Digging for Words

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


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A House A-Crumble

I had a dream last night that my house was crumbling. The front stairway, made of concrete, was so precarious it broke beneath my feet as I tried to mount. The porch displayed its gray, rotted wood in the cloud-light, and the front door was hanging on its hinges.

Into this wreck, I entered optimistically, skipping when the stairs collapsed, my hammer hanging from my work-pants like a decoration. I felt certain that everything around me could be spruced up to perfection. I already had a plan to center the stairs (they were dangling far off to the right) and to tear off the front railings so the porch would stand breezy, open and welcoming.

Home Repair
When I awoke, at first I panicked, thinking that this really was my house. But after a moment’s reorientation, I realized this dream house was my novel. Indeed, this dream was laced with apprehension, but also a sense of determination, empowerment and purpose. I would rebuild this crumbling chaos into something embracing and beautiful.

Yesterday I finished reviewing my editor’s manuscript notes. There’s a lot of work to do, though somehow it all feels doable. Perhaps that is the message of this dream, that even before a daunting task (one I thought I could avoid… hoped I could anyway) I am optimistic and even energized; that the goal of my efforts is worth all the sweat and dust of tearing apart and reconfiguring, dovetailing and pegging. I can see it in my mind. Now it’s just a matter of making it happen.

I expect to spend most of this week reviewing my review of my editor’s review, typing up my notes, and going through the hard-copy manuscript. I expect to add more slashes and arrows, more inserts that slip onto the back sides of pages, and more cut and paste. Really, I’m thinking of using scissors and scotch tape!

All of this, in preparation for one final push that had better NOT be just one among many.

Even for the most accomplished writers, it’s never, ever easy. And there are no guarantees in this changing world of publishing. I’m as nervous as anyone that my efforts will prove futile and I’ll never see these hard-sweated-over words in print, even digital print, anytime soon. But I have no control over any of that. In a recent webinar hosted by Digital Book World*, an editor from a major house attempted to reassure listeners, “The job of the writer really hasn’t changed. Write a good story as well as you possibly can.”

So I take my fortitude in hand like a hammer and hop-skip those crumbling stairs two at a time; and I hold my breath as I take my first swing and knock down that wall. It won’t be long before I’ve reassembled my dream house. That’s the kind of energy, determination and clarity of vision that’s required to be a writer.

* The webinar was “The Digital Author: New Challenges, Opportunities, Partners.” Sorry, access to the archives requires membership, which is not exactly cheap. But you can sign up to receive notice of upcoming events that are frequently free.


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I write like…!

OK, this is a quick one, but it’s a lot of fun. An article today in the L.A. Times features a website called “I Write Like” where you can pop in a few paragraphs of text and discover which famous writer your style most resembles. I did it about ten times, selecting different sections from The Thrall’s Tale, this blog, and my new novel, Pasture of Heaven. Here’s what I got:

For The Thrall’s Tale, James Joyce and Charles Dickens, which is both a daunting compliment and an answer to why some people find the book challenging to read.

I write like
Charles Dickens

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

For the blog, I’m apparently Arthur C. Clarke from my most recent entry, Facing the Editor, and David Foster Wallace for Whirligig Mind!

And for Pasture of Heaven, I’m alternately Neil Gaiman, Rudyard Kipling and Frank L. Baum. Hmmm… how do I take all this? I should be so blessed!!!

(By the way, why don’t I write like any women?)

P.S. Check out the interesting experiment The New York Times did with the same “I write like” site: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/16/getting-the-not-quite-right-stuff-from-i-write-like/


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Facing the Editor

Picture taking a baby for its first check-up. The doctor says, “You know, this child has six toes and is missing a finger.”

“Doctor, really?” You respond in surprise. All along you’ve seen the extra toe and the missing finger and honestly done your best to ignore them. Maybe no one will notice. Maybe they’re supposed to be that way. Maybe it’s a brand new look, an advance in natural selection that will become the better, more perfect norm.

“No.” The doctor shakes his head. “That toe’s got to go. Just be brave and move it.” Then he takes your hand. “Trust me. It’ll be fine!”


That’s what it’s like as I wait with trepidation for a meeting with my friend and now editor, Marina Budhos, about my latest manuscript, Pasture of Heaven. She’s only the second person to read this new draft, and though she and I have spoken briefly while she’s been reading, today we get to “roll up our sleeves.”

It will take several hours to discuss my next steps. I already know she’s got suggestions and “ideas.” I love when she uses that word because it tells me I’m not alone in my efforts. She won’t just say, “I hate it. Cut that whole section. I don’t like the voice.” She’ll give me suggestions and options that will help me figure out how to fix the problems.

No writing is ever perfect, not even when it’s tucked between hard covers and assigned an ISBN. Though I cannot help but wish that mine will be the exception, I go to this meeting knowing that it won’t be and preparing myself to embrace why.

Not too long ago, I did the same for Marina, reading her latest adult novel, Sweetness, a sweeping historical that crosses two continents and touches a third. I adored it, and yet I had “ideas” for her, too. We spent hours reviewing my comments and considering the directions she could go. Together we mapped out a path for revisions that she now tells me she’s actually enjoying setting into action!

