Thursday, November 30, 2006

Finding the right expression

A line or two from Lynne

At four, I was famous for tantrums of dramatic proportions. My father used to call me Sarah Bernhardt and assured me, that like Sarah, I would some day receive an Academy Award. It wasn't until later that I understood this wasn't necessarily a compliment. I became a dancer at six and would dance jazz, tap and ballet until I was eighteen. Some dance teachers were kinder than others, but they all said the same thing. Though I was pretty good, a career in dance was impossible because I didn't have a dancers body.

I became a singer and actress in middle school. No perfect physical requirements necessary here. I sang in plays throughout high school, I even had the lead in my senior year musical. In college and for several years after, I sang with an acoustic guitar player in nightclubs throughout Boston. We were called White Breakfast. I did radio jingles for a major convenience store chain, a college and even a hair dressing school. Today, I only sing for fun and I love to sing in church.

It seems I've always been searching for the right artistic expression, one that fits my intense and sensitive nature. I do cherish my memories of being a singer, dancer and actress but those days are behind me, now. It was relatively easy to set aside these artistic pursuits in favor of a demanding job then later my marriage and finally the arrival of my children. Until I started to write.

Writing. Whether it's a parenting piece for my blog or website, a parenting book or my novel. I need to write. Everyday. The thoughts, feelings and opinions that march through my mind, day and night, beg to be freed. I simply must express them and when I do, I feel wonderful.

Writing is challenging, that's true. It takes lots of time and plenty of patience and at times enourmous courage to reveal private thoughts and secret feelings. But what's more challenging for me, is not writing. I've finally found my artistic passion.

Some may see my pursuit of the right artistic expression as fickle or judge me harshly because of my late arrival to the writing life. But those of us in the trenches writing and trying to navigate the world of publishing know, only the steadfast would stay in this game. I am a writer. I need to write and I couldn't stop now if I tried.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Smell of Ink


Have you seen those challenges to write entire stories in six words? My childhood and young adult years can be summed up as: Girl at typewriter, over and over.

Yes, a typewriter, with ribbons that turned fingers black and blue in the struggle to change them, when "font" was a word only printers used. There are black and white photos of me reading, then at a typewriter pecking out stories, or haiku, or whatever else struck my imagination. The fourth grade “Junior Newbery” award? Still have it; don’t tell anyone. The maudlin high school poems pondering existence, written with my latest favorite pen or pencil from the stash in my desk drawer? Tossed them. Boy, were they bad. But my confidence as a writer was fine: I saved reports for the last minute, knowing I could rip through a profile of Minnesota or the Roman Empire in no time.

There is a later photo, of my cropped head bent over a Selectric at my first grown-up job: assistant director of communications for a state agency. By then I had a degree in journalism, a major I came to only after writing for and serving as news editor for the UMass Daily Collegian. Writing came first, a degree its useful outcome, not that I was completely immune to the practical. After graduation I turned down an opportunity to be editor of a fledgling music magazine (annual salary below poverty line) to work for a brilliant man named Harry Durning who wanted me to write while the state paid me a living wage for the pleasure. Press releases, brochures, speeches, annual reports. Words, sentences, paragraphs, one after the other.

Public relations agencies need writers, too, bless them. The Weber Group, twelve people strong when I joined, grew to become the foundation of an international powerhouse. More releases, collateral, speeches, then edits of other people’s documents, then increasing meetings and strategy and business. I missed having a byline and started writing bits on the side for The Improper Bostonian, the Phoenix, and supplements of The Boston Globe. After marriage and a first child, I started to freelance both public relations and marketing writing. Every time, it amazes me that someone will pay me to write. When they’re not paying me, I do it anyway.

All my life I have entertained characters who flit in and out of my head, closed my eyes to memorize smells and sensations, jotted them down in endless notebooks with Rollerball pens. In addition to capturing other people’s experiences and thoughts over the years, I have put my stories to paper, on the computer, and more recently, have told them in lines at the zoo, in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms, on long car rides. I have tried to describe it to my husband as the flip side of reading a book and that feeling of going to another place; but in writing you go deeper and farther because the place and events are coming up out of you. There’s no choice. If I don’t write my own stories, I feel it physically. The tension grows, bottles up, waiting for me to pick up a pen or bang on the keyboard. When I'm done it's as through the ink is still on my fingers, filling all the senses. Some people may think this is crazy, but so be it.

