Digging for Words

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


Leave a comment

Two Great Friends, Three Great Events

These past few weeks have been busy ones for me with several friends launching and promoting their latest works.

First came Marc Aronson’s If Stones Could Speak. Then the joyous hullabaloo shared by all The Writers Circle over Stuart Lutz’s The Last Leaf. You all heard from Susan Barr-Toman yesterday and will hopefully make it to her event next Friday at Words. But there are three other critical events that I cannot fail to mention, given that two are for one of my oldest and dearest writing friends and the third is for one of my newest and dearest.

Claude & CamilleDon’t miss Stephanie Cowell signing at Watchung Booksellers this Saturday, May 1, from 1:00-2:00 PM and at Words on Thursday, May 13 for a reading at 7:30 PM. The Boston Globe calls her new novel, Claude & Camille, “nothing short of masterful.” Stephanie and I have known each other for over twenty years (scary to write that!) and in several very concrete ways she was instrumental in my ever being able to call myself a professional writer. I’m honored to have such a loyal, generous and talented friend and can’t wait to celebrate her latest novel.

Tell Us We're HomeOne of my newest dear friends, Marina Budhos, shares a passion for rich, complex writing and the challenging juggle of career and family. So I’m taking my eldest, who is good friends with her son, to the launch of her latest young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home. She’ll be reading this Sunday, May 2, 2:00 PM, again at Words.

Come and join the celebrations!

Advertisements


2 Comments

Guest Blogger: Susan Barr-Toman, author of “When Love Was Clean Underwear”

Guest blogger Susan Barr-Toman comes to us as real family. Though I personally haven’t met her yet, most of us know her sister Mary Mann from her time with The Writers Circle and now in her new, all-consuming capacity as the editor of Maplewood Patch.

As Susan’s blog post shows, she too struggled and doubted and finally, indeed at the very last moment, found acceptance and success. But Susan has come to realize that, even without that bound volume with her name on it, writing has given her a lot. I’m sure we can all relate to that.

Be sure to come to Susan’s reading next Friday, May 7, 7:30 PM at Maplewood’s Words.

Finding my Tribe

A few years ago, I was about to turn forty. Naturally, as for most people, it was a time of reflection. What had I done with half my life? What had I accomplished? And the big one, should I still be a writer?

I’d spent the last years working on a novel and for a long time I’d tried to capture the ever-elusive short story on paper. Still, I’d never been published, with the exception of a small article in a local weekly about there being too much dog crap in my neighborhood. Not something I necessarily wanted to hang above my desk.
When Love Was Clean Underwear
With the birthday looming, I decided to do a massive mailing of my novel and a few short stories. A concerned friend said not to psyche myself out, not to make this push my last push and give up writing to take up some career in the service industry that paid. I told her that was not my intention, but deep down I thought about giving up and doing something else. Of course that brought a new question, What else would I want to do?

Sure enough, the rejections came in, and as always each and every one stung.

When my birthday came, I was surrounded by friends and family. Four grad school friends traveled from the West Coast just for my birthday. It got me thinking.

Writing had not given me publication, but it had given me so much else. Ten years ago in a workshop, I met one of my best friends. I received a scholarship to Bennington College’s MFA program where I found a whole group of people who loved writing and books and music and film, etc. After graduation, I was invited to join a local writers group that a fellow alumna hosted. That group became my anchor, the reason why I kept writing. Each month, I needed to show up with work and good work. These people were really talented and I wanted to show that I belonged. Through this group I found my first teaching job.

Being a writer requires a lot of ass-in-chair time, alone with your thoughts and characters. But along the way I’d found friendship, community, inspiration, discipline, and even a job. Writing had given me a lot.

I realized the writing life is a good one. I’d discovered my community, my tribe, something I didn’t find in Corporate America, or in indie film, or my various incarnations in the work world. Maybe engineers feel this way. They like to get together and critique a structure just for fun. Maybe podiatrists sip coffee in outdoor cafes and watch the feet walk by, or arms specialists — well who knows? Maybe other professions love what they do and love to socialize around their vocations, but just don’t feel the urge to blog about it.

There’s something about writers – maybe our desire to figure out life, to make sense of it –that makes for strong, supportive friendships.

