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Posts Tagged ‘Christina Baker Kline’

The most-used words on my site, courtesy of Wordle.net.

When I began this blog, ten months ago, I had recently finished a novel that was several months from publication, Bird in Hand, and was beginning a new one (working title Orphan Train).  I envisioned this site as a place to talk about the writing life and the process of writing my new novel-in-progress.  I thought it might be a useful tool for the graduate students I teach and advise at Fordham, students embarking on creative-writing M.A. theses (mostly novels-in-progress) — a place to put in writing the ephemeral thoughts I articulate in class.

But as more people discovered the blog, its nature changed.  I began writing posts in response to readers’ queries and ideas, and found that I enjoyed talking more broadly about craft and the creative process. (The title and subtitle changed several times, reflecting my evolving shift in focus.)  After a while the site attracted published fiction and nonfiction writers eager to contribute their own tips, tricks, and advice on different aspects of the writing life.  I also started approaching authors whose work I admired. These guest posts expanded the scope of my project, delighting and surprising me with creative approaches to common problems and perceptive responses to metaphysical questions.

I’ve been learning as I go, and recently I stopped to take a critical look at where the blog is now. From its modest beginnings last June, the site now gets a still-modest-but-respectable average of 2,000 visitors a week, has 300 subscribers, and has attracted over 50,000 views.  Each new post gets 500-600 unique views.  The blog has become a place for writers to share their struggles and advice about writing with one another.   It provides a community for writers at all levels, from people who’ve never published a word to authors with dozens of books.

Thanks to feedback from readers, I’ve made some changes to the site. With the help of the marvelous Jessica Wode, I created a Resources for Writers tab with links to other sites that I’ve found especially useful. (I’ll be adding to and, I suspect, whittling this list — suggestions welcome.)  I’ve also updated and expanded the About tab to give new readers a better introduction to the site.

I cleaned up the sidebar to help you more quickly and easily find what you’re looking for. You’ll find a new section, “Tips for Getting Started,” with links to posts with specific advice about launching your next (or first!) big writing project.  And finally, you now have a one-click shop at the bottom of each post to share it on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon, or several other sites.

You can also become a *fan* (though that word makes me cringe) of my brand-new Facebook page to have blog posts show up in your newsfeed.   And in about a month I’ll launch a newly designed, easy-to-navigate website — and this site will have its own domain name (dropping the “wordpress” in the URL), which will enable me to do even more with it.

I hope these changes make the site easier and more enjoyable to navigate.  I’d love to hear what you think.  And try out the new Share tools!  I don’t know how to use them myself, but I’m pretty sure my 15-year-old can teach me.

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BIH inspiration“The newspaper clipping is in tatters.  Folded, yellowed, curling at the edges and mended in places with clear tape, it was tacked to the bulletin board in my office for eight years….”  So begins a guest post I wrote this week for In This Light, a blog about the influence of images on writers and writing.   Instinctively I knew that this image would help me access the core motivations of my characters in Bird in Hand, who act in comparably indiscreet and scandalous ways …

You can read the rest here.

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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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supermodel1. I am not a supermodel. Or a professional soccer player.
At times, over the eight long years it took to finish Bird in Hand, I was seized with panic. Look at all those fresh-faced young writers madly producing books, while I grow wrinkled and gray! But then I realized: it doesn’t matter how damn old I am. Unlike some professions, writing does not require that you have dewy skin or the speed of an antelope. All that matters are the words on the page. So when I got into a panic about my work, I reminded myself that life is long; some of my favorite writers have done their best work in their seventies and eighties. And not only that, but …

2. Older really is wiser, at least in some ways.
Climbing up and over the hill of middle age, I’ve learned that some of the positive clichés about aging really are true. I trust my first impulses more. I’m more confident about what I know for sure. I believe that I can write a decent sentence. I care much less than I used to about what people think. I understand my own process. Which leads me to …

3. What works for me is what matters.
Writers are always asked about their work habits because it’s endlessly fascinating (even to other writers). Do you write in the morning or the afternoon? Do you work on a laptop or with a ballpoint pen? Do you sit in a basement, like John Cheever, or an austere sliver of a room, like Roxana Robinson? Do you work for two hours or ten?

