Notes on Craft &
the Creative Process

Rejuvenate Your Writing Life!

September 26th, 2011 by bakerkline

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

What do you need to turn your writing dream into a reality?

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’ve been “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 creative life.

Christina and Deborah are two professional writing mothers who believe that writing is vital—even when it has to happen in the crevices of our lives.  In this day-long “staycation” 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, group conversations with other creative women, one-on-one consultations, inspiring writing prompts, and Q&As.  You’ll leave at the end of the day with fresh ideas and insights, new writing, concrete goals for your writing and your life – and a sense of community, something no writing woman 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 Oct. 21).  Space is limited. Register early to save a spot.  Contact Christina at bakerkline@gmail.com.

From our Brooklyn participants this spring:

"I didn't know what to expect when I signed up to take this leap of faith.  But I'm so glad I did.  Deborah and Christina did a great job in pulling us all together, women in different stages of our lives, writers with different interests and genres. My only ‘complaint’ is that the day ended too quickly!  I so appreciated their warmth, acceptance, and expertise." – Laura

"I had high hopes for the writing workshop with Christina and Deborah, but never thought I would find the session quite so inspiring and motivating as I did. Whenever I stall on my writing, or decide again that I just can't do it, I will think back to today and it will kickstart me into action." – Kristin

"Sure, I got facts from the Mini-Retreat for Writing Mamas, but what I really got was my hands warmed in inspirational FIRE. Thanks to Christina and Deborah for helping light a spark under my writing fingertips." – Kim

“What a wonderful retreat.  My perception of myself has shifted just enough to force the light of my own creativity to come bursting through a door I was scared to open.  Thank you to Christina and Deborah for recognizing the need to bring strong and powerful women together -- to see that motherhood, with all its joys and burdens, cannot replace our need and our right to self-expression." – Jillian


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Don’t Skip the Sex Scenes

June 22nd, 2011 by bakerkline

Novelist Ellen Sussman explains why she likes to write – and read – about sex:

When the first Amazon reader review for my new novel, French Lessons, showed up on the website, I was thrilled. Five stars! Enthusiastic praise! And then came the last couple of lines: I wish she didn’t write the sex scenes. Women don’t want to read about sex.

Really?  I like to read about sex.  And I like to write about it.  Interesting things happen on the page when people make love.  It’s not just about the sex, though a reader might get a charge out of that as well – it’s about what gets exposed during sex.  A sex scene is an opportunity for the writer to reveal unexpected things about her characters:  about the way they relate to each other, their vulnerabilities and desires, the way they fit together (or don’t) emotionally as well as physically.

But it’s not easy. Many writers skip the sex scenes because they’re damn hard to write. How do you make them fresh, and how do you make them matter?

The most important consideration for me as a writer (and as a reader) is that the sex scene exists for a reason. It’s not gratuitous – it isn’t meant just as a turn-on. (We can read other genres for that experience.)  The sex scene in literary fiction has to take us someplace new. It has to surprise us or affect the story line or take us somewhere deeper. When I’m writing, I ask myself how I can use this sex scene – in the way I use any scene – to move my story forward.

The scene must engage the reader. A graphic description of sex usually doesn’t work – I try to find surprising details, quiet moments, the fresh image.  You don’t want to lose your reader because you’ve explained too much or gone too far.  Often, desire is sexier than the sex act itself.  So the writer needs to look beyond the naked limbs and focus on what’s happening to the heart when all that heavy breathing takes place.

French Lessons is mostly about love and loss.  It’s about complicated relationships and intimacy, and sex is a part of all of that.  We wouldn’t learn very much if the lights go out just when we’re getting to the good part.

Ellen Sussman is the author of a new novel, French Lessons, published by Ballantine. Her first novel, On a Night Like This, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. It has been translated into six languages.  She is also the editor of two anthologies, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia Of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, which was a New York Times Editors' Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller.

 

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Literary Names: Do Characters Name Themselves?

June 10th, 2011 by bakerkline

On Sunday -- June 12 -- I'll be on a panel called "Going Beyond 'Tom, Dick and Mary': Naming and Giving Your Characters Dimension" at Books NJ: A Celebration of Books and the Readers who Love Them, 1-5 p.m. at the Paramus Public Library.  (Stop by and say hello!)  Consequently I've been thinking a lot about character names this week.

