Archive for the ‘The Creative Process’ Category

When novelist Laurie Albanese and art historian Laura Morowitz began collaborating on a novel about the 15th-century painter Fra Filippo Lippi, they discovered that their biggest challenge was to make the truth seem believable.  Laurie Albanese explains:

When my good friend Laura first handed me a book of Fra Filippo Lippi’s 15th-century paintings three years ago, she opened the door to a world as intriguing as it was unknown to me.

The paintings and frescoes were vivid and arresting: A stunning blonde Madonna surrounded by irascible young angels who looked as if they’d been plucked from the cobbled streets of Florence.  A cloaked man handing an infant to a maid in a hidden doorway, two women whispering to one another as John the Baptist’s head was carried into the room on a platter.

“They had a love affair,” Laura said. “Fra Lippi, the painter-priest, and the young nun who posed for the Madonna painting.”

Laura brought years of art history scholarship, boundless energy and skills, and a zest for research to our collaboration for our novel The Miracles of Prato. But the task of the novelist is markedly different than that of the historian.

Imagining myself in Fra Lippi’s Prato 1456 studio, I was faced with a variety of challenges:  First, to conceive and convey the internal life of a man who was both a celebrated painter and a scandalous monk.  Second, to put myself into his mind as he created the enduring fresco series in Prato that reflected his inner and external turmoil, his natural talent, his faith, his pride, his arrogance and his fears. Third, to understand how Fra Lippi, an orphan who’d been sent to a Carmelite monastery before his tenth birthday, might feel about the church as his protector, his sustainer, and his jailer … not to mention how he might actually find the place, the time, the nerve and the charm to successfully seduce a beautiful young nun.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction:  Lippi had done things that were implausible and even unimaginable. But he’d really done them, and so we had to make them seem believable.

Laura and I had no diaries, no journals, only a few scant letters, and no definitive record of the painter’s life. Everything but the barest outline of the story had to be invented.

It was equally challenging to imagine what would drive the gorgeous Lucrezia Buti into the arms of a painter-priest who was twice her age and nowhere near as attractive. What would compel her to risk scandal and scorn? How would she deal with the opposing tugs of sin and virtue, love and duty?  We could hardly ignore the fact that in Renaissance Italy, as elsewhere in Europe at that time, a woman had few options once she left her father’s home: she could be a wife, a nun, or a whore. Lucrezia Buti would not have been in a position to envision any other trajectory for her life. And yet, she found one.

In literary fiction, plot grows out of character. If your readers don’t believe that your characters would act the way you’ve imagined them acting, your novel will be as thin as a piece of deli Swiss cheese, and as full of holes.

Laura and I wrote long, imagined histories for Fra Lippi and Lucrezia – passages from their childhoods, stories and details that never made it into the book but that allowed us to get to know them better. We wrote lengthy scenes of internal dialogue and reflection, trying to puzzle out what they might have been thinking – this nun and this priest – when they recognized their mutual attraction.

We studied Fra Lippi’s paintings for clues to his psyche. To imagine his young life, we visited a monastery in New Jersey and the Santa Maria del Carminchurch in Florence where Lippi had lived and studied under the famed early Renaissance painter, Masaccio.

For clues to Lucrezia’s interior and exterior reality, we read up on daily life in Florence and devoured a nonfiction book, Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato, based on the life of a prosperous 13th century Pratese, Francesco Datini, then visited Datini’s well-preserved palazzo (now a museum and archive) in Prato.  We imagined we were nineteen again, with all the hopes and aspirations a nineteen-year-old girl might have for a happy future that is suddenly snatched away.

We climbed to the top of the bell tower in the Cathedral of Santo Stefano – the same bell tower that stood over the city when Lucrezia and Lippi lived there. We would have liked to visit the Convent Santa Margherita and Lippi’s studio, but those places have been swallowed by time and so we had to build them in our minds and map them out on paper, literally drawing out the convent grounds as we imagined them, acting as architects for Lippi’s simple studio quarters – the kitchen hearth here, the curtain across his studio chamber there, the sack of egg yolks, chemicals and powdered dyes for mixing paints on a crude wooden shelf beside his easel.

At some point we began thinking in archetypes: Fra Lippi as the passionate, tormented artist and Lucrezia as the vulnerable virgin beauty. From there we invented two other fictional characters who rounded out the dramatic action and also served as counterpoints to our characters.

These were Sister Pureza – a wise woman/crone – and Prior General Saviano, a corrupt patriarch.   We gave Pureza an herb garden to tend, and Saviano an appetite for rich wines and other things.  (I spent many pleasant afternoons wandering the paths of the medieval medicinal garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters in the Bronx.)

Once we knew that Lucrezia loved blue silk and had learned the art of silk dying from her father; that Fra Lippi understood the relationship of sinew, muscle, bones, flesh and spirit from early years in his father’s butcher shop; that Sister Pureza had taught herself the many natural properties of rosemary, thyme, nettle and so on under great personal distress; we had our characters. And then we were ready to let them tell their stories.

The Miracles of Prato is a Summer 2010 Reading Group List selection of IndieBound, the American independent booksellers group.  Laurie Albanese talks about writing, life, and walking at her blog My Big Walk.

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This was never the way she planned — not her intention.  But journalist Cindy Schweich Handler wrote some fiction.  And she liked it.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. And since I was an avid reader of fiction as a kid, that meant being a novelist. I was in fourth grade when I wrote the vaguely titled “Castle of Things,” a blatant rip-off of “Alice in Wonderland.” A year later, I followed this up with “Queen Elizabeth Alive,” a “Bewitch”-inspired imagining of the Tudor ruler coming forward in time to hang with a grade-schooler who happened to be a lot like me. Writing for fun was … well, a lot of fun.

As I neared college-age, though, and considered how I would eventually make a living, I decided to become a journalist. That way, I reasoned, I could consistently get paid to write, I’d experience the relatively instant gratification of seeing my work and byline in print, and I would learn about a variety of subjects while covering them. I ended up working in magazines for years and freelancing for them after starting a family, and I never regretted the decision.

That is, until years later, when I wearied of reading the final, heavily edited versions of my service pieces—those articles in women’s and parenting magazines that tell you, in strictly formatted, nearly style-free prose, how to raise a child, budget your time, or achieve any number of perennially visited objectives. Writing them paid well, and (before the market crash and digital revolution smacked the publishing industry) there was a demand for them. But I started to feel as if my writing was merely meat fed into a hamburger grinder. And it wasn’t satisfying.

It was at this point that I started hungering for a more enriching writing experience. Coincidentally, a friend who’s a successful fiction writer suggested that I attend a class for beginning novelists she was teaching in her home. With some trepidation, I took her up on her offer.

That was four years ago. Since then, I’m gratified to report, I’ve written one novel and nearly completed a second, scored a world-class agent whom I adore, and I continue to meet with my extremely supportive fellow students of fiction. (I wish I could say I’ve sold my first novel, but despite three near-misses, I haven’t. Yet.) What I’ve learned during this time, with the guidance of my excellent teacher, is that the leap from nonfiction to fiction is less about blind faith, and more about understanding what all good writing has in common. Among the observations I’ve internalized are:

  • What Stephen King observed in his wonderful guide, On Writing, is true:  the magic of writing lies in successfully transferring a thought as it exists in your head into someone else’s. That is, when you visualize an image or scene, no matter what genre you’re writing in, you need to convey it exactly the way you see it, as economically as possible for maximum clarity.
  • Always keep your theme in mind. This is true whether you’re writing an essay on, say, why cell phones are evil, or a novel about a woman who discovers that her dead son was a sperm donor (my current project). Your writing is an argument, basically, and you’re trying to persuade your audience of something. With non-fiction, of course, you do your research upfront, whereas with fiction, it’s an ongoing process of discovery that takes place in the course of the writing itself. But in both instances, there’s a lot of trial and error before it’s clear what’s extraneous and what gets you closer to your goal. The longer the work, the more arduous this process will be. Which brings me to:
  • Trust the process. A short story might be comparable in length to a long non-fiction piece, but a commercial novel probably averages around 90,000 words. It can take so long to write that first draft that it’s easy to look at the thing, after a year or two of effort, and think, “Wow, this sucks.” Maybe it’s helpful to remember an analogy I read by an online writer. The first draft, he said, is akin to your kitchen sink after you’ve washed off the Thanksgiving dishes: After a thorough going-over, there are bits and pieces that survive, and you go on from there. Sounds harsh — but it’s not, because that realization makes it easier to continue, and the next draft will work itself out a lot faster.

Commercially, fiction is harder to sell, since fewer people read it. And in my experience, it requires more focus and attention to write, because it’s more personal. But in that respect, I find it more rewarding. And not a mysterioso, you’re-born-with-it-or-you’re-not phenomenon, but rather a process that can be learned, and savored.

Cindy Schweich Handler is a former magazine editor whose nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, Newsweek, O: The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, and many other print and online publications.  She writes about politics for The Huffington Post and is currently at work on her second novel, Disaster Recovery.

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Last week I posted James Cameron’s answer to the question “What’s the most important thing you know about storytelling?” Discussing Cameron’s ideas with the writer Bonnie Friedman – with whom I have an ongoing, percolating conversation about craft and creativity (as regular readers of this blog well know) –, I mentioned that I particularly liked his idea that “you have to take [your characters] on a journey – and then you have to make it excruciating somehow.”  Excruciating – such an intriguing word!  Bonnie agreed, as usual responding with nuance and subtlety to my own visceral reaction:

“It seems to me sheer genius to come at storytelling from this vantage point,” she said.  “So many of us begin from a thing in us that demands to be told and whose unleashed energy we hope will fuel us all the way along, rather than from this distant and perhaps more masterly height.  And that term ‘excruciating’ is somehow so validating.  Because one does find those sequences late in a film just torturously suspenseful.  So many romantic movies end with a chase scene, the main character running: The Graduate, Manhattan, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Up in the Air, Sleepless in Seattle, Casablanca, etc.

“It’s interesting to think about this in terms of novels.  Even in Great Expectations, a book that precedes the movies by half a century, there’s a grand, excruciating chase scene at the end.  When Pip finally discovers who his benefactor is, late in the story, he also discovers that it’s urgent he help his benefactor run for his life, with the grand escape via the river, the race to intercept a foreign ship — and that sinister mystery craft which shoots out of the gloom and pursues them.  The whole race and apprehension of the benefactor Magwitch has this very quality of the excruciating about it.

“It occurs to me that one effect of this is that the audience is left with fast-beating hearts and an upswing of energy, even as they are haunted by the final, grand, masterpiece-sized vision – and so instead of feeling exhausted by their long journey, they end up energized, and want to relive the thing or recommend it to their friends.”

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The other night, flipping through channels, I came across a Charlie Rose interview with James Cameron.  Say what you will about the director of Avatar and Titanic (and Aliens) — he knows how to tell a story.  I was so intrigued by his answer to the question “What’s the most important thing you know about storytelling?” that I went to the pbs.com podcast and painstakingly transcribed it.

Here’s what he had to say (minus Charlie Rose’s approving grunts and overtalk):

“You have to find a key into the heart of the audience, which means you have to find universals of human experience and then express them in exotic new ways.  So you’ve got to find something that people recognize.  As simple as boy meets girl on a ship which is going to sink.  But the knowledge that it’s going to sink was a critical part of that storytelling.  Because otherwise you had two hours of women in corsets and funny hats before anything happened, before the ship even hit the iceberg.  But if you know it’s sinking, you hang around for all that.

