How to Write a Great Ending: (Why Endings Matter in Fiction and Life)

The_End

Why is it we can forgive a book’s slow start, a meandering middle, but not a bad ending?

Some endings leave you feeling cheated. Or disappointed. Or plain confused.

You’ve invested your time, money, and heart and you want a payoff at the end.  Endings matter to readers and movie-goers. A lot.  The highly ambiguous ending to the 2014 movie Birdman ignited an intense online debate about what actually happened. Some loved the ending, others hated it.

For years after publishing Gone with the Wind, author Margaret Mitchell was deluged with reader requests for a sequel. Mitchell adamantly refused, saying she purposely left the ending ambiguous because she had no idea whether or not Scarlet and Rhett would be reunited.

Gone_With_The_Wind

So what makes a bad ending? 

I asked my friends and family. Their answers aligned with the advice you’d get in a basic writing workshop.

-Confusing

-Based on coincidence

-It was all a dream

-Contrived

-Too many loose ends

-The hero dies without achieving or seeing his goal/dream

-Manipulative

-Unrealistic

-Too Sad

There’s a great scene in the movie The Silver Lining Playbook when the main character Pat, upon finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, throws the book out the window. Pat then wakes his sleeping parents and launches into a rant over the love story’s bleak ending.

“…She dies, Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys…Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

Turns out, Hemingway considered at least 40 possible endings to the classic 1928 novel. If your curious, a 2012 Library Edition exists containing these alternative endings. 

This brings to mind the wacky physics theory of “parallel universes.   I won’t get into the scientific details behind the controversial concept, but basically, it explores the possibility that other versions of ourselves, our histories, and our outcomes exist simultaneously in multiple universes. (A premise portrayed many a time in science fiction tales.) 

So, let’s say you’re feeling sad and regretful about letting a lover go. Perhaps you can take comfort in the idea that somewhere out there your replica is enjoying life with this missed love.

In the 1980s and 90s, the widely popular children series, Choose Your Own Adventure, allowed readers to assume the role of the protagonist.  Every few pages,  the reader gets to make choices that determine the outcome. The fun part is getting the chance to explore several possible endings.

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                            Choose_Your_Own_Treasur_Diver

 

Each book’s introduction affirms the power the reader holds. 

“There are dangers, choices, adventures, and consequences…but don’t despair at anytime YOU can go back and alter the path of your story, and change its results. 

If only real life were like that.

 

How do writers craft the perfect ending to their story?

Some decide on the ending at the very beginning and fill in the rest. Others follow a detailed outline which builds to a specified ending. Others writers like to journey with their characters and allow the ending to unfold. The process becomes an exciting discovery.

Best-selling thriller writers Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline described this process in a recent NYT podcast. After getting a feel for the tone of the book, Lee Child just sits down to write and sees what happens.  Lisa Scottoline knows only the beginning when she starts writing a novel. As she reaches each new point, Lisa asks herself, “Okay, now what?”  The prolific author says this process mirrors life.

I rarely know the ending of a story before I write. Even if I have a sense of the story’s conclusion, I often change my mind or consider alternatives. In my novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, one of the characters reveals a secret toward the end.  I didn’t even know what it was until I got there. 

In my new short story, “When We Were Bad”, I knew one of the characters would end up in the wrong place at the right time but wasn’t sure if she’d get out alive. Making that decision ultimately changed the final paragraph which I rewrote several times.

But even when you decide on the ending of your story, how do you know it works?

What makes a good ending?

This is a trickier question than what makes a bad ending. According to the character Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye,

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

I love this quote and have experienced the feeling myself.

The answers my friends gave me regarding a good ending were more about emotion–how a story ending left them feeling.

-Happy(ish)

-Enlightened

-Moved

-Astonished

-Transformed

-Curious

-Wishing it never ended

The most common answer was satisfied.  Hmm. Makes me think of a good meal. What is satisfying to one reader may cause another to toss the book out the window.

. If-you-want-a-happy-ending-that-depends-of-course-on-where-you-stop-your-story.-Orson-Welles

So how does a writer choose?

A while back, I came across an answer. 

A good ending to a plot must be both inevitable yet surprising. 

I’ve been pondering this paradoxical advice since ever since.

