Digging for Words

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


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Something Old and Something New

This week’s post is quick because it’s been THAT busy around here. But I wanted to share two great pieces that should guide, support and comfort all of us, wherever we are on our writer’s journey.

First, who doesn’t love a terrific list? Check out 100 Things About a Novel from author Alexander Chee. I’m not familiar with his work, but clearly this list shows how well he knows the whimsy and struggle of the writing process. And, believe it or not, this list reads like poetry!

Old Hands Writing
Second, growing naturally out of conversations at Sunday’s Madison adult workshop, it seemed appropriate to dig out something from the old files. Who remembers when I shared Malcolm Gladwell’s article from the October 20, 2008 New Yorker Magazine, Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?

It is inevitable, perhaps, that many adult writing workshops are populated with slightly older writers. Many of The Writers Circle’s participants are mid-life, often escaping the chaos of children and work demands, or older, finally carving out some time to capture fleeting thoughts that have been floating around through busier years.

Looking at magazines like Poets & Writers that appeal to a generally more youthful, MFA-bound student or graduate (And I love P&W; don’t get me wrong.), it’s hard not to feel that those of us who come late to writing have perhaps missed something or have less of a chance to make their literary mark.

But Gladwell’s article reminds us that each voice develops on its own schedule. Many of us have much to say that only life’s wisdom can bring to clarity. Being a little gray, a little haggard, a little less fresh and a lot more focused (out of necessity) than when we were single, childless or untried, should not feel like a detriment. Having lived through many rich experiences gives us unique perspective and gives our readers complex, nuanced narratives that can only be achieved with the backing of life’s inevitable convolutions.

I cannot help but think how often my husband and I (both former actors) yawn when we hear of yet another play written about the life of the stage. It’s not that these stories lack merit. (And believe me, theater is the place where drama of all kinds truly lives!) But how limited the arts would be if all creative artists only knew and could portray their own narrow worlds?

To live fully is to bring to our work all that we’ve experienced. The one true challenge for all of us – professional or amateur, experienced or beginner – is to find a way to write and share our stories so that the world will want to hear them.

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The Power of Revision, from TWC Associate Teacher Michelle Cameron

As many of you know, The Writers Circle is expanding. It’s a thrilling leap of faith for me to take our very personal, very “hyperlocal” community and reach across time and space (OK, it’s only eleven miles…!) to add a new link to the chain.

Michelle Cameron, who has posted as a guest here before, will be teaching two free introductory workshops this Sunday, March 27, at Sages Pages in Madison, NJ. Children from 11:00 AM-12:30 PM will join Story Magic, our multidisciplinary approach to creative writing. Adults will enjoy a more staid but equally nurturing workshop from 1:00-2:30 PM. Please come by, bring your kids (or not!), and welcome Michelle into our Circle.

Meanwhile, I give Michelle the stage once again with some wonderful insights into The Power of Revision:

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I write quickly. Always have. It’s been a lifesaver, because right now, my life doesn’t give me the leisure I’d like to take with my writing.

But while I produce words swiftly and can focus in very short bursts, I do tend toward that infatuation with what I’ve just written that I think plagues all writers. I look at the freshly-minted page and fall in love. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s sublime. I want the world to read it, then and there.

I was reminded of this when I watched the video, Sondheim teaches ‘Later’ from A Little Night Music:


As Sondheim explains, this song describes Henrik, a sullen, adolescent young man from Scandinavia who is constantly being told “later” by everyone around him, with resulting frustration. Pay attention to the singer’s rendering of the piece. Sondheim allows him to get all the way through it the first time around. Listening to it (and granted, I am musically ill-equipped), one would think the music student had nailed it. There’s no place to go here. It’s perfect, just the way it is. Well, maybe not perfect, but good enough.

But Sondheim, the consummate artist, understands the power of revision. He has a vision of what he wants to hear and makes the performer repeat the song over and over until he achieves what he has in mind, because artistry isn’t just getting the notes right – it’s understanding the nuances that make it a living, breathing thing.

The first interruption of the second rendition of the song comes early. “It’s already too angry,” says Sondheim, wanting the student to understand how Henrik would really sing these words.

Characterization is critical to just about any song Sondheim writes. Giving the actor “someplace to go,” so his anger doesn’t stay at the same pitch throughout, is vital. He has also carefully considered the reasons why Henrik plays his mournful instrument, the cello – as opposed to any other instrument.

Sondheim then gives us a bit of insight into a fairly comprehensive cut that he made to the musical as a whole. Originally, every character was going to be carrying an instrument. “But it got too pretentious and it had to go,” he tells the audience, who laughs appreciably.

What they may not understand thoroughly, though, is the discipline it takes to make a cut of that magnitude. Take a second to ponder this. Sondheim went through the process of selecting instruments for each of the characters in A Little Night Music. It sounds as though he might even have staged it. But he was willing to cut this particular theme – akin to a writer having to write a character out of a novel, something I’ve actually done. Never mind the hours spent to make the selections. If it doesn’t ultimately serve the piece – it’s got to go.

Which brings me back to my original point. Getting the words down is only part of writing. The part that makes a writer into an artist is the ability to wait, to gain some distance, to come back to the draft with dispassion, and then to make sure that every word, character, plot device, and description all work as a cohesive whole.

It takes discipline. It means you often have to wait until “later.” But only there, in revision, is art truly possible.


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I Give Up!

No, this is not an announcement. I am not even thinking about giving up on my novel. In fact, revisions are going rather nicely. Though I’ve been inundated with other obligations over the last two weeks, when I return to my manuscript, I see that my vision is becoming clearer and the suggestions that I fought against back in the fall are resulting in a much better story overall. I am, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, married to the long, slow, sometimes torturous process of completion, even if it – and sometimes it threatens to – kill me.Man with his Head in his Hands by Vincent van Gogh

Nonetheless, over the last few weeks, a couple of writers have come to me at wit’s end. Exhausted, they’ve announced that they’re ready to give up, or at least to shelve their half-formed creation for a little while. (Subtext: maybe forever!) Their frustration is thick in their voices, in their carefully worded emails, in their slumping body language and their labored sighs.

