Blog

New! Blog Post at Superstition Review

Many thanks to Superstition Review for inviting me, once again, to write a guest blog post. This is my third appearance in the magazine.

I enjoyed exploring how writers use foreign expressions in their work. In the process, I revisited old favorites like Agatha Christie and spent time with new ones like Junot Diaz.

Do check out the post here: A Foreign Connection

Your comments are appreciated!

As always, thank you for reading!

 

 

 

Stories from the Kitchen

I believe I am a strange writer for I work at my kitchen table surrounded by sensory catalysts.

Seated in the center of my kitchen, my eyes catch the enticing red of apples, the bright yellow of bananas, the rich green of broccoli and deep purple of cabbage. My nose is tickled by the minestrone soup simmering on the stove. Chai cools in a tea cup while my fingers enjoy the feel of the keys on my computer.

I’ve tried other locations, a coffee shop, the library, a quiet corner of the house. My husband even bought a perfect writer’s table which he placed by a window with a lovely view. Nothing worked. The words in my head seem to dry up unless I am in my kitchen.

So I always end up at my favorite worn table, encircled by food, where I type out the ideas that have been percolating in my mind.

I’ve heard the general wisdom that writers should find a quiet place, set up an office and then free of distractions, allow the ideas to spill forth. Somehow, that doesn’t quite work for me.

I find that my ideas come at the oddest moments, sometimes while I’m seasoning a pasta salad, sometimes in the middle of cutting up a fruit salad, and very often, as I am eating. Something about titillating my taste buds awakens my brain. My concepts get nudged along by smells and tastes. And that’s the ideas part. What about translating those notions into words?

For me, it’s imperative to have easy access to my computer; it allows the ideas to grow into words on the screen before the thought disappears. The thoughts begin as nebulous notions, but the sensory stimulation in the kitchen allows the abstractions to find form, depth and dimension.

So, yes, I am a strange writer. I’ve often wondered why I’m not as disciplined as I believe other writers are, why I work so differently. Thus, I embarked on some research.

Lo and behold, I find some famous writers who have used quirky writing places.

Wallace Stevens apparently could not sit down, and wrote his poetry on slips of paper while walking. His secretary would later type them up.

Here’s another strange source of stimulation. Friedrich Schiller had a bizarre preference; he found the smell of rotten apples from a drawer in his desk inspiring.

The renowned bestselling author Dan Brown believes hanging upside down is the cure for writer’s block. According to Brown, when he does inversion therapy, it helps him relax and concentrate on his writing.

Victor Hugo wrote without clothes. Faced with a tight schedule for his novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he instructed his valet to take away all his clothes so he wouldn’t be able to leave the house. Even on the coldest days, Hugo only wrapped himself in a blanket while writing the story.

Gertrude Stein found that the driver’s seat of her Model T Ford was a perfect place to write. She found shopping expeditions particularly productive. While her partner, Alice B. Toklas, ran errands, Stein would stay in their parked car and write.

Of course, I am not in the same league as these famous authors. But they offer me both courage and confidence. They tell me it is okay to write where and how I feel comfortable, in a location where my ideas find the best incubation, where my thoughts become words and take the shape and form of a story.

They tell me I am not strange for wanting to write in a kitchen filled with sensory stimulation.

 

 

 

References:

Writers Digest

lifehack.org

www.brainpickings.org

Ambushed by Beauty

The members of my writing critique group comment on my manuscript. That’s what they’re there for: to offer suggestions, to help steer me in the right direction and to give me their gut reaction to my work. Most of the time, I heed their sage advice. This last time, however, while I recognized they were giving me a safer alternative, I didn’t want to accept their prompting.

You see, I’d become attached to the words in question.

Five words in my story were encircled for being rather obscure and therefore a distraction. Which, a couple of them said, made it harder for the reader to delve into the story per se. I understood the need to capture and keep the attention of the reader, but I believed the words belonged where placed and conveyed exactly what I wanted to say.

Specifically, the words in question were palaver, garrulity, torpor, perfunctory and procure. My writing cohorts offered, as replacements, the more commonplace and therefore, more readily absorbed speech, talkativeness, sleepiness or idleness, casual or careless, and the unpretentious get. No, there’s nothing wrong with the words they suggested. But I believed my usage was not incorrect either. So, we arrived an an impasse.

I must admit, rather sheepishly, I pondered after the meeting if I’d been too hasty or obstinate in my insistence.

