Archive for the 'Musings' Category

Writing about Family

As it turns out, May 16th is National Biographer’s Day and May 18th is National Relatives Day. I thought combining these two holidays would make a good subject for today’s blog.Ironically, tomorrow I will be visiting my family in New York to celebrate my son’s 21st birthday – so I’m doing exactly what Wikipedia says I should do—visiting relatives!

As a memoirist, the challenges of writing about family are constantly present. Many of my students who write memoir often express their fear of being sued. According to Judith Barrington in her book, Writing the Memoir, the chances of being sued are extremely low. For the most part, suing someone is extremely expensive.  Plus most people w considering the process might not want to bring any further attention to a potentially-embarrassing situation.

The dilemma for the writer is having the desire to do justice to their families, but also wanting to write a compelling story. The fact is, drama sells. A humor columnist friend of mine who frequently writes anecdotes about his wife or married life, clears his short pieces with her first. He is both wise and sensible to do this. It’s good to allow family members to review your writing prior to publication. Not only does it allow you to face your family with peace of mind, but it can also solicit an additional perspective which might also even strengthen your story.

No doubt, the most interesting characters are those who are spirited and who are willing and able to create conflict, the essential element that keeps a story compelling.  There are three types of conflict—conflict within the individual, conflict between individuals and conflict between an individual and society. The odds are that if your story doesn’t contain some type of conflict, either you don’t yet have a story or it will be a boring one.

If you are driven to write about family and fiction is not an option for you, then you must know your limits and boundaries within the world of nonfiction. There are three important things to remember: be as honest as you can, fact check, and preserve other people’s privacy. In any event, here are some terms you should be familiar with:

Defamation: This is damage to someone’s reputation, which includes damaging statements that are either slander (spoken) or libel (written).

Libel: This is being accused that a published statement is untrue. This can only be done by a living person. One way to avoid this charge is to alter character name, especially if you are saying something which can embarrass or invade a person’s sense of privacy.

Invasion of privacy: This is writing something about someone which they don’t want published and then sharing it publicly. This can include embarrassing, personal or misleading facts about a person which you might be obtained from a third party.

Copyright: Most writers are familiar with this infringement, but one thing I recently learned was that letters are copyrighted the second they are written, and that you cannot publish a letter without their permission.

Indeed, there are rewards when writing about family. You might have access to fascinating stories and details which could really sell and might not otherwise make their way out into the world. But, it’s important to be cautious and keep the following in mind:

Set boundaries for yourself; allow anyone mentioned in your writing to review the material and honor the fact that people are entitled to their privacy.

The New Journal – Author Blogging

Dear Reader ~

The art of being an author means that it is no longer enough to craft a compelling manuscript and submit to an agent or publisher. We are now told that no matter what the size of our publishing house we need to do our fair share of marketing.  We must now be excellent promoters of their work and with this revolution comes the relatively new interface of the author blog.

Over the years, my journals have been a conglomeration of personal and impersonal—

scribblings which sometimes lead to published work, but other times include lists of things to do and books to read. Now that some of my scribbles have gone public, I find myself a little more reflective. I try to keep my blog entries general enough so that those who are not authors will also find them stimulating, but those particularly interested in the writing life will gain some personal insight into their chosen field.

In general, there continues to be an intrigue and mystique associated with the writing life. I learned this while editing my last book, Writers and Their Notebooks (The University of South Carolina Press, 2010), and how fascinated readers are to hear about how the writer’s mind works. Even though we don’t get paid much, many people still say they would love to be a writer if they had time. In fact, yesterday I had lunch with a dear friend whose son asked her, “Mom, if you could be famous for anything what would it be?” She turned to him and in spite of working in a completely unrelated field, said, “I would want to be a famous writer.”

Surely everyone else’s grass looks greener, but if you love to read you probably would be proud to call yourself a writer. OK. I’m veering from the subject of blogging, but also making a point that there are different types of author blogs and it’s beauty is that it gives you a chance to ramble and muse. Alas, I have made a promise to my readers that my blog will never exceed 1000 words, and most often they hover around 700. Long blogs will loose readership. We simply all have too much to do.

Many authors already have blogs, but if you are considering one, here are some things you should know about the different types of blogs:

Daily Blog – Even though at first, this may seem like a wonderful idea because it inspires regular writing, these types of blogs are very difficult to maintain over a long period of time. The idea is that writing your blog should not be a chore, but something you actually look forward to doing. You also want to make them stimulating and interesting to read, unlike the journals you kept as a young child. In your first draft, you can start by writing, “Dear Diary,” and write from your heart, write about what really interests you and chances are it will also interest your readers. Then go back and cut what might not be interesting.

