Sunday, April 29, 2012

Chronology - A Writing Prompt

When we write a scene or develop a plot line, what can be more important than chronology? The surest way to lose a reader is to leave her  scratching her head and asking:  When is this happening?  How did we get here? How did she end up taking the bus to find her father?  Wasn't she just in an elevator with her mother?

It is easy to lose the thread of our own timeline.  As an editor, I see this time and again in the stories I edit.  One minute we are in one setting and the next . . .wait, where is the transition? 

Taking off my editor's hat and putting on my writer's, I have wrestled with how difficult chronology is.  A recent piece I wrote was confusing to a reader. When did you first meet him, she asked?

Chronology seems obvious to the writer because he or she knows so well the map of her story. Yet, I can't emphasize enough the importance of clear chronology. For example: As the women toyed with their Greek salads, they were reminded of when they had first met two years before at this same restaurant. It was a hot summer day in 2009 . . .

It is easier if the story proceeds in a chronological fashion.  Yet most writers employ flashbacks.  Flashbacks usually follow a strong scene.  They can be framed in such a way that it becomes clear this happened in the past by switching verb tenses or - one of my favorites - using italics to set it apart from the main scene. Flashbacks can be fascinating, but they shouldn't go on forever. 

A writing prompt for our May 12 read-around. Write a scene and use a flashback to make that scene stronger. Make sure that the chronology is clear.

Tell the reader in the first few sentences of the flashback that there has been a shift in time. An example:

Anything she said, and Richard nodded with understanding, like her father. The rest of it was also like her father – she couldn’t put a finger on his emotional pulse. 

She had made the call to her father after coming home from a support group for widows. Her husband had been dead three months.  She sobbed, clutching the phone. 

“I don’t know how to go on. What should I do?” 

“You have to stop living in the past,” her father said.  His detached rebuke took her aback like a slap across the face.  

She looked at Richard as they sipped wine over  candlelight. She wanted to tell him about her father, but she knew she couldn't.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Writing Memoir, Feeling Naked

Someone mentioned how "self-conscious" she felt as she began penning her memoir.  I told her that I think it's more like taking a swan dive off a cliff.  You feel naked. You hope you don't hit the rocks below.  You hope you slip into the water with barely a ripple.

People talk about writing memoir "primarily for their family because they deserve the best quality." 

Fear is a terrible thing.  It cripples a person.  I wonder if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John worried about offending when they wrote their "memoirs"?  Did they worry what their parents might think when they learned their sons had given up everything to follow a fisherman and self-proclaimed messiah? 

Did Hemingway couch his stories in "fiction" because it was easier that way?  Was he worried his mother might learn he had become infatuated with an older woman, a nurse named "Agnes"?

Another person suggested that the best way to get  started on writing memoir is to pretend  "you are talking to an old friend."  Good.  As long as the "old friend" is you.

Another suggested memoir is best told by "someone who has a reputation for good conversation and a wealth of anecdotes around the dinner table."

Are you Larry David writing another "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode?

As writers we second-guess ourselves.  We ask: "Why would anyone want to read my story?   Who am I?"

 Some answer their own question.  "Nobody."

This resonates with fear.  If you become "somebody," then others might have to pay attention. When they pay attention, you have to pay attention too.

In the silence of the millions, how many have had the courage to write?  Are you ready and willing to dive naked off that cliff?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Woman's Writing Routine

A group of women gathered in a bookstore.  The candle burned brightly in the center of the table as one-by-one they talked about their writing routines.  The conclusion was the same.  They were so busy multi-tasking - taking care of husbands, running businesses, tending to children and grandchildren, and trying to make a living - that writing often fell by the wayside. 

The question arose in my mind.  Why have men been more successful than women in establishing a writing routine?  The conclusion.  For many famous male writers, the hard work and discipline of writing was aided and abetted  by a helpmate, a wife, a female companion.  She could cook and take care of his needs; needs in all aspects of the word.

It occurred to the women who sat in the Women's Writing Circle this morning that writing a woman's story is multi-layered with emotion.  It is not just about discipline in writing and establishing a routine, but plumbing the very depths of the fragility, the ephemeral "stuff" of life.

This means delving into more than war, as one woman put it when describing Hemingway.  It means emotions.

"Stop talking about your mother!" a famous male writer  commanded a woman.  She shared her story today over crepes and eggs at an outdoor cafe after our writing group had ended the read-around. 

"He told me to take out all the emotions in my book," she confessed.   She laughed, remembering that day years in the past when her words were considered gooey and superfluous.  "When I showed his notes, his edits of my book to my mentor, another woman, she was appalled.  And this man was considered a great writer?"

Writing the emotional life means tapping into the magical, the painful, the passionate, the sacred.  This feminine perspective takes courage and self-awareness.  It takes time, precious time

 I feel  how difficult and challenging it is to put our stories, our voices on paper.  At the same time, I feel dedicated to this work of women writers.  And so inspired.  As a journalist I was trained in "facts and only the facts." I came from a male world where self-revelation was considered superfluous and indulgent. As most journalists know, the business is dominated by machismo. I didn't find my "voice" until I wrote memoir. I am still finding that voice in the circle and the company of other women.

Today eight women  arose early on a Saturday morning, drove to a bookstore hidden behind maple and elm trees and shared their stories, their hearts, and their emotions with their "sisters in the writing circle."   

Virginia Woolf  once said that all a woman needs to write is money and a room of her own.   All I need is a woman's writing circle. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Writer's Lonely Life

Accept it.  Writing is a lonely life.  It is especially lonely for women who never  express themselves.

My mother's  generation did not analyze their lives.  It makes sense when you think about it. What was the use of self-reflection? It wouldn't change the outcome. They would remain voiceless. 

Now that I have finished my new book and written about my mother, I feel the loneliness creep in.  I should feel happy that I have finally expressed a wide range of emotions about her and put it on the written page.   

Instead, I feel sad that she never had the chance to do what I do which is delve into the intensity of emotions.  Not that my mother was a writer, although who knows what she might have become if she had escaped the lonely life of the 1950s suburban housewife, tending her tomato and zinnia plants, drinking one too many cocktails at the end of the day . . . being diminished by a society that ridicules and pillories outspoken women.

I stumbled upon an old photograph of Gertrude - "Trudy" as friends called her - studying herself in the mirror.  Her brother was a photographer and I am sure he put her up to to the pose, but still I was arrested.  What were her thoughts as her reflection stared back?  I sense if I had found it before she died, she would have looked at it and said, "Milton was a wonderful photographer."  I would have asked again, "I know, Mom.  Your brother was great.  But you, Mom, what were you thinking?"  Her huge brown eyes would have looked into mine. "Oh Susie, I have absolutely no recollection.  That was so long ago!"

Who was my mother and how am I like her?  For years I tried to dismiss any similarities between us.  How foolish.  Now that I have finished this book, I tell myself to let it ride for awhile - get some space, some breathing room from what I have written. I  pray for inner peace - for her and for me.

The reason I love the Women's Writing Circle is that it eases the loneliness of the writer's life.  Although it doesn't change the fact that writing a book is a journey we do alone, it is wonderful to have a community of women supporting each other.  Our next read-around is Saturday, April 14 from 9-11:30 a.m. at Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, PA.  What will you bring to the Circle? Will it be a story about your mother? Will it be a piece of writing that has driven you to speak out?

Today a woman thanked me for giving her the courage to write her memoir; but, no, I said.  You have to understand - it is a two-way street.  You have given me the courage.