Still mulling on this subject a few days later, I entered my car, put the key in the ignition and heard a man say, “So writing well is the same thing as thinking well. Let me repeat that. Writing well is the same thing as thinking well. That is how we express our thoughts and our feelings.”

“Oh my God, are you talking to me? It’s true, so true,” I shouted. I’d left my radio tuned to the local NPR station on when I parked the car. Turning up the volume, I drove slowly as if to extend the spaces between his words. I didn’t know who I was listening to, but his iridescent words resonated.

With me, thinking and reflection are as vital a part of the creative process as the actual writing. I’ll wander around with the characters, the setting, and the words in my head for quite a while before I type out the first word on my computer. Even after I’ve given the thoughts alphabetic dimension, the ideas continue to percolate and people my everyday life: in the shower, when I sleep, when I cook, when I read.

The corollary, then, is thisthe words in a story are chosen and well-thought-out, not arbitrary.

Soon enough, I found out I was listening to best selling author Dr Charles Johnson, the 1990 National Book Award winner for Middle Passage, on the Diane Rehm show. His new book is titled The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.

“When I read something, I want to be ambushed by it’s beauty, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction I want to be ambushed by its beauty. I want the writer to have such a command over the English tongue that he or she teaches me how to use English better. That’s what I want in the things I read.”*

Exactly! There is luminescence in the right words.

I’ve always loved words. I am a reader, and have been one far longer than I’ve been a writer. When I read, I do look up words I don’t know. It excites me to add one more gem to my collection. Often, I garner the meaning of a word from the context, just like I did as a child.

The writer and the reader can work together to keep our language pulsing and robust. I also believe most people know more words than they realize. And yes, I’d love for my reader to be fully engaged in my story, be viscerally connected to my characters. For that to happen, the right word makes all the difference.

Thank you Dr. Charles Johnson for sharing your thoughts on writing.

Not that he’s ever going to read anything I write, but I intend to keep his wise words embedded in my work and in my heart.

This post also appears in Dead Darlings.

The Write Flourish

signature3

I remember signing my name over and over as I attempted to get the right flourish and the right curve, the cursive script an art I needed to perfect. The covers and insides of my books flaunted twists and curls I  practiced endlessly in my quest to find a signature as individual as myself. My hand turned into an embossing machine striving to make the autographs identical.

That was in fifth grade, at age ten. I paid careful attention to the writing of my name for I believed then that the two words were an extension of myself and embodied my spirit.

. . . Until signing became a chore and thus, meaningless.

It happened soon enough. Starting with high school tests and the college application form.

I am overwhelmed by the number of times I’ve had to put my name down in the process of living: when I filled out job applications, when I opened bank accounts, when I signed a contract releasing the other party from legal responsibility and every time I purchased something. Often, putting my name down on paper meant an acknowledgment of rulesa rental lease for example. The sign became a commitment, a promise, and a verification of my identity among other things.

There is no enjoyment in such routine activity.

What’s worse is that, in this digital age, we are abandoning the pen-written signature. The computer carries the typed or screen-squiggled name to the recipient without the semblance or pretense of anything personal.

Then, my first book came along and a reader requested an autograph.

I was mystified. Why did a reader want my signature? I am a relatively new and unknown writer. Only famous people sign books. Only famous people receive autograph requests.

In adulthood signing my name had devolved to automaton mode, it’s something I did routinely several times each day. I signed when I purchased something, not the other way around. It’s the same two words I’d transcribed a million times in my life, without sparing an extra thought to it. Now, someone had bought my book and was asking for my signature. I remember staring blankly at the person in front of me, thinking, “You want my signature? For provenance? I did write this book!”

It dawned on me, much later, that readers want me to write out my name for entirely different reasons.

They want the author’s name on the book because it is something from the writer that they can take with them. The book is printed with the author’s name on it; but when it carries an autograph, it becomes personal. And therein lies the value. It is a memento of their brief encounter with the writer. It is also how they remember the person who wrote the book. The signature makes it valuable, not in dollar terms, but in making the book unique.

In today’s digital age, e-books are popular for their convenience and portability. But, they cannot be signed or made personal in any way.

Signing a book is now my pleasure. I am honored when people buy my book, and I consider it my privilege to sign it. In an age where signatures have mostly become meaningless, an autograph in a book remains one of those old-fashioned arts that retains its charm.