For the latest news, information and courses from Elizabeth, visit bookwritingworld.com
For the latest news, information and courses from Elizabeth, visit bookwritingworld.com
I just spent the morning with Kate Moses on the official publication day of her compelling new memoir, Cakewalk. We filmed our interview in the sunny kitchen, glass door open onto a backyard, three white cats circling and purring.
I read Cakewalk in the days before our meeting, laughing out loud and also sobbing. Yes, sobbing. It’s a wild and delicious ride, replete with recipes. Kate’s sentences are delicacies themselves–rich, abundant, generous and exquisite.
Rooted in a history of generations of Californians, White Russian treasure burning in a San Francisco dump, children tied to trees after the earthquake to keep them safe, Kate’s is the story of the making of a writer–for without waving any banners, this is a key part of the story and one that my writer self thrilled to read.
I don’t envy Kate her harrowing childhood, even with its flights of sugary beauty, and I suppose many writers have a cauldron of a past that boiled us, left us raw, tender and observant. But what a memory–what prose, what images–drives this narrative. What characters people it and what a journey creates the writer who can transform the whole thing into a delicacy.
I’ll be posting my video interview with her soon. Come join us in her kitchen!
I’ve been listening to a podcast of Michael Krazny interviewing vintner and writer Randall Grahm on KQED’s Forum. Here and on his own website, Grahm talks about a French idea of two different kinds of wine making. Vin d’effort is a wine made by the effort of the winemaker—it bears his or her stamp, is made according to his or her will, but can only be as intelligent and interesting as the winemaker. Vin de terroir, on the other hand, depends on and expresses the place where it is grown— the weather and the nature, factors, in other words, that are out of the hands of its maker. This made me think about writing.
Is your book a van d’effort or a vin de terroir?
Grahm admires wines of place more than wines of effort. They embody originality as a collaboration between the grower and the place. (I’m elaborating here for my own purposes.) I love the idea that a writer in conversation with circumstance, place, with the sometimes random occurrences and objects that populate our lives will produce a more original book than one that is tightly controlled, carefully executed. The creation in the vin de terroir is one sparked against the unexpected, against chance and the external world.
How do you let the world around you join you in writing your book?
We all want the perfect family and the perfect day, but the stories come from the problems and troubles. We want it to be easy; we want it to be simple; we want it to be pure joy. But life is more complicated than that, and your stories should be, too!
Here are some more tips for writers that holiday celebrations drive home:
1) Unwrapping half the fun? Worrying about being able to smile and thank Aunt Matilda for the horrible present keep you up at night? Anticipation is more involving than payoff. See my blog on withholding.
2) Shared childhood? Hardly! Each person remembers different moments, different aspects of what happened and who did what and what pieces of the world around mattered. Hence the interrelation of point of view, plot, character and setting. Who tells the story will determine what gets recounted, what gets noticed and remembered.
3) When everything is happening all at once, it’s exciting, but it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, let alone appreciate it. Sequences and causality support the creation of meaning.
No matter what kind of holiday (or childhood) you had, you can use it to strengthen yourself as a writer. The interior narrator, like the interior soundtrack, can get you through a lot until you’re back to the wide expanse of your own blank page.
This is a magical time of year. Everyone in my family has a cold; I can’t hear anything except the sloshing in my head. It snowed this year, but most of us in Berkeley weren’t dreaming of a white Christmas, and the idea that global warming might in fact be leading to strange climate change haunted the ecstasy of building small snow-people with my children a mile from our house. My clients are panicking, packing, moving (more than one!), trying to pull of being Santa (even the Jewish ones because everyone’s in an interfaith relationship) and vaguely wondering how writing is supposed to fit into all of this celebrating.
Here are five sure-cure tiny miracles, when the colorful lights glimmering in the distance hail from the top of a police car:
1) Write a sentence. Just one. You can do it on a post-it if you want to. Or in your journal, if you can find it. Or on a napkin. Just. Write. One. Sentence. Ah . . .
2) Give someone a sentence as a gift. Say, “I wrote this sentence for you. Here.” Then read it to them.
3) When your hands are full–of groceries, plumbing tools, children, tissues, moving boxes–daydream about your book. Ask your storyteller for a little tale about your characters and let it wash over you. The world in your head is still growing even if your manuscript is not.
4) Ask for time as your holiday present. An hour in a cafe with your laptop. A bubble bath with your journal and favorite pen. Ask your partner, ask your children, ask yourself. Take the yes and run with it!
