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.
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!
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.
Just thought I’d share another lovely repost of one of my recent blog entries.
Check out Backspace: the Writers Space. It’s another great community for writers that I’m privileged to be connected with.
I used to find writing prompts annoying. I mean, they didn’t add up to anything. They just sat there in a notebook. Magnificent or pointless, they were words that would never be published or publishable, that would probably never be read again.
But lately I’ve been giving prompts in most of my classes. I’m doing them myself and finding them oddly freeing. Sometimes they’re just a single word or simple concept: “Write about insects… a spatula…. your first memory…. Write about something worth stealing.”
In class, we generally free-write only for about ten minutes. Sharing is always optional. Since we’re really just spitting on the page, it’s stupid to expect much. Often enough, I’ve gone back to read my own responses to my exercises and discovered just a bunch of mismatched thoughts. Free association, irrelevancies. Other times, I’ve found kernels of brilliance.
These prompt-writing moments bring back a feeling that I’d forgotten – when I was 7 years old, discovering that I loved to dance. I had no dreams of tutus and sugarplum fairies when I first heard the music coming from that rundown rec-hall at my New Hampshire summer camp. It was a beautiful solo piano piece – Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that it called to me.
The dance counselor was working on some choreography when I quietly took a corner and started to move. After a moment she paused her own work to watch, and a few weeks later, I performed my improvisation before an audience of campers and counselors. In that moment of complete freedom, the marriage of movement and music, and the succeeding applause, my future plan to become a dancer was sealed.
Well, I can’t dance like that anymore, not only because I’m no longer so young or in shape for pirouettes and grand jetes. It’s because I spent years learning what was right and wrong through training. Technique embedded itself in my body until the initial inspiration and joy were nearly strangled. It took me years to undo the binds of that rigorous training until I found a shadow of the original joy that had moved me before I knew anything about anything.
The same danger lies in the process of writing. We can get caught up, even lost, as we work our way through a big project, or even a small one. We can write ourselves into corners, or edit until we’ve killed the very thing we were attempting to nurture. We can work so hard that we forget why we’re writing in the first place.
Herein lies the grace and benefit of prompts. They’re moments of total letting go. They have no greater purpose than to explore, to recall the freedom that comes at that first, naive moment of free-writing. We use them to stretch, to reach deep into muscles that perhaps we’ve forgotten to use in the midst of our struggles with an especially difficult story, memoir or novel. The only objective of a prompt is to let the words flow, just as I danced as a child.
Oddly, my youngest writing students often struggle with prompts. They can verbalize fantastic stories, but when they have to write them down, it’s as if the words get stuck somewhere between their minds, mouths and pencils. I’ve often asked kids to just tell me what they imagine, then simply say, “Great. Now write that down.” Over and over, moment by moment, “What’s next? What will your character do? How does your character feel about what just happened? OK. Write that down.” They often speak their thoughts in simple, beautiful words. So I say, “Now grab them! Just write them down on the paper before they fly away.”
Because words are difficult to master – their shape, their spelling, their syntax, are not natural to us the way they are in spoken form. Just the opposite of the primal act of dance, music, even storytelling, with writing, training must come before inspiration. To solidify our thoughts into lasting form is a sophisticated skill that requires education and practice.
So, with older students and adults, I take joy in the smoother flow of pen on paper. I revel in the scratchings as we all open the gates and let the words slip down. As I listen, sometimes I hear pauses, breathing spaces, or perhaps tighter curves in the flow of thought. I murmur, “Don’t worry. Just keep going,” recalling Natalie Goldberg’s advice to just keep your pen moving no matter what.
I assure my students that these ten minute spitting sessions won’t add up to brilliance. They shouldn’t. Just like stretching before a run or a dance, these fluid moments of non-judgment and free writing are just that – warm-ups. Improvisations.
So I give you the gift of a few prompts for the holidays. This week’s New York Times Magazine online featured a series of videos, Fourteen Actors Acting. Each short film is wordless, accompanied only by music. The actors’ emotions are vivid and clear. As the subtitle states, they are intentionally iconic character types from the silver screen, but each moment can be interpreted in infinite ways.