“But I think it’s always about the characters and about how those characters express something that the audience is feeling.  So it has to have some universality to it, having to do with relationships, whether it’s male-female, parent-child, whatever it is.  And then you have to take them on a journey — and then you have to make it excruciating somehow. Challenged, endangered, in pain.  Fear, tension, and triumph.  Some form of triumph — our values, our victory, something.

“In the case of Titanic, everybody died.  Including, at the very end of the film, the main character, but she lived a life that she had learned.   There was an energy transfer from one character to another.  Which I also think is a fundamental of a love story, that there’s some a flow of energy from one character to another.  So I applied that rule set at a very abstract level to Avatar. Because it’s a very different story.  But I think you can step back to a very abstract level of general principles.  If you apply those principles, that will work.”

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Reading Roxana Robinson’s latest novel, Cost, I was struck by how beautifully and naturally she writes about place, from the coast of Maine to the streets of New York.  Consider this, for example – a coastal view from the perspective of a painter: “Julia’s studio was in the barn overlooking the meadow. Through the big picture window she had painted this many times, the rich rippling grass, the moving water beyond it, the glittering sea-bright light…. For the meadow, for that smoky pink grass, first an undercoat of dead green, for depth.  Or maybe yellow, deep yellow, for vitality.”  Or, later on, this visit to a drug dealer’s Brooklyn apartment:  “The foyer was tiny, with scarred gray walls and a floor littered with Chinese restaurant flyers. The lock on the front door was heavily reinforced with metal plates, but the door itself stood slightly ajar.  They went inside.  There was no light, and they started gingerly upstairs in the dark.”

I wanted to know how Roxana approaches writing about place, and what she may have learned about her process over the years that could be helpful to others.  So I wrote her and asked.  Below is her thoughtful response:

When I teach, I tell my students that, first of all, you must write the scene so that  your reader can see it. Sight is the sense we depend upon most, so, show us the room, or describe the forest path, or create the supermarket aisle, so that we feel as though we’re in it ourselves.

Place, the location, the setting, is integral to fiction. We’ll never forget the sense of openness and possibility, of well-groomed, natural loveliness, of the combination of freshness and candor with deep subtlety and venerability, that underlies the scene in “Portrait of a Lady,” when Isabel Archer has afternoon tea outside, on the lawn of an English country house. The velvet grass, the Persian rug, the tinkling cups. The glorious young woman, and the world before her.

But creating place isn’t simply a question of seeing, it’s a question of feeling as well. The way you feel about a place is the way your reader will come to feel about it – which is as it should be. So you must write from your heart about the place – about every place, a gas station on the New Jersey turnpike or your old kindergarten classroom. The way it makes you feel should be included in the description. Maybe you (or your character) are in a state of exaltation when you stop there for gas, and the way the sun gleams on the gas nozzles makes you giddy with joy. Maybe you hated your kindergarten teacher, the way her dress wrinkled across the hips, and her bad breath. Your feelings should go into the way you describe the wooden tables, the big windows, the boxes of blocks.

I often write about a place that I love. In my story collection A Perfect Stranger, the story “Assez” is, on one level, a love-letter to a part of France that I know very well. I wanted to write about that part of Provence, the way the wind sounds, the way the dark cypresses look, the way it feels to walk through a silent village late at night. So that part of the process of writing that story was really my own pleasure in remembering and revisiting a place I love so much.

In Cost, I did something similar. Much of the book is set on the coast of Maine, in an unnamed place. The book is centered on a shabby old clapboard farmhouse near the water, as the old saltwater farms often were. I have spend many summers on the coast of Maine, and it’s another region I know well and love, with its deep blue skies, bracing waters, staggering tides. But the house I describe is actually based on a particular saltbox cottage in Cape Cod, a place where I went as a child. So the book is, in a way, saying goodbye to a place that I felt very strongly about. It was a way of paying tribute to it, describing the place as I had known it. It was an opportunity for me to reveal, to the reader, the great delights of a place like that, for all its shabbiness and quirks. The house I knew was a place of great solace, solid and silent, peaceful, sheltering and beautiful in its deep connection to its surroundings: the lilacs outside the windows, the apple orchard gone wild in the meadow, the water in the cove, murmuring at the bottom of the hillside.

Because the house was so beloved, it became an integral part in the narrative. That wasn’t something I planned beforehand, but it somehow wrote itself into the story, because the house, and the landscape around it, were such a powerful presence.

Place should always be a part of the narrative – and it always is, really. What two people say to each other in a small stuffy bedroom will be very different from what they say to each other in a noisy train station.

And it’s also just as important for me to visualize the scene before I write it. I’m describing it for myself as much as for the reader, allowing myself to enter into that space, and those emotions. Here we are, I’m saying, this is how it looks. This is how it feels to be here. Now we’ll begin.


Roxana Robinson is a critically acclaimed fiction writer, author of four novels (including her latest, Cost) and three collections of short stories. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic; it has appeared often in Best American Short Stories, and has been widely anthologized and broadcast on National Public Radio. Four of her works have been chosen Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times, and she was named a Literary Lion by The New York Public Library.  She has received Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony.  Her website is www.roxanarobinson.com.

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As a project for school, my 13-year-old son, Will, spent several days carrying an egg around. His task was simple: all he had to do was keep the egg from breaking.

The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child.  Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.

As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced by this analogy.  A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes up four times a night.  But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg – he named it “Rosalito” – around, I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said.  “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”

And it dawned on me:  Carrying an egg around is like being in the middle of writing a book. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the book is in the back of your mind.  If you go too long without attending to it you get nervous.  Maybe there’s a crack, a hairline fracture, you haven’t noticed!  It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed.

Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical.  Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater.  But if you don’t nurture it properly you risk ending up with a mess.

My son’s egg stayed intact for a day and a half, largely because he swaddled it in straw.  A spontaneous pick-up game of touch football, with Rosalito in his pocket, momentarily forgotten, spelled the egg’s demise.  It was all right; in fact, Will said he was relieved.  No way was he ready for that kind of responsibility.

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Last week Bonnie Friedman found out something big …

As soon as I finished writing my guest post for this blog last week about how “people don’t do such things,” I put the computer in “sleep” mode, stood up, and the answer to the question I was secretly asking washed through me.

Why couldn’t I really believe that people in the world do mean and otherwise outrageous things (things that, if I could believe in them, I could let my characters do, as well)?  Because my sister was mean and I couldn’t let myself know it. Voila! Also: not so earthshaking, since she’s my sister, not yours.  But here’s the part that likely does apply to you.  We all have blind spots — things that we can’t let ourselves know and yet which we write in order to find out.  And if we don’t believe what our pens reveal, we have to keep writing the same thing time and again until we do.

What does the blind spot feel like?  What does denial feel like?  It feels like a numbness.  It feels like the bloated anesthetized lip at the dentist’s.  It’s large, it’s tingly, there’s a temptation to bite it and bite it again until one’s mouth drips.  It feels like something is there, but you can’t say what.  It feels like being stupid — others can see what you can’t.  They even laugh at how obvious it is!  And as you become more acutely aware that you are in denial, it feels like needing others for a verdict on your own experience, as if you have to steer your car by looking in a series of tilted mirrors rather than by looking straight ahead at the truth.  There’s something there, you need to know it, but when you look it’s subsumed in fog.

Which is why many of us write.  We want to get at that thing suffused in fog.

Why couldn’t I know that my sister was mean?

Because I loved her, and she was suffering.  She was a bossy, dear, acne-stricken, wounded girl who shared my bedroom and who frightened me.  I thought she was right that my existence was an imposition on her.  She’d been alive six years before I was born, and that proved in both our minds that I was an inconvenience she should not have to put up with.  I cringed, I obliged, I believed I was a doltish, messy thing — as if I lived inside a gooey, disgusting jellyfish or as if the jellyfish was all over me. I was forever pressing my eyeglasses against my face, trying to see better through that jelly haze.  I believed what my sister said. She was a clever, shrewd, unobliging sort, quick to point out others flaws.  I’d gawp, astonished at what she’d illuminated.  And I felt sorry for her, because her suffering was obvious.  And if she were alive today I certainly wouldn’t be writing this.  She passed away four years ago, freeing me to articulate and understand what before I’d had to keep concealed in the slam book of my heart, where I inscribed, under my observations about her, my own verdict on myself: wrong, impulsive, prone to distortion.

Even now it seems unkind and exaggerated to call her mean.  Surely she was merely outspoken. Surely she’d only spoken rashly from time to time.  The old denial wants to subsume me.

I could not see mean people in the world because I could not see a mean person in my bedroom.  And so my writing was hampered by a certain obligingness, a certain vacillating wateriness, a certain wishy-washy tepidity.  And it was only when I started admitting that certain people are bold and spiky and mean, or at least do mean things, and that I can trust my own perceptions, that my own world and writing acquired a greater clarity.

What would you see if you trusted your own vision? I ask myself.  What preposterous things would you know are true?   You are the person riding alongside the blind-spot girl.   You are the tilted mirror she needs.   Oh, believe the truth, believe it, I urge her.  Because in her other ear is the old whispering voice, still suggesting: You’re wrong.  You’re bad.  You don’t know what reality is.  Surely the truth isn’t as stark as all that.

This is the third in a series of three essays – including “The Novel Terminable and Interminable” and the above-linked “People Don’t Do Such Things” – that Bonnie Friedman has written for this blog this month.  Her book Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, is a modern-day classic, and has been in print since it was first published in 1993.

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Dani Shapiro explains why fiction writers shouldn’t think too much:

Over the weekend, I was talking with a friend about a particular writer who shall remain unnamed here for reasons which will soon become clear. She’s published quite a lot of books–fiction, essays, polemics–and in this case, we were discussing her fiction, which isn’t, in my opinion, very good.

“She’s a particular kind of too smart to be a good fiction writer,” I said.

My friend nodded in agreement. That was it. Too smart.

I’ve told my students for years that we need to be dumb like animals in order to write good fiction. What do I mean by this? To try to understand what I mean, I’ve been looking at my two dogs resting by my feet for the last few minutes. They’re relaxed but alert. Their ears are pricked, their bodies loosely spilled onto the floor, their eyes are open. They’re ready for anything–ready to leap to their feet at the slightest provocation. They see, smell, hear, taste, touch everything in their environment–or at least I think they do–but from a place of calm attention.

That kind of relaxed attention has a lot to do with writing good fiction. If I am thinking too hard, or too much–if I am layering thoughts and suppositions on top of the tender, frail beginning of story before I’ve barely begun, what I end up with is a collapsing heap of abstraction. When a writer is too smart for her own good, you can feel the weight of her thoughts on the page, like a truck straining uphill. You experience the author’s mental exertion, rather than the story itself.

The best writers, of course, are able to do both: feel and sniff their way through a story like a sure-footed animal through a thicket, and then, but only then, once there is a draft on the page, they’re able to think about it. To become first, willfully sensate and dumb like an animal, and then to become smart, lucid, clear-headed when approaching revision. We all know writers who are good at one or the other. The best writers are good at both.

It’s so easy to forget this. To think: I need to write something clever, something ironic, something The New Yorker might like. To think: but what’s the big picture? I need to know the big picture before I begin. The paradox of the big picture is that it’s only revealed one tiny picture, one small moment at a time.

Dani Shapiro‘s new memoir is Devotion.  Her other recent books include Black & White, Family History, and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and guest editor of Best New American Voices 2010. This essay originally appeared on Dani’s blog, Moments of Being.

