Digging for Words

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


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A Perfect Evening

From the look on people’s faces, I can tell everyone really enjoyed Stuart’s book launch on Friday night.
Stuart Lutz Last Leaf Reading
Thanks for a terrific showing and a terrific night. I felt like a proud old aunt! Thank you, Stuart. Thank you everyone.

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Social Networking for Authors: Reaching Out and Beyond

In anticipation of Stuart Lutz’s book launch party tomorrow night – a Writers Circle first! – I feel compelled more than ever to emphasize the need for a writers community. This extends beyond our own small but growing circle to embrace family, friends, and hopefully an enlarging group of readers who find our work, like it and share it with others.

Writers have always been notoriously solitary characters. We work in isolation, sometimes with only the company of a cat (like the one peering out from behind my computer screen right now). Our stories and characters speak inside our heads. We carry them around with us, an ongoing but invisible conversation that feeds us but also removes us from the immediacy of human contact. Sometimes the only sounds that reverberate in my office throughout the day are the dull clacks of my overused keyboard.

Rosie
Making direct contact these days is vital, both in the creation of a writer’s work and as the finished product reaches for an audience. I have been privileged to work with published peers and struggling first-time writers alike, delving deeply into the creative process, poking, nudging and plucking to find the best way a novel, memoir or book proposal should be shaped. And I’ve relied on peers and confidantes to do the same for me.

Once a book is ready for market, another kind of community steps in. This blog has already seen the contributions of authors Michelle Cameron and Stuart Lutz. I guarantee you’ll see more in the near future. (One’s already in the wings awaiting the launch of my dear friend Stephanie Cowell‘s latest novel, Claude & Camille.)

These “visits” are all part of “blog tours” – the best and sometimes only way authors have found to harness their own destiny in the supersaturated, dwindling book market. Amidst the bewildering churn of digital media, most authors get little or no publisher support. They either hire a costly publicist with generally mixed results or ambitiously go it on their own.

Back in the good old days (like in 2006 when my novel The Thrall’s Tale first came out), publishers still sent a few select authors on the road for a formal book tour. The intention back then was to meet and greet. Publishers were usually less concerned with gathering a receptive audience anxious to hear the author read aloud than with the brisk glad-handing authors shared with favored booksellers who, charmed by the mere appearance of a living, breathing author in their stores, would feel compelled to hand-sell the debut novel, memoir or self-help book to their customers.

I suppose these meet-and-greets were effective in their day. But my tour experience was one of disappointment descending into depression. Try as these lovely booksellers might to draw a crowd, my events were no match for the Superbowl, no draw against the wiles of a violent Seattle rainstorm. The best attended events I had were in towns where I knew lots of friends. (Thank you, now defunct Coliseum Books and all my former colleagues from HBO right next door!) The final stop, in yet another ubiquitous superstore somewhere in the Midwest, amounted to reading to only two people and signing a stack of hardcovers in a back storeroom.

For this, I assure you, I was entirely grateful. Most authors got far less! What impact all this had on sales is anybody’s guess. But I couldn’t help feeling that the money the publisher spent on my excursion (which took me away from my five- and two-year-old for an unbearable two weeks) would’ve been better spent on a strategically targeted marketing scheme.

The way books are bought, sold and read these days is changing so rapidly that no publisher, publicist or lowly author has any idea how to reach out and grab that virtual outstretched hand. These days, an author tour more likely takes place via Skype, Facebook, Goodreads, Shewrites or on the blogs of other writers and friends. Making direct contact is becoming rare indeed. If these new digital forays are adequate substitutes is hard to tell. And although a web presence is absolutely mandatory, I have yet to hear from anyone whether the ROI of a book trailer (almost always paid for out of an author’s meager advance and conceived, written, and directed by him or her as well) is really worth the trouble or expense.

So with all our websites, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts and blogs, how is an author meant to reach out to real readers? And how do we break the wall of our own self-imposed and circumstance-inflicted isolation?

Some authors are touted for the D.I.Y. Book Tour, another way that we have tried to take our fates in hand. The overall experience seems less about selling books than about meeting people, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and listening to readers who never thought they’d even want to read our books. I’ve had the most glorious times in my hosts’ living rooms, listening and laughing to startled responses to my book as we sip wine and nibble cheese. I’ve spoken at endless gatherings where neighbors and friends who either hated or loved my work debated right in front of me their reasons. And I’ve come full circle, supporting my own friends and passing on the tradition to my children, as I did this past weekend at Marc Aronson’s reading in Maplewood. (Yes, that’s my youngest having his copy of If Stones Could Speak signed by the author!)

