Monday, December 31, 2012

Leti Del Mar's Guest Post

Leti Del Mar
Today I am pleased to publish a guest post by Leti Del Mar, the author of The Inadvertent Thief.

Leti is a wonderful writer, and in this blog, she offers several tips to help you sharpen and refine your own writing. 


When she is not writing, she teaches Biology and Algebra to teenagers. When she's not teaching, she's reading, or pursuing her love of Art History, buried deep inside of a museum or traveling with her husband and daughter. To get a taste of Leti's delightful writing, you may download The Inadvertent Thief for free for the next several days from the following websites:





Here is Leti's guest blog:

“Call me Ishmael.”  Moby Dick

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Anna Karenina


“It was a pleasure to burn.”  Fahrenheit 451


“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice


What do the above quotes all have in common?  They are famous opening lines from equally famous works of literature.  They grab you, they interest you, they intrigue you and more importantly, they compel you to read more. A fantastic opening line is a key element to any memorable work of fiction.  Unfortunately, they are often the first thing you write and we all know just how intimidating that blank white page can be.  So let’s take a look at what makes an unforgettable opening line.



1.      Open with action.  A great way to start a story is by throwing the reader right into the middle of action.  You can compel the reader to keep reading.  For example, look at the opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.  “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  Right away, we know the name of our protagonist, we know he has a long history with his father and most importantly, we know he is going to face a firing squad.  As a reader, I want to know what happened to put him in this position and will keep reading to find out.

2.      Turn a truth on its ear.  Take something the reader is familiar with and twist it into something new.  Create a paradox or an ironic certainty that will make your reader want to find out how you can justify that statement.  In 1984, George Orwell does just that with his opener.  “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  He juxtaposes the idea of April, which has a warm connotation, with cold.  Then he throws in the unlucky number 13 and makes us mentally stumble over a clock that tolls an impossible number.  As a reader, I’m confused and intrigued enough to keep reading.  

3.      Thoroughly immerse the reader in your setting.  Use your opener to put the reader into the world you’ve created.  Make them feel, see, hear and truly understand where they will be as they continue reading.  J. R. Tolkien is a master of this in The Hobbit.  “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”  With this opener we know exactly what kind of home a hobbit lives in and even get an idea of what is a common characteristic for a hobbit, which is important since a hobbit is a creation entirely of Tolkien’s imagination.

4.      Shock or confuse your reader.  Say something that will make the reader sit up and pay attention. Something so outrageous the reader will just have to keep reading.  Case in point, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis opens with this whopper.  “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”  What?  Is that right?  This guy wakes up and discovers he is a monstrous vermin!  That’s what I call shocking and I just had to keep reading to find out the why, how and what now of this story.    

Do you have to use all four of these tips all at once?  No way.  These are just a few suggestions to get your creative juices flowing.  Here’s an idea, take an opening line you’ve already written and rewrite it with one or two of these tips and see what happens.  You may just create something unforgettable.

Here is the Link to Leti's website

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Shooting in Connecticut

Like everyone else I was shocked, saddened and angered by the terrible events at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week. Such a waste of life, shooting children whose lives have barely begun!

I wondered why someone would take it into his head--even his sickest, most confused head--to act out his pain on six and seven year-old children and their teachers. It defies understanding.

But that's the thing. Because it defies understanding, it's easy to dismiss this terrible act as an anomaly. Easy to think that no normal person could be capable of such an atrocity.

But I wonder.

It's a commonplace of war that soldiers shoot innocent women and children. They even torture, rape, and maim noncombatants with little or no guilt. Not all soldiers, of course, and not all the time. But all it takes, apparently, for soldiers to objectify and dehumanize civilians on the other side of the conflict is the belief that they are evil or defective in some way. Exhaustion, frustration, fear, and grief can thus be vented on these Others who do not deserve to live.

At the end of Tyler Perry's movie "Precious," the mother confesses her rage, sadness, hurt and loss in a long monologue explaining why she has abused her daughter and allowed her boyfriend to do the same. It is a difficult scene to watch. At the end of it, Precious walks away from her mother, freed from the past because she finally  understands that her mother's rage has never truly been about her, but about her mother's own losses. Precious' social worker also leaves. In her case, she is repulsed and horrified, unable to sit in the same room with this monster.

And so Mama sits alone at the end with no one to help her heal her wounds or tell her how to live with the knowledge of her own evil. She is isolated from decent society. She is a pariah.

No one can help her because none of the characters is capable of taking the courageous step that would lead to healing: recognizing themselves in Precious' mother. Allowing Mama to rejoin the human race because she is, after all, like the rest of us in everything but the extremity of her pain and rage.

Can we truly afford to think ourselves incapable of objectifying other people? Of projecting our own fear and hatred onto others who have nothing whatsoever to do with us?

I'm not suggesting that anyone is capable of taking an automatic weapon to an elementary school and killing innocents.

What I am suggesting is that every one of us has yelled at another driver because we're mad at our spouse; been unkind to our spouse because we're mad at our boss; projected our own character defects onto another and hated him for them.

I'm suggesting that pain unacknowledged and unhealed often finds a target, that we prefer to project the darkest corners of our mind onto an objectified "Him" or "Them," that we excuse, rationalize, and deny the poison in our own souls so that we can differentiate ourselves from "bad people."

It's a dangerous way to live.


NEXT WEEK LETI DEL MAR,  AUTHOR OF "THE INADVERTANT THIEF," WILL STEP IN WITH A GUEST BLOG.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Me and Machines

Machines hate me. I've always known it. Ever since I was a little girl, machines have refused to work properly in my presence.

Does this sound paranoid? Irrational? So be it.

Just yesterday the following three things happened in rapid succession:

  • My DVD player decided to spit out every dvd I put into it. Nothing I did would persuade the bloody thing to accept and load any of the four exercise programs I offered it.
  • My Kindle Cloud Reader did away with four or five books I had recently uploaded onto it--one of which I was in the middle of reading--and decided to substitute the many books I had put on the old, regular, Kindle reader two or three years ago.
  • The list of recorded programs on my television's DVR mysteriously disappeared. Designated programs are still being recorded--the little orange recording circle comes on in the program guide--but no list can be coaxed from wherever it is hiding in the land of digital happenings. So I can't actually click on a pre-recorded show to watch it.
I know what you're thinking: I must be one of those hopelessly inept creatures who cannot deal with all this modern technology. 

NOT TRUE!

I was actually one of the early adopters of all things computer back in the eighties. The dark ages, I know. Nevertheless, I did develop end-user training programs for many of the early software programs developed by Microsoft and others.

