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 My first was ill-formed and thankfully unpublished.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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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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Guest Blogger Lena Roy: We are writers, hear us roar!

The web of support that frames my life as a writer was first anchored in a writing workshop taught by Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. Sitting at the feet of the author of one of the most influential books of my childhood, I gained not only a richer understanding of literary craft, but a spirit of generosity, nurturing and acceptance that has guided my work, my relationships with other writers, and my teaching.

Edges by Lena RoyThrough that web, I recently connected with another writer, Lena Roy, whose ties to Madeleine are not only creative but familial.

I’m honored to welcome Lena, Madeleine’s granddaughter, to The Writers Circle. Her debut novel, Edges, was published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Lena and I have become digital friends over the months leading up to her book’s publication. Finally I’ll have the chance to meet her in person, this Saturday at 2PM at Words Bookstore in Maplewood. Join me there as she shares her work and her own writer’s journey. She loves to meet new people, and I know she’d adore a crowd!

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We are writers, hear us roar! For published and pre-published writers alike, the journey through this industry is an arduous one. (Unless of course, you are Snooki. However, I am assuming that Snooki and her wannabes are not reading The Writer’s Circle Blog.)

Do you have a compulsion to write? Does writing help you make sense of the world? Do you feel that you must write, even though sometimes you want to tear your hair out? Then you are one of us.

After seven years of hard work, I made my “debut” last month with my novel, Edges. It is a story of love and grief, addiction and redemption, set in both NYC’s Upper West Side and in the red rock desert of Moab, Utah.

Why loss and addiction? Why realistic fiction?

I had the image in my head of the first scene for years before I wrote it down on paper. Luke, a seventeen-year-old runaway, is setting up a home for himself in a trailer in Moab, Utah. What was his story?

In 2004, when my middle child was two and a half, before my daughter was born, I gave myself permission to find out.

When we write, we are delving into the soup of our sub-conscious. I wrote the first draft in three months, discovering with each word, what Edges was about. That first draft was a mystical, messy experience.

I had to fall in love with revision. I wrote and rewrote over the next three years, sending my manuscript out to agents and even a couple of publishers, having some experience with rejection before finding my agent. I made more revisions before he sent it out to an editor at FSG in late April of 2008. Then in July I got the call that they wanted to buy it.

Elation! Vindication!

But it has been far from the fairytale experience I thought it would be. Things took a really long time, to the tune of two and a half years. The two months up to my book launch in December were fraught with anxiety. I had to focus so much on marketing, and that fed my insecurities. Was I doing enough? What was everybody else doing? How can I be noticed? Nobody will know about or read my book. Wah! It felt a little like . . . well, high school! When Barnes and Noble and Borders only agreed to buy a small amount of books for the NYC area, my heart broke a little.

But then I had a moment, an hour before my book launch party, taking my kids to see Santa Claus at Macy’s. This could be as good as it gets, and you’re missing it. Enjoy it!

I ended up having a book party that exceeded expectation. My joy was boundless. I was able to revel in my accomplishment, knowing that I had worked hard for it. “Edges will be championed by librarians and independent book sellers,” my editor told me confidently. “The big chains are not a barometer of success anymore.”

Yes, getting published might not be a fairytale, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still really incredible!

I wake up every morning pinching myself that I am able to do what I love to do, having proof in Edges that the more I practice writing, the better my stories get. I can also say that I practice what I preach when I indulge in my other passion – teaching writing to kids age 8 – 18 in Northern Westchester.

I roar as a writer by reaching my hand out to other writers and creating community, finding compassion, strength and support with others on the journey.

So what do you say? Will you roar with me?

Lena RoyLena Roy was raised in New York City, in the cloistered environs of a theological seminary, with extracurricular education provided by Manhattan’s club scene. She has worked as a bartender, an actor, and with at-risk adolescents in Utah, California and NYC. Lena now lives with her husband, two sons, daughter, cat and four African water frogs in Katonah, New York and teaches creative writing workshops for kids and teens from 8-18 with Writopia Lab in both NYC and Northern Westchester.