So has novelist and playwright Joanne Lessner, author of Pandora’s Bottle and Critical Mass, who wonders whether she names her characters….or they name themselves:

In my alternate life (the one where I’m a jet-setting opera singer based in London), I have a clutch of children with fabulous names. The girls are called TessaLilyFrancesca and Imogen, and the boys are SebastianPhineasJasper and Colin. In my actual life, I’m a New York-based writer and performer with two kids who got my first round draft picks: Julian and Phoebe. But as a writer, surely I can pepper my work with those other glorious, un-exercised gems, right?

Well, not exactly.

J.K. Rowling has famously said that Harry Potter just strolled into her head, fully formed. I understand what she means. My characters have a habit of knocking on my mental door wearing nametags. Even names that carry hints of significance are often a chicken and egg situation. For example, the hero of my novel, Pandora’s Bottle, is named Sy Hampton.  I don’t recall consciously choosing his name, but one reader asked if it was meant to illustrate a “sigh” of disappointment (he’s having a mid-life crisis.) Another suggested that “Hampton” indicates a yearning for the finer things in life epitomized by those exclusive Long Island enclaves. Those are certainly reasonable assumptions, but I can’t say honestly whether Sy grew more melancholy and striving because of his name, or if, when I named him, my subconscious instinctively know where he was heading. However, I do know that when my editor floated the possibility of changing his name – feeling that Sy suggested someone of a slightly older generation – I just couldn’t.

The anti-heroine of a novel I’m working on now is named Katelyn. I must confess, I’ve never been a fan of that name or its multiple spellings, so imagine my surprise when that’s what my fingers typed. Her last name is Marx, which I also don’t recall selecting, but have since recognized has political overtones in line with Katelyn’s schemes. The success of her plans will hinge on her ability to remain chameleon-like and forgettable. What better way to illustrate that quality than with a name with multiple, hard-to-keep-track-of spellings? Except that, again, I gave it no thought whatsoever. Katelyn Marx just showed up for work the day I started writing and politely introduced herself.

Still, it doesn’t always work that way. Minor characters, in particular, can be more reticent, and as they blink patiently at me in the doorway, I try to let my mind free associate until something clicks. Even so, these characters often don’t live and breathe in quite the same way as the ones who are instinctive. But giving serious thought to a name is not necessarily a bad thing, and when you hit it right, you know. As one writer friend told me recently, a simple change from Lily to Billie made her character come alive.

One situation that does require special care is naming for the stage, where the sound is more important than the way it looks on the page. In my play, Critical Mass, a character named Stefano Donato kept my cast’s tongues twisted. It looks neat and symmetrical in print, but the actors had to remind themselves where the accents were every time they said it. Lesson learned.

In a musical, names that rhyme are a boon.

I’m currently adapting Wilkie Collins’s gothic novella The Haunted Hotel. The heroine’s name is Agnes – not much joy there. But make her Alice, and suddenly we’ve got malice, callous and palace, which happens to be the name of the eponymous hotel. Her faithless lover? Collins named him Herbert. But rechristened Edward, he can lure another woman bedward. Even here, though, where active choice is involved, expedience takes precedence over all those names I’d love to employ.

An acting teacher of mine once said that your gut is a better actor than your brain, and I think the same holds true for writers, particularly when choosing the right names for characters. I’ve had the experience of reading others’ work and being distracted by a name that’s too fussy, unrealistic, or forced in some intangible way, and I find myself wondering if that person was mining his or her well of untapped baby names hoping to press an old favorite into active service. So for now I’ll have to hope that I get a surprise visit someday from TessaFrancescaPhineas or Jasper – unless I can come up with some good rhymes for them. Until then, I’ll continue to let my subconscious do the work, opening my door to whoever knocks, and eagerly asking that character his or her name.

Joanne Sydney Lessner is the author of Pandora’s Bottle, a novel inspired by the true story of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine (Flint Mine Press, 2010). This post originally appeared on Pamela Redmond Satran's Nameberry blog.

