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Reading, writing...that's what I do.

Love for the printed word, love and belief in ideas.

Writing a Novel, Short Stories, Essays…Advice from a Guru and Mentor

 

Writers! How we love to sit at the keyboard and write. How we often keep going back to rewrite, change. We focus on interesting vocabulary; the length and composition of our sentences; we enjoy using descriptive language (adjectives, adverbs); we sit back and smile when we have created flowing sentence structures that crystallize our thoughts, making them uniquely ours. We know that the ability to use and feel comfortable with our language is truly necessary. And as we continue to write, the vocabulary we use, the word patterns we create, our facility with different sentence forms all combine to become our writing style, our VOICE.

 

Donald Maass, literary agent and writing instructor, a guru in my life, states the following: Like it or not, the narrative voice in your novel (sub in story, article, essay) exists in time. Or, more precisely, in an era. It cannot help but pick up words, expressions, issues and attitudes that reflect both the times of the story and the times in which you live.

 

So, are you writing something historical?  Maass states: Historical stories can be marred by anachronisms, but then again, the object of historical stories is not necessarily to perfectly reflect the dress, manners, speech and thinking of people of the time. If that were true, there would be no historical romances featuring hunky dukes. (Seriously, name one duke who would look like that, shirtless. Just one.) Maass stresses that as we write, our minds create sentences using the vernacular we are familiar with in our modern age.

 

KEEPING IT REAL 

Maass also asks how we can avoid creating fiction that feels dated. Are there aspects of your story that will cause future readers to role their eyes? AND: what makes a story timeless, despite being written in a particular time? Is it possible to cut from your article or your fiction the clues to manners, morals and mindset of your own times, so that your work lasts for centuries without requiring footnotes? (Wow! That would be a dream come true!)

 

Maass also asks if we writers can create a VOICE and SENTENCES that will be read and understood a hundred years from now. I would answer yes. He stresses a skill we should all cultivate, be aware of: being TRUE to our characters, giving them their own lives, so that they are not copies of our own. Create characters that are unique and fresh. He also suggests that when describing your heroine’s hair style, a future reader might find your description laughable. So how to create a work-around? How to write fiction, create stories that will stand the test of time? ANSWER: focus on the STORY ITSELF.

 

Don’t worry about hairstyles. Focus on PLOT, the major points your story is making, the values it is presenting, the voices that come off the page. Maass lists writers whose work is fresh even today, whose work presents human problems, foibles, the struggles we can all identify with: Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Zora Neal Hurston, Mary McCarthy… their work coming from times that are not modern, not particularly ours, but whose stories appeal to our humanity…because they are still about us!

 

FINALLY: do the narrative voices in the enduring books we read sound foreign to us?  NO. Because their stories arcs are about love and loss, winning and losing…about human joy and pain, they are about us. That’s the lesson contained in THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION. Maass concludes: what makes fiction timeless is not the trappings of dress, manners, morals, transportation, communication, social issues. It is a story that is time-transcending, universal, always about human experience, human emotions. So go ahead, allow your characters or your narrator to be ANCHORED IN TIME….BUT ALSO allow him or her to be AN OBSERVER OF THE HUMAN SPECIES.

Write, create. Basic human nature doesn’t change much. Use your own experience. Create your characters with all their joys, sorrows and challenges. As Maass assures all writers: future readers will recognize these emotions, will be pulled into your story, feel and understand once again how it feels to be human.  

 P.S. Thanks to Donald Maass  

And do consider purchasing, reading his helpful books, including, the Emotional Craft of Fiction 

 

 

ANOTHER LOOK AT MID-LIFE: GOOD NEWS

MENOPAUSE: “If men went through it, what do you think would happen? Great question asked by Emily Bobrow in The WSJ.  

Bobrow is referencing a woman realizing… wow! It’s menopause time. And how did that happen? And who is going to hold my hand through this NEW and maybe devastating life change. She remembers learning “things like that” from Judy Bloom in her well-know book, “Are You There God, It’s Margaret.” So Bobrow wonders: who is out there NOW to answer such questions. HA HA! “Are you there, God, I’m going through the change.”

