Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Happiness

Happiness has been in the news lately. My own town of Somerville, MA is the first city in the USA to include questions about happiness in its local census. One of the research goals is to find out what local factors may be related to a person’s state of well-being. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/us/01happiness.html. In England and France similar questions are being asked.

Gretchen Rubin in her best selling book, The Happiness Project, and a similarly named blog http://www.happiness-project.com/ shares her ten personal commandments for happiness and a slew of articles that translate her abstract principles into the practical.

Last week, in our local paper, Richard Griffin expanded the concept into “Elements for bringing happiness in later life.” http://www.wickedlocal.com/somerville/news/x311054268/Griffin-Apply-Somervilles-happiness-survey-to-later-life#axzz1PImWVPem.

I remember what a sensation Charles M. Schultz’ Happiness is a Warm Puppy (1962) caused. It was a book of sweet aphorisms all beginning with “Happiness is…” (first edition available on Ebay for $130), We all came up with our own versions. It’s natural that satire would also result from this sappy concept. Apparently, the Beatles song, “Happiness is a warm gun,” was inspired by the cover of a gun magazine (probably not satire). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_Is_a_Warm_Gun.

But an interest in happiness is rooted in our own “Declaration of Independence.” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/freedom/doi/text.html

Is happiness always a desirable state? According a research brief in the June 2011 Monitor (American Psychological Association, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/06/inbrief.aspx ), “Happiness may not fend off depression in Asian cultures as it does in Western cultures” because happiness may be seen as a “precursor to jealousy and disharmony with friends and family.”

Research also suggests that genetics plays a part in about half of our ability to be happy. http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2008/11/the-happiness-i.html. That still leaves the other half.

And then there is spiritual enlightenment. http://www.chopra.com/happinessrx.

I believe I am one of those people who tend more towards happiness, at least in this third halfof my life. I am told I was a very happy baby, I recall a generally happy childhood, followed by a supremely miserable adolescence, and a very up and down early adulthood. My best friend and I even charted our level of contentment from day to day. Our moods were generally a result of how well the boys we had our eye on responded to us. I eventually landed the target of my affection and fell in love (and then out of love); she did not. But she seems very happy now.

As a consequence of my natural disposition and relative good fortune (partly the result of good planning, partly of luck and geneti cs) I don’t find myself thinking about how I could be happier. I gravitate towards things that give me pleasure and meaning and away from things that bore me or irritate me. To some degree I put off the undesirable, from the daunting, such as the need to downsize, to the more mundane and every day, such as doctors’ appointments, housecleaning, and maintaining my email inbox. Spending time with good friends and family gives me great happiness, and those people need not be all sunshine and light themselves as long as they engage in life and take responsibility for their own actions. I am happy when I challenge myself and continue to grow as a person.

Thus, I am embarking on a new stage of my writing career that may take me away from this blog for awhile or severely limit my ability to create new entries. For the next year I will be part of a pilot program for novelists—those of us with a completed draft. We will share and receive critiques from our fellow students and instructors, analyze books already in print, and read about writing, among other activities. There may be times that the stress of reading nine draft novels not of our choosing in 10 weeks (in the summer no less), or hearing harsh words, or having assignments will not induce a state of happiness, especially on top of life’s other duties (such as paid work). I may wonder why I brought this burden on myself. But I do believe that in the end I will be happier for having stretched myself. And I might even find out whether getting a novel published will lead to that ultimate state of American nirvana, known as success.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On Dancing without the Stars

Over the last couple of months, I’ve taken a semi-hiatus from writing. It hasn’t been a complete separation—more like a vacation where you stay in touch with your colleagues through email. I’ve kept up with my blog, participated in my bi-weekly writers' group, and completed some rough editing on a draft of a novel. But I’ve rediscovered my 80s dancing persona. Actually, it started with folk dancing in college and the years immediately following, with a twice weekly habit the year I lived in London. I even went to Maine Folk Dance Camp, where in my mid-20s, I was one of the younger attendees.

In the late 70s, I saw "Saturday Night Fever" and fell in love with disco. After 30 classes, satin jeans, and practice sessions at Faces, a now decaying club on Route 2, I had to concede that disco had lost its steam, so I switched to swing—-reminiscent of my grade school jitterbug days. And then on it went, through foxtrot, cha-cha, rumba, waltz, meringue, samba, mambo, salsa, all the way through Argentine Tango V. I'm sorry to say that most of that kinesthetic knowledge has faded in the two intervening decades. Other than the basics of ballroom, the only dance that really stuck was swing.

A few years ago, a writing friend introduced me to a local dive frequented by middle-aged patrons listening to middle aged bands at a sensible hour on the weekend. But it was a rocking good time. The ladies and I would get up to dance to the bluesy, r&B, country, honkey-tonk, or doo-wop sounds. Every once in awhile, my husband would come along, and we would trot out the old swing moves-—often the only ones on the floor to do so. Over time, more couples joined us, and we were no longer an anomoly. But I went only every couple of weeks, sometimes skipping weeks in a row.

