People come and go at The Writers Circle fairly often. They get busy, move on to other things, graduate and go off to college…. But some people stay and their voices become entwined in the energy of a particular group. This was the case with Jerry Kaplan who passed away last week at the age of 86 after a rich, full life that any of us should envy and admire.
Jerry lived the way we all should, if we’re lucky – with vitality, purpose and a great sense of humor. He wholly embraced who he was without apology, and willingly sharing his vast knowledge and rich experience with our workshop members, the community and, when he had the chance, the larger world.
Jerry started with The Writers Circle in my original Thursday night class at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School, but later joined my Wednesday morning class in Maplewood where somehow he and the other writers just clicked. The rapport they developed became something that I looked forward to, not only as a teaching opportunity, but as a gathering of really wonderful friends.
Jerry wrote mostly stories of his childhood, a Jewish kid rough-and-tumble on the streets of the Bronx playing stick-ball, thinking constantly about food and, eventually, girls, getting into trouble and working his way out of it to become a young man, serving in World War II in Japan, falling in love, marrying and eventually becoming a math textbook writer and editor, a wonderful father and patient tutor of young students in our towns right until his last year or so.
His stories were always straightforward and usually humorous, rarely sentimental and never maudlin. He had little patience for flowery description and often called us on it in class – even me, which I loved and appreciated.
He offered up his stories the way they were, accepted our suggestions graciously but sometimes chose to ignore them. He used to tell about his early writing days when he had the chance to publish a story in the Saturday Evening Post (or some similarly prestigious publication of bygone days). The editor loved it, but wanted some changes. Jerry thought hard, but in the end he refused. The story wasn’t published, which I’m sure must have been hard. But he stood by his vision and believed in his voice. For that courage, we all admired him.
Being a writer is a tricky balance of sticking to one’s guns while accepting the well-intended guidance of teachers, mentors and editors. Sometimes we pay the consequences for stubbornness, but sometimes we reap the rewards. I often tell my students, “Our comments and suggestions may not be precisely right. But they point to a problem. It’s up to you how and whether to find a solution.”
Jerry was a master of sticking to his guns, better or worse. For this I carry a lot of respect and a little guilt. Last year, when we were putting together The Writers Circle Journal, we asked him to make a few changes to his submission. He refused. He wanted the story the way it was. And for that, we made the hard decision not to include it. It stings, because Jerry was – is – such a vital part of The Writers Circle. To me, he’s been an anchor and a friend. But in a way, I expected his decision; and I hope he respected ours. He was, through and through, utterly himself. If he could proudly refuse the Saturday Evening Post, then it is an honor to be refused by him.
Rest in peace, Jerry. I hope you’re playing stick-ball in the sky!
But sex is, and has always been, a compelling part of literature. Think Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Madame Bovary. These novels caused a sensation when they were first published; and if the lines that were so scandalous now seem tame to us, it’s because we’ve been brought up on cable television and modern-day bodice rippers.
Even so, every writer of adult – and even young adult – fiction has to face the question: whether to include sex, or not? And if so, how do you do it? How explicit do you have to be? And do you name the parts?
In a recent class discussion on the topic, we came up with some guidelines that hopefully will help those writers who are struggling with how to handle sex as an aspect of their storytelling.
First of all, you don’t have to.
Really, you don’t. Unless you are writing in a recognized genre (such as those bodice rippers mentioned above) where sex is part of the allure, no one is putting a gun to your head and saying, write that sex scene now! If you’re uncomfortable with the whole idea, you don’t have to do it. It’s your story, after all.
The difference between pornography and an evocative, sensual scene is emotion.
Pornography is generally a description of moving parts. A sensual, well-written sex scene is so much more. In particular, there is emotion that is threaded through the physical act – feelings of love, trepidation, affection, romance, even hatred. Make sure you fully convey what your character is feeling.
There are as many different ways to write a sex scene as there are ways to write anything else.
A lot of writers struggle with sex scenes, trying to figure out how to make them original. In our recent class, we read twelve different examples and each one was wonderfully, often stunningly original. Here are just a few examples. (Note that we’re not including the explicit parts since we don’t know who will find themselves on this page!)