But there is someone, writer Miranda July. “I kinda couldn’t believe the void when I got there. It’s a kind of transition, like birth or death, so you would expect books and songs, operas and plays throughout all time on this.”

Oh please! But bless you, Ms. July. And so July found herself asking her friends about it, often in hushed tones. She also claims that even the most dedicated feminists knew only as much about “the change” as she did. And there were no songs, operas or plays. OF COURSE NOT!

WHAT DID JULY DO? 

She decided to write “All Fours”, her latest novel, recently released. The Summary: a 45 year-old woman develops an overwhelming attraction to a young man she meets when he is helping clean her car’s windshield. AND…she begins to realize she needs to reconcile her body’s reaction, her age, marriage and choices with her NOW fluctuating hormones. The woman had worried that she might have “aged out of” desire, the ability to recognize it, act on it…until she realizes she has not!

All of this brings up the questions every women has, and July’s gynecologist is more than eager to answer.

SOME ANSWERS 

Yes, July is at the age for menopause with its many symptoms: insomnia, memory lapses, loss of libido. And July tells a close friend in her “July” way: “We’re all about to fall off a cliff.” HA HA!! Hearing that, the other thing isn’t far behind: midlife crisis. But she also writes that this could be kinda fun. “…to throw out words like ‘dry vagina. It’s like waving a gun around and everyone goes whoah!”

But also, my WRITER FRIENDS, now is the time to quote novelist Dana Spiotta: “It’s a great age for a writer to be. You feel like you have access to everything!” What a truth! You have experience, have lived lives that now become the background you needed for excellent, dynamic, emotional and worthwhile fiction. YES!! REMEMBER THIS. 

Have you ever read a novel, written by either a man or a woman, where you were amazed at what the writer DID NOT KNOW,  about life, sex, marriage, motherhood, sorrow etc etc ? You actually feel kinda sorry for the writer. 

So look at it this way: USING ONE’S OWN EXPERIENCE GROUNDS YOU…NOT ONLY IN YOUR WRITING, BUT ALSO IN YOUR LIFE. Don’t be afraid to use your past to form decisions about the present. 

SO NEXT STEPS? 

We experience life, other’s stories and then we write. As Emily Bobrow states: “The stories woman are including, stories to tell about themselves, appear to be changing.” Yes, openness, honesty is good, helps you, helps others. So read: Rachel Cusk, Alice Munro, Sigrid Nunez, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler.

Bobrow also references Kristin Scott Thomas’s role in “Fleabag” her character describing menopause as “the most wonderful fulfilng thing in the world.”  We can also go back to Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”, the main character being ambivalent about her status, yet her drive to be visible and throw a party despite: “herself suddenly shriveled, aged, and breast-less.”

THOUGHTS 

This quotes from novelist Dana Spiotta: “It’s a great age for a writer to be. You feel like you have access to everything!” Truth. Lived lives are the background needed for excellent and worthwhile fiction.

And  have you ever read a novel written by either a man or a woman, where you were amazed at what the writer DOES NOT KNOW about life, sex, marriage, motherhood, sorrow?  If so, it feels right to stress that using one’s own experience grounds you…not only in your writing, but also in your life. Thus, I enjoyed the last line of a recent piece: The narrator emerges from a theatre and notices that the sun is just beginning to set, “golden light everywhere; she decides to go for a walk. She had plenty of time…”

PS For us, this is a golden time…use it, feel it, enjoy it.  You have plenty of time. 

LOOKING BACK, THEN AHEAD: SOMEONE TO ADMIRE

Snow White wasn’t loved by FAMILY TIES modern mother, Elise Keaton.  No, Keaton stated Snow White was passive, just hanging around, waiting for a prince. And YES, this modern woman was making a valid point. 

But it’s also a fact, that most of us do some waiting, as we learn to make friends of both sexes, then date, eventually figuring out WHO WE ARE, and how we will choose to live our adult lives.  

