Monday, November 28, 2011
Feel free to send this on to people ...
So, here are some things you might not know about Dave Scott.
He can give a half-time speech to a middle school soccer team that's never won a game in the school's history -- a speech so beautiful and inspiring that it can make grown men cry.
For better or for worse, he sings -- with a Tourette-ish insistence -- throughout the day.
He once rammed a luggage rack on wheels through a revolving door at a hotel -- got stuck for a panic-stricken moment in the middle -- and finally burst through to the other side.
Excellent at Scrabble, he flounders at Charades -- once acting out a sounds-like for Fancy and Poo to lead us to Nancy Drew.
He has a weakness for Nikes.
We spend every day together, pretty much. And even at the end of those days, we still feel like we need time to talk.
I miss him sometimes when he's in the other room and we follow each other -- talking -- throughout the house.
On our first date, he made me dinner. At the end, he asked me what I wanted for dessert -- as if, back in his kitchen, he had every dessert known to man. I said, "I like chocolate and I like cheesecake." He only had one dessert, in fact. A chocolate cheesecake.
Because he has such a common name, I once asked him if he'd ever wished he'd had a more exciting name when he was a kid. He said, "Yes. I always wanted to be named Jeff."
His French is good enough to explain -- in great detail -- to non-English-speaking cops how exactly we got robbed.
He is the Patron Saint of Lost Abs. Seriously, he's as fit as the day I met him, which can be irritating (four babies later).
Sometimes I make him sing to me -- really cheesy stuff. And he does.
One time, I told him that he was my Starsky. And he said, "Really? I've always fancied myself a David Soul type."
When he drops me off at work (he drives me because I don't like to drive and because it gives us time to talk) -- and especially when work's been a little fraught -- he shouts out, "Be cavalier!"
When he's in a funk, all I want to do is gaze at him.
When he's asleep, he looks exactly the same as the day I met him.
He invented the term "Hug the Bear" and would really love to see it take off.
Every night, I say, "Do you think everything's going to be alright?" And he says, "Yes." And I can then try to fall asleep.
And, of course, Hug the Bear!
A few more Dave Scott snapshots:
The Long Marriage:
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Electricians can have mentors, can take classes, can have a master electrician's ear, can study, can have guided practice ... but not writers? They have to do it alone? And the master electrician can be paid to train younger electricians -- as well as master theologians, philosophers, lawyers, podiatrists, large-animal veterinarians... -- but if writers become part of the system of higher education -- creating those mentoring relationships -- we're taking advantage of wannabes and the university is just trying to make a buck?
This strikes me as so sad. The comments are so outdated. The arguments are those old ones -- feeble and bound up in so many ideas of what writers are like, the mythology, instead of the basics.
I remember the first time I heard MFA programs existed. I wanted to write. I wanted to talk to other writers about writing, writers, books. I wanted to know how lit mags worked. I wanted to go to readings. I wanted to have mentors, guides ... A place existed for me to do just this. I was going. Is that so baffling?
And did all of the people in my MFA program become writers? No. But many, many have published books and most have gone into some kind of writerly profession -- editor of magazines and books, ghost writer, communication director, teacher of writer/literature, one started her own press and acts as publisher...
Also, as a more experienced writer and poet now, if I didn't have an outlet to hand down some of the hard-won things I've learned as a writer, I'd feel so much less useful in the world. A young novelist can ask me about three options of narration they're thinking about, and in ten minutes I can explain the upsides and downsides of each of their options -- the challenges, the risks, the rewards. I've been down the roads they're heading down. I'm reporting the conditions. They can choose.
Writers teaching in their homelands, growing young writers helps create a sense of time, place, history in a geography. Writers becoming mentors, writers reaching out to the younger generations...why are these bad things?
A bad mentor of writing is bad. A bad mentor of the art of being an electrician is bad. But a great writing mentor? Why not facilitate those relationships?
I don't understand the deep territorial ire around the subject of can writing be taught. Is it that we want to elevate our writers as having been kissed on the brain by God? Is it that we want to cling to the myth of inspiration? Is it that we want to find a way around the truth that writers learn their craft like everyone else -- by asking questions, finding answers, practicing. In other words, they work.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
I heard Ruth Stone read alongside Sharon Olds about ten years ago. Olds read first. Dressed as a Sunday school teacher who might at any point whip out guitar, Olds surprised me -- I'd been expecting someone less tame in appearance. She joked that she'd been left at train stations and airports because the people sent to pick her up for readings simply didn't recognize her.
