Love At First Write

BookLove

I’m enjoying a new romance. 

I can’t stop thinking about my love. I’m anxious when we’re apart. Our dates give me a high. The relationship feels shiny and new; so far I see no flaws.

You’d probably say I’m in the “honeymoon phase”.  And you’d be right.

My new love is not a man, though, (or even an adorable puppy).

It’s a novel. One that I’ve just started writing. We meet almost every day—at my desk, in the library or coffee shop. Sometimes in bed.

Previously, I’ve been through two long-term book relationships, each ending with publication.  I’ve had a few breakups along the way. And another relationship that ended after the honeymoon stage. Before meeting my new novel, I was separated from another one in-progress, 3/4 through the first draft, a story I believed in and still do.

So what happened? 

I hit a rough patch—the inevitable muddy middle and couldn’t find my way out. And then life intruded, taking away my time. Then bad stuff happened, taking away my words. The bad stuff gave power to my inner critic, The more time passed that I hadn’t worked on this book, the greater my despair. We lost our connection. I began to associate the story with pain and loss, so that every time I opened my laptop, my chest tightened.

I decided to take a break.

I went exploring. Studied my craft. Sought advice. I looked for inspiration. I nourished my soul. My heart opened. Then, when I wasn’t looking, I bumped into an old acquaintance.  The idea, notes, and first chapter had been sitting in a file for 6 years. And it still looked good. I felt a spark.

“Let’s meet for coffee,” I said.

Now I hear the main character’s voice in my head as I’m falling asleep.  I imagine future scenes of our story. I reread every word spoken so far. Sometimes while driving, I get so absorbed in thinking about the plot, I forget where I’m going.

Still, I worry about our future.

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Just like some people are in love with the idea of falling in love, some people are in love with the idea of writing a novel. But for most, it remains just an idea. Writing the damn thing is really hard work. It takes a lot of time, self-discipline, and know-how. So you really need to fall in love with the story, at least in the beginning. And that’s just the writing part. Getting published requires a whole other set of know-how and connections. Even though I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, have studied the craft, won awards, and been published, I still find the process difficult, particularly trying to develop an idea for 300 pages…and doing it well. 

Of course, I am not alone in this struggle. And neither are you, if this is what you hope to accomplish.  Read enough author interviews and you’ll hear a similar lament. Doesn’t matter how many books they have under their belt, either. The spark of the new is exciting. It fuels ambition and optimism. But like any long-term relationship, you will hit a bump somewhere. You run out of things to talk about. You’ll partner’s flaws become magnified. Then one day you sit down at your desk and say, “What was I thinking?”

You fall out of love.

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There’s plenty of advice out there on navigating the midlife crisis of a manuscript (or any part of it, for that matter). As I noticed how similar my behaviors were to someone newly in love, I looked to the advice offered by marriage counselors to see if it might apply to writing through the rough patch.  Here’s what I found:

l.  Remember why you fell in love in the first place. 

    When you are stuck, rewind to the beginning. Write your mission statement for the novel. Think about the magical parts. Outline its future. Imagine the scenes yet unwritten.

2. Know that every relationship goes through rough times, some harder than others.

    Getting writer’s block, feeling stuck, disliking what you’ve written, are parts of the process of building a solid story. Calling it quits is sometimes necessary, but first, you have to ride the wave of uncertainty. Expect it. Make friends with it.  

3. Make time to nurture your relationship. 

    Saying that you’ll finish your book when the kids are in school, when you can quit your day job, or when you finish re-doing the basement, rarely works. You’ll eventfully, find another reason why “now” is not the right time—real or imagined. So strike when the iron is hot, even if that turns out to be 30 minutes a day or two hours on a Sunday. Meeting once a month is not enough to make progress. A year from now you’ll regret not having started.

4. Take a break if necessary.

     After putting in time and effort and you still feel stuck, try starting a new writing project. It’s like having a fling with no consequences. (What fun!) Then return to your book with renewed energy and fresh eyes. See how you feel.

5.  Get help.

The writing life can get lonely.  Working on a novel brings frustration and self-doubt no matter how experienced you are.  Don’t go at it alone. Find a critique partner. Join a writer’s group. Take a class or workshop. Attend a conference. Read guidebooks from those who walked the path.

