Yesterday was Wednesday, so I of course read the NYT Dining section.  I generally read it online, but since I was Long Island-bound, I got myself a copy for the train ride.  Eventually I found myself at Section A, with the International, National, and Local stories, followed by the Op-Ed pieces.  I always read this section from back to front, and once I passed the Op-Eds the last page of local news contained 2 articles.  Above the fold a sad girl, seemingly in her late teens, stared out at me, and below the fold was a photo of three 30-something people standing around a turntable.

The Article up top was about how kids age out of the foster system. With unemployment climbing in the city, many of their advocates are concerned they are now effectively on the fast-track towards homelessness.  They are the forgotten children, bounced around their entire lives and then cast off to fend for themselves.

The other article was about a bunch of recently unemployed people who have decided to become DJs, and who have gone to school to learn how to spin records and mix music digitally.  The undercurrent has a whiff of people becoming unbound by the falling economy: with little left to lose, they can now pursue their youthful dreams. The top note, however, was about the rise of enrollment in DJ schools and the semi-lucrative opportunity DJing affords people who are slowly whittling away their severance packages.

At first I was taken aback at how the foster youth article was essentially buried in the paper, hidden. They are the forgotten ones, indeed. I am aware of the hierarchy of newspapers, the way stories are prioritized based on what sells the most papers—but still. This story made it sound as if foster kids definitely don’t have the dollar and change to spare for their daily NYT.

But what the page really made me think of is the characters we give voice to in fiction and the worlds we illuminate in our stories, and if in shedding that light we create portals of opportunity for our readers.  When we write about marginalized people, or show a kaleidoscopic (and often grim) view of humanity, are we in effect helping to make the marginalized more mainstream?  Should that be the duty of a writer?  Or should we avoid such subjects at all costs?  If so, are we then effectively marginalizing ourselves as authors?

But to come back to my trip to Long Island: I was headed there to visit my Grandma and spend the day making gefilte fish and matzoh ball soup for the Passover meal. Over the course of the day somehow my uncle’s dog came up in conversation.  That dog has been dead at least 20 years, but Grandma’s stream of consciousness can wind in unexpected ways. She asked me if I knew the dog was born a hermaphrodite.  I said that perhaps I did, but who could really say whether or not that was true? 

While I don’t mean to place aspiring DJs, foster children and hermaphroditic dogs all on the same plane, maybe it is important to create pointed characters.  Perhaps we should make an effort to carve out places in literature for those who cannot afford to buy the books written about them.

All this is by way of me asking: Where do your characters come from?  What do you ask them as you write their stories?  Is literature salvation for “lost” peoples?     

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There is something to be said for a change of environment. For the past couple of weeks my writing has been stuck, stagnant. The answer was to get away.

I am a creature of habit. Every morning I make coffee and then eat breakfast while I check my e-mail. After eating, while drinking my second cup, I start looking over my writing and create a list of things to work on for the day. All of this is done at the same desk, sitting in the same chair, looking at the same view. But the habits have not spawned much creativity as of late, so it was time to shake things up.

Last Saturday my wife and I got in the car and drove to Longwood, Florida, to spend a week at a house on a lake with a gorgeous view of the sunset and a kitchen full of good food. Since our arrival, I have been able to relax and have gotten a renewed excitement for my writing. The fresh air, the warm pool, the food—they have given me a clear mind and have helped me make substantial progress. The words are coming easier now, and the end appears in sight.

Traveling has always sparked my creative energy. How has your traveling affected your writing? Has your writing affected your travels?

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about storytelling and a savory sea urchin. It was a love story—or, rather, my way of relaying a story someone had told me. It was soft, slow and effective. The next day AJ wrote of bread, sex and writing. It was short, funny, and dirty. And effective. This month I’ve been reading edited submissions for the print journal, many of them touching on the same subject matter: relationships, love, sex, writing…

It got me to thinking about the differences between men and women and the ways in which they write—specifically, the efficacy of the ways we write about love and relationships, and if we are truly best when we write close to ourselves. I’ve written stories using a close third-person point of view in which my narrator was close to a man, but I’ve never attempted (or even desired) to write a first-person narrative with a man as my main character. I’m not sure how well that would turn out.

Now, it has occurred to me that as I write more, as I strengthen my “writing muscles,” I will be able to write farther away from myself. But that leaves me with the question: Is that even a goal I desire? Is it understandable, or acceptable, for a woman to write male characters that are not as acute as her female characters (or the reciprocal for male writers)? Am I just playing to the stereotypes, making excuses?

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the two blog posts I mentioned and how you, as writers, deal with these same issues.  

I’ve been thinking about how important it is for writers to write every day.

I never put my writing first because I never think I have the time. Since I have to pay the rent—I work full time as a preschool teacher while going to school—my free time is spent studying and catching up on sleep. I’m sure many of you can relate.