Two weeks after my birthday, Alan Davis at New Rivers Press called. Ann Hood had selected my book When Love Was Clean Underwear to be the winner of the Many Voices Project prize.

Finally publication. Who were the first to buy my book, to come to my book launch? Friends, family, and my entire writers group!

 Susan Barr-TomanSusan Barr-Toman was born and raised in Philadelphia where she still lives with her husband and two children and where she teaches writing at Temple University. When Love Was Clean Underwear, her debut novel, was selected by Ann Hood as the winner of the Many Voices Project’s Fiction Prize 2007.


Leave a comment

The Poet in All of Us

I am not a poet. I would never claim to be. If writing were music, I prefer to play conductor to soloist. My fiction would be a symphony, not a piece for solo piano. But the craft of a prose writer also involves cadences, subtle pauses for thought, deeper undercurrents and expressions that run just beneath the written words. There is a great deal that all of us can learn from poetry, particularly brevity (something that obviously escapes me at times in these blog posts!).

Since 1996, the month of April has been National Poetry Month. I was reminded of this when my third grader came home with an assignment to pick and memorize a poem for school.
National Poetry Month

Almost simultaneously came a scattering of poetry messages to my inbox: yesterday on NPR: ‘Who I Am’: Poetry Not Wasted On The Young from which I discovered “Arithmetic” by Carl Sandburg, a good one for my son, though I’m doing my best to reserve judgment at least until he’s read it.

Poetry is immediate. In just a few short lines, a well-wrought poem can raise the emotions of visceral experience. It can share the commonality of human existence – sorrow or elation, melancholy in the passage of time, humor, guilt, irony. It can draw the shape of an entire character, the journey of a complex life. It is truly amazing that such breadth and complexity can be twisted into such an incredibly compact creation.

When I read poetry, I am always anxious for that heart-tapping “ah-ha” when the message of the poem comes breathlessly clear to me. Inevitably I read a poem once, twice, three times, then return to it again over years.

I remember attending poetry readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York City where the poets read slowly, purposefully without inflection, but always – always read their poems twice as if the repetition would remove any lingering veil from their richly insightful meanings.

And for nearly a decade, I’ve forgone the pleasure of attending The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a biennial event that I recall with much passion for the freedom of my pre-motherhood days, when my husband and I strolled from tent to church to woody grove at Waterloo Village, New Jersey.
Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

This year, The Poetry Festival is moving to Newark. And I think my boys are just old enough that I might risk dragging them along. I remember first discovering the festival from a documentary by Bill Moyers in the early 1990s. In a recent redux, Bill Moyers Journal revisited the festival as I remember it. Check out the wonderful video on PBS’s website, though I wasn’t able to embed the code to post it directly here: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/03062009/watch3.html.

Besides the glory of the greatest works of poetry presented in our own backyard, we in New Jersey have access to countless offerings in New York City. Another great annual event – PEN World Voices – starts next Monday and runs until Sunday, May 2. I have always loved both PEN’s festival and mission to draw attention to the vast body of world literature and to promote freedom of speech in countries where authors are at risk to do what we all do freely every day.
Pen World Voices Festival
American contemporary literature suffers from chronic naval-gazing, an almost isolationist self-importance that frequently ignores the wider world. PEN’s World Voices Festival includes writers that are unfamiliar to most of us, but whose writings have affected the broader society of global readers and bring a taste and perspective that’s as intriguing as it is unfamiliar.

It reminds me of the scents of cumin, curry and sweet tamarind sauce, the first time ever in my life I smelled or tasted Indian food. It was at the apartment of my friend Swati Dasgupta. We were seven years old and everything about her life was exotic and new – her mother wrapped in silken saris with a red dot on her forehead, their magical appearance in my dull Massachusetts community from someplace halfway around the world. It opened my eyes to new magical possibilities. From that moment I was hooked. Imagine if I’d never tasted anything but hamburgers?

If you have time, take a taste at one of these incredible festivals. You never know where your imagination, your writing or your life might take you.


5 Comments

Author, Know Your Audience

I am sometimes amused by how much I enjoy blogging after years of swearing that I’d never start a blog.