Weekly Blog – This is what I do, because a week’s time frame presents itself with enough material to filter through and find something captivating to write about. If nothing happened or sparked your interest in the past week, then write about something in the news which interests you. Write about what you’ve read. Write about a movie you saw.

Subject-directed blog – This is a good type of blog, particularly if you are a nonfiction writer who specializes in a particular topic, whether you’re a politician, scientist, activist, photographer, fashion designer, medical practitioner, painter or filmmaker. These types of blogs stir up the most controversy and will probably get the most comments.

Group Blogs – This is a good way to go if you are unable to make the commitment to a weekly blog. You might want to gather a group of authors together who write similar books and take turns blogging. If you choose this route, make sure you have a list of guidelines laid out in the beginning. In addition to my personal blog, I am a guest blogger and columnist on a few other blogs and I enjoy the occasional and refreshing nature of this arrangement.
What makes a powerful blog? This is an important question because unlike diaries, there’s really no use for a blog without readership. I suppose we should ask our readers, but many of mine have told me that they were just thinking about the subject I blogged about, which I guess means that my blogs are very timely. So here are some tips I live by which might help you:

1 – Have your finger on the pulse on the times.

2 – Let your personality shine through. Readers are attracted to passion in writing.

3 – Write well and compelling text. Sometimes a good writer can make an uninteresting story or life sound very interesting. It’s all in the writing.

4 – Update regularly. My readers expect my entries on Monday.

5 – Stay ahead of yourself. Typically I am one week ahead, just in case and I cannot blog on a Monday, I always have an entry in the hopper.

And the best news of all, (before this blog entry gets too long), is once in a while we hear that blogs can sometimes lead to a book contract – now wouldn’t that be a perk?

Genre Confusion (Book, that is…)

In my local bookstore I just picked up a copy of Jeannette Walls latest book, Half Broke Horses: A true life novel and as an instructor of memoir, I wonder about this new genre. Walls last book, a memoir, The Glass Castle (2006), was on the New York Times Bestseller list for quite a while. I read it and loved it. I find her writing quite compelling and she openly called that book a memoir, but I must say I am curious why she decided to call this new book a ‘true life novel.’

I do know that many prose writers who want to tell the story of their lives are frequently in a quandary as to whether they should tell their story as fiction or nonfiction. Typically, I tell my students that there is no correct answer. It’s whatever feels right or organic to your story. Some writers might find themselves experimenting by writing the story in both genres to see which one flows better.

No doubt, whatever genre the author chooses, he or she will encounter reviewer flak, once the book is published. A recent article in The Daily Beast (January 19, 2010), claimed that memoirs raise a perennial problem—sometimes fiction is more powerful than memoir and the main reason is that often memoirists are not as adept at using fiction technique as novelists. More specifically, in this particular article, writer Taylor Antrim proclaims that he views memoir writing as “cheating.”  The article mentions that he felt this even before the James Frey circus of events. He further explains that what he means by “cheating” is not necessarily an exaggeration of the truth, but that the stories sometimes contain blatant lies. He goes on to say that it’s not easy telling a good story without fibbing a bit, and it might be the author’s fabrications that bring a dramatic effect to an otherwise boring life.

As a memoirist first, and a fiction writer second, it is my natural instinct to defend my genre. Memoir is what it is and frankly I’m tired of people comparing it to fiction. It is a completely different genre with its own voice and rhythm. Did you ever hear of people comparing poetry to fiction?

The seasoned memoirist typically incorporates fiction techniques and if in fact, this makes the story appear fragmentary, then so be it. It seems that the writer is ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t.’ If they use too much fiction technique and bend the truth, like Frey, they are considered ‘liars,’ if they leave out parts of the story because they don’t remember them, they are called ‘fragmentary writers.’

 So let’s just accept memoir for what it is and respect the writer who chooses memoir over fiction as someone who has courage and guts to write a memoir without hiding behind the veil of fiction. If you don’t like reading the form, then don’t read it and stop complaining. Of course, there’s good writing and poor writing; there are good memoirs and bad memoirs; there are good novel and bad novels. I believe that if someone is a good writer, it doesn’t matter what genre he or she writes in.

In comparing the genres, Antrim shares examples of autobiographic fiction, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Maple Stories by John Updike and The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Then there’s another genre which has been frequently used, called, the autobiographical novel, examples of which include, On the Road by John Kerouac, Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Night by Elie Weisel, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and Childhood by Leo Tolstoy. I see two primary reasons for writing an autobiographical novel instead of a memoir —if you’ve forgotten certain events and/or if you want to protect the privacy of loved ones (or enemies).

