Happy Memorial Day, readers! This is one of those holidays that can mean vastly different things depending on who is celebrating it. For those involved with the military or those who have lost loved ones, it’s no doubt a somber day, one of observance and of ritual, of sadness but perhaps also of pride. For all those Americans who don’t have a direct connection to the military, without any disrespect, I think the day has a more festive feeling. It’s a day that usually marks the start of summer, a day of celebration, of cookouts, parades, of facepainting and balloons tied to children’s wrists, of sparklers in the summer twilight. For either group, though, I think the day is still very much tied up with memory.
For the military families out there, the day is of course about remembering what has been lost, the prices paid, the people who aren’t there today. But for the other group, the day is about memory as well; it’s a day in which we remember when we were kids, and the summer traditions we had that the kids of today are upholding; it’s a day of doing what Americans have been doing for generations. Any major holiday has that element of memory to it, but whereas a religious holiday is only for some, Memorial Day is pretty much open to anyone who wants to tap into American traditions and share in them.
Memory, to me, is always a fundamental aspect of the stories I write, and both the unreliability and constancy of memory features prominently as a theme in those stories. I often write stories from the perspective of people looking back at important times in their lives, or marveling at how naive, how fresh, how unsullied they once were before other major life events came crowding in. I think memory is one of those things that simply can’t be avoided in fiction. To assume that memory is fixed and perfect, for example, ends up seeming naive, and denying the fluctuating nature of the worlds we store in our heads. To deny its powerful influence on us at all, on the other hand, is equally naive.
Today is an occasion to mark time, and to think about memorial days past. I remember having hot dogs on the grill with my family, and running barefoot in the cool grass of the shady backyard; I remember the elation that the school year was almost at its end; I remember the little shorts and t-shirts that I wore every day of the summer until they fell apart; I remember summer as a kid. I remember the radio playing through the open door of the kitchen and running to get the cushions off the chairs in the backyard when rain inevitably came. I remember the sound of that rain pinging on the metal air conditioner bolted into the window frame as I lay in bed at night.
What do you remember as part of your summer? What about childhood, or memory, or the person you were, does this day evoke?
Today, I’m thinking about memory as I walk through my city. Twice a week my commuting path takes me through Copley Square, the historic center of Boston, and I walk/jog briskly through traffic past some of the oldest buildings in the area, such as the grand Boston Public Library and the old church that face each other across the plaza. I remember visiting the rare books room of the library and seeing documents from the sixteen hundreds or even earlier, chronicling the journeys of the earliest European settlers here. At the same time, I’m crossing Boylston street, which now has a plethora of other, starker memories demanding their room in my brain, demanding citywide remembrance.
That’s the funny thing about living in a city with any kind of history; there are always so many layers of time and memory super-imposed on each other, constantly layering on top of one another, blurring the lines of past and present. There is the circle memorializing the Boston massacre; and over there, a line of hip new clothing stores that seem to have sprung up just last week. The city keeps changing, but there are always signs of the old wherever you look. There’s the line of hungry cannoli-eating customers in the North End, waiting at Mike’s pastry shop; but the Italian immigrants that made up this neighborhood are largely gone. Where did they go?
I sometimes hear old Bostonians lamenting this change, the way all city-dwellers hate change. A guy I worked with who had grown up in Somerville remembered all those Irish Catholic kids he grew up with, the friendly cops who looked the other way when they were drinking out of paper bags, the saints’ parades down the streets. Now, he complained, there’s a Caribbean cultural parade every year instead, and the neighborhood is “all foreigners.” It’s always unpleasant to hear this kind of talk; after all, go back a generation or two and it was the Irish who were the foreigners. That, of course, is part of the way memory evolves in a city; the people who arrive as outsiders are quick to reject the next generation of newcomers. That’s natural, I suppose. Things even out in the end.
It’s amazing to me how fast cities change, and how the old does endure side-by-side with the new. Buildings get torn down, but the beloved ones become shrines to memory, treasures of common repository. And we say, “That used to be —” and are stunned to see the city growing up around us, and it reminds us that time passes. If anything, the city marks time for us, and reminds us that we grow older. But the memories of what was there before endure. Even on my small street in Cambridge, I see that one shop that seems to change its identity every six months, and already it has gone through three iterations. First it was an abandoned store front; then a trendy cafe with two chairs and only three items on the menu; now it’s a pie shop. I like the pie shop and hope it stays, but I know the odds are small.
I’ve been terrible, readers. This spring’s schedule of teaching and keeping up with multiple writing jobs has overwhelmed me and I haven’t been able to keep up with regular posts. But I haven’t abandoned Writerly Life! This blog will still be a vital source of tips and techniques and larger thoughts about what it means to be a writer; but I’ll have to hold myself accountable and devise a posting schedule that is truly manageable. So for the future, let tell you to expect a weekly post, but one with greater length and substance than your average posts. I’ll be working hard on those posts to make sure they’re up to a high standard, and that they get you thinking about writing, memory, life, creativity, and much more. Don’t give up on me yet!
