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 My first was ill-formed and thankfully unpublished.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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Writing in 3D

We’ve all heard it before. “Your character’s flat. You need to make him three-dimensional.”

Sure, great. But what exactly does that mean?

We all know we live in a three dimensional world. We learn it in grade school: a line, a plane, a cube… But how do you make a character three dimensional? Do you make him really fat? Do you give him a limp so he wobbles when he walks, thereby taking up more space?

Believe it or not, I’ve tried both, and no, that’s not what it means. Three-dimensional means you have to dig deeper.


Take that character with the limp, for example. It’s fine to describe him walking, every struggle to get his footing, every attempt to hide his frailty and vulnerability. Ah! There’s the hint that I need… his vulnerability. There’s where I begin to ask: why is he vulnerable? How does he feel about his limp? And, even more pressing, how did he get the limp in the first place?

It was only when I start asking these questions that the concept of three-dimensionality begins to come clear.

For me, it often starts with the physical. I was a dancer, once upon a time, and an actress after that. I’m pretty sensitive to subtle inflections of voice and shifts of movement – how they can reveal what a character is feeling. I often get up and act out what my characters are doing in a particular scene. Still, the physical is just the start. It’s getting beyond the external to the why’s, the how’s; for my poor man with the limp, it’s the who-does-he-think-of-every-time-he-takes-a-step, the source of dread that haunts his soul every time he trips or stumbles. Answering those questions gives me a character, not with a flaw, but with a life.

But not everyone feels comfortable getting up and acting out their scenes. How can you develop a 3D character without feeling like an utter fool in the privacy of your writing room?

The answer came to me about a month ago when Michelle Cameron and I were teaching a workshop on Creating Character. I had come armed with a few simple physical exercises for the writers at hand, but sensed in their awkward giggles that I wouldn’t get much beyond giving them some key details and letting them walk around in a circle for a couple of minutes “in someone else’s skin”. It worked well enough. But I realized I had to break it down.

I was jotting notes while Michelle asked the group, “What makes a character three-dimensional?”

“They’re quirky…. Idiosyncratic…. They have a heart…. A sense of humor…. A purpose for being…. They’re relatable…. Unpredictable…. They have room to grow.”

All the while, I’d been thinking about time – how time forms us and forces us to take actions, sometimes ones we never would have planned, that change the course of everything. And about how time slowly nips away at us until the “I” who once was is unrecognizable to the “I” that is now.

“To make a character three-dimensional,” I popped up, “is simple. All they need is a past, present and future.”

I’d drawn a little diagram, nothing special, but it illustrated the point.


“We are formed by our past. Everything we are comes from those first experiences, those memories: the hug we never got, or the helicopter mom, the fire we escaped, or the first love that cannot be matched or compared. And we all have a future – our wants, our needs, our expectations, our plans. Everything we do today – we as people and as characters – is propelled toward our future but shaped by our past, so that the choices we make are rooted in a complete and authentic reality and the desires we attempt to achieve are bolstered or thwarted by everything we drag behind. It’s simple!”

OK, it’s not simple. And I doubt I said it as articulately at the time, but I saw it in my head. It was an epiphany formed instantaneously there in that class. And suddenly I knew that all those years I’d spent in acting classes, sitting in the back of the theater jotting down pages of character notes – their background, parents, old relationships, losses and loves – I was doing what we all need to be doing every day as we get to know our characters.

And, just like in those acting days, we should do it “off-page”. Not in the context of the beautiful words you are drafting for your elegantly crafted scenes, but messy, in a notebook or a bullet-pointed list, so you don’t have to worry if it sounds right or makes any sense at all to anyone but you.


You only have to explore, imagine, and decide, “Yes, he fell out of a tree when he was five. He broke his leg in three places. But he was in the woods. Too far to be heard. Crying… Crying and no one heard him. Finally in the dark, they came with flashlights and shadowed scowls. But the skin was cut. Infection had set in. The bones never set quite right, and since then, all the running, climbing, exploring. No more. And then in school…”

And suddenly the character has gained the inherent mass of a loss, fear, struggle and sadness. Limping forward, all he wants in all the world is to climb and run again.


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Peeling the Onion

In his insightful essay, Found in Translation from last Sunday’s New York Times, author Michael Cunningham peels the many-layered onion of the authorial relationship.

His initial premise is translation, which one immediately assumes means language to language. And it does. Every book is re-formed into something completely new when it is translated, effected by the subtle shifts of meaning and even comprehension that come from refocusing through a different cultural lens.
Peeling the onion
But the layers of translation go deeper than that. Cunningham points to the truth that all of us are writing works in translation – that our conception can never be wrought in concrete form without undergoing a kind of transformation. It is never pure, never precisely what we’d original felt or witnessed in that perfect vision that lives in our minds. Writers learn to accept that we can never quite midwife our imagination into existence here on earth as it is in heaven.

And then there is the translation of our words by our reader. How many of us have discussed a character or scene we’ve enjoyed, only to discover that another reader envisioned the moment quite differently?