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Several days ago I received an email from a woman who’d recently read my latest novel, Bird in Hand.  She mentioned that she appreciated my “honesty” – she liked that my characters had “definite real quirks instead of being perfectly lovable all the time,” and discussed her own novel manuscript, currently facing rejection from publishers on the grounds that the characters “aren’t sympathetic enough.”

I don’t know anything about this woman’s manuscript.  But the question of what it means to create sympathetic characters, and whether it matters, is an ongoing source of discussion and debate in writing classes and even among working novelists I know.  Without alienating the reader, how does a writer create characters who embody the complexities of real-life experience – the petty preoccupations, self-delusions, and misplaced vanities that all of us possess; the qualities that, it could be argued, make us human?

Writing about Robert Stone’s story collection, Fun With Problems, in the New York Times Book Review several weeks ago, Antonya Nelson addresses this question head-on.  Noting that Stone “declines to make his heroes ‘likable,” Nelson goes on to say, “The writer pays his reader the deep compliment of refusing to simplify his creations.  They are as flawed and sophisticated and complex and conflicted and naughty and tempted and contradictory and brutal and surprising as readers themselves.”  Nelson concludes the review by saying that Stone’s stories are not for everyone.  “You might turn away from the uncomfortable truths you don’t wish to receive, from the mature, dissolute, ultimately heartbreaking rites of passage that fill these pages…. [But] Fun With Problems is a book for grown-ups, for people prepared to absorb the news of the world that it announces, for people both grateful and a little uneasy in finding a writer brave enough to be the bearer.”

The graduate students I teach tend to disdain the idea of the sympathetic character, viewing the entire notion as suspect. “Whether a character is likable or not is irrelevant in literary fiction,” they say.  And they have a point.  In certain – some might say formulaic – kinds of popular fiction (romantic comedies, detective stories, “chick” or “mommy” lit), the hero or heroine is expected to follow prescribed rules of likability.  That is, she should be smart but unpretentious, fallible but fundamentally decent; life has knocked her around, but she remains optimistic and open to the world around her.  These rules don’t apply to Robert Stone’s characters; his readers expect to be left feeling a little uneasy as they ponder uncomfortable truths.

But I think that generally what readers want from a character — even in commercial fiction — is something more complex than likability.  They want to understand the character’s (or, in the case of memoir, the writer’s) motivations, whether or not they can empathize with him or her.  A character’s likability is largely irrelevant.  What matters is that the character is richly developed in three dimensions.

In my work as a manuscript editor I have found that there are lots of ways to improve a book that isn’t working, but one of the hardest things to fix is a story in which you don’t relish the thought of spending 300 pages in the central character’s world.  There are all kinds of reasons for this: the character isn’t developed enough; he’s too much of a caricature; the author makes him superficially ornery, irritable, and quirky (rarely a winning combination) as a way to incite drama that would otherwise be lacking.  Whatever the reasons, these characters are wooden, lifeless.   They don’t live and breathe.  True, the character may be unlikable.  But more significant is that he is not fully developed.

Lots of books are published – great books – with difficult and irascible central characters.  These are the ones that Antonya Nelson calls books “for grownups.”  But there’s a difference between these books and the manuscripts that languish unpublished because the characters aren’t rich or deep or full enough, their unlikability a problem of the writer’s, not the reader’s.

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Sheila Kohler, author of the new novel Becoming Jane Eyre, offers a nuanced answer to this perennial question:

Shortly after the publication of my first novel, The Perfect Place, my husband and I were invited to dinner by friends. I can still see us sitting somewhat awkwardly side by side while our hostess, a book critic, quizzed us about the new book.  The book, you need to know, is narrated by a cold, detached woman who moves through her isolated life observing rather than feeling. It becomes increasingly clear that she is not entirely innocent of a violent crime that has been committed.

Looking at us a little askance, our hostess asked, “But do tell me, I’m dying to know, how much of the book is true?” My husband and I both answered the question immediately and at once: he said, “Every word of it!” and I said, “Not one word!”

In a way we were both right.  Though my character seemed very far from me—indeed I thought of the aloof, narcissistic woman as my opposite – no doubt she reflected facets of my hidden thoughts and feelings which I was able to express thus disguised unto myself.

This question which always fascinates readers, “How much is true?” continues to come up more than twenty years later, though I have now published ten books and could hardly have lived all the adventures of my many characters!  I am even more frequently asked this because I have now turned from my own life, which was the basis of much of my earlier work, to the lives of others.  For many years I wrote repeatedly and in many different forms about the early and tragic death of a beloved sister who was, I believe, murdered, though her husband, himself, who was driving the car, survived and was never accused when my sister died in the accident.  This theme, of lost girls, comes into so many of my early books.

Recently, I have written about other women, famous and not so famous.  In Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness I wrote of a relatively unknown eighteenth-century woman, the Marquise de la Tour du Pin, who left France during the Revolution and became a dairy farmer in the Albany area, and now with my latest book, Becoming Jane Eyre, I have turned  to the well-known lives of the Brontes.

When one takes a real life, particularly one that is so well known to many readers, like the lives of the Brontes, and turns it into fiction, one has obviously to be careful not to alter the facts that are known, or not to alter them too much, but that leaves, of course, ground to cover. As Fritz von Hardenburg has said, “Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” There are so many things we do not know even about those nearest and dearest to us and of course we always make a selection. Real life is often too long, too complicated, and too boring for any book. In a way, when one takes a historical character that person acts as a sort of screen behind which one can both hide and onto which one can project so much that is true in one’s own life.

Believing I had left my own life behind, I found myself finding parts of it in Charlotte Bronte’s: the death of her sisters, of course; the sharing of her creative work with her sisters, which I have done so often with my daughters who write; the role of the teacher, which has been such an important role in my own life as well as my life as a student. Writing about the Brontes, tricking myself, in a way, into believing I was writing about someone else’s life, I was able to create a middle distance and to find myself in her story, as I hope many of my readers will find his or her own in my book.

Sheila Kohler is the author of seven novels: Becoming Jane Eyre; Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness; Crossways; Children of Pithiviers; Cracks; The House on R Street; and The Perfect Place. She has also written three books of short stories, Stories from Another World; One Girl; and Miracles in America.  Her work has received an O. Henry Prize, the Open Voice prize, the Smart Family Foundation Prize, and the Willa Cather Prize.  This essay, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in Penguin Group USA’s blog.

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The writer Bonnie Friedman considers what it means to create ‘realistic’ fictional characters:

“People don’t do such things!” is the last line of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler — words cried out by the scandalized judge after Hedda has shot herself off-stage.  His words echo in our ears as the curtain rings down and as the actors gradually emerge to take their bows, and as we shuffle out onto the street and back into our lives.

People don’t do such things! Well, if the blowhard who exclaims these words had actually believed it possible that the stymied Hedda might do what she threatens, maddened by the asphyxiating, conformity-bound society in which she lived . . . all might have ended differently.

Do people do such things? I’ve often wondered, reading about heroically outspoken or shockingly rude or tin-eared or laughably selfish or otherwise outrageous people in fiction. Yes, they’re great for the story, but do people in real life actually do such things?  I’ve often wondered about this because I wanted to write characters who confronted one another, who weren’t as nice as I was, who weren’t as cowed by convention, who had an edge, had bite – and yet it was hard for me to actually perceive such people in my life.  And I couldn’t write them if I didn’t believe in them.  I wanted to write realistic fiction.  Why couldn’t I perceive such people if they did exist?

One thing I’ve found about writing is that if you ask a question, the answers appear.  The main thing is to formulate the question.  Life starts supplying the answers.

In this case, I immediately heard a doctor say to a nurse, “You dress like a clown.  Don’t come to work dressed like that!”  I grabbed my notebook and scrawled his words.  I was sitting in a clinic in Iowa City.  I don’t recall what was wrong with me.  But I do recall thinking: “Oh, my gosh!  People actually do say such things.”  How could that doctor be so mean? How could he be so ridiculing?  What did he mean, “dress like a clown”?  Surely the nurse didn’t have a red rubber nose on (although in fact I pictured that she did).  Both were down the hall and my door was open.  A moment later the doctor appeared to treat me; he was a brusque, starchy person with a peremptory manner.  All these years – twenty years – later, I recall him.

And just yesterday I wrote in my notebook something else I wanted to remember because it, too, was so strange that my sense of reality wanted to subsume it, to deny it.  A man and his date slid into seats my husband and I were about to sit down in.  “Why don’t you see if you can move somebody else over?” said the man when I protested. Rather than argue, my husband and I raced to find other available seats, which were vanishing fast.  “What exactly were his words?” I asked my husband a moment later, and I wrote them.  This man was a handsome-ish man who’d stood near us in line, and had given away the whole end of “Up in the Air.”  Fortunately he’d said loudly, before doing this: “Did you expect that ending?” and I’d flung my fingers into my ears.   But the man talked on and on about the ending, while I pressed my fingers hard in my ears and hummed.  Now I thought: sociopathic people do exist!  And they are sometimes handsome, and obdurately oblivious or purposely uncaring of others, and they are real, and sometimes even steal your seat.

Such people exist in my blind spot.  As do many other people so rude or infuriating I automatically tell myself I misperceived.  So now I make an effort to notice when I stumble across them or they stumble across me, and when I find them occupying my seat.  One of the uses of writing, it seems to me, is to broaden our perspective, to wake us up, to end our innocence.  And one aspect of this, for me, is to behold what a fabulous world we live in, with the most stupendous people living here with us, and grand stories springing up all around.  How dull to be confined only to what we expect! I want to keep finding out what lives in my blind spot, what I tell myself can’t be true, isn’t real.  How tired I am of my own limited vision!  How eager I am to allow myself to see the unacknowledged aspects of my reality, and, alas, of my own quite flawed, loud, offensive, mistaken self.

I make it a practice now to record the unexpected, what makes me want to gawp and say, “People don’t do such things!” Contemplate the indigestible, the it-can’t-be-so, the but-people-don’t-do-such-things, I tell myself.  Because I don’t want to be that conventional judge crying his verdict in amazement at the last instant.   It benefits my writing to allow such characters in, and it benefits, as well, my vision of reality.

This is the second in a series of three essays Bonnie Friedman is writing for this blog this month.  The first was “The Novel Terminable and Interminable.”

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How do you come up with an idea that’s big enough to sustain a novel or memoir?  And how do you know when you’ve got it?

As a teacher of creative writing, I get asked this question a lot – and as a novelist, I can tell you that it torments every one of my beginnings.  A few days ago I put this question to the writer Katharine Weber, whose new novel, True Confections, was hailed by the Times Book Review this weekend as “a great American tale.”  (“It’s got everything,” Jincy Willett raved: “Humor, treachery, class struggle, racism, murder, capitalism and mass quantities of candy.”)

And here’s what Katharine Weber said:

I have been thinking about this for a few days since you asked me to consider this intriguing question, Christina. I am grateful to you for forcing me to think directly about something which is present in me as a writer but is intuitive and a bit organic, so I have to rummage a bit to explain it (which is always helpful to me as a writer, explaining what I do habitually without necessarily having full awareness).

I always have too many ideas. The question for me really isn’t ever Where do you get your ideas so much as How do you identify your best idea?

E.M. Forster wrote: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.”

So how do we know when we have moved from story to plot to something we can develop? This is the critical and significant kind of self-editing and revision and expansion necessary if one is going to write and publish novels in which the world is going to take an interest.