I still remember the whiny voice of comedian Bill Maher mocking Americans as exhibitionists, all of us begging for someone to “READ MY BLOG!” I just couldn’t bear the thought of adding my most private and personal whining to the mix. And I didn’t know what else I’d want to blog about. So I resisted until finally, I found a purpose for this strangely public forum. I did it by recognizing who my audience would be – all of you in The Writers Circle.

After years of sharing hard-copy articles with our group about the work of being a writer, I finally realized that I could share those same articles through hyperlinks on the web – great for my green-guilt about killing trees! Even better when I realized I ought to keep a running record of all those links. And so The Writers Circle blog was born.

The new virtual format also freed me to formally record the many passing musings that I’d often had about the writing process, the struggles of being a writer, the imperative of perseverance. My blog, finally, would not be just a self-indulgent whine; it would enable me to share what we implicitly enact in our weekly classes: that deep, persistent longing to connect, identify with and learn from other writers.

I know my audience because I meet with you every week. When I write for this blog, I think of what we’ve talked about in class. I try to write with each of you in my thoughts as students, colleagues and friends.

Knowing your audience is critical to any writing. Certainly a marketing brochure or a technical handbook have very different purposes, audiences and therefore tones. It’s a rather dry but explicit example of the writer’s classic conundrum – how to find one’s voice. While we all look inward to find our own best, most authentic self-expression, we must also look outward to those we imagine will read our words. We cultivate our voice – or voices, because most writers have at least a few – to suit the context of our work and its intended readership.

So I ask myself, for whom do I write my fiction? Who is this strange voice talking to when it comes out of me, almost always with a heavy cadence and a kind of poetry to tell stories about lives and times and places I have often never been?

I can only answer this by noticing that, in most of my long works, I create at least one character who speaks as the old storyteller, the keeper of history and the voice of the mythic past. Through this voice I write down legends that inform my characters’ worldviews. Sometimes they are real tales I’ve gleaned from other sources. Sometimes they are stories that come to me as if from a swirling mist. This is my favorite voice, the one that I return to again and again in different incarnations. When I write in this voice, I am allowed to ask one of the questions that most intrigues me – how do others experience the world?

Who am I writing for? Who does any fiction author speak to in the end but to themselves? We are our own first audience. We must love our characters, our stories, our imagined worlds. For me, writing is all about reaching into the distant past. For others, it’s about close examination of the present, a moment of mystery unfolding, a careful reliving of a challenging life, or a wild adventure with wacky characters who become vivid to all of us. As a group we become invested in each others’ stories and characters. We are each other’s second audience and together we begin to imagine and even create a third – a larger one that we may never personally meet, but that will read our words and begin to understand us through our tales.


Leave a comment

Guest Blogger: Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille: a novel of Claude Monet

As many of you know, historical novelist Stephanie Cowell and I go way back. We met in a workshop taught by Madeleine L’Engle more than twenty years ago and worked together in a writers group Stephanie Cowellin NYC for over ten years. She’s the “Stephanie” I mention in my usual first class essay – the Stephanie of whom we were all a little bit green when she published her first novel Nicholas Cooke back in 1993. We’ve shared a lot – hopes, frustrations, disappointments, more than a bucket of tears apiece, and finally the joy of seeing her previous novel, Marrying Mozart and my first not only published, but represented by the same agent and edited by the same editor. I’m honored that she’s guest blogging today to celebrate the launch of her latest, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet.

How long does it take to write a novel? Writing, rewriting and rewriting and…

Sometimes people ask me, “How long does it take to write a novel?” I am never quite sure what to answer! It depends on the novel, the life circumstance, the writer. Three months? Fifty years? The journey can vary considerably. There was an article about this in the New York Times some years ago. A certain novelist confidently promised his editor, “Two more weeks and you’ll have my final draft!” Four years later he was still writing, likely having changed his address, disconnected his phone, and claimed to be missing.
Claude and Camille
“Still writing that novel?” someone will ask you. “My kid’s in high school. Didn’t you start it when she was just learning how to read?” Argh! Or, “What! You just started your new book last year and already you’ve done? I bet your next one will take even less time!” Well, not necessarily. Novels, like individual children, grow in their own way.

Writing novels can be like wandering in a great forest: the path is straight or crooked. Take a wrong turn and end up two years out of your way. Or it can be like walking across a desert where the wind blows the sand and you have no idea where you came from or where you are going. You run around in circles, shouting for rescue, a little out of your mind.

