Posts Tagged 'writing'

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.

What To Write….

Whether you write fiction, nonfiction or poetry, there’s no doubt you have a unique story to tell with your very own perspective. For many writers, reliving and retelling childhood stories are common platforms for their work. We often return to those times because they were filled with pain, joy or unanswered questions.

Even though we might have a sense of what story we need to tell, but once in a while we get stumped. Many writers say their best story ideas come to them when not sitting at their desks ‘working,’ but rather when they’re out and about. It’s important to remain alert to those mundane moments in everyday life—odd discoveries and chance remarks made by others in social, work or casual settings. Compelling stories contain snippets of these incidents woven with well-known factoids. That’s one of the many good reasons to carry a notebook with you wherever you go.

My typical day begins with reading the newspaper, either on line or with my morning coffee. An article might spur my interest which would drive me to surf the web for more information. If I am in the middle of another project, I will toss the idea into my “Writing Idea,” folder which contains stories I hope to tell one day. Whether I get to them or not is not important, the important thing is to have that folder for those days when my well runs dry.

Outside of having the “Writing Idea Folder,” when stuck for ideas, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

1)What is going through your head?

2) Who are your villains? Who are your heroes?

3)What are you obsessed by?

4) What inspires you?

5) Where are you in your life now?

6) What stories are you compelled to read?

Whatever you choose to write, you will soon realize that the creative journey is similar to life’s journey—it is unpredictable, unstructured, mysterious and laden with miracles.

In her book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), Margaret Atwood says this, “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.”

In Writing (1993) Marguerite Duras says, “Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome.”

William Faulkner believed that there’s a more profound reason why writers write. “An artist,” he says, “is a creature driven by demons. He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.” Whatever this dream is writers often lose sleep until the project is completed and this is how they uncover the story they have to tell.

In many ways, writing could be thought of as a modern, guilt-free replacement for confession. This might be one reason so many people are drawn to writing memoirs and personal essays. Writing about real life experiences is like a snake shedding its skin and leaving a former self behind. It’s easier moving forward when the baggage from the past is dropped. Franz Kafka summarized this idea beautifully by saying, “I write in order to shut my eyes.” Fiction writers might argue that they write fiction so that they can tamper with the facts in their life and that they have more freedom during the writing process.

Joan Didion says this about her writing, “Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

In essence, we write to know ourselves and to figure out the world around us. Even our darkest—or unknown—thoughts, memories and fears, can transform themselves to reveal value and meaning in our lives now. And with any luck, for others as well.

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?

What Story Are You Being Asked to Tell ?

Whether your chosen genre is fiction, nonfiction or poetry, you have a unique story to tell. For many writers, reliving and retelling childhood stories are common platforms. We often return to those times because they were filled with pain, joy or unanswered questions.

As writers we are often intuitive in regard to what we want to share and more often than not, there’s a story in us yearning to be told. However, once in a while we get stumped. Often times, the best story ideas come to us when we are not sitting at our desks ‘working,’ but rather when we are out and about, ‘not working.’ It’s important to be alert to those mundane moments in our every day life—odd discoveries and chance remarks made by others in the social, work or casual setting. Weaving these incidents with known facts about oneself, help make the story compelling.

My morning ritual is to read the newspaper and during the course of a day a magazine or two. Sometimes I will surf the web researching an idea which will lead me to something else intriguing, perhaps reminding me about a story I wanted to write some time ago, but forgot about. In my drawer, I have a file folder called, “Writing Ideas,” which includes all the stories I hope to tell one day. Whether I get to them or not is another story, but at least the file is there for when my well dries up. When you get really stuck, here are some questions you might want to ask:

1)    What is going through your head?

2)    What do you think about most often?

3)    Who are your villains? Who are your heroes?

4)    What are you obsessed by?

5)    What inspires you?

6)    Where are you in your life now?

7)    What stories are you drawn to read?

Whatever you choose to write, you will soon learn that the creative journey is similar to life—it is unpredictable, unstructured, mysterious and laden with miracles.

In her book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002), Margaret Atwood says this, “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out into the light.”

In Writing (1993) Marguerite Duras says, “Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome.”

William Faulkner believed that there’s a more profound reason why writers write. “An artist,” he says, “is a creature driven by demons. He has a dream. It anguishes himself so much he must get rid of it.” Whatever this dream is writers often loose sleep until the project is completed and this is how they uncover the story they have to tell.

In many ways, writing could be thought of as a modern, guilt-free replacement for confession. This might be one reason so many people are drawn to writing memoirs and personal essays. Writing about real life experiences is like a snake shedding its skin and leaving a former self behind. It’s easier moving forward when the baggage from the past is dropped. Franz Kafka summarized this idea beautifully by saying, “I write in order to shut my eyes.” Fiction writers might argue that they write fiction so that they can tamper with the facts in their life and that they have more freedom during the writing process.