Thriller writer, Meg Gardiner, (also interviewed in the NYT Podcast) summed up the above axiom in her 2015 blog post as: 

Amazing! Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected.

Try putting your favorite books and movies to this test.

For me, this played out in the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes(Don’t bother with the movie version.) It’s a contemporary romance between an unlikely pair who seem to hate each other at first then fall deeply in love. At the end of the book, one of the characters makes a choice that made me cry.  I thought about it for days. At first, I was sure it was the wrong ending. But as I reflected  (and debated with a friend), I could see the author had planted the seeds for what was to come. The reader doesn’t want this ending, is hoping until the last page that it won’t happen, but it does.  The conclusion is unsettling, thought-provoking and, indeed, “inevitable, yet unexpected.”

Few endings, in fiction or life, are perfect.

Story endings can leave us sad and still be a good ending. Or, perhaps, the right ending.

What are your favorite or worst book/movie endings? 

If you’re a writer, do you plan the ending ahead of time?

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How To Keep Writing When Life Throws You A Punch

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So you’ve been writing your 500 words a day, researching your new novel, making the revisions your editor suggested, starting a new essay, approaching an article deadline… when life throws you a punch. Your boyfriend leaves. Your kid is failing school. Your mom breaks her hip. You have a major fallout with a friend. Your mammogram is suspicious.

You’ve had one of those days. Or weeks. Maybe one of those months. You’re knocked off kilter. And so is your creative output.

Your focused mind becomes a traffic jam of negative thoughts. The words sit lifeless on the page. Whatever you’ve written, now seems crap.

Trying to write a book is challenging on the best of days. Now, the sadness or worry you’re feeling is compounded with each passing unproductive day. The fewer words you write, the more frustrated you become. 

Writers_Block

On days like these, I wish I were the kind of person who can don emotional blinders and keep churning out the pages. 

Writing itself sustains me during ordinary times, which is why it is essential to keep at it during hard times. Yet sometimes I find this extraordinarily difficult, particularly during the past two and a half years since my father was killed. The traumatic experience shed my already thin skin and it hasn’t grown back. Despite my healing, my brain remains sensitive to shock and perceived threats.  It doesn’t take much to knock me over. 

It’s happening right now.

How do you keep writing when life throws you a punch? 

Notice I didn’t say “if” but “when,” because it will happen. Often in waves. Disappointment. Anger. Hurt. Shock. Grief. Worry.  Emotions that can cut through creativity. 

I’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Here are a few things I’ve tried.

1. Take time out—but not too long

You wonder how you can possibly write anything worthwhile when you feel so bad. Your first impulse is probably to cast writing aside and attempt to numb yourself or engage in distracting activities.  Give yourself permission to have a bad week, to take time off—just try to designate a time limit. When a student I advise is crushed about a college rejection, I give him 3 days to mope, rant, or binge watch Netflix. Then it’s time to move on. So go ahead, curl up on the couch…just don’t stay there.

2. Switch writing gears

If you find it impossible to connect with your current project, try starting something new (but not too big).  Revise/edit an older manuscript.  Work on submissions.  Engage in research or brainstorm ideas.  Or write in a different genre. (Like I’m doing now with this blog post.) Read something inspiring. Journal writing can help you grapple with the problem and clear your mind.  Any writing you can do will make you feel better. 

3. Expect something good

There’s a Yiddish saying that originated in Chassidic teaching, “Tracht Gut Vet Zien Gut “—“Think good, and it will be good.”  The idea is that positive thinking will not only help you weather hard times but can actually make positive things happen.  I take this to mean that if you expect good things, you are more likely to attract them. The Universe may surprise you by sending a salve for your wound. Strange as it seems, this has worked for me.  Just this week, when feeling my lowest, I heard from a special person I hadn’t spoken to in years but had been recently thinking about. I also had a story accepted for publication.

Sometimes, though, the punch is more than a bad week or a misunderstanding. It’s a serious illness. The break-up of a marriage. The death of a loved one.  It may take a lot more time to find your words again, to rise out of the darkness. During such trials, I hope you have a special person to lift you up. 

Famed American novelist, Henry James, wrote, in July 1883, a most tender and compassionate letter of advice and comfort to his friend and fellow writer, Grace Norton of Boston.  Grace was despondent after the death of a family member.  Henry encouraged his dear friend not to give up on life.

My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain.