 

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Embrace the Digital Age! A Contrarian Opinion

May 30th, 2011 by bakerkline

Some time ago I posted a piece by Chad Taylor, a freelancer for Kirkus Reviews and a purveyor of fine tweets (attracting the likes of such literati as Susan Orlean and Caroline Leavitt) on why Twitter is actually a good thing for writers.  Here’s his take on the fuss over e-books, self-publishing, and the demise of publishing as we know it:

Writing is a romantic endeavor. The problem is that too often writers romanticize the wrong things. A decade ago print journalists howled about the rise of bloggers as if they were pillaging Huns.  Today, many novelists and other writers lament the death of print newspapers and the rise of the e-book because it's a different model than the one we've grown up with.  But times change. Technology changes. Almost always, I would say, for the better.

Three thousand years ago Plato told everyone who would listen that this newfangled thing called an "alphabet" was going to be the death of storytelling. Why would anyone remember stories, he asked, when you could just "write them down"?  Plato -- with all his ageless brilliance and wisdom -- was so caught up in what the new technology would take away that he never bothered to consider what advantages it might bring. In a similar way, our generation rails against the advent of digital printing and e-books because it changes the things we’re comfortable with: the weight of a bound book in your hand; writing annotations in margins; passing a physical copy from one person to the next. James Gleick refers to this as "a lack of imagination in the face of new technology.”

E-printing and digital distribution allows for direct, intimate contact between author and reader. Why buy a copy of a book from Barnes & Noble, then stand in line for hours to get it signed at a formal event, when I can download a copy for half the price from Amazon, then talk to the author directly about it via Twitter, Facebook or email? Removing the cost of paper-and-glue publishing will also eliminate the need for an author to give 70% of each sale to Random House. Bad news for Random House; great news for anyone who's ever tried to feed his or her family writing novels.

Computers have made the act of writing more immediate, more visceral and accessible to everyone.  It's easier to write and edit on a word processor than to bang a manuscript out on a typewriter, and the act of sharing a draft with other people requires an email or thumb drive, not a trip to Kinko's, unwieldy boxes, and an unreliable postal service.  It allows writers to easily interact with other writers and receive feedback instantly on what we're doing. It enables us to meet and share with people we'd never have dreamed of interacting with even 10 years ago.

The bottom line is this:  Social media allows us to intimately connect with people looking for exactly what we're offering, sell directly to the people who most want to pay for our art, and hear firsthand how what we do matters to the people who most appreciate it.  And that’s a good thing.

 

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20 Ways to Rejuvenate Your Writing Life This Spring

May 4th, 2011 by bakerkline

My own humble flower patch ...

 

To be a writer is to weather the seasons: we stockpile ideas, we slumber long and hard, we wake up refreshed, and, hopefully, if we are lucky, if the soil has been properly nourished and the sun peeks through the clouds, we bloom.

To celebrate spring, and blooming, here are 20 tried and true tips that Deborah Siegel and I came up with for SheWrites.  Deborah and I have been thinking a lot about this topic, as we're teaming up to offer a pilot mini-retreat on May 21 in Brooklyn for fellow mamas/grandmamas/caregivers who also write. (We thought we’d start with this group, because such women are multitasking mavens, but in the fall we will broaden our scope!)

Alrighty then.  Here is our list.  I hope you'll find it...rejuvenating!  And I invite you to add to it, in comments, with tips of your own:

1. Forgive yourself for all that you haven’t written before today.

2.  Stop worrying about the fact that you’re wasting time.  Of course you are.  That’s what writers do.

3.  Pay attention.  Here.  Now.  Look for inspiration anywhere you can find it. Everything you take in will be filtered through the lens of your current obsession.

4.  Allow yourself to play—with language, with direction.  Come at things sideways, in the backdoor, through the attic.

5.  Set a deceptively small goal for today: One great sentence.

6.  Reconnect with your passion for the beauty of that great sentence.  Love the metaphor, the texture, the juxtaposition.

