books 2

I’ve been a subscriber of Poets & Writers magazine for almost a decade now.  It never fails to deliver and has been a resource I’ve returned to time and time again. One of the features I enjoy most is called “Page One,” where the first lines of up and coming books and collections are highlighted.

Here are a few favorites from the January/February issue:

“When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep.” From Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (Knopf, January 2019).

“You deserve your beautiful life.” From Loves You by Sarah Gambito (Persea Books, January 2019).

The reason I love this feature so much is because it reminds one how important those first lines are when it comes to building trust between reader and writer.  A reader wants to be drawn into the story, to be given a reason to care either about the character or what is to happen next.  A reader also wants to be entertained and perhaps, be able to escape the real world, even if just for a little while. As writers, hopefully, we’re able to deliver on all accounts.

Obviously, there are a myriad of ways one can open a story.  You can:

Set the Mood

Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night.—from “How to be an Other Woman” by Lorrie Moore, Self-Help: Stories, Vintage Contemporaries, 1985.

Introduce a Character

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.—from “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, Collected Stories, Library Classics, 2009.

Have a Conversation

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”—from “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories, Scribner, 2007.

Ask a Question

How could a grown man with any self-respect sit in a Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory at eleven o’clock in the morning and eat a hot fudge sundae with mint chip ice cream, hold the nuts?—from “Nerves” by Ann Packer, Mendocino and Other Stories, Vintage Contemporaries, 1994.

Make a Statement

I know when people will die.—from “Wait Till You See Me Dance” by Deb Olin Unferth, New American Stories, ed. Ben Marcus, Vintage Contemporaries, 2015.

Be Active

The girls were searching Arleen’s room and had just come upon her journal.—from “The Girls” by Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege, Vintage Contemporaries, 2015.

Shock

Here is a snake with a girl in his mouth.—from “Passengers, Remain Calm” by Dan Chaon, Among the Missing, Random House, 2001.

No matter how you choose to begin, the opening ought to pique the reader’s curiosity and propel the story forward.  Read the examples above again.  Ask yourself whether they pass muster. Snake with a girl in its mouth? Curious? Heck, yeah.  Propel the story forward? Definitely.  You get the picture.

Author Colum McCann wrote an article in the Guardian back in May 2017 titled, “So you Want to be a Writer? Essential Tips for Novelists.” He cautions writers not to stuff too much into the first line and/or page, that one ought to consider the opening a doorway.  He says, “Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house.”  Makes sense, don’t you think?  Get in, but let the story unfold in it’s own time.

One last thought.  Remember you don’t have to perfect the first line before you dive into writing your story draft.  Sometimes it takes a while for things to gel enough before one discovers the best way to invite the reader in.  All I can say is trust the process.  It will come.


Do you have a favorite first line? Feel free to leave a comment below and tell us why it resonates with you.


Photo Credit: Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

stess

There are days when it feels as though the only other person on this planet who could possibly understand the pressure associated with maintaining enough stamina to produce not only original, but meaningful work out of a few disparate images floating around the fog of one’s subconscious over and over and over again is another writer.  Sometimes the weight of it all takes more of toll than one imagines.

How can one protect him/herself from burning out? Well, here’s a little advice from one writer to another:

Writing is a marriage or long-term relationship not a one-night stand. Relationships require time, commitment, the ability to listen to one’s partner without judgement. The same can be said for writing, don’t you think? Writing is a process. There will be good days when everything feels born of genius. And then there will be days that make you feel as though you’re fourteen again standing in the front of Mrs. Stoller’s English class, your cheeks turning from blush to crimson to despair as you stumble through diagramming a simple compound-complex sentence on the chalkboard. Everything evens out over time if you keep at it. Trust me.

Stop caring about what other think. I’ll be honest, this one catches me every time. If you’re anything like me, an innate people-pleaser, you already know how difficult it is not to let the opinions of others affect your work. Some people will absolutely hate what you have to say. Others will fall in love with you. At the end of the day neither matters. The greater gift is that you’ve dared to contribute your unique voice to this experiment we call humanity. Nobody else can do that quite like you can.

Unplug. Taking a break from the internet and/or social media can be regenerative. It’s crazy how dependent we’ve become as a society. Do we really need to check our Twitter feeds every half hour? Do we really need the drama, the play-by-play? Take a breather. Clear your head. You’ll be better for it.

