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Posts Tagged ‘creative process’

Justin Kramon didn’t think he was qualified to call himself a writer.  And then he thought about his favorite books, and had a change of heart:

For some reason, I used to have the perception that writers should be interesting, well-rounded, generally knowledgeable people.  I got this idea before I’d met any writers, and certainly before I started trying to become one.  In fact, my perception of writers was a big obstacle to writing, because – and I have to be completely honest here – I’m not that interesting, am poorly rounded, and most of what I have to offer in the way of knowledge concerns the time it takes to heat various foods in the microwave.

A few years ago, I’d started working on a novel, but it hadn’t come alive.  The voice was wooden and the characters seemed predictable, too polite with each other.  It was like watching my novel through a window.  I wanted to get in there and tickle everyone.

The problem, I realized, was that I wanted to be a good writer.  I wanted to sound like the writers everyone had been telling me were great writers, the best writers, the important writers. A lot of these writers happened to be men, and happened to write in wise, commanding, and slightly formal styles.  Reading them made me feel like a slow runner in sixth-grade gym, sweating and hyperventalating while everyone else rushed by.  They were doing something I could never do, that I wasn’t built to do.

But these great writers were not actually the writers I most enjoyed reading.  Picking up their books was more of a responsibility than a pleasure.  The writers I loved, the writers who had meant most to me, who had entertained me and stuck with me and let me lose myself in their books – this was a completely different list.

So one morning, when I couldn’t face my own fledgling novel, I decided to make a list of writers I loved.  A writer who immediately jumped to mind was Alice Adams, who died in the late-1990’s and unfairly seems to have fallen off the map.  She wrote some of the most entertaining and insightful books I’ve read, including the novel Superior Women and a story collection called To See You Again. I can’t think of many writers I’d rather sit down and read than Alice Adams.  Her books are so absorbing that I feel like I’m reading gossip from a close friend, about people I actually know, except the writing is so much funnier and clearer and more beautiful than any gossip I’ve ever read. John Irving is another one.  I love his intricate plots, the slightly larger-than-life characters, the comic set pieces, and the sense of bigness and adventure in all his novels.  I think of Irving’s books, as I do of Charles Dickens’s, as treasure chests of ideas and characters and funny moments.

Making this list helped me let go a little bit of the desire to be important. I realized that these are the kinds of books I want to write – books filled with unforgettable characters, books that give me an almost childlike sense of wonder.  I started a new novel, Finny, with a narrator whose voice is informal, quirky, a little devilish.  Finny’s voice made me laugh, and I honestly cared about her and wanted to see what would happen to her, the people she’d meet, the man she would fall in love with.

Part of the process of becoming a writer has been acknowledging my own limitations, the things I don’t know about.  And also being honest: about what I like, what I enjoy, what moves me. To be truthful, I don’t enjoy research.  I’m not all that interested in history, and even though I try to stay informed, I’m not ardent about politics.  I don’t get a huge kick from philosophical or intellectual discussions.  I’m interested in psychology, food, loss, sex, death, awkward social situations, and I’m passionate about the subject of why people are as annoying as they are.  I may not win a Nobel Prize for this, but it’s the only kind of novel I can write.  Making my list, I saw that what I wanted to do was write books that people love reading, that make them laugh and cry, and that allow me to bring a little of myself into the world.

Justin Kramon is the author of the novel Finny (Random House), which was published on Tuesday.  Now twenty-nine years old, he lives in Philadelphia.  You can find out more about Justin and contact him through his website, www.justinkramon.com.  You can watch a book trailer for Finny here, and you can access Justin’s blog for writers here.


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The writer Elizabeth Strout, explaining what it’s like to write from the point of view of an irascible retired schoolteacher in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge:

“I actually see myself in all my characters.  In order to imagine what it feels like to be another person I have to use my own experiences and responses to the world.  I have to play attention to what I have felt and observed, then push those responses to an extreme while keeping the story within the realm of being psychologically and emotionally true.  Many times after writing a story or a novel, I will suddenly think, oh, I’m feeling what (for example), Olive would feel.  But in fact the process has worked the other way.”

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Molly Lyons of the Joelle Delbourgo Literary Agency on the questions agents wish you’d ask yourself before you send a query or a manuscript:

As an agent, I see proposals and manuscripts at all stages.  Some of them are just a glimmer of an idea hidden inside a lot of text; some are polished to a gleam, ready to be sent out to publishers. Often it’s difficult to see the potential in the projects I’m sent because their authors haven’t asked themselves a few crucial questions.

So before you press the “send” button (or address that SASE), take a few minutes to answer the following. It may help your query shine – and get you an agent.  Or it may convince you that there’s a better way for you to go.

  1. What’s my end goal? Securing a publishing contract with a big publisher is only one way to get your story out into the world.  If your aim is to, say, record your family history for future generations, self-publishing may  make the most sense – and you don’t even need an agent for that. If you already know your core audience is a narrow interest group that congregates on a few websites, then it may make more sense to find a digital way to distribute your work.  Again, no agent needed.
  2. Who is my audience? Sometimes this is easy to answer — men with heart disease, for example. At other times, it’s trickier to know where your manuscript fits in. But if you can’t figure it out, it’s going to be that much harder to attract an agent. Spend some time researching those books and how to reach those readers before you send out your query.
  3. How can I reach my readers? Finishing a manuscript or a proposal is an accomplishment in itself, but unfortunately, it’s only part of your job as an author. You’ll also need to know how to effectively market and publicize the work once it’s on the shelves. This ability, known as your “platform,” is the first thing publishers measure after the book’s description. No one expects a first-time author to have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, for example (though it can’t hurt!). But make some efforts to reach out to potential readers before you send a query to an agent. A potential client who is at the very least aware of the need, and ready to take on the challenge, of building a platform will get a second look.
  4. Has my manuscript been read by sharp critics? Query letters that tell me the novel was written in three months, or that I’m the first to read it, make me wary from the start.   Sure, the proposal or manuscript may have been proofread by a friend or spouse, but has someone objective looked at it with a critical eye? Your work is personal, but it has to stand up to challenges at every stage. A trusted, critical reader can help point out weaknesses so you can submit the most polished manuscript possible.
  5. Have I done my homework? I get endless queries for horror, thriller and romance novels despite the fact that our website shows I don’t represent horror, thriller or romance novels. I know it’s tempting —especially in the age of email queries — to say, “Why not?  You never know, maybe this thriller will be the one for her,” but in the end, it just will mean one more rejection for me to write and for you to get — and no one likes rejection.  Each agency has different guidelines, and most agents have websites or carefully fill out their profiles in agency listings.  You should always check them out to see how they like to receive queries.  When I find a query that is well written, thoughtful and thorough, it’s like finding a piece of buried treasure in my inbox.

Molly Lyons began her career as a magazine editor and writer, which informs her approach to agenting — from developing manuscripts and proposals to positioning clients in the marketplace and helping shape their careers. Molly is interested in strong voices, stories that tell universal truths in highly personal ways, and entertaining books that offer solid information.

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The novelist Gayle Brandeis wrote about a traumatic and terrible event.  And then it happened to her in real life.

Several months ago, as I was proofreading my new novel, Delta Girls, a sentence I wrote last year kicked me in the gut:

“My mother killed herself, you know.”

It took me a moment to remember how to breathe again. I had not recalled writing that sentence, had not recalled that this was part of a character’s history, part of that character’s motivation. I wanted to slap myself for writing that sentence so off-handedly, for forgetting it so easily.

My own mother had killed herself about a month before I received the page proofs, one week after I had given birth, and I was still reeling. “My mother killed herself, you know” was way too casual a sentence for someone to utter. I could barely say “My mother killed herself,” and couldn’t imagine tacking on “you know” as if it was common knowledge, something easy to understand. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand her suicide. But my character had already had years to process and learn how to talk about the loss, so those words had a different context in the story.

Sometimes we don’t know what we know until we write it. I don’t believe I foresaw my mom’s death as I wrote that scene—her suicide was unexpected although she had been suffering from paranoid delusions off and on (mostly off—most of the time she appeared to be fine) for several years and was especially fearful the last two weeks of her life. Even though my initial reaction to the sentence during proofing was shock, some part of me must have wondered what it was like to lose a parent that way when I first wrote it. Some part of me must have known my mom was capable of such an action, even though she had the strongest sense of self preservation of anyone I knew. As writers, we often have to go to dark, painful places in our work; perhaps this can serve as a kind of rehearsal for the more difficult moments in life we haven’t experienced yet.