James’s concluding words to Grace lift me each time I read them.

Sorrow comes in great waves…but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us… we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we, after a manner, see.

Cemetery_Scene

Paul Christian Gelutu

You can read the letter in its entirety at  Letters of Note–Henry James or hear it on YouTube.

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.

Writers_Block

 

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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Turning Darkness to Light

 

Happy_Children

“One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life, I think, is to have a happy childhood.”  ~ Agatha Christie

“Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it.”  ~Maurice Sendak

What first comes to mind when you hear the word “childhood”?

I’m guessing you might answer: innocence, joy, play, fun, laughter, silliness, or wonder.

What about the word “depression”?

Childhood depression should be an oxymoron. But it is a reality for too many children and the parents who love them.

One of the special characteristics of children is that, unlike grownups, they don’t stay mad or sad very long. But some children are born with a brain chemistry, genetic makeup, or nature that make it difficult to experience the lightness and joy of childhood, no matter how loving and stable their home.

“We naturally want and expect children to be happy,” my writer friend Irene says, “and when they’re not, we try to do something about it. We buy them a new toy, do a fun activity, talk, give hugs. But sometimes we can’t fix the unhappiness, and this feels awful.”

Depressed_Child

Irene knows a lot about childhood depression. Her only son, now a young adult, showed symptoms of rage, frustration, sadness, and suicidal thinking by age eight. 

When other parents complained about their children’s everyday woes— not being picked for the travel team, not getting the lead in a play, having a squabble with a friend, being too shy—Irene was struggling to keep her child from despair. “I couldn’t relate to these parents. I felt alienated,” she said. “My son and I lived in a bubble of silence outside the norm.”  Irene’s parenting world revolved around psychiatrists, therapy appointments, hospitalizations, and various medications. She fought to protect her son in public school where he was often mistreated and misunderstood. “While some teachers were invested in him, others lost patience.”  Irene advocated tirelessly on her son’s behalf to keep him safe. “There were times,” she told me tearfully, “when I honestly didn’t know if I was going to lose him.” 

I met Irene a year and a half ago at a local meet-up of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator).  She’s a petite powerhouse who radiates energy and warmth. We immediately connected.  As we got to know one and other, we shared, not only our writing goals but our personal journeys of struggle and growth. Listening to Irene’s story, I marveled at her ability to exude such a love for life.

Irene has turned her painful experience into a passion project to help others. She wants to shed light on childhood depression, to open the uncomfortable discussion, and to let other parents and children know they are not alone. 


She translated this desire into action by writing and illustrating a small book with a big message. Celia and the Little Boy is the story of two children trapped in the darkness, and what it took for them to find their way out.”  Illustrated with child-like pencil drawings, this timeless tale is for readers ages 8 to 98. img_69311.jpg

Last week, I attended Irene’s book launch at the Canton Public Library. Speaking to a room full of supporters, Irene shared the story’s journey from inspiration to draft to published book. Irene’s son, now an adult, fully approved of her sharing his story, which is also his mother’s story.  Irene read the Celia and the Little Boy aloud while the pages were projected on a large screen.  I could just feel the overwhelming emotion of the audience as Irene read the last, hopeful sentence. 

The next step in Irene’s passion project is to connect with parents, teachers, pediatricians, and therapists.  Irene wants to offer, not only hope but information on this devastating illness that impacts families and communities at both the personal and national level.

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We can all learn from people like Irene who, rather than allowing themselves to be pulled under, reach toward the light. They turn pain into healing and meaning. They become activists, mentors, volunteers, writers, and spokespersons driven by a sense of purpose. They use the lessons gleaned from their loss, grief, or struggle to help ease another’s burden.

Now I think I know how Irene maintains her inner joy. Like her book character, Celia, Irene feels the struggle, yet is still able to see the world as a “truly wondrous place”.  As she so eloquently writes in her dedication:  For all the children who dwell alone in the darkness and those who can see them.”

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For more information on Celia and the Little Boy Irenebuchine.com

 

 

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?

Finding Inspiration in 2018

Inspiration_2018

 

“There were so many frightful times when I was totally “unilluminated” and feared that I could never write again.”   