Click and watch a few. Absorb their feeling, their moment. Imagine their circumstances, their settings, their lives. Then write for ten minutes or as long as you like. And don’t judge what you write. If there’s a glittering kernel there, you’ll find it. Just enjoy the slip and flow of pen on paper, jamming, improvising, dancing as words form on the page.
Happy holidays. I wish you all good writing.
It’s amazing, but also scary, what you can find on the web. With a little skillful searching, you can turn up treasures – whole digital libraries you can read online, video interviews and audio clips of some of the greatest thinkers and writers of our time.
Just this past week, I discovered two fantastic offerings: most of The Best American Essays of 2010, online and for free, and an honest, witty and wise video interview with British writer and actor, Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18. All this, plus the opening of The Paris Review interview archives that I mentioned a while back just scratches the surface. And believe me, I barely have time to review half the cool stuff that comes in through my RSS feeds every day.
One really worth mentioning is Open Culture, a tremendous resource for all things fascinating. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve posted links to iTunes versions of the complete works of William Shakespeare, a Halloween tale by Virginia Woolf, free online courses, a talk by the Dalai Lama and a documentary on fractals narrated by science-fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke. Whether you’re doing research or just plain curious, as most writers are, it’s a treasure trove of inspiration – and distraction.
At the same time, I worry about what I’m seeing. So much of this material is, was or should be protected by copyright. So many of us are posting work for which, once upon a time, we might have been paid. I don’t mind giving away what I put on this blog. I see it as an extension of my teaching. But in the current marketplace, both the number of outlets for a writer’s work and what we are offered for our carpal-tunnel angst are dwindling at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile, I’m seeing interesting movement toward a new pay-model for both digital content and print-on-demand. Michael Hirschhorn summed up the shift in his aptly titled article in The Atlantic, The Closing of the Digital Frontier. Pay walls are going up almost as fast as one did in Berlin back in 1961. And some authors, even on their own, are taking advantage of the new paradigm.
Take science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. His self-publishing platform for a new short story collection, “With A Little Help”, is multi-directional and social network driven. He’s a tech-savvy guy who clearly believes his efforts will pay off. “I’m thinking $70,000 to $80,000 net,” he says in a recent NPR interview. That’s more than most authors ever see even with a contract from a big publishing house. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Doctorow already has a pretty impressive following.
Meanwhile, author Stephen Elliott has made a fine go at distributing his memoir, The Adderall Diaries, via an iPad/iPhone app. Dennis Johnson of Melville House Publishing, said in a recent New York Times article about Elliott’s technological solution, “If you publish work that is hard to sell in the American market, say literary fiction in translation, this is another format to hardcover, paperback and e-book. A fourth line of revenue.”
As much as the web is amazing and free, it has also gobbled up desperately needed income from many a struggling writer (or musician, or artist, or whatever). Now the digital landscape is offering new income options, if we are wise enough to figure out how to take advantage. Granted, most of us won’t make lots of money this way. But in a media culture that is already so fragmented that it’s nearly impossible to get traction, it’s better to stretch palms and spread fingers as wide as we can so that our works may touch just a few more spirits and minds.
As they did about a year ago, Backspace‘s blog STET! has graced me by re-posting one of my early summer pieces, We Are What We Read.
Backspace is a great online writers community with plenty of wise advice, both online and to be had at their conferences, often held in New York City.
Thanks, Backspace! I love being a part of what’s going on.
These days the face of literature and learning are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to know much of the time what we’re even looking at or why we bother to write.
I came across a rather interesting video that says it all both forward and backward:
It’s thrilling and terrifying. A truly brave new world. But my quandary goes beyond the welfare and future of publishing to something more essential: the preservation and accessibility of information and knowledge itself.
In many ways, information seems more accessible than ever. Certainly when my son has to write a report for elementary school, he can google everything he needs to know right from the computer on my desk. He looks at me in astonishment when I tell him that, in my day, that same report would’ve taken hours of research at the library.
I remember losing myself in the stacks – the long dim, slightly dusty corridors where spines lured me like whispered promises. As a child, my mother used to take me and my siblings for afternoons at the local children’s room where I would lie in a quiet corner surrounded by a carefully selected tower of books, musing for hours about worlds of imagination and possibility I’d never dreamed.
In high school I discovered that I could ask the librarian for the yellowed pages of newspapers published nearly a hundred years before. Not microfiche (which used to give me motion sickness if I scanned too quickly), but actual pages carefully preserved in an acid-free box kept somewhere in the library’s bowels.
