Digging for Words

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


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Great Speakers, Great Events, Great Opportunities

Check out these great happenings at The Writers Circle and in our broader, connected creative circles.

First, we’re officially launching our monthly Writers Circle Speaker Series with a talk that goes beyond writing to all aspects of creative thinking.
The Writers Circle Speaker Series
Join me and TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron on October 2, 2-4PM for “Tapping into Creativity” at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange. We’ll be talking about how to bring creative thinking to the classroom, the workplace, and yes, into your own creative work, with hands-on exercises that will challenge your imagination. Tickets are $25/session if pre-registered, $35 at the door, and only $20/session for TWC students and parents (former and current). Students should’ve gotten an email with the discount code, but if you didn’t, just let us know. Register online and, while you’re at it, check out the entire schedule of ten great events. (It’s only $150 for all 10 sessions!)

Second, my good friend, novelist Christina Baker-Kline, shares this terrific mini-retreat for creative women. (Sorry, guys. I’ll find something for you next time!)

Rejuvenate Your Writing Life!
mini-retreat logo
A Restorative Mini-Retreat for Creative Women

with authors Christina Baker Kline and Deborah Siegel
Friday, November 4, 9:30am – 3:30pm, Montclair, New Jersey

This one’s not just for writers. As Christina says, “it’s for anyone who may have a story (or stories) inside but needs a little inspiration and encouragement.” Christina and Deborah are both professional writing mothers who believe that writing is vital — even when it has to happen in the crevices of our lives. (How true!) They held this workshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn this spring with wonderful results. Find out more at Christina’s blog and take advantage of these great women’s wisdom and a day of creative community.

Finally, this from one of the participants at my workshop at the Maywood Library last week. Katie O’Connell writes:

“I have a website, SocialJersey.com which is an event listing site and blog for young northern NJ professionals in their 20s and 30s. I’m updating the site and would like to update it monthly with new content. If you are interested in gaining clips, please email: SocialJerseyEditor@gmail.com.

Thanks, everyone, for spreading the word, sharing the talent and networking around. Now get to writing! I promise I’ll have something substantive to contemplate in the next post. Till then, see you at The Writers Circle.

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A Visit to The Writers Circle with Michelle Cameron

Guest blogger and author Michelle Cameron has shared her thoughts on The Writers Circle Blog before. This past weekend, she visited one of The Writers Circle children’s classes at Luna Stage. Michelle and I are working together to introduce The Writers Circle to the Chatham, Madison, and Florham Park, NJ area this spring. More on that in the weeks to come. Meanwhile, here she shares her impressions from her visit.

It was a small, warm cocoon of a space, with a single rug in the center of the floor. The kids walked in, each one clutching a well-thumbed notebook. Coats were slung over chair backs, boots left akimbo on the floor. The children sat, knees drawn to their chests or folded under them, or they kneeled at the edges of the rug. A striped, snowman-and-snowflake box in the center of the rug held pencils; there were large pads of paper and an enormous selection of markers. The kids were noisy and excited, anecdotes about their week and their writing tripping over one another as they settled down. They knew this was a creative space, a place where they could bring forth fantastic ideas with confidence, could tell the stories that were clamoring to emerge from their imaginations to spill onto the page.

Judith played the role of Pied Piper to these third through fifth graders, who started the session by sharing their work. “Louder, slower,” she said when shyness or softness made a child hard to hear. “Time out,” she’d call, bringing her hands up in a T-symbol when the thoughts flowed too fast and furious. “Who has questions?” she’d ask, and then point her way around the waving forest of eager hands.

In every case, some principle of writing emerged from the young work. Point of view. Conflict. Too many characters. Evocative description. Realist vs. fantasy stories. Judith never talked down to these kids. She shared technical concepts many adults struggle to master. The youngsters absorbed what they could and stored the rest to access later.

The Writers Circle Kids' pencil boxA fifteen minute writing prompt ― the hero being faced with a challenge ― didn’t intimidate these young minds. Many lay on their stomachs to write. Some left the circle and found chairs to sit on. An initial rustle of movement and the flapping of paper gave way to the focused silence of pencils moving across the page.

As the session ended, parents waited in the lobby while the kids collected themselves and reluctantly left the warmth of this creative cocoon. A few parents lingered, talking to Judith about their son or daughter’s progress. “This class has grown so popular!” said one. “It’s been a godsend for my son,” said another.

