Archive | Writing

Don’t Miss Indie Author Day!

Inviting you to

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Saturday, October 8

11AM PDT, 2PM EDT

Libraries across the nation will join in a webcast introducing their local indie authors (authors who self-publish or publish through small presses)

I will be joining authors from the Skagit Valley on the Mount Vernon Library panel

Click here for the link

For those of you who aren’t writers and so are not totally immersed in the publishing revolution, here’s your introduction to the life of today’s authors. For those of you who are, here’s a national forum of the state of the art today. Most of the panel, in Mount Vernon at least, will be self-published authors, but I will speak about the role small presses play in the revolution. Do join us for the webcast.

 

All Book covers

All Book covers

 

 

Another Tale for Today

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Browsing through my notes, I came across this dialogue exercise I wrote for a class many years ago. It’s not nearly the level of Tony Fuhrman’s poem, but it seems singularly appropriate to the level of social and political scene today.

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A Tale for Today

“My mom said if I got kept after again I couldn’t go out for a month!”

“Don’t tell her. Tell her you stopped at the creek on the way home.”

Naaa–she’ll find out.”

“Ya, Ol’ Prissy Smithy’ll be calling your ma just so your ma understands exactly what you did.”

“Your ma, too.”

“Who’s that kid over there?”

“Dunno. One of those jerks they’ve been busing in.”

“What’s he watchin’ us for?”

“Dunno. There goes Sammy talking to him.”

“How come Sammy doesn’t have to stay after? He was texting as much as we were.”

“Heyu Sammy! How come the teacher didn’t make you stay after?”

“He acts like he doesn’t’ hear you.”

“Like the guy is a friend of his.” Reuban said.

“Yeah, Sammy always was weird.”

“Did you see that shiny shirt he wears? All purple with funny designs. Like some alien from outer space.”

“Bet they’re talking about us, too.”

“Heard one of those kids grabbed Jimmy Green’s pack and ran off with it—laughing up a storm.”

“Didn’t get into a bit of trouble for it either, I bet.”

“Teacher’s pets, the whole bunch. ‘Now you have to be nice to the new children!’ Like we’re a bunch of kindergardners.”

“Yeah. Coach even made one of them pitcher. Pitcher! Can you believe that?”

“Ain’t fair.”

“Ain’t. And we’re the ones have to stay after.”

“There’s the bell.”

“Better get ourselves in or we’ll be in more shit.”

“Yeah. Let’s go. … Whatcha looking at, weirdo?”

“Nothin.’”

“He was. Git him!”

 

An Ode for Today from Toni Fuhrman

 

Orlando Shooting

Every time we awake to another mass shooting, we grow a little more numb, a little less alive. What will it take to shake us out of this ever more detached state of being? Toni Fuhrman’s poem, While I Slept,  did that for me, and I would like to share it with you. Please do take a moment and click here. You will not be sorry, I promise you.

My hat’s off to Toni (and not for the first time) for taking the time to translate her own state of being into poetry as well as for the poem itself. While I Slept does what poetry is supposed to do–bring  alive the incongruous state in which we are living these days.

Chattanooga TN shootingColorado Springs shootingFerguson

 

 

 

 

 

In our helplessness, we forget our greatest power–taking up our pens. For language is power and poetry distills that power, preserves the reality of our existence. We can do something! Thank you, Toni, for reminding us, and for While I Slept. Please, everyone, GO READ IT and SHARE it.

Interview with Author Toni Fuhrman

 one who loves

Welcome, Toni,

 You and I met in Ann Arbor in the 70s, so we have a long history as fellow writers. I’d like you to talk about your writing background—when you began to write, where you get your ideas, how you would describe your style of writing, and what authors have inspired you. Also tell us what has sustained you as a writer through the years.

 You recently published a novel, One Who Loves (New Libri Press, 2015), which is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, and Apple iBooks). Do tell us what the novel is about and what inspired the story.

 Finally, what advice would you give would-be writers, and what are you working on now?

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I always liked writing, including the act of writing, which involves handling pencils, pens, and paper. I still like touching the page with a writing instrument—that closeness, that physicality. I once took a calligraphy course so that I could indulge my love of writing by hand. I also write the first draft of my novels by hand. This may seem labor intensive but it’s not, if one is working on a few pages at a time. The pages just pile up and, some months later, there are several hundred pages and that wonderful thing—a novel manuscript. Once the first draft is complete, it’s much easier to edit and rewrite on a mechanical device. Over the years, I’ve transitioned, without too much difficulty, from manual typewriter to electric typewriter to word processor to desktop to laptop.

I didn’t write extensively while studying English literature during my undergraduate and graduate years. I didn’t write a novel until a few years after that, when I took myself off to England and wrote a very bad first novel, sitting in front of a rented typewriter at a gigantic claw-foot desk, in a bed-sitting room on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, across the street from the Thames, just down the street from the former residences of Thomas Carlyle and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

I took my first writing course—and got my first rejection (from The New Yorker)—as an undergraduate. Following graduate school, I took two other courses, one at Windsor University (with Joyce Carol Oates) and one at the University of Michigan (with Robert Haugh). That was the extent of my formal training. I was accepted at the Iowa Writers Workshop but did not attend. One of my few regrets. I was in love, and Iowa seemed much too far away. I still have (filed away somewhere) the letter of acceptance from Vance Bourjaily, at that time a writer and teacher at the Workshop.