The cloth of her habit caught against the velvet of his coat. She threw back her white neck, swelling with a sigh, and faltering, in tears, with a long shudder and hiding her face, she gave herself up to him
–Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Evoking the senses
They were beyond the present, outside time, with no memories and no future. There was nothing but obliterating sensation, thrilling and swelling, and the sound of fabric on fabric and skin on fabric as their limbs slid across each other in this restless, sensuous wrestling….
–Atonement, Ian McEwan
She is topping up your engine oil for the cross-country coming up. Your RPM is hitting a new high. To wait any longer would be to lose prime time… She picks up a Bugatti’s momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen’s steady trot. Squeeze the maximum mileage out of your gallon of gas. But she’s eating up the road with all cylinders blazing.
–Bunker 13, Aniruddha Bahal
He held her by the hip and strained up to her, rising off the bed and reaching in her, saying Megha, and she rolled down to meet him, and at the closest point of their meeting he felt the spill, ecstatic and alive, and in a last moment of thought he asked, is this me? Is this you?
–Love and Longing in Bombay, Vikram Chandra
You don’t have to name parts. But do if it fits your brand of storytelling.
Whether you name parts or not has a great deal to do with your own authorial voice. Are you writing a brash, contemporary, sometimes shocking story? Well, then naming the parts may be appropriate. But if you’re writing a more lyrical, literary piece, sometimes the blatant names can be simply too unsettling. On a personal note, I’ve always been grateful that I write historical fiction where I can use older, more suggestive phrases instead.
Use the senses. And metaphors, of course.
If there was ever a moment in which to invoke smell, taste, touch, and sound – as well as the more common sight – this is it. Sex is full of wonderful textures and tastes, and you should give full reign to your descriptive side. And sex can be evoked with so many wonderful metaphors, giving new life to many of the clichés – the sea, riding a horse, eating a meal, just to name a few. Have fun with this. Be inventive.
Earn the scene.
Don’t just let your protagonists jump into bed the first time they want to. There’s nothing sexier than sexual tension. How many television series have you watched, waiting weeks for your favorite characters to finally kiss? Put obstacles in the way of your couple finally culminating their passion for one another, and the pay-off will be that much greater.
Never write a gratuitous sex scene.
Sex is just one more component of your storytelling, even if it can feel like the zenith of so much. Every scene must serve the story, move the plot, help with characterization. You cut regular scenes that don’t move your story forward. Treat sex scenes just like every other element of your narrative.
Make sure you’re breathing faster as you write the scene.
To paraphrase Robert Frost’s famous comment, “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader,” the scene needs to arouse your reader – and it can’t, unless it arouses you first. Unless you eschew the scene entirely or obscure it by being completely suggestive, a la the movies of the ’30s and ’40s, make sure your own sex scenes make you blush.
And finally – as one of my students reminded us all – the best sex of all takes place in the mind. Make sure you’re engaging your reader’s mind as you write the scene and you’ll be sure to give them almost as much pleasure as your characters!
We’re delighted to welcome children’s book author Tynia Thomassie to our teaching staff at TWC. Tynia is the author of four picture books: Feliciana Feydra LeRoux: A Cajun Tall Tale, Feliciana Meets D’Loup Garou, Cajun Through and Through and MIMI’s Tutu. She won the Louisiana Young Reader’s Choice Honor Award in 2000 when 3rd, 4th and 5th graders selected Feliciana Meets D’Loup Garou their favorite book after Harry Potter. Tynia will be offering Writing Children’s Books on Wednesday evenings in South Orange, from 7:30-9:30 PM, during our Spring II session.
I’ve always been turned on by children’s books. Vibrancy and life fairly leaps off every page. Every page turn is a coordinated surprise, a reveal. Every placement on the page, from word to image, is a designed experience. Of course, I didn’t realize that when I first started turning the pages. I happily consumed children’s books without understanding the artistry involved in their production. I felt their appeal without understanding their architecture.
But after a series of crises and catastrophic events in my adult life, when I was sure I misplaced “this little light of mine,” I started looking for it in anything that once gave me genuine pleasure… and I found myself gazing once again at the books on shelves in children’s sections of bookstores. I decided to take a course in children’s book illustration, and thus began my foray into a specific little corner of heaven. Out of those first workshops came the material for my first published picture book. Three more followed. I have since branched into other genres of literature as well, but my dive into writing began with the rekindling of “this little light of mine” and thumbing lovingly through a children’s book.
