Digging for Words

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


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Why I Write

So often I dwell on the unavoidable truth that writing is hard. Every day as I face the blank or unrevised page, I feel the dread that I won’t be able to fill or fix it, that somehow the difficult work is simply beyond me.

But in this terrific short interview from Oprah Magazine, Toni Morrison reminds me of something I somehow forget. In the face of inevitable struggle, writing is also magical. It has the power to transcend time and space and to bring to the fore the unquestionable gold that all of us are human.

Toni Morrison
That is certainly why I write historical fiction – to discover the humanity in times, places and people who are entirely different from those I know. I love to dig into that past to see life through a very different lens. I try to understand worlds where beliefs and values are utterly unfamiliar and yet, for those who live them, utterly true. Through this imagining, I find my compassion for humanity broadens and deepens. I can be less critical of others. I can smile at the foibles and quirks that might annoy me, and I can try to accept the many horrors that have always shook the world.

Writing allows us to step into one another’s shoes, to understand each other’s thoughts and lives in ways that, by ourselves, we might denigrate or condemn.

Writing gives us a window into the past and a way to imagine possible futures. Writing gives us the power to control things we cannot. It gives us a place to set down our greatest hopes and fears.

And though each of us struggles to give proper form to our invention, the effort to do so ties us to the magical self that can envision perfection.

Finally, for me at least, life without words would be hollow. When Morrison mentions her melancholy after finishing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, I can utterly understand. Without writing – without a project calling me, giving me purpose, without something to explore beyond the everyday world, without people – characters – talking to me in my head – I am only half a person, only half-present in this world. Strange as it may seem, that other dimension makes this one richer for me. It gives context and relevance to my life’s otherwise sometimes frustrating, formless meanderings.

Somehow the work of fiction gives my life shape. It transforms random experiences into plot and direction. If I occasionally interpret my own story as a novel, expecting an exciting climax and praying for a rare happy ending, is it the fault of my life’s work? Or do we all have a story to live – maybe one that one day will deserve to be written down?


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Shouting, but Not Getting Hoarse

As an addendum to my last post, Shouting in a Crowd, be sure to read the wise advice of literary agent Nathan Bransford about, yes, promoting your work, but also knowing when enough is enough, focusing on what you’re best at and, most of all not, driving yourself absolutely crazy!


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Shouting in a Crowd

Written in support of Stuart Lutz, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors, Stephanie Cowell, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet, and all my other friends who have, will, or long to be published.

What’s it like to be an author today? To be sure, the days of rarified literary isolation are over. Authors in the 21st century are expected to be our own biggest advertisement, shouting loudly and clearly from the highest height at the top of our lungs for attention, recognition and, most of all, sales.

No longer is publicity the realm of a professional publicist. Old school publicity methods, like press releases and pitch letters, are losing steam. Blogger Jonathan Fields lays out the new landscape in a strident but accurate gripe in The Huffington Post about the dismally ineffective methods of one unnamed career publicist whose pitch Fields immediately and repeatedly deleted as spam.

Truth be told – no publicist, for almost no amount of money, can dedicate the time, expertise, creativity, energy and intimate awareness of your work to properly promote the creation of your literary heart and soul. Any publicist assigned by a publisher, however well meaning and enthusiastic, is also working on several other authors’ books that are equally pressing (and hopefully just as worthy).

They will promise to do their best, but they will most likely follow a prescribed formula, reaching out to standard media outlets: newspapers (whose review sections have shrunk or disappeared), magazines (whose pages have literally halved to match their dwindling ad revenues), a short list of radio talk shows (God bless and keep you, NPR!), television morning shows (for that solid gold 60-second pitch), and of course, Oprah (ah, to live the dream!).

But beyond that list (which, by the way, nearly everyone uses), publicists simply don’t have time to handcraft a marketing and publicity scheme. Even if you hire someone, you might get a bit more attention, but the bang for your buck is mostly likely going to have to come from you.

Publishers know this and increasingly rely on it. Authors are expected to be expert entertainers, artful networkers, personable, presentable, articulate and with any luck – yes, it counts – attractive. Maybe even funny (no matter if our work is of a deadly serious nature).

Long before our books are ever in print, we find ourselves swimming in the ill-fitting publicist’s shoes, developing our websites, marketing materials, ads, booking library talks, readings and signings for our own mostly self-financed book tours. [The D.I.Y. Book Tour, NY Times, January 17, 2010] We blog for anyone out there who’ll let us. If given the opportunity, we will happily tap-dance naked in Times Square, if only someone would look our way.

How can it help but feel like we are all shouting into the same abyss – like the Grand Canyon itself lined with authors, actors, artists, musicians, dancers, playwrights, TV producers, video game creators, Ipod App developers (anyone I’ve missed?) begging for someone to notice our creation and make it the next big thing.

The likelihood that we’ll get any notice at all feels (is) pretty small, so when we get a little feedback, it’s as if we’ve won the Pulitzer. Yet our interaction with the public is no longer professional, it’s personal. There’s no packet of letters carefully screened by our editor or agent. Instead our inbox is laced with emails requesting advice, correcting our facts, critiquing our work, and once in a while – yes, bless them – praising our words. [The Perils of ‘Contact Me’, NY Times, January 10, 2010.]

We are expected to find time to tweet, social network and blog. We’re expected to be a part of the conversation. It’s a valid demand in the world where virtual socializing is more prevalent than face-to-face. But all of this takes incredible amounts of time. [Memoirist Vicki Forman on Book Publicity, http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com, January 19, 2010.]

