Writer’s Log, July 18th: Deepening Dialogue

Many writers find the challenge of writing dialogue particularly baffling. After all, most of us are exposed to numerous voices on a regular basis. Wouldn’t it follow that we have, on hand, a bottomless wealth of experience to draw upon? Yet writers at all levels balk when it comes to getting their characters to talk to one another.

Recently, I heard an artist say that one of the reasons why we have so much trouble drawing things we see every day – like hands and feet – is because we have in our minds an idea of what drawn hands and feet look like. But if we shift our thinking, and simply jot down what we see when we’re looking at a hand or a foot – the odd curves, the shadows, the possibly unexpected shapes – we can often break through those blocks. This really struck a chord with me (and made me want to run out and draw my hands and feet), but it also reminded me of how writing, too – and perhaps dialogue even more particularly – can really take off when we remember what a conversation actually looks like, and not just focus on the words being said.

To begin with, voice isn’t just a matter of language and dialect; it’s also a matter of how we embody our voices. How we speak has as much to do with the quality of our natural voice (think Marvin Gaye vs. Judy Collins) as it does with what we actually say. Taking into account the different ways characters use their voice, too, can often make an exchange pop off the page (think thunder and lightning).

What we say is also hugely affected by how we feel in our bodies and what we do with them when we’re addressing other people. There’s a big difference, for example, between a scene in which one woman standing behind another in line watches her unload her cart with painstaking slowness before placing a hand briefly on the other’s shoulder and saying, “Here, let me help;” and a scene in which she grabs the eggs out of the other’s cart and slams them on the counter before barking, “Here, let me help.”

Building on this, it helps to remember that dialogue isn’t as much a matter of what isn’t said as what is. Two uptight, prideful businessmen will not talk about their feelings if one sleeps with the other’s wife; the cuckolded might just smile harder and invite the other to a stacked game of golf. Another example: What was Marie Antoinette not saying when she said, “Let them eat cake?”

Finally, characters must be motivated to say something. They don’t, in other words, exist just as pawns to move our stories forward. As tempting as it is to have your main character see her cousin and say, “I’m so happy to see you! The last time we were together you’d lost your baby and were thinking of suicide. How’s it going?” — it’s just not going to fly.  Our jobs as dialogue writers is to capture the human through the language, not the other way around.

I’m sure you’re already getting the idea, and will come up with additional observations on your own. But it helps to be aware of the natural tendencies to think of dialogue it as only a verbal exchange, i.e., people are either talking (dialogue), or not (not dialogue). This leads to a larger point that I, for one, need to be reminded of often: that many artists get stuck when we’ve adopted overly narrow views of what we should be doing. Yet expanding our understanding of how to write our best work often goes hand in hand with expanding the work itself.

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Writer’s Log, July 11, 2017: Whose Story Are You Writing?

 

It’s a simple enough question, but I’m not sure the answer is always that obvious. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that oftentimes, when we get stuck, it’s because we’ve gone too far down the path of telling someone else’s story.

As fiction writers, it may seem like we’re supposed to tell other people’s stories. But no matter where our story is set or who inhabits it, the emotional engine of the story must still be ours. Many people assume my first novel was autobiographical, for example, and despite the fact that my heroine and I had very different experiences in life, I suppose it is. Her story is my story because she helped me speak to some of the deeper emotional truths in my life and to write from an unfiltered place. Similarly, while I haven’t been through a devastating earthquake and lost some of the people I most hold deal as a result, my second novel spoke profoundly to my own down-and-dirty tussles with vulnerability, family, and love.

Still, there have been countless times in my life when I’ve gotten lost in someone else’s story. When I was a kid, I felt obligated to tell my parents’ story – that my mother was a brilliant woman with unconventional tastes – instead of the one I knew to be true — that she was struggling unsuccessfully with mental illness and addiction. Maybe that’s why, when I first began writing in writing groups, I often got caught up in telling stories my instructors and peer groups liked, sometimes even devoting months to a project before I realized I was writing something primarily because other people had found it interesting. Though I think that no matter what our backgrounds might be, it’s easy to get caught up in others’ stories – in writing and in life.