I was sharing the experience of a young adult novel, called Fish by L.S. Matthews, with my son. It’s a fascinating, simple story of a family’s escape from a nameless, war-torn village in Africa. What’s interesting is that the narrator is also nameless. About fifty pages into the book, I asked him how he imagined the character. “Oh, he’s a boy, about 7 or 8.”

“A boy?” I said. “I saw it as a girl!”

We both had shared the same words, the same journey. Yet our experience, our translation of the author’s intent (which was, no doubt, a translation of her own archetypal vision) was markedly different.

Our best hope in the struggle to achieve the purity of our vision, is to paint our tales with all the lushness, distinction and visceral truth that we can. Though we cannot create our perfect world here on earth, or in the minds of our readers, the vision they each experience as they read our words is the perfect merging of our imaginations and theirs.


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The Best Gift for Writers

You may have noticed that I don’t often blog about technique. For me, this forum is more about sharing the experience of writing.

The truth about craft is that it’s all in the doing. We each confront the blank page or screen time and again. We learn to accept struggle, failure and critique, then go back to do it all over again.

Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin, is apparently fond of quoting Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

How utterly true!

Time
But we all learn from each other. Certainly in this Writers Circle, we’ve done that week after week, sharing our perspectives, making suggestions, taking them as often as we throw them out. Then trying again.

We can also learn from writers more experienced than ourselves. We’ve all heard grateful praise for Natalie Goldberg’s life-changing Writing Down the Bones. It’s a terrific book of freeing prompts and exercises whose goal is not to produce finished work but to express and observe moment to moment both the outer world and the inner life of the writer.

There’s also Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love her metaphor – taking it word by word, step by step. It reminds me of that hiking piece I wrote for all of you a couple of years ago. I’ll post it here, since not everyone was around back then.

Stephen King’s book On Writing is supposed to be excellent though I’ve only read it in excerpts so far. And of course, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer nudges me to link to several lists of Best Books:
Books are some of the best teachers

Reading the finest writers with a critical eye to how they manage to create their prose is perhaps the very best way to learn the literary craft.

But if you must ask for a holiday gift this season, what any spouse, child, parent, boss, friend or neighbor should know is that the #1 choice any writer would ask for is TIME.

Writing well truly doesn’t require an MFA, a trendy concept or even particularly abundant talent. What it needs more than anything is exorbitant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you all get the gift you most desire. I look forward to hearing from or seeing all of you in the coming year.


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Writing Contests and Opportunities

I came across several writing contests that look really intriguing:

Narratives Fall Contest Narrative’s FALL CONTEST is open to all fiction and nonfiction writers. They’re looking for short shorts, short stories, essays, memoirs, photo essays, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction.

Narrative is a high quality literary magazine looking for works with a strong narrative drive, characters that affect us as human beings, and with language, situation, and insight that are intense and total. They look for works that have the ambition of enlarging our view of ourselves and the world.

• $3,250 First Prize
• $1,500 Second Prize
• $750 Third Prize
• Ten finalists receive $100 each.
• All entries will be considered for publication.

There is a submission Fee of $20 for each entry, but with your entry, you’ll receive three months of complimentary access to Narrative Backstage.

The contest deadline is November 30, 2009.

Glimmer Train regularly holds contests in a number of categories. Right now, the Fiction Open and Best Start competitions are accepting submissions until September 30.

Fiction Open (2,000-20,000 words)
Prizes:
1st place—$2,000 and publication in Glimmer Train Stories.
2nd-place—$1,000 and possible publication.
3rd-place—$600 and possible publication.

Reading fee is $20 per story. Open to all writers.

Results post November 30, winning story publishes in issue 77.

Best Start (not to exceed 1,000 words)
Prizes: The 50 most engaging pieces will each win $50 and make Glimmer Train’s Best Start list, which will be announced in our December bulletin as well as on other major blogs for writers.

Reading fee is $10 per piece. Open only to new writers whose fiction has not appeared in a nationally distributed print publication with a
circulation over 3,000.

Also upcoming are their Family Matters and Standard contests. Check out their site for full details.

* * *

Finally, for anyone who knows an ambitious young writer or two, one of my favorite local bookstores, Watchung Booksellers, is publishing its FIRST EVER LITERARY ZINE. They’re accepting written works from 4th to 12th graders for a Fall Literary Zine as well as suggestions for a creative and catchy title.

The Watchung Booksellers’ staff will choose works based on content, organization of ideas and mechanics, creativity, and originality. This FIRST EVER Literary Zine will be unveiled at an author signing party on the evening of Friday, October 23rd for family and friends. Copies of the Zine will be sold at the store – all proceeds will go to IMANI, Improving Montclair Achievement Network Initiative.

CATEGORIES:
Poem (up to 2 pages long)
Short Story (no more than 1000 words)
Essay (no more than 1000 words)

DETAILS:
* for 4th – 12th graders
* entries must be received by September 25, 2009
* winners will be notified by October 9, 2009
* all work must be original and done without adult help
* entries must contain appropriate language
* two entries can be submitted per person
* all entries must be typed in 12 point font and double spaced
* fill out an entry form and attach it to your work
* DO NOT write your name on your piece, so we can judge it fairly

I wish my own sons were old enough to participate!

Good luck, everyone. Keep us posted if you submit. We’re rooting for you.