Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Open Letter to Parents of the Next Generation -- What Our Kids Might Need...

Most of our kids will spend hours each day heads bowed to electronic devices, will spend more hours playing games while sitting down than running around outside, will have more access to information than any culture known to man, will be inundated with social media, will be constantly asked for their feedback from a needy advertising world, and will likely ask for a lot of feedback in return and, oh, will one day be our leaders ... 

My thought is that the herd mentality is stronger than ever. Yes, we're all connected. But that connection makes a massive herd. While technology will overdevelop our children in certain ways and technology will democratize many things that once contributed to a tiered culture, it will also lead to underdevelopment in other areas.

More broadly, I've been wondering what skills will be in high demand for the next generation. What can we  value in our homes to prepare our children for a world that will need their expertise -- to further us all in thought, innovation, skill, feats of imagination....

It's been written that this next generation excels at things like collaboration if they also might struggle with patience and crave positive feedback (helicopter parents on hover mode). So, as a parent, my thought is: don't sweat teaching collaboration. It's box is checked by our culture. (And I have four kids so collaboration is part of the daily fabric...) As for positive feedback, I talk to my kids about those participation medals. We look at them critically, suspiciously in fact. (My kids can spot condescension at twenty paces.) I also downplay the importance of grades -- feedback in general -- until high school, where they have some consequence. Grades versus the experience of learning -- I pick B.  

To get as specific as possible, I've come to the words insulation and depth.

With stuff like Google-Glasses coming at us -- http://bigthink.com/ideafeed/how-googles-glasses-will-disrupt-everything (how is that not a million walking lawsuits?) -- I think that insulation will be key for our children. How to tune out of the noisy conversation broadcast at us via social media. Edison always promised to come up with a hearing aid for the deaf, but was noted for seeing great benefits to his own hearing problems -- to mute the world, to think better, more deeply.

Facebook and Twitter have me thinking that we've entered the AGE OF EVERYONE-AS-COMMENTATOR. We're all buzzing, but if we all see ourselves as commentators -- each of us having a valuable opinion -- then we're spending too much of our time there and we have a shrinking number of people who are doing things worth buzzing about.

If you can insulate yourself from the noise and chatter, you can go deep -- think the long thoughts, let them wind and turn, dream them and wake with them. That's going to be necessary.

I also think that we live in the AGE OF SKIMMING; a necessary skill as so much information is thrown at us. In this case, we will need depth of thought.

This might sound like commonsense. But actively teaching our children to insulate because they will experience truly valuable depth of thought is something we have to do in earnest; it's actually quite new. It's something that the herd is incapable of and it's of real value.

As summer approaches, I have the impulse to make up for the lost time of rote education. I'm happy that my kids attend schools that shy from rote, but it's still in there; and there's a necessity to cover a variety of topics -- to skim the world view, but summer offers the freedom to go deep. I want my children to engage in the things that they truly love, to follow their natural curiosity about the world around them and fall into some kind of study, some kind of making, some kind of invention...

How? I don't think the answer is more herding -- a.k.a. summer camp. I'm a firm believer in the burden of boredom; and how, with some goals, it can force kids to be inventive. My four kids will do one "camp" each, a maximum of two weeks total. But the main rules of summer are no screen time until after 3pm, and the creation of summer plans that they devise and we can help support.

Goals. Insulation. Depth. Something to show for it.

Here's the hard part: How do we teach our children to mute the noise of technology? How do we model insulation and going deep?

The way we have to do everything, it seems.

Model it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I Want to Age like Jane Goodall. (What about Kelly Ripa?)

Stuck in a waiting room this past week, I had the bizarre delight of watching Kelly Ripa get chimpanzee-dominated by Jane Goodall. Ripa had asked Goodall about how chimpanzees communicate (there's an upcoming film, linkage), and Goodall spoke to her in chimpanzee, cuddled and patted Ripa's very shiny hair. Ripa made a joke -- about wanting to learn to be more dominant and mentioned her husband.

But there was something really incredibly tender and intimate about Goodall holding and patting Ripa -- like some infinite divide in cultures had been momentarily bridged.