In my childhood, I admired Snow White. It wasn’t just Disney, it was an old fairy tale, changed, rearranged, but part of growing up…   If your parents or grandma bought you books, you knew about Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc. Even my granddaughter chose a princess for one of her first Halloween costumes. (That apple (poison or not) doesn’t fall far from the tree.) But over time, with the rise of “women power”, the old fairy tales can start to wear thin, except…there is Disneyland. 

WILL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE? 

On a visit with my brother to Disneyland, we wandered into a store where NOW, WOW, you  can try on, then purchase a Snow White costume, fulfill your childhood dreams. My brother encouraged me…and so I tried one on. 

But as I stood looking at myself in the mirror, I wasn’t Snow White. The really powerful part had to be my memories. Surely that curious child buried inside me would have leapt for joy, if such a costume had been offered to her. But she did okay without it.

Not only on Halloween, but whenever I chose to: I wore a white cotton dishtowel tied around my neck. It fell not so gracefully over my corduroys, tee-shirt, saddle shoes. And in my mind, I was dealing with the Wicked Queen, hanging out with the Seven Dwarfs. The image in the mirror, different then. The image being filtered through my amazing childhood imagination. 

OTHER THOUGHTS 

My granddaughter, other modern children don’t have to leap very far to fall into other worlds, live out their story-dreams.  Her Cinderella costume an exact replica of the Disney image.  Television and video games also provide exact visual images, do a lot of the creative work for young minds. That’s a worry, though at the same time, their games are challenging, combining fine motor skills with brain skills at a speed I could never attain.

Thankfully, books still provide only the printed word as a pathway to fantasy and mind-dreams.  And on Halloween, it always happens—some parents and their creative kids let their imaginations run wild, producing a child at my door dressed as a sausage, a stack of books, or an amazing vampire that sprang from a crazy, wild vision.

I realize now that my dishtowel wasn’t very imaginative. But it didn’t need to be. In childhood, reality provided constant discovery. Our imaginations created Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, who were wildly exciting and so very real. All you had to do was live inside your head. And when you put on a pirate cape (towel)—you were a pirate. When you rode off on your bike around the block to escape your parents, you rode a beautiful horse far off into the desert. It was fantasy, it was incredible.

Children will always need their own imagination turf—those places of solitude that we found in our youth: a tree fort (a fancy parent-built one or a plank in a tree); a tent (the real thing or a sheet draped over chairs); a clubhouse (the corner of the garage, a closet, or the old shed out back, works just as well.) 

It’s all in the mind’s eye, as that corner becomes a place where children’s games shed any reminders of parents and home.  There another life exists. It’s the cardboard box and string thing. Or it can be where the video game gets solved without using all the gold coins. Because it’s always been true, imaginations need exercise as much as arms and legs do.

So on a recent visit, my two older grandchildren and I built a tent using chairs and stools. We made so much noise and had so much fun we woke up the baby.  They loved it.

NO COSTUME… I PURCHASED THE STATUE INSTEAD 

And when my granddaughter put on her Cinderella costume, I was entranced. No dish towels for her. And I didn’t buy the Snow White adult costume. Instead, I bought the plastic statue of Snow White, (the first photo above) later discovering it’s really a bank, a nice metaphor for holding my memories, reminding me that the human imagination is still alive and kicking.

LIVING IN THE BODY

Maybe we instinctively know that our bodies are fragile. And from the beginning, we crave distance from the pain and suffering of others. But as a child, I did not realize I could give pain to someone else if I looked away from their suffering. 

Maybe I found my way into nursing to better understand that very personal reaction and to acknowledge, to be more open. I believe that each of us, no matter the shape of our body, the losses or problems we might live with, that we deserves the acknowledgement of living as a whole human being. And I have learned not to run and open doors for the handicapped, unless explicitly asked to do so. Once, I did approach a blind man, telling him that the usual entrance to the mall was blocked by decorations. He whirled on me, told me he knew exactly where he was going. I had invaded his space. In that particular situation, I was wrong.