5) In any given moment when your story world seems miles away, take a moment to discover three things:
1) human passion, right there in the room with you, in the fight between your kids, in your partner’s insistence on checking email, in the way the dishes stack up because of our ceaseless and delighted appetites.
2) obstacles, the meaty stuff of plot, right there in the street with you, in the bus that doesn’t stop, the parking place that doesn’t emerge,
3) human dilemmas, the choices that seem insurmountable in the grocery store, in the few minutes and many responsibilities of your day, in the way that you are pulled in so many directions because you want to write and want to pull of your holiday celebrations and even want something to make for dinner tomorrow night . . .
You are learning and growing as a writer all the time. See? To master creating trouble you have to live through some and keep connected to your writing self . . .
What miracles do you want? What miracles have you stumbled across?Please post a comment and let me know!
My favorite links. These articles and interviews kept me going as a writer this year:
1) Our job as writers is to tell stories. Stories are those moments when “a day in the life” departs and becomes “the day of my life.” In this great essay, “Telling Tales, from The Atlantic, Tim O’Brien says, “Above all, a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events, which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”
2) “How to Write a Great Novel” in The Wall Street Journal gets up close and personal with the writing habits of 17 strong writers. Take-away lesson: I am not crazy. (Or crazier than any other successful writer.) And: revision is integral to the process. “Getting it right” takes effort and multiple tries. You’re not doing something wrong if you’re revising a LOT.
3) It’s not just that I went to grad school with the incredibly talented Kiran Desai (and workshopped both our first published books in our thesis class). It’s that she wrote 1500 words over eight years before she shaped her Booker Prize-winning novel The Inheritance of Loss. This interview with Kiran Desai on the Guardian Books Podcast is inspirational.
Truth be told, I LOVE all the guardian book podcasts. These people make me want to read every book they discuss, because they are true bibliophiles, and show you how to be intellectual without being pretentious.
4) My other favorite interview of the year was this one on Fresh Air with Mary Karr, where she talked about throwing away 500 pages twice before getting to the current draft of her new book, Lit, which is getting rave reviews. Courage, mes amis!
5) My father used to tell this story: A kid says to his mother, “Mom, do we have to go to Europe this summer?” And the mom says, “Shut up and keep swimming.” Sometimes writing a novel can feel this way. How do you make it across the vast waters of the writing process? This terrific, step-by-step list of how to strengthen and edit your manuscript comes from RedRoom’s Ivory Madison, via the generous Michael Pokocky. I LOVE this, including the hour-at-a-time advice.
6) In the writing process, two characters I call the storyteller and the brain often fight for control of your project. The brain doesn’t think much of the storyteller’s whimsical, off-the-cuff approach, but the brain is in no position to drive this vehicle, your book or your life. This article on “Making the Heart and Mind Work Together” was a revelation for me, offering a way to give each its due and keep moving forward.
Anything you found this year that moved or inspired you and your writing? Let me know!
I’ve been part of an interesting conversation about plot in literature lately. By “part” I mean that through Tweeted and emailed links to blogs and articles, a conversation has made itself available me as witness, commenter and now commentator.
First, Lev Grossman wrote a piece, “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard” for the Wall Street Journal. His subtitle: “A novelist on the pleasure of reading stories that don’t bore; rising up from the supermarket racks.” He says point-blank that the desire for plot, for a good story, “is a dirty secret we all share. ” The modernists pushed plot out of the limelight, but things are changing.
Plot is coming out of the closet: “If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like,” Grossman claims, “this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.” As proof of the renewed interest in plot, Grossman points out that “millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged.”
In an amazing and beautiful essay in The Atlantic, Tim O’Brien writes a defense of the imagination in fiction, countering the obsession with verisimilitude that has shaped writing workshops and the products that come out of them. Navel-gazing reality is not the stuff of stories, O’Brien claims convincingly. “Above all, a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events,” he writes, “which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.”
Alexander Chee, a remarkable up-and-coming novelist (read what Junot Diaz and Annie Dillard and others have to say about him; don’t take it from me), takes up Grossman’s article and the whole issue from a teaching perspective in his blog Koreanish. He makes a distinction between pain and plot and urges students of writing to stop segregating techniques for developing character and such from “telling the story:
So the advice is, don’t be afraid to have a plot, and to tell a story. Too many writing students are trying to become masters of style and not masters of story, and they do so to their detriment. They have all these beautiful beautiful sentences and we don’t really know what they’re doing with them. Be sure to tell a story.
I love this whole conversation. I’m a fan of plot. I’m not naturally a storyteller—I’m more of an ideas person—and consequently, I’ve studied plot extensively. And you’ll find many entries on this blog about my opinions on and strategies for plot.
