12 Reasons You Need a Writing Group

  1. You just don’t feel like writing today/aren’t inspired/lost faith. . . . The group meets on Wednesday. They expect some work from you and don’t really care about your drama. Besides, they’ve been there and pushed through and expect you to do the same.
  2. You have just written the most spectacular, beautiful, evocative prose since cuneiform. Doesn’t have a lot to add to your work in process but you can’t bear to cut it . . . The whole group in unison tells you to get over yourself and cut it.
  3. You have painstakingly researched factoid X and you are absolutely going to wedge it into your story, even if it doesn’t quite fit because you find it so fascinating. . . . Someone will point out the not-fitting part and suggest you save the factoid for cocktail party. Maybe somebody will listen.
  4. You are so immersed in your period/setting/topic that you assume that all educated readers know XYZ so you don’t have to give the slightest bit of context. . . . Your group will beg (or insist) to differ.
  5. You slack up for a bit and produce some writing that’s “good enough.” . . . Your group will say it’s not.
  6. You decide that writing is too hard. You are giving up and taking up something that’s easier. Like climbing Everest barefoot. . . . . Your group will tell you to keep writing.
  7. You are so invested in your character, you feel his/her pain/pleasure so keenly that you are just sure that intensity is on the page. . . . Your group will tell you “Nope, not yet.”
  8. You are so invested in your character that when it comes time for that character to suffer, you just can’t bear it. You also can’t bear to feel the pain yourself. . . . Your group will tell you to bear it. Go deeper.
  9. Your friends and family love you and all, but they don’t really want to hear any more about your writing troubles, or your plot, or your characters. . . . Your group wants to hear about all this. All they ask is that you listen when it’s their turn.
  10. Your character is edging so close to yourself that you lose perspective . . . Your group will point this out. Probably bluntly, but in they end you’ll (the writer you) will be grateful.
  11. You are totally stuck. Written yourself into a corner. Can’t make a plot point work. . . . Maybe someone will have an idea.
  12. You have taken this piece as far as it will go . . . Someone will raise an issue, ask a question, and after your initial shock, a door will appear in what seemed a wall, and you will find a way to go deeper, to do better. You will astonish yourself.

There are more reasons. These are just the first that came to me. My group would tell me there are more.

Can you suggest more?

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Posted in Writing

Creating My Red Summer

imagesThe first plot piece of my novel in progress (current title: Out of the Red Summer) was set when I was in grade school.

I was maybe 10 when my parents took me to see All the Way Home, the play based on James Agee’s achingly lyrical A Death in the Family. (I’ve blogged elsewhere on my thwarted fatal intentions for that evening.)

Sometime in my teens I read A Death in the Family, which opens with “Summer of 1915,” a mesmerizingly beautiful essay built on the simple ritual of men in shirtsleeves watering their lawns. Years later, in 2000, when my husband and I were contemplating moving from Italy to the unknown of Knoxville, TN, “Summer in 1915” made that move seem possible.

Soon, after moving here, we saw the Knoxville-based Carpetbag Theater’s searing spoken word performance of “Red Summer,” a re-creation of the Knoxville Race Riot of August, 1919. Not fiction but fact: Four years after Agee’s idyllic, fictional summer, Maurice Mays, a handsome bi-racial man (see above), was blatantly framed for killing a white woman. The next day, National Guard and hundreds of drunken, heavily armed white men were backed by National Guard machine guns as they opened fire on black Knoxville. Hours later, streets ran with blood. Bodies were dumped in the Tennessee River; black families fled the city never to return. In the coming months, all charges were dropped against the white rioters. Mays was executed, an almost certainly innocent man.

Agee’s idyll of summer evenings in a white suburb, and bloody streets in an August rampage: two sides of a deeply divided Southern city. Suppose there was a cross-over figure? I began to construct a fictional white woman who would weep for Maurice Mays, not because they were lovers (although he had many) but for a deeper cause.

As a historical novelist, I look for links, ideally collisional links between characters and their times. Characters who will be lurched to new circumstances, driven out of their boundaries, their self-images shaken.