5.  Don’t give up— at least without a fight.

    Sometimes the first novel is a warm-up, a learning experience. It becomes part of your past. Even great ideas may fizzle in execution. And not all books should be written. If you do decide to break up, at least you know you gave it your best. Then, you have to figure out what to do differently the second or third time around.  Maybe you’re hoping to finally meet the Right One. But how will you know? Writing a novel is as much a process of discovery as it is an act of creation. You will learn things about yourself. You’ll discover truths. You may create something you never thought possible, something more whole, real, and satisfying than earlier attempts.

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The beginning of any relationship is both exciting and scary. Starting a new job, moving to another city, adopting a dog, making a new friend, all carry uncertainty.  In a romantic relationship, this is amplified. Does she like me for me?  Can I trust him? Is she the one? Can I commit? Will he still love me when I’m sixty-four?

Unlike humans relationships, a romance with a novel puts you in control. The book will never abandon you.

And you always have the last word.~  

 

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Do You Need An Accountability Partner?

 

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Do you have something big you want to accomplish but haven’t?  Do you have trouble sticking to a long-term goal?

Last month, I wrote about finding inspiration when you are creatively stuck. One reader wrote me that she has no problem finding inspiration. “I’m filled with creative visions.  My problem is always follow-through, especially when the going gets rough.”    

As a writer, I relate to this predicament. Ideas come easily to me. The beginning stage of writing a novel is kind of like falling in love—everything is new and exciting.  Possibilities abound.  But sticking with it through the long haul inevitably means experiencing frustration, disappointment, and dry spells. And yes, sometimes loneliness and despair.

Whether you’re trying to write your first book, save for retirement, lose 20 pounds, or train for a marathon, staying on track is the hardest part.  Meeting any long-term goal requires continual motivation, discipline, and fortitude. Let’s be honest–who has an abundant supply of these traits?

If you recognize yourself here, then you may benefit from an accountability partner. An AP is a trusted individual who holds you responsible for achieving your goals. In working with an accountability partner, you identify goals, then come up with a short-term plan of action. You then report your progress through regular checkpoints via email, phone, Skype, or in-person.

An accountability partner can also offer:

-Advice and perspective

-Ideas and resources

-A listening ear

–Support and motivation

–Brainstorming

Sometimes, an AP is just a kind soul who volunteers 15 minutes a week to keep you on track. Then there’s the reciprocal partnership in which you serve as each other’s AP. Psychological research backs up its effectiveness. Just finding a partner with whom to share your goals increases the likelihood that you will achieve them. It’s  a lot more fun to take a daily power walk with a friend than go at it alone for 45 minutes. Knowing you must check in with your weight-loss buddy each week makes it easier to pass up that chocolate donut. Reporting your daily word count to a fellow writer keeps you glued to your laptop (and off Facebook). 

By working with an AP, you are harnessing the power of positive peer pressure to motivate change.

Tips for finding an Accountability Partner:

Look to a trusted friend, neighbor, co-worker, classmate, or family member. If you’re a writer, try posting a request on a writer’s forum. Check out local writer’s groups. Network at a writing conference.  

Tips for Making it Work:

—Know what you want to get out of the partnership.

—Find a partner who is looking for similar goals/results.

—Find a partner who is in a similar place of experience.

—Decide on the method and frequency of communication.

—Be honest.

—Be willing to invest equally in the relationship.

 I recently found my AP—or I should say, she found me.  Connie and I live 800 miles apart.  We email and talk on the phone. We share goals and next action steps. We identify challenges and offer each other feedback. Why is it always easier to help someone else with her problem areas? Though we are working on different types of writing projects, the process is similar.  We both must make time for our writing and avoid distraction. We both need to track our word/page count. We both must troubleshoot and problem-solve. 

Since I have a lot more writing and publishing experience than Connie, I’ve had to identify the areas in which she can best help me. I won’t be looking to her for critique—I’ve already found someone for that.  Rather, it’s the act of stating my goals out loud to another human and reporting my progress that matters.  If I don’t complete my stated goals, Connie helps me figure out why. Her coaching background offers me techniques for deciding which projects I should invest my time in. In turn, I suggested that we each track our time and keep a Got Done list.  Already, I’ve noticed an uptick in my productivity.

This new relationship is a work-in-progress.  The only challenge so far is that Connie and I really enjoy talking to each other, so phone meetings go off in many directions. Maybe this just means that, in addition to finding an AP,  I’ve made a new friend.

Have you worked with an accountability partner? If so, what were the results?

POETRY WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE

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“Poems are made from the lives lived, borne out of experiences and shaped by solitary thought.” ~ Jill Bialosky

I just finished reading a wonderful new book that I picked up solely because of its intriguing title: Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books 2017). The  Kirkus Review sums it up well: “An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines.” 

