Digging for Words

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

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Stories That Move In

I walked rather blindly into writing historical fiction. Or perhaps it walked into me. For example, I was ignorant to its stigma as a genre, kindred to those other literary stepchildren, science fiction and fantasy. I had never read what Hilary Mantel, winner of this year’s Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, calls, “chick-lit with wimples”. Instead, my imagination was formed on books like The Secret Garden, Little Women and Black Beauty. As I grew older, I sank my teeth into Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. I never really worried that these authors, for the most part, weren’t writing about the distant past. In many of their works, they were portraying fairly contemporary worlds.
Opening the Door
But for me, their stories spoke of history, different values, different customs and lifestyles, different ways of thought. If these novels and plays which so captured my imagination at very impressionable times in my life formed my eventual passion for writing about history, then call it a curse or a gift. What I’ve learned is that we rarely choose our stories or even our genres. More often than not, they choose us.

Hilary Mantel writes in a recent article in The Guardian: “A novel arrives whether you want it or not. After months or years of silent travel by night, it squats like an illegal immigrant at Calais, glowering and plotting, thinking of a thousand ways to gain a foothold. It’s useless to try to keep it out. It’s smarter than you are. It’s upon you before you’ve seen its face, and has set up in business and bought a house.”

There is no invalid topic, style or genre. There is only what bangs loudest at the door of our minds, that forces us to pick up a pad and pen or open a computer file at odd hours of day or night, tapping out nonsense that somehow coalesces into meaning for us and hopefully for others.

Each writer is unique and so is the “immigrant” that bangs at the door. Let’s welcome each of them in, make up a bed and be grateful when they stay a while.


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My husband and I have been rebuilding our front porch stairs this week – all week literally pouring concrete, measuring and cutting wood, drilling, screwing and nailing. For any of you who’ve seen my house, you’ll know that this was a very necessary improvement to replace the rickety, sagging, tippy, paint-peeling hazardous ascent that’s been there for God-only-knows how long.

I’ve neglected my writing almost entirely. In fact, the only time I’ve been able to steal has been before bed when I sit with a few printed pages, carefully editing by hand. More often than not, I’ve dozed off still holding my pen. I’m feeling monumentally guilty about my neglect, but I also know that this time away will help me see my work more clearly.



Life is full of distractions, some more necessary than others. For most writers the hardest thing is simply to find the time. But even when we find it, we’re as likely as not to squander it at least a little, often doing almost anything to avoid facing the blank page.

I see this “wasted time” as a sort of preparation. Most writers need to “rev up” in some way – by reading, jotting down notes, picking off dead plant leaves, making a third or fourth cup of coffee…. There are also times mid-work when we pause to stare out the window, check our email, search the Web. These are definitely distractions, but sometimes they can be productive.

Years ago, when I used to sneak my writing in between slow moments at office temp jobs, I learned to appreciate the frequent interruptions when I had to answer a telephone or type someone’s memo. They required little mental effort on my part, allowing my semi-conscious mind to muse and sift through the thoughts I was forming. More often than not, when I returned to my own work, I’d found the proper path through my scene.

Life gets in the way, but sometimes it’s refreshing. I’m doing my best to embrace this week-long distraction when physical work and the intricacies of carpentry are opening new pathways and experiences in my body and brain. I can feel the rising hunger to return to my desk, my characters and my creative world. But I’m not starving this week. In fact, I’m quite satisfied. Besides having nice, safe new porch steps, who knows? I might write about a character who’s a carpenter one day!

Meanwhile, for a little inspiration, check out this interview with Junot Diaz, author of “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao”. His literary journey certainly took him along the long path of struggle and dedication. Take heart that even the best writers rarely find it easy.

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What the heck is a VOOK?

What the heck is a VOOK?

It’s been all the buzz in the publishing industry lately. Apparently (and I haven’t seen it yet) it’s a digital book with video. The books are mostly short, with fiction and non-fiction titles including a couple written by bestselling authors specifically for the new technology.

We’ve come a long way from Gutenberg’s machine.

This is a Vook.

This is a Vook.

The Vook is just one of what promises to be a whole slew of new technologies that the publishing world is trying in an attempt to make books sexier, more accessible and appealing to the digitized world.

But what are all these enhancements really adding to the reading experience?

I remember when reading required no more electricity than it took to power a light bulb; and the only sounds it made, besides my own breathing, were the voices of the characters in my head. I relish that silence and the simplicity of reading. So perhaps I’m in no position to judge.

Perhaps the issue now is to adjust our concept of the activity we call “reading” in the first place. Is it still reading when it talks and moves? Or is it some new form of entertainment? When television was first developed, they came up with a whole new word to describe it. It was entirely different from theater and movies. So is this Vook a variation on a theme or some new species? Someone please enlighten me.

And, speaking as a creator of stories using only words, how do individuals create for this new technological entity? It’s no longer the work of a single-minded writer. A Vook, or any other digitally enhanced version of a book, requires a team with digital expertise, expensive equipment, a cast of actors and, most importantly, a budget. The beauty of writing for me has been (among other things) that I could go open my .doc file or a spiral-bound notebook anytime and anywhere I liked, and simply go to work. I could do it all by myself, hour after hour indulging my imagination; and when I was finished, I had created an entire world.

