Category Archives: Nonfiction

What makes a writer?

This past week, I had a conversation with a young man who was interested in writing.  He enjoyed working with words when he wrote business correspondence, and he believed he had a knack for finding the right words for whatever he was writing.  He admitted that he didn’t read that much, mostly just what he saw on the internet which sounded like maybe news or commentary sites. I’m not certain what it was he wanted from me.  To tell him he was already a writer?  To tell him how to be a writer?  I suspect that he didn’t know anything about it and wanted me to tell him.  I gave him a catalog of writing classes from The Loft and encouraged him to look it over, see if anything appealed to him and pursue it.

Have any of you had a similar experience?  What do you say?

I’m used to more specific questioning or someone telling me that they are writing a short story/novel/essay collection and they want to know something specific about what they’re writing. This is the first time I’ve encountered someone who was thinking of writing rather than just sitting down and doing it, then trying to figure out what it was all about.

So really, what makes a writer?  Is it publication or is it writing all the time? Is it the compulsion to write?  The need to write vs. the desire to write? Business writing is different from creative nonfiction or fiction, and yet, there are freelance writers who specialize in writing for business, for corporate communications departments.  They consider themselves writers (as do I). And some of them are also writing other things — short stories, plays, etc. Writing is everywhere, if you think about it.  This is the point the inquiring young man made to me.  Yes, it is.  And if he wanted to do that kind of writing, more power to him.  I hope that he looks through The Loft’s catalog and sees for himself that there’s a lot more to writing than he thinks.  He did mention that he thought he could write his own story — autobiography or memoir, I don’t know — but I felt at a loss as to what to say.  Why think about it?  Why not just do it?

What makes a writer?  I have to say that the writers I know don’t think about it, they do it.  Sure, they think about the stories they’re working on, or the ideas that they’re developing for a book or script, but they don’t talk so much about it or just think about it.  They sit down at some point and just write.  And it’s hard. In my confusion, I forgot to tell the young man that it was difficult to do it well.  Yeah, it looks easy — everyone has written something: grocery lists, letters, emails, thank you notes, etc. But to sustain a reader’s interest over a period of pages, that’s something else entirely.

This morning, while cleaning out email (it’s amazing how much it piles up in my mailbox over 5 days), I stumbled onto a note from a writer named Hope Clark — she publishes a newsletter called Funds for Writers that I subscribe to. Her note discussed approaching each day as the best day for writing, even when your writing is going badly.  Even when the writing sucks, it’s still something you can work with to make it better.

Hope Clark quoted Neil Gaiman in an interview in which he talked about what writing is like, and I loved the quote so I’d like to share it with you. It describes accurately, I think, what writing is like:

“The process of writing is not necessarily an enjoyable one. The process of writing is way up there with ditch digging. You write a novel a word at a time. And this will go on for hundreds of pages.”

I’d like to add, that while you’re digging for words in the ditches of life, it’s always a sunny day.

Big Classical Music

It’s been a month full of getting used to a new fulltime job and having no time for much of anything else but eating and sleeping.  I’d forgotten how demanding the adjustment process can be. So, I apologize for my silence, and I hope that will change and I’ll get back to my usual once a week posting schedule in the not too distant future.

But today, I was listening to a performance of the Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich. This symphony was written in 1953 in a white heat following Joseph Stalin’s death in the spring. It’s big classical music, i.e. the kind of classical music firmly and sublimely evolving out of big emotion and experience.

Shostakovich had a precarious relationship with Stalin’s regime.  He fell out of favor with it when he composed an opera Stalin didn’t like. He regained some favor with his Fifth Symphony, and then enjoyed a great reception for his Seventh Symphony. But when everyone, including Stalin, expected a big, triumphant symphony to mark the end of World War II, Shostakovich gave them a light, quick Symphony No. 9 with a bit of a nose-thumbing attitude to it.  And since his opera’s premiere, Shostakovich had been living in fear of that knock at the door late at night from the KGB coming to haul him off to prison. He was denounced at one point, including by his children at their school.  So, there was no love for Stalin and his regime in Shostakovich.  His Tenth Symphony reveals his experience and his emotion regarding Stalin — the extremely difficult Scherzo is famous as a possible musical portrait of the dictator — and the final movement is a personal statement of victory.  Shostakovich had already used his signature D – S – C – H (the notes D, E flat, C, B following the German spelling of his name) in his Eighth String Quartet and Eighth Symphony.  In his Tenth Symphony, it becomes a loud, victorious statement of Shostakovich as an individual who has survived.  A thrilling symphony to listen to whether recorded or in concert.