So, no! It's not me. It's machines. Like I said, they hate me!

And that includes cars, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and even electric can openers. I swear they work for other people, but not for me!

Here's what I think it is:

 Everything in existence is made up of energy as well as matter. In fact, energy and matter, under some conditions, can morph into one another. We know that from physics. Some energies are simpatico--I get along beautifully with animals and plants, for example. I easily befriend animals. I can usually keep my plants alive.

But some energies repel one another. Machines and I, for example, know each other to be natural enemies. Machines sense my energy a mile off. They hate me before they get to know me. It's a perfect case of contempt prior to investigation.

I'm not too crazy about them either. I try to avoid messing with them whenever possible. Which isn't very often in this over-technologized (is that a word?) world.

But here's the thing: We need each other.  I need my computer to write my novels. I could no more write longhand than I could swim the English Channel. And I depend on all my machines to help me complete tasks efficiently so I have time to write. My machines need me too. What good are they sitting silent and unused in a corner?

So I would like to call a truce. To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all just get along?"

I promise not to slam my fist down on the top of my DVD player if it just promises to accept my dvds. I won't throw the remote across the room if the list of recorded programs will simply show up on my TV screen. And I promise to read kindle books in preference to IBooks if my cloud reader will give me back the five books I just bought and paid for.

Maybe I'm asking for too much. Maybe peace is a pipe dream! But surely it's not too late to make a change!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Ambivalence

I have to admit I'm ambivalent about a lot of things. Christmas is one of them.

  • I resent shopping promotions in mid-summer calling themselves, "Christmas in July."
  • I don't like feeling obligated to spend money I don't necessarily have.
  • I hate when my favorite Sirius radio stations turn to all Christmas music all the time.
  • I resent the extra time and work I have to spend every November and December preparing for the holiday and/or participating in the holiday.
  • I can't live up to the expectation that I be happy, carefree and full of good feeling for my fellows.
  • I don't like saying "the holidays" instead of "Christmas" because it's considered more politically correct.
I know. I sound like the Grinch. Or Ebeneezer Scrooge. There is a big part of me that just wants to go on with business as usual. And it seems as if the business of the whole country slows to a crawl as soon as Thanksgiving rolls around.  
 
  • Meetings have to wait.
  • Projects get put on hold.
  • Deadlines can't be met.
  • People aren't available.
Last year I didn't even put up a Christmas tree. There wasn't a wreath, angel or Santa anywhere in my house. Of course that was partly because it was the first holiday after my divorce and my significant other was miles away. But it was also because I simply didn't feel like "playing." I folded my arms over my chest and sat it out. When the rest of the world got over their fit of frivolity, I happily joined them in the normal pursuits of life.

This year is different. If anything, I've gone overboard. My house is quite festive this year and a seven and a half foot tree graces my front window. 
  • I've done my Christmas shopping.
  • I'm attending holiday events.
  • I'm cooking.
Of course my guy is here this year which makes a huge difference. It's really no fun unless you have someone to do it with.

What's good about Christmas?
  • It forces a change of pace. In my case, I have more to do than usual. For many, life slows down.
  • It forces a change in outlook. I can't quite manage business as usual, so I might as well "go with the flow."
  • It encourages family get-togethers and, hopefully, communication.
  • It stimulates the senses with all the decorations, lights, and movement.
  • It reminds me that connection is the key to happiness. If I connect with others, I get out of self. And self is the biggest prison I know.
It's all about attitude really. All about how I think. As John Milton wrote, we can "make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven." It's all in how I decide to view things.

It's also about living life on life's terms. Of course I can dread the coming of Christmas, hate having to shop, resent the time stolen from my usual activities, regret every penny that is wrenched from my clenched hands.

BUT CHRISTMAS COMES EVERY YEAR ANYWAY!


So this year I have accepted my fate. I'm ready, even eager.

But I still refuse to listen to Christmas carols instead of my usual music! So come on, Sirius, give me back my songs already!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Unity in Diversity

"Unity in Diversity" was written on a banner hanging over the stage at the Santana concert my guy and I attended over the weekend. I didn't know why it was there or what I was meant to think about it

When the band started playing, I forgot all about it.

The music was incredible. Anyone familiar with Carlos Santana knows what an amazing musician he is. Anyone familiar with his band knows that every musician playing on that stage is brilliantly talented.

After fifteen minutes of dazzling music, Carlos Santana spoke to the audience. He is a spiritual man for whom music is a gateway to a higher consciousness. I don't mean that in an airy-fairy, new age kind of way. I mean that, for him music transforms our experience from self-absorption to self-forgetting. From little "I" to all-inclusive "we." He talked about the uniqueness of each of us and how, together, we create a beautiful pattern of experience that becomes complete and whole because each individual brings something to it.

That's when I started to get it. We are all different. Yet we are all the same. We hurt the same. We love the same. We laugh the same. But we are unique.

When the band started playing again, the musicians showed me exactly how it all works, this unity in diversity thing.

In jazz, of course, everything depends on improvisation. And improvisation only works when there is a structure to support it.
  • First the bands plays the piece all the way through to establish the "parameters"--notes, keys, chords, phrases from which each player will depart and to which each will return.
  • Next the first player (often, in this case, Santana) does his improvisation, creating his own phrases inspired by the main melody and his own feeling in the moment.
  • Then, each player takes off from the player before him using the improvisation he just heard to inform his take on the piece.
  • Often, two players jam with each other, challenging, questioning, commenting on what the other just played in a fascinating musical conversation.
  • In the end the band plays the whole piece through again just as they did it in the beginning, only now it's different because of everything we've heard leading up to this final run-through.
That is the perfect illustration of unity in diversity. 

The piece doesn't exist until the band plays it. It's only squiggles on a sheet of paper. 

The piece is different every time they play it because the musicians change their improvisations to suit the mood, the occasion, the audience, their frame of mind.

There is no music unless the band plays together--as one unit--at the beginning and again at the end, following the notes as they are laid out on a piece of sheet music somewhere.

And yet, there is no music either unless each musician puts his unique twist on the piece during his improvisation, subtly changing it, making it his own.

Maybe there's an analogy in fiction writing. 

Maybe the writer creates a story--squiggles on a piece of paper--that comes to life because she imagines a world and peoples it with characters who have emotions, perform actions and create consequences for themselves that others can identify with.

But the story is not complete until readers add their spin to it, bringing their own experiences to bear on what the writer has created. Each reader's take on the story is uniquely his own. How he interprets each character's actions, motives and words reflects his own life. Yet the "story"--the words on the page--remains the same.