Sometimes, of course, life teaches us that we got it all wrong on the page, that we were naïve or misguided when we wrote about something we hadn’t lived, that what we wrote pales in comparison to real experience. That is certainly my experience with Delta Girls; there are depths to the aftermath of a mother’s suicide that I couldn’t have foreseen when I wrote that simple sentence.  But sometimes, somehow, we are lucky enough to tap into some collective human database of emotion, some authentic vein. I love this quote from Terence, 190-158 BC: “I am human. Nothing human is alien to me.” Writers have to come from that place of openness, of readiness to explore humanity in all its surprising contradictions, shallow and deep and strange. I know that I have a different relationship with my Delta Girls character now, and feel more compassion as a result of going through a similar loss. And I understand that character’s actions in a way I couldn’t have before (so maybe part of me did kind of know what I was writing, after all).

“My mother killed herself, you know” is still not a sentence I can say easily. I can say “My mother killed herself” now, perhaps almost too readily—I can’t seem to stop talking or writing about her death – but the “you know” still feels too pat. Perhaps it was glib in my character’s mouth, as well. It’s true that often we don’t know what we know until we write it, but sometimes even then, that knowledge is just a glimmer, just the beginning hint of insight. We write towards what we need to understand.

In addition to Delta Girls, Gayle Brandeis is the author of the novels Self Storage and The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction. She recently published her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns, and is also the author of the creativity guide Fruitflesh. She lives in Riverside, CA and is mom to one college student, one high school student, and one seven month old.

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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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In anticipation of the paperback release of my latest novel, Bird in Hand, my friend Gretchen Rubin invited me to answer some questions about happiness for her wonderful blog, The Happiness Project.  One of her questions is, “Is there a happiness mantra or motto you’ve found very helpful?” I do have one — which I’ll write about for Gretchen (and link to here!) in a few days — but I love the answer to this question given by Larry Smith, creator of the brilliant Six-Word Memoir Project (“Fall down. Get up. Repeat process.”):

“My motto for writing (which is a big part of my daily existence and own happiness), one that I think applies to life as well: “Write drunk, edit sober.” Not that you should actually be drunk (the inebriated writer is a silly, antiquated idea, among other things), but that you should just get the words down whether you’re writing a letter, a report for work, or the story of your life, in six words or 60,000. Put the words down, don’t obsess over them, just effusively spill them down onto the page. Then step away—for an hour, a day, a week, whatever you need. And then edit. Edit like crazy. Be hard on words and yourself and make it better. And when you think you’re finished, edit it one more time.”

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“Someone once said, ‘If you go for the universal, you get nothing; if you go for the specific, you get the universal.’

“There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

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The Portuguese writer Clara Paulino thought she’d never find another language that could express the depth and nuance of her experience.  And then she did:

A few months ago I made the momentous discovery that I can write in English.

Strange discovery, one might say, given that I have lived “in English” for the past seven years and teach Art History to American students. Yet it was the sound of Portuguese that welcomed me into this world, and English is not even my second language. I was introduced to it at the rather late age of fourteen in Porto, Portugal by the intensely British Ms. Symington, who started every class by frightening us. “Picture each word as a scalding hot potato,” she’d say with glee.

In spite of years living in different countries, I never felt confused. Other languages did very well for most things, but only in the warm diphthongs of Portuguese could my inner self step onto the page – or so I thought. The creative impulse, too elusive even for Freud, must surely resist anything foreign to the earliest experiences!

For years I filled page after page with cedillas, tildes and circumflexes (Portuguese on the page resembles a cross between words and music), publishing widely in books and magazines.  Then I moved to the States to teach at a university in South Carolina. Suddenly I fell into a state of linguistic confusion and creative paralysis. “Why don’t you just translate your Portuguese stories?” asked my American friends.

But I couldn’t.  It is tricky to put anything other than a short note into a new system. A language has a peculiar, slightly odd (to unaccustomed eyes) geography, archeology, even time. It swells into hyperbolic mountains, retreats into timid valleys, blends deserts and forests in disconcerting oxymora – all in its own inimitable way; it lives on layers of semantic sediments; it stretches and contracts in rhythms as varied as the rumba and the waltz. A language breathes like an animal and winds its way towards meaning like a plant towards the sun.

If a word is planted in foreign soil, it either dies or adapts – and adaption is only another word for change. Good translators know this. They look at each word from different angles and consider all the contexts while looking for the right niche to move it into. It is painstaking, often thankless work because so much of it is invisible.

Publishers want the book out, and it needs to be readable, but does “O poeta é um fingidor/Finge tão completamente/Que chega a fingir que é dor/A dor que deveras sente — by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa –really mean “The poet is a faker/Who’s so good at his act/He even fakes the pain/Of pain he feels in fact (published translation)?  Not quite.

“Not quite” is the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am for the translation of texts, all texts, from memos to Shakespeare. The idea of not reading Tolstoy because Russian is a closed book to me is frightening. But I wish I could read it in Russian not only to hear its time, including the silences between the words, but its sounds too. Sound is important; sound carries landscapes on its fluttering wings, and at least for me, reading is listening. Anna Karenina in the original language conjures up a world imaginatively and sensually so different from that of any other version! Language conveys so much more than plot that, to be good, translators have to be magicians.

And though I have translated other people’s work – rarely, and with the utmost reverence – my magic tricks fail abysmally when I try to translate my own work. Sentences turn and twist in the oddest directions, and soon a text is born that carries the original only as memory. Exasperating, yes – but also a reminder that meaning is more than semantics, that it rests in form more than one could ever imagine.

So it was indeed momentous discovery when I found that places and characters came to life in English as mysteriously and miraculously as they do for me in Portuguese. I realized how well I know this language now, how lovely it is to explore its wild and secret places, how capably it translates my foreign experience.

Clara Paulino was born in Portugal and educated in England, Germany and the U.S. She has degrees in English and German Literature, and a Ph.D. in Art History, and has taught at universities in Portugal and the U.S. In Portugal she wrote articles for various magazines as well as Danças com Gémeos, a fictionalized memoir of a professional woman raising twin girls.  She has worked as a freelance translator and interpreter and is currently editing a 19th-century Women’s Travel Writing Series for the London publishers Pickering & Chatto. She is also working on a memoir about growing up in a nation under Fascism.

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The writer Lisa Gornick revisits this vexing question — and digs a little deeper:

A few weeks ago I posted on this site an account of writing — and ultimately deciding not to publish — an essay about my teenaged son. Most of the responses were questions about whether the caution I took with my son should extend to other categories: siblings, spouses, parents, nieces, nephews. These questions pushed me to reflect more deeply on various threads of my decision.

The first thread was a creepy feeling I’d had reading certain pieces, often beautifully crafted and insightful, about painful and disturbing events in an author’s child’s life. I understand the impulse to record these moments because I have it, too: the dramas we share with our kids are gripping and soaked in emotion. They matter to us; at times, they occlude everything else. As writers, we want to fashion these experiences into narratives that will help us both to understand our children and ourselves and to believe that we’ve made lemonade from our lemons.

But here’s the rub:  Good writing and good parenting aren’t always compatible. Good writing requires casting a cold eye on the other and on the self and then telling the truth about those observations. Good parenting requires casting a warm eye on our children and then employing tact and prudent boundaries about what we express. The creepy feeling arose when it felt as though the parent was riding shotgun to the writer.

The second thread concerns the notion of consent. Whereas all sentient writers — journalist, biographer, memoirist, novelist, poet — struggle with the impact of their work on those about whom they write (directly or indirectly), most do not believe that they require the consent of their subjects. To complicate matters further, in relationships with significant imbalances of power, consent cannot truly be granted: children cannot grant consent for sexual relations with adults; patients, compromised by transferences and vulnerabilities, cannot grant sexual consent to therapists. In these relationships, a sacred trust is conferred by the less powerful onto the more powerful. What implications does this have for the writer and her child?

These threads came together for me reading Michael Chabon‘s charming and at times philosophical collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, where we can find a model for how to write about our kids without — and there’s no other way to say it — harming them. Chabon’s children in these essays are the well-loved, self-assured kids that inhabit hip, urban, affluent communities. In “D.A.R.E.,” Chabon’s thirteen-year-old daughter apprehends listening to the Beatles that there are allusions to pot. Over dinner, she shyly raises the subject with her father, who, as the household expert on the Beatles and, his daughter now recognizes, on marijuana too, confirms her observation.

“Wait,” Chabon’s ten-year-old son demands. “You mean — have you actually smoked marijuana?” Ambushed, Chabon struggles to uphold the vow he and his wife made to be honest when this question inevitably arose.