Another part of me asks “Who cares what the genre is and why are people so intent on labeling?” Perhaps the most important reason for genre-labeling is that bookstore sellers will know where to shelve the book in their stores. In fact, the first question an agent or publisher will ask the writer is, “Where do you see this book in the book store?” Glancing ahead into the future and the inevitable demise of bookstores, I wonder if the genre line will become even more blurred. In many ways, I think it will  be a good thing if it does.

Note to fiction writers: You should know that most of  my writing colleagues are fiction writers and you should not take this blog wrong– it’s just how I feel today, but you know that I love you all and still want to hear what you have to say about this very controversial subject.

Linking Creativity and Depression

It’s not a new theory that some of the brightest, most creative and influential individuals in history have been plagued by depression – including Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, William Syron, and more recently the novelist, David Foster Wallace. A feature article in this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine section entitled, “Depression’s Upside,” by Jonah Lehrer offered a fascinating new slant on the subject. A study by a Yale Psychologist, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, showed that those with ruminative tendencies are more likely to become depressed. I found this to be an interesting factoid depicting those prone to this illness.

Supposedly, Darwin viewed his depression as a clarifying force, which helped him focus on essential problems. Apparently, in his writings, he claimed that sadness “leads an animal to pursue that course of action which is most beneficial.” In other words, for the creative individual, the darkness can be a sort of light.

The article certainly validated some of my own depressive moments. When everything is going extremely well in my personal life, I am more prone to writer’s block. As a journaling advocate and writing instructor who frequently lectures on the healing power of writing, I was thrilled that Lehrer referenced a recent study citing that ‘expressive writing’ leads to a significantly shorter depressive episode.  Many of us in the literary world are aware of this, but it’s refreshing to see it addressed in this reputable reference, for the masses to read.

In fact, in the journaling classes I teach, I see a major transformation in my students from the first to last class, particularly if they had signed up to find their way out of a crisis. I don’t really need any long-term case studies to convince me of the healing power of the written word. Just by examining my own life and those of my colleagues and students, I can see the pattern. I frequently make students laugh when I tell them that writing is certainly less expensive than therapy and often times, much more effective.

Depression is common in the general public and the article states that seven percent of the population will be affected by depression and this number tends to be higher amongst creative types.  So fellow writers, don’t worry so much about your depressive moments  or disregard your analytical ruminations, because you just never know what the outcome will be! Oh no, a literary drought!

To read the complete article, check out the following link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/magazine/28depression-t.html?em

Forgetfulness

I wrote this blog in honor of my cousin, Jed’s 55th birthday. (Happy Birthday, Jed!)

Most of my favorite poems are found on the pages of Billy Collins’s poetry collections. So many of his sentiments and images resonate with me. If I had to chose one poem to share, it would be, “Forgetfulness.” The main reason is that this poem inspired me to rediscover the poet in me who had been dormant since childhood.

This is how it happened. It was 2003 or 2004, and I was in the charter class of Spalding University’s low-residency program, working on my MFA. Our class was invited to a Billy Collins reading at a neighboring university. It was just after Billy completed his term as Poet Laureate of the United States. The university auditorium was packed and Billy read many poignant poems, including “Forgetfulness.”

I vividly remember chuckling to myself throughout his entire reading. It was just about the time of my fiftieth birthday and I was beginning to forget more than I remembered. Billy received a lot of laughs during his reading, but with an audience filled with baby boomers, I think he got the most chuckles while reading this poem. If you have ever heard Billy read, you understand his talent and dry voice. In his poem, “Forgetfulness,” he incorporates his classic teasing technique told in a conversational and accessible manner. His imaging is extremely clever and it continues to resonate with me this many years after that first discovery.

I rarely will choose to spend the time to stand in line for an author signings, but after Billy’s reading, I purchased all his books piled all the way up to my chin and decided to wait for his signature on each one.  I didn’t care how long it took me to reach the front of the line. I knew that his reading would launch the new poet in me and I wanted to avail myself of the opportunity to read the poems of a giant.

You can hear him read on u-tube or you can read it here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrEPJh14mcU

Forgetfulness

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read,

never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye

and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,

it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,

not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

The Month of Love

This month presents a few issues to contemplate on the subject of love – a perfect discussion to fill up the pages of your journal. I will share my entries with you here. It’s interesting to study the evolution of love and relationships. No matter where you live, whether in an urban, suburban or rural area, you can hardly get through February without being reminded of Valentine’s Day. This was a holiday we always celebrated when I was growing up because my father managed a general merchandise store (akin to Woolworth’s) and Valentine’s Day cards and gifts were already displayed the moment the Christmas aisle was cleared. So, my beloved father, was reminded every working day to bring home Valentine gifts for my mother and I. Each year he bought me one of those padded chocolate heart boxes filled with assorted chocolates and a card which read, ‘To My Daughter.’ Even though I knew lots of other daughters cross the country got the same, I appreciated his loving gesture and came to expect it.