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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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Taming the Wilderness

All of us struggle with revision. It is undoubtedly the most anguished part of the writer’s craft. Earlier this week, one of our Circle bemoaned the challenge. “I wrote the entire manuscript in a few months. Now it’s taking me weeks just to revise a single chapter.”

Believe me, I understand. I’ve felt the same frustration. But I’ve come to realize that revision is as much about another draft as it is untangling the emotional ties we have to our existing creation.

Writers make much of the daunting blank page. But I say first drafts are incredibly freeing. You can do anything you want, write anything that comes. If you can shut down that nagging inner critic for a bit, trust me, your words will flow and you will undoubtedly think they are wonderful.

But also trust me, first drafts are always – repeat ALWAYS – terrible.


It’s a childish conviction that art is “a matter of instinct—that the artist’s first impulse is most authentic,” as Allegra Goodman writes in her recent Wall Street Journal article, Inspiration Revised. The more mature recognition is that only through revision can we hone our raw instincts into something that vaguely approaches passable, never mind art.

“Even the great ones work for greatness,” Goodman writes, referring to her own youthful realization after studying Keats’ path to poetic god-hood. “What we write instinctively—the story that seems most immediate and personal—is often the most conventional.”

Yes, conventional in form, execution, language, character, pacing, and tone. But in those first impulses are the kernels of something better. The trick is to step back far enough to recognize inspiration’s flaws. From a safe emotional and creative distance, we can begin to consider dispassionately what is wrong and weigh the infinite options for improvement.


Revision is a tricky thing, though. We run the risk of strangling our best impulses and creating something wooden and flat in our effort to remake what inspiration spawned. It’s a careful balancing act to know what to change and how, who to listen to, how far to go, and when to say, “Stop, no. That really is the way I want it.”

Revision is the work of making the words flow naturally when they are anything but. But you don’t have to transform your rocky wilderness into a formal garden. We’re not trying to turn tribal dance into grand ballet. We are aiming for a place that is somewhere in between, where we finally accomplish the vision we were aiming for all along, taming the vista we had originally discovered, but leaving it still unique and perhaps just a little bit wild.


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Deconstructing the Reconstruction

Taking criticism is never easy, no matter how expert, apropos, or kind. We can feel our bodies seizing up, our hearts palpitating, our minds starting to whirl with refusals, excuses, explanations, denials. Of course, my original is perfect! They just don’t understand! But if we chose our readers wisely, usually we find they’re right. Maybe the solution isn’t exactly as they suggest, but there’s a kernel of truth in their issues and insights that we would all be wise to examine.

Orwell 1984 Draft

George Orwell's "1984", work in progress


I confronted this working on my latest revisions. My good friend Marina had given my manuscript a thorough, thoughtful once-over and we’d spent hours discussing her comments and suggestions. I spent another couple of weeks reviewing everything and organizing my thoughts. I had a plan, typed up in an orderly 17-page outline. Then I charged ahead, ready to put the plan into action.

Everything she’d suggested made absolute sense. She’d asked to know certain details about my characters, stakes, and cultural setting sooner. So often, we discover things as we go along. It’s a natural result of the exploratory writing process. But upon revision, we sometimes forget to question what the reader knows when. It just feels right to leave things where we originally conceived them. But if you’d been born with one arm sticking out of your waist instead of your shoulder – just a few inches down, really! – wouldn’t you want it moved?

I concentrated on my opening chapters, rearranging chronology and tucking in bits of back-story that had been threaded into the plot too late.
A couple of weeks later, I sent the revisions to another dear friend-reader, Karen, who’d seen earlier versions. She wasn’t a “cold reader”, which turned out to be invaluable. When she emailed me back, I sensed careful anxiety in her words: “I hate to say it, but I think the earlier version was better.”

OUCH! It had taken me a great deal of time and emotional fortitude to untangle and re-craft what I’d so carefully honed. Now would I really have to go back – AGAIN? After a little break, long enough to heal my punch-in-the-gut disappointment, I re-read what I’d done, saw exactly what Karen meant and, honestly, I agreed.

I was utterly grateful. I needed someone to be honest, and both my readers had been. The truth was somewhere in between. Some of the new version I really liked, but I had dampened the initial “magic” of my opening. How could I deconstruct my reconstruction without losing what was good, without destroying even more of what I’d already messed up?

