June 29, 2016
Shall we use real names? Fictionalize? What if someone reading a blog post or my fiction finds themselves in my work? I’ve used their experience and/or their name without asking and they are offended, even hurt? Is it worth risking a friendship or a relationship with a family member? What if I offend a politician or a government? What then?
These are difficult questions for any artist, but they are also irrelevant to our work. Is that too harsh? Too uncaring? Does it matter what genre we are working in so long as we keep working? Does it matter if we fudge the boundaries between genres? Experiment with new forms? Yes and no. Sometimes.
Artists make art out of their lives. We’re on a quest for truth, clarity, tolerance, connection, the transformation of life experience into art. We speak when no one else dares. We write and draw and take photographs when no one else has the skill, access, tools or knowledge. We dig deep, we don’t let go.
Is it any wonder that so many artists and writers are in jail in authoritarian countries?
I just finished reading a very affecting book, “The Inventors,” by Peter Selgin, a former Gotham Writers Workshop colleague. It’s a coming-of-age memoir about his well-known inventor father, an inspiring 8th grade teacher, and Peter’s own subsequent “invention” and “reinvention.” It’s told using a mostly second-person narration, an intriguing choice that works well. But why this choice? I’ve sent Peter a query and hope he will answer before I post this blog. He’s just returned from a successful book tour. The book is doing well, as it should. But, Peter, I have some questions. I do remember talking to you about these issues when we were in a writing group together some years ago. I don’t think we ever agreed. So here we go with this discourse once again:
The teacher is never identified, nor are one or two other characters in the story. As the revelations are often troubling, and this is ostensibly a memoir not a novel, the absence of identification feels like an ellipsis. The teacher and Peter’s father are dead, other people are not. Was Peter worried about offending? Protecting? Why did he make this decision? As of this writing, I am not sure. But I was stopped short by this sentence from one of the contemporary first-person journal entries: “If I mix a little fiction and nonfiction, a little lie with the truth, it’s by way of making truth even truer.” (page 145) After that, I’m left to wonder if anything Peter describes in his story—his feelings, the anecdotes—is true, or where the truth lies, if anywhere, or if I have just been reading a very good made-up story by a very fine writer and, if so, if I have been tricked in some way into thinking that what Peter says happened really happened. Maybe The Teacher, as he is called, didn’t ever exist. Maybe he was invented, a figment of Peter’s imagination.
I have strong opinions about fabrication in non-fiction work: I think the writer loses credibility. It’s probably my journalism muscle, but there it is. Lying politicians, cover-ups, a manipulative market-driven mass media. Remember James Frey who was advised to transpose his novel “A Million Little Pieces” into a memoir—without proper guidance, because it would sell better—and then got into trouble with Oprah on live television?
In nonfiction, we can write imaginatively, even experimentally, of course, but fabrication and conflation, that doesn’t work for me unless the book is labeled fiction or autobiographical fiction.
June 21, 2016
The mountains are so beautiful. Photo by Carol Bergman
"As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability. We can shape events in each other's brains with exquisite precision...this ability is language."
--Steven Pinker in "The Language Instinct; How the Mind Creates Language"
I was sitting next to Thea , an adorable four- year- old, in the back seat of a truck. Her father was driving, my son-in-law was sitting next to him, my daughter was on the other side of Thea's car seat in the back, her mother was waiting for us at a restaurant. It was late in the day, near dusk, and the mountains were already in shadow. The road was winding, the sky and clouds majestic. Thea had a lot to talk about, lots of stories to tell, lots of observations to make. Just four-years-old and stories and interesting words came pouring out of little Thea. Of course, she has wonderful, attentive, verbal parents. They talk to her-- and with her --non-stop. They don’t silence her in any way, though they do suggest a quiet moment or two, especially when they are in the midst of an adult conversation. At bedtime, they read her stories. So when Thea says, “The mountains are so beautiful,” with a Sarah Bernhardt inflection, she has either heard that somewhere or devised it herself. Or when she points to her hand-made bracelet and explains that it’s “homegrown” she’s evoking the flowers and vegetables in her garden. She shares the sweet peas she’s picked with everyone in the truck. And there are quite a few charming sentences to go with that generosity, the perfect condiment so far as this writer—who loves sentences—is concerned.
It’s a marvel how much complex language Thea has acquired in just four years of her life. She’s a chatterbox and I mean that in a complimentary way. Not long ago, when children were expected to be obedient—the seen but not heard tradition—the word chatterbox was a slur, especially when targeted at girls. But times have changed: being a chatterbox is a good thing for a four-year-old and for writers, by the way—on the page or in company. Which gets me to thinking: how can this chatterbox model be replicated in our classrooms? Is conversation being encouraged or stifled? Are vocabulary words being memorized or are they used in context? How much, in fact, do we expect of our children and ourselves?