Unity in Diversity. Or is it Diversity in Unity?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Surrender

I know, I know. Surrender is a word with bad connotations. We're taught we should struggle for the results we want, no matter what. Here are the phrases that ring in our ears from parents, teachers, troop leaders, and coaches from the moment we are out of diapers (and sometimes before.):

  • Fight to the end 
  • Never give up
  • Be in it to win it
  • Don't be a quitter
  • If you're not a winner, you're a loser
  • Battle against all odds
  • Giving up is the only disgrace
  • Do or die
I could go on and on. I'm sure you could too. 

We take it for granted that winning is everything. Or, at the very least, if we don't win it all, we should struggle on to the end never admitting defeat. 

Have you ever listened to the contestants on those reality competition shows? They look into the camera and, through gritted teeth, tell us:
  • I can't lose it now. I've put everything on the line.
  • My whole life depends on winning it all.
  • Coming in second is not an option.
  • I didn't come here to make friends. I came here to win.
  • My kids (or my wife, my husband, my parents, my town) are depending on me. I can't let them down.
Admittedly, a lot of this stuff is scripted, designed to get the viewers juiced into believing the stakes are incredibly high and that winning is of earth-shattering importance.

Even so, someone has to lose. The contestants know it. The producers know it. The writers who put these brave words into the mouths of the contestants know it. We know it.

So what happens to the fifteen or so contestants who do not win the big prize? Do their lives go into the toilet? Do their loved ones despise them? Do we despise them?

NO!

Usually just participating is richly rewarding. Singers and dancers, for example, are likely to launch successful careers based on being seen and heard on the show.

But I want to propose a whole different way to approach life's struggles.

SURRENDER

If you want to be a dancer but have no talent you are wasting your life if you don't surrender  to the truth. Admitting you can't dance, but you sing beautifully opens the door to a productive life. 

If you have a disability, surrendering to that reality allows you to take it into account and work around it. Denying it creates only failure.

Here's what I mean: 

I am a woman with short, round legs. That's my genetic heritage. I can't change it. My legs will never get any longer. Diet and exercise (I know from painful experience) makes them stronger but only a fraction leaner.

I can either bemoan the fact that my legs are not long and lean or accept the fact.

Bemoaning leads me to only poor options:

  • Trying feverishly to change the shape and length of my legs. (impossible)
  • Trying to outrun long-legged people even though I'll never be able to beat them. (impossible)
  • Viewing myself as flawed or second-rate. (all too likely)
But here's what surrendering to reality can give me:
  • the freedom to enjoy the strength and flexibility of my legs. 
  • The recognition that I get to have defects, they don't make me a lesser person.
  • The ability to let go of the concept of "defects" altogether and celebrate differences.
Surrender is a beautiful thing. 
  • It allows us to stop wasting time.
  • It allows us to live life on life's terms. 
  • It gives us a rich appreciation of the endless possibilities before us.
  • It frees us from self-limiting expectations.
In Denzel Washington's latest movie, Flight, he plays alcoholic pilot, Whip Whitaker, who struggles to maintain the illusion that he is not addicted to alcohol. At the end of the movie, he breaks down and tells the truth to others and to himself. He surrenders to the reality that he is an alcoholic. Later, in prison, he says (I'm paraphrasing), "This may sound strange given where I am, but for the first time in my life, I am truly free."

So next time you hear someone (or yourself) praise that "I'll never give in" mentality, ask yourself if it's worth it to for us to butt our head against a stone wall (believe me, our head will give way long before the wall) or to admit defeat and walk around it to the other side.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunny and Storm

I've mentioned my two Siberian huskies, Sunny and Storm before-- but not enough to tell you how they influence my life

First of all, they are brothers. They've been together from birth.
I don't know which one was born first, but I can tell you that Storm is bigger than Sunny and quite a bit more athletic.

I got them when I going through a personal crisis--a divorce to be exact. I thought a puppy would give me something to think about besides myself.

I picked out Storm first. He was a beautiful grey color. And he was strong, healthy and affectionate. But then I picked up his brother,  a tiny ball of reddish fluff that fit exactly into the space between my neck and shoulder. He nuzzled against me peacefully, his eyes closed as if he'd found the place in the world he never wanted to leave.

Maybe I should take this one, I thought. He's so sweet. But how can I leave the grey one?

I couldn't.

Well, I said to the breeder, how much more work can two be than just one? Wisely, she didn't answer me. If she had she either would have had to lie or tell me to forget about adopting two puppies at once if I wanted to retain my sanity.

For the first four months I had them, I slept less than I wanted to--they did not have the same bathroom schedule, not by a long shot! And I had almost no time to tend to my ordinary pursuits since I was either wrangling them out of the bushes or the fences or the middle of the street, or watching to see whether they needed to go outside.

Did you know that Siberian huskies are great escape artists? During those first few months they would wriggle through what I thought was a secure fence and wander the neighborhood, small balls of fur, faster than they looked and hard to catch. Did you ever try to catch two puppies clever enough to run in opposite directions when you try to seize them?

They are almost two years old now and great pals. They love to run wildly after each other or wrestle or pull each other's tails. They are best buddies. And why not? They've never been separated. Not once!

They are both sweet-tempered and affectionate. They both want to please and love meeting new people. They also adore meeting new dogs to play with, though they prefer each other's company to all others.

But having said that, they could not be more different.

Storm, as I said, is bigger, more athletic, stronger. He learned how to manage stairs first. He jumped into the back of the jeep long before Sunny could manage it. He climbs better, jumps higher and runs farther than his brother. He is also more affectionate and far more willing to please. You only have to call Storm once and he's there.
Storm is sweeter and enjoys being petted more.




Sunny, on the other hand, is stubborn, willful. In a completely non-agressive way, he challenges to see if he can avoid doing what he's supposed to, or more accurately, if he can do what he's decided is appropriate. If I call him, for example, he stops doing what he was doing and stands stock still. That's his compromise position. (He used to run in the opposite direction until we scared him one day by leaving the park without him.)  Sunny loves affection too, but controlling his brother is more important to him.

He lords it over poor Storm. Storm will not try to go upstairs, though Sunny spends as much time as he wishes up there. It's nothing I've done--I've invited both of them to come up. But Storm will not budge from the living room, though he whines piteously all the time Sunny is upstairs. It's not that Sunny growls or threatens. He just IS. Somehow through his very bearing and posture, Storm knows what is expected of him.

It beats me how he does it!

But I think I have learned something from observing my dogs. Leadership is not what you say or even what you do. It's what you are. It's how your being communicates your expectations of others and yourself. It's your energy and how you project that energy into the universe.