                     ~Carson McCullers, Illumination and Night Glare

 

Where do you find inspiration when the well is dry, the light dim?  How do you engage in creative work amidst the onslaught of headlines of terror attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters, and White House insanity?  As you attend to the relentless demands of everyday life, how do you carve space for illumination?

Here are some of my ideas and those gleaned from other writers and artists.

l.  Start the day with beauty.

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Do you start the day with the news report? Is your phone screen the first image your eyes take in?  This is a hard habit to break but doing so can do wonders for your mood and muse. I know it’s hard to think about beauty when you’re getting ready for work or trying to get the kids off to school. But taking a moment to notice beauty, rather than the news headlines, can lift your spirit.

Instead of checking your Twitter feed, try feeding your soul.  Take in scenes of nature.  Research studies have demonstrated that just looking at nature scenes can reduce stress and increase pleasant feelings. This alone may open the door to inspiration. 

The beauty of language soothes and inspires me. Every morning at breakfast, I try to read a poem. This warms up my brain for creative work which, for me, is usually done early in the day. 

2.  Take A Walk

Walking has long been considered a way to open the mind. Naturalist, writer, and avid walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal,  “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”  Walking is especially helpful for me when I’m about to begin a new writing project. Walking engages our senses, clears our mind of clutter, and gets the blood flowing—all helpful for finding that creative spark. (If you’re interested in learning more about the cognitive benefits of walking, check out Why Walking Helps Us Think, New Yorker, 9/3/14.) 

3.  Create a Playlist

It goes without saying that music can inspire.  Music can also serve as an anchor to a specific time in your life and take you right back to the associated emotions and memories. I’ve created mood playlists—melancholy, tense, romantic, happy—to help me get into a specific scene. Some writers use a specific playlist while working on a novel. Young adult author Rainbow Rowell’s main characters bond over 1980’s music. The author listened to these songs while drafting her novel, Eleanor & Park. (Rainbow shared the playlist with her fans on Spotify and YouTube.) 

4.  Learn from the Masters

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All art is about craft, so learn your craft. Read wisdom from the masters–Virginia Wolfe, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Chekov, Ursula Le Guin, John Gardner. Take solace that even the greats lose their muse (and sometimes their minds).  The successful artists you admire all doubt themselves, muddle through the middle, give up on manuscripts, have dry spells, and get rejected—just like you!   I keep several craft books near my desk. One of my favorites is Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.  When I sit down to write, I open one book to a random page and absorb the lesson at hand.  I also turn to my collection of inspiring quotes from writers and other creative thinkers.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and give to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

  ~William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

5.  Try Pen and Paper

If you always plan, outline, and compose on a computer, try paper and pen for a change. This not only removes the distraction of the internet, but also the delete button. (How many times have you deleted a sentence or idea 5 seconds after typing it?) Writing by hand forces you to slow down, to more closely consider your thoughts and feelings. And just by engaging a different process for creative inspiration, your brain is primed for novelty. You’re ready to brainstorm. Jot down every idea, question, and connection that pops into your head. Don’t censor. Explore all possibilities.

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7.  Stay Curious

 Keep asking questions. Ask: What If? Read widely. Wonder. Talk to people who are very different from you. Jot down snippets of interesting conversation. Visit new places. Collect things. I like buying old postcards and photographs in antique shops and then imagining the stories behind them. 

7.  Show Up

Sometimes its best to just get started. Make art a daily companion, not an occasional visitor. Instead of saying “someday”, choose someday—like today.  Or as Stephen King bluntly states: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” 

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.      ~Jane Yolen

8.  Trust the process.

If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you know how the anxiety of waiting for sleep and worrying that it won’t come actually delays its arrival. I think the same can be true for inspiration.  Instead of fretting that you don’t have the idea, the words, the vision, the melody—you may just need to surrender. Be patient. Wait a while. Some ideas arrive banging on your door, others gestate for years. Keep listening.

 “The statue in the stone. How does the artist find that, see it, before it’s visible?”

                     ~Ursula K. Le Guin

And sometimes in order to go forward, you have to first meet the place where you are stuck and grapple with it on the blank page.

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 When my father was killed, I felt a part of me die with him. Afterward, I could barely speak, let alone write. Inspiration eluded me. Only after braving the demon, could I begin to create again. I didn’t want to write about the experience; I needed to.  Inspiration isn’t always rosy and warm. Inspiration can come from a place of darkness. And by entering this place with courage and vulnerability, you can create something that illuminates.