And as I listened to this symphony, I began to think about big music, big literature, big art — the creative expression of artists in the throes of big emotion or big experience. It is the kind of music accessible to everyone no matter what their experience with classical music may be. It is the kind of music we associate with earlier times, not today.  Why is that?  Why aren’t composers writing big music today?  And what about big literature?  Are writers grounding their creative expression in human emotion and experience or merely in curiosity?

When I listen to classical music, I want the emotion.  It validates my humanity. And that’s what art needs to do whether in music, literature, painting, theater or other creative expression. When we experience the art, we experience our humanity by the art bringing us closer to it through emotion. I know that in classical music, what I’ve been hearing the last few years has been an over abundance of interesting sounds but nothing that even comes close to big classical music.  And contemporary composers wonder why people don’t want to hear their music again!

Shostakovich composed his music living under a political and social system that oppressed people, oppressed creativity, oppressed free expression of all kinds. He was not free, but he still composed music that endures to this day and will probably continue to endure. Beethoven lived under a monarchy, in an empire, where the aristocracy patronized the arts.  His struggles were more personal, and yet his music is full of emotion and humanity.  Artists need to recognize and confront what it means to be human, what being alive means.

The literature that I love is literature that reveals humanity in all its glorious colors, follies, struggles, and emotion.  The stories of people being human — strengths, weaknesses, flaws, struggles, triumphs. It is also the kind of literature that I do my best to write.

Am I Evan Quinn?

When I first began developing the characters and story for Perceval’s Secret, I read an article about writing fiction that theorized that all first novels were either autobiographical or coming-of-age stories, or both. Ugh. I remember thinking at the time, “Well, if I wanted to write about my life and experiences, I’d write an autobiography, not a novel. And the last thing I want to write is a coming-of-age story.”  But then someone at work whom I’d told about the novel talked to others at work and suddenly they all thought I must be writing about them! Geez. Writers just cannot win, can they?!  If readers aren’t thinking that we’re writing about ourselves disguised as fiction, they believe we’re writing about them.  Author Jami Attenberg writes about this in The New York Times article “Stop Reading My Fiction as The Story of My Life.”

Nothing could stop me from writing Perceval’s Secret in the end, although it went through several versions and there were some large chunks of time when life demanded I focus on life rather than writing. When I was proofing the e-files before publication, I saw certain elements that I realized came from my own life and I would not have been able to write about them without my life experiences. But they are also not me in the novel .  All through my writing of this novel, I was meticulous about insuring that none of the characters in any way resembled real people, including me.

How did I do that? Well, it’s all about revision and research.

Once the first draft was done and I could see the story as a whole and who the characters were, I went through it and noted questions I had about the characters as well as locations, technology, etc. Evan was a primary focus as the main character, but I also did some research about intelligence agencies (Bernie Brown) and the Austrian police (Klaus Leiner) and how Austria would respond to Evan. I knew little about the life of a conductor, only what happens when they step on the podium during a concert. So I spoke with the people who worked with them as well as conductors themselves, and I did a lot of reading.  I went to orchestra rehearsals to observe how conductors actually work with an orchestra to prepare a concert. And I even talked with people who knew conductors on a more personal level to get an idea of just who they were as people and how they approached music. This research took several years, and I did another round for a year about 10 years ago. I had a special concern that no reader would mistake Evan for some famous American conductor.

And then after the research, I began revising and Evan took over, as characters usually do. Once I had all that information from the research in my head, he could show me the kind of person he was, his flaws, his strengths, his dreams, his vulnerabilities, his fears. He showed me how being a conductor was a way of life, not only a job. It takes absolute dedication and drive to achieve any kind of success.  He showed me what he thought of his life’s circumstances, the pain within those circumstances, and his denial. I had set out to write a villain as the main character of my novel, but I found that even though Evan may do awful things, he’s not evil. That raised the question: what or who is evil in this story? Although I began the story thinking that Evan would be the evil villain and I wanted to explore why he was that way, I failed in making him the evil villain because he revealed his humanity to me as I worked on revisions.