Until this February when I became the dancing queen. It coincided with my fitness kick—-my weekly butt-killiing sessions with a trainer, my losing five pounds, my cutting out all sugar except for my daily square of chocolate. But the exercise factor became a side benefit of the more central fun factor. And the fun factor was a result of that great epiphany of one’s middle years—that the space between us and death is narrowiing.

So to the Saturday sessions I added the more mellow late Sunday afternoon set (for which you didn’t need earplugs but you definitely needed a glass of wine), the twice monthly Saturday afternoon with an Irish-Cajun band at a long-standing Cambridge pub (where a waltz or a polka is a possibility and a beer, a necessity), and then Wednesdays in the gospel-like atmosphere of the “Church of Fred” in an even tinier bar where the lead singer sashays down the narrow aisle, and we all chant the chorus. The repertoire becomes as familiar as the faces of the other regulars.

Only the first bar has something ressembling a dance floor. In the others, space is at a premium, but we push back a few chairs and make do. Sometimes, there are later night sessions at actual music venues with cover charges, or heaven forbid, the odd foray to a real dance, where everyone knows how to do two-step and zydeco and the dancers flow counter-clockwise around the room. There are casual and surprising opportunities to dance. Two weekends ago my town held a “Porchfest,” with 75 bands playing on front porches to the sidewalk audiences. And just this past weekend we attended a music festival where we danced a marathon eight hours.

All this activity doesn’t leave a lot of time for writing, but oh, the stories I am gathering and the characters I have met, liked the grizzled fellow with a missing tooth and alcoholic breath but some cool dance moves. Although I will always love dancing as long as I am physically able, I suspect that my recent frenzy will die down one day—maybe soon or maybe later. For now, my explanations of how I spend my time in my advancing years elicit surprise, sometimes envy. It makes more sense in these "Dancing with the Stars" days. But to those of you who remain skeptical, pick your venue from the above and join me. You, too, may become a convert. And if not, I can get you home early enough to use your evening in another way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On the Joys of Texting

I never thought I would be a convert to texting. Just a couple of months ago I scorned it, not so much as a form of communication, but because of the way it seems to take over some people’s lives. Since when did it become permissable to be in someone else’s physical company and be so absorbed talking to an invisible presence on the other side of cyber space? Since when did my generation become such fuddy-duddies? Remember how our parents rolled their eyes at our transistor radios, at our endless phone conversations?

And then my cell phone stopped working. I decided to replace it with a phone with a keyboard—not a very smart phone, but just one with a little extra functionality. It would be good for making arrangements, I figured. So I paid the extra bucks for a texting plan.

One evening not long after I succumbed, I was in New York on business and decided to eat out in a restaurant I had visited before. It was a one menu, steak-frites French bistro on Lexington frequented mostly by twosomes and threesomes. I noted a lone woman across for me, her face buried in a book. I felt sorry for her. I’d had a demanding day and was content to sit with my glass of house red, waiting for my dinner and eavesdropping on the couple next to me. Then I had the urge to share my experience in an un obtrusive way. Remembering that a colleague/friend had recommended this place to me, I decided to text her, and we had the following conversation.

--I’m sitting in the steak-frites place by myself and thought of you. Tiring day at x, and oh the noise level. Now enjoying my much needed glass of wine. Dinner is served. So goodbye.

--Oh! So glad you are there! Wish I were there, too. Bon appetit!

--I ate a few extra fries and mustard coated steak on your behalf. May consider dessert…

--Yum-I can almost taste. Dreaming of profiteroles.

--Tx for the inspiration. Profiteroles it was. Pure contentment. Stresses of the day all gone! Back to the room for “What not to Wear.”

--That is a perfect evening after a loud day. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

Hardly deep, yet I felt unusually satisfied with the exchange. I felt less alone.

My texting audience is still minimal and consists mainly of a tiny handful of younger friends and friends with grown children whose only mode of speaking to their parents is the text message. I still use it mainly to make or confirm plans, to announce arrival times. But it’s also good for a rant.

While traveling this last week, I had an annoying flight delay of three hours in DC. I texted another friend, who was also away from home.

--Stuck in airport til 10pm. F**k. If u r free at any point, pls phone & entertain me!

Note that I have begun to use some texting shorthand, despite a full keyboard. The message resulted in a voice mail to me due to my being in a temporary dead zone, but I was able to return the call and have a nice chat to fill the time. Later, when my flight was cancelled, I felt an even stronger need to rage to the same friend (who also began texting about the same time as me, despite a phone without a full keyboard.)

--Adventures in flying. While knocking back 2nd scotch, flight cancelled unbeknownst to me. Spent hellish hour rebooking. On plane.

I got some sympathy, too. Short but sweet.


Today’s messages consisted of advising a family member from London about places to visit on Cape Cod in the rain. Texting on the international number is cheaper than phoning.

Why not phone or email, my non-texting friends would ask? Typing on a tiny keypad seems so inefficient and unnecessary, almost primitive. Is this progress? And that would have been my reaction a few weeks ago. But if you don’t have a smartphone or Blackberry, you don’t have access to your email at all times. Compared to phoning, texting puts less pressure on the person to provide a lengthy response or to give an excuse if it’s not a good time to talk or they just don’t feel like talking. You can look at a text at your leisure, compose your pithy reply. Best of all, you have a written record of what you said, what they said, even if it’s not great literature.