I don't watch daytime tv, but Ripa -- when I've seen her here and there -- can be really funny, in an edgy but never over the edge way, which is not an easy line to walk. I like her.

She's pretty, too, of course -- petite and blonde ... and very perfect looking. And within her world, she will have to remain perfect looking for as long as humanly possible.

Which is why it's so interesting to see her next to Goodall -- who is also incredibly beautiful -- with her gray hair swept back in a ponytail and her face without any heavy duty make-up. She's stunning. Who has aged more beautifully than Goodall?

For the past few years, it's been distracting for me to watch many actresses over 40 on film. I edge toward the screen, trying to discern what exactly is different about their faces and what procedure might have gotten it to look that way.

Our brains are so incredibly evolved in facial recognition that a baby, minutes after birth, can distinguish between faces, knowing who's who. (Chimps can also do this face recognition upside down.)

Humans know faces. We've evolved over time to read the slightest hints in expression. We know when modifications have been made. Do we, deep down, read a certain falseness in a person with a lot work done? Do we distrust them on some level? (Wasn't there a study a while back that said that people with Botox treatments were found to have less sympathy when shown images of people with different facial expressions -- as if our own facial expressions in reaction to others trigger or guide our emotions?)

Or is it like braces ... At one point, you could tell when someone had braces-straight teeth. But over time so many people got braces that braces-straight teeth have become a norm and buck teeth surprise us.

Our brains have evolved but they're also supple. Braces-straight teeth came to equal a certain amount of childhood affluence, and now are a middle-class right of passage.

Will this also happen with work done? Will we eventually see it as a given -- something one does with ones money? I've lived in the South for 8 years and have worn more make-up here in one year than five up north. Why? Because wearing make-up is a courtesy here -- or so it feels to me. It's something you put on out of politeness to your company. You spruce up for them. Will a facelift be such a courtesy? Will it become the thing that's done so as not to distract and disturb others by your persistent aging?

One day, instead of obsessing over the faces of actresses (and a few actors), trying to decide what work's been done, will I instead stare at the faces of women who've had no work done at all, to remember what a woman looks like in the natural aging process -- like a rare bird sighting?

I want to age like Goodall. And, the truth is, Ripa might want to age like Goodall, too, but our culture and her role in it will apply a lot of pressure ... well, it already is. (There are endless discussions of Ripa's size, weight. Did she once weigh herself live on air?)

I'm guessing the trick of Goodall's aging however isn't a simple one. (First of all, it wouldn't be right not to mention that Goodall has a classical beauty and always has -- beautiful bone structure ...) But her current beauty doesn't require one to just steer clear of cosmetic surgery. No. Hers is an active beauty. Goodall is lit from within. Her beauty -- which she radiates with incredibly high wattage -- is a very specific beauty -- that of purpose.

And that beauty -- at any age -- is rare indeed.

[To check out some of Goodall's inner beauty loosed on the world, visit her institute. ]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

1/2 Dozen for Wiley Cash

A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME is already receiving heaps of praise, praise of THIS variety:
“Cash’s debut novel explores Faulkner-O’Connor country . . . As lean and spare as a mountain ballad, Cash’s novel resonates perfectly, so much so that it could easily have been expanded to epic proportions. An evocative work about love, fate and redemption.” (Kirkus Reviews )
“A chilling descent into the world of religious frenzy in small town North Carolina . . . The languid atmosphere seduces, and Cash’s fine first effort pulls the reader into a shadowy, tormented world where wolves prowl in the guise of sheep.” (Publishers Weekly )
This just feels like a debut novelist we should be listening to -- closely.

And so it's my honor and privilege to introduce ... Wiley Cash. Here's a half dozen...

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

For me, writing is a little bit like going to the gym: I’m rarely excited about doing it beforehand, but, once I’ve done it, I know I’ve made the right decision and used my time in the most productive way possible. But, to be honest, I feel the same way about naps and watching basketball. The only difference is that I look forward to those.

My relationship with the page is pretty straightforward: I sit down and write in the same manner another person would go to work and drill holes in sheet metal or wait tables or fix cars. For me there’s no great mystery in writing, no divine inspiration, no mystical moment when some ghost or muse whispers in my ear; I sit down and I work until it’s time to quit.