To be honest, I'd come for Olds. I assume most in the audience had. Stone, for whatever reasons, has been lost to the larger poetry audience. Her poetry, in recent years, has finally started to garner the kind of respect it's deserved for a long time. She won the National Book Award at 87.
If we were ignorant in that auditorium (I certainly was), Olds clearly understood the importance of Stone's work. She introduced Stone -- with great unbridled admiration. I remember Stone as unassuming and, yes, old -- even ten years ago. Her poems were forces of nature.
For those of you who've seen Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk, you probably remember how Stone described her poetic process to Gilbert; when as a child working the fields, Stone would feel and hear a poem “coming at her from over the landscape, like a thunderous train of air.” “She’d have to run like hell to the house” to write it down, but didn’t always catch it. Sometimes it would almost escape her, then she’d reach out and “catch the poem by the tail,” “perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first” (For more on Stone, check out Rosanne Wasserman's 2009 blog post: http://groundwater-zanne.blogspot.com/2009/11/normal-0-0-1-1126-6421-university-of.html)
In her poem "1941," she writes:
"Oh mortal love, your boneswere beautiful. I traced themwith my fingers. Now the lightgrows less. You were so angular.The air darkens with steeland smoke. The cracked worldabout to disintegrate,in the arms of my total happiness."
I wish Ruth Stone a peaceful passage from this world of mortal love into the arms of total happiness.
Now, this isn't my first hypothetical thrown at the kids. I make up questions for the kids -- and on long car rides they can be elaborate questionnaires asked and answered aloud, steamrolling fasion ... about their futures, their plans, the person they may marry one day, careers, lives... I love talking about this stuff with the kids and, actually, I think it helps us get to some important issues and, of course, it gets them thinking about the future, concretely, which is a good thing to do ... setting goals, moving toward it ... actually thinking about the traits of the person you'd like to build a life with.
So here are my kids' answers to THIS question.
11 year old thinks and says, "I wish you'd taught me Spanish when I was younger."
"I don't speak Spanish."
"You could have arranged it."
"But remember how I tried to teach you French -- the words taped to objects in the house? The trip to France? Bastien giving you all lessons, the books, the flashcards..." He stares at me. "Okay, okay. I'm being defensive. I got it. That's valid. You want a Spanish tutor now?"
"No. Definitely not."
I ask the 14 year old the question.
He stares at me. "Okay ... Honestly?'
"I'd like you not to ask us deep questions like this. I don't care for them."
"You don't care for them? But, I'm so good at them... the elaborate questionnaires on the long car rides... the steamrolling conversations ... "
"Nope. I don't like 'em and twenty years from now I'm going to wish you hadn't asked them."
"Okay... but, but ..." I give. "Okay."
I ask the four-year-old. Not sure the term regret will register, I ask if there's anything I should be doing differently.
Lit up, "YES!"
I'm a little surprised by the enthusiasm. "What would that be?"
"Bring me lots of toys!"
"You get toys for Christmas and your birthday."
"All the time."
I ask the 16 year old.
"I don't know."
I told her what the 11 year old said about Spanish, the four year old on toys,and the 14 year old said about deep questions.
"Oh, no. I like the deep questions. I just need some time ..."
And the way she says she needs some time makes me a little worried. Is it going to be a long list? She's a thoughtful kid with very high standards. (Something I've learned in the long car-ride questionnaires...) What exactly should I be waiting for? Was this really such a good idea?
A few weeks later, my daughter says, "I think we should watch The Daily Show as a family. Make it a nightly tradition."
"I'm not sure we can do that." I mean, a trusted news source, of course, but mandatory?
"Well, then, that will be my deep regret."
And so there you have it. Not enough toys, not enough early foreign language development (Seriously! I sent kids to French camp!), not enough mandatory Jon Stewart, and too many deep questions.
I can live with this. And that's something to be THANKFUL for.