I’ve come to enjoy the the phone’s tuneful announcement that a message awaits me. Although my husband teased me this evening about knocking out a text as we were sitting on the sofa together, I promise that I will not become a set of thumbs walking down the street, oblivious to my environment and the live person strolling next to me. I will not become a slave to the technology, just because it’s there. I promise! But maybe I can persuade my husband to add a text plan to his cell service so we can send each other little notes..

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On a Recipe for Sustaining a Long-Term Relationship

• Be interested in each other’s lives, even the mundane at times.
• Encourage and support each other; sometimes all it takes is listening, sometimes a gentle push.
• Share a common core of enjoyable activities, but maintain or develop your own interests.
• Learn to enjoy a new activity that is important to the other person, even if it’s one you might not have chosen yourself.
• Respect each other’s privacy, need for space, and time alone or with other friends.
• Never go to bed angry.
• Be frequently affectionate with each other—lots of hugging, kissing, hand holding, and snuggling that doesn’t always signal sex, but just genuine caring.
• Amuse, entertain, and playfully tease each other; find ways to make each other laugh. A lot.
• Take an interest in the other person’s opinions—about current events, books read, movies or plays watched. Challenge each other intellectually.
• Go on at least one “date” a week outside the house.
• Find time for each other every day (no multi-tasking!)
• Appreciate each other sincerely—do not take the other person for granted. Tell that person you love them regularly, remind them of their great qualities, compliment them.
• Find a way to work out your financials—not necessariy merging everything into common accounts, especially if starting out later in life. Money should not become a target for argument.
• Discuss your hopes, dreams, and long term visions for your lives together—to keep yourselves on the same page as you get older.
• Figure out which battles are most worth fighting for and leave the rest alone.
• Give and take.
• Be honest, but not unkind.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

On Maintaining the Garden of Friendship

As the weather warms and green shoots poke through the ground, I know it will soon be time to reconsider the garden. Regardless of what I choose to do, the perenniels will reemerge—some in perfection; others, overtaking and crowding out their neighbors; yet others, spindly and dying. I can sit back and see what happens, or I can take charge and decide what will make this a pleasing space. It will take work; I will have to cut back last year’s tangles, mulch, weed, and deadhead.

I can be ruthless and rip out plants that no longer work for me or have lived their useful lifespan, either leaving the space bare or replacing them. At first, I can’t be certain about the new choices. They look pretty enough in the catalogue, but who knows how they will turn out. They, especially, will need nurturing to reach their potential and flourish on their own. It’s a risk. Maybe I shouldn’t have junked the known quantity so quickly—the plant I destroyed. Maybe it was salvagable if I’d treated it differently.

Of course, there are the annuals—they are colorful all summer and bring me joy, but with their shallow roots, they need even more attention if they are to persist even the length of the season. Still, it’s the mix I like, and that’s the price I pay.

My friends are like the plants in my garden. There are those I have known for years and can count on to continue to be there for me (as I will for them). Although I can neglect them for periods of time, I cannot take them for granted.

Other friendships will die a natural death. We no longer have anything meaningful to give each other.

Then there are those I struggle with. These friendships may still have some life, but can I reap from them what I sow? Will I end up resenting them rather than being grateful?

The annuals of friendship are often associated with specific settings and add a sense of fun and belonging, but they can’t be counted on in difficult times. I’ll enjoy these for what they are, not investing much and not expecting much either.

Finally, there are the new friendships—few and far between these days. I think carefully about these and what they will add to my already rich bounty. They will take time from my existing friendships before I know their promise.

As someone who evaluates the merit of programs for a living, I have four simple criteria for considering the worth of my friends in my life. I know there are other characteristics we might expect from long-term friends, but the following can be applied even to newish friends.

Emotional Honesty: Can we be truthful with each other? Are we “real?” That does not mean we share every secret, but it does mean we do not disguise who we are and that we can be comfortable in our skins around each other.

Appreciation/Acknowledgement: Do we say nice, but sincere things to each other? Do we acknowledge the importance of the friendship?

Responsiveness: Is there a give and take to our communications? Do we listen and react to the other person and not keep the show focused on ourselves? Do we take an interest in each others’ lives?

Enthusiasm: Are we excited to hear from or see each other?

I look forward to cultivating both of my gardens, and by the end of May, I hope to invite friends—both old and new—to bear witness to the results.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Remembering Beth: A Conversation between Belle and Pippa

March 16 was the eighth anniversary of the death of Beth Brett, sister to Belle and mother to Pippa. To commemorate this occasion Belle (who lives in Boston)and Pippa (a resident of Edinburgh, Scotland) held a conversation about Beth and the influences she had on each of them. Like Belle, Pippa is also a writer www.pippagoldschmidt.co.uk. The conversation took place at the Franconia Inn in Franconia, New Hampshire, where the family spent Christmas of 2000, the year before Beth was diagnosed with cancer. We all remember it as a happy time.

