Digging for Words

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


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The Waiting Game

What a time it has been! I’ve gone from tentatively sticking my toe back into publishing waters to swimming in the whirlpool of anxious possibility…

Ah, but you have no idea. Let me explain.

erica-study3I finished my latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, at 10:30 PM on June 26 while my family watched a noisy shoot-em-up in the next room. Even as I hit “save” in at least three locations – my computer, external hard-drive, Dropbox and a couple others just in case – I opened an email that swept me away into the riptide of The Writers Circle’s Summer Intensives. I didn’t have a moment to think about my own work again until the end of the summer when I mentioned at the last class of my beloved Wednesday morning Adult Writers Circle that I was finally looking for a new agent.

Not wanting to draw attention to myself, which is my usual pose in the teacher’s chair (this blog post notwithstanding), I didn’t mention who or what I was planning beyond what would be useful to my students when they were ready. But one of our circle, Maude, finally said, “Let me see your list.” She was quite insistent, so I finally did.

“I know this person, and this one.”

I stared at her, astonished. In fact, a couple of people in the class knew others who might help me. I graciously and somewhat breathlessly accepted their offers of introduction, realizing that this is exactly what The Writers Circle was meant to do. I just hadn’t expected to be one of the recipients of our communal largesse! I always thought it would work the other way around.

A few days later, a message came through inviting me to send a query. Which I did – from my family vacation in Maine. Of course, we had to choose a place off the grid! But after several trips to a wireless hub, I managed to send an appropriate query letter not to one agent, but two. Within 24 hours, requests came from both for the manuscript. OMG!

Not long after, I was meeting my brand new agent in NYC, feeling the first tentative tendrils of hope growing into sturdy roots as I discovered that what I’d been struggling with and nurturing for so long had a champion.

WaitingAll this was about a month ago. Right now, my former editor at Viking – who, by contract, has first option on this book – has my manuscript in hand. Or someone does in her office. Hopefully it’s made it past her assistant. Maybe it’s making its rounds through the marketing department by now? Maybe finding its way to the final arbiters of a reasonable (dare I hope!) deal? Or is it simply languishing, waiting for a response that will send me searching for the courage and endurance that I’ve preached about so often in these blog posts?

I’m told that, if Viking turns it down, there are lots of other options. In fact, there are more options than ever before. I’ve said it myself, I’ve said it to you, and I know – I really do know – that it’s true. But the brass ring for any author is still to find a traditional publisher who will stand behind their book, or at least get it into the stores across the nation and some attention here and there where it counts. Before and after that, trust me, there’s lots to do. But for now, I can wait.

I’ve waited this long. I can manage a little longer.

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Great Speakers, Great Events, Great Opportunities

Check out these great happenings at The Writers Circle and in our broader, connected creative circles.

First, we’re officially launching our monthly Writers Circle Speaker Series with a talk that goes beyond writing to all aspects of creative thinking.
The Writers Circle Speaker Series
Join me and TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron on October 2, 2-4PM for “Tapping into Creativity” at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange. We’ll be talking about how to bring creative thinking to the classroom, the workplace, and yes, into your own creative work, with hands-on exercises that will challenge your imagination. Tickets are $25/session if pre-registered, $35 at the door, and only $20/session for TWC students and parents (former and current). Students should’ve gotten an email with the discount code, but if you didn’t, just let us know. Register online and, while you’re at it, check out the entire schedule of ten great events. (It’s only $150 for all 10 sessions!)

Second, my good friend, novelist Christina Baker-Kline, shares this terrific mini-retreat for creative women. (Sorry, guys. I’ll find something for you next time!)

Rejuvenate Your Writing Life!
mini-retreat logo
A Restorative Mini-Retreat for Creative Women

with authors Christina Baker Kline and Deborah Siegel
Friday, November 4, 9:30am – 3:30pm, Montclair, New Jersey

This one’s not just for writers. As Christina says, “it’s for anyone who may have a story (or stories) inside but needs a little inspiration and encouragement.” Christina and Deborah are both professional writing mothers who believe that writing is vital — even when it has to happen in the crevices of our lives. (How true!) They held this workshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn this spring with wonderful results. Find out more at Christina’s blog and take advantage of these great women’s wisdom and a day of creative community.

