Author of six books, I live in Portland, OR, a green, green place. A desert balances on the rim of this region and the Pacific is about 2 hours away. I walk often to free my mind and limbs and work out.I grow giant dahlias and other flowers, although this puts me at war with the slugs of our region.I sometimes host dinner parties with other writers in attendance. I am a former chef and am especially happy when I'm chopping vegetables for a pot of soup or shopping at a local farmer's market. I attend lectures and films and plays and pay close attention to the sky and seasons--whatever it takes to replenish my creativity, stoke the senses. I listen to NPR,progressive radio, and old jazz tunes most of the day and follow politics, feverish for the truth of our times to be more revealed. And I teach writers and I fix the stories of people who are trying to become better writers. It adds up to a life that is sometimes brimming, sometimes quiet, sometimes filled with shared struggles and laughter.
But I spend a lot of time at this desk, looking out at the sky beyond my monitor, watching the rain and clouds, thinking in word pictures. You can also find me at www.jessicamorrell.com
During a final edit there are a number
of sins and typos that can be spotted and removed to make your draft crisper
and more polished.
*Organize your sentences with parallel structure. Your
writing will be much smoother and clearer if you put related ideas in the same
tense and form. For example, "I came, I saw, I conquered," is
smoother than "I arrived, then having seen, I proceeded to conquer."
Phrases that repeat the same grammatical structure. Or, putting like ideas in
like grammatical patterns. Parallelism enables readers to read sentences more
Non-Parallel: My responsibilities include
evaluation, drafting proposals, and to prepare budgets.
Parallel: My responsibilities include
writing evaluations, drafting proposals and preparing budgets.
* Do not write feel when you mean believe or think.
Wrong: I feel like you don't understand my position. Instead: I believe that you
don't understand my position.
*Avoid “verbing,” that is changing nouns to verbs such as
journaling, parenting, gifting, author, host, headquarter, etc. (Headquartered
at this Tuscany villa, James Toscani hosted a party to celebrate the cookbook
he had authored.)
*Avoid appending up to verbs and phrases as in stand up
* It's vs. its It's is a contraction for "it is"
and its is possessive.
* Who's is a contraction for "who is" and whose is
*Lie is a prone position as
when you lie on the bed, lay is placing an object on a surface. Just to
confuse matters, the past tense of lie is lay. Whenever you hit a lay/lie
word in your draft, stop and think.
* Be careful using the dash (—).
When used correctly it introduces an unexpected turn of thought, introduces an
afterthought, or repetitive phrase, or sets off material too short to be placed
within parenthesis. Tip: dashes separate, hyphens join.
Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to
write "very;" your editor will delete it and the writing will be just
as it should be. ~Mark Twain
Verbs are the most important element in every sentence. Adverbs rob verbs of potency and lead to bland and cluttered writing. And yes, J.K. Rowling and lots of published authors use them. But that's no excuse for you adopting this habit which always spells 'amateur' to an editor.
From William Zinsser: "Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and
annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries
the same meaning. Don't tell us that the radio blared loudly - "blare" connotes loudness. Don't write
that someone clenched his teeth tightly - there's no other way to clench teeth. Again and again in
careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs.
So are adjectives and other parts of speech: "effortlessly easy," slightly Spartan," "totally flabbergasted."
The beauty of "flabbergasted" is that it implies an astonishment that is total; I can't picture someone
being partly flabbergasted. If an action is so easy as to be effortless, use "effortless." And what is
"slightly Spartan"? Perhaps a monk's cell with wall-to-wall carpeting? Don't use adverbs unless they do
necessary work. Spare us the news that the losing athlete moped sadly and the winner grinned widely."
Here are duds you can stop using now:
Very Quite So Kind of Really Totally Actually Seems slowly Suddenly Probably possibly Hopefully Just Perfect Viciously Usually Quickly Carefully Extremely Rather Somewhat Sadly Happily Dejectedly
Created by Ken Gray The Rules: Don't take too long to
think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and that
will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more
than fifteen minutes. (from Jennie Shortridge) My list was eclectic and ranged
from W.S. Merwin to Jane Austen. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
Fiction does not invent out of a vacuum, but it invents;
and what it invents is, first, the fabric and cadence of language, and then a
slant of idea that sails out of these as a fin lifts from the sea. ~ Cynthia Ozick
It's the birthday of poet Andrew Motion, (books by this author) born in London (1952), whose collections
include The Pleasure Steamers (1977), Secret Narratives
(1983), Dangerous Play (1984), Natural Causes (1987), Love
in a Life (1991), Salt Water (1997), A Long Story (2001),
and Public Property (2002). From 1999 until last year, he was Britain's
While a student at Oxford, he studied poetry in one-on-one tutorials with
W.H. Auden, which he said was "like spending an hour each week in the presence
of God." He published his own first volume of poetry at the age of 24, and he
got a job teaching English at the University of Hull, where the librarian was
poet Philip Larkin. They became good friends. After Larkin's death in 1985,
Motion wrote an award-winning biography of Larkin.
He gets up early and says that he writes each morning from six o'clock until
nine or ten, and that he considers this "sacred time." He said, "If I can carry
without spilling whatever it is that drips into my head in the night to my desk,
then that's valuable."
