How “Daring Greatly” Truly Feels

I find myself quite astonished to see my current emotional state appearing on the page through what my characters are saying—and this without intentionality.  I’m not journaling my feelings then transferring them to the characters, though I advocate that method when I wear my teaching hat.  Except right now, buried in my writing hat, it’s as though my characters are feeling for me, then shouting feelings out until they smack me in the face.

Perhaps it’s best if I explain.  I’m waiting on decisions from people I don’t know, people who, it feels to me, hold keys to my professional future.  Any writer will recognize this feeling when sending work out into the world to be judged for its literary merit, its marketability, its potential to find a readership among the audience the publishing professional serves.  It needn’t be memoir for this vulnerability to occur.  Fiction needn’t even be autobiographical to be a blueprint of the writer’s psyche.  How can it be any other way when the author’s choices rule the day, godlike in creation?  This is my world, says the author.  These are the people in it.  These are the rules and how they work.  This is what it means.

No matter whose name I put on it, whose world could I possibly create besides my own?

To garner up the courage to submit, one reads that blessed guru of hopefulness,  Elizabeth Gilbert, as she tells us in Big Magic we can choose what to believe about the writing process and about our work.  One reads Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, quoting Teddy Roosevelt telling us to get out of the stands and onto the playing field, in short—to submit!

But I don’t truly know how I’m feeling until Albert Einstein, in fictional form, writes this letter to his affianced:

My dearest little Sweetheart,

To soothe my despair on returning from our parting, I picked up my violin.  How is it that in counting beats, whether quarter notes, eighth notes, dotted halves, or triplets, while I am giving each their due, hours disappear, as completely present as they are completely absent?  I lose myself in music and didn’t notice when Maja entered, until she placed a letter on the music stand. Canton of Bern was written on the envelope.  My bow froze.  The envelope was much too thin to bring good news and how I wished it hadn’t come!  Better to hold out hope than to be rejected.  I told Maja she might open it, while my frustration spoke in my bowing notes forte that were marked piano.  She frowned as she was reading.  I dragged my bow across the G and D strings, producing the most godawful sturm und drang.  After all this time, and myriad rejections, I no longer can imagine being welcomed in with open arms.

Let’s be clear:  I wrote that letter.  It’s true that Albert Einstein’s love letters exist, though a century passed between their writing and their publication.  That said, I’m not quoting them.  The practical reason is that I choose not to contend with the legality of the permission process and possible expense.  The literary reason is their content doesn’t always serve my text.

That is not to say I’m not guided by them.  I am.  As I am with facts.  We know, for example, that Albert Einstein played the violin (as I did in childhood, albeit briefly).  We know that when he felt stymied in his head, the music opened up the possibilities for him.  We also know that when he graduated from the ETH in Zurich, he applied for many jobs for which he was rejected.  But as to how he felt when yet another rejection letter came?  He’s telling me how I feel.  How afraid I am to hope.  Why I don’t doggedly pursue those who show interest in my work.  Because if the answer will be no, perhaps I can better maintain balance, keep writing into ether, if I don’t know.

So, what am I to do with this?

This morning I read this bit by Richard Rohr:

… my simple definition of suffering:  when you are not in control.

Suffering, of course, can lead you in either of two directions:  It can make you very bitter and close you down, or it can make you wise, compassionate, and utterly open, either because heart has been softened, or perhaps because suffering makes you feel like you have nothing more to lose.

–Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, 123-125 (selected)

So, as I suffer, Rohr is telling me my choices.  That choice is always up to me.  Which puts me in control.

When I finish writing this brief essay, I will return to my characters.  In that scene I’m writing now, who is feeling out of control?  (Is it fair to say that if no one is, the scene is not bearing its own weight?)

Which choice will my character make?


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The Art of Infection

Recently, my son described a poignant regret:  “It was like that day,” he said, “when you discover playing in a swimming pool isn’t as much fun as it once was.”  My sadness joined with his—remembering when some childhood pleasure, quite suddenly it seemed, had lost its magic, the curtain whisked aside and the Wizard shown to be none other than Uncle Henry.  Similar revelations came to mind like when I understood that while my mother was doing all she could to make Christmas magical for my brother and me, she was so exhausted, she wasn’t having fun at all. “Tired unto death” was how she described her feeling after she was certain I understood—the day, perhaps, I’d had to Christmas shop with two little boys, one on either hand, pulling me in opposite directions.


“Art,” Tolstoy said, “is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by those feelings and experience them.”

What are those certain signs?   How do I turn words into feelings for the reader? This question is one I’m constantly exploring in my reading.