Maybe if we want to influence others we need to see to our level of confidence and self-belief.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

How Important Is It?

I don't know about you, but I am easily distracted. Not that I don't do a certain amount of writing every day--I do (usually). But it's alarmingly easy for me to find other things that "demand" my attention and take me away from what I should be doing.

Right now, and for the past several weeks, I have been revising the first draft of my novel. I enjoy this process. I finally know how everything's going to turn out in the end--something I didn't know for sure until I got there--and now all I have to do is go back to the beginning and tighten everything up. I have to remove anything that detracts from the story I'm telling. I have to strengthen everything that helps get the characters to their final destination. There are scenes I need to add to emphasize or deepen certain aspects of the story. There are scenes I have to delete because they lead the characters in the wrong direction.

A change of emphasis here. A dash of humor or pathos there. A sharpening of the dialogue to better reflect what the characters need to say.

It's all very enjoyable. The hard work is done.

So why do I find myself doing other things? Why, when I'm determined to sit down at the computer and write for four hours does the session become three hours? Or two? Or one?

There are many demands on my time, of course. Like most people, I have different kinds of activities every day:
  • Things I must do. 
  • Things I like to do that enrich me. 
  • Activities that are nothing more than guilty pleasures  
Here is a list of "Must-dos". I always do these first. (As a child, I ate my vegetable first, before my meat). Some of these are daily. They are all at least weekly.
  • Completing a workout.
  • Undertaking marketing efforts to sell my work.
  • Running errands.
  • Tending to my Siberian huskies, Sunny and Storm.
  • Keeping appointments.
  • Doing housework.
  • Preparing meals.
  • Paying bills
Here are some of the activities I enjoy doing. I usually get to one or more of these every day.
  • Spending time with my guy.
  • Visiting with friends.
  • Reading about a writer, actor or artist I am interested in.
  • Looking at houses I might want to buy.
  • Finishing a novel I'm in the middle of.
  • Visiting galleries.
  • Seeing movies.
These are guilty pleasures that I engage in every day. (Not all of them every day, but at least one of them every day):
  • Reality TV shows (No, I won't name the ones I watch!)
  • TV dramas I'm addicted to like "Dexter," "Homeland" and"The Good Wife."
  • Chocolate orgies featuring Ben &Jerry's ice cream or See's Candy.
  • Afternoon naps

NOTICE WRITING FICTION IS NOT ON ANY OF THE THREE LISTS!

Why isn't it on List #1: Must-dos? It should be. In a way it is. Except I figure I have to finish the other must-dos before I get to my writing. 

Does that mean writing s on List #2? The activities I enjoy? No. Because writing isn't always enjoyable and I certainly don't do it to relax. IT'S MY WORK!

Ditto for List #3, Guilty Pleasures. IT'S MY WORK!

In a way, writing exists in its own category. It doesn't fit any of the three. And that's why I don't get as much writing done as I plan to every day.

There are a couple of solutions;
  • Put it at the very top of the Must-do List.
    • Dogs can wait, dust can gather, more meals can be takeout.
  • Cut back on lists #2 and #3 (Or at least #3)
    • Are you kidding me?!
Here's the thing: I can't seem to change the way I do things. I've thought about this before and tried to change--mainly by shortening List #1. 

It doesn't seem to work.
I seem to be stuck with myself. But hey! It isn't all bad. The stories get written in the end.



Sunday, October 21, 2012

Being Sick

For the last week or so, I've been sick. Not desperately sick, just sick enough to get up in the morning and wish I hadn't. Just sick enough to go back to bed for long, lingering naps. Just sick enough to feel and look lousy.

There are a few benefits to being sick:
  • I can skip my workouts with a clear conscience.
  • I can let chores go without feeling guilty.
  • I can indulge in forbidden pleasures like reading all day.
  • I can work on my novel instead of taking care of other, more pressing duties.
But there are some distinct drawbacks beyond the obvious one of feeling lousy.
  • I have no real interest in anything I read or see.
  • I become grumpy.
  • I feel sorry for myself.
  • If the illness lasts for more than a day, I become convinced I have a life-threatening condition.
This week I thought seriously of putting my affairs in order.

  •  I remembered that I need to update my will, and decided I would need to take care of that loose end very soon. While I still had the wherewithal to sign my name.

  • I decided to bring my loved ones to my side one by one to bid them each a loving farewell. Since there are quite a few, I figured I'd better start the procession to my deathbed very soon. Immediately in fact.

  • I thought carefully about what I hadn't finished yet and realized there was just my current novel, now in the process of revision. I decided I'd have to keep myself going long enough to finish revising it.
As you can see, I am a drama queen. Big time!

Nor do I suffer in silence. Anyone foolish enough to get near me when I'm sick will hear me moan piteously about my condition and my impending demise.


There is a serious side to all of this: Apparently my attitude goes all to hell the minute I do not feel up to par. What does that say about how much control I have over my thoughts and emotions? Or for that matter, my perceptions of the world?

There's a big truth in here somewhere about how we are all limited by our attitudes, beliefs, emotions, biases. We all look at the world through lenses distorted by how we feel--not just physically--but emotionally too. There's a great big world around us. We only see the part that affects us. Which is the tiniest sliver of what is there.

Moreover, we only see that sliver through eyes biassed by our experiences, hopes, fears, wants, and dislikes.

When I got over my illness, I no longer believed I was dying. I no longer felt irritable and self-pitying. Life was beautiful once again.

But how do I get over the distortions I'm not even aware of? How do I take my tiny sliver of the world and see it clearly and without bias? 

An even bigger question--how do I take my tiny sliver and expand it to take in more reality? 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Telling the Truth

When I write a story, I try to tell the truth. Not the literal truth of course--I'm not interested in reporting facts about what happened to me or people I know--but the essential truth, the truth about what it's like to be alive, to be human.

But do we all agree on what that truth is? Do we see things the same way?

Ernest Hemingway used to say that his ambition for each day's writing was to write "one true sentence." I think what he meant was that he wanted the words to perfectly reflect the emotions and state of being of his characters. He believed if he got the words just right, the reader would  know, feel,  understand exactly what he wanted them to.

T.S. Eliot called this the "objective correlative." The writer, in his view, should not describe emotions, or mention them by name, but should find the exactly right objects(s) in nature to evoke the emotion. Everyone, he believed, will associate certain emotions with specific objects. A red rose, for example, might evoke romantic love. A black widow spider might evoke evil intention. The writer's task, in other words, is to show a state of mind through the right selection of images rather than tell the reader what a character is feeling by way of a narrative.

