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!
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.
Don’t all authors dream of being interviewed on TV? Ideally, the topic should be their sweat-and-blood books, but if not that, then maybe their knowledge of the topic about which they’ve written.
For historical novelists, getting to express our opinions on a legitimate documentary is a virtual Holy Grail. In just a few breathes, we leap from the shadows of fiction into the bright light of authenticity, speaking side by side with scholars and experts in the fields that have heretofore informed our creations.
Well, on November 13, 2012, I will join some truly illustrious experts in the documentary series MANKIND: A History of All of Us, airing on the History Channel at 9:00 PM ET.
No kidding!!! Click above and watch the video. That’s me–the first voice in the promo–saying, “Planting the first seed is the first step toward civilization.” How cool!
I’ve had this under my hat for months. The taping took place back in January. It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, cold, blustery, and my boys were off from school, but I gussied up (yes, thanks to beloved Sandra Joseph, one of our old TWC friends, who took me to the Short Hills Mall and made sure I had the right color blouse and some decent make-up!) and schlepped into the City to a mysterious mansion tucked in the Village only a few blocks from where I once lived. Who knew?
There I spent several hours answering questions about the Vikings, of course, but also about a half dozen other topics I was lucky enough to be familiar with, crossing timelines and geographies to many of the realms of human history I’ve been fascinated with and researching for years. I knew somehow, someday, all of that extra-curricular reading I’ve done would come in handy.
Please tune in on November 13. Please please share the news. Blog, Facebook (Here’s my Author Page – please “like” me!), Tweet, Pininterest and tell them I sent you!
Meanwhile, in the hopes that my few minutes of air-time might spur some latent interest, I’ve put some of my personal copies of The Thrall’s Tale up online for sale. It’s technically and sadly out of print now, so I’m just about the only source there is. But I’m planning an e-book one way or another. In the meantime, let my publisher know that you haven’t forgotten me!
Oh, and yes, Pasture of Heaven is inching along!
What a week it’s been! Anyone in the path of Hurricane Sandy will tell you how much we now appreciate the simple things in life: heat, hot water, enough light to read by after dark, and the generosity of neighbors and friends.
Even this morning, as I drove back from teaching, I rolled over extension cords connecting house with power to house without. And I spent many hours though the last few days sharing a friend’s Wifi with neighbors around a crowded dining room table while all the kids played (somewhat peacefully) in the other room, laughing as we prepared a potluck supper using whatever was still edible in our not-so-frigid freezers.
The crisis still isn’t over . Right now there’s snow falling from a less intimidating Nor’easter, but with so many trees leaning and huge, broken branches dangling overhead, we’re expecting to lose power at almost any minute! Many people still don’t have power at all, including TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron. Thanks to MONDO and Sparkhouse, we’ve managed to keep TWC and Michelle warm and alive. Though I don’t quite understand why she has chosen not to take up my offer of a comfy couch, given my household of three cats, two rats, a lizard, a tarantula and, of course, my two rambunctious but adorable kids.
To all of our community, those we know and those we don’t, we send our prayers and wishes for a quick return to normalcy. And for those so inclined, take a moment to jot down a few thoughts about the past week’s experiences. Whether you just need to vent your anger and frustration or want to record a family moment that might not have happened with the Xbox working and everyone busy on their devices, it’s well worth the time. One day you might want to share what happened here this week with someone who isn’t old enough to remember.