Finally, this from one of the participants at my workshop at the Maywood Library last week. Katie O’Connell writes:

“I have a website, SocialJersey.com which is an event listing site and blog for young northern NJ professionals in their 20s and 30s. I’m updating the site and would like to update it monthly with new content. If you are interested in gaining clips, please email: SocialJerseyEditor@gmail.com.

Thanks, everyone, for spreading the word, sharing the talent and networking around. Now get to writing! I promise I’ll have something substantive to contemplate in the next post. Till then, see you at The Writers Circle.


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Picking Borders’ Bones

OK, let’s admit it. We’ve all done it at some point over the past few weeks – headed over to the nearest Borders to pick the last meat off the bones, grabbing whatever we could to add to our personal libraries before the doors finally closed for good next Friday.

MyBordersStack

My Borders Stack


Not that most of us have ever really loved the big box bookstores. Yeah, they have some nice cafes. But every writer worth his salt knows that the local independents treat us better, care about us more, actually welcome us (sometimes personally!) when we walk through their doors.

Still most writers live on really tight budgets. And a bargain is a bargain. This is just a one time thing, trust me! – as we peruse the shelves for hidden treasures, novels by our favorite forgottens, obscure poets or essayists, dictionaries, and research for our in-progress novels.

I was looking for The Landmark Herodotus, but, believe it or not, there wasn’t a copy in sight. Instead, I found rows and rows of cheesy romance novels, cookie-cutter thrillers by authors I’d never heard of, plenty of cookbooks, large-format non-fiction glossies, and those books for kids that include a toy or a small stack of collector cards. Oh, and smelly candles, fuzzy throws and coffee mugs with hackneyed aphorisms embossed in funky fonts. But books worth reading? Well, there were a few I finally bought, but finding them took a while.

Going through the stacks, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of futility, first, that the second largest bookstore chain in America was closing, and second, at the pallid offerings – our industry’s blemishes bared to the world. True, most of these books were the very last of the leftovers, the ones that no one else would touch. The words between the glossy, trying-too-hard covers may even have been reasonably good. Perhaps I’d never heard of these books because they were poorly marketed, as most books are. Perhaps it was their sycophantic packaging. Pink = chick-lit. Woman with head cut off, turning away from the reader = genre historical. Woman with head still visible, looking just a bit too sexy in her period attire = romance. To me, these packages wreaked of predictability and bad taste. But I don’t blame the authors. Hey, they were lucky. They got published! That’s a feat of such magnitude that none of us has the right to see anything but a fellow comrade in arms.

But in these last dregs of pulp, I saw the precipitated futility of our industry, the sweaty desperation to get something – anything – sold, especially in a landscape that is digi-bytes away from literary destruction.

Or is it? I’m definitely not sure right now how or where books will be sold in the coming years. But stories? There’s no lack of hunger for stories.

I’m no longer afraid of the digital transformation of the book. In fact, I see a lot of value and possibility. First, no longer will books kill trees or burn so much fossil fuel as they are carted in tractor-trailers from printer to warehouse to bookstore to gigantic shredder. And no longer will it take months or even years to publish. It could and should take only weeks, as today’s NY Times article about news-based non-fiction proves.

It’s just a question of how we’ll discover what’s worth our precious reading time and what’s not. That’s what bookstores have always been for.

My husband and I love to go to bookstores on our “date nights”. After a satisfying meal where we actually get to talk about something other than the kids, we head to the nearest bookstore, sometimes losing ourselves in opposite corners, coming together now and then with a book in hand we think the other might like, inevitably leaving the store with a small stack of tomes.

Surfing on Amazon.com or GoodReads.com doesn’t come close. There’s no romance and little chance for serendipity.

The future of bookstores

The future of bookstores looks good.


Still I see great hope in the least likely corner – the diminutive local, independent bookstore. Anne Patchett’s essay about her book tour this summer portrays independent bookstores as alive and well. In fact, many forecasts say that indies will benefit most from Borders’ demise, and may well take their place once again as the vital central hub of the literary world.

In these smaller, cozier havens for books and their dwindling lovers, authors and their fans can still meet one another to discuss the vagaries of character, setting, language and plot. And booksellers can “hand-sell” as they always have, recommending books based on their customers’ personal interests and passions.

At the Barnes & Nobles and Borders, it has always been a bit like meeting someone at a bar. Sure, you might hook up and have a little fun. But if you’re looking for a more serious relationship, wouldn’t it be better to be introduced by a trusted friend?