Could anyone who loves writing and creativity witness this and not be moved and excited? Any parent of a curious, inventive child knows the difficulty of finding a warm, supportive, and challenging outlet for their son or daughter. I’m thrilled to be invited into The Writers Circle and to have the opportunity to bring such an inspired venture to my own community this spring.

Michelle Cameron’s The Fruit of Her Hands: the Story of Shira of Ashkenaz (Pocket Books, September 2009) is based on the life of the author’s thirteenth-century ancestor, Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, a renowned Jewish scholar of medieval Europe. Michelle lives in New Jersey with her husband and two college-age sons.


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Facing the Editor

Picture taking a baby for its first check-up. The doctor says, “You know, this child has six toes and is missing a finger.”

“Doctor, really?” You respond in surprise. All along you’ve seen the extra toe and the missing finger and honestly done your best to ignore them. Maybe no one will notice. Maybe they’re supposed to be that way. Maybe it’s a brand new look, an advance in natural selection that will become the better, more perfect norm.

“No.” The doctor shakes his head. “That toe’s got to go. Just be brave and move it.” Then he takes your hand. “Trust me. It’ll be fine!”


That’s what it’s like as I wait with trepidation for a meeting with my friend and now editor, Marina Budhos, about my latest manuscript, Pasture of Heaven. She’s only the second person to read this new draft, and though she and I have spoken briefly while she’s been reading, today we get to “roll up our sleeves.”

It will take several hours to discuss my next steps. I already know she’s got suggestions and “ideas.” I love when she uses that word because it tells me I’m not alone in my efforts. She won’t just say, “I hate it. Cut that whole section. I don’t like the voice.” She’ll give me suggestions and options that will help me figure out how to fix the problems.

No writing is ever perfect, not even when it’s tucked between hard covers and assigned an ISBN. Though I cannot help but wish that mine will be the exception, I go to this meeting knowing that it won’t be and preparing myself to embrace why.

Not too long ago, I did the same for Marina, reading her latest adult novel, Sweetness, a sweeping historical that crosses two continents and touches a third. I adored it, and yet I had “ideas” for her, too. We spent hours reviewing my comments and considering the directions she could go. Together we mapped out a path for revisions that she now tells me she’s actually enjoying setting into action!

I can only hope I’ll feel the same way soon.

No one can see, truly and critically, their own writing. Most of us turn to fellow authors or hire freelance editors for this kind of facilitation and fortitude.

Gone are the days when we could rely on the publishing house’s editors or agents, when they would spend hours discussing a manuscript, lend authors their isolated beachfront summer houses for a month, or when they’d rush out of bed at a drunken midnight call to pick an author off the floor of their grubby apartment vestibule, inject them with coffee and prop them up at their typewriters, nursing them through to the final period of their latest, greatest masterwork.

In the movie, Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson plays a famous novelist who’s been blocked for so many years that her publisher sends her an assistant, played by Queen Latifah. Acting as part therapist and part literary drill sergeant, this Godsend stands by the author’s side night and day as she finishes her manuscript which is late, as I recall, by almost a decade. I adored this movie which is about art, life and the strange line where the two cross, though I couldn’t help but snicker at the absurdity of such authorial indulgence!

But I have Marina, which in every way is better. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with my work. Without the pressure or expectation of the commodified publishing world, she and I will work together, tossing her thoughts and mine like the salad she’s promised us for lunch until the mix is just right, the recipe prepared and my creative juices flowing to jump in and devour the next revision. We’ll share tea and manuscript pages covered with arrows, cross-outs and strange short-hand that requires an interpretive key. Along with substantive suggestions, we’ll also share the anxiety that only another author can fully comprehend when we finally come out from our solitude to reveal the strange child we’ve been incubating for years.

As I face this trial, my greatest comfort is knowing that Marina is a more than my friend; she’s a professional. She’ll make fair, logical and educated suggestions, not couched in kindness or sympathy, fear of hurting my feelings or a need to be right. She’s a peer and a mentor, as I have tried to be for her. So I will take my courage and my car keys in hand and face the editor who only wants the best for me, as I have always wanted for her.


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Two Great Friends, Three Great Events

These past few weeks have been busy ones for me with several friends launching and promoting their latest works.