Which of Beth's qualities do you most admire and remember her for?

Belle: I would say her exuberance for life.

Pippa: Her determined and clear vision about what she wanted to do. It wasn't easy but she worked hard to run a creative business and make a living while still maintaining control.

Belle: She was an excellent model for running her own business. Another quality I admire her for is her prodigious creativity. She turned out sketch after sketch. Her output really hit home when we went through her archives after her death.

Pippa: Yes, part of my growing up was to be surrounded by sketches.

Belle: How did that example make you think about your own needs and capacilties?

Pippa: You need to be determined and work hard to shape vague ideas into something real and concrete. It also made me realize you can follow your own ideas and don't have to be subsumed into something else, and also that other people will find that interesting. If you work hard at shaping a vision, whether clothes or writing—it takes a lot of work to shape something that is uniquely yours.

What was the most influential thing?

Pippa: Seeing her work at it—the cost and effort. That has its own rewards and efforts—the doing of the thing. When I relate it back to my own work, the doing of the writing gets more and more interesting as I learn more about how to do it.

Belle: I would say a third quality I admire was Beth's capacity to be a really good friend. She could listen, but she was also interesting and funny. She had a natural spontaneous wit and was good with wordplay. She actually had the skill to be a writer. She fed off of others. Her stories about the ragtrade were hilarious. I would have been interested to see her memoir.

Pippa: She loved reading. We would quote chunks of Catcher in the Rye together.

Belle: What appealed to her about Catcher?

Pippa: The wordplay, the expressions. It was an honest, truthful portrayal about fitting into the outside world. It showed me the world of New York City in the fifties.

Belle: That book showed me I wsasn't repressed! So many of my female classmates thought it was disgusting, and I found it funny. It is difficult to achieve that kind of a distinct voice.

Pippa: We shared a lot of books. One book I read first was Jane Gardam's A Long Way from Verona about a young girl growing up in wartime. It is another book with a strong voice. Another book we all read was Frost in May by Antonio White. Dad brought it home. On the surface it was just a school story, but it's about trying to work out one's personal morality. It's beautifully written.

Any other qualities Beth had that stand out for you and serve as influences?

Pippa: Another quality she had was determination. She would stick with something in face of difficulties. Even when she had bad selling seasons she wouldn't give up on it. She had huge tenacity.

Belle: That's something I have trouble with as a writer. All that rejection.

Pippa: It's a mistake to see external rejection as failure. It has nothing to do with you as a writer. You have to look within yourself for success or failure.
Mum appreciated her own talent. That allows you to fare in times of difficulty. It was damn annoying and upsetting at times. But she never got stuck in a rut. She always found new ways be to be inventive. It's easy to feel comfortable with what you are doing and then become loathe to get away from your style. She was very alert to different ways of making a living.

Belle: You've had the advantage of already getting some external recognition as a writer, through being published and your in-house writing residency at the University of Edinburgh.

Pippa: I was surprised that people found my fiction writing related to science was the most interesting part of my writing. It did give me a niche, and the writer in residency consolidated that.

What was your trajectory as a writer?

Belle: I started creating stories as a child--they were more like graphic novels, which I drew. I just never wrote the words down, but spoke them out loud. And then in high school my two favorite assignments had to do with creative writing, but it took me a long while before I figured out that was something I wanted to do. I envied Beth because from a very young age she knew she wanted to be a fashion designer. In contrast, I was such a dilletante until recently.

Pippa: I tried to write as a student, but I didn't have the time or ability. At age 25, I did evening classes and wrote my first complete story at about 28. Then I began to do a lot of writing and at age 30 went on my first residential course/retreat. After Mum died, I stopped for awhile, but got back to it within a year. I was trying to work on a novel. I wrote sad stories.

Belle: After Beth passed away, my creativity dried up for a couple of years. Then I realized that life is short, there is no Godot, and I had to stop making excuses for myself.

Pippa: Mum expanded her own horizons until she couldn't do it anymore. She wrung every bit from life. When I was young and would say I was bored, Mum railed at me--do something! You have so many things! I would sit under her ironing board while she was working.

Belle: Why did you choose science?

Pippa: I think I wanted to differentiate myself from parents. It helps to avoid comparisons.

Belle: And the writing?

Pippa: Writing was a deep-seated passion. But you need such solitude for it. You also need experience doing different things in different ways before settling down.

Beth--Thanks for all you gave us. RIP.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Writing What You Know

CN Nevets in a February 3 blog post talks about the concept of “writing what you know.” He concludes that “writing what you know or writing authentically means knowing enough about what you’re writing that even if you’ve never experieneced it yourself before, your readers will feel as if they have through your story.” He suggests that this kind of authenticity can come through understanding the emotions being conveyed, not being over confident with the details you pick up from your research, and knowing when facts or details may not be important or relevant.

In thinking about my own writing, I realized that I use the concept of “writing what you know” in slightly different ways.

Writing characters you know: In life, we meet people who are so distinctive that they were just born to be in novels. Their style of speech, their mannerisms, the roles they play offer us jumping off points for imagination. My novel set in Japan is populated with distinctive, secondary characters based on people I met while working there many years ago. However, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist, who occupy center stage, are based on real people.

