Writer’s Log, August 15th: Speaking Up

During the first world war, my great-grandfather, Zvi Yehuda Kuselevich, was serving as rabbi of Siemiatycze, Poland, when a Russian general received orders to burn the town to the ground. The general’s soldiers were pouring benzine on all the houses when, by all accounts, my great-grandfather ran through the town until he reached the general’s quarters and demanded an audience with him. What happened next is a matter of mystery. Some say that the rabbi stood up to the general, scolding him in righteous fury, his face “glowing with a kind of sacred radiance.” Others claimed that “the rabbi fell to the general’s feet, cried like a child and pleaded with him to revoke his decree.” No one will ever be able to confirm the truth, but the general and his men retreated, leaving the town to stand for a while longer.

Many have debated my great-grandfather’s actions, the reasons why the general might have been moved, and how this reflected on the rabbi’s character. I used to worry, too, that my great-grandfather had lost face, had gotten to his knees and pleaded in front of his congregation. I am embarrassed to admit that this possibility even made me feel ashamed.

But today, given what we are all facing yet again, I am so proud to know that my ancestor spoke up. That he did whatever was necessary to save his town. And I’m even beginning to think that losing face would have been the most courageous thing to do, a true sacrifice for a man whose nobility was essential to his reputation.

There is no doubt that my great-grandfather would have more than a little trouble with a half-Irish great-granddaughter who married a goy and abandoned scholarship to write novels. But all the same, I find myself learning from him as if he were here, and claiming him as inspiration to keep speaking out, even if doing so makes us cringe or worry or wonder if our voices matter. When are we ever sure of how we’ll be heard, anyway? Isn’t the point to speak up anyway, from a place of deep conviction and care? And who knows? Maybe more will listen than we ever dreamed possible.

 

Excerpts taken from “The Scroll of My Life,” by Michel Radzinski

Writer’s Log, August 1st: Writing Off the Page

I get it. I really do. So few of us have the time to write. It’s enough of a struggle to get the kids into bed/lie convincingly to your boss/make a deal with your partner so that you can carve out a few minutes of time with your work in progress. Sometimes, opening the precious document in question can be like a creative hit of heroin. I’m winging it here; I’m not nearly experimental enough to do anything stronger than a glass and a half of wine. But that’s why you should trust me all the more when I tell you that it really is worth your while to pry your sweaty fingers off the hard-won toy that is your literary baby of the moment and do a little writing off the page.

There are two major reasons (that I can think of; you might think of many more) why writing off the page can be such a healthy and essential part of your practice, though they vary quite significantly from each other. The first reason is that having a side project can actually take some critical pressure off your primary project. I won’t go into this reason in detail here and now, but I will say that starting a trashy romance novel while you’re in the throes of trying to write The Great American Novel can do wonders for both your and TGAN’s health. As we all know, some of us have the merest tendency to bear down too hard on that which we care about most, and dabbling in something light and equally interesting can sometimes relieve this pressure and get your creative juices flowing again.

The second reason, and the one I do want to focus on today, relates to the vital necessity of doing the sort of off-the-page/behind-the-scenes work that will support your ability to write a story that feels lit from within. Leading with an example of what not to do, in last week’s post I mentioned how tempting it can be to force feed your characters to utter informational dialogue. (Hey! Remember that time I stole money from mom’s purse and you said it was a reflection of my selfish and borderline psychotic personality?) What I didn’t mention then is that this tendency can often be a symptom of failure to write off the page. If you don’t do the leg work of expanding your own awareness of your characters’ personalities and the world you’ve placed them in (and yes, you are placing them in a fictional world, even if you’re doing your utmost to make that world represent your version of reality), that precious work in progress is in serious danger of getting bogged down with explanatory facts and details that no one wants to read.

Now I’m going to point to the alchemy of writing well to explain how this works. For some blessed reason, having extensive notes on your characters and setting does not translate, one-for-one, into extensive descriptions of your character and setting on the page. Imagine, for a moment, that your final work is a magnificent, multi-tiered confection. Behind that confection is a recipe, an awareness of ingredients and how they behave, sifting and adding and mixing, time in the oven, preparation of decorative ingredients, even grocery lists. If all goes well, someone biting into that confection is rarely aware of things like butter and sugar and bake time and technique, and she doesn’t want to be. But if your baker isn’t, woe to the person who wields the fork.