Consider this passage in John Banville’s 2005 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sea:

Happiness was different in childhood.  It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things–new experiences, new emotions–and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvelously finished pavilion of the self.  And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy, I mean that euphoric inability fully to believe one’s simple luck.  There I was, suddenly, with a girl in my arms, figuratively, at least, doing the things that grown ups did, holding her hand, and kissing her in the dark, and, when the picture had ended, standing aside, clearing my throat in grave politeness, to allow her to pass ahead of me under the heavy curtain and through the doorway out into the rain-washed sunlight of the summer evening.  I was myself and at the same time someone else, someone completely other, completely new.  As I walked behind her amid the trudging crowd in the direction of the Strand Cafe I touched a fingertip to my lips, the lips that had kissed hers, half expecting to find them changed in some infinitely subtle but momentous way.  I expected everything to be changed, like the day itself, that had been sombre and wet and hung with big-bellied clouds when we were going into the picture-house in what had still been afternoon and now at evening was all tawny sunlight and raked shadows, the scrub grass dripping with jewels and a red sail-boat out on the bay turning its prow and setting off toward the horizon’s already dusk-blue distances.  The cafe.  In the cafe.  In the cafe we.                                          

                                                      –John Banville, The Sea, 108.


That one paragraph and once again, I know the wonder of first love.  Not only are the details on the page accruing in my mind.  He has set the stage in such a way that my own are coming back, and in this magical way, Banville and I somehow are dancing, writing this story together, though we’ve never met.  How did he make that happen?

First let’s notice what he didn’t do.  He didn’t record the narrator’s bodily sensations while falling in love.  The narrator’s palms aren’t sweating.  We don’t have to hear or feel his pounding heart or racing pulse.* Banville uses no clichés, no heart-shaped box of candy or long-stemmed red roses.  (Someone please explain why there must be a dozen or why they must have long stems.  Wouldn’t sweetheart roses be more appropriate?  Or tulips?)  Banville earns the emotion and my cooperation.

He begins with an observation, Happiness was different in childhood,  with its  inherent promise of specifics to come that begs us to discover in what sense the author finds his statement true.  He then breaks down his abstraction into two qualities—the effect of so little experience meaning almost everything is new and the impact of incredulity.  (Who doesn’t remember, after impossible crushes have gone unrequited—for a TV actor, a married teacher, a gay man—how it seemed that moment of mutuality would never happen?)  Then come the concrete specifics, the girl in his arms, the handholding, the kiss—so necessarily tactile in description because it’s dark in the theater.   When the movie ends, I can hear that clearing of the throat in the grave politeness of two newly grown-up people, we get the reverent allowing of her wonder to pass before him through the curtain.  When he touches his fingers to his lips?  We know that he, at least, has been made anew.

Our young lover has entered the Holy of Holies.

Is that theater a cliché?  A trope?   We’ve all seen it in the movies, that excuse for sitting next to one another in the dark, the flickering silver light on the faces of our lovers as they sit amidst a crowd with that ray of floating-mote light proceeding from the projection booth.  One could make the argument that The Afternoon at the Bijou is a shortcut, but not in Banfield’s hands.  The one theater detail he chooses—the heavy curtain that divides the lobby from the audience—is now missing from the Cineplex.  That curtain speaks of an era when one movie came per week, blazoned on the marquee of a small town’s single theater, the more magical for its scarcity and promise, the era when a young woman made her lover wait to consummate on the wedding night.  That curtain is the veil, behind which lies the mystery of all that yet is undiscovered between the lovers.

But the curtain’s not a wedding veil, white and virginal.  The curtain was velvet, as were all the stuffed-and-swagging ropes that cordoned aisles to the entrances, guarded by the ticket-taker in his banded uniform and little monkey hat.  I’m feeling that ticket stub in my pocket and smelling all the theater smells harbored in that curtain—the too-buttery popcorn, the licorice scent of Good and Plenty, the mildewed lobby carpet, always wet in snowy winter.  Remember?

Next Banville uses setting—showing how our mood affects what we see.  The outdoor world, previously sombre and wet, is transformed by the magic of the afternoon so that now, though the grass is stubble, it is bedecked with jewels, and the boat with a red sail points into a blue-gray distance.

And notice the language.  It’s not the soda fountain the lovers flee to next to share a single ice cream soda with two straws.  It’s a café—romantically French—called the Strand, with its connotations of a cord connecting.  These words imply an elegance of purpose, followed by the poetic accruing of the last three breathless fragments:  The café.  In the café.  In the café we. 

I am totally infected.


*For an excellent discussion of why rendering bodily sensation distances the reader, see Debra Spark’s essay “Stand Back,” in her collection, Curious Attractions:  Essays on Fiction Writing.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2005. 

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The My Writing Process Blog Tour

First I’d like to send gratitude to my friend, the poet and novelist Ed Davis, for inviting me to participate in the My Writing Process Blog Tour, a project conceived by James Tate Hill at North Caroline A&T State University. The Tour seeks to expose the variety of writing practices authors use to generate their fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry.

Ed’s responses to the questions, posted last week, can be read at At the end of my post, you will see the vitas of two authors, Trudy Krisher and Laurie Hertzel, whose blogs will carry their answers to these four questions next week.

What are you working on?

I’m currently revising a manuscript that was originally conceived in a different form. Initially, I was engaged by a sentence in a novel by Cathleen Schine called The Evolution of Jane that mentioned that Charles Darwin’s wife was a person of faith. It seemed to me that the whole science/faith debate had to have existed in their household, and I was intrigued to discover how they had resolved it. The first rendering of the project was written in the omniscient point of view with three narrators, Charles Darwin, his wife Emma, and their oldest surviving daughter, Henrietta, and the content was a rendering in scene of the actual events of the 18-months preceding the publication of On the Origin of the Species. The same time frame exists in the current draft, this time rendered in first person from Emma’s point of view, and a fictional character added around whom the plot turns in exploring the question of why Emma Darwin would help her husband produce a volume that would challenge the faith that helped her endure the deaths of three of their children. For particulars on what convinced me to embark on this revision, see my post “How Does One Begin Again?” at .