NOW A QUESTION: DO WE TAKE FOR GRANTED OUR BODIES AND HOW TO CARE FOR THEM?   

A scary question that makes me acutely aware of the health I do have, yet the attributes I don’t have. The women peering out from catalogs, magazines, television and the internet have perfect skin, defined arms and legs, breathtaking décolletage, slim stomachs, firm breasts and buttocks, incredible flowing hair, just sexy everything.  How can I be happy with my aging self when the world around me has raised the bar to unattainable heights? Well, I can be happy. I can love and care for myself and be grateful for my health.

WE ALL HAVE A HISTORY

In my attractive twenties, the bar stated by our culture, just wasn’t that high. I wore ordinary bras. I believe everyone did. I can’t even remember the nondescript panties. And if you did shop Fredericks of Hollywood, you were close to being a slut, though there was the trousseau lingerie you received at wedding showers—considered totally acceptable by your girlfriends, but Grandma and Aunt Harriet? They might have a seizure now. I mean, why do we have to look like we all work in a bordello? Give me a break. I’m aging, becoming obsessed with how to encase my sagging anatomy. What’s a girl to do?

I guess to just get over it. Take the sad trip to (VS) Victoria Secret (are they still around) or some other lingerie department. We have all been there: standing in the dressing room totally naked, looking at sagging breasts, and for some, baby-making tummies, and for others, I-like-desserts-too-much tummies. You check out the fine wrinkles in your knees and the occasional spider-vein, and either cry or just keep sighing as the fluorescent light transforms your skin into a lovely grey, and the tilt of the light reveals every flaw in your face. (Advice: don’t ever bend your face over your mirror—gravity will allow you to see where you’ll be at 90, sans Botox. HELP!!! )

THINGS TO REMEMBER

So you stifle the urge to break the full-length mirror, telling yourself: stay cool.  You suck everything in and try on THE BRA. At VS it’s called the “I feel sexy bra,” though you don’t. Because this is the sad trip, the one you take when your husband fails to realize what you went through throwing a surprise party for him. Or your longtime boyfriend was absolutely joyous when he was   transferred to Australia; or your husband seems too preoccupied with football, a sport you could care less about. But no mater what it is, you’re familiar with the drill.

But truly, our bodies, though sometimes thought to be secondary, will always be important to us. And it is not simply HOW WE LOOK, but how we feel. Routine physicals are necessary to make sure we are healthy. A good diet and getting the sleep and rest that we need is essential. So is eliminating stress when possible.

Today, people in medicine are constantly researching, discovering new medications and procedures to improve life, cure disease, provide mobility to people who are handicapped from birth or from accidents. It has always been about living in the body, caring for that body. But today–in so many ways–that task is enlightened and aided by research and knowledge. Thus we strive to care for our bodies, to maintain them–and our minds–to appreciate the lives we’ve been given. Watch your diet, exercise, get regular checkups…and remember to enjoy the body you have today. Life is about change…but you, me…we know that.  

 

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY: THE GRANDMOTHER HYPOTHESIS

THE GRANDMOTHER HYPOTHESIS

If you ask the evolutionary question: why do women continue to live after they are no longer able to bear, birth and breastfeed children, you come up with a researched and very interesting answer. They continue to be part of the evolutionary plan because they become grandmothers. And that is terribly important.

In the 1980s, anthropologist Kristin Hawkes and her colleagues studied the Hadza tribe, the last known hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, Africa. Their findings:

1. the tribe’s old women did not just rest, they worked, digging up a deeply-buried tuber (potato) which provided the main source of starch for the tribe’s diet.

2. and though the young women also dug the tubers, the older women spent more time at this task, leaving early in the morning and coming back late in the evening.

3. and because of the needed presence of this food in their diet, the grandchildren of these older women had better growth rates.

From these observations, came the “grandmother hypothesis.” 

Simply stated: as the species progressed, women past childbearing age helped not just their children, but also their grandchildren.

