Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Exorcise Your Themes

In Business of Writing, Craft on July 30, 2009 at 4:39 pm

The_Buried_Sun_by_Mr_StampYou can’t let go.  You have not taken control. Just admit it. There is at least one, but likely several themes you simply have not exorcised from your writing that trip you up. If not a theme, I’ll bet it’s a character, an image or a setting that you can’t shake. Though I’m a fiction writer, I am sure this applies to non-fiction writers and poets too.  

“Every artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth. If he is a great artist, each work brings him nearer to it, or at least, swings still closer toward this center, this buried sun where everything must one day burn.”

 While I’m in agreement with Albert Camus’ point above, I’m pretty sure that mediocre and just plain good artists are also swinging closer to this center of truth in themselves in their thematic repetitions. In editing clients who’ve been patient enough to work with me repeatedly, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the work of favorite authors–bestsellers (Jodi Picoult) and underground favorites (G.K. Chesterton ) alike. And, of course, it turns up in my own work.

WhenI worked with the intrepid Alice Mattison my final semester at Bennington, I was shocked by my own denial regarding my recurring themes.

My writing was theme-heavy, emphasizing stories of frustrated parents and their angry children who seemed to be waiting for cues on how to behave differently, which I continually failed to provide.

In a letter Alice wrote to me:

 “There’s nothing wrong with writing about one subject, and after I read two or three [of your stories] I thought, “Well, she can give the book the title “Bad Mothers”…Most of these mothers are unrelieved: they aren’t complex, they are just awful. I don’t mind that sort of horrible character in general—I don’t think every single character needs to be complex—but so many bad characters…with no good traits…of the same category makes the work add up to a scream of rage about mothers…”

Believe it or not, my first reaction to this was not to fall apart in tears. I laughed. Hard and long. She was so right! And she was kind enough not to point out all the Absent Fathers who quietly slipped out of scenes, giving the Bad Mothers center stage.

 She went on to write,

 “What you need is for your reader to be able to take each story on its own terms instead of being so struck by the pervasiveness of the bad mothers that they become a theme instead of just being part of the subject matter.”

In order for the writer to get to the place where she can construct stories that stand on their own terms, a lot of close scrutiny at our work is necessary, to discover what repeats. There’s is powerful energy in that which keeps trying to get through, but that energy can either trip us or transform our work. 

These mothers and fathers of mine have been unfairly under-used. It turns out that they have feelings too, and quirks and longings and unfulfilled desires worthy of exploration. Now they’re just road signs pointing, “Go deeper here. Don’t give up there.”

What themes keep coming back to you? How do they help your work? How do they trip you up?  If you’re an artist of another kind besides writer, I pose the same question to you!

Give yourself an assignment to attempt to change some of your themes!

Professional Rivalry

In Business of Writing, Musings on July 27, 2009 at 6:41 pm

I recently came across a series of emails that chronicle the end of a friendship I had with a fellow freelance writer a couple years ago. It’s something that still smarts even now, an event I still can’t quite get my head around. I am shocked to find that the hurt feelings persist.

The friendship began when she, a lovely woman whose name I would see in some of the same local publications I wrote for, contacted me saying she’d been reading my blog.  We got to chatting and decided to meet for coffee.  She’d been freelancing longer than I had and knew all about how lonely it can get at home and sounded supportive of my jump to the same position. 

Over the course of a year or so we got together more and more frequently, sharing exploits. I often marveled at her success and ability to reach a huge variety of publications, and she expressed admiration for things that I did, like writing a book. I thought we had a pretty good mutual admiration society going.

At one point she suggested we “share sources” so that we didn’t trample each other’s writerly toes, since we swam in a pretty small freelance pool. I was surprised and pleased by her openness. I even took a risk and asked for a contact…and found her to be less open than I thought. It was clear she wasn’t really happy with me asking. Mixed messages!

And that’s when it began to go sour, though I didn’t know it for quite some time. I learned later, that, according to her, she’d only offered to share sources because she was already feeling threatened.

When it all fell apart–ostensibly over her perception that I stole an idea from her, when that idea had actually been in the works already but I had never spoken to her about it–it came with accusations that I was taking work that was rightfully hers (though she felt that I did this unconsciously, which was even more confusing). From her perspective, I can see how it looked bad, but she never gave me the benefit of the doubt. The timing looked too coincidental. And I will admit that I should have changed one detail (which was not even set by me) because it was, in fact, too similar.

