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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Quietly exposing a hidden past

“Something happens between a novel and its reader which is similar to the process of developing photographs, the way they did it before the digital age. The photograph, as it was printed in the darkroom, became visible bit by bit. As you read your way through a novel, the same chemical process takes place.” Patrick Modiano

French writer Jean Patrick Modiano, who turned 71 yesterday, is the 2014 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, presented in recognition of his amazing and powerful lifetime body of work.  Interestingly, his many award-winning works, first produced in French, were not published in English until after the Nobel.  But they were known worldwide, having been translated into more than 30 other languages.  

Modiano's novels all delve into the puzzle of identity, and of trying to track evidence of existence through traces of the past. Obsessed with the troubled and shameful period of the World War II German Occupation of France—during which his father allegedly engaged in shady dealings—Modiano returns to this theme in all 30 of his novels.

A quiet, introspective man, he said “Writing is a strange and solitary activity.”  He started early, wanting an outlet to say something about things he had learned about those War years.  His first novel La Place de l'étoile (roughly translated as the place for the star) was published when he was just 22.  Thus he                                       
always encourages young writers to both follow their dreams and not to despair.

“Encourage aspiring writers to continue writing when things are going against them, when it feels hard,” he said.   “Explain the typical obstacles that occur, and encourage and reassure them to continue, never to give up.”

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Poetic thoughts on living, and life

Usually on Saturday I have a “Saturday’s Poem” to share.  But today, as we end July and start the trek toward summer’s end, I thought just a few quotes about poetry would be in order – all by poets who were born in the month of July.   Poetry enriches and enhances all of our lives, and for writers it is a terrific way to both express yourself and to capture the essence of a subject, or the world around you.  Enjoy!

“I like poems you can tack all over with a hammer and there are no hollow places.” –  John Ashbery


“The poetry of a people comes from the deep recesses of the unconscious, the irrational and the collective body of our ancestral memories.” –  Margaret Walker


“Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed. Their highest merit is suggestiveness.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne


“Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe.” –  Adrienne Rich

May your remaining summer days be filled with poetic images that will enhance your writing world and lead to countless “writer’s moments.”

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Observe life, then write it

“When I read good stories, I want to write good stories too.” Sharon Creech

And so she has.  Born this day in 1945, Creech is the first American to win both Britain’s Carnegie Medal for Children’s Books and America’s Newbery Medal – for her amazing Walk Two Moons.   Those two major international awards were just two of dozens of awards Creech has earned and convinced her to devote herself to writing full time, noting in her understated fashion, “There seemed to be an audience out there who wanted to read what I wanted to write.”    

Her writing career, primarily aimed at the young adult market (although adults are a big audience for her works, too) has been focused on both novels and picture books. She embeds serious topics into her stories, including themes of independence, trust, childhood, adulthood, and death, but often softening the blow with her effective use of humor. 
One thing I'm interested in is what shapes us: the people?             
 The place where we live? It's both of those and more. That's what I keep coming back to,” she said. 

As for advice to new writers, she says, “Read a lot, live your life, and listen and watch, so that your mind fills up with millions of images.”

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Exploring life's coincidences

“I write for children because I am interested in fantasy and the possibilities for experience of all kinds before the time of compromise. I believe that children are far more perceptive and wise than American books give them credit for being.”  Natalie Babbitt

Happy 85th Birthday today to the author of one of my all-time favorite books, Tuck Everlasting.  While Natalie Babbitt created this tale for young people, it touches each and every one of us and leaves us with both the “awe” factor and the “I wonder what would happen if?” factor as it deals with life, aging and death.

If you haven’t read it, go read it.  If you want to hear more about it and Natalie herself, there’s a wonderful interview with her in the archives of National Public Radio, done in 2015 on the 40th anniversary of Tuck’s publication. 

Growing up in Ohio where she wanted to be an artist, and in particular an illustrator, she entered the writing world because she had things to share with her art and some of it needed words to accompany those illustrations.  Fortunately, for us all, it is one of those “necessity is the mother of invention” things that led to a benefit for readers everywhere.               