Have something else in your life besides writing. Give yourself permission to live life. Bake bread. Plant a garden. Take a pottery class. Train for a half-marathon. Visit a friend in the nursing home. Play with your dog. Join a band. All these experiences eventually make their way back to the writing.

Read something beautiful every day. I have a practice of reading either a poem or a microfiction piece before I start writing each day. It reminds me what a privilege it is to be part of this lineage that chooses beauty and meaning over the superficial. What a difference words make in this world.

Take care of your body/mind/spirit. Eat right. Exercise. Meditate. Get your ZZZs. This is just good life advice, friends.

Spend time with a child. Play with your kids. Take your nephew or niece out for ice cream. Volunteer at your local school or Boys & Girls’ Club. There’s so much we can teach our children as well as learn from them. We need one another. Children are beautiful reminders of what it’s like to view the world through curious eyes.

Find a community. It’s often said writing is a solitary act. However, reaching out to other writers whether via a workshop, writing group, or forum not only provides an educational outlet but also a support network of writers who’ve walked along the same path. I don’t know what I’d do without my writing friends. We really are in this together.

Once in a while walk away. Don’t be afraid to take a break every now and then–be it a day, a week, a month. Regroup. Refill the well. It’ll still be here when you get back. Promise.

Remember why you fell in love with writing in the first place. Write out of passion. There’s no other way.


Photo Credit: Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash 

 

resolutions

It’s that time of year again. I’m sure your inbox and Twitter feed have been chocked full of “Top 100” and “Best of” lists just like mine. There’s something to be said about this annual socio-cultural exercise we put ourselves through, where we tally up all our accomplishments and hope like hell they out-number the disappointments. Obviously, some years are better than others, but sometimes it can be tough not to feel a little blue, especially if things don’t quite align as one envisioned, say, 364 days ago.

I suppose it’s human nature to lift a glass at the crack of midnight and resolve to shoot for the same goals as the year before, vowing this time things be different—really, I swear—even though deep down we know all will likely be forgotten by the vernal equinox, or at the very least, until one sits down to type up next year’s “Best of” list. Rinse, repeat, pour another.

Does this mean we shouldn’t set ourselves goals? No, of course not. Without goals life becomes a stagnant pool of boredom, never changing, never growing. Like food, goals nourish us. Where the problem lies is in expectation.

How many times do we make promises like these?

  • This year I’ll finish that novel I’ve been working on for the last five years.
  • This year I’ll get started on that blog/website.
  • This year I’ll shop around and see if anyone thinks my short story is worth publishing. Maybe someone at the New Yorker will give it a chance.
  • This year I’ll write every single day without fail. Really, I swear.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these goals. You could even call them lofty. Are they attainable, though? Depends on how you look at it.

The poet William Stafford wrote at least one new poem a day for over twenty years. In fact, he felt so passionate about the discipline he assigned the same task to his students. The groans and sighs that must have filled that classroom. As lore goes, a student once challenged him by asking how anyone could be expected to write an amazing poem every single day. Stafford’s response, “lower your standards.”

We often set such monumental expectations for ourselves that we risk immobilization at the very thought of taking the first step. It’s like seeing the entire ocean before us without acknowledging the beauty of its very existence.  Instead maybe we ought to take a lesson from Stafford, break it down, celebrate the day-to-day achievements, which when recognized make our goals seem less daunting and yes, attainable. Perhaps by year’s end you’ll realize you’ve accomplished more than you ever imagined possible.


What goals do you have for 2019? Please feel free to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.


Photo Credit: Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

real writer

Last week I had one of those days where putting one word down after another felt like trying to tap dance through the La Brea tar pits in steel-toed boots. No matter how hard I tried to eek out a story, the only thing of interest to come from my writing session was the acrobatic show put on by the gray squirrel who likes to pilfer peanuts from the bird feeder outside my window before the blue jays can get to them. One had to applaud his moxie—lord knows, I didn’t have any.

Back when I first started out as a writer a day like that would’ve paralyzed me the rest of the week simply because the judge’s voice in my head (who strangely sounds like Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy) bellowed: “That’s it, Ethel. The girl’s a fraud, I tell you—a genuine, bona fide fraud.”  Go ahead, add the laugh track if it makes the experience more authentic for you.  I don’t mind.

