Friday, April 25, 2014

Finding the Edges: The Art of Theme and Voice in Fiction and Memoir

Novelists and memoir writers know the agony and ecstasy of voice and theme.  Two make-or-break aspects of a book, they arrive last-minute, often at final revision.  Neither can be planned or manipulated by the author.  Most successful thematic writers, when asked, come up clueless about how their work finds its voice and theme.

Most writing teachers say theme and voice are impossible to teach.  The art of them (for it is more art than craft, with these two) must be caught.     

I agree--and disagree. 

As a writing teacher since the early eighties, I've practiced techniques to bring out meaning (theme) and allow natural strengths and uniqueness (voice) to emerge on the page.  Techniques train the creative self to sink into receptive, listening mode.  Techniques can alert you to what makes good meaning, how to ask for insight from others who may see it more clearly, and how to make room in your writing process to listen.  Voice is what comes as you become more of yourself on the page, reveal more, embrace vulnerability. 

Both are all about letting go rather than pushing ahead.  What allows you to let go the easiest?  And still keep writing . . .

When I was asked to teach a one-day workshop on "The Art of Voice and Theme in Fiction and Memoir" for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis this summer, I began researching more fervently--how do other writers do this?  My workshop will be on Saturday, July 19 (click here for more information), and I have some time to develop it.  But as luck would have it, insights began coming across my desk.

Finding theme, or meaning, means limiting focus.  It sounds contradictory, but once you figure out what your book is about--which may connect with a place, an era, a relationship, or an event--you have something to write against.  As you write against this edge, you learn what is and what is not your story.  This seems, in my experience, to be the great doorway to theme and voice.

It feels counter-intuitive, yes.  We imagine that theme is about stretching wide and opening up, that more meaning comes from letting in greater ideas.  There is an aspect of expansion in theme development, but it's when we figure out what the story is really about, that theme begins to emerge.

Theme is meaning.  One of the exercises I give to my advanced online book-structuring classes is to write about what their book means to them.  What does it really mean to you, the writer?  Then write about the possible take-away for the reader.  Somewhere between these, theme or meaning often lies.

A great insight came from reading Dani Shapiro's new book, Still Writing.  Dani has a chapter called "Edges," where she cites a writer named Joshua Cody, author of the memoir, Sic.  Cody says, "the key to any composition, it occurs to me, is to write against an edge, a frame."  Cody is a cancer patient, and for him, cancer is the frame he works with.  "Put a frame around something, anything--the frame of cancer, say, around a life, and you've already gotten somewhere without willing it."  Shapiro adds, "writing against an edge . . . can be enormously helpful in giving you clarity about your particular corner of the crazy-quilt.  Your patch of land.  Your precise and unique bit of geography.  Your world." 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Ask yourself about the edges or frame of your book-in-progress.  Is your frame, or edge, nature or the wilderness, a certain relationship, coming of age or childhood, mental illness, cancer, disfigurement, rape or abuse, a serious illness such as AIDS or MS, the workings of tall clocks, sailing, a thru-hike?  What's the frame "through which you can see you story" and what edges or boundaries does it provide?

2.  Freewrite about this frame.  Decide, if you find more than one edge or frame, which is the most vital to you, to your story, if you had to choose just one.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Organizing Your Book: Great Tips on What to Save, How to File It to Find It, and More!

Sharon, a blog reader, emailed me last week with a question about her book--not a writing craft question, but the all important organization SOS all book writers hit:
"Help!" she wrote,  "I'm swimming in paper and computer files.  How do I organize this mess, know what to keep and what to toss, and navigate the rest?"

In my book-structuring classes, we mostly deal with the art and craft of writing, but this question always comes up.  Writing a book is a long-term relationship between a writer and a lot of words.  It's not like one piece of paper, or even one notebook.  More like a marriage than a one-night fling.  It pays to be prepared for the onslaught.
I use a couple of tried-and-true techniques for keeping track of my book as it moves from idea to chapters to first draft to multiple revision.  I've also gathered good tips from other published writers.  Here's the ten top tips--in no particular order of importance. 
Maybe one or two will help Sharon--and you--keep afloat.   