Writing places you know: Many a writer makes his or her living setting much of their work in their hometowns or other familiar places. Think Anne Tyler and Baltimore, or Robert Parker and Boston in the Spencer for Hire series. In these books, place often becomes a character. I am most comfortable setting my work in places I have lived or visited, but because my knowledge may extend back to another era, I frequently find myself needing to do research to get the details right, such not having a character visit a place that didn’t yet exist.

Writing time periods you know: If you write stories set only in the current time, you still need to understand how the history of characters who are older or younger than you will have an impact on their world view. Those of us with any life experience know people of different ages and can generally try to represent those views. However, when writing about an earlier time in one’s life, the challenges are greater. Coupled with some good research, we may be able to capture the essence and even some of the details of those times, but it is easy to misremember our own pasts and how we acted or felt, and perhaps even harder to present characters not of our generation.

Writing about experiences you’ve had: As the basis for a whole story, writing from real life has its pitfalls because of the tendency to want to tell a story as it was (in which case, write a memoir!) Real experiences don’t always have the necessary plot or arc to maintain reader interest. Thus, the writer may need to veer off substantially from the way things actually happened. And just because something happened doesn’t make it believable. Real experiences can be used in a variety of ways in telling a story, and for me always serve as a trigger for my writing. In a recent short story, I used something I’d witnessed as the inciting incident of the plot. My Japan novel is liberally sprinkled with things that I actually experienced that give the story its texture, but they do not provide the spine of the story. In contrast, in my young adult novel, real events provide a structure on which to hang the plot although the plot is entirely fictional. Finally, in my novel about the adventures of two women in midlife, real experiences inspired many key plot points.

Writing emotions you know or understand. Building on Nevets point, above all else, I believe that the success of a story that is character driven rests on the authenticity of the emotions of those characters. Simply put, do we buy it, even if the story takes place in an unfamiliar world and time?

Monday, February 28, 2011

On the Medium Is the Message

I wonder what Marshall MacLuen would have said about today’s variety of ways for people to connect interactively with each other. Would he label some methods as hot and some as cool? Of course, his observation that “the medium is the message” referred to passive communication, such as watching television or reading.

As a writer, I am intrigued about how we express ourselves differently in different forms, and what these form allow us to convey about ourselves both in terms of content and personality. I am particularly considering four modes of communicating, several the courtesy of social networking, but each of which requires a response (as opposed to blogging or tweeting, which invite responses but do not require them.)

This week I had a chance to explore through a sample of two (researcher that I am) how my theory played out. In one case, I “chatted,” had a lengthy phone conversation (not through Skype, which does add a new dimension to talking on the phone, but still, I maintain, is not the same as talking in person), and exchanged messages with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, but with whom I had always had a great connection. The other case was someone with whom I was establishing a new friendship. We had seen each other informally but not talked much, exchanged a few emails/messages previously; then we “chatted” and finally talked by phone.

Here are my thoughts about the pros and cons of each of these:

Email/messages through Facebook: Provides an opportunity for organizing thoughts, error free if so desired. Emails/messages allow the writer to expand on an idea, if so desired, without interruption. It works when no immediate response is required. It’s easy to miscommunicate tone, thus sometimes requiring the use of emoticons or excessive numbers of exclamation points. Although emails/messages can be informal, they are more distancing than other modes because of the passage of time between interactions. (Sometimes, emails/Facebook messages can be traded back and forth quickly, acting more like texting or chatting, but because there are no expectations about an immediate reply, they are not the same.) And sometimes no reply ever comes. Did the message get lost in cyberspace, end up by mistake in the recipient’s “trash,” or glossed over because other messages came in later.

Texting/chatting through Facebook: These two media require an immediate reaction. The quickness and short length of responses invite writers to exchange clever repartee. There is potential for playfulness. Because of the feeling of confidentiality and also because chatting is detached from face and voice, writers may be more at ease to be personally revealing than they might in a phone call. Or they may be more superficial. In addition, one can take a little time to formulate a response. Unlike in a phone call (unless one adopts the practice of taking notes!), one can keep track of thread of the conversation. It reminds me of exchanging notes in study hall.

Phone(calls of substance, not making arrangements: For introverts, phone calls can be stressful, but with good friends, they can be delightful and energizing. My sister, who was very extroverted, used to talk about those who “gave good phone.” As an introvert myself, I do envy people with quick wit. I suffer more from “l’esprit d’escalier “ (the spirit of the staircase), when I think of all the fun things I could have said after I hung up. But phone calls can take many different tones, depending on the reasons for the call (catching up, discussing one another’s issues, gossipping). The pace and flow of the conversation is sometimes determined by one party, more than another. Silence is deadly. But you can multi-task.

But none of these is a replacement for in person communication. Body language. Gesture. Facial expression. Tone. You get the whole package. Permissible silences in which you can fill space with actions like taking a sip of a drink or just smiling. Sometimes the other methods will have to do, but this is the real deal. Hot and cool.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

On How Do You Know When the Story is Done?