He said: "My poems are the product of a relationship between a side of my
mind which is conscious, alert, educated and manipulative, and a side which is
as murky as a primeval swamp [...] I want my writing to be as clear as water. No
ornate language; very few obvious tricks. I want readers to be able to see all
the way down through its surfaces into the swamp. I want them to feel they're in
a world they thought they knew, but which turns out to be stranger, more
charged, more disturbed than they realized." Source, The Writer's Almanac, October 26, 2010
“Think of everything that happens at the very beginning of a story: The
reader makes decisions about the story. They haven’t yet committed to
completing it and they are feeling their way around how much they want to
commit. Your reader is not a penniless and weary traveler who will be happy to
take any bed you can offer. They are discerning, with plenty of money for a
night’s sleep and if you show them something uninspired, they’re off to the
next inn. You have to work to get them to stay with you.” ~ Brandi
The prologue or opening pages of your novel lets readers know what sort
of story world they have entered. These pages depict if it is the contemporary world
or the future, if we’re reading a fantasy, a romance, Western, erotica, or science
fiction. When you craft your opening pages, you cannot imagine that your reader will be able to identify your
genre by the section of the book store it is found in.That's because your opening sentences are filled with promises.
Now in life, particularly if you've ever been a parent, you know that sometimes keeping a promise is no easy thing. In a
science fiction story, some aspect of science, technology or futuristic elements will be directly linked to the
central problem and its solution. In a romance, a couple will meets so that they can fall in and out
of love, then ultimately fall in love again.After the opening events--which will introduce threatening change and reveals at least one character under stress-- then the central conflict is introduced. But from the first words and whispers of a story, the
unfolding events that create structure in your novel must be appropriate for
the genre or type of story that you’re writing. If you’re writing a mystery,
you will solve the case, if you're writing a thriller, the bad guys will be apprehended, the terrible menace stopped.
you’re writing a romance, you’ll construct a series of misunderstandings and
mishaps that keep the lovers apart until the last possible moment, when they
realize the truth of their feelings and fall headlong into lasting, blissful
love. In a romance, readers expect to deeply delve into the heroes’ psyches,
want to watch the blossoming romance falter and fizzle before it finally
blooms, and want all other aspects of plot— even if it is set on another planet
in the distant future— to exist as secondary to the romance.
your opening words contain a promise to your reader. Read these pages and I’ll
transport you to a world based on your expectations, where the story events
will deliver an emotionally satisfying experience. If a reader pays $24.95 for
a fantasy novel, he expects fantastical elements and interesting explorations
of themes that perhaps cannot be explored via a contemporary and realistic
promise to your reader is that you’ll deliver the goods following the
strictures within the genre; that your story will reveal something about human
nature, and will create meaningful connections between the reader and the story
But openings also introduce themes and hint at the ending and the resolution to the story.
aspect of story promise is best described by playwright and author Bill Johnsonin A Story Is A Promise.
Johnson explains that realizing that a story is a promise is a cornerstone in
understanding storytelling. He writes, “A story sets out its promise by
offering details of life-like characters, issues, events, and circumstances,
then editing and arranging those details to move an audience toward a desirable
experience of resolution. For example, when a story created around the issue of
courage fulfills its promise, the story’s audience experiences a fulfilling
moment of courage. The story’s audience experiences the truth of the story’s
Popular stories often are designed around a promise of some human need that is acted out to dramatic fulfillment..... The Harry Potter novels around the issue of Harry fitting in. In the Bourne films, Jaason Bourne seeks to discovers his lost identity."
Johnson explains that when readers or an audience are
confused about a story’s dramatic purpose, it’s because they haven’t been
emotionally or thoughtfully engaged by the plot or actions of the characters.
He explains, “The most common mistake of inexperienced writers is not clearly
establishing and sustaining their story’s advance along its story line. This is
ruthlessly damning. It creates a story that is a collection of meaningless
details that suggest no promise or dramatic purpose, just as a collection of
railroad cars sitting isolate on sections of track fails to suggest the
possibility of a journey toward a destination.
Every story should have something—an issue or idea about love, courage, redemption, renewal—some
human need—in its opening scenes that speaks to an audience.”
certain that your opening creates questions that can be resolved only by
certain that your opening is crucially linked to the chapters that follow.
Sometimes just being
alive feels like raw flesh-vulnerable, responsive, irritable, in constant
danger. Those are the times when I most need to sense my place among other
people, to hear their stories and know they are mine as well. I badly need to
be sure someone can hear me; I need to receive his answering cry. ~Sheldon Kopp
Write for the all the senses, and use sounds to arrest the reader's attention.
The sky is silvery about to turn to slate, changing and moving--restless as a hunting dog---shot through with violet and yellow, as there is a pause between the storms that have been lashing this region since yesterday. I'm sitting here in a wind-tossed spell in my lamplit office before more rains arrive while smells of soup bubbling are emanating upward. I've just finishing reading a lovely little novel, Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey for the second time. For those of you who despair that you're growing to old to write, this book was published when Pouncey was 67. The narrator of the tale is Robert MacIver, an 80-year-old Scot and historian, burdened by grief and age.
It has a fascinating structure with the front story creating a lot of tension, while the backstory (often the biggest part of the story when the narrator is elderly) is unraveled, bit by bit. But in the midst of all this MacIver is writing a novella or story of sorts about war, so there are about four layers to the story. There is a lot of musing about war in this book, and a lot about fairness and revenge and the taming power of love.