Similarly, when you’re writing a story or a novel, any background work you can do on your characters and setting in particular can pay off in enormous and unexpected dividends on the page. Conducting a character interview off the page, for example, will reveal details that never find their way into the story or novel, but will give you the ability to move your character through the work with far more power and fluidity. (I do this with settings, too, since I tend to treat my primary setting as a primary character.) And in case your literary snobbishness is getting the better of you (I hear you, comrade), never fear; there’s no reason why this has to be the character interview you did in your middle school drama class. Sure, you can decide what kind of toothpaste your character uses and what sort of animal she would be if she could be any animal, but you should also take the time to go as deep and weird as you want to: What sort of shoes does she prefer to wear, how comfortable are they, and how many never-used pairs of shoes does she have in her closet? Does she sleep well? Has she ever broken a bone? What, under any circumstances, would she never do?

Writing off the page is rarely glamorous, and it can feel particularly burdensome and clunky when you just want to spin sentence after sentence of liquid prose. But this particular kind of background pays off in extraordinary dividends. The more you do it, the more likely you are to be able to put your character into any situation and have them come alive, sort of like watching how a finely cut gem catches all kinds of light.

 

Artwork: Maude White

Writer’s Log, July 24th: Writing for Yourself

There’s a certain ‘tude hard to miss if you spend any time in writing circles. It usually crops up after a writer who is not handling criticism very well that day shuts down and throws down the following equally defensive and offensive statement: “Well, it [your critiques/how my work gets read/anything you do or say from here on out] doesn’t really matter. I really just write for myself.”

I’d like to call foul on this phrase. I think it’s a hangover from the mid-twentieth century, a sort of lingering psychological tic – if you will – from the days when our collective social idea of a writer hinged on some paradoxically privileged and poorly socialized white male. And on the surface, it seems relatively harmless. I think this is why it continues to slip by. After all, it’s good to write for yourself, right? Who wants to write for other people? We’re artists, after all! Screw The Man! Let’s go howl at the moon and write some more stream of consciousness, preferably drug-induced!

I used to swallow this romantic delusion just as willingly as the next writer. I used to even admire it a little. There was this one sailor (not joking) in a writing class I took in graduate school – a sandpapery-cheeked, blue-eyed, red-skinned chunk of human solitude who used to say this, and I would nod solemnly and admiringly. But that admiration came at a cost then and every other time I encountered a writer who declared this or a workshop leader who encouraged it. Why, I used to berate myself, do I care so much what other people think? Who am I aspiring to be, Danielle Steele or Sylvia Plath?

Well, neither, as it turns out. But it did me no good to think that if I didn’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone thought, I’d be a better writer. In fact, I think it’s just a cop out to say you don’t care what others think. An easy way out of one of the many social contracts we all love to hate.

But why on earth would you choose to create art in the medium of language, the very medium of communication, if you really want to just go live a hermit’s life in the woods? While all of us are certainly trying to write our own work in our own voices and from our own perspectives, I don’t think one strives to be a writer because one wants never to be heard. Are any writers really trying not to communicate?

Certainly, we don’t want to write what we think others want to read, and given the fragile state of so many socially-marginalized artistic identities (my own certainly included), the temptation to win friends and influence people sometimes needs to be beaten back with a heavy stick. Yet while I certainly agree that we can’t write well if we’re writing for someone else, I do think that writing is a fundamentally social act, and it flourishes when it’s treated accordingly.

It might seem ironic, but this realization – that I am not writing just for myself – has made me go deeper when I write, to seek those profoundly resonant truths that sidestep the false and the glib and the appropriation of other voices. When I was studying poetry, I came across the idea that writing something incredibly specific and true is oftentimes the gateway to saying something universal. In other words, when we’re very truthfully and bravely writing about what we see when we look out into our worlds, we’re most likely capturing something that other human beings want to recognize as true and brave. One of the most beautiful and truly weird things about being human is that we are all individuals, and yet we share the same emotional brushstrokes. We all want to love, and we all eventually encounter the challenges of loving well. We all experience the fleeting qualities of life, and yet we can find life unbearable at times. We all want to express ourselves, and we all know what it feels like to be unheard.

So yes, trying to write beyond yourself — to communicate and touch others and expand our universal conversation — is probably ten times harder than writing for yourself. But I do think it’s also ten times more rewarding. Because when you have the courage to shape your work so that it might genuinely be offered to a reader, to maybe see where your words are not quite managing to say what you mean and to go back and rework, to keep offering and working until you see a reader light up with that indefinably rewarding spark of recognition – you reap so many more rewards than solitude and intractability can ever possibly offer.

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.

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