7.  Read what you want to write. “Reading is the nourishment that lets you do interesting work.” –Jennifer Egan

8.  Write what you want to read.

9.  Live where you are.  “All writing is autobiographical as well as invented.  Just as it’s impossible to write the whole and literal truth about any experience, so it’s also impossible to invent without drawing on your own experience, which has furnished your brain.” –Janet Burroway

10.  Remember that creating art is a messy process.  “Beauty follows ashes.  That which is lovely does not rise out of the pristine hollows of the universe but out of roiling, disjointed substance of our lives.” –Christin Taylor

11.  Just for today, write in an unaccustomed place.  Take yourself somewhere new.  Get out of town.

12.  Schedule an “artist date” with yourself.  (Remember those?)

13.  Remember that direction + desire = productivity.

14. Allow yourself to love your own writing.  Allow yourself to hate it.  Remember that reality is probably somewhere in between.

15.  Give yourself permission to be creative, distracted, self-involved—and maybe even bigger than the people around you.

16.  Get inspired by the visual and tactile.  Cut pictures out of magazines, tape postcards on the wall above your desk.

17.  Watch your favorite movie, or listen to your favorite song, with an ear for the narrative.

18. Only connect, as E.M. Forster said.  Recruit yourself—and maybe some writers around you—for a retreat to someone’s friend’s cabin (or, if near Brooklyn, come to ours!).  Produce pages to share, and join up for food and conversation.

19.  Join a group you’ve been lurking around on She Writes, or start one of your own.

20.  Remember that you can’t rejuvenate in the abstract.  You have to put pen to paper.   Ready?  GO.

Now, you:

Tell me YOUR top 3 tips for rejuvenating your writing life, in comments to this post.  (I know you’ve got them!)

To your blooms!

 

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Rejuvenate Your Writing Life!

April 6th, 2011 by bakerkline

A Restorative Mini-Retreat for Writing Mamas

With authors Christina Baker Kline and Deborah Siegel of SheWrites.com

Saturday, May 21, 9:30am - 3:30 pm at the 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, 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!

Register NOW

Deborah Siegel, PhD (left) is an expert on gender, politics, and the unfinished business of feminism across generations. She is the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, co-editor of the literary anthologyOnly Child, founder of the group blog Girl w/Pen, co-founder of the webjournal The Scholar & Feminist Online, and Founding Partner of SheWrites.com. Her writings on women, feminism, contemporary families, sex, and popular culture have appeared in venues including The Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate’s The Big Money, The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, More, Ms., Psychology Today, and The Mothers Movement Online.

Deborah received her doctorate in English and American Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been a Visiting Scholar at both Barnard College and the University of Michigan.  She is currently a Fellow at the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership and a member of the Women’s Media Center Progressive Women’s Voice project and serves on the Board of the Council on Contemporary Families.

A mother to boy-girl twins, Deborah recently launched a new “social” writing project through which she’ll be building community and debate around the gendering of childhood as she works on her own writing on these themes.  Follow her thoughts, currently housed at The Pink and Blue Diaries and Twitter, and check out her regular column at She Writes, in which she also tackles issues of work/life, motherhood, and the writing life.

And you know me - Christina.  My bio is on this site!
If you have questions, email me at bakerkline@aol.com.


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Can Writing about Grief Make You Happy?

March 10th, 2011 by bakerkline

It might sound crazy, but for Allison Gilbert, writing about mourning has been an uplifting experience:

Several weeks ago my new book, Parentless Parents, was published.  This is the third book I’ve written that deals with mourning and loss.  And while you might assume I’d be the last person you’d want to meet at a cocktail party, I’ve been told otherwise.  I smile; I laugh.  You might even call me bubbly.

Each book I’ve written is the result of successfully pushing through an unwanted and unanticipated experience – and using that experience for something more powerful than anger and self-pity.  Writing about death and grief has been healing for me.

I wrote my first book, Covering Catastrophe, after nearly dying on 9/11.  I was a producer at WNBC-TV in New York at the time, and when the second tower collapsed I thought I was going to be buried alive.  The dust cloud knocked me off my feet, and emergency crews dragged me off the street so I wouldn’t be crushed by falling debris.  I was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital.  Doctors cut off my clothes to examine my skin, and shoved tubes down my throat so I could breathe.

Physically, I was fine.  Emotionally, though, I was in trouble.  I had panic attacks for days, and many journalists I’d later speak with were also having traumatic flashbacks.   Because of what we experienced, three other radio and television journalists and I decided to write a book documenting what it was like to be a broadcaster that day, both personally and professionally.   Creating this book was cathartic for all of us, and what happened after publication was even better.  Covering Catastrophe was turned into a documentary by the U.S. State Department, has been recognized by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and every penny earned has been donated to 9/11 charities.   Giving back is the best emotional Band-Aid I know.