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s process is. What matters is what works for me. For example – unlike most other novelists I know, I’m not a morning person. My best writing time may be mid-to-late afternoon. Writing Bird in Hand, I often worked in a generic Panera Bread Shop in a different town, on subways, and in dentists’ offices. I also wrote the first drafts longhand, which few seem to do anymore. Maybe I could train myself to write first drafts on the keyboard, but why should I? This is what works for me.

And that’s my point. I’m still intrigued by how other people work, but I also know that writing is a strange alchemical business, and I need to follow my own impulses. Whatever it takes to get the words on the page is what I need to do. And I also need to remember that …

kid food4. My life feeds my work.
For a long time my “real” life and my writing life seemed like two separate states, and when I was in one I felt guilty about neglecting the other. I’ve come to understand that time away from writing nourishes my creativity; time immersed in the creative process allows me to inhabit my personal life with less conflict and more serenity. All the bits and pieces of my life experience feed my writing in ways I don’t even realize until they’re on the page. I drew on this in Bird in Hand by writing about the minutiae of childrearing, “…endless bland kid dinners, fish sticks and chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese and Classico sauce with spaghetti, on a revolving loop.” At the same time, though …

5. Contrary to popular opinion, quality time is as important as quantity time.
In the final few months writing Bird in Hand, I went around in a perpetually foggy state, and I often felt guilty about my lack of focus. What I came to realize is that my kids – who are 9, 13, and 14 – like having me around, but they don’t always require my undivided attention. Being there when they got home from school in the afternoon, having conversations in the car, family dinners, weekend excursions, cooking together, and the occasional board game made up for a lot of times when I might have been physically present but mentally in a different time zone.

Knowing that there were plenty of times when I’d drop everything and focus on the moment – quality time, that is — my kids were happy to let me work when I had to. And they began taking themselves off to do their own work, too. The oldest one writes and records music. My second child plays piano for hours. And the younger one is currently obsessed with Harry Potter. Some of the best moments are when I feel the household humming with activity – mine and theirs.

I originally wrote this guest post for Lisa Romeo Writes, a terrific blog about “writing, reading, books, life after the MFA, editing (and editors), submissions, getting published (and rejected), media & the publishing business, journalism, revisions, and the writing life.”

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I wrote this piece several weeks ago for SheWrites, a social networking site for women writers, and it was picked up a few days later by More.com.  I’m reprinting it here because I’ve gotten more feedback on it than on any other essay I’ve written.  People called it “brutally honest” and “courageously candid”; one writer said she could never imagine being so self-revealing.  Another wrote that she burst into tears reading it because my experience was so close to her own.  Perhaps because I’ve come through this to some kind of other side, I didn’t worry that I was being too candid — I just wanted to write frankly about my experience.   But it’s hard for writers to speak honestly about the difficult times, I think, particularly when they’re ongoing.

Stacked BooksI suddenly look rather prolific. In the past two years I have published two novels – my new one, Bird in Hand, comes out this week – and co-edited an essay collection, and I’m under contract for another novel. “I don’t know how you do it!” a friend exclaimed the other day. “You make it look so easy.”

I agree that it looks easy now – three books in two years is pretty good. But it took a long eight years to get to this point, during which time my confidence was so shaken that I questioned everything about myself as a writer. More than once, I wondered if I would ever publish again.

Here’s what happened: In the mid-nineties, after making a small but audible splash in the big pond with my first novel, Sweet Water, my second novel floated quietly on the surface. In truth, Desire Lines did nearly as well as the first, but the publisher’s expectations – and advance – had been much higher. Nobody would quite say it, but I sensed it: the book was a disappointment. I felt like a failure.