My latest writing is published in the December issue of Hippocampus Magazine.  It’s the hardest essay I’ve ever written.

How do you capture inspiration?

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.

                          EmilyDickinsonSmall

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?

Do you regret quitting ______?

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Do you regret quitting music lessons as a child? Do you wish your parents had pushed you to continue studying piano?  Do you regret dropping out of competitive swimming or gymnastics or skating or dance? 

What about your own children? When do you let them quit a sport or artistic pursuit? What if your child is very talented? 

In my unscientific survey, the answers run the gamut from insisting one’s child continue studying to a certain age or level, to leaving the decision completely up to her. Some parents told me they don’t even suggest lessons until their child asks for them. 

For certain activities like singing, acting, and painting, one can much more easily pick it up again an adult.  But for other pursuits, there is a window of possibility both physically and mentally.  The opportunity for training narrows.  At some point, the pre-professional student must decide where he is heading because of the increasing demands of pursuing his art or sport. There is only so much time.

If you have devoted years to supporting your child’s passion or talent and he suddenly decides to quit, your heart may twist in a knot.  Maybe you see yourself in him. Maybe he is (was) living your own unfulfilled dreams.  You might believe that he is foolishly passing up opportunities for accomplishments and accolades. You worry that he will regret his decision.

My son walked at 9 months and was catching a ball by his first birthday. His pediatrician noted “motor skills genius” on Sam’s chart. At age 9, just before he was to earn his first black belt in karate, Sam insisted on quitting. It wasn’t that he didn’t like karate anymore (he practiced at home all the time), he didn’t want to go to the classes. His father and I wondered if the additional requirement for the black belt (writing an essay and leading the class) was the culprit. Or, maybe it was the intimidating and stern sensei. (Heck, this man scared me.)  Sam could not articulate the real reason, if there was one, but he put up quite a big fight and refused to continue training at the dojo.

The sensei told us we were making a terrible mistake. Sam showed exceptional talent.  The rewards for his personal development down the line were too great to pass up. Parents shouldn’t make such an important decision on the whims of a fickle nine-year-old, he said.

We let Sam quit.

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Still, our son never stopped moving. In addition to studying piano and chess, Sam excelled in swimming and tennis. He played varsity basketball and fenced competitively.  Recently, he’s taken up martial arts again.  Sam, now 23, holds no regrets about our/his decision, though admits to wondering if it was the “right” one.

With my youngest daughter, Audrey, the decision to end her pre-professional ballet study at 16 was hard on both of us, but mostly me. Dance was (and still is) my passion.  It meant a lot that my daughter and I shared this.  Despite the sacrifices involved, I committed to supporting her training (which mostly involved driving and waiting.) I loved watching Audrey grow as a dancer. I miss those days.

Recently, I wrote about the experience for Grown and Flown, a wonderful website and blog on parenting young adults. After this publication, I’ve received a lot of comments from others parents in similar situations—soccer, horseback-riding, violin—who related to my angst.

Interestingly, another mom wrote to me describing the opposite situation. She and her husband were never fully on board with their daughter’s desire to pursue dance professionally. After graduating with a BFA in dance, their daughter is now trying to get her big break in NYC. The reader wrote:  “So.. I was never a dance mom. More a mom that allowed my child to steer her ship….hoping that I did the right thing and that her dream becomes a reality.” 

Her honest words put a new spin on this parenting dilemma.   

You can read my essay, The Last Ballet Lesson”, here.   I welcome your thoughts.

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  My ballerina.

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.

 

Strangers on a Plane

Strangers-One-A-Plane

I consider myself a friendly person. I enjoy interesting conversation and connecting with people. I don’t care much for small talk, though. I much prefer to gain something from a conversation. At a party, I can easily meet a stranger and know her life story by the end of the evening. I think I’m pretty easy to talk to—except maybe on an airplane.

If you’re looking for conversation 30,000 feet in the air, you probably don’t want to sit next to me.    

