Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t

Here’s an eloquent example of “write what you need to write” (part of a truth I stole from Alice Walker). Your writing will tell you what you need to know, but you have to be willing to listen, and brave enough to follow.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz ronitBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

I had been writing fiction and wanted to try nonfiction, so I began with personal essays. I didn’t think memoir was for me; in fact I was deliberately avoiding it. I didn’t see a reason to revisit the facts of my confusing childhood and thought memoir wouldn’t be as challenging as creating a world from scratch and putting characters in it. To tell my own story, the story I knew by heart, seemed almost too easy.

I could not have been more wrong. I was about to discover that looking at something you think you know pretty well with fresh eyes and trying to understand it in a new way is definitely not easy. I did try writing several personal essays but the history of how I grew up kept barging in, taking up more and more space. It seemed part of me really wanted to…

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The Power of Place

As a writer, I love revising and rewriting. As an editor, I do almost none of it. Critiques, yes. When a writer I don’t know asks me to edit a book-length manuscript, I generally suggest critique as a first step. I read the ms., make suggestions about plot, characterization, structure, and all that good big-picture stuff, but then the writer does the heavy lifting, not me.

For me, revising and rewriting is like first-drafting in that the ms. takes up residence in my head. My mind works on it when I’m not paying conscious attention. This is why character insights and solutions to plot snags often come to me when I’m walking with the dog or kneading bread.

I’ve learned that when I take on a revise-or-rewrite job as an editor, it often pushes my own writing out of my head. So I avoid developmental and structural editing and stick to stylistic editing, copyediting, and proofreading. (All these things go by different names. In “Editing? What’s Editing?” I explain what I more or less mean by them.)

But I recently (very recently, like this past week) took on a rewrite job for a client. It was short: a new, five-page prologue to a novel that’s been accepted for publication. I also knew the novel well, having worked on it in its earlier stages, and I believe in it.

I read the author’s five pages through. The plot was solid. It introduced key themes and characters that would be developed later. It segued neatly into chapter 1. Yeah, the point of view jumped around a bit, and there was a chunk of historical context recounted in a narrative voice that didn’t belong to any of the characters, but my rewriterly mind was already in gear, working out possible alternatives.

I called up the file. A 10-year-old boy is stretched out on the roof of his uncle’s house, using his BB gun to keep birds away from the abundant ripening grapes hanging from a trellis. I knew this kid well: the novel is his story. I could hear his older sister playing hopscotch in front of the house. But I couldn’t see what he was seeing because I’ve never been there and never even seen pictures of what this house, this neighborhood, this small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, might have looked like in 1975, which is when the story begins.

For me as a writer, place is crucial. As I blogged in “The Importance of Place“; “Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.”

Both place and time are critical to this particular novel: Lebanon in the spring of 1975 was on the brink of a bloody civil war that devastated the country for 15 years. That 10-year-old boy’s life will be radically transformed by this war, and the incident in the prologue is a harbinger of things to come. The prologue needed to show readers what he was seeing and hearing. How could that happen if I couldn’t see and hear it myself?

I emailed the author. We talked on the phone. How close together are the houses? How long is the driveway? Are the grapes used for eating or winemaking? What do the birds look like? Where have all the grownups gone? Is the garden in front of the house or in back? How big is the garden pond?

Finally, finally the scene began to play out in my head. My fingers moved on the keyboard and words appeared or rearranged themselves on my laptop screen. The scene stayed in the 10-year-old’s point of view. The historical context can be worked into a later chapter, but I couldn’t help noticing that it is subtly suggested here in the ripening grapes being threatened by birds while a boy tries to scare them off with his BB gun.

At this point I’m rarely surprised when place turns out to be the key to a scene, but I’m awed by writers who routinely bring to life periods they didn’t live in, places they’ve never been, and times and places that never existed. The research, the extrapolation, the imagination, the finessing of details that can’t be known for sure — it all has to be there, and seem so complete and inevitable that most readers barely notice.

My First Meme

I just created my first meme, and wouldn’t you know it’s about the power of words?

press-meme

I’ve been itching to do this for some time, but my graphics ability is minimal so I procrastinated.

Then the other day I read New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s “Trump, Archenemy of Truth,” about the current U.S. administration’s relationship with the press. The whole column was good, but the next to line deserved to be on a banner or a T-shirt or something.

So with the help of a free image and Serif PhotoPlus 7 I made my first meme.

Like many another word worker, I’ve been looking for ways to put my skills to use in resisting the current U.S. administration and encouraging the opposition. On a less political note, some of Sturgis’s Laws might work well as memes.

This was my first, but I don’t think it’ll be my last. (Feel free to download the image and pass it along.)

Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Etc.

Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment

From the editors at the Poetry Foundation. Here’s a wonderful list of poems to inspire us in dark times, and to remind us that writing well in these times is desperately important.

Why poetry is necessary and sought after during crises.

Source: Poems of Protest, Resistance, and Empowerment by The Editors | Poetry Foundation

Learn the Biggest Secret of Every Good Writer

This is good. No short-cuts. I’d add that growing as a writer means becoming more observant and more attentive to the world around you — and learning how to translate all that into words.

Business in Rhyme

secret_goodwriter

We all know that nobody is born as a good writer. It is a constant process of becoming. And I do believe that the difference between good and bad writers it’s not about the skill or gift. It’s not even about the number of written or published pieces. The key word we are looking for is persistence.

Good writer is writing – no matter how many times he fails or writes crappy work. He is there showing up every day, practicing and trying to improve himself. Not only writing, but everything that goes with writing.

In that sense, I think that biggest secret every good writer knows and we often forget is how good writer treats his bad writing. First, he takes time to write, erase, rewrite, edit, tailor every word to what’s need to be written. And how does he know what’s need to be written? He is…

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The Poetics of Resistance

Like many other word people I’m looking for new ways to put my abilities to work in these trying times. The photos of poets in this blog post give me ideas and courage and faith.

Visitant

On Friday, January 20, 2017, I witnessed what will from here on out be known as a National Day of Patriotic Resistance, or, a poetry reading.

All throughout last Friday, I would peek at social media (I have to be on the Twitter and the Facebook for my job), observe the juxtaposition of the incoming/outgoing administrations, and then jump off again. Luckily, in the afternoon I was required to journey to the Bronx for work, which thoroughly distracted me for the afternoon. Then, when 5:00 rolled around, I traveled to Lower Manhattan to be among the poets.

When my friend, poet Jen Fitzgerald and other New York poet Terence Degnan announced a Day 1 poetry reading for the night of the inauguration, I knew that I would definitely be there. Poetry is the most honest of writing forms: Poets, I think, leave less of a barrier between themselves and the…

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The Drive to Connect

My work nook

My work nook. It’s considerably more cluttered than it was when I took this picture three years ago.

After I get dressed in the morning, I put on the teakettle, reheat whatever is left in yesterday’s teapot, light a candle or two, and sit down in my work chair. Before I pull the tool of the morning into my lap (either pen and paper or my laptop, depending on whether I’m first-drafting or revising; today it’s the laptop), I usually reach for my copy of The Writer’s Chapbook (I’ve got the 1989 edition), open it at random, and take whatever my eye falls on as my guide.

20170118-candles-mug

 

This morning I reached instead for Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, which happened to be sitting on top of The Writer’s Chapbook. If I had to list the most important books I’ve read in my life, Dream would be in the top five. I’m still reading and rereading it almost 40 years after I encountered it for the first time. You might guess this from the fact that my copy is in two pieces and the front and back covers are less than pristine. (The spine broke between the last two pages of “Natural Resources.” This is not a coincidence.)

This morning my eye lit on the second stanza of “Origins and History of Consciousness.”

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.

The stanza that gave the book its title. A stanza that acknowledges and even begins to respond to the questions I can barely ask out loud: What good is writing in this world where talk is cheap, lies are endemic, and so few people seem up to the challenging of actually listening? What can a writer do?

“Origins and History of Consciousness” blends writing and loving  in imagery that can’t be easily summarized. You can find the whole thing here. At the moment I can’t find the complete text of “Natural Resources” online. It’s a long poem, and everyone loves to quote the last stanza. The Dream of a Common Language is still in print, and all of it’s included in Collected Poems, 1950–2012, edited by Claudia Rankine and published last year.

Talking About Money

In “Why More Writers Should Talk About Money” Joseph Frankel of The Atlantic interviews Manjula Martin, editor of Scratch:  Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, just published by Simon & Schuster. I was so intrigued that I immediately bought the book.

monopoly-500

The interview seems to assume that being a writer means at least aspiring to make a living at it. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve probably guessed that I’m not that kind of writer. As I blogged a couple of years ago in “Write for a Living?” there are tradeoffs to be considered. I’m curious to read what the Scratch contributors have to say about this.

monopoly-100The interview does touch on the unbelievable whiteness of U.S. publishing. This means, among other things, that the gatekeepers — those who choose what gets published and how it gets published — are generally white or well trained in white ways of thinking.

I’ll almost certainly be blogging more about this book when I’ve had a chance to read it. Meanwhile, check out the Atlantic interview. A quick internet search turns up several reviews and other articles about the book. This is important stuff.

On Second Thought . . .

