Digging for Words

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


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At the Beginning – Again

Walking through fog. With the headlamp on. Low. Paraphrasing a quote from E.L. Doctorow. This is what it’s like to write a novel. I keep telling myself that as I move forward, ever so slowly. These first infantile steps, as if I’ve never taken them before.

“It’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” from E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94, interviewed by George Plimpton in The Paris Review.

But I have. Three times. I have conceived and birthed three whole, healthy novels. (Well, two healthy ones anyway. My first was ill-formed and thankfully unpublished. Then there was that half novel – aborted for good reason. We all have a few unworthy pages buried in a drawer.)

Now I face a brand new work. My desk is covered with research notes, outlines, character development thoughts, and a tower of books with scribbled marginalia, pages tabbed with Post-its, and sentences highlighted in fluorescent rainbow tones. I arrange maps and photographs on the magnetic whiteboard in my office, unpinning those that have hung there for years, pinning up new images in trust that they will magnetize my mind.

headlampI try to remember exactly how I wrote those other novels. I can’t recall – only the vague tingling, the early sense that here was something interesting, the delectable rush as I began to explore. And the way I discovered each character and plot-line, how all those disparate pieces merged, information and ideas coming just as I needed them, bit by bit until they all fit – eventually – perfectly.

I emphasize “eventually” because it’s easy to forget all the hard work and pain. Like birthing a child and then raising one, the fondness and pride come after the job is done. It’s far harder day to day in the midst of the doing.

Now I am at the beginning all over again. Christina Baker-Kline once told me that every time she starts a new novel, she feels like she has no idea what she’s doing. I’ve clung to those words. To E.L. Doctorow’s wise quote. But also to Madeleine L’Engle’s advice when I studied with her years ago: “If you talk about your novel too much, you’ll never write it.”

So, against modern custom to blast social media with every happily accomplished punctuation mark, I will not share with blog readers or even friends exactly what I’m working on. I won’t talk much about my characters, setting, plot twists or conflicts as I discover them along the way. The sharing that matters to me is the process and struggle, as I sift and sort notes, moving ideas from card to card on Scrivener’s virtual corkboard, trying a new arrangement of bolded headings in MS Word to help me see the bones, the sinews, maybe even a little of the muscle yet to come. All writers must discover their own process, and every book – like every child – has challenges of its own. What I create will only matter when it’s finished, but how I work and discover all over again – that is something all of us can consider and value.

A friend reminded me of something Anne Lamott wrote about her own writing process. Apparently she has a picture frame on her desk – one inch by one inch in dimension. When she isn’t sure where she’s going with her work, she looks at the frame and reminds herself that that’s all she has to focus on – that tiny one inch square.

“I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.” From Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

That’s where I am about to embark, writing only the first thought, the first sentence, the first paragraph that will move me on to the next. One step. One stumbling movement in the dark. With my headlamp securely fastened to my forehead, I begin again.


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Now this is “my” blog

Digging with WordsSince the beginning, this blog has been “The Writers Circle”. But as many of you know, The Writers Circle has taken on a life of its own. I thought it high time to claim this space for me as a writer – a novelist. I’m calling it “Digging for Words: One writer’s quest to bring the past alive through imagination”. And though these days my time is consumed with running our workshops and all the business-y nonsense of keeping TWC alive and well, I am still and will continue working on my novel, bit by bit.

When I have something to share, like that very fun news about being on Mankind that I announced the other day, I’ll do it here. And eventually, when I have a moment to write about MY WRITING above and beyond the role I’ve grown into as a teacher and director of The Writers Circle, this’ll be the place.

Now, off to write for real!


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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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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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The Meandering Plot, or how to figure out what’s next

Plotting is a delicate balance of intention, intuition and flexibility, of knowing what path to follow without losing track of all the other forks in the road. We generally sense our story’s direction – its main thrust and the ultimate objective of our tale. But along the way, we trip and wander. Other events and characters step in with subplots, histories, and desires of their own. And themes appear that deepen our telling, even while they confuse and distract us.


In early drafts, meandering is good, at least to a point. If we stick too closely to an outline or plan, we lose opportunities for our subconscious to bring us offerings. A combination of knowing and not knowing is the perfect state from which to explore.

I view my own plots as a map with lots of dots for places. The landscape is sketched in lightly, but there are no details or connecting roads. I can see perfectly well where I want to travel, but I don’t really know which route will take me there. And like an explorer, I sometimes end up at cliffs, canyons and impassable rivers.

One writer-friend advises to “throw rocks at your characters” when you get stuck—to make something big and bold happen that throws your character into new chaos. High tension and hard choices make for excellent drama and action. But subtler approaches can also yield fascinating results. Try working from a character’s interior. Consider the conflicts and the desires that form their moment stuck in time. Dare to step into their skin and feel and see the world you’ve created for them. Whatever action, situation or choice your character has made, force them to ask themselves: “Why the heck did I do that?” and “What can I do next, now that this is what I’ve chosen?”

Of course, characters are not people and stories are not life. When you’ve made a wrong turn or a bad choice, you can always change it. Sometimes I make bullet-point lists of my character’s situation and emotional point of view, making sure the progression makes sense. I diagram plots and subplots to figure out what I’ve left out, or create outlines of each character’s journey until I discover something I haven’t dealt with fully. Taking a break or jumping to another scene or story can also loosen the clog. With time and examination, I can usually pick up my plot and start moving again, however haltingly.

But getting stuck is never a waste of time. We learn while we linger, muse and take tangents. Often these detours enrich our tale. Though more often, some of our best writing ends up tossed out with the recyclables.