This short memoir is centered on specific poems that have brought the author comfort, meaning, inspiration, or understanding during pivotal moments in her life. Bialosky organizes the book by themes such as Shame, Memory, Escape, Passion, First Love, and Mortality. A brief bio for each poet is included which deepens our awareness of the poem’s meaning. Each poignant chapter could stand alone. 

Throughout the book, Bialosky reflects on the profound lessons and meaning poetry can offer us. “Poems are composed of our own language disordered, reconfigured, reimagined, and compressed in ways that offer a heightened sense of reality and embrace a common humanity.”

Whether you are a poetry lover or haven’t read a poem since high school, there is something in this book for everyone. 

Ms. Bialosky, an award-winning poet, novelist, and book editor, never veers off into English professor mode when reflecting on the poems. Rather, she selects key phrases or themes that connect with her experience. Here she examines a stanza of E.E. Cummings poem, somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.                

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
                 

Bialosky explains that the “use of the word voice as a modifier for eyes allows the reader to experience how much the speaker of this poem “sees” into his subject. Then she intuits the poet’s question:  How is it that one person can unlock something private within us? Or awaken things in us we fear?” 

Bialosky writes about the death of her first child shortly after birth. She shares the never-ending pain of her beloved young sister’s suicide.  In the chapter of grief, Bialosky comments on Auden’s poem, Musee Des Beaux Arts.  “W.H. Auden documents the otherworldly state of grief and tragedy; how it strikes families while others are doing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk. Even dogs continue on their doggy life.” 

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can connect to this paradoxical state of being: How can everyone else just go about their business when my beloved is gone? 

Bialosky says, “I will spend years trying to capture the experience of suicide in a prose work…Poems remain a sustaining source of comfort.

Like Jill Bialowsky, words, too, have been an integral part of my healing after losing my father—words shared with a therapist, words of comfort from family and friends, words I have written, and words of those who have crawled through the tunnel of trauma and grief and come out the other side.

It has been exactly two years since my father’s tragic death. In some ways, this is unfathomable.  How could two years have passed?  This disbelief has me thinking more about the elusive nature of time. If time is constant, why do our brains perceive it so differently? Why does time slow down when we grieve and speed up when we are happy?  Why when we are waiting excitedly for a special event, do the days not move fast enough?          

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For centuries, poets have pondered time’s mystery. Consider Henry Van Dyke’s poem, Time Is.

Time is
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is eternity.

Emily Dickinson expresses this idea of expectation and waiting in her poem, If You Were Coming In The Fall.  Although the agoraphobic poet spent most of her life inside her Amherst, MA home, Dickinson enjoyed her share of romantic interests. The following poem is thought to be attributed to a family friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, who died 2 years before Emily.

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If you were coming in the Fall,

I’d brush the Summer by

With half a smile, and half a spurn,

As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,

I’d wind the months in balls—

And put them each in separate Drawers,

For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,

I’d count them on my Hand,

Subtracting, till my fingers dropped

Into Van Dieman’s Land,

If certain, when this life was out—

That yours and mine, should be

I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,

And take Eternity—

But, now, uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—

That will not state— its sting.

                                            ~

Jill Bialowsy concludes that “poetry gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”  

Do you have a favorite poem or one that holds special meaning?

Writing Hard Stories

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“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…” 

~Isak Dinesen

 

I read a lot of memoirs. I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s emotional journey. A great memoir goes beyond the personal to the universal and offers the reader more than the events themselves but the meaning, as well. Great memoirs enlarge our view of the world and ourselves.

Some stories, though, seem too big to tell, even if they are begging to be told. Life complexities overwhelm.

The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story.  As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.”  Then you tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it.

So how do we begin to shape an unruly story?  There are so many decisions to make. Where to begin may be the biggest. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos says, “Every story begins with an unraveling.”  I like that idea. 

The act of telling a big story is a process of spinning chaos into order as Dani Shapiro discovers in her new memoir, Hourglass. “The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot…”

In trying to weave a big story, the writer must ask: what parts should I hold up for inspection and which ones do I leave out? These white spaces, though, are necessary; choosing them is the hard part.

How deep does one dig among the layers?   

These questions are ones I have grappled with as I tried writing about the tragic accident that took my father’s life. The story is so much more than the facts. And this story is not just my own.  It is my mother’s story of survivor guilt, and my sister’s story of arriving too late, and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s burned body, and another brother’s story of deciding to stay home, and another brother’s story of overseeing the far away burial. It is my daughter’s story of watching me answer the phone that fateful evening and then slip away. 

