This just in from the Adult Programs Coordinator at the Livingston Public Library:
The public is invited to “What’s Happening to my Newspaper?” with Star-Ledger columnist Kathleen O’Brien, who will share her observations on the current state of newspaper publishing. This presentation will be held 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 13th at the library. Admission is free and no registration is required.
Kathleen O’Brien has worked at The Star-Ledger as a columnist and reporter since 1996, where her writing has been recognized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American Association of Feature Editors, the National Headliner Awards, The Front Page Awards, the New Jersey Press Association, and the Garden State Association of Black Journalists.
She began her career on a Selectric typewriter, and now narrates videos and maintains two blogs. One, called “We’ll Know More on Monday,” chronicles her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. She’s a graduate of Cornell University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She comes from a newspaper family; her father was an editor at The Detroit News. She’s married to a journalist, and has one daughter.
And my friend, author Christina Baker Kline shares this great writing workshop she’s doing for Mother’s Day. (Sorry, guys. This one’s for women only):
Rejuvenate Your Writing Life! A Restorative Mini-Retreat for Writing Mamas
with authors Christina Baker Kline and Deborah Siegel of SheWrites.com
Saturday, May 21, 9:30am – 3:30pm, Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
53 Prospect Park West (near the 2/3, F, Q, B)
What do you need to turn your writing dream into a reality?
You spend your days taking care of other people’s needs. This May, give yourself a Mother’s Day gift of time and space for contemplation and creativity. Think of it as a spa treatment for your mind.
Maybe you’ve kept a private journal and dream of starting a blog. Maybe you have an idea for a memoir. Or maybe you just want to start writing and don’t yet know the form. Chances are, if you’re a mother and trying to write, your greatest obstacle is time. Whether you’re at the idea stage or further along, we’ll help you get to the next level not only in your writing, but in your writing life.
Christina and Deborah are two professional writing mamas who believe that writing is vital—even when it has to happen in the crevices of our lives. In this beautiful setting we’ll combine strategies for how to fit writing into your everyday life with concrete exercises and feedback designed to get your creative juices flowing. We’ll provide a stimulating and pampering combination of workshops and advice, group conversations with other writer-mothers, one-on-one consultations, inspiring writing prompts, and Q&As. You’ll leave at the end of the day with fresh ideas and insights, pages of new writing, concrete goals for your writing and your life – and a sense of community, something no writing mama should be without.
This day-long gift-to-self includes a delicious lunch, healthy snacks, caffeine (and caffeine-free) drinks … and of course – chocolate. Cost: $175 ($195 after May 1). Space is limited. Register early to save a spot!
As I prepare to attempt The Writers Circle Journal online, I invite all of you, even those I don’t know, to submit 500 words or less on your perfect writing space – real or imagined. Please submit your work to “info AT writerscircleworkshops.com” by pasting your entire manuscript and a brief bio into the body of your email. Submission deadline is April 10, 2011. I’d be grateful for your contribution and hope to “publish” a selection of the best soon. If you have an original digital photo or art, be sure to send it along.
In her brilliant essay, “A room of one’s own“, Virginia Woolf offers up this opinion: “upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.”
Although that’s certainly been the struggle for women writers throughout history, I find these days that all writers I know – men, women and children – are hard-pressed to find Woolf’s “room of one’s own”.
We are overwhelmed by life’s necessities, the pressure to survive, to keep our jobs, to support our children, to spend – however briefly – time with our families. So few of us today, including professional, published writers, have the luxury to simply sink back hour after hour, day after day into our literary worlds. I myself, in these last months, have been drawn out of the cocoon in which I was coddled for these last few years to contend with the necessity and joy of new opportunities in my teaching.
Still I return, if for fewer hours each day, to the place where my fictional worlds were first conceived and where they continue to evolve. My novel – almost but not quite finished – takes on new shape and form, almost perfect but still with a few pieces missing, cutting an extra limb here, smoothing a lump over there, until soon – I pray! – it will take the shape that will give it full life. To be birthed into the world and become everything I’ve imagined.
Here in this space, I surround myself with objects of focus and nurturing. Ganesha, Hindu elephant god, the Remover of Obstacles, sits to my left, a gift from my dear friend Marina on her recent trip to India. Behind him cluster bits of whimsy – a Lego robot and a Sculpey penguin – gifts from my seven-year-old son. Bills and receipts are pushed to the side, hidden under a paperweight of a romantic writing desk. The walls are scattered with photos, among them one of me standing on the deck of a ship in Greenland, behind me the landscape where the fictional characters of The Thrall’s Tale lived. A towering bookshelf holds my research. On the bulletin board hang my eldest son’s first shoes. And smiling at me always is a photo of a beloved, lost mentor: glorious Peggy Harrington, herself a great writer though unacknowledged by the world, who taught me how to survive struggle and to appreciate hard-earned moments of joy.
