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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
From the look on people’s faces, I can tell everyone really enjoyed Stuart’s book launch on Friday night.
Thanks for a terrific showing and a terrific night. I felt like a proud old aunt! Thank you, Stuart. Thank you everyone.
In anticipation of Stuart Lutz’s book launch party tomorrow night – a Writers Circle first! – I feel compelled more than ever to emphasize the need for a writers community. This extends beyond our own small but growing circle to embrace family, friends, and hopefully an enlarging group of readers who find our work, like it and share it with others.
Writers have always been notoriously solitary characters. We work in isolation, sometimes with only the company of a cat (like the one peering out from behind my computer screen right now). Our stories and characters speak inside our heads. We carry them around with us, an ongoing but invisible conversation that feeds us but also removes us from the immediacy of human contact. Sometimes the only sounds that reverberate in my office throughout the day are the dull clacks of my overused keyboard.
Making direct contact these days is vital, both in the creation of a writer’s work and as the finished product reaches for an audience. I have been privileged to work with published peers and struggling first-time writers alike, delving deeply into the creative process, poking, nudging and plucking to find the best way a novel, memoir or book proposal should be shaped. And I’ve relied on peers and confidantes to do the same for me.
Once a book is ready for market, another kind of community steps in. This blog has already seen the contributions of authors Michelle Cameron and Stuart Lutz. I guarantee you’ll see more in the near future. (One’s already in the wings awaiting the launch of my dear friend Stephanie Cowell‘s latest novel, Claude & Camille.)
These “visits” are all part of “blog tours” – the best and sometimes only way authors have found to harness their own destiny in the supersaturated, dwindling book market. Amidst the bewildering churn of digital media, most authors get little or no publisher support. They either hire a costly publicist with generally mixed results or ambitiously go it on their own.
Back in the good old days (like in 2006 when my novel The Thrall’s Tale first came out), publishers still sent a few select authors on the road for a formal book tour. The intention back then was to meet and greet. Publishers were usually less concerned with gathering a receptive audience anxious to hear the author read aloud than with the brisk glad-handing authors shared with favored booksellers who, charmed by the mere appearance of a living, breathing author in their stores, would feel compelled to hand-sell the debut novel, memoir or self-help book to their customers.
I suppose these meet-and-greets were effective in their day. But my tour experience was one of disappointment descending into depression. Try as these lovely booksellers might to draw a crowd, my events were no match for the Superbowl, no draw against the wiles of a violent Seattle rainstorm. The best attended events I had were in towns where I knew lots of friends. (Thank you, now defunct Coliseum Books and all my former colleagues from HBO right next door!) The final stop, in yet another ubiquitous superstore somewhere in the Midwest, amounted to reading to only two people and signing a stack of hardcovers in a back storeroom.
For this, I assure you, I was entirely grateful. Most authors got far less! What impact all this had on sales is anybody’s guess. But I couldn’t help feeling that the money the publisher spent on my excursion (which took me away from my five- and two-year-old for an unbearable two weeks) would’ve been better spent on a strategically targeted marketing scheme.
The way books are bought, sold and read these days is changing so rapidly that no publisher, publicist or lowly author has any idea how to reach out and grab that virtual outstretched hand. These days, an author tour more likely takes place via Skype, Facebook, Goodreads, Shewrites or on the blogs of other writers and friends. Making direct contact is becoming rare indeed. If these new digital forays are adequate substitutes is hard to tell. And although a web presence is absolutely mandatory, I have yet to hear from anyone whether the ROI of a book trailer (almost always paid for out of an author’s meager advance and conceived, written, and directed by him or her as well) is really worth the trouble or expense.
So with all our websites, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts and blogs, how is an author meant to reach out to real readers? And how do we break the wall of our own self-imposed and circumstance-inflicted isolation?
Some authors are touted for the D.I.Y. Book Tour, another way that we have tried to take our fates in hand. The overall experience seems less about selling books than about meeting people, sleeping on strangers’ couches, and listening to readers who never thought they’d even want to read our books. I’ve had the most glorious times in my hosts’ living rooms, listening and laughing to startled responses to my book as we sip wine and nibble cheese. I’ve spoken at endless gatherings where neighbors and friends who either hated or loved my work debated right in front of me their reasons. And I’ve come full circle, supporting my own friends and passing on the tradition to my children, as I did this past weekend at Marc Aronson’s reading in Maplewood. (Yes, that’s my youngest having his copy of If Stones Could Speak signed by the author!)
So I encourage all of you to come out tomorrow night and to go to the next reading of an author you know or don’t. Because in the end, we writers don’t often get to bask in the limelight. The few times we do stand in front of an audience are far more satisfying than a blog tour or a Skype talk because the hand shake, gentle pat on the back, and the applause are real.
Many of us come to a weekly writing workshop, a writers group or an MFA program looking for rules, instructions, some correct route to take as we navigate our way through our work.
Let me tell you after years with my own writing and helping friends and students alike, THERE ARE NO RULES.
Sure, there’s the basic grammar we all learn in elementary school. And oh, yeah, there’s a right way to spell most words. But when it comes to creative writing, even these steadfast rules are meant to be bent and sometimes even broken. Any author, living or dead, who’s ever tried to write in vernacular (for better or worse), will tell you that sometimes you just have to write it the way it sounds, even if it’s wrong.
Still we writers long for a few trustworthy guidelines. It’s a lonely job. Most of us never really know if we’re doing it right. But the simple realization that everyone feels like they’re “…driving a car at night” as E.L. Doctorow once put it, is a big step on the journey.
