Monday, February 27, 2012

Entry #41 - "Why Writers Don't Write"

This week I thought about why I must drag myself to the computer some days, even though spending three or four hours getting words on the page is usually a deeply satisfying experience. After a good writing day I am flying.  Everything looks more beautiful than it did and I look at the natural beauty of my world with fresh eyes. Truth is -- that I do love to write. But I have talked with my writer friends who describe the same kinds of anguish in the complex push and pull of wanting to write and actually doing it.
Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011

Now - I don’t believe in writers’ block.  I believe in persistence.  I believe that when writers put their butts in a chair and hands to a pen or computer, words will come. Not necessarily perfect words, and certainly not finished words – at least initially. And yes, most writers often toss out text that doesn’t work and that’s a little depressing. But it is an art – this writing business and some false starts are part of any creative effort.

Sometimes writers stall in their efforts out of fear that their words might bring on ridicule or yawning disinterest.  They may write too little because they think they must render every word and detail perfectly on the page. And this can slow the production of any aspiring writer. But writers must be brave people of great faith who honestly believe that what they do must be done.

Writers need to just get it down on the page and not worry about what anyone thinks, because at the early stage of the process, few people will actually see the work. Then later, revise and rewrite until the story takes on a form, a substance rich in texture and color. Unfortunately some writer friends console themselves by spending too much time and energy thinking about writing, instead of putting the words on the page.  I do this sometimes too.  I would not have written this essay were this not true for me this past week.

Clearly writing is work. Hard work. And while some days I have dreams that create powerful images and impressions that won’t let me rest until I write; other days I don’t exactly know what I’ll say until after it’s on the page.  That’s a bit unsettling and it generates fear. And it requires a degree of trust in your inner voice to get to the bottom of what needs to be said. Writing is a kind of intuitive thinking on the page.

It helps me to remember that the practice of writing has a cumulative effect. It’s the practice that counts and the knowledge generated from the actual writing experience that over time makes a difference in our skill.

Words make thoughts concrete. Writers take inarticulate thoughts and put them into a form that inspires deeper thought, that allows feelings and emotions to become whole. The act of forming words into a structure creates more thoughts.  Insight evolves from that process.  I think of this as improvisation with a computer or pen.

Albert Einstein said, “True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist.”   ---from The Expanded Quotable Einstein – edited by Alice Calaprice.

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:

Friday, February 24, 2012

Entry #40 – “Taking Note of The World: What Do Writers See?”

Writers need to spend time doing “serious people watching” - if they hope to capture the curious complexity of language and gesture in human interactions for the page. While I often take my notebook to places like local coffee shops, parks, a nearby Mall or the County Library, and even record the colorful seasonal activities at the nearby Farmers Markets, some of my most useful journal notes have come from my travels.

While I’m on vacation I look forward to studying the activities around me.  Wonderful material for settings, scenes, and characters all unfold around me, if I take the time to notice.  And it’s interesting what you see when you look and listen with a small notebook in hand. I find I’m mostly invisible. Few people really look at others. 

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
And lately, I have thought about a recent cruise that I took in late fall 2011.  I went back to my journal notes last week and reread observations – some of which I’ll likely use in a story that’s under construction right now. It occurred to me that the people on that cruise are “characters” in their own and someone else’s story, and even strangers have the potential to provide substance for my imaginary worlds.  So when I travel, I take note.  I write phrases and scraps of dialect and dialogue in my notebook as I notice the small kindnesses and conflicts that go on around me. I hang out and watch. 

I’m reminded that Henry James said that “a good writer is one…on whom nothing is lost.” And since later, if I’ve not written myself a note about that clever turn of phrase, odd perspective, peculiar character in white overalls in the buffet line at breakfast, or the warm and funny banter between that old married couple, I will forget, just as surely as I will forget about that wonderful bay scallop and butter/citrus sauce dish that I had for dinner last night.  If I don’t take note of it, some of what I experience will slip away and while thankfully - much of it will settle into the compost heap of my subconscious, some richness will be lost.

Something about a new setting always causes me to “see” and hear the variations and commonalities of our shared humanity. I once read an interview by Tom Wolfe and he said something like (I’m dredging from memory and paraphrasing here) ‘If you spend a month anywhere in this country and take notes, you will find stuff and people you never even knew existed before.’  My notes lead me to thoughts about a young man I observed on the cruise.  He had tattoos running like sleeves on both arms. I have wondered what those tattoos would look like when he is 65 years old and the muscles in his arms are stingy and shriveled. Or perhaps if he gains an excess of weight, those tattoos will sag and sway.  Either way those pictures of faces and flowers likely will become sinister.

