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 My first was ill-formed and thankfully unpublished.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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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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Writing the Body Electric

So often I begin a writing class with a simple, free-writing prompt, usually just a word or phrase – “skipping in the rain”, “amusement parks”, “the kitchen sink.” I enjoy watching the quizzical glances of my writers at these random ideas. But slowly each of them connects to some inner flash of thought or memory.

In just a moment or two, all their pens have touched down and the air becomes infused with soft shushing. The room almost sizzles with an electric flow of thoughts connecting our deep, interior minds to the exterior space that allows creative energy to manifest into something real.

It’s a miracle really, as magnificent as discovering how to harness lightning. It’s also as practical as the humble plug, lowly, taken for granted, and yet, without it, we sit cold, bored and hungry in the dark.

As long as there’s a physical connection — our pens on pads, our fingers on the keyboard — the energy begins to pick up speed. If we listen to our thoughts, we can feel the ideas forming. The words beg to be written down. If we’re lucky, our hands keep up. (The best thing I ever did was to take that touch-typing class in high school, though I certainly didn’t think so at the time!)

touch lightning

Even hooked into that current, our thoughts might not make sense. They’re just random static and scattered sparks — brilliant, sometimes frightening, irrational, moved by emotion, not logic. As they should be. If we stay with that flow, slowly the electrons (or neurons) begin to fall into line. It is a natural progression from chaos to order that has formed and reformed the universe again and again. Eventually our random thoughts — our own personal chaos — take shape and find direction.

Eventually, the connection slows and sputters or sometimes even breaks. That’s when our eyes gaze up and we stare off into the distance. But if our thoughts drift slightly, that too is a necessary part — a slight readjustment in frequency. Our minds, as our bodies, need sometimes to rest in order to catch the flow of energy again and continue.

The key is not to unplug completely. We must dip the pen again and float with the stream, even as it shifts and veers, often in completely unexpected directions.

By working from random meanderings into a purposeful stream of thought, these seemingly meaningless prompts become vital exercise. They help beginners and more practiced writers strengthen our instincts to tap into the flow which is so necessary to create short stories, memoirs, novels, plays — to write anything, really.

The purpose is to physically — pen on pad — tap into the unconscious stream and to steer toward a single, clear image, to follow it doggedly, fluidly, instinctually again and again until there is no question that we can find it whenever we need it. The practice may seem pointless at first, but over time, our words flow more freely until writing becomes as natural as speech or thought.

And that is where creativity begins.
~~~
Here’s a list of prompts I’ve used over the last few months. Pick one to start or end your writing day. Write for ten minutes. No editing or second-guessing. Just write. Ready, set, pens down, fingers on keyboards. GO!

  • Forgetting
  • First Meeting
  • The Ritual
  • Last Day of Summer
  • Small creature in a storm
  • Write a dream (real or otherwise)
  • What’s missing
  • Violin
  • Passing On
  • A favorite place (for you, someone you know, a character)
  • Blackbirds
  • Family gatherings
  • Write a run-on sentence
  • Something worth stealing
  • Writing on the wall
  • A holiday tradition
  • Packing
  • Start with the phrase: “If the door opens, go through.”
  • A place you once lived
  • Your first time (take it any way you choose!)
  • Origami
  • Damp earth
  • The scent of an orange (go smell one – really!)
  • Falling Leaves
  • Skipping in the Rain
  • Being Bored
  • An argument
  • Write about the living room (yours, your character’s…)
  • The Final Chapter
  • Folding sheets
  • Don’t Panic!
  • The playroom
  • Spring cleaning
  • Kitchen Sink
  • Amusement Park

I sing the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
— Walt Whitman


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Grace in Few Words

The Writers Circle has been graced with the voices of several poets this session, some who declared themselves as such and others who have, unintentionally or out of sheer desperation, stumbled into this most challenging realm of brevity, nuance and meaning.

It’s a miraculous thing to be able to distill words to their most compact and powerful. I’ve toyed with poetry for years and have rarely succeeded. I seem to prefer to wallow in the luxury of prose, all those words with which to play, expound, expand, express. See, I use far too many!

But poetry’s spareness packs a wallop. In a few magnificently chosen phrases, the entire sweep of life or a single moment can be intimately shared. I’ve always been amazed when I’ve reached a good poem’s finish, feeling that visceral pressure in my heart as I take in its meaning, usually going back to read it ever more carefully, again and again.

April is National Poetry Month and there are plenty of venues for celebration.

From The Academy of American Poets come 30 Ways to Celebrate, from taking a poem to work or out to lunch to writing one on the pavement. (Must do that with the kids!)

In New York City, the Pen American Center is holding its 7th Annual World Voices Festival from April 25-May 1, featuring great writers of all ilks, including poets, from around the world.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, host of possibly the best poetry festival ever (held right here in New Jersey!), is posting daily videos from the 2010 festival at NJPAC.

Similarly, The New York Review of Books is posting a daily poem from their awe-inspiring archive.

Check out all of these offerings. If you know others, please share them with us in the comments below.

Most of all, I challenge each of you to take a moment out of your April and write a poem. Whether you have never tried it before, do so every day or every once in a while, the effort will transform you.


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The Writer’s Journey

My son pulled a book from the bookstore shelf the other day that he thought might be good for my writing students: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

It is written for screenwriters (which I’m not – at least not so far), so I’d never noticed it before. But I was immediately drawn to the hedge labyrinth on the cover for its symmetry and symbolism, recalling my days at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and my early search for my writer’s voice. It all began with the exploration of myth.

I hadn’t thought of it in a while. I had long ago learned how to create a story without a distinct, preordained template, but as I paged through the book, I saw that it turned on the theme of some of my earliest writings: The Hero’s Journey.

I’m probably showing my age here, but I remember distinctly when the freedom and daring to write a long, plotted novel came to me. It was while watching Bill Moyers’ fantastic conversations with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”, on PBS.

In that series of insightful interviews, Campbell embellished on the classic structure of the heroic “monomyth“: the hero’s call to adventure that takes him out of the ordinary world; his descent into darkness, enduring terrible trials and ordeals; and his eventual return, usually older or almost certainly wiser.

It was such a strong and obvious journey – one I knew I could follow. And I did. My first novel was based on it; and in some ways perhaps all that has followed has fit some version of that mold.

It brought to mind a saying that there are only three basic plots, but infinite variations. I looked it up online and found infinite variations on the saying itself, and exponential granularity in the distinct central themes of those supposedly limited plots.

It made me think of a fractal, which is a geometrical structure that expresses itself with ever increasing complexity, creating endless and fascinating variations. They are everywhere in nature: in microscopic strands of DNA, in the unfurling of a fern, in the staggering structure of a giant redwood tree, in the jagged contours of the Himalayas.

Can it be that our play with words is part of that same unfolding magnificence? Are we simply following the natural path set out for us, but taking our own route? Each step and story leads us farther on our own writer’s journey, which can be heroic indeed.

I have no doubt that there’s much to be learned from Christopher Vogler’s “The Writers Journey”. Though I haven’t read it yet, it’s been added to my towering, ever more precarious pile.