1.  Work with both a writer's notebook (for ideas, jottings, images, and freewrites) as well as a computer.  Some writers I interviewed used the computer for initial ideas, but many used a notebook.  The notebook kept them from over-editing in the early stages.  Tips:  Number and date your notebooks.  Plan time to transfer longhand writing into the computer (one writer started each writing session with 10-15 minutes of this; she said it got her motor going). 

2.  In early drafts especially, work with a software that helps keep track of versions.  Scrivener was hands-down the favorite recommendation.  It's cheap ($45) and very intuitive.  You can create chapters-to-be as placeholders with ideas listed on the sidebar memo, play with character and place images to inspire you, add research in a split screen, rearrange your chapters' order in a click, and so much more.  Buying Scrivener was the best organization decision I ever made.

3.  Work in islands, not outlines.  I teach the "island" method of developing a book, promoted by writer and teacher Ken Atchity.  Basically, you keep a list of possible scene or section topics in your notebook, update it every writing session with a few more ideas, and choose one at random to write about that day.  Write anywhere in the book.  Great for the right brain, as well as the linear left.

4.  Organize your islands by key words.  Title each island or scene or section and save it in Scrivener or Word.  "Clare--New York museum"  "Big flood" "Jonathan--Finding the gold necklace"  Key words help you search and locate the scene as your manuscript grows--and helps you avoid duplicating.
Regularly print a list of your islands, a directory of your file folders, or the binder contents in Scrivener, so you can keep track of what you have. 

5.  Use an image board.  Sue Monk Kidd began The Secret Life of Bees with a single image that grew to a board full.  I start an image board when I begin a new book.  Take an hour and from 2-3 magazines, tear images that appeal to you--no need to wonder why.  Arrange and glue them onto a poster or foamcore board and hang in your writing space.  Use an image each time you need a freewrite prompt--write about what it means to you.  You may find these inform your story much more than you could imagine!

6.  Start a dictionary of words you use a lot.  Even if you have a manuscript in process, start one now.  Do a global search to find your favorites.  Mine are deep, twisted, and sparkling--and I use them way too often, as I discovered when my dictionary began to build.  Vary your prose.

7.  I know I'm going against the digital revolution when I suggest this:  Print each complete (bad to great) draft and put it into a binder.  Label the binders.  Store them where you can find them.  Most editors know that it's impossible to really see a manuscript only on the computer screen.  Hard copy rocks.  Print single-spaced, narrow margins, on scrap paper--most writers have tons of that--to save paper.    When your book is published, get rid of them.

8.  Use different colored file folders for:  (1) unused chapter ideas, (2) research notes and photocopies of research sources, (3) blog posts--if your book is based on your blog, as many are, (4) feedback and critiques.

9.  Keep a log of submissions and rejections.  An experienced writing buddy helped me create my first log when I began submitting short stories many years ago.  Simple, it had five columns:  title of piece, date sent, sent to (editor's contact info), sent via (email or snail mail) and answer received.  At first, this was all I needed.  When I began publishing, I added a sixth column:  date of publication.  And eventually a seventh:  payment received.

10.  Many writers use Evernote to gather info from the web, store ideas, and cut down on paper.  I love it too, but I still need to physically handle my notes, see my handwriting or typing, read off screen.  But do check out Evernote if you haven't heard of it--very worthwhile. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Writing about Tough Topics: When It Gets Personal in Your Story, How Do You Keep Going?

Michael, a writer from the New England area, took my workshop on book-structuring techniques last year.  He recently emailed me about his memoir-in-progress and asked a very good question. 

Did I have any tips on writing about very serious topics?  Such as abuse, combat, or any subject that makes the writer go back to memories of past pain and trauma.

Memoir writers face this question head-on.  But novelists may also draw from real-life experiences, processed into fictional scenes as they draft their manuscript:  one student in my classes is writing about a drowning in her novel that pulls memories and senses from her brother's death at a young age.  Another has crafted an excellent main character based on her mother's difficult life.

What about nonfiction writers?  Because nonfiction now includes stories--most nonfiction books today are humanized by illustrations of the theories and methods--most deal with this question as well. 

If the body is somatic, translating emotion into cellular experiences, we will process trauma as we write.  Writing about a business bankruptcy during the 1980s recession made me literally ill.  But the writing was wonderful catharsis, bringing deep healing, as well as being an unexpected gift to readers who felt shame at their own financial failures.

Nevertheless, it can be tough going. 

