Wednesday, November 25, 2015


I'll admit 2015 hasn't been my favorite year. It's been full of challenges, several of which I'm still trying to figure out how to meet.

But I am also lucky, and there's plenty for which I'm grateful, and this is a good week for me to remember that. Tomorrow is the ultimate Thankful Thursday. Wishing you a happy one, with many blessings to count.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Easing back into writing

Many of us go through times where we've had to step back from writing. Maybe life interfered. Maybe the well ran dry. Maybe we had to abandon a project and didn't know where to go next. Maybe we got restless.

Whatever the reason, it's sometimes daunting to step back into writing. It's like resuming physical exercise after some time away. We may need to warm up to it, especially if we're still feeling uncertain about where our writing will go next.

At such times, I like to try short pieces, exercises, and new genres. I reread old work, especially half-formed ideas and half-finished projects, to see if any embers there ignite. I start and stop. I try not to expect too much or be too hard on myself. I let the process catch me in its rhythm again. I remind myself of how much always ends up on the cutting-room floor. I keep an open mind, so as not to close out any options too soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn

I'm currently reading Amanda Gefter's Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A father, a daughter, the meaning of nothing, and the beginning of everything.

First observation: Holy cow, book subtitles are getting LONG.

But, anyway. I had hoped it would be a readable, layperson-friendly discussion of the cosmological questions that interest me (where did the universe come from? how do we know? what is all this stuff that surrounds us--matter, dark energy, etc.?). So far, it has been just what I'd hoped, though I'm only a quarter of the way in. So far, Amanda Gefter is doing a great job at explaining some very difficult material. I'm understanding this stuff better than I ever have before. (Also, she's not afraid to throw in some funny remarks, which helps.)

These questions, these issues, have long interested me, but delving more than an inch deep into them requires one to tangle with physics, my least favorite of the sciences. In physics, things get weird: counterintuitive, complicated, difficult to imagine or even approach. We have to deal with all sorts of forces and objects we've never seen with our own eyes: quarks, gluons, and so forth. We are trying to understand everything, and nothing, and how everything came from nothing (or did it?).

It feels like a good time to grapple with such big, universal (in more ways than one) ideas.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Memoir workshop

Today I had the privilege of taking a memoir-writing workshop taught by Beth Kephart, author of Handling the Truth (among other books).

We wrote and listened and talked and laughed. The scenes we explored covered the spectrum from funny to sad, from joyous celebrations to unimaginable losses. Beth's own work is precisely rendered, every word chosen deliberately; her standards are high. Yet as a teacher she is generous and supportive, encouraging, seeking only to make room for each student to find his or her own voice.

It was a good day for the quiet, the listening, the attention to detail, that a writing workshop requires. Memoir is not just a turning inward, Beth says; it is also about paying attention to others, to the world around us. It's about using our own experiences to pursue larger themes. It's not about telling the reader what we've discovered, but letting the reader discover it with us. These are points about which I want to think more deeply; they can even apply to fiction.

Beth is also working to develop a "traveling workshop" on memoir; see here if interested.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Holiday scenes

In fiction, holidays offer opportunities for both character and plot development.

I use a calendar as I write, to keep track of how many days have gone by in the characters' lives, when the weekends should come, when the seasons must change, etc. When I was writing The Secret Year, I realized at one point in the story that Thanksgiving was coming up. I'd already established that the main character had an older brother in college. It made sense that the brother would come home for Thanksgiving. The brother's visit enabled me to explore a character who had been, until then, offstage. I asked myself all sorts of questions: Who was he, how did he fit into the family, how did his story relate to the main character's? This new person in the story enabled us to see sides of all the other characters that we hadn't seen yet.

But the holiday itself, Thanksgiving, also played a role. In the US, we have expectations of Thanksgiving: an image of family and togetherness and bountiful food and special traditions. For many families, the reality doesn't always live up to the ideal, and in that difference between expectation and reality, there is room for a story to grow. There is also room for story in the mere fact that many people (who often know one another well, flaws and all, and who have strong emotions about one another) gather in a small space.

When you gather your characters' families together, add traditions and memories and hopes and histories, what do they say to one another?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Notes to myself

I think my brain is full.

I just found a note I wrote to myself yesterday, and I cannot figure out what it means. Often it only takes a few words to jog my memory, but sometimes it comes to this: I have absolutely no idea what my note means.

Either my notes to myself will have to start getting more elaborate, or I will have to accept the fact that most of these brain flashes that I simply HAVE to write down are not that great after all. Or else I'd remember them.

I guess I could use these cryptic phrases as writing prompts. I won't be writing about my original idea, but I'll be writing about something.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Internal chatter around first drafts

This draft is not ...

like [fill-in-the-blank famous author's name]'s work
as good as [fill-in-the-blank awesome author's name]'s writing
particularly coherent
going anywhere
doing all the things it needs to do

required to be good
anything more than a FIRST draft
meant to be judged so soon
set in cement; it will change many times, and could disappear altogether
anyone else's work, and so it will not sound like anyone else
going to be all things to all people
meant to be anything more than exploratory

I have said that being a writer requires patience and persistence. It also requires the ability to tolerate imperfection.