I’d always written short stories until I wrote my novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and the process, at least for me, was very different. I’ve written first drafts of short stories in one sitting, and while they’re always what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” at least there are words on the page. I can go back to them and rework them and reimagine them as my time and my interest permit. Because of their length, short stories are relatively easy to become reacquainted with after a little time away from them. But I feel differently about novels. I spent five years writing my first one, and there were pretty long stretches when I was away from the desk. At times, I had a little trouble re-immersing myself in the world of the novel and picking up the emotional thread of the narratives. I was always able to get it back, but oftentimes I found it only after rereading large sections and re-familiarizing myself with my characters and their voices.

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?)

My advice to a writer who’s looking for a lifelong partner is pretty simple: clone my wife. I met her in the summer of 2005, and that was the summer I began mapping out the novel that became A Land More Kind Than Home. I clearly remember an August night on Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina when she and I climbed up into a lifeguard stand and sat up there and talked for hours. It was actually mostly me talking, and I told her all about this novel I wanted to write. That night, she told me that she was certain that this novel, which was only an idea at that time, would be published, and she never once wavered in that belief. She had more faith in my book than I did; I was never certain it would be published until five years later when my agent called to tell me he’d sold it. When someone has that kind of belief in your dream it really makes going after the dream a less silly proposition than it would be otherwise.

But I never knew how much my wife supported my writing until this past summer. In May 2011, she was offered a job as an attorney in Morgantown, WV, which is about an hour and a half south of the little village of Bethany, West Virginia, where we were living at the time. We scrambled to find a place to live in Morgantown, and we were very fortunate to find and purchase a home we both love. The only problem was that we couldn’t leave Bethany until her old job ended in late July, even though we closed on our new house in June. Complicating matters was the fact that I’d been accepted to two month-long writing residencies where I planned to write my second novel under my publisher’s deadline. We ended up closing on our house in Morgantown on June 22 and returning to Bethany that evening without moving a thing into our new place. That Sunday, two of our close friends helped us pack up all of our furniture and move it down to Morgantown, and we went back to Bethany and slept on an air mattress. The next morning I left for the first month-long residency.

During that month, while I was writing and being very well cared for, my wife was back home in Bethany, sleeping on an air mattress and finishing up her old job. After getting off work at 5 p.m., she’d swing by our old place and fill her car with a load of stuff that we weren’t able to get during the first move: closets full of clothes, tools, kitchen appliances, dishes and silverware, drawers full of odds and ends. Anyone who’s ever moved knows these things are the tough things to move, the kinds of things that require boxes and tape and bubble wrap. After loading her car, she’d drive the hour and a half south to Morgantown, unload her car, drive the hour and a half back, sleep on an air mattress, wake up for work, and then do it all again the next evening. We spoke on the phone every day, usually while she was en route back to Bethany, always well after dark. Never once did she complain about being tired, frustrated, or lonely. Never once did she ask me how much work I was getting done or pressure me to make my time away worth the struggle she was facing back home. At the end of the month, I came home and spent my first night in our new place. My wife had a little time off between her old job and the new one, and her parents came to visit for a few days to help us settle in to our new place. A week later I left again for another month, and while I was away she started her new job in a new city, and I wasn’t there to support her.

Even now, as I read this, I’m absolutely blown away by the love she’s given me and the support she’s shown me. As I mentioned earlier, if any writers out there are looking for the perfect partner, my advice still stands: clone my wife.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

I’ll choose tip #2. That tip is simple: write a book. (Tip #1 is simple too: come up with something interesting to write a book about.) Writing a book is hard. It requires a lot of hours alone, and there will be many times when friends and family won’t understand why you can’t have another beer or watch the game or go out of town for the weekend. There will be a million reasons not to sit down and work, but you have to dedicate yourself to your vision in order to see it through.