I think about the number one problem I encounter in writing I see in workshops: Often, a story or a novel manuscript will have sentences that are good, page to page, and the writing is “good enough” too, overall, yet there is something wrong, something not working. And that flaw can usually be characterized in this way: there is something about this writing, even if I am not sure what it is — plot, character, sensibility, key details, events — something, that means a great deal more to the writer than it can ever possibly mean to any reader. The specific details of what that is, only the writer may ever fully understand, but it signifies a serious discrepancy between the writer’s overly personal relationship to the material and any reader’s possible way of finding enough meaning in the material to want to keep turning the pages. So that’s crucial. You cannot fill your novel with personal elements that signify enormously to you and expect those things to glow with meaning for anyone else unless you have made them glow.

But I suppose the only real test for me of whether or not an idea for a novel is enough in every sense of the word — big enough, interesting enough to me first and foremost, nuanced enough, original enough, rich enough for me to write interestingly — is that usually I have dwelled with it for quite a while before I start to write. It has sustained me imaginatively as I dwell in the world of the novel that lies ahead. And that original idea may have in that time shifted and mutated into something different or tangential as I worked it imaginatively and strategically. It would be unlikely, in fact, if the original kernel of a really good idea did not expand in some direction, perhaps a surprising direction, befoe the actual writing began.

And you just have to learn for yourself what works for you, and be willing to trust your instinct even as you develop your instinct, so that over time, experience will tell you when your ideas are enough to sustain a novel, more than enough to sustain a novel, or on the verge of way too much — too much going on, too many disconnected ideas — which can be the mark of insecurity. You have to be able to make decisive choices. Everything in the novel should be necessary to the novel. So for me it is sometimes as much about throwing elements and ideas overboard as it is about finding ideas.

Katharine Weber is the author of five novels: Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, The Music Lesson, The Little Women, Triangle, which takes up the notorious Triangle Waist company factory fire of 1911, and the brand-new True Confections, the story of a chocolate candy factory in crisis. She is working a memoir about family stories and the narrative impulse, Symptoms of Fiction. You can learn more at www.katharineweber.com.  Also, follow her brilliant blog: http://staircasewriting.blogspot.com.

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Bonnie Friedman writes about the lure of (and cure for) the endless novel:

I just finished my first novel.  This isn’t the first novel I tried to write.  Before publishing a book of essays and then a memoir, I’d been a devoted fiction writer.  I’d written hundreds of pages of two vast novels, one when I was in my twenties and one in my thirties.  But this last one is the first novel I’ve finished.  Those other novels were a great pleasure and torment to work on — I got to explore internal states that haunted me, and I got to wander amongst skeins of gossamer prose sticky as butterfly wings, and I got to understand (among other things) aspects of my childhood with my sister, who had been a grand volcanic, wounded girl.  But I didn’t know how to finish either of the books I started.

They were all middle and no end.  They were all sprawling, surging second act.

I didn’t know that I was allowed to figure out where my characters ought to end up, and then explore how they might get there. I didn’t know how conscious I was allowed to be during the writing process.  I didn’t know that if I focused on one particular problem that a character was trying to solve, myriad others would snap into clarity.

I’d grown up reading experimental writers — Woolf, Stein, Barnes, Joyce — and really didn’t understand the least thing about novel structure. For me, reading a novel was a state of immersion.  I read slowly, savoring the serif type and the glow of the linen page (I’m thinking of a certain paperback of Mrs. Dalloway that I was given for my 21st birthday, and which I read munching Mint Milanos and sipping sweet instant coffee from a tin).  “How true!” I’d write in the margins with a coal-soft pencil.  I’d assumed that to write a book one must simply get immersed.  And I liked immersion.  It was less scary than decision.  “Discover, discover!” I told myself — the mantra of writing schools in those days.

I wrote in order to set on the page certain internal states.  I wanted to see what they meant.  I didn’t yet know how useful it is to give one’s traits to a character who is a bolder version of oneself.  I didn’t yet know that a novel must involve a character who changes by the end. At a certain point I recognized with this last novel that it too might go on forever accumulating pages and becoming less and less publishable if I didn’t impose a bit of discipline on myself.

I bought screenplay writing books, playwriting books, and even a novel-writing book or two — those dreaded texts I was convinced would flatten all my originality, what there was of it, to mere formula.  And all proved useful.  I hadn’t understood that the effect that a novel creates isn’t the same as the technique used to create that book.  Nor had I understood how entirely I merely loved the dream-state of adding to my novel.

Now what’s thrilling is pacing through other people’s novels and seeing how they’re hinged and braced.  Noticing the decision points.  And allowing my own characters to make decisions.

Gone — I hope — is some of that sticky enthrallment that kept me caged in mammoth manuscripts for so long.  Each writing temperament, I’m convinced, has its own perils.  The peril of mine was to remain for epochs in a prolonged inchoate state of mazy inconclusiveness.  The heroine of my novel altered, as did I by writing her.  Now I see a book as a device to discover more than one could have known beforehand.  And that acquiring technique is essential.  It is the artifice that, like eyeglasses, lets the world become clearer.  I’m all for it now, when once upon a time it was anathema to me.

Bonnie Friedman is the author of the Village Voice bestseller Writing Past Dark, Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life, a widely anthologized book of essays.  She is also the author of the memoir The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy.  Her essays have been included in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Writing on Writing, The Best Spiritual Writing, and the Best of O., the Oprah Magazine.

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Lorrie Moore is one of my favorite authors (Like Life and Birds of America, her story collections, are on my shelf of prized books), but I did not love her new novel, The Gate at the Stairs.  I found it emotionally arid, the dialogue too clever by half, the twists, when they come, both unsurprising and unearned.  I think it was a mistake for Moore to graft her own distinctive, sardonic voice onto the college-aged farm girl who narrates the story.

And yet.  Moore is undeniably a good writer, a real writer.  I marveled at her language, from the sound and simile of “In the sky the returning geese were winging over, their honking alto bark like the complaining squawk of a cart” to a starkly vivid “hot lemony sun.”  The novel contains observations so acute and thoughtful that I had to restrain myself from underlining them in my borrowed book.  (I used Post-Its instead.)  Moore captures small moments in all their fibrous complication, as when the narrator catches a little girl before she tumbles to the ground:  “Her face seemed to smile and sob at the same time, a look that said That may be fun for some people but not for me, and I placed her securely on my hip, feeling the biceps in my arm already beginning to strengthen and my jutted hip on its way to socket stress and limpage.”

Toward the end of the book, Moore makes a quiet, incisive comment about authorial intent that resonated with me, one that I think many writers can relate to.  The narrator muses that “in literature — perhaps as in life — one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself.  The creator was inconvenient — God was dead.  But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires and plans and little winks and dance steps and collaged intent.  In this way Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney.  The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings!”

As a writer, I find it freeing to remember that my conscious intentions for my work are only one part of it, that a fully realized story takes on a life of its own beyond the will and intent of the creator.  This moment of insight – one of many such illuminations – redeemed the book for me.

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Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project, talks about the thrill and the perils of trying something new:

There’s a common occupational hazard that affects writers, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about it: the desire to write outside your main field.

I know a journalist who took a sabbatical to write a novel, which turned into a short story. I know a science writer who is writing a play. I know a novelist who is writing a memoir.

This change can be exhilarating and fun, because it’s a new creative challenge – and that contributes to a happy life.  But it can also be a bit of a pain, because these projects can feel … oppressive. With writing, often, there’s a strange feeling of compulsion. You just have to write about something. I remember hearing Kathryn Harrison remark on a panel, when asked how she chose her topics, “You really have surprisingly little control about what you want to write about.” I knew exactly what she meant. I had to write a book about power, money, fame and sex — when I was clerking for Justice O’Connor, I was writing that book on the weekends. A few years later, I felt I couldn’t go another day without working on a biography of Churchill.

Of course, you can choose what you write about. You just can’t choose what you want to write about.

For the last few years, for example, I’ve been desperately fighting the urge to write a book about St. Therese of Lisieux. I have a lot to say, and I think most of her biographers seriously mis-read her writing, and I’d love to set everyone straight. But I resist because I’m not Catholic, I have no doctrinal expertise, I don’t even speak French! No one would read my book – but how I would love to lay roses at the feet of my spiritual master, St. Therese.

Although I write non-fiction, three times in my life I’ve had an uncontrollable urge to write a novel. My problem is that I’m not much of a storyteller, and these were “novels of ideas.” Which, I know quite well, is not a good way to write a novel. One novel was about the apocalypse, one was about why people destroy their own possessions (I later wrote a non-fiction book, Profane Waste, on this subject, in collaboration with artist Dana Hoey, and it worked much better in that form), and most recently, I wrote a novel-in-a-month about the happiness consequences of two people having an affair. (I describe this experience in The Happiness Project book.)

For a writer, it can be a gigantic distraction, and therefore a work liability, to have these projects press on you. They get in the way of the work you really need to get done. They can be fun, creative, and satisfying, yes, but writers, like everyone, need to be productive in the work for which they’re paid.

This has happened to me, yet again. I have this idea for a novel – but for once, in a nice change, it’s not a novel of ideas. Well, it is a little bit. But it has more plot than usual. And it actually has some real characters in it. It’s also a young-adult novel, which I’ve never tackled before, although I’m a huge fan of children’s and young-adult literature.

But what’s the point of view? I imagine it like a movie, with a distant third-person narrator, but I need to locate it in my main character’s point of view…and then how to handle the gradual reveal of the secrets I want to emerge slowly?

I really don’t have time to be fussing with this right now!

I mentioned this dilemma to a friend who is an editor and a YA writer herself, and she said, “You should just write it! That’s the happiness project thing to do!”

She’s absolutely right. It would make me very happy to write that novel. But while it would be fun, it would also be draining and difficult and distracting. Plus, I would really try to make it good, but it probably wouldn’t end up being good – and if I go to the trouble to write a book, I really want it to be good. It would be “play,” in that I’d be doing it for fun, but it would use up precisely the same energy that I use for “work.” More time at the keyboard, can I stand it? Of course, it might energize me as well.

I know that I’m extraordinarily lucky to be a working writer, debating whether to do this extra project for fun. For now I think I’ll hold on to my idea, and promise myself that I’ll make a start on this novel this summer, if I still feel the urge.

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In which Annie Dillard articulates the seemingly inexpressible, discussing what she likes about writing fiction:

“The interior life is in constant vertical motion; consciousness runs up and down the scales every hour like a slide trombone.  It dreams down below; it notices up above; and it notices itself, too, and its own alertness.  The vertical motion of consciousness, from inside to outside to back, interests me.” (from To Fashion a Text)

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Fiction writer David Jauss analyzes Chekhov’s endings and explains why they were revolutionary at the time — and what we can learn from them today:

Early in his writing life, Anton Chekhov became convinced that new kinds of endings were necessary in literature.  While writing Ivanov, his first major play, he complained to his publisher about conventional endings—“Either the hero gets married or shoots himself”—and concluded, “Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”  And that is exactly what Chekhov did, both for plays and for short stories.  Even now, more than a hundred years after his death, we are still very much in the era Chekhov opened up.  Chekhovian endings have been adopted, and adapted, not only by the usual suspects — Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff — but also by such otherwise un-Chekhovian writers as Donald Barthelme and John Barth.

Whereas most fiction, past and present, focuses on a character’s climactic change, Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change.  And even when his characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.  His endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.  Chekhov commented on this fact in one of his letters, saying, “When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.” A great number of Chekhov’s stories end by saying implicitly what one story says explicitly: “And after that life went on as before.”