So I took my painstaking but unsuccessful attempt, saved it in my “old versions” folder, and tried again. What I discovered was that Marina was right, but that I’d taken her too literally. Yes, there were pieces missing or that came in too late, but I didn’t need to deal with them all at once, and I didn’t need to move everything all around. My approach had to be subtler, like tying tiny, invisible threads, not applying Frankenstein-like bolts and ungainly stitches.

Another couple of weeks and I sent my new effort. Karen loved it. WHEW! Though I haven’t sent it to Marina yet. I’m trying to move on, a few more chapters before I turn to her again. Because there’s more to come. I don’t want to exhaust either of my readers. I need them fresh enough to give me a broad overview of what I’ve done, not comments on particular lines, paragraphs or even scenes. I need the whole arc….

And, yes, this is my fifth draft. I swear it’ll be my last, but don’t hold me to anything.


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Don’t Quit Your Day Job

None of us can deny that day jobs eat up valuable time for writing. We accept but resent them, knowing that bills do pile up and, unless we are fortunate recipients of the largess of a trust fund, inheritance or a well-padded spouse, most of us have little choice but to forfeit some portion of our soul’s calling to fulfill the need for shelter, clothing and food.
Don't Quit Your Day Job
Many writers, especially those young or idealistic enough to believe we will one day “break out”, take on (intentionally or otherwise) dull jobs that eat our souls, but supposedly keep our minds clear for our literary vocation.

I spent years as one of those naive hopefuls, accepting underemployment as a logical consequence of a life dedicated to the pursuit of art. Besides, I was used to it. Having started as a professional dancer and then an actor, it wasn’t much of an adjustment to carry over the sacrifice-for-art theme into my underemployment as an aspiring novelist.

I had already worked as a waiter, a make-up artist, and one of those annoying people who squirt perfume in your face when you walk through Macy’s. I honestly found some comfort when I finally discovered that I could work as a temp, filling empty desk space to answer phones and type memos at corporate offices all over New York City.

In fact, I turned to writing in part because of those very dull days when there were no memos and all those stiff business suits were stuffed into a conference room down the hall. In those spare, odd hours when I was required to “look busy”, I turned to the voices whispering in my head. I started writing stories, poems, scenes from plays that would never be produced. Most of them were terrible. (Trust me, I still have a draft or two in boxes in my basement.) But they reminded me that I actually enjoyed playing with words and, in contrast to being the interpreter of someone else’s choreography or script, I enjoyed being the master of my own creation. When one of those stories grew too long and complicated to be stopped, I followed it down the path to becoming my first (and thankfully unpublished) novel.

Whether writing is our original passion or something that comes to us by accident, the way we spend our time deeply influences our work. “You are what you do,” says author Winston Groom (of Forrest Gump fame) in a recent NPR interview about a new collection of essays, Don’t Quit Your Day Job. “Experience in life is informed by all the things that you do, and work is most of it.”

The longest and worst of my day jobs was a soul-crushing stint as a legal secretary in a corporate law firm. That job inspired the theme of slavery at the core of The Thrall’s Tale. Why I accepted this torture for eight – yes EIGHT – long years is, at this point, completely beyond me.

But then I remember how it all began – how I used to write fiction between memos and briefs. I was an incredibly fast typist, motivated by my desire to get back to my own work; so they kept me on and paid me reasonably well. Yet I was plagued by paranoia that I’d be discovered and fired, and by certain co-workers who clearly resented that I wasn’t “one of the gals”. All this fed the drama that was growing in the password-protected document that was my manuscript. Read the first chapter of Thrall and you’ll see just a touch of how it all got intertwined.

So when I think back to those years of self-imposed torture, I feel a sense of gratitude equal to my relief that I’m no longer there. These days everything I do has something to do with writing. Yet I’ve learned more from my “real life” experiences than I ever could have learned locked up in a room all alone with those psychotic whispers.

In an excerpt from Don’t Quit Your Day Job published in The New York Times last week, John Grisham relates his sweaty trials with manual labor and the humiliation of selling men’s underwear at Sears. Somehow the path for him, as for so many of us, in the end led to writing success: “I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. …Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had — but it’s worth it.”