But that was it for her. I was judged, accused and sentenced without a trial. I tried falling on my sword, to say that I understood if it looked egregious, but I had honestly not borrowed from her, but all that got me was cut. I decided that she had made up her mind at some ponit to be rid of me, and nothing I would have done could have helped. Stupid as it is, I still hurt over it. I was locked on the thought: hey, you reached out to me. You befriended me! What’s that: keeping your enemies close?

In the end, I decided it was too risky to get too close people who ran in the same circles like that. I would admire them from afar. I’ll never know if that was a wise decision or not.

I’d like to know your stories of the personal and the professional getting you into trouble.

Your Life Story

In General on July 24, 2009 at 11:24 pm

I’m judging a contest for a magazine (I don’t know if I’m allowed to say which one yet, so I’ll wait until the judging is over). The category is self-published books in the subject of “Life Stories” which seems fairly broad.

I can say honestly that while not all life stories make for compelling reading, there is some bit of history in each one that does. I marvel over the way a person’s ancestor, a woman in the 20’s, for instance bore baby after baby, and lost some along the way, with little other hobby or pasttime allowed to her while her man worked and traveled. What kept that woman going, kept her from going crazy?

Wild west stories are fabulous. I love outlaws and scallywags–true capitalist spirit at its most primal! Women in the American west were also a hardier, fouler-mouthed bunch. I’m always won over by a woman who can pull off a dress and a four letter word at the same time.

There’s lots of war in life stories, and while I’m not a big war buff, I’m nonetheless impressed and awed by the commitement of young men, in World War I, in particular, who would rather have been fighting than comfortable with their families at home.

This is all to say that while not every life story can make it as a bestseller, or even as a great read, I do think there’s merit of a personal kind, of a preservationist kind, in writing down the stories of our ancestry, and our own as well, to preserve history that might otherwise be lost.

Why an Online Class is Good for You

In General on July 8, 2009 at 6:52 pm

We all learn differently. Some of you may need the crack-slap harshness of a teacher’s burning gaze on your actual skull to motivate you to learn. But many people I know prefer the silence and stillness of working at their own desk without those nasty halogen lights or the sound of fellow students snapping their gum.

Online classes are also good for anyone who:

  • Wants to work at their own pace
  • Is shy in groups or prefers smaller settings
  • Likes to control their own learning environment
  • Wants a great educational experience for an affordable price

If you fall into this category, then I just happen to have some classes for you.

Fiction’s Magic Ingredient, Sessions  II.   Session II is already half full! Register by July 20th to get these classes at $99–that’s $50 off the regular price!

Learn to Layer. The Art of Scene Types.
October 5 through 30th. 4 weeks.

It’s one thing to master the scene, but another to learn to layer them for powerful effect. Avoid “monochromatic” fiction that lacks variety and texture. In this class you’ll learn about the ingredients of, and how to wield, different scene types, from slow, contemplative scenes, to heavy-hitting dramatic scenes and dozens of others in between.

You’ll never write the same style of fiction again!

Register here: Use the drop-down menu to select the class of your choice.

Adjusting to the Noise

In General on July 2, 2009 at 9:16 pm

I will admit that I felt overwhelmed by Twitter up until, oh, yesterday, I’d say. I don’t know if it’s that, as a mother, I’m already juggling six streams of action at any given time, or if  the human brain born before say, 1985, takes extra time to become wired to follow 500 lines of conversation at once. Either way, it gave me a headache every time I logged on.

Then I downloaded Tweetdeck and just start to follow the stream of voices the way I might listen to conversations in a cafe–some of them stick and others drift right past me.

And now? Now I have to admit I’m hooked. It took me a similarly longish amount of time to get pro at Facebook. But I’m not ready for whatever micro technology is to follow Twitter. One word  posts on ring-sized devices? Why does technology seem to condense down to the more and more micro?

I feel for the elderly with their swollen knuckles and bad eyes. Today’s technology is ageist by its very design.

And now my tiny boy is demanding I take my attention off blogs and Twitter and put it back where it belongs–in the human realm.