It was in the hallowed Reading Room at the New York Public Library that my odd passion for dry academic tomes and archaeological reports bloomed. Their humble Pandoran pages opened like a treasure chest, filled with stories nothing else could have revealed. It was exhilarating simply to hear the subtle crack of a volume that only I and probably a half-dozen others had requested in the last half century.
I could have discovered none of this without the library. Unlike the elite halls of wisdom of ages gone, public libraries in America are an incomparable symbol of freedom and equality. The concept of free public libraries is inherently tied to a free public education, a right that I pray no one can argue against, except perhaps in the hope to making the definition of “free” include “highest quality”.
But in this era where it seems everything is migrating online, libraries are under threat. Here in New Jersey, Governor Christie’s proposed budget includes a 74% decrease in funding for library services. According to a recent Legislative Alert posted on the New Jersey Library Association’s website, this cut will eliminate all statewide library programs and services. It will affect all types of libraries in the state and, once state funding is eliminated, New Jersey will lose $4.5 million in federal funding.
I don’t often take a public political stance, but loss of our libraries is more than a personal affront. It goes to the very heart of the American tenets of freedom and equal opportunity.
As a novelist, I could not do my work without the library. Even today, access to expensive research databases and obscure texts that I often obtain through interlibrary loan are the backbone of my research. The Internet is simply not enough. (And please don’t talk to me about the Devil – I mean Wikipedia.) With all the posting and scanning – legal or otherwise – going on online, there are simply some things that will never make their way into the digital world.
But the issue goes beyond my personal and peculiar penchant for the obscure. Libraries provide essential services to people without internet access (and yes, there are still quite a few!), people who long to learn what they do not know, who need jobs in this crisis economy, who are applying to schools or starting new businesses, who want to introduce their children or themselves to a body of literature that is otherwise out of reach – accessible and free to all.
When so many core values in America have simply slipped away in recent years, this one is simple, affordable, and more than worthy of saving.
Go to http://capwiz.com/ala/nj/issues/alert/?alertid=14842591 to let your legislators know if you agree. The library you save may be your own.
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.
You may have noticed that I don’t often blog about technique. For me, this forum is more about sharing the experience of writing.
The truth about craft is that it’s all in the doing. We each confront the blank page or screen time and again. We learn to accept struggle, failure and critique, then go back to do it all over again.
How utterly true!
But we all learn from each other. Certainly in this Writers Circle, we’ve done that week after week, sharing our perspectives, making suggestions, taking them as often as we throw them out. Then trying again.
We can also learn from writers more experienced than ourselves. We’ve all heard grateful praise for Natalie Goldberg’s life-changing Writing Down the Bones. It’s a terrific book of freeing prompts and exercises whose goal is not to produce finished work but to express and observe moment to moment both the outer world and the inner life of the writer.
There’s also Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love her metaphor – taking it word by word, step by step. It reminds me of that hiking piece I wrote for all of you a couple of years ago. I’ll post it here, since not everyone was around back then.
Stephen King’s book On Writing is supposed to be excellent though I’ve only read it in excerpts so far. And of course, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer nudges me to link to several lists of Best Books:
- The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century
- Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels
- and Time Magazine’s 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present
Reading the finest writers with a critical eye to how they manage to create their prose is perhaps the very best way to learn the literary craft.
But if you must ask for a holiday gift this season, what any spouse, child, parent, boss, friend or neighbor should know is that the #1 choice any writer would ask for is TIME.
Writing well truly doesn’t require an MFA, a trendy concept or even particularly abundant talent. What it needs more than anything is exorbitant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time.
Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you all get the gift you most desire. I look forward to hearing from or seeing all of you in the coming year.
Just a quick note as some of you have asked about paying fees for entering literary contests.
Yes, in the old days, paying fees to enter would’ve been a sure sign of a scam. (And it’s still absolutely verboten for a legitimate literary agent to require a reading fee!) But in the contest world, things have changed a bit. Check out this article Literary Contests — Facts and Fakes by Victoria Strauss for some sound advice. I’m also adding her very useful website Writers Beware to the Writers Circle Resources list.
Especially with all the new media and print-on-demand opportunities out there, it’s better to approach the business of publishing well informed.