You know when the roast is ready when the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees; the quiche, when the knife comes out clean. The pasta and veggies are cooked when sampling indicates they are appropriately chewy or crisp, respectively.

But how do you know when your story is ready for submission?

Your critique group has given you multiple suggestions. One person tells you to “dwell” a little more when the protagonist meets the stranger for the first time; another doesn’t like the blonde you introduced on page 8. Someone else feels you should begin the story in a different place. You’ve been given ideas for extraneous words to delete. You revise and revise again, following some suggestions, ignoring others. As you are doing so, you get a couple of “aha” moments, which lead to some restructuring. All of a sudden, one of the ideas you had rejected now makes sense. You wonder what else you’ve missed.

You give it to a couple of other people to read. They like it, offer a few additional thoughts, maybe more minor this time. They find a few typos. You feel like you may be closing in. You search for those submission guidelines and find that your story is 500 words over the accepted limit. Time to tighten. You can’t believe how many long-winded phrases you manage to find, how you’ve inserted an unnecessary character who never appears again (but no one else mentioned), how the ending now seems too obvious. You manage to shave off 600 words. Is it enough? Of course, now you notice a mass of typos because of all the changes you’ve made. Although your husband is a great editor and proof reader, you are hesitant to give him your story in case he hates it. You like it, but you feel you’ve lost all objectivity.

So you save it in the folder on “works in progress,” and go back to the novel you were working on. No danger of that being finished to your satisfaction any time soon.

Then one day you casually mention to someone you have just met that you “write.” “Oh,” he says. “Have you published anything?” “Yes, one story,” you admit. Almost four years ago. One lousy story. Now you feel embarassed, ashamed that you even brought up the topic, even though you’ve been writing like a fiend during this time. You aren’t a dabbler. And it’s not because you’ve had rejection after rejection; it’s because you rarely sumbit work. On those few occasions when you scrambled to meet the deadline for a writing contest, your work did not receive any acknowledgement, and you allowed yourself to get discouraged. You rationalize that it takes time to find the right places, and for now you want to concentrate on perfecting your writing, on producing a substantial body of work.

You are reminded of your young English cousin who didn’t say a word until he was three, and then the first sentence he uttered upon seeing a freshly painted door was, “By jove, what a smashing green door.” A fully formed grammatical sentence. It caused a bit of a sensation. Perhaps you are hoping that when your horse leaves the gate (to change the metaphor), it will win its first race. A debut wonder. A best seller. But really, how many agents will consider you if you haven’t proven yourself in the marketplace? It doesn’t matter if you have a couple of dozen stories and three novels in the bottom drawer.

One published story is a good start. It was a decent journal. It means you’ve got some literary chops. At some point, you just have to trust yourself to say, “This is done enough,” and take the time to find the appropriate venues or get help in doing so. Submitting isn’t writing, but it is all part of the process, isn’t it? And let’s face it, you’re no spring chicken with a whole life ahead of you. After you’re gone, your bottom drawer, all your hard work, may be someone else’s recycling.Then you're really cooked.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On the Pros and Cons of My Kindle

Like many thousands (millions?) of others, I recently received (at my request) a Kindle during this last holiday season. When it comes to technology, I am generally not an early adopter. I like to wait until the kinks and bumps are worked out, and mostly I like to wait until the price comes down. I never envisioned this little piece of hardware as replacing my book collection, but I could see its advantages. I was ready.

Having just completed my first Kindle book, I pass along my initial observations—the pros and cons, as I see them, compared to reading a “real” book. I should confess that I haven’t yet explored all the Kindle’s capabilities. Note that I am not comparing the Kindle to other e-reading devices (can it show things in color)or even considering it’s other uses, such as reading magazines or newspapers. This is Kindle Pros and Cons 101.

The Basic Pros

Size and weight—the new Kindle, even with a hard cover to protect it, weighs about the same as the average paperback but is smaller in dimension. It can fit easily into a small purse.

Capacity—there is no contest here. The Kindle can hold thousands of books. When it comes to travelling, I know which one I will take with me.

Instant ordering—No longer do I have to go into a store to purchase a book or order online and wait. The book I want is mine with a few keystrokes (as long as I have a wi-fi connection for which I don’t have to pay extra). The process of purchasing a book was unbelievably easy, even the first time I tried it. (Possible con—danger of over-ordering.)

Ability to change typesize—I hadn’t thought about this one before, but as my eyes age, the ability to change the size of the type is a Godsend, especially in low light conditions. The type is no longer blurry, reminding me that I might be ready for reading glasses.

Durability—The hard cover that my family so thoughtfully purchased with my Kindle acts as a shell to protect it from wear and tear. When I carry paperbacks around, the inevitably become dog-eared.

Ease of turning pages—A minimal amount of energy is require to turn pages forward or back—just as well since with the larger typeface, I need to turn pages every few seconds.

Keeping your place—When I reboot the Kindle, it always remembers where I last left off. For some reason, I am lazy about bookmarks and often forget where I am in book.

The Basic Cons

Lack of ease of browsing—Not having that great a memory, I like to refer back to people and incidents more than a few pages back. Although the Kindle allows for specific searches, provides a highlighter option, and no doubt other mechanisms that could help, it doesn’t allow for an organic search.

