Digging for Words

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


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Making Space to Write

As I prepare to attempt The Writers Circle Journal online, I invite all of you, even those I don’t know, to submit 500 words or less on your perfect writing space – real or imagined. Please submit your work to “info AT writerscircleworkshops.com” by pasting your entire manuscript and a brief bio into the body of your email. Submission deadline is April 10, 2011. I’d be grateful for your contribution and hope to “publish” a selection of the best soon. If you have an original digital photo or art, be sure to send it along.

In her brilliant essay, “A room of one’s own“, Virginia Woolf offers up this opinion: “upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.”

Although that’s certainly been the struggle for women writers throughout history, I find these days that all writers I know – men, women and children – are hard-pressed to find Woolf’s “room of one’s own”.

We are overwhelmed by life’s necessities, the pressure to survive, to keep our jobs, to support our children, to spend – however briefly – time with our families. So few of us today, including professional, published writers, have the luxury to simply sink back hour after hour, day after day into our literary worlds. I myself, in these last months, have been drawn out of the cocoon in which I was coddled for these last few years to contend with the necessity and joy of new opportunities in my teaching.

Still I return, if for fewer hours each day, to the place where my fictional worlds were first conceived and where they continue to evolve. My novel – almost but not quite finished – takes on new shape and form, almost perfect but still with a few pieces missing, cutting an extra limb here, smoothing a lump over there, until soon – I pray! – it will take the shape that will give it full life. To be birthed into the world and become everything I’ve imagined.

Here in this space, I surround myself with objects of focus and nurturing. Ganesha, Hindu elephant god, the Remover of Obstacles, sits to my left, a gift from my dear friend Marina on her recent trip to India. Behind him cluster bits of whimsy – a Lego robot and a Sculpey penguin – gifts from my seven-year-old son. Bills and receipts are pushed to the side, hidden under a paperweight of a romantic writing desk. The walls are scattered with photos, among them one of me standing on the deck of a ship in Greenland, behind me the landscape where the fictional characters of The Thrall’s Tale lived. A towering bookshelf holds my research. On the bulletin board hang my eldest son’s first shoes. And smiling at me always is a photo of a beloved, lost mentor: glorious Peggy Harrington, herself a great writer though unacknowledged by the world, who taught me how to survive struggle and to appreciate hard-earned moments of joy.

Into this space, I center myself and cup my hands for warmth around my mug of tea. I face the screen with all its vibrating pixels. Their promise: to form the words, if only I will lay my hands. I touch the keyboard with focus and attention. For years I’ve obeyed the call until, now, the painted letters on the plastic keys are nearly illegible from so many taps, so many trials, errors, and tries again.

“Space is a symbolic boundary,” said one of our own, Lew Epstein, in a recent class. Where we write – where we claim our space – is affected by temptations and distractions. But for a moment shut them out – whether you write in your office, your bedroom, the coffee house or on the train. If we cannot create our perfect room in this imperfect, overly pressured world, then at least we can create the perfect refuge in our minds.

Check out other writers’ spaces on the Guardian’s fascinating series, Writers’ Rooms. (It ended in 2009. Too bad they’re not still doing it.)


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A Visit to The Writers Circle with Michelle Cameron

Guest blogger and author Michelle Cameron has shared her thoughts on The Writers Circle Blog before. This past weekend, she visited one of The Writers Circle children’s classes at Luna Stage. Michelle and I are working together to introduce The Writers Circle to the Chatham, Madison, and Florham Park, NJ area this spring. More on that in the weeks to come. Meanwhile, here she shares her impressions from her visit.

It was a small, warm cocoon of a space, with a single rug in the center of the floor. The kids walked in, each one clutching a well-thumbed notebook. Coats were slung over chair backs, boots left akimbo on the floor. The children sat, knees drawn to their chests or folded under them, or they kneeled at the edges of the rug. A striped, snowman-and-snowflake box in the center of the rug held pencils; there were large pads of paper and an enormous selection of markers. The kids were noisy and excited, anecdotes about their week and their writing tripping over one another as they settled down. They knew this was a creative space, a place where they could bring forth fantastic ideas with confidence, could tell the stories that were clamoring to emerge from their imaginations to spill onto the page.

Judith played the role of Pied Piper to these third through fifth graders, who started the session by sharing their work. “Louder, slower,” she said when shyness or softness made a child hard to hear. “Time out,” she’d call, bringing her hands up in a T-symbol when the thoughts flowed too fast and furious. “Who has questions?” she’d ask, and then point her way around the waving forest of eager hands.

In every case, some principle of writing emerged from the young work. Point of view. Conflict. Too many characters. Evocative description. Realist vs. fantasy stories. Judith never talked down to these kids. She shared technical concepts many adults struggle to master. The youngsters absorbed what they could and stored the rest to access later.