But what if we don't all share the same associations with certain objects? What if a red rose makes me think of thorns and the pain of pricking my finger? What if I had a pet black widow spider as a child and I think of spiders with fondness?

I'm all for showing instead of telling. It's one of the fundamental lessons beginning writers receive when they join a critique group or send their early pieces to a reviewer.

"Don't tell me Susie is sad. Show me she's sad through what she says and does."

That's good advice because telling me how a character feels rapidly becomes boring and the story turns heavy and flat.

However I also know that, while we share a universal arsenal of human emotions, we don't all see the world the same way. Hemingway and Eliot, I think, believed that we all respond to certain images, certain words, certain situations, the same way.

We don't.

So when I try to tell the truth, I have to limit myself to my truth, knowing full well that your truth might be quite different.

I really have no choice.

  • If you grew up on a farm, you feel differently about slaughtering a pig than I do.
  • If you're from Asia you feel differently about dogs than I do.
  • I may assume that $100,000 a year is a huge income. You may see it as middling.
So, really, my task is to show you my reality and make you believe in it. And to do that, I have to familiarize you with how my characters see the world. And that goes beyond finding the exact right words to convey a feeling. Because I can't assume that my words mean to you what they mean to me.

So truth is never THE truth. It is always A truth.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Does Fiction Serve a Purpose?

Ever since people started reading stories and writing poems,  they have been asking whether or not literature serves a purpose. I guess we like to know if we're doing something useful or not--or at least know we're wasting time if we are.

The debate has usually centered around whether we should read in order to be entertained or read in order to learn something useful. "Escapist" literature is considered nothing more than entertainment. "Didactic" literature is meant to instill a lesson.


  • Mystery, fantasy, romance, action/adventure stories are usually categorized as escapist.
  • Allegories, fables and parables are generally thought of as didactic.         
Is one better than the other? Should we opt for pure entertainment? Or should we always try to better ourselves through our reading?

I'm all for self-improvement. For years I couldn't get enough of books about improving my body, mind and spirit. 

BUT THOSE WERE NONFICTION BOOKS. I BOUGHT THEM FOR ADVICE.

When I read fiction, I never want to be bogged down by a speechifying character giving me the author's views about politics, religion or the social order. Nor do I want a story to be distorted to make the outcome fit the author's philosophical views.



When I read a story in which someone is trying to convince me to believe something or change my opinion about something, I become annoyed. I want to talk back to the writer. I want to defend my position. Sometimes I get mad. Mostly, I want to put down the book. And I usually do.

Because the story and the characters do not hold my interest. The book is merely trying to sell me something. I'M NOT BUYING!

So, you might ask, does this mean I read for pure escape? Are the best stories the ones that take us away from our real lives into an imaginary landscape of aliens or detectives or impossibly beautiful women and handsome men?

I need to escape sometimes. If I didn't get away from the immediate demands of my life, I would be unpleasant to live with. But only up to a point--IF I CAN'T ENGAGE WITH THE CHARACTERS, I CAN'T STICK WITH THE STORY.

You know those action movies, the ones with special effects? The ones where bridges blow up, buildings implode, characters leap twenty feet in the air? One high-speed car chase follows another?

THEY BORE ME SILLY!


Maybe it's the the absence of testosterone in my body, but my eyes glaze, I lose track of the plot, and I start writing my shopping list in my head. I can't stay engaged unless the characters seem to have real conflicts, real emotions, and real relationships.

Maybe the issue is really always the same, whether it's escapist or didactic: the characters and their reactions to their situation have to resemble how we would feel and react. Or at least how someone we know would.

So it's not really and either/or issue. A story has to entertain me so I don't feel I'm being lectured. But I also have to feel I have a stake in the outcome.

That doesn't mean I have to come away from the story with knowledge I didn't have before. I don't expect to learn how to bake an apple pie or build a bookcase from reading a story.

I don't even (necessarily) need to feel I've learned more about the court of Henry VIII after reading an historical novel set in his England. Or more about China before communism from reading a novel  set in 1930's China. Though those are very nice outcomes.

What I do need, however, is to feel that
          •  I have been in the presence of the shifts and tides of human nature
          • I have witnessed the ways in which human beings influence and affect each other through their interactions. 
          • I have been enriched through seeing the workings of the human psyche, the human soul.
For me, reading stories is always about getting to know people. And fictional people in the hands of a good writer are real. At least they convince us they are real which is the same thing.


So: is it the purpose of fiction to entertain or to teach? Maybe it's both.

When I read a good piece of fiction, I come to understand myself better. At the very same time, I get to escape from myself for awhile.

It's the best of both worlds, don't you think?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Where Do You Get Your Inspiration?

Here's something that most fiction writers I know struggle with: should I write stories based on my own life? After all. the experts tell us to write what we know, and what do we know better than our own life story?

It's an interesting (and difficult) question. Unless we're writing well-researched historical fiction, we know we'll get in trouble if we create stories in exotic locations, about cultures we are unfamiliar with where characters experience things we know nothing about. In general:
  • Housewives are probably better off not writing war stories.
  • Career military officers should probably stay away from cozy English mysteries centered around domestic life.
On the other hand, staying too close to home creates its own pitfalls. Writing about our own dysfunctional family will create hard feelings. 

They'll know it's about them
  • Even if we disguise them by changing their names.
  • Even if we change events around so they don't exactly match what really happened.
    • The main character's aunt kills his uncle instead of his cousin.
    • The main character's father is a doctor, not a lawyer, and has an affair with his patient, not his client.
No one will be fooled by these cosmetic changes. And the people close to us will see themselves as nothing more than fodder for our creative mill. Besides, they'll be offended at how we portray them. 

Because, believe me: they don't see themselves in the same unflattering light we might .

And yet, our stories have to reflect who we are, what we've experienced, and what we've learned about life. Without something of ourselves infusing every line of our story, our writing has no soul, no heart, and no reader will feel a responsive thrill of recognition.

We can't write the literal truth because we want to "protect the innocent" (or not so innocent). Nor can we squeeze the life out of our stories by ensuring they offend no one.

So how do I handle this dilemma?  I tell the emotional and spiritual truths about my life.

To do that, I have to place my emphasis on the internal landscapes of my characters, and these internal landscapes represent psychological places I, or people very close to me, have been. 

But, you might say, 
  • you've written one novel about a movie star, and you ain't no movie star.
  • You wrote a novel about Lakota spiritual practices, and you have never even met a Lakota medicine man.
True. But I have experienced the emotions and dilemmas of my main characters. And as far as the settings are concerned, I did a lot of research.