Oddly, I think my breakout work – the one that was the most deeply felt, the one most driven by an integrated engine – was my first novel, the one that never got published. It was about an overly cerebral woman who stumbled into love despite her overt attempts to enter into it cautiously. She was prickly and had hermetical tendencies and no one really liked her – but I knew her. Although my starter novel never really became something useful or interesting to anyone else, it was the book I needed to write in order to begin telling my own stories. The next novel I wrote was the one that got published, but it never would have had I not learned to listen to what I actually needed to say instead of what I thought most people would find interesting about me.

If you’re stuck right now, could it be that you, too, have strayed off the path of your own story? Maybe you’re too busy telling the story you think will be made by into the next blockbuster movie, or the one you’re sure will capture an agent’s attention – you know, the one about the time your family adopted a crocodile, despite the fact that the most meaningful relationship you ever had with an animal was the friendship you had with your family’s ugly, flatulent, forgotten dog. Or maybe you’re writing what the people in your writing group want to read, or a story a little too close to the one your parents want you to tell. But what’s the point of devoting the effort to write a book – or even a page — if it’s not really the one you need to write? After all, one of the greatest gifts of writing fiction is that you can tell your deepest truths by simply putting them in different outfits. Good stories will not suffer fools, anyway, and will crumble before long if they’re built on someone else’s foundation. And while it’s always going to be tempting to jump on whatever literary bandwagon is passing through your neighborhood, it helps to remember – or be reminded — that true narrative momentum always emerges from within.

 

*Image Credit: Philipp Igumnov

 

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Writer’s Log, July 4th: The Talent Trap

Talent is one of those words that’s thrown around writing circles like a great, mythical, white whale. It’s the commodity that we all revere and can rarely define, yet this doesn’t stop us from seeking and identifying it. It’s hard, in fact, to read the blurb on the back of a celebrated book without running into it, spoken of as if the author herself is almost incidental. Here are a few from my own shelves: “a stunning new talent,” “a talent to watch,” “one of our greatest talents.”

But in all honesty, talent can be one of the biggest obstacles to a sustainable writing practice. It’s right up there with “muse” on my list of the top five worst words we use to talk about writing. Both talent and muse suggest that a writer is a passive vessel at the whim of her gifts. This kind of thinking really gets my panties in a bunch. It’s the kind of thinking that my mother, an extremely talented poet, used to dig her own artistic grave, unable to incorporate the unimpressive production that usually settles in around the daily grind into her need to see her talent show up, virulent and undeniable, whenever she chose to write. It’s the kind of thinking that sets a writer up for agony if she decides to actually make a commitment to her writing, sort of like expecting that your spouse will wake up in perfect makeup every day, smelling like a rose.

And even when it is working for you, talent can quickly become a hook for your ego to hang its hat on when it arrives to manspread on your couch, demanding your attention with its oversized and overblown presence. You’ll just begin to peer down the tunnel of something interesting and unexplored when it starts barking at you to put something down and get it a beer already. Talent can also become a convenient place to hide, a way to avoid the tougher realities of writing. It’s very tempting to sit back and daydream about that one time you won an award in kindergarten for best haiku, or last year at the Oscars for best screenplay. Again, it’s a relationship killer, artistically speaking. If you’re always waiting around for that perfect, astonishing line to appear, you’re going to spend a lot of time feeling abandoned and alone.

So how do we shed the notion of being slaves to our talent and get it to work for us? Well, first of all, I think we need to gently but firmly wrestle it off its pedestal. Tenacity, a sense of humor, and an unflinching tolerance for compassionate truth will take you ten times further than talent can, even on a good hair day. Second, I think we need to blow open the writing conversation. Writers need to start telling their stories. Not the ones you see in blurbs or pithy magazine articles. The true stories. We need to talk about our foibles and busts, the ninety-nine drafts that preceded the hundredth, the misdirection and missteps, the mundane realities and nagging insecurities that even the most glamorous of artists contend with. We must talk about how ugly the rocks look before we polish them, and how often the polisher malfunctions. We must, in other words, publicly recognize the importance and beauty of the real writing life, not the way we like to paint it.

