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.

mom

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?

imagesTomorrow night’s Riggio Honors Program: Writing and Democracy student reading is the last chance this fall to hear the words being written by your peers.  

Over the last couple of years within the Riggio program, I have both read my work and actively avoided reading publicly. I used to balk at the idea of leaving the quiet and safety of my desk. I wanted to write, not read aloud. And even after many readings—student, thesis, 12th Street launch parties—I can still feel my voice shake for at least the first page and a half.  

In the past two weeks, querying my fellow students as to whether or not they would be reading tomorrow night, I have heard all the familiar reasons they will not be reading. I say “familiar,” as they used to belong to me.

Adrián Jiménez (A.J. to most), last year’s editor-In-chief, used to write something brand new the afternoon of a reading explicitly for the occasion. I found the thought terrifying. The idea of having such a comfortable relationship with my words so quickly seemed a nightmare. At that point, I saw standing at the podium in front of the audience as a moment of judgment, so how could I possibly read words that I had only judged myself for a few hours?

Then I looked around the room. Most everyone else was as nervous as I was, and these were my peers. I remembered Douglas Martin relaying a story to me of his college days, when he would take his required texts out of the library. The story ended with his professor asking the class, “If you don’t buy books as writers yourselves, how can you ever expect someone else to buy yours?”  That may be a roundabout way of telling my larger point: a vibrant and healthy writing community is built from within.

So tomorrow night I will be reading something, perhaps words I have yet to write. And I hope to see a lot of you, the Riggio community, there as well, as readers, listeners or both. All the info was in last week’s Riggio newsletter and you can still sign up to read if you e-mail Luis. See you there!

Room 510 @ 66 West 12th Street, 6:30 PM

images-11I received a semi-anonymous email last week with a plea for advice regarding writer’s block. In lieu of a traditional post this week, I thought I would share my exchange with the writer with you, our readers.

12thstreetonline is meant to be a forum for us to explore writing both personally and professionally, so I hope you guys chime in with advice for our friend in need, and perhaps pitch some queries of your own in regards to your own writing these days.

Dear Anna,

I’m having a severe case of writer’s block. I can’t work on my play, my fiction workshop stuff, anything, and I was wondering if you had any tips? It’s seriously getting to me and I don’t know what to do. Help!

(more…)

Zoë’s and Anna’s thoughtful comments about the process of writing last week prompted me to think about how we choose what to write about, and how we go about writing it.

Do you tend to choose subjects, or do subjects choose you? Do you ever feel called to write something—that a subject or image, like an annoying mosquito, suddenly buzzes in your consciousness and won’t let you alone? Or do you struggle even to decide what to write about? I admit, I prefer that someone else give me at least the barest outlines of a topic, like a recipe for meat loaf to which I can add my own spices, sauces and sides. And maybe if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll throw in an extra egg, or some exotic vegetables. (OK, maybe the meat loaf metaphor doesn’t work for you. Pick your favorite dish.)

Even with an assigned topic, we still have to make innumerable choices when we write. First, there are the words. The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, lists 171,476 current words, along with 46,156 “obsolete” ones. Even if you eliminate every word containing, say, the letter m, that’s still a lot to consider. Then there are jargon words, regionalisms and foreign words that the OED doesn’t include—and, of course, recent slang, LOL. Talk about the tyranny of choice.

Then there’s punctuation. And rhythm. And cool stuff like metaphors, similes, syntax, synecdoche—and sibilance, don’t you know.

Speaking of synecdoche, I saw the new Charlie Kaufman film, Synecdoche, New York, last weekend. (It’s a writer’s movie—see it.) Among minor themes like sex and death, Kaufman explores the nature of making artistic choices. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a struggling theater director who one day wins a MacArthur “genius grant” and must decide how he will use the money. “I’m dying and want to do something important while I’m still here,” Cotard tells his shrink, and spends the rest of the movie creating a labyrinthine, ever-evolving play mirroring his own life. The director gives his cast of hundreds scenarios to act out, and then has them improvise to find “the truth” in their scenes. But as the years—yes, years!—of rehearsals and development go by, and the mammoth stage set grows into a small city, the slowly graying characters take on lives of their own. Cotard’s criticisms, or “notes,” become criticisms of himself. He becomes trapped in his own creation and doesn’t know how to end it. (And though I loved the movie, I got the sense Kaufman didn’t know how to end it, either.)

One of the mysteries of writing—which scares the hell out of a control freak like me—is that you never really know where it will go. Beginning in chaos, it often ends somewhere totally unexpected, like this post has for me. No wonder we can get uncomfortable or blocked when we start. All those choices can be daunting, and so often words and the ways we use them choose us, not we them. Or else they don’t come at all, and you sit there watching the cursor blink like some cosmic clock marking the inevitable march toward death. (They don’t call them deadlines for nothing.)

For me, writing is ultimately a question of faith: if I face my fear and believe I can do it, I’ll produce something at least halfway decent. If not, then even the best meat loaf recipe will do me no good. So, have a little faith, folks. In both writing and in life, if we keep pressing on, we’ll eventually make some great, tasty discoveries. What discoveries have you made lately? What recipes have worked for you?

Or write him a song if you are so inclined.

