by author and TWC Associate Teacher, Michelle Cameron
I love research.
To me, there’s nothing more inspiring than discovering how my characters might have lived their lives – what they wore, what they ate, how world events might have affected them.
All of my writing tends to start with a single scene in my head. When I wrote The Fruit of Her Hands, the picture of twenty-four cartloads loaded with volumes of Talmud being driven to a fiery death in a market square in Paris inspired me. With my next book – the story of Judean exile during the Babylonian epoch – it was imagining what those captives must have felt, mourning their lost homeland by the twin rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates. And in the series I’m writing today, the scene of Napoleon’s Jewish soldiers breaking down the ghetto gates of Ancona both astonished and bemused me.
Once that scene persists in tickling my imagination, I embark upon roughly three months of intense research. I try, in that short period of time, to read and peruse as much as I can related to my time period. Not just history books – artwork, architecture, and maps all inform the work. I try to get to museums – the Met is my favorite – several times when I’m doing my research.
My notes take several forms. The central document is a timeline that I usually divide into three columns: one for general historical events, one for historical events that I will incorporate into the novel, and one for fictional events so I can keep track of what needs to happen when. Then I have separate documents for major topics. What happened in the French court when the Jews tried in vain to defend their Talmud? What gods did the ancient Babylonians pray to? What did Ancona look like during the Napoleonic era?
In addition, I use the closet doors behind my head to pin up images – portraits of real-life characters and objects that will find their way into the work, as well as maps, street scenes, and renderings of what people in that time period wore.
What’s incredible about all this research are the story elements that grow out of it. Real life characters are woven into the fictitious story. Scenes suggest themselves. Slowly, the plot and arc of the novel take shape.
And then I start writing. But the research doesn’t stop there. In fact, the research never stops. The writing is often put on pause as I discover more I don’t know and need to. Which returns us to the title of this blog post.
Scene: a printer’s press in Paris during the French Revolution. I know why I need the printing shop, but I don’t know anything about what one would be like during that time period. Where is it located? What type of presses were used? What’s the process for turning out the pamphlets, the broadsheets? What time of day did the printers do their work? Since this is during a time of great turmoil, did they have to do their work in secret? What would happen if the King’s police raided them? What was the social structure like in the shop? How did the printed pieces get from the press into the hands of the revolutionaries, inflaming loud and passionate debates in the coffee shops?
It began with a single paragraph, all the questions above, and the need to do a lot of digging. Four days later – spent online and in various books – I have a full picture. Now I can keep writing – being very careful not to “dump” the history I’ve just gleaned into my work wholesale, instead using it just to flavor the work as needed.
So often I begin a writing class with a simple, free-writing prompt, usually just a word or phrase – “skipping in the rain”, “amusement parks”, “the kitchen sink.” I enjoy watching the quizzical glances of my writers at these random ideas. But slowly each of them connects to some inner flash of thought or memory.
In just a moment or two, all their pens have touched down and the air becomes infused with soft shushing. The room almost sizzles with an electric flow of thoughts connecting our deep, interior minds to the exterior space that allows creative energy to manifest into something real.
It’s a miracle really, as magnificent as discovering how to harness lightning. It’s also as practical as the humble plug, lowly, taken for granted, and yet, without it, we sit cold, bored and hungry in the dark.
As long as there’s a physical connection — our pens on pads, our fingers on the keyboard — the energy begins to pick up speed. If we listen to our thoughts, we can feel the ideas forming. The words beg to be written down. If we’re lucky, our hands keep up. (The best thing I ever did was to take that touch-typing class in high school, though I certainly didn’t think so at the time!)
Even hooked into that current, our thoughts might not make sense. They’re just random static and scattered sparks — brilliant, sometimes frightening, irrational, moved by emotion, not logic. As they should be. If we stay with that flow, slowly the electrons (or neurons) begin to fall into line. It is a natural progression from chaos to order that has formed and reformed the universe again and again. Eventually our random thoughts — our own personal chaos — take shape and find direction.
Eventually, the connection slows and sputters or sometimes even breaks. That’s when our eyes gaze up and we stare off into the distance. But if our thoughts drift slightly, that too is a necessary part — a slight readjustment in frequency. Our minds, as our bodies, need sometimes to rest in order to catch the flow of energy again and continue.
The key is not to unplug completely. We must dip the pen again and float with the stream, even as it shifts and veers, often in completely unexpected directions.
