Monday, April 29, 2013

At the writing desk

In 1957-1958, newly married to the writer Ted Hughes and newly graduated from Cambridge University, Sylvia Plath took a teaching job at Smith College. Hughes taught at another school. Plath's diary from that year is full of despair and frustration that teaching sapped her of time and energy; it's full of her yearning to be a full-time writer. If only she could just focus on her writing! She itched to get back to it. As Plath counted down to the end of the school year, she and Hughes planned to devote the following year to their writing. They had great plans for how productive they were going to be.

School ended in May, but Plath struggled at her writing desk that summer. On July 12, 1958, she recorded this in her journal: "... my life stood weighed & found wanting because it had no ready-made novel plot, because I couldn't simply sit down at the typewriter & by sheer genius & will power begin a novel dense & fascinating today & finish next month. Where, how, with what & for what to begin? No incident in my life seemed ready to stand up for even a 20 page story. I sat paralyzed ... I couldn't happily be anything but a writer & I couldn't be a writer: I couldn't even set down one sentence: I was paralyzed with fear, with deadly hysteria."

Plath roused herself by going into the next room to have a talk with her writer husband, who, one suspects, may have known whereof she spoke. She concluded the day by acknowledging how unrealistically high her expectations of herself were. She vowed to keep going, plugging away regularly, and to stop expecting she could write an instant novel.

What struck me about this entry is how familiar it all is. It's clear that Plath felt horribly alone at that moment. But not only do I recognize the thoughts and feelings she's describing, but thanks to the writer blogs of today, as well as the works of May Sarton and Anne Lamott and countless others, I realize how veeerrry common they are. Strangely normal. It's sort of comforting to see that the writers who came before us struggled in the same ways we do. It's always been hard work; writers have always doubted themselves.

And at that point in her life, even though Plath felt rather blocked, and washed up, and distant from her earlier publishing successes ... her best work was still ahead of her.

On another topic: Before signing off today, I want to encourage people to contribute however they can to this amazing book fair. Even if it's just one book. This school library has a book-to-student ratio of 5:1, well below the ALA recommendation of 11:1, and well below the ratio I have in my own house. I've contributed to this book fair every year, because I can't stand the thought of kids who want to read not having enough books. I hope you will be inspired to do the same. It does take a few minutes to click through the book list and fill out the ordering info, but it's so much fun to shop for book lovers!

(Plath quotes in this entry from The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. by Karen V. Kukil)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Committing to a dream

The theme at YA Outside the Lines this month was change, growth, and turning points. My post is about committing to a dream, putting it first, turning "maybe someday" into "now." A sample: "Becoming a novelist was a step that I wanted to take, but in many ways was scared to take. I kept putting other things on the front burner: Education for my day job. Volunteer work. Travel. Romance and marriage. But in 2003, I looked at my life and decided it was time to give writing a turn on the front burner...."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spring and building memories

First I offer you a quote that perfectly captures the experience of spring around here now:
"... first tulip cracked its green bud sheath & opened red silk and purple-black stamens to sun--"
(from The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. by Karen V. Kukil)

And now I encourage you to check out Laurel Garver guest posting at The Alliterative Allomorph about ways to mark and remember the events of your life, a sort of memoir-as-you-go. As Laurel says, "Our life experiences provide some of the most potent material—material that will fade like smoke from a snuffed candle if you wait too long to write it."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

In between

Sometimes writing is about producing drafts and semi-drafts and revising and abandoning and starting over and producing more. To an outward observer, the lack of finished work may suggest a lull, or even an abandonment of writing. But inside a smooth-walled hive, bees are swarming and storing up honey.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Facing fear: Inside a Nicaraguan bullring

My latest guest in my blog series on the topic of fear has provided a fear-themed excerpt from his newest book, a travel memoir. In this scene, he enters a bullring in Nicaragua. As one does. (And by "one," I mean, "apparently my guest author, but definitely not me.")

Bullfighting in Nicaragua, from One Year Lived
by Adam Shepherd

“Screw it,” I said. “Give me the sombra.”

I reached for the red cloth—nay snatched for the red cloth. I wanted in. These brave guys, juvenile to grizzly, bolting into the ring, teasing and taunting this wild bull, a balancing act between valor and a gutted belly. I had scouted enough. I snatched my improvised red sombra. I peered up into the crowd of spectators: a gang of teenagers, some whipping their shirts in circles above their heads, a family—mom, dad, daughter—a group of ladies dressed in pink and yellow sundresses, another gang of teenagers. Seven hundred people, at least—eight hundred, more likely. I lowered myself from the support of the bleachers. I sucked in a deep breath. I strode out into the sphere of fervor. And I stood, legs braced and every muscle ready for action. Six feet away, this great hulking beast stood in a similar stance, head low, horns tilted toward my chest. He scraped the earth with one hoof, hugging and snorting like something out of a nightmare.

