Digging for Words

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


The Evolutionary Invention

We’re probably all familiar with Marshall McLuhan‘s phrase “the medium is the message”. McLuhan writes that the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action”. In the world of creative writing and journalism, we’re seeing that more clearly every day. Words have migrated from print to screen, and with that shift have come new forms of communication, both more free and more wild. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter tweets and more have completely transformed journalism, knowledge transfer, social interaction and even politics.

Increasingly the world of creative writing is being affected by this shift. Digital readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader are becoming more commonplace. I believe the economic pressures on publishing will eventually force the full adoption of print-on-demand and other virtual solutions.

Meanwhile creative writers are experimenting with new online forms: serialized stories told in blog format in 350 word bites or, even more dramatic, cellphone novels and “Twitter fiction” in which each entry is only 140 characters long! (See “Call me Ishmael. The end.” by Barry Yourgrau on Salon.com.)

If a book bears the power to transform, then what about a computer?

If a book bears the power to transform, then what about a computer?

I confront this truth every day in my own writing. Even from the start, when I was toying with short stories, I realized that writing was much easier on a computer. As I grew to take my work more seriously, I questioned how I could write at all without the ease of revising and saving countless drafts. It’s a strange thought for someone who wrote long hand in journals and notebooks for years. I have a box of them in my basement, representing mostly early hopeless attempts that never quite got finished. Somehow the flow of typing on a computer without worries about making mistakes freed me to create in ways that the thick slog of pen and paper or an old, clunky typewriter never had.

But as I’ve progressed, I’ve also noticed a downside to that freedom. Though I compose mostly on computer, I end up editing in hard copy. Somehow the words simply look different in print, even when I change my page view to “Print Layout”. My rhythms change in hard copy; my scenes that had been rich online read more flatly, or sometimes they seem overlong or over the top. I’ve come to rely on a hearty stack of pages for final editing, much to my environmentalist soul’s chagrin.

What am I seeing that wasn’t there before, when all the words remain exactly the same? It’s Marshall McLuhan’s message embodied – the medium does matter, innately and inextricably.

I found this article on the topic particularly intriguing: “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson. It is a commentary on “The Gutenberg Elegies” by Sven Birkerts that explores, as Stephenson writes, “the relationship between a reader and an imaginative text at a time when serious literature is increasingly marginalized by the communications technologies that are transforming mass media and mass culture.” Both article and book were written in the mid-1990s. They are a fascinating time capsule of the world that was.

We’re now living increasingly in the world as it has become, a world where the written world is less frequently printed, less frequently held in hand. The written word is less private, more public, more virtual, more immediate, more dynamic, and yet more ephemeral. How we process information online – where we go in our minds and souls – is immediately in question. Is it possible, both as writers and readers, to descend into that quiet place inside a story as we once did tucked into a comfortable chair with a book? How difficult is it for any of us to avoid checking our email or going online while we’re in the midst of writing? Are we able to escape, or has our attention span and our time been so truncated that the experience of depth and perception is getting more and more elusive? It reminds me of another article I shared with some of you last year, also from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr.

Overall my question is: what precisely is this transformation and where will it lead us? I’m fascinated by these new fiction forms that are growing like viruses online. Some I’ve barely peeked at; others I haven’t begun to explore; and some honestly, I probably don’t want to. I’m the first to admit that I’m a traditionalist, if perhaps not quite a Luddite, about my literary work. I mean – come on – I do write historical fiction about people and cultures where sometimes even writing itself hasn’t been developed!

Still I’m drawn by the urge to trace this strange path, not only to the past, but to the future. It’s evolution in its purest form – as we watch the human mind transformed by human experience. Our own invention is altering culture itself. And culture is perhaps the most inherent aspect of what makes us human.


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Christopher Harder’s “Renovation” published in The New York Times column Motherlode

Congratulations to Christopher Harder, who joined our Writers Circle this past winter, on the publication of his essay Renovation in Lisa Belkin’s New York Times column, Motherlode.

I’m very happy and proud of Chris, who has continued his work with me in my Tuesday morning sessions. Although two other members of our Circle, Marcia Worth-Baker and Lori Sender, have published pieces in The New York Times, our group can take little credit for most of their terrific stories. Chris’ piece is the first I’ve been honored to witness from inception to publication. Congratulations, Chris! Hopefully this will happen more and more for everyone in our Writers Circle.



Ah, as I write this post, I realize I’m starting “Beginnings” right after my post called “Finished”! Well, it’s appropriate, as one Writers Circle session ends and another starts, to have a discussion about first sentences.

Choosing the right first few words for your story can be agonizingly difficult. In journalism, opening lines are called “hooks”, literally intent on snagging the reader’s attention like a fish on a line. Coming up with the perfect starting sentence requires balancing many things – voice, point of view, scene setting, details of topic and circumstances, and much more. All this must be conveyed with just the right well chosen words, setting the stage for a reader to enter your narrative.

Here are the “100 Best First Lines from Novels” as assessed and compiled by the American Book Review. It’s a fascinating study not only of good beginnings, but of the many unique ways a story can start, from entering the inner life of the narrator to listening to a self-conscious author announce his or her book.

The brilliance of these initial lines is in their titillation, telling us just enough, even if most lines tell us almost nothing. Note the length of sentences – a few simple words played like precisely struck notes, or a paragraph-long sentence that somehow coalesces without confusing.

Call me Ishmael.

Call me Ishmael.

I challenge you to look at your opening lines and ask yourself if they pinpoint precisely the story you plan to tell. Do they take you immediately into the moment of your work, or do they meander, wondering where the story really begins? Does your narrative voice beg the reader to listen, almost breathing the personality of the character who speaks? It’s very tricky and takes a shocking amount of honing.

Don’t be satisfied simply with whatever first comes out. Sit with it for a moment and think about what the words do or don’t say. Then draft the story and return to those first lines again. Do it over and over as your story evolves. More often than not, those original, beloved first words will completely transform with the unexpected progress of your work. Sometimes you’ll eliminate them completely.

So see where these lines take you, and try some yourself. Here’s to new beginnings.

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The Writers Support Circle in the News

I just wanted to post some links to the news coverage last week’s Creative Arts Showcase received on Maplewood Patch. Thanks to Eli Zwillenberg and Marcia Worth – both members of our circle – for the lovely story and photos.

Writers Support Circle members Elizabeth Topitzer, Lois Cantwell and Lynn Simmons (Alexis Gubbay in the background)

Writers Support Circle members Elizabeth Topitzer, Lois Cantwell and Lynn Simmons (Alexis Gubbay in the background)