I started the new year by blogging about the only New Year’s resolution I recall making in my adult life: write every single day until I finished The Mud of the Place, my first novel.

mud-cover-smShortly thereafter it dawned on me that a similar resolution might help me do what i say I’ve been going to do for two or three years now: turn Mud into an ebook. E-publishing was still terra incognita to me in late 2008, which is when Mud came out. I didn’t even get my first e-reader for another three or four years.

Be careful what you write about. It may give you ideas.

I’ve been partly mulling and mostly hiding from this idea for a week now.  Once I started this blog post, it took two days to finish it. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is that I’ve only made one New Year’s resolution in my adult life — and I kept it.

I’ve got a theory about why so many people make so many resolutions and why so many of them fail. We pit what our mind thinks we ought to do against what our body is willing to do, and the body nearly always wins. Mind can’t beat body into submission, not for any length of time, because mind needs body’s cooperation to do anything.

Mind also needs body’s cooperation to stop doing something that mind thinks it shouldn’t do. I’ve got a few stories about that. As a chronically left-brain person, I was startled, perplexed, humiliated, and ultimately humbled to learn just how powerless mind was to stop body in its tracks. If you’ve ever dealt with addictive or compulsive behavior, you know what I’m talking about.

My Mud resolution worked because body was involved from the get-go. It was willing to sit down at the computer and open a Word file. At this point mind would realize that its worst fantasies were unfounded, the novel in progress wasn’t crap, and whatever wasn’t working could be identified and fixed.

So I’ve been dancing around the idea of making this new resolution because body knew that mind wasn’t fully committed to the idea of turning Mud into an ebook.  If mind were fully committed, it would have happened already, the way I signed up for the beginning guitar class in November (very scary) and have been practicing ever since.

True to form, I made a good start on the ebook project before I choked. I started researching ebook services. I got an ISBN — Speed-of-C, which published the trade paperback version, was happy to let the ebook sail under its flag. The book was printed from PDFs, so the corrections made in the production stage had to be transferred to the Word file from which the PDFs were made. I did that, then I started cold-reading the Word file straight through.

To my delight, the thing was good. I still liked it. I was still proud of it. But there I stalled, and kept stalling, until a few days ago I got the idea that I could make a New Year’s resolution about this.

So for the last few days I’ve been letting myself think about why my mind might not be quite ready to do this thing. As usual, the reasons were lying around in plain sight. I just had to look at them.

As a former bookseller who knows a few things about publishing, I did not believe that Mud of the Place would make a big or even modest splash in the wider world. I did believe — hell, I assumed — it would receive serious attention on Martha’s Vineyard, which is both where I live and where the novel is set.

It didn’t. Both the two weekly newspapers and the two independent bookstores largely ignored it. (The Vineyard Gazette did assign it to a capable reviewer, who wrote a thoughtful review. One of the bookstores did pay some attention — five years later, and that because a booklovers’ travel group based in Minnesota featured Mud in their two visits to the Vineyard, in 2013 and 2014.)

If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it make a sound? If you write a pretty good novel, and no one pays attention, is it worth doing again?

Long story, but to say the least I was skeptical. Mind decided that serious writing was a waste of time. I put it aside. I looked for ways to fill the hole in my life where writing had been: training and competing with my dog, getting more involved with local politics and even running for office, training as a mediator . . .

Meanwhile, body was subtly, sneakily, rearranging my psychic landscape. Almost exactly six years ago, long after most of my friends, I got on Facebook. Loved it. Ever since I read about Margaret Fuller, I’ve fantasized hosting a salon, even though my verbal talents are more literary than conversational. Facebook was interlocking salons, mine and everyone else’s. I wandered from room to room, listening, talking, having a ball — and realizing that I didn’t need the Vineyard newspapers or bookstores to reach an audience.

Maybe a year and a half after joining Facebook, I started From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, my Vineyard blog. Two years after that, I started this one.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

Travvy, upon whom the title character of Wolfie is based.

By then I was writing seriously again. I was even, muses help me, working on another novel. It was, I eventually realized, “all sprawl and no momentum.” It was suffering from “a surfeit of subplots.” By the time I set it aside, however, one of the subplots had coalesced into Wolfie, the novel I’ve been working on ever since (which, by the way, makes excellent use of my detour into dog training).

Like Mud of the Place, the novel in progress is set on year-round Martha’s Vineyard. It involves several of the same characters, about 10 years later. This, combined with my growing awareness of the online audience and e-publishing in general, made me think that keeping Mud alive as an ebook would be a good idea. I started working on it.

Then I choked.

What if the ebook version, like its paperback predecessor, fell in the forest and made no sound? It’s a definite possibility. Could I handle it?

I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I’m making this resolution anyway: Every day I will do something toward turning Mud of the Place into an ebook. “Something” can be as modest as proofreading two pages of the Word file at five minutes to midnight, but I will do something.

Watch this space. You’ll be the first to know when I get there.