But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they’re just not the kind of endings favored by previous writers.  They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

In an article forthcoming in 2010 in The Writer’s Chronicle, I discuss a dozen ways Chekhov subverted traditional short story endings.  Here are three of them:

1) Anti-epilogues

Like Henry James, who complained that epilogues were characterized by “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs, and cheerful remarks,” Chekhov despised such endings.  Many of his stories end by simply denying the very premise of an epilogue: the possibility of knowing what the future might hold.  Instead of giving us a pat account of how everything will turn out, he typically returns the character, and us, to the uncertainty of life, leaving us wondering what will happen next.

The fact that these endings leave his characters’ future fates open suggest that, although Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change, he was also aware that sometimes lives change in dramatic and unpredictable ways.  Chekhov makes this point explicitly in “A Story Without an End.”  The narrator of this story—who is not-so-coincidentally a writer of short stories—presents two portraits of his neighbor, the first showing him as he was a year before, after his wife died and he attempted suicide, and the second showing him now, playing the piano and singing and laughing with a group of ladies in the narrator’s drawing-room.  Witnessing this change, which he compares to “the transmutation of substances,” leads the narrator to realize the impossibility of predicting what his neighbor’s future life will be like.  Thus, this story without an end ends with the unanswered question, “How will it end?”

2.  Reverse Epilogues

Instead of ending with a reference to an unknown future, a “reverse epilogue” ends with a reference to the known past. “The Chorus Girl” exemplifies this mode of closure.  In this story, a chorus girl named Pasha is confronted by the wife of a man with whom she’s been sleeping.  While the husband listens in the next room, the wife badgers Pasha into giving her jewelry that she wrongly believes her husband has given Pasha.  After the wife leaves, the husband returns and says, “My God, a decent, proud, pure being like that was even prepared to kneel down before this . . . this whore!  And I brought her to it!  I let it happen!”  He pushes Pasha roughly aside, saying, “Get away from me, you—you trash!”  Pasha starts to sob.

Since the story begins years after this scene, which is presented as an extended flashback, we expect what follows to “resolve” the flashback and inform us how the man’s cruelty affected Pasha’s future.   But instead Chekhov abruptly segues into her past.  The final sentence reads, “She remembered how three years ago, for no rhyme or reason, a merchant had giving her a beating, and sobbed even louder.”  By moving backward in time, Chekhov implies that she has been mistreated by men repeatedly throughout her life and that this pattern has continued after this event and will continue on into the future.

3.  External Climaxes

Chekhov sometimes omits climaxes in order to make the reader have an epiphany his protagonist fails to have.  A character may reach a “dead end,” in short, but the reader continues the journey in the character’s stead.  I suspect that behind this kind of ending, which we find most frequently in Chekhov’s later work, is the belief that an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it.

One way Chekhov creates an external climax is through the use of an unreliable narrator, one who fails to see what his story reveals about him.  In “The Little Joke,” for example, the narrator recounts a “joke” he played on a woman who loved him, a joke he cannot understand—but we can, and do.  He tells of tobogganing with this woman and how, as they roared down the hill with the wind in their face, he whispered, “I love you” into her ear, then pretended he had said nothing, so she could not be sure if what she heard had been his voice or the wind.  She was terrified of tobogganing, yet kept on doing it—and even once went by herself—to see if she would hear those words.  The story ends: “And now that I am older, I cannot understand why I said those words, why I played that joke on her . . .”  The reader realizes that he actually did love the woman and that, despite his refusal to face the facts of his own emotions, he regrets playing the joke and losing his one chance at love.  And the reader also realizes that the joke was ultimately a big one, not a little one, and that it was on him, not her.


Virginia Woolf has described the effects of these inconclusive endings better, perhaps, than anyone.  When we finish a Chekhov story, she says, we feel “as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.”  But, she goes on to say, the more we become accustomed to his work, the more we are able to hear the subtle music of Chekhov’s meaning and the more the traditional conclusions of fiction—“the general tidying up of the last chapter, the marriage, the death, the statement of values so sonorously trumpeted forth”—“fade into thin air” and “show like transparencies with a light behind them—gaudy, glaring, superficial.”  His endings, she concludes, “never manipulate the evidence so as to produce something fitting, decorous, agreeable to our vanity,” and therefore, “as we read these little stories about nothing at all, the horizon widens; the soul gains an astonishing sense of freedom.”

David Jauss’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and been reprinted in Best American Short Stories; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; Best Stories from the First 25 Years of the Pushcart Prize; The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002; and elsewhere. The recipient of the AWP Award for Short Fiction, the Fleur-de-Lis Poetry Prize, a NEA Fellowship, and a James A. Michener Fellowship, among other awards, he served as fiction editor of Crazyhorse for ten years and now teaches at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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An award-winning memoirist offers advice on writing about family and history — and family history:

Tomorrow we arrive in Florida for the holiday, and I can assure you that within a few hours, my mom and I will reach some minor tension over the Thanksgiving Dinner.  For example, I’ll want to scrub and roast the sweet potatoes with olive oil, sea salt and herbs.  She’ll use the canned kind and sprinkle them with brown sugar. Mine will be better, of course.  But everyone will eat more of hers.  Why?  Because she’s kinder and sweeter than I.  Everyone loves her more.

Isn’t it obvious?  Whether we’re talking about sweet potatoes, a ravioli recipe, or the rice you were forced to harvest in deadly heat— food reveals. That’s why I wrote two books about it—one a social history, the other a memoir.  Food—as a subject and a metaphor—gave me an excellent window to parts of life others overlook.  Food is so personal and emotional for people.  It brings out love and disgust and longings.  It reveals power and hunger and pain.

People ask if writing about food is different than other kind of writing.  Not really.  I’d say more important is that good writing is different from bad writing. For me, the biggest challenge was trying to write about the past with honesty.

Maybe someday you’ll try, too.  And if you do you’ll probably find out what I did:  that you can never fully succeed. “The past is a foreign country:  They do things differently there,” wrote the novelist L.P. Hartley.  Historians know this to be true.  Do memoirists and writers?  History does not leave tidy truthful packages for us to find.  It is silent where you need words and records.  Even your own memories will be full of flaws.  No, you will never get it all right.  Still, you must risk it and do your best.  Why?  Because the present isn’t worth much without the past.

Here are some of my tips should you try to write about the past—whether in a memoir, fiction, history book or other:

1.  Go to the landscape you are writing about. Stand on the earth where the war happened, where the slaves bent over the crop, or where your great grandmother looked out at the sea or train.   Listen for the ghosts, if you believe in such things.  Or at the very least, see the remaining shape of the landscape where your characters once lived—even if to retrieve a particular slant of light.

2.  Talk to the living. Be brave and call or write to experts, such as PhDs in universities, specializing in your time period (read his or her book first, of course).  Ask for suggestions about what to read or who to talk to. I frequently have turned to food historians and simply asked for help. (Always thank and give credit!)  If you’re writing a memoir, seek out old relatives and gather their stories. Warning: accounts may not concur.  Learn to read the gaps and omissions.

3. Talk to the dead. Even better, listen to them.  Access their documents and letters, hear their music, touch their clothes or tools.  Read their newspapers.  Stare and stare again at photos to find the details the specificity that will bring your writing alive.

4.  Know that your own memories will be faulty. As a memoirist, you will likely conjure dialogue as you remember it and details to suit your ends.     Can you really reconstruct dialogue from three or ten years ago?  At the least, can you reconstruct the spirit of the dialogue?  Will you get in trouble if you’re wrong?

5.  Come up with a philosophy that you can live with on people’s feelings. Some memoirists say the hell with family; it’s my story.  Others ask permission.  Still others give veto power to their subjects.  My approach was to share volatile material with my dad and remove parts of the story that he requested if those parts belonged only to his personal history, not to mine.  But in the case of our shared history, I had to be fair to myself and write what I needed.

In the end, people will critique, complain, and praise.  But if you’ve done your very best to be honest and accurate about the past, you’ll be able to live with yourself — sweet potatoes or not.

Laura Schenone is the author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken:  A Search for Food and Family, and the James Beard Award-Winning A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove:  A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances.  She writes for Saveur and other publications.  Her website is LauraSchenone, and she blogs at JellyPress.

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For this writer, the creative process happens in stages – and the final one makes all the difference:

Stanton essayThe first is the molecular stage, that early collection of bits of information, what I find fascinating, unusual, funny or poignant at the time it occurs, whether I retain it in memory or in a physical form on pieces of paper.

The critical mass stage is next.  The particles are vibrating on their own in proximity to one another until they reach a critical mass and a reaction occurs.  The writing begins in a fury, raw data, raw memory, stream of consciousness writing.

Incubation happens throughout the writing when I walk away from the piece and it sits inside me, silently arranging itself, so that when I next visit it, I have made important connections. Then I edit and rewrite.  The placement of events and observations creates irony, mood, pathos, humor.  Events are taken out of the chronological or random order and purposefully placed, refined, commented on.  Incubation can happen over a period of months or years, but also during the active writing periods, each night when I turn off my computer and go to bed with an essay on my mind. This seems important, that the essay is written only partially at the desk.  Much of it is written while I garden or walk or lay in bed mulling it over.

Insight is the last thing to come, what the story is really about. I often don’t know until very late in the process, and the story is frequently about something other than I intended, if I let the piece take the path it wants.  The telling phrases, observations, and reflections I add at this stage give the narrative facts a luminescence that only distance and learning can yield.  I can look with relative detachment at my experience and see it for what it really was, and in subtle ways, infuse these small epiphanies into the essay.

Distance.  Perspective.  It can take years to learn how an experience has sculpted me, to tell the story, to locate its pulsing heart.

Editor’s note: I discovered these observations in Stanton’s essay, “On Writing ‘Zion,’” in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, which I’m using in a creative nonfiction class at Fordham. Stanton’s insights were so helpful to my students that I asked her for permission to adapt them here – something I normally don’t do.

Maureen Stanton’s essays have also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Iowa Review, and American Literary Review, among other places. Three of her essays were listed as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays; her work has received a Pushcart Prize, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award in Creative Nonfiction, The Penelope Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review Award in Creative Nonfiction, among other prizes.  She has twice received an Individual Artist grant from the Maine Arts Commission, and a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and grants from the Vogelstein Fund and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.  She teaches creative nonfiction writing at the University of Missouri.

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Red Water pumpMondays are hard.  All weekend you’ve been doing laundry, taking family bike rides, reading the Times in bits and pieces, going to your kids’ soccer games, and then it’s Monday morning and they’re all out the door (except the dog, who is lying on your feet), and it’s hard to know where to begin, how to pick up where you left off.

When I was growing up in Maine, my professor parents bought an A-frame on a tiny island on a lake.  The house had no electricity or heat, and a red-handled pump was our only source of drinking water.  When we arrived on the island (having paddled over from the mainland in our evergreen Old Town canoe), we had to prime the pump with lake water to get it started.  One of my sisters poured the water into the top while another pumped.  The well water took a while to emerge, and then it was cloudy, rust-colored, for at least a minute or two before running clear.

This reminds me of my own writing on Monday mornings – or anytime I’ve taken a substantial break from it.  As with the pump, I’ve learned to prime my writing.  I might read a chapter or two of a book on my nightstand, or perhaps turn to one of my ‘touchstones’ – those dog-eared, broken-spined, oft-read volumes I’ve defaced with marginalia and underlinings, and which I know I can count on for inspiration.  (I’ve talked about some of those books here and here.)

Then I start to write, knowing that it may take some time to reach the deep, cold source of inspiration, but trusting that sooner or later my words will run clear.

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philip seymour hoffman7To get a book underway, you have to fully commit to it.

This is less obvious than it may seem.  One of the hardest parts of starting a book is committing to an idea.  Because … what if the story isn’t big enough?  What if it isn’t compelling enough?  What if there isn’t enough of an arc; what if it’s the wrong perspective; what if there’s a better way to tell the story?  (Or should you be telling another story altogether?)