Monday, November 21, 2011
According to CNN (here's the link -- which shows the actual footage you can watch with your own eyes), this is what happened.
Without any provocation whatsoever, other than the bodies of these students sitting where they were on the ground, with their arms linked, police pepper-sprayed students," wrote Nathan Brown, an assistant professor in the college's English Department, in an open letter to the chancellor. He said that police then used batons to separate the students, kneeled on their bodies and pushed their heads to the ground.
"When students covered their eyes with their clothing, police forced open their mouths and pepper-sprayed down their throats," Brown wrote.
My oldest child is a junior in high school. We're looking at colleges now. We've heard about the safety systems in place at many campuses -- blue lights all over campus, text and email alerts, campus security ... I'm always keenly interested in campus safety, in how they combat crime -- in particular violent crime -- and how each college intends to keep my child safe.
In the case of UC Davis this week, there was brutal and very public violence; the victims were students -- the brutal acts of violence were committed by campus police.
It's easy to imagine my daughter sitting at that peaceful protest. It's easy for me to imagine her being pepper-sprayed, her body knelt on, her head shoved into the ground ... She articulate, smart, passionate. She believes in things deeply. At a time in her life when she's challenged to examine issues and live her convictions -- things that a good college will try to instill in its students -- she could have joined a peaceful protest about things that matter to her.
According to a Davis wiki, a "California resident pays roughly $7,457 in fees each year, while an out-of-state student's yearly fees total $25,949. 'Fees' here is just tuition, and doesn't include the cost of books, insurance, housing, food, etc."
I would be paying $30-40,ooo a year -- and this is how you treat my child?
There have to be some lawsuits brewing.
Even if it hadn't been my own child, how would I be able to write the next tuition check?
Alumni, how will you be able to write your next donation?
Is the next act of peaceful protest to write no checks to UC Davis at all?
We hand our children over. We hand our savings over. We do this because the university convinces us that our children will not only be safe but thrive in the environment that the university has created. The students and parents of those students -- not just those violated but all students -- have had their trust broken. The violence and the chilling premeditation are going to have lasting repercussions.
This environment has been poisoned. I don't know how the administration intends to make it right, but they have to act fast and they have to be smart and bold. And I hope they know how much is at stake.
We're all watching.
-- Here's my take on Ericsson's ideas about Talent as they apply to writing -- as well as what I call The Inspiration Myth (I'm sure someone has dedicated research to this as well) ...
On Sunday a friend of mine, Chris Harris (adored by me and always a wonderful instigator) sent me a NYTimes piece that aggressively counters Ericsson's work. Here it is: "Sorry Strivers; Talent Matters." (My own NYTimes was still blue plastic wrapped and sitting at the end of my driveway. The day had gotten away from me.)
I buzzed through the piece and I liked that someone was countering Ericsson. I love his work but I've always held a place for talent -- athleticism, artful eye, natural hard-wired sensitivity ... But when I got to the end, I was floored.
Here's the final paragraph: "None of this is to deny the power of practice. Nor is it to say that it’s impossible for a person with an average I.Q. to, say, earn a Ph.D. in physics. It’s just unlikely, relatively speaking. Sometimes the story that science tells us isn’t the story we want to hear."
What? Wait. Is the author suggesting that people LIKE to hear that the key to success is 3-4 hours a day of guided practice for TEN YEARS?
Let me explain this quite simply: No. People DO NOT like to hear this. Not at all. I know because I've told them -- again and again. Frankly, they really hate the idea that time is more important than talent.
1. Dearest sweet authors of this article -- Hambrick and Meinz -- have you never gone to a cocktail party and heard someone proclaim that they have a great novel ALL UP HERE, they say, tapping one of their temples with their index finger?
This is, of course, a professional hazard of mine. I can't go anywhere without someone telling me that if only they had some afternoons to spare, they'd write down their fantastic novel (presumably a bestseller in first draft form) and would begin their brilliant career.
Training? No. They don't need training. Years of practice? Nope. They're good. Why? Because they have natural talent. Their teachers always told them so.
Ericsson's work allows me to look at them -- and with data in hand -- say, "Hey, all it takes is 3-4 hours a day of guided practice for 10 years... Well, that's no guarantee. But it's a start."