I had lunch the other day with a newly bestselling author, one I’ve known for years but haven’t seen for a long time. In reading about her success online, I forgot what it was like to be with her in person. Everything that’s written about her is true: that she’s hugely talented, and that her work is gorgeous. But it wasn’t until I saw her that I remembered why I love her and how she inspires me: she’s real, kind, funny, one of the hardest workers I know, and the first person to welcome an honest conversation about writing. Being with her reminded me of how easy it is to slip into the trap of thinking that everything we read about a writer – or writers – is everything we need to know about them. But really, we’re only seeing them with their makeup on. And for many of us, the real and lasting beauty is the one we can relate to, the one we can see and celebrate in our own mirrors.

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Writer’s Log, June 27th: Is It Time to Give Up?

Attempting to get published is a special purgatory of its own. More often than not, writers are not prepared for exactly how grueling – and long – the process can be from final manuscript to bound book. Even when they gird themselves with the occasional anecdote that gets “leaked” from the publishing world – Joe Bestseller’s work was rejected FIFTEEN times before it got picked up! Jane Pulitzer’s first novel sold only 1,000 copies! – the truth is that a few dozen rejections and a quiet first novel are actually fairly light hits, given what the publishing world can dole out.

I’m not trying to scare you; I promise. In fact, I hope this information is more empowering than anything else. Few things break my heart more than an unpublished writer wondering aloud if she needs to give up because she’s contacted X number of agents, or her agent failed to hook X number of editors, or the agent she did manage to secure at William Morris just decided to leave the business and move to the mountains (true story — mine).

But here’s the thing. There are times in a writer’s life when she needs to walk away from a particular project. Maybe she’s new to novel writing, or still learning the craft, and has taken early criticism too much to heart, rendering her unable to see the good in what she has. Maybe she’s written what she thought she should write, or what would sell, or some other work that’s been compromised by the external world writ large, and the fact that she’s hiding from her truest and bravest self because she thinks it’s not interesting enough or current enough or otherwise appealing – probably means that her work looks and feels and acts like a novel but is exhibiting a distinct failure to thrive. Maybe she simply has a starter novel on her hands (something most writers must write to get to the real meat of their work).

The point is, none of these things manes that she needs to give up on herself as a writer. But maybe it does mean it’s time to give up on a work. It’s perfectly acceptable to walk away from a writing project, either temporarily or permanently, and be no worse for wear. In fact, you might just be releasing yourself into the space you’ve been straining to inhabit for some time.

Sometimes, of course, you might have reached your highest levels of frustration and angst, but it’s not the work that’s at fault. You might just be exhausted. Or stressed. Or stuck. So how can you tell the difference? There is, of course, no sure answer, but I think that if the work is keeping you from writing – not because you’re afraid, as every writer is, to return to the page and reopen your heart and make mistakes, etc., etc. – than it might be time to give up. Maybe there’s even an elegant way to think about giving up, to release your desperate grip on that lifeline and see what it feels like to be untethered for once. To try existing for a while, instead of insisting you must be tied to something.

But it’s OK if you make a mistake and give up when you shouldn’t, too. You’ll find your way back. The point is that no work is worth giving up on the writer. I don’t care how much you want to piss and moan about how untalented you’re beginning to think you are and how certain you’re becoming that you might just not have what it takes. Get over yourself and get back to work, or play – whatever you need most to rediscover your sense of humor, perspective, levity, and self. (Psst. It’s probably play.)

Also, it might be helpful to know that it’s OK, every now and then, to un-quit. I just made this word up, but I think you get my meaning. It’s OK to quit, and go around telling people in very convincing tones that you’re going to join the circus now or become a lawyer – only to return to the very thing you quit so dramatically a few days or years ago. You can also rage quit. My fourteen-year-old just introduced me to this term, and I’m smitten by it. It comes from the video gaming world, but I’m appropriating it for our purposes. I have absolutely no problem with your throwing the MS out the window, metaphorically speaking, just to blow off a little steam. Remember, the manuscript isn’t the relationship; the writing is. You can divorce your manuscript or talk smack about it or kick it to the curb for the night, but you must always treasure and support the writing.

