I’m very excited to report that Two Cities Review’s Kickstarter project has been approved and we have officially launched! By visiting our page, you’ll be able to see a video of me and my co-editor talking about the review’s mission; you’ll be able to contribute to our review’s launch effort and get some swag in return, ranging from a mention in the review to personalized workshopping from our experienced editors.
Stay tuned, and get ready to hear more about our project. Spread the word! We hope you’ll consider supporting our exciting new literary adventure. Over the years, it’s been my pleasure to write for Writerly Life and share what advice, tips, and techniques I can about staying creative in your own life. Now that I’ve got the opportunity to actually curate and shape a publication of my own, I hope you’ll consider supporting me. I would greatly appreciate the sponsorship — and would love to know that readers of Writerly Life would be interested to read a magazine edited by me and my co-editor.
This Thanksgiving, I had a peaceful, intimate dinner with close family and friends, and got to come home bearing tupperware filled with leftovers. I’ve got enough to live off probably for the next week, and they’re good, gourmet leftovers too. I grew up with Francophiles for parents, so instead of sweet potatoes and marshmallows, or mashed potatoes, we have gratin dauphinois and red pepper gratin, with sauteed mushrooms. It’s quite a feast.
Every family can be proud of the dinner traditions that they manage to put on the table, and every family has their own special flair. Our family might have a French-style Thanksgiving, but other families are doing just fine with their own choices as well. There’s something truly charming about this odd, idiosyncratic holiday; on one level, we can be a little sickened by the commercialization of it (Black Friday started even earlier this year), but on another level, we can enjoy the simple ideal at its heart. A meal with friends and family, and being humbled by all the things we can be grateful for, is plenty to celebrate. It might even have more religious meaning these days than other holidays; sitting down and breaking bread with friends is one of the world’s earliest demonstrations of religious feeling.
Now the craziness of the Christmas shopping season is upon us. I tried driving by a Target near my house and couldn’t find a single parking space. Not one, in a vast sea of parking. It’s a little horrifying, but Black Friday does pass us safely by, and then we can get back to living our lives. Soon the first snows will start to dot the sidewalks of our cities, and it’ll be beautiful, at least until it lands.
I’m happy to report that as a teacher, I get a significant portion of this week off as students head home for Thanksgiving. Teachers are just as excited about school vacations as students, if not more so! But I’m pledging to use this time for some serious writing and work on the publishing trail. We editors of Two Cities Review are gearing up for the launch of our kickstarter page, and I’ll be focusing on my own story writing too. It’s also important to devote a little time to getting work out in the pipeline and having it appear on the desks of editors. Got to keep stuff moving all the time, or else you will accumulate a sad stack of stories in a drawer that will never see the light of day.
But this week is about more than time off; it’s about family and friends, about reflecting on what you’re grateful for. This time last year was a difficult time for my family; with a year of distance on some family tragedy, perhaps we’ll be better able to feel thankful for a good year. I’ll be glad to be with my family, to be taking on new cooking challenges, and to be thinking about all the good things that have happened. It’s time for you to think about what you’re grateful for as well; even if it’s been a hard year, there’s always room to feel glad to be alive. Remember that.
On a selfish note, Thanksgiving is also a prime observation time for writers. Bringing folks who may love each other but may not like each other together is always ripe for conflict and character. Do some observing this holiday and notice the tensions, the backbiting, the passive aggressiveness, or the skeletons in the closet of your own family. Notice how people hide things and how other things just can’t be hidden. There’s nothing like a Thanksgiving dinner to bring a tense, interesting story into one room and to one table.
So happy Thanksgiving, readers! I’ll continue to keep you posted on tips and techniques for making the most of your writing in these weeks.
As you have heard, I’ve got a lot of things going on in my writing, teaching, and editing careers right now. I’m finalizing a version of my novel, and I’m also beginning to tentatively send it out. I’m maintaining this blog and writing for another; and I’m in the process of starting and co-editing a new literary magazine, Two Cities Review. That isn’t mentioning my day job as a writing teacher. That’s quite a lot of activity!
I know I’m not unusual in this regard; most of us are absolutely swamped by different demands and activities these days, and we’re struggling to further our creative lives at the same time. The tendency is to attend to our most pressing, short-term needs, such as that looming deadline or that aspect of the day job, while neglecting the projects that require a longer view. This is why it takes people so long to finish their novels, if they finish them at all. But years later, if we look back and see that we didn’t think long, we’ll regret it. The difference between that talented writer who published her book and that talented writer who didn’t is often a question of who devoted herself more to that book’s getting out there and getting read.
Here at Writerly Life, good tools matter. We all know that an annoying, blocked pen or a notebook that won’t open all the way can be a major drag on our productivity. And for writers, it’s simply pleasurable to have an elegant and functional writing tool. I’m pleased to say I’ve found my new go-to pen; it’s the Uni-Ball Jetstream retractable roller ball pen.