How does your work differ from others in the genre?

In my teaching life, I can give a class of twenty-five writers a line of dialogue such as “I want you to leave him alone,” and tell them this must be the first line of their story. Every person’s story will be different, informed by that writer’s own history and experience plus mindset of the moment. My rendering of Emma Darwin, while being thoroughly research-based, is clearly a product of my sensibility and my issues, so that while she wears the factual trappings of an historical person, her emotional and intellectual make-up, and yes, even her language, are mine. What events in her life and her relationship to her family will I weight most heavily? Which will I entirely ignore? All those decisions are dictated by my personal interests and obsessions—which, by the way, is also true of biographer’s choices, suggesting to me that there is no such thing as objectivity when an author or filmmaker or journalist is making choices about what to include and exclude.

Why do you write what you do?

Writing a novel is along process. I can’t write on a subject or about a character that doesn’t first grab and possess me. In that respect, I’m not casting around for any subject of interest as I might for a shorter piece, a short story or an essay. I need to be obsessed.
Before beginning the Darwin book, I had not decided where I came down on the science/faith debate. I was in the first generation of school children who were taught Darwin in biology class, and I was a child who was taken to church. I had never questioned either argument in my youth, both seeming to me to be answering legitimate but different questions. Then came a series of books by Richard Dawkins, (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens, (God is Not Great), and Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and the question became a centerfold to a person of faith: me. Not having a degree in biology has proved a challenge, but it seemed that coming to some integration of how each discipline reflects truth was an important foundation.

How does your process work?

With fictional biography the first stage, once I know what historic person is my focus, is to read all the biographical material I can find. I have entire shelves of books on Charles Darwin, and the few that have been written on Emma. I annotate as I read, noting where the conflict rises in the life. This is all potential scene material. Finding the first chapter is difficult.  It is re-written many times, both in the beginning and as the novel evolves. I don’t know the endgame when I begin. I may not know it much before climax. Usually, by climax, I know where the book is going. But the climax is by far the hardest scene to write, and I have, on occasion, signed up for a class with a professor like Ed Davis to guide me through the writing process with deadlines for my production. This is a version of hand-holding I seem to require, though with this second rendering of Emma, I’m trying to do it on my own. Fortunately, I have readers who are bright and literary in their sensibilities to guide me.

For other aspects of my process, particularly ways in which I deal with writer’s block, please see my post “Where to Go When You Don’t Know Where to Go” at . The method I most often use is #2.
Next on the My Writing Process Blog Tour are two writers whose answers to these questions you don’t want to miss.

Beth Sears
Living among ewes, chicks, and a llama – as well as horses, cats, Border collies and a very tolerant husband – provides plenty of writing ideas for Beth Sears. Her essays have appeared in EQUUS and Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives, and her short stories have won several contests and appeared in Every Day Fiction. After completing her first novel, A Buried Life, she is focusing on a creative non-fiction book about a senior Border collie teaching a novice about sheep herding. She writes professionally for a gardening company and blogs about farm life at

Trudy Krisher
Trudy Krisher has been a professional writer for almost forty years. She has been a book columnist, a feature writer, a freelance journalist, and an award-winning author of historical novels for young adults. She has been awarded the American Library Association’s Best Book Award, the International Reading Association Award, The Parents’ Choice Honor Book Award, and many others. The historical backgrounds of her novels include the civil rights lunch counter strikes of the 1960s (Spite Fences); the growth of suburbia in the 1950s (Kinship); the antebellum women’s rights and abolitionist movements (Uncommon Faith); and the Cold War during the McCarthy period (Fallout).
Born in Macon, Georgia, and raised in South Florida, Trudy Krisher holds degrees from the College of William and Mary and The College of New Jersey. She has recently retired as a professor in the Liberal Arts, Communication, and Social Sciences Division at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. More information is available at




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The Power of Words, Part IV: Temperature

In a manuscript workshop I recently conducted, a participant submitted a story in which the antagonist chose the dark side after being forced by his government captors to watch his daughter’s burning at the stake. The scene had lots of sweating, lots of writhing, fingernails clawing dirt, and underneath it all, the frantic drumbeat of a heart.  The father’s, not the daughter’s. The scene was written from the father’s point of view.

So? What’s wrong with that?  Of course that’s what would happen. That’s how any father would feel.

Except its effect is to make an observer of the reader. The reader wants to be present as participant.  The reader reads to have emotional adventures for which he will never have to pay the price.