My fear of flying developed in my early twenties. I’d get anticipatory anxiety a week before my flight. I often had panic attacks on the airplane. Once, my body jolted during sudden turbulence and I accidentally hit the woman seated next to me.  I could never sit by the emergency exit because I knew I was incapable of assisting my fellow passengers “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

Fortunately,  over the past several years, my fear of flying has diminished somewhat.  I can even get some work done during a flight.  Can’t say exactly what brought about this change. Maybe I’ve finally become desensitized. Or maybe becoming a parent forced me to put on a brave face for the kiddos. Perhaps the relaxation techniques I learned finally paid off.

Or, maybe it was just those yellow pills. 

Whatever the reason, it’s likely that the unpleasantness of air travel will get to me now more than the idea of donning a life vest. Given the current state of air travel, I bet most of us feel this way.

Still, I can never predict my mental state once on board, so I keep my guard. I have certain rituals I need to do during takeoff and landing.  I’m very picky about my seat choice. And, I don’t want to talk to any strangers. Fortunately, most people are plugged into their devices or watching in-flight “entertainment”. 

So, there I was a few months ago, about to board a 7:00 am flight to Toronto.  (Let me just say, I’m not a morning person. )  A well-dressed, older man smiled at me.  I smiled, faintly, then looked the other way.  He moved closer. “Traveling for business or pleasure?” 

I did an inner eye-roll at that original line. “Pleasure,” I answered, hoping my one-word reply would signal that I did not wish to make small talk.  But he continued in a chipper, wide-awake fashion.  I nodded politely as he gave me the weather report for Toronto.  As we began to board the plane, I felt relieved to escape. “Well, have a good trip,” I said.

What were the odds he’d be seated next to me, anyway?

As I walked down the too-narrow aisle, I got an immediate claustrophobic reaction. The plane was smaller than I expected. And, there were only two seats on each side of the cabin. So sooner had I settled into my window seat than Mr. Friendly appeared.

“Well, look at that,” he said, sitting down in the too-close seat beside me.

I ignored him.

I took out my phone and headphones, then put on sunglasses. (Don’t ask. Just part of the ritual.) I plugged into my favorite tunes. After the safety instructions were given, my seatmate asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was.  Then he made a joke about the TSA.  

I removed my earplugs.  “Sorry, um, just to let you know, I’m not a comfortable flyer,” I said. “Especially during takeoff and landing. So, please excuse me.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you need to do.”

I smiled, then put back on my headphones.   

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” he announced over my happy music.

Ten minutes later, after we reached cruising altitude, my body relaxed a bit. Immediately, my friendly seatmate continued to engage me. “Feeling better?”

 Gee, didn’t he have something to read?   

 I  tried summoning my friendly self.  “Yes, I am, thank you.” 

He asked if I was from Boston and what I planned on doing in Toronto.

“I’m on my way to a family wedding,” I offered. 

“That’s wonderful,” he said, then sighed. “Unfortunately, I’m on my way to a family funeral.”

The juxtaposition of our travel purposes touched something within me. I removed my sunglasses. I listened as he described the loss of a dear cousin. 

Before long, I found myself in a thoughtful conversation with this stranger.

He was a hospital physician who loved his work. He and his wife of twenty years had both found each other after leaving long terrible marriages.  (His honesty and happy marital status removed any imagined pretense. ) I asked him what he thought the secret to a happy marriage was and he told me. Then he showed me pictures of his family and grandchildren.  He laughed that I was surprised by his age–73. I told him that people often think I’m much younger, too.

“Happiness is the fountain of youth,” he said. 

Then I heard myself ask:  “So, what’s it like to be seventy-three?” 

And he told me.

So there I was, in one of my least favorite places, talking about love and loss with a stranger. We exchanged stories about our professions. He asked me what I most liked to write about. I asked him what he’d advise a medical student.

We laughed about the White House circus and made predictions of our new president’s future. He made a joke about Trump on an airplane.

The flight passed by quickly—something that never happens to me. I realized that this man’s company distracted me from the usual worrisome engine noises and air bumps. Still, when the flight attendant announced that it was time  “to start our descent” my anxiety crept up.

My new friend sensed this.  “Just take a few deep breaths. Go back to your happy place.” 

And I did.

Once on the ground, the man gave me a few tips for navigating Customs. He needed to rush out to catch a connecting flight.  He wished me well and was on his way. 

In that moment, I was sorry to see him go.

During the past weeks, with all the terrible news stories about air travel, I thought about my random encounter with a friendly stranger in the unfriendly skies. 

Maybe he thought about me, too.