Three days after September 11, my father died of cancer.  I was 31 years old.  Almost immediately (and because my mother had died several years earlier) I felt compelled to write about my parents’ deaths.  Always Too Soon was hard to write because for the five years it took to complete, my parents’ deaths were always with me.  I had to deal with how much I missed them with every period and comma I typed.  What kept me going was the anticipation of helping others cope with the same pain.  My muse was an imaginary group of readers who needed comfort and validation.

And readers responded.  Men and women emailed me wanting to talk about being an adult orphan.  Many of these emails specifically addressed the challenges of being a parent without parents.   To manage the influx of emails, I began sorting them by state and city, and then, when I had two or three from any one area, I started playing matchmaker.  It was in putting these strangers together that Parentless Parents, the organization, was formed.  It was also how I knew that Parentless Parents, the book, needed to be written.

In Parentless Parents, I write not only about how the loss of my parents affects me, but also the myriad ways their absence affects my children, who don’t have my mother and father as grandparents.  Since the book came out, it’s been warmly embraced.  Parentless Parents support groups are taking shape all over the country.  The Parentless Parents Group Page on Facebook continues to grow.  And then there are the new emails I’ve been receiving from readers, like this one from a mother of two young children:

“You tapped right into my life, my heart and my soul. It is comforting to know that at least one other person in the world has gone through similar tragedies and has some understanding of what I deal with on a daily basis.”

In truth, I’m happy in the face of what I write because I have an outlet for all my feelings.  Conducting interviews, leading focus groups, creating the Parentless Parents Survey, the first of its kind, and writing – all of it has brought me incredible peace. My upbeat attitude has been shaped by creating a new and different conversation about loss, and the symbiotic relationship I have with my readers.  Ultimately, the most important lesson I’ve learned from writing is that I’m not alone.  

Allison Gilbert, author of Parentless Parents, founded a nationwide network of parents who have experienced the loss of their own mothers and fathers.  To find a Parentless Parents chapter near you, go to www.parentlessparents.com. You can also join Parentless Parents on Facebook by clicking here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=77976059211&ref=ts.  Watch her book trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0vYt8L7qNg.  Allison is also the author of Always Too Soon and Covering Catastrophe.

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”I Had to Trust that Intimate Voice”

February 2nd, 2011 by bakerkline

Memoirist Susan Conley finds out how hard it can be to practice what she preaches:

Four years ago my husband, Tony, and two young boys and I left the States to live in China, and I began to write what I hoped was a memoir. I didn’t call it that at first, because as yet the writing felt more like travelogue. I wrote accounts of the outdoor turtle markets in Beijing and the five-hour line Tony waited in to see an embalmed Chairman Mao. I wrote about dumpling houses and ballroom dancing in public parks, but there was no voice yet to these pieces—they relied mostly on image.

A Chinese man and his American wife had fixed up an old, stone courtyard house in the flatlands on the outskirts of the capital. Every Thursday I took a dicey Chinese cab ride out there (the drivers never knew the way) and taught a writing workshop from 9 to 12 in the morning. There were ten in the class—a Dane, and two Brits, three Americans, a Malaysian, two Australians and one Chinese woman. Her Western name was Sophia, and she’d grown up in China during the Cultural Revolution. She’d never owned a book until she was a teenager. Her parents were criticized publicly by the government and harassed and sent away for being bourgeois.

Sophia had been able to get out of China in the seventies, and she’d made it to the States for college. But she was back in China now, because she wanted to bear witness to that hard past. For class she’d bring in veiled attacks on the Communist Party and the short memory of the Chinese people. How, she asked, could the nation be embracing a free-market economy and fake Gucci hand bags, when so many had died only decades before?

Her writing was sharp, but I wanted to be let inside the material and to discover the emotional wake that the Cultural Revolution had left behind. I also wanted her to be more generous with us. “Please,” I said. “Could we see how you felt the day you were asked to publicly criticize your own sixth grade teacher on stage? What did you wear to school that day? Where did you sleep that night your parents were taken away?”