A sincere writer like Michael, who wants to bring both light and dark into his or her work, must deal with this tangle of emotions and memories.  But how?

Writing Two Kinds of Truth
As we write, two kinds of truth emerge.  Each will have a different effect on our psyche.  Each of us may tend to include or ignore one of these kinds of truth whenever trauma is connected with it.

As a newspaper writer for years, I was comfortable with factual truth.  The who, what, when, where of any situation seemed easy to write.  Emotional truth, or the meaning behind the facts, was harder.  Luckily, journalists weren't required to go there.  But when I began writing books, this "inner story" formed a base for the facts, and I had to learn to include it. 

Memory will contain both, but we may not access both.  And we wonder what's really truth, perhaps, since memory of facts vary from person to person, as does emotional take-away.

We may recall the facts of a situation and block the emotional meaning for many years; or the reverse.  It really depends on our wiring.  And how much processing is needed.  A great discussion of this duality is in Patricia Hampl's I Could Tell You Stories, one of my favorite books on the process of writing memories, whether true or fictionalized. 
For me, the emotional effect of my business failure, the shame and fear and anger of it, was very easy to recall.  The facts were harder.  Others may write baldly about the loss of a parent, but take months or longer to get to the meaning, how this loss changed them. 

Which are you? 

Inner story writers are comfortable processing the feelings and inner workings of a trauma; they may have gone through years of therapy and forgiven those who harmed them, or themselves if they caused harm.  Their writing will often emerge more ethereal or conceptual.  Talking "about" the past experience, and its effects now, is easier than actually describing what happened.  Readers may not track the details of the event with this kind of writing.   

Outer story writers have good reporter skills:  they know the facts.  They write dramatically, almost like a news report, but while readers can follow the specifics, they often note a feeling of emotional distance, as if the writer is not present in the room.  

Merging the Two Stories
An effective next step is to merge the two stories, the two kinds of truth, to provide both healing for the writer and a full experience for the reader.  But how exactly is this done?

We're fortunate that writing as a healing element has been studied for decades.  Researchers on the therapeutic effect of writing include James Pennebaker, author of Writing to Heal and many other books, and Louise DeSalvo, author of Writing as a Way of Healing.

DeSalvo states that three elements, when included in the process of writing about trauma, create a kind of alchemy that transforms both writer and reader:

1.  the outer facts--including sensory details--of what happened
2.  how you felt or thought about it when it happened
3.  how you feel or think about it now, and what difference you notice in yourself

In classes, I've taught these three elements as stepping-stones into safely writing about trauma.  Writers choose one stepping-stone to enter their story.  Maybe they write first about how different they are now, then ease into telling the details of what happened in the past.  Another might start with the facts then learn to expand into meaning--how am I different?  what did I feel then?  how can I show that on the page?

When prompted to include all three elements, the writing takes a leap up in quality and effectiveness. 

Pennebaker and other researchers have documented this:  improvement in physical symptoms, including immune system function, is not uncommon.

However Long It Takes--Cultivating Compassion for Self
This synergy on the page takes time.   I've been working with one writer for three years; he suffered terrible abuse as a child and has used the "facts" approach until the past few months, when he began to write about the trauma's effect on his life.  I took longer--almost seven years--to move from writing just the meaning to including the facts about my business failure. 

Compassion comes when we realize there is no rush. 

I leaned on good therapists, good friends.  I got help.  I began letting myself write "outside the story" on days when I had no stomach for writing the tough stuff. I wrote about what happened a year later or a month prior.  I wrote about the main colors in my office, the foods I loved to eat back then, my good times.  It helped take the pressure off, helped me keep writing. 

I used morning pages, a technique from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way  to pour forth stream-of-consciousness writing every day and peel back the layers of resistance to my own story. 

Bless this resistance, if you can.  Recognize it as a natural inner gatekeeper that is protecting you from the harm of detoxing too quickly.  Allow yourself the time you need, and get the help you need.  The story will wait for you. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

How a Food Journalist Becomes a Book Writer: The Award-Winning Journey of Steve Hoffman

Food writer Steve Hoffman can actually name the date, time and location when he got started:  It happened on June 27, 2012, at 12:30 PM, at Vincent, a French restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. 