At the same time, of course, I’ll be wearing my other hat of acting as co-editor of my new literary magazine, Two Cities Review. You’ll see me over there, writing about the intersection of writing and city life, and you can expect any relevant post about writing to wander over here as well.
IT’S MARATHON MONDAY IN BOSTON.
Every other third Monday in April that I can remember, I’ve woken up with a school day or work day off, filled with the pleasurable expanse of the day before me. I’ve turned on the TV in time to see the leading runners leave Hopkinton, and then kept it on to see them laboring through the miles, their honest, miraculous, movement through the towns of Massachusetts. Every year before 2013, I was at my childhood home in Newton, and I’d mosey out to Commonwealth Ave in time to cheer on the runners going by. I’d get a special rush of excitement to see the leaders pass, but there was even more pleasure in seeing the steady wave of runners that followed, the swelling phalanx of people surging with good will, with cheer. The joy of their effort was infectious. I think there’s no better sport to be a spectator at than to be alongside the long miles of a marathon. Some of us participate with our cups of water, and are thrilled when the proffered cup we hold is snatched; and others are sure to cheer the loudest when soldiers in heavy packs go tramping by; whoever is our favorite competitor, we get to see him or her, right there, achieving this startling feat of human endurance. There is no wall between us and them; we almost share in their triumphs. That’s yet another reason why the events of a year ago hurt so many of us on so many levels.
The last week has been a fraught one for the city of Boston; inhabitants have been doing their best to honor the survivors, the victims, and to keep our faces turned forward. I’ve noticed how little mention has been made of the alleged bombers themselves. They do not belong to the future of the city, and so we do not even honor their names in this week. In the coming months the trial will no doubt seize hold of our attention, but right now, it’s the marathon we are intent on restoring. The memorials have been respectful, determined, almost upbeat. We’re not looking back. We’ve got our eyes on the finish line.
Last year was the first year I was living in the city proper and so went to the finish line. I saw the winners round that final corner onto Boylston Street, and felt the waves of good will coming from every direction. I went home hours before the disaster struck. This time, I want to be there again; I want to see that first weary face turn the final corner, and the leading runner suddenly begin to sprint, to float on the deafening crowd. After that astonishing trek, the leaders always seem to have something left for a final battle to the finish line. And for all the weary amateur runners who follow him, there is still enough left to cross the line, to raise their arms in triumph. Where does that strength come from?
Will you be at the marathon this year? The crowds are promising to be legendary. Security will be tight, of course; it’s one of those prices we pay these days to feel safe in a modern city. But I don’t think the spirit will be too diminished. From what I’ve seen, this city is ready to make this event an occasion for joy and uplift once again.
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:
Storyboard a Scene
It’s been a while since I sent out a tip for writing at your best, so it’s about time I gave my readers one. Today I’m thinking about techniques used in cinema, and how those techniques can really improve our fiction writing. One thing that cinema has on fiction is its tight, efficient use of plot. Movies usually move more swiftly than novels and just feel “plottier” than the average book. It’s only the most tightly-plotted books, for example, that end up getting translated into movies, and even then they have to be compressed and streamlined, with whole characters and plotlines eliminated, to work on screen.
There’s no reason that we can’t learn from movies and help make our stories tighter and “plottier.” Try using a technique that filmmakers use when planning their scenes. They work in the medium of images, so draw a few boxes on a few sheets of paper — typically two or three to a page, totalling six to eight boxes. Those are the keystone images or moments that will make up just one scene. Start filling in the boxes — what needs to happen in this scene? What are the essential character moments, choices, or confrontations that must happen? If you’re no artist, then stick figures will do fine. Try to picture the scene in your mind’s eye, and picture what the most important transformations will be.
The advantage of this strategy is that it will draw the crucial elements of the scene sharply into the focus, instead of letting you wander all over the world you’ve made before figuring out what you want. The other lesson a good movie teaches us is that every scene is essential: every scene features a furthering of the plot, or a crucial decision being made. It’s immediately obvious when watching a movie when a scene feels like fluff, or is irrelevant. We need that same laser focus in our fiction writing too.
Try storyboarding the scene that you’re struggling with, and report back here to tell us how it goes!
The more I write, the more I discover about my own storywriting strengths, weaknesses, and natural aptitudes. We can learn to improve our weak spots, but it’s also wise to tap into our natural strengths, to go where the writing flows most naturally and beautifully. There are ways you can game your strengths and avoid your weaknesses; for example, if you’re not the best on realistic dialogue, you can avoid scenes of real-time conversations. If description is your strength, then there should be plenty of it! And if you know you struggle to make compelling plots, then that might be the first thing you work on, outlining and planning to make sure there’s a plot in there.