I’m a lefty, so most pens are an unending trial for me. Most will start working smoothly, but then fade out or get mysteriously clogged after a while. Forget fountain pens; the only ones that work reliably are the regular old ball points, and those never look elegant or flow smoothly and darkly. I was delighted to find my favorite, the still-reigning Pilot Dr. Grip pen. But those pens are a bit heavy, and quite expensive; I find myself saving them for just my creative writing. I want a pen that will be there for teaching, for checking off attendance, for grocery lists and margin doodlings. And I’ve finally found it!
There’s a new post I’ve written available at Two Cities, offering my thoughts on the six months that have gone by since the bombings at the Boston Marathon. I think it’s relevant to our writing discussion here at Writerly Life; moments such as this make us think about human behavior and wonder how to make meaning out of such meaningless violence. Check it out over at Two Cities, and view an excerpt here:
IT’S BEEN SIX MONTHS SINCE THE BOMBING THAT SHOOK MY CITY. Boston is not unique for having such violence invade its ordinary daily routines, its joyful rituals. It won’t be the last place that such appalling acts take place. But it does change things when you feel your own home, your place — yours! — as the target of cold blind hatred.
Today I’m thinking about the feverish week that followed that sudden explosion. The endless looping footage, the breathless (and often wrong) pronouncements by newscasters. I was at the marathon that day, as so many Bostonians were; I was near the finish line, but I left a few hours before the awful event. When I walked home, some time later I turned on the news and saw what had happened. My sister called in a panic; she knew I had gone to watch the runners. Those small moments always make me queasy, the terror that family members feel in the aftermath of such chaos…
Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.
This week’s tip:
Transform Your Character
It wa sonly recently that I discovered a common theme in many of my favorite books. What endlessly surprised and delighted me was when a character found him or herself capable of transformation. In one way or another, my favorite characters transformed themselves, underwent metamorphoses, changed a mindset or a station in life or even a body. This marvelous capability of the human mind and spirit is what I find inspiring.
I’m not the only one there who wants and demands transformation from characters. Many readers want the power and possibility of change to enter the story, particularly in a character based way. So why not incorporate some sort of radical transformation into your own story? We sometimes are afraid to change our characters because we have gotten attached to the clay sculptures we’ve been crafting so laboriously. But they are clay, you know — they are ripe to be pushed and teased and molded. To be interesting, truly compelling, the clay of them must be changed.
So this week, try giving your character some sort of radical transformation. It might be a bodily change, like Gregor Samsa’s move to a cockroach in Kafka’s Metamorphosis; or it might be a mental transformation. Perhaps your character will become a radical political conservative, or become cold and cruel to someone we thought he loved. Force your character to change, and then start exploring why. That’s the marrow of a good story.
This week I’m thinking about animals. It’s mostly for silly reasons; I just bought a scratching post for my cats that I didn’t realize had cat nip inside it, and it’s been very amusing to see them roll themselves over the thing, hug it, and then tear around the house high on the drug. But stay with me; animals are highly relevant to our writing. They are part of the human experience, part of the way we make sense of our world, and they’re highly useful devices and tools in fiction.
Just this week I was re-reading an old favorite short story called “Dog Heaven”, about a family living on an army base. The family’s dog features prominently in this story, and when he arrives at an emotionally charged moment, it feels like a revelation, like we can become suddenly grateful for the constancy, for the baffling unending love that dogs can give. Here are just a few ways using an animal in your story can take your writing to the next level.
Reflect a mood
Pathetic fallacy a device in which the elements of nature such as the weather reflect the mood of a story. This is why it’s going to be a dark and stormy night when we visit Dracula’s castle, and why it rains and the sky is low and heavy on the day of the funeral. We know logically as humans that weather doesn’t reflect our moods, and yet we still insist that it do so in fiction, to capture, reflect, and amplify our own feelings. In the same way, animals can very beautiful reflect the mood of a situation, and they can do more showing than telling in a scene. Have the horses be jumpy and spooked shortly before the ghost arrives; or have the dog not like the villain. We trust animal’s reactions more than human reactions sometimes, because there is not an added layer of irony or falsehood. They can only be reactive, and so of course we trust their reactions.
I can’t resist posting what is appearing on Two Cities today: my co-editor is brave and foolish enough to be running in the New York marathon, and she’s writing about it. Check out an excerpt here right now, and read on at Two Cities Review.
Tomorrow, I will be doing something crazy. I will be waking up early, putting on some spandex, taking the subway to the Staten Island Ferry and then running for 26.2 miles. For the first time ever, I will be running the NYC Marathon.
Running a marathon has been a bucket list item for me since I was a child, but it was one of those things I never actually thought I would do. You see, I actually hate running. But, growing up in Boston, the marathon was always a huge deal. I knew people who ran it every year, who raised money for charity, who trained all year for Heartbreak Hill. We had the day off from school and would pile out on to Comm Ave to watch the marathoners run by. I always dreamed it would someday be me, but at the back of my mind, I didn’t really believe it would ever happen.
Yet, here I am. I moved to New York, got a job and started dating a great guy who is now my husband. When he started running seriously, I said what the heck, might as well try. And after a couple years of regular racing, we qualified for the marathon by running 9 qualifying races and volunteering for 1 event. Now the moment is here and I’m excited, nervous and most of all, hungry.