Some of the sensory details were a delight and I was especially drawn to the reality of MacIver's aging and ailments which created such a portrait of vulnerability and toughness juxtaposed and created a lot of tension. In this segment he is describing a soldier's letter home during the Vietnam war. The character is a medic and he's describing flying in the med vac helicopters: "...A helicopter in the middle of distance is just a nondescript mosquito with a drone, but as it approaches, different levels of noise start asserting themselves; the woofer of the rotary kicks in (BA-BA-BA-BA) and becomes ever louder, and when you fly low (which we usually do, because it is harder for anyone on the ground to draw a bead on us at that pace), you are inscribing an earsplitting incision of noise on fields you are rushing over, often only twenty five feet below. They have been harvesting the rice from the swampy paddies over the last couple of weeks, lines of figures bent to the work, a curve of mostly white clothes under the fine yellow conical hats, held in a permanent stoop over the individual plants. They don't look up anymore when we pass; my pilot says when he started out here they would sometimes stand up, and occasionally even wave, but not now. I've a few children down there, but they don't look up either. They are working their land, doing what their grandparents did, and it is their place. With our constant rush and constant noise pressing down on them, I cannot avoid the invasiveness of what we do. Everyone needs a place and this is not ours. Not New York, not Wellfleet. You, I now, know, are mine...."
Everyone needs a place. And in your writing place, use all the senses.
10 Tips from Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder was one of the greatest writer/directors in film history, having co-written and directed such classics as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and Double Indemnity. What screenwriter wouldn’t want a little advice from him?
Well, here are some of Wilder's screenwriting tips: *
The audience is fickle.
Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
Know where you’re going.
The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then—that’s it. Don’t hang around. ( From Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe via Gotham Writers)
Nonfiction writers you might want to check out this announcement from amazon.com ( I first heard it from Jane Friedman at There Are No Rules): "Amazon announced that it will launch "Kindle Singles"--compelling ideas
expressed at their natural length. Kindle Singles, which can be twice
the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a
typical book might be the perfect, natural length to lay out a single
killer idea, well researched, well argued and well illustrated--whether
it's a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific
argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event. Kindle
Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be priced
much lower than a typical book." This means these chapbook like products will run about 10,000-30,000 words.
And check out Jane's latest post about copyright laws 5 Things Every Writer Should Know About Rights. In my career I often meet writers who are fearful that their work is going to be stolen or those who post copyright symbols on their pages. It's one of the best explanations of the law I've read. Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
writer is a scavenger constantly gathering materials from life and gleaning
memory, because a writer holds an ear to wind and is constantly noticing, he or
she needs a format to transform all that listening and gathering. With that in mind,
this workshop instructs writers on how to write a book that comes from our deepest
passions, and communicates emotions, caring and concern. We’ll discuss how our
books can touch a reader’s imagination, life, and heart. A wide range of examples from various fiction
and nonfiction genres will be used to illustrate the discussion and a reading
list and generous handouts will be supplied.
Topics to be covered:
identify your audience.
What makes a book
matter to readers.
How to write
with passion yet avoid preaching and sentimentality.
How to choose
your format—inspiration, fiction, memoir, or how-to.
How to focus
on the central theme, question, or issue.
How to hone
your writing voice or “the music of what you mean in the world.”
How to break
down a project into doable segments.
How themes are
handled in fiction and narrative is used in all forms of writing.
send a check for $75 to Jessica Morrell, P.O. Box 820141, Portland,
A confirmation e-mail as well as a follow-up email will be sent so include
email address and phone number. For more information: contact Jessica at
jessicapage (at)spiritone (dot)com
''The deepest satisfaction of good fiction comes from the encounter
between the reader's imagination and the writer's creation. It
is a fluid, delicate and personal relationship that occurs in an
evanescent space.'' ~Janna
Concentrate your scenes and narrative energy on moments or points of change. And if you're looking for places in the story to lavish details it will be in these moments, especially when the character has stepped into a new place, has learned or endured something unimagined earlier.
It's another day of blue skies with weather as perfect as weather can be in these parts. Last night I was walking with a friend just before sunset, as the sky took on soft pink hues and leaves crunched beneath our feet and I couldn't help but hope the weather would hold.....
But back to the subject of research and veracity in writing. Here's another link to Mulholland Books and Greg Rutka's fascinating take on researching for his fiction books called Sinking the Titanic. He writes:
(and by the way, I've also toured Portland's Shanghai Tunnels)
"I love doing research. It’s like cheating, but with permission.