Children, house, job, still I write.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The World Beyond

Tuesdays with Amy

Each Christmas, my family is invited to dinner at my uncle’s house. It’s a gorgeous old Victorian in a quaint New England farming town. My aunt is an artful decorator and generous cook, serving both turkey and ham, cheesecake and chocolate pie. We’re always eager to visit with family. One year, after we loosened our belts and sipped the last of our coffee, my uncle asked if we’d like to see the renovations he’d recently completed to the rooms below. They lived in the upper two floors and maintained the family business – a funeral parlor – in the lower two. Of course, we said. There wasn’t a polite way to say no.

First he showed us the mourning rooms with the intricately carved molding and comfortable seating, then the rooms where the bodies were waked. It was all tasteful, the colors and textures dignified and somber. The rest of my family was ready to return to the holiday cheer upstairs and forget the melancholy of those rooms, but I couldn’t help myself: Where do you prepare the bodies, I asked. It was no surprise when the others retreated.

My uncle led me down a flight of stairs and then through a labyrinth of basement tunnels. Behind an ancient wooden door was his workspace. The lighting was stark and the floors and walls so unlike the elegant rooms where the dead were laid out. Here was a room that was clinical, smelling of formaldehyde and industrial cleanser; with angled metal tables and floor drains. My uncle, a kind man devoted to the families he served, patiently explained the purpose of each item in the room. Then he nodded toward something I hadn’t noticed before, a portrait of Jesus staring out from beyond his frame. Pointing to it, my uncle said, That’s there to remind me that we’re never alone in this world.

But what if, I asked him, this man of impenetrable faith, what if you didn’t believe in God? Could you still do this job? He smiled at me, shaking his head, knowing how tenuous my own beliefs were. I don’t see how, he shrugged, you have to have faith.

For weeks, months after, I could think of nothing else; I was haunted by that workroom. Soon I began a story about a woman undertaker who didn’t believe in God. I named her Clara Marsh. One day while out searching for rugs, I told my husband about this character who whispered to me through the night and every moment of the day, telling me her story, desperate to share it. I knew how difficult publishing a book could be, I already had one gathering dust, and as we walked through an antique shop, I shared with my husband my concern. I didn’t know if anyone would want to read about something so dark, a woman so utterly crushed by life. He listened as we walked through the shop, scouting for something not too threadbare. And then I spotted it, propped on a table. It was a yellowed envelope adorned with a one-cent stamp and a carefully scripted name -- addressed to Clara Marsh.

It was a sign, surely it was a sign. My uncle’s words came back to me then and in every moment since when I’ve doubted my ability to finish this book. I can almost hear him now, as I begin to think about the querying process, wondering if Clara's story has a place in this world, if I do. Can you hear him? Have faith.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Stories choose us

Posted by Lisa

I saw the stringy-haired girl one time.
In a bowling alley in New Hampshire. It was raining out. The drizzle woke me up and stayed for the day, a guest my parents never invited to our Lake Winnipesaukee cottage.

That day my dad drove the five of us to Wolfeboro, to give us something to do. My sister, brother, our neighbors, Kathy and Scott. I was twelve, I think. Or thirteen. My dad gave us money, for snacks, sodas, shoe rentals, and three straight hours of strings.

The girl in the bowling alley was my age, thereabouts. She watched me, the whole time. I wondered what she saw. I glanced at her from time to time, wondering why her dad looked so young and why her mom never spoke to her. She was someone lonely, with sad eyes that even a day of bowling wouldn't change. She was longing for a friend, longing for a lot of things. I think she would have liked a Coke. I sipped mine through two skinny straws.

Like any writer, anywhere, images stay with me. I have a picture of that girl – in my mind. It's next to a little boy I once saw trying to surf on washed up driftwood. We all have those photo albums. Sometimes I flip through the pictures. They tell snippets of stories. Things that never sat right with me. Things I didn't understand. I worried about those people. I write about them now, giving them names, and circumstances. I make up worlds for them to live in. I need to fill in the answers for the questions I had about them.

Writers such as CS Lewis, Joan Bauer, Jack Gantos, Patricia Leitch, Enid Blighton, all have made me laugh and wonder and escape. Over the past two years, I have lived with the characters in my middle grade novel, Sandcastle Secrets. Their imaginary seaside home on Cape Cod has been my second home. My novel is with agents now... and so I move on to novel number two. I'm well into it, both the writing and the world.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Making a Literary Life Friday

All four of us loved reading Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life. The warmth and wisdom of her book has inspired each of us to try each week to reach out in small ways to other writers. Creating a literary life can at times seem daunting, but See suggests chipping away at it, taking baby steps to get where you want to go.