Do people LIKE hearing this? Is this the story that science tells us that we want to hear? No. We want to believe -- especially in the arts -- that we all have a nascent talent that -- once expressed in its raw form -- will be seen as genius by the greater world at large. We want to believe in talent!
Hard work? 10,000 hours? Are you kidding me? That's someone's idea of a good time?
And 2. Talent is the Perfect Excuse.
Basically, if we believe in talent -- God-given talent -- that some have it and some just don't then, we can decide that we don't have to beat ourselves up about not achieving success. We don't have to put the work in. Talent has spoken. The ones deemed talented can stride on and we can sit on our butts and watch them stride. No harm, no foul. No reflection on our laziness or lack of commitment. They were born with it. Done.
The Talent Myth -- as well as The Inspriration Myth -- are damaging. They create a system of the anointed and the un-anointed. The haves and the have nots.
I'll take a student with gritty life experience and a brutal work ethic -- something to say and the will to perfect it -- over extreme IQ and perceived talent any day of the week. (Meritocracy? How about IQocracy?)
And please -- don't get me started on IQ. Don't get me started on the highest measured IQs giving birth to huge opportunities that create big gusting billowing puff balls of support that make it, not only possible, not only encouraged, but socially demanded -- within that culture -- to publish articles, win prizes for scholarship, publish books ...
Ericsson's work is important because people are naturally drawn to the concept of talent -- because THAT is the story we want told. Not its opposite.
I hope Hambrick and Meinz would agree: talent without time is talent wasted.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I dropped him a line when he friended me on Facebook because I recognized his name -- heard it around... He said he was nervous about the book coming out and asked if he was crazy.
This was my answer, more or less:
1. it's socially awkward. people will think you're uppity, publishing a book, or will be weirdly competitive or just awkward. don't base any changes on your relationships based on the way a friend responds to this book. people don't know how, for the most part -- unless your friends are all in the industry... then expect some weirder stuff. people will surprise you both ways.
2. it's out of your control and yet it feels like it's in your control and other writers will tell you that there "so many things you can do" -- from your tour schedule, you're doing those things...
3.protect your relationship with the page. right now, you're forming that relationship in a new way. meaning -- do you still write when you're going through this weird public part of your life? the page wants to hear that you are. b/c between public self and the private self, the relationship with the page is the one that matters and needs protecting. keep the two separate.
longer answer than you asked for, i guess. but these are things i wish people had told me ... annie lamott -- heard her in some PBS thing telling an audience that they think they're crazy now, but after publishing their first book they'll be so much crazier. my husband dave tells people that it won't fix their lives. it's all this out-there stuff, in a job that's private.
even when writing a casual FB message.]
What I'd like to add is that it's hard to go public with this very private endeavor -- this thing that lives in the drawers of your desk -- no matter how long you've worked toward it. And the catch is that you won't be able to complain about it. People won't understand. You got what you wanted. You're a published novelist. Shut up. But that only makes it feel more isolating. There is a very strange rearrangement of cells -- or, at least, that's what I felt and still sometimes feel in this process of going public, of opening up to large-scale judgment. We're artists after all; we got into this business, many of us, because we observe closely -- out of necessity or instinct or need -- and feel things sharply.
From what I can tell, it's Cash's abilities as an observer and translator of things felt sharply that makes his debut distinctive. (Can't wait to find out for myself.)
Saturday, November 12, 2011
The first year of writing -- really dedicating yourself -- the returns on your investment of time are hugely rewarded. You go from writing your weakness (sentimentality? superficiality? overly ornate language?) to beginning to overcome it and writing toward your strength. You get better very quickly -- faster still if you're working with someone who knows a bit more and is farther down the path, faster even still if you've found the great writers you, as a writer, need to read.
It's like your first six months in a foreign country. You can learn the language to the point of fluidity pretty quickly. But to become truly bilingual? Well, that might take another ten years -- and it might never happen at all. There are no guarantees.
It's like when I went to the orthodontist as a teenager to fix the little unevenness of my two front teeth. He said, "It'd be easier if you had buck teeth out to here than to try to perfectly and permanently allign those two teeth." Still, there was a retainer and it pushed one forward until it was a little farther out than the other and then it slid back and was pushed forward ... and I gave up. (Now, by the way, that one tooth is much farther back than it was before and when I'm pregnant and my lips get fattened up and I smile, it sometimes disappears completely in the photo and I look partially toothless.)
