Posts Tagged ‘Thoughts’

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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“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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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From October 2008 to October 2009, Nina Sankovitch read one book a day and wrote about it on her blog, Read All Day.  After learning about this project in a New York Times article, I went to Nina’s site and found some terrific insights into what makes a book great – so I asked Nina if I could adapt them here:

The traits of great writing are: genuineness, truth, fearlessness.  Say it out loud: no fear. Let your words flap in the wind and light up the sky and bring in the readers, like a boat into a harbor.  Write straight and true and without a safety net.  No safety net!  All the books I’ve read and loved have taken a chance and won.  They won me over with their honesty and beauty.  And I know the hard, hard work that goes into making a novel or a memoir or a short story or a poem. Only hard work and unfettered talent can make such beautiful and moving works of words.

An author who writes without fear – of rejection, of rebuke, of ineptitude, of foolishness or seriousness – can write a great book. If the writer is free of fear, she can go out there and express every aspect of a story, the smells of the characters, the sight of the places, the nature of the emotions, and the pull of the struggle being waged for or against the characters.

Why does greatness matter?  It matters not only because reading such books is a pleasure but also because a great book presents the world in a whole new way.  Not the whole world, necessarily, but a piece of the world, or a person or a thought, presented in such a way that the reader has not thought of before.  Seeing an issue or a person or a situation from a new angle changes the way your mind works, enlarges your mind and enlivens it, as well.

A great story makes us care, heart and soul, about the movement, the struggle, the change. We care when the characters are genuinely portrayed, when just a slight detail can define a whole person.  We care when the place where the story takes place breathes for us; when it is alive and it cradles or rejects the characters within its orbit: think of the Croatia of Josip Novakovich, the Brazil of Paul Coutinho, or the Ireland of Claire Keegan: “On either side, the trees are all and here the wind is strangely human.  A tender speech is combing through the willows.  In a bare whisper, the elms lean.  Something about the place conjures up the ancient past: the hound, the spear, the spinning wheel” (from Walk the Blue Fields). I could be in all those places and know someone who lived and struggled, and I am more, I am richer for having been there, having known the people and the struggle and the outcome.

The best books are the ones that do not follow a formula or try too hard to be a certain genre. When I read a book I know when I am being manipulated and when I am being told a truth. The best stories present a truth about life in any way that the author finds best, even if it is in lies. An author has to be fearless in just not worrying about the verisimilitude of the story, or is it too romantic, too gross, too quiet or too loud.  She has to write without fear of refusal.

Between reader and writer there is a kind of pact. The pact is that the writer will lay out his/her genuine thoughts and ideas through the medium of the best words and characters and plot he/she can work out, and that the reader will commit to reading the result.   I believe that in my year of reading my brain has become more robust and energized, and life all around me is better. The writer of a great book gives us, the readers, a new tank of oxygen, allowing us to dive again and again into life.  Great good comes from reading great books.

Since finishing her year of reading, Nina Sankovitch has been writing a book blog for The Huffington Post.  Recently she signed a contract with HarperStudio to write Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a book about her year of magical reading.

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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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For this writer, the creative process happens in stages – and the final one makes all the difference:

Stanton essayThe first is the molecular stage, that early collection of bits of information, what I find fascinating, unusual, funny or poignant at the time it occurs, whether I retain it in memory or in a physical form on pieces of paper.

The critical mass stage is next.  The particles are vibrating on their own in proximity to one another until they reach a critical mass and a reaction occurs.  The writing begins in a fury, raw data, raw memory, stream of consciousness writing.

Incubation happens throughout the writing when I walk away from the piece and it sits inside me, silently arranging itself, so that when I next visit it, I have made important connections. Then I edit and rewrite.  The placement of events and observations creates irony, mood, pathos, humor.  Events are taken out of the chronological or random order and purposefully placed, refined, commented on.  Incubation can happen over a period of months or years, but also during the active writing periods, each night when I turn off my computer and go to bed with an essay on my mind. This seems important, that the essay is written only partially at the desk.  Much of it is written while I garden or walk or lay in bed mulling it over.

Insight is the last thing to come, what the story is really about. I often don’t know until very late in the process, and the story is frequently about something other than I intended, if I let the piece take the path it wants.  The telling phrases, observations, and reflections I add at this stage give the narrative facts a luminescence that only distance and learning can yield.  I can look with relative detachment at my experience and see it for what it really was, and in subtle ways, infuse these small epiphanies into the essay.

Distance.  Perspective.  It can take years to learn how an experience has sculpted me, to tell the story, to locate its pulsing heart.

Editor’s note: I discovered these observations in Stanton’s essay, “On Writing ‘Zion,’” in The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, which I’m using in a creative nonfiction class at Fordham. Stanton’s insights were so helpful to my students that I asked her for permission to adapt them here – something I normally don’t do.

Maureen Stanton’s essays have also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Iowa Review, and American Literary Review, among other places. Three of her essays were listed as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays; her work has received a Pushcart Prize, the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award in Creative Nonfiction, The Penelope Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review Award in Creative Nonfiction, among other prizes.  She has twice received an Individual Artist grant from the Maine Arts Commission, and a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and grants from the Vogelstein Fund and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.  She teaches creative nonfiction writing at the University of Missouri.

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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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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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fishing net“Out of the artist’s imagination, as out of nature’s inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another.  The artist composes, writes, or paints just as he dreams, seizing whatever swims close to his net.  This, not the world seen directly, is his raw material.  This shimmering mess of loves and hates – fishing trips taken long ago with Uncle Ralph, a 1940 green Chevrolet, a war, a vague sense of what makes a novel, a symphony, a photograph – this is the clay the artist must shape into an object worthy of our attention; that is, our tears, our laughter, our thought.”