Story ideas. Where do they come from? They are often a momentary thought, realization, or insight, during which I visualize the story, or the key elements of the story, sometimes from beginning to end. It might simply be a title—at this point nothing more than a place marker. More often than not, the title, and its accompanying note, land on a stray piece of paper. I try to remember to put the idea in some more permanent place, like a journal, before the idea is lost and gone forever. Inspiration is ephemeral. It needs to be captured and pinned down before it dissipates. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.”   

An idea for a novel is not much more complicated than an idea for a short story—at least in the beginning, at least for me. I know the main character or characters. I know what the thrust of the story is. I know how it ends. The rest is process. The story unfolds as I write it.

I often write plot outlines, but only after I’ve drafted the entire manuscript, and only to assist me in recalling the sequence of events, or because a potential publisher has requested it. I don’t map out novels or stories before I write them, or as I write them, because, for me, the story and the characters have lives of their own. My job is to get the story down on the page and allow the characters to progress in their own way and at their own speed. They’re often fated, as I may already have determined the ending, but they have a lot of freedom within that boundary. Yes, sometimes they force me to rethink my endings. That’s when I know I’ve created strong characters.

In several of my novels, including One Who Loves, I’ve written in the ending, or some portion of the ending, at the very beginning of the story. Even though some might consider this a “spoiler,” I’ve found it an effective way to launch a story. Most readers, I believe, will become too involved in the story to put down the book because they know the ending. The stories I tell are not about plot but about character development.

That said, it’s probably easier for someone else to describe my writing style than for me to attempt it. My primary stylistic model and ongoing inspiration is Jane Austen. I am almost always reading Jane Austen. I read her six major novels over and over because I admire her stylistic clarity, her utter lack of sentimentality, her smooth, effortless narration, her satire, her witty and engaging dialogue, and her timeless stories of family conflict and romantic mishap. She is a realist in the best sense; that is, she portrays her flawed characters with wit, humor, and compassion. As she said in one of her letters, “Three or four Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” Modestly, she refers to her literary output as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour”—a reference to the miniaturist art (watercolor on ivory) that was popular at the time. I’ve always believed, however, that she knew how good she was. After all, at his invitation, she dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was an admirer of her novels.

Lined up behind Jane Austen are many other novelists and philosophers whose works have inspired me. For its narrative drive: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (a favorite from age 12). For style: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the short stories of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. For imagination and originality: Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. For majestic storytelling: Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

For language and subtlety: Henry James’ Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady. For brilliantly capturing a particular period and social class: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and her New York stories. For enlightened discipline: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (another early favorite, from age 18), Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography, and B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. For voice: W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. For compelling story: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. For its iconic character: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

For fearlessness: D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. For empathy: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. For combining mystery with narrative mastery: Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. For narrative style and personal warmth: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. For shattering impact: Paul Bowle’s The Sheltering Sky and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories. For their clear, inviting style and stories of ordinary people: the novels of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller.

One Who Loves had several layers of inspiration, all of which came together at one point, and became the story it is. One layer is the title itself, which comes from a line in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage: “There’s always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved.” I’m drawn to what I can only call Maugham’s “voice”—and I found that line, which is very thematic to his novel, and to mine, most intriguing. Do we ever love equally? Does the balance always tilt one way or the other?

Another novel that inspired me was Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. Stegner is a great favorite of mine, and this is a novel I like particularly well, and have read and reread. It’s about two young married couples who meet at the University of Wisconsin and form a deep bond of friendship, which continues throughout their lives. It’s one of those novels in which nothing extraordinary happens, but which sweeps the reader into the adventure of living one’s life and enjoying one’s closest relationships.

The third layer of inspiration was not so much inspiration as observation. My son, David, lived in a co-op while attending the University of Michigan, and I was an occasional visitor on the premises. I kept a picture in my head of several of the co-op houses, and imagined one that had its own look and personality. Co-op life is a source of close and lasting friendships, as the residents share not only space but responsibilities and a special kind of interconnectedness. It seemed to suit the story I was writing, so I used it to launch my two couples—who are a generation older than my son—on their life journeys.

One Who Loves is a story of friendship and love—including obsessive, misdirected, and frustrated love—troubled and challenging friendship, and the extraordinary conflicts that impinge on seemingly ordinary lives. Liz, Patrick, Tess, and Jon meet at a University of Michigan co-op in the 70s. They quickly form lasting friendships, which continue through the 80s and 90s. Liz, the narrator, takes us on her journey as she grapples with crises of love, loyalty, and the inexorable pull of sexual attraction.

What has sustained me as a writer through the years? Stubbornness. While continuing to write and submit short stories and novels, I worked as a creative director in the marketing field and, more recently, as a feature writer. Some of my short stories were published and, intermittently, I made an effort to hunt down an agent for my novels. Then, I began submitting to independent publishing houses, and New Libri Press accepted One Who Loves. Independent presses are the lifeblood of contemporary literature.

I should add, however, that, were I not published now, I would continue to write, as I have always done throughout my adult life. Why? Because, gratifying as it is to have readers out there who are enjoying what I’ve published, I have stories I have to tell—or, perhaps, one story which I have to keep telling—and, readers or no readers, I’ll keep telling that story as long as I’m able. Although my writing is character driven and revolves around family and relationships, it is—as is all literature—influenced by a personal quest, our search for—what? Love. Purpose. Rootedness. A sense of belonging. A room of one’s own.