So, having finished my third historical novel, Under the Same Blue Sky, and having done three set far from home, I came back to these collisions in the city where I now live: the men in shirt sleeves, and the men in rampage. I envisioned three women, different in class and color, who would be profoundly changed and tightly entwined by the Summer of 1919, and who would struggle to find a restoring peace for themselves and for Knoxville. They will be the three voices of my novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in New novel

How did s/he get that way?

imagesLast week, I led a workshop on memoir writing at a local senior center. Amazing stories came out, funny, sad, and precious. Here’s a variant of an exercise we did that I think would be useful for writers, and just people living in families with people who are not exactly, precisely like ourselves.

HOW DID S/HE GET THAT WAY?

Think of family member (living or dead) with a strong characteristic, positive or negative: generous or stingy; faithful or faithless; hard-working or lazy; honest or sneaky, etc.  People say: “Well, X has always been that way.” Answer the following questions, inventing what you don’t know.

  1. Name:
  1. Characteristic:
  1. As an example of the characteristic , , ,
  1. Impact of that characteristic on the family and/or the person’s life:
  1. Name or invent an incident or a time in the character’s life which may have shaped or created that characteristic.
  1. S/he was __________ years old and felt . . .
  1. S/he so wanted . . . .
  1. At that time, the best course was to . . .
  1. Later, the characteristic really helped, like when . . .
  1. But sometimes, there were/are problems, like . . . .
  1. Something changed when . . .

 

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Posted in Writing

Listeners in Airports

airportRecently, a bit of snow in Philadelphia so overwhelmed American Airlines, that we got home 24 hours later than planned. [Insert here the litany of gate changes, delays, cancellations, rescheduling, cancellation, disappearing ticket agents, endless holds on phone, airport shut down, etc.]. While graciously hosted by my favorite sister and niece for an extra night, the experience leads me to suggest a new airport feature: volunteer listeners.

A church near home has volunteer listeners who offer active, compassionate listening services for members of the congregation. You can specify if you want A) basic listening; B) feedback; or C) advice.

So if Philadelphia International (PHL) had such a service, I sure could have used it. I’d pick options B&C, and ask for the listener with the FWL badge, for Fiction Writer Listener.

Me: Blah, blah, blah on the flight problems.
FWL: Oh, you poor thing. You don’t deserve this. A 24-hour delay when you had such a nice non-stop at a convenient time!
Me: Yes, and I  just bought overpriced lemonade from an airport kiosk which was much too sweet.
FWL: No way! Let me taste it. . . . You’re so right! When life gives you lemonade, it ought to be refreshingly tart, especially after such an ordeal.
Me: Absolutely. And there’s more.
FWL: Tell me.
Me: Well, I’m having trouble with my chapter 5. I need to add XYZ elements, but that would make the chapter too long.
FWL: Don’t you just hate that?
Me: I do. And there’s a tricky character transition as well.
FWL: Oh no! First the lemonade, and now this! How can a person go on?
Me: Not to mention the need to externalize some interior dialogue.
FWL: Flight cancellations AND the showing/telling dialectic. I’m surprised you’re still standing.
Me: Me too. So what do you suggest?
FWL: Well, if I may interject: your gate has just been secretly changed to gate E2 and here we are at E145. Since your flight is also way over-booked and you risk being bumped, my suggestion is to run.
Me: I will, but what about Chapter 5?
FWL: Definitely you should not accept any characters from other writers.
Me: I won’t.
FWL: For your security, keep a close watch on your personal plot points and word count at all times.
Me: OK, but . .
FWL: And, in the interest of emotional integrity, if you feel something, write something.
Me: I’ll try. There’s also a foreshadowing issue, you know.
FWL: I regret any inconvenience but you really need to go. Hurry, and have a nice flight. , , , Next traveler, please.

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Posted in Writing

“Tell me how you lost.”

imagesI’m taking Silvia to gymnastics. She scrambles into her car seat and demands a story.
“About what?” I have in mind the continuing saga of the Tudor family: warring cousins, blood, crowns, The Tower. Far away fantasy.
But she wants something else. “Tell me about how you lost somebody!”
“I lost my father.”
“No, not lost by being dead. I mean, you loved somebody, but they didn’t love you enough and left you and you lost.” Silvia is a kind and loving child, but also wild for stores. She rubs her hands with glee. “That would be interesting. Tell me how you lost.”
So here we are at the threshold of literature: “Tell me how you lost.” I tell her my story, my first broken heart. She is satisfied. “Now you can talk about the Tudors.”

