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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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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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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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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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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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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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[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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back to school nightWhen I’m working on a novel, everything is material …

It’s Back-to-School night, an annual ritual I must repeat three times this year in three different schools.  (Bad planning, those birth dates.) High school, middle school, elementary, it’s all the same: green-tinted fluorescents buzzing faintly overhead, the slight whiff of disinfectant, at least one nervous teacher with a fistful of bullet points, several dozing parents.

Yet despite the surface sameness, each endless evening is endless in its own way.  So I look around, and I pull out my writing pad.  I note a bead of sweat on the new vice-principal’s brow.  The inspirational bromides of the athletic director (and the whistle he wears around his neck, even in front of parents at 8 pm).  The Julia Child-like guffaw of a frizzy haired bio teacher.  (Did I just glimpse a flirtatious glance between the band leader and the pianist?  Maybe not. But his wife is watching him like a hawk.)

And then there are the parents. Tired and bedraggled, restless and impatient, alert and engaged. Some, like me, are taking notes. (Other writers? No, probably just better parents than I’ll ever be, legitimately interested in keeping A days and B days straight.)  Directly in front of me, a group of women wearing running shoes and windbreakers, all with similar gray-streaked layered haircuts, cluster together; across the room, a tall blonde MILF in a low-cut purple dress bites her frosted lower lip; half a dozen dads in suits surreptitiously check their I-Phones and Blackberries. Stay-at-home moms in tennis bracelets (and some in tennis whites) contrast with working moms in tailored dresses carrying stylish totes.  Latecomers of all stripes stand wearily against the back wall.

Time flies, and before I know it I’m back in the parking lot with a page full of characters and an idea for a scene.  See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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brideislandWhat do you say when someone asks, “And what do you do?”

When someone asks what I do, I say I’m a writer, or sometimes a novelist, but I never say I’m an author. Most writers I know are the same way. It sounds humbler, I suppose, more like what we do instead of what we are. And yet perhaps there’s more to it. To be an author, after all, means to have authority. Doesn’t it?

Years ago, I sat next to a well-respected literary publicist at dinner. When I introduced myself as a “beginning writer,” she gave me a piece of advice: “Act like you’re already the successful writer you intend to become.”  Her words were revolutionary to me—how could I do that, when it was all in my own head?  Then, in 2007, my first novel came out and suddenly I had not only a book but also a new persona as published author.  The hard physical evidence of a book conveys authority unlike anything else, makes it easier to speak to a group of students about writing or answer questions from the audience at a reading—or even tell the person next to you at dinner that you’re a writer.  But as I work on a new novel I’ve come to realize that the struggle for authority is not only a question of publication, but is in fact present every time we sit down to write.  Each act of writing is an act of self assertion.

There’s a famous story of Toni Morrison telling an audience of writers, “If any of you feel you need permission to write, I’m giving it to you.” The problem is this permission, this authorization, isn’t something you receive once; it must be claimed over and over. Writing is such a strange thing to do, sitting alone in a room, making stuff up. There are no guarantees, of any kind. And no matter what you’ve already accomplished, with each new project you must start afresh. We need authority when we begin to write, but we also need it to continue to write when we get stuck or lose our way or our confidence.

Recently I found a group of my old stories.  Well, the beginnings of them. Each story ended abruptly about a page and a half in. I was surprised, not because they were well written (though they were fine) or because they were compelling (though I did want to know what came next), but because each had a distinct tone of authority. These stories had the right to be told. But they were truncated, I knew, because of my lack of confidence, my insecurity about my status as an author. I didn’t feel authorized to tell them. As a young and inexperienced writer, I sometimes confused the act of writing—the hard, uncertain work of inventing—with the ease of reading. I thought stories should just come.  Now I know better, and I know the process better.

The motto for my MFA program was, “I will try.” My friend and I cracked up when we discovered the words written in gold on the back of a Windsor chair in the lounge one night. How unassuming, how un-ambitious, how, well, pathetic, we thought. And yet. It’s not a bad motto for a writer. Authority isn’t always about force or might or conviction. It’s also about faith, in the process and in oneself. It’s about doing what feels uncomfortable, acting as if you’re confident when you’re not, continuing the scene or story or novel even when you’d rather read someone else’s beautiful, seamless, apparently effortless (and already published) book.

Alexandra Enders worked as a magazine editor and writer before getting an MFA in Writing from Vermont College.  She has published stories in iBOMB, Hunger Mountain, and Critical Quarterly, and is the author of the novel Bride IslandShe lives with her husband, daughter, and dachshund in New York.  Visit her at her website www.alexandraenders.com.

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Real Life Sucks

pile_of_clothesBack from Europe.  Kids milling around the house until September 9th, when school finally starts.  Basement fridge a horror.  Weeds all over the yard.  Mounds of laundry; an endless cycle of food shopping, preparing, clean-up.  Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton:   I’m thinking of you.

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babyYou’d think that someone who spends her days creating and naming characters might have gotten the hang of it by the time she had to name some actual humans.  That’s what I thought, at least.  In fact, I was rather smug about it …

So begins my guest post on Nameberry, a very cool baby name site that’s the brainchild (so to speak — yes, I did) of bestselling writers Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz.

Even someone who names fictional people for a living can make mistakes when naming real live babies.  Like when I named my three sons: Eli, his brother William, and his other brother William.

Read more here.

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Junot DiazWhen the writer Junot Diaz came to Fordham University this spring, he wore old jeans and a hoodie and swore more than Junior, the profane sometime narrator of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He was funny, distracted, self-deprecating, self-indulgent, and brilliant. He kept trying to get off the stage, saying he was only going to read a little, only going to take a few questions. But alone at the podium, he acted out short passages of his novel and talked eloquently, without notes, about being a novelist.

And one thing Diaz said in particular struck a chord in me.

“The fact that my novel isn’t autobiographical doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply personal,” he said, answering a question he said he gets a lot, about whether Oscar Wao is based on his own life. “This is the power of art: to take a complete lie – fiction – and produce inside people a complete relationship to it. When a novel works, it creates an emotion of profound connection with the reader. You love it with your whole being. Because these emotions are real, it creates an analogue [within the reader]: the novel must be true.”

This, I think, is at the heart of the impulse to write – and read – a novel. It’s what writers strive to do:  immerse the reader in a dream world that seems so real, and rings so true, that it echoes or reflects their own experience; it reveals and illuminates motivation and parses emotion; it expresses the inexpressible.  It is as real as life.

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