By the close of the essay, we know that Chabon’s thirteen-year-old daughter is experiencing an explosion of understanding, but not if she dreams of being a dancer or has a crush on her science teacher. We know that his ten-year-old son has antennae up for everything, but not if he cried seeing the Katrina photographs or gloated when he got a home run. We know that his six-year-old daughter struggles with her daunting older sibs to be part of it all, but not if she has been reading since three or still sucks her thumb. If you put me in their respective Berkeley classrooms, I couldn’t pick out a one of them. The children, lively as they are, remain safely flat, their inner selves shielded, because Chabon’s essay is about himself: his attempt to uphold the pledge he’d made with his wife that when the time arrived, they would talk honestly with their children about drugs.

As parents, we have no problem sharing photos of our little kids with bubble bath beards or with their faces smeared with spaghetti sauce because adorable as these images are to us as parents, to an audience, they are clichés. They reveal nothing unique or private about the child. When our kids reach adolescence, sailing into the red light and velvet darkness, to use Chabon’s metaphor for crossing from innocence to knowingness, from simple childhood goodness to complex adolescent transgressiveness, they do not want their parents deciding which of their many faces to make public. They do not want their parents writing their travelogues.

Or do they? After the first blog post, I forwarded my son a link. A few days later, I asked if he’d taken a look. “Yeah. Nice, Mom,” he said with about as much enthusiasm as if I’d inquired how he liked his cereal. Serves me right, I thought. Teenaged boys have other things on their minds than their mother’s scribbles.

He headed down the hall to his room, calling over his shoulder, “You should have published that essay.”

Lisa Gornick is the author of a novel, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin), short stories in various literary quarterlies (including a Best American Short Stories distinguished story of the year), and numerous academic articles.  She has a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU, and is currently working on a collection of stories and a novel.

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Recently I shared some exercises I use with my students at Fordham for revising fiction and narrative nonfiction.  But a lot of us need inspiration at the other end of the process, too — right at the beginning.  So below are some of the best writing prompts I’ve used over the years.  Some I made up, some I gathered from other writers, and some I found in books.

You can approach these any way you wish: write about yourself, another person, or a character you’ve created.  Don’t think too much — just start.  Here’s an idea from Monica Wood, in The Pocket Muse:  “Set a timer for forty-five minutes, and don’t get out of the chair until the timer dings.  Even if you sit staring at the page the entire time, you’re ingraining the habit.”  And another piece of advice from Monica: “Tempted to quit early?  Make yourself this promise: One more sentence.  Say this every time you want to quit early:  One more sentence.”

So — to write!  Here you go:

  • Write about your hidden talent.
  • Write about the first time you felt dispensable.
  • Write about a disagreeable person who, for whatever reason, you have an attachment to.
  • Write about a photograph that means something to you, and why.
  • Give me your morning.  Breakfast, waking up, walking to the bus stop.  Be as specific as possible.  Use the five senses.  Take it slow.
  • Write about “leaving.” Approach it any way you want. Write about your divorce, leaving the house this morning, a friend dying, packing for a trip.
  • Everyone has a secret — some dark only because hidden.  Give a character a secret and a reason for hiding it.
  • Write about a family story.  The one you don’t like.  The one your mother always tells on a third glass of wine.
  • Write a story about two overlapping triangles in opposition, the most obvious being two lovers and their four parents.
  • Finally, a great one from The Pocket Muse: Almost any situation includes insiders and outsiders.  Most human beings, no matter what their stations, consider themselves outsiders.  Write about being an insider.

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In which the intrepid C. M. Mayo (whose recent novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, is not-so-coincidentally out in paperback) explains why guest blogging is a flourishing new literary genre and a powerful tool for promotion, and provides 10 hot tips for coming up with your own guest blog posts. And does it, of course, in a guest blog.  Derrida would have a field day.

I felt very avant garde back in 2006, when I wrote my first guest-blogs for Wendi Kaufman’s now, alas, apparently abandoned “Happy Booker” blog (“If I Had an iPod: Top 5 Mexican Music Selections “) and for the travel blog World Hum (“The Speed of Rancho Santa Ines”).  But over the past year, in promoting this new novel, Holy Smokes! I’ve written for:

I’m not unusual in this regard; many long-established writers are newly busy with guest-blogging— and hosting guest-bloggers. On my own blog, Madam Mayo, I’ve hosted several other writers on their so-called “blogtours” — Sandra Beasley, Sandra Gulland, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Porter Shreve, Tim Wendel, and many more (view the full line-up of Madam Mayo’s guest-bloggers here). Two more examples: Leslie Pietryk and Christina Baker Kline, both outstanding novelists, frequently host other writers on their blogs, Work-in-Progress and, well, this one here.  (Editor’s note: praise unsolicited.)

And so — 10 tips for coming up with your own guest blog posts:

1. Think about music: what songs might make a great soundtrack? Which songs might your characters would sing in the shower?

2. Think about food: any recipes from the book? Any recipes your characters might concoct?

3. Think about places: perhaps a certain city or mountain or lakeside resport in your book (or etc) is special. Photos, please!

4. Fantasize: which actors could play the parts in the movie? If your character were born in Virginia in 1960 instead of say, France in 1765, where would she work?

5. Tell a story about the book (e.g., how I found my agent; why I finally, with much gnashing of teeth, threw out chapter 1; the day I got the idea to write the book).

6. Thank those who helped you (Chekhov? Tolstoy? Teacher? Mom? Husband? Dog? Cat?).

7. Select an excerpt that might work.

8. Interview yourself (don’t be shy!). Ask yourself three questions about the book.

9. Offer helpful hints (How to bake bread; how to write a novel in 12 easy steps (ha ha); how to keep your cat off the laptop; how to find time to write; how to find an agent).

10. Generate lists, e.g., three poets who influenced my understanding of rain; 10 reasons to take a writing workshop; 7 cities I wish were in the novel but they didn’t make the cut ; my favorite places to write in Washington DC; 5 books everyone in Bethesda should read right now; 4 yoga poses to make your creativity bloom …

In sum, guest-blogging is at once a flourishing new literary genre and a powerful tool for literary promotion. While you probably won’t get paid in cash to write a guest blog, you will get paid, and sometimes very handsomely, in clicks. And if you don’t think that counts, check out what Facebook charges per click for advertising. (Speaking of which, please click here.)

P.S. More resources for writers here.

C.M. Mayo is the author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, an historical novel based on the true story and named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2009. She is also the author of a travel memoir, Miraculous Air, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. A long-time resident of Mexico City and an avid translator of Mexican poetry and fiction, she is the editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion. She divides her time between Mexico City and Washington DC, and blogs on sundry subjects at Madame Mayo.  This was adapted from a post on First Person Plural.

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Sometimes when you’re revising it helps to have a specific assignment.   Last week in this space I listed some exercises that my fiction-writing students find useful.  Here are some revision ideas that my memoir and journalism students particularly like:

1) Write down three adjectives (beautiful, aggressive, haughty) that describe a character in your narrative/memoir. (Be sure the adjectives describe different qualities, not the same ones.  For instance, handsome, well-groomed, muscular are too similar, as opposed to handsome, talkative, and mechanically inclined, which reveal different aspects of the character.)

Without using any of the adjectives (or synonyms), write a half-page scene or passage that shows the character engaged in action and perhaps speaking some dialogue that will suggest the selected qualities.

2) List 10 objects in your main character’s bedroom, car, living room, or other place. Make these objects as specific as possible, giving titles of books, contents of photographs, kind of junk food, etc.  Three of these objects should be connected to the story.  Using this list, write a half-page description of the character’s space, mentioning the objects or other elements of the décor (such as paint color) that will give readers clues to character.

3) Cut your story into scenes, summary, and flashbacks. Number each piece in the order in which it appears.  Then lay these pieces out on a table or floor and see what you’ve got.  How many scenes are there?  Is every scene necessary?  Can some be combined, deleted, or summarized?  Are important scenes buried in sections of summary?  Are there missing scenes?  Is the material from the past in the right places?  Try rearranging the sequence of events.  Experiment.  Move beyond fiddling with sentences to this kind of re-envisioning and rearranging.

4)  Choose a moment from your story-in-progress that could benefit from intensifying a character’s emotional or physical experience.

Focus on the place: the sights, smells, and weather.  For three minutes, free-write sensory details as rapidly as possible in present tense.  Look back and select the most striking or significant sensory details.  Look for places they might fit into the original passage.  Rewrite the opening paragraph, moving slowly, incorporating some of these details.

5) Write three different endings. Think about what is resolved and what is left unresolved with each ending.

6)  And finally — this is so obvious I hesitate to put it on the list, and yet I’m always amazed at how many of my students consider it a novel idea.  Retype at least one full draft, “making both planned and spontaneous changes as you go,” as Janet Burroway advises.  “The computer’s abilities can tempt us to a “fix-it” approach to revision, but jumping in and out of the text to correct problems can result in a revision that reads like patchwork.”

