Friday, July 27, 2012

Did That Really Happen?

          People always ask me if my stories are  autobiographical. "Did that really happen?" they ask. I always respond the same way. "I write fiction," I say, "not memoir."  Of course, if I am being totally honest, I admit that many of the experiences are based on life.

          In one of my stories the heroine climbs Mt Kilimanjaro.  I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and wrote about each breathless step from my visceral memory, but my story, "Push," (published in Peeks and Valleys) is about my character's climb, not mine.

          I traveled to India, and the sights and sounds and impressions of that immensely colorful country are  re-created in my story "A Hard Place for Soft Women," (published in the Evening Street Review). But the story is not about me; it's about a daughter, her mother and her aunt and how their different ways of experiencing the world impact their relationships.

          I take Bikram Yoga twice a week, sweating for ninety minutes in a room heated to close to one hundred degrees.  In my story "A Normal Man," my character sweats through his first Bikram class while reliving his marriage. His marriage, not mine. You can read that story in The Blotter, coming out August 1 at

          My novel in linked short stories is about multiple generations of a large extended family.  I come from a large extended family.  Am I writing about my family?  No--with reservations. Some of the events in the novel were triggered by events in my family, but the people are made up and so, ultimately, are the stories themselves. If, as Tolstoy said, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," then, since the stories are often about unhappy families, or troubled families, or families going through a crisis, each family is different from the others, and also different from mine.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Writing From Scratch

          At my Monday night writer's group we were talking about how hard it is to write the first draft of a story.  One of my colleagues who is writing a YA novel said, "If I had known how hard it would be to write I don't think I ever would have started.  It's agony." Another, an experienced published writer, whose work I greatly admire, said she has been spending time doing research for a creative non-fiction piece she wants to write, but every time she gets near starting she decides she needs to do more research.  "Anything to avoid the blank page."

          I was reminded of something I read years and years ago as advice to a novice writer.  It was:  Let those first words come out as stupidly as they like.  No one is going to rush out and publish it as it is.  Over the years that has become a sort of mantra to me.  Every time I face the computer and am about to start a new piece of writing, I repeat those two sentences.  I tell myself over and over again, just get it down, get anything down.  You can change it and revise it and rearrange it and polish it a million times over before you send it out for anyone to see.

          In fact I am aware that I am doing that very thing right now, just getting it down.  And after I get it down I will reread it and make sure it says what I want it to say before I push the button at the top of the page that says Publish.



Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Current Events Shorthand

          One of my writing teachers, June Gould, often told our class, not only to look to our inner thoughts and feelings when we are writing but also to look to the outside world. I have taken that advice to heart, and many of my linked stories are rooted in the happenings in the world at large. This is especially true because my stories span the years from 1941 and WWII up to 2012.

          There are so many events to chose from that impacted people during those years. After WWII there was the Korean War, Kennedy's assassination, the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, Viet Nam, the Challenger, and of course, the defining event of this relatively new century--9/11.  I could go on and on. 

          While every story is rooted in the current events of the time, in some the event is more important than in others. In one a character's whole future revolves around getting to the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.  In other stories it is a passing vignette: the character is reading a newspaper headline that shows him in a particular time and place.

           Placing the stories in the midst of current events, helps me to figure out what the characters are thinking and feeling and doing. None of us live in a vacuum. My characters live in the world at large and that world shapes the way they think and act, just like the events of 2012 shape me.  Putting the characters in a specific time and place tells the reader many things about them, without my saying it on the page.  It is a kind of current events shorthand.