I’m particularly reminded that writers need to get away from their desks and go out into the world with a small notebook (and pen) in hand and turn a sharp eye and critical ear to the world.  A writer’s work requires him or her to tune into that which is nearly tangible, and transfer that into rich descriptive words that capture the complexity of people and places in this diverse, but portable world. 

Saul Bellow said, “I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”   And it helps if you can take notes before you forget what you saw.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Entry #39 - “Stacking the Odds: Luck, Skill & Strategic Persistence”

After a recent conversation with a writer friend I began thinking about how writers do what they do well enough to have others read, recognize and enjoy their work.  How do aspiring writers stack the odds so that their work will find publishers and readers? What factors contribute to success? 

It seems to me that successful writers depend upon a mixture of luck, skill (which includes talent & training), and strategic persistence, but what constitutes the best mix? Is there a magic or optimum formula?

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
Luck seems to be the sketchiest of these because we can’t exert control over the randomness of it, so it seems to be something to minimize. And yet, if you don’t buy the lottery ticket, you will not win the lottery, even if you do (wisely) delete those weird spam-scam emails that say you’ve been left a sum of money by some distant cousin in India. But luck does happen, both good and bad luck. The universe does smile some days and frowns upon the best of us from time-to-time, although my yoga teacher sees this as a challenging opportunity presented by the universe. But the problem of depending too much on luck - as the gaunt gambling addict knows and can’t admit - is that your lucky number statistically is unlikely to pop up, so if you put all your hope on luck, you’re in for a truckload of disappointment. 

So what about skill? Clearly some writers have more talent and training than others. But talent seems a catchy word that suggests an innate ability to master language and get it on the page and, yes that’s probably true at some level.  Just as there are amazing athletics, there are those special writers who seem born to get it right on the page.  But the reality is most of those writers, like athletes, actually have a high level of skill developed over time from training, observing, thinking and practicing their skill until it looks easy. Just as a musical genius does need to be exposed to the idea of music and learn the “how to” skills of technique and practice, competent, successful writers combine training in technique, careful study of examples, and yes indeed, miles and miles of practice.  Skill, then, which includes talent and training should occupy a maximum percentage of the odds for successful writing.

And what of persistence? How essential is it?
Some writers believe that persistence is probably the second most essential component for success ranking closely behind skill. Writers who have plans about how to present and market their work are most likely to find suitable publishers and readers. That means these writers have a strategy for reading and researching appropriate publications and identify publishers who have an interest in the kind of work they write. And they must persist, even in the face of soul-jolting rejections. Persistent writers immediately follow every rejection with another query letter. They pop their submissions out again and again to a list of suitable publishers until a match is made. And at regular intervals, successful writers revisit their unpublished as well as published work, to revise it again with new insights learned from practicing their craft.

As a writer, I’m not sure what combination of luck, skill, and strategic persistence works best for others, but at this time, my mix looks something like this: luck 5%, skill 45%, and strategic persistence 45%.  I suppose the missing 5% might be left for some sort of challenge sent by the universe.  I am open to that.

It helps me to remember that while insanity is sometimes described as doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result; strategic persistence is doing the same thing over until it works.
Writer Diane Ackerman describes the odds as:
“…There are yards of writers…but not many who stay the course. The ones who do   aren’t necessarily the most gifted, but those who can focus well, discipline themselves, persevere through hard times, and spring back after rejections that would cripple others.”

Friday, February 10, 2012

Entry #38 - “Dive into Your Story Like an Olympic Swimmer”

This week in a memoir writing class I teach, after some discussion about where to begin a story, I’ve been thinking once again about timing in a story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.  The timing issue requires careful thought.  Initial drafts of a story often take on a detailed chronological structure, but as writers continue to get into the “aboutness” of story, they must decide whether they’ve started the story too early, which is usually the case, or perhaps, as is rarely the case, too late. A story, like Goldilock’s soup, must be just right.  It needs to start at exactly the right moment, and the best strategy is in the beginning of action, or at the first crisis moment.  The Greeks called this “In Medias Res” which means “in the middle of things” and finding that exact moment evolves from those early drafts that clarify the “heart of the story unfolding on the page.