Here are some of the things I have done in the name of
Research: learned to ride a motorcycle; became a certified EMT for both
New York State and Monterey County, California; had my sneakers stick to
the floor in a peep-show booth back when Times Square was not a place where you took the kids; drunk tea with nuns; crawled through the Portland Shanghai Tunnels; watched a domme flog her sub in an S&M club while he hung on a St. Andrew’s Cross;
visited the Oregon State Police Crime Lab; learned to play guitar from a
former member of Everclear; learned how to field-strip an M1911;
gone on countless ride-alongs in countless cities; fired an HK MP5 on
single, three-round, and full-auto; fired a Tommy Gun (only full-auto);
fired many other types of firearms; hung out with junkies; hung out with
methheads; hung out with rock bands; argued politics with a Political
Officer at the State Department; gotten bronchitis standing in
Lancashire fields taking reference photographs; been politely asked to
leave the premises of Vauxhall Cross; run a day-long “scavenger hunt”
through New York City and the boroughs (had to see if the route was
possible, and to get the timing down); gotten sick-drunk with men who
wouldn’t talk to me sober; been attacked by rats; trespassed;
eavesdropped; learned the best way to burn someone alive; used a
Starbucks bathroom seat-cover dispenser for a dead drop; been laughed
at, mocked, threatened, and ignored.
Some of the things I’ve done."
He then goes on to describe how these days many people are lazy researchers, using the internet instead of having real experiences for the sake of veracity. He continues: "I think of research as an iceberg. The one-eighth of it that makes it onto the page rises from the seven-eighths nobody sees." I love this analogy, don't you?
As an editor what stops me from believing in a story or a writer is when a writer's research is thin and inaccurate and I need to spend my time fact checking. The farther away from the real, everyday world of this century that your story takes us (as in historical fiction, recalling the past in nonfiction, science fiction or fantasy) the more depth of research and details needed to bring it to life. And you need to remember that the world is filled with sticklers for truth, for facts, and accuracy. The cop in your story needs to be carrying the appropriate weapon and if it misfires, you need to know exactly how and why such things happen. Don't skimp, but search out the perfect details that reverberate, that bring us closer, that help us breathe the air.
"I suggest that forces within the writer-reader personal encounter
foment unreality. The reader comes equipped with a vivid, fresh, outside
impression of works the writer remembers wearily from the inside, as a
blur of intention, a stretch of doubting drudgery, a tangle of memories
and fabrications, a batch of nonsensical reviews, and a disappointed
sigh from the publisher. The reader knows the writer better than he
knows himself; but the writer's physical presence is light from a star
that has moved on." ~ John Updike
Today is Tracy Chevalier's birthday, the author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and other historical novels. She said, "Don't write about what you know — write about what you're interested in. Don't
write about yourself — you aren't as interesting as you think." (source The Writer's Almanac)
A writer pal of mine Carl Grimsman, posted at Nathan Bransford's blog under his pen name Quill, Writing Practice: What Works for Me. He writes in part: "I stand on my head for twenty minutes before writing. Blood rushing to
my head sets off a neuron frenzy, prompting right brain left brain
intercourse and an overall spiking of metabolic function. Then prone I
utter a secret Jedi incantation that ends with "best seller come to da,
Dah!" From there I go straight to the kitchen, cram a quick snack, rich
in iron—raisin bran, maybe a donut. Then I might get lured by the tube
for a few minutes, some old sitcoms… But soon, neural activity
positively peaking (or more often starting into a post-sugar-high nose
dive) I leap to my keyboard, and
Which leads me to ask what is your writing practice? Send replies to jessicapage(at)spiritone(dot)com
There's an interesting post at Mullhohand Books True Believer by agent David Hale Smith. He begins:"Every writer needs a true believer on his team. I am a literary agent,
and I am a true believer. I am a creative partner and a business partner
to a group of talented, ambitious, and hardworking authors. I’m a good
editor, I know a lot of people who can publish your book or buy your
rights, and I can negotiate a sweet contract with them. But my real job
is just to believe."
As I read his post I realized that's my job in life too--just to believe in my students' and clients' writing, their abilities to make their writing better, their powers to perservere and to simply learn. He continues, describing his role: "When I talk to normal people, those who are not in this business, I find
they hardly ever ask how many drafts a great book went through, or how
the movie adaptation came about. But that’s okay. It’s how it ought to
be, really. That’s the beauty of a good magic trick. You don’t notice
the bluff. You don’t see all the practice, the real setup, the blown
attempts and do-overs. You just see the final flourish. The audience is
there for the fun. Just like I am. But I get to see all the practice
runs, too. It’s an honor and a blast to be in the backstage crew."
Every writer needs a true believer. Who is yours? Meanwhile, keep writing, keep dreaming, have faith
You have to understand, writing a novel gets very weird and
invisible-friend-from-childhood-ish. Then you kill that thing, which was never
really alive except in your imagination, and you’re supposed to go buy
groceries and talk to people at parties and stuff.—David Foster Wallace
Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we so often
refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may no
end of our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering and
set us free.
The fog is diminishing a bit now, but it still feels like I'm sitting among the clouds. Over the years of teaching I'm always urging writers to use weather to create veracity in their stories. Weather can be an event (Snow Falling on Cedars) can make things happen in the story, particularly cause hardships, can create danger, can be used as backdrop to create mood, tension, atmosphere. I especially appreciate it when writers use weather to create vulnerability in their characters since there is little we do about weather in the real world. You can use it to begin stories or chapters, but then you need to be careful of not creating a familiar pattern of weather reports.
It can also be used to reveal character's emotions or state of mind.
Weather can transform a scene so that it becomes an
experience and can be seen, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled.
Writers sometimes add weather to scenes, but then don’t
portray the characters affected by it. For instance, a blizzard rages in a
story, but then characters don’t shovel the sidewalk, slip on ice, or become
chilled when outdoors. The furnace never fails and the pipes never freeze. Or,
it rains in a scene, but no one becomes drenched, or jumps around puddles, or
turns on the windshield wipers.