I’m not encouraging you simply to write a book, I’m encouraging you to write the best book you can write. Once you’re certain you’ve written the best book you can write, only then should you be concerned with things like getting an agent and finding a publisher. Don’t put your book out there before you’re certain it’s ready. Don’t query agents with an unfinished manuscript; don’t pitch ideas about a book you haven’t yet written. I discourage you from even talking about a book you haven't started writing. Agents and editors are primarily concerned with complete manuscripts, and that’s what they’ll ask for if they like your idea. Make sure you’ve got a solid manuscript to send their way if you get that call.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a big-time liar when I was a kid, and I’ve never been able to understand why. Perhaps I was into telling stories and experimenting with fiction before I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I’ll never forget the story I told my neighbor one summer evening while we shot basketball in my driveway. I was probably six years old at the time, and I was telling my friend about a recent trip my family had taken to Myrtle Beach. I told him that my sister had buried me up to my neck in the sand, but she had to dig me out when I felt a crab trying to pinch off my toes. I told the story as if a real emergency situation had descended upon Myrtle Beach. My sister, my parents, and even complete strangers were digging and clawing away at the sand to save my toes from that murderous crab.

Unfortunately, it was a cool summer night and the windows were open. My sister was waiting for me when I went inside the house once it got dark; she was probably fourteen years old at the time. She said, “I heard the story you just told out there. None of that happened. Why did you lie?” I didn’t know what to say. She asked me the same question several times, and I was never able to give her an answer. I still can’t.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I think of myself as more of a professional reader than a professional writer. I studied literature in college and graduate school for what seems like forever, and I’ve been teaching American literature for the past several years, so I really feel like I’ve dedicated my life to reading, and to be honest, I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend my time doing. I probably spend twice as much time reading as I do writing.

Lately, I’ve been really drawn to short stories, probably because of the quality of the collections I’ve seen over the past few years. Two that stand out the most are Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff and Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. These are two story collections that feel necessary, both to readers and writers, and there’s not a misplaced word or a bad line between them. I’ve gotten to know a lot of wonderfully knowledgeable indie booksellers, and I’ve found that I really trust the books they recommend, especially the books they recommend to writers. That’s how I picked up some of my favorite books over the past year: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and a couple others. As far as sleepers, I don’t know if you can consider it one at this point, but one forthcoming book that I think is going to be really huge is a debut novel called Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer. It’s one of those books you read and continually find yourself asking, “How’d she do that?” and then you read it over to learn. All of the authors I mentioned do very different things in their work than what I attempt to do, and I learned a lot from them, but I don’t know that I would’ve picked them up if they hadn’t come so highly recommend by the indie booksellers I trust. I suppose the lesson is simple: trust the indie booksellers; they know what’s good for you.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

A sense of place is really important to me in general. I’m one of those readers who open new books in the same manner I enter my dreams at night: I immediately want to know where I am. So much about us – our motivations, reactions, fears, and hopes – emanate from the places we’re from. There’s no escaping the fact that home, as a physical locale and a remembered idea, is either restrictive or emboldening or sometimes both, and characters who bear the mark of their place are simply more believable to me.

That’s what I loved about living in Lafayette, Louisiana, for five years during graduate school. The language, food, and landscape were different from any other place I’d ever visited, and while I lived there I took every opportunity to immerse myself in it. I think it made me a better writer because it made me more curious about North Carolina, the place I call home. It made me truly investigate the aspects of my “place” that make it so distinct, and I tried to represent this distinctiveness when I portrayed western North Carolina in A Land More Kind Than Home.

Wiley Cash is from western North Carolina, a region that figures prominently in his fiction. His stories have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Roanoke Review and The Carolina Quarterly. A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME (William Morrow/ HarperCollins, April 2012) is his first novel.

Wiley holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of North Carolina-Asheville, an M.A. in English from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has received grants and fellowships from the Asheville Area Arts Council, the Thomas Wolfe Society, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo.

He and his wife currently live in West Virginia where he teaches fiction writing and American literature at Bethany College. He also teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Fiction and Nonfiction Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.


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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

1/2 Dozen for Dinty W. Moore

Ever humble and gifted, Dinty W. Moore gives us a look at his process, his past, and his mindful relationship with the page and language.
(You also may want to check out his new book on writing, The Mindful Writer -- a beautiful book, filled with gems.)