I can’t properly explain the feeling. I was a trembling wreck. This was scary. To say that I’ve never been struck with so much fear in my life grossly understates the terror of the moment. A thousand things could go wrong, and in that first moment, as I stood six feet from the fuming nostrils of that bull, I was convinced that each one of them would. “Another story to tell,” I reasoned, as if “Yeah, y’know, I can’t process solid foods anymore because I was gutted by a bull in Nicaragua” is a story worth its price. I imagined myself as the next casualty tossed under the bleachers. My heart raced, blood pumped furiously through each vein and vessel in my body. My breathing came ragged and short, but I was somehow able to steady my feet and hands.

A man in a white tank top in the first row to the right shot both of his arms in the air in violent thrusts, screaming.

And then my mind cleared; I focused. I was in the ring with the bull. And that’s all that mattered. Laser focus.

My nerves still tense, muscles coiling painfully in my calves and thighs, readying me for what lay ahead. I steadied myself.

“Closer!” Jhonas yelled, and the gallery standing around him echoed his advice. “Más cerca! Más cerca!”

Closer? I thought. Closer? You sure? Really? Hm. Closer.

But they were right; and I edged closer. The bull’s rolling black eyes met mine, and he let out a deep guttural snort. I thought my heart might shatter my sternum. At last, he charged. His powerful hindquarters propelled him toward me—fifteen hundred pounds of deadly muscle. Every nerve in my body thrummed, quivered.

Silly bull, I thought. Bring it on, compadre. You don’t want none of this.

But he did.

ONE YEAR LIVED front cover for BN

Adam Shepard's newest book, One Year Lived, recounts the year he spent out in the world: seventeen countries, four continents, and one haunting encounter with a savage bull. More information (and a picture of the mullet that Adam grew on the trip) are available at

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Moments from the writing life

"Let me keep my eye off publication & simply write stories that have to be written."--The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. by Karen V. Kukil

"So when I started planning my own book launch, I knew cheese would be a part of it. ...'People are coming to see you,' said my friend Mary. 'No one will care if you run out of cheese.' But ... I was afraid people would care so I bought a lot of cheese. Too much cheese. ..."--Madelyn Rosenberg
Read the whole entry, including what happened to the cheese, here. A delightful mix of the launch-party anxiety we writers know so well, and a beautiful moment. With cheese.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Guest post: Laurel Garver on writing through fear

Every year, I select a topic for a regular series of guest posts. This year's topic is fear, and Laurel Garver is my latest guest writer to tackle the topic. Her post reminds me that art is one way we often find power in situations that might otherwise overwhelm us.

Writing through Fear
by Laurel Garver

Conventional wisdom says fear is something we must combat as writers. It steals our joy, robs us of creativity, yada, yada, yada. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as neurotic as the next person banging away at a keyboard, with hefty baggage aplenty that Dr. Freud would love to unpack.

However, I happen to think that combating fear is counterproductive.

Why? Fear is one of the deepest, most primal urges we have as humans. It is a core motivator, the inverse of most desires, and therefore, key for understanding and creating the stakes of any story.

Fear is something we shouldn’t try to send packing, but rather stalk, study, and seek to deeply understand. If you spend your days chasing it away, you might find yourself at a loss for anything important to say.

Instead, consider the things you fear as grist for the mill, fodder for your hungry imagination. Ask yourself, why does this scare me? what history does it return me to? what possible futures do I believe it will lead to? The best antagonists you will write are born the moment you look under your bed and stare your own personal boogeyman right in the face.

Fear is also a potent source of material for poems. Poetry seeks to distill experience into brief, intense verbal happenings, and nothing is more immediately intense than fear. My strongest work has captured moments when fear is first glimpsed, recognized, understood, or courageously faced, be the feared thing vindictive chickens, air travel, a parent’s mental illness, powerlessness over cycles of poverty, or my own frailties.

Know your fears. Write them. You will always have a story to tell.

Laurel Garver (@LaurelGarver on Twitter) is the author of the novel NEVER GONE, and MUDDY-FINGERED MIDNIGHTS, a new poetry collection about creative life, our capacity to wound and heal, and the unlikely places we find love, beauty, and grace. Learn more about her books at

Monday, April 15, 2013


This National Library Week, Jo Knowles waxed eloquent about the places that have always been my refuge:

"... Libraries aren't just about book lending. They are the heart of most communities. They are the one place in any community that you can go all year, rain or shine, rich or penniless. ..."

and Guys Lit Wire is asking for help in building up one library.

We can't always do everything, but often we can do one thing.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Without romance

We've all seen books and movies where a romance seemed thin or stale. Where romance seemed to be grafted onto a story or jammed in where it didn't belong. You can almost picture the planners sitting around a table, writing out a formula. "We need a Love Interest to plug in here." *Shudder.*

I love romantic story lines, but not every single time. The end of the TV series 30 Rock (and its ongoing life in syndication) reminded me how much I appreciate this aspect of the show: the male and female leads had no romance. They had a long and intense relationship, full of conflict and mutual support, but they had no sexual chemistry and never forced that. In fact, some of my favorite moments were when the characters joked about their lack of that very heat.