For more information about the Finalists and National Book Awards Week events, visit www.nationalbook.org .
Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Alfred A. Knopf)
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
Nicole Krauss, Great House (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Lionel Shriver, So Much for That (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel (Coffee House Press)
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group)
John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday)
Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City (Princeton University Press)
Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Viking Penguin)
James Richardson, By the Numbers (Copper Canyon Press)
C.D. Wright, One with Others (Copper Canyon Press)
Monica Youn, Ignatz (Four Way Books)
Young People's Literature
Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown & Co.)
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group)
Laura McNeal, Dark Water (Alfred A. Knopf)
Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
The Judges for the 2010 National Book Awards:
Fiction Joanna Scott (Chair), Andrei Codrescu, Samuel R. Delany, Sabina Murray, Carolyn See
Nonfiction Marjorie Garber (Chair), Blake Bailey, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Seth Lerer, Sallie Tisdale
Poetry Cornelius Eady (Chair), Rae Armantrout, Linda Gregerson, Jeffrey McDaniel, Brenda Shaughnessy
Young People's Literature Tor Seidler (Chair), Laban Carrick Hill, Kelly Link, Hope Anita Smith, Sara Zar
The morning fog has vanished and there are blue skies and mild temperatures again around here again today. My critique groups have begun and I'm feeling the tingle, the challenge of working with groups of writers. My parents have left so I'm falling back into the quiet of my routine and trying to store away my worries about them, or at least deal with them in some practical way.
All fiction of any length, as well as memoirs, must begin with an inciting incident which occurs as the story opens in the act one. The first act has lots to accomplish: it introduces the
world of your story, it must hook readers, and it begins the external conflict.
This is done some disturbance or threatening change in the story world.
This change is called the inciting
incident. It needs to tilt the protagonist or another character off balance,
revealing a character under stress.
Here's the inciting incident for Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier:
My mother did not tell me they were coming.Afterwards
she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I
thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not
cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the
widening of my already wide eyes.
I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard
voices outside our front door -- a woman's, bright as polished brass,
and a man's, low and dark like the wood of the table I was working on.
They were the kind of voices we heard rarely in our house. I could hear
rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls and fur.
I was glad that earlier I had scrubbed the front step so hard.
My mother's voice -- a cooking pot, a flagon --
approached from the front room. They were coming to the kitchen. I
pushed the leeks I had been chopping into place, then set the knife on
the table, wiped my hands on my apron, and pressed my lips together to
My mother appeared in the doorway, her eyes two warnings.
Behind her the woman had to duck her head because she was so tall,
taller than the man following her.
All of our family, even my father and brother, were small.
The woman looked as if she had been blown about by the wind,
although it was a calm day. Her cap was askew so that tiny blond curls
escaped and hung about her forehead like bees which she swatted at
impatiently several times. Her collar needed straightening and was not
as crisp as it could be. She pushed her grey mantle back from her
shoulders, and I saw then that under her dark blue dress a baby was
growing. It would arrive by the year's end, or before.
The woman's face was like an oval serving plate, flashing at
times, dull at others. Her eyes were two light brown buttons, a color I
had rarely seen coupled with blond hair. She made a show of watching me
hard, but could not fix her attention on me, her eyes darting about the
"This is the girl, then," she said abruptly.
"This is my daughter, Griet," my mother replied. I nodded respectfully to the man and woman.
"Well. She's not very big. Is she strong enough?" As the
woman turned to look at the man, a fold of her mantle caught the handle
of the knife, knocking it off the table so that it spun across the
The woman cried out.
"Catharina," the man said calmly. He spoke her name as if he
held cinnamon in his mouth. The woman stopped, making an effort to quiet
I stepped over and picked up the knife, polishing the blade
on my apron before placing it back on the table. The knife had brushed
against the vegetables. I set a piece of carrot back in its place.
The man was watching me, his eyes grey like the sea. He had a
long, angular face, and his expression was steady, in contrast to his
wife's, which flickered like a candle. He had no beard or moustache, and
I was glad, for it gave him a clean appearance. He wore a black cloak
over his shoulders, a white shirt, and a fine lace collar. His hat
pressed into hair the color of brick washed by rain.
"What have you been doing here, Griet?" he asked.
I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. "Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup."
"And why have you laid them out thus?" He tapped his finger on the table.
I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own
section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage,
onions, leeks, carrots and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape
each slice, and placed a carrot disk in the center.
The man tapped his finger on the table. "Are they laid
out in the order in which they will go into the soup?" he suggested,
studying the circle.
"No, sir." I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out
the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but
I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.
"I see you have separated the whites," he said, indicating
the turnips and onions. "And then the orange and the purple, they do not
sit together. Why is that?" He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece
of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand.
I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.
"The colors fight when they are side by side, sir."
He arched his eyebrows, as if he had not expected such a
response. "And do you spend much time setting out the vegetables before
you make the soup?"
"Oh, no, sir," I replied, confused. I did not want him to think I was idle.
From the corner of my eye I saw a movement -- my sister,
Agnes, was peering round the doorpost and had shaken her head at my
response. I did not often lie. I looked down.
