(This post was first published on The Nervous Breakdown, Nov. 7, 2013)
Were you really planning on wearing that?
What – I thought you liked this outfit…
But for your first interview?! I mean, you could have tried, don’t you think? This is when people form their first impressions of you as a writer.
Oh, for God’s sake, does anyone really care if I show up in my Red Sox hat and pajamas? At least I brushed my teeth this morning. And what kind of a feminist are you anyway?? Would you be asking Jonathan Franzen about his fashion choices?
Hey…you could try taking a page out of his book. Anyhow, I just hope you’ll do a little better for your readings. Either that or you’d better have a damn good novel.
I have a damn good novel. And a pair of used red Miz Mooz chunky heels. I’ll knock ’em dead.
So you’re feeling pretty good about all this?
I have to say I’m scared shitless.
But I thought you’d been through this process before? The readings, the press attention?
As a poet. And frankly, nobody reads poetry anymore. A big poetry reading these days is you, your fellow reader, and one or two people who accidentally stumble in on their way to the rest room. As to press attention, you’re lucky if your mom takes a photograph.
So how’s that going for you – the poetry thing?
Is that seriously your question?
Could we please get down to business?
I’d have to change into something a little more professional…
Do you consider yourself a poet or a fiction writer first?
Suit yourself. I consider myself a poet first. For me, it’s all about language – image and metaphor and the sounds and rhythms of words. I love the mouth-feel of a well-turned phrase. The storytelling aspect of fiction came separately, as kind of a surprise.
Okay, excellent! This is beginning to feel like a real interview! So, are you always writing both poetry and fiction, or do you alternate?
I get easily bored. I alternate. When I started out in my 40s, I’d never written either poetry or fiction. The poetry came after I’d finished an early draft of The Other Room. And I really took to it. After working on such a huge piece, I loved the economy of it, the way you could just capture this one perfect thing in a sitting. Over the next several years I did a lot of back and forth. When I’d come to a standstill in my poetry, I’d go back to the novel and start re-imagining new sections or re-writing old ones. I found this to be helpful in a couple ways. First and most importantly, writing poetry helped me with precision: the more I wrote, the more distilled my prose became. And sometimes I just needed to get away from the huge-sprawling-mess of the novel in order to bring a clear eye back to the narrative.
You do some interesting things with form and timeline: some of your scenes actually “repeat” slightly in that the same bit of action or dialogue is replayed from different character perspectives. Can you talk about that?
I really like that kind of structural disjointedness. The thing about any story is that you ask ten people to tell it after the fact and you get ten (sometimes wildly) different tales. It’s done a fair amount in film – Rashomon’s the classic example – but less commonly in literature. I think what it adds is a sense of texture and depth – of drilling down into the story – so that the narrative feels like it’s growing in multiple ways. You get this kind of three-dimensionality in places you really want to highlight.
The Other Room has a feel of emotional urgency to it: Can you talk about how you generate and sustain that kind of tone?
Well, the book starts with the baby already three years’ dead. Clearly the onus is on the author to create new exigencies. You have to do something to keep people reading. Claudia and Josef are both still grieving, albeit in very different ways, and Claudia’s twin, Yvonne, just wants the whole damn thing to go away. There’s unspoken bad blood between Claudia and her Dad, too, and Stuart, the psychotherapist, is hearing Claudia’s story piece-meal, a sentence and a session at a time. So I think the urgency has a lot to do with the fact that there are all these stakeholders – all these people looking for different outcomes and with different things on the line. And underneath it all is this steady drumbeat: just how did the child die.
Kind of dark, isn’t it?
I just write what I need to write. I think the upside of that is that my work carries a sharp emotional honesty to it, and I think readers will respond to that. Obviously The Other Room traverses some difficult emotional terrain, but there’s also humor in it, and there’s love in it, and I think they’re rendered in all their messy, recognizable human-ness. Because I do think readers gain more from novels that push them to feel…to be their most feeling-selves – not in a manipulative or overly sentimental way, obviously, but simply by saying it like it is. For me, that’s one of the most exquisite things that fiction can offer – that experience of pure emotional resonance when someone describes something we’ve thought or felt without even knowing it. To some extent, the story itself matters less than the emotional authenticity of this exchange.
So, this is great! I think we’ve actually done this thing! Do you have any last thoughts?
Can I borrow your zebra-print pedal pushers dress for the launch?
We can talk about this late—
And maybe that chartreuse Jackie-O pillbox?
I think we really need—
Plus I don’t know if I mentioned it but we’re actually going to have the launch party at your house….
KIM TRIEDMAN is both an award-winning poet and a novelist. Her debut novel, The Other Room, and two full-length poetry collections, Plum(b) and Hadestown, release in 2013. The Other Room was one of four finalists for the 2008 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and Kim’s poetry has garnered many awards, including the 2008 Main Street Rag Chapbook Award and the 2010 Ibbetson Street Poetry Award. Her poetry has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals including Prairie Schooner, Salamander, WomenArts Quarterly, and Poetry International. Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Kim co-organized and co-chaired a collaborative poetry reading at Harvard University to benefit Partners in Health and the people of Haiti. The reading was featured on NPR’s Here and Now with Robin Young and led to the publication of a Poets for Haiti anthology, which Kim developed and edited. A graduate of Brown University, Kim lives in the Boston area.
(This post was first published by TalkingWriting, A Magazine for Creative Writers and Readers, Oct. 1, 2013.)