In her essay, “Why am I a Writer,” Joan Didion says, “Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

In essence, we write to know ourselves. Even our darkest—or unknown—thoughts, memories and fears can transform to reveal value and meaning for us. And with any luck, for others as well.

*****************

My journal is full of seeds, some of which will blossom into full-fledged projects and others will fizzle. Just like the beautiful process of fertilization—some eggs  get fertilized and some don’t. Speaking of which, my first book, Getting Pregnant and Staying Pregnant: A Guide to Infertility and High-Risk Pregnancy (Hunter House, 1988) is now being updated and next year the 20th anniversary edition will be released. I am working with Dr. Errol Norwitz, the Co-Director of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Ob-Gyn unit. This year my eldest daughter, Rachel turns 25 and I started writing this book on a typewriter while on bed rest with her! It took me three years to write. In fact, she designed the first book cover. Now Rachel is old enough to be a mother herself. Although she’s not even married yet, wouldn’t it be cool if this newly-revised book could be a guide for her during her own pregnancy?

By the way, I am looking for anecdotes from women who have had difficulties during their pregnancy. Do you have any that you’d like to share?

Post #5

By the way my pregnancy book began as a journal of my pregnancy. Eventually the journal was condensed into the book’s introduction and the book evolved into a self-help book for other women also experiencing difficult pregnancies. So you never know where your journaling might lead you. Have any of your journals or anyone you know had journals which turned into published articles or books?

Post #6

Most of my articles and books are first written long-hand in my journals. Studies have shown that there is something about the creative juices which flow when the pen meets the paper. Actually, I do my best writing in airplanes. Less distractions? High concentration of oxygen? Where do you do your best writing?

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Post

Instead, I have just pulled down from the shelf in my library one of the many random volumes of journals I’ve filled over the years. A red un-lined journal with parchmont paper that I used while studying poetry with Sharon Olds in Key West back in the early 2000’s. I revisit a poem about women’s purses and how sacred they are—clutched close, jammed with receipts, phone numbers and unsent letters. Very sacred, just like my anniversary.

So what are your thoughts about women’s purses? What do you look for in a purse?

Full Moon Musings

I rarely need to be reminded of the impeding full moon.  It is an event that I can feel in the air by virtue of its energy—a notion that things are different.  I really understand the words of the songwriter, Van Morrison when he says this about the full moon—“It’s a marvelous night for a Moon Dance.”

The full moon occurs when the sun and the moon oppose one another.  The opposition between these two large luminaries tends to create an imbalance.  It’s sort of like being in the center of a strong magnetic field. 

During the full moon, studies have shown that some people have more accidents, while others enter a state of lunacy  Health care professionals have claimed that more pregnant women go into labor during the full moon and law enforcement officers claim that more crime is committed.

For others, like myself, creative juices flow stronger.  The question is how to use this energy to a literary advantage.  Those born under the full moon act as if they are carrying a full moon around inside of them.  They tend to be restless, always discontent and never satisfied.  In some people this can create a very strong drive to achieve and create. 

So, even if you were not born under a full moon, why not take advantage of today’s full moon and create away!

 

Journaling to Happiness

Although I never took part in the practice of Buddhism, I have always been fascinated by it. Last week I went to a lecture given by a Buddhist Monk who used to be a middle school teacher. He began with a basic meditation which involve a breathing exercise where we were instructed to breathe out the black smoke of negativity and inhale positive energy in the form of a bright light.

I learned that the message of Buddhism is that the more you love, the happier you will be. As I took notes in my journal, I began describing all of the people in my life who were happy. It suddenly occurred to me that those who were indeed the happiest were those who opened up their hearts and were able to love. Conversely, those who were unhappy, were those who were selfish and unable to love complexly.

The lecture summarize what I already knew, but it was nice to have a refresher and something else to muse about in my journal. It’s nice being reminded that a world without love is a miserable place and that if we allow positive emotions to over power negative ones, the world would be a much better place.

What do you think?

Writing Begets Writing

The writing life involves hard work, perseverance, courage, finding ‘le mot juste’ and coping with the risk of failure. Writers can decrease their risk of failure by writing more and providing a steady stream of submissions to editors and publishers.

Those who get published are a special breed. They understand the graceful art of submitting their work and how with every acceptance there might have been 50 or 100 rejections. They understand that if you don’t send out your work you will never be read. Many writers don’t seem to understand this. Those who do not  get published sit in their office writing and waiting for the knock on the door, but unfortunately, it rarely happens this way.

Now is the best time to silence your insecurities and forge ahead with your work. Believe in yourself and your writing and send out your work out.

 

What are you waiting for?


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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