Attempting to make Evan Quinn the evil villain was one of my tactics for making it clear that he was not me. When I look at him now, I see a separate personality, a separate person who’s unlike me. The aspect of his life that comes the closest to my experience (but does not recreate it) is his PTSD and his emotional pain. What has been revelatory for me is the way in which Evan has handled his PTSD and emotional pain so far, and how that affects his behavior and perspective of the world.

As Jami Attenberg writes in her article, and what I’d like to tell all readers of my writing:

Maybe it’s only natural to want a glimpse behind the curtain. Fiction is a magic trick of sorts. But at its best it doesn’t just conjure up an imaginary world; it makes the real one disappear, it makes the author disappear. Only a book can do this — let you lose yourself so completely. So, if you can, forget about everything else. Just be there with the book.

Being a Creative Writer: Under Oppression

In 2017 America, we have access to countless narratives of people existing and surviving under oppressive conditions, be they social, psychological, or political. In my own life, I’ve read Soviet writers who worked in the USSR as well as Western writers who visited the USSR and wrote about their experiences and observations afterward. I was reminded of this today when I saw in The New York Times an article by Margaret Atwood entitled “Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump.” In this article, Atwood talks about her novel and its setting: an America which has gone through a coup that establishes a strict patriarchal rule based in 17th century Puritanism. Under this oppression, human rights, especially women’s rights, are minimal if they exist at all. Only “the elite,” i.e. those in power, have human rights and freedoms. They dominate and control everyone and everything else. Atwood wrote this story in 1984, during the Reagan era in America. It was in 1984 that I first met Evan Quinn, the protagonist of my Perceval series, and began to explore who he was and what his story was.

Since the November 2016 election, I’ve been thinking about the role of the writer in a society that is hostile toward the arts, especially literature, and is obsessed with money. Commerce rules in America, and there’s nothing sweeter than gigantic profits. The sign of success? Your income level, earned, or especially, unearned, as in investments. If you are a member of the Working Poor, you are not a success according to American society. The number of writers in the top 1% income group are few. Most writers fall somewhere between the Working Poor and the middle Middle Class. And no, I don’t have specific statistics on that, just what I’ve observed in Minnesota which is an active literary area in the country. For the last 2 months, we’ve seen a new president and government that wants to keep writers either subservient to them or silent. They’ve acted to destroy the press, calling various media news outlets “the enemy of the people.” They’ve acted to cut federal government support of the arts by defunding and abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This government doesn’t like writers.  Why?

Moscow. First secretary of the Union of Soviet writers Konstantin Fedin (tribune) makes a speech at the fourth Congress of Soviet writers. Photo TASS / Yevgeny Kassin; Vladimir Savostyanov

For the same reason the USSR’s government didn’t like them. And I know that I may be making a controversial comparison here, but please bear with me (I’m not making the Nazi comparison because it’s redundant). The Soviet government established rules and bureaucratic procedures by which every citizen had to abide, except for the ruling elite who enjoyed all the power and perks. Writers observed life in the Soviet Union and how this system affected that life and they wrote about it. And many were “disappeared” because of it. The government tried to corral writers into a governmental structure called the Union of Soviet Writers which was created in 1932 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. If a writer gained membership in the Union (and the Communist Party), he enjoyed financial support and publication. If a writer was not a member, he enjoyed poverty and being banned from publication. Members of the Union had to adhere to the Party’s Socialist Realism in all their creative expression. In this way, the government controlled what the writers wrote.

Example of Socialist Realism in architecture: All-Russia Exhibition Centre in Moscow (from Wikipedia)

I’m a bit surprised that the Bannon-Trump government hasn’t thought about merging the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities into one artist union with departments for literature, painting, music, dance, etc.  (In the Perceval novels, it’s called the Arts Council.) Perhaps they haven’t yet thought of it, or maybe they have and have concluded that it would be a waste of money since they believe the arts are not very profitable but dangerous to them.

