Digging for Words

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


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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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Musing with Aristotle

For me, the older the better as far as reading tastes and research go. For my latest novel, I’ve nearly memorized parts of Herodotus’ Histories. (Book IV is fascinating – really!) I’ve regularly perused Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Tacitus. OK, maybe I’m just a little weird, but I love hanging with the ancients.

I recently returned to 2360-year-old roots for a clearer understanding of the elements of good fiction. Aristotle’s Poetics details six critical pieces: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song.

In our many discussions about writing, particularly on Thursday nights, we have argued over terms like “character-driven” and “plot-driven”. Both are essential and inextricably intertwined.

Aristotle calls Plot “the first principle” and “the soul of a tragedy.” For him, character held second place, as he compares it with painting: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In other words, we need to know the structure surrounding our characters’ existence and what’s happening to move them forward. The most beautiful, poetic, well-observed characters must be propelled by a reason-to-be, something that answers the ever troubling questions, “What’s happening here?” and “Why should I care?”

Aristotle perceived Character as “objects of imitation… personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought…. These – thought and character – are the two natural causes from which actions spring.” (Part VI) So character causes action. And action, or plot, affects character. Some stories are propelled more by external forces (plot) than internal forces (character). But you absolutely need both. Otherwise, per Aristotle, you end up with a lot of beautiful colors but no form.

Of course, we live in the post-modern era. We’ve seen Jackson Pollack splatters and monochrome canvases. In literature also, we’ve grown to appreciate writing that intentionally veers from Aristotelian parameters. But at least when starting out, we are wise to attend these ancient guidelines. Before Picasso played with Cubism, he painted quite a few realistic works. The same should be true for new and developing writers.

Aristotle continues with Thought, essentially the story’s big ideas and thematic motivations. According to Poetics, Part XIX, “dramatic incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.” Thus the hackneyed literary adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Show the inherent themes and motivations, don’t explicitly tell them through long winded explanations. Easier said than done.

Next comes Diction, which he defines as “the mere metrical arrangement of the words”. In Part XXII of Poetics, Aristotle speaks about the perfection of style. He goes on at length about parts of speech (Part XX), the use of meter (Part XXIII) and metaphor (Part XXI). After more than 2000 years, the questions and tools remain the same. Well-crafted language is an vital overlay, bringing uniqueness and specificity to characters, and musicality to plot and exposition.

Aristotle also wrote that Song – literally music – “holds the chief place among the embellishments.” Of course, he was writing primarily about drama and stage craft, not prose; but it doesn’t hurt to imagine a soundtrack to your writing. I’ve been known to play certain music to bring the mood of a scene more strongly into my thoughts as I write. Song or music express emotion, excitement and energy that can subconsciously infuse your prose.

Finally, we come to what Aristotle calls Spectacle but that we’d describe as special effects. Lots of shooting, explosions and chase scenes are eye-catching and exhilarating, but they’re better when compelled by reasons inherent to the plot and characters. “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (Part VI)

The elements are all there – one through six. Simple, right? Not! As we each struggle to cultivate a voice, we should think of Aristotle’s “Diction”, striving for the sense of music in our words, even if they are never meant to be read aloud. We should validate the use of spectacle, without getting carried away. But we should lean most heavily on the dual elements of plot and character. One without the other cannot really exist. Both together, well wrought and intricately tied with language, music, spectacle and rich ideas, we can only hope and pray will result in a story that’s completely engaging, able to hold our readers’ attention for, say, a couple of thousand years.

Special thanks to The Internet Classics Archive for access to the S. H. Butcher translation.


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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 Burden of Good Taste

I’m constantly captured by other writers’ stories – of course, their literary masterworks, but in this case I’m talking about their personal stories: how they struggled, how they anguished, how they sweated, persisted and survived (or sometimes not) until they managed to squeeze out something from their fingertips and hearts that moves us again and again.

I read these writers’ tales to find comfort in my own struggle, in the constant feeling that, despite my best efforts, yet again I’ve missed the mark. For writing, there is no formula, no rubric that explains for us unequivocally what we’ve done right or wrong. There’s only the subtle sense that, whatever it is, it’s just not quite there.

Ira Glass, host of “This American Life“, has as interesting explanation for this in this video:


It’s “because we have good taste”! As such, we know when what we’ve done is not up to snuff. If we couldn’t tell the difference, we probably wouldn’t sweat or drink or attend years of writers workshops or wake up to jot down notes in the middle of the night. We’d be happy with mediocrity and move on.

Instead we demand of ourselves months and years of revising. We subject ourselves to the opinions of others whom we hope – pray! – are wiser than ourselves. We tear up yet another stack of drastically edited pages and open up the file at Chapter One again. No one is asking us to do it. Very few of us have an anxious editor breathing down our necks. And yet obsession and the intractable vision of perfection spurs us to suffering. Or is it martyrdom? Or joy?