During my brief stints as a teacher of freshman composition, I told my students, at the beginning of each term, that becoming a better writer was an ongoing two-step process, and that both elements of the process were absolutely essential for success. The two steps, in order of importance, were (and are):

  1. Read.
  2. Write.

I would reiterate this advice often during the term, but I doubt if it made much of an impression. It’s like that timeless advice for losing weight: Eat less. Exercise more. It’s just too damn simple.

 Right now, I’m working on my next novel, first developed some years ago and undergoing a considerable makeover. The title is also undergoing change, so there’s not much point in mentioning it. It’s a novel about family (sound familiar?) in a small town (think: “Three or four Families in a Country Village”). The characters will, I hope, be fully realized (at least to the best of my ability), but their quest—in all fairness to my readers—will be only partially fulfilled. As a realist, I don’t believe in happy endings. I do, however, believe in the resilient human spirit. We aspire. We struggle. We take risks. We often fail. But we are sustained by friendship, family, and love.

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 Thank you, Toni. And I’m so glad our paths have both been sustained by such a friendship.

 

 

Entering the Atomic Age

 

In my last blog, I delved into the magic of storytelling–or more specifically, the birth of stories, a subject that came up in my interview with Liz Adair. I promised to share the memoir that came to me in an afternoon, the first story I wrote. The drawings, which i’m embarrased to claim, are a child’s memory.

Here it is

 

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Stagg Field, 1943

 

Every day as I grew up, the Stagg Field wall stretched its length between me and school, between me and home, between me and anywhere. Across the street from the old stadium was the campus backside, a line of gothic stone enfolding and protecting. From the front it was the

UC campus 1

UC campus 1

University of Chicago, set back a pace from the city by the broad green ribbon of the Midway, insulated by parks at either end. One that side, Rockefeller Chapel rose like a crown jewel; our parents took us up into the bell tower, sometimes, on Sunday, but we lived around back, near the field.

In the summer that wall blinding; no tree or shrub broke the glare of stone, concrete, and more stone, and as you looked down its length you could see the heat waves dancing before you pitched through the prickly, airless space. In the winter it was a wind tunnel, roofed by the dirty Chicago sky. It was an empty place, a scar where the University cut herself off from her athletic past.

P1010539

And it was always there. Like a swimmer going under, I’d duck my head for the four times daily trip. Sometimes I was a sea captain, fighting the gales around Cape Horn, or a gallant child-hero dragging my brother safely through arctic wastes; sometimes I was an Arab driving a caravan toward an oasis. But more often I watched my feet, absorbed their rhythm as they matched their monotony to the monotony of the stone beside me, to the steady procession of cracks beneath me, and gave myself into a trance.

When I surfaced at Ellis Avenue, the homeward end, the gray towers ended too. Beyond Ellis was the university backyard, a litter of mismatched outbuildings where, among experiments and service plants, the faculty raised its young. Catty corner from the field was a squat yellow brick box with a Parthenon-like entry stuck to the front, facing campus. They kept sheep behind it. Down the street, if it was summer and the windows were open, you could hold your ears and watch black printing presses screech and clang, and listen to the men shouting to each other over the din. Behind that, surrounded by small buildings that gave off strange smells, the five-story chimney of the heating plant rose to mark the block. Beyond that was our alley.

On the front, the row of six-flats facing Drexel looked like any other row of Chicago six-flats, but in back, the three-story spider web of banisters, porches, and stairways overlooked chicken coops—university chicken coops. We woke to roosters every day, and if you walked with your ear to the board fence, a world of barnyard smells and noises rippled by. Except for that, it was a Chicago alley; we had Dominic, the vegetable man, who gave rides, and a milkman with a horse-drawn wagon, who didn’t—so you had to sneak. An ice cream truck, a monkey-grinder man, an accordion player, a knife sharpener, a brush peddler, a rag man–almost anyone might come through and there was an alley sonar for new arrivals. It signaled when the nose of a dump truck appeared at the end of the alley, inching its way between board fence and telephone poles, leaving mountains of coal to climb.

Between visits, we walked fences, played hide and seek in the web of porches, held secret meetings behind furnaces in dark basements, and tangled in wash lines. If you dropped a ball from a third floor porch, and you aimed right and didn’t hit a crack, it would bounce far enough for a friend leaning out from a second floor porch to catch, if her mother didn’t see her.

Then the fathers came home for dinner and everyone went in. The din that traveled up and down the airshafts faded, and it felt like the place under the carillon where there is a seal that no one steps on. “Crescat Scientia Vita Excolatur;” “Let Knowledge Grow, Life Will be Enriched.” My father sat and thought, and no one interrupted, even for the salt. Then all of a sudden he’d look up. “Al Smith was right,” he’d say. “Do you know who Al Smith was?” And he’d tell the story in a way that made Al’s rightness burn through. Another time it would be, “The Union generals were bums.” And he’d tell about Grant’s drinking or McClellan’s cowardice, even though McClellan was supposed to be a relative of ours. Other days he’d say nothing from the beginning of the meal to the end, and his face and eyes would shift and strain with inward rage—at ritual used to raise emotions and bind people to narrow visions—at failure to acknowledge freedom of the intellect to rise above passion, to search for truth. We watched and knew, for he was likely to turn to us, pare us to our rational bones to discover whether we were becoming what we were to be. He’d ask for answers then, for evidence, and I never had any. My alley self shrunk up or slipped away and left me stranded, unknowing everything I knew. There was no barnyard behind the alley fence; there was research.

