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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Getting Ready for the Next Wave: Our Future as Storytellers

I was listening to NPR on the drive home the other night, hearing how we should be preparing for the rise out of this economic downturn. They were advising everyone to keep retraining, keep improving our skills, and to stay attuned to our industry, so that we’ll be “ready for the next wave.”

Well, in publishing, the next wave has already crashed. Many of us are swimming around, trying to find something to grab onto. Just yesterday, the news was rife with stories about the new Google eBookstore. It’s an encouraging sign that Amazon finally has competition in this exponentially growing segment of the book market. At the same time, those who adore the book as a physical object must resign themselves: digital books are here to stay.


There are some pretty cool things about this new digital horizon. First, your “book” can turn into a wild, multimedia experience. Check out Interactive Alice and enhanced Narnia. These are truly fantastic examples of what the digital platform offers.

But what does it mean for creative writers like ourselves? Are we expected to become multimedia wizards, able not only to write wonderful stories, but to create “books” that are more akin to interactive, animated movies? Will this part of the publishing process become the purview of our publishers, taking the author’s ageless craft and enhancing it, pairing us with digital illustrators as we have only been paired in the world of children’s picture books before?

It’s a fascinating prospect, one with tremendous creative and marketing potential. But, as you can see from the tried and true titles digitally enhanced above, there has been a pretty solid market for a book before publishers are likely to make that kind of investment. For now, digitally enhanced ebooks are likely to remain a fantasy for all but the most well-known or tech-savvy authors.

Meanwhile, we writers must still ply our craft, refining our skills and our stories as we hang on for this uncertain, if exciting, future. Some of us are already experimenting with new forms, like friend and local novelist Pamela Redmond Satran and her blog novel, Ho Springs. The blog format, with its generally short entries (well, maybe not mine!) is a fascinating venue for developing new forms of fiction. There are other, even shorter formats out there, as I detailed in my post last year, The Evolutionary Invention.


I find all this fascinating, a real cultural revolution. As Haruki Murakami mentions in his recent New York Times essay, Reality A and Reality B, “The novels and stories we write will surely become increasingly different in character and feel from those that have come before, just as 20th-century fiction is sharply and clearly differentiated from 19th-century fiction.”

Eventually, great art may come from this short-attention-span, digitally enhanced new medium. The questions we must all ask for now are:

  • What form will our stories take?
  • How will they be read?
  • How will they be appreciated?
  • What will really move our readers?

These are the same questions we’ve wrestled with all along.

In the end, does it really matter what form our product takes? We are, all of us, just storytellers, aren’t we? Stories were told orally long before writing existed. As I tell my youngest students, “Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire listening to a storyteller’s words. Now imagine that you are the storyteller. Now imagine that you want your story shared in a village hundreds of miles away.” Writing, and particularly the printing press, made it easier for those stories to survive and be passed along. The new digital media is just Story’s next wave.


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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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The Poet in All of Us

I am not a poet. I would never claim to be. If writing were music, I prefer to play conductor to soloist. My fiction would be a symphony, not a piece for solo piano. But the craft of a prose writer also involves cadences, subtle pauses for thought, deeper undercurrents and expressions that run just beneath the written words. There is a great deal that all of us can learn from poetry, particularly brevity (something that obviously escapes me at times in these blog posts!).

Since 1996, the month of April has been National Poetry Month. I was reminded of this when my third grader came home with an assignment to pick and memorize a poem for school.
National Poetry Month

Almost simultaneously came a scattering of poetry messages to my inbox: yesterday on NPR: ‘Who I Am’: Poetry Not Wasted On The Young from which I discovered “Arithmetic” by Carl Sandburg, a good one for my son, though I’m doing my best to reserve judgment at least until he’s read it.

Poetry is immediate. In just a few short lines, a well-wrought poem can raise the emotions of visceral experience. It can share the commonality of human existence – sorrow or elation, melancholy in the passage of time, humor, guilt, irony. It can draw the shape of an entire character, the journey of a complex life. It is truly amazing that such breadth and complexity can be twisted into such an incredibly compact creation.

When I read poetry, I am always anxious for that heart-tapping “ah-ha” when the message of the poem comes breathlessly clear to me. Inevitably I read a poem once, twice, three times, then return to it again over years.

I remember attending poetry readings at the 92nd Street Y in New York City where the poets read slowly, purposefully without inflection, but always – always read their poems twice as if the repetition would remove any lingering veil from their richly insightful meanings.

And for nearly a decade, I’ve forgone the pleasure of attending The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, a biennial event that I recall with much passion for the freedom of my pre-motherhood days, when my husband and I strolled from tent to church to woody grove at Waterloo Village, New Jersey.
Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

This year, The Poetry Festival is moving to Newark. And I think my boys are just old enough that I might risk dragging them along. I remember first discovering the festival from a documentary by Bill Moyers in the early 1990s. In a recent redux, Bill Moyers Journal revisited the festival as I remember it. Check out the wonderful video on PBS’s website, though I wasn’t able to embed the code to post it directly here: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/03062009/watch3.html.

Besides the glory of the greatest works of poetry presented in our own backyard, we in New Jersey have access to countless offerings in New York City. Another great annual event – PEN World Voices – starts next Monday and runs until Sunday, May 2. I have always loved both PEN’s festival and mission to draw attention to the vast body of world literature and to promote freedom of speech in countries where authors are at risk to do what we all do freely every day.
Pen World Voices Festival
American contemporary literature suffers from chronic naval-gazing, an almost isolationist self-importance that frequently ignores the wider world. PEN’s World Voices Festival includes writers that are unfamiliar to most of us, but whose writings have affected the broader society of global readers and bring a taste and perspective that’s as intriguing as it is unfamiliar.

