Something Wonderful

Who Has Seen the Wind?

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

Christina Rossetti

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Jumping Genres

A charming story: A Pulitzer Prize-winning author is in a car in Miami when a little girl riding with him becomes restless and asks for a story. The writer obliges, weaving a cute tale that entrances the girl and spurs another passenger to take a video and then jot down the bones of the story. She sends the video to the writer’s agent, who urges him to create a book out of it. And he does, fulfilling an earlier promise he made to his goddaughters more than 20 years before to write a story that featured characters they could see themselves
in: Dominican girls growing up in the Bronx.

The story has a happy ending: Islandborn by Juno Diaz will be published by Dial sometime soon with a print run of 150,000.

When my Write Group buddy Carl Selinger passed this story onto me, it warmed my heart and made me smile — not just because Islandborn sounds like an adorable story with juicy, colorful illustrations, but because the story behind the story captures so many inspiring facets of what it means to be a writer.

First and foremost, this story is about conjuring up a new world. As Junot describes his goddaughters’ desire to see themselves in a book: “Behind their request was this longing for books and stories that resonated for them and included them, and opened up a space where they could be protagonists in the world.” Isn’t this exactly what we as writers strive to do: to create a world where readers can see themselves?

Second, Islandborn proved to be a slow cookin’ book: It took more than two decades for the story seed that was planted to bear fruit. Junot Diaz is no stranger to coming up with stories that take time to get down on paper (see Be Kind).  In the past 20 years, he’s published just three books: two short story collections and his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He’s freely admitted that he’s a tortoise, not a hare and that during one rough stage of his writing career, he spent some five years working on a 15-page story. Slow goers, let’s take heart!

And third, I love the fact that Junot has jumped genres. He’s switched gears and moved from writing a novel to a children’s book, while still exploring many of the themes that matter to him. As an editor at Dial Books for Young Readers said so well, “A picture book is like a primer on how to be human. For a novelist, it’s perfect, because isn’t that what a lot of novelists are exploring in their work anyway?”

And finally, Islandborn sprang from a little girl’s plea to a tale teller for a tale: “She wanted a story, man,” says Junot. “I had to come up with the goods.” Bravo, Junot! Write on!

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Albee Advises

A Delicate Balance, Three Tall Women, A Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of
Virginia Woolf? — even the names of Edward Albee’s plays are
arresting. A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Albee
had his share of critically acclaimed — and panned — plays. In an
interview I was lucky enough to catch, Edward shared this:

“I started out as a rotten poet.”

“Make sure you seize control of your life, [or you’ll be] filled with
regret over what you haven’t done.

“Don’t waste your life. Always be able to see the precipice wherever
you’re walking.”

“Any play that doesn’t ask tough questions isn’t worth going to.”

“Ideally, a play should hold a mirror up to people.”

“I think that some of the plays that were crucified by critics and
closed instantly were just as good as my most popular ones.”

So I listen for a long time and sometimes these characters do scenes for me….
I put my characters in a situation that will never be in my play.”

“Every worthwhile writer has an accurate take on how he’s doing and goes about
his business.”

“Anybody involved in the arts will admit they have a lot of questions.”

“Write as well as you can — learn your craft and do it as well as you
possibly can.”

“It takes as long as it takes.

And a few more gems:

“The thing that makes a creative person is to be creative and that is
all there is to it.”

“Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate it. A good
writer turns fact into truth; a bad writer, will more often than not,
accomplish the opposite.”

“A play is fiction; and fiction is fact distilled into truth.”

“If Attila the Hun were alive today, he’d be a drama critic.”

Bravo, Edward! Inspirited and instigated, let’s all write on!

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Another Approach

“Almost every advance in art, science, technology, business, marketing, cooking, medicine, agriculture, and design has occurred when someone challenged the rules and tried another approach.”    Roger von Oech, creativity expert

Every day, we’re encouraged to live by the rules, to play it safe, to sit quietly in the boat instead of rocking it. Every day, there are rule makers who strive to make sure that we color inside the lines and don’t forget that they are the ones who created the lines in the first place. So here’s a question worth asking ourselves: Are we rule makers, rule breakers, or rule believers?

Most of us aren’t rule makers. The rules that govern our lives aren’t ones we created, they’re ones we inherited or suddenly find ourselves saddled with. And most of us aren’t rule breakers. We’re not all that comfortable being uncomfortable. We find it hard to break free of our self-imposed limitations, even though, as my great friend Coach Tully says, our dreams always lie outside our comfort zone. We may dream dreams but we never quite reach them because we can’t step out of the lines to chase them. Like butterflies, they flit away, just beyond our reach.