Into this space, I center myself and cup my hands for warmth around my mug of tea. I face the screen with all its vibrating pixels. Their promise: to form the words, if only I will lay my hands. I touch the keyboard with focus and attention. For years I’ve obeyed the call until, now, the painted letters on the plastic keys are nearly illegible from so many taps, so many trials, errors, and tries again.
“Space is a symbolic boundary,” said one of our own, Lew Epstein, in a recent class. Where we write – where we claim our space – is affected by temptations and distractions. But for a moment shut them out – whether you write in your office, your bedroom, the coffee house or on the train. If we cannot create our perfect room in this imperfect, overly pressured world, then at least we can create the perfect refuge in our minds.
Check out other writers’ spaces on the Guardian’s fascinating series, Writers’ Rooms. (It ended in 2009. Too bad they’re not still doing it.)
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.
A 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.
Taking criticism is never easy, no matter how expert, apropos, or kind. We can feel our bodies seizing up, our hearts palpitating, our minds starting to whirl with refusals, excuses, explanations, denials. Of course, my original is perfect! They just don’t understand! But if we chose our readers wisely, usually we find they’re right. Maybe the solution isn’t exactly as they suggest, but there’s a kernel of truth in their issues and insights that we would all be wise to examine.
I confronted this working on my latest revisions. My good friend Marina had given my manuscript a thorough, thoughtful once-over and we’d spent hours discussing her comments and suggestions. I spent another couple of weeks reviewing everything and organizing my thoughts. I had a plan, typed up in an orderly 17-page outline. Then I charged ahead, ready to put the plan into action.
Everything she’d suggested made absolute sense. She’d asked to know certain details about my characters, stakes, and cultural setting sooner. So often, we discover things as we go along. It’s a natural result of the exploratory writing process. But upon revision, we sometimes forget to question what the reader knows when. It just feels right to leave things where we originally conceived them. But if you’d been born with one arm sticking out of your waist instead of your shoulder – just a few inches down, really! – wouldn’t you want it moved?
I concentrated on my opening chapters, rearranging chronology and tucking in bits of back-story that had been threaded into the plot too late.
A couple of weeks later, I sent the revisions to another dear friend-reader, Karen, who’d seen earlier versions. She wasn’t a “cold reader”, which turned out to be invaluable. When she emailed me back, I sensed careful anxiety in her words: “I hate to say it, but I think the earlier version was better.”
OUCH! It had taken me a great deal of time and emotional fortitude to untangle and re-craft what I’d so carefully honed. Now would I really have to go back – AGAIN? After a little break, long enough to heal my punch-in-the-gut disappointment, I re-read what I’d done, saw exactly what Karen meant and, honestly, I agreed.
I was utterly grateful. I needed someone to be honest, and both my readers had been. The truth was somewhere in between. Some of the new version I really liked, but I had dampened the initial “magic” of my opening. How could I deconstruct my reconstruction without losing what was good, without destroying even more of what I’d already messed up?
So I took my painstaking but unsuccessful attempt, saved it in my “old versions” folder, and tried again. What I discovered was that Marina was right, but that I’d taken her too literally. Yes, there were pieces missing or that came in too late, but I didn’t need to deal with them all at once, and I didn’t need to move everything all around. My approach had to be subtler, like tying tiny, invisible threads, not applying Frankenstein-like bolts and ungainly stitches.
Another couple of weeks and I sent my new effort. Karen loved it. WHEW! Though I haven’t sent it to Marina yet. I’m trying to move on, a few more chapters before I turn to her again. Because there’s more to come. I don’t want to exhaust either of my readers. I need them fresh enough to give me a broad overview of what I’ve done, not comments on particular lines, paragraphs or even scenes. I need the whole arc….
And, yes, this is my fifth draft. I swear it’ll be my last, but don’t hold me to anything.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’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.
One 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!
Guest blogger Susan Barr-Toman comes to us as real family. Though I personally haven’t met her yet, most of us know her sister Mary Mann from her time with The Writers Circle and now in her new, all-consuming capacity as the editor of Maplewood Patch.
As Susan’s blog post shows, she too struggled and doubted and finally, indeed at the very last moment, found acceptance and success. But Susan has come to realize that, even without that bound volume with her name on it, writing has given her a lot. I’m sure we can all relate to that.
Be sure to come to Susan’s reading next Friday, May 7, 7:30 PM at Maplewood’s Words.
Finding my Tribe
A few years ago, I was about to turn forty. Naturally, as for most people, it was a time of reflection. What had I done with half my life? What had I accomplished? And the big one, should I still be a writer?