In 2012, Babbitt was awarded the inaugural E.B. White Award for achievement in children's literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  In commentary about her writing, New York Times reviewer George Woods said, “Mrs. Babbitt creates a plausible world and peoples it with believable humans, but the most satisfaction comes from the pleasure of her company as she effortlessly takes the reader in velvet-gloved hand to point out life's coincidences and near misses.”

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fascinated by behavior

“As a novelist, I'm endlessly fascinated by human behavior and interactions.” Juliet Marillier
A New Zealand native who now lives in Australia, Marillier was born on this date in 1948 and while she was a lifelong self-procliamed “lover of fantasy,” she didn’t start writing her own versions until 1999.  Earlier, she focused on music, both on the performing side and in teaching and conducting.  
She got into writing with the book Daughter of the Forest, loosely based on the legend of the Children of Lir and "The Six Swans” (a story that has many versions, including one by the Brothers Grimm).   That book kicked off her “Sevenwaters Trilogy,” and the second in the series, Son of the Shadows, won Australia’s top fantasy fiction award.
Marillier’s novels combine historical fiction, folkloric fantasy, romance and family drama, and the strong elements of history and folklore in her work reflect her lifelong interest in both fields. However, her stories focus above all on human relationships and the personal journeys of the characters.  “Each of my novels features a protagonist undertaking a difficult personal journey. On the way, each of these characters - mostly female - discovers something about herself and at the same time makes an impact on other people's lives,” she said. 
Since 1999 she has written 20 novels and dozens of short stories, 5 which have won Aurealis Awards and 4 the Sir Julius Vogel Award.  She’s also been named for the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and France’s Prix Imaginales.

Noted for her great characters, she said that to write convincing characters, “You must possess the ability to think yourself into someone else's skin.” 

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Journalism lays the writing 'foundation'

“The best writers who have put pen to paper have often had a journalism background.“ – Rick Bragg

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg was born on this date in 1959 in Piedmont, AL, and credits his development as a writer to his ability to be a good listener.  Bragg wrote for several small newspapers before gravitating to the New York Times where he became a national correspondent and then Miami Bureau Chief, covering the controversial story of young Cuban Elian Gonzalez and earning the Pulitzer for his efforts. 

Among Bragg's best-known books are All Over But the Shoutin’, the story of his turbulent childhood in Alabama; and two high-profile biographies, one about POW Jessica Lynch I Am A Soldier Too, and the other about rock-and-roller Jerry Lee Lewis.

The winner of more than 50 writing awards, he is now a professor of journalism at the University of Alabama, and always hearkens back to journalism as a great foundation for any writer, a premise with which I fully agree.  Learning to be a reporter teaches attention to detail, how to deal with deadlines, how to “listen” to both what is being said and what is left unsaid, and how to organize a story so that it flows to a satisfying conclusion.
“People who think there is something pedestrian about journalism are just ignorant,” Bragg said.  “I don't think there's a difference between writing for a newspaper or magazine and doing a chapter in a book.”  

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Seeing the same words for the first time

“All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”  Ernest Hemingway

When Hemingway’s birthday rolls around (he was born in July, 1899) I seem to be reading yet another volume from his books of letters.  I’ve been gratified to learn that there are about 20 more volumes to come, so I should be immersed in the words he chose to share with friends, acquaintances and even adversaries for as long as I hope to produce “Writer’s Moment.”

I like to say when doing talks or meeting writers’ groups that Hemingway was many things, some of them admirable, many not, but above all he was a great observer of life, of the human condition, and of nature.  And he was meticulous in his choice of words and his use of them.  “I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied,” he said in one interview.                              

He often wrote by hand and would sit down each morning and completely re-read, edit and re-write whatever he had done the previous day before creating his next output.  Rarely satisfied with his first creation he said he was grateful for the opportunity to re-read each day, then read again when a typist had transcribed it, and finally to read the galley proofs before it appeared.

Sometimes chastised for being “too concise,” he said writers don’t need to be long-winded or flowery if they are effective with their word selections.   “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows,” he said.  “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.”

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Integrity and 'class' personified

“Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn't blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won't cheat, then you know he never will.” – John D. MacDonald

Born on this date in 1916, crime/suspense novelist and short storywriter MacDonald achieved the highest accolade in his genre, named a Grandmaster by the Mystery Writers of America shortly before his death in 1986.   A self-proclaimed “accidental writer,” he also was the winner of a National Book Award, and is perhaps best-known for his popular, critically acclaimed Travis McGee series. 