– John Gardner

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writers_block2Gretchen Rubin is the guru behind the phenomenally successful blog (and soon-to-be book) The Happiness Project.  In this post she shares an inside glimpse at her process.

One of the challenges of writing is … writing. Here are some tips that I’ve found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page.

1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)

2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”

3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.

4. If you have trouble re-entering a project, stop working in mid-thought — even mid-sentence — so it’s easy to dive back in later.

5. Don’t get distracted by how much you are or aren’t getting done. I put myself in jail.

6. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that creativity descends on you at random. Creative thinking comes most easily when you’re writing regularly and frequently, when you’re constantly thinking about your project.

7. Remember that lots of good ideas and great writing come during the revision stage. I’ve found, for myself, that I need to get a beginning, middle, and an end in place, and then the more creative and complex ideas begin to form. So I try not to be discouraged by first drafts.

8. Develop a method of keeping track of thoughts, ideas, articles, or anything that catches your attention. That keeps you from forgetting ideas that might turn out to be important, and also, combing through these materials helps stimulate your creativity. My catch-all document, where I store everything related to happiness that I don’t have another place for, is more than five hundred pages long. Some people use inspiration boards; others keep scrapbooks. Whatever works for you.

9. Pay attention to your physical comfort. Do you have a decent desk and chair? Are you cramped? Is the light too dim or too bright? Make a salute—if you feel relief when your hand is shading your eyes, your desk is too brightly lit. Check your body, too: lower your shoulders, make sure your tongue isn’t pressed against the top of your mouth, don’t sit in a contorted way. Being physically uncomfortable tires you out and makes work seem harder.

10. Try to eliminate interruptions — by other people, email, your phone, or poking around the Internet — but don’t tell yourself that you can only work with complete peace and quiet.

11. Over his writing desk, Franz Kafka had one word: “Wait.” My brilliantly creative friend Tad Low, however, keeps a different word on his desk: “Now.” Both pieces of advice are good.

12. If you’re stuck, try going for a walk and reading a really good book. Virginia Woolf noted to herself: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw.”

13. At least in my experience, the most important tip for getting writing done? Have something to say! This sounds obvious, but it’s a lot easier to write when you’re trying to tell a story, explain an idea, convey an impression, give a review, or whatever. If you’re having trouble writing, forget about the writing and focus on what you want to communicate. For example, I remember flailing desperately as I tried to write my college and law-school application essays. It was horrible – until in both cases I realized I had something I really wanted to say. Then the writing came easily, and those two essays are among my favorites of things I’ve ever written.

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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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WOW awardWomen on Writing – or WOW! – is a buzzing hive of activity for, by, and about women writers and readers.  In a freewheeling interview with Margo Dill, a WOW columnist and contributing editor, I talk about why I keep a blog, why I write first drafts on a legal pad with an old-fashioned micro-point Uniball pen, why I get bored when authors simply read their work aloud, why I don’t feel guilty about not being a morning person, and what I know is true (to paraphrase Oprah, and why not?) about being a writer.  You can find the interview here.

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… and why we shouldn’t all be writing novels:

Ebenbach.coverWe are frequently told, by the market and also by the novelists that the market promotes, to revere certain forms of writing over others. The publishing industry by necessity emphasizes profits, and novels sell better than collections of short stories, which means there’s pressure on fiction writers; often we start out writing short stories, on our own or in creative writing workshops, but we soon feel pressured to “graduate” to the novel. The short story is generally regarded as inferior, nothing more than a stepping stone. Yet there is no objectively best form of writing – only the form that suits us best.

It’s an old saw in creative-writing classrooms that content dictates form. This means that certain forms of writing are best suited for certain kinds of material, and not as well suited for others. In poetry, for example, a haiku, with its quiet imagery and its sudden leap, is ideal for describing a moment of insight, and lousy for epic storytelling. A Shakespearean sonnet, with its three quatrains and final couplet, is good for developing an idea in three stages and then summing it up, and not as good at conveying obsessively circular thinking. For that kind of thinking, you might need a sestina, a lengthy poem which repeats certain words over and over.

The same content-form truism holds for fiction. A novel is not just a long short story – it’s a whole other animal. Because of its great size, it’s well-suited to handle complicated plot and structure, and in fact you probably need that elaborate plot to keep a reader interested for all those pages. If what you want to do is shed light on a moment in time, you should probably write a short story, too short for a wildly complicated structure but plenty big enough to illuminate something powerfully. And so the short story is no stepping stone – not any more than a haiku is a warm-up for writing a sonnet. A short story is a vehicle for a certain kind of content, content that won’t be able to find a home anywhere if the only things we write and read are novels. Some authors – including Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro and Grace Paley – write for a lifetime without ever needing to “graduate” from short fiction. (And some novelists never feel the need to write a short story.)

This is easy to say, but hard to remember. Several years ago I worked on a manuscript about a new single mother struggling to adjust to parenthood. To make it a novel I intensified this mother’s feelings and embedded them in an elaborate plot, to the point where this woman was behaving in crazy and unrealistic ways. I hadn’t set out to study someone flirting with madness – I had set out to study a person struggling the way many new parents do. But because I felt it had to be a novel, I badly distorted my material.

As soon as I realized my mistake I returned to a more appropriate form; I am now writing short stories about the many diverse experiences of parenthood. Each one is a window on a feeling, a situation, a moment. In writing them as short stories, I am saying what I need to say, how I need to say it.

If we listen to the voices telling us that certain kinds of writing are preferable because they’re more marketable, we may find it impossible to say what we need to say. If we’re going to listen to any voices, I say let’s listen to our own – voices that tell us to find our form and, without apology, make ourselves at home there.