Each Friday, the members of The Writers' Group will collectively share the sometimes small, sometimes big steps each of us has taken on our personal and unique journeys toward creating rich and fulfilling writing lives.

I wrote about Rebecca McClanahan, author of Word Painting in my blog entry this week. I contacted her thanking her for her inspirational book. She emailed me with words of encouragement.

I discovered a new (to me) writer, Patry Francis who has a book coming out in February, The Liar's Diary. Not only am I excited to read this book (it sounds amazing!), but I've invited her to speak at Grub Street South .

I read an amazing full manuscript delivered to my doorstep last week by a gifted writer. Reading it energized me to edit a difficult chapter of my own, killing off a character. RIP Aunt Pat; your passing makes what follows far better!

I received the first testimonial for my book, Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Authority Without Punishment! I sent a heartfelt thank you note to Dr. Judith Palfrey. Thanks again, Judy.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Finding my writers’ group was a trip

A line or two from Lynne

At seven, I wanted to take up sewing. I hopped on my bike with its front basket and pedaled three miles to the local library. I took out three books and taught myself embroidery. The first thing I did when I got engaged at twenty-eight, after accepting the proposal of course, was to take the T to a downtown bookstore and grab anything and everything they had on planning a wedding. So when I decided to write a novel, it’s no wonder I turned to books on writing fiction.

I’ve been a parenting expert, writing about families for over twenty years and I feel pretty good about my ability to judge the content and quality of my non-fiction writing. But two years ago, I turned my attention to writing fiction and I didn’t have the faintest idea how to gauge the effectiveness of my work. In Writing Alone or With Others by Pat Schneider and in Page by Page by Heather Sellers, both authors strongly urge new and even experienced writers to get feedback, good feedback. I needed a writers’ group.

Being a writer who follows directions, I started looking for a writers’ group. Following a lead from my local bookstore to a nearby library, I came across one listed on their website. The problem was it was closed to new members. Being a writer who doesn’t follow directions, I emailed the woman who facilitated the group and asked if I could join. She emailed me right back with an answer. I was surprised to find out that the group was no longer closed; it was no longer meeting.

This generous fellow writer kindly emailed the disbanded group members to see if any of them would be interested in reforming. She included me in the distribution list and the series of emails that followed were simultaneously clever and crazy, but all were extremely well-written. To my delight, the original group members agreed to a meeting to discuss whether or not to reconvene. I was invited to attend.

Clutching my Map Quest directions and ten pages of what would later become my first novel, I drove one town over to meet the women who would change my writing and change my life. Six women attended the “should we get back together” meeting but only four signed on. Lisa, Amy, Hannah and me. Fifteen months later, we’re working better than ever as a group. We’ve had such a positive experience, we’re eager to share with other writers how to form an effective group, one where members encourage and support each other while giving honest accurate feedback. Writing, querying and trying to navigate the complex world of publishing is a personal and challenging journey. We all need a little help from our friends.

Welcome to the Writers’ Group.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Not A Joiner


I am not a joiner. How many groups of any kind have you experienced that had a clear purpose, drew the best possible ideas from participants, then generated positive, effective results? Mmm hmm. A friend once said if you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t, you’re not. I measured myself by that. Either I produced words on a page, or I didn’t. I made a career out of writing speeches, bylined articles, anything anyone needed, and wrote fiction when I found time. Now and then.

Yet when a writers’ group sponsored a presentation at the local library several years ago, I scraped up the courage to call the woman whose number was listed on the bottom of the flyer. No, I can’t attend the presentation. But, do you, by any wild chance, have room in your group? I found “maybe” exciting. Gulp. Why?

First, I was never interested in talking about the writing I wanted to do. I wanted feedback on writing I had done. And only recently had I generated fiction my crabby internal editor found worthwhile. Not mere individual scenes, but scenes that followed one from the other. Was the pacing any good? I had characters that demanded my time and attention. Would anyone else find them interesting? And I had a storyline. An actual beginning, middle and end! At last I had something tangible on which I was ready to receive input, and professional writing and editing experience to offer in exchange.

Also, silly as it may be, the contact on the flyer was a woman. I wanted at least one other woman in a writers’ group, and there was her name as proof of her existence. When she called back, it turned out the group was all women: six to eight in a range of ages, a range of backgrounds, all with some measure of writing experience. And they would be pleased to meet me!