Many writers I know simply give up hope of actually writing when they’re gearing up for the book launch. Beyond the strict reality that there are only 24 hours in the day, the effort to be so completely out-in-the-world contradicts the literary necessity of digging deeply inward. The two are incompatible. Better not to fight the split

Maybe it’s a good thing. Most authors I know bemoan their lonely state. (One reason I originally began teaching was, as many of you know, to be around humans other than my family for longer than the time it takes me to drop off or pick up my kids.)

But must the contrast be so extreme? And how many of us – savvy, articulate and ambitious as we are – are really equipped to take on this incredible burden?

Honestly, I’d love to hand over my publicity to someone else. I’d love to trust that it would take care of itself so I could sink down deep into my office chair and slip utterly into my newest tale.

But for all the work I put into my most recent creation, who better to sing its praises? Who better to honestly enthuse about the topic for which I sweated, cried and bled? Who better to know just where to find people with similar passions?

Writing is our agony and our joy. Sharing even that bit of experience draws us together with anyone else who struggles for rare rewards. Every time I cry into the abyss and hear something back, I know that, this time, it’s not an echo. Someone out there has really read and understood what I meant.

Finally, I know I’ve been heard.


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Having it and Spending it

In my holiday post, I wished for all of you the gift of time. But time is, as they say, what you make of it.

These last few weeks, between the holidays, family commitments, several articles I enjoyed writing, and preparing for my new schedule teaching a series of classes for children, my own time has been well spent and simultaneously frittered away.

In some ways I’m grateful. The break has given me new perspective on my work. When I finally returned to my new novel for a few solid hours this afternoon, I saw it distinctly more clearly.

But as far as finishing anything (and I’m revising now, not even creating new pages), the progress has been slow to none. So I was thoroughly inspired, chided and comforted when I came across Ann Patchett’s essay, Resolved: Writing is a job.

writinghand

Just do it!


Each moment that we choose to do everything else – no matter how engaging or critical – is one more moment we’re not doing what we love. Why are we so reluctant to buckle down and write? (Why am I blogging right now instead of opening the draft and picking through another chapter?) I can come up with a hundred logical excuses, but the most honest one is that writing is hard. It takes the kind of time and concentration that requires girding loins and pulling up bootstraps and getting down to business and bucking up, sucking it up and getting things done.

Somewhere in all the procrastination, our neglected love waits. I resolve to do better, to get back on track. I will ignore all those easier, less fulfilling distractions because the story I’m dying to tell is only half told and almost no one has even read it yet.


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Walking with Laurie Lico Albanese

Last Friday as a light sprinkle of snow drifted down, my friend and fellow author, Laurie Lico Albanese, accompanied me on my usual morning walk uphill.

Laurie Albanese displays the turtle's back.


Most of you know about my obsession with hiking, nature, and the South Mountain Reservation. Check out Laurie’s thoughts on our little adventure at her blog: My Big Walk: One Woman. One Year. One Thousand Miles.


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Death or Transformation?

I’ve been reading a lot these past few weeks about the amazing rise of the eBook, and the death of reading, writing and literature as we know it.

Amazon ebook sales topped traditional hard-copy format. The future of the book is so precarious that it requires a think-tank to monitor its demise. And nearly everywhere I look are blithe predictions about what reading and writing will and won’t be in years to come.

In a recent New York Times essay, Kathy Roiphe opens with, “For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation”. How can anyone committed to the work of writing avoid complete paralysis when we are regularly slapped in the face with words like these?

Years ago, back when The Age was New, I learned to read Tarot cards. One of the most startling cards in the traditional deck is the Death card. Death in most developed societies is something scary, ominous, to be avoided as surely as the plague itself. Indeed, the Death card shows a classic image of the Grim Reaper.

Death

Death comes to all, but where does it lead?


But Death in Tarot and in many mystical traditions is not a sign of ending but of transformation. It is far less a card to fear than a card to accept with girded courage knowing that learning comes through change.

Right now there’s no denying that the literary world is experiencing a dramatic shift. The bastion of commercial publishing is as hopelessly unstable as an alpine snow cliff in spring. For those rooted in these institutions, the ground is no longer safe to stand on, no longer certain to hold the weight of our hopes, expectations or needs.

But if we can step back from ourselves just a little, we might also realize that we are witnessing a birth. Something new is growing out of the impending rubble.

I have no idea what that something is or where it will lead any of us. I’m not in the business of making predictions and, honestly, tend to get bogged down in anxiety myself. But somewhere amidst the panic, I’m reaching to embrace this half-formed creature that will lead us all slowly, word by word, creative thought by creative thought, forward whether we like it or not.

I’m looking at this transformation with the kind of speechless admiration a mother bears as she watches her child. As parents, we can either stand aloft and criticize every move that our young one makes, intent to crush its spirit and mold it to our expectations. Or we can nudge gently as we observe our child’s natural instincts, helping to navigate pitfalls and avoid dangers, but still encouraging the child’s desire to explore, examine, create. The first method certainly helps maintain the status quo and preserves an established line of power and control. But it also squelches and malforms. The new creation, like a sapling caught beneath overcrowded trees, grows twisted.

Creativity in whatever form needs a bit of light, room, and air to grow. Maybe I can’t understand it. Maybe I’m one of those grand old trees. But I’m trying not to panic, hoping not to strangle this new life to save my own. I’m lucky I’m not a tree. Loosely rooted where I stand, I’m willing to move aside and leave a little space for the new wonders growing around me.