Passing it On
I’ve begun to realize that, as much as we all long to see our books at the top of bestsellers’ lists, it is community that counts, if only we can find a way to grow and sustain it.

So I encourage all of you to come out tomorrow night and to go to the next reading of an author you know or don’t. Because in the end, we writers don’t often get to bask in the limelight. The few times we do stand in front of an audience are far more satisfying than a blog tour or a Skype talk because the hand shake, gentle pat on the back, and the applause are real.


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Catharsis

Catharsis is a powerful motivator for writing. It is perhaps the underlying reason that many of us decide to set down our thoughts. We are working through something, consciously or subconsciously trying to figure out ourselves, our lives, fate, our beliefs, and the world.

Through writing, we have the chance to preserve, transform or obliterate our past and our pain. In this sense, we use our writing as a catalyst. By setting down our words, we can set our agonies aside.

In our Circle, we have sometimes witnessed writing that serves this purpose: stories of grief, anger, guilt, betrayal, tales of childhood horrors and bitter, untimely loss. These stories prove to me that the act of writing offers something essential. More than simple creative expression or entertainment, writing can be the writer’s path to heal.

Oddly, these efforts simply to release have resulted in some of the cleanest, most honest and compelling writing I’ve seen. Perhaps this honesty comes naturally with writing that is driven up from our very core.

It reminds me of instructions Madeleine L’Engle used to give in her writing workshops: think about the exercise all week, but only write for half an hour. It shocked me at the time. I believed then that the more time I spent writing, the more well-crafted my work would be. But it didn’t necessarily turn out that way. Those brief outpourings, mused over for the week without pen or keyboard at hand, flowed out rich, fluid and detailed almost without trying. And when the half hour was done, Madeleine told us to stop, even in mid-sentence. That was hardest of all.

So imagine a story that has been burbling for years. Imagine a tale so vivid and private that it has lived and been relived in a writer’s subconscious. Then imagine letting it lose in all its brooding, painful glory. The explosion would be breathtaking, magnificent and perhaps even dangerous. A volcanic eruption.

An old friend of mine used to advise writers to write “as if everyone you know is dead.” It’s excellent advice to relieve the guilt of betrayal that inevitably comes with writing like this. It’s frightening. It goes against our best societal indoctrination. Show the world a happy, well-adjusted face. Keep your anguish hidden. To reveal your most painful secrets is taboo.

So at moments when writing like this is brought forth, we sometimes choose to drop the role of critics in order to bear witness to the pure and unadulterated outpouring on the page. We join together to live through the moments with each writer, step by step sharing the suffering through their words. No detail is spared or lost. These stories are inevitably stark, unembellished in their honesty. The sieve of true emotion sifts away all affectation. We listened dumbfounded, in anguish and in awe.

At the end, whether these stories find their way to print doesn’t really matter. It is up to their authors to decide. Some stories find their own best purpose in darkness, folded up and placed carefully in a box, tucked away to gather dust in a drawer or closet, destined forever to hold their truths in a sacred space of remembering.


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Guest Blogger: Our very own Stuart Lutz, author of “The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors”

I’m particularly proud to host today’s guest blogger, Stuart Lutz, who has been a part of our Writers Circle literally since it began.

The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last-Known SurvivorsThe Last LeafFor four years, I’ve followed the progress of his extraordinary project, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors. It’s been a long, bumpy road, as his blog post below vividly shares. Take heart from his experience, everyone. Today I’m honored to announce that The Last Leaf is available in bookstores everywhere!

So pick up a copy and one for all your family and friends. And be sure to join us at Stuart’s book launch party at Maplewood’s Words Bookstore on March 26 at 7:30 PM.

Thank you for the advice, John Coolidge

Over the last holiday break, I cleaned my Augean office. The first place I started was my large filing cabinet that holds all my papers related to The Last Leaf. The top two drawers have dozens of files holding photographs, audio tapes, interview notes, and drafts of each chapter. These are important files to save. The third drawer was stuffed with everything related to the publication of The Last Leaf, and this was the target of my afternoon’s labors.