Committing to a story can feel almost as momentous as getting engaged.  The questions you ask yourself aren’t so different.  Willl I really be able to live with this person day after day, year after year?  I really like X about him, but I can’t stand Y.  Things I like about him in small doses might become intolerable over time. And how will he age?

In an interview in The New York Times Magazine, Philip Seymour Hoffman addressed this issue of committing to an idea.  He was talking about how he starts from scratch every time he becomes a new character, but it struck me that the creative process he describes is similar to a writer’s. “Creating anything is hard.  It’s a cliche thing to say, but every time you start a job, you just don’t know anything.  I mean, I can break something down, but ultimately I don’t know anything when I start work on a new movie.  You start stabbing out, and you make a mistake, and it’s not right, and then you try again and again.  The key is you have to commit.  And that’s hard because you have to find what it is you are committing to.”

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fishing net“Out of the artist’s imagination, as out of nature’s inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another.  The artist composes, writes, or paints just as he dreams, seizing whatever swims close to his net.  This, not the world seen directly, is his raw material.  This shimmering mess of loves and hates – fishing trips taken long ago with Uncle Ralph, a 1940 green Chevrolet, a war, a vague sense of what makes a novel, a symphony, a photograph – this is the clay the artist must shape into an object worthy of our attention; that is, our tears, our laughter, our thought.”

– John Gardner

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WOW awardWomen on Writing – or WOW! – is a buzzing hive of activity for, by, and about women writers and readers.  In a freewheeling interview with Margo Dill, a WOW columnist and contributing editor, I talk about why I keep a blog, why I write first drafts on a legal pad with an old-fashioned micro-point Uniball pen, why I get bored when authors simply read their work aloud, why I don’t feel guilty about not being a morning person, and what I know is true (to paraphrase Oprah, and why not?) about being a writer.  You can find the interview here.

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Lars Tunbjork image“The blankness of a new page never fails to intrigue and terrify me.  Sometimes, in fact, I think my habit of writing on long yellow sheets comes from an atavistic fear of the writer’s stereotypic “blank white page.”  At least when I begin writing, my page isn’t utterly blank; at least it has a wash of color on it, even if the absence of words must finally be faced on a yellow sheet as truly as on a blank white one.  Well, we all have our own ways of whistling in the dark.”

Memoirist Patricia Hampl, in an essay called “Memory and Imagination.”

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How a conversation with a successful magazine writer forced her to clarify her ideas about what and why she writes:

Aimee LiuYears ago I had coffee in NYC with a very talented writer who has traveled around the world writing articles for such publications as Esquire, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.  He talked like a machine gun, shooting out thoughts faster than I could process them.  At one point in the conversation I tried to explain why I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of writing articles, and essays in particular.   “I don’t ever quite believe people will want to read what I have to say.”

He shot back, “Boy, are you in the wrong business!” and moved on to the hundredth new topic of the morning.

I didn’t have a chance to qualify, to say that that’s why I feel it necessary to fictionalize, to heighten the impact and interest of whatever it is that I do choose to write about.  But it didn’t matter.  I believe my reticence, in the long run, helps my writing, just as for him, with his abundant hubris, it would be death.  Our voices are entirely different, just as we are as people.  We each will have our different readers, and lives. Our own levels of that curious commodity, “success.”

I do not think people will be interested in most of the things I have to say, but this is not because my life and mind are boring.  I do not read the newspaper from cover to cover, and I especially don’t read most daily columns.  Men talking about the observations they’ve made about their wives on the way to the dry cleaners, or women talking about how much they can learn about their husbands from their socks, or young women extolling on the trials and tribulations of pregnancy as if no woman in history has ever been pregnant before.  Yes, these epiphanies are what keep us all alive and what make us all human, but once we have experienced them, do we really need to read them pouring from somebody else’s pen?

What I want to write is what I actually want to read.   And what I want to read is something other than my own life – something taken from my own life, perhaps, but expanded, twisted, turned into something larger and fascinating, filled with questions I can’t yet answer and maybe won’t be able to answer even after the writing is finished, though I’ll be closer.

The articles that arise out of this larger process are the ones that interest me, including several written lately by my magazine-writer friend as he embarks on his first book.  Recently he told me, “I think I finally write like a grown up,” and I know what he means.  It’s not just a matter of style, of honing a particular grammar or facility with big words – better yet, of rejecting all big words.  It’s a reflection of a grown-up way of inspecting the world.

Stories are not just what happen to us.  Most really good stories belong to other people, and in order to write them honestly, we must grow up enough to step into those other people’s lives.  We must wonder and fantasize and search for insight not as we have done all our lives, but as other people – real or imagined – must have done.  We must become them.  My friend might not realize that he’s slipping out of himself as he writes in this mode, but for me the whole point of the exercise is to escape myself.

Then again, maybe it comes down to the same thing.  He’s more demonstrative, more energetic, more fanatical.  And yes, I’ll say it, more exhaustingly fun.  But for both of us — for any writer worth his or her salt — the daily grind requires us to discover what we have to say that other people will indeed want to read.

Aimee Liu is author of the novels Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face.  Her nonfiction includes Gaining: The Truth about Life After Eating Disorders, and a memoir, Solitaire.  She earned her MFA from Bennington College and now teaches in Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.  This piece is adapted from a longer essay on her blog: http://www.aimeeliu.net/blog.htm.

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A candid exchange between novelists Andrew Davidson (The Gargoyle) and Karen Essex (Stealing Athena) in which they compare their writing processes,  talk about what it means to be a career novelist, how having a “readership” can change the way you work, and share other writers’ weird process stories.

stealing athenaAD: How are you so unbelievably prolific?  [Karen's new novel is due in November.] Stealing Athena was only two years after the book that came before it, is that correct?  Seriously I am in awe. How did you get another book out of your body so quickly?

KE: I’m not sure how to answer that question, because people always ask me what my process is, and I always say my method is the obsessive-compulsive method of writing. Which is that once I get going on something, I almost don’t let it go. In a weird way. Someone once asked me if I took weekends off, and I just laughed, and I said, “I take my work with me to the bathroom.”  And I wasn’t kidding.

AD: The interesting thing is that I write, I think, by that obsessive-compulsive method a bit as well, but what it ends up doing for me is dragging me off down alleyways that are incredibly fascinating, and I write twenty or thirty pages about, but I discover that it ends up being one paragraph in the finished work.

The GargoyleKE: Right. Well, The Gargoyle was your first novel. Correct?

AD: That’s right. Yes.

KE: And you wrote it without a deadline.

AD: Without any deadline whatsoever.

KE: Right. So I had the same experience. My first novel was Kleopatra, it took me about  seven years from the time I thought about it and began to research it to the day I sold it, to what was then Warner Books.  I did a lot of research that took me down fascinating alleyways, which had nothing to do, in the end, with the finished book. But I’m here to inform you that now that you’re a big success…

AD: Yeahhh….

KE: … you’re going to have to learn to write faster. And you will. My experience has been that you now have a readership, and your readership is waiting for you.

AD: My feeling in my case is that, umm, I mean I’m certain that I could put something out in two years, but I don’t know if my readership would be happy with it, because I know I wouldn’t be.

KE: I think this is one of the issues that we novelists deal with.  This is what separates what I would call, for lack of a better word, a “career novelist,” you know, from someone who has a story or two in them. I think that it takes a brain-shift, almost, to transform oneself into a person who can write to satisfy a readership. And I don’t mean that that’s the primary goal, that we should be feeding product to our readers, but I look at people who are writing thick, idea-driven books like Philip Roth, and John Updike, and the late Iris Murdoch – these are all incredibly prolific people. So at some point I think they made that shift. And I think that you’re at the beginning now, so I bet you that if we had this conversation in five years into the future, you wouldn’t be so concerned about it.

AD: Well, you know, I think it’s interesting. Because I don’t think it’s necessarily – I completely understand what you’re saying, first of all – but I don’t necessarily know that it’s exactly what you’re talking about, as much as it’s just the different ways that people create. For example, I mean, in music, you’ve got, say, Leonard Cohen versus Bob Dylan. And at some point Bob Dylan was putting out an album every fifteen minutes, and Leonard Cohen puts one out every four years if we’re lucky.  And that’s just how they approach it. And recently, I’ve been going through the work of John Fowles. And I’m absolutely loving his writing, and the books are so different, and he, I think, produced only seven novels in his life. Well, I mean clearly here’s a “career novelist” who is just not somebody who writes in quite that quick way. And it’s not better or worse, obviously.  The one thing I’ve discovered in this last year and a half, where I’ve actually been meeting professional writers, because I didn’t know anybody before that, is just that everybody works in ways that absolutely surprise me. When I talk to other writers and they say, “Well, this is my method, this is my process,” sometimes it’s all I can do to keep from blurting out: “REALLY? That works for you?”

KE: I think my favorite weird process story is that of Graham Greene, who got up early every morning, put on a beautiful suit, wrote exactly five hundred words, would stop mid-sentence, once he had reached his five hundred words, was often done by breakfast time, and then would go sort of be a social butterfly, go and hang out with his wealthy friends on yachts in the Mediterranean.

AD: Which is not a bad process at all.

KE: No. Why can’t I learn that one?

AD: Yeah.

KE: I don’t really see it forthcoming, but that’s the process I would most like to learn.

You can read the rest of this conversation – in which they discuss the sometimes numinous, sometimes laborious procedures by which they create stories and bring their characters to life – and/or listen to the podcast, here.

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antigoneWriting and blogging and talking in interviews about my new novel this week, I keep encountering the same question:  What inspired it?   There are many answers to this, of course, and I’ve talked in different places about various sources for the story.  But the deepest reasons are hard to articulate.  So I decided to write about them here.

At first it looked like every mother’s worst nightmare:  Several weeks ago a 36-year-old mother of two, driving her own kids and three nieces home from a camping trip in her Ford Windstar minivan, went the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and crashed head-on into an SUV carrying three men.  Everyone died except the woman’s five-year-old boy.  At the funeral, mourners wept when the woman’s brother, the father of her nieces, sobbed, “Love your children. Cherish your children. Kiss your children.”

It appeared to be a tragic accident.  This woman entered the highway from an exit ramp, and, apparently disoriented, drove 1.7 miles before the crash.  She’d called her brother from a rest stop an hour before, the papers said, complaining of fatigue and sounding confused.  A police officer speculated that maybe she thought she was in the slow lane on the correct side of the road; others suggested that perhaps she was on prescription drugs that impaired her judgment.  Or maybe she was exhausted from being on a camping trip with all of those children, or distracted by their bickering or crying.

But as it turns out, the woman was drunk.  Not just drunk — she was blind drunk, with twice the legal limit in her bloodstream and fresh alcohol in her stomach.  A bottle of vodka was found in the car and she tested positive for marijuana.

How could this happen?  Specifically, how could this woman ingest alcohol and drugs, knowing that she was responsible for the lives of five children — not to mention any strangers who got in her path?  Why didn’t she pull over?  Her recklessness suggests that she may have been suicidal.  But it’s one thing to take your own life, and quite another to put others at such appalling risk.

And there are other questions:  What did she actually say to her brother at the rest stop?  Did he, or her husband, know she’d been drinking or smoking pot?  Had there been an argument?  Did she have a drinking problem; had she ever done anything like this before?

These questions, prurient as they may be, matter to us because we want to make sense of the unthinkable. And I think they’re particularly resonant for mothers.  This woman’s behavior at the furthest edges of comprehension.  And yet every mother I know has feared her own capacity – through accident or neglect or worse – for doing harm to her child.