Here’s Chekhov speaking to the subject:

When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly. Whereas in your story the characters cry and you sigh. Yes, be more cold. … The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.
– Anton Chekhov to Lydia Avilova, March 19, 1892 & April 29, 1892

Be objective, Chekhov says. Your point-of-view character is your subject, not the object. The object is what he’s watching. The object is his daughter. Describe the burning. Describe it coldly, Chekhov says. Does that mean put out the fire? Not at all. The fire’s burning hot. It’s licking at her hem. She’s pulled her feet up on the stake, to keep them from the flames. Tell me how the fire smells. What fabric is her gown? Do you know the smell of burning wood, burning rope, and burning wool? How thick is the smoke? Who is in the audience. How does a burning woman sound? She’s in terror but not keening yet. Does she speak? Does he?  He’s seen that look in her eyes before, when she was frightened as a child, the night her mother died. What does he remember of that night? Does he think about the days to come? How it will feel to be without her in the world? Who does he hate on her account? At this point I feel his muscles flex. You might let him chafe at his restraints. But keep in mind:  For a scene this dramatic, you want to keep it cold. Let the reader see it, feel it for himself, with concrete sensory detail.

Here’s an example, extracted from Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions.  In this scene France has been occupied by the Germans in World War II.  Now, the Americans have arrived and the Frenchmen is grateful to welcome an American officer (Pavone) and the driver of his jeep (Michael), both of whom share a plural point-of-view.

“When the first American planes flew over, even though they dropped bombs on us, I stood up on my roof and waved.  And now you are here, in person.  I also understand,” he said delicately, “why you took so long in coming.”

“Thank you,” said Pavone again.

“A war is not a matter of minutes, no matter what some people say.  And each war takes longer than the one before it.  It is the simple arithmetic of history.”  The Frenchman nodded vigorously in emphasis.  “I do not deny it was not pleasant waiting.  You have no idea what the Germans are like, to live under day after day.” The Frenchman whipped out an old, tattered leather wallet and flipped it open.  “All during the occupation, from the first day, I carried this.”  He showed the wallet to Pavone and Michael bent forward to look at it.  There was a waded piece of tricolor bunting from a penny flag under the yellow celluloid cover in the wallet.  “If they had found it on me,” the Frenchman said, regarding the sleazy muslin, “they would have killed me.  But I carried it, four years.”

He sighed, and put the wallet away. 

“I have just come back from the front,” he announced.  “Someone told me, on the bridge across the river, in the middle, between the British and the Germans, there is an old woman lying.  Go and see if it is your wife.  I went and looked.”  He paused and stared up at the damaged church steeple.  “It was my wife.”

 He stood in silence, stroking the jeep.  Neither Pavone nor Michael said anything.  “Forty years,” the Frenchman said.  “We were married forty years.  We had our ups and downs.  We lived on the other side of the river.  I suppose she forgot a parrot or a hen and decided she must go look for it and the Germans machine-gunned her.  Machine gun for a sixty-year-old woman. They are inconceivable the Germans.  She is lying there, with her dress up over her legs and her head down.  The Canadians wouldn’t let me go out to get her.  I will have to wait until the battle is over, they told me.  She has on her good dress.”  He began to cry.  The tears ran into his moustache, and he swallowed them wetly.  “Forty years.  I saw her a half hour ago.”  He took out his wallet again, crying.  “Even so,” he said fiercely, “even so . . .”  He opened the wallet and kissed the tricolor bunting under its cellulous cover, kissed it passionately, insanely.  “Even so.” 

He shook his head and put the wallet away.  He patted the jeep once more.  He moved off down the street vaguely, past the torn iron of the shopfronts and the carelessly piled stones, moved off without saluting or saying good-bye. 

Michael looked after him, feeling his face rigid and aching. 

Pavone sighed and started the jeep.  They drove slowly toward the outskirts of town. 

Not until the end of the Frenchman’s tale–a heart-rending story of one horror of war–do we get any reaction from them.  Michael feels the muscles of his face.  Pavone sighs and starts the jeep.  Both are understated responses.  They leave the feeling to the reader.

Time out for me to rave at Shaw’s details:  Note that the Frenchman strokes the jeep–a perfect gesture.  And when finally he cries?  (He’s the object in this story.  He gets to do what he does.)  Note the detail that breaks him up–that she was wearing her good dress–strikes me as exactly the moment he would break open.  Because isn’t it the irrelevant, but touching detail that opens the steely surface to the cataclysm beneath?  The moment of  the deceased loved ones handwriting surfacing on a recipe card or of seeing that his watch has stopped?

Shaw wrote it cold.  Chekhov’s head is nodding.



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The Power of Words, Part III: Sound

I have two close friends who are super tasters. They have more taste buds than Harry, Sally, or Nancy. They taste–I don’t know what–flavors I don’t dream are there. Last night, one said she liked the pasta I served at a lunch 18 years ago. “Really good,” she said, brow furrowed as if there still were noodles in her mouth.
I recalled the gathering, but not the food. I said, “How do you remember that?”
“I never forget a meal.”


The tasters are often also tortured by their sense of smell. As my Southern super taster friend would say, Bless their hearts.

My husband is not a taster, but a smeller, nonetheless. “What’s that smell?” he asks and looks suspiciously at Mia. “It smells like dog.”
I say, “She is a dog.”
On folks like him the shampooch industry got built.

With some it’s touch. My brother Tom was one of those. The things I learned to give him—a scarf, a throw, a pair of leather gloves—were notably soft and never wool. Wool can’t be near these peoples’ skin. They fuss about the seams in socks.