Here is a 1/2 Dozen with Dinty W. Moore.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

The blank page is the scariest and most challenging location of all, and creating something out of nothing, generating entirely new material is for me painful, endlessly frustrating, and often results in self-loathing. Even after having written probably one-hundred essays and stories and published six or so books, I usually conclude somewhere in the “write something entirely new” stage that I simply don’t have anything to say, don’t really know how to write, and am not smart enough to solve the simplest narrative problems.

And then somehow I fill up many, many pages – through stubbornness, primarily – and it is time to revise. At that stage, I am happy as a three-year-old in a sandbox. Revision is glorious. I love moving the words on the page, rearranging vast chunks of prose, flipping the ending and the opening, finding even better ways to say what I’ve said somewhat shabbily. My dream life would be to wake up to find that the shoemaker’s elves had created a first draft while I slept, and all I needed to do was put in weeks and weeks of revision, trying to help the shape and beauty to show itself through the thicket.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Run, run, as fast as you can. But if you are really in love, and can’t run, understand a few things:

1) The artistic life can resemble bi-polarity, with highs and lows, and sudden swings.

2) If the artist you love seems sullen and gloomy; it is likely not about you but a bad day at work.

3) There are times that the artist you love needs your honest opinion on a work-in-progress and there are times they just need you to smile and say “That’s great. Just keep working.” Try to learn which one is which.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

“Do you think I can be a writer?” students will sometimes ask me. They think they are asking about innate talent, or raw intelligence, or whether they exhibit a sufficient amount of remarkable thought and insight.

My answer is much simpler than that, however. “I don’t know,” I say to them. “Do you love playing with words?”

It is the very texture of language, the primal clay of verbs, nouns, sentences, the tactile sensation of combining those words into a poem or story, that in the end will bring a writer her most satisfaction.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a loner, the youngest, in a house with no books, so I would sit in the front sunroom every afternoon at three p.m. and wait for the mail to come tumbling through the little brass mail slot. Then I would read the magazines. Since I was the only male in the house, those magazines tended to be Seventeen, Glamour, and Ladies Home Journal, but I was hungry for words. Finally, someone subscribed to Reader’s Digest, and my range expanded. It wasn’t until high school that I got a library card and began choosing my own reading material.

As a teacher, trying to instill a sense of sentence construction, pacing, punctuation, and word choice in my students, I realize now that what was important was that I was reading. It would probably have been better if I had been reading Jack London or some other literary work, but I was reading words and sentences, and learning, and absorbing how this language works. So, thanks Seventeen.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I didn’t go to graduate school or become serious about my writing until age 30, so that left me lots of time to bounce around. The list includes zookeeper, Greenwich Village waiter, journalist, and janitor. For a stretch, I earned my rent money as a modern dancer. The odd thing about dance as an art form is that a dancer, with someone else doing the choreography, resembles the words on the page more than he resembles the one who is writing. So I was revised upon, pushed here and there, asked to become a synonym (“Move your arms this way, not that way,” “Try it backwards,” or “Keep that same emotion but enter more slowly.”) I learned a lot about the creative process in the dance studio, about intuition, about not becoming too attached to anything, because it all may change the next day when the choreographer comes in with a new idea.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I consider myself a Buddhist, but Buddhism is not really a religion, since there is no deity, no worship. It is a way of living your life. My new book, The Mindful Writer, attempts to answer this very question, concluding that what I learned about being an artist opened me to the dharma path, more than Buddhism in any way changing the way I write. There is nothing spiritual in the act of writing for me, other than the profound joy that I’ve been given this gift and this opportunity.

Dinty W. Moore, is author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, as well as the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. He worked briefly as a police reporter, a documentary filmmaker, a modern dancer, a zookeeper, and a Greenwich Village waiter, before deciding he was lousy at all of those jobs and really wanted to write memoir and short stories.



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Monday, April 16, 2012

Editing Your Life.

Pulitzer Prize-winner, Jennifer Egan, was here a few months ago and said that a good edit will fix more than one problem.

Yes. That resonated. A good edit has some nearly mathematical elegance to it. Pull out one block from the Jenga that is your novel and you're allowing it to quickly shift into a more stable structure.