I’d spent the last years working on a novel and for a long time I’d tried to capture the ever-elusive short story on paper. Still, I’d never been published, with the exception of a small article in a local weekly about there being too much dog crap in my neighborhood. Not something I necessarily wanted to hang above my desk.
With the birthday looming, I decided to do a massive mailing of my novel and a few short stories. A concerned friend said not to psyche myself out, not to make this push my last push and give up writing to take up some career in the service industry that paid. I told her that was not my intention, but deep down I thought about giving up and doing something else. Of course that brought a new question, What else would I want to do?
Sure enough, the rejections came in, and as always each and every one stung.
When my birthday came, I was surrounded by friends and family. Four grad school friends traveled from the West Coast just for my birthday. It got me thinking.
Writing had not given me publication, but it had given me so much else. Ten years ago in a workshop, I met one of my best friends. I received a scholarship to Bennington College’s MFA program where I found a whole group of people who loved writing and books and music and film, etc. After graduation, I was invited to join a local writers group that a fellow alumna hosted. That group became my anchor, the reason why I kept writing. Each month, I needed to show up with work and good work. These people were really talented and I wanted to show that I belonged. Through this group I found my first teaching job.
Being a writer requires a lot of ass-in-chair time, alone with your thoughts and characters. But along the way I’d found friendship, community, inspiration, discipline, and even a job. Writing had given me a lot.
I realized the writing life is a good one. I’d discovered my community, my tribe, something I didn’t find in Corporate America, or in indie film, or my various incarnations in the work world. Maybe engineers feel this way. They like to get together and critique a structure just for fun. Maybe podiatrists sip coffee in outdoor cafes and watch the feet walk by, or arms specialists — well who knows? Maybe other professions love what they do and love to socialize around their vocations, but just don’t feel the urge to blog about it.
There’s something about writers – maybe our desire to figure out life, to make sense of it –that makes for strong, supportive friendships.
Two weeks after my birthday, Alan Davis at New Rivers Press called. Ann Hood had selected my book When Love Was Clean Underwear to be the winner of the Many Voices Project prize.
Finally publication. Who were the first to buy my book, to come to my book launch? Friends, family, and my entire writers group!
Susan Barr-Toman was born and raised in Philadelphia where she still lives with her husband and two children and where she teaches writing at Temple University. When Love Was Clean Underwear, her debut novel, was selected by Ann Hood as the winner of the Many Voices Project’s Fiction Prize 2007.
Thinking about mentors and what they’ve meant to me, I came across an essay by Joyce Carol Oates, In the Absence of Mentors/Monsters, from this Fall’s issue of Narrative. (You have to create an account, but you can read the article for free.)
I was fascinated to read that she didn’t feel that she had mentors so much as friends – fellow writers who influenced her thoughts and experiences sometimes more than her writing.
Though I can’t boast a slew of literary giants among my friends (yet!), in many ways my experience has been similar. I count my writer friends as my supports, as teachers and compassionate listeners who can understand the strife and striving of my work as well as its joy and freedom.
The thought of mentors grew more pointed when a friend and writer in our circle came to me the other day with a box full of cassettes she’d found at a garage sale. It was an audio version of “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle read by the author herself. She’d bought it for me knowing my boys would adore it, but also because she knew that Madeleine had been one of my teachers.
I stuck the tape into the player in my car – the only place in my life where an old cassette can be heard these days – and listened to Madeleine reading her classic work. It brought back more memories than I can share in this small space.
When I think of Madeleine now, I recall that my relationship with her was never really intimate, though her warmth and generosity made all of her students feel cherished. Still, it was the web of friendships that were woven from her class that eventually became my personal and creative lifeline for almost twenty years.
I think of them particularly now as a group of us have gotten together to produce a book of remembrances of Madeleine that will soon be published. Called “A Circle of Friends”, and edited and produced with the incredible dedication of another dear writer friend, Katherine Kirkpatrick, the book truly represents what Madeleine created, what we became and still are – a circle of support that crosses the boundaries of creative or professional interests to something that binds much more deeply.
I’ve watched over the years as each of you has joined our Writers Circle, as we’ve grown to know each other through sharing our work, as some have drifted away and sometimes returned. I know that many of you are often in touch, whether I’m involved in the communication or not, and that you’ve grown your own connections and supports, just as we did coming away from our workshops with Madeleine.
It is the magic of those connections – honest, genuine, real life relationships – that help us learn and grow. If I can do half as well as Madeleine did in helping to expand that enduring network of friends and mentors, then the work of the Writers Circle is a consummate success, whether anyone ever publishes or not.