Basically, you take these huge leaps the first year, an occasional leap the next. By the third year, you continue to grow but the advances are less apparent. And years go by... Have you made it another millimeter of progress? Are you getting better at all? Have you started writing knock offs of your own work? (Sometimes I fear that I'm just Baggott, being Baggott again.)
(In case you're a little shaken -- don't worry. I'll have suggestions... But first...)
The Law of Diminishing Returns might apply here because you can actually start getting worse.
"The law of diminishing returns ... states that in all productive processes, adding more of one factor of production, while holding all others constant, will at some point yield lower per-unit returns."
Their example? Perhaps fittingly, fertilizer.
"... the use of fertilizer improves crop production on farms and in gardens; but at some point, adding more and more fertilizer improves the yield less and less, and excessive quantities can even reduce the yield."
The writing example? Maybe you get better and better at finessing the page and the inner workings of your human heart remain constant (maybe you even hold back some?) and you reduce your yield.
And at this point, you might no longer have the ebullience and (necessary) arrogance and fiery desire to keep pushing forward or you might have built up so much arrogance that you aren't humble enough to approach the page with honesty. At a Richard Ford reading a few years ago, he confessed that writing required a lot of "heavy lifting" for him these days.
So, first off, I want to say that writing is a trickster. It cons us into the craft by offering the rewards of early long-legged leaps and slowly steals those back. It's cruel.
But -- sorry -- it's the same in most if not all fields. So you can keep bouncing from one to the next just reaping the great early leaps but if you don't dig in you won't ever get deep.
And there are rewards as you go along. Whatever you think of Bruce Sprintsteen's oeuvre, he said in an interview -- in the past few years -- something about his young writing as having been full of words, and that he's lost that frenetic relationship with language but, in return, he's gained insight.
The truth is that the older a writer gets the more life experience the writer's digested and can offer -- hopefully with some depth, clarity, and insight.
Now, I happen to have a trick to offer that I think helps combat all of this trickery.
Go muck around in a different genre.
1. All of your skills with words will still apply so you're not starting from scratch but ...
2. You'll get those early leaps back.
3. You won't have to think about yourself as a serious writer at all. No weight of career aspirations or reputation. You can come to the genre as a novice, as someone just having fun. You'll remember what it is to just ... write.
4. You'll learn new lessons that, when you return to your original genre, will apply in strange ways that will bring freshness to your work.
5. You'll hopefully find a new set of literary voices to draw from, refiring some neurons ...
Find the deathly fluorescent lights of your youth. Gaze up at them and let your mind wander anywhere but where you are.
Remember what got you into this to begin with. I bet the fire is still hot.
Remember: If you don't need the page, it doesn't need you. So find out why you need it and then come back.
Or take up the harmonica.
Friday, November 11, 2011
I have some things to say, quickly, to those who are writing stories and want to make the move to the novel. Actually, I've got lots to say about this -- bolts and bolts of fabric lining the walls -- but I'm going to give the small package version.
First of all, it may well be true that you're tromping the terrain of a novel without knowing it. Try to look at your characters specifically. Is every woman character of a certain age really the same woman -- your mother? -- that you keep dressing up in different pantsuits?
This is possible. Look for your recurring characters. See if they fit together. This could be a very good discovery.
Now look through the stories you've written for the ones that hold the most heat -- the ones with the meatiest characters, with the strongest undercurrent of longing, suffering, need.
Then think in terms of the story as container. What keeps a short story short? Things like: size of cast of character, passage of time, point of view (the dissolution of a family from one point of view can be a story, same dissolution from 3 points of view is a novel), geography, heft of insight, limited retrospect, limited backstory ...
Is there a place in your story that can be opened up -- I call this looking for pleats. In my first novel -- originally an 11-page story -- the narrator's father has an affair with a redheaded bankteller, is confronted (in a weird way), and disappears for the night. In the novel, the most important pleat was that one night. Why not have the father disappear for a summer? What then?
