs, or maybe mole crabs, or maybe just run into the ocean? They consider the merits of going right to Aunt Linden's house to feed the iguanas in her yard, or knocking on doors to see if any of their Christmastime friends are home, if anyone wants to do any of the above with them.

And I realized I don't want to be fussing with internet connection when I get there, don't want to worry about getting my Favorites on Friday post up. It's bad enough to actually have to unzip our suitcases to get out the bathing suits. So I thought I would get a jump on my Friday post a day early, and talk about one of my least favorite things: waking up to a crap review from a blogger. 

Prior to my book going out, I didn't know how this worked, but here's what I understand: these bloggers get your books for free from the publisher, in hopes that they will spread the word, taking a risk that instead they might be spewing a little venom. And a couple of mornings a week, I get a Google alert, open the link and hope for the best. More often than not, it's a lovely way to start the day. And then there was today. I get that not every book is for everyone, and that it is all part of the game--this new world of amateur internet reviewers.  But it still feels lousy to hear that my book had the 'worst ending of any book they read all year'. 

I would love for all hobby review bloggers to read this post by Jenna Blum. There are real people on the other end of these books. I really did ignore my children in the years it took to write this story. I have given up cozy nights with my husband and early mornings in bed and all television in favor of editing. I love my characters, flaws and all. I wrote this novel because I believe in it, and I sent it out to be published hoping for connection. I really do get up each morning with a cup of tea or in today's case, lie in bed with my laptop and a snoring toddler, and read the google alerts of my paper baby. 
So... to this morning's naysayer: I'm sorry it didn't work out for you. Thanks for taking a chance on it.

Today I'm packing my bikini and flip flops and some books. I'll be reading Leah Stewart's The Myth of You and Me, Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life, Kelly Simmons' Standing Still and I will be editing two manuscripts for friends. 
Tomorrow, I am doing one of my most favorite things on Friday: I'm off to the Climbing Tree with my kids.




Favorites on Friday -- Books so good you stay up late to finish them

It is the odd book that I can linger over, that I don't have to stay up late to inhale. It was a long few days and lots of Nutella and green tea recovering from the all-nighters that were Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Leah Stewart's Husband and Wife.

My most recent late-night read was a slim, spare, exquisitely-rendered memoir called Half a Life by Darin Strauss, which I received as part of being one of the authors featured with Darin at Atlantic City's NAIBA conference. It was 11pm when I picked it up off the bedside table pile, intrigued by the unique, half-jacket presentation of the cover. I didn't intend to read it all in one sitting; it was just something to keep me awake until my husband got home from his hockey game since we hadn't seen each other in a few days.


It begins, "Half my life ago, I killed a girl." It ended two hours later with me shaken, touched, and grateful for this author's honest, raw laying bare of the details of grief and guilt. Following a no-fault car accident a month before graduation in which he was behind the wheel when a schoolmate on a bicycle was killed, Strauss shares the human ways everyone reacts, the perception and reality of performance, the half-a-life struggle to understand how he really felt about it all. 


Memoir isn't one of my favorite genres--I recently finished Martha Beck's Leaving the Saints, her tell-some memoir about leaving the Mormon church and finding her own faith, and was moved enough to dig around for what I imagined was the 'more to the story'. It was astounding to me to read that she and her husband had both discovered they were gay and that their marriage ended during the time frame she talks about in the memoir, yet none of it was included. Understandably, that is likely 'another book' as she says in one interview, but I also think, how does a writer choose what to share when writing a memoir with a specific angle? What are the events that shape a person; how can anything be left out? I appreciated how Strauss addressed this by touching briefly on all the parts of his life that also happened during the half of his life that he was struggling to come to terms with Celine's death, but acknowledging that they are not part of this story. It is believable and authentic that a teenager can accidentally kill a girl, and still go on to become a ski bum in Colorado and lose his virginity and experience other life events.  


This is worth reading, not only because the story is both moving and moves quickly, but also because of the lyrical and spare way in which Strauss handles the craft of writing. 


QUESTION: So I want to know, what was the most recent book that kept you up late at night? 


Interview with Leah Stewart

Leah Stewart, author of Husband and Wife conducted an interesting co-interview on CHOSEN  and Susanna Daniel's Stiltsville.

I am excited to pick up Stiltsville and I am hoping to read The Myth of You and Me, Leah's earlier novel about the loss of a female friendship on my way to DC next week.