That’s what indie bookstores have always been like, and now, after years of struggling to survive, they are emerging from the clouds, populating the book universe like small, twinkling stars. Perhaps their influence will never be enough to recapture literature’s place at the radiant core of culture and society. But for as long as books are produced, printed and sold, these small, local bookstores might just be the best place to pick them up and bring them home.


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He Said, She Said

Great dialogue tips from Writers Circle Associate Director, Michelle Cameron:

Writing dialogue is a critical aspect of fiction and memoir, and many writers struggle with it. So in a recent class, we considered what factors could comprise a successful section of dialogue. As we do in many of these more technical discussions, we deconstructed a few passages of published work. We’ll use some of them in this post to help us extract some guidelines for writing dialogue:
He said She said
Dialogue should never happen in a vacuum.

        “Oh, I wish I knew what I’m supposed to do with that child!” She took a deep breath: “I’m absolutely at the end of my rope.” She gave the shower curtain an x-ray like look.
                – Franny and Zooey,
                  J. D. Salinger

Note how the speaker gives that shower curtain a piercing glance. Placing your characters in a setting – and reminding us of that setting with simple cues, like sipping from a coffee cup or turning to look out a window, will keep us grounded in the story.

Your character’s personality should infuse the way he or she speaks.

        “Your new friends must be damned smart – they’ve managed to saddle you with their responsibilities in less than two months.” He shook his head – pitying me for being so gullible.
        I just stared at him.
        “She’s a cute kid, but she’s got no claim on you, Juliet, and you’re going to have to be firm about it. Get her a nice dolly or something and say good-bye, before she starts thinking you’re going to take care of her for the rest of her life.”
        Now I was so angry I couldn’t talk. I stood there, gripping Kit’s porridge bowl with white knuckles. I didn’t throw it at him, but I was close to it. Finally, when I could speak again, I whispered, “Get out.”

                                – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,
                                  Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The man speaking above is an American in a British novel – he’s sharp, cynical, and caustic. We always know when Mark comes on the stage.

Consider also that silence sometimes speaks louder than words. In natural life, we often don’t reply when we’re talking to someone – and our silence can suggest so many things: anger, resentment, confusion, pain… Juliet’s hand curves around that porridge bowl and we know what she’s feeling, without the author having to provide her feelings via dialogue.

        I finish chewing and ask, “Do you know who the secretary of state is?”
        “Huh?”
        “Do you?”
        “No.”
        “And see? You’re still allowed to vote.”
        “What does that have to do with anything?”
        Jen drains her beer and laughs.
        “I think I get it.”
        “Go to hell, Jen,” Rhonda says icily. “One beer and you’ll roll over for anyone.”
                                – Fragile Beasts, Tawni O’Dell

Use tags – he said, she said – sparingly.

You don’t need to identify who is saying what if it is clear to the reader. Note the exchange above – the swift back and forth over the secretary of state. By eliminating tags and just focusing in on the dialogue, we center our attention on the brief argument – akin to keeping your eye on a tennis ball during a swift volley.

Use tags, however, when it is necessary to identify who is speaking. When a third party is introduced into a dialogue, for instance, or when there is any doubt who is saying what, you need to make sure we know who is talking. Note, however, how skillfully Ms. O’Dell introduces Jen above: because she has just drained her beer and laughed, we know the unidentified “I think I get it” is her statement.

Watch the use of adjectives and adverbs.

Too many of them can dilute what you’re trying to express. But use them when they will convey emotion better than anything else. Strong verbs can and should carry much of the burden of the story, but this doesn’t mean a good adjective or adverb can’t help out once in awhile. When Rhonda says “Go to hell” icily to Jen, we’re left in no doubt as to how she’s feeling. But it’s because that’s the one and only adverb in the entire conversation that it works so well.

Let your characters think before they speak.

        “I don’t believe I feel like it just now, Amanda.”
        “Did I ask you if you felt like it?”
        He spread his fingers and looked at the bitten nails, not answering. Speak sharply to Jeremy and you will bowl him over; he can’t stand up to things. You’ll get further being gentle with him, but I always remember that too late. He puts me in a fury. I can’t see how he could let himself go the way he has. No, letting yourself go means you had to be something to start with, and Jeremy was never anything. He was born like this.
                                – Celestial Navigation, Anne Tyler

Give your characters a chance to reflect on what is being said, to consider what it might mean to them, and even to change their minds about it mid-thought.