First came Marc Aronson’s If Stones Could Speak. Then the joyous hullabaloo shared by all The Writers Circle over Stuart Lutz’s The Last Leaf. You all heard from Susan Barr-Toman yesterday and will hopefully make it to her event next Friday at Words. But there are three other critical events that I cannot fail to mention, given that two are for one of my oldest and dearest writing friends and the third is for one of my newest and dearest.

Claude & CamilleDon’t miss Stephanie Cowell signing at Watchung Booksellers this Saturday, May 1, from 1:00-2:00 PM and at Words on Thursday, May 13 for a reading at 7:30 PM. The Boston Globe calls her new novel, Claude & Camille, “nothing short of masterful.” Stephanie and I have known each other for over twenty years (scary to write that!) and in several very concrete ways she was instrumental in my ever being able to call myself a professional writer. I’m honored to have such a loyal, generous and talented friend and can’t wait to celebrate her latest novel.

Tell Us We're HomeOne of my newest dear friends, Marina Budhos, shares a passion for rich, complex writing and the challenging juggle of career and family. So I’m taking my eldest, who is good friends with her son, to the launch of her latest young adult novel, Tell Us We’re Home. She’ll be reading this Sunday, May 2, 2:00 PM, again at Words.

Come and join the celebrations!


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Guest Blogger: Our very own Stuart Lutz, author of “The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors”

I’m particularly proud to host today’s guest blogger, Stuart Lutz, who has been a part of our Writers Circle literally since it began.

The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last-Known SurvivorsThe Last LeafFor four years, I’ve followed the progress of his extraordinary project, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors. It’s been a long, bumpy road, as his blog post below vividly shares. Take heart from his experience, everyone. Today I’m honored to announce that The Last Leaf is available in bookstores everywhere!

So pick up a copy and one for all your family and friends. And be sure to join us at Stuart’s book launch party at Maplewood’s Words Bookstore on March 26 at 7:30 PM.

Thank you for the advice, John Coolidge

Over the last holiday break, I cleaned my Augean office. The first place I started was my large filing cabinet that holds all my papers related to The Last Leaf. The top two drawers have dozens of files holding photographs, audio tapes, interview notes, and drafts of each chapter. These are important files to save. The third drawer was stuffed with everything related to the publication of The Last Leaf, and this was the target of my afternoon’s labors.

I had my first interview for my oral history book in 1998. I drove to Deep River, Connecticut to meet with Mr. Paul Hopkins, the last living pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth in the Bambino’s legendary 1927 season when he hit a then-record sixty roundtrippers. A slew of meetings with other “Last Leaves” followed. I drove to Vermont to meet with John Coolidge, the son of the President and the last man to live in the White House in the 1920s. I roadtripped to Alabama to meet the last Confederate widow (though she turned out to be the next-to-last Confederate widow). One weekend, I flew to Knoxville to interview the last Union Civil War widow. She gave only two or three interviews ever, and it took me fifteen months of begging and pleading to get her to meet with me. Slowly, the book idea gained momentum as I met more and more people. In Rochester, New York, the last suffragette; in Fort Myers, Florida, the final Thomas Edison employee in Florida; in the Maryland suburbs, the last commissioner from the agency that created Social Security.

In 2004, I mailed dozens of query letters and I found an agent. He quickly sold the book to a subsidiary press of Simon and Schuster. I was delighted to receive my first advance check. I took the money and went on additional trips to meet more Last Leaves. There was the flight to Memphis to interview the real last Confederate widow in Arkansas. A drive to Fort Wayne to meet the final witness to the first electronic television broadcast in 1927 with a stop in Pittsburgh to chat with the last man to play with the country music legend Jimmie Rodgers. There was a flight to Florida to meet with the last living Amelia Earhart passenger and the final survivor of the vicious Rosewood race riot in 1923. A quick roadtrip to Chattanooga and Asheville to interview two more subjects. And a manic three day Indianapolis – Urbana – Ann Arbor – Cleveland voyage that let me meet three more Last Leaves. Sure, I had to borrow from my saving account to pay for some of these trips, but I reasoned the eventual royalties would repay me.