The bottom line is that quitting, like everything else, doesn’t have to be a black or white concept. It might represent a universal truth – namely, that every writer since the beginning of time has wanted to quit at some point (and probably made up some very convincing arguments as to why it was a good idea, verbal weasels that we are) – but it can be an impulse that’s incorporated into your writing according to how well it works for you. You didn’t start writing to be conventional, after all. So maybe it’s time to stop thinking of quitting as a dirty word, and just see it as part of the natural, up-and-down, non-linear progression that is writing.

 

 

 

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Writer’s Log, June 20th: Why You Don’t Have Time to Write

When I first expressed an interest in writing, lots of people gave me what I thought was great advice. Develop a regular practice, they said. Try to write at the same time every day. Don’t leave your chair until you have 1,000 words on the page. Tell your loved ones your writing time is sacrosanct, and close the door behind you.

With all due respect, I do not think these people live in the same world I live in. I’m convinced, for instance, that they did not have children, or maybe had slaves. When my kids were little and I closed the door behind me, they slipped notes under the door: “Are you done writing? Circle yes or no.” Or stage whispered in the hallway: “DON’T BOTHER MOM! SHE’S TRYING TO WRITE!!” Now that they’re older, it’s not much better. My fourteen-year-old seems to be entertained by nothing more than insisting that he can’t be entertained. My preteen has MANY questions about how her body is developing, and is excited, haunted, and dubious about the answers. My nine-year-old loves to read, but he also loves to give blow-by-blow descriptions of what’s going on in his books – both during and after he’s reading them. And we have a kitty now, who either has pancreatitis or bulimia.

But even if one doesn’t have children, we tend to carry around enormous mental loads these days. Most human beings on this planet cannot make money writing, which means they have to spend most of their time devoted to making a living or managing the thousands of balls the 21st century insists we must keep in the air. Have you exercised? How’s that Paleo, gluten-free, sustainable meal plan coming along? Have you paid the utility/phone/doctor bills?  And then a phone call comes to tell you your eighty-one-year-old dad, who lives 3,000 miles away, just broke his patella because he decided to do his own grocery shopping after getting his eyes dilated.

Yet most people who get within spitting distance of a writing class still tend to get this kind of advice. It’s great advice, if you can make it work. But I’m really not sure I know anyone who does. So, yes, if you think having a regular writing practice must mean finding a consistent window in your schedule during which you are able to sit down, undisturbed, and have enough time to punch out 1,000 words, you don’t have enough time to write.

But if you’re willing to let go of some of those prevailing beliefs about what it takes to be a writer, you might be able to give yourself the space to be a writer.

Giving yourself the space to be a writer means letting go of that mental load a bit. It might mean that you forget to pay the gardener for three months, or that your kid’s Purim costume is obviously phoned in (which is agonizing to ride out in a school full of Jewish mothers), but mostly, you’ll find you can release a lot more than you realize. It also means recognizing that there will be some weeks when you cannot find the space or mental health to write, and that does not mean that when you return to writing, you have permission to bring one of those medieval self-flagellation devices along with you. It means that you realize that some novels get written five minutes at a time. It means that you will get interrupted sometimes, and will sometimes feel that terrible feeling in your gut that comes when you’ve lost a precious train of thought, but it also means that your writing will be so much richer because you’re devoting your life to children/parents/earning a living, getting through the world by being in the world. It means that if it’s been eons since you’ve had time to write and you find yourself with a few days, your brain might short circuit at first, and that you’ll get much less done than you wanted, but you’ll get something done anyway.

I could obviously go on, but overall, I think giving yourself the space to write means being willing to believe that a healthy writing practice does not need to follow a proscribed or prescribed way, that sometimes the most beautiful things that happen do so without paying much attention to the linear constraints of time or the safety net of unwavering mental health. Sometimes even the most helpful advice constrains more than it liberates.

So please, don’t give up if you don’t have time to write. I don’t have time to write. I am a devoted mom, and a totally overtaxed one, and my life brings me great joy and some anguish, and I’ve written five books, three of which have been published, and my writing practice looks nothing like it was supposed to. What’s more, the only thing exceptional about me is my refusal to give up, which is something we all have inside us, only waiting to be stoked to release its fire.

 

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