The man turned his head slightly and Agnes disappeared. He
dropped the pieces of carrot and cabbage into their slices. The cabbage
shred fell partly into the onions. I wanted to reach over and tease it
into place. I did not, but he knew that I wanted to. He was testing me.
"That's enough prattle," the woman declared. Though she was
annoyed with his attention to me, it was me she frowned at. "Tomorrow,
then?" She looked at the man before sweeping out of the room, my mother
behind her. The man glanced once more at what was to be the soup, then
nodded at me and followed the women.
When my mother returned I was sitting by the vegetable wheel.
I waited for her to speak. She was hunching her shoulders as if against
a winter chill, though it was summer and the kitchen was hot.
"You are to start tomorrow as their maid. If you do well, you
will be paid eight stuivers a day. You will live with them."
I pressed my lips together.
"Don't look at me like that, Griet," my mother said. "We have to, now your father has lost his trade."
"Where do they live?"
"On the Oude Langendijck, where it intersects with the Molenpoort."
"Papists' Corner? They're Catholic?"
"You can come home Sundays. They have agreed to that." My
mother cupped her hands around the turnips, scooped them up along with
some of the cabbage and onions and dropped them into the pot of water
waiting on the fire. The pie slices I had made so carefully were ruined.
Can you see how this change is threatening and possibly life-changing?
"We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and
strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that
knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a
primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical
science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns
become an active force not a collector's item. Art objects." - Jeanette
The day is still soft here in Portland after deep blue skies and sun and leaves turning many shades of glory. I haven't been able to blog a lot about my life lately. A few years ago I was in a car accident and acquired brain injuries and I learned that it was best not to speak my mind when my mind was not as reliable as it had been. Things are better now, although I've still got a ways to go for a complete recovery. And in the past week my elderly parents were visiting me and I discovered again how difficult it can be to deal with diseases of the mind. And I learned a lot about grace.
Now there are many definitions of grace, but I'm not talking about a spiritual or religious sense here. I'm talking about struggling to remain calm and just and real and present in the midst of something really difficult. Perhaps like me, you're not always capable of grace. Perhaps like me you're prone to speaking out or lashing out or other forms of impatience, exasperation, or temper.Perhaps like me you've been trying to tame these tendencies for years. Some of my most painful and humiliating memories are when I've been unkind, passed judgment, or spoke too soon, or gave in to impulses best kept under guard. Some of my biggest regrets are about lacking grace.
So when I bundled off my parents today with hugs and I love yous after caring for my mother with such startling intimacy that I never had before imagined, I was grateful for all the ways that grace touched me this past week. Grateful for the laughs and memories that were woven in. Grateful for my daughter who helped care for her grandparents and for my friend who listened to my struggles. Grateful that I didn't lose my temper or didn't fail to rise to the occasion--much as I hate to use a cliche'.
And I think I'm going to write about this---find a place to claim what I've learned, what I hope for. In all your struggles and all your triumphs, I hope you're finding a way to keep writing, keep dreaming, and have grace.
"Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises
me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and
shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from
whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it
again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin
to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts
might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed." - Jeanette Winterson Art Objects
A story is about movement. It should be both a physical journey and
a journey of the heart. A story takes characters into new physical and emotional territory. Along the way torture your characters--emotionally, spiritually, physically. Continue to make things worse. Continue to close off options. Make things look desperate, hopeless as you near the climax.
Readers aren't beguiled by stories without conflict because they lack suspense, but also because we cannot learn anything from
them. They lack the spark, the concepts, and morsels that might nurture our own growth, in
whatever direction that might be. Of course we love to read happy stuff in
books too, but only after the protagonist has traveled his or her formidable path of
personal growth and danger then finally reached the reward for his or her travails.
As a writer you are free. You
are about the freest person that ever was. Your freedom is what you have bought
with your solitude, your loneliness. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin
Success is a finished book, a
stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you
have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed
around the world.
~ Tom Clancy
"Writing is finally a series of permissions you give
yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall.
To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to
find your own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating.
Not stopping too often to reread. Allowing yourself, when you dare to think
it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for
inspiration’s shove." ~ Susan Sontag
a note to let you know that I will be writing the beginning of a very
ambitious novel on Monday morning, 10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, in
front of a live audience and streaming on the web. For two hours, I'll
write the opening pages of The Novel: Live, a Seattle7Writers event to raise money for literacy in our community.
you tune in, not only will you see me at the desk, you will see my
words as I write then scrolling across the screen, mistakes and all.
You can watch online as 36 Northwest authors take their turns in the
hot seat, picking up where the last author left off, and, we hope, by
Saturday, bringing the story to a riveting and satisfying close at 6
This event takes place live in front of an audience as well at Richard Hugo House,
Seattle's literary center. If you're in the neighborhood, please drop
by! If you're far far away, please tune in. If you want to hit that
"donate" button on our website, please do, and know that your money will
be going to a great program here called "Writers in the Schools."
Learn more and tune in here: www.thenovellive.org. Or just show up! It's going to be an unusually good time!
Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian writer and literary giant in the
Spanish-speaking world, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature,
the Swedish Academy announced Thursday. His deeply political work
vividly examines the perils of power and corruption in Latin America.
The prize was given, officials said in a statement, "for his cartography
of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's
resistance, revolt and defeat."