My painter friend—canvasses, not walls—is hyper-sensitive to color. “There’s that blue shadow!” she said one day, so excitedly I thought to see a looming asteroid. “I don’t see that color other places.” I have to ask what shadow she is speaking of. She points to a line cast at sunset by the catwalk railing on our Florida condo building wall.


For me, (and for my brother—you aren’t limited to one), it’s sound. I hear rhythm, pitch, cadence, tone. Static drives me nuts. Those little noise machines? Exhaust and ceiling fans? I walk around the house and turn them off. In them I hear overtones, tortured women grieving for their one lost love.  I notice subtle changes in their song.  Go on alert.  Think something’s wrong.

Loud is intolerable to me. “You’d hate it, Mom,” one son says when I ask if he enjoyed some new restaurant. “It’s loud.” A favorite restaurant moved to a different building. The food’s the same. The acoustics are not. We never go there anymore.

My painter friend, (see above), proposed going to a club she loves. Music was blaring out the door. “No,” I said. “That’s too much noise.”
She said, “Don’t listen.”


I’m that woman who wears earplugs to bed, the problem being then I have to listen to the beating of my heart: bah-BOO, bah-BOO.  No one need explain to me iambic is the natural cadence. I’ve been listening from the womb.

Words are sounds. If you listen, magic happens.

Consider this: What’s in a name?  Open up a phone book. Read the names. A man named Willard is a different person from a man named Sam. Add a second name or two and a person will emerge.     Mix and match until you get a name that resonates for you. Arnie Hunsacker, for example, gender aside, can’t be confused with Michelle Price. Arnie is an alcoholic lumberjack. He’s missing several digits on his left hand, though he has an admirable vegetable garden. Michele? She’s effortlessly thin, which means other women cannot trust her. She’s in her moisture-wicking jogging clothes when it’s time for lunch. Food? She can’t be bothered much. She opens up the fridge and pulls up a chair, eats from the yogurt carton with a silver spoon. Yes, the spoon is silver. I can see the pattern on the handle.

All that from sound?
If you listen to it.

Words can build a world, then put people in it.



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The Power of Words, Part II: Things

–Say it, no ideas but in things–
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident–
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained–
secret–into the body of the light!

from Paterson: Book I

That’s William Carlos Williams saying it. He’s the imagist poet most famously known for his frequently-anthologized poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  His phrase “No ideas but in things” serves as a guidepost when I’m tempted to tell the reader what to think. So, how does that work, generating ideas in the reader’s mind by my enumerating things? What things?

Consider an example excerpted here, from the title story of Sandra Cisneros’ collection, The House on Mango Street:

We had to leave the flat on Loomis quick. The water pipes broke and the landlord wouldn’t fix them because the house was too old. We had to leave fast. We were using the washroom next door and carrying water over in empty milk gallons. That’s why Mama and Papa looked for a house, and that’s why we moved into the house on Mango Street, far away, on the other side of town.

They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn’t have to move each year. And our house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V. And we’d have a basement and at least three washrooms so when we took a bath we wouldn’t have to tell everybody. Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. . . . .

But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb, and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they’re ordinary hallways stairs, and the house has only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom—. . . .

(Quoted, with extractions, from Cisneros, Sandra. “The House on Mango Street.” The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991. 3-5. Print.)

There’s much to admire there, but to the point of ideas sprouting from a list of things, consider all the nouns that describe things:  flat, Loomis [a street name] water pipes, washroom, empty milk gallons, running water, stairs, bricks, front door, etc.  So much emerges from this compilation of things. We know the narrator is a child, from the voice, yes, but also from the things that she chooses to describe and her attitude about them. [Think how an adult narrator, male or female, might have described these houses?]

Note the word choose.

I once had a manuscript consult with Amy Bloom on an early draft of my novel, Shadow Dancing.
Not for the rubber-kneed, learning from Ms. Bloom. She took a red pen and with what felt to me like vicious blows, slashed through my details. “What are we learning from this?” she asked, slash slash. “That you are incredibly observant? So what?”

As a teacher, I would have made her point another, gentler way—but that would be my choice.  (I have never used a red pen since that day.)  The point Ms. Bloom was making, which still slashes at my mind after many years, is that by the objects you choose, you form a contract with the reader—showing where the story is and creating reader expectations. We know from all the things what the child narrator wants and begin rooting for her to get it.  Cisneros never has to say, I hated being poor. I didn’t want to be poor forever.  No.  We get that from the things.

What are the things in your world? I suspect, if your desk is as cluttered up as mine, there are far too many things to paint an accurate picture of yourself. So choose. Which ones tell me who you are? Do this exercise: Choose one object (to become a metaphor) to describe each member of your family. I’ve done this exercise myself. My mother’s object is her mangle iron. Mother didn’t cook—my father did—but her laundry skills made old things new.  My most olfactory mother memory is walking in the door on Tuesdays after school and smelling laundry starch and the faintest scorch.  Yes, she was seated at the mangle.  Along the open stairway molding hung the hangers with my father’s ironed shirts. (It was not just sheets she could iron on the mangle. Shirt collars, yokes, sleeves, and button bands were perfectly flat.)  I hear rhythm:  Clunk of knee pedal that dropped the muslin-covered roller onto the heated metal plate. Whirr when the roller spun around. She ironed everything from dishcloths to pajamas.