Also remember that what our characters say can sometimes hide the truth of what they really feel. “Language was given us to conceal our thoughts,” as Talleyrand said at the Congress of Vienna. In this passage and throughout the book that follows, Jeremy’s silence covers a myriad of emotions and thoughts. Sometimes a little misdirection can add suspense and engage the reader in trying to discover the truth.

And one final note – dialogue should sound natural but not be studded with the pauses and stuttering that we hear in everyday speech. Use your craft to hone in on any mannerisms that might be important to convey character – but make sure it’s not slowing down the passage unnecessarily. As with the passage above from Fragile Beasts, a single “huh” can go a long way.


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Thoughts on a Creative Education

What does it mean to be creative? Some people might imagine a “bohemian”, someone with no boundaries, who floats on a whim to seek the muse. Someone who dons wild clothing and wilder hair, who is as likely to fall in love as to commit suicide or murder.

To be creative, you don’t have to be erratic, uncontrolled, addicted or unpredictable. In fact, these qualities are far more likely to kill your creativity as to nurture it.

The word “creativity” shares the same root as the word “create”. In other words, you have to actually make something to be creative. Making things requires discipline, technique, excellent organization and problem solving skills. It’s nice if you have a little talent, too. But even if you don’t, creativity is a process and it can be learned.

In simplest terms, creativity experts summarize the lesson thus: first, you have to embrace the broadest thinking possible; then, you have to make an assemblage of critical decisions.

In an article in Newsweek, The Creativity Crisis, the creative process and its measurable degradation in America since the 1990s were detailed and scrutinized. What makes a creative thinker and how can creativity be nurtured? And where is American education going wrong?

I came face-to-face with the creativity crisis myself when my son was writing a report for elementary school. To guide him in his assignment, he had received a shockingly detailed (to me anyway) outline. Every paragraph not only had to be structured with a topic sentence, three detail sentences and a concluding sentence. He also had to give specific information in each sentence. This outline didn’t require any input from my son, only compliance. In fact, if he didn’t follow the outline precisely, he would be marked down.

This orderly approach was certainly easy to follow, and would be even easier for his teacher to grade. But it gave him no space to consider or explore his topic. It did not challenge him to make his own associations, organize his own research or thoughts. He just had to fill in the blanks. Simple call-and-response. No writer I’ve ever heard of works that way. Even those of us who depend heavily on outlining leave a little room for the possibility that an unexpected thought might fit in someplace we hadn’t thought of before.

In fact, the Newsweek article precisely stated the nature of my alarm. In it, an expert was discussing America’s educational focus with Chinese educators who have historically and notoriously emphasized cooperation over creativity. The Chinese response to our standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing was to laugh out loud: “You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.”

How do we teach our children creativity and preserve it in our culture? Talk to any creative person and they’ll tell you. Divergent thought must come first. Given a problem to be solved or a project to be executed, one must first assess – or even better, “play” with the infinite possibilities before settling on solutions.

As writers, this is as natural as breathing. Faced with a blank slate and the entire world for contemplation, we select a kernel of inspiration, a topic we are curious about, a thought we had briefly while walking down the street, and from it we create entire worlds.

In an exercise I use frequently in my creative writing workshops, I give students a pile of photographs of people’s faces. Some could be just “anyone”, but have curious, emotionally charged or meaningful expressions. Others are faces that are distinctly different, often defined so by unusual clothing, make-up, hairdo, setting and more. I ask my students to choose a face that speaks to them. This is the first decision of a creative thinker. It’s often an emotional choice. Why pick one and not another? Does one image remind you of somebody you love or hate, someone you’d like to meet or are afraid of? Does the expression reflect something that’s going on deep inside yourself?

Once the choices have been made, we don’t analyze. An analytical approach would poison the subliminal brew that’s essential to the creative objective. Instead, at this point, I simply ask students to write free-form for ten to fifteen minutes.

“Don’t think. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Let your pen flow. Let your thoughts fall onto the page like rain.”