Sometimes a writer simply needs a place to get started; sometimes a writer needs an appointment and the space to explore that elusive place from which joie de vivre springs. I hope we can play together and discover that place. Let’s write, together.
The Writers Circle’s attitude towards our For Boys Only class is clear – we allow (and sometimes even encourage) the grossness, violence, and general zaniness that lives just under the surface of our 3rd to 5th grade boys.
This has produced some wince-worthy stories – like the time they wrote about “poop on a stick.” Farts were big one session. Disgusting aliens. General destruction via an arsenal of weapons that can make the single grownup in the room reel.
This session has been particularly hard. The killings at Newtown are still on everybody’s mind – certainly on mine – while my boys’ class writes about guns and murder. A simple “head hopping” exercise about a ball crashing through a bay window produces stories where kids kill their neighbors, aliens land, kids kill their parents, the neighbors firebomb the kids… you get the picture.
So, I thought, it might be time to see if we can push this in a creative direction. Having told them (perhaps foolishly) Chekov’s famous statement that a loaded rifle in Act 1 means it has to go off in Act 3, I thought it might be time to introduce the notion of tension in the bomb that ticks constantly through the story – and doesn’t go off. Save the day, I encouraged them. Give me a story where I’m worried that bomb is going to explode any second. Don’t settle for the simple BOOM.
But – and this is the moral of the story – they’re simply not old enough to grasp the technical sophistication of the suggestion. They don’t get that the bomb that goes off is spectacle – the bomb that doesn’t is drama.
So instead of weaving the “tick tick tick” of the impending bomb throughout their story, they asked – can we have two bombs? Can one go off? What about guns? Can the hero blast his way into the room by shooting the villain?
And of course, my answer was “yes,” because it always has to be with these boys. Our underlying mission in this class is to allow them to write what they want to write – not what a grownup thinks is appropriate. When we permit their gory and grotesque imaginations to roam free, they embrace writing rather than shunning it. The success of the class is evident when I want them to start reading and they beg for just a few more minutes, when they tell their classmates a new (and probably even more violent) way to move their plotlines, when the class is over and they look at me, bewildered, and say, “Already? Really?”
They’re certainly not writing subtle stories, but every once in a while there’s a spark that excites me. A turn of phrase that suddenly lifts the story out of the mundane. The use of dialogue, even without the punctuation. The kid who did grasp the concept, however dimly and asked – can the bomb continue to tick even after it’s dismantled? A new and startlingly different concept – like the one they invented last week – of opening a portal in their stories and moving, suddenly, to their friends’ stories, finishing them up in parallel-universe form. And yes, the parallel universe is just as full of violence and gore as their own.
So, the bomb has to go off for these boys. As difficult as it is for me – and probably for the parents who hear what they’re writing on the car ride home – we need to give them the artistic space to invent their own universes, filled with weapons and explosions and scatological humor. And we have to trust that, in time, they’ll recognize the inherent drama in a story where the bomb doesn’t go off – because they’re excited enough about writing and imagination to retain it as a positive, creative outlet as they mature.
First, my apologies for letting this blog languish these last few weeks. We’ve been busy with holidays, planning for spring and summer, and yes, actually WRITING. In fact, that’s the topic I’ll focus on in this first entry for 2013: Finger Biting Days.
I know I’m really writing when my fingers are a mess, bloody and bit to the quick and slightly aching from all the gnawing. I pick my cuticles when I think. I always have. I know, it’s a terrible habit, but it’s one I’ve accepted as part of the way I work. Honestly, when my fingers look good, I know I’m not writing deeply enough. And right now, my fingers are wonderfully horrific.
When we write, we want our work to be perfect. We think deeply and muddle for hours, days, sometimes weeks to get a scene just right. Yesterday, though my schedule wasn’t luxurious, I thrilled simply to find a single perfect word that I’d been mulling over the day before, going from Thesaurus.com to the real thesaurus and back, knowing that it was there if I could only find it.
We want our work to be perfect because we love it. We want to fully express ourselves and share with the world what is living inside our heads all this time. But on a more practical note, we NEED our work to be perfect – as perfect as humanly possible in the subjective world of words.