When a representative of the academy reached Vargas Llosa on Thursday
morning, the newly minted laureate sound surprised and reflective.
"Writing has been such a fantastic pleasure for me all my life that I
cannot believe that I am honored and recompensed for something that has
been a recompense in itself, you know?" he said in a transatlantic phone
~ from The Washington Post and other sources
“The only book worth writing is one that
threatens to kill,” Terry Tempest Williams
Some of my favorite moments at the Willamette Writers
Conference in August were hallway conversations with writers I hadn’t seen in awhile. We
briefed each other on current projects, caught up on kids and vacation plans
and then got down to the serious talk about our writing projects and dreams. During
these conversations a writer told me she was afraid to write a memoir because
her parents might read it and another writer mentioned how he feared his
children would read his words someday. My answer to both writers was just risk
it. Go towards the hard truths, the pain, the sad, sore secrets, the heart
Fortune sides with those who dare and this is especially true
for writers and artists. Writing is an act of hope, of bravery, of necessity.
Not only do we grapple with such things as structure and language, but also our
doubts about what we write and why we write it. Writing is plunging inward,
getting lost and tangled, sometimes finding our way emerging full of pain and
exaltation and fear. Writing requires making a mess, a loss of control, in
other words, we learn how to write by writing. But if you spend too much energy
on holding back and worrying about embarrassing your family and telling their
secrets, the writing just might be doomed from the start.
So what is risky writing? Well, first all writing is risky. It’s just your brain and heart and fingers
telling readers a story, some truth, some information they need. No paint or
clay or fancy implements to disguise your words, just your thoughts pulled out
from within, one at a time. I’m talking about writing what we’re most afraid
of. As Terry Tempest Williams
recommends, “When you think you’ve gone too far, go deeper.” Because this type
of writing is somehow dangerous. It’s
not perilous as in professions that are inherently hazardous such as being an
astronaut or race driver or bomb squad member. Your life or cerebellum is not
on the line, but your soul and heart are.
This means you’ll be searching for the grief, shame, lust,
worry, and secrets you are loathe to expose. It will make you worry that people
might not understand you, or misconceive the message or messenger. It means
you’ll feel vulnerable and scared, but also authentic and open hearted.
Churning deep, then going deeper you might find shame, or a stifled place
inside, or a festering wound. But it’s not all raw emotion, angst, and bile.
It’s not necessarily a crusade or a cause or expose′. It also means you’re willing to experiment
and step out of line, to look like a fool, a beginner, a romantic.
You risk writing sentences and paragraphs and whole books
that pretty much suck. You risk rejection and denial of your greatest dream—to
get that dangerous story out to readers. You risk breaking the rules. You risk self
discovery. You risk because memory is fallible and most people dread exposure. You
risk because it’s natural to worry about what people think of us. You risk
because we lie to ourselves all the time. You risk because your voice of
judgment or inner critic wants to run the show and you’re defying these
limiting parts of yourself. You risk
because most of us fear abandonment on some level. You risk because it’s not always possible to
know when to rein in, when to be graphic, when to create a scene moment by
moment. You risk if you write outside your genre, if you blend genres, or write
about an anti-hero instead of a hero, and create him or her as a neurotic,
allergy- prone agoraphobic. You risk
when you feature someone in a story that you know in real life as a villain or
abuser. You risk when you write about your ex-wife or brother or children.
But also you risk failure and looking ridiculous and we live in a culture
that’s terrified of failure, where there seems only room for those who emerge
on top. We’re also a culture that rewards people who play it safe, but of
course in the arts, failure is always a possibility, always haunts. Harlan
Ellison said, "… the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous
personal risk. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new
step presenting the possibility of learning a truth about oneself that is too
terrible to bear."
Because if you don’t risk your writing just might be flat or contrived or
banal. Now taking risks will be different for each of us, but you
should feel the risk in your body as you write. Maybe your heart will beat a
little faster or your palms will sweat or you’ll and start craving calming
substances (a drink, chocolate, nicotine) to lessen the anxiety. Maybe you’ll
just practice avoidance and you’ll write safer stories or keep circling around
Now, in life there are smart risks and foolish risks. Some people think bungee jumping is a safe
risk, I think it’s foolish to chance back and neck injuries for a quick thrill.
Some people think that spending your spare time writing a novel is chancy. Risk
generally implies some form of jeopardy, uncertainty, and possible loss.
But risk also has a positive side, such as the chance of breaking out as an
author, or being the first to write about a certain topic.
So here’s what I suggest: give yourself permission to write
about topics or characters or secrets that your inner editor insists are too
controversial or embarrassing or raw to expose in the light of day. As you
write, don’t dance around the truth, don’t tame events to disguise them, don’t
soften your approach. Then imagine the
person who has always been your harshest critic—your sister or ex-husband or
boss or mother. Look this censor
square in the eye and shock him or her with your words.
It's one of those soft, seasonless nights in Portland. All the windows still open and you can almost drift away on the night air, swear that you're somewhere far away.
But I wanted to mention that Jane Friedman is at it again at There Are No Rules. Her Five Articles You Should Have Read this Summer is full of advice that will make you think, laugh, sigh, scratch your head and possibly disagree with.