12th Street got an interesting email this morning and we wanted to pass it along to you, our audience. We encourage you to speak you mind and exercise your voice. This nation is at a unique moment in time where one hopes that the spirit of bipartisanship will carry over into the real-world business of governing, where for the first time in years, the task will be to find a way to spend and do less and to make voters understand the need.

Let us know if your letter makes it in!


SKYHORSE ANNOUNCES
LETTERS TO PRESIDENT OBAMA
 
Letters to President Obama is an exciting and fascinating project offering Americans the chance to share with one another the excitement of a milestone in American and African-American history.”
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
 
On October 28th, 2008, Skyhorse Publishing announced plans to publish Letters to President Obama: Americans Share Our Hopes and Dreams with the First African-American President.
Scheduled for publication in April 2009, it is designed to capture the country’s excitement and hope at a time of change and transformation.
 
No one could have predicted even two years ago that in January 2009, an African American would take the oath of office as President of the United States. This new collection of contributions is being created to stand as a time capsule of this exciting moment in history. Written by citizens themselves, it will reflect and dramatize the range of emotions and aspirations Americans of all walks of life are willing to share with President Barack Obama as he prepares to take office.
 
ANYONE CAN SUBMIT A LETTER FOR
CONSIDERATION BY VISITING:
Bill Wolfsthal, Associate Publisher at Skyhorse, commented, “I know this book will make a unique statement about who we are as Americans in 2009 and will provide an opportunity for citizens to share their feelings with one another—both by writing letters and reading the finished book.”

Central to the book is the African-American experience, but Americans of every race, color, gender, and age will be represented. From children and seniors, from cities and farms, all have something to share with with one another and with President Barack Obama.

Edited by a team comprised of professors from the University of Michigan and Cornell University , Letters to President Obama is being created to stand as a time capsule to memoriale how we, as a nation, feel during this dramatic moment in history.

 

The Editors of Letters to President Obama

Professor Hanes Walton, Jr. is on the faculty of the Center for Political Studies and the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan . He has a PhD in government from Howard University.
 
Dr. Josephine A. V. Allen is professor emerita of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and professor of social work in the College of Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University. She holds a PhD in political science and social welfare administration and policy from the University of Michigan. She lives in Ithaca, New York.
 
Dr. Sherman Puckett works with the Wayne County Department of Public Services. He holds a PhD in urban and regional planning from the University of Michigan . He lives in Detroit , Michigan .
 
Professor Donald R. Deskins, Jr. teaches urban geography and sociology at the University of Michigan . He holds a PhD from the University of Michigan . He lives in Ann Arbor , Michigan .
 
 
Letters to President Obama
$19.95 Hardcover (Can. $22.95) / ISBN 978-1-60239-714-9
6” x 9” / 320 pages / Politics / April
 
Skyhorse Publishing Inc.
555 Eighth Avenue, Suite 903
New York, NY 10018
212-643-6816

 


“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Stephen King, On Writing, A Memoir Of The Craft

 

I guess this week I am still ruminating on Zoë’s Monday post, which, mixed with the rainy gray weather, has me burrowing into my couch and curling up with books. I’m looking for inspiration, trying to get outside of my head and then look back inside with a fresh perspective. And while my reading lists this semester are long, the book I’ve currently chosen to hole myself up with is A.M. Homes’ In a Country of Mothers.

This is probably my third reading of the novel and every time I reach the end I cannot help but be left with the idea, “So that is how you write a novel. Oh.” The woman can tell a story, and she does it so seamlessly it is both daunting and disarming.

So, I want to know what you guys are reading right now, or what books you return to repeatedly because you feel they embody writing as you desire it to be. I’m already en route to needing yet another bookcase, so give me some ideas with which to overflow the shelves in my future.

John Reed has attracted his fair share of controversy. His novel Snowball’s Chance, in which Snowball brings capitalism back to Orwell’s Animal Farm, generated criticism—and praise—from the right and left alike. His latest book, All the World’s a Grave (ATWAG), a pastiche of the lines from five of Shakespeare’s plays, is just as contentious. The subtitle “A New Play by William Shakespeare” says it all: Prince Hamlet goes to war for the daughter of King Lear, Juliet. When Hamlet returns he discovers that his mother has murdered his father, and married Macbeth. Visited by his father’s ghost, and goaded by the opportunistic Lieutenant Iago, Hamlet is driven mad by the belief that Juliet is having an affair with General Romeo.

12th Street: It has been said that we Brits are gluttons for punishment. After the reception your book Snowball’s Chance received from the Orwell estate, was it a natural progression to take on, as George Bernard Shaw quipped, “Bardolatry?”

JR: Hmm, I didn’t think about it like that. Maybe I do have it in for the Brits.

12th Street: Thank you. Was personal enjoyment one of your influences when deciding to take this project on, or was it something else?

JR: Oh, sure, I had a blast. I feel, on some level, that writers just do whatever they want and make up reasons later. That’s why some of their rationalizing seems so retarded to other people.
It didn’t hurt that Emily Haynes, my editor, liked the idea. I can’t say that was the single impetus, because I had taken a stab at the project in college—[and] not gotten anywhere—and written the first act in 2003. To be honest, even though Emily liked the idea I was suspicious of it, and I confess that I wasn’t compelled so much as I was consumed. Not an act of will, but an act of abandon. (more…)