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
Writers get into trouble by starting a story with the main character getting out of bed, perhaps after a (choose one): restless night, sexual or romantic encounter, nightmare, phone call, turning off a loud alarm clock, or oversleeping, etc. Next we can find our main character in his or her pajamas in the bathroom with more than enough description of what goes on in there.  Then we might find him or her getting dressed, eating breakfast, traveling to work or where ever.  Just writing this kind of tedium, even broadly here as I have done as an example, is boring to me and to you as a reader.  Inquiring minds don’t want to know and don’t care about this kind of detail UNLESS it really is essential to what happens and how it happens

Writers, like Olympic swimmers, must dive as far as they can into the deep water of the action and swim like mad, if story is to hold the interest of readers.  And the beginning use of time is - quite literally - just the beginning of the decisions writers face when pacing, when using time effectively throughout the story.  Similar decisions must be made in the middle and at end of the story.  Writers need to ask themselves if they’ve tried to cover too much time or not enough. They need to be mindful about using too much space to tell back story or using flashbacks or memories. These bits of information may require skillful weaving into the existing structure of story and too many such detours pull the reader out of the forward motion of the story.

Writers must decide how much time is enough time to tell a particular story.  Spreading out events with too much time spent on non-essential details results in a boring story. Readers will find themselves skipping large blocks of text and if that text is at the beginning, more often than not, they will stop reading. 

I am reminded that Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” 

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:


Friday, February 3, 2012

Entry #37 - “On Writing Dialogue: How You Say It Matters”

This week I arrived early to meet a writer friend in a local coffee shop. While waiting, I noticed a drama unfolding at a nearby table that involved a woman tearfully telling her friend about a terrible work evaluation she had gotten that morning that would likely cause her to be fired.  Her friend murmured all the appropriate comforting words, while the narrator grew more agitated as she spoke about the experience.  After the friend left, the woman angrily called a number of people on her cell phone, and although I could only hear half of these conversations, each one added new information to the story. She said that the supervisor said, “Giving you this evaluation has made my day.” She told another person that she believed she was a victim of age discrimination because the supervisor told her she planned to hire two younger workers who would work twice as hard for the same pay she was getting.

As I took notes I thought about how dialogue functions in both fiction and nonfiction. This scene started me thinking about what people say and don’t say when they talk and how writers capture dialogue that sounds true.

Usually we think of dialogue as moving action forward and capturing the speaker’s voice. What I wrote above is a summary of a complex transaction that provides my observed facts, but it doesn’t capture the voice, or character of the speaker as realistically as direct dialogue would, but I use it to illustrate my point.

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
Writers of both fiction and nonfiction have a number of dialogue choices to make as they write. The word dialogue originally meant “to connect” or “to converse” and describes verbal interactions at a surface conversation level, as well as the deeper subtexts of meaning based on context and past history of the speakers. Dialogue includes a subtext of actual words and gestures. For example in the brief exchange I describe in the opening paragraph of this piece, I should mention also that as the woman talked on her cell phone about bringing a lawsuit against her employers, a man at a nearby table leaned forward and frowned and the woman sitting across from him rolled her eyes and shook her head, as she too listened to the nearby conversation. So gesture itself, even those of others, is an important part of the dialogue process. It helps set scene and forward motion for plot.

In Your Life as Story, author Tristine Rainer describes the dialogue options open to both fiction and nonfiction writers.  Rainer says:
  1. “Direct Dialogue is contained within quotation marks and is the most dramatic and immediate type of conversation.”
  2. Summary Dialogue doesn’t give the exact speaker’s words, but instead suggests a much longer conversation condensed and presented, some might even say, filtered through the narrator.”
  3. Indirect dialogue reports more details (specifics) of conversation than summary dialogue, but is more efficient than direct dialogue, in that it renders the feeling of what was said without directly quoting it.” 

Writing effective dialogue is key to writing scenes that work, whether it’s a scene for fiction or nonfiction. 

People naturally speak in half-finished thoughts, grunts and gestures and rarely respond to a previous comment or statement.  It is good to listen carefully to what people say, how they say it, and notice what can be left out in the retelling of it.

Which is to say that writers face a range of dialogue structural choices as they seek to capture the language of characters and set up credible scenes. Fiction and nonfiction writers make decisions about the dialogue needs of each particular scene as they attempt to recreate natural speech. The real challenge is to condense conversation to its essence and to find the right balance between words and gesture to reveal character and conflict.

“Conscious work in writing good dialogue comes in editing it, taking out every word that is extraneous without ruining its naturalism.”
                                                                          ---Tristine Rainer.
“A writer’s job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as memories.”   ----John Irving.