It reminds me of the scents of cumin, curry and sweet tamarind sauce, the first time ever in my life I smelled or tasted Indian food. It was at the apartment of my friend Swati Dasgupta. We were seven years old and everything about her life was exotic and new – her mother wrapped in silken saris with a red dot on her forehead, their magical appearance in my dull Massachusetts community from someplace halfway around the world. It opened my eyes to new magical possibilities. From that moment I was hooked. Imagine if I’d never tasted anything but hamburgers?

If you have time, take a taste at one of these incredible festivals. You never know where your imagination, your writing or your life might take you.


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Different Literary Breeds

Perhaps it was a mistake to read James Patterson Inc. back to back with Michael Cunningham’s A Writer Should Always Feel Like He’s In Over His Head. For James Patterson, writing doesn’t seem very hard. Of course, I wouldn’t dare disparage him. Honestly, I’m impressed. He has created a literary empire and sells more books than any other author including Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown COMBINED! His output is extraordinary – the article says, “nine hardcovers a year are really only the beginning”! Either he knows something I don’t (obviously he does), never sleeps and writes absolutely perfect first drafts, or he delegates the difficult task of execution to others who are able to imitate his speedy style to a T (which he does).

But these days it doesn’t sound like he’s doing much writing – at least not what you or I would call writing – that meticulous drafting and re-envisioning of characters, scenes, setting and plot, carefully crafting words to flow out elegantly from a page. I’m sure he works hard, but to me what he’s doing sounds more like producing or directing. He has a stable of co-authors who flesh out his outlined plots. In television that’s called a writers’ room. I’m envious, believe me! Plotting is the fun part. It’s the hard effort of what I call “putting flesh on the bones” that makes most writers want to pull their hair out, open the refrigerator, drink, or occasionally contemplate suicide.

Patterson is impressive – no, remarkable. A true literary machine. But for the rest of us without the budget, power or inclination to let someone else write our words, writing is a slow, difficult, sometimes unbearable process.
Golden_Retriever
Nevertheless, in the last few decades, publishing success increasingly requires not artistry but sales. In A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale, Dani Shapiro reminds us of another essay, “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years,” (Sorry, I’ll have to find it at the library and get a copy to you – ooh, how old very fashioned!) by legendary editor and founder of New American Review, Ted Solotaroff. The title tells it all – in the cold… the first ten years…. I took ten years. Our own fellow writer Stuart Lutz took even longer. So many of us struggle, trying to fit the difficult craft in between the necessities of life. Even if we could write full time, would we satisfactorily complete our task in, say, three months? Six? A year?

Shapiro writes, “There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years…. The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry …has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. …How, under these conditions, can a writer take the risks required to create something original and resonant and true?”

She is right, whether we like it or not. Things have changed radically. And the James Patterson article gives the most succinct summary I’ve read of exactly why:

“Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.

“The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.”
portuguese-water-dog.jpg
Like the world of the stage, where I once attempted to survive, creative writing attracts different breeds – the entertainer (e.g. James Patterson) and the artist (e.g. Michael Cunningham). There is certainly a place in the world and an audience for each, just as there are some who like Golden Retrievers and others who prefer Portuguese Water Dogs. (Thank you, Stephanie Staszak!)

Personally, I admit that I strive for the more challenging, less popular brand. Though I envy the sales and luxury that entertainment brings, it’s simply not who I am. I’ve even tried to pull back my style, to simplify my plots, to speed up my pace, to add more sex and violence. (Well, not too much more, for anyone who’s read The Thrall’s Tale…) Even when I do, my work only feels “right” when I add lyricism, description, metaphor, complexity and rich, difficult characters. So my attempt at a 300 page draft quickly becomes 500 challenging, dense pages!

Some of us have the facility for different styles; and we should all work to try new and different things. But at our core we all are who we are and we write what we must write. Perhaps it’s best if we discover what breed we’re born to be, embrace it and nurture it as best we can. Not everyone can be James Patterson, and not everyone wants to be. But each of our unique talents should be used to bring us the immeasurable gift of satisfaction in our work and, if we are lucky, a few readers who will appreciate it.

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Stories That Move In

I walked rather blindly into writing historical fiction. Or perhaps it walked into me. For example, I was ignorant to its stigma as a genre, kindred to those other literary stepchildren, science fiction and fantasy. I had never read what Hilary Mantel, winner of this year’s Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall, calls, “chick-lit with wimples”. Instead, my imagination was formed on books like The Secret Garden, Little Women and Black Beauty. As I grew older, I sank my teeth into Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. I never really worried that these authors, for the most part, weren’t writing about the distant past. In many of their works, they were portraying fairly contemporary worlds.
Opening the Door
But for me, their stories spoke of history, different values, different customs and lifestyles, different ways of thought. If these novels and plays which so captured my imagination at very impressionable times in my life formed my eventual passion for writing about history, then call it a curse or a gift. What I’ve learned is that we rarely choose our stories or even our genres. More often than not, they choose us.

Hilary Mantel writes in a recent article in The Guardian: “A novel arrives whether you want it or not. After months or years of silent travel by night, it squats like an illegal immigrant at Calais, glowering and plotting, thinking of a thousand ways to gain a foothold. It’s useless to try to keep it out. It’s smarter than you are. It’s upon you before you’ve seen its face, and has set up in business and bought a house.”

There is no invalid topic, style or genre. There is only what bangs loudest at the door of our minds, that forces us to pick up a pad and pen or open a computer file at odd hours of day or night, tapping out nonsense that somehow coalesces into meaning for us and hopefully for others.

Each writer is unique and so is the “immigrant” that bangs at the door. Let’s welcome each of them in, make up a bed and be grateful when they stay a while.