Sunday, November 24, 2013


When I grow up I want to be someone who has dreams. “Has,” not “Had.” I don’t want to be one of those people who looks sadly to the rear and says, “Once I thought I’d like to - - - ,” and never did.

I often say that I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. It isn’t because I don’t think I am grown up. I’m plenty old enough to know I am about as old as I have any right to expect. What I do mean is that I’m still learning, still trying new things, still believing that tomorrow can be better than yesterday, and that the best is yet to come.

When you have lived long enough to leave a legacy, some might think that’s enough. I don’t. There are things to do out there, things I’ve not tried yet, or had the opportunity to experience yet, or even know about, yet. At the same time, I don’t feel that I have to be in a hurry, need to rush into something because time is running out. Oh, there are days when I do think about that, because I’m a reasonable and responsible adult, and I know there has to be some plan for the future, some means of assuring that as long as I am, I will also be. Is that too Zen-like? Life is reality-based. Dreams are a part of that reality because they are what keep us getting up in the morning, what make us push to explore and learn.

I want to be ready when the opportunity to live a dream comes along.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Re-Mixing Life

Something writers are frequently asked is “Where do you get your ideas?” The simple answer is, “anywhere and everywhere.” It’s more complex than that, but really, story ideas find the writer, not the other way around.

Life presents stories that are ready-made for telling. You simply must be aware of the world around you. How you re-tell a story is what makes the difference. I have written before about my own way of finding and telling a story. It begins with an observation or experience in which I am a participant or on-looker. I might read or hear a story about someone I may know or not, but what they do, or are thought to have done, or are planning to do will unlock something in my imagination or maybe even a similar story filed in wherever those things go in the mind. A new event or more information about an old one, for instance, can generate a whole new story about a person or event or place. Filling in the missing pieces (because I’m not privy to the full story, or because there are missing pieces no one knows), is where retelling becomes creative.

At the beginning of works of fiction is something called the “disclaimer.” It appears before the title page, and is designed to separate fact from fiction. It’s that line that reads “Any similarity to events or to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.” There are other ways it can be said, such as "Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." Some are more creative or artful than others, but in all cases the meaning is clear: the writer either doesn’t know or isn’t telling everything. What makes that phrase work, it seems to me, is that there is no story, no life, no event that is so unique that it has no previous or possible mirror. Whatever is written has been written before, taken place before, will happen again in real life. There are parallels in all lives.

Of course you may have heard the bones of a story or even read something in a newspaper or non-fiction book that triggers your creative side. It happens to me all the time, which has led me to conclude that the we all have a part of the brain that is always observing, storing, expanding information that it receives from normal channels. Even when the writer is participating in the event, there is a part that is thinking about how to convert it into a story. Being aware of that is part of what makes me a writer. We are all storytellers, you know. Sharing (and embellishing) events by retelling is part of what makes us human.

It is simply life re-mixed.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Writing it Well

The hardest part of writing a personal essay, it seems to me, is keeping it from becoming too personal; not letting what you write be simply “me” spelled 300 different ways. That is a risk one runs, of course, whenever one writes. Fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. The question is, how do you guard against that? A writer must always keep in mind that someone else is going to read what is written.

The personal essay is probably the most easily tainted by too much “me.” It is, after all, not that far from a diary or journal entry, composed for the writer, considered confidential by most, and often shared only by those who come after the writer is no longer around to either object or explain. An essay, a “personal” essay, is a deliberate attempt by the writer to share a idea or two in a constructive, coherent manner, and do it with as many readers as possible.

There are two key parts to a personal essay: the writer and the reader. Capturing the reader, holding the reader to the end, demands certain things of the writer.

The subject must be one of interest to readers, and the writing must be more than chit-chat or mumbling on the part of the writer. Striving for elegance is always important. In an essay it is often what keeps the reader going from first word to last. A novel may have a plot that exceeds the quality of the telling, and that can keep some readers working on it to the end. An essay is short, but brevity alone will not always hold. “Short and sweet” is a combination, not an either-or option.

Once the writer has found a style of writing that works, then the selection of subject becomes the next important task. A beautifully constructed line or paragraph or page has no intrinsic value if it is not something readers care about. Finding that is what brings readers to the page, to the story, to the thought behind the title.

Making writing work, regardless of the form or subject, requires work on the part of the writer. One test that can be applied is simply to ask at the end of every line, “Is this about me, or the subject?” If it is about the writer, then the next test is one that every line in any writing must pass: Does it advance the storyline or plot or subject I have identified? If the answer is “no,” then the words must be cut.

The process can be agonizing, I know. Sometimes a line gets written that is beautiful, meaningful, perceptive and in every way just what the writer wants it to be – and it is wrong. Wrong for the subject, wrong for the voice, wrong for the form. Out it must go.

I can’t tell you how many time I have heard (and said) in response to the question, “Is the script finished?” the incomprehensible (to the client or the producer) answer: “Oh, yes. I just have to put in on paper.” Editing begins in the writer’s mind. The words that finally get written and are  eventually allowed to remain, or are excised, should be the right words. And they must be about the subject, not the writer. I remind you again of  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum: You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say.

Writing well is all there is.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Word Too Far

This morning I was reading a book review of a new novel. The story parallels, but doesn’t follow completely, a prominently reported murder case from a few years ago. The reviewer talked with the author about writing from life; that is, using real people and events as the model for a story or character. I wasn’t surprised, and I doubt the interviewer was, and probably you aren’t either. First of all, real life offers so many models that just couldn’t be invented. I think almost every writer uses real people and real events at least as the skeleton for a story.

In stories I have written, most of my characters are taken from life. Some are composites, others are the real people with different names. It would be impossible, I think, to create a character or an event that isn’t at least influenced by people I know, or know about. Events often suggest a story to me, and at least some aspects of every story come from the real world.

I suppose it would be possible to write something that has no parallel, no mirror image of real life or real people, but it would require that the author create not just a story and characters, but landscapes, language, even images. Even then there would be some relationship to reality. There has to be, if the reader is going to understand and believe the story.

The same is true with words. Words can be simple or complex, common or unusual. If they are common, at least to most people, then the reader can focus on the story, not on the language. It is only after one has read a story, I believe, that the use of words should be apparent. A reader who must stop and think about or search out the meaning of a word or phrase is at the same disadvantage as one who has an elementary knowledge of Russian, for instance, trying to read War and Peace in the original. It can be done, but it detracts from the enjoyment of the story.

The same thing happens when a non-academic reads something by a specialist, or one educated beyond the basics who has absorbed the jargon of a specialty, using what is called a “term of art.” That in itself is a bit of jargon, but one that is almost self-explanatory.

The interview was interesting, the author articulate, the interviewer knowledgeable. The author, who has held fellowships and earned a graduate degree, had a successful first novel and now teaches creative writing. Most of what was said to the interviewer was easily understood, and even sensible. Near the end, however, the author lapsed into jargon. It was only a short paragraph in which it was stated that both of the author’s novels are similar because both “have intellectual and philosophical questions at their center.” Then the academic/author let this one get away: “I hope those questions are instantiated in characters that feel alive and real and the questions feel not just abstract or silly or cerebral but urgent.”

“Instantiated.” One supposes that is a “term of art” reserved for masters and doctoral programs that seem so popular these days.

“Instantiated.” Even my OED doesn’t contain it. Perhaps all of the author’s next novel will be completely in a language the reader doesn’t understand.

“Instantiated” is a good start.