David Harris Ebenbach’s first book of short stories, Between Camelots, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award.  His short fiction has been published in the Antioch Review, the Greensboro Review, and Crazyhorse, his poetry in Artful Dodge, Mudfish, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he wrote a chapter, “Plot: A Question of Focus,” for Gotham Writers Workshops’ book Writing FictionRecently awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Earlham College.  Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

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How a conversation with a successful magazine writer forced her to clarify her ideas about what and why she writes:

Aimee LiuYears ago I had coffee in NYC with a very talented writer who has traveled around the world writing articles for such publications as Esquire, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.  He talked like a machine gun, shooting out thoughts faster than I could process them.  At one point in the conversation I tried to explain why I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of writing articles, and essays in particular.   “I don’t ever quite believe people will want to read what I have to say.”

He shot back, “Boy, are you in the wrong business!” and moved on to the hundredth new topic of the morning.

I didn’t have a chance to qualify, to say that that’s why I feel it necessary to fictionalize, to heighten the impact and interest of whatever it is that I do choose to write about.  But it didn’t matter.  I believe my reticence, in the long run, helps my writing, just as for him, with his abundant hubris, it would be death.  Our voices are entirely different, just as we are as people.  We each will have our different readers, and lives. Our own levels of that curious commodity, “success.”

I do not think people will be interested in most of the things I have to say, but this is not because my life and mind are boring.  I do not read the newspaper from cover to cover, and I especially don’t read most daily columns.  Men talking about the observations they’ve made about their wives on the way to the dry cleaners, or women talking about how much they can learn about their husbands from their socks, or young women extolling on the trials and tribulations of pregnancy as if no woman in history has ever been pregnant before.  Yes, these epiphanies are what keep us all alive and what make us all human, but once we have experienced them, do we really need to read them pouring from somebody else’s pen?

What I want to write is what I actually want to read.   And what I want to read is something other than my own life – something taken from my own life, perhaps, but expanded, twisted, turned into something larger and fascinating, filled with questions I can’t yet answer and maybe won’t be able to answer even after the writing is finished, though I’ll be closer.

The articles that arise out of this larger process are the ones that interest me, including several written lately by my magazine-writer friend as he embarks on his first book.  Recently he told me, “I think I finally write like a grown up,” and I know what he means.  It’s not just a matter of style, of honing a particular grammar or facility with big words – better yet, of rejecting all big words.  It’s a reflection of a grown-up way of inspecting the world.

Stories are not just what happen to us.  Most really good stories belong to other people, and in order to write them honestly, we must grow up enough to step into those other people’s lives.  We must wonder and fantasize and search for insight not as we have done all our lives, but as other people – real or imagined – must have done.  We must become them.  My friend might not realize that he’s slipping out of himself as he writes in this mode, but for me the whole point of the exercise is to escape myself.

Then again, maybe it comes down to the same thing.  He’s more demonstrative, more energetic, more fanatical.  And yes, I’ll say it, more exhaustingly fun.  But for both of us — for any writer worth his or her salt — the daily grind requires us to discover what we have to say that other people will indeed want to read.

Aimee Liu is author of the novels Flash House, Cloud Mountain, and Face.  Her nonfiction includes Gaining: The Truth about Life After Eating Disorders, and a memoir, Solitaire.  She earned her MFA from Bennington College and now teaches in Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.  This piece is adapted from a longer essay on her blog: http://www.aimeeliu.net/blog.htm.

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prizeWords of wisdom from renowned book editor and literary agent Betsy Lerner:

“For most writers, writing is a love-hate affair. But for the ambivalent writer who cannot attempt, sustain, or complete a piece of writing, the ambivalence usually shifts back and forth from the writing to the self. The inner monologue drums: I am great. I am shit. I am great. I am shit. But the writer with publication credits, good reviews, and literary prizes is not immune to this mantra either; in fact, the only real difference that I have been able to quantify between those who ultimately make their way as writers and those who quit is that the former were able to contain their ambivalence long enough to commit to a single idea and see it through.”

Betsy Lerner is the author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers and Food and LoathingAfter working as a book editor for 15 years, she became an agent and is a partner with Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency.  This quote is from from The Forest for the Trees. (Thanks to novelist Alexandra Enders for suggesting it.)

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… or What I Learned About Writing from Eating Candy

Breaking the bank - 12-22-08A long time ago, before I wrote my first novel, I despaired of ever having the time to undertake such a large and arduous project.  I had two small children and my days (nights too, come to think of it) seemed hopelessly fractured; my time, or what there was of it, felt like it had been broken into the small, useless increments: fifteen minutes here, twenty there.  An hour that was all my own was a rare and prized occurrence.  How I was to cobble together a writing life from all these pieces was inconceivable to me.  I could not work in shards, I thought.  I needed some great and unbroken expanse of time, time like a freshly opened bar of chocolate:  smooth, rich, and mine, mine, mine.  But it was not to be, not then, and maybe not ever.  If I wanted to write, I was going to have to readjust my thinking and my expectations.  Instead of that glorious, unblemished chocolate bar, I had a bag of M & Ms:  discrete nuggets of time that I would have to learn to use.

And I did. While my kids were at school or sports or play dates, I worked on a novel. I did plenty of other things too:  wrote for magazines and the occasional newspaper, did freelance editing, worked on a children’s book.

But my mantra was two pages a day, five days a week. Two pages a day was manageable and doable; two pages was bite sized, like a Raisinette.  And even though it didn’t seem like much, two pages would begin to add up:  to ten pages a week, forty pages a month.  Eventually a novel, which was published in 2002.

My children are older now; one is off to college this fall and the other will be a freshman in high school. Yet the chunks of time are still M & M-sized: small and finite.  It doesn’t matter.  Two pages a day is all I need.