April 19th, 2005 was, I thought at the time, one of the great days of my life. I emailed the final book draft to the editor, triumphantly wrote about it in my journal, and went to see a Bob Dylan concert that night. Starting on April 20th, I finally told people besides my close friends and family about the book. The Last Leaf was scheduled to be out for the holiday season, and it was a great thrill to see it listed on the Simon and Schuster website. The famous Civil War historian Dr. James McPherson gave me a quotation to put on the book’s cover. Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, the dean of American historians, offered to blurb the book once I sent him a galley. Gosh, everything was lining up so well for me…

I didn’t know it then, but the publishing house was in total disarray. They went through three editors, and the last two wanted me to rewrite the book, which I dutifully did. But with the time I spent editing, there was no way The Last Leaf was going to be released for the holiday season. Then, the publisher, in one of the wussier moves in world history, made his unfortunate secretary call me to say they were not going to release The Last Leaf. Ever. She asked for their advance back (a great example of sheer chutzpah). I told them if they wanted it returned, I would see them in court since they were breeching our contract. A few months later, my agent, saying that he could not resell the book to another publisher, released me and The Last Leaf was adrift.

I read when I was younger that it was not how many times you fall off the horse, it is how many times you get back on…

I took a few months off from the book, but then got back in the saddle. I spent one entire weekend mailing out letters to a new batch of literary agents. I mailed them on Monday, and on Tuesday morning, two different agents called me. That afternoon, I sent them the entire manuscript to show them that the completed book was ready for publication. Each called back after getting the drafts and both wanted to represent me. One of them revealed that she is the literary agent for a certain rock star from New Jersey with the first name of “Bruce.” “Listen Stuart,” she said to me, “Bruce keeps me so busy that I do not take on any new clients. But I cried when I read your book last night. I really, really, really want to rep your book.” Wow – now an agent was begging me to sign with her. So I did.

This agent used all her connections at the major publishing houses to sell the book. And she found no interest in my work at all. She released me and The Last Leaf was again adrift. She did present me with a bill for $313 to cover her mailing and photocopying costs.

I dusted myself off again. As I got back on the horse, I felt a couple of horseshoe prints on my tuchus from this last experience. My wife, who had been completely supportive of my writing efforts during this entire time, claims I am one of the most determined or stubborn (depending on the context, of course) people alive. I knew I had an interesting book concept and I was not going to let it die. Not after I put in all that money, time, sweat, typing and mileage. Not after Dr. McPherson wrote a blurb and Dr. Schlesinger offered to compose one too. Not after I told people that The Last Leaf would be released.

While the book was in publishing hiatus, I did more interviews, including meeting America’s last World War I soldier. I sent out letters again to literary agents and not a single positive reply. Those are the letters that are now sitting in my filing cabinet awaiting recycling.

I then tried a different tact. I wrote to some academic publishers, including my alma mater’s publishing house, the largest one in the country. The Johns Hopkins University Press editor told me that he thought the book was “too commercial” for them, and every other academic press rejected The Last Leaf too. I also wrote to some medium-sized publishing houses. One day, I came back to my office and I had a message from the editor at Prometheus Books in Amherst, New York. He said they were very intrigued by my book. He was concerned, however, because he saw an old internet listing that I had already published The Last Leaf in 2005. I painfully explained the entire tortured history of the book and I assured him that it had not been published. Prometheus bought it.

On that December afternoon, my wife took my son out on errands so I could clean the infamous third drawer, as well as the rest of my office. As a perverse form of entertainment, I read some of the literary agent rejection letters. Some were impersonal third generation photocopies, some were photocopies but the agent wrote my name at the top. They went into the blue recycling bin. Others told me that the book was not focused enough and one wrote to me that, while an interesting concept, the book was simply not saleable. “Ha ha sucker!” I yelled at that letter as I put it into the bin. A few agents wrote back kind and encouraging letters, including one man who said that I should start by doing a series of magazine articles on the final survivors and then turn the concept into a book. Into the bin with the other rejection letters. I also recycled all my earlier drafts of the book.