I can only hope I’ll feel the same way soon.

No one can see, truly and critically, their own writing. Most of us turn to fellow authors or hire freelance editors for this kind of facilitation and fortitude.

Gone are the days when we could rely on the publishing house’s editors or agents, when they would spend hours discussing a manuscript, lend authors their isolated beachfront summer houses for a month, or when they’d rush out of bed at a drunken midnight call to pick an author off the floor of their grubby apartment vestibule, inject them with coffee and prop them up at their typewriters, nursing them through to the final period of their latest, greatest masterwork.

In the movie, Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson plays a famous novelist who’s been blocked for so many years that her publisher sends her an assistant, played by Queen Latifah. Acting as part therapist and part literary drill sergeant, this Godsend stands by the author’s side night and day as she finishes her manuscript which is late, as I recall, by almost a decade. I adored this movie which is about art, life and the strange line where the two cross, though I couldn’t help but snicker at the absurdity of such authorial indulgence!

But I have Marina, which in every way is better. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with my work. Without the pressure or expectation of the commodified publishing world, she and I will work together, tossing her thoughts and mine like the salad she’s promised us for lunch until the mix is just right, the recipe prepared and my creative juices flowing to jump in and devour the next revision. We’ll share tea and manuscript pages covered with arrows, cross-outs and strange short-hand that requires an interpretive key. Along with substantive suggestions, we’ll also share the anxiety that only another author can fully comprehend when we finally come out from our solitude to reveal the strange child we’ve been incubating for years.

As I face this trial, my greatest comfort is knowing that Marina is a more than my friend; she’s a professional. She’ll make fair, logical and educated suggestions, not couched in kindness or sympathy, fear of hurting my feelings or a need to be right. She’s a peer and a mentor, as I have tried to be for her. So I will take my courage and my car keys in hand and face the editor who only wants the best for me, as I have always wanted for her.


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We Are What We Read

I’m lucky because my boys, ages 6 and 9, still let me read to them each night before bed. They’ve graduated from children’s picture books to novels that develop psyches – Narnia, Harry Potter, the wild, wondrous world of Roald Dahl.

Recently I convinced them to let me read one of my own childhood favorites, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a mouthful of a title that has stuck with me since I read it when I was probably just a little older than my oldest son is now.
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
At first I wondered if the book would hold up. Would the story be as absolutely captivating as I remembered? Would it hold my boys’ wall-bouncing attention, more recently used to fast-action novels like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series?

But as I read the book aloud, I found myself quickly swept into my own memory. Almost at once I recognized myself in the main character, Claudia Kincaid, a perfectionist, a planner, intent in school, arrogant about grammar, with a determination and innate curiosity that only well-planned but ill-advised action could satisfy. Claudia sets her sights on New York City for a runaway escape from her invisible life. New York represents independence and adventure to her and promises to “change her” in some indelible way. It was this same expectation that I embraced many years ago, so long that I’d forgotten its origins until I reread these pages.

Claudia and her brother Jamie spend a week hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To this day, I still look for the 16th century canopy bed where they slept and expect to find the sprite-laced bronze fountain where they bathed and gathered wishing pennies to fund their adventure, though both have been removed from the museum’s exhibit halls for at least a decade.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
Somehow this novel informed my childhood and determined my trajectory, as did others I’ve since placed on my sons’ bookshelves: Island of the Blue Dolphins about an Indian girl who survives alone on a Pacific Island. Perhaps my passion for unfamiliar subsistence cultures stems from that book written 50 years ago.

The Secret Garden
Then there’s The Secret Garden, the very first book I ever stayed up all night to read. I can still feel the embrace of its Gothic setting, the constancy of mists drifting over the lonely moors. I see Mary Lennox arriving orphaned from India, abandoned and neglected, wandering the cold, echoing halls of a mansion haunted by disembodied moans. Then I feel the moist breath of perilous, unfolding friendship and freedom, and the mystery and joy of the rich soil of the secret garden.

How can I help but recognize in all this the first kernels of my own imaginative urgings – characters haunted by abandonment or longing for escape, mostly women who make of their lives what they can against odds and often alone? These themes are deeply seeded in my own stories, as are their atmospheres, cultures and climates filled with loneliness and uncertainty.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
I am compiling a list of the books I’ve adored, whose reading burned impressions in my memory that surely I am following in my work and life even now. How will it feel to reread A Tree Grows In Brooklyn after living in that borough for those many years? Of that story, I particularly recall that the only books in Francie Nolan’s childhood home were the Bible and Shakespeare. I recall gobbling Shakespeare like a greedy beggar not long after reading her tale.
A Wrinkle in Time
And what about A Wrinkle in Time – a novel so keenly influential on my young, impressionable mind that, sometime in my mid-20s, I found myself climbing the creaking stairs of an Upper West Side convent to absorb the sage guidance of its author, Madeleine L’Engle? She directly and indirectly influenced the path of my creative life. How will it feel to reopen those pages and understand the depths of an eleven-year-old girl’s wonder?

Make a list of your own. Go back and reread some that still flash in your memory. You might find a key to your own creative heart, tucked away in a dusty corner where it had almost been forgotten.