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of the novels The Four Temperaments and In Dahlia’s Wake; her third novel, Breaking the Bank, is coming out today from Pocket Books.  Yona has written 18 books for children, the most recent of which are also being published this month: The Doll Shop Downstairs (Viking) and Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott (Henry Holt).  [Ed. note: I think that’s called a hat trick!]  Visit her at http://www.yonazeldismcdonough.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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radio microphoneHow can I be a guest on my own blog, you ask?  Over the past few weeks, with the publication of Bird in Hand, I’ve been busy guest blogging for other sites and doing Q&A’s, radio interviews, and podcasts.  (And more are coming up.)  Now and then, if a particular posting or discussion strikes me as pertinent to issues here, I’ll post it as well. Hence my own guest blog.

This is the first.  (And after this I’ll dispense with the silliness of calling it a guest blog!)

When the poet and novelist Lori A. May interviewed me for her blog – Musings, Reviews, News – she pushed me to talk about the themes of Bird in Hand, why I think achieving balance is an impossible goal, the fluky way I got started as a writer, and my advice to new writers.  Below are edited excerpts from that interview.  (You can read the original, longer version here.)

Bird in Hand is about a car crash that changes the lives of four people.  But what’s it really about?

That’s a good (and hard!) question.  At one point in the book a character wonders, “Who breaks the thread, the one who pulls or the one who hangs on?” I wanted to write about love and loss and betrayal and renewal. I wanted to write about characters who don’t know quite what they want, or how to get it, and are pushed into decisions by circumstances beyond their control.  One of my epigraphs is a quote from The Age of Grief, by Jane Smiley: “Confusion is perfect sight and perfect mystery at the same time.”  This holds true for all of my characters in different ways.

Why do you write both novels and non-fiction?
Writing novels is my passion, but writing is, by definition, a solitary pursuit.  Another side of me wants to be out in the world, interacting with people and exchanging ideas. All of my nonfiction books have been, in a sense, collaborations — I wrote a book about feminist mothers and daughters with my mother; I’ve edited or co-edited four essay collections. I realized the other day that my own blog on writing fulfills this social/intellectual need. I can share my thoughts about writing with other people, and work with guest bloggers on their own ideas. I love doing it.

You are Writer-in-Residence at Fordham, have three kids, and write novels.  How do you balance it all?
I rarely feel that I achieve balance.  What I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes things will be out of balance, and that’s okay. Sometimes I don’t have time to work on my fiction (like now, while I’m in London teaching and working on nonfiction articles and interviews). And sometimes I’m focused on my family and just want to be in the moment with them. I’m not sure whether it’s my nature or whether I’ve learned to do this because I have a complicated life, but I’m pretty good at hunkering down and working on my novel when I need to. When I’m consumed with writing, other parts of my life suffer — laundry piles up, for example, and we do a lot of takeout. My family is pretty understanding; they know it’s all part of the process, and will be over before long. They all have their own passions as well.

Tell us a bit about your journey as an author.
In my senior year of college a visiting novelist took my short stories to her literary agency, and a young agent (Beth Vesel, who is still my agent) called me up and said she wanted to represent me. This gave me confidence at an early age — the idea someone believed in me and cared about my work. Though I know this is pretty unusual, and I was lucky, I always tell my students that what’s most important is that they find someone — a mentor if possible, a friend, even a parent — who believes in their work and encourages them to move forward. After college I went to graduate school in literature and didn’t write a creative word, but this agent called every few months, just checking in: “Are you thinking about your novel yet? How are you going to carve out time to make that happen?” She encouraged me to apply for MFA fellowships so that I’d have two free years to write. And that’s what I did — I went to the University of Virginia, did an MFA in Fiction Writing, and wrote my first novel.

What have been some of the challenges in your writing career?
The biggest challenge for me came after I’d written my second novel and was working on a third. A lot of things changed at once — I moved from New York to the suburbs; I had three children in fairly quick succession; I started a full-time teaching job. As a result, I lost the thread of the novel I was working on and couldn’t figure out how to find it. Eventually I abandoned that novel and wrote another very quickly, The Way Life Should Be, which was lighthearted and funny and had recipes. Writing it was a pleasure! After that, I had the clarity to return to the novel that became Bird in Hand. Though it was a long and difficult process, I learned a lot about myself and my writing in those years. And I think that ultimately Bird in Hand is much stronger for it.

What’s up next for you? What can readers look forward to?
I’m working on a new novel that traces the journey of Vivian Daly, a now-90-year-old woman, from a small village in Ireland to the Lower East Side to the Midwest to the coast of Maine. In 1929, after a fire in a New Y tenement destroys her family, nine-year-old Vivian is sent on an orphan train to Minnesota. Stripped of her identity, she has to learn how to survive on her own. She never tells anyone the whole story of what happened to her — until a 17-year-old troubled girl comes into her life when she is an old woman. As Vivian begins to face the truth about what happened long ago, the past becomes more and more present for her.  This novel (working title: Orphan Train), should be out in 2011.

What advice do you have for writers starting out?
Well, as I said before, find someone who encourages your writing. Avoid people who are “toxic,” to use an old self-help phrase — people who are competitive with you or otherwise sabotage your writing. Set clear goals for yourself (“I will write a draft of a novel in one year,” “I will write one short story a month”) with daily goals as well. When I’m writing a novel I set myself the task of four pages a day. Sometimes I write more, sometimes less, but that’s always the goal.

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antigoneWriting and blogging and talking in interviews about my new novel this week, I keep encountering the same question:  What inspired it?   There are many answers to this, of course, and I’ve talked in different places about various sources for the story.  But the deepest reasons are hard to articulate.  So I decided to write about them here.