However, I’ve begun thinking about what it means that we’re all running around claiming that plot is about to revive. Of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality I have only an amateur’s view, a layperson’s, if you will (pun disavowed). But I’ve dredged up this much from my long-ago undergraduate’s perspective: the constant discussion of the repression of sex is just another way to talk about . . . sex. The hide-and-seek of sexuality in society is a way to keep it in view, to keep us watching.
Likewise, is it possible that the plot against plot (our shared dirty little secret) is itself just another plot?
Aside from folks in English departments and MFA programs, who thinks that plot has weakened its hold or threatened to disappear? Might there be a social reason why defending plot emerges now as a popular pastime?
I’m looking here for a brilliant editorial analysis, something that encompasses the battle over healthcare, the failure of war and the glacial process of extracting ourselves, a national identity crisis over the loss of our superhero status in the world and the concurrent spawn of mock-superheroes, freakish superheroes and failed superheroes that has invaded literature and television?
Perhaps in a moment when successful international or national action seems unlikely, the assertion of the triumph of plot comforts us. Perhaps the failure of imagination and the tendency to navel gaze is as much a problem in our politics as in our literature, perhaps more so. Or is Modernism is to blame for the surreal, kaleidoscopic nature of policy, foreign and domestic, over the past many decades, the fracturing of the president as a coherent and reliable subject? Anyone? Anyone?
Amy Truncale is a self-described “wife and mother in the Bay Area who loves to write and dream.” She dreamed up an amazing story last year, and here she tells us about the experience of writing a book in less time than it takes to make a baby:
Last year I wrote a novel in the month of November during the annual NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I was seven months pregnant and had been stuck on a book I started writing six years before. I hadn’t even looked at it in a couple of years, so I decided to write it over from scratch without referencing the old material in any way. I wanted my original inspiration back.
NaNo sounded challenging, fun, scary, impossible and wonderful, and it inspired me. A door banged open in my soul with the fresh air of possibility. That may sound a bit dramatic, but the thought of doing NaNo made my eyes wide with anticipation. It was an opportunity I had to take. There was another very important reason I wanted to undertake this task at that time. Simply put, I wanted my daughter (still in utero at this point) to have a mother that would model having the courage to do what she loves. That was a powerful motivation for me. I’m wise enough to know that she’s much more likely to do what I do, rather than what I say. So with that arsenal up my sleeve, I set out on a journey of creativity.
As I mentioned previously, I had been stuck in my writing for a long time. I needed to do something different, something I had never tried before. I had employed different techniques to move my writing forward in the past but always seemed to end up in the same place – inertia. I was looking for a new internal paradigm. NaNo happens in the 30 days of every November. Coincidentally, it is said that it takes 30 days to break a bad habit and replace it with a healthier one. I wrote a never-ending river of words last November that created a new mental pathway. The flow of momentum broke through little dams of dry twigs (I’m stuck) and brambles (I don’t know how to do this), rats’ nests (I can’t) and garbage that was previously creating blocks and distractions, making it difficult to write anything. Plus, I gained confidence as I experienced success! The goal was to write 50,000 words, and I did that. It doesn’t say to write 50,000 perfect words that create perfect sentences that make a national bestseller (although that possibility is open to you), it just says 50,000 + new words, period (well, not just random words – but you know what I mean).
In retrospect it still amazes me how easy I was on myself during this process. I always thought taking on a commitment like this would be painful, that I would have to chain myself to the desk and force myself to do it at knife point, sweat beading on my brow. Maybe being pregnant had something to do with this new gentle feeling towards myself. It forced me to slow down and take it easier than I ever had.
All I did each day was read what I had written the day before and then keep going. I did not critique anything. Previously crippled by my perfectionist left brain, I embraced the idea that it could be as bad as it needed to be – and sometimes it really was – but occasionally it was even good. My main goal was to KEEP GOING, not to write well. I had never let myself off the hook this way before. It was more than a revelation. Once I had accomplished the goal of just getting words on the page, I could shift my focus to creating quality through revision.