These strengths and aptitudes apply to figuring out what kind of story is the one for you. It takes time and experimentation to figure out what genre really excites you and what topics and characters you excel in capturing. But there’s another figuring-out process you’ve got to go through; you must figure out what length of story suits your writing best.
The more I write, the more I discover that long stories, the kind that carefully build characters’ pasts and personalities and tensions, are the ones that I excel at. I find it deeply satisfying to really get to know a character, to learn gradually of his past and his challenges, and then to see him take on those obstacles with a deep understanding of who he is and what he is up against. This is the kind of story I’m really enjoying reading right now, such as the master of the long short story, Alice Munro.
Long stories can be harder to publish, but it’s still worth it to be the best writer I can be and work on my strengths. That goes for you, too — you’ve got to experiment and try different forms to see which ones are the most successful. You might find you have a knack for flash fiction, or perhaps you’re built for the steady sustained effort of a novel. You’ll never know until you try! A good way to figure out what you want to write is to pay attention to what you want to read. What forms most excite you? Why not try writing in that form?
Are you craving spring? It’s been a hard winter along the east coast this year, as both Bostonians and New Yorkers can attest. We’ve had brutal, biting bold and bitter wind; it’s felt more than usual that Winter was a conscious presence in our lives, breathing its spiteful breath down our necks.
Winter can be demoralizing; I know I’ve holed up a little this season, concentrating on my work, on getting through the week, on binging on food and cheap entertainment on the weekends. Winter encourages us to crawl back inside ourselves a little. But there’s also nothing so liberating as a New England spring, perhaps because we’ve had to suffer a little to earn it. There’s always that first day that looks just as gray as the rest, but when you step outside, you feel an unexpected gentleness in the air, a promise of spring if not spring itself. You still wear your parka and your boots and you end up sweating when you’re outside. The rain washes your old salty coat and washes the filthy crusts of snow down the gutter.
It’s been an especially long winter this year; it had me thinking about one of my favorite books growing up, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, one of the sequels to the classic Little House on the Prairie. In this epic story, the cold is so relentless and fierce that the entire town runs out of food and wood; Laura must weave knots of straw just to make something that will burn. We folk in the city certainly never have to experience winters like that; the worst of our seasons are gentled and insulated against. But still, we work hard, and we’re out there every day, tramping in our boots. And maybe this week or the next, we’ll be rewarded with spring.
At our second launch party in Boston, we rocked the Middlesex Lounge. We introduced the mission of Two Cities, held a raffle, heard contributor L. Michael Hager read from his work, and met some great new literary friends. Thanks to everyone who came out for the event, and thanks as well to our wonderful writers.
Here’s our reader, L. Michael Hager:
This means that issue 1 is officially launched! You can read it online at our Current Issue page, or you can buy a print copy online at the following link, at Lulu:
Keep following us for more thoughts on the city literary life, and don’t forget to Submit your work for our summer issue of Two Cities Review!
I saw an interesting post on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog the other day about a new trend in entertainment consumption that book publishers are trying to capitalize on. We’ve all heard of “binge watching” as the new it term for sitting down and bombing through an entire season of “Battlestar Galactica” or “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix; there’s something absolutely addictive not only in the way the episodes are framed these days, but even in the way they’re queued on our computers, inviting us to watch more and more. Now publishers are trying to make “binge reading” a thing. The Christian Science Monitor has more: read the article here.
Do you think binge reading will catch on the way binge watching has? I think there are two problems with the way the article is being framed; first, likening binge reading to binge viewing is misunderstanding the fundamental difference in thought that occurs when reading and when watching tv; and second, binge reading has already existed long before the advent of television. This may sound a little contradictory, but bear with me.
Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! My return to a regular writing schedule is coinciding with this somewhat fraught holiday, so I couldn’t get away without commenting briefly on it. For lovers, Valentine’s Day is a good marker on the calendar, at least as a way to do something special for our significant others. For the single, Valentine’s Day can be a cause for frustration, bitterness, or resentment, or a reminder of loneliness — but of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re single and happy to be that way, just let the holiday pass you by. Treat it as one of those many calendar holidays that we don’t really pay attention to, such as Arbor Day or Groundhog’s Day (no offense to the arbor or groundhog enthusiasts out there).
In any case, Valentine’s Day is a chance to think about writing about love and romance. Check out past posts I’ve written about How to Write Romance, How to Write about Flowers, and How to Write Gender in Fiction. And below, check out a new Writerly Life exclusive: the post I wrote only for my ebook, How to Write Sex Scenes. Enjoy, and have a fun holiday, whether you’re alone, with a special someone, or among a crowd tonight.