Lack of page numbers—The pages of a Kindle book do not correspond to the pages of the paper version. Instead, the Kindle informs you what percent of the book you have completed. Percents are all very well, but 10% of a 100 page book is very different from 10% of a 1000 page book. I want a sense of how long this book is going to occupy me. A little research onto the Amazon.com website will let me see the book’s actual page length, but it’s another piece of research.

Lack of a unique cover—Silly, maybe, but I like the distinctiveness of each book’s cover that keeps me rooted in what I am reading. In my first Kindle adventure, I was not familiar with the author, and it wasn’t until I finished the book that I read about her. I still can’t remember her name because the book isn’t sitting on my coffee table reminding me.

Battery operated—In its favor, the Kindle is a battery powerhouse. I read a whole book without any suggestion that the battery was low, but I was nevertheless aware that it could run out at an inconvenient moment. Of course, the solution is to keep it charged up for those long trips. But still, it’s one more thing to think about.

The effect of a lit screen on sleep—My unscientific observation is that the Kindle might disturb my ability to get to sleep. I have learned that I cannot work at my computer within an hour and a half of lights out. The week I read my Kindle novel, I had a hard time getting to sleep. Was that the excitement of the particular novel I was reading that got my juices flowing, or was it the electronic screen? Or was something else going on in my constitution? I wil need to try out my theory out with a less engrossing book.

The expense of loss—No one likes to lose a book, but losing a Kindle (or having it stolen) would be quite heartbreaking.

Lack of permanence—Despite the Kindle’s prodigious capacity, at some point I will want to eliminate titles. Maybe this act will be no worse than giving away or selling books, but there is something sad about blowing a book into cyberspace where no one else can enjoy it.

Despite my equal number of pros and cons, the pros definitely carry more weight, with capacity and typeface control winning the day. As with any new gadget, over time I will see how indispensable my Kindle will become and whether there will come a day when I cannot imagine my life without it. For now my immediate challenge is to decide what to order next for my upcoming trip. But while at home, I think I need to spend the next few years catching up with all the unread books on my shelves.

Friday, January 7, 2011

On 10 Lessons Learned (Maybe) and (Possible) Guiding Principles

Most people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. So making them invites the possibility of feeling like a failure. I realized after reviewing my year as a writer (see my 1/1/11 blog entry) that while I hadn’t accomplished many of the “reso-goals” I set last January, I could credit myself with a number of other equally ambitious and valuable achievements.

January 1 is somewhat of an arbitrary time to set a course, especially for those of us whose schedule revolves more around the academic year. But because it marks the beginning of a new tax year, it represents a chance to clean out the files (both actual and mental) and consider one’s direction.

This year rather than setting specific and immutable writing-related goals, I am going to apply the analytical skills I use in my paid work and construct a list of lessons learned with some accompanying principles or recommendations in no particular order. Many of these may seem obvious (such as the value of reading for writers), but we often overlook the obvious, and one person’s obvious may be another’s aha moment. As I review my list, I am surprised at how many are inter-related.

1. Keeping a detailed record of my writing-related activities provides me with a sense of accomplishment and keeps me honest in a positive way. Even when I feel I haven’t been doing much to further my writing, all I have to do is review the diary. Good for me for doing this. Recommendation: Add a weekly tally of pages revised or written. Add reading about writing, such as articles, blogs on writing.

2. I thrive on variety. I am constitutionally unable to stay with just one project until it is finished before starting another one. There is nothing wrong with this as long as I don’t leave a string of abandoned projects because I am afraid to finish them and get them out there. Recommendation: Go with the flow. The point is to keep writing and to enjoy it. If this means flitting between projects, so be it.

3. Reading both for the pleasure of it and for learning about writing is a critical part of a writer’s education. I love to read and wish I weren’t so slow. I learn so much from reading good books (and the occasional bad one that has a terrific plot.) Recommendation: Keep the Kindle loaded up and take it everywhere. Keep TV viewing and magazine reading limited.

4. Workshops, conferences, readings and gatherings all provide a periodic inspirational shot in the arm. I no longer have an interest in committing to a ten-week course. I have my writers’ group, and I am a very self-motivated person, but it is helpful to focus on a specific writing issue occasionally and/or to be around others who also write, to learn from them, to be inspired by them. Recommendation: Try to find and attend at least one such event each month. It’s probably less important what it is than just to go to something.

5. Immersing myself in writing, especially in a location away from home, increases my productivity. Occasionally, while on vacation I have had the opportunity to write every day without the distraction of work and in a new environment. I may only write a couple of hours each day, but the consistency allows me to stay revved up and enthusiastic. In addition, it is a luxury to be able to write in the daytime while I am fresher. Recommendation: Build a writing-oriented vacation into my schedule at least once or twice a year, even if only for a few days at a time. Look into going on a writers’ retreat in some nice place.

