Saturday, March 6, 2010

What will happen to your journals?

My good friend Cynthia from Pittsburgh is coming out to teach at Portland State for spring quarter. We only see each other every few years, usually when she comes this way for a conference, so it will be great to have her local for 10 weeks. Cynthia is the executor of my journals. When I first met her in 1990, she and a colleague were writing a book about women's emotional and intellectual history and reading local diaries. I got intrigued in one woman's notebooks and I think that was when I realized I could write fiction.

When I made my will out about 10 years ago, I connected with Cynthia and asked her if she would take care of my journals when I die (she's 10 years younger so there's a good chance she'll outlive me). I'm not sure how valuable my journals are--I've been writing in them every day for years and I suspect that there's some possible value in the patterns of my thinking, particularly as relates to my work (both as an academic and as an editor) and my sobriety and relationships.

I know that none of my family really wants to read them. I think they are afraid to discover when I was angry with them or said hurtful things. I think they would be very surprised to see how seldom I mention them except in passing. For the journals are really about me and my thoughts and feelings.

But I don't want to burden my family with that task and I don't want to destroy them either. They're part of a legacy that I leave, part of my creative output, like my journals, my published memoir, many stories and poems that live only in my computer, and my novel manuscripts, which maybe someday will be published. Who knows? Maybe I'll be famous and the journals will be of great value. And if not, maybe Cynthia will find them interesting.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Choosing the right listeners

I belong to a lovely group of writers. Three of us have been meeting once a month to read for nearly a decade off and on. The two newer members are great people and good writers. It's always a pleasure to hear their stories and spend time with them. And I realized last Wednesday, with a twinge of sadness, that they are not the right listeners for the drafts of my current novel.

Our group, Wacky Women Writers, wrote brief personal essays for the first years of our gathering. We were using a book called Spiritual Rx by Frederick and Maryann Brussat and we'd pick a topic, like kindness or silence, and write a little piece about it. Each of our essays was relatively brief and we delighted at the variety of takes on a single topic. Then we began to branch out, and three of the four of us started writing books. But they were all still memoir-related and so the little essays continued, although the subjects varied.

Now those books are long done and the group has reconfigured; three of us are writing fiction and two are writing personal essays still. My first novel, about painters and witches and growing up, worked okay in that group. The chapters, while clearly interconnected, had a stand-alone feel to them and the subject matter was gently emotional, gently transformational. The characters were loveable and the listeners could identify.

My new novel is dark and intricate; two stories run parallel, there are lots of small clues hidden in the chapters, and some of the characters are awful human beings. So when I read two chapters (Chapters 12 and 13) the other night at our meeting, the reading went flat, or rather the listening seemed to. One group member, who'd lived through her own difficult experience, was plainly uncomfortable. The others were polite. They didn't get the point of some of the details; they couldn't remember what the earlier chapters were about or what had happened--it had clearly been too long since they'd heard them. They were complimentary about my style, word choices, turns of phrase, but I could see they weren't intrigued and their comments weren't able to be helpful. I was clearly reading to the wrong group.

So I can see where the need comes in for a weekly writing group or class where members follow the story as it evolves, who share knowledge of the genre, who are looking for more than a shared personal experience.

I think I'll go back to writing short pieces for WWW and sharing bits of my life. That's what they're best at responding to and there's a place in my writing for that too. And I can look for the right listeners for my novel as it progresses.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Resistance to daily writing

I've been reading lists of tips on writing from famous writers that were part of a series of articles in the Guardian ( Many of the writers suggest reading Brenda Ueland's classic words on the subject, and they cite her recommendation that you write every day and write first thing in the morning.

My own teacher, Eric Maisel, counsels the same things for writers and all other sorts of creatives. You tap into the liminal space between sleep and waking if you do, he says. You get it out of the way.

William Stafford, a famous Oregon poet, wrote every day for an hour or two before his family got up. He created thousands of poems that way. He saw writing as his soul's work and he wanted to be sure it got done before the day got away from him.

I have been unable to see why I resist this so strongly. I live alone and can arise any time I want. I can turn on the light, go to my office, pull up my novel and have at it. I wouldn't even have to get up particularly early, except on gym days and even then, we don't go before 8:30. I do have morning routines, tea and a journal, a quick check of email, a tidying up of the house and the kitchen before the day begins. I could do those things at night, even the journal writing.

The truth is, like many suggestions for creatives, I haven't tried it. When I say to myself that isn't going to work for me, I'm not speaking from experience. I'm speaking from habit, from routine, from the deep rut I've carved into my mornings over the last 10 years.

What might happen if I wrote every morning? Maybe I'm afraid to find out. Maybe I need to find out.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting the support you need for writing

Writing is a solitary business. It's pretty much you and pen and paper, or you and computer. Most of us need to create a bubble or cocoon where it's just we and our minds (both right and left brains) and an occasional visit from the muse, if she's willing. We tune out voices other than our own (and those of our characters) even when we have music playing or are in a cafe or a library. We work by ourselves.

Because of the solitary nature of the medium, it's important to find support both for our writing and for us as writers. We may take workshops or classes to improve our skills or learn more about a genre, but we're also looking for both listeners for our work and supporters for our choice to do this. We need to hear the words out loud ourselves, but we also need to see the reaction to those words on the faces of our listeners, and in their feedback if we solicit it.