I was never that kid on the rollercoaster. As a child, even the Ferris wheel felt like a push, including as it did that stomach-lurching moment when you surmount the peak and drop headlong through the night’s trap door. When my siblings made a beeline for the haunted house, my father stayed behind with me, dutifully tossing beanbags into holes for the promise of a pink stuffed poodle.
It’s possible I was born this way, with a furrowed brow and a high index of risk aversion. What I do remember about those early days is the way I withheld—the way I knew there were lines I shouldn’t cross—as though something inside was always keeping an eye on what I could and couldn’t handle. In school, I raised my hand only when I knew I had the right answer—6 x 6?; the capital of Utah?—and in college, I steered clear of anything creative, preferring the safety of science over nuance. I lived my life with one finger on my own pulse.
This kind of self-insulation carries with it its own weight, like a cocoon that must ultimately be broken in order for something fully realized to emerge.
My life broke when I was 37 years old, sitting out on my front stoop one day while my kids played their make-believe games in the downstairs playroom. I called my husband and told him I couldn’t breathe and found myself, two terrifying days later, on the receiving end of a prescription pad, wondering if and when I would ever get my life back.
It turns out that wasn’t the question at all. I had no choice but to move forward, into this new place where the old one had dropped me. I suddenly found myself in a world that I’d never inhabited before, and I needed to find new legs and eyes with which to negotiate it. My mom, in her quiet wisdom, gave me the wings.
“Write it down,” she told me. So I did.
During that strange and telescoped time, I filled simple college-ruled notebooks so fast my hands couldn’t keep up with my words. It was an unprecedented kind of recklessness, unconstrained, but it tethered and calmed me in a way that nothing else could. The writing allowed me to take risks—a critical touchstone in my healing—and the more I wrote, the more I seemed to have to say. It became a way of processing my world.
In the years since, I’ve discovered just what stories I have to tell. When I begin a poem, with a phrase or an image, I rarely know where it’s going to lead. The whole process of believing in the process, of closing my eyes and careening down the words without a safety net, is what gives the poem its lift. Only through this kind of letting go do I discover where I need to end up: the very last line, like an answer to a problem.
My novel began with a voice, not an idea. One cold winter night, sleep-thick and bleary, I followed it up to my third-floor office. I had just started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible (which begins with its own incredible seduction: “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened”), and I fell asleep with that dark and disembodied voice in my head.
That night, I wrote a few pages, a scene of sorts, but I had no idea what it was or where it was coming from. This continued for many nights, waking and writing, the gradual accretion of scenes with no real context. At some point, I looked at what I’d accumulated and realized I was writing a story in fragments, with no discernible scaffolding, from the voice of what was to become the novel’s main character. It was telling itself to me, on its own timetable and in its own way, but it was a slow reveal: I needed to write it in order to understand why I needed to write it.
What I learned over the years to come was that the story I was telling was a story of voice—of losing one and finding one—and of the deep emotional strictures that can keep people from fully inhabiting their own. In my younger years, the more layers of protection I laid down, the more something inside had bucked and reared and clamored to get out.
In the end, my breaking open, as I like to think of it, was an unmitigated blessing. I started receiving my world in quieter and subtler ways, examining it, relishing the experience of not knowing what was coming next. It became a wider and more colorful place, and I took pains to capture it in words, precisely, as though the very act of pinning it down became its own greatest reward.
I came to love my forties. I woke up most days humming with purpose and questions and words buzzing around my head. I finished both my novel and three collections of poetry in a ridiculously short period of time, as though something inside was bursting at the seams with all it had been meaning to say.
These days, I still find myself balking at certain things. When I recently saw photographs of my brother bungie jumping in New Zealand, I knew that wasn’t in my future. Ditto for the next Quentin Tarantino movie. I’m not so carefree as to relinquish all personal and emotional safeguards, but I am living a life that feels much more what it was meant to be. I’m following its lead, its own messy logic, because I know that it brings me where I need to be. And I’m not settling for that pink poodle anymore. I’ve got my eyes on the flying trapeze, high overhead.
(This post was first published by Writer Unboxed, 10/13/2013)
So it’s T minus 4 months and counting. The manuscript’s finalized, your cover’s been designed, and the ARCs are ready to send out. Even the launch venue has been booked—you childhood bookstore!—and all your favorite people have promised to be there. Your debut novel—the culmination of so many years’ hard work—is fast becoming a reality, and you’re walking on air… right?
Ok, let’s run that one again: So it’s T minus 4 months and counting. You’ve been tweeting inanities, bothering friends with email updates (It’s coming! It’s coming!), and checking your author page with such pathetic frequency that you feel like your own best stalker. You haven’t had a creative thought in months, and your writing output has been reduced to 140 characters a sitting. Your debut novel—the culmination of so many years’ hard work—is fast becoming a reality, and you’re ready to poke yourself in the eyes with a shish-kebab skewer…
Sour grapes? Maybe.
Accurate depiction? Absolutely.
It’s no secret that the road to publication is a bumpy ride for first-time novelists. Gone are the days when in-house publicists beat the path so writers could be writers and their books (like all good things) could magically emerge nine months later. Today, debut authors—from the self-published to the A-lister—must take a leading role in self-promotion, which means doing things most of us never imagined would be part of the job description.