I had my first interview for my oral history book in 1998. I drove to Deep River, Connecticut to meet with Mr. Paul Hopkins, the last living pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth in the Bambino’s legendary 1927 season when he hit a then-record sixty roundtrippers. A slew of meetings with other “Last Leaves” followed. I drove to Vermont to meet with John Coolidge, the son of the President and the last man to live in the White House in the 1920s. I roadtripped to Alabama to meet the last Confederate widow (though she turned out to be the next-to-last Confederate widow). One weekend, I flew to Knoxville to interview the last Union Civil War widow. She gave only two or three interviews ever, and it took me fifteen months of begging and pleading to get her to meet with me. Slowly, the book idea gained momentum as I met more and more people. In Rochester, New York, the last suffragette; in Fort Myers, Florida, the final Thomas Edison employee in Florida; in the Maryland suburbs, the last commissioner from the agency that created Social Security.

In 2004, I mailed dozens of query letters and I found an agent. He quickly sold the book to a subsidiary press of Simon and Schuster. I was delighted to receive my first advance check. I took the money and went on additional trips to meet more Last Leaves. There was the flight to Memphis to interview the real last Confederate widow in Arkansas. A drive to Fort Wayne to meet the final witness to the first electronic television broadcast in 1927 with a stop in Pittsburgh to chat with the last man to play with the country music legend Jimmie Rodgers. There was a flight to Florida to meet with the last living Amelia Earhart passenger and the final survivor of the vicious Rosewood race riot in 1923. A quick roadtrip to Chattanooga and Asheville to interview two more subjects. And a manic three day Indianapolis – Urbana – Ann Arbor – Cleveland voyage that let me meet three more Last Leaves. Sure, I had to borrow from my saving account to pay for some of these trips, but I reasoned the eventual royalties would repay me.

April 19th, 2005 was, I thought at the time, one of the great days of my life. I emailed the final book draft to the editor, triumphantly wrote about it in my journal, and went to see a Bob Dylan concert that night. Starting on April 20th, I finally told people besides my close friends and family about the book. The Last Leaf was scheduled to be out for the holiday season, and it was a great thrill to see it listed on the Simon and Schuster website. The famous Civil War historian Dr. James McPherson gave me a quotation to put on the book’s cover. Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, the dean of American historians, offered to blurb the book once I sent him a galley. Gosh, everything was lining up so well for me…

I didn’t know it then, but the publishing house was in total disarray. They went through three editors, and the last two wanted me to rewrite the book, which I dutifully did. But with the time I spent editing, there was no way The Last Leaf was going to be released for the holiday season. Then, the publisher, in one of the wussier moves in world history, made his unfortunate secretary call me to say they were not going to release The Last Leaf. Ever. She asked for their advance back (a great example of sheer chutzpah). I told them if they wanted it returned, I would see them in court since they were breeching our contract. A few months later, my agent, saying that he could not resell the book to another publisher, released me and The Last Leaf was adrift.

I read when I was younger that it was not how many times you fall off the horse, it is how many times you get back on…

I took a few months off from the book, but then got back in the saddle. I spent one entire weekend mailing out letters to a new batch of literary agents. I mailed them on Monday, and on Tuesday morning, two different agents called me. That afternoon, I sent them the entire manuscript to show them that the completed book was ready for publication. Each called back after getting the drafts and both wanted to represent me. One of them revealed that she is the literary agent for a certain rock star from New Jersey with the first name of “Bruce.” “Listen Stuart,” she said to me, “Bruce keeps me so busy that I do not take on any new clients. But I cried when I read your book last night. I really, really, really want to rep your book.” Wow – now an agent was begging me to sign with her. So I did.

This agent used all her connections at the major publishing houses to sell the book. And she found no interest in my work at all. She released me and The Last Leaf was again adrift. She did present me with a bill for $313 to cover her mailing and photocopying costs.

I dusted myself off again. As I got back on the horse, I felt a couple of horseshoe prints on my tuchus from this last experience. My wife, who had been completely supportive of my writing efforts during this entire time, claims I am one of the most determined or stubborn (depending on the context, of course) people alive. I knew I had an interesting book concept and I was not going to let it die. Not after I put in all that money, time, sweat, typing and mileage. Not after Dr. McPherson wrote a blurb and Dr. Schlesinger offered to compose one too. Not after I told people that The Last Leaf would be released.

While the book was in publishing hiatus, I did more interviews, including meeting America’s last World War I soldier. I sent out letters again to literary agents and not a single positive reply. Those are the letters that are now sitting in my filing cabinet awaiting recycling.