Sophia wanted to stick to the facts. At times our writing workshop felt like a cultural stand off. I wondered if I was too American in my approach to Sophia’s voice. Too Oprah? Too People Magazine? Sophia said that the Chinese way was not to write about herself. I said the only way that the reader was going to care, was if Sophia made the pieces partly about herself. I also said there was a balance to be struck. Intimacy with the reader didn’t have to mean a cult of personality around the narrator.

Back in my Beijing high-rise, I continued to write my own China story. My boys were my lens. I tried to capture the understanding they came to with Mandarin and the Beijing school bus, and the live turtles on the street. But then I was diagnosed with breast cancer and the travelogue voice was officially over.

When my treatment ended, I knew if I was going to finish this book, it would need a different voice. I tried out one that was distanced and prone to irony. Then one that was humorous. But I couldn’t quite land it. I wrote notes to myself in capitals on my desk: write as if you were talking to Sara back home about trying to buy apples in Beijing. This helped. This got me closer.

Then I gave chapters to an American writer named Anne who’d been living in China for twenty years. She read the excerpts, looked me in the eye and said, “Nice. But are you going to write this story or not? Because this is half way and you can’t go half way with a cancer story.” I’d detailed my surgery in China and my fear. Now Anne wanted more?

Then it was August, and I flew home to Maine and showed the manuscript draft to some of my writer friends. “Good,” was the word they used. “But it’s not personal enough,” my friend Debra said. Not personal enough? “We want to see what was going on inside your mind while you lay in that Beijing hospital. It’s a problem of voice.”

I flew back to Beijing and started teaching the workshops again. Sophia enrolled and showed me a piece she’d been working on. The writing had a new, urgent voice. Sophia had been able to put herself into her story—she’d taken her experience and distilled it down from the sweeping epic into a tight personal narrative.

After class I went home and sat down at my desk. I knew that to fully write about my cancer and the trip back, I had to trust that intimate voice I’d talked Sophia into using. I wrote a new chapter about how my four-year-old, Aidan, had drawn butterflies on pink construction paper the day before my next surgery—and how he’d looked me in the eye and said any time I wanted to leave the operating room, all I had to do was remember those butterflies. I wrote. and something shifted.  This new voice was the most intimate voice I could have imagined, but I had access to it and to more, and the book was launched again. In the end it was a matter of trust. From writer to reader and back again.

Susan Conley lived in Beijing for close to three years and recently returned to Portland, Maine, with her family. Her memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, comes out this month from Knopf.  She is cofounder and former executive director of the Telling Room, a writing workshop and literary hub for the region. Her work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, as well as The Paris Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares and other literary magazines. Visit Susan’s website, SusanConley.com here, and her blog, The Hall of Preserving Harmony, here, her Facebook Author Page here, and her Twitter here.

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When “Write What You Know” Takes You Somewhere New

January 11th, 2011 by bakerkline

Pianist and memoirist Nancy M. Williams on how her passion for music informed her writing – and vice versa:

Two years ago, during a cold and snowy winter, I began my first book during a writing residency at Vermont Studio Center.   My memoir explored reclaiming my passion for piano at age forty after a twenty-five year hiatus.   While a variety of snowflakes, from clumpy to perforated, fell past my writing studio window, I wrote about my relationship with my father, who during my childhood had supported my writing but abhorred the sound of the piano.  (In contrast, my mother, an amateur pianist herself, had savored my playing.)

Writing my story helped me realize that the wrongs my father had committed during my teens had morphed over time into my lack of resolve.  As an adult, I alone  was responsible for the lack or abundance of classical piano music in my life.

After six months of intensive writing following my return home from Vermont, I had completed a rough draft of my memoir.  Needing the perspective that breaks provide, I put the book in cold-storage, vowing not to read a single paragraph for three months.  I felt a desire stronger than ever, stoked by the act of writing the rough draft, to reach my piano potential, squandered when I abruptly had quit at sixteen.

Although I had sustained my daily piano practice and weekly lessons while drafting my book, I had not performed in public—save the occasional student recital—since beginning adult piano lessons four years earlier.  Now while on break from my memoir, in short order I performed three times at my church: a Chopin Nocturne, Debussy’s Reverie, and part of a Beethoven Sonata.  The experience injected me with so much confidence that I took the train into Manhattan in October to audition for The New York Piano Society, a group of skilled amateurs who hold free concerts in New York City and New Jersey.  Much to my awed delight, the director, Elena Leonova, asked me to perform in two concerts in December.  I felt, as I strode out onto the stage at Baruch Hall, that I had answered a call to myself .