I also filled in a present day for the narrator so that she had a reason to be looking back at the summer of her father's disappearance. I created a novella-length present day plot for her, expanding retrospect. In the father's absence, the mother and daughter road-trip back to the mother's childhood home ... expanding geography and cast of characters. I was then given a reason to write the mother's backstory. I kept the singular point of view.
Of course, this is just one way of getting at it -- a pinhole view.
The unforgiving truth is that each novel teaches you how to write it.
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
I don't know how I came across his book in 2004. In general, I'm not drawn to accounts of writers' lives. But, I found it early that summer. I was struggling to find out what it meant to be a writer -- in particular a writer of faith. I found myself writing a book of poems called 52 Sundays. (Although most of the poems are published, I never sought to publish the collection. In fact, I don't think I got past about 30 Sundays.) I was about to uproot my family and take my post at FSU. Things felt up in the air and my poems were turning to ancient themes and struggles.
I wasn't happy about being a poet who writes about faith, actually. I'd heard not to write about children because it makes women poets look, what? Soft, or something like that. My first collection was already out -- THIS COUNTRY OF MOTHERS. Ah, well. Damage done.
But a writer of faith? It seemed like it could so easily be mistaken for rhyming devotional poems -- and this terrified me.
What was I? A literary kamikaze?
(What's next children's books? Well, in fact, yes.)
A few years later, I was up for tenure at FSU. Letters were sought by outside sources. After tenure was granted, I was allowed to read the letters. One letter was from Ernest Hebert -- a great endorsement, however he claimed that he couldn't tell what my theme was, exactly.
I seized with panic. Theme? What the hell was my theme?
And then I read Richard Russo's letter. My theme was clear to him.
I was a writer who wrote about faith.
Since then, I've decided he's probably right. My characters ask those questions because I ask those questions.
But in 2004, I wasn't thinking about themes. I simply knew I was desperate to read Elie's book and couldn't stop. I found the company of these four writers of faith -- and not just any faith. Catholics. From the book description at Amazon:
"Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk in Kentucky; Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker in New York; Flannery O'Connor a "Christ-haunted" literary prodigy in Georgia; Walker Percy a doctor in New Orleans who quit medicine to write fiction and philosophy. A friend came up with a name for them-the School of the Holy Ghost-and for three decades they exchanged letters, ardently read one another's books, and grappled with what one of them called a 'predicament shared in common.'"
And, okay, I'll make the claim. Out of all the Christian denominations, it strikes me that the Catholics have taken "the word made flesh" very seriously -- the passion. Our crosses are rarely empty. We don't hold back on the images of Christ's suffering. We allow for the flesh in "the word made flesh."
I know that it's my job to make the word as close to flesh as possible. Show don't tell. Flesh not simply words. It's all driven down deep into my wiring that there's no way around Catholicism for me. I understand the 'predicament shared in common.' I understand the eye that can't help but veer toward God.
I've struggled with Catholicism, in particular the Church (and have written about those struggles). I don't want to get derailed by the Catholic Church. I'm trying to get at faith and what I circle back to, as a person, as a writer.
I don't want to be devout. I don't want to be a staunch atheist. I want to struggle. As a writer, it's the struggle, after all, that keeps me coming back to the page.
Monday, November 7, 2011
(Parental types & Homeschoolers,
of a book tour
with three kids in tow.)
I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?
My first novel, CHOSEN rattled around with me for several years. The novel was inspired by my work in an orphanage in Eastern Europe, my experience as the director of a domestic adoption program and my own transition to motherhood. The story is fiction-characters and settings and scenarios are as though I took a few handfuls of my past, threw in a well-marinated childhood paranoia of abduction, seasoned them with the salt of my vivid imagination, put them all in a bag and shook it. From all of these tidbits and themes, CHOSEN grew.
With the book I am working on now, it really was a moment of creative inspiration. Last year, I was on book tour with my three little kids all tucked around me in a hotel in Santa Monica. We had been traveling for two weeks, and it had been months since I had done any creative writing. I had a few stories that I figured I would work on after I got home and the dust settled, but that night, something happened. We had left the windows open so we could hear the ocean and I dreamed an entire novel, a love story set in the islands. I had to get through a day at Disneyland and hustling everyone on to a red-eye flight before I had four uninterrupted hours to write it all down, but I knew it was the next story.