And as I made my daily journey down Stagg Field’s length, I became more and more aware of those gothic towers rising across the street.

Hull Gate & pond

Hull Gate & pond

Once I’d made a dash for Hull Gate, the entrance to the quadrangles, aiming for the pond inside as though I owned the place. The dark water under the lily pads hid goldfish and turtles, which you could see if you sat very still on the stone bridge. I knew every alcove where you echoed, exactly how much the bottoms of your feet hurt when you jumped from each wide stone balustrade, which ones you could run down and which you couldn’t. I knew in which square you could find shouting sun and where the shade was very old and shivery. There was a tiny lovely chapel to peek into, but it was always very sad. I knew the hot places in the sidewalk where you could warm your undersides even as the cold bit your fingers. The important question then was deciding whether Mitchel Fountain was better spouting water in summer or covered for winter when you could run up its wooden roof, the echoes of your feet making all the surrounding spires take note.

But even then the sound faded and left the quiet bigger than before; the quadrangles again became scenic easements for the towers of the mind. Botany Pond was there for science.

P1010536So even then I ran back through the gate, away from those encircling expectancies, to the comfortable monotony of the unwanted field. There was a door in the wall, a gigantic, double-leaved iron-hasped castle door that give birth in its midriff, like a laugh, to a little door. On rare days the shell would condescend a peek—the little door would be open. It was the peephole in a giant shadow box, granting a glimpse of a magic world. All I remember were joggers running the track, football teams from other places practicing, but I’d watch spellbound until the empty bleachers shrunk the activity to silliness. Bleachers are usually empty, but these had the dusty sadness of a face no one wants anymore, and I think the field was grateful for that human flurry even as it reduced it to insignificance.

Bits of memory jumped about in my mind, of our alley packed with cars, the din of horns and noisemakers, raccoon coats and pennants, and sitting in a third floor window watching the scoreboard through someone’s binoculars. I’m told I can have no such memory, that the University of Chicago stopped playing football before I was born—but it’s a fitting memory. What could I substitute? The name of Amos Alonzo Stagg? We used to roll it off our tongues, but I saw him once, and he was an old man—little and very wrinkled. A few stale football songs rattling around coffee houses? Some maroon and white football uniforms stolen for Halloween parties? The human sized door was usually closed and my four-times-daily walk a trudge—so I kept the memory.

One morning Pearl Harbor was bombed. We woke to find the adult world steamrolled, trying to shake out, to reorient. The smudgy chalk lines of everyday were wiped away and replaced by pen and ink. The railroads brought long unseen cousins and uncles to our house, all in uniform, pressed, with gold braid and shiny buttons, on their way to war. The living room where my father read was filled with students, gloriously transformed into officers, and then they were gone too. Life acquired new habits—ration stamps, paper drives and tinfoil balls. And songs. Hitler’s voice came over the short-wave, along with German voices singing as they marched—and we learned songs to match theirs. And every Saturday afternoon at the Frolic theater, newsreels showed jackboots marching through the silent streets of Europe.

Then a map went up on the dining room wall so the war could teach us our geography, and the Chicago Tribune produced endless words. And we learned to focus beyond, to comment, to evaluate, to judge. Little, after all, was different.

Except Stagg Field. Stagg Field acquired a mysterious life. How did we know? A child always knows when an adult is hiding something behind his back. Her walls were suddenly too stiff, her doors too closed; there was too much of the wrong kind of quiet—she was no longer empty; she was shut. Every passing school child knew something was going on in Stagg Field, and knew with equal certainty that it was “secret war work.” Every fedora pulled too low became a German, every overcoat too long a Jap, and the comings and goings at the West end of the field inspired new plots daily. The stories were ours, for our entertainment, to liven up the trudge along the wall.

But then one day the castle doors themselves began to open. Slowly. With great complaint. And when they were all the way open, they revealed two Sunshine Laundry trucks. Beside each truck stood a guard with a tommygun. Someone had stolen our spy thriller and turned it into a Marx Brothers comedy. In the days that followed, our nostrils and skins picked up the tension. We stopped telling spy stories.

One day when peeked through the fence to see the sheep behind the yellow brick corner building, I saw an armed guard instead of sheep. When my brother and I came back an hour later, on our way back to school, we stopped before we got to the corner because we couldn’t hear the street. It was missing. Instead we heard marching feet—jackboots come to Ellis Avenue. We crept forward and watched the squad of men that marched back and forth in the street that had taken cover. We ran. By the time we returned from school it was over—it happened and unhappened.

No one would—or could—explain. It was a time of odd silences, of breaks and pauses in adult sentences. So it remained suspended in memory for two years, until I stood looking down at the evening paper and understood.

 

Mushroom cloud

Mushroom cloud

“Fifty thousand dead” “the scientists at the University of Chicago have succeeded”  “the war is over”  “splitting of the atom” “ten thousand dead” “heralds a new age” “Hiroshima” “under the decaying stands of an abandonned football fiels” “death toll” “breakthrough”

Words were blown free, subjects could not find predicates my mind could embrace. If the scientists had fathered fission who had fathered death? For a few days the university herself seemed shaken, turned and looked behind her aghast. At the dinner table, my father said nothing. His face was not abstracted; it was gray.

But it was atomic fission, not the bomb, that was born under the stands that day, and the soldiers were a suicide squad, not the war come home. The towers pulled themselves together and turned around again. “Science must be free and pure, and is in no way liable for the uses men find for its discoveries.” I don’t remember my father saying that; I remember the words as coming from the air we breathed, from the towers themselves, the sound of a congregation chanting its creed.