Have I mentioned the “Cuts” section at the bottom of my chapters? It’s often several pages longer than my final draft, with beautiful writing that I’ve sweated over before realizing I’ve gone astray yet again.

Does anyone know a more efficient way to write? If you do, please comment and share!


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BORING PRACTICALITIES, or a Few Tips on File Organization for Writers

Back when I worked in information technology, a co-worker used to like to play a trick on me. He’d sneak into my cubicle when I was out and move one of the countless, neatly stacked project piles. He’d only move it about 10 degrees left or right, then watch from his own cube to see how long it would take me to notice. Invariably, I would walk in and, even before sitting down, unconsciously straighten the pile.

I have always been compulsively organized, but I’ve never resented my OCD. In fact, it’s a huge benefit for a writer. How many of us have bemoaned the challenge of keeping track of revisions? Or discovered that the really good version was the LAST version that you accidentally overwrote? Or that you’d lost an entire story when the computer crashed? Being a little obsessive about how and where you store your hard-earned work can save a lot of heartache and time.

Here are a few tips I learned from working in I.T.:

  • CREATE A FILING SYSTEM
    If you are old enough to recall having a metal filing cabinet in your office, you know why those little icons on your desktop are shaped like manila folders. Instead of dumping everything into “My Documents”, you can set up your computer filing system the same way, using sub-folders to keep things where you can find them.

    Here’s a snapshot of the filing system I’m using for my current novel:

    I have a folder called “Novels” in which there are several projects (most of them on hold for now). “Eurasian Nomads” is the folder where my manuscript lives. Inside that folder are folders for Draft 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and eventually draft 762! I keep “Old Versions” in a separate sub-folder, though there are actually “Old Versions” folders inside each “Draft #” folder. “Research Materials” are stored separately – an especially vital location for anyone writing historical fiction, non-fiction, etc. Generally, I can find the location of my files for any project in a couple of clicks, but then, which file do I choose?

  • USE GOOD FILE NAMES
    Come up with a simple way to name your files and then name them consistently. I started my naming with “Eurasia3_01”. “Eurasia” is the project name. “3” is the draft number. I used an underscore to make it easier to read. Then “01” is the chapter number. I use double-digits for the chapter number so I can click on the “Name” bar and sort the files in order. (Perhaps I should’ve used double-digits for the draft numbers, too?) I can also sort by date, but since I sometimes backtrack when I revise, it’s not the most reliable way to find the most recent version.

    When I get ready for submission, I get fancy and replace “Eurasia3” with “Lindbergh_Judith_Pasture_of_Heaven_”. That way my name and book title are clearly associated with my manuscript before the reader even opens the file. But for simplicity while drafting, stick with “ProjectName_Dr##_Ch##”. Then you can find, sort and open them easily.

    Note that I keep all my chapters in separate documents. NEVER put everything into one document until you’re done with the draft. What if the file got corrupted?!?!?!

  • KEEP VERSIONS
    OK, here’s where the anxiety starts to build. When I was learning HTML (Yes, I can still write the code by hand!), I discovered that the smallest type-o could destroy the entire document. So I learned to keep versions. These days, I add “_New” or “_v1” or “_A”, “_B”, “_C” at the end of my latest draft. I sometimes end up with twenty copies of the same chapter, but at least I can tell which one came first. Then, since I’m always worried that something wonderful might be hidden in one of those old drafts, I drag them into my “Old Versions” folder where, generally, I never look at them again.

  • BACK UP YOUR FILES
    Most of you already know that I back up obsessively. Last year, I carried my USB-key everywhere – in my pocketbook to the grocery store, in my jacket when I was hiking. I even slept with it on my nightstand. I was worried about more than my computer crashing. I mean, what if someone broke into my house and stole my computer? What if the house burned down? When my family planned its escape route in an emergency, I already knew my priorities. Grab the USB-key first, then get the boys.

    Thankfully I’ve discovered the wonder of free online storage. I’m currently enamored with Dropbox.com. They give you 2GB of storage for free. More costs a small fee each month, but if you refer your friends (and yes, this will happen if you sign up using my link, PLEASE), you get 250MB of bonus space. It’s not enough to back up all your family photos, but for your valuable Word documents, it’s priceless. Your documents are secure, private and accessible from anywhere. Just beware that the initial setup MOVES your files to Dropbox. It doesn’t copy them. The paranoid author here suggests you copy/paste, so you’ll have your files on your hard drive and in your Dropbox. (Did I mention I also have a backup external hard drive?)

    After all those technical tidbits, here are a couple tips for managing your work within your manuscript.

  • MAKE A CHAPTER SUMMARY DOCUMENT
    This is basically a table of contents with a quick paragraph summarizing what happens in each chapter. I keep it in a single document that I can refer to quickly and usually find the scene I’m looking for in a minute or two.

  • SAVE “CUTS” AND “HOLDS”
    I make a hard page break [CTRL+ENTER in Word] at the bottom of my documents and put all the gorgeous darlings I’ve killed there on a page entitled “CUTS”. I do the same with “HOLDS” though they usually end up as “CUTS”, too. That way I can hang onto my beloved useless writing and return to it if inspiration allows. It’s emotional as well as practical. But I warn, this can be depressing. Most times, the number of pages I have in “CUTS” is longer than the finished chapter.

    Is that a good or a bad thing ? I cannot tell. But I promise, thinking it though and creating a file system and a few extra organizational documents will make it much easier to manage your writing, especially when you’re working on a big, unwieldy project like a novel.

    OK, I hope you’ll all pipe up with more suggestions. As with writing, there’s no right way, only what works. So feel free to comment and share your wisdom.