In last week’s Guardian article, Ten rules for writing fiction, a couple dozen illustrious authors offer their own best tips, starting with Elmore Leonard’s classic “Using adverbs is a mortal sin.” (Yes, we all occasionally use adverbs.)
What I found most comforting were the many contradictions:
P.D. James: Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing…
Jonathan Franzen: Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
I also loved Diana Athill’s recommendation: “Read it aloud …because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.”
Those of you who work with me know that I insist on reading aloud. I’m well aware that details often get lost in the listening. But the things that do stick in our minds – whether a plot point, character detail, an awkward rhythm or something else – are the critical pieces that tell us what works and what doesn’t.
These tips lists intone the need for discipline, hard work and persistence:
2) Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3) Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
Helen Simpson: The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying, “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert) which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”
Also the need for occasional breaks:
Helen Dunmore: A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
Hilary Mantel: If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
And then there’s the implicit or blunt futility in their advice. Call it schadenfreude, but it somehow helps to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle.
Margaret Atwood: Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Will Self: You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.
And finally, my favorite, all too TRUE:
Roddy Doyle: Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
How lovely! As I’ve been taking a bit of time off from teaching and therefore from blogging, the virtual world nonetheless seems interested in what I have to say! My blog-post from late May, The Storyteller’s Fire, is today’s featured post on Backspace’s terrific new blog, STET!
Backspace is a vibrant online writing community that also holds great conferences like the one I was privileged to speak at this spring in NYC. If you’re not already a member, definitely check them out. The people I met at the conference were talented, committed and fascinating.
Poetry can feel, at times, as rarified as air, precious for its purity, its essentialness, its glittering, fluid, whimsical magnificence. It gives weight to simplicity and simplicity to weight, nourishing on levels more ephemeral and yet more visceral than prose.
As I write my novels, I have often pondered the poetry in my words. All writers work with rhythms, whether they intend to or not. There’s an inherent flow that makes a sentence or paragraph just right, or that forces us to half-consciously cut out a word or add one, that lets us know that there’s something missing right there – not necessarily a bit of action or a detail’s flourish, but a sound, a sensibility, a feeling. We search for it, hoping and trusting that our more prosaic muse will eventually find the perfect mix of meaning and form.
Poetry can teach us how to sift out that pure perfection. It’s like crystal. Like diamond. Dazzling, but hard to come by. Can we dig down that far inside ourselves to uncover those flawless jewels?
Since I first heard Jane Hirshfield read years ago at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I’ve been fascinated with her work. Her free verse moves with cadence and deep meaning, rather than following a prescribed meter or rhyme. Yet somehow she encapsulates the essence of her thoughts – of some of life’s deepest thoughts – in a few carefully chosen words. I often listen or read her work in wonder, longing to distill my own to such purity.
Ms. Hirshfield read again at the Poetry Festival last September. And though I wasn’t able to attend, we can all hear her now, thanks to YouTube. I particularly love her very brief poem, “A Cedary Fragrance.” In an expression so pure, she aims her words with a embroiderer’s delicate needle. As she speaks the closing line, I feel the precision of her thought piercing directly to my wisest mind.
Listen to her words. Enjoy them for their essence. And try to apply their lessons to your own work – embrace that semi-conscious awareness that each word effects your work profoundly, and that rhythms and careful phrasing aren’t merely troublesome necessities, but the most powerful tools of your craft.
As our Writers Circle prepares for its Creative Arts Showcase next week, I can’t help but be fully aware of the challenge of reading aloud, both from a perspective of performance and as a tool for the writer.
My classes and groups have almost always worked orally. We sit around our table and learn to listen carefully. We rarely pass around copies to mark up or follow along. Sometimes new writers are surprised by this approach. “Isn’t this about READING?” But I say, no. It’s really about listening. You are telling a story, and if the story doesn’t hold up when read aloud, it’s probably missing something on the page.
Certainly, at some point, someone has to do the nitty-gritty editing that takes paper and a big red pen in hand. But before that moment, in the midst of the creative flow, I find it’s reading aloud and listening that are key to discovering a story’s truth – its voice, its pace, its action, its intensity. I often read my work aloud even as I’m writing. Perhaps that’s a bit weird, or maybe it’s because I used to be an actress, but for me, it’s often the only way to know if what I’ve written has any grace or truth at all.
In the days before books were readily available, before people knew how to read, before writing even existed, people listened to stories. It is one of the most primal arts, along with dance, drumming and song. The greatest storytellers had power. They were literally imbued with a mystical connection that held sway over life and death and the fortunes of people’s lives.
Perhaps our writing today has lost that sort of magic, but the mission of the storyteller remains the same. Delivery can be as important as content – cadences, the subtle distinction of voices, the florid verbal canvas that draws images, characters, and action in the listener’s mind.
Verlyn Klinkenborg’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, Some Thoughts on the lost Art of Reading Aloud, reminds us that until recently, reading aloud was a routine experience that created community and enriched family, that was an activity of choice, not a boring homework assignment (as it is for my 8-year-old son) or a nerve-wracking proposition as it so often is for many authors. Whether amateur or professional, as we step onto the literary “stage”, it is critical to remember what Klinkenborg writes: “Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body…. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading.”
As writers, we are not only the person reading, but the person whose soul – obvious or obscured – is coming to life through those words on those pages. Slightly different from raconteuring, which has also gained new prominence recently, we writers frame our experience and imagination in concrete sentences carefully honed. For these sentences to speak, they must be lived – first in their creation, then in the reader/listener’s mind. When we read them aloud, they become vital and alive, crackling like the storyteller’s fire, rich with sparks dancing before our eyes.