Around the time of my audition, I pulled out the rough draft of my memoir.   I delved back into scenes, editing them closely, yet I sensed that my story felt incomplete.   A year after my first residency, I returned to Vermont Studio Center for another period of concentrated work.

Like the year before, snowflakes fell past my window into the black Gihon River below.  In the quiet of my writing studio, I examined the book’s arc and flow.  I felt befuddled.  Where were the performances at my church?  How could I have left out my audition for The New York Piano Society, let alone the two winter concerts?  Then it hit me:  when writing the rough draft, I had yet to live these experiences.  My performances felt so knitted to the memoir’s material that I assumed I already had captured them as scenes.

The adage write what you know gained for me an entirely new texture, not unlike the varied snowflakes I encountered in Vermont.   Writing about the piano, which I both know and love, spurred me to greater pursuits with my musical passion.  The act of creating my book enriched my life.

Nancy M. Williams is an award-winning creative nonfiction writer and an avid amateur classical pianist.  Visit her website for her online music magazine, Grand Piano Passion, as well as her recordings of some of her piano music.   She is currently at work completing her memoir.

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What Makes a Title Great?

December 16th, 2010 by bakerkline

Novelist Caroline Leavitt on the impossibility -- and importance -- of finding the perfect title:

When I finished my new novel, I was relieved, excited, overwhelmed, and then terrified.  I knew I wasn’t really finished -- I had to do the one thing that makes my head feel as if it is going to explode:  I had to find the right title. Having published eight other novels, I knew that a title wasn’t just my own creative decision.  My editor, my agent, publicity and marketing were going to weigh in, and truthfully, I could see why. The title’s the first thing a prospective reader sees (besides the cover, of course, which is a whole other story), and if you can’t grab someone’s attention with a few words on the glossy jacket, you may not have a chance with the thousands more that are inside.

A lot of my writer friends are expert book namers.  They argue with marketing, they follow their instincts and convince their editors about the rightness of their choices, but I’ve had no such luck. I admit that I’m horrible at titles, that none of the ones I ever think of seem right to me.  I can, however, recognize a decent title when I see it.  Or at least, I think I can.

Originally, my new novel was called Traveling Angels.  It’s a screenwriting term I got from story guru John Truby.  A traveling angel is a person who comes into the midst of a village, changes everyone’s life, and then vanishes.  How perfect for my novel!  Or so I thought.  But my publisher was afraid no one would get the title.  Plus, it sounded too soft for them, and what did it really mean?  How many people would get the screenwriting reference?  So I came up with a one word-title. Breathe. One of my main characters, a nine-year-old boy, is severely asthmatic. The word “breathe” could also apply to the other characters, who could use a good deep breath themselves.  I loved it.  I was sure it was right!

It wasn’t.  “Not strong enough,” my beloved editor told me.  She asked me to come up with a list, but it was actually she who came up with Pictures of You.  “It’s the name of a Cure song,” she told me, which I knew, and I instantly loved the idea.  (One of my other novels, Coming Back to Me, was the title of a Jefferson Airplane song I loved, and an homage to my husband, whose book on the band, Got A Revolution, was making many Best of the Year lists.)  Plus, the title Pictures of You fit in all sorts of ways, since the novel is about photography and how we choose to see (or not see) the ones we love.

I’m writing another novel now, due to Algonquin in 2012, and of course I've worked hard on the title, trying desperately to come up with something that would be both evocative of the story and mind-grabbing.  Set in the late 1950s and early 60s, this new novel is about how we try to keep the ones we love safe, how the unseen in our lives affects the parts we are aware of.  I thought I found the perfect title: The Missing One.  My editor emailed me.  “I love what I’ve read so far of your pages,” she wrote, “but the title has to go.”

Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Pictures of You, officially out in January 2011, is already in its 3rd printing!   She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com, at facebook at http://www.facebook.com/carolineleavitt, at Twitter at @Leavittnovelist, and on her blog, http://carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/.

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