If our work going to have even a chance in the competitive traditional publishing world, it’s got to be better than anyone else’s. No – more important still – our work has to look like it will sell.
Now I shall tangent to acknowledge the many avenues available to writers today that don’t require the approval of an established editor and a Big 6(-1) publishing house. Still, that is the brass ring. It’s what every writer who is honest really wants. I recently listened to an interview with Guy Kawasaki, a successful published and now self-published author, talking about the challenge of self-publishing and how, if he had the chance, he’d still go back to the traditional route.
What none of us want is to have to hock our books to the market like common street peddlers. (“Books! Books for sale! Fifty cents a book!” I see myself with a pile of books on my head like the classic children’s tale.)
So we anguish to get our work just right. We muddle and fuss and ponder and fret and bite our nails to the quick because we’re anxious – no terrified – that we won’t be good enough to have a shot at the “big sale”.
In truth, the market is taking fewer and fewer chances. In order to survive, traditional publishers have turned increasingly to sure-bets, authors with well-established reputations or celebrity or both, and fiction from well-recognized names. When you’re not one of those authors, you’re in the midlist. Even in the old days, five or six years ago, midlist meant struggling against obscurity and begging for just five minutes of your over-worked publicist’s attention. These days, more and more, it seems the midlist is simply gone.
And yet any one of us would claw with our half-bitten nails to get that glorious five minutes. We’d claw for the chance to realize at last that someone cares about what we write besides our family and friends.
In fact, I often wonder if publishers today are cutting their nose to spite their face, as it’s said. Without the midlist, they are taking their bestsellers and putting them at risk of the chopping block. In a shrinking pool of offerings, each book simply cannot be a bestseller, can it? Statistically, there has to be a bell curve – some winners, some not quite , a few inevitable bombs. Will the lists shrink more and more until all that’s left are a few prefabricated “surefire hits” as risky and interesting as a McDonald’s hamburger?
So, back to biting nails. I’m clearly almost finished with my draft – yet again. I shouldn’t even say it because the last time I did was over six months ago and I’m still not finished yet. But I’m really almost there. And I want it to be perfect. So I glory in the discomfort and occasional Bandaid.
As Guy Kawasaki said in the same interview, “The best two motivations for writing a book are first, because you have something to say that is of value – what a concept! The second would be because it’s on your bucket list, it’s an intellectual challenge.”
If that’s all I get from all this angst, then it’s worth it. But I can still hope for just a little more.
The Writers Circle rang in the holiday season with its second annual Holiday Bash on Friday, December 7. After last year’s cozily packed party at Sparkhouse, this year we held the evening event at our brand new, fabulous loft space, MONDO, in Summit. Despite having more than three times the room, we were a bit breathless to realize how much our community has grown over the past year.
Over seventy TWC students, teachers, friends and families gathered together to share the holiday cheer and to launch of our very first literary journal. The Writers Circle Journal Volume I 2012.
TWC Director Judith Lindbergh shared in her welcoming remarks, “We’ve grown from just three instructors and a handful of workshops a year ago to three locations, nine instructors and twenty-seven workshops offered this session.”
Guests brought their favorite dishes and holiday treats to share in an abundant potluck with enough sweets to make some of the youngest guests woozy!
The highlight of the evening was a reading by eleven of the contributors to The Writers Circle Journal. The Journal, which was compiled and edited by a fabulous editorial team over the past six months, includes work by TWC’s children, teens and adults, as well as artwork contributed by members of our circle. The gathering was a perfect celebration of fabulous year of growth, creativity and inspiration shared by all.
Judith promises, “We’ll do it again next year. But we might have to rent a hall!”
The Writers Circle is thrilled to welcome nonfiction writer and journalist, Lisa Romeo, to our roster of inspiring instructors. Here Lisa shares her perspectives on Hurricane Sandy, but more, she shows how, when we write about our lives, we can delve into universal truths that move us all.
What We Talk About When We Talk About The Storm by Lisa Romeo
“How long were you out?”
This question may not replace “Which exit?” as the official New Jersey ice breaker but for now at least, it seems to be on everyone’s lips. We are not wondering how many hours one spent out of the house doing something fun. “How long were you out?” in the weeks after Hurricane Sandy slammed our state, is the way we ask how many days one’s home was without electrical power. Two days? Eight? Twelve? Still?