Because Jack and Liz were not (usually) opponents but allies in their working world, the show also could not rely on a typical nemesis relationship to create tension. Usually, the characters dealt with separate problems, but their problems impinged on one another. They gave each other bad advice, good advice, "tough" friendship. They interfered too much with each other; they stepped back; they interfered again.

It's a good example of how male and female characters can have a non-familial, non-romantic bond.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The cycle of (book) life

This edition of my first book won't be available much longer:

I remember the first time I saw the cover design. I clicked on the file to open it, and then covered my eyes and peeked through my fingers while the image slowly appeared on my screen. I was so scared that I would hate it! Instead, I sat there gazing at it, enraptured. Before I saw it, I had no preconceived notions of what the cover should look like, but designer Sam Kim picked the perfect way to represent this story of secrecy, loss, and obsession.

In this marketplace, however, books tend not to last forever, especially hardcovers. Very soon, this one will vanish. (I suppose I can then call it a collector's item?) It's had a nice three-year life on the shelves, and it will live on in paperback and e-book form, so I can't complain. I just thought I'd let people know that if you've ever had a fancy for this edition, it's now or never.

Such is the cycle of (book) life that as one hardcover passes out of print, another is getting ready to make its appearance. This one won't be out until fall, so I'm not talking much about it yet, but here's a sneak peek:

Coming September 2013.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Two nourishing places that I've been online recently:

To celebrate National Poetry Month, Susan Taylor Brown has been posting "poems modeled on other poems. This is a great exercise in the classroom, especially for students (or adults) who are intimidated by the idea of writing poetry. What you do is pick a model, or mentor poem, and then write your own version of the poem." I love the directions she has taken with this. For example, if you remember the William Carlos Williams poem about the plums in the icebox, try Susan's take, which manages to suggest a novel's worth of story in just 28 words.

And this post by Jim Hines on "Living the Dream" reminds me that I, too, am living my dream, and I have much to be thankful for. Yes, I could wish for more. I could wish that I were a household-name writer like JK Rowling. But honestly? There's a line in my first book where one character says, "If you're lucky, you should know you're lucky." Writing books is a strange roller-coaster of an avocation. It's not for the squeamish or the impatient. But it's still pretty awesome, and I know I'm lucky. As Jim Hines says, that doesn't mean that it isn't work. Writing success doesn't fall from the sky into one's upturned palm. It's work, but (often) happy work.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Some things get better with age

Last night I attended the 50th anniversary party for my alma mater’s literary magazine. I edited the magazine for two of those fifty years, and I was thrilled to see that the magazine has not only survived, but thrived, in the years since my graduation.

It certainly was a shoestring operation back in the day. I inherited my position from the graduating editor, who passed the materials along to me in the hopes that the magazine just wouldn’t die. We were a college full of science majors, so creative writing wasn’t a priority, and we had no spiffy desktop publishing or digital layouts to help us. The magazine’s faculty advisor had gone on sabbatical and then retired; my first task was to find a new advisor. (I discovered last night that he kept that role long afterward, guiding many more issues to life in the following years.) The size of the magazine was based on how many pages I could afford, given the budget that student government allotted me. I laid out the pages by hand against blue-lined backgrounds, and a printer who was most likely using lead type produced the magazine. The artwork was all hand-drawn, in black and white.

My second year in the editor’s chair, I had an actual staff to help, and I trained two people to succeed me as co-editors. Today, when I look at the issues we produced, I can say: Not bad for the time. (Also, the influence of Pink Floyd’s The Wall on my generation is obvious.) (And of my own writing, all I want to say is: I’m a much better writer now.) But those issues pale in comparison to the thick, professional, color-illustrated, golden-anniversary issue I was handed last night. The current faculty advisor has obviously done a lot to nurture the magazine and the creative-writing program in general. (There is now a creative writing minor at my school! How I wish I’d had that opportunity.) The staff includes an art editor, a fiction editor, a poetry editor, a nonfiction editor, and so on. (My first year on the job, our staff consisted of ... me.) The poems the students read aloud were much better than anything I was writing myself at that age.

I loved talking with the students about what has changed at the school (the campus has grown significantly, and everything is somewhere else now: the gym, the dining hall, the English department; most of the fraternities that were a big part of campus life then have folded or changed). But most of all, I was glad that they’ve been able to build the magazine into something so beautiful. That my directive to “just keep it alive” has grown into something more ambitious. That my science-oriented school is embracing, more than ever, the need for creative arts.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Words waiting in the wings

Sometimes the words aren't ready to come out yet. They're up there in my brain: baking, or fermenting, or whatever they have to do to get themselves ready for their first public appearance.

I don't blame them for taking their time. Because when they do come out, they're going to be rearranged, modified, and maybe even deleted.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Minor breakthroughs and temporary elations

"... there are minor breakthroughs and temporary elations in the studio to offset the doubts and incipient despair. I do feel as if I were hovering around something that is about to reveal itself."
--May Sarton, quoting her friend Bill, in The House by the Sea