Of the several novels I have completed, two have each taken only nine months of writing but the story which is showing up April 6th in bookstores – Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet – ran away from completion for nearly five years. My poor husband lived through every draft. Why did it take so long? It was a big story which combined the young Monet’s development as a painter, his great love for Camille, and the birth of impressionism. And all that had to travel along a rising plot line, which it finally did. But that is not my longest creative effort. I have several unfinished novels which I have worked on for a long time. There is one that has eluded completion for 21 years but I keep getting closer every time I go back to working on it. I think one day it will get there.

I guess the only thing to do is enjoy the journey. And maybe buy a t-shirt I once saw for sale and have regretted always not buying. In big black letters across the front it said, “Just working on my novel.”

Stephanie will be here for two local events:

WATCHUNG BOOKSELLERS
May 1 at 1:00 PM
54 Fairfield St., Montclair, NJ

WORDS of Maplewood
May 13th at 7:30 PM
179 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood NJ


2 Comments

Preserving the Stacks of Treasures

These days the face of literature and learning are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to know much of the time what we’re even looking at or why we bother to write.

I came across a rather interesting video that says it all both forward and backward:


It’s thrilling and terrifying. A truly brave new world. But my quandary goes beyond the welfare and future of publishing to something more essential: the preservation and accessibility of information and knowledge itself.

In many ways, information seems more accessible than ever. Certainly when my son has to write a report for elementary school, he can google everything he needs to know right from the computer on my desk. He looks at me in astonishment when I tell him that, in my day, that same report would’ve taken hours of research at the library.

I remember losing myself in the stacks – the long dim, slightly dusty corridors where spines lured me like whispered promises. As a child, my mother used to take me and my siblings for afternoons at the local children’s room where I would lie in a quiet corner surrounded by a carefully selected tower of books, musing for hours about worlds of imagination and possibility I’d never dreamed.

In high school I discovered that I could ask the librarian for the yellowed pages of newspapers published nearly a hundred years before. Not microfiche (which used to give me motion sickness if I scanned too quickly), but actual pages carefully preserved in an acid-free box kept somewhere in the library’s bowels.

It was in the hallowed Reading Room at the New York Public Library that my odd passion for dry academic tomes and archaeological reports bloomed. Their humble Pandoran pages opened like a treasure chest, filled with stories nothing else could have revealed. It was exhilarating simply to hear the subtle crack of a volume that only I and probably a half-dozen others had requested in the last half century.
New York Public Library
I could have discovered none of this without the library. Unlike the elite halls of wisdom of ages gone, public libraries in America are an incomparable symbol of freedom and equality. The concept of free public libraries is inherently tied to a free public education, a right that I pray no one can argue against, except perhaps in the hope to making the definition of “free” include “highest quality”.

But in this era where it seems everything is migrating online, libraries are under threat. Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie’s proposed budget includes a 74% decrease in funding for library services. According to a recent Legislative Alert posted on the New Jersey Library Association’s website, this cut will eliminate all statewide library programs and services. It will affect all types of libraries in the state and, once state funding is eliminated, New Jersey will lose $4.5 million in federal funding.

I don’t often take a public political stance, but loss of our libraries is more than a personal affront. It goes to the very heart of the American tenets of freedom and equal opportunity.

As a novelist, I could not do my work without the library. Even today, access to expensive research databases and obscure texts that I often obtain through interlibrary loan are the backbone of my research. The Internet is simply not enough. (And please don’t talk to me about the Devil – I mean Wikipedia.) With all the posting and scanning – legal or otherwise – going on online, there are simply some things that will never make their way into the digital world.

But the issue goes beyond my personal and peculiar penchant for the obscure. Libraries provide essential services to people without internet access (and yes, there are still quite a few!), people who long to learn what they do not know, who need jobs in this crisis economy, who are applying to schools or starting new businesses, who want to introduce their children or themselves to a body of literature that is otherwise out of reach – accessible and free to all.

When so many core values in America have simply slipped away in recent years, this one is simple, affordable, and more than worthy of saving.

Go to http://capwiz.com/ala/nj/issues/alert/?alertid=14842591 to let your legislators know if you agree. The library you save may be your own.