Driving home the other night from a small gathering where I met a dozen new people, I was thinking about this question and the conversations it sparked. People who had known one another for only moments told of the small annoyance of doing dishes in icy water, the urgent challenge of keeping an asthmatic toddler’s breathing apparatus functioning. In the swapping of storm stories, from the mundane to the surprisingly intimate, we are strangers no longer.
In the time since the storm left the Garden State, we want to know: How was it for you? And underneath, unspoken but loud: What does it all mean?
These questions, and the myriad ways humans attempt to answer them, are what the art of creative nonfiction is all about, and what a good piece of CNF aims to achieve.
Because when we talk about the storm and its challenges and aftermath, what we are really talking about is something else entirely. When we complain about being unprepared for how long power was off, the high cost of generators, the downside of TV/phone/internet bundling, we are talking about vulnerability, loss of control, the underbelly of modernity. When we describe wrestling with generators or minding candles, hauling sleeping bags to the warmest room of the house, we are talking about ingenuity, self-reliance, adaptability. When we cite crippled mass transit systems, we are talking about anxiety, isolation. The stories about discarding ruined food are stories about guilt and money; the stories about fighting with spouses over not having batteries or working flashlights are stories of blame.
The stories themselves are about more than, often something other than, their topline narratives. This is the goal of memoir, the personal essay, and nonfiction narratives: to illuminate what’s percolating under the surface, what drives the unfolding event, and what it tells us about ourselves.
This is why people read creative nonfiction in the first place.
The renowned spiritual thinker Henri Nouwen wrote, “That which is the most personal, is the most universal.” Readers must be able to find, in any nonfiction work about a personal experience, that which is universal – but the only way through to the universal is by way of the personal.
Consider one person’s answer to “How long were you out?” The broad strokes might be: in a small town in northern New Jersey, an overextended middle age woman who typically answers work emails every evening, instead sat beside the fireplace with her husband, who normally only talks about bills and work schedules on a weeknight. Together they listened and laughed as their teenage son, usually so quiet and always nailed to his computer, read terrible ghost stories aloud with exaggerated expression. Then they all took turns making up better sequels to the stories and giggled, sharing a box of store-bought cookies.
Even in that broad-strokes paragraph, I’m doing more with this personal story than simply telling what happened. My choice of background details, phrasing, adjectives and other mechanical devices and nuance, are hinting at something else – the universal story underneath, one of family, longing, shelter, love, wistfulness maybe. Were I to develop it into an actual piece of CNF, I’d be doing much more of that.
Because otherwise, why, after all, would a reader care about how this family spent that night? No reason at all. But might a reader care about the ideas of longing, family connectedness, longing? More likely. The topline narrative details become scaffolding under which the creative nonfiction writer carefully constructs load-bearing walls, arches, doors and windows – for the more emotionally meaningful exploration underneath. Under the personal story of how these three people spent a stormy night are universal themes of what it means to be human.
In her wonderful book on nonfiction writing craft, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick explains the difference – and the important web-like relationship between – what happened to the writer (the situation) and what the writer can make of that (the story). What happened is only useful if it leads to a deeper sense of what it all means, if it pulls readers into the rich fulgent soil of our common existence.
You may be used to thinking of the underlying story in more familiar terms like theme, core message, subtext. Perhaps you’ve been at the receiving end of critique feedback from a writing friend, editor or instructor who, after reading your creative nonfiction work responds, “Okay, but what is this really about?”
Everyone knows, when sitting to write about a particular experience, what happened to him or her. But we don’t always know, from the outset, is what that experience means. So we seek as we write and revise, like excavators. Or, as Joan Didion explains, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
The craft and skill in transforming personal experiences into rich nonfiction lies not in putting the details of the actual experience on the page, but in locating, and then offering to the reader – through nuance, reflection, carefully selected dialogue and detail, the narrator’s interior monologue, even (often) through posing unanswered questions – an opening, an invitation, for the reader to enter that universal space.
Lisa Romeo will be teaching Creative Nonfiction in the Winter session at The Writers Circle, and also leading an all-genre Adult Writers Circle. Her work appears in a broad range of print and online media, literary journals, essay collections and anthologies. At her blog, she offers writing advice and interviews with authors.