What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)
It is helpful to pick someone who accepts that your life is a constant mining ground--that parts of it are going to show up in books. Recently, my husband made a rare, snotty remark. A few hours later, he came to apologize and said sheepishly, "That line is ending up in a book, isn't it?" It was already written into a scene.
In CHOSEN, the character of Dan bears some outward similarities to my husband and I wondered about reactions of readers who know us. I knew they'd see Dan's passion for kiteboarding and extreme sports and think of J. Of course, like all characters, Dan is a composite of traits and personality quirks that grew into his own entity.
I also wondered what J would think. My husband didn't actually read CHOSEN until it came out as an ARC, which means the book is coming out, soon. He read it in one sitting, and I heard him chuckling over conversations that were stolen directly from our history, and then some long periods of silence. I was sweating it a little. When he was finished, he kissed me, handed the ARC back and said, "Excellent work. If everyone is going to think Dan is me, at least you gave him great abs and made him good in bed!"
Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.
Have several kids. Three worked for me. Get some animals too; really needy ones. You'll never be blocked again, because you will be so grateful for those stolen moments in a world where you have some semblance of control.
Seriously: a flawless, well-researched and dazzling query letter. I had offers from the first three agents I queried.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
I'm not sure.
Last year, when CHOSEN came out in hardcover, I decided to homeschool my three kids and take them on a twelve city book tour with me. We built the tour around things we wanted to see (like Mt. St. Helens for my volcano obsessed nine-year-old), readings and guest author visits to book clubs. I had a policy that if I could put together a minimum of three events in any city and there was something of interest, we'd go there. It was an incredible four months--a whirlwind experience we will never forget, but I wasn't doing any writing at the time. We perfected the art of rolling clothes and living out of carry-on size suitcases for three weeks at a time, navigating with an iPhone and playing Crabs in your Crackers/Awful Alliteration for hours in the car. But when it was over, it was a transition to go back to writing, with the added trick of having everyone at home.
Now, the kids are in school for twelve hours a week, and I'm still juggling... The second time I went back to grad school for my MFA, I had three kids under the age of five. Sitting in class, this single guy is whining about being so blocked, and my cell phone is buzzing with a message from my mom back at the hotel that my six-week-old hasn't stopped screaming for three hours and my two-year-old is on his second pound of room service bacon and I remember thinking that writer's block is a luxury and a curse I will never have again. (See above writing tip)
For me, it's never a matter of inspiration, only one of time. So I guess the answer is no.
Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?
I have only great things to say about my mentor, Leonard Chang. I met him the first time I attended Antioch, just back from the islands--twenty-two years old, a little wild and adrift. It was his first year teaching and he quietly blew me away. He was such an astute editor and really gifted at teaching craft, while assuring me I had a unique voice. I left my MFA program for the siren song of a little town in Spain with no internet cafe, but when I was ready to go back, ten years later, it was for Leonard. I picked him to help me hone CHOSEN because he couldn't be more different than my target audience. I didn't want a mentor who might get swept up in the emotion of the story--since so many of the topics are things that are close to our hearts. I wanted CHOSEN to have an edge. Leonard also connected me with another student, my dearest reader friend Linda Davis and created the framework for our bi-coastal weekly editorial relationship and friendship. Without her, I would be sunk.
What’s your take on touring?
You can read some of my stories from the road (see below)
By far, my favorite part of touring is the book clubs--I've done forty-two of these so far and I love being a guest author and talking about CHOSEN. It's fascinating how different each book club is! Some are structured and serious--following Harper's reading guide and answering the questions in order, and others are loose and loopy, where we all suddenly wipe away the tears of laughter from under our eyes, squint over our glasses of wine at the clock and realize it's after midnight. I had one group of really seasoned readers draw a parallel between two characters in my book I had never realized consciously, and I always love to hear about reader's reactions to Jason and Francie, those love-to-hates. I will happily make a serious effort to participate in any book club who reaches out to me, and though I prefer to be there in person, Skype works too. Even better, nobody is the wiser if I'm in my pajamas.
Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?