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Posted in Writing

Dialect and the hamster/grandfather issue

imagesMy novel in progress is set here in Appalachia a century ago, when dialect was strong. Which raises a constant writer’s dilemma: verisimilitude and historical accuracy versus out-of-area comprehension. One doesn’t want to replicate my grandfather/hamster confusion.

I grew up in the Northeast and had never lived in the South when I moved to Knoxville, TN and got work teaching college. The class was in developmental reading and my task, among others, was to develop study, academic discipline, and time management skills. So in the first week, when a young woman stayed after to say she couldn’t do the assignment because her “pepaw” was sick and they were really close, I was ready.

Now, locally, “pepaw” or “papaw” is grandfather, but I didn’t know that. I heard “paw” and thought, well, some pet with little, wee paws. Like a hamster, maybe. I’d had one; we were sort of close, but I did my homework anyway. This girl needs to buck up. It didn’t help that I’d just moved from Italy, where the state pays university tuition with the message: “We admitted you, but we don’t have to keep you, and we sure don’t have to make nice.”

Then there was Memaw,* also troubled.  A little hamster family with cutsie-pie names? So the conversation lurched along, me getting annoyed by the litany of woe, worried that if word got out that a sick hamster gets you out of homework, the semester was doomed. She thinking I’m an ice queen, or worse.

An aunt was coming in . . . diabetes, and I’m still thinking: Rodents recognize aunts? They get diabetes? Maybe it was at “intensive care” and “my dad’s really broken up” that I considered an alternate construct: “Ashley, your pepaw—”

“He’s on my dad’s side.”

Scrambling a bit: “Your . . . grandfather’s still in the hospital?”

“Yes.” Things went better from there. Pepaw improved; Ashley passed; I learned something.

Writer’s moral: Provide context to avoid confusion.

  • Memaw is grandmother, but I’m sure you figured that.
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Posted in Writing

Cheese straws and lies

imagesIn my novel in progress, set in Tennessee, 1919, the cook makes cheese straws for a garden party that never happens. Too bad. They’re easy, addictive, and very southern. The recipe follows, adapted from Nathalie Dupree’s New Southern Cooking.

I got her book years ago through work desperation. I was offered a job writing a video script on New Southern Cooking. Needing a job, I assured the producer that nothing passed my lips that wasn’t New Southern Cooking. Then I hurried out to get Ms Dupree’s excellent book and study up on Southern cooking, new and old. I didn’t know much.

Funny, because my mother grew up on a poor Texas farm, which she fled at age 18 for the sophistication of New York. To her dismay, as a young parent, all she could afford were down home dishes. When our finances improved, she dropped her culinary roots like a hot potato.

A family story has me at age 3, being served roast beef by my relatively (to my parents) wealthy German-American grandmother. Noting my curiosity, she asked slyly if I had ever eaten roast beef. I must have seen my parents cringe, so I helped them out by earnestly assuring my grandmother that, oh, we ate roast beef at home “all the time, every day. We just call it different things: rice and beans, pancakes, bacon and eggs, creamed corn . . . ”

Anyway, here are Cheese Straws, from Nathalie Dupree and my Texas grandmother.

2 C white flour (soft wheat if possible)
2 C grated sharp Cheddar
1 1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp paprika
1/2 C butter
2 well-beaten eggs
1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce

Mix flour, salt, paprika, & cheese. Cut in butter very well, but without mashing. Mix beaten eggs and W sauce. Add to other ingredients, mixing lightly, as for biscuits. Turn on floured board, kneading sightly, adding a bit of water if needed. Roll out about 1/2 inch. Cut into finger-size strips and put on greased cookie sheet. They don’t spread much. Cook at 425 until slightly brown. This should be about 8 min but watch carefully. Remove from oven. Push around slightly on the sheet so they don’t stick. Let cool. Store air-tight, freeze, or eat right away. Makes about 4 dozen.

 

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Posted in WWWS
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