I’m a poet and a novelist, a woman of a certain age. I’m also a Luddite, by default and by temperament: I have a long-standing aversion to social media. Until 6 months ago, I didn’t even know what a tweet was, let alone where you heard one. For me, coping with the reality of pre-launch imperatives has been a mostly demoralizing ride. After much deliberation I decided to hire a publicist—which really helped—but in the end it was still up to me to network, to tweet and post, to book my own readings. To blog…
Which brings me to where I am today. Of all the overwhelming, unnerving, brain-scrambling tasks I’ve had to set my mind to these past months, none has prompted as much visceral resistance as blogging. Why? At the start I wasn’t sure—I only knew that on some level I felt I had no right. I was not an expert on anything. I didn’t teach or have an MFA. I had no experience in memoir or nonfiction. There was no reason to assume I had anything to say that people needed to hear. The whole thing felt presumptuous—unseemly—and as far as I could tell I had absolutely no business throwing my voice out into the ether, and yet…
My publicist sat me down—pleaded with me just to brain-storm. I stared at her glumly. She waited, so I started telling her about my resistance: how false and out-of-character all this self-promotion felt; how I was an introvert, how I needed time for reflection. I told her how social media made me feel manic and unfocused, and how deeply embarrassing it felt to call attention to myself in this way. I told her I’d lost the ability to be still.
Write it down, she said simply.
So maybe I don’t have anything to offer beyond my own anecdotal experience. But what I’ve come to see is that writing it down helps me—helps me to explore it, and make some kind of sense of it, and pull it together in a way that just might be meaningful to someone else. By untangling the cross-currents of this strange and frenetic time, I’m discovering things about myself and my writing that I didn’t know before, and I’m learning that blogging is no more and no less than any other kind of writing. In the end it is all about honesty. Perhaps this alone may resonate, in much the same way a well-wrought poem or a scene or a character may communicate some tiny commonality of experience.
And what I’m finding is that just writing again, just the fact of slowing myself down and allowing words to dance with other words, has been its own best reward. I get to stare out the window at my Japanese maple again, let my thoughts deconstruct until something drops into my mind like a perfect plum. I get to feel that odd thrill of tripping down a sentence which seems to know just where it wants to go, and to play with the sounds and texture and rhythm of the words that go into it. And I get to reclaim—for part of each and every day—that person I was before.
For those who’ve had some of the same hesitations as I’ve had about blogging, I can only say that it may actually surprise you. It may, in fact, give you much more than it takes away. During the long dizzying months of social media overload, it may actually prove to be an anchor of sorts—a stabilizing force in the storm of trivia. The key, I believe, is finding those things to talk about that are already there, occupying your heart or your head, bobbing around every day just beneath the surface.
These days I actually look forward to blog-writing, not because I have a story to tell but because I have a story to uncover. Often I may only see as far as the first few words. Even today, with this post to write, I had no idea where I was going until that first sentence hit the page. And though frequently I revisit my old insecurities, worrying for the hundredth time that I have nothing important to say, I’ve created the space to explore what my mind’s been quietly minding—what’s happening down under, just out of sight.
I still remember what it was like writing my novel—those stretches of time when I’d lose myself so totally in the writing that hours would pass unnoticed. I remember how hard it was to let it go when the sun had finally faded from my office walls and the kids and dogs started clamoring for dinner. Blogging may never feel quite that rhapsodic, but right now it allows me to remember that, yes, I am a writer, and yes, this is where it all begins.
(First published by Beyond the Margins, October 8, 2013)
SO apparently I’m what you call a “bloomer.”
An about-to-be-debut-novelist at 54, I’ve been tripping across this term more and more lately, much the way a mom-to-be starts noticing that all of a sudden pregnant women are everywhere. I’m quite sure the moniker didn’t exist a decade ago, and now apparently there’s a whole website devoted to us (bloom-site.com), not to mention recent column inches in the likes of The New Yorker and The Guardian. In any case, it’s a stunning discovery. Apparently, in some critics’ estimation, by the time we hit our 40s we “writing-elders” are creative dust bowls: any real contribution to the world of letters we might have made would have been written ten years ago.
So yeah, I’m a bit of an outlier, falling somewhere between the MFA-bearing-hipsters and the…well…deceased. But while I’m still here, and I can still grab the microphone, I’d like to say a few things about what it is to start making art in the middle.
I didn’t actually write a creative word until I was approaching my fifth decade. Throughout high school and college, I gravitated toward courses which afforded me the opportunity to select right from wrong, true from false; multiple choice over essay. I was not a comfortable public speaker; I was terrified of venturing any opinion that might provoke incredulity in my peers or even outright dismissal. When given the choice I shied away from English and history and philosophy, preferring the safer terrain of the social and physical sciences, subjects one could master given the basic ingredients of time and will. Years went by, and I did this with life, too. I lived it safely. I mastered it. For nearly two decades I felt like I ran a marathon every day just trying to keep all the right balls in the air.
I was nearing 40 when it all came tumbling down, the weight of all that “rightness” suddenly too much to bear. One Sunday afternoon I sat out on my front stoop and forgot how to breathe and watched my life snap cleanly down the middle. A nervous breakdown, in old-timey parlance; a severe depression, I would learn soon enough. The best piece of advice from that time? “Write it down,” my mother said.
And I did.