  • I can create the external landscape through research.
  • The internal landscape--the psychological landscape--comes from me.

Right now I am writing a novel about a college girl and a pimp. I know a lot about being a college girl--I used to be one. I know nothing about being a pimp. But this pimp suffers from feelings and conflicts that I do know a lot about: 
  • Loneliness
  • Discontentment with his life
  • Feelings that are in conflict with "the rules" for success
  •  An inappropriate  love.
So that's how I deal with the need to be "real" in my writing without telling my actual life story.

How do you do it?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Artist in My Life

I live with an artist. He is a talented painter named Rufus Chalmers. Here is a sample of one of his pieces.

We not only live together, we work together in the same room. It's not that big.

It used to be my office, the place where I could create and think and process and, hopefully, come out at the end of the day with a few effective pages. I furnished the room with a desk, my laptop, a sofa and some bookshelves.

Now the front half is my space and the rear half is Rufus' studio where he has an easel, art supplies, the pieces he's working on and his computer. All my furniture is still here.

Did I tell you the room isn't that big?

I never thought I could share my space. I thought I needed silence and privacy to do good work. A door that closed to shut out the rest of the world--which for a long time consisted only of my two Siberian huskies. Well, okay, I didn't shut them out of my office. They used to lie at my feet or under my desk. They still do.

Some of Rufus' pieces are pretty big. This one, for instance, takes up a lot of space. He hasn't finished it yet.

Did I mention the room isn't that big?

Now here's the interesting thing. Everything I thought I needed isn't really what I need. Not that I want a loud party in progress as I work--I value the silence. I can't write without it. But I've learned that having another creative person working in the same room actually helps me do better work. I think better. The writing flows better.

First of all, I get to try things out on Rufus. I can say," Will you listen to this scene and tell me what you think?" Not only do I get the benefit of his opinion, I get to hear the words out loud, get a better idea of how well the scene reads.

Second of all--and I never thought I would say this--I benefit when he interrupts me to ask my opinion on his progress. I get to ask him questions, see how his mind works. See how he solves problems.

When he's excited about his work, it helps me stay excited about mine. If something inspires him, it's easier for me to get inspired.

It helps that we like each other's work.

I don't know how it would be if we were both writers or both painters. Maybe a competitive element would creep in. But as it is we work well together. Writing is very different from painting. Perhaps it is in the differences that we enrich one another.

By the way, did I mention the room isn't that big!


Sunday, September 9, 2012

How To Do It, Part 2

Last week I wrote that, while  outlining the plot of a novel is often advised and works well for some writers, it does not work for me. Afterward, I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking about how people are given formulas for how to do many things in life.

  • My grandmother used to tell me: "There's a right way and a wrong way to do everything."


When I was a child, I believed that. I carefully followed her exact directions on how to iron a blouse, always starting with the collar first, then the sleeves, then the buttons, and so on. I remember being surprised when I watched an aunt of mine do it an entirely different way. I was even more surprised when it turned out just fine.

It occurred to me then that maybe what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for someone else.

So how does this apply to writing?

  • It's a truism that good writing is about rewriting. The magic doesn't happen without careful revision.


I agree with that. Like many writers, I am horrified at the idea of sharing my work until I've gotten it "right." Not only do I want to be sure I've chosen the best, most economical words to tell my story, I want to make sure that every scene contributes to the whole, that every character is fully realized, that every plot point makes sense, that the story moves inevitably from its beginning to its conclusion.

  • However, many experts also advise against revising until the first draft is complete.


The theory is--and I think it's true for many writers--if we get bogged down in revision too early, we will become discouraged or stuck. In looking for the exact right word we will lose sight of the story's flow.

Not for me. For me, revision begins as soon as I put down the first sentence. I cannot move to the next sentence until I'm happy with the first.

This sounds tedious, I know. How can I ever get anything done if I spend all my time going back and back and back?

To be honest, I don't know. Maybe I'd be a better writer, at least a more efficient writer, if I followed advice and completed a draft first.

But I can't. Quite literally, I can't do it.

Here's how it goes for me:


  • During the first draft process, I read/revise what I did yesterday, then move forward, revising wording, order of events, or sentence structure as I go. By the end of the day I usually have four or five pages I'm happy with.
  • Halfway through (or sometimes sooner) I reread the whole novel up to then and revise whole sections as well as word choices, sentence structure, etc. Here, I'm looking for wordiness, imprecision and vagueness as well as character and plot development.
  • When I have a draft, I go through the same way again looking to sharpen the writing and sequence events more effectively.
  • Now I put the manuscript away for a time, maybe a few months. I let it "rest."
  • When I pick it up again, I may restructure the entire story, changing up characters, reinventing the plot, etc.
This is not pretty, I know. But it works for me. I'm not making a case for working this way. But it seems to be the only choice I have. I cannot keep my hands off my work even when I try--even when I tell myself I haven't time to muck around.

I don't know about you, but I have to follow my instincts when I write. Even when someone else thinks there's a better way. There probably is. I just can't follow it.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How To Do It

I've been thinking lately about the way I put my novels together. Mostly I've been thinking about it because I don't do it the way I've been told I should.

Where do I go?
For example. Many experts advise writers to create an outline before starting a novel. This way the writer creates a map of how to get from the beginning of the story to the end. Getting from A to Z is easier if you know all the way-points in between.

But what if you have no idea what Z looks like? Or worse, you don't even know where A is?

I usually begin with an idea, something simple. For example, Bear Medicine began with an image in my head of a woman who had suffered a terrible tragedy. I wondered how she could climb out of her despair and confusion and whether she would need to discover her own spirituality before she could be whole again.

I didn't know what the tragedy in her life was. I didn't know how she would discover a spiritual path or what the path would look like. I didn't even know if she would find happiness in the end or be defeated by the despair she began with.

I didn't know until I began to write.

And halfway through, I still didn't know where she would end up.


I'm like a mole burrowing in the dark, digging tunnels as he goes but never knowing where he'll end up when he runs out of burrowing room.

Once, several years ago, I decided I should probably create a novel the way the experts said it should be done. So I wrote an outline.

It took days. I felt uninspired.
What happened?

In the end I had twenty or so chapters with detailed bullet points describing what would happen. I had carefully constructed the track for my train to run on.

The story felt lifeless.

When I began to write, the story refused to follow the outline I'd so carefully prepared. The train jumped the track almost immediately.