(A friend who got a large advance for a book that sold modestly described walking down the hall with the publisher himself and running into a famous, perennially bestselling author. “X, this is Y,” the publisher said dryly. “He’s the one who subsidized your book.”)

When Desire Lines came out I was working on a new novel. But my sense of having let people (including myself) down, combined with moving to the suburbs and raising three young children, played havoc with my self-confidence. On top of that, I was writing about the death of a child who was exactly the age of one of my own, and the subsequent dissolution of a marriage. This difficult, painful material, while not specifically autobiographical, cannibalized my own experience in myriad ways and often felt overwhelming.

In the middle of all of this, I took on what turned out to be a disastrous ghostwriting project to help pay for that house in the suburbs. Without an adequate contract (or, it must be said, a clear sense of boundaries), the whole thing eventually imploded. I took a full-time teaching job and other works-for-hire to make up the lost income when my kids were 6, 4 and not quite a year old, and at some point, without even quite understanding what was happening, I became completely demoralized. I sunk into what I now recognize as a mild depression.

With the help of a therapist and support from my husband, I eventually rallied. My children grew, my teaching job got easier, I acclimated to life in the suburbs. And after four agonizing years, I turned in an unwieldy manuscript. My editor at the time took forever to read it; I didn’t hear anything until one day her assistant called to say that the novel was “in the pipeline,” scheduled to be published in the spring. I was flabbergasted – I knew it wasn’t anywhere near ready. I went to lunch with my editor and she asked what I was working on now, and out of nowhere I summoned a new idea, fully formed, like a movie pitch, about a single woman who meets a guy online and moves to Maine.

“I love it,” she said. “Why don’t you write it quickly, and we’ll publish this book first? The economy is rough – people want to buy books that make them feel good. And the other one is dark and complicated. This book sounds like fun.”

So I did it. I wrote The Way Life Should Be in a fever of relief after the torment of the other novel. This new book was a lighthearted, humorous, first-person, present-tense story with recipes, and looked nothing like my life. It was a joy to write.

Within several years, this new book was published – and I was back on track. (The editor was right; people were eager for a light, funny read.) When I turned back to the old manuscript, I had regained my confidence. I had a new perspective and a new editor who proposed radical structural changes that helped transform the manuscript. And after all that time, I had distance enough to see it clearly. I finally knew exactly what I needed to do.
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In my eight-year publishing drought, when I feared I might never finish another book and it seemed as if other authors were whizzing merrily by, writing one novel after another, I felt as if I’d blown my chances, fallen out of the race. But what I’ve come to realize – and what may be heartening to others who, like me, take a while to get their act together or go through ebbs and flows – is that when you do eventually publish, the intervening years disappear. The current book is the only thing that counts, and it doesn’t matter how long it took you to get there.

So yes, now it all looks easy. But I need to acknowledge just how hard it was, and how long it took, if only to remind myself how important it is not to get caught up in other people’s judgments and my own unrealistic expectations. Ten years after I wrote the first word of Bird in Hand, it is finally being published. During the fallow years, I gained insights into marriage and family life and the complicated choices people make that I didn’t have access to when I was younger. I developed the confidence to write from the perspective of mature characters, including men (which I’d never done before). And I think that, perhaps as a result of the many drafts and revisions, Bird in Hand is the best thing I’ve written. It’s certainly my proudest accomplishment — probably even more so because it’s not an overnight success.

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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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This week I did a guest post for Lisa Romeo Writes, a terrific blog about writing and the writing biz.  (One of my favorite features on the blog is Lisa’s Friday Fridge Clean-Out, a weekly roundup of interesting and newsworthy links.)

birthday cakeI wrote about what I learned in the process of writing Bird in Hand — not about writing, but about life.  You can read the post here.  An extra incentive to click through:  Lisa is giving away a copy of Bird in Hand in a random drawing.  I know you already have it, but isn’t someone’s birthday coming up?

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