Sometimes my father stared at the table, but we were of the faith. When it came my turn, I walked the aisle of Rockefeller Chapel and received my confirmation. It’s nice to be ennobled. The dirty belching mill town where I grew up has felt its touch. Picasso’s beast spreads its

Mushroom Cloud

Mushroom Cloud

wings where I remember pawnshops; Alex Calder’s ‘Flamingo’ has lighted in a place I was not allowed to go; seasons are marked by Chagal’s mosaic instead of by the tone of the lake wind. Not long ago the workers of the mills and slaughterhouses, Sandburg’s “hog butchers of the world,” were transformed into Miro’s peasant, pitchfork pointed to the sky. I like to think I’m a part of that, but I know better. I received my monument twenty years after that December noon, when the university ordered the West Stands torn down and commissioned a monument to symbolize science’s gift to the world that day. Henry Moore gave us a mushroom cloud—set in stone. I can still feel the faculty’s shock, my father’s rage at that choice of symbol. They tore down the rest of the field and built a library that towers above that little ball of stone, but it doesn’t change anything. It is still mine, and I’m still standing there where the old field opened her shabby arms and received that bastard child.

 

 

The Magic of Storytelling

 

magic lamp

magic lamp

In my recent interview with author, Liz Adair, I talked about the origin of stories, and I found myself thinking about its magical qualities. Why, when I sat down to write a story for the first time, did a childhood experience emerge full blown in an afternoon? Where did it come from? What gave it form? Why did a door closed to me for thirty years burst open to let it forth? Why that experience?

 Most writers today don’t talk about their Muse, though the word does express the mystery of the experience I describe above. The question demands a rational answer to a process that isn’t rational, so it must always fail. It apparently emerged from my unconscious, but we don’t, as a rule, gain access to our unconscious by any willful act. And why that story? By hindsight, looking at it, I’d say the experience gives form to my ambivalence about the academic world I grew up in. I witnessed, at ten, the birth of the atomic age, the event that would change the world, shape my adulthood—the greatest scientific breakthrough of the century, but I learned the meaning of that day from the mushroom cloud on the front page of the newspaper. Hiroshima. The adults around me struggled through shock for a response and in the end proclaimed: “Science searches for Truth. We’re not responsible for the uses men put it to.” But my father’s face was gray.

 I can also see that that deep seated conflict shaped my life—and my writing. I lived on the fringes of universities most of my life—as child, student, wife, parent, temporary faculty—without embracing it. I have a deep respect for the education it gave me, but I abhor its arrogance; I love ideas, but I’m no scholar. Indeed, the very experience I describe here gave voice to the person academia suppressed. So the story tells me a lot about myself.

 The story I wrote that afternoon, “Stagg Field, 1943,” is non-fiction, but for me the process of fiction is not that much different. The magic is always its appearance, the ability of the unconscious to give form to such emotional truths in a form they can be shared.

 Next week I’ll share it with you.

magoc book

magoc book

The Creation of Hawkins Lane

 

In my recent interview with author, Liz Adair, I said that HAWKINS LANE began with the image I woke with, one morning, of a child in a wooded lane sensing that the trees had taken everything up into their boughs, leaving the lane untouched.

 

Hawkins Lane Cover

 

Images are not stories, but they raise a host of unanswered questions. Who is the child? Where? What had the trees swept up? Where is her family? My writers’ friends who struggled through early drafts know that the story once started with those questions. I named the child Bonnie and felt her aloneness. Her father, a forest ranger, has refused to take her along on his tour of the upland camps; her once-upon-a-time loving mother is no more. She has changed radically. The child has seen something in the lane that has terrified her and she runs away. What?

 It’s not so unusual to begin a story with a final scene, but I always assumed the author who made such a decision already knew the answer to that question. I didn’t. Nor did I know the father and mother or how the family came to this. I had an isolated family in the mountains—the Cascades—and a husband and wife to whom something tragic had happened, terrifying the child.

 As soon as I began to create Ned, I recognized him. I don’t, and won’t, analyze why that is, for I’ve learned such analysis can tie Ned to some real person in my past and chain the story. He is who he is, no one else. He’s part of an isolated mountain family and he is haunted by its past—a murder’s son. He’s a fatalist, resigned to his fate. Until he meets a woman on a mountain stream.

 Now I know it’s a love story. As I create Erica, and again, I know her, I know Ned will reject her as inaccessible to his social class. He’s not for her. But it’s clear they both love the mountains, and the mountains become the unifying theme—their overwhelming presence not only shapes their lives, but gives perspective to their trials.

 Now the story has legs and moves without me. The characters have enough substance to come alive and act. The creation of secondary characters is just plain fun. I love them. They seem to bounce into existence full blown, language and all, carrying histories. I think they come so easily because they don’t carry the responsibility for the story and no one asks whether they are autobiographical. They are free spirits.

 The story of the child has now been left behind, and early efforts to keep it as a prologue didn’t work. The story isn’t the child’s now; it’s her parents, but the questions remain. What happened in the lane and how did Ned and Erica come to the point where their child runs away in terror?