The Writers Circle Kids' pencil boxA fifteen minute writing prompt ― the hero being faced with a challenge ― didn’t intimidate these young minds. Many lay on their stomachs to write. Some left the circle and found chairs to sit on. An initial rustle of movement and the flapping of paper gave way to the focused silence of pencils moving across the page.

As the session ended, parents waited in the lobby while the kids collected themselves and reluctantly left the warmth of this creative cocoon. A few parents lingered, talking to Judith about their son or daughter’s progress. “This class has grown so popular!” said one. “It’s been a godsend for my son,” said another.

Could anyone who loves writing and creativity witness this and not be moved and excited? Any parent of a curious, inventive child knows the difficulty of finding a warm, supportive, and challenging outlet for their son or daughter. I’m thrilled to be invited into The Writers Circle and to have the opportunity to bring such an inspired venture to my own community this spring.

Michelle Cameron’s The Fruit of Her Hands: the Story of Shira of Ashkenaz (Pocket Books, September 2009) is based on the life of the author’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, a renowned Jewish scholar of medieval Europe. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband and two college-age sons.


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Musing with Aristotle

For me, the older the better as far as reading tastes and research go. For my latest novel, I’ve nearly memorized parts of Herodotus’ Histories. (Book IV is fascinating – really!) I’ve regularly perused Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Tacitus. OK, maybe I’m just a little weird, but I love hanging with the ancients.

I recently returned to 2360-year-old roots for a clearer understanding of the elements of good fiction. Aristotle’s Poetics details six critical pieces: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song.

In our many discussions about writing, particularly on Thursday nights, we have argued over terms like “character-driven” and “plot-driven”. Both are essential and inextricably intertwined.

Aristotle calls Plot “the first principle” and “the soul of a tragedy.” For him, character held second place, as he compares it with painting: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In other words, we need to know the structure surrounding our characters’ existence and what’s happening to move them forward. The most beautiful, poetic, well-observed characters must be propelled by a reason-to-be, something that answers the ever troubling questions, “What’s happening here?” and “Why should I care?”

Aristotle perceived Character as “objects of imitation… personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought…. These – thought and character – are the two natural causes from which actions spring.” (Part VI) So character causes action. And action, or plot, affects character. Some stories are propelled more by external forces (plot) than internal forces (character). But you absolutely need both. Otherwise, per Aristotle, you end up with a lot of beautiful colors but no form.

Of course, we live in the post-modern era. We’ve seen Jackson Pollack splatters and monochrome canvases. In literature also, we’ve grown to appreciate writing that intentionally veers from Aristotelian parameters. But at least when starting out, we are wise to attend these ancient guidelines. Before Picasso played with Cubism, he painted quite a few realistic works. The same should be true for new and developing writers.

Aristotle continues with Thought, essentially the story’s big ideas and thematic motivations. According to Poetics, Part XIX, “dramatic incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.” Thus the hackneyed literary adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Show the inherent themes and motivations, don’t explicitly tell them through long winded explanations. Easier said than done.

Next comes Diction, which he defines as “the mere metrical arrangement of the words”. In Part XXII of Poetics, Aristotle speaks about the perfection of style. He goes on at length about parts of speech (Part XX), the use of meter (Part XXIII) and metaphor (Part XXI). After more than 2000 years, the questions and tools remain the same. Well-crafted language is an vital overlay, bringing uniqueness and specificity to characters, and musicality to plot and exposition.

Aristotle also wrote that Song – literally music – “holds the chief place among the embellishments.” Of course, he was writing primarily about drama and stage craft, not prose; but it doesn’t hurt to imagine a soundtrack to your writing. I’ve been known to play certain music to bring the mood of a scene more strongly into my thoughts as I write. Song or music express emotion, excitement and energy that can subconsciously infuse your prose.

Finally, we come to what Aristotle calls Spectacle but that we’d describe as special effects. Lots of shooting, explosions and chase scenes are eye-catching and exhilarating, but they’re better when compelled by reasons inherent to the plot and characters. “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (Part VI)

The elements are all there – one through six. Simple, right? Not! As we each struggle to cultivate a voice, we should think of Aristotle’s “Diction”, striving for the sense of music in our words, even if they are never meant to be read aloud. We should validate the use of spectacle, without getting carried away. But we should lean most heavily on the dual elements of plot and character. One without the other cannot really exist. Both together, well wrought and intricately tied with language, music, spectacle and rich ideas, we can only hope and pray will result in a story that’s completely engaging, able to hold our readers’ attention for, say, a couple of thousand years.

Special thanks to The Internet Classics Archive for access to the S. H. Butcher translation.