Digging for Words

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

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Stealing Time

At last, my silence is broken. Read below and you’ll see why. I had to choose – write my novel, or write the blog. I think I made the right choice. Happy holidays!

The Writers Circle

On Friday, I finished my revisions. Again. At last. (It had better be!)

No, I don’t share this fact for cheers, though I appreciate them, truly. I share it because so many of you – in my own Writers Circle classes or those of our other instructors – are in the same boat. We’re paddling upstream against time, family or school pressures and the often uninspired tedium of drafting or revision. I want to share with each of you, as my personal gift, how the heck I managed to find the time and commitment to write amidst everything I’ve got going on here at The Writers Circle and in life in general.

My secret? Don’t carve out time to write. Steal it.

clock-svetlana-sewellThese last months have been overwhelming with the joys and challenges of running The Writers Circle. TWC is my full-time job now, for which I am both proud…

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Getting Ready for the Next Wave: Our Future as Storytellers

I was listening to NPR on the drive home the other night, hearing how we should be preparing for the rise out of this economic downturn. They were advising everyone to keep retraining, keep improving our skills, and to stay attuned to our industry, so that we’ll be “ready for the next wave.”

Well, in publishing, the next wave has already crashed. Many of us are swimming around, trying to find something to grab onto. Just yesterday, the news was rife with stories about the new Google eBookstore. It’s an encouraging sign that Amazon finally has competition in this exponentially growing segment of the book market. At the same time, those who adore the book as a physical object must resign themselves: digital books are here to stay.

There are some pretty cool things about this new digital horizon. First, your “book” can turn into a wild, multimedia experience. Check out Interactive Alice and enhanced Narnia. These are truly fantastic examples of what the digital platform offers.

But what does it mean for creative writers like ourselves? Are we expected to become multimedia wizards, able not only to write wonderful stories, but to create “books” that are more akin to interactive, animated movies? Will this part of the publishing process become the purview of our publishers, taking the author’s ageless craft and enhancing it, pairing us with digital illustrators as we have only been paired in the world of children’s picture books before?

It’s a fascinating prospect, one with tremendous creative and marketing potential. But, as you can see from the tried and true titles digitally enhanced above, there has been a pretty solid market for a book before publishers are likely to make that kind of investment. For now, digitally enhanced ebooks are likely to remain a fantasy for all but the most well-known or tech-savvy authors.

Meanwhile, we writers must still ply our craft, refining our skills and our stories as we hang on for this uncertain, if exciting, future. Some of us are already experimenting with new forms, like friend and local novelist Pamela Redmond Satran and her blog novel, Ho Springs. The blog format, with its generally short entries (well, maybe not mine!) is a fascinating venue for developing new forms of fiction. There are other, even shorter formats out there, as I detailed in my post last year, The Evolutionary Invention.

I find all this fascinating, a real cultural revolution. As Haruki Murakami mentions in his recent New York Times essay, Reality A and Reality B, “The novels and stories we write will surely become increasingly different in character and feel from those that have come before, just as 20th-century fiction is sharply and clearly differentiated from 19th-century fiction.”

Eventually, great art may come from this short-attention-span, digitally enhanced new medium. The questions we must all ask for now are:

  • What form will our stories take?
  • How will they be read?
  • How will they be appreciated?
  • What will really move our readers?

These are the same questions we’ve wrestled with all along.

In the end, does it really matter what form our product takes? We are, all of us, just storytellers, aren’t we? Stories were told orally long before writing existed. As I tell my youngest students, “Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire listening to a storyteller’s words. Now imagine that you are the storyteller. Now imagine that you want your story shared in a village hundreds of miles away.” Writing, and particularly the printing press, made it easier for those stories to survive and be passed along. The new digital media is just Story’s next wave.



Catharsis is a powerful motivator for writing. It is perhaps the underlying reason that many of us decide to set down our thoughts. We are working through something, consciously or subconsciously trying to figure out ourselves, our lives, fate, our beliefs, and the world.

Through writing, we have the chance to preserve, transform or obliterate our past and our pain. In this sense, we use our writing as a catalyst. By setting down our words, we can set our agonies aside.

In our Circle, we have sometimes witnessed writing that serves this purpose: stories of grief, anger, guilt, betrayal, tales of childhood horrors and bitter, untimely loss. These stories prove to me that the act of writing offers something essential. More than simple creative expression or entertainment, writing can be the writer’s path to heal.

Oddly, these efforts simply to release have resulted in some of the cleanest, most honest and compelling writing I’ve seen. Perhaps this honesty comes naturally with writing that is driven up from our very core.

It reminds me of instructions Madeleine L’Engle used to give in her writing workshops: think about the exercise all week, but only write for half an hour. It shocked me at the time. I believed then that the more time I spent writing, the more well-crafted my work would be. But it didn’t necessarily turn out that way. Those brief outpourings, mused over for the week without pen or keyboard at hand, flowed out rich, fluid and detailed almost without trying. And when the half hour was done, Madeleine told us to stop, even in mid-sentence. That was hardest of all.

So imagine a story that has been burbling for years. Imagine a tale so vivid and private that it has lived and been relived in a writer’s subconscious. Then imagine letting it lose in all its brooding, painful glory. The explosion would be breathtaking, magnificent and perhaps even dangerous. A volcanic eruption.