I came across two useful reservoirs of writerly angst, method and madness. First, from NPR.org, What’s The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write, and second, an online treasure trove of literary greatness, The Paris Review’s entire archive of interviews with some of this century and last’s most influential writers.

Needless to say, I haven’t had a chance to do more than peek into this extraordinary repository. But what I’ve seen displays the wisdom of experience and the depth of thought that must inform all efforts to create something worthwhile. There is no author out there who hasn’t had their share of struggle, self-doubt, and failure, even after monumental success. It is all a journey and all of us are constantly learning and relearning our craft.

As Ray Bradbury succinctly put it, “You fail only if you stop writing.


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Reading in the Bathroom

I foolishly started reading Anna Karenina this spring – twice, and then again this summer. Each time I was dissuaded by the time-swallowing responsibility of editing other people’s work. Beloved writer-friends and clients, you know I adore you. But every once in a while it is a relief just to hide in the bathroom between ream-length tomes and read something that requires neither a big red pen nor an editorial eye.

The Perfect Bathroom
I usually pick up The Atlantic, The New Yorker, browse the photos in National Geographic, or slog through one of that large stack of articles I’ve printed from the Internet.

But the other day I stopped myself. No! Read a book – a real book with a bound cover and back-matter blurbing its praises. Stop worrying that it might get dripped on by childishly undried (but washed!) hands, or that the cats will jump up on the narrow shelf beside the toilet and send all your precious literature into the – Eew!

I couldn’t quite bring myself to allow Anna Karenina to sit there. (No, I’d prefer her sitting with stoic crossed arms on my nightstand where she’s been neglected – again.) Instead I chose Stephen King’s wonderful memoir of craft, “On Writing”. What makes On Writing perfect bathroom reading? First, much of it is presented in brief snippets. There are also longer sections that focus on the topics we all struggle with, including simple but absolute truths like, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

How succinct! How accurate! And yet here I sit. OK, I’m reading in the bathroom, I’m editing and I’m blogging. But does any of that count? What about the hard stuff – reading classics, analyzing story structure and character development? What about hours of uninterrupted, fingernail-biting writer’s block? Are these the realms of the blessedly unemployed or the very young?

King also mentions the rationale for our hard work – joy. How often have I found myself forgetting about that, in all my anxiety about getting my novel just right and anticipating its fate in the larger world? Why struggle if not for joy? Why bother to write except for the gift that it gives us, first to the writer, then to those who read. But even if the writing stays locked in a drawer, with it goes a fragment of a soul that needed cleansing.

King says in an old Salon interview that his mother “used to say, when we were scared, ‘Whatever you’re afraid of, say it three times fast and it will never happen.’ And that’s what I’ve done in my fiction. Basically, I’ve said out loud the things that really terrify me and I’ve turned them into fictions.” In this, he and I are exactly alike. Just think, why else would a woman who hates the cold ever dream of writing a novel about Viking Age Greenland?

To face fear on paper makes one bolder. It sets you free.

So spit on the page, as I’ve said many times. Just spit. Get it out. Don’t worry. Don’t edit. You can fix it later. Don’t analyze why you write while you’re doing it. That’s the surest route to an endlessly blank page. Feel that freedom, even if for only ten minutes at the beginning of a writing session. Isn’t that a brief moment of heaven?

Did I mention I also keep a notebook and pen beside the toilet?

Read an excerpt from On Writing and hear a great interview with Stephen King on NPR.org


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We Are What We Read

I’m lucky because my boys, ages 6 and 9, still let me read to them each night before bed. They’ve graduated from children’s picture books to novels that develop psyches – Narnia, Harry Potter, the wild, wondrous world of Roald Dahl.

Recently I convinced them to let me read one of my own childhood favorites, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a mouthful of a title that has stuck with me since I read it when I was probably just a little older than my oldest son is now.
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
At first I wondered if the book would hold up. Would the story be as absolutely captivating as I remembered? Would it hold my boys’ wall-bouncing attention, more recently used to fast-action novels like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series?

But as I read the book aloud, I found myself quickly swept into my own memory. Almost at once I recognized myself in the main character, Claudia Kincaid, a perfectionist, a planner, intent in school, arrogant about grammar, with a determination and innate curiosity that only well-planned but ill-advised action could satisfy. Claudia sets her sights on New York City for a runaway escape from her invisible life. New York represents independence and adventure to her and promises to “change her” in some indelible way. It was this same expectation that I embraced many years ago, so long that I’d forgotten its origins until I reread these pages.

Claudia and her brother Jamie spend a week hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To this day, I still look for the 16th century canopy bed where they slept and expect to find the sprite-laced bronze fountain where they bathed and gathered wishing pennies to fund their adventure, though both have been removed from the museum’s exhibit halls for at least a decade.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
Somehow this novel informed my childhood and determined my trajectory, as did others I’ve since placed on my sons’ bookshelves: Island of the Blue Dolphins about an Indian girl who survives alone on a Pacific Island. Perhaps my passion for unfamiliar subsistence cultures stems from that book written 50 years ago.

