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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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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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The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, photo by Bernard Handzel

A small, bare room.  An old lamp, an upholstered chair, a wooden desk by the window.  Cows and trees beyond.  No papers to grade, no phone calls to return.  All the things that distract me, keep me from writing fiction — the to-do lists, children’s schedules, work-for-hire, committee meetings — are gone, gone, gone.

Some people are here at the Virginia Center for the Arts for six or eight weeks.  Me? Only one.  And carving this week out of my busy life with three kids, teaching, and editing was like chipping a cave out of rock.  But I was determined to do it.  For this reason: to winnow my life down to one simple thing.  I know from experience that if I can leave this place with a sense of clarity about my novel-in-progress and a handful of pages, I’ll be able to keep going, even in the midst of my busy life.

The day stretches ahead.  My choices are few, and therefore simple.  I am here to write.

What are your writing conditions today?  How do you plow through the clutter to find a clear space in your head — and on your desk — to write?

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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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"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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Hooray and congratulations!  It’s pub day for Debra Galant, whose new novel, Cars from a Marriage, “delivers wit, charm and characters who feel like next-door neighbors,” according to Booklist. So why does Debra feel like she’s tap dancing on the beach?

Politicians kiss babies. I take pictures of them chewing on postcards advertising my new novel, Cars from a Marriage.

I know this is neither dignified nor author-like.

Nor are a lot of things I’ve been doing in the six weeks leading up to my April 27 pub date.

I’ve become a regular in the Staples’ label aisle, because advertising postcards are nothing without labels reminding people that the book is “Perfect for Mother’s Day!” and that they might win a free iPod nano if they enter a contest by telling me their best story about love and cars.

I ambushed the New York International Auto Show in early April, handing out several hundred cards while my husband followed me around, camcorder in hand, to record my rejections Michael Moore style.

I’ve spend ungodly amounts of time on Facebook, and have searched every nook and cranny of the internet looking for every book blogger I can find and charm.

I’m doing this to keep my own spirits up because it appears that neither my publisher nor the book industry at large is particularly excited about the publication of my third novel.

My first two novels were proudly displayed at the front of Barnes & Noble stores all over the country. This one won’t be. B&N has only ordered 1,000.

It breaks my heart that a book that comes out barely two weeks before Mother’s Day – a novel that should really appeal to reading women – won’t be seen by the shoppers who might be looking for a present for their reading mothers and wives.

It breaks my heart that my parents, who were so excited by my first novel, have become so jaded by the bruising process of trying to hand-sell my books to their friends that they practically don’t want to ask anymore. And the few friends they do ask will most likely march into a Barnes & Noble, not find it, and feel that they’ve done their bit.

Sure, sure, poor me. Poor published author. I’ve actually got a novel coming out from a major New York publishing house and I’m whining. And I have the poor grace to be whining at exactly the moment when friends and relatives are coming up to me with cheerful congratulations.

But the truth is, even though my friends want me to be, I’m not excited. I’m not remotely optimistic about my book’s chances. Like Hollywood and junior high school, the book industry is increasingly dominated by a few stars, and it’s pretty obvious that I’m not one of them. What I’m feeling, at this moment on the cusp of publication, is small and inconsequential.

The irony is, when a new book comes out is when I feel least like a writer. It’s when I feel like Willy Loman.

Eventually, sometime late at night, when I least expect it, I’ll feel like a writer again. I’ll be lying in bed reading a great book, and I’ll notice a fabulous sentence or a great plot device or a marvelously unreliable narrator, and I will appreciate the sentence or the device or the narration the way a tailor would note the stitching on another tailor’s suit.

I might even write a fabulous sentence, or get an idea for a story or a novel that will thrill me. And then I’ll remember that I really am a member of a great guild and that having my words published and read by complete strangers is an honor and a privilege – maybe even a piece of immortality.

In the meantime, though, to stave off depression, I’m using every wile I have to eke out new fans. One by one by one. Handing out cards to babies, barnstorming auto shows, leaving stacks of cards at the YMCA. It feels a little like tap dancing on the beach — kicking up a lot of sand, but making no noise whatsoever.

Absurd, perhaps. Yet it does take place on a comfortingly human scale. The other day, shopping at Coldwater Creek, I made friends with two ladies in the dressing room, both teachers. We were advising each other about how we looked in various outfits and whether our fat rolls showed. One of them wondered whether I would wear a certain blouse, which was the tiniest bit sheer, to work. That’s when I dug into my purse and handed them each a postcard for Cars from a Marriage.

“I’m an author,” I said. “I have a new book coming out.”

They were delighted – just completely bowled over – to be in the presence of a real writer. And that delighted me.

Debra Galant’s new novel, Cars from a Marriage, comes out today — April 27 — from St. Martin’s Press. You can read more on her website, her blog or her Facebook page.

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