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"Adolescence," by Eddie Durrett (oil on canvas)

Novelist and clinical psychologist Lisa Gornick explores this question — and finds an answer she can live with:

Last year, I wrote an essay about a dark patch in the otherwise largely luminous life of my sixteen-year-old son. When the essay was finished, I showed it to him.

It was Sunday morning. My son put down the newspaper to read the pages I handed him, and I left him alone in the kitchen, busying myself with chores. I was prepared for him to say simply, “No.” Although I’d been discreet in the essay, with a focus on parenting issues rather than him, he was nonetheless a character. On these grounds alone, I imagined he might say “I don’t want you writing about me.” He might worry what his friends or teachers or coaches would think. On a deeper level, he might feel intruded upon: this was his life, his journey. So it was with surprise and relief that I heard his response when I came back into the kitchen.

“It’s fine, Mom.”

“Really? You’re not worried it could have some kind of negative impact on you?”

My son rolled his eyes. “Clear my dishes for me, okay? Luvya.”

A few hours later, we had a disagreement about something that now eludes me but was of the bread and butter variety of whether he should go to the movies with his ninety-nine hours of homework still ahead.

“What right do you have to tell me what to do?” my son snapped. “You’re going to exploit me with that essay.”

I froze. What? the injured parent in me wanted to retort. You told me it was fine. You told me you had no problems with it.

Yes, the observer in me said: here is the truth of what he feels.

Perhaps you are thinking that with these reflections about how I decided not to publish an essay about my son, I am doing precisely what I disavow: writing publicly about him here. But there is, I think, a qualitative difference. My son, in these paragraphs, is what Forster called a “flat” character, defined by one or two traits. Other than the blandest, most stereotypical facts, I have not revealed anything about him.

For many years, I worked as a psychotherapist as well as a writer. During that time, I faced a similar dilemma. Whereas it was clear that patient confidentiality had to be maintained, what about writing about anonymous “case material” in the service of training and theoretical development? Every clinician has to resolve this conflict in his or her own way; as with raising children, there are myriad wrong roads, but no one right road. The road that I chose was not to write about my patients. I feared that the very act of thinking about what transpired with my patients as “material” for something I might be writing would alter the interaction, my attention divided between observing with curiosity so as to better understand my patient and consciously or unconsciously intervening in ways that would advance the story I was trying to tell.

With the essay I showed my son, it became clear that assent and dissent were bundled together. How could he open up to me if he worried that what he told me would end up in print? How could I exhort my son to be careful about the footprints he leaves on Facebook and in texts and emails, then turn around and publish something that later might be taken out of context and used against him in the infinite cyberspace where nothing ever disappears? How could my son feel loved if I used his story — which I know through the privilege of being his parent — for my own purposes?

Sanctimonious as it sounds, we owe our children our sacred trust. We can tell sweet stories about our children when they are babes and young children, but when as adolescents they sail off into what Michael Chabon gorgeously calls “the red light and velvet darkness,” we need to allow them that journey without fear that we will intrude ourselves unnecessarily or force them to live forevermore with their private voyage documented by us. Equally important, our children need to believe that we will let them sail away — that central as they are to us, we don’t need them to be the subject of our work. We can find our own material.

Lisa Gornick is the author of a novel, A Private Sorcery (Algonquin), short stories in various literary quarterlies (including a Best American Short Stories distinguished story of the year), and numerous academic articles.  She has a PhD in clinical psychology from Yale and is a graduate of the writing program at NYU, and is currently working on a collection of stories and a novel.

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A page from James Michener's rough draft of his novel The Covenant

This week I’m working on revising fiction with my undergraduate and grad students at Fordham. Below are some of the tips and ideas I’ve collected over the years that my students find most useful. (Next week I’ll talk in this space about the best exercises I’ve found for revising nonfiction.)

1) First, answer these questions:
What is my story about? Another way of saying this is: What is the pattern of change? Once this pattern is clear, you can check your draft to make sure you’ve included all the crucial moments of discovery and decision. Is there a crisis action?

2) Write three new openings. Each one should be at least a paragraph long. In each opening, start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end.

3) For a dialogue scene in your story/novel: go back and ground it in the physical world by adding:
a. two actions or gestures that will help us see another important character
b. two physical descriptions of another character that will help us visualize him or her
c. two setting or atmosphere details that will help put readers in the scene

4) The dramatic elements of a story/novel – crisis, power shifts, emotional connections, and withdrawals – are often mirrored on a smaller scale within a scene.

Try analyzing one of your own scenes, asking yourself:
a. What kind of power does each of the main characters have?
b. Where is there at least one shift in power – or even a failed attempt to take power?
c. Where is there at least one moment of making or breaking the emotional connection between the characters? Does it raise the emotional temperature?
d. Is there a mini-crisis or turning point? Something that is said or done, however minor, after which things cannot go back to quite the way they were before?

5) Are your most important lines in direct dialogue, or summarized? Generally, these should be direct. Is information or idle chatter direct or summarized? Generally, these should be summarized. Revise to make sure that the most important moments are in direct dialogue.

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“The older we get, the more … you realize there’s a whole range of things you will never do, of things and people you will never be.  As life becomes more and more limiting, there is something wonderful about being able to get inside the skin of people unlike yourself.”

— Lee Smith

Lee Smith is the author, most recently, of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger

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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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My friend Pamela Redmond Satran is a novelist, New York Times bestselling author, ninja web developer, and one-time magazine editor. Now she’s embarking on something entirely new:

Two things inspired me to write my new novel, Ho Springs, online, day by day, instead of writing it for a conventional publisher the way I did my first five novels.  Well, two things that are easy to explain.

The first was my husband, after watching the DVD of American Gangster, telling me he found the movie good enough but ultimately unsatisfying.   “It was a movie,” he explained, “so you knew from the beginning that everything really interesting was going to happen to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and that it was going to build to this big climax at the end.”

That was the problem with conventional novels too, I thought.  They were predictable, limited and finite in form and scope.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to write – and read – a novel that unfolded in a way that was both more leisurely and more compelling, the way TV shows like Mad Men and The Wire did?

The second influence was creating my blog How Not To Act Old after no one wanted to buy it as a magazine article, turning it into a book and making that book a New York Times bestseller.  That experience taught me that not only was it more fun and exciting to write without an editor between me and my readers, but my own creative instincts were often better than those of the traditional publishing world.

My experience writing five “real” novels and developing two big websites – I’m also a partner in the site nameberry.com, based on the ten baby name books I coauthored with Linda Rosenkrantz – put me in a unique position to create a piece of digital fiction that would combine the best of both worlds.  Rather than writing episodic pieces, I wanted to create a novel that included such conventional elements as a character-driven story, causally-related scenes, and an extended plot that would unspool in unexpected ways, but in a form that could exist only online.

My blueprint was a television series I’d created (but hadn’t sold) a few years ago, set in a fictionalized version of Hot Springs, Arkansas.   A place-based story was perfect for an online novel, I thought, offering a wide range of characters and settings and the potential for stories to expand in an unlimited number of directions.

The big problem was the name, Hot Springs.  The url hotsprings.com was obviously taken.  And then, driving one day, I had a eureka moment: hosprings.com, or Ho Springs.  I was so excited I did a u-turn and drove right back home to track down and reserve the name.

From that moment on, I knew the idea was right.  I wanted to create the site in wordpress, so it would be free and I’d have total creative control, but I couldn’t find a theme that included all the elements – videos, graphic windows that opened to places in the town and story, room for a big block of text.

I needed a designer – or, as it turned out, three designers.  I had a vision for a logo that would look like all the letters were in realistic flames, with the T up in smoke, which called for a photoshop expert.  My budget was zero, or as close to that as I could get.  I was lucky to find Katie Mancinewho built me an amazing logo.

The only problem was, Katie said, she couldn’t design a good-looking site to go with that logo.  Rather, she sold me on the concept “Vintage Tourist Guide,” which was great, but in the end that didn’t work out either.  Katie finally ended up with the design you see now on the site, and my friend Dennis Tobenski, who’s really a composer, made the whole thing dance.  Combined cost: under $1500, and several hundred gray hairs.

Weeks and then months were passing, during which I found a musician, Matt Michael, to write and record two original songs for the site, and also drafted several writer friends to create independent blogs from the characters’ viewpoints.  But the only writing I was doing during this time was putting together the static content describing the characters and the settings.

A novelist creating a work for the web is not, then, just a writer, but a designer, a logician, a manager, a tech guy, a producer.

And then, once you do start writing – or at least, once I did – the process is different too.  I suppose you could write one long story and parcel it out day by day, but the whole point for me was to create it as I went along, publish it immediately, to swing by the crook of my knees with no net below.