Where does this leave us, myself included? In the rule believers category. We expend a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what the rules are and then following them as carefully as we can. But by the time we’ve figured them out, new rules have often cropped up, so we end chasing them like butterflies, too.

Think about this in terms of writing. Take a moment to Google “writing rules” and a raft of them are likely to crop up: Don’t start a story with the weather. But how about The Big Sleep or Jane Eyre? Show, don’t tell. How about Pride and Prejudice or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Use adverbs sparingly. How about Great Expectations or War and Peace?

The rules list for writing is as long as it is for any other discipline. It goes on and on. Instead of working to master it, let’s put our energy into being creative instead of cautious, into doing something different. If we push ourselves even just a little bit every day to do something different, we’ll strengthen our creativity muscles and our work will be the better for it. Let’s write dangerously — let’s be rule breakers and make our own rules!

“Find another approach” — let’s make this one of our mantras and see where it takes us. Before too long, we’ll find ourselves in rule-breaking territory, where the sweetest fruit hangs. Write on!

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“Pure Self”

“One important key to success is self-confidence. And one key to self-confidence is preparation.”   Arthur Ashe

“Constant training creates an unconscious competence. We build muscle memory that allows us to operate at our highest level. You might have heard this referred to as ‘being in the zone,’ ‘in the moment,’ or ‘mushin’…which means ‘no mind.’ We are at our best when we are acting from our pure self.”   Barry Farber*

A best-selling author of 12 books, Barry Farber is also a motivational coach and martial arts expert. Preparation is a major theme of his. The more you consciously prepare and master the basics, he notes, the more easily you can access them whenever you need them. This concept applies to any discipline we want to master, including writing.

Consider the art of creating dialogue. I once read two different Agatha Christie novels back to back. The first one was written toward the end of her career, after she’d written dozens of mysteries; the second one was an early effort — and it showed. The dialogue in her later book was witty, incisive and pointed. It revealed both the character of the players and bits of plot seamlessly. In contrast, the dialogue in her earlier book was rambling and even clumsy. It moved the story along, but slowly.

The difference was striking. One book was the work of an amateur just beginning to develop her craft and the other was the work of a master who knew intuitively the effect she wanted to create and how to attain it. That’s the fruit of practice.

Just recently, I took a key exchange in my children’s novel and rewrote it three or four times. I cut and moved bits, so the dialogue pushed my main character to make a key
decision. Then I sharpened the language, so it was crisper. Each time I worked this section over, better ideas bubbled up. I’m a long way from writing the kind of intuitive, “pure self” dialogue that makes Agatha Christie a master, but I know practicing this skill will move
me in this direction.

What about you? Is there a craft challenge you’re facing? Why not begin by reading the work of an author who’s mastered the skill you’re struggling with. Analyze exactly how the author created a sense of place or penned dialogue that sparkles and drives a story forward. Then pick a section of your own short story or novel that’s less-than scintillating and work it over until you get the effect you want. Keep doing this over time and soon your “pure self” will take over.  Write on!

* “Diamond Mind” column, Barry Farber, Suburban Essex magazine, May 2016

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Hand, Heart

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”   Ecclesiastes, 9:10

“A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work, and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace.”   Ralph Waldo Emerson

What does it feel like for you when you’ve had a great day? A truly productive writing day, when you look back and feel a sense of accomplishment? When you set out to get something down on paper or to wrestle with a thorny plot problem or a greet new character pops into your head — and you make it happen? It’s a wonderful feeling isn’t it?

Every time we put our hand to our work and do it with our “might” we give ourselves the chance to reap the rewards of a job well done. Every time we put our “heart” into our work and do our “best,” we increase the chances that something wonderful will happen.

And when we give less than our best? There’s a sense of dissatisfaction, isn’t there? We’ve experienced that niggling feeling that there’s something that we missed, something more we could have done. When we don’t leave it all on the page we feel a little like an athlete who didn’t leave it all on the field in a game. We feel unspent.

There’s a small battalion of things that line up to distract and derail us from doing our best: health and family issues, financial pressures, time constraints, our energy level. What tools do we have in our writer’s kit bag to defeat them? To my mind, there are four:

Intention:   We can come to the page resolved to give it our all — to do our best.

Grit:   We can call on persistence and staying power to fight through tough patches.

Second Winding:   We can push past our comfort zone and tap our inner reserves.

Joy:   We can bring a zestful, enthusiastic attitude to our work — a sense of fun.

On his wonderful Success Hotline (973.743.4690), Dr. Robert Gilbert talks about the “pillow test.” At the end of the day, when you put your head on your pillow will you say to yourself, “I’m glad I did” or “I wish I had”?

Let’s choose Ralph’s relief and gaiety: Let’s put heart into our work — and write on!

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Something Wonderful

Flower in the Crannied Wall

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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