Fast forward. Of all the writers who welcomed me and my eight pristine copies of text that first night, Amy is still across the table. Lisa joined during the evolution of that group, which then devolved, shifted, all but died and, at the same time we met Lynne, rose from the ashes. This foursome has chugged along – sometimes dashed along – ever since, and we have analyzed the heck out of Why in many conversations. Thus, we come to Amy’s inspiration to start a blog and share what works for us, in the hope you will find what sounds right for you. The bottom line for non-joiners: yes, do the writing and be a writer. Then find or create a group that works. You will treasure every second.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Why I Needed a Writers' Group

Tuesdays with Amy

In the middle of the night while soothing a fussy infant, I began writing my obituary. No, I wasn’t suffering from postpartum depression, but being a stay-at-home mother to three young children in the suburbs can give one pause. I immediately began listing off everything I could do well: I was a good mother, but no one gets paid for that; I enjoyed baking, though leaving for work at 3:00 am each morning would wreak havoc on my baby’s nursing schedule; I’d always done well in English class and I did write the winning essay to the Father-of-the-Year committee when I was 12 years old. That’s it! A writer was born.

I spent the next few weeks composing a series of essays, first in my head, and then, whenever a free moment presented itself, on paper. I sent ten off to Beverly Beckham who at the time was my favorite columnist for the Boston Herald . I was on tenterhooks waiting for her to call. After a few weeks, I realized she was too embarrassed for me and would politely ignore my pathetic attempts. As the days rolled one into the next, and then into long sleep-deprived nights, I’d cringe each time I thought of her sorting through my sheaf of papers.

But she did call. First she told me everything that was right with my work; it was a stunning revelation that anything I’d written could touch another. Her enthusiasm made me weep. And then in a kind, no nonsense manner she explained all that needed tweaking. Though my hand shook, I wrote down every word she said. A few months later, I sent off one of those revised essays and within a week, an editor at the Boston Globe called to tell me they were running it.

Soon my essays were being accepted at other publications and I was even picked up as a regular freelancer for the Globe where I lobbied for, and was given, a column. But I wanted more. One dreary Saturday, I heard Jonathan Franzen being interviewed by Terry Gross, and he said something that startled me. He said writing The Corrections was the most fun he’d ever had. Writing a book was fun? Not terrifying, not excruciatingly difficult, but fun?

Within minutes, I plopped myself in front of my computer and began a novel. Eight hours and twenty pages later, I understood exactly what Franzen meant. My experience with Beverly taught me just how important a good critique was to writing. But I couldn’t return to her with this mammoth project, I needed a writers’ group. That same week I saw an article in my local paper profiling just such a gathering that met at a nearby library. I called the woman who was interviewed, sent in my writing sample, and joined my first writers’ group.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Finding a Writers' Group Takes Persistence

Posted by Lisa

Two years ago, I knew setting was my strength. I had read Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan. I felt the scene, smelled it, listened to it, or tried to, before I ever started typing. Description too, I could handle – or thought I could … how a day at the beach coated my character with sea salt, then dusted her with a layer of sand. Her face would crack if she smiled, but how could she keep from smiling?...

But characterization? Plot? So tricky, so tricky. I wanted, no, I needed a writing critique group. This next step was obvious.

My first writer’s group never got together, not once. I met them through a three week writing course at a Boston college. Though we e-mailed some, we didn’t read each other’s pages, we didn’t share our dreams, aspirations, ambitions, fears. Needless to say, I didn’t get much out of it.

My second attempt at a writer’s group failed because of construction. Not story construction. Road construction. Cranes, front-end loaders, dump trucks, cement mixers. Ramps that disappear from week to week (if you live in Boston, you know what I mean). Driving from the South Shore of Massachusetts through the Big Dig to meet wouldn’t work for me; the 90 minute commute was too much.

I was determined to find a writer’s group; others who had reviewed my work gave me a taste of how valuable feedback can be. They had pointed out weaknesses, and strengths, in pages I had read ten times over, wondering what needed tweaking, or deleting. Writing is hard, addictive, and, at times, masochistic. I couldn’t go it alone. I knew that.

I was lucky: I found a group through my local library – a tiny link posted on a random page of my library’s website. I e-mailed the group’s contact. She asked for a writing sample. They liked it - enough. I was in.

We meet. Twice monthly. Have been for over a year. And it only takes 11 minutes to get there.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Welcome to The Writers' Group

Our new site will be up and running in two weeks. Stay tuned for entries on topics related to starting and working with a writers' group.

The plan for posting our themed entries is:

Lisa on Mondays
Amy on Tuesdays
Hannah on Wednesdays
Lynne on Thursdays
And a special group entry on living a literary life on Fridays