By working from random meanderings into a purposeful stream of thought, these seemingly meaningless prompts become vital exercise. They help beginners and more practiced writers strengthen our instincts to tap into the flow which is so necessary to create short stories, memoirs, novels, plays — to write anything, really.
The purpose is to physically — pen on pad — tap into the unconscious stream and to steer toward a single, clear image, to follow it doggedly, fluidly, instinctually again and again until there is no question that we can find it whenever we need it. The practice may seem pointless at first, but over time, our words flow more freely until writing becomes as natural as speech or thought.
And that is where creativity begins.
Here’s a list of prompts I’ve used over the last few months. Pick one to start or end your writing day. Write for ten minutes. No editing or second-guessing. Just write. Ready, set, pens down, fingers on keyboards. GO!
- First Meeting
- The Ritual
- Last Day of Summer
- Small creature in a storm
- Write a dream (real or otherwise)
- What’s missing
- Passing On
- A favorite place (for you, someone you know, a character)
- Family gatherings
- Write a run-on sentence
- Something worth stealing
- Writing on the wall
- A holiday tradition
- Start with the phrase: “If the door opens, go through.”
- A place you once lived
- Your first time (take it any way you choose!)
- Damp earth
- The scent of an orange (go smell one – really!)
- Falling Leaves
- Skipping in the Rain
- Being Bored
- An argument
- Write about the living room (yours, your character’s…)
- The Final Chapter
- Folding sheets
- Don’t Panic!
- The playroom
- Spring cleaning
- Kitchen Sink
- Amusement Park
I sing the Body electric;
The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.
— Walt Whitman
Marilyn joined our Thursday evening group for several sessions a couple of years ago. (Anyone remember the frogs?) She is also the author of a book about raising a child with a nonverbal learning disability. Her experience, compassion and hard-won wisdom are well reflected in this beautiful article.
Since Marilyn left us, she made her way through the Bennington Writers Seminars to complete her MFA in creative non-fiction. I’m very excited to share her essay, alive and online, beside such luminary writers as Sherman Alexie and Joyce Carol Oates.
I have no doubt this will be the first publication of many. In fact, another piece is forthcoming at the Southern Indiana Review.
What does it mean to be a writer today? For most of us, we are piecing it together, taking the hours when they come, squeezing our words into lunch breaks, between classes or meetings. We fantasize of having endless hours to dally with our muse. In truth, even writers who have found their way to praise and publication can rarely afford to hole up in a quiet cabin and type away.
What’s a writer to do when there are characters in our heads demanding to speak? When there are endless stories churning in our minds like stars in a nebula bursting to be born?
First, we take what time we can.
As I’ve often said in class, if you can’t get three hours, why not try a half hour, fifteen minutes, or the time you can steal when you’re in the bathroom with the door closed? No, this isn’t the best way to complete your epic novel. But it’s enough to get words on paper, to spit out one or two baby stars.
Second, we take (or make) jobs that support our work.
The typical day-job for a working writer is university professor, ideally in an impressive institution that permits long sabbaticals, tenure and only minimal class loads. It sounds idyllic to those who wile away on the corporate wheel. But I’ve known corporate workers who manage to arrange a morning or day off each week to write; I’ve known full-time employees who stay late or come in early for the quiet time it gives, or who write back and forth on the bus or train. (Do NOT sit next to me and chit-chat, please!)
I myself wrote my first novel (the unpublished/unpublishable one) in between typing memos at the boring law firm job I held for many years for that very reason. And I recently expanded The Writers Circle because the idea of being my own boss and teaching children the joys and struggles of writing was so much more appealing than going back to the old commute. Its small start has brought me joy and comfort that what I think is important and valuable and rich maybe really is; and I’m doing my best to share its wealth (metaphorical, so far) with others.
Third, we write what we can.
These days, being a writer can mean many things. Writers are journalists, food critics, marketers. Many writers I know in our suburban New Jersey towns have become roving hyper-local reporters and editors, covering town hall meetings and t-ball games to hone their skills, build their credits and keep their feet in the game. I’ve known writers to accept gigs ghost-writing, working on financial reports, textbooks, advertising or technical manuals. No, perhaps it’s not heart-felt work, but it’s writing. Any chance to craft thoughts and ideas into sound, logical forms is a chance to rightfully call oneself a writer.
Fourth, we write what we must.