 So it is a love headed for trouble. Theirs is a deep love and their love of the mountains gives it purpose. They rescue each other, and their sense of owing their lives to each other is both the beauty and the hazard, for their fear of losing each other triggers Ned’s sense of inevitable doom and Erica’s rebellion—traits born of their pasts. Both of them begin to react in ways I know spell trouble. In Erica’s case, I stopped writing for a week or so because I wanted to stop her and knew doing so would collapse the story. An author may interfere—a cardinal rule of storytelling. So I didn’t return to the book until I could let her do what she was going to do, and it led to situations I did not plan and didn’t know how she would emerge. She had to work herself out of them.

 And so we arrive at the mother much changed, the frightened child, and the father who took off without her for the upper camps. How the characters arrived there without my direction is a mystery; in some way that initial destination held, drawing them toward it. Perhaps those original images have a greater power than we know. The story could have wandered off somewhere else. It didn’t, and the fact that it was faithful to that image gives a jolt of satisfaction. My first writing coach argued that a good story will hold up under revision, and I suspect that initial image gives a form that holds. For I assure you, this story has had more than its share of revising.

As my critique group will attest, I changed the order of the telling over and over then finally, still dissatisfied, I put it on the back burner while I worked on Home Fires. When I returned to it I went back to the order of the first draft, settling for an opening that was slower than i likedStill frustrated, I described my problem to writer friend, Patricia Bloom, who instantly provided me with the opening. The message? The creation of story is a very personal act, but its completion depends on others–thank heavens for writer and reader friends.

 For the answer to that initial question—what happened in the lane—you’ll have to read the book.

Why Read Book Blogs?

 

Books & tree

 

I’m sitting here wondering what to write about for my next blog—and the one after—and the one after that. My brain is in neutral, so I bounce about other people’s blogs hoping to spark a response, or a topic. They say you should pretend you’re at a cocktail party, flitting between groups, picking up bits of conversation, hoping to find one you can participate in. But I’m terrible at cocktail parties; I can’t do small-talk. And let’s face it; most of the conversations at cocktail parties are small talk. In fact, a lot of the small talk today is about what website or blog provides the answers whoever brought up the topic was looking for. Each carrying a personal internet around connecting to other webs.

So what’s it about, this vast need for spider webs? To find others like ourselves, I think, and this need I understand. Writers seek writers, cooks seek cooks, photographers seek photographers, and form close little groups, immune from the view of others. Criminals seek criminals, too, of course, pedophiles seek pedophiles, and reveal that this act of closing ourselves into cells may not be altogether healthy. This need explains a lot, but not cocktail parties.

People who go to cocktail parties, I think, are casting their webs outward—seeking, seeking. But if the harvest is small-talk, I don’t see the rewards. The kind of talk I find rewarding takes place between two, three, or four friends—not of the virtual sort. A friend and were I talking, the other day, about books that moved us—changed us, spoke to our inner-selves. That led us to open and find commonality in our deeper selves. That’s the kind of interaction I seek and believe others do also. That’s why I write book blogs and hope to attract the sort of surfer who is looking for that deeper reward.

There are books that are like cocktail parties, too, of course. Or theme parks. They lighten the day, bring us the thrill of the chase, fear of the unknown stalker. I read them for that—for taking a break. But the books I write blogs about are those that for whatever reason make me stop, settle, open my inner self. Maybe because the protagonist speaks to that self, maybe because the experience is one I’ve had in my life, but neither are necessary.  I truly believe it’s because the author has the gift of language combined with insight into human behavior that cuts through to the heart of the matter. By this I don’t mean  language that point to its own art. Quite the opposite. I mean language that is transparent to meaning—so clear you are not aware of it at all.

Wait for a few examples of this gift in my next blog.

 

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My Mother’s Hands

 

In a previous blog (“About the Inheritors”), I talked about how the themes of my life emerge as I write, and more specifically, in The Inheritors, the very American experience of moving between cultures and classes. As I wrote about Carla, Alicia’s mother, I suddenly had a vision of my own mother standing at the kitchen sink one blistering hot Chicago day, sweat pouring down her face, her hands an angry red as she scrubbed a pot.

My mother hated her hands. Too big, she said. And knobby. To often reddened and nicked. A farmer’s hands that marked Mothers handsher as from another place. All wrong for academic teas and women’s clubs, where she’d look around at those soft white dainty hands that lay quietly in well-clad laps, tasteful rings sparkling.

It wasn’t that she had no friends. The half dozen women who gathered at our house to sew and talk all loved her. Their friendship held steady for years. Each first-born grandchild has a quilt, blocked, embroidered, and initialed by the members. Still, I never remember a time she didn’t look around at the delicate fingers, stitching away as they talked, and speak angrily about her own.

Mind you, she was a fine seamstress. She sewed everything we wore, from pajamas to winter coats to wedding dresses. They handled everything from canvas to silk. Dexterity was not the issue. It was place. She wasn’t one of them, and she was deaf to their admiration. Though she lived more than a half century among them, she remained a South Dakota preacher’s daughter set down among the academic elite. Her hands told the story.

I remember them beating egg-whites or cake batter, helping puppies to be born. I see them growing red and sore as she plucked pinfeathers and cleaned the insides of the Thanksgiving turkey. I see them glowing in the steam at the boiler, bleaching my father’s white shirts, wringing out dishrags and mops, scrubbing Chicago soot from walls and floors and windows. I have no memory of them at rest. And, of course, I remember them at the sewing machine where their size did look awkward as she threaded needles or handled lace.