Some people need critique groups, where peers read their writing in advance and come prepared to give very detailed response to not only plot but character development, description, and word choice. Others favor a support group, which encourages but doesn't edit. I belong to a monthly support group, and I lead several others. In all cases, the reader can request no feedback or specific feedback. Usually, we focus on two questions: What did you want to hear more about? and Where did you get confused or lost? Neither question leads to word or sentence level critiquing; both help the writer move the story along.

It's also great to participate in local readings, open-mike nights, and to host readings of new material in your home at a potluck supper or dessert gathering. Our non-writer friends and family may not know how to support our need and ambition for writing, but other writers and readers can be a huge help.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The challenge of the comma

Oh no, you're thinking, not the damn comma. This is perhaps the most plaguing piece of punctuation in American English, for the both native and non-native speakers alike. The reasons for so much confusion are multiple.

First, there is the connection, often made to children, that a comma is associated with taking a breath and pausing slightly. This is true, when we are reading aloud. We pause very briefly at a comma (and inhale if needed), a little longer at a semi-colon or a colon, and longest at a period (aka the full stop). But the converse is not true: that we put in a comma anytime we want the reader to pause and ponder. When somebody tells me he put in a comma because "it sounded right," I know he is reading his work aloud and not considering the conventions of standard English.

The comma, like other pieces of punctuation, is a signal, and it is a signal to pause, but it also signals a syntactical break. Here, with examples, are the most common syntactic uses of the comma.

1. Separates introductory material from the main part of the sentence, whether phrase or clause. (After he left, we finished dinner.)
2. Separates two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction: and, or, for, so, yet, but. (Jack brought along his harmonica, but no one wanted to hear him play.)
3. Separates items in a series of three or more. (We're writing poems, essays, and short stories in the class.)**
4. Separates non-restrictive clauses or phrases from the body of the text. (Marilyn, an alto, sang with the choruse for years. OR Marilyn, who was an alto, sang with the chorus for years.)
· Two commas are needed when non-restrictive material occurs in the interior of the sentence.
· One comma is needed when the material occurs at the beginning or end of the sentence.
5. Designates writer’s commentary (e.g., therefore, thus, however, moreover, for example, etc.). (We went early; thus, we were able to get great seats.)
6. Separates items in common phrases (e.g., dates, addresses, geographic locations).

**See tomorrow night's post for more on this.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing withdrawal

This is my third day back from the writing retreat, my first full day back at work. I spent Saturday getting my house back in order, everything unpacked, and then doing my taxes. I spent Sunday at my Women and Money group, going to a play, doing grocery shopping. I never gave a thought to my novel or my characters after spending 6 full days thinking about little else. Actually my imagination was spent and my brain tired after writing all day every day for a week and so I needed a break.

But today I'm in withdrawal. I miss the story, I miss Ellie and Al, the main characters. I miss Hansen, the detective. And I miss being in that space of right and left brain collaboration when things are clicking along and ideas come and surprises happen and the writing is all that matters.

Nearly every writing guru I know suggests that you write every day. And I do. I write in my journal for abut 40 minutes each morning. I often write a poem or a short fictional piece from a prompt. I write for clients. But I don't write on my novel. I don't get up first thing and feed my cats and make tea and come into the office and sit down at the computer.

Maybe it's not wanting to spend more time here at my desk and at the computer (I write my journal and poems and prompts by hand at the dining table looking out into the big cherry tree and assessing the weather for the day. Maybe it's knowing that 30 minutes on the novel is a tease. Maybe it's believing that I can't just turn the spigot of imagination on and off at will, that the pump takes some priming and the flow needs to build momentum. So what I do is set my next retreat in my schedule when I come back so that I can reassure Ellie and Al and Hansen that I'm not abandoning them, just taking a work break to keep us all housed and fed.

And just maybe I'll sneak a little time for them this weekend.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The least you should know about English

It used to be that English majors and English professors wrote most of the books that were published in the United States, with the exception of textbooks in specific disciplines. They had not only the love of literature to spur them on but they had also the most solid grounding in grammar, mechanics (including punctuation), and style. They'd had serious training in writing and reading. Editing, done by one's publisher, was primarily developmental; that is, it looked at the structure of the book, its plot and characters if fiction/its organization and accuracy if nonfiction. The manuscript then went through a final proofreading stage for errors in typesetting and an occasional inconsistency by an author.

Today huge numbers of books are being written and published by people who don't come from this specialized language background. They may or may not be well read; they may or may not be well-schooled in the language and the conventions of writing. While many will pay a text editor to polish their text, others may wish to improve their own skills as part of their writing life.

An excellent series of books is called The Least You Should Know about English (Paige Wilson and Teresa Ferster Glazier), now in its 10th edition. I've used these books for years with adult writing students who are getting MBAs or other higher education degrees in the social sciences. Those students often haven't had a writing class since Freshman English decades before and need a way to review such things as parts of speech, standard punctuation conventions, commonly misspelled words, and other writing issues.

The series (forms A, B, and C) are the same book with different exercises (answers in the book) so they are perfect for self-review by the interested writer. Clients of mine who have gone through one of the books are often able to self-edit with much more accuracy and skill, thus saving editing fees and, more importantly, feeling much stronger as writers. An added bonus: If you have kids or grandkids around, the book is perfect for them too.