At first it looked like every mother’s worst nightmare:  Several weeks ago a 36-year-old mother of two, driving her own kids and three nieces home from a camping trip in her Ford Windstar minivan, went the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway and crashed head-on into an SUV carrying three men.  Everyone died except the woman’s five-year-old boy.  At the funeral, mourners wept when the woman’s brother, the father of her nieces, sobbed, “Love your children. Cherish your children. Kiss your children.”

It appeared to be a tragic accident.  This woman entered the highway from an exit ramp, and, apparently disoriented, drove 1.7 miles before the crash.  She’d called her brother from a rest stop an hour before, the papers said, complaining of fatigue and sounding confused.  A police officer speculated that maybe she thought she was in the slow lane on the correct side of the road; others suggested that perhaps she was on prescription drugs that impaired her judgment.  Or maybe she was exhausted from being on a camping trip with all of those children, or distracted by their bickering or crying.

But as it turns out, the woman was drunk.  Not just drunk — she was blind drunk, with twice the legal limit in her bloodstream and fresh alcohol in her stomach.  A bottle of vodka was found in the car and she tested positive for marijuana.

How could this happen?  Specifically, how could this woman ingest alcohol and drugs, knowing that she was responsible for the lives of five children — not to mention any strangers who got in her path?  Why didn’t she pull over?  Her recklessness suggests that she may have been suicidal.  But it’s one thing to take your own life, and quite another to put others at such appalling risk.

And there are other questions:  What did she actually say to her brother at the rest stop?  Did he, or her husband, know she’d been drinking or smoking pot?  Had there been an argument?  Did she have a drinking problem; had she ever done anything like this before?

These questions, prurient as they may be, matter to us because we want to make sense of the unthinkable. And I think they’re particularly resonant for mothers.  This woman’s behavior at the furthest edges of comprehension.  And yet every mother I know has feared her own capacity – through accident or neglect or worse – for doing harm to her child.

When my first child was born I joined a group of new mothers, and we joked with the blackest of humor about exactly these fears.  One woman said that late at night, lying in bed, waking nightmares would come unbidden about the things that she might do wrong: what if, what if, what if. Another read shaken-baby stories obsessively, worried about her own impatience and anger at her colicky child.  Yet another admitted that post-partum depression had once rendered her apathetic and unresponsive, more concerned with her own needs than those of her (neglected) child.  I admitted that I was terrified of getting in a car crash that was my own fault and being responsible for maiming, or killing, my child or – god forbid – someone else’s.

This quiet terror propelled me into writing my new novel, Bird in Hand. I began to tell the story of a woman, a mother, who has several drinks and gets into an accident in which a child dies.  As I started writing, though, I found that it was like staring directly into the sun; I had to squint and turn away. I put the manuscript in a drawer and only came back to it after several years, when my children were older and my own fears had subsided.  And I changed the focus of the novel: the accident became a catalyst for the larger story rather than the story itself.

Writing this book was a way of exploring my deepest fears around this subject.  I wanted to follow my character through her grief and guilt to some place on the other side. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone says, “Now the finish comes, and we know only in all that we have seen and done bewildering mystery.” I wasn’t looking for answers, only for a way to comprehend the mystery.

Like Greek tragedy, the terrible accident last week goes straight to the darkest places within us.  It makes manifest our deepest fears, vividly revealing what the unimaginable looks like.  What if, what if, what if.

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shewritesiconAs someone who loves to read other people’s personal essays but has a hard time being so candid herself, I am kind of proud of myself for writing an honest piece for SHE WRITES, a new social networking site for writers, on the long journey to publication for Bird in Hand.   SHE WRITES is a place where, as founding editor Kamy Wicoff explains, “women writers working in every genre — in every part of the world and of all ages and backgrounds — can come together in a space of mutual support.”

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Publication Day, I’ve learned over the years, is an elusive concept.  You imagine that something momentous will happen — after all, the date has been printed in catalogs and announced on amazon.com; it seems significant.  You think of other important events in your life:  college graduation, your wedding day, the birth of your first child.  Things actually happened on those days.  You were awarded an official degree in front of several thousand people, you suddenly found yourself yoked for life to another person, you loosed a new human on the earth.

fireworks.3So what do you expect for pub day?  Oh, not much.  Maybe just some triumphal music, mortarboards tossed in the air, a parade with marching bands, a few fireworks.

A novel appears in hardcover about a month before the pub date.  It sits in boxes in your publicist’s office before making its way, with a pitch letter tucked under its flap like a schoolboy with a note in his pocket, to reviewers and others who will, you hope, help it on its way.  So pub date is kind of irrelevant.  Except in the ways that it isn’t.  For example, glossy monthly magazines will review books in September if the pub date is after August 10th.  Amazon calls any book bought before pub date a “pre-order,” and it’s not immediately available.  Bookstores usually put it on shelves (or, if you’re lucky, on tables) on the official day.

But none of that has much to do with the author.  I’ve come to understand that pub day is a rough marker, a general concept.  And I’ve learned to view the day as a time to reflect on my own journey in publishing a book.  It may not be a warm bundle in my arms, but the weight of my book in my hand, with its smooth pages and pulpy scent, makes me swoon all the same.

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Exploring the Process of Coming up with the Next Big Idea

I am between novels. I’ve been between novels for close to seven months now, which is typical for me. I am a slow germinator. I’m not devoid of ideas – that’s not the problem – I’m just devoid of an idea that I think I want to spend several thousand hours wrestling with. Having written three novels, I know exactly what the commitment is.

bumblebeeThis is what happens when I’m between novels.