Finding my voice in this sad chorus is messy, uncomfortable work.

* * *

One day, as I was working with a student on her college application essay, I heard myself say, “You’re trying to cram a big, complicated story into one frame. It’s not working. Try zooming in closer. What do you see? What is your story really about?” 

Well.

It wasn’t the first time I’d given this advice, but at that moment, I heard it anew.

What is my story really about? 

The answer was “many things”.  The origin of fear.  The love of a daughter for her father. Family dysfunction. Religion. A freak accident. Grief. How trauma affects the brain. Healing through words. And this overwhelming realization contributed to my writer’s block. 

The breakthrough finally came when I stopped trying to create a unified big picture and took a snapshot instead. 

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once.

The resulting essay took on multiple forms and drafts.  I decided to submit it to The Sunlight Press whose missions seemed fitting: “We want to hear the ways people turn toward light and hope… and also how they respond to the darkness and navigate unknown spaces. Epiphanies are born from the ordinary and the extraordinary…we want to know about these moments.”  

To meet the word requirement of this online journal, I needed to shorten the story, thereby, getting closer to its essence. When the editor asked me to slightly revise its original ending (without saying how), I was, at first, taken aback. Then, the more I read my last lines, the more I realized I’d been too cryptic, perhaps too poetic. So I made it more truthful and simple. A tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction followed. It was published on July 9, 2017.

And that, I think, is the power of writing our stories. Unlike in real life, we can assemble the pieces with our own hands and, sometimes, even make the ending a little brighter.

 

National Novel Writing Month–Yay or Nay?

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When I became a mother, I couldn’t wait for all the things I would teach my kids.

I wanted to introduce them to music, dance, and art. I wanted them to have happy associations with Jewish observance. I wanted to inspire them to be lifelong learners and book lovers.

What I didn’t expect was how much my kids would teach and inspire me. My oldest daughter encouraged me to write a children’s novel which resulted in an award-winning book.

My son continues to inspire me to not “sweat the small stuff” and to stay positive.

My youngest daughter taught me to trust that she is learning, even though she is not in a traditional school.  Lately, she has been a beacon of light as I crawl through the tunnel of discouragement regarding my second novel  attempt. She understands my battle with perfectionism and, fortunately, does not seem to suffer from that condition.

“You need to try NaNoWriMo” she told me.

She was referring to National Novel Writing Month. Every November thousands of aspiring writers sign on to the project website. Their goal: write a quick first draft of a novel–in a month. That’s 50,000 words in 30 days!  Of course, not everyone succeeds, but the process itself is valuable–so they say.

“It’s all about silencing your inner critic. At least for a month,” Audrey tells me, fully aware of my nemesis.

Audrey has participated in the Youth Division for the past few years. She enjoyed the pep talks, the writing forums, and the rush of seeing her word count rise.

While I enthusiastically supported her participation, NaNoWriMo sounded like torture to me. I had several reasons for not signing on.

l.  I’ve already written a novel.

2. I’m not a fast writer.

3. I hate writing a big long mess.

4. November is a very busy month.

5. I have other writing contests to work on.

6.  I could never win.

7.  Did I mention that I could never write 50,000 words in a month?

You get the idea.

Of course, Audrey has a counter argument for each of my arguments.  “What have you go to lose?” she finally huffed, after I stubbornly clung to my excuses.

I was reminded of my father. Growing up, I suffered from a lot of worry.  Whether is was speaking in front of the class or trying something new, my anxiety would get in the way.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen?” my father would ask.

Which, today, inspired me to ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen by committing myself to NaNoWriMo? 

Answer: 1.  I write a bunch of garbage.  2. I don’t reach the goal.

Hmm. Not the end of the world by any means.

Then I suddenly thought of another question.  What’s the best thing that might happen? 

Answer. 1. I get back on track with the story I want to write. Even better: 2. I get in the flow and churn out a rough draft that gives me something to work on.

I hesitated to the last minute. I thought about being a role model for my writing workshop students (whom I encouraged to enter the Young Writers NaNoWriMo).

So I took the plunge and registered. This is my public announcement.

“Oy, “I’ll never write 50,000 words,” I said to Audrey immediately afterward.

“Mom!”

“Okay. I take it back.”

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The next day I got the first NaNoWriMo pep talk in my inbox. It was from award-winning YA author, Rainbow Rowell.

