Digging for Words

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


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Congratulations to Another Writer in Our Circle, Marilyn Martin

Congratulations to Marilyn Martin whose essay, Driving To Waldorf was just published in Front Porch, the online literary journal of Texas State University’s MFA program.

Front Porch Journal

Marilyn joined our Thursday evening group for several sessions a couple of years ago. (Anyone remember the frogs?) She is also the author of a book about raising a child with a nonverbal learning disability. Her experience, compassion and hard-won wisdom are well reflected in this beautiful article.

Since Marilyn left us, she made her way through the Bennington Writers Seminars to complete her MFA in creative non-fiction. I’m very excited to share her essay, alive and online, beside such luminary writers as Sherman Alexie and Joyce Carol Oates.

I have no doubt this will be the first publication of many. In fact, another piece is forthcoming at the Southern Indiana Review.

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Piecing It Together

What does it mean to be a writer today? For most of us, we are piecing it together, taking the hours when they come, squeezing our words into lunch breaks, between classes or meetings. We fantasize of having endless hours to dally with our muse. In truth, even writers who have found their way to praise and publication can rarely afford to hole up in a quiet cabin and type away.

What’s a writer to do when there are characters in our heads demanding to speak? When there are endless stories churning in our minds like stars in a nebula bursting to be born?

First, we take what time we can.

As I’ve often said in class, if you can’t get three hours, why not try a half hour, fifteen minutes, or the time you can steal when you’re in the bathroom with the door closed? No, this isn’t the best way to complete your epic novel. But it’s enough to get words on paper, to spit out one or two baby stars.

Second, we take (or make) jobs that support our work.

The typical day-job for a working writer is university professor, ideally in an impressive institution that permits long sabbaticals, tenure and only minimal class loads. It sounds idyllic to those who wile away on the corporate wheel. But I’ve known corporate workers who manage to arrange a morning or day off each week to write; I’ve known full-time employees who stay late or come in early for the quiet time it gives, or who write back and forth on the bus or train. (Do NOT sit next to me and chit-chat, please!)

I myself wrote my first novel (the unpublished/unpublishable one) in between typing memos at the boring law firm job I held for many years for that very reason. And I recently expanded The Writers Circle because the idea of being my own boss and teaching children the joys and struggles of writing was so much more appealing than going back to the old commute. Its small start has brought me joy and comfort that what I think is important and valuable and rich maybe really is; and I’m doing my best to share its wealth (metaphorical, so far) with others.

Third, we write what we can.

These days, being a writer can mean many things. Writers are journalists, food critics, marketers. Many writers I know in our suburban New Jersey towns have become roving hyper-local reporters and editors, covering town hall meetings and t-ball games to hone their skills, build their credits and keep their feet in the game. I’ve known writers to accept gigs ghost-writing, working on financial reports, textbooks, advertising or technical manuals. No, perhaps it’s not heart-felt work, but it’s writing. Any chance to craft thoughts and ideas into sound, logical forms is a chance to rightfully call oneself a writer.

Fourth, we write what we must.

I, on the other hand, have never been very good a writing for writing’s sake. Even when I worked in information technology, I avoided the lure of technical writing for fear that it would drain me of any creative word-smithing energy I had left. I was happier doing something completely different, to “save myself” for my true love, awaiting my attentions when I finally made it home and, before I collapsed completely, spent a few hours in anxious, exhausted communing with my characters and worlds.

Neither way is perfect, and neither is a sure route to success. We need to feed our souls and minds as well as our bodies. Finding the right balance is a matter of personality, endurance, opportunity and ultimately choice. As with most things, we all do the best we can.

Fifth (and this is a new one), we publish where we may.

Is working on this blog – or any digital project – any less valuable than writing fiction for print? I guess it depends on your point of view. In a landscape of changing readers’ habits, shortening attention spans, media inundation and a shrinking traditional publishing pool, just about any writing venue is worth exploring.

Self-publishing has lost much of its taboo. And though I personally wouldn’t make it my first choice for developing a broad readership, it’s certainly becoming a viable option for many. It works well for anyone with very direct access to a small but specific market. Profession-specific non-fiction comes to mind readily. But then, who can escape the stunning success of self-publishing fiction superstar Amanda Hocking? Even if your spinal column quivers at the very thought of self-publishing, isn’t it too soon to say? There were naysayers and obstructionists (namely the Church and the elite) when Gutenberg first introduced his machine.

Writers and creative artists are also discovering ways to use digital forms to convey stories in unique and innovative ways. Starting years ago with primitive hyperlink novels, these digital formats are slowing helping us reshape the whole concept of storytelling. Like a brand new set of paints to an artist, new digital venues, including blogging, texting, super-short “Twitter” fiction, video-logs (vlogs, I’m told), and a combination of some or all, invite us into explore and reshape our thinking about story.

