Saturday, May 22, 2010

Another look at story

I did a second Hazelden presentation this afternoon at a Women Healing conference near Tampa, Florida. I had a PowerPoint presentation that I worked through over the course of the 50 minutes, but mostly I told stories. I told what had happened during my spa day yesterday (see, and I was honest and real and apparently hilarious. I talked about my issues with sugar and how I got started with it when I was 8 or 9. I talked about how I got sober (a long conversation with my doctor). I talked about how I changed my relationship with my dad. How I came to understand that I may well have chosen alcoholism as a learning path for me.

Of the 50 minutes, I "taught" for 15 and told stories for 35. They laughed, they cried, they were with me. All in the power of story. Of sharing real experiences of what happens before and after sobriety.

And while I know that I'm articulate and have some presence in the classroom (I used to be an excellent professor), I also know that it's the power of story and channeling that power somehow that makes the experience vivid for them and satisfying for me. It's about putting my whole self, as best I can, into the story and its telling. We know that whole-self experience when we hear it and when we read it.

I don't know exactly how to do it, that authenticity. I can't will it to happen. I just know that it happens sometimes when I speak and sometimes when I write. That somehow I penetrate to the heart of the story, or to my heart, which speaks to theirs.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A moon story

They sat on the old sofa in the moonlight in the empty half-lot that bordered his yard. This unclaimed back 40 sat ghostly around them. He had dragged out some quilts to wrap her up. He seldom felt the cold but it penetrated her still-thin body quickly.

From the house she could hear Van Morrison’s “Moondance”—Randy had angled the speakers out the bedroom window and cranked up the volume as loud as he dared. The sound was buffered and filtered by the big lilac tree and the small fruit trees that marked the boundary between lawn and wild.

They had all the ingredients for a romantic evening: a last warm evening of fall, two lovers awash in harvest moonlight, snuggled together on a comfortable sofa with night sounds and music. But they weren’t in love as they had once been. They didn’t trust or crave or need each other in that chemical way that overwhelms in the early days. She knew about the others, and he knew she knew. It took her years to see that the jealousy she felt fueled his philandering.

That night in the moonlight, she had vague intimations of this, of a love affair starting to go awry, but she took it as a vague discomfort, stuffing it into her body, and wondering if dinner had disagreed with her.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The editor's dilemma

I spent a few hours today proofreading a book by a client published 12 years ago (first edition) and not long ago (second edition). She is going to turn it into a digital book and wanted the errors she's found corrected. When I did the original edits (and I do mean plural) all those years ago, we were working on paper. I'd print out her document, mark up the pages, and send it to her to input the changes. Along the way, she'd miss some or make other changes or complete rewrites of sentences and paragraphs that never came my way again.

So in a sense, I was her editor and for several versions, but there was no final proofread. She touts my skills regularly, refers people to me, but at the same time, I know her book isn't my best work. Because her final version isn't my work, or is only partially my work. And that's difficult to explain.

Another curious thing: I haven't read this book for a number of years but I have chiseled into my memory somewhere many of these sentences. They're surprisingly familiar and because they are proofreading is more difficult. I find myself skipping ahead and having to go back and read word for word.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Writing about the living

A friend sent me an email today asking my input. A memoir writer who is self-publishing is asking his ex-wife, who has mental health issues, to sign a release agreeing not to sue him or want money from him for the memoir, in which she is depicted in a chapter. She has apparently not seen the chapter nor has it been offered to her to look at.

I didn't pretend to have any legal advice. I just sent my own experience with writing about the living. In my case, I offered my women friends the opportunity to read the chapter about them (the one friend that I forgot did take some exception to what I'd said and I had an amend to make there). I did the same with my sister Kerry (my other two siblings do not appear in my book). And I waited until my parents were deceased as I didn't want to have to worry about their response.

The other category were the boyfriends and lovers. And there I did two things. First, I disguised them--their names, their physical characteristics, where I knew them, etc. All of that was so vague that no one who has known them since we parted ways could identify them (and our friends who knew us then knew the stories anyway). Second, I didn't blame them for anything. I took responsibility for my part of what happened between us: how I stayed with a man who hit me and another who cheated on me. Because the memoir was about me and my own growth, not theirs. That's something that I learned in AA. I can only tell my story; I can neither know nor have a right to tell another person's story.

I don't know if the author in question here will do the same. But I would hope he would have given it serious thought, sought advice from his editor, and consulted a lawyer rather than risk hurting others.

And I wouldn't never sign a release without seeing the chapter.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

David Huddle on revision

From the chapter, "Let's Say You Wrote Badly":

1. If you're a regular writer with your appointed portion of esthetic luck, you'll need to come at the piece again and again.
2. Revision is democracy's literary method, the tool that allows an ordinary person to aspire to extraordinary achievement.

I like these two statements by Huddle. I like the first for its choice of verb "come at." Many writers think that revising their work means deciding to put in or take out a comma or changing a character's hair color. Those can be important decisions, especially the latter since hair color can often be symbolic of other character traits. But Huddle is talking about the angle, the lens with which we review our writing. It's analyzing the plot structure to see if the narrative arc will hold, if the tension of obstacle and success, of challenge and reward are sufficient. It's making a pass through that studies character specifically, first the minor characters (are they sufficiently detailed to be believable?), and then the major players (has the writer plumbed the depths of their personalities and souls?). It may involve an analysis of description: where is there too much and where too little? Coming at the piece again and again is not the same as reading it over and over.

I like his second statement for the hope and reality of it. A few people seem to be born writers of magnitude, just like there are a few born to be composers or great painters. But revision allows those of us with lesser talents to learn and grow and hone our craft and skills if we are willing to put in the reading and writing and rewriting time. I like the hopefulness in that.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Writing Habit

David Huddle, the author of one my long-time favorite books, Only the Little Bone, published a book on writing in 1991 called The Writing Habit. I read this book over several years for two reasons. Huddle is himself a magnificent writer; that is, he is so articulate and interesting that reading his prose is like listening to a favorite friend. Second, his advice never wears out.

For example, here is his take on unsuccessful stories:

1. They are too abstract and not concrete enough. They are too much of the mind and not enough of the senses.
2. They are inadequately considered; they don't go deep enough.
3. They are written by a false self.

This second criticism is one I'm finding myself mired in with a novel I'm editing. The author's basic plot is a good one: attraction, jealousy (both romantic and professional), fame and fortune, but she writes about her characters instead of living them onto the page. And I'm having trouble explaining that to her. That mannerisms and hair color aren't enough. That thoughts and actions may not be enough. Real characters are real people in all their complexity and that is the real challenge of the writer: to go deep into the life of the heart and mind and somehow, rather magically, get that on paper, i.e., get on paper what makes them ache with joy or with sorrow. How do you convey that without being obvious?

My author is young, impatient. She isn't interested in steeping herself in the kind of classic readings that might show her how to do this. And that's okay. But her writing shows it and it may well go nowhere.