But as I thought of this idea today, it felt true of life. If an edit is seen as change -- and edits are changes -- then the right life change should allow other elements of your life -- ones that seem tangential -- to rearrange themselves in positive ways.

As writers go, I'm very open to edits. In fact, I crave good edits.

As people go, I'm less afraid of change than some people. In fact, at a certain point, I crave change. Without it, I start to feel stagnant and restless.

I'd be curious to run a poll on writers -- seeing if there's a correlation between those who resist edits and those who don't like change in their lives.

Even a good edit will have unseen ramifications -- thousands of tiny fissures that run throughout a novel. Change is likewise unknowable (but so is the future, in general).

In a novel, however, you can play God. You can choose not to change a thing. (This might not be the healthiest option for your growth as a writer or for your novel's final draft ... but it's your call.)

In life, however, change is inevitable. Not to decide is to decide, Dave often says. The question is whether amid change, you're going to choose to play an active role in your own life -- or whether, in an attempt to create the facade that you can avoid change and the fear that comes with it, you will allow change to happen to you without allowing yourself access to the helm.

1/2 Dozen for Claire Bidwell Smith

A memoir currently in my to-be-read stack, THE RULES OF INHERITANCE has received great praise. In a starred review, Booklist called Claire Bidwell Smith's debut a "powerful, moving memoir of overcoming grief and loss."

Lauded for her stunning prose, Bidwell Smith is a therapist -- and a therapist's memoir seems just too tantalizing a proposition to pass.

Am I the only one who wants the therapist to talk in therapy -- about her family, her love, her loss? Well, this memoir provides...

And here is a 1/2 Dozen for Claire Bidwell Smith...

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?)

I'm not sure I have any useful advice here, but I will tell you that I'm married to a writer. This at once simplifies and complicates my life endlessly. It's simple because we have a very deep and inherent understanding of each other. It's complicated in that we're perpetually broke. We fell in love through words and letters, and even if those things fail to cover our daughter's preschool tuition, they sustain us nonetheless, and for that, I'm grateful.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Stop beating yourself up for writing crap. You have to write bad versions of things. You must have terrible writing days in which you write in circles, saying nothing and disappointing yourself. It's the only way to get to the good stuff. The more bad stuff you write, the closer you get to brilliance. If you don't believe me then you can read the two other versions of my book that are in the trash. I'm grateful for them every day for they allowed me to write the version that sits on my bookshelf.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

I spent four months looking for an agent. 16 of the 20 that I queried with my manuscript responded with interest and then ultimately rejected me. I was feeling utterly defeated and dismayed. Before giving up completely though, I realized there was one last agent whom I hadn't followed up with. I sent her a quick email and she read my proposal overnight, called me the next morning to offer representation, and then sold my book three weeks later to Penguin.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a weird kid. An only child. My parents were much older and did very grown-up things that I had no choice but to take part in (re: endless dinner parties, news watching sessions and travel). Books became my ultimate salvation from this lonely world. I never went anywhere without one, and thankfully my parents were kind enough to let me even read at the dinner table. Words and stories were my best friends growing up, and when I discovered that I could write them myself, everything changed.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

In addition to having been a writer for many years, I have a masters degree in clinical psychology and work as a psychotherapist. I actually feel quite strongly that the two -- writing and therapy -- go hand in hand. As a therapist I help people to understand, and often reconstruct, the narrative of their lives. Perhaps this is more akin to being an editor, but either way it has to do with the art of storytelling, not just the stories we put on paper, but the ones we tell ourselves about our own lives.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I'm working on my second book right now which is (and I detest this term, but have yet to come up with a better one) a spiritual memoir. In the book I attempt to figure out what I believe happens when we die. In the last year I've done some really intense stuff -- everything from seeing psychic mediums and taking Kabbalah classes to past life regression and meeting with rabbis. My first book was about coming of age in the midst of losing my parents, so this feels like a natural extension of that work. I'm a mom now and my daughter keeps asking me where my parents are. I want to have an answer for her that I actually believe in.

Claire Bidwell Smith is the author of the memoir The Rules of Inheritance (Penguin/Hudson Street). She is a therapist specializing in grief and lives in Los Angeles with her family.


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