I then tried a different tact. I wrote to some academic publishers, including my alma mater’s publishing house, the largest one in the country. The Johns Hopkins University Press editor told me that he thought the book was “too commercial” for them, and every other academic press rejected The Last Leaf too. I also wrote to some medium-sized publishing houses. One day, I came back to my office and I had a message from the editor at Prometheus Books in Amherst, New York. He said they were very intrigued by my book. He was concerned, however, because he saw an old internet listing that I had already published The Last Leaf in 2005. I painfully explained the entire tortured history of the book and I assured him that it had not been published. Prometheus bought it.

On that December afternoon, my wife took my son out on errands so I could clean the infamous third drawer, as well as the rest of my office. As a perverse form of entertainment, I read some of the literary agent rejection letters. Some were impersonal third generation photocopies, some were photocopies but the agent wrote my name at the top. They went into the blue recycling bin. Others told me that the book was not focused enough and one wrote to me that, while an interesting concept, the book was simply not saleable. “Ha ha sucker!” I yelled at that letter as I put it into the bin. A few agents wrote back kind and encouraging letters, including one man who said that I should start by doing a series of magazine articles on the final survivors and then turn the concept into a book. Into the bin with the other rejection letters. I also recycled all my earlier drafts of the book.

I opened the top drawer, the one with all my important book files, and I flipped through them. I saw the folder for John Coolidge, son of Calvin, and I pulled out the paperwork. He was one of my first interviews, and he invited me in 1999 to visit him in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, one of the most placid areas of the state. I went into his private house where no one who visits the Coolidge Homestead was permitted. He was in a wheelchair at that point, and I gently rolled him onto his sun-drenched porch on a beautiful early spring day. He recounted his boyhood memories of seeing the charred attic timbers in the White House (remnants of the British torching the mansion during the War of 1812) and discussed the death of his brother at age sixteen from blood poisoning. As I was leaving his home, he wheeled himself over to his desk. He opened a drawer and handed me a small card with a quote from his father, the President:

    Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

It has been eleven years since Mr. Coolidge handed me that card. Neither of us had any idea how prescient the quote was.

Stuart Lutz
Stuart Lutz owns Stuart Lutz Historic Documents, Inc., a firm that sells rare letters and manuscripts. He has written for American Heritage and Civil War Times Illustrated, and appeared on National Public Radio. He has a B.A. in American History from Johns Hopkins. Learn more about Stuart and The Last Leaf at www.TheLastLeaf.com


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Rules are Meant to be Broken

Many of us come to a weekly writing workshop, a writers group or an MFA program looking for rules, instructions, some correct route to take as we navigate our way through our work.

Let me tell you after years with my own writing and helping friends and students alike, THERE ARE NO RULES.

Sure, there’s the basic grammar we all learn in elementary school. And oh, yeah, there’s a right way to spell most words. But when it comes to creative writing, even these steadfast rules are meant to be bent and sometimes even broken. Any author, living or dead, who’s ever tried to write in vernacular (for better or worse), will tell you that sometimes you just have to write it the way it sounds, even if it’s wrong.

Still we writers long for a few trustworthy guidelines. It’s a lonely job. Most of us never really know if we’re doing it right. But the simple realization that everyone feels like they’re “…driving a car at night” as E.L. Doctorow once put it, is a big step on the journey.

In last week’s Guardian article, Ten rules for writing fiction, a couple dozen illustrious authors offer their own best tips, starting with Elmore Leonard’s classic “Using adverbs is a mortal sin.” (Yes, we all occasionally use adverbs.)

No rules
What I found most comforting were the many contradictions:

P.D. James: Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing…

versus

Jonathan Franzen: Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

I also loved Diana Athill’s recommendation: “Read it aloud …because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.”

Those of you who work with me know that I insist on reading aloud. I’m well aware that details often get lost in the listening. But the things that do stick in our minds – whether a plot point, character detail, an awkward rhythm or something else – are the critical pieces that tell us what works and what doesn’t.

These tips lists intone the need for discipline, hard work and persistence:

Neil Gaiman:
1) Write.
2) Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3) Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Helen Simpson: The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying, “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert) which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

Also the need for occasional breaks:

Helen Dunmore: A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

Hilary Mantel: If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

And then there’s the implicit or blunt futility in their advice. Call it schadenfreude, but it somehow helps to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle.

Margaret Atwood: Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

Will Self: You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

And finally, my favorite, all too TRUE:

Roddy Doyle: Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

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