Isn’t all of this writing? And honestly, isn’t it fascinating?

We may dream of big readerships, big advances and a seat on a couch beside a talk-show host. But if that’s all we’re working for, we will almost certainly fall short of our goal. And if that’s all we see, maybe we’re turning west to watch the sunrise.

If we want to call ourselves “writers”, the task is before us. Simply write and write and write. Then find a way to put our words into the world. These days, for better or worse, doing that is much easier than it used to be.

Finding readers…? Well, that’s another story.


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Upcoming Events for Writers

This just in from the Adult Programs Coordinator at the Livingston Public Library:

The public is invited to “What’s Happening to my Newspaper?” with Star-Ledger columnist Kathleen O’Brien, who will share her observations on the current state of newspaper publishing. This presentation will be held 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 13th at the library. Admission is free and no registration is required.

Kathleen O’Brien has worked at The Star-Ledger as a columnist and reporter since 1996, where her writing has been recognized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American Association of Feature Editors, the National Headliner Awards, The Front Page Awards, the New Jersey Press Association, and the Garden State Association of Black Journalists.

She began her career on a Selectric typewriter, and now narrates videos and maintains two blogs. One, called “We’ll Know More on Monday,” chronicles her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. She’s a graduate of Cornell University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She comes from a newspaper family; her father was an editor at The Detroit News. She’s married to a journalist, and has one daughter.

And my friend, author Christina Baker Kline shares this great writing workshop she’s doing for Mother’s Day. (Sorry, guys. This one’s for women only):

Rejuvenate Your Writing Life! A Restorative Mini-Retreat for Writing Mamas
with authors Christina Baker Kline and Deborah Siegel of SheWrites.com
Saturday, May 21, 9:30am – 3:30pm, Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
53 Prospect Park West (near the 2/3, F, Q, B)

What do you need to turn your writing dream into a reality?

You spend your days taking care of other people’s needs. This May, give yourself a Mother’s Day gift of time and space for contemplation and creativity. Think of it as a spa treatment for your mind.

Maybe you’ve kept a private journal and dream of starting a blog. Maybe you have an idea for a memoir. Or maybe you just want to start writing and don’t yet know the form. Chances are, if you’re a mother and trying to write, your greatest obstacle is time. Whether you’re at the idea stage or further along, we’ll help you get to the next level not only in your writing, but in your writing life.

Christina and Deborah are two professional writing mamas who believe that writing is vital—even when it has to happen in the crevices of our lives. In this beautiful setting we’ll combine strategies for how to fit writing into your everyday life with concrete exercises and feedback designed to get your creative juices flowing. We’ll provide a stimulating and pampering combination of workshops and advice, group conversations with other writer-mothers, one-on-one consultations, inspiring writing prompts, and Q&As. You’ll leave at the end of the day with fresh ideas and insights, pages of new writing, concrete goals for your writing and your life – and a sense of community, something no writing mama should be without.

This day-long gift-to-self includes a delicious lunch, healthy snacks, caffeine (and caffeine-free) drinks … and of course – chocolate. Cost: $175 ($195 after May 1). Space is limited. Register early to save a spot!


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Grace in Few Words

The Writers Circle has been graced with the voices of several poets this session, some who declared themselves as such and others who have, unintentionally or out of sheer desperation, stumbled into this most challenging realm of brevity, nuance and meaning.

It’s a miraculous thing to be able to distill words to their most compact and powerful. I’ve toyed with poetry for years and have rarely succeeded. I seem to prefer to wallow in the luxury of prose, all those words with which to play, expound, expand, express. See, I use far too many!

But poetry’s spareness packs a wallop. In a few magnificently chosen phrases, the entire sweep of life or a single moment can be intimately shared. I’ve always been amazed when I’ve reached a good poem’s finish, feeling that visceral pressure in my heart as I take in its meaning, usually going back to read it ever more carefully, again and again.

April is National Poetry Month and there are plenty of venues for celebration.

From The Academy of American Poets come 30 Ways to Celebrate, from taking a poem to work or out to lunch to writing one on the pavement. (Must do that with the kids!)

In New York City, the Pen American Center is holding its 7th Annual World Voices Festival from April 25-May 1, featuring great writers of all ilks, including poets, from around the world.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, host of possibly the best poetry festival ever (held right here in New Jersey!), is posting daily videos from the 2010 festival at NJPAC.

Similarly, The New York Review of Books is posting a daily poem from their awe-inspiring archive.

Check out all of these offerings. If you know others, please share them with us in the comments below.

Most of all, I challenge each of you to take a moment out of your April and write a poem. Whether you have never tried it before, do so every day or every once in a while, the effort will transform you.