That’s the only way to feel the wind on your face, which is something you rarely feel when you’re writing a conventional novel, one that won’t be published for two years or maybe five, that no other person may even see for all that time, or maybe ever.  Writing all my other novels, I’m a big planner, outlining the big story and even each individual scene, revising and reimagining, working on the same piece until I lose sight of where I started and when it will ever end.

With Ho Springs, I get up in the morning, having a vague sense of what I’m going to write about, from which character’s viewpoint, but letting myself be swayed by whatever I encounter between brushing my teeth and opening my computer.  A David Sedaris story in an old New Yorker got one of my characters beaten one morning; an email from a writer friend inspired me to make a video of myself talking about what had influenced me that day.

It wasn’t until after I launched the site that I looked at what anyone else was doing in this arena.  The only site I’ve found that’s similar is All’s Fair in Love and War, Texas, by the brilliant Amber Simmons, which makes me believe God saved me from that Vintage Tourist Guide idea.  Penguin’s We Tell Stories is brilliant, but much more expensively and expertly produced than I could hope for, and more limited in writerly ambition.  Visually-based web fictions that blow me away include Unknown Territories and The Flat on Dreaming Methods.  But they’re movies, really, not novels.

Where is this project going?  My ideal vision is that someone like HBO or a publisher with a production arm will buy it and produce it as a multimedia property, with a television and a web and a book element working together.  I believe that this is how fiction will be written and published in the future, that this will become the new standard long after anyone remembers that Ho Springs ever existed.

Or I may take it down tomorrow and build something else.  The excitement is in creating something.  Holding it in your hands, or staring at it on a screen, holds so much less satisfaction.

Pamela’s personal site may be found here; with Ho Springs just around the corner.  This post originally appeared on the site Noveir.

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Write what you know?  On second thought …

“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words ‘Write what you know’ is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?”  — P. J. O’Rourke

“It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know; I write in order to find out what I know.”  — Patricia Hampl

“Writing what you know ignores the whole purpose of creative writing. Writing is an act of the imagination. Good writing is generally bigger than the writer — if we only write about ‘what you know,’ our work will never be more compelling than we are.”  — Willie Davis

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The novelist and creative-writing teacher Susan Breen offers consolation, hope, and advice for anyone trying to get published:

I’ve come to think that publishing stories are like birth stories. There’s usually a lot of pain, but once you hold that bundle in your hands you forget all about it. Then you say, Let’s do it again! My own story, if I can hang on to this image a little longer, was like a very delayed labor. In fact, I’d come to think it would never happen.

It was 2006 and I was in that terrible limbo in which unpublished novelists reside. Every conversation went like this:

What do you do?
I write novels.
Where can I buy one?
You can’t.
Oh. Nice to meet you.

By that point I’d written two (unpublished) novels and had started work on a third, which I thought was good, though I didn’t think it encouraging that my agent stopped returning my calls after I told her about it.  I was gearing up to start looking for a new agent, but I was feeling gloomy. One night, clicking around the computer, I came across a sign that said, “Meet Four Editors.” I felt a little like that kid in Willy Wonka who’s looking for the last chocolate bar. But I clicked on the icon and an ad came up for the NY Pitch and Shop Conference.

To make a very long story short, I went. And I did meet with four editors, each of them from a big New York publishing house. I had to give each one a pitch for my novel, which required me to think about what my novel was about. The whole experience was surreal, made more so by the fact that the conference took place in a dance studio. One whole wall was mirrored, which was the wall I was facing. So to my great joy I got to watch my own face contorted with embarrassment as I pitched my novel.

The first editor hated it. The second and third ones seemed interested. But the fourth editor, Emily Haynes, who was a treasure beyond all value, smiled at me and said, “I love it.” She was from Plume, a division of Penguin, and she wound up buying my book, The Fiction Class. It was published in 2008.

What did I learn from this experience?

1. You have to keep writing. If two books don’t sell, write a third. If five books don’t sell, write a sixth. The more you write, the better you’ll get.

2. You have to take a really long view. From the moment I first started to work on a novel to the day it was signed, took me ten years. And I got lucky. (Of course, there are exceptions. So don’t panic.)

3. You need to get out there. I know you’re shy; I am too. But you learn so much from meeting other writers and agents and editors.

4. You don’t need to be related to someone famous to sell a book, though it probably helps.

5. You don’t need to be tall and gorgeous to sell a book, though that probably helps too.

6. This is the final one. Write about things you really care about. Then it won’t matter so much whether you’re published or not because you’ll know you’re doing something meaningful.

Susan Breen is the author of The Fiction Class. She also writes short stories, one of which was anthologized in 2009 Best American Nonrequired Reading. She teaches classes in fiction writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and lives in Westchester with her family.

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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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Jill Smolowe hasn’t been writing much lately. She has a pretty good excuse:

Lately I’ve been thinking about writing.

And therein lies the problem. Thinking about writing is one thing; writing is another matter entirely.

Though my professional writing life continues to produce a steady stream of words (and a steady paycheck), my personal writing life—the one that produces memoirs, essays and novels without guarantee of income or publication—has been largely in hibernation for three years now. I know that weekly magazine output would, for many, add up to a writing career. Certainly, it did for me for many years. But at some point in my 30-plus-year journalism career, my writing appetite no longer felt sated by short pieces about other people’s lives. It came to require the finding of personal expression through longer-form memoir and fiction. That’s the work that leaves me alternately frustrated and satisfied; that’s the work that has been slumbering the better part of these last few years.

Granted, some of my excuses for avoiding work are probably better than yours. On January 1, 2007 my husband was diagnosed with leukemia. That day, without reservation, I set aside the novel I was working on, a manuscript that after two years and 200 pages was finally beginning to take shape. Nine months later when Joe returned to his desk, I returned to mine. In fits and starts that mirrored his medical fortunes, I eventually finished a first draft of the novel.

Then, in June 2009, my husband died.

I know. I feel your sympathy. Thank you.

But this isn’t about my pain. This is about my writing—which is what I haven’t been doing since that startling moment when my husband of 24 years fried some eggs, chatted with me about another person’s colon cancer, then abruptly checked out of my life forever.

That someone else with the advanced-stage colon cancer? My sister.

Like I said, some of my excuses for avoiding work are probably better than yours. After Joe died, countless people told me, “Don’t make any major decisions for a year.” By that they meant don’t make any life-altering decisions that I might later regret. (Don’t relocate. Don’t sell my house. Don’t quit my job. Don’t remarry). When I would say that I’m not writing, I would receive nods of approval. “Of course you’re not. You need to give yourself a break.”

What they didn’t realize—what I didn’t realize—is that I’d already made a big decision: after 12 years of honoring a pre-dawn, five-day-a-week appointment in front of my computer screen, I’d bailed on my writing life. By so-doing I’d stripped away a key part of my identity: writer.

Granted, during these last nine months I’ve journaled, at first dutifully and without heart, lately with increasing attention to detail. All the while I’ve been telling myself, There’s material here for future writing projects. (Duh.) But recapping events, recording snippets of conversation, providing memory jogs for future narratives, does that count? Christina rendered a verdict in an earlier entry on this blog: “All of it is part of creating a novel. But it’s not writing.”

I couldn’t agree more. For decades I referred to myself as a “magazine writer” or a “journalist,” unable to lay claim to the title of “writer” because that seemed too exalted, a goal to which I could only aspire. Then one day after years of slaving away daily at novels (none of which have found their way into print), it suddenly came to me: I’m a writer. With that acknowledgment, the word lost its loftiness and assumed the contours of a fitting self-description. By then, by dint of persistent, hard work, I’d found my way to a very simple (some might say unsparing) definition of writer: a writer is someone who writes. Period.

The corollary to that, of course, is also simple (and equally unsparing): if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. Period.

That would be me these last nine months: not a writer. Yeah, I’ve got some compelling excuses. But that’s all they are. Excuses. And more and more, of late, they sit less and less comfortably.

Outside, I hear the rumble of garbage trucks. Dawn is breaking. Today, I know, is going to be a better day. Why? Because today I’ve pushed myself beyond thinking about writing and done some work. Granted a piece like this is a sprint, not the more demanding and disciplined marathon of a novel or a memoir. But wrestling these ideas into coherent shape is an important first step. Fate, which has already stripped away one identity (wife) and imposed another (widow), may not yet be done with me, but only I can lay claim to that identity (writer) I continue to regard as so precious. With this piece, I am serving myself notice: time to stop with the excuses and restake my claim.

Jill Smolowe is author of the memoir An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of the anthology A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents. An award-winning journalist, she was a foreign affairs writer for Newsweek and Time, and is currently a Senior Writer at People. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, among them The Washington Post Magazine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Reader’s Digest “Today’s Best NonFiction” series.