What if instead of testing our kids every five seconds our tax dollars were spent on intelligently devised language and knowledge interventions? What if we taught all parents how to do what Thea's parents do without a second thought? What if our hard-working teachers still had time to enrich lives rather than grade them?
June 14, 2016
The immigrant from South Africa, the native from Connecticut. The youngest was 19, the oldest 50. They were pharmacy techs, travel agents, entrepreneurs, students, and church-goers. Many were gay, lesbian, or transgender; all were someone's son or daughter.
--The Daily Beast
I’ve been reading some poetry this morning. A Catholic friend is reading the Bible and posting verses on Facebook. JetBlue, a corporation with a conscience, is offering free air travel to friends and families of the victims. The President has spoken--yet again-- with strength and dignity about a massacre, grief and shock.
This horrible event in Orlando has an historical and political context; it does not stand alone. And though it is impossible, even futile, to try to understand how a single person can hate and kill and gather guns to kill, we can also have compassion for his parents. He was a son, too, a son with promise born on democratic American soil. Think about his Dari-speaking Afghan immigrant parents. How relieved they must have been to escape a war zone. Did they take that trauma with them? Undoubtedly.
Certainly, something went terribly wrong with their son.
Even Hitler was a baby once upon a time. A baby who grew into a man infected by a coarse and dangerous ideology. A baby who grew into a killing machine. First came propaganda, then a book, then the final solution.
A home-grown terrorist. We don’t have to look overseas to ISIS to find a hate- driven ideology. Donald Trump’s foul mouth twists words and distorts truth. His angry face fills our television screens every day. If he were our leader, how many people would say “heil” to him?
Let us not let him stop us from thinking clearly, feeling deeply, or sounding our own carefully chosen words with honor. Let us celebrate our heartfelt human response to this tragedy.
June 5, 2016
Cover by Chloe Annetts @ chloeartdesign.com
Why does a writer write, an artist paint, a singer sing? And do artists and writers have gifts that can be taught? Or not?
I do think that there are exceptionally talented people with very special gifts. Genius talent, shall we say. But when my opera singer friend, Carla Lopez-Speciale, said to me one day that most people can learn to sing, I was taken aback. Her voice is exceptional. I could learn to do that? I don't think so. I think she meant that I could learn to sing for pleasure though, obviously, I'd never be an opera singer. No, I'm a writer. My talent lies there. My effort lies there.
I find inspiration in writers I admire, study their sentences, parse their plots. And I know why I write: I write to connect with my readers, domestic, overseas and interplanetary :). I write to stay grounded, alert and actively engaged in the world. I love words and beautiful sentences. I love to talk. I love to listen. I love to elicit stories from others. I love books, newspapers, magazines, literary magazines, online and print. I have created a body of work: articles, essays, fiction, flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, screen treatment. I have admirers and detractors. I keep on writing regardless of opinion or the money I earn writing.
Some of my followers are family, some are friends, some are colleagues, some are strangers. Every now and again, one of these followers responds or “likes” what I’ve written to assure me they are following me, or agree with what I have said, or don’t agree with what I’ve said, or have something interesting to add to what I’ve said. Or they have been inspired to write their own posts and tweets and novels, which is gratifying. Or they remain silent. Sometimes, they thank me. I will always respond to whatever appears on my FB or Twitter posts. It’s a conversation, a discourse.
But like most writers, I work in a self-imposed solitary confinement 85-90% of the time. One reason, among many, I love FB, one reason among many I love to teach. Once a week at least, I am in the presence of other writers. The heat inside me and my students is too much to bear without an artistic outlet. We are hyper-sensitive and keenly observant. Personal suffering or intense joyful experience is transformed into words. The goal is to write from the heart with precision.
There is us—the writers—and the reading world out there—the consumers of writing—who buy our books, read our articles, essays and stories, then toss them away with “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” Or a book club discusses a book in two hours, a book that took a year to write. And we wonder if that book will stay on the shelf or get quickly recycled. And then the wondering stops and we press on to the next project.
Who will remember the days, weeks and months of hard work to create a work? Only the writer, only the artist.
And so it came as a welcome surprise to learn that the Canadian Writers Union is sponsoring an international #whywritersmatter campaign. Strokes and appreciation for the day to day devotion of the writer to his or her work. Excellent, thank you. A reminder that what we are doing is worth doing, the ultimate reward.
Please pitch in. Say something on my posts if you are inclined and/or on the international campaign website. Let us know you’re out there reading what we write. Celebrate our free society with a playful or thoughtful response. We need our writers and our intelligent readers this American election year more than ever. There's a demagogue out there trying to get our attention.