MacDonald's literary career began in 1945 while in the Army.  Waiting in the Pacific for his ship home, he wrote a short story and mailed it to his wife Dorothy.  She loved it and submitted it to Esquire -- which promptly rejected it.  So, she sent it to Story magazine, which accepted it for $25, pretty good payment for the time.

MacDonald decided to give writing a further try.  After writing almost nonstop for 4 months and getting hundreds of rejection slips, Dime Detective took a short story and paid him $40.  Encouraged, he re-worked other stories and was off and running.  Ultimately, he sold more than 
500 stories to detective, mystery and adventure magazines.                       

His first novel appeared in 1950, but it was his 1957 book The Executioners that put him on the map.  An almost continuous best-seller since, it also holds the distinction of being the focus of two feature films, both box office successes.    

His character Travis McGee made his first appearance in 1964 in The Deep Blue Good-bye, starting a run of 21 bestsellers featuring him.   Each title in the series includes a color, the last being The Lonely Silver Rain shortly before MacDonald’s death.    This past May, Nathaniel Philbrick - author of In The Heart Of The Sea and Mayflower - said:  "I recently discovered John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series … and it's as prescient and verbally precise as anyone writing today can possibly hope to be."

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Happy life, happy poetry

“I always tell students that writing a poem and publishing it are two quite separate things, and you should write what you have to write, and if you're afraid it's going to upset someone, don't publish it.”  Wendy Cope

A contemporary English poet, Cope (who turned 71 this week) has attracted a popular following with her lighthearted, often comical poetry, as well as achieving literary credibility by winning a number of awards and making an award shortlist almost annually over the last two decades. 

Named an Officer of the British Empire (entitling her to be addressed as Dame Wendy) in 2010, she is far from expressing herself as royalty when writing her poems.  In fact, she has been lauded for her keen eye for the everyday, mundane aspects of English life, especially the desires, frustrations, hopes, confusions and emotions in intimate relationships.                   
  She also is a great writer for kids, and empathizes with their hopes, dreams and frustrations. 

For Saturday’s Poem, here’s just one of the dozens and dozens of clever Wendy Cope poems that I’ve loved reading over the years. And, I hope you'll look for her, too.   Enjoy, and happy weekend!

The Orange

At lunchtime I brought a huge orange –
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave –
They got quarters, and I had a half.

That orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately.  The shopping.  A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment.  It’s new.

The rest of the day was quite easy,
I did all the things on my list
And enjoyed them, and had some time over.
I love you.  I’m glad I exist.

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Writing whatever you can imagine

“The one thing emphasized in any creative writing course is 'write what you know,' and that automatically drives a wooden stake through the heart of imagination. If they really understood the mysterious process of creating fiction, they would say, 'You can write about anything you can imagine.'” – Tom Robbins

Born on this day in 1932, Robbins grew up (as he puts it) “as a hillbilly” in the mountains of North Carolina, the grandson of two Baptist preachers who he said were “mightily influential” in his development as a storyteller.

In addition to Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (both a bestseller and a highly popular movie) Robbins is the author of 8 novels, numerous short stories, many essays and several screenplays.  In 2000, Robbins was named one of the 100 Best Writers                    
 of the 20th Century by Writer's Digest magazine, and the legendary Italian critic Fernanda Pivano called Robbins “the most dangerous writer in the world.”    In October 2012, Robbins received the 2012 Literary Lifetime Achievement Award from the prestigious Library of Virginia.   

As he celebrates his 84th birthday, Robbins still maintains a regular daily writing schedule.  “I show up in my writing room at approximately 10 a.m. every morning without fail,” he said.  “Sometimes my muse sees fit to join me there and sometimes she doesn't, but she always knows where I'll be. She doesn't need to go hunting in the taverns or on the beach or drag the boulevard looking for me.”

Good words for any writer to heed.  It’s hard for your muse to be effective if she can’t locate you at in your creative space.