It wasn’t until a few years later I had the good fortune to attend a panel discussion between authors Dean Bakopoulos and Charles Baxter at the Fox Cities Book Festival. Bakopoulos asked Baxter about his apprenticeship as a writer, and Baxter replied he spent many nights lying awake waiting for the Fraud Police to knock on his door. He also said no matter how accomplished a writer you are the Fraud Police never stop looking for you. Needless to say, I found this insight to be both enlightening and scary as hell.

So how does one drown out Fred or tell the Fraud Police to take a hike when they threaten to break down the door?

In Charles Baxter’s “Full of It”—a letter to a young writer, collected in Frederick Busch’s anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer, he suggests:

To be a novelist or short story writer, you first have to pretend to be a novelist or short story writer. By great imaginative daring, you start out as Count No-Count. Everybody does. Everyone starts out as a mere scribbler. Proust got his start as a pesky dandified social layabout with no recognizable talents except for making conversation and noticing everybody. So what do you do? You sit down and pretend to write a novel by actually trying to write one without knowing how to do it.

Again, sage advice worth consideration.  Still, after some sleepless nights of my own, I came to the conclusion that maybe the first step one should take is to actually look Fred or Sgt. Fraud in the eye and see him for who he really is behind all the bluster—FEAR. Fear of not being able to deliver. Fear of letting down your loved ones. Fear of being told you’re wasting your time. Fear of being the most boring, unintelligent storyteller on the planet, maybe even the universe. Fear of the dark, icky stuff you’ll uncover. Fear nobody will read your novel/story/poem/essay. Fear that everyone will read your novel/story/poem/essay. You get the picture.

In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert says “fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to go into realms of uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something to be dealt with.” Perhaps if one accepts fear as part of the creative process, it becomes easier to acknowledge its presence and move forward, especially on those days when the words seem so few and distant.

What do you think?  How do you stay motivated when the Fraud Police come knocking on your door? Feel free to leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.


Photo credit: Photo by Ryan McGuire on http://www.pixabay.com

I’m not sure what it is about the miscellany of how writers and other artists live their daily lives that’s always fascinated me.  I know better than to expect anything earth-shattering—and yet, somehow, it’s a comfort to know someone as accomplished as Stephen King has to find time to take the dog out just like the rest of humanity. 

Back when I first started out, I treated myself to a day planner that included photographs of famous writers busy at work in their homes. The photographer, Jill Krementz, was the wife of the late Kurt Vonnegut.  She, if anyone, ought to know what it’s like to live with a writer.  God bless her soul.

My favorite photograph in the planner is one taken of Susan Minot sitting at a little secretary desk that’s wedged between her refrigerator and what looks to be a pantry or make-shift bookcase. It still speaks to me to this day not because Susan is scribbling away on her notepad, but because her child’s artwork and fingerprints are on the fridge right beside the magnetic poetry tiles.

I suppose it’s easy to romanticize the creative life. We imagine Kerouac on the road or Virginia Woolf retreating to a room of her own or Ernest Hemingway living the dream down in Key West.  There’s this strange aura we place around writers.  We want mystery. We want magic.  In fact, I’ve never been to an author reading where one, if not all, of the following questions hasn’t been asked:

Can you tell us a little about where you write your stories?

Do you write first thing in the morning or are you a night owl?

How about word count?  Do you shoot for thousand every single day?

Ah, and yes—where do you get your ideas from?

Everybody leans in waiting for some kind of revelation to take place.  The author stands behind the podium shifting her weight from one foot to the other as she tries to find a creative way to make jotting down chapter notes on the back of a grocery receipt while she waits in the car for her son to get out of band practice sound exotic.  Depending on the day, maybe it is. 

The author Cynthia Newberry Martin has a wonderful feature on her website called Catching Days. Since 2009, she’s invited a different author each month to share an essay on what it’s like to live a day in his/her writing life.  Besides the photographs in my planner, these essays have become a life line for me, especially on the days when it feels as though life and work are in a constant tug-of-war with one another.  I encourage you to read them.  They really do bring everything into perspective.