When my first child was born I joined a group of new mothers, and we joked with the blackest of humor about exactly these fears.  One woman said that late at night, lying in bed, waking nightmares would come unbidden about the things that she might do wrong: what if, what if, what if. Another read shaken-baby stories obsessively, worried about her own impatience and anger at her colicky child.  Yet another admitted that post-partum depression had once rendered her apathetic and unresponsive, more concerned with her own needs than those of her (neglected) child.  I admitted that I was terrified of getting in a car crash that was my own fault and being responsible for maiming, or killing, my child or – god forbid – someone else’s.

This quiet terror propelled me into writing my new novel, Bird in Hand. I began to tell the story of a woman, a mother, who has several drinks and gets into an accident in which a child dies.  As I started writing, though, I found that it was like staring directly into the sun; I had to squint and turn away. I put the manuscript in a drawer and only came back to it after several years, when my children were older and my own fears had subsided.  And I changed the focus of the novel: the accident became a catalyst for the larger story rather than the story itself.

Writing this book was a way of exploring my deepest fears around this subject.  I wanted to follow my character through her grief and guilt to some place on the other side. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone says, “Now the finish comes, and we know only in all that we have seen and done bewildering mystery.” I wasn’t looking for answers, only for a way to comprehend the mystery.

Like Greek tragedy, the terrible accident last week goes straight to the darkest places within us.  It makes manifest our deepest fears, vividly revealing what the unimaginable looks like.  What if, what if, what if.

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Historical novelist Judith Lindbergh writes about her irrational passion for research.

The joy and burden of my literary life is research.  There is nothing more exciting to me than the 22-inch high stack of academic texts, museum exhibition catalogues, and translated ancient manuscripts sitting on the corner of my desk like an untouched burial mound waiting to be exposed.

Thralls Tale coverI approach my decidedly obscure topics with an archaeologist’s passion for minute detail.  For my first novel, The Thrall’s Tale, about women in Viking Age Greenland, I literally studied monographs on the number of lice found in household waste-pits, not because I have a particularly penchant for lice, but because if there were lice, there were itchy, uncomfortable beds made of moss and straw; there was filthy, stinking clothing; and there were animals sleeping inside the houses with the humans in winter.  I latched onto each detail not just for simple description, but to grasp a visceral awareness of what my characters endured.

With my latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes, I’m finally past the point of scrounging for details.  My characters have risen from unearthed bones, bits of tarnished arrowheads, rusty daggers, and delicate, hand-crafted beads.  There comes a moment when the facts fall into place and I sense my protagonist sitting beside me, quietly tapping a finger on my desk as if to say, “OK, that’s enough.  Let’s go!”  It’s not that I know everything, because everything is impossible to know.  But the moment comes when I feel that I am “full” – I understand my characters’ basic natures, the challenges of their lives and the beliefs that sustained them, the landscape and atmosphere that framed their lives.

It’s easy to ignore that moment, because in the end (for me, at least), research is easier than writing.  It’s seductive, and undeniably useful, to return to that deep, sweet well to sip.  The truth is that research never really stops.  Even today, if anything comes my way about Norse Greenland, I catch myself salivating like Pavlov’s dog.  The trick is in sensing that moment when I’m about to overflow.  Then I set my hands on my keyboard and begin to write.  If I’m lucky, the spirits of the long dead are whispering in my ears.

Judith Lindbergh’s debut novel, The Thrall’s Tale, was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection.  She teaches creative writing at the South Orange Maplewood Adult SchoolLearn more about her work at her website, and visit her blog, The Writers Circle: Process, practice, hope, and the business of writing.

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Nash, Jennie coverSome handy rules for when, why and how to ask readers to respond to a work-in-progress:

1.  Don’t Ask Too Early in the Process

Work that is still incubating is too fragile for critique. Wait until you have a clear vision of your project so that you don’t get swayed by what other people think. I usually ask for feedback when I’ve stopped wondering if people will like my story and start wondering about the way a specific part of the story will play itself out in someone else’s mind – i.e. will people empathize with my narrator in this scene, is this section of dialogue believable?

2.  Don’t Ask Too Late in the Process

If you think your story is perfect and that is has the potential to be short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, don’t bother asking for feedback. You’re too late.

3. Don’t Ask Your Mother, Your Spouse, or Your Best Friend

Your first instinct may be to ask someone who you know will be nice; resist it. Nice is not useful to a writer who wants to be taken seriously. You can always invite your mother/spouse/best friend to rip apart your work – but beware: it’s a bit like letting the genie out of the bottle.

4.  Ask Someone Who Has a Keen Critical Eye

What you want is honest, precise and clear criticism. Look for someone who reads this way or approaches the world this way. Perhaps it’s another writer, or someone in your book club, or someone who sits with you on a community board and always has reasonable things to say.

5.  Ask for Something Specific

“Tell me what you think” will only get you vague responses.  I ask my sister to read my work when I need a reader to ferret out every single error in logic. My brain doesn’t work the way hers does, and I value her skill. I have another friend who can see the possibilities for humor in my work where I see nothing but earnest sentiment, and I ask her to note those places.

6. Include a Deadline

When I ask for feedback, I always include a deadline. If the person is swamped at work or in the middle of reading The Pillars of the Earth for book club, they will decline my request, which is best for everyone. There’s nothing worse than getting feedback on pages I deleted ten days ago.

7. Have a Plan in Place for Evaluating Feedback

I know feedback is good when I immediately think, Darn it! They caught me red-handed. It means my instincts were right about something being half-baked. If, on the other hand, I calmly think, Nope – I don’t agree, then I can safely ignore what my reader has to say. Conflicting comments – one person loves your main character, another loathes her – may simply mean you’re getting people’s attention.

8. Be Prepared for Heartbreak

You want it to hurt. You want to feel like crawling into a dark cave for several days and taking up basketweaving. But remember that it’s much better to know the problems now than to know them later. Later, the news will come from agents, editors, book buyers, book reviewers, and it will hurt much, much more. So take a deep breath, prepare for the pain, and bring it on.

9. Be Prepared to Work

The work I do after getting feedback sometimes feels to me like throwing a deck of cards up in the air and having to re-arrange the stack. I may end up having to jettison 50 pages or re-think a key relationship that doesn’t play out the way I expected it would. It’s hard work. I set aside time, clean out my inbox, roll up my sleeves and dig in.

10. Give Thanks

I couldn’t write nearly as well as I do without the kindness of the people giving me feedback and I try to make sure they always know it.

Jennie Nash is the author of three novels, including The Last Beach Bungalow, The Only True Genius in the Family, and, coming in May 2010, The Threadbare Heart. She is also the author of three memoirs, including The Victoria’s Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned from Breast Cancer. She is an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Learn more about her work at www.jennienash.com and visit her blog about creative inspiration at www.meetyourmuse.blogspot.com.

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Author Marina Budhos writes about finishing her latest novel:

ask me no questionsMy plan this summer was to force myself to write to the end of my historical novel, a book I have been working on for a number of years while I completed other projects.  Summer is my best writing time, when I am home, puttering around my house, the children off in camp, with no teaching responsibilities fracturing my attention. My aim, then, was to bring this all to a head, especially since the end of this novel is meant to be very dramatic and also violent, a crescendo of so many parts, voices, themes.  And yet even the most thoughtful of plans have a way of upending.

Set against the crumbling backdrop of late 19th century British Empire, my novel is about the unlikely friendship between an Indian woman and English woman—a bond that is threatened when they move from India to a Caribbean sugar estate, and violence starts to sweep the plantation.  It is an ambitious book, as I am juggling multiple points of view along with foreign and historic settings, politics, even technical information about sugar growing that I must make vivid to a modern reader.

After building up this world over a number of years, I anticipated that the challenge of writing the ending would be that it was like a tidal wave that is slowly mounting, ready to curl; and yet one would still need to pay attention to the water particles.  One would still have to build scene by scene, moment by moment, even as you were aware of these huge forces compelling the narrative forward.

To my surprise, the ending, the denouement, a series of fast-paced acts, is coming swifter than I expected.  There was no deep rumble in my consciousness, no mounting wave of creativity.  Mostly I find myself sketching out plot—one bad event and bad decision leading to another, and hopefully mounting to tragedy.  This is somehow vaguely disappointing, and runs counter to my more romantic vision of the summer’s work.  But perhaps this is what I need to do—work more as an architect, more cerebrally— setting down the structure.  Then the deeper, unconscious swells will emerge.

This is what I tell myself now as I write event-driven material, pushing toward the end.  Sometimes we need to ride the waves.  And sometimes we must navigate with a plot compass, trusting that instinct and fever dreams will return.

Marina Budhos writes adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction.  Her recent novel, Ask Me No Questions, won the James Cook Teen Book Award and was an ALA Best Book.  Her prior books include House of Waiting, The Professor of Light, and Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers.  In 2010, she will publish a YA novel, Tell Us We’re Home, and Sugar Changed the World, co-authored with her husband, Marc Aronson.  She teaches creative writing, literature, and Asian Studies at William Paterson University, and can be reached at www.marinabudhos.com

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Some words of encouragement from two writers who seem to know exactly what they’re doing:

headlights“In beginning a story I know nothing at all: surely not where I am going, and hardly at all how to get there.” — Cynthia Ozick

“Writing a novel is like driving across country at night.  You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E. L. Doctorow

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Literary essayist, editor, and writing coach Lisa Romeo writes:

Writers tend to think of rejection as something done to us by outsiders. We paint it as something we cannot control, as something to be feared and avoided, when in reality, rejection begins with ourselves.  Early on.rejection-blog

Even before we start writing, we reject our own creativity.  We dismiss our ideas, our skills, our imagination before we give them a chance to work themselves out on the page. We squash the excitement that might otherwise go along with beginning a new project.  We self-censor before we have words to delete.

Pre-writing — that period from the moment an idea first enters our consciousness until we put words on paper — takes many forms.  It can be notes scribbled on the edges of a calendar, a photo we keep fingering, dialogue that springs into our minds just before we wake in the morning.  It is the sometimes mysterious, occasionally frustrating, often exciting or scary time when we are reading, thinking, imagining, and mentally tinkering with a writing project.

It can also be debilitating.  Because rejection is a big part of pre-writing.  Not the formal rejection associated with a “no thanks” email notification, but rejection that comes from having one-sided conversations with ourselves:

… Nah, it’s been done … so-and-so did it better than I could … it’s silly (stupid, dumb, derivative, old, weird, unusual, boring) … no one but me would want to read it … I don’t have the skill/craftsmanship/knowledge to write it the way it should be done … I’ve never written in this genre before … who would care? … I’ve written about this too many times already … I’ve never written about this before … my agent/last editor/mentor/MFA adviser/writing buddies won’t like it … this will take too long  … the reviewers will hate it … what makes me think I can pull this off? … I’m not the right writer for this … it doesn’t fit in with the rest of my writing career or goals … I’ll never earn any money with this … I’m not even sure how to begin ….

I once thought of myself as a workmanlike writer of the light, straightforward personal essay:  good enough for some markets but not nearly good enough for certain literary venues.  Then one day, swimming in grief and loss and angry with the world, I sat down and started what turned out to be a long, braided, literary essay. I’ve written and published many since.  So much for all the self-rejection banter previously bouncing around my brain.