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Last month I received an early copy of Dawn Raffel’s new story collection, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, which officially debuts this week.  Reading it — a slim, spare set of 21 stories in just over 100 pages that Publishers Weekly calls “a model of economy and grace” — I was struck by how well Raffel writes dialogue.  So I asked her to articulate how she does what she does.  And here’s what she said:

Before I was a fiction writer, I was a journalism student, a theater student, and a fiction editor. All three pursuits taught me some lessons about dialogue:

People almost never speak in perfect sentences. In journalism school, I spent hours writing down verbatim what people said. Real people mix up tenses and subject/verb agreement, repeat, trail off, and go off on tangents halfway through a sentence. Too much of this on the page would be annoying, but a little goes a long way toward establishing authenticity.

Conversations are rarely entirely logical. One person asks a question and the other gives an answer that doesn’t quite match. One makes a comment and the other changes the subject. This happens when we’re obfuscating and when we’re genuinely trying to communicate. We invariably have our own agenda, our own distractions, our own inner drama playing loudly in our head.

Words carry only a portion of the meaning of dialogue. When you study a play, you realize how much is conveyed by tone of voice, by timing, by physicality. On the page, you can utilize the cadence of the dialogue to convey mood (i.e. Is it percussive? Fluid and languid?), and you can make use of a character’s body language (Is she looking at the door while she’s talking? Picking at food?). What’s not said can be important. And colloquial dialogue juxtaposed with a lusher, more expressive narrative voice can convey the sense of a rich inner life behind the words.

“Said” is your friend. “She declared, she exclaimed, she cajoled, she fulminated, she shrieked….” These just call attention to themselves and feel manipulative; they’re cheap ways to conjure emotion. As a fiction editor, I saw how “said” disappears on the page and allows the dialogue and action to stand out.

Using dialogue as a delivery system for lots of exposition is also a cheap shot. People don’t give each other a ton of back story in real conversations (“Remember when we got married ten years ago…”).  Let dialogue advance the story.

Having one character tell another character a story can establish character. In my novel Carrying the Body, one of my characters keeps trying to tell the story of the Three Little Pigs; the way she corrupts the fairy tale is a way of showing the reader who she is.

My best piece of advice is this: Always read your dialogue aloud. If it makes you cringe (which happens to me often on the first round), if it comes out sounding like words no one ever spoke, you know you have your work cut out for you.

Dawn Raffel’s newest book, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe, is a collection of 21 very short stories (several made up almost entirely of dialogue). She is also the author of a novel, Carrying the Body and a previous collection, In the Year of Long Division. Her fiction has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories and numerous journals and anthologies. She has taught creative writing in the MFA program at Columbia University and at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is a longtime magazine editor. Her website is DawnRaffel.  Her YouTube video is Further Adventures in the Restless Universe.

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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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Katharine Davis just finished writing a novel.  Now comes the hard part:

Writing a novel is a long journey.  From the simple physical endurance of turning out all those pages to the emotional ups and downs of the creative act—it’s an enormous endeavor, consuming one’s life for years at a time.

Writers often talk about the difficulty of getting started.  How do you find the voice, where to begin, which point of view, the time frame, the setting?  There are thousands of questions to consider, big and small. Then there is the problem of sticking to it, finding the time to write, getting blocked.  Oh, the agony of finally understanding a character in the thirteenth chapter and having to re-write the previous 200 pages.  How painful it is to discover you’ve gone off on a tangent, another 60 pages.  You love every word, but you have to take them all out.

Eventually, you do the tedious revisions.  Sentence by sentence, word by word, the work of getting the prose just right.  Some days it’s nothing but a pleasure to revise, working on the rhythm, having the perfect metaphor seem to land in your lap.  You might experience the thrill of coming up with that one word that changes everything.  But, the countless hours spent on dialogue that clunks along like the rattle in your car that the mechanic can’t fix, or the flashback that’s brought your narrative drive to a halt – these trials are part of the process too.

Yet, to me, one of the hardest parts of writing a novel is letting it go. You type ‘the end’ in all caps.  You send it out.  You want to celebrate, drink champagne, eat an enormous chocolate cupcake and tell all your friends, “I did it.  I’m done. It’s the best book ever!”  And then, wham.  What have I written?  I didn’t get deeply enough into that character’s head.  Did I tell enough about the mother?  Oh God.  That part’s too sappy.  I should have made it better. These thoughts come at 3 AM, thanks to the champagne, the cupcake, or both.  At that moment, the initial thrill of finding the story, and the enthusiasm of bringing it to the page is like some prehistoric event.

The next day, I feel somewhat better.  There’s that scene where . . . and, remember when . . . , and the ending that can still make me cry.  I find a paragraph I truly love.  When did I write that?  The next few weeks bring a combination of highs and lows.

Letting go of a novel is like sending children off to college.  They’ve spent the last few years of high school driving you crazy, but also bringing you joy and delight. You experience the relief of getting them out from under your roof, to deep sadness.  You miss them.  You want your child to have his own life, to succeed.  But it’s no longer up to you.  Your baby is gone.  Still, you’ve created something with love and hard work.

Months later, when your carefully worked-on manuscript pages have become an actual book, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your story, like your grown child, is out in the world at last.  The joy of connecting with readers and contributing one more piece to the human experience lifts your spirits and brings you the courage to reach for your pen to start writing again.

Katharine Davis’s novels include East Hope and Capturing Paris. Recommended in Real Simple Spring Travel 2007, Capturing Paris was also included in the New York Times suggestions for fiction set in Paris. Davis’s new novel, A Slender Thread, is coming out later this year. She is an Associate Editor at The Potomac Review.  She can be reached at www.katharinedavis.com.

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Waiting to pick up my son after his play rehearsal, I sit in the car and grade student essays. I listen to podcasts as I drive over the George Washington Bridge to work. When the phone rings at home and it’s my sister, I get up from my desk to make beds, put in a load of laundry, start the dishwasher.  I make sandwiches for school lunches while fixing dinner.

I have come to realize that I rarely do one thing at a time.  And that’s the problem.

When you write, you can only write.  You can’t do laundry or wash dishes.  You can’t make sandwiches or talk on the phone.  You can’t even listen to music (or I can’t – unless I’m in a coffee shop, where for some reason ambient noise doesn’t usually bother me).  It’s just you and the lined paper – or blank screen – in front of you, and any distraction will not only affect your writing that day, it may change the course or the tenor of the work you’re trying to do.

But multitasking is a hard habit to break, even temporarily.  I sit down to write and items for a “to do” list march through my head.  I suddenly remember that I never called the dentist; I forgot to pick up a package at the post office; we’re out of milk.

In almost every other aspect of my life, my ability to multitask is a good thing.  Doing several things at once is how I’ve learned to juggle my various responsibilities:  mother, wife, editor, teacher, volunteer.  It’s the only way to keep all the balls in the air.

But writing is not about keeping the balls in the air.  It’s about letting them drop.  To unspool a story is to inhabit a different space altogether. You have to let the world in your head grow until it becomes more important than the world you inhabit.  You have to calm your heartbeat, slow your skipping brain, become comfortable with silence.  You have to accept that you will get nothing done except this one thing – this one paragraph or page or, perhaps, on a good day, a chapter – and possibly not even that.

You have to stop worrying about the fact that you’re wasting time.  Of course you are.  That’s what writers do.

And when you emerge from your writing fog you will have accomplished nothing tangible.  You will have checked nothing off your list.  Your teeth still need cleaning.  The package awaits at the post office.  There’s no milk in the fridge.  And your book isn’t finished – far from it.

But perhaps you had a moment of clarity, of insight, about your story.  Maybe you understand it a little better.  And if you really want to be a writer, these moments are more than enough to keep you going, to give you strength to push back against the many-headed hydra of tasks and responsibilities that threatens to devour the precious time you have to create something. Something light-years removed from your ordinary life.

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With a challenging, fulfilling job and a satisfying personal life, Anne Burt questions her desire to write a novel – and finds the answer in an unexpected place:

Thomas Roma, Untitled, 1984

Motivation has always been as cruel to me as it has been – well – motivating. I’ve been motivated to write because: I imagine glory when the world reads my masterpiece; I need to act out some childhood revenge fantasy about surpassing my father; I have a contorted sense that immortality is achievable through words on a page.  Any analysis of my past motivations leaves me thinking I’m either a narcissist or an idiot or both.

I’ve won enough self-awareness through experience and therapy over the years to dispel the notion that any of my three aforementioned motivations for writing are a) possible, or b) matter.  I’m over it, and I sleep better at night and enjoy my life far more as a result.

The truth is, I have a creative, absorbing job I love that uses my skills and education, puts me in the company of artists each day and takes care of my family of four.  I have a meaningful career as a writer and editor as well; while I haven’t published a novel, I’ve published books and essays on subjects that move me and have given me great pride and sense of accomplishment.