But somehow Kafka managed to write every day while working as an insurance officer, and Charles Bukowski wrote every day as he worked in a post office. My grandmother, Lillian B. Miller, the author of Patrons and Patriotism: The Encouragement of the Fine Arts in the United States, worked her way through Radcliffe and Columbia as a secretary while writing every day. I keep her picture on my desk for inspiration.

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If I don’t write every day, how will I grow as a writer? How will I learn and create work that will evolve and change?

While browsing the Internet Wednesday morning before work (when I should have been writing instead) I found inspiration in this article written by author Ben Bova.

Bova writes:
“It takes a long time for most writers to reach the point where they can support themselves solely from their writing. That’s why most writers seem to have such colorful careers: they’ve been working at this job and that, trying to keep groceries on the table and writing in whatever time they can snatch from the day job. First, no matter how demanding the day job might be, make time for your writing. When I worked as a marketing manager for a high-powered research laboratory I was a writer first and a marketing executive second. Even though I traveled around the country constantly, I carried a portable typewriter with me and wrote every morning.

“In all my other jobs, the writing came first. When I became chief editor of Omni magazine, I was a writer first and an employee of Bob Guccione’s second.”

imagesThe other night someone told me a story- I think it was a love story. There was a plate in front of me and it was composed of three small offerings of sea urchin, which happens to be one of my favorite foods. The first was a salad of tender peeled raw Maine sweet water shrimp nestled against raw uni, all barely dressed with a shiso and delicate leaves of micro-shiso resting atop. Then the shrimp’s heads were fried and crackling in a dish to the left. Texturally it was a revelation, the heads crunching against the rich urchin eggs that also tempered the sweetness of the shrimp.  It was an introduction to the main character, the urchin, beginning to expose his depth.

 

To the right was a hollowed out eggshell filled with layers of soft scrambled eggs, more uni, and at the top caviar. Sinking a demitasse spoon deep inside what came out was salty, rich, warm but not too hot so as to not overcook the eggs. And the eggs kept changing as I ate them. The urchin and scrambled eggs deep inside the shell continued to cook from the residual heat of the upper layers so every bite was different- the same ingredients unraveling their possibilities as the minutes passed- the way sentences can hint at deeper layers within narrative.

Lastly in this trio was a light and foamy urchin chowder. The subtle broth just rich enough to support the urchin but at the same time restrained so as to let the urchin be the main character in this chapter. I could not get enough.

This plate was a story albeit without words. Delivered to me the chef then snuck away to let the food speak volumes on their behalf. I was raised in a home where table manners were paramount, and that leaves me to confess that as I ate the scrambled eggs I sent my spoon clattering loudly to the plate below.

We all have five senses and it is rare that in storytelling we have the opportunity to employ all five for our readers. But even as writers it is not solely with words that we convey messages. As I sat down and thought about this post I realized that it is words I use the least to communicate with others. It occurred to me that we perhaps communicate most of all through looks in our eyes, the touch of our hands, the scents we apply to our necks- we’re continually telling stories even in our silences. So as a writer, taking in the story made for me the other night as I sat at the bar, I am consumed by trying to engage the senses of my imagined readers. The love story left me speechless, without words, beyond words, without questions and isn’t that what we are all looking for?

I write this from my parents’ retirement home near Chapel Hill, NC, where I’ve come to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. They live along a fairway in a gated golf community several miles from the quaint downtown area, where the university is. In the spring and summer, when golfers take to the course in the early dawn, you often wake up to the thwack of a solidly hit ball, followed by the soft whine of the electric golf cart speeding away. This morning, though, I awoke to silence, blessed silence. I looked out the window of my guest room, which faces the course, and saw no duffers, only a soft blanket of frost covering the grass like baby’s breath. Then I sat at a tiny wooden desk across from my bed and wrote, and wrote, and wrote in my journal.

Though I’ve learned to write in bustling offices and cafes over the years, I write best in silence. Somehow my mind expands in the quiet, and the words come more easily. This morning I thought of Thoreau’s mysterious comment in Walden when he says that he wanted to build a cabin large enough for big thoughts. In the silence, I understand that. I also thought of Natalie Goldberg’s suggestion in Writing Down the Bones that we need to fill our well of imagery by traveling to new places, whether it’s a museum, a drive into the country or spending Thanksgiving Day at your parents’ place in the land of the Tar Heels.

I’m thankful I had the opportunity to travel South for this most remarkable of holidays–just think, a day set aside to count our blessings!–but I’ll also be happy to return to New York. The roar of taxis, the squeal of subway cars and the barking of sidewalk vendors lift my spirits, too. But only after a long draught of silence in which I can hear my breathing and the beating of my heart.

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With finals, final papers and grad school application deadlines upon us, this just seemed appropriate!  

So far I have had people stand me up for meetings because they were immersed in their writing, received drunken, anxiety-ridden text messages in the middle of the night about unfinished papers, and an old friend even showed up at my door in tears, also in the middle of the night.

 Just to clarify, I am not a psychology major.  

Instead I will ask, what approach are you taking to the workload in front of you these days?