Here, you may think, comes the crazy “bohemian” and her shapeless approach to creativity. But in fact, as each writer works, they are making more decisions. They are looking at the face and choosing perhaps to describe it. Or maybe they start by giving the face a name. Or maybe they decide to write as if they are the person in the photograph. Or as if they’re holding the photograph. Or as if someone else found it in the glove compartment of an abandoned car…

As each choice is made, a new dimension solidifies in each writer’s creative process. Each choice informs the writer about their character and circumstance. Each choice transforms the fleeting sparks of inspiration into concrete words on the page.

With each choice, the options for that particular piece of writing narrow. The more detailed the decisions, the more specific the story becomes until all the divergent thoughts have drifted away and the story, characters, language, pacing and more are completely clear in the writer’s, and eventually the reader’s, minds.

The one thing that is missing in this process is absolute certainty. There are no quantifiable results. Writing is subjective. Each reader is the unique judge of failure or success. And this, I think, more than anything, is what’s scary to educators and administrators trying to shape the educational process. You can’t box creativity. You must let it breathe. It must be left to its own devices, but nudged and nurtured along the way.

It takes a little more energy, patience, intuition and a lot more courage to teach this way. But for our next generation to regenerate the American hallmark of creativity and innovative thinking before it is completely lost, we must let their minds out of the box and let them play.


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Muses to the Muse

Here in New Jersey the summer is upon us. We’re slogging through water-thick air, trying to stay alert in the humidity and heat. Typing at my keyboard is best done in air conditioning or outside in the slight breeze where the shivering cicadas songs wash over and around me like waves.

Cicadas
I do have a suggestion to make the hot summer months more inviting to the muse. In summer, I take my work to a museum. There’s nothing cooler than sitting in a gallery with an open notebook and pen, allowing the paintings, sculpture and hushed, inquiring atmosphere to seep into your consciousness and fill your mind with words. In every painting or sculpture there is a story to be told, waiting only for the avid observer to reveal.

Often I take my children with me. We’re all museum lovers, and live close enough to New York City to make it an easy trip. We travel dark subway tunnels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then trek the few blocks to the Whitney and down on the bus to MoMA before heading home, exhausted and fulfilled. Or sometimes stayed in one gallery for hours.

One of our favorite haunts is in the Met’s Rockefeller Wing. Here amidst the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, we tiptoe from display to display, staring back at wild masks, mimicking the awkward poses of dancing statues, or sitting with our notebooks to write or draw what we think, imagine and see.

You might even catch us (if the guards don’t first), lying our our backs beneath the bark-painted ceiling of the “Ceremonial House” from Papua New Guinea. Looking up at these masterpieces, we try to imagine what it would be like if this was our home and each of those paintings was made by someone we knew. And what if we understood their meanings? All those little symbols – mostly sinuous, symmetrical shapes, but some look like animals – snakes, lizards, birds, monkeys, smiley-faces or monsters with fangs and claws.
Bark Painting from the "Ceremonial House"
When we get kicked out (as we inevitably do), we’re likely to head to the Greek and Roman wing next door. On one visit, we spent over an hour discussing and imagining the lives of ancient Etruscans.

It doesn’t hurt that my family loves myths and ancient cultures. It also doesn’t hurt that Rick Riordan has made Greek and Roman mythology as commonplace as baseball and bicycles in a kid’s world. But I see our visits as a critical extension of a creative education.

In another time in life, some of you know, I was a professional dancer. As part of my early passion, I read everything I could about the early 20th century greats: Pavlova, Nijinsky, Sergei Diaghilev. I recall learning in one biography that Diaghilev, director of the famous Ballets Russes, would encourage his dancers to explore other art forms. They were a traveling company and each city they visited was an opportunity to discover new art, music, architecture, folk dance and culture. Each exposure made them better dancers because they had seen, for example, the passion of an authentic Spanish dance or heard the mournful strains of the Gypsies.
Belvedere Castle
So when I take my kids to the City, or my notebook on my own, I seek out every opportunity to see and experience what we never have before.

And though museums are a fairly safe choice, we are as likely to venture into Central Park. The narrow, twisting stone stairways of Belvedere Castle might as well be a medieval tower. And the glacial striations in the Manhattan schist could have perhaps been made by giant claws.

All of us wind up experiencing sights and points of view we might never have discovered. Inevitably, each of us comes home with a story to write or tell, or at least a tiny detail to add to a 400-page manuscript that makes the writing that much more vibrant and the adventure more real.