The novel I'm working on now involves a pimp and a college girl who becomes entangled with him. I am getting close to the end. My college girl is in danger. She and her friends need to escape a situation that may result in injury or death.

Day before yesterday, I knew where they would go and what they would do to try to escape. Yesterday when I sat down to write, damned if one of my characters made a suggestion that never occurred to me. It was a much better idea than the one I'd come up with myself, so I let her have her way.

Yes. My characters talk about the story and how it should go. They don't talk to me so much. They talk to themselves and to each other. I seem to be around to carry out their wishes.

Does outlining work for you? It does for many writers. I just don't seem to be one of them!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why Do You Write?

Recently, I saw a discussion on one of the writers' websites I follow. A member of the site wanted to know whether others write to get readers or to get published.

My first reaction was, "What's the difference? We can't get readers unless we get published, can we?"

But as I thought about it, I realized I've had another, related discussion with other writers for years, a discussion that usually takes place when one of us feels depressed about the difficulty of getting journal editors, agents and/or publishers interested in our work. It goes something like this:

"I'm sick of writing stories nobody wants to read. From now on, I'm only going to write what sells," says the discouraged one.

"Don't do that," says the discouraged one's friend. "Everything out there is crap. You're too good for that. Uphold your standards."

"Why? Nobody wants to read thoughtful stories. Hardly anybody reads period. I'm just going to appeal to the lowest common denominator until I get published. Once I'm established, I'll have plenty of time to write good quality fiction."

There are a couple of flaws in this line of reasoning. One is that what we label "crap" is usually written by someone who thinks her story is pretty damn good. The other is that when we do try to write something we don't believe in, that doesn't reflect us, the story almost always falls flat.

Years ago, for example, I decided that I would write a series of romance novels.

Not that romance novels can't be good. You can argue that the Bronte sisters wrote a type of romance. 

But I figured nothing could be easier. Why? Because they all follow one of a few predictable formulas. All I needed to do was decide on which formula I wanted to follow, and I was good to go.

I read twenty or thirty of the "bodice ripper" variety until I was sure I had all the elements down. I was sure I was only a few thousand keystrokes away from fame and fortune. Because that's what I wanted. Why I was writing. I wanted people to buy my books so I could make money. I wanted people to know my name (Well, my pseudonym which was, as I recall, Desiree Darling.)

I sat down at my computer and .....NOTHING. My mind went blank. I looked at my notes, my careful outline of all the plot elements I needed to include to make my first novel a hit. I turned back to my blank computer screen, stared at it for a full five minutes. Finally, I forced myself to write an opening paragraph introducing my innocent yet feisty heroine.

When I finished, I was drained. I got up from my computer to fix myself a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

I couldn't talk myself back to the computer that day, though I promised myself that tomorrow I would get down to it. For a full week, I told myself that my romance novel was as good as written. All I had to do was sit down and write.

I couldn't do it.

It didn't make sense. I knew exactly what I needed to write. What was the matter with me?

In retrospect, it's pretty simple--I couldn't write my romance novel because my heart wasn't in it.

In the end, we write what we must, I think. What we're drawn to. What speaks to us. And, yes, we want people to read our work. We want that with every fiber of our being.

But we have to write for ourselves first. The rest will follow if we're lucky.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

More on Marilyn Monroe

FREE DOWNLOAD OF CATCH THE SUN KINDLE EDITION: AUGUST 20-24



In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn's death, I am offering a free download of Catch the Sun, a novel inspired by the events of Marilyn's final summer.

In 1962, Marilyn Monroe was exhausted, depressed and losing hope that she would ever be given the kinds of dramatic roles she so desperately wanted. She had recently been institutionalized at the Payne-Whitney Psychiatric Hospital in New York. In the spring, she came home to Los Angeles and rented a small bungalow in preparation for playing "another dumb blonde" in a movie called "Something's Got To Give"


By this time, Marilyn who was thirty-six years old, was seriously addicted to barbiturates and was drinking heavily. Her marriage to Arthur Miller had disintegrated into a bitter divorce two years earlier. Her life was going nowhere but down. She was holding onto her career by her fingernails.

By the end of May, she'd been fired from "Something's Got To Give."

With no movie to give her life structure, Marilyn began drifting, coming ever closer to the despair that would suck her down into death.

But she could make one final effort to save herself: she could find one last thing to cling to.

During this final summer Marilyn began looking for a house, a safe haven that could function as a fortress supplying the security and stability that her life lacked.

In Catch the Sun I tell the story of the house Marilyn wants to buy but can't have. It is the perfect house, the one she has always sought. It faces the sea, promising vast possibility and an end to suffering. Here, in this house, a beautiful little girl lives with her mother, a famous artist. Could this child be the daughter Marilyn gave up for adoption three years earlier? Could the strange fascination the little girl feels toward Marilyn be proof that they are bound by ties stronger than death or time?

Thirty years later, the child, now grown into a lovely but troubled model named Amanda Grace, receives visitations from the long-dead Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn has a message for her. She needs to tell Amanda things--things only a mother can tell her daughter.

Take advantage of this opportunity to download Catch the Sun for free starting tomorrow, August 20.




Saturday, August 11, 2012

Catch The Sun Available in Kindle Edition

I'm so excited that my novel about Marilyn Monroe's final summer has just been published as an e book on Amazon.com!


It is particularly appropriate because this August marks the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn's death. My novel follows Marilyn through her final months of life and culminates on the morning of August 5, 1962 when she was found dead by her housekeeper.

Marilyn is not the only main character in "Catch the Sun." The other is a young model named Amanda Grace whose life in the summer of 1995 is unraveling. Yes, you read that right. 1995. It seems that the lives of Amanda and Marilyn are linked despite the more than thirty years separating them.



Why Marilyn Monroe? I must confess to being fascinated with Marilyn from my early teens. She seems the quintessence of fragility, yet her story is one of fierce determination and the will to succeed. She was a "little lamb lost in the wood" to quote the old song, easily arousing the protective instincts of men. At the same time she was tough as nails in the pursuit of what she wanted. Maybe it was her own ruthlessness toward herself that destroyed her in the end.



Why Amanda Grace? Because I have always been fascinated by the way we project our own fantasies, needs and demons onto the famous people we admire. Amanda is beautiful--just as Marilyn was--but, lacking Marilyn's talent, her career is sinking. Even worse, when her mother dies, Amanda discovers she was adopted and her frail sense of identity crumbles. To keep herself afloat, she fantasizes about Marilyn.

Could Marilyn Monroe be Amanda Grace's mother?

Certainly they are kindred spirits, both women too damaged to sustain the reckless lives they lead, their minds, too fragile to contain the fierce spirits that drive them beyond their strength.