6. Feedback is essential to becoming a better writer. I knew someone who wrote four novels but made little headway in getting any published. Later I found out that this person never asked anyone to critique his writing. Few people can be objective enough about their work to know whether or not something is working. Recommendation: Continue to seek out critique, not just from my writers’ group, which looks at 5 pages at a time, but from others who may be willing to read larger chunks at one go.

7. If I write after about 10:30 at night I have trouble sleeping. This one is tough because most evenings, the earliest I can really begin is 8:30, and sometimes the juices don’t really get going until 10pm. Recommendation: Start earlier and write regularly, so that even if I don’t spend more than an hour at it, the momentum is there. (See #5.) When possible, consider devoting some afternoon time in addition to the weekend, even when not on vacation.

8. I need to step away from my work for awhile to successfully revise. See #2. Because I have number of irons in the fire, I often leave one alone for awhile. The distance allows me to more critical of what I’ve done. Recommendation: Build in a DNA spiral of revision, even if it takes longer to complete a project. If possible, try to get through a full revision before moving on.

9. Blogging forces me to reflect in more depth about something I have been thinking about. I began blogging to create more of an external presence in my writer’s persona. But I have found it to be a useful personal forum for sorting out and capturing my thoughts. I know from a point of view of going after a readership, I need to do it more often, but that isn’t my primary goal at the moment. Maybe at some future date. Recommendation: I stuck with my goal of two a month last year, and I think that is a reasonable goal for this year.

10. They were right. Sometimes you just have to sit down and say I only have to write for 15 minutes. The key is sitting down, turning on the computer. When I haven’t had an opportunity to write, lack of confidence and doubt sets in. It’s the continuity that counts. Inevitably the 15 minutes turns into an hour (but see #7 for maximum end time in the evening.) Recommendation: As the Nike folks said, just do it!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

My 2010 Writer's Year in Review

How can I resist publishing something on 1/1/11!

I officially proclaim my activities in writing for 2010. Including my fourth quarter,as a writer, I:
• Participated in 24 sessions of my bi-weekly writer’s group, taking in pages every single time.
• Wrote 24 blog entries, not counting my check-ins.
• Attended 6 evening workshops, 2 full day writing conferences with multiple sessions, 4 writer’s party/networking type events, 4 readings.
• Wrote three flash fiction stories, which I submitted to contests (didn’t win), and completed one other short story.
• Completed 9th draft of one novel, involving some substantial revision to the opening, and had someone critique that version (almost final!!!) It had been critiqued as a whole previously by 5 people. Wrote a new query letter.
• Completed 3rd draft of another novel, and had three people critique whole novel (writers’ group has regularly been critiquing pages). Wrote a synopsis and revised chapter outline. Did some initial editing after the critique, especially to opening chapters to make characters more sympathetic. Needs cutting.
• Made substantial revisions to first four chapters (out of a 10 chapter novel) young adult novel begun many years ago.
• Not counting writing my blog entries, I wrote on 25% of days; adding in blogs, writers’ group, writing events, I did something related to writing on about 46% of days. Not bad given I had one of my hardest work years since I’ve been self-employed.

Here is what I said I would do last January (my reso-goals), and how well I did these things (or why I didn’t.)

1. Complete revisions of my novel on the travails of two women in their middle years (by March 1), obtain further critique from three trusted reviewers (by April 15), make final revisions, prepare manuscript to send out to agents by June 1. What happened: Completed revision (by mid-July) and obtained critique of three people. Because one of the critiquers was involved with me in development of the screenplay on which the novel is based, the timeline has been changed to suit her schedule better. Will have draft 4 ready by summer.
2. Write short synopsis and query letter to be reviewed by six people each. What happened: See above—not quite ready for prime time.
3. Research appropriate agents and send to 5 a month once manuscript is ready, for a total of 30, if needed by end of year. What happened: See above. But should have bit the bullet and done this with the first novel.
4. Write on average two blog entries a month (can cheat and make at least four of these primarily photographic in nature). What happened: SUCCESS!!! And I didn’t even cheat!
5. Write six new short stories for Maine collection (average length-4000 words), or approximately one every two months. What happened: Completed only one additional story in the series, but DID write three flash fictions, revise first novel, and make substantial progress in revising young adult novel (which was not part of the plan.)
6. Read on average one good novel a month (slow reader…)—already in my possession, used, or borrowed. Only buy new if attending a book signing. What happened: Pretty much met this goal. Maybe bought a couple more books than I said I would….
7. Spend at least 20 days in Maine to get inspired for #5. What happened: Spent 22 nights in Maine (over 8 trips) and went to the Maine Diner at least once on most of these trips (for inspiration!)
8. Skim through all magazines, reading only what really interests me (vague, I know—sometimes you have to go with your gut), and complete by end of month in which they arrive, in order to make time for 1-7. What happened: Better at this, but not quite there. Tend not to finish magazines if I am in the middle of a good book.

Biggest disappointment: Didn’t write that much fresh material this past year—most of it was revision. Also, only work submitted was the three flash fictions.

Biggest accomplishments: Believe that novel #1 is just days away from being ready for submission. Made a real breakthrough in presenting the protagonist in a more sympathetic light. Also, feel good about my discipline in writing my blogs regularly. Now to work on getting more of a readership!