My old demons don’t scare me into action anymore – for better (who needs the agitation?) or for worse (the agitation drove me to my writing desk, after all).

But a nagging question remains: do I need to recapture the negativity of these old motivations in order to see the writing of a novel all the way through from beginning to end, or has general life happiness turned my old desire to write a novel into phantom-limb syndrome?

Last week I attended an artist talk, one in a series I oversee as part of my job, by photographer and Columbia University School of the Arts professor Tom Roma. I know Tom, so I was prepared to be entertained by his banter, and I know his photographs, so I was prepared to hear about the extreme care with which he approaches every level of the process.  I was unprepared, however, to find the answer to my question.

Discussing his teaching philosophy, Tom described an assignment he gives his undergraduate and grad students in which he sends them to the library or a bookstore.  “I tell them to scan the shelves, feel the spines, look at the size and shape and heft of the books,” he said. “Then I tell them to pull out the one that speaks to them as an object.  Subject doesn’t matter; what matters is how it feels in their hands, how satisfied they are by holding this thing, whether they feel they need this object in their lives.  When they find the book, they must check it out of the library, or buy it from the store, and that will be the inspiration for the size and feel of their book of photographs.  Whenever they get lost in the middle of the work, or feel directionless or confused, I send them back to hold and feel the book because that book is their goal and will motivate them to create.”

And that was it.  I realized that I was missing something so obvious, so straightforward that it was not only staring me in the face but spilling out over every surface in my home, weighing down my shoulder bag week after week, keeping me up late at night reading, making me miss subway stops, informing my favorite conversations, and even creating the best moments spent with my children:  novels are the book for me.  Novels are my goal, and motivate me to create.  The the-ness of a novel matters to me; I run my hands over its spine and feel its weight and size and heft. Essay collections, careers, articles – not so much.

I want to create something I am truly passionate about, and until I commit myself to seeing a novel through, beginning to end, I won’t have done it. My true motivation is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Anne Burt is Director of Communications for Columbia University School of the Arts. She is the editor of My Father Married Your Mother: Dispatches from the Blended Family and co-editor with Christina Baker Kline of About Face: Women Talk About What They See When They Look in the Mirror.  Anne received Meridian Literary Magazine’s Editors’ Prize in Fiction in 2002.

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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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Writer Julie Metz offers some hard-won advice:

Like many of you, I am working on a new writing project, a novel. What made me think I could do this, anyway? But here I am, too far in to let go, committed to my characters. Some days are thrilling, but lately I often find myself stuck, wondering how I will push out the next sentence.

My first book, published last year, was a memoir titled Perfection. The great thing about writing a memoir is that you know the story; the art is in the writing. With fiction one has that same challenge but in addition the pesky problem of not really knowing where it’s all going to end, or, for that matter, what’s happening in the beginning or middle either.

So here’s what keeps me going on the dark writing days:

1.  Reading a very good novel. At first, as I am reading the very good novel, I’m filled with self-loathing and fear of failure. Wow, this book is so effing amazing, I’ll never be able to write anything like this! But then I relax and begin to enjoy and finally adore the world the author has created, and to see that we all can create our own worlds. I won’t be writing a novel about the day a tightrope walker crossed the space between the World Trade Towers, but I might be able to write a good book about something else. Like a demanding but inspiring teacher, a good book elevates my day-to-day language and my life.

2.  Exercise. While I might tell myself that I don’t have time to take care of my body, because I should be busy writing, taking time to keep fit helps my mind work so much better.  I have begun the year with frequent trips to the gym, which I hope will help me through the winter doldrums. It’s a cliché that our body is our home.  Right now I feel like my body is my home office. If I can keep it clean and tidy, there is room for clearer thinking and perhaps some inspiration.

3. Accidental moments of insight. Just when I think it can’t get worse, that I’ll never write a decent sentence again, that my first book was a weird fluke and now I am doomed, doomed, doomed to utter failure, I’ll have some odd revelatory moment about my story and characters. Often it’s feedback from one of my readers that I have been resisting (grumpily), but suddenly realize is fantastically clear and true. Other times there’ll be some small moment out in the world, a scene at the grocery store or an encounter with a friend in my neighborhood, that allows me to understand a character or scene. These moments help me clarify a point, and then I can move on. Not at the pace I wish, but I move on nonetheless.

Julie Metz, a memoirist, book designer, and soon-to-be novelist, is a frequent contributor to this 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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Three great writers consider the concept of “truth” as it relates to the creative process:

“The hero of my tale – whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is, and will be beautiful – is Truth.” — Tolstoy,”Sevastopol in May 1855″

“Truth is various; truth comes to us in different disguises; it is not with the intellect alone that we perceive it.” — Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”

“I shall try to tell the truth, but the result will be fiction.” — Katherine Anne Porter

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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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Beginning a story or a novel, Alice Munro says, is the easy part …

“Endings are another matter.  When I’ve shaped the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending.  Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft.  Sometimes it stays in place for good.  Sometimes not.  The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers.  It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it.  It doesn’t do enough.  It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong.  Quite often I decide to give up on it.  (This was the point at which, in my early days as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur.  I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them.  I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth.  I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem.  Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then.  Renewed energy.  Resurrection.  Except that it isn’t the right way.  Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard.  New angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake.  Out they go.  But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out.  I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”

From the Introduction to Selected Stories.

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Just in time for the new year, the fabulous C. M. Mayo shares her strategies for writing – and finishing – your book:

Last spring my latest novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, was published. This was not a go-to-the-cabin-by-the-lake-and-churn-it-out kind of experience.  No, my novel is a nearly 500-page historical epic based on extensive original research, every line of prose polished to shine like the lighthouse in Alexandria, with more characters than you could pack into a Starbuck’s.  Is it any good?  You be the judge.   What I know for sure is that over the more than seven years it took me to write it, I hung in there.  And eventually I finished.  And then I sold it.  How did I do it?

Herewith one dozen tips:

# 1. Before you begin, state your intentions
It’s important to write them down, stating them specifically, and in present tense.  For example, I write a novel that… you fill in the blanks.  I don’t mean, write down what your novel is about; you might have to fiddle around for a few hundred pages before you figure that out.  But ask yourself, do you want to write a novel that places you among the immortal literary stars?  Or achieve a modest success that might help you get a teaching job?  Or do you just watch to check “publish book” off your “to-do” list?  And how much time and effort are you willing to put into the enterprise of finding a publisher?  It might be easy to find one, or it might take a few years, a bundle of postage, and a mountain of paperwork.  Not to mention heartbreak.  Whatever your path may be, it will be more difficult if you have not clearly identified and acknowledged your intentions.

# 2. Be here now
If you are regretting the past (“I should have started sooner …”) or worrying about the future (“Will they laugh at me?”), you are not writing. And if you are waxing nostalgic about the past (“How wonderful that they liked my short story!”) or daydreaming about the future (“My agent will sell it to the movies for a million dollars!”), you are not writing.  To get the book done, you have to be writing.

# 3. Treat yourself kindly
If you do, your artist self will show up more frequently, and play more freely.  If you bully and criticize yourself, you can sure you’ll end up blocked.

# 4. Keep a pen and something to write on with you at all times
When you’re out and about – driving, at the dentist’s, walking the dog – you just might capture the perfect fragment of dialogue, or hear the opening line of the next chapter in your head.  I don’t recommend those lovely bound “writer’s” journals because they are too big to carry around easily.  I use Moleskines, index cards and sometimes even a small pack of Post-Its.

# 5. When you are writing, always keep your pen resting lightly on the page (if at the computer, keep your fingers on the keyboard)
If you sit back in your chair and lift your hand to your chin, as so many people do, your body is signalizing to your writing self, no, I am not ready. This can contribute to a bad case of block. It’s such a simple thing to always keep your pen on the page, yet very effective.

# 6. Music helps
I find that drifty, New-Agey music in a minor key works best for bringing on the Muses. There is a large literature about music and creativity. I offer a couple of blog posts (with links for more information) on this subject here and here.

# 7. Mise-en-place
This is a French term chefs use that means, more or less, everything in its place. Briefly: start clean, then assemble utensils and equipment; then assemble all ingredients; then wash, cut, chop; then cook. Doing things out of order makes the whole process take longer; the product often come out mediocre (or ruined), and can cause needless stress for the cook and the diners.

This explains why many of the most productive writers write in coffee shops and the rest of them do a lot of housecleaning, n’est-ce pas? It’s not the easiest thing to write a novel when your desk is cluttered with phone bills and stacks of unanswered letters, the dog needs to be walked in five minutes, and, by the way, you’ve left the phone on and your Facebook page tab open. There are people who can work amongst piles and general chaos, but I am not one of them, and I cannot recommend it.