Over and over, as my sister and I grew, my mother expressed her relief that our hands were not like hers. Our hands, plus our slender ankles, marked us as relieved of a grievous burden. We belonged. That, or course, didn’t save us from scrubbing walls, stitching hems, ironing shirts or beating eggs. Though we were occasionally taken to university events as academic offspring, the gothic towers a block away were, for us, simply a place to skate or ride bikes with no regard (yet) for the expectations they immortalized.

The other day a good friend pointed to my mother’s hands in a family wedding picture. They hung at her sides, fingers slightly curled, as though just finished with some task or uncomfortable with such inactivity. “You hold your hands just like that,” she remarked.

I smiled.

I grew up in another age—of automatic washing machines, dishwashers, and an auto in every drive. Chicago no longer heats the coal that coated every surface. My life has had little of the physical hardship that marked my mother’s. But her struggle to live between conflicting cultures has become a recurring theme in my stories. In The Inheritors, the mixed-race Alicia must fight the Sixties call for cultural solidarity, a call that demands she reject one culture or the other. In Nowhere Else To Go (www.judithkirscht.com/books.html), the neighborhood that has blended cultures is torn apart as the culture wars polarize the town.

Most of all, she gave me a deep sense of the strength, dignity, and integrity that came out of that struggle and out of her determination to preserve the strengths of her own background. She has shaped the heroine of many of my tales.

Mother at lake

In Memoriam: In Memory of Elizabeth Kingsbury Davenport

 

In an earlier blog, I urged everyone who hopes to be a writer to look back and relive their times with those magic people whose influence opened the writer in them. One of my magic people died this past summer. Fortunately, I returned to Ann Arbor this spring and visited her in the living room where she and I often talked into the night. I hope those memories helped carry her through her last days. This blog is for her — in memory of Libby Davenport.

Elizabeth Kingsbury Davenport

1918-2012

In Memory of Libby

Few of us find the moment to tell others how important they have been in our lives. Too often such a statement suggests their life is over, so we keep silent. I feel that regret now, and so, late or not, I write this to you, Libby.

Without you, I would not have become a writer, the activity closest to my heart. I knew and respected you first as Chairman of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party and found you a lively and entertaining neighbor and friend. But it was when I discovered that you wrote stories, or when you discovered I aspired to do the same (I don’t remember which came first) that you became such an essential part of my life.

Those countless evenings spent in your dining room, the latest scribbled versions of our stories spread out before us, made the difference for me, between a vague wish to become a writer and pursuing it with a perseverance that surprises even me. Libby, your certainty that I was a writer and your conviction that I had a story worth telling changed my view of myself, and your stories, deeply meaningful and edged with wit, gave me a goal to aspire to.

This is to say nothing of your friendship. Your warmth, support, and above all your ability to make me laugh at a time when life’s events might have swallowed me, sustained me during the tumultuous years of the late Sixties and Seventies. As Director of Student Activities at the University of Michigan, you lived in the midst of the campus revolutions, and your steady humor and experience carried me through as my marriage and my children’s’ lives were caught in the fray. Such friends are not replaceable, and even today, forty years later, I miss you sorely.

Go in peace, Libby, knowing that you have lived fully and counted deeply in the lives you have touched.

Next week, the power of place in creating my stories.

From Writer to Author

The Path from Writer to Author

Many writers claim they only write for themselves. I was one of those once, chiefly because the whole notion of being published was beyond the power of my imagination. However, the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Awards, won by authors such as Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Marge Piercy, had, once upon a time before the merger of publishing houses, guaranteed publication. Wining two of them catapulted me into another (and unrealistic) state of mind.

I sailed into writing query letters to agents with the wind at my back and smack into the wall of reality. I had no idea how to write a query letter, was a lousy editor of same, and agents were now contending with mega-publishing houses interested largely in bestsellers. This was long before the Internet, where I could Google questions and receive a wealth of information.

And there were other problems. I was by that time self-supporting and the mother of two teenage daughters whose lives had been disrupted by divorce. Between the first Hopwood award and the second (ten years later) I had also lost one of those daughters in a car accident.

But I kept writing. Why? Another easy question. Magic people: Robert Haugh, my first writing coach, Elizabeth (Libby) Davenport, writer and neighbor, who insisted I had a story to tell (and is the subject of another blog), Rhoda Weyr, an agent who singled me out because of the first sentence of a short story, read at a conference workshop, and the members of critique groups who have become fast friends. If, looking back, you have such people in your lives, hold them dear; they anchor your dreams. Rhoda Weyr never liked my novels as well as that short story, nor did she, in the end, take me on as a client, but she remained an ear who was interested. That is what counts.

Writers WorkshopI went to places where writers gather to talk writing. I scraped together the money to go to Bread Loaf, Indiana University Writers Conference, and any local conferences I could. I now find myself in the Pacific Northwest, the most conference-rich place I’ve ever lived. I can, within a two hour’s drive, attend conferences or workshops for some five organizations.  For the first time in my life I have to put myself on a diet—pick and chose the events for the year. My home group is the Skagit Valley Writers League, where I’ve served on the board for some six years and where interaction with writer/friends keeps my pen flowing.

Interested listeners, also known as critique groups, are the next essential. My Ann Arbor group began with Libby and added Toni Fuhrman and Nancy Shaw; I found another group in Santa Barbara after I moved there to teach, and yet another here in Washington State when I retired. They are my most honest critics and my most enduring friends. Most importantly they N Shaw boook coverkept me writing. Nancy Shaw, of the Ann Arbor group, Valerie Hobbs, of the Santa Barbara group, and Norma Tadlock Johnson, of the Washington group all became published authors long before I did, and their success kept publication a reality over some thirty odd years.