What should American writers do right now and going forward? As always, write the truth as you experience it. Whether in nonfiction or fiction, writers need to continue doing what they do best: observe, witness, reveal, and be clear and true in all of their words. In the April 2017 The Writer, Gail Radley (“Through the Looking Glass”) writes about what facts are and how to find the truth. She’s comprehensive in talking about the internet, trusted sources, and how to tell when a website is not to be trusted no matter what it looks like. Her tips could also apply to government websites masquerading as private websites.

Write to resist. Write to witness. Write to record for posterity, whether in a fictional format or nonfiction. If you have activism running through your blood, protest and demonstrate non-violently, peacefully, and meaningfully. Keep it simple. Writers know how to reveal character through dialogue, right? Use that skill to actively communicate to your elected representatives or when you are protesting in a group.

I know, I know. All this sounds rather paranoid. Perhaps it is. But I do think that those in power right now are truly serious about what they want to accomplish. Those who disagree with them, anyone who wants to insure the arts will be available to anyone and everyone forever, all need to be just as serious and determined in what they want to accomplish.

Revision

A-hand-writing-with-a-pen-006The last week or so my writing work has been focused on a nonfiction piece that’s ready for revision/editing. An interview in a Q&A format, a first for me. It’s too long for one thing. I want to preserve its current flow because it’s an interview, which means any editing cannot change the original meaning or the unique voice of the person interviewed. This mountain of a job will give my revising and editing muscles a real workout. Where to begin?

Sharpening Focus

In any conversation, whether an interview or not, the direction veers off on tangents, circles around and back to the topic, and veers off again. The first task of editing my piece is to identify everything that isn’t an answer to the questions, i.e. identify the tangents. Next, I ask myself: does this (or that) tangent illuminate a point the interviewee is making? If not, out it goes. If it’s an example of the interviewee’s point, I then weigh how good it is or how many examples he gives for this one point. Maybe he’s given 3 or 4, so I try to choose the best one.

Sharpening focus for the answer to each question is probably the most important part of the editing process. It takes the longest because it requires some thought about the question as well as the answer. Editing the question for length also comes into the process. I’ve discovered ways to strengthen the questions by tightening them.

Waiting

The next step, after the first revision, is to put the piece away. This part reminds me of the fermentation process. It’s really crucial to put it away and wait for the fermentation to take its course. I often continue thinking about the piece, though, and this interview is no exception. And I’m on deadline for it, so the fermentation period needs to be shorter than I usually prefer.

fermentation

fermentation

With one piece put away to ferment, I’ll work on some other writing project, read, clean house, go to the part time job, or anything else on my to-do list. Today, for example, I’ve been working on business chores, cleaning out e-mails, working more on my very late holiday letters, house chores, researching a talented young French pianist that I discovered over the weekend, and running errands. All my watches have stopped — is this the Universe trying to tell me something? — and I need to take them in to get new batteries for them this afternoon. And I’m finishing this blog post that I began last Saturday afternoon.

More Revision

The next step after fermentation, is another round of revision. During this round, I’m checking for grammar issues, typos, spelling mistakes, and syntax issues. I’m also looking for more ways to tighten, to cut, to get the piece down to the word count I want.

If I have enough time before the deadline, I’ll repeat the fermentation-revision-fermentation-revision process several times until I cannot find anything that needs attention. I’ll read the piece aloud during this process also to check for the flow. I’m also checking any links I’ve included, and I add photos if necessary. In the case of my current project, only one photo will be included, that of the interviewee.

a_readers_advice_to_writers-460x307

Finishing

When I’ve arrived at a place with the piece where I’m feeling comfortable that it’s ready for publication, I’ll do one last read through with an eye to anything I may have missed. Dropped words and misspellings are usually caught in this round. I then submit it to the publication.

In general, this is the revision process I follow whether I’m working on nonfiction or fiction. It can vary a little from piece to piece depending on how much time I have for it or what the purpose of the piece is. I’ve learned, however, that even when I’m working on deadline it’s important not to rush the revision process, to slow down and savor it, really use the mind and imagination to make the writing the best it can be.