They strengthened the genealogy of the family, insuring that the line would continue. Anthropologists concluded, that having this role or purpose eventually lengthened the older women’s life span. When no longer required to carry an infant around, they were freed up to do work that helped their progeny. And very importantly, by foraging for more food, they prevented their grandchildren from dying. All generations prospered, as the lengthening of the life span was then passed on.

THE HUMAN SPECIES 

The researchers also stressed that the “grandmother hypothesis” clarified why humans are able to have children in quick succession, whereas in other species there are long gaps.

Example: chimp mothers wait 5 or 6 years to give birth to another neonate. But in humans, with tribal grandmothers available, the younger women could continue to have children. This collaborative child-rearing allowed the young woman to focus on the next baby, while the grandmother took care of the toddlers. That is certainly a good way to maintain the species. 

Judith Anne Shulevitz, a journalist and culture critic who has studied the “grandmother hypothesis”, believes that another very positive reason for grandmothers, is that their presence in a family unit changed humans in another way. 

It made their brains bigger. As life lengthened, so did each stage of it. Children stayed children longer, which let their brains develop a more complex neural architecture. Fascinating! 

WHY GRANDPARENTING IS SO IMPORTANT

Some anthropologists believe that the presence of grandparents is the most important family role of the new century; that in a society where many women have to work or choose to work, daycare centers, schools and grandparents often replace the role of the parent. Grandparents can bring much to the children whose parents are stressed and often emotionally unavailable because of work schedules and concerns for providing basic needs. In these cases,  grandparents are vital in helping a family thrive.

Children need guidance, love and someone to listen to their fears and worries. Grandparents easily become that source and a bond forms, allowing for future communication.

Grandparents can babysit, allowing stressed moms and dads a chance to get away and relate to one another.

Grandparents can relate family stories, creating a history that forges a bond and provides a child with a sense of place and security.

Grandparents can be role models for their children’s parenting and for their grandchildren’s relationships with others. The love and gentleness found in the home is the first step to forming good citizens of the world, who will have their own relationships and build their own families in the decades ahead.

IT IS TRULY ALL ABOUT FAMILY

There’s the familiar line: “If I’d known how wonderful it is to have grandchildren, I would have had them first.”

What’s that about? Probably that with grandchildren comes experience, confidence in the role to be played, freedom from the harder aspects of child-rearing and the amazing chance to see once again the future in a child’s eyes.

Certainly some grandparents have more nitty-gritty responsibility for their grandchildren than others. Some are doing much of the raising and rearing. Some show up only for the fun times, like birthdays and holidays.

But hopefully, most  grandparents find the middle acceptable ground–they are eager to role up their sleeves and help when needed and they are always desirous of telling family stories, reading well-loved books, taking exploratory walks and singing songs.

It’s a little like reliving your parenting. It’s a lot like looking into the future, and once again having that uplifting feeling of knowing something of you will live on. That’s truly important.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY    and   HAPPY GRANDMOTHER’S DAY 

Memories…Do We Ever Really Leave the Nest?

Do people write memoirs to hang on to the illusions of childhood? Oh so wonderful, that lost childhood! Despite my father’s death when I was 3, I think my childhood was just about perfect. And I fiercely hold on to memories that delight me, make me feel loved, secure. But now and again that time in my life rises inside me, tugs me backwards or makes things fly out of my mouth. Like when I remind people that I did not have a father. Why do I do that? Am I still in some pain? So I am asking you—do we ever really leave the nest?

Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer struggle with this question. A female character must be revealing her experience when she says: When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder. Everything moved me… A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did… I spent my life learning to feel less. Every day I felt less. Is that growing old? Or is it something worse? You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT

These are eternal questions that we all ask, though every person’s childhood is unique to them—some having incredible struggles, some having very few.

If my little world became confusing and distorted because one day my father was there, and then the next he was not—I blocked it out. I have little to no memory of him. Oddly, what I do remember was clinging to the world of my house—the nest.