The first few months, I don’t even try to get the Big Idea. I revel in the things that I’ve given up during the writing of my previous novel. I read prodigiously. I start diets and gym regimens. I fantasize about cleaning the entire house and settle for a closet. I go through entire weekends without feeling guilty. I enjoy being a civilian.

Once I get that out of my system, I start to wonder if I’ll ever write another novel. Fueled by anxiety, ideas begin to percolate. They appear in dreams. They’re triggered by odd encounters with strangers or obits and other chance juxtapositions.

I chase them breathlessly, bringing candy and flowers. Sometimes I’ll even get to know them, start thinking about introducing them to my family. Finally, a few days or a few weeks into my infatuation, I begin to discover their flaws. The voice is wrong or the subject is wrong or perhaps the idea is good but the project is beyond my power to execute. I retreat sheepishly.

I was actually 13 pages into one idea before I decided that I had no business creating a protagonist who was a Puerto Rican man in his 20’s. But first I had to agonize about whether I was being wise or lazy in deciding to give up the project. It was like a breakup. I asked various people for their opinions – my husband tried to convince me to stick with the idea – until my therapist mercifully gave me permission to stop.

We decided – my therapist and I – to go back to the idea-chasing stage with a little less desperation.

I picked up two of my favorite books about writing, Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and allowed myself to fall in love again with the idea of being a writer. I also decided to embrace the pace of summer. I bicycled to the park with Smiley’s book and a notebook. The brilliance of the sun brought me back to the summer of ’79, when I was a cub reporter in North Carolina. I scribbled some notes. And then, just because I could, I used the video camera on my iPhone to record a bumblebee parachuting from clover to clover.

My mother used to worry about my bookish ways. “All work and no play makes Debbie a dull girl,” she would say. Julia Cameron, in How to Avoid Making Art (Or Anything Else You Enjoy),  says the same thing: “For most people creativity is a serious business. They forget the telling phrase ‘the play of ideas’ and think that they need to knuckle down and work more. Often, the reverse is true. They need to play.”

Novelists are good worker bees. Writing a manuscript of 80,000 or 100,000 words requires it. But maybe before a worker bee can make honey, she must first drift lazily from clover to clover, sucking the sweet nectar and getting drunk on the fullness of summer.

Debra Galant has written three novels. The first two, Rattled and Fear and Yoga in New Jersey, are comic novels about suburban life in New Jersey. Her forthcoming Cars from a Marriage, coming out next year from St. Martin‘s, follows a 20-year marriage through a series of car trips told by both the husband and the wife. In addition to writing novels, Galant is a new media pioneer. Baristanet, which she founded in 2004, was named the best placeblog in America in 2007.


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Historical novelist Judith Lindbergh writes about her irrational passion for research.

The joy and burden of my literary life is research.  There is nothing more exciting to me than the 22-inch high stack of academic texts, museum exhibition catalogues, and translated ancient manuscripts sitting on the corner of my desk like an untouched burial mound waiting to be exposed.

Thralls Tale coverI approach my decidedly obscure topics with an archaeologist’s passion for minute detail.  For my first novel, The Thrall’s Tale, about women in Viking Age Greenland, I literally studied monographs on the number of lice found in household waste-pits, not because I have a particularly penchant for lice, but because if there were lice, there were itchy, uncomfortable beds made of moss and straw; there was filthy, stinking clothing; and there were animals sleeping inside the houses with the humans in winter.  I latched onto each detail not just for simple description, but to grasp a visceral awareness of what my characters endured.

With my latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes, I’m finally past the point of scrounging for details.  My characters have risen from unearthed bones, bits of tarnished arrowheads, rusty daggers, and delicate, hand-crafted beads.  There comes a moment when the facts fall into place and I sense my protagonist sitting beside me, quietly tapping a finger on my desk as if to say, “OK, that’s enough.  Let’s go!”  It’s not that I know everything, because everything is impossible to know.  But the moment comes when I feel that I am “full” – I understand my characters’ basic natures, the challenges of their lives and the beliefs that sustained them, the landscape and atmosphere that framed their lives.

It’s easy to ignore that moment, because in the end (for me, at least), research is easier than writing.  It’s seductive, and undeniably useful, to return to that deep, sweet well to sip.  The truth is that research never really stops.  Even today, if anything comes my way about Norse Greenland, I catch myself salivating like Pavlov’s dog.  The trick is in sensing that moment when I’m about to overflow.  Then I set my hands on my keyboard and begin to write.  If I’m lucky, the spirits of the long dead are whispering in my ears.

Judith Lindbergh’s debut novel, The Thrall’s Tale, was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection.  She teaches creative writing at the South Orange Maplewood Adult SchoolLearn more about her work at her website, and visit her blog, The Writers Circle: Process, practice, hope, and the business of writing.

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Writer Mark Trainer talks about what he learned from Pulitzer-prizewinning author Peter Taylor:

peter taylor coverI used to work for the writer Peter Taylor.  Because of a series of strokes, he wasn’t able to type his own manuscripts.  He was barely able to write legibly with a pen.  I had been a fan of his writing since college, and so jumped at the chance to see how he worked.  I learned a lot from him.  Here are two things–a big lesson and a small trick.

First the small trick. The narratives of Peter Taylor’s finished stories had a wonderful way of seemingly straying here and there, as though the narrator were recalling whichever events from the time he was writing about popped into his mind.  By story’s end he always pulled these strands together to powerful effect.

While he was dictating a new story to me, I noticed he kept repeating the same line. It was something like, “And so another person in my life disappeared seemingly without a trace.”  In every day’s work, this line would come up at least once.  I thought maybe he was slipping in his old age, repeating the same line again and again.  But I also didn’t think it was my place to tell him how to write a story.