We need to think of rejection as something organic to the writing process, something we can manage.  Popular advice to writers on handling rejection runs along the lines of growing a tough skin, ignoring it and moving on, learning from it, and – if you like symbolism and ritual – doing something tangible like printing out and lining the hamster cage with all the “no thanks” emails. Many writers have talked about the positive impetus provided by agent or editor rejections, an “I’ll show them” mindset.

But what about self-rejection?  Try this:  the next time you contemplate a new writing project, instead of entertaining that idea in a hostile atmosphere (see list above, and add your own mean-spirited recriminations), why don’t you consciously nurture a different kind of mental environment – an incubator of sorts, a place where ideas come to be nurtured and not nixed?

This shift in perspective can help us put rejection from the outside into a different context. If we recognize that we are constantly in a push-pull with rejection, that rejection is something inherent in and inextricable from the work we do, that it is something we can positively control during a major segment of the writing process, then the whole specter of rejection with a capital ‘R’ loses its power.  Imagine what could happen with your writing if only you stop treating yourself with the kind of harsh, frequent, and final ‘No’s’ that come from the outside.

Go. Write. Do not reject.

Lisa Romeo has been published in the New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, literary journals, and several essay anthologies.  A freelance editor and writing instructor, she is also at work on a memoir of linked essays. Her blog, Lisa Romeo Writes, has more on topics of interest to writers.

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Metz, PERFECTIONThe memoirist Julie Metz, who is now working on a novel, writes:

When I wrote my memoir, Perfection, the story of my discovery of my husband’s secret life only after his sudden death, my focus was on careful recall aided by journals and letters.  And yet, since I love reading fiction, I wanted my memoir to “read” like a novel.  After many failed attempts, I found a structure for the factual narrative that allowed me to recapture my own state of mind at the moment of my husband’s death and the early months of widowhood.  The primary inspiration for my book was the fictional memoir Jane Eyre, in which an innocent narrator’s life is changed by a devastating revelation.

During this last year, while Perfection was in the final stages of publication, I began working on a new project, a novel.  I am finding it to be a very different process.  I began with a snippet of a story I’d been kicking around in my head for years, but as I got into the project in a deep way, the original story fell away as the characters became more vivid. Very little remains of the original idea except for locations and some back story.  The day I realized I had to quit forcing my original idea into the book was both sad and liberating. My attempts to direct the plot were those of a classroom bully who tries to force other kids to play by his or her rules. No one wants to play with a bully.

Now that I spend my days conjuring rather than exclusively researching my past, I frequently think of Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird: to focus not on plot but on character. I try to sit with my (mostly) made up characters and hope that if I am quiet and patient I will get to know them as well as the real people in my life, and that they will tell me what they need to do and say.

Julie Metz is a graphic designer (she co-designed the cover of her memoir), artist, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Glamour, and Publisher’s Weekly. Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, is her first book.

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ghost personTalking with WNYC newscaster and ‘All Things Considered’ host Amy Eddings recently, I learned that before she became a journalist she used to write fiction. “But my novelist friends talked about hearing the voices of their characters in their heads as they wrote. I never heard those voices,” she said. “That was when I realized I was better suited to nonfiction.”

I’ve never thought of the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing quite like this, but she’s right, I think. Long ago I read an interview with Alice Walker in which she spoke about writing her novel The Color Purple. She worked alone in a small house, and every day her characters – whom she identified as ancestors – would come in and hang out for a while, telling her their stories. “When I was writing The Color Purple I was just in service,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of knowingly putting yourself in service to whatever it is … where you really know what you’re supposed to be doing, and you’re there. You’re on the job. You give up everything else to do that. So I was serving these ancestors basically. And I did it as well as I could do it. It was like prayer.”

Writing a novel isn’t always like that, but most fiction writers will recognize Walker’s depiction of being at the mercy, one way or another, of her characters, of being beholden to their points of view. Writing fiction – listening to the voices in your head – requires entering a kind of dream state, a consciousness that isn’t your own. Part of the joy and the pain of writing fiction is that at some point, if it’s going well, these strange, unbidden voices take over.

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I used to agonize over each word and phrase in a first draft, doubtful that when I came back to it, weeks or months later, I would be able to see, much less fix, the things that didn’t work. But while I was writing my third novel, The Way Life Should Be – and editing other people’s manuscripts at the same time – I had an epiphany.

(Yes, it took three novels to figure this out.)

Here’s what I realized: My editor-self is surprisingly clear-headed, even ruthless.  Hyper-critical and exacting, she is capable of transforming a freewheeling, messy draft into clear and lucid prose. And she likes doing it. red_pencil

This realization freed my writer-self to have more fun. My first drafts have become more spontaneous and energetic; I feel free to try out a range of ideas, follow tangents in odd directions, write a scene of dialogue three different ways – all with the knowledge that my editor-self will step in when needed.  With a red pencil and a roll of the eyes:  What was she thinking?

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The words on the page are the only things that count. (See “It’s the Writing, Stupid,” below.)

That’s all well and good. But novelist Debra Galant poses an interesting question: what about those non-writing writing days? Does it count, for example, if you’re sketching notes about a character, doing historical research at the library or online, or creating an outline for the story? Does it count if you’re mulling things over while washing the breakfast dishes (what if the secret the brother is hiding from the family involves the mysterious neighbor; what if it turns out, in fact, that he is intimately involved in the mystery…) or taking a brisk walk?reading-tarot-cards

Deb says, “I always keep a process journal for whatever novel I’m working on. Today I did a tarot reading for my character Hugo. Took notes, thought about him, mused a bit, saw the need for new character to be developed. But no pages added to the manuscript. I’m at very early stages. What do you think? Does note-taking count as writing?”

Well — since you asked! — here’s what I think.  For me, note-taking does not count.  It’s a necessary part of the process, of course – like research and planning and ruminating in the shower. All of it is part of creating a novel.  But it’s not writing.

In order to get those words on the page, I have to remind myself that I can fill notebooks with musings about my characters’ motivations; I can research the history of the orphan trains until the proverbial cows come home; I can plan and strategize and plot. But none of it actually means anything until it becomes part of the story.

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When I am working – really working – on a novel, I only pretend to be human. Though I may act relatively normal, in actuality I have transformed into an enormous, squishy head attached to a floaty, immaterial body, useful only because it transports my head around.  Everything I come into contact with gets absorbed in the spongy matter and either ferments or turns into something else.

squishy headToday, for example, I am at a Verizon store unraveling the mysteries of my new Blackberry.  A hip young sales associate named Dawn has been dispatched to teach me how to download ring tones and other “apps.”  Part of my brain is paying attention (as much attention as is possible for me ever in these situations, which is to say not much), but mostly I am focused on other things.  What brought this girl to this particular Verizon store in a strip mall on Route 3 in Clifton, New Jersey?  Is she really passionate about electronics?  Was it a bond she shared with, say, her gay older brother or alcoholic ex-boyfriend?  What does her tattoo of a purple rose signify?  How does she manage to keep her fingernails so long and yet manipulate the tiny keypad so well?

(There’s a character in my novel, a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent named Michelle ….)

Dawn’s fruity breath mint clicks against her teeth, and as she leans closer to show me how to click and drag, I smell her jasmine-scented shampoo.  All of this sensory and physical detail seeps into the sponge in my head, where it quickly becomes absorbed.  And meanwhile I try to act normal – though it’s pretty clear that by the way Dawn is treating me that I’m not fooling her at all.

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Jackson Pollock once said,pollock.untitled#3 in answer to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings out of “accidental” splatterings, “I don’t use the accident.  I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it a useful way to think about my work-in-progress.  When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward.  The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction.  Why are you spending so much time on that character?  You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses.  Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work.  Not always, of course – sometimes an accident is just an accident.  But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of creation, gives me the audacity to experiment.

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Recently, in an impulsive moment, I offered to do the flower arrangements for a big party for a close friend. Other than cutting off the ends of the stems when you bring them home and avoiding spray-painted carnations, I don’t know much about flowers, but I figured how hard can it be?

Then the teak boxes, glass vases, hard green floral foam, clear glass marbles, and mountains of Gerber daisies, long-stemmed roses, and greenery arrived. LizMurphyflowers

I called my friend Liz in a panic. Liz is an artist not only by profession – she is a painter and illustrator – but in every aspect of her life. I knew she’d be able to help. Sure enough, she quickly made sense of the chaos in my kitchen. She soaked the floral foam in water, crushed the ends of the roses (with a hammer; who knew?), artfully trimmed the spiky leaves. She filled the teak boxes in a way that looked both sophisticated and natural, as if the flowers had arranged themselves. When I professed amazement at her artistry, she looked up from her work with genuine puzzlement. “What do you mean? Anybody can do this. It’s not brain surgery.”

Well, yes, Liz, actually it is. If you don’t have an intuitive visual artistic sense, arranging flowers can seem as daunting as cutting into someone’s cranium with a scalpel.

We all have areas of proficiency we take for granted. Liz makes arranging gorgeous bouquets look easy because she has a natural inclination for it, takes genuine pleasure in it, and has honed her artistic vision with years of practice.  Recognizing and nurturing your natural creative inclinations is, I think, an important step in the process of taking yourself seriously as an artist (or musician or poet or novelist).  I write fiction because I love it. I love it because it allows me to express what seems inexpressible, to weave stories that reveal larger truths about the way people relate to each other. This desire colors everything; it is the way I see the world.

Needless to say, the flowers were a hit. I tried to give my Cyrano credit when possible, but sometimes simply smiled and nodded and reaped the praise. What I was really taking credit for, of course, was my own genius in recognizing my limitations.

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In the morning, when I sit down to write, I think of this depiction of the creative process from the novel The Waves by Virginia Woolf :


“I took my mind, my being, the old dejected, almost inanimate object, and lashed it about among these odds and ends, sticks and straws….  It is the effort and the struggle, it is the perpetual warfare, it is the shattering and piecing together — this is the daily battle….  The trees, scattered, put on order; the thick green of the leaves thinned itself into a dancing light.”

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I’m curious about how literary writers whose work is also commercial balance two often conflicting objectives:  telling a good story and exploring setting, theme, and character. One day this wee1118759_32303519k I was privileged to spend time with two terrific novelists, Alison Larkin and Marina Budhos, who had very different and equally useful takes on this question.

Alison told me that she reads the thriller writer Harlan Coben for plot. Coben is a master of building and maintaining suspense, she said; you can’t help turning the pages. Paying attention to how he withholds and reveals information has been instructive for her. Marina said that, for her, “a first draft is all about exploration, but at a certain point that exploration has to stop.” She talked about the challenges of revision: taking a first draft and pulling the threads of plot and character all the way through, while at the same time ruthlessly cutting and repositioning the prose so the story has immediacy and urgency. In a first draft, then, the writer should feel free to experiment and digress – and I would argue that the literary writer must do so, to remain open to the unanticipated byways of the creative process – but in a second draft the writer has to remember that the prose exists solely in service to the story.  As the writer Honor Moore says, “If you don’t put it in, you can’t take it out.”

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Our dog, Lucy, does it every morning.  She roams around trying to get a feel for whether anyone will be at home, and in which rooms.  She tries out one spot – splayed on the hall landing, a watchful eye toward the front door – lucy photo 2009 (3)but soon abandons it for another.  She jumps on an unmade bed and turns around three times, sinks down, curls into a ball.  After a while she stretches out long, her belly as rounded and freckled as a cow’s.

I have my own version of this routine:  a mug of hot coffee, a comfortable wingback chair – no, perhaps the old chaise in the sunroom window – a college-ruled notepad (faint blue lines on white paper, a firm pink margin), an old-fashioned micro-point Uniball pen.  Circle three times, curl in a ball, settle in deep.

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