The Secret Garden
Then there’s The Secret Garden, the very first book I ever stayed up all night to read. I can still feel the embrace of its Gothic setting, the constancy of mists drifting over the lonely moors. I see Mary Lennox arriving orphaned from India, abandoned and neglected, wandering the cold, echoing halls of a mansion haunted by disembodied moans. Then I feel the moist breath of perilous, unfolding friendship and freedom, and the mystery and joy of the rich soil of the secret garden.

How can I help but recognize in all this the first kernels of my own imaginative urgings – characters haunted by abandonment or longing for escape, mostly women who make of their lives what they can against odds and often alone? These themes are deeply seeded in my own stories, as are their atmospheres, cultures and climates filled with loneliness and uncertainty.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
I am compiling a list of the books I’ve adored, whose reading burned impressions in my memory that surely I am following in my work and life even now. How will it feel to reread A Tree Grows In Brooklyn after living in that borough for those many years? Of that story, I particularly recall that the only books in Francie Nolan’s childhood home were the Bible and Shakespeare. I recall gobbling Shakespeare like a greedy beggar not long after reading her tale.
A Wrinkle in Time
And what about A Wrinkle in Time – a novel so keenly influential on my young, impressionable mind that, sometime in my mid-20s, I found myself climbing the creaking stairs of an Upper West Side convent to absorb the sage guidance of its author, Madeleine L’Engle? She directly and indirectly influenced the path of my creative life. How will it feel to reopen those pages and understand the depths of an eleven-year-old girl’s wonder?

Make a list of your own. Go back and reread some that still flash in your memory. You might find a key to your own creative heart, tucked away in a dusty corner where it had almost been forgotten.


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Mediocre Books and One-Time Wonders

We all hope and pray that the writing we’ve been slaving away at for weeks, months or years is brilliant, publishable, praiseworthy.

Sometimes we’re right. More often than not, it seems, we’re wrong.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad writers. I found two links this week that brought home the point that every writer, no matter how skilled, talented, lauded or adored, sometimes misses the mark. And some of us (God help, please no!) have only one really good book within us.

Take note of “Great Writers, Bad Novels” in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I particularly love the honesty in Flannery O’Connor’s quoted letter to a friend: “It appears that I have finished my novel [“The Violent Bear It Away”].…Just in that state of not knowing if it works or is the worst novel ever written.”

We all feel that way, sometimes afterward, but more often than not right in the midst of creation. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days they do, until we go back the next day and realize everything we thought was brilliant really was just a pile of lard!
A Writer's Obsession

How do any of us stack up in our earnest efforts to get our hearts on the page? As Robert McCrum muses in his column in the U.K.’s Guardian, “Writers who flourish at the peak of their powers for longer than a decade, or even two, are rare birds.”

Indeed! How many of us struggle just to get a few words on paper, to complete amidst the daily demands of our busy lives, a single short story or a somewhat lengthy essay? Wouldn’t any of us give our right arm (or perhaps more critically, each of our ten fingers) to have written one of the novels in The Huffington Post’s list of “Great Literary One-Hit Wonders“?

Writing is struggle. Perhaps that’s why I witness such incredible reluctance in some of my younger students. Writing IS HARD, especially if you have nothing particular that inspires you, as is often the case with essays that are required for school.

But some of us “rare birds” (in a less rarefied form than above), feel a literal pressure within our bodies as a story forms and pushes upward, forcing itself upon us, demanding with such force that we cannot refuse it.

So we write. We have a passion as powerful as any new-found love. If we neglect it, even for a day or two, we feel guilty as if we’ve forgotten to feed our infant. After a while, we can no longer separate the story from ourselves. We carry it around with us and listen to it, think about it even when we are occupied with something else, take notes at odd hours of the night, in the middle of meetings, when we’re chatting with someone on the train. We know we cannot give it up no matter how tired we are, no matter how bored we are with it, or how frustrated with the awareness that our love, our soul, may never find its way to a wide, appreciative audience, that we are all almost inevitable victims of what McCrum calls “the murderous cannon fire of indifference and critical disdain”.

None of that matters somehow when we’re in the midst of writing. It is creation itself that drives us. If our effort is mediocre, we know we will try again, searching forever for the unforgiving truth that something’s living inside us and we are its slave, not its master. Our stories are our essence. They inform our existence and give us our sense of self. If they were anything less, why would we bother?

We write until the well runs dry. Then we rest until we’re ready to take up the challenge again. We are grateful for our mistakes. We learn from them and slowly, with plodding certainty, we actually get better.

But no writer travels a straight or steady path. This is not a staircase; it’s a mountain. Sometimes we trip up. But that, too, is part of the journey.

In The Wall Street Journal essay, perhaps the most poignant thought comes at the very end: “No writer sets out to produce a mediocre book; sooner or later, most do. Forgiveness is in order. As Aldous Huxley once said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.'”