It took me years after she died to give away the mangle.

Have I written about my mother ironing? I have one poem—I’m not a schooled-and-practiced poet (read:  not good enough) so I won’t include it here.  But in it I am begging her to let me sleep in unironed pajamas, as if those creases meant I had to dream inside the lines. But, was that the end of it? My criticizing her?
One day, I did a free write—asking my subconscious mind what my character named Sam would do when his still-loved, ex-wife took custody of their daughter, Hannah. Add many drafts, and it was published as a story in Dos Passos Review:

A Small Ritual

Ideas unlocked in my head:  Knowing what the laundry meant to Sam, first before, then after, the day of the story, did I even know what Mother was really doing?  It’s not for me to say, of course, what it meant to her (acknowledging that people don’t always know).  But might I, at the very least stop deconstructing what I had judged as the mindless work she allowed to eat her time?  Why did she continue after I was old enough to iron for myself? What if, for example, via Tom’s shirts, my blouses, ironing was her way of touching us after we thought ourselves as too grown up to allow it?

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The Power of Words, Part I

Words are keeping me awake–the words of a friend I last saw when I was eighteen.  From the sky into my inbox, the words exploded in a world I hadn’t conjured in a long, long time. We played remember when, and as the days (and nights) since then have passed, the pictures in my mind appear in more and more detail, like those Polaroids that seemed miraculous in my youth.  The ones spit out from the camera–a bit of fog at first, details gradually emerging until, perhaps fifteen minutes later, the scene appeared.

If my images were initially fuzzy, they came complete with sound–I met this friend at a music camp that also offered dance.  So there’s music yes, particularly the faculty tenor ‘s voice as he sang the Bach “Bist du bie mir” every night as we went up to bed.  On top of the fullness of his oboe tones and the lied’s haunting melody, runs the sound of the younger campers’ chatter as on Saturday, we led them in groups of four, on a mountain climb.  I, being there to teach ballet, was assigned to group one, the assumption being that a dancer should surely make it to the mountain top.  But those kids!  It seemed they never could get winded, however fast I set the pace.  (Burke Mountain was the easiest.  We walked up a road.  On Mt. Mansfield, Mt. Garfield, Mt. Washington, we were climbing rocks.  There was a path.  Don’t think ropes and carabiners.)  The descent was harder.  The children talked while my knees had turned to rubber, not knowing when to bend and when to lock.

As the details come more clear, scents come back.  The dusty, varnish smell of the performance barn.  That whiff of mountain air in early morning.  And later in the day, new-mown hay, accompanied by the hum of mowers, the clack of tedders, rakes, and balers.   Aroma of New England food served up in the dining room, foreign to my childhood.  Salmon P. Wiggle.  Red Flannel Hash.  (The magenta color still puts me off.  What is in that stuff?)  Milk from a cafeteria dispenser we called The Cow.

Campers and faculty alike lived at Burklyn Manor.  Circular driveway with a carriage house connected by a portico.  Ceilings with relief designs in plaster,  flocked wall paper–faded, but not falling down.  Worn carpet on the stairs.  Hardwood floors we dust mopped every morning after breakfast.  Out every window, mountains.  Blue, not purple.  Slate blue.

There are tactile memories, too.  The crisp brown paper tied up with string wrapped round our laundry sent out by truck and returned, once a week.   The driver’s shoulder pressed into mine when we crowded into cars to go to church–our choir sang every Sunday morning–or on the weekly trip to town.  The melt of maple walnut ice cream on my tongue.  (I can’t yet see the ice cream store.  A drugstore, perhaps?  With a soda fountain?  Did it double as the bus station in that little town?  I think there was a bandstand, too.  A hotel with rockers on the porch?  Or was that Lyndonville?)

All this conjured from the fog, by a few words on a page.

I wonder at the miracle of language.  Darwin was unable to explain it.  You put a few acknowledged symbols on a page and up pops a world, in this case one I’d lived in, but that part doesn’t matter.  If the world is made complete–with concrete sensory detail, it exists.

Quite like God we writers get to be.

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On Longing, Unfulfilled

My mother, Phyllis Carson Johnson Troth, wrote travelogues, loose-leaf notebooks fat with descriptions of the trips she’d taken with my father. She read them to us sometimes. “Read me from your journal,” Dad would say, after dinner, and so, instead of watching tv, she’d get one out.  Then for half an hour, we’d relive a trip or two.  Mom was funny, and the more delightful because she didn’t know. She made up kooky nicknames for everyone, made up songs for children’s chores–like taking nasty liquid vitamins shoveled at us on a spoon, or picking up our toys—so  she wouldn’t have to nag.  She simply sang the song.

Once she went to NYC with my father on a business trip. Before she left, she wrote down all the words to the songs for the sitter. The sitter’s name was Mrs. Marthen.

Mrs. Marthen didn’t sing.