Wow, she was describing my every thought regarding National Novel Writing Month. Here’s an excerpt from her most excellent post.

Dear Writer,

I was very skeptical about NaNoWriMo at first.

It seemed like something that amateur writers would do. Or young writers. People who needed to be tricked into finishing     their books. I’d already written two books by October 2011, and sold them to publishers, and I couldn’t imagine writing either of them—or anything good—in a month.

That’s not writing, I thought, that’s just piling up words. But then I thought about how wonderful it would be to have a pile of 50,000 words… 

And guess what? Ms. Rowell’s NaNoWriMo first draft ended up becoming her recently published novel, Fangirl.

Her words hit my motivation button. Time to get writing.  Fast!

How do your children inspire you? Are you a NaNoWriMo participant?

Writing From A Place of Honesty

Image   I love reading memoirs. I am fascinated by how a writer structures the chaos and complexities of a life into a narrative.  I also wonder how you get over the fear of exposure, of being judged, of hurting friends and family? As Anne Lamont says, “We write to expose the unexposed.”   How many writers out there still fear exposure, though, when we live in an age of overexposure?

I am a private person and have become more so as I’ve gotten older.  In this cyber age of platform building and social networking, no writer is an island.  Nor can she afford to be.  I may have the life material to craft a compelling memoir, but I am not ready to run naked through the streets. And I may never be. For now, I prefer to select excerpts from my life. Exploring ideas, insights, and truths in this way allows me to both shape and contain the experience and still keep some curtains closed.

This June, I opened a curtain when my essay, “Letting Go” was published in Tablet Magazine.  The personal essay expressed my mixed feelings about my 20-year-old daughter’s engagement and marriage. I hoped my experience would help other parents of kids who take-off early.  Tackling this particular topic was a big leap in terms of my comfort level. The published piece is much different than the one I had originally submitted.  The editor, Wayne Hoffman, pushed me to dig deeper–to write from a place of truth and honesty–from the heart. I almost didn’t make the requested revisions, but once I worked through the fear of vulnerability, I found my real voice. The result was very satisfying.  An added bonus was when the Tablet editor called to say how much he loved my revised essay.

Readers responded to this honesty. The online comments and email feedback, mostly positive, provided me an instant connection with my readers, which was both exciting and scary. Here is one of my favorites, (sent via email).

Evelyn

I’m sitting at my desk at work wiping tears from my cheeks. Your article is so beautiful and right on target. It resonates so deeply- you captured the emotions and dialogue perfectly.  

“Letting Go” was picked up by the New York Times Motherlode blog the same day it appeared in the Tablet. Instantly, my audience (and exposure) widened. Blogger KJ Dell’Antonia invited readers to share thoughts on the topic of marrying at a very young age.  I was surprised by how many NYT commenters seemed not to have read my entire essay, yet still had a strong opinion about it.  Writing openly about your life opens you up to the critics, of course. No dodging that bullet. The diverse reactions on Motherlode reminded me how we each project our life view into what we read and that being “open-minded” is easier said than done.

So, my advice to other private-by-nature people who want to write about very personal experiences in today’s online world? Grow a thick skin; you won’t die of exposure.

And what about you? Do you find it hard to draw the curtains when you write about your life?  How do you decide what is okay to reveal about family members, especially your children?  Or are you happy to run naked through the streets?

How many books will you write this year?

Sunday afternoons I usually devote to writing projects.  This Mother’s Day, after a little prompting from my family, I took the entire day off.  And I enjoyed myself!  That is, until later that evening when a NY Times headline caught my eye: Writer’s Cramp: In-E-Reader Era, a Book a Year is Slacking.

Oh, my.

Those commercial fiction writers who previously managed to put out a book a year are now “pulling the literary equivalent of a double shift.”  These writers, whom we love and hate, are churning out extras–short stories, novellas, e-books– to satisfy their impatient readers whose attention spans have shortened, thanks to our revved up world.

Thriller writer Lisa Scottoline has revved up her daily quota to 2000 words.  That translates into a 12/7 workweek.  Best-selling literary novelists are, so far, off the hook. (Go ahead, take your ten years. We still love you!)  Since I don’t belong to either camp (not yet), I’m wondering what to make of this madness.  Between book marketing, building my platform, speaking engagements, circulating short stories, writing query letters, entering competitions, raising my kids, and the Other job, my next novel is still in note form.  Maybe I could offer this for 99 cents while my fans await the real thing.

Let’s suppose that you could (or do) write full-time?  How many books could you (would you) write in one year?