A Writer’s Notebook: notes from a reading

When I go to literary readings, I always take my notebook. Before I got my iPod, I took my notebook everywhere, but now that I can rely on the much slimmer iPod for emergency idea-jotting, I sometimes leave the thicker notebook at home. But at readings? I have to have paper and pencil to scribble the ideas that come up during those events.

Last night, I attended a Literary Mixtape reading here in Portland, at which Chloe Caldwell, Peyton Marshall, and  Michael Heald read the works of other writers. Here are some notes I took at that reading, with some explanations of the notes. Next week, I’ll tackle of of these ideas and post that as my Notebook entry.

Before the readers on the list got rolling, a fourth reader (or, technically, a first reader), whose name I didn’t catch because I’d arrived five minutes late, stepped up and read Donald Barthelme’s “The Party.” In it, there’s this line about a brutish guy at the party: “Yes, it was King Kong, back in action, and all of the guests uttered loud exclamations of fatigue and disgust, examining the situation in the light of their own needs and emotions, hoping that the ape was real or papier-mache according to their temperments, or wondering whether other excitements were possible out in the crisp, white night.” It’s a weird line, especially in light of the fact that “Kong” seems to be a metaphor, though Barthelme treats him as both figurative AND real, so it’s hard to know what the hell to think.

Which is what sparked this idea to insert a mythic, monstrous character into an otherwise serious story. In retrospect, I think Bigfoot won’t work — it’ll read too much like one of those Slim Jim commercials — and choosing an alternate will be hard without it coming off like a Hotel Transylvania reference, but I’m still curious about the possibilities.

The “turtle story” is a reference to a story I started about ten months ago and drafted parts of right here in the Notebook. The draft has changed drastically since then, and I’m planning to do one more big revision on it — according to this and one other note I’ve made elsewhere — soon. The idea to send the narrator to the coast came while listening to Michael Heald read Rick Bass’s “Redfish.”

The words in quotes are the title of a memoir by Ray Johnson, which Peyton Marshall read from. (It’s fascinating, which is why I wrote down the title — I want to read this book!)

The rest of the notes I scribbled while Chloe Caldwell was reading. I missed the names of the two books she read from, but the final piece was “How It Started,” an unpublished story by Texas writer Mary Miller.

For next week, I can’t decide if I want to try a draft of the monster-at-the-party story, the rearranging furniture story, or the stoned road-trip essay. Thoughts, readers? Feel free to weigh in and tell me what to write!

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

5 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: notes from a reading

  1. The rearranging furniture idea has a sense – to me – of movement/action, more than the others, which feel premise-y, like they are pre-action ideas.
    Since I like taking my premises into a space with some action in a storyline, I’d choose that one for myself, and I may…
    In my work– your results may vary– a premise is all well and good for sparking a story, but moving it into a story idea then, for me, requires the doing of things in order to reveal character and subtext. So that’s why I choose that one, of the three.

    1. Yeah, the premise thing is often my downfall — I love the idea of idea stories, but I don’t often see them work and almost never pull them off myself.

      Interestingly, I rarely begin with action to find my way into character; I tend to do the opposite, and the stories that more people like more consistently are the ones that began as character sketches and found their way into action.

      On the other hand, almost all of the stories in my story cycle were driven by idea+action, meaning I had a premisy (a word?) line I was basing each story on and then focused on the verb to get into the story. Mostly.

      So, never mind — apparently, I’m actually all over the place.

      I think the rearranging furniture thing is the most appealing to me right now, but the one I know how to approach most readily is probably the essay. But I have a week, so I’m not sure yet what I’ll actually tackle.

  2. Yes! you’ve reached into my mind and puled out just the right words to describe it: … ” stories in my story cycle were driven by idea+action, meaning I had a premisy (a word?) line I was basing each story on and then focused on the verb to get into the story.”
    If we believe that Character is story, and Character is revealed via action/reaction, and that subtext is not spoken of within the story, but is revealed in motivation; then Movement is required to bring things from a idea state (write about a party where, write about a car trip where) into something physical, visual and visceral for the reader.

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