Yes, thirty. I look at that number and cringe. Surely any sane person would have conceded they weren’t good enough and quit. Some ornery stubbornness kept me writing and going to writers’ conferences, my third key to becoming an author. They immerse you in a sea of writers talk, others stumbling along as you are, and they teach the necessary craft for both writing and publishing. They give dreams the necessary grit to v Hobbs book coversustain them.

For twenty of those years I taught college writing full time, and I did publish articles on academic writing. Though very different from fiction, that writing and the colleagues who were my collaborators kept the writer in me alive, and publication of a textbook (with colleague Mark Schlenz) put me, finally, in that place called “author”. Thanks to those individuals, critique groups, and conferences, I also kept writing fiction, though the demands of professional development reduced publishing efforts to an occasional spurt.

Johnson book coverRetirement finally brought me the time to focus on becoming an author of fiction. Over those thirty years, of course, the market had become harder and harder for new writers to break into. But that didn’t matter. Or I refused to let it matter. I’d waited too long to quit. By this time I knew the craft of publishing—querying, synopsizing, researching agents and publishers—and I regularly forced myself away from story-writing to do it. Like most writers, I hated it, and three new novels later I had gotten nowhere. For the first time, I began to ask “Why am I subjecting myself to perpetual failure?” At my age, it was surely time to accept the facts of life.

Then came digital publishing and the explosion of small presses and variations on the traditional publishing model. A couple of writing conference sessions on small and micro-presses later, I tossed my list of agents aside and changed gears. Whether they succeed or not, these presses still count the writer, not the bottom line, as their purpose. Yes, they have to survive, and many of them won’t, but finding an ear listening to the story not the market gave a huge dose of oxygen to the writer-me. Whether because of the focus of those presses or my own changed attitude, I don’t know, but within a couple of months, I had an offer—and for that Hopwood novel written thirty years ago, now titled Nowhere ElseNowhere Else To Go cover To Go. There’s something oddly affirming about that, like, “See? I was good enough all along.” For more on Nowhere Else To Go, click www.judithkirscht.com/books.html

Many writer friends are taking advantage of the digital age by going the self-publishing route, but I confess that, after so many years of query letters, I need the industry’s affirmation. An offer on another novel, The Inheritors, came just months after the first saw print and has affirmed my decision to go that route. And to plunge into marketing—which I find as hard or harder than I found writing query letters thirty years ago.

So when you are ready to give it all up, reflect on your path from writer to author. Reach back and touch the memory of those people, groups, and conferences that made you a writer, let their effect on you flow back in and refuel that stubborn, refuse-to-listen-to-failure self.

Next week, a memorial to Libby Davenport, one of the magic people in my life.

 


 

Becoming A Writer by Judith Kirscht, Author of The Inheritors

The Inheritors by Judith KirschtHello, my name is Judith Kirscht (better known as Judy), author of two novels so far:  THE INHERITORS, published in e-book and paper by New Libri Press this year, and  NOWHERE ELSE TO GO  published by Florida Press,  in 2011.  What follows is this writer’s long journey of becoming.

Becoming a Writer

The birth of the writer-me, much less the author, is lost in time. My mother said I wrote beautiful stories as a child, but I remember only snatches—one of an old man who lived at the top of a hill. No more. I have no idea where he came from or what happened to him; there are no hills in Chicago, where I grew up. I wrote a poem for my high school year book. I remember that. About my grandmother and great aunt who never got along. My parents were less than amused when they discovered I’d used their real names. My first lesson in writing.

But the writer was still buried deep under family expectations. Born of a professor father and housewife mother, we were raised and educated in the shadow of the University of Chicago’s Gothic towers, and it shaped our lives. My brothers were expected to aspire to its halls, my sister and I were expected to marry professors and live, as our mother did, in service to their academic careers.

Of the four of us, I was the only one to follow that path. Whether from the weight of those expectations or the heavily philosophical, analytical focus of my university education I don’t know, but it took twenty years of marriage and a therapist’s suggestion for me to ask myself what I wanted to be other than a wife and mother. The answer was waiting for the question. A writer, of course. Where had that person grown enough to demand my attention? My husband told me I’d said I wanted to be a writer years before, but I’d evidently buried that in my subconscious, too.

So I signed myself up to talk to Robert Haugh, creative writing professor at the University of Michigan, where my husband was a professor, then realized he would undoubtedly want to see something I’d written. Duh. So I sat down with a yellow pad and started to write. From my pen emerged the story of my brother and me standing transfixed as a squad of soldiers marched back and forth in front of the old football stadium a block from our apartment house. Though we had no idea what was going on, we were watching the birth of the atomic age. When I reread that story today, I realize it is also the story of my troubled relationship with the halls of academia.

Nowhere Else To Go by Judith Kirscht“You’re a writer,” he said, and so the writer emerged. Professor Haugh took me on as a student, and I began the long process of becoming. My second attempt at a novel won a Hopwood, the university’s creative writing award, and that first yellow-pad essay another, ten years later.

From writer to published author? Another long story, but ironically enough, that Hopwood novel (Nowhere Else To Go) was the first to see the light of day. With a little luck, the four others in the drawer may follow. So if you are an author-to-be, keep writing.

Next week: From Writer to Author

 

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