I, on the other hand, have never been very good a writing for writing’s sake. Even when I worked in information technology, I avoided the lure of technical writing for fear that it would drain me of any creative word-smithing energy I had left. I was happier doing something completely different, to “save myself” for my true love, awaiting my attentions when I finally made it home and, before I collapsed completely, spent a few hours in anxious, exhausted communing with my characters and worlds.
Neither way is perfect, and neither is a sure route to success. We need to feed our souls and minds as well as our bodies. Finding the right balance is a matter of personality, endurance, opportunity and ultimately choice. As with most things, we all do the best we can.
Fifth (and this is a new one), we publish where we may.
Is working on this blog – or any digital project – any less valuable than writing fiction for print? I guess it depends on your point of view. In a landscape of changing readers’ habits, shortening attention spans, media inundation and a shrinking traditional publishing pool, just about any writing venue is worth exploring.
Self-publishing has lost much of its taboo. And though I personally wouldn’t make it my first choice for developing a broad readership, it’s certainly becoming a viable option for many. It works well for anyone with very direct access to a small but specific market. Profession-specific non-fiction comes to mind readily. But then, who can escape the stunning success of self-publishing fiction superstar Amanda Hocking? Even if your spinal column quivers at the very thought of self-publishing, isn’t it too soon to say? There were naysayers and obstructionists (namely the Church and the elite) when Gutenberg first introduced his machine.
Writers and creative artists are also discovering ways to use digital forms to convey stories in unique and innovative ways. Starting years ago with primitive hyperlink novels, these digital formats are slowing helping us reshape the whole concept of storytelling. Like a brand new set of paints to an artist, new digital venues, including blogging, texting, super-short “Twitter” fiction, video-logs (vlogs, I’m told), and a combination of some or all, invite us into explore and reshape our thinking about story.
Isn’t all of this writing? And honestly, isn’t it fascinating?
We may dream of big readerships, big advances and a seat on a couch beside a talk-show host. But if that’s all we’re working for, we will almost certainly fall short of our goal. And if that’s all we see, maybe we’re turning west to watch the sunrise.
If we want to call ourselves “writers”, the task is before us. Simply write and write and write. Then find a way to put our words into the world. These days, for better or worse, doing that is much easier than it used to be.
Finding readers…? Well, that’s another story.
This week’s post is quick because it’s been THAT busy around here. But I wanted to share two great pieces that should guide, support and comfort all of us, wherever we are on our writer’s journey.
First, who doesn’t love a terrific list? Check out 100 Things About a Novel from author Alexander Chee. I’m not familiar with his work, but clearly this list shows how well he knows the whimsy and struggle of the writing process. And, believe it or not, this list reads like poetry!
Second, growing naturally out of conversations at Sunday’s Madison adult workshop, it seemed appropriate to dig out something from the old files. Who remembers when I shared Malcolm Gladwell’s article from the October 20, 2008 New Yorker Magazine, Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?
It is inevitable, perhaps, that many adult writing workshops are populated with slightly older writers. Many of The Writers Circle’s participants are mid-life, often escaping the chaos of children and work demands, or older, finally carving out some time to capture fleeting thoughts that have been floating around through busier years.
Looking at magazines like Poets & Writers that appeal to a generally more youthful, MFA-bound student or graduate (And I love P&W; don’t get me wrong.), it’s hard not to feel that those of us who come late to writing have perhaps missed something or have less of a chance to make their literary mark.
But Gladwell’s article reminds us that each voice develops on its own schedule. Many of us have much to say that only life’s wisdom can bring to clarity. Being a little gray, a little haggard, a little less fresh and a lot more focused (out of necessity) than when we were single, childless or untried, should not feel like a detriment. Having lived through many rich experiences gives us unique perspective and gives our readers complex, nuanced narratives that can only be achieved with the backing of life’s inevitable convolutions.
I cannot help but think how often my husband and I (both former actors) yawn when we hear of yet another play written about the life of the stage. It’s not that these stories lack merit. (And believe me, theater is the place where drama of all kinds truly lives!) But how limited the arts would be if all creative artists only knew and could portray their own narrow worlds?
To live fully is to bring to our work all that we’ve experienced. The one true challenge for all of us – professional or amateur, experienced or beginner – is to find a way to write and share our stories so that the world will want to hear them.
As many of you know, The Writers Circle is expanding. It’s a thrilling leap of faith for me to take our very personal, very “hyperlocal” community and reach across time and space (OK, it’s only eleven miles…!) to add a new link to the chain.