There was another journal, too.  One I didn’t know about until she died.  I found it in her desk and with trepidation opened it.  I’ve never read my brother Tom’s. He was an artist, a musician, who died at 35. I keep his journal sealed up in a box in the basement now—as if he’s the bedrock I need to live on top. I hear him speaking from the grave when I’m afraid, like with the writing thing, that today it won’t click in, it won’t start to sing. I hear him say oh-so-familiar words: “Erda (a nickname out of Wagner), if something happened once, it can happen again.”  He meant good things. Like inspiration.

But Tom, I argue back, to the box down on his shelf. It’s not just good things that repeat. Bad things happen, too. People die. You did. Then Dad. Mom waited longer, before she closed the door. What about our sister Anne? All my conscious life she’s lived in a box, down the basement on a shelf.  But I was grown before I found that box. It had no label—unusual for Mom. (Picture spices lined up in their little metal cans, like a bookshelf A to Zed.)  One day, unwittingly, I opened it.  Mom was standing there, but seemed to have forgotten.  There she was.  My sister Anne in many different baby poses. Thank you, Olan Mills.

Except for all the years I’d longed to meet her, in my mind she looked like me.  In the box was someone else.  Someone I didn’t know.

In Mom’s other journal–the one hidden in her desk—she obsessed.  On brother Tom.  Page after page, there it was, Tom did this, Tom did that.  She’d write about some episode, and then would come the pain of non-acknowledgement. He had trouble, I recall, learning to subtract. One day at noon as we were eating lunch, Mom explained that the difference between the bottom number and ten could be subtracted from the bottom number to get the answer. [17-9= 8; 10-9=1; 9-1=8] Tom was thrilled.  So, back to school he went, with an apple for the teacher.  More poignant was her memory of a day his piano teacher picked him up. They were off to play piano in a concerto contest. Mom described her anguish as she watched him disappearing into his teacher’s car without turning round to wave good-bye.

Mom longed for validation.

Did I always wave good-bye?  I was such a good girl, always looking after Mom.  My reward was to be journal-worthy of a single anecdote. Mom had gone to some class (she went to lots of classes) where the teacher asked what other person each student would most like to be.  When Mom asked me that, I wonder that I didn’t name Margot Fonteyn or Carla Fracci, my favorite ballerinas.  Instead, I named a certain friend my age.  She’s happy with herself, I said. She doesn’t always need that something out of reach.

Years have passed, and I have not become that friend.  I still long for things I can’t have.   Then when they come (because that happens sometimes too)—say publication of a certain story—why can’t I look? I put it on the coffee table. Walk around it. Scan the cover. But the story? I can’t look. I can’t change it now. I can’t fix unseen mistakes.  I don’t want to know that the printed story doesn’t measure up to the vision in my head.

Would I stop living if I got the things I think I want?  Perhaps it’s dread of something unexpected popping up.  I think of how I cried each night the month before my second book came out. “I thought you wanted this,” my husband soothed. “I do,” I said. “But I feel so exposed. Why not just take off all my clothes?”  That book is fiction, mind you.  My children are my husband’s.  I have never bought a nun’s bed, stolen a dog, or risked rape by a juvenile delinquent.  I’m not Catholic, am anti-gun, and have never met a crazy shaman.

So, where’s the risk?

Every fiction writer (and biographer and journalist) makes choices all the time–what to include, what to leave out.  Those choices form a map of the writer’s psyche.  Why did Rosie, Everett, and Valley come to live in my mind?  Jung theorized that every person in your dream is you.  And what is fiction but a waking dream?

Publication of that book felt different than I’d thought.  I longed for validation.  Instead I felt undressed.

So much longing, unfulfilled.

What do you long for? (And to the point of fiction writing, the subject of this blog—what about your characters?  Will their longings be fulfilled?  Will what they get be what they thought they wanted?)

Think of this:  If fulfilled, that longing, what might you lose? Some ideal, that still needs to BE, untouched by the world?

Perhaps its name is hope?  Or maybe heaven?

So says my head.  My heart I can’t control.

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Where to Go When You Don’t Know Where to Go

You don’t know what happens next. You believe you need to know. Not knowing makes you feel out of control, and you’re the author, after all. If you don’t know, who will? That’s another question you can’t answer. You stop writing.  You tell yourself that when eureka strikes, you will start again. But the longer you aren’t writing, the less you think about your story, and the likelihood that your subconscious mind will sort it out is lessened. There’s a tickle at the back of your mind, a discomfort, a voice that says writers write, and, well, you are not. And whoever thought it was a good idea, anyway?

Oh. You did.

So, sit down in your writing chair and open your story file.  Next, tell yourself a lie.  Tell yourself that if nothing is happening in 15 minutes—you set the oven timer to prove you mean it—you can excite yourself with folding laundry. Or walking the dog. Bill paying can sound enticing if you’re really scared.

Begin to read. Reengage with your story people. Tell yourself that this is important. Try not to beat yourself up. Beaten, bloody people don’t write.  Not well, at least.

Give yourself choices.

I. Ask your protagonist a question and free write the answer in his/her voice. (The question doesn’t matter greatly—What will you do about this? will do.)

A free write is usually written by hand, according to these rules, enumerated by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. There’s some science to suggest that the mind/hand connection is important to this process. Some writers find, however, that turning off the computer screen and writing blind works well.