Then one day he dictated the line again and told me that he sometimes did this in his stories when he was afraid of losing track of a central idea that brought the narrative together–he’d just repeat the central idea again and again to keep from straying too far away from it.  And sure enough, when he handed me back subsequent drafts of the story, each time iterations of the line were struck out.  It seemed to me each appearance of the line was like a piece of scaffolding used for construction and taken away when he no longer needed it.

Now for the big lesson. Like I said, in the years I knew him, toward the end of his life, Peter Taylor couldn’t type.  He could barely read his own handwriting.  Sometimes it took him a long time to find the right words when he spoke.  I was in my mid-twenties with no physical ailments and no responsibilities.  I wrote an hour or two a day but was easily distracted by my social life, my job waiting tables, or maybe an old episode of The Rockford Files.

A few days a week I’d trudge over to Peter Taylor’s house and each day he would have pages of handwritten manuscript he’d worked over painfully, small notes scribbled on pieces of junk mail and napkins.  When he couldn’t sleep at night he’d dictate into a tape recorder.  Sometimes he tried the typing, slowly, slowly.  When he put all this together, his daily output invariably dwarfed my own.  Back then, I wrote like someone with no limits on time and opportunity.  At his age, he knew better.

Mark Trainer is a writer in Washington DC.  His fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The Greensboro Review, The Mississippi Review, and others.  His nonfiction has appeared in The Washington Post. He’s currently working on a collection of stories called Bad Daddies.

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butterfliesLast night, reading Anthony Doerr’s lovely essay, “Butterflies on a Wheel,” in a recent issue of Granta, I came across this line: “The brain contains, always, two opposing desires: the urge to stay and the urge to run.”

I read it again. The urge to stay and the urge to run. The phrase echoed in my mind: I had encountered this idea somewhere before. Then it came to me. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert says, “Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains.”

That same word: desire. Stay/restrain, run/impel. Flaubert’s idea is larger, encompassing as it does the notion of social mores and expectations. But convention might as easily come from within as without, and the fact that these forces are in constant tension within us is both a truism and an idea that bears repeating.

It really doesn’t matter whether Anthony Doerr remembered the line from Madame Bovary. I imagine he didn’t. This idea – doubtless repeated in different ways by countless writers over the years – is perennially interesting. Reshaped for a new time and circumstance and refreshed by context, it becomes new again.

(The title itself, “Butterfly on a Wheel,” is an allusion to a line in Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot: “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” about the foolishness of expending great effort on an inconsequential task. Same conceit, new iteration …)

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Unlocking the Forest“To have begun is to be half-done;

dare to know; start!”

— Horace

(Thanks to Tasha O’Neill for her image of a doorway at the Rockefeller Gardens in Seal Harbor, Maine,“Unlocking the Forest.”)

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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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Author Marina Budhos writes about finishing her latest novel:

ask me no questionsMy plan this summer was to force myself to write to the end of my historical novel, a book I have been working on for a number of years while I completed other projects.  Summer is my best writing time, when I am home, puttering around my house, the children off in camp, with no teaching responsibilities fracturing my attention. My aim, then, was to bring this all to a head, especially since the end of this novel is meant to be very dramatic and also violent, a crescendo of so many parts, voices, themes.  And yet even the most thoughtful of plans have a way of upending.

Set against the crumbling backdrop of late 19th century British Empire, my novel is about the unlikely friendship between an Indian woman and English woman—a bond that is threatened when they move from India to a Caribbean sugar estate, and violence starts to sweep the plantation.  It is an ambitious book, as I am juggling multiple points of view along with foreign and historic settings, politics, even technical information about sugar growing that I must make vivid to a modern reader.

After building up this world over a number of years, I anticipated that the challenge of writing the ending would be that it was like a tidal wave that is slowly mounting, ready to curl; and yet one would still need to pay attention to the water particles.  One would still have to build scene by scene, moment by moment, even as you were aware of these huge forces compelling the narrative forward.

To my surprise, the ending, the denouement, a series of fast-paced acts, is coming swifter than I expected.  There was no deep rumble in my consciousness, no mounting wave of creativity.  Mostly I find myself sketching out plot—one bad event and bad decision leading to another, and hopefully mounting to tragedy.  This is somehow vaguely disappointing, and runs counter to my more romantic vision of the summer’s work.  But perhaps this is what I need to do—work more as an architect, more cerebrally— setting down the structure.  Then the deeper, unconscious swells will emerge.

This is what I tell myself now as I write event-driven material, pushing toward the end.  Sometimes we need to ride the waves.  And sometimes we must navigate with a plot compass, trusting that instinct and fever dreams will return.

Marina Budhos writes adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction.  Her recent novel, Ask Me No Questions, won the James Cook Teen Book Award and was an ALA Best Book.  Her prior books include House of Waiting, The Professor of Light, and Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers.  In 2010, she will publish a YA novel, Tell Us We’re Home, and Sugar Changed the World, co-authored with her husband, Marc Aronson.  She teaches creative writing, literature, and Asian Studies at William Paterson University, and can be reached at www.marinabudhos.com

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Standing in line at the grocery store the other day, leafing through USA Weekend, I came across an interview with Laura Saltman, an entertainment reporter for a tabloid TV show, Access Hollywood.  When asked “What do viewers want?” she replied, “The D’s — divorce, death, drugs, derangement, dysfunction.”

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

tragedyAnd then I started thinking about literature.  I thought King Lear.  I thought Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth.  Let’s not even discuss the bloodbath of Titus Andronicus.

I jumped ahead a few centuries to Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby.  I thought of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.  (I believe he hits all the D’s.)  I thought of James Frey’s bestselling faux-memoir, A Million Little Pieces, Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres.