Michelle Cameron, who has posted as a guest here before, will be teaching two free introductory workshops this Sunday, March 27, at Sages Pages in Madison, NJ. Children from 11:00 AM-12:30 PM will join Story Magic, our multidisciplinary approach to creative writing. Adults will enjoy a more staid but equally nurturing workshop from 1:00-2:30 PM. Please come by, bring your kids (or not!), and welcome Michelle into our Circle.
Meanwhile, I give Michelle the stage once again with some wonderful insights into The Power of Revision:
I write quickly. Always have. It’s been a lifesaver, because right now, my life doesn’t give me the leisure I’d like to take with my writing.
But while I produce words swiftly and can focus in very short bursts, I do tend toward that infatuation with what I’ve just written that I think plagues all writers. I look at the freshly-minted page and fall in love. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s sublime. I want the world to read it, then and there.
I was reminded of this when I watched the video, Sondheim teaches ‘Later’ from A Little Night Music:
As Sondheim explains, this song describes Henrik, a sullen, adolescent young man from Scandinavia who is constantly being told “later” by everyone around him, with resulting frustration. Pay attention to the singer’s rendering of the piece. Sondheim allows him to get all the way through it the first time around. Listening to it (and granted, I am musically ill-equipped), one would think the music student had nailed it. There’s no place to go here. It’s perfect, just the way it is. Well, maybe not perfect, but good enough.
But Sondheim, the consummate artist, understands the power of revision. He has a vision of what he wants to hear and makes the performer repeat the song over and over until he achieves what he has in mind, because artistry isn’t just getting the notes right – it’s understanding the nuances that make it a living, breathing thing.
The first interruption of the second rendition of the song comes early. “It’s already too angry,” says Sondheim, wanting the student to understand how Henrik would really sing these words.
Characterization is critical to just about any song Sondheim writes. Giving the actor “someplace to go,” so his anger doesn’t stay at the same pitch throughout, is vital. He has also carefully considered the reasons why Henrik plays his mournful instrument, the cello – as opposed to any other instrument.
Sondheim then gives us a bit of insight into a fairly comprehensive cut that he made to the musical as a whole. Originally, every character was going to be carrying an instrument. “But it got too pretentious and it had to go,” he tells the audience, who laughs appreciably.
What they may not understand thoroughly, though, is the discipline it takes to make a cut of that magnitude. Take a second to ponder this. Sondheim went through the process of selecting instruments for each of the characters in A Little Night Music. It sounds as though he might even have staged it. But he was willing to cut this particular theme – akin to a writer having to write a character out of a novel, something I’ve actually done. Never mind the hours spent to make the selections. If it doesn’t ultimately serve the piece – it’s got to go.
Which brings me back to my original point. Getting the words down is only part of writing. The part that makes a writer into an artist is the ability to wait, to gain some distance, to come back to the draft with dispassion, and then to make sure that every word, character, plot device, and description all work as a cohesive whole.
It takes discipline. It means you often have to wait until “later.” But only there, in revision, is art truly possible.
No, this is not an announcement. I am not even thinking about giving up on my novel. In fact, revisions are going rather nicely. Though I’ve been inundated with other obligations over the last two weeks, when I return to my manuscript, I see that my vision is becoming clearer and the suggestions that I fought against back in the fall are resulting in a much better story overall. I am, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, married to the long, slow, sometimes torturous process of completion, even if it – and sometimes it threatens to – kill me.
Nonetheless, over the last few weeks, a couple of writers have come to me at wit’s end. Exhausted, they’ve announced that they’re ready to give up, or at least to shelve their half-formed creation for a little while. (Subtext: maybe forever!) Their frustration is thick in their voices, in their carefully worded emails, in their slumping body language and their labored sighs.
Believe me, I do understand!!!
In class I’ve often referred to my unpublished novel, my first, the one that “belongs in the drawer”. I’m truly grateful that it never made it’s way to print, though I labored over it for four years.
Some of you also know that, right after The Thrall’s Tale was accepted for publication and while still in the throes of nursing my second son, I charged ahead on new novel, what the industry would call my “sophomore attempt”.
The term “sophomoric” comes to mind when I look back at those pages now.
Several months of research and about a year of writing went into that work – about 120 pages of stilted language, over-weighted plot, and characters who whined so much, they annoyed even me.
I knew something was wrong when I kept going back to the beginning. The first few chapters just felt stiff. Though I tried to move ahead, I felt their tug like something icky stuck to my shoe.