# 8. Learn from other novels
The novels you have already read and love can be your best teachers. But don’t read them passively, for entertainment; neither should you read as an English major might, ferreting out “interpretations.” Read them as a craftsperson. How does Chekhov handle endings? How does Austen handle transitions? How does Hemingway describe food and clothing? Any question you have about your writing conundrums is probably answered, right there, in the books you already have on your shelf. And continue to read, and read actively, with a notebook and pen.

# 9. Learn from books on creativity
Why reinvent the wheel? Whatever your problem (block, confusion, utter despair), you can be sure another writer (or artist) has wrestled with it and has something helpful to say about it in a book. The cost of a book is lentils compared to that of needlessly painful experiences. You’ll find my list of recommended books here.

# 10. Get feedback on your writing
From a writers group, a writing teacher, a freelance editor, workshop participants. You’ll find my 10 tips to get the most out of your writing workshop here.

(For some years I was in a writing group with novelist Leslie Pietrzyk; read what she has to say about it here.)

# 11. Get to know other writers
This is how I found my writers group (thanks, Richard Peabody!), my publisher (thanks, Nancy Zafris!), and my agent (thanks, Dawn Marano!).

Go forth with a spirit of generosity. You never know who will help you, and you might be more helpful to someone else than you realize. So go to readings (they are almost all free!); take workshops, attend conferences, and stay in touch.

# 12. Consistent Resilient Action
Again, why reinvent the wheel? Writers are not the only ones who grapple with their emotions in the face of rejection, failure, criticism, and indifference. There is a large literature on sports psychology. The book I recommend most highly is The Mental Edge by Kenneth Baum. Consistent Resilient Action (CRA) is what sports champions do:  Dropped the ball?  Well, pick it up.  So your first draft is crap?  Write a new one.  An agent rejected you?  Send your manuscript to the next one.  Take a workshop, get feedback, re-read Proust, go write a poem— and so on.  In response to anything negative, instead of wasting your energy in anger, it is crucial to take a positive step, however small, and immediately.

P.S. Many more resources for you here.

And good wishes.

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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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Two quotes from Robert Frost that seem particularly apt this time of year:

“There’s absolutely no reason for being rushed along with the rush.  Everybody should be free to go very slow…. What you want, what you’re hanging around in the world waiting for, is for something to occur to you.”   (March 21, 1954)

“But yield who will to their separation,

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sakes.”

Two Tramps in Mud Time, 1936

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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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The essence of art is sensitivity.  How does one retain the freshness of sensitivity?  Answer: By working without worry, freely.  How does one work freely?  By possessing a technique which permits one to work spontaneously:  it is necessary, therefore, to possess the elements of this technique.  Meditation in front of the works of the masters puts one in possession of the eternal rules of art.  Once these rules are learned there is nothing left but to know how to apply them to one’s own temperament.

Andre Lhote, 1923

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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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[Editor’s note:  Yesterday, on her terrific blog about writing, writer/editor Lisa Romeo talked about Louise DeSalvo’s piece in this space and added some tips of her own.  Thanks, Lisa, for giving me permission to post them here as well.]lisa romeo blog

Just the other day I was passing along tips to some writing class students who have school-age children and were explaining (that is, complaining) how little time this leaves them to write. Then today I came across this tough-love post by Louise DeSalvo.  To her advice, I’ll just add a few of my own tips; some are different, and some amplify what she advises:

  • No (more) volunteering for school activities that take more than an hour or two a month. Or how about just: NO.
  • Accept that you will have a dirtier (or at least a messier) house than you probably would like – OR hire someone to clean it.
  • Write anywhere. A lot of my stuff has been rough-drafted on the bleachers at baseball games, in the car waiting for kids to finish up at an activity, on the patio while the kids (when little) were playing nearby, even in the ladies room at insufferably long school and family functions!
  • Decide what you can slice out of your parenting life in order to get a writing life. Five years ago, when my youngest was in first grade, I decided I could do without the daily chats with other moms while waiting for our kids at pick-up time after school. I still had to arrive 15 minutes before the bell rang to get a parking space, but I decided to sit in my car and write – bingo, an extra hour or so a week.
  • As DeSalvo says, ALWAYS call it “work.” I realized this important distinction when asking a non-writing relative to watch the kids; and get the kids used to that terminology too. Mom’s working. Period.
  • Break free of the idea that you always have to write…at the keyboard, in your office, seated in that great armchair, with your favorite pen.
  • Get a writing accountability buddy – another parent writer who will exchange daily emails consisting of just one line about how many words or pages you each wrote that day; no venting allowed.

Now – what are you still doing here?

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A celebrated memoirist calls the bluff of a parent who laments that he doesn’t have time to write:

DeSalvo, On MovingHe was across the street raking leaves, and I went over to say hello one a cool autumn day, to take a break from my work, writing about my father’s life during World War II.

“How did you write when you had kids?” he asked me.  “I have this book I want to write, and I can’t get anywhere.  All the housework and time with the kids leaves me no time for writing.”

Bob is a work-at-home dad.  He’s told me about the book he’s burning to write about raising kids with his partner, filled with unconventional wisdom, hard-earned.

Your kids are at school now.  What are you doing raking leaves?

Maybe I should have sweet-talked him about how, yes, it’s tough to get to your work, blah, blah, blah.  But I figured he wanted to know how I did it, so I told him how I kept at my writing when my kids were growing up, and I gave him my “rules” that made it possible.

Rule Number 1:  As soon as the kids are off to school, get to your desk. When they’re babies, as soon as they’re in their cribs, or in their rooms, for a quiet time or a nap, get to your desk.  Don’t do housework.  Don’t make telephone calls.  And for goodness sake, don’t do e-mail, go on Facebook, or look at Oprah.  Don’t waste the precious little time you have.  You can shop, run a household, cook, when the kids are around, and they can help you.  Bob’s kids love raking leaves – they’d raked mine for money.  But there he was, raking, pining for his work, which meant he was choosing to rake, not to write.

Rule Number 2: You don’t need “blocks of time.” Lots of biographies describe writers going to their studies for the entire day.  Nice, if you can do it. Most of us can’t, or wouldn’t want to.  Many writers who aren’t writing tell me they need “blocks of time.”  When I ask if they write in snippets of time, they say no.  When my kids were young, I could get in three hours of work a day, no matter what.  Everyone can get in three hours of work a day.  That’s all Virginia Woolf worked; that’s all the time she took to write. Sometimes, for me, it was an hour here, fifteen minutes there.  When they were babies, I used their nap time and two hours after they went to sleep to write. I took my work to wading pools, doctor’s offices, the park.  I didn’t push my kids on a swing.  They were there to play, not me.

Rule Number 3: You’re not a taxi cab driver. The suburbs are wonderful, sure, but also hellish places for parents, especially if you feel bound to ferry kids from one activity to another.  I tried it.  I died inside.  Each of my kids got one ride a week, no more.  Sure, they got angry.  But they figured out how to get places.  Like walking.  Or riding their bikes.  And I didn’t go to every one of their games.  That was their thing, not mine.  There’s nothing sadder than seeing talented, dying-to-express-themselves parents sitting around doing nothing while their not-so-talented kids dance, play soccer, or twirl around on gym equipment.  If you have to go, bring your work and do your work.  Ignore your child.  Wave occasionally.

Rule Number 4:  You have a right to do your work even though you’re not getting paid for it (yet). Writing, as Audre Lorde said, is not a luxury, surely not for the person yearning for self-expression.  The way I look at it, you can either write, or you can get angry, feel ripped off, or worthless.  Better that you write.  And when you get paid, even a pittance, invest the money into your growing business.  Think of yourself as a start-up company.  Keep ten percent of the profits for yourself.  Spend the rest to replace your labor to give you more time.  To write.

Rule Number 5: You’re the grown-up.  Your life is yours, not your child’s. This is the way Europeans run their households.  This is the way I ran mine.  My needs had to be met.  First.  Selfish?  Yes.  “She sacrificed her life for her children” is not something I want written on my tombstone.  A parent’s life is a terrible thing to waste.

Rule Number 6: Touch your work every day. Live by Anne Lamott’s father’s rule: Work every day, and finish things.

Rule Number 5: Call it work, not writing. No one I knows cares if you’re writing.  That’s why you have to call it work.  Because that’s what it is.  Your work.  Your life’s work.

Louise DeSalvo is the Jenny Hunter Distinguished Scholar for Literature and Creative Writing at Hunter College.  Her most recent book is On Moving.  Her other titles include the memoir Vertigo, which received the Gay Talese award; Crazy in the Kitchen: Food, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family, which was named a Booksense Book of the Year; and Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. DeSalvo is also a renowned Virginia Woolf scholar.

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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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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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