So for me, writing came not so much as a choice as an imperative. Once entered, it was a place I found I couldn’t leave. My guess is that this applies to many late bloomers: people who’ve somehow found it necessary to step away from the harsh geometry of their constructed lives – which no longer seem to fit or sustain – in favor of something which yields and bends, carries life’s ambiguities in flexible arms. There is urgency to this kind of writing. There is a sense that there is so much to say and not enough paper in the world to say it on and not enough time in which to say it. Once I started, it became the most real of places: the most authentic, the most heady and, in its way, the most life-giving.
I expect for younger writers it’s hard to conceive these days that a person could just pick up writing in the middle of life. For me it was not only that simple, it was an answer I didn’t know I was looking for. I’d already accumulated a lot of life behind me: I’d married, had a career, raised three children most of the way up. I had felt my way through 40-odd years of living but never allowed myself a place to process all that life-stuff: to unwrap it, sift through it, hold it up to the light of day. Writing gave me that space. That stillness. And what a bounty – like discovering an old box of photographs you never knew existed. Suddenly, worlds opened up to me, my own worlds, distilled and exquisite. At just that stage when so much in life seemed to be receding, it was like looking up and seeing things in color, for the first time.
Writing very quickly became my default method of processing my world, something I hadn’t previously built into my life. I was happier, and saner, for it. It created a need for itself, and the act of capturing a thing in words – pinning it down precisely – became my way of accommodating it in my mind and in my life. Interestingly, my identity was not at all wrapped up in this. I didn’t have anything to prove. It was just mine, more privilege than responsibility. Perhaps we late-stage writers may be somewhat less caught up in wanting to be writers than our younger brethren. Many or most of us have already had (or continue to have) other careers. Our identities may not be so tied to the idea of being authors as are those who’ve gone through graduate school (often at great expense) with that specific goal in mind. The writing itself, coming often as a complete surprise in middle life, is its own best reward, giving us a vital new piece of ourselves which never before seemed within reach.
Whatever it was that I somehow couldn’t find in myself in my earlier years – eyes; wings – I have been able to reclaim here, now, in the desert of the long-middle, where I can savor it like a tall glass of cold water. There is joy in it. There is celebration. There is an unmitigated sense of possibility. And during the long haul that is the latter half of the journey, there is perhaps nothing more welcome than that.
(This post was originally published by Beyond The Margins, 9/19/2013.)
So you’re having a little trouble?
Things don’t seem to be working quite the way they should?
You’re just not feeling it, and you don’t know what to do to make things better?
Well, relax. You’re not alone. We all have problems sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with a little help from the experts…
Writing about sex can be daunting. We’re squeamish or we’re prudish or we’re terrified our mothers will read it. We bring not just the weight of our own social mores and emotional baggage, but also a healthy fear of failure. When these scenes go wrong, they go wrong badly, and they can bring a piece of writing down faster than a cold shower can…
Well, you know.
So for those of you out there who find you just can’t get things started, or find yourself petering out just when things are heating up, here are a few important strategies for making the most of your “sexual encounters.”
- No, it’s not all about plumbing. While we all know that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, writing about sex should not be a primer on what goes where. Sure your audience will need to have some sense of what’s going on in the live-action department, but for my money the best sex scenes often have little or nothing to do with mucous membranes. There is a place for anatomical detail: medical textbooks. As with film, or art, the most erotic renderings are often defined more by what is left to the viewer’s imagination than by what is included. A woman’s back, partially draped, captured in just the right light and just the right words, can be infinitely more evocative than a full-on blow-by-blow of who is doing what to whom.
- Writing about sex is writing about the people having it. I’ve found that writing a scene involving sex is in most ways no different from writing a scene about grocery shopping or fly-fishing. It is, first and foremost, about your characters and how they reveal themselves through their actions. Yes, sex can be an intense and climactic event in any piece of fiction, but it is also a deeply human one – one which should give significant weight to the two (or three, or four) particular people having it. By this I mean the specific habits or inclinations or aversions that are consistent with – and extrapolations of – the characters you have already developed on the page. What is going on in her head while he turns away to take that cell phone call? Why does he always leave the light on, or off? What is it about his hands/neck/eyes that invariably throws her into (or out of) the mood? The more we recognize the people who are having sex as the characters we already know them to be, the more credible and evocative the encounter will be.
- Sensual and sexual are two different things. When writing about sex, it is always a good idea to give the senses equal time. Yes, the reader will want to know what is going on in the bedroom/bathroom/boardroom, but just as important is his/her immersion in the quality of the experience. What do the buttons of her blouse feel like against the skin of his belly? Does his hair smell of smoke, or wet grass, or pomade? What does she taste when she kisses him on the mouth, and does it remind her of something/someone else? Writing with sensual detail is critical to creating the mood or tone of a sex scene – and rendering it as something consistent with the characters you’ve created. A sexual act is not passionate just because a writer asserts it is so; it’s in the specific sensual qualities of the details that a scene will really come alive.
- Not all sex scenes have to be erotic…or even pleasant. For my money, there’s nothing better than a disappointing or disturbing sex scene to reveal something important about your characters. We all know that sex can be a crucible – a barometer of what’s going on globally in a relationship. When things are tense or downright hostile in a marriage, they’re bound to show up in bed. The value of focusing on what these individuals are thinking, or saying, or not saying, and of qualifying their actions with language that feeds into the tone of the scene, cannot be overstated. There’s no end to what a reader can learn about what’s going on in a relationship in one brief, conflicted sex scene. Maybe it’s just me, but some of the best sex scenes I have read have been anything but passionate: they’ve been downright devastating.