Believe me, I do understand!!!

In class I’ve often referred to my unpublished novel, my first, the one that “belongs in the drawer”. I’m truly grateful that it never made it’s way to print, though I labored over it for four years.

Some of you also know that, right after The Thrall’s Tale was accepted for publication and while still in the throes of nursing my second son, I charged ahead on new novel, what the industry would call my “sophomore attempt”.

The term “sophomoric” comes to mind when I look back at those pages now.

Several months of research and about a year of writing went into that work – about 120 pages of stilted language, over-weighted plot, and characters who whined so much, they annoyed even me.

I knew something was wrong when I kept going back to the beginning. The first few chapters just felt stiff. Though I tried to move ahead, I felt their tug like something icky stuck to my shoe.

After well over a month rewriting a particular chapter, I paused, printed out all the pages so far, and sat out on my deck to read. By the time I finished, I was crying (and not because I was moved). I didn’t stop for several weeks, as I knew with all the crushing weight of Jovian gravity that that book was headed “into the drawer” with my first. It was going nowhere.

I’m not sure what the real problem was – writing under the influence of post-partum hormones, dealing with the challenge of having an infant and toddler on hand, or simple the very real effort of letting go of The Thrall’s Tale’s voices that had occupied me for so many years. Whatever it was, the writing sucked! (And you know I don’t use words like that often or lightly.)

A recent New York Times article, “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?“, details how other authors have faced the same hopeless end of their fraught labors. It’s a frightening moment, a step that no writer takes blithely after months and even years of sweat, agony and pages crumpled and torn, especially in this high pressure publishing environment where all authors feel the breath of oblivion at our necks, demanding another book soon or be forgotten.

But in that moment when I finally let go, there came a very real, if very painful, release. And not long after, out of the deep darkness of writer-ly defeat, there shined a glimmer of hope. As so often happens to me, I received a sort of “sign”.

In this case, it came in the form of a PBS documentary about Central Asian burial mounds, a topic that probably fills none of you with awe. (Sorry, but I’m fascinated with long-dead things.) In fact, the docu was about a burial I’d read about long before, but filed away for down-the-line when I wasn’t in the midst of a 500-page project.

There I sat, watching as archaeologists uncovered warrior-priestesses of an ancient nomadic tribe. The gruesome faces of the burials grew flesh and blood in my mind. In that moment, I felt the weight lift from my body and a new adventure opening before me.

What I learned was that, through those wasted pages, lost time, and frustration, I had cleansed myself of all that had come before: the voices I had served for so many years, the baby-hormones, the mommy-chaos, the elation and despair that are unavoidable steps on the author’s first publishing journey. All of it. I was reborn, ready to begin anew.

The next day, I went to the library and chose my first book to begin my research. Holding it as preciously as a baby in my arms, I went home, sat on my deck, and began again.


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Crazy Sexy Sandra

Congratulations to another of The Writers Circle’s authors, Sandra Joseph, who has posted a charming, moving and typically candid guest post on Crazy Sexy Life: The Tumor on My Last NerveSandra Joseph.

As I read her guest post, I particularly paused at the self-admonishment she shared: “I can almost literally hear my acting teacher clap his hands to interrupt the action: ‘Sandra, don’t play the end of the scene at the beginning.'”

If you read it, you’ll realize she’s discussing bigger issues than just writing. (And yes, there are such things!) Still, I can’t help but take it down to our usual topic and point out that we often do the same thing when we write.

Sandra continues, “Sometimes actors enter a scene prepped for what they know is coming – the emotional breakdown, the knock-down drag-out – and they bring that negative energy into the scene before the conflict has even begun. It lends an unnecessary weight and edge to what is actually happening in the moment.”

Be in the moment – Be here now – cliches in acting, writing and life, but they’re also true. I’ve seen several manuscripts this week that fit the mold, with scenes that carry the weight of their climaxes before the full circumstances or characters have been laid bare. Anticipating the ending kills the inherent tension of the tale. Hold back, I keep writing in the margins. We don’t fully understand yet. Let your characters live it first. Then we will live it with them.

One of my own teachers called it telegraphing – sending a message ahead to let everyone know what’s to come. It’s an impulse of an anxious or inexperienced writer (or actor) not to trust, to feel compelled to leap ahead to the crux of the matter. But our readers will be patient. Just like our characters, they want, should and must experience the building excitement, anxiety, curiosity, hope or despair. Jumping ahead only destroys the authentic moment of the scene or, in Sandra’s essay, the full, fresh experience of life itself.

So take Sandra’s wise advice whether in writing, acting, or life. Allow your characters to be in the moment and walk with them, step by step, day by day, through their experiences. Don’t let them get ahead of themselves. They don’t know what they will face anymore than we do each morning when we roll out of bed. Whatever conflict we or they must contend with, when it comes, it will bear its own levity or weight, whether tragic, comic, aggravating or joyful.

Thanks, Sandra! And everyone, if you have news to share, please let me know. I’ll be happy to post! Good writing, all.

Omega InstituteSandra Joseph, as most of you know, spent nearly a decade on Broadway as the female lead in Phantom of the Opera. She’s now working on a new self-help book idea while awaiting good news (pray, everyone!) from her agent on her memoir. She’s also teaching a workshop at the Omega Institute this summer: Performing as a Path to Presence, July 10-15 during Arts Week. Check it out and go. I’m sure she has lots more wisdom to share.