1) Don’t think.
2) Keep your hand moving across the page. If you draw a blank, rewrite the original question you asked your protagonist until something comes.
3) Don’t edit. Don’t stop to correct spelling. Don’t go back to re-read what you wrote.
4) If emotion begins to rise in you, write toward it. Yes, you are scared. You are about to learn something you perhaps don’t want to know. Don’t back off.
5) Lose control.

The paradox of losing control to get back into control (produce what’s next) is one of the mysteries of writing. It’s what you mean when you say you are writing to find out what you think. You’ve been telling yourself it’s the other way round—that you had to know what you thought before you could write it.

This is not true.

II. Write down everything you do know about your character in this situation, about his/her choices. Remember , as in life, every decision you make in a story, limits the choices you can make after that. (So, if you set your story in Florida, you will have trouble convincing yourself that your character earns a living as a ski instructor.)  Your character’s choices are informed by who s/he is and the world you’ve built.   If your protagonist is a present-day, free-wheeling, East Coast potter who has taken many lovers, the choices will be different than if she’s a ’50’s, pearl-wearing Methodist from the Midwest.  Picture a fork in the road. Then consider her values. Will she violate them? What would it mean if she did? In making her decision, she may need a mentor. Protagonists cannot readily solve their problems because they don’t yet have the tools—see Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story for elaboration on this point. Who is your character’s mentor? It can be a person or an experience. It can be an intrusive voice from the past.

III. Sometimes the problem is you. You need regeneration. Take inventory of how you’ve spent your days.  Do you need enrichment?  Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way suggests you write three pages every morning—of whatever is on the top of your head. Then, every week, plan an artist’s date with yourself. A walk in the woods, a trip to a museum, wandering the farmer’s market—whatever feeds your spirit.

IV. Sign up for a writing class. If you’re a clutch hitter (or have ever been a journalist) you may need deadlines to produce the work. Or you may find help in being surrounded by a community of people who want to do the same thing. A class will provide both.  Remember the time you were so reticent to tackle the task of writing your novel’s climax, you signed up for the same course you were teaching at the time, but taught by the other instructor.

V. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests you give yourself permission to write badly. If you’ve been feeling glum, write intentionally badly.  Write the worst stuff you can imagine.  Put your mind at play.  Why?  Because you can’t make it better if it isn’t on the page. A book of writing prompts can help. Try Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days. Or Naming the World, edited by Brett Anthony Johnston.

VI. Write something else. A poem. A personal essay. A blog post. A different form from the one you’re working in.  Write about what happened in your life that drowned out your story.  Come on.  You know what it is.  The words in your head switched topic.  Something made that happen.

This is hardly an exhaustive list. The ways to find your way back in are likely as numerous as the writers who invent them. Choose one or invent your own.

What do you do when you’re stuck?


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How Does One Begin Again?

I’ve been silent for awhile.  I’m not dead.  I’ve changed course.

The Einstein material is on hold while I return to the novel I wrote about Darwin’s family, set in the year prior to the publication of On the Origin of the Species.   That novel was submitted to sixty agents in a year’s time and was read by seven.  Rejection followed, one that was very useful.  I’m grateful to that agent, Kathleen Anderson, who sent a two-page, single-spaced letter describing what exactly was wrong.  In essence she said, This “falls between two stools,” not having the authority of biography or the imaginative content of fiction.  

Of course, no writer of a 400 page manuscript wants to start again. But what about The Paris Wife (Paula McLain)? this writer asked. And more recently, the accurate tracking of biographical material in novels like Z (Theresa Anne Fowler) and Beautiful Fools (R. Clifton Spargo)?  Didn’t those authors do what I had done?

Not exactly.  Z and The Paris Wife were written in first person, both protagonists being the famous icon’s wife.  My manuscript was written in third person, omniscient, with three protagonists.  Beautiful Fools is written in third person with Scott and Zelda each getting a point of view.  On that basis, I might have stuck to my guns and defended my work.  If I wanted to leave it to live in a drawer, that is.

No one said these decisions would be easy.   And I had to admit, that within the pertinent love stories, Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, there is a natural plot arch, the blossoming love gathering momentum until a specific event disrupts that relationship, followed by a burgeoning dissolution of one kind or the other.

Could I find that in my work?  There was drama in the Darwin story–the deaths of children, the upending of Charles’ work by Alfred Russell Wallace–but, hmmm.  Not the same.

It’s hard to start again, to reconceptualize the story.  What it came down to was this:  I would be writing something.  Did it matter what? And if I was to pursue the path I was on, writing fictional biographies of well-known figures, would I repeat my mistakes or learn what that first manuscript had to teach?

I now have a single, first-person narrator and have added a fictional character and a significant plot arch.

How did I get there?  With help from others.  My writing group, a well-published mentor, my loving husband and sons, and good friends.

At the Sorbonne in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt delivered a speech some called “The Man in the Arena” that spurs me on my course:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly . . . .”   (as quoted in Brene Brown, DARING GREATLY, 1)

Can you stand to begin again?

Paris Wife   Z   Beautiful Fools   Theodore Roosevelt

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