Needless to say, I continued this ritual with my own kids, although my husband is not a great fan of this universal holiday when card and flower companies dictate that it’s time to celebrate our love. He believes the commercialization has gotten out of hand and on some level I agree with him. He will make his point by buying me flowers or a card either the day before or after February 14th, but not every year – and only when the whim strikes. That man has always kept me guessing!

This makes me wonder, also, about those who do not have romantic love in their lives. How do they cope with cupid following them around the stores for six weeks after the Christmas season ends?

Yesterday, the New York Times feature an article entitled, “Better Loving Through Chemistry,” which addresses the new way of finding love through internet dating services—which as many single people are well aware, has become an online task. (In fact I have two cousins who found the love of their life through such services.) The article discusses how a handful of dating Web sites are competing to impose some science or structure on the quest for love using various kinds of tests in the selection process. For example, ScientificMatch.com created romantic chemistry via genetic testing. The site matches couples based on certain genetic markers for their immune system, believing that we are attracted to those with different immune systems. Wow. This is amazing. Companies like eHarmony suggest potential matches based on areas of compatibility, such as values, beliefs, important experiences, family background and personal values, which they believe are all predictors of successful relationships.

Chemistry.com, on the other hand holds yet another view. As I think about those I know in successful relationships, I find this to be quite accurate. They say those with decisive, straight-talking temperaments, called ‘directors,’ tend to be attracted to empathetic, intuitive types, called ‘negotiators.’ Spontaneous types, called ‘explorers’ tend to be attracted to their own kind, and traditional pillars of society called ‘builders’ also tend to be attracted to their same kind. Think about this and let me know what you think. (I’m not telling you which category I fall into, but those who know me can probably guess!)

When you think that this is a $976 million annual industry, you realize that people do want love in their lives. So, this year, let’s take the time to bring love and caring into another person’s life, whether it is for a moment, a day or a lifetime.

Happy V-Day!

In Memory of J.D. Salinger

If I had to choose my favorite novel of all time, it would be Catcher in the Rye. Learning about the passing of J.D. Salinger’s passing last week, marked the end of a personal and societal era. It was consoling to know that he died peacefully in his home in New Hampshire at the age of 91, after what have been fifty reclusive years.

I always wondered what makes an author become a recluse. Or anyone for that matter. Are they trying to escape the attention of fans or are they just antisocial characters? Perhaps they are a combination of the two. If we look at literary history, we observe that many creative people do indeed seek solitude, either to focus on their work or stay out of the limelight. In reality, Salinger’s private life is irrelevant because what we should remember about him will be that he produced a book with a very memorable protagonist, one who has resonated with more than five generations. Catcher in the Rye is one of those rare books like Le Petite Prince that parents and children both stand to gain something from discussing.

There are so many things I love about the book, including the personal narrative of Holden Caulfield who truly depicts the angst and issues of adolescence by illustrating his deep sense of alienation, continuous questioning, and rebelling against authority. I loved Salinger’s blending of the typical adolescent character with his cynical sense of humor and sensitivity which sometimes peeked through the terror of his inevitable hormonal rages. Holden frequently voiced the common belief held by many adolescents that adults are both phony and superficial.

Salinger’s writing style and voice has so inspired much of my own writing. In fact, I have read the book a number of times, particularly when trying to find the voice in my prose. I have tried reading his short stories, but they did not resonate with me nearly as much as Catcher in the Rye. Much of Salinger’s writing focuses on the youth and in fact, he was once quoted as saying, “I almost always write about very young people.”

As I prepared to write this blog, I did some research on Salinger’s life and came upon some interesting factoids that coincidentally resonates with my New Year’s resolution. Although the son of a Polish Jew, in his late twenties Salinger studied Zen Buddhism and adhered to Vendanta Hinduism which advocated celibacy and detachment from responsibilities. Perhaps these interests contributed to his reclusive nature. Salinger also adhered to the principles of kriya yoga and other eastern spiritual, medical and nutritional beliefs including those of Edgar Cayce.

I am curious to learn more about Salinger. Perhaps his heirs will discover hidden secrets, journals or unpublished manuscripts that they might choose to share, as such is usually the case. It seems to be that we are more inspired and curious about the lives of deceased artists than living ones. and as my son recently mentioned in an email, “some of the most famous artists are only recognized through their death.”

What do you think?


Quote of the Week


"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me


I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

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