His family was about to go back to France for an extended stay in the Languedoc region, and at the encouragement of his wife, Mary Jo, they invited Lee Dean, the Taste Editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, out for lunch. The Hoffmans were testing a new theory they called, "Do good work and put it where people can see it." 

Steve says he spent years keeping extensive journals during the family's travels abroad, sharing them with a select few friends and family members. This, he felt, was good work, but talking to Lee was the first step toward putting this writing where people could see it.
By the end of their lunch, Lee had invited Steve to submit a series of "Letters from France" to the Taste Section while they were in the Languedoc.

Suddenly Steve was not just a tax preparer, landlord, and real estate broker who hoped, someday, to write.  He was a writer with an assignment, a suggested word count, and three very specific deadlines. "I was a food writer," he says, "almost in spite of myself."

Eventually Steve's "Letters from France" won an AFJ (Association of Food Journalists) Award, and, most recently, the coveted Bert Greene Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.   
Now Steve has embarked on an even bigger project--writing a book about his experiences living with his family in this remote area of southern France.   

From Journalist to Author
Steve says his book idea came from his wife Mary Jo.  They were sitting in front of the fire, in the midst of the busiest part of Steve's tax season, when he was "least prepared to think about anything other than how to get through the next day."  On Lee Dean's recommendation, they had submitted "Letters from France" for a James Beard Journalism award (which he did not win in the end), and Mary Jo pointed out that if Steve did somehow end up as a finalist or a winner, he should really have a book proposal ready to present to the muckety-mucks in New York they'd meet while accepting the award.  

A book proposal, of course, presumed that there would be a book.  

"The logic was irrefutable," Steve says, "but it took me several days to ease into the idea that I might actually be someone who could write a book. I had just barely begun accepting that I was someone you could call a food writer."    

Working as a team, Mary Jo spent a weekend at my book-writing workshop at the Loft Literary Center, learning the art of storyboarding and helping Steve place his journalism pieces and essays on Languedoc into a possible structure.  They discovered it took more than food journalism to make a book, and along the way, a more personal story emerged--the challenges a family encounters when becoming part of a new culture.   

The time in France changed them, Steve says, and they experienced a wonderful and somewhat unusual welcome into the heart of the small wine-growing community where they lived--even helping with the vendage, or grape harvest, toward the end of their stay.  

As the book grew, Steve built the "inner story" thread of his growth and realizations about this community, what it meant to him and his family, and how it changed their lives.   

Writing a book isn't easy--much harder than short articles for a newspaper.  Winning the Bert Greene Award became "a huge source of encouragement and validation," Steve says.  "I wrote the winning article in a single day at the end of last summer, after months of daily writing practice while trying to complete my first draft of the book about France. Although the piece was not written for the book and may not appear in the book, it was written while I was in that late summer writing groove. It was an offshoot of good, daily writing practice, in my opinion, and an example of what abundance a creative habit can produce."  

Writing Routine--Getting in the Groove
Steve's year is divided into seasons. There is tax preparation season from January through April, "when all I do is eat, sleep, and prepare tax returns," he says. "Through the rest of the year, because I am self-employed, I can block off writing time from about 8:00 am to 12:00 noon, and schedule work around that daily time slot."

Steve describes his best working days as "Big Ship" days.  "Like an oceanliner, I am slow to start, slow to gather momentum, but then difficult to slow down once I get going. I like to get physically comfortable so I can sit for a long time if necessary."

He has done his best writing on the sunny terrace of the family's rented house in Languedoc "on the most comfortable chaise longue I've ever sat in."  He tried to recreate that atmosphere last summer while writing the first draft of the book. "I would sit on our deck or in the corner of our living room by the fire," he told me, "in a big comfortable chair."

His most productive days tend to be long days of writing, when there are no work appointments in the afternoon.

"I often struggle through the morning to find the right tone for a piece or a chapter," Steve says, "but then ease into my own voice with growing excitement and confidence. Often on these days, I am writing furiously to get it all down at the very end of an eight or ten hour session, with my laptop keyboard still clicking while I listen to dinner being prepped in the kitchen behind me."

"At the end of the best days," he says, "there's an ottoman under my feet and a side table to hold a glass of wine while I read the days' work to Mary Jo--and the kids if they are interested." 

To read Steve Hoffman's award-winning article, click here. To see more of his work and visit his website, click here.  To view Mary Jo's amazing photographs, which accompany all of Steve's work, click here.