- Know when to pull out. Obviously, sex acts have a beginning, middle, and end. But that doesn’t mean you have to report them in soup-to-nuts detail. Leaving some things to the imagination will encourage greater reader engagement, building anticipation by offering up partial, fleeting, titillating glimpses. It’s like hearing only half a song: for the rest of the day you can’t stop humming it to yourself, as though the lack of closure keeps it on permanent re-set. How many movies have been built on the premise of the almost-romance? Interrupting an unfolding sex scene can create a kind of frisson that adds urgency to both the relationship and the plot line. Like a striptease act, sometimes a little at a time is more than enough.
So go ahead. Write that scene. Pull out all the stops. Just remember: those are real people between the crisp white sheets of your manuscript – not inflatable sex toys. Treat them with all due respect.
The following was first published as a guest post by Cognoscenti, WBURs ideas and opinions blog (8/14/2013).
Call me old-fashioned, but the last thing I’d want by my deathbed is a narrator.
In case you missed the story, NPR’s Scott Simon recently made the decision to broadcast his mother’s final days from her hospital room, one tweet at a time. Now, I’ve no doubt there’s ample precedent: These days, people update their followers in real-time about anything from labor contractions to hiccup remedies. But Simon has 1.3 million followers, and these tweets captured some serious attention across the Twittersphere.
First, a necessary caveat:
This is not a piece about Simon or the quality of his grief or anything else related to his sad circumstances. Rather it is a commentary on what seems to me to be a disturbing phenomenon in our society, whereby our communication technologies are increasingly commandeering what have historically been intimate human experiences.
According to The New York Times, Simon did not begin his deathbed vigil with a “project” in mind. When he began tweeting he did not know his mother’s hospitalization would end in her passing. His first tweet, a quick missive from the ER, was presumably a one-off — not freighted with the intention of more to come.
But more did come. More than a week’s worth, in fact, during which time Simon’s mother continued to decline. And while his tweets were often heart-rending, I could not help but come away from the experience of reading them with a disturbing combination of sympathy and horror.
Yes, we are writers. And yes, whether we write novels or blogposts or stand-up jokes or tweets, we are doing what we somehow need to do — processing our world through our words. Most of us will go there for succor when we need to, and many will feel unburdened by the very act of capturing the experience — pinning it down to the sheet like some kind of rare, exquisite butterfly. For me, it is one of the greatest blessings of being a writer, a metaphorical safety-valve through which pain or grief can magically release. One has only to think of poet Donald Hall’s “Without,” a tribute to his dying wife Jane Kenyon:
we lived in, two decades
by the pond, has transformed
into a single unstoppable day,
gray in the dwelling-place
But here’s the thing. I have been through the kind of vigil Simon describes, with several loved ones now. I have lived in that weird, insulated, windowless time-capsule, marking time according to blood work and respirations and the slow, hideous purpling of toes. I have logged the long hours in hospital chairs, chain-drunk its lousy coffee. I have breathed the smell of death. And I have no doubt that I am not yet done, that there will be more such vigils in my future, the hardest yet to come. But I also know that I will need to be present: clear-eyed; open to the raw, weeping edges of life.
Because there is a difference, I think, between being in the moment — participating in it fully — and stepping outside to report on it. The issue goes way beyond the deathbed vigil. Think of that video you just had to have of your kid celebrating his 5th birthday. These days, people tweet pictures of their dinner before they eat it, as though broadcasting their food trumps the act of enjoying it. We spend hours trolling our Twitter feeds instead of opening our eyes to the toddler quietly tugging at our sleeves.
To me, it is all an issue of timing. Of reflection versus reporting. I want to believe that Donald Hall wrote his poems in the evenings, when his wife was sound asleep, not thinking about his phrasing in the middle of a particularly painful blood draw.
While his tweets were often heart-rending, I could not help but come away from the experience of reading them with a disturbing combination of sympathy and horror.
So yes: The biggest part of me is not so much appalled as saddened by this new iteration of public over-sharing. I do not direct any of this at Simon himself: I know the impulse to reach out, to share the burden, even if that takes on new meanings as time goes by. I am not even specifically railing against Twitter, although it does strike me as a particularly insidious and intrusive form of communication. What I am most concerned with here is the fact that technology has once again afforded us a way to distance ourselves from the very substance of our lives — to put some other “thing” between us and our loved ones. For me, Simon’s experience simply affords an opportunity to pose a wider-angle lens on what is changing in our increasingly fragmented, technology-bound experience.
Twitter, I would maintain, is a zone. A place that is decidedly not where you are. A state of mind in which you’re always looking out for the next 140 character windfall, something you can scavenge out of this experience or that, like a photographer so intent on a picture that he neglects to take in the scene.
Wherever it is, whatever it is, it’s not a place I want to be when grief comes to call.
(First published by Beyond the Margins (www.beyondthemargins.com), June 26, 2013)
The countdown to launch has begun – your first novel! – and everyone around you, from your hair-stylist to your therapist to your Zumba instructor, is hopped up and ready. Your kids are actually telling you how proud they are of you(!), and people you haven’t seen since childhood are suddenly friend-ing you on Facebook. The principal from your old high school just called: he’d like you to come give next year’s commencement address.