Setting is always a character in my stories. I think of my novels as love letters to places I have lived with, loved, and left. Up and coming: the rustic gorgeousness of Boulder, Colorado in a study of physical beauty, morals and fidelity, and a sweltering summer love story set in the Cayman Islands.
CHANDRA HOFFMAN has been an orphanage relief worker in Romania, a horse trainer in the Caribbean, a short-order cook in a third world hospital, the director of a U.S. adoption program, and an event planner for Philadelphia’s Main Line elite. A graduate of Cornell University and Antioch’s MFA program, she has settled back in her hometown outside Philadelphia with her husband, three young children, and an ever-changing menagerie. Chosen is her first novel.
Friday, November 4, 2011
How do we write about our families? What's our story to tell and what isn't? Do we ask for permission or forgiveness?
My formula -- and I use that term loosely -- for a bestselling book is related to two things: the writer's urgent need to tell it and the readership's urgent need to hear it. (Of course, equally important are the agent's ability to convey those urgent needs, the editor's vision and ability to hone those words so that they are urgent, an art department's ability to create a compelling cover that reflects those two urgent needs, a publicist's ability to let it be known, urgently ...)
Sometimes the most urgent story a writer needs to tell is the one of their own family -- what and who shaped them. This is what we know, our point of reference, our bearings.
Rick Bragg -- who won a Pulitzer for his family memoir -- was on one of the panels with me. (Note: I've got a good Rick Bragg story, one that shaped me early on as a writer, on the subject of panel jockeying. One day...) On the panel, Bragg gave his take -- he always wants to be invited back for Thanksgiving. He gave ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN' to the members of the family in it before publishing. They gave him the go ahead, a testament to his family, in fact.
This is the question you have to ask yourself. How important is it to tell that urgent honest story and how important is it to you to be invited back?
My parents have given me free reign. As I've mentioned, my mother is fond of tweaking Faulkner's mother's line -- which she read in a National Geographic issue -- "My daughter writes what she has to." And so I can write whatever I want about my parents.
Still, there's often a dance. My mother reads it. She calls me. She says, "Well..." and then I know that she's going to ask me to soften, tweak ... I listen. I tell her that I'll think about it. About a half hour later, she calls back. "It's okay," she tells me. "I take what I said back. Don't change anything."
My personal take on parents is that they made you and your story as child is completely your own. But this is easy for me to say. My parents and I are extremely close. I rely on them (at 42) as parents, friends, wise counsel.
I did, however, write an entire novel called THE MADAM based on the life of my grandmother who was raised in a house of prostitution in the 1920s and 30s. My grandmother was still alive during the writing and publishing. She told me everything. It was the hardest research I've ever done -- because it was personal and often brutal. (My essay on the writing of the novel can be found in Best Creative Nonfiction 2009.)
I was very anxious about her reading it. I wasn't sure she'd understand the difference between fiction and biography. And at first I gave her early drafts. She handed one back to me and said, "Maybe next time you'll write about the family," meaning the truth.
But when the entire novel was done, she read it -- which wasn't easy. Her eyesight was failing. And she told me that I got it right, especially her mother. Ella. I remember that moment. She was sitting in my mother's kitchen. And I was on my knees and she held me and we both cried.
Her mother was a woman I felt I'd poured myself into -- the hardest character I've ever written. Someone who required every ounce of empathy I could muster.
I got it right. And I'd told it urgently. It was probably the adult novel of mine that's sold the least and that's probably my most artful. Its commercial failure was hard for me. These women's voices had been dismissed in their time and place in history. I was trying to give that back and they were dismissed again. Some part of my writerly soul sealed up after that... It's hard to explain. I toughened.
And I think that's one of the hardest parts about writing family. You give them voice. You open not only yourself up but your family -- those you're deeply tied to, for better, for worse. I couldn't have prepared myself for that -- the criticism not of characters (though it was fiction and they were surely fictional characters in a fictional plotline) but I also saw them as deeply inspired by those ancestors I owe and love, not of me as a writer, but me as someone trying to give due to those who came before me, those who survived so I could exist.
Maybe you can't prepare yourself for the response that any of your writing gets. That's what makes all of it courageous, which is possibly why E. B. White said that he admired anyone who "has the guts to write anything at all."
The advice here is no advice. Only an admission that it's hard -- and write was already hard enough.