Historical fiction is popular these days even though according to the Historical Novel Society it's difficult to define: "There
are problems with defining historical novels, as with defining any
genre. When does 'contemporary' end, and 'historical' begin? What
about novels that are part historical, part contemporary? And how much
distortion of history will we allow before a book becomes more fantasy
than historical?....To be deemed historical (in our sense),
a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events
described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the
time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research)."
Some writers seem to come by their interest in writing historical fiction naturally as is the case of Michelle Black, author of five novels that blend history, suspense, and adventure. While
researching her first Eden Murdoch novel, An Uncommon Enemy, she began
to study the Cheyenne language and became involved in the movement to
save our Native American languages from extinction. Her company,
WinterSun Press, began to publish a Cheyenne language course called
"Let's Talk Cheyenne" in a not-for-profit collaboration with a linguist
on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana.
Q: Can we start at the beginning? Can you tell us a bit
about how your interest in anthropology developed because it seems to color
much of what you write?
A: A youthful
encounter with Margaret Mead may have been an influence. She spoke at my
college in the Seventies. She walked in wearing a flowing gown and
leaning on a giant staff—I expected her to part the Red
I loved studying anthropology as an undergraduate,
but went on to attend law school instead of furthering my studies. Twenty
years later, though, I found myself offering to commercially publish a Cheyenne language course developed by a linguist on the
Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. I met the man over the internet
while researching my first Eden Murdoch novel, AN UNCOMMON ENEMY. I felt like I
was at last participating, however tangentially, in the furtherance of
anthropology by helping to preserve a Native American language.
As a historical side note, I went on to write SOLOMON
SPRING, a story which touches on the Cheyenne exodus from the Indian Territory
(Oklahoma) back to Montana, led by Dull Knife in 1879. The Cheyenne elder whose
voice is heard on the language tapes is that of Ted Risingsun, the grandson
of Dull Knife. I did not learn of this connection until after I wrote the book,
so it seemed like a wonderful coincidence.
Q:It seems that in your series protagonist Eden Murdoch
that you’ve created a complex woman, especially one with such a complicated backstory
linked to an Indian tribe. Has she evolved in your imagination over time? Did
she come to you sort of fully birthed? Do you see yourself in her in any
way? A: Eden
is indeed a complicated character. She’s stubborn and rebellious, two
character traits which doom her chances for a happy, traditional marriage,
circa 1865. She has suffered much, but never let her misfortunes defeat
her. While many may dream of days filled with adventure, the only thing Eden ultimately longs for
is an ordinary life, which fate (a.k.a. me) keeps denying her.
For a long time, Eden was an enigma to me. I worried she
was too eccentric to be likeable, but as the trauma at the beginning of
UNCOMMON ENEMY begins to fade, she reconnects with her nurturing side. As
her character progresses through SOLOMON
SPRING and THE SECOND
GLASS OF ABSINTHE, she subtly changes. She is ten years older in the last
two novels and has seen so much of life and human nature at it best and worst,
that she has gained a lot of perspective.
As to whether I see myself in her--no, I only wish
I could be that strong and resilient. lol
Q: I’m fascinated by your leanings toward the
Victorian West and your inclusion of so many fascinating aspects of this era
from absinthe to gold mining to spirit photography to the Cheyenne language. Why does this period and
place hold such appeal for you? A: I love all things Victorian—I even
live in a Queen Anne Victorian house in Boulder
County, Colorado. I
was born in Kansas,
where so much of the West is still alive. As a child, I remember walking on the
prairie with my dad and finding arrowheads.
Since I enjoy the era so much, it makes the research
I do for the novels as much fun as writing them. Sometimes I even joke
that the novels are a tax-deductible excuse for doing the research!
Q:Since some of the readers of this blog write historical
fiction and many write all sorts of fiction, can you talk about your research
methods and particularly how you use research to create such a strong sense of
time and place in your novels?
A: To get into the hearts and minds of my characters, I find
two research tools the most valuable. The first is reading the newspapers
of the city and time period of the novel. Knowing what was of interest to
the people who are character models is vital. Reading the advertisements
if very informative, not to mention entertaining.
The second tool I use is to read personal letters written
by someone similar to a character, or the character himself, if one appears in
my story. Custer plays an important role in AN UNCOMMON ENEMY and,
fortunately for me, all his extant personal correspondence is available from
the New York Public Library.
The letters of a man
to his wife (as opposed to business colleagues or letters to the editor where
the writer if obviously self-censoring), give an unguarded view into the soul
of an individual at a given time and place in history.
Q: Where do you see historical fiction heading in
the next ten years? A:As a writer and, more importantly, a reader and lover
of the genre, I hope its current popularity continues! I think we can
truly understand history better through well-researched historical
fiction. I have always thought that if you want to know history,
you can read biographies and history books, but if you truly want to feel history,
read a historical novel that captures the essence of that time and place.
Q:What’s on your nightstand? A:Jane and the Madness of Lord
Byron, by Stephanie Barron, another of her wonderful Jane Austin mysteries.
Q:What are working on next? A:Real life feminist
firebrand, Victoria Woodhull, is my next protagonist. Her background as a
spiritualist and a Free Love advocate play into her role in SÉANCE IN SEPIA,
which takes readers into the world of Victorian séances and spirit photography.
This book will be published in October 2011.