I hope you'll read "Catch the Sun" in its new kindle format. Let me know what you think. Is Amanda Grace mentally ill? Is Marilyn Monroe really her mother?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Is Writing a Competitive Sport?

Maybe it's because the Olympics are on, but I got to thinking the other day about competition. I was raised by a father who believed that competition was not only beneficial, it was necessary to survival. As he saw it, we inhabit a Darwinian universe in which those who successfully compete for food, water and mates prosper and reproduce. The others die.

 Winners and losers.

 The strong and the weak.

 My father wasn't alone. Look around. Our culture is all about competition. Television networks especially manage to turn every imaginable activity into a competition. Singing. Dancing. Home decorating. Cooking. Losing weight. Even crafting. Even visual arts. (A couple of seasons ago there was a competition show to discover the best young artist in America.)

 I know why they do it. Competition makes any activity more interesting. It gets the juices flowing. Creates people to root for and against. (Have you noticed how there are always people you love and others you hate on competition shows? You say, "He needs to go. Why is she still here?)

 It's supposed to be about quality: the best person wins. But of course, it isn't just about quality. It's about luck. It's about the subjective opinions of the judges. It's about having an especially good or bad day.(I remember one cooking show where a finalist had the flu the day of the final cook-off and could barely function.)

Which brings me at last to writing. (I'm sure the only reason there hasn't been a TV competition show for writers is because it would be terminally boring to watch the competitors hunched over their laptops for hours at a time. Not to mention how time-consuming it would be to read all the results aloud.)

There are plenty of writing competitions--even if they aren't on television. And winning one is very prestigious for a writer, as it should be given that there are usually thousands of entries. But writing should not be a competitive sport. None of the arts should be.

Competition is not limited to contests. Writers also compete for readers.

Creativity is about taking risks, stretching boundaries, challenging assumptions. That's how great writing happens

Competition is about doing what is safe so that judges and readers are not jarred. That's how mediocre writing happens.

When writers compete, we consider each other rivals for praise, fans, readers, sales. And as the readership for novels and short stories shrink,s we fight over a smaller and smaller audience. "How did that piece of trash get published?" we ask ourselves and/or a loyal follower, "when my work languishes in a slush pile somewhere? I'm so much better than he is!"

Maybe we're right, maybe we're wrong. It doesn't matter. The point is, envy poisons good work. Writers deal with envy in a number of ways. We

  • Give up entirely and stick to our "day job"
  • Try to create a carbon copy of the rival's successful book(s)
  • Stick our nose in the air and declare, "I'm writing literature so I don't care what trash Mr. and Mrs. America want to read.

But there's an alternative--we can see one another as comrades in arms, all struggling to create something worth reading. That way, we can learn from one another. Be inspired by one another. Help one another.

Does this sound Pollyanna-ish? I suppose it does. After all, we're human and how can we not feel at least a tinge of jealousy when someone succeeds where we have failed? Or feel triumphant when it's us in the winner's circle?

Many of us imagine we're in a race, looking over our shoulders to see who is gaining on us, looking ahead to gauge how fast we have to be to catch the leader.

But we're not running a track with other writers behind and ahead. Each of us has our own path, our own course to run. Some are running up a hill, others down a mountain. Still others are on a straightaway. We may meet each other, but we're never running the exact same course.

Think about it. Each of us has a different gift. Our task is to nurture and develop our own, unique talent. We do that by writing. We do that by studying other writers. We do that by freeing our minds and imaginations to flow wherever they want to take us. We do that by welcoming the companionship of other writers we meet along the way.

Some have been where we're going and can tell us something about the place.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are Writer's Born or Made?

When I very young, maybe ten years old, my fifth grade teacher told me I was a "born writer." I had completed an assignment on my favorite things. I wrote about the smell of coffee wafting from the Maxwell House Coffee factory as my grandmother and I approached San Francisco from the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge.

My proudest moment, though, was in eighth grade when my teacher took my paper from the stack of class autobiographies and compared my writing to that of Dickens. From then on, I believed I was, indeed, a "born writer."

Until, that is, I was eighteen and decided to write a story based on my latest tragic romantic adventure. What I wrote was flat, turgid, and boring, not to mention amateurish, awkward and embarrassingly self-indulgent. I tore up the piece and threw it in the nearest waste paper basket. Shortly afterward, I read Carson McCullers' stunning first novel, "The Heart I a Lonely Hunter" written when McCullers was no older than I was.

That cinched it: I was no writer after all. Some people had it, but I wasn't one of them. I would teach like all the other unfortunates who belonged in the category of "those who can't." I didn't write fiction again until I was forty.

I don't know why I started again exactly. Marilyn Monroe's story had come to fascinate me. Even more, I became curious about people who adore celebrities and follow their minutest doings. I found myself itching to write a piece of fiction that would explore how an ordinary person becomes consumed by the life of a celebrity.

But the reason doesn't matter. What's important is this: Being older helped my writing. For one thing, I wasn't so callow as I had been. For another, studying writers for years had improved my technique. The writing was just good enough that I kept at it.

That's when I discovered the most important lesson I've learned as a writer: Fiction writing is as much a set of skills as it is an art form. No way could I become a good writer until I learned the skills and techniques that move a story and its characters forward. And the only way to learn skills is to practice, practice, practice .

My first novel--the Marilyn Monroe material was in the form of a short story at that point--was autobiographical. I entitled it, "Smile for the Camera." I labored over it for a year. I asked my friends to read it. I sent it to an editor for feedback. I shouldn't have wasted their time. IT WAS AWFUL. But having spent so much time on it, I kept thinking it deserved to be published. Besides it was my personal odyssey and so it must be fascinating, right?

WRONG! It deserved to be just what it was--a practice piece.

I wrote two more novels that suffered the same fate: oblivion in a bottom drawer.

But here's the thing. I learned my craft by writing those three wretched novels. Those novels made me confront and solve technical problems, problems like how do you bring a story to life, how do you develop believable characters, what does realistic dialogue sound like, what creates dramatic tension, how do you transition smoothly from one character or one setting to another.

I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone can learn to be a writer. I read too many Freshman compositions in my day to believe that. While most people can learn to write clear, well-thought-out paragraphs if they practice, very few can learn to give us lively, interesting fiction. It takes a certain amount of talent to write that.

So talent is a factor, and an important one. And maybe some writers are so naturally gifted that literature pours out of them like a fountain. But most of us need to learn our craft and spend a certain amount of time as an apprentice.

I wish I'd known that when I was eighteen.