And your parents! Oh, God, your parents are kvelling. The Amazon page is up. They’ve pre-ordered 30 copies and invited both the family Rabbi and Great Aunt Ida to the launch. Their daughter, the poet, has finally written something their friends will actually read! It’s everything an author could hope for: the buzz, the goodwill, the respect from friends and colleagues far and wide – that sense of having finally reached some long-elusive station in life…
“So, there’s this little scene on page 45,” you stammer.
Your father says he knows the owner of a local TV station.
“You know, the book may not be for everyone.”
He smiles, hard and bright. “We’ve scheduled a small party for you at the club.”
“I mean, there’s some serious… sex in it.”
Still with the smile, but just a heartbeat too long.
So. There’s sex and then there’s sex. We all know this. There’s the quiet grazing of a moonlit breast and then there’s the—
Well, we don’t have to go there.
But the point is, many of us do go there, at least in our novels, and it’s often so counter to what our friends and loved ones may be expecting from us that dread can appropriately be added to the long list of pre-debut emotions. But isn’t that what story-telling is all about? – that freedom to imagine ourselves into anything, or anyone, or any situation. It affords us the opportunity to expand our own physical/emotional boundaries, combine one truth with another, take the measure of what we are and what we know and jumble it all up like so many Sunday casseroles. Take your sexual inhibitions, add a little of his passive-aggressiveness and her flat feet, throw in my tattoo. Toss them all together and what you come up with is someone authentically other, behaving – and canoodling – in ways that only this new individual can behave.
Admittedly, it’s hard for readers not to impose their own knowledge of a writer on the reading of his/her work. How many people are able to read Sylvia Plath without bringing her tragic life-story to the task? And the closer the relationship with the writer, the trickier it gets. When the writer happens to be you and the readers some of your nearest and dearest, the dynamic can be downright explosive. There will be those who automatically equate your narrator’s voice with your own and those who see themselves in what you’ve written. Still others may feel scandalized by your character’s behaviors or hurt by their words. Imagine, for example, that you’ve chosen to read a passage about a character’s nasty break-up with her husband and your newly (messily) divorced neighbor happens to be at your reading. Or your main character has an affair with his hot-looking sister-in-law and your hot-looking sister-in-law’s husband shows up?
I’m just sayin’. There’s plenty of room for simmering indignation. People will take umbrage at things you never even imagined could be offensive. Your agent will quietly bristle at the way you describe the inner workings of the publishing world. Your neighbor will take offense at the ugly living room furniture you describe, recognizing it – correctly or incorrectly – as her own. Your sister will assume that all the emotional dysfunction you’ve heaped on the fictional sister in your book is your way of getting back at her for being the free-loader in the family.
Your husband may want a divorce.
The thing is: fiction liberates us to be NOT who-we-are. Or to be who we might be if only our hair was red or our mother was an opera star or the chickens were dying of swollen head syndrome…if our guilt wasn’t crippling or our cancer had metastasized…if our father was Haitian or our house was condemned or our sinuses blocked. In other words, fiction invites us to step away from our earthbound selves and take flight – in the bedroom or on the soccer field or at the top of the Empire State Building. And while there’s no way to side-step all of the misunderstandings and misapprehensions that may arise, it’s helpful to remember that nobody but you – and sometimes not even you – will ever know for sure just whose bad breath has been paired with whose overbearing boss.
So go ahead – read that sex scene. Read it loud and clear. Read it ’til you blush and your audience starts to look at their shoes. But when the Q&A comes around, do yourself a favor. Ask yourself your own first question – How do I come up with my characters? – and then answer it!
(First published by Beyond the Margins (www.beyondthemargins.com), May 15, 2013)
Shortly after I started writing poetry, in my mid-40’s, an editor looking at my work asked me what it felt like, to write a poem. At the time it seemed like some kind of test. I was not a student of poetry, and he was clearly looking for a certain kind of response. But I answered in the only way I knew how: “Like falling backwards off a cliff,” I said. The words formed themselves, much as the poems I’d been writing had: a rush, breathless and terrifying, something that happened to me rather than by me, something I couldn’t stop and couldn’t see coming, like the end. And when I finally landed after all that free-falling, I’d find the thing I didn’t know I was looking for in the first place. Not just the poem but the answer to the poem, the final puzzle piece.
This, for me, has always been the ecstasy of writing. I write because it is the way I come to know who I am, where I am in the context of my experience. It is my portal of entry, my journey down under. In post-Freudian psychology, connections abound between the underworld and the subconscious, that domain of the psyche that lies beneath the surface. The Ancient Greeks believed that our very dreams ascended from this lower region, even though that world itself was off-limits: the portals were secret – hidden deep in caverns and lakes – the descent itself arduous and forbidding. Hercules did it, but then he was Hercules. As writers, our own downward paths can also be hard to find, bedeviled and fraught. Often we follow them at significant emotional and psychological costs. But they are our way in, our route to what James Hillman would call our “authentic selves.” And while the descent is both terror and rapture, the completion then becomes the resolution of the two, a kind of deep knowing that brings its own deep satisfaction. It is a funny kind of paradox: in order to know, we must walk into the unknown.
And up until a few months ago these were the places I’d go. Just about every day I’d sit back in my chair and stare out at the trees and wait for something to happen. It didn’t matter what was out there; I wasn’t really looking. I’d film my eyes, wait for the thing to slide slantwise into view. That was all it took, really – that quiet, the stillness. Those first few accidental words. And once they’d found me I was off, tripping down the ladder of the poem like water down a sudden, steep outcropping of rock.
