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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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