After well over a month rewriting a particular chapter, I paused, printed out all the pages so far, and sat out on my deck to read. By the time I finished, I was crying (and not because I was moved). I didn’t stop for several weeks, as I knew with all the crushing weight of Jovian gravity that that book was headed “into the drawer” with my first. It was going nowhere.
I’m not sure what the real problem was – writing under the influence of post-partum hormones, dealing with the challenge of having an infant and toddler on hand, or simple the very real effort of letting go of The Thrall’s Tale’s voices that had occupied me for so many years. Whatever it was, the writing sucked! (And you know I don’t use words like that often or lightly.)
A recent New York Times article, “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?“, details how other authors have faced the same hopeless end of their fraught labors. It’s a frightening moment, a step that no writer takes blithely after months and even years of sweat, agony and pages crumpled and torn, especially in this high pressure publishing environment where all authors feel the breath of oblivion at our necks, demanding another book soon or be forgotten.
But in that moment when I finally let go, there came a very real, if very painful, release. And not long after, out of the deep darkness of writer-ly defeat, there shined a glimmer of hope. As so often happens to me, I received a sort of “sign”.
In this case, it came in the form of a PBS documentary about Central Asian burial mounds, a topic that probably fills none of you with awe. (Sorry, but I’m fascinated with long-dead things.) In fact, the docu was about a burial I’d read about long before, but filed away for down-the-line when I wasn’t in the midst of a 500-page project.
There I sat, watching as archaeologists uncovered warrior-priestesses of an ancient nomadic tribe. The gruesome faces of the burials grew flesh and blood in my mind. In that moment, I felt the weight lift from my body and a new adventure opening before me.
What I learned was that, through those wasted pages, lost time, and frustration, I had cleansed myself of all that had come before: the voices I had served for so many years, the baby-hormones, the mommy-chaos, the elation and despair that are unavoidable steps on the author’s first publishing journey. All of it. I was reborn, ready to begin anew.
The next day, I went to the library and chose my first book to begin my research. Holding it as preciously as a baby in my arms, I went home, sat on my deck, and began again.
As I read her guest post, I particularly paused at the self-admonishment she shared: “I can almost literally hear my acting teacher clap his hands to interrupt the action: ‘Sandra, don’t play the end of the scene at the beginning.'”
If you read it, you’ll realize she’s discussing bigger issues than just writing. (And yes, there are such things!) Still, I can’t help but take it down to our usual topic and point out that we often do the same thing when we write.
Sandra continues, “Sometimes actors enter a scene prepped for what they know is coming – the emotional breakdown, the knock-down drag-out – and they bring that negative energy into the scene before the conflict has even begun. It lends an unnecessary weight and edge to what is actually happening in the moment.”
Be in the moment – Be here now – cliches in acting, writing and life, but they’re also true. I’ve seen several manuscripts this week that fit the mold, with scenes that carry the weight of their climaxes before the full circumstances or characters have been laid bare. Anticipating the ending kills the inherent tension of the tale. Hold back, I keep writing in the margins. We don’t fully understand yet. Let your characters live it first. Then we will live it with them.
One of my own teachers called it telegraphing – sending a message ahead to let everyone know what’s to come. It’s an impulse of an anxious or inexperienced writer (or actor) not to trust, to feel compelled to leap ahead to the crux of the matter. But our readers will be patient. Just like our characters, they want, should and must experience the building excitement, anxiety, curiosity, hope or despair. Jumping ahead only destroys the authentic moment of the scene or, in Sandra’s essay, the full, fresh experience of life itself.
So take Sandra’s wise advice whether in writing, acting, or life. Allow your characters to be in the moment and walk with them, step by step, day by day, through their experiences. Don’t let them get ahead of themselves. They don’t know what they will face anymore than we do each morning when we roll out of bed. Whatever conflict we or they must contend with, when it comes, it will bear its own levity or weight, whether tragic, comic, aggravating or joyful.
Thanks, Sandra! And everyone, if you have news to share, please let me know. I’ll be happy to post! Good writing, all.
Sandra Joseph, as most of you know, spent nearly a decade on Broadway as the female lead in Phantom of the Opera. She’s now working on a new self-help book idea while awaiting good news (pray, everyone!) from her agent on her memoir. She’s also teaching a workshop at the Omega Institute this summer: Performing as a Path to Presence, July 10-15 during Arts Week. Check it out and go. I’m sure she has lots more wisdom to share.
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.)