But lately the trees out my window have receded. In their place I see only my own reflection. With a first novel and two poetry collections out this year, I have been trying to do what writers also do these days – the other work. At the suggestion of my publicist, I am on Facebook and Goodreads, tumbling and tweeting, trying to “connect” with “friends” I don’t even know. I have “followers” – a term which never fails to crack me up – and for the most part I have no idea who they are or how they found me or why they’re tracking me in the first place. (One recent follower on twitter is listed as “Redhead. Massage therapist. Healer.”) I don’t know what Pinterest is, but somehow I have a feeling that somebody’s going to fill me in. These things are important, I am told, and I am smart enough to understand that what I saw fit to put out into the world deserves the chance to find its readership. Yes, I write for myself, but yes, I also write to communicate. The words emerge with some unspecified “other” in mind – some distal ear at the end of the connection.
But here’s the hitch: I am not this other person. I do not like social media. I don’t like how it makes me feel (oily) or how it makes me act (manic). I don’t like that when I’m “in it” I exist wholly on the surface of things, or that my sense of my own being has somehow gotten tangled up with endless threads of following and being followed, friend-ing and being friend-ed. I am patently ashamed of all the checking I now do: checking my email, checking my Facebook, my Twitter, my Goodreads; the activity on my author page. I have found that there is a grotesquely addictive quality to these rituals, as though with each “Like” or “ReTweet” or “Share” I garner, microquantities of high-grade narcotics are somehow dripped into the feel-good section of my brain. Twitter, of course, is the most addling and addictive of all. It makes the world both so big and so trivial you could drown in all that truncated verbage.
I hate that when the first real spring day happened just a week or two ago, I never even set foot outside.
But perhaps worst of all, I feel the need to apologize to my friends and colleagues for taking up their i-space, wasting their time with endless iterations of “Here I am!” I want them to know that living on this other side shortens my attention span and steals my stillness, dashes any hope of slipping down into my own private underworld. But I also want them to know that writing is my job, that I see it that way, that I do it with diligence and with ardor, that I wake up every morning and sit in my chair and put words onto page and that for many, many (many) years, I’ve earned virtually nothing for it. That my husband has had to shoulder the load because this thing I do does nothing to pay the bills. That publicity may be the seedy underside of writing, but if we believe in what we write – believe that it matters in some way to someone – we have no choice in this bewildering world of publishing but to push it out there. That this is not what we are – not even what most of us are remotely comfortable with – but that it is the other half of the job.
So these days, I rarely stare out my windows or fall backwards off cliffs. For the time being I am not looking to be transported, and I worry sometimes I may not even know how anymore once this is all over. The trees are still there, dressing up and down as the seasons change, but they will have to wait a while longer. I have not stopped loving them. I have only learned that every once in awhile I must make certain offerings to them. And I feel hopeful that after a year or so of this, they will open their arms – and welcome me back.
My mother gave me a wedge of her own childhood, perfect as pie. It was not something she could hold out in her hand for me to receive. It was not even one thing, although if I were to somehow distill it down to its essence it would probably be a tool shed or a rose arbor, a cluster of sour cherry trees down by the back garden. It was a place, and a time, two or three charmed weeks every summer when my mom and my three siblings and I would go out to her family home in eastern Ohio. The enchantment was total. It included a white 19th-century farmhouse on seemingly endless acres of land, with a fish pond and a burning pile and silvered outbuildings too many to count. There was a sprawling vegetable garden and a formal rose garden with a sundial in the center, there was a pin oak at the end of the back walk that was so impossibly tall that I had nothing in my limited experience of trees with which to compare it. There was even an old codger named Earl, with missing teeth and one bad leg, whose task it was to clip the mile upon mile of privet hedge.
I could write a hundred pages just describing the physical place (and perhaps I have, over the years); it still has that kind of hold on me. My recall is astounding: the tiles in the breakfast room, the rubber hose attached to the claw-foot tub in the washroom off my grandfather’s study. The ancient tools in the work shed and the sour cherries bobbing up and down in the double porcelain sink. The things we built and the things we ate. Even the bathrooms were extraordinary: the water was mysteriously “hard,” so that we threw special salts into our baths; and at the pedestal sink, we brushed our teeth with Colgate tooth powder out of a can. The details are so cleanly etched into my memory that I wonder sometimes why two weeks out of a child’s year could claim such disproportionate weight.
But what is most interesting to me now is just what exactly those weeks were to me – why in some cosmic accounting they seem to add up to the heart of my childhood. I’ve had some 40 years to mull on these questions, and what I’ve concluded is that what my mother gave to me and my brothers and sister those endless two-week summers was a slice of another era, a simpler time, one so steeped in the natural world that our days were defined by it and our lives forever altered by it. From the time we rolled out of bed in the morning we were simply in it: barefoot and overalls, up to our hands and knees in dirt, picking corn or making jam or stringing beans on the back stoop. We had no boundaries, no television, a horizon uncluttered, full run of the fields and the gardens and the forest, a sense of freedom so exhilarating that I can think of nothing in adult life to compare it to. We learned about birds. We rode the tractor, picked blueberries and turned them into cobbler; pored over my grandfather’s old nature books. On one memorable visit, we woke every morning to the drilling whine of the 17-year locusts; collected their husks like manna when they left them behind.
