Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination



There is nothing more rewarding that to reach a moment of culmination – whether it’s completing a short story or a novel, or simply experiencing a moment of true acknowledgment of your work. Last night’s Creative Arts Showcase at Maplewood’s Words Bookstore was one of those culminating moments. I was honored to sit in the front row listening to stories, excerpts and essays I’d heard in countless versions. After our circle worked for weeks and months nurturing and nudging each writer’s efforts along, it was exhilarating to finally witness them presented to the public ear in “finished” form.

But “finished” is in quotations for a reason. If a piece of writing is ever really finished, it can only be because the author has passed beyond. Even I still have, tucked high up on a bookshelf, a copy of The Thrall’s Tale tagged with changes I would make should I ever have the opportunity. As writers we are always hearing something different, seeing something in our work that we hadn’t noticed before. And we are always maturing creatively and personally. Our vision shifts with each moment of life’s breath, until the truth itself has found another form.

So this 1962 essay, When Does Education Stop? by James Michener, seems appropriate. It is written with a focus on college education, but the message reaches further, to the burden of taking on really challenging tasks and accepting the effort they require. The truth is that we are all always learning, that we cease to learn at our peril, and that the breadth and depth of our understanding are critical to the shape our work and our lives will form. Anyone who attempts to write quickly realizes that even a short story or a three page essay can take days, weeks, months to perfect. We all must search within ourselves for that quality of effort and find the stamina to persist toward a goal that may remain forever just another draft away.


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The Storyteller’s Fire

As our Writers Circle prepares for its Creative Arts Showcase next week, I can’t help but be fully aware of the challenge of reading aloud, both from a perspective of performance and as a tool for the writer.

My classes and groups have almost always worked orally. We sit around our table and learn to listen carefully. We rarely pass around copies to mark up or follow along. Sometimes new writers are surprised by this approach. “Isn’t this about READING?” But I say, no. It’s really about listening. You are telling a story, and if the story doesn’t hold up when read aloud, it’s probably missing something on the page.

Certainly, at some point, someone has to do the nitty-gritty editing that takes paper and a big red pen in hand. But before that moment, in the midst of the creative flow, I find it’s reading aloud and listening that are key to discovering a story’s truth – its voice, its pace, its action, its intensity. I often read my work aloud even as I’m writing. Perhaps that’s a bit weird, or maybe it’s because I used to be an actress, but for me, it’s often the only way to know if what I’ve written has any grace or truth at all.

In the days before books were readily available, before people knew how to read, before writing even existed, people listened to stories. It is one of the most primal arts, along with dance, drumming and song. The greatest storytellers had power. They were literally imbued with a mystical connection that held sway over life and death and the fortunes of people’s lives.


Perhaps our writing today has lost that sort of magic, but the mission of the storyteller remains the same. Delivery can be as important as content – cadences, the subtle distinction of voices, the florid verbal canvas that draws images, characters, and action in the listener’s mind.

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, Some Thoughts on the lost Art of Reading Aloud, reminds us that until recently, reading aloud was a routine experience that created community and enriched family, that was an activity of choice, not a boring homework assignment (as it is for my 8-year-old son) or a nerve-wracking proposition as it so often is for many authors. Whether amateur or professional, as we step onto the literary “stage”, it is critical to remember what Klinkenborg writes: “Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body…. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.”

As writers, we are not only the person reading, but the person whose soul – obvious or obscured – is coming to life through those words on those pages. Slightly different from raconteuring, which has also gained new prominence recently, we writers frame our experience and imagination in concrete sentences carefully honed. For these sentences to speak, they must be lived – first in their creation, then in the reader/listener’s mind. When we read them aloud, they become vital and alive, crackling like the storyteller’s fire, rich with sparks dancing before our eyes.


Briefer Stories for Our Times

Take a look at A.O. Scott’s lovely and appropriately brief survey and prediction of the American short story in Brevity’s Pull: In Praise of the American Short Story. It’s especially relevant to so many creative writers who often focus at least initially on the short story form.

Short stories have only very rarely brought any writer the attention of the reading world. Even finding a home for these carefully crafted vignettes can be frustrating and is almost never lucrative. The short story’s true reward must be in savoring the satisfaction that comes from the realization of refinement and excellence.

Yet A.O. Scott predicts that, like so many other forms of media, literature too is undergoing a monumental transformation in our ever more scattered and digitized world. As with music and movies, perhaps the future writer’s goal will no longer be the “Great American Novel” but something more compact, more succinct, more digestible, more suited to shortened time and attention spans. To distill the total essence of the “now” in a single story of 20 or 30 pages is an almost inconceivable challenge. But perhaps that is precisely the correct way to attempt to capture this American moment. It’s certainly something for all writers to strive to achieve.


Plodding toward Genius

A recent op-ed in the New York Times tells us that modern research dispels the myth of genius. Apparently genius can be nurtured with the right set of circumstances, the right timing and mentoring. I find it interesting that the example given is a young person with a gift for words. Ah, but wouldn’t it be lovely if we all found our proper mentors at precisely the right time!

But perhaps we writers – no matter what our age – can somehow mentor ourselves and each other through the plodding, incessant work of simply writing. Canadian novelist Pauline Gedge, author of Child of the Morning and many other excellent historical novels, calls writing “one-tenth good times of inspiration and nine-tenths sheer drudgery”. I couldn’t agree with her more.

So often writing is simply work – or perhaps not SIMPLY work, but work coupled with the self-effacing agony of doubt – doubt in one’s capacity, one’s stamina, one’s talent. We are filled with the hovering anxiety that we are hopelessly wasting our own and everyone else’s time. Yet as writers – despite logic, despite rejections, despite critical reviews or hard-bitten assessments from associates and even friends – despite everything, we trudge doggedly forward.

Perhaps there will be a payoff – somewhere down the line that telephone will ring with the golden news that we will indeed see our work published at long last! Perhaps all this drudgery is our required dues, along the lines of Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of 10,000 hours, that if we slog dutiful through years of practice, somehow, someday we will reap our just reward. Or, is the act of writing the reward in itself?

As Ms. Gedge writes: “The longer [the writer] has been writing, the greater the accumulation of evidence that indeed, he is ripening. One cannot keep writing without improvement. It is impossible.” Encouraging words, as is her attitude toward publication, that its inevitability is inherent in our undaunted progress, step by step along creativity’s illimitable road.