I opened the top drawer, the one with all my important book files, and I flipped through them. I saw the folder for John Coolidge, son of Calvin, and I pulled out the paperwork. He was one of my first interviews, and he invited me in 1999 to visit him in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, one of the most placid areas of the state. I went into his private house where no one who visits the Coolidge Homestead was permitted. He was in a wheelchair at that point, and I gently rolled him onto his sun-drenched porch on a beautiful early spring day. He recounted his boyhood memories of seeing the charred attic timbers in the White House (remnants of the British torching the mansion during the War of 1812) and discussed the death of his brother at age sixteen from blood poisoning. As I was leaving his home, he wheeled himself over to his desk. He opened a drawer and handed me a small card with a quote from his father, the President:

    Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

It has been eleven years since Mr. Coolidge handed me that card. Neither of us had any idea how prescient the quote was.

Stuart Lutz
Stuart Lutz owns Stuart Lutz Historic Documents, Inc., a firm that sells rare letters and manuscripts. He has written for American Heritage and Civil War Times Illustrated, and appeared on National Public Radio. He has a B.A. in American History from Johns Hopkins. Learn more about Stuart and The Last Leaf at www.TheLastLeaf.com


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Happy Anniversary – The Writers Circle hits #15 on the Preditors & Editors Poll!

Check it out! The Writers Circle blog tied for #15 on the 2010 Preditors & Editors Readers Poll!
Preditors & Editors
I know it’s not #1, and I never expected it to be. But even reaching #15 in the overcrowded conversation that goes on every day on the web is impressive, especially because, as far as I’m concerned, the purpose of The Writers Circle is very personal, intimate, specific and REAL.

Most of you (those I’m aware of, anyway) are people I really know, see and work with face to face on a regular basis. That our community has managed to reach a broader audience signifies just how much we all long to connect, even across this vast digital “cloud”.

Each of you inspires my thoughts and directs my posts. As I leave our weekly meetings, I’m filled with ideas about how to best encourage your work, how to guide you in your efforts to express your thoughts and imaginings, and how to press you onward against the inevitable tide of other obligations and distractions.

Over the last four years, we’ve committed to each other. We’ve worked hard to nurture a safe, supportive community that exists and extends across multiple facets of our creative and personal lives. A perfect example is the collaboration of Stuart Lutz, Ross Minichiello and Sandra Joseph, all coming together to create a book trailer for Stuart’s upcoming release, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors.

I’m thinking of Mary Mann, editor of Maplewood Patch, who has pooled the writing talents of so many in our Circle, including Lois Cantwell, Marcia Worth, Elias Zwillenberg, Stuart Lutz and, yes, yours truly! (Is there anyone I missed?)

I’m thinking of our excitement over members’ achievements, with or without our help, like Chris Harder’s essays in Chicken Soup for the Soul and in The New York Times’ Motherlode; and Lori Sender‘s and Marcia Worth‘s many articles in The New York Times.

I’m thinking of our local readings and Stuart’s book launch coming up on March 26th at Maplewood’s Words. (Be there!)

And I’m thinking of our holiday gatherings where we share food, company, work and laughter.

To me, you’ve all become part of my larger family. I’m proud to be among you, thrilled to cheer you on, more than willing to cry or even argue with you, and most honored to celebrate the successes as they come, paragraph by paragraph, day by day.

I started this blog as an extension of our work together – partly to maintain a public record of the many essays and articles I used to email to you. (And to save all that paper from the ones I used to copy and staple each week. Remember those days? And you all know how I HATE to kill trees!) Yesterday was exactly one year since I wrote my first post, so this small, formal recognition is a lovely first anniversary gift.

Blogging is an unusual opportunity for direct contact with a vast, unknowable audience. But too often I’ve seen it used as public journalling and wondered why anyone would want to world to know their most private thoughts. Perhaps it’s enough simply to be heard, as Carla Cantor (another one of our own!) details in her Psychology Today blog, Small Steps: Through Struggle Comes Strength.

Through The Writers Circle, I have found a purpose for my own blogging. Rather than blathering about my private trials and minor triumphs, I use this blog to gather the experiences and wisdom of many terrific writers and thinkers, and to share my own perspectives, hoping to help us all find the courage and discipline to continue with our work. For me, looking back at all my posts, it’s satisfying to realize how many times in the past I’ve had these thoughts and let them slip away into the ether. Yet now here they are – a record of our growth and progress together.

Thanks to all of you who voted and to all of you who write, read, struggle and share this journey. I’m thrilled to watch The Writers Circle as it grows and embraces a broader writing community. And to our readers and writers who join us in the “cloud”, I wish I could meet you face to face. Good writing. Thanks for traveling with us.

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