At three, I started straightening throw rugs. Before I hit ten, I had insulted the cleaning woman by telling her that after dusting, she didn’t put stuff back right. The paperwork my mother did in our dining room to support us drove me crazy. It created lots of litter. In college, I even cleaned up after my roommate. And whenever possible to this day, the first thing I do on arising is make the bed I’ve slept in, even in hotels. And over the years, I have gotten in trouble with various family members by tidying up and putting away something that then becomes undiscoverable.

All of this is part of the 3-year-old child who still lives inside me—a shy person who got over her shyness and became a teacher and a nurse. A person who loves to travel, but also really likes being home. A person who still wants order in her world, and who surprisingly, firmly believes in monitoring and gradually exposing children to the harsh aspects of living.

J.D. Salinger thinks the same way. Here is Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the RyeI saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written ‘fuck you’ on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them— all cockeyed naturally—what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it.

Holden has a real concern. Some children are exposed to awful things at a very young age—right in their home environment. Do they remember? Do those events contribute to the development of the child later on? Did my father’s death make me crave order? Did I block death out because it was so horrible or because I was only 3 and I had childhood amnesia?

The latter is explained in a few ways: Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed childhood amnesia was a response to sexual repression, but another theory points to our lack of language skills before the age of three. It may be that our memories need to be stored conceptually and associated with the kinds of words and meanings that we don’t really get to grips with until we’re about three-years-old. Perhaps all of your childhood memories are still intact, but in a form you can’t access anymore. Yet another view is that young childrens’ brains simply don’t have the tools to store memory properly. Babies are born with billions of brain cells but relatively few connections between them, and so the areas of the brain responsible for processing memories are immature. In our brains, connections are everything and brain imaging studies on babies and toddlers suggest that between 8-24 months is when their brains are most active at growing more connections. 

Okay, so there is no definitive answer, but in my case, and maybe in yours, things that occurred in my childhood have definitely formed me. And I feel that most of them are positive. Gary Zukav, author of The Seat of the Soul, would probably tell me that I am not “in pain” when I bring up my father. He would say that certainly there are dynamics and experiences in my life that will make me remember the loss, but that I have the power to control my response, to not feel hurt or pain when thinking of my loss. He is saying it is my choice.

Zukav writes: This is good news. Each time the dynamic is activated, for example, anger, abandonment, humiliation, you will have another opportunity to look inside. You will again feel the magnetic attraction of fear, the powerful pull of judgment, the need to prove that another person is causing your pain. But you can choose to experience the interior source of your pain—instead of blaming it on others. (Or as in my case blaming it on a circumstance beyond my control).

So I believe we finally do leave the nest and grow up, but I think we bring a lot of its remnants with us. If we are fortunate to have experienced good parenting, the remnants we bring can help us deal with the twists and turns of living. But sometimes not. Then we might block the memories or as Zukav warns, we might do more damage to ourselves by allowing them to hurt us again and again throughout our lives. “Only you can do damage to yourself,” he writes. Do you agree? It certainly means coming to grips with the past that has a way of entwining itself with the present. Better to not be angry and want to kill someone like Holden Caulfield. Better to accept the bad stuff and focus really really hard on the good. Please share your thoughts.

P.S. Since publishing this post I found another great article by Kristin Ohlson who also did her research on childhood amnesia. Studies were done with young children to verify the belief that most of what happens to us between the ages of 1 and 3 is lost. 

I walked over to the hill where we used to go and sled. There were a lot of little kids there. I watched them flying. Doing jumps and having races. And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will all kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn’t. — Stephen Chbosky

Thanks to Thought Catalogue 

One day, we wake up and realize we’re not children anymore. Perhaps it’s after we graduate elementary school, or maybe it’s high school, or maybe it’s when we have our first kiss or start to worry about money or death. Whenever it is, we do grow up. We’re forced to. There comes a time that we’re no longer allowed to be dependent on our parents. A time when our innocence disappears. A time when our carelessness is no longer seen as youthful and charming, but as pathetic and unduly childish.

And to end on a humorous note: maybe this is why I loved Snow White as a kid. She really knew how to clean up a mess!!!!

 

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