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Going to a world of her own

“I was encouraged to be imaginative and read, and it was a great childhood for a budding writer because I had the time and the freedom to go into a world of my own.” Sarah Waters

Born on this day in 1966, Sarah Waters grew up in Wales and said that while she did read, read, read and eventually become a writer, it wasn’t first on her list of aspirations. “For a long time,” she said, “I wanted to be an archaeologist.” 

She said that she thought she was headed for university at a fairly eearly age, even though no one else in her family had been. “I really enjoyed learning. I remember my mother telling me that I might one day go to university and write a thesis, and explaining what a thesis was; and it seemed a very exciting prospect. I was clearly a bit of a nerd.”             

While she enjoys writing historical fiction, she also likes to shock her readers from time-to-time with some rather graphic details, “keeping them on their toes, so to speak.”  Her most recent book, The Paying Guests, is not only a terrific murder mystery but a detailed study of life in London right after World War I.

“I love research,” Waters said.   “Sometimes I think writing novels is just an excuse to allow myself this leisurely time of getting to know a period and reading its books and watching its films. I see it as a real treat.”

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Practicing a wide daily writing diet

“My cure for writer's block is to step away from the thing I'm stuck on, usually a novel, and write something totally different. Besides fiction, I write poetry, screenplays, essays and journalism. It's usually not the writing itself that I'm stuck on, but the thing I'm trying to write. So I often have four or five things going at once.”  Jess Walter

I like to work on several things simultaneously, so what Walter says resonates with me as a writer.  And, writing this blog, of course, is always a catalyst for getting my writing juices flowing. 

Born on this day in 1965, Walter is the Spokane, Wash.-based author of 6 novels, a collection of short stories, a non-fiction book, and myriad essays and short stories.  To date, his works have been published in 26 countries and translated into 28 languages.

His number one best-seller, the 2013 Beautiful Ruins, has an interesting premise.  It revolves around the people who surround or interact with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra.   And, of course, everything  fits into the “What If?” category.   
A frequent speaker, too, he says the best advice he can give 
to new writers is to “just do it and don’t worry,” noting that he wrote for 7 years and made a total of $25 before finally breaking through.

“Forget being 'discovered.' All you can do is write,” he added.   “If you write well enough, and are stubborn enough to embrace failure, and if you happen to fall into the narrow categories that the book market recognizes, then you might make a little money.   Otherwise, it's a struggle.  (But) A gorgeous struggle.”

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Imagining the past in creative style

“Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking.”— Jessamyn West

Mary “Jessamyn” West, born on this date in 1902, was an American author of short stories and novels, notably The Friendly Persuasion.  Her stories, although shaped by her imagination, are loosely based on tales told to her by her mother and grandmother about their Quaker farm life in rural Indiana. 

It’s interesting also to note that her grandmother also was the grandmother of Richard Nixon and to observe the divergent paths the cousins took to fame.   While Nixon was serving as vice president, West’s best-selling novel became an Academy Award-nominated movie.    Then, her sequel titled Except for Me and Thee, another best-seller, came out at the same time that Nixon became President.  That book, too, became a successful movie.
Although she spent most of her life in California,                                
almost all of her 21 novels are about Indiana, a state in which she did not live and seldom visited.   "I write about Indiana because knowing little about it, I can create it from the images I’ve learned from my grandmother’s stories.  The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future.”

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Hearing from an American treasure

“Novelists go about the strenuous business of marrying and burying their people, or else they send them to sea, or to Africa, or at the least, out of town. Essayists in their stillness ponder love and death.” Cynthia Ozick

Ozick is one of America’s treasures when it comes to writing both essays and novels.  I was driving Sunday and heard a marvelous interview with this 88-year-old novelist, essayist, and short story writer.   As soon as I got home I tracked          
down the link to the interview to share with readers of this blog.   The interview is about 7 minutes long.  I promise it will be 7 of the best minutes you’ll spend as you listen to the insights and thoughtful discourse from this terrific writer.  And while she “teaches” as she shares, she feels writing really cannot be taught.

“No one can teach writing, but classes may stimulate the urge to write. If you are born a writer, you will inevitably and helplessly write,” she said.  “ A born writer has self-knowledge. Read, read, read. And if you are a fiction writer, don't confine yourself to reading fiction. Every writer is first a wide reader.”

Here is the link to her interview.  Enjoy.

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