In an April New York Times Magazine interview, Joyce Carol Oates – who regularly and notoriously tackles the D’s – talked about the title story in her recent collection, Dear Husband.  It’s a letter from a woman to her “dear husband,” in which she explains why she drowned their young children in the bathtub.  “Why do you find violence so alluring as a literary subject?” Oates was asked.  She responded, “If you’re going to spend the next year of your life writing, you would probably rather write “Moby Dick” than a little household mystery with cat detectives. I consider tragedy the highest form of art.”

The highest – and of course the lowest. As our collective obsession with Michael Jackson signifies (yup, that particular narrative contains every single ‘D’ ), the elements of tragedy enthrall us at every point on the spectrum.

In fact, as I write this now I realize that my own new novel, Bird in Hand, has at least three on Saltman’s list:  divorce, death, and dysfunction.  If I’d understood the pull of the D’s, maybe I’d have thrown in drugs and derangement for good measure.  Or is that measure for measure?

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Jungian psychologyYou never know where you’ll find inspiration – or where inspiration will find you.

Sitting on an airplane in the summer of 2005, on the way to Fargo, North Dakota with my family to visit my husband’s mother, I came across an interview with the novelist Sue Grafton in Northwest Airlines World Traveler magazine, of all places.  She spoke so eloquently about the source of her creative energy that I copied it in my notebook and later posted it on the bulletin board in my office.

“It’s from Jungian psychology,” she said. “Our dark side, our shadow, [is] where all our creative energy is. If you spend your life looking perfect and doing everything you’re supposed to do, you shut down the part of you that is most energetic. For awhile, I was concentrating on being good, on doing what people expected, and lost track of that energy to do the work itself.”

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Some words of encouragement from two writers who seem to know exactly what they’re doing:

headlights“In beginning a story I know nothing at all: surely not where I am going, and hardly at all how to get there.” — Cynthia Ozick

“Writing a novel is like driving across country at night.  You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E. L. Doctorow

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When I’m working on a novel, ideas rise up at random times from the murk of my subconscious like pronouncements in a Magic 8 ball.  If I don’t write them down right away, these ephemeral thoughts can fade and disappear. FoggyMirror

Driving my 14-year-old son, Hayden, to summer camp in Maine on Sunday, I put him to work as both a DJ and a scribe. (After all, I was the chauffeur.)  He selected a Green Day song from his new i-Pod touch (an 8th-grade graduation present from an indulgent grandmother), then I was allowed a song by The Fray; he picked Ben Folds, I chose Dar Williams.  Every now and then I asked him to open my writing journal – a wire-bound, college-ruled notebook with a green plastic cover – and scribble a line:

Sea air in Galway

Fiction chooses the writer

Breath on the glass

Sea air in Galway. The Maine coastline in similar, in many ways, to the west coast of Ireland, 2500 miles to the east. With this note I was reminding myself to pay particular attention to the sensory details; I thought I might be able to use these impressions in a scene in my novel.

Fiction chooses the writer. This idea for a blog post sprung from an ongoing conversation with several novelists about how and why people start writing fiction.

Breath on the glass. As we drove in the rain, I saw Hayden turn his head to look out the passenger window at two guys on a motorcycle, both without helmets, grimacing into the downpour. Hayden’s breath fogged the glass. When he turned back to me, saying, “Wow, Mom, what were they thinking?” – I glanced over again, and saw that his breath had already evaporated.  And the guys on the bike were gone.

That’s how it is with these fleeting observations, and why I asked Hayden to keep a pen handy and the notebook on his lap. And he was happy to do it – as long as he could listen to Metallica and I promised to get him to Bar Harbor on time.

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Metz, PERFECTIONThe memoirist Julie Metz, who is now working on a novel, writes:

When I wrote my memoir, Perfection, the story of my discovery of my husband’s secret life only after his sudden death, my focus was on careful recall aided by journals and letters.  And yet, since I love reading fiction, I wanted my memoir to “read” like a novel.  After many failed attempts, I found a structure for the factual narrative that allowed me to recapture my own state of mind at the moment of my husband’s death and the early months of widowhood.  The primary inspiration for my book was the fictional memoir Jane Eyre, in which an innocent narrator’s life is changed by a devastating revelation.

During this last year, while Perfection was in the final stages of publication, I began working on a new project, a novel.  I am finding it to be a very different process.  I began with a snippet of a story I’d been kicking around in my head for years, but as I got into the project in a deep way, the original story fell away as the characters became more vivid. Very little remains of the original idea except for locations and some back story.  The day I realized I had to quit forcing my original idea into the book was both sad and liberating. My attempts to direct the plot were those of a classroom bully who tries to force other kids to play by his or her rules. No one wants to play with a bully.

Now that I spend my days conjuring rather than exclusively researching my past, I frequently think of Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird: to focus not on plot but on character. I try to sit with my (mostly) made up characters and hope that if I am quiet and patient I will get to know them as well as the real people in my life, and that they will tell me what they need to do and say.

Julie Metz is a graphic designer (she co-designed the cover of her memoir), artist, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Glamour, and Publisher’s Weekly. Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, is her first book.

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Anna Karenina is more than 800 pages long. So why does it feel shorter than many 300-page books?

Anna KareninaAs I read this novel recently I noticed that Tolstoy cuts his long scenes into short chapters, usually no more than two or three pages. He often ends a chapter in a moment of suspense – a door opens, a provocative question is asked, a contentious group sits down to dinner, characters who’ve been circling each other finally begin to talk – which propels the reader forward into the next chapter.

The psychological effect of these short chapters is that this huge book is fairly easy to get through. Reading in bed late at night (as I tend to do), I’d be tempted to put it down, but then I’d riffle ahead to find that the next chapter was only three pages long.

Three pages – I can do that. And I really want to find out who’s behind that door …

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