We lay out under the trees, stared up at the sky.
My grandfather was sick during these years, so my memories are mostly peopled by women. Those summers, time was kept by meals. It was the only way we saw the days passing, the coming and going of breakfasts and lunches and dinners, the work involved in preparing them and the time we’d spend on the step stool in the kitchen doing the dishes by hand. We ate what we picked: corn and lima beans for succotash, German potato salad, butter beans, fat asparagus spears most often cooked to within an inch of their lives. Jams – blueberry, strawberry, blackberry, sour cherry – were stored in ball jars with small paper labels, the fruit and the year of harvest written simply in my grandmother’s neat script. Bread, which seemed always to be warm, was made by a neighbor and picked up daily down the road.
The greatest meals of all were those eaten out under the big maple, usually on a Sunday and often attended by one or two of the Aunt Flo’s (“Big Flo”; “Little Flo”) and assorted friends of my grandmother’s. In my recollection of them these events are always golden, drenched in late-day sun, spilling over with simple bowls filled with comfort food. There was always someone running back and forth to the kitchen for iced tea or mustard or sliced ham, my grandmother’s no-nonsense cakes in their non-nonsense pans. Best of all, after everything was cleared away and washed up and the sky had tipped into evening, my siblings and I would listen from our upstairs windows as the crickets played their tinny violins and the adults relaxed in their aluminum chairs, my mother snorting with laughter, expanding in the presence of these loving, bosomy, plain-spoken women.
So maybe that’s what she gave me: that young-mother laugh, the mid-Western lilt that slipped back into her voice when surrounded by her own. Those glimpses of her as a child, daughter to her mother, niece to her doting aunts. Under those impossibly tall trees she gave me a snapshot of her own childhood, and the heart-warm embrace that carried her through it. She gave me days of exquisite beauty and absolute freedom, an experience only a child can know and – once known – never forget. And she gave me a connection to the earth so long and deep that it has inhabited me – filled me and sustained me – so that to this day I can still feel the dirt beneath my fingernails, the thick East Liverpool grass under my feet. More valuable than any heirloom, she gave me a footprint of home.
Earlier this week I was asked by poet Donna Johnson if I wanted to answer ten questions about my forthcoming novel, The Other Room. It was part of an interview chain known as “The Next Big Thing,” an intriguing new way for fellow writers to connect and spread the word about their future books and projects. Donna asked me to be the next link in this chain. Her own extraordinary new poetry collection, Selvage, was just released by Carnegie Mellon Press. Check it out at http://djohnsonpoet.wordpress.com.
Donna wanted me to be the next link, so below are my answers to the ten questions…
What is your working title of your book?
“The Other Room”
Where did the idea come from for the book?
The book began with a voice, not an idea. It was a middle-of-the-night kind of voice, urgent and compelling; it summoned me to my frigid third-floor office like a siren song. For some period of time that night, wrapped in an enormous Hudson Bay blanket, I wrote a few pages, but I had no idea what they were all about. The words just kind of insisted themselves onto the page. It continued this way for many nights, to the point where I was spinning scenes for which I had no real context. And getting very little sleep in the process. At some point, maybe a month later, maybe two, I looked at what I’d accumulated and realized that I was writing a story in fragments – with no discernible scaffolding – from the voice and POV of what was to become the lead character.
I should mention that up until that point I had almost no experience with creative writing. I was a medical writer. I knew how to put sentences together, and I loved to read, but I’d always been terrified to try my hand at anything creative. I’d never taken a creative writing class. I had no formal training whatsoever.
What genre does your book fall under?
My publicist likes to say it straddles the literary fiction/women’s fiction divide. I can live with that.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I love this! Main parts: Jennifer Connelly for Claudia, Christian Bale for Josef, Amy Adams for Yvonne, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Stuart.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
It’s a novel about death’s trickle-down – the complex web of emotions that traps an extended family in the wake of a child’s mysterious death.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by Owl Canyon Press, a small independent press which focuses on literary fiction and translation.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Maybe two or three years for a first draft, maybe more. I did a fair amount of rewriting before I ever wrote the conclusion. I didn’t really know how to write a novel, so it was a bit of trial and error.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Jane Hamilton’s “A Map of the World.” Maybe David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land.” “We Sinners,” by Hanna Pylväinen, a fabulous new book. Plus a little extra turbo à la “Gone Girl.”
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Inspired may not be the right word, but several things certainly conspired: I had just started reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, which begins with this incredible narrator voice that absolutely seduced me. She had me from word-go. So I have no doubt that that thread was twining in my sleep that night. To this I could add a number of significant events: a frightening episode in my own life, which had occurred a year or two before, and a kind of post-traumatic depression six months later. All these things certainly folded into the mix.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I am a published poet, and I think I bring a certain poetic sensibility to all of my writing. In fact, I identify myself as poet first, fiction-writer second. I’ve always been deeply aware of the musicality of language, the rhythms, the rhymes and repetitions. I just know when the music is wrong and when it is right, I am acutely sensitive to the power of phrasing. I love being seduced by words, in both my reading and my writing. If it doesn’t “sound” right to my internal ear, it doesn’t stay on the page. I love the sounds of language, and I love the feel of it in my mouth. I have three collections of poetry (both published and forthcoming), and I believe that what you see in my poetry you will see in my fiction-writing and vice verse. They come from one and the same place.