There are many books on writing on the market. I know because I own quite a few of them. There is some great advice for how to go about writing a book, yet most concede there is no direct ‘how to’ guide. I suppose it’s because of the nature of novel writing; that is, it is a different path for everyone. What Elizabeth Stark has created in her Book Writing Cycle is nothing short of revolutionary, and I have never heard of anything else like it. I honestly could never have done it without the support of this class/group, specifically designed to coincide with NaNoWriMo. It’s a tremendous resource for writers, and I am grateful to be a part of it. Writing a novel is about following your dreams. Whether the path is symbolically straight as an arrow, meandering through meadows or jumping into the abyss with arms stretched like an eagle, all that matters is that you take a step, and then another…
Devi Laskar is an old friend of mine from graduate school. She took last year’s Book Writing Cycle course: planning, writing and revising an amazing novel. (I just got to read a good chunk of it, and I was blown away. You’re sure to get a chance to read it yourself in a few years when it’s a NYTimes bestseller. You heard it here first.) While Devi has not one but two master’s degrees, including an M.F.A. in Writing from Columbia University, she faced her own challenges while writing an entire book last year, as you shall see:
I think moms are some of the most creative, resourceful people on Earth. They are able to multi-task (it is practically a prerequisite of being a modern mother to be able to talk on the phone, make a sandwich, change a diaper and tie a shoe simultaneously!) and accomplish so much for their families during the day. Every day. But it is a thankless job and if you’re successful at it, you’re taken for granted. Unfortunately, it is the same in the vast world of creative writing – some of us are able to multi-task and get “things” done but we (the writers) often take ourselves for granted at the end of the day, and leave our most creative ideas swirling inside our heads and not on the page.
As a mom of three girls, I have found it to be challenging to get my brilliant future-Pulitzer-prize winning thoughts on to the page some years. Yep, I said it: years. When my oldest was merely an only child, I was writing so much – especially when she took naps and at night when she was asleep. I was organized, I was motivated, I was in charge. I was making time for myself, even if that time meant a half-hour here and a half-hour there. A few years later, I had three little girls and I was lost in the vacuum of diaper duty and late-night feedings, and chained to the vacuum cleaner, too.
My daughters are now a little bit older, they go to school and I’m back to writing again. It is a matter of consistency. Just like we make time to eat and sleep and take showers, we writers must make time to write. I was very proud of my family last year when I told them I was going to participate in NaNoWriMo – they knew I had to write 1,700 words a day and they left me alone for those few hours when I did it. If they caught me slacking off, they’d offer me alternatives: “Hey mom, can you fix A….” or ,“Hey mom, can you make B….” or, “Hey mom, why don’t you drive me to C…” and quickly I’d scurry back to my writing table and churn out more sentences. I finished NaNoWriMo, got my 50,000+ words and gained so much more confidence – I felt I could go back to older projects that had been languishing in my desk drawer and finally finish them.
I feel the Book Writing Cycle was a real asset. It was great to be on a schedule and to have a community to commiserate with – we checked in with each other frequently and our conference calls with Elizabeth helped immensely. I felt as though I started friendships, and the course helped me to focus on the book at hand.
And that leads to me to my most important point: it’s about quality, really, not quantity (although if you have both, it’s great to have both). There are plenty of writers out there who are lucky enough to be writing full-time and they are constantly stuck. If you are a busy mother, like me, eek out that 30 minutes or one hour during the day and make it YOUR TIME. Put it on the schedule of your busy day, sometime right after the early morning shower and before the dinner dishes are put away. Start slow. Buy a cheap spiral notebook and a pull out a ballpoint pen that comes in a package of ten. Tell yourself that all you have to do today is write 10 sentences in the notebook, and then you can go do something else. After a month, you’ll find your notebook is full and you have a wonderful go-to source of inspiration that’s all your own.
In addition to being a great novelist whom I will interview on my forthcoming podcast series, Adam Mansbach is my neighbor–or he would be if he didn’t keep popping off to other corners of the world with his amazing partner and fantastic child. However, one way to keep up with a writer is as a reader, and this essay makes up for a dozen great conversations (twice that with toddlers present). Check it out here.
Part autobiographical investigation, part sharp (as in accurate) analysis of the current state of race and racism in America, this piece is pleasurably articulate and concludes with a set of proposals I support, even if I cannot, as Adam guesses, quite fathom not only how the proposed townhall conversations would go but also what lasting impact they would have.
This is part of a larger skepticism I’ve identified in myself recently, one that is forcing me to look at examples of character change I’ve seen or experienced and to imagine what it would take to change the characters I know best. This brings us back to fiction, but to an element of fiction tied in closely with politics: the dictate that a character either change or face the opportunity to change and let it pass by.
Does this element require that we writers of fiction believe that people can change, or can be presented with real opportunities for change? I think it does. In truth, I know I’ve changed, but not all of those changes or even most of them reflect the kind of change I necessarily want to create in my imaginary worlds. There are many parts of being a writer that people complain about and lament, but the need to maintain an optimistic sense that people change frequently and significantly is not one I hear discussed. I’d love to hear your thoughts.