An old friend of mine used to advise writers to write “as if everyone you know is dead.” It’s excellent advice to relieve the guilt of betrayal that inevitably comes with writing like this. It’s frightening. It goes against our best societal indoctrination. Show the world a happy, well-adjusted face. Keep your anguish hidden. To reveal your most painful secrets is taboo.

So at moments when writing like this is brought forth, we sometimes choose to drop the role of critics in order to bear witness to the pure and unadulterated outpouring on the page. We join together to live through the moments with each writer, step by step sharing the suffering through their words. No detail is spared or lost. These stories are inevitably stark, unembellished in their honesty. The sieve of true emotion sifts away all affectation. We listened dumbfounded, in anguish and in awe.

At the end, whether these stories find their way to print doesn’t really matter. It is up to their authors to decide. Some stories find their own best purpose in darkness, folded up and placed carefully in a box, tucked away to gather dust in a drawer or closet, destined forever to hold their truths in a sacred space of remembering.

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101 Ways to Write a Novel

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it forever, there’s no right way to write a book. I had it comfirmed for me many years ago with my oft’ repeated story of my dear friend Stephanie Cowell (whose new novel, Claude and Camille about Claude Monet, is coming out in April 2010). Years ago before either of us was published, I sat amazed listening to her tell how she put together her first novel by laying all the scenes on her bed and putting them in order!

Mark Twain worked in bed!

Mark Twain worked in bed!

I could never, ever do anything like that. I’m a chronological writer. I start at the beginning and I write to the end. I’ve tried it other ways, but there are always so many threads that I’m trying to hold on to that the moment I turn in another direction, I lose half of them and everything gets tangled. It’s frustrating, but I’ve always been a plodding, meticulous person. I suppose this is part of my curse – or my blessing.

In this terrific article from the Wall Street Journal (thanks, Stuart), How to Write a Great Novel, my personal observations are played out on a grand scale with the many different methods of some of today’s greatest writers.

Aside from the grandiose title (If anyone can really explain how to write a great novel, or even a mediocre one, please let me know!), it is a terrific collection of the true randomness and idiosyncrasy of this strange thing called writing that we do. Each author has his or her own process that does the trick. It’s up to each of us to figure out what works for us, too.

As I read this piece, I found myself thinking of many of the writers in our circle. Birgit, you’ve got to try Dan Chaon’s color-coded index cards. It’s a brilliant way to keep track of all your characters and story-lines. Stephanie, you take a drive; Hilary Mantel takes a shower (me, too!). Pam, I love how Dan Chaon (again) starts by simply jotting down imagery. Maybe you will find your plot in the same random way.

Some of us are morning writers; some are 2:00 in the morning writers. Some use voice-recognition software; some write by hand. I particularly appreciate how many of these successful authors admit to throwing out hundreds of pages or sometimes whole books. It happens. Take my word for it. We all shed a pool of tears and move on. But it’s part of the process, as unavoidable as the blank page.

So, if you haven’t found your method yet, here are a bunch of new approaches to try. Meanwhile, I’m sitting pretty this evening having finished a large section of revision (more like a complete overhaul, but one never knows what one must do until one reads one’s own work from beginning to end.)

Now, I’m off to the shower for some Hilary Mantel-style inspiration!

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Pages in a Storm

In a fascinating look-back on the way things were, publishing icon Joni Evans muses on simpler times in her article, When Publishing Had Scents and Sounds. Her descriptions of the editorial office of the 1970s completely suit my romantic notions. But oh, how things have changed. Darwin, indeed!

Evans writes, “We were a small community of authors, editors and agents, and we were on fire.” It was a time when enthusiasm, insight and belief had power. The world of words seemed tactile and immediate back then. That the sheer enthusiasm of an editor and a house could send an author from obscurity to renown simply by placing the anointed work in Doubleday’s front window is simply amazing!

Today, even with the hard push of a publisher, it seems there are absolutely no guarantees. What lights the world on fire is media attention, and grabbing it amidst the constant noise of a 24-hour news cycle cluttered with both serious issues and inanity is beyond my understanding. Add to that the digital disco of social media where everyone is his or her own publicist, hocking their works and wares on friends and family (and so on, and so on, as the old shampoo commercial used to say). How can anyone hope to stand out in this invariably deafening entrepreneurial clamor?

We authors in this modern moment are also on fire, pursuing our passion for better or worse, seeking out the deep expression our imagination and our understanding of the world. The simplicity of our work never really changes. We come to our desks each day with a cup of coffee and an idea. We open a file or set a pad of paper on our desks. We breathe deeply, then begin laying out the story that’s been churning in our minds.

But when the truth is finally wrought on that stack of sheets (virtual or otherwise), we still long to lift it up and share our effort with the world. Today we must face the whirling storm of multi-media – a drenching cyclone into which we hurl our creative sparks, mostly to watch them quickly quenched by the over-stimulated, over-crowded, super-saturated media world.

As Ms. Evans writes, Charlie Darwin is sitting in the corner office. So much is changing in publishing right now that even insiders are uncertain where the next steps will be. And it’s not just in publishing. The entire world, rocked by economic and technological upset, is trying to find new footing on uncertain ground.

Why should we insignificant writers escape? As I sit at my desk, the pile of pages on my left are my anchor in the storm. I’ll hang onto them for as long as I can, forever if I must, gazing at them with gratitude and trust that somehow they will save me – if not in any professional sense, then perhaps in the honest effort that they represent. They are my offering to myself, my interpretation of this strange experience called life in a chaotic world.