In this rapidly changing literary landscape, how long will that last? At the most basic level, it feels to me like an inalienable right for one person to ink their innermost imaginings onto a page using no more specialized knowledge than good basic writing skills, time, practice and sheer determination.

But perhaps my questions are moot. As technology has a tendency to become rapidly user-friendly, I can easily imagine a not-too-far-away future when all our kids will be making Vooks on their laptops during recess. But for now, for me, the singular experience of self-expression that writing has been seems under threat of extinction.

If I’m a dinosaur, then so be it. (May future readers love my words as well as my kids love the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History!)

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A Satirical Jab at Book Publicity Today

I fear this satirical jab at the reality of publicizing new books in this age of digital everything is all too familiar to those of us who’ve been through it or anticipate stepping into the fire again. Check it out, and try hard to laugh so you don’t start crying:

Subject: Our Marketing Plan by Ellis Weiner from the October 19, 2009 New Yorker Magazine.

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The Meaning of Mentors

Thinking about mentors and what they’ve meant to me, I came across an essay by Joyce Carol Oates, In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters, from this Fall’s issue of Narrative. (You have to create an account, but you can read the article for free.)

I was fascinated to read that she didn’t feel that she had mentors so much as friends – fellow writers who influenced her thoughts and experiences sometimes more than her writing.

Though I can’t boast a slew of literary giants among my friends (yet!), in many ways my experience has been similar. I count my writer friends as my supports, as teachers and compassionate listeners who can understand the strife and striving of my work as well as its joy and freedom.

The thought of mentors grew more pointed when a friend and writer in our circle came to me the other day with a box full of cassettes she’d found at a garage sale. It was an audio version of “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle read by the author herself. She’d bought it for me knowing my boys would adore it, but also because she knew that Madeleine had been one of my teachers.

I stuck the tape into the player in my car – the only place in my life where an old cassette can be heard these days – and listened to Madeleine reading her classic work. It brought back more memories than I can share in this small space.

When I think of Madeleine now, I recall that my relationship with her was never really intimate, though her warmth and generosity made all of her students feel cherished. Still, it was the web of friendships that were woven from her class that eventually became my personal and creative lifeline for almost twenty years.

I think of them particularly now as a group of us have gotten together to produce a book of remembrances of Madeleine that will soon be published. Called “A Circle of Friends”, and edited and produced with the incredible dedication of another dear writer friend, Katherine Kirkpatrick, the book truly represents what Madeleine created, what we became and still are – a circle of support that crosses the boundaries of creative or professional interests to something that binds much more deeply.

I’ve watched over the years as each of you has joined our Writers Circle, as we’ve grown to know each other through sharing our work, as some have drifted away and sometimes returned. I know that many of you are often in touch, whether I’m involved in the communication or not, and that you’ve grown your own connections and supports, just as we did coming away from our workshops with Madeleine.

It is the magic of those connections – honest, genuine, real life relationships – that help us learn and grow. If I can do half as well as Madeleine did in helping to expand that enduring network of friends and mentors, then the work of the Writers Circle is a consummate success, whether anyone ever publishes or not.


Imagining the Well-Imagined Story

From the start of The Writers Circle, I made it my weekly habit to share interesting readings about writing, publishing and the writing life. The very first one, I recall, was Francine Prose’s Atlantic Monthly article “Close Reading” which introduced the core topics of her equally wise book, Reading Like a Writer. Prose’s premise – that to learn to write well, one must read not only well, but closely – invited all of us to read for details of technique, voice, character, plot development and more. By doing so, we all become students of the true masters of literature.

I find myself enlightened and amused once again by an Atlantic Monthly essay, this time Tim O’Brien’s “Telling Tails“. O’Brien points out a blunt but inescapable truth: that unsuccessful stories don’t necessarily lack of technique. Sometimes, they are simply boring.

Many writers workshops harp endlessly on the need for truth portrayed in full detail. But lacking imagination, all the exquisite detail in the world won’t hold a reader’s attention.

O’Brien lists several things that a well-imagined story is NOT (I’m paraphrasing here):

  • It is not predictable, or not wholly predictable;
  • It is not melodramatic, relying on purely villainous villains and purely heroic heroes;
  • It is not formulaic or cliche;
  • It does not rely on coincidence to achieve dramatic effects;
  • It does not use purple prose to attempt to elevate events beyond their due.

But what IS a well-imagined story?

O’Brien’s answer: a story that is “…organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”

This doesn’t mean that all good stories must dip into the supernatural or superhuman. Everyday people often face unexpected events that shape and reshape their understanding of the world. How each person handles them, with all the idiosyncracies of character, history and circumstance, are the stuff that make extraordinary fiction.

A well-imagined story must force us to pay attention. It tries to reach into the rich complexity of existence, even as it might be destined to portray very ordinary lives. Each sentence must be crafted to build upon that last, begging us to read just a little bit farther. And within those sentences that depict our characters and their struggles, we are helped along immensely by vivid, engaging and believable detail.