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Reading and Writing -- Pleasures from the Same Wellspring

It is my contention that the desire to read and the desire to write come from the same place – a longing to live in fantasy. They are both great brain candy (but good for you so perhaps ‘brain fruit,’ though more substantive than that so perhaps ‘brain kale’ but that sounds unpalatable. Clearly the metaphor needs some collective work.) An interesting piece recently ran in the New York Times Book Review, in the back section called “Bookends” – always one of my favorites in the newspaper because of the quality of the writing and the subtlety of what they discuss. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, the question was whether or not it is harder to be transported by a book as you get older. And what Benjamin Moser says is “the problem is that the deeper you go into your own writing, the harder it becomes to enter someone else’s. If pursued seriously, writing demands a kind of obsessive concentration that came, at least for me, to preclude reading.”

Reading great stories or novels adds another dimension to one’s life as if having a secret  Read More 

Join Me in the Workshop: How to Write Historical Fiction, in Berkeley, CA

Really happy to be back to teaching, and back to The Writing Salon. If you're anywhere near the SF Bay Area, I would love to see you at this fun and affordable one-day workshop:

Writing Historical Fiction – Weaving Past and Present into Art

Historical fiction can transport you into worlds that are incredibly fun to write. Do you want to reintroduce a little-known hero/heroine into popular culture? Would you like to tell the sweeping saga of your own family’s struggle in America? Is there an event from long ago that seems hauntingly relevant today? Any story that is more than 50 years in the past is considered historical fiction, so sometimes one’s own childhood can be the source of inspiration.

Historical fiction has its own unique demands, though. I'm fond of mentioning that “You can’t just throw a tapestry over the flat screen TV in your scene and call it historical. There are real differences between modern life and life in the past, which require real differences in your writing. And that, to me, is the greatest thing about it.”

In this lively, one-day workshop, we will:
• Identify where each of you is in the process of your project – idea, complete research, plot obstacle
• Discuss how to research and when to stop researching
• Discuss how settings can help your plot
• Consider how to tell the story of famous people told from a fresh angle
• Identify ways in which historical stories illuminate modern truths
 Read More 

Tell Your Family Story in a Private Book?

Frequently I have people sign up for my writing classes – both the classes on general fiction construction and historical fiction – because they want to tell the story of their grandmother's trek across the American prairie by covered wagon; or their grandfather’s disappearance in World War II Germany; or even their own story from the Summer of Love. In all of those instances, I am struck by the notion that these writers are hemmed in by facts as well as by their desire to paint their ancestors in a favorable light. This doesn’t necessarily make great fiction, especially when fiction requires that you sometimes bend the facts to serve a larger truth.

So I was particularly interested when  Read More 

Brilliance from the NYT with Comments of My Own

I've been collecting brilliant things from the New York Times and thinking I would post them one at a time but, as usual, have fallen behind and besides, I felt it was inappropriate to just post someone else’s words with none of my own. However, I’ve gotten past that and now realize that it’s still an important part of sharing. I also discover by saving these that they fall into several categories that reveal what really matters to me: one, wisdom about writing; two, conditions that create joy and health; three, politics. Enjoy!

“The Secret of Effective Motivation”, New York Times, Sunday, July 6, 2014
“There are two kinds of motives for engaging in any activity: internal and instrumental. If a scientist conducts research because she wants to discover important facts about the world, that’s an internal motive, since discovering facts is inherently related to the activity of research. If she conducts research because she wants to achieve scholarly renown, that’s an instrumental motive, since the relation between fame and research is not so inherent. Often, people have both internal and instrumental motives for doing what they do. What motives – internal or instrumental or both – is most conducive to success? You might suppose that a scientist motivated by a desire to discover facts and by a desire to achieve renown will do better work than a scientist motivated by just one of those desires. But…Instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success.…  Read More 

Speaking the Truth when it's Dangerous: A Salute to Writers

Very wise words from Francine Prose in the NYTimes Book Review, July 20, 2014, pg. 35 when asked “What are the last literary taboos?”

“The chance of some worthy books failing to find a publisher doesn’t seem all that drastic compared with what regularly occurs in countries where literary taboos are still taken very seriously indeed. The websites of PEN American Center and the Committee to Protect Journalists documents the fates of writers who are accused of “spreading false rumors” in Ethiopia, or who keep a blog criticizing the Chinese government, or publish a pro-Kurdish article in Turkey, or irritate the kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel. Yet even when writers know the consequences – imprisonment, torture and death – they persist in defying the taboo, especially when the first and last taboo is against telling the truth.

Take, for instance, Mohammed ibn al -Dheeb al-Ajami, sentenced to  Read More 
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Brilliant Critique of Tech in NYTimes

This is one of the finest things I've read in quite a while, and anyone who writes, or is involved with technology in any way may find that this resonates.

“Among the Disrupted” by Leon Wieseltier in the New York Times Book Review, January 18, 2015 at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted.html

“Among the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little or even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everyone talks frantically about media, a second -order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which ,words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows the force of expression diminishes : Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness cannot confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomenon that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data- gathering capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “trans-humanism” than to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of Utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains…”

And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new… The strongest defense of the humanities  Read More 

Wise Words on Novels from Jane Smiley

Remarkable wisdom from Jane Smiley in her new book "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel." So many fascinating things to say about the novel, its history and structure, and the writing life as well. She suggests that it's not necessary to read the book cover to cover but I plowed through it with delight. Because this list of quotes is so enormous, I think I might post single quotes on Facebook, one at a time, and yet enable the really hungry go-getters to read them all...

Two little asides, remarking on modern culture: when you read on a tablet with Kindle you don't get page  Read More 

New Book Idea, New Neighbors

Thrilled to say that I’ve come up with an idea for a new book and I’m struck by how it’s like having neighbors move in next door: I can hear them through the walls, characters behind the conscious/subconscious barrier, rattling around. I’m not quite sure who they are or what makes them tick, what their  Read More 

Interview with the Author: Jess Wells on A Slender Tether and Christine de Pizan

Q: Tell us about Christine and what you’re trying to convey here
JW: I was drawn to write about Christine de Pizan because of her courage and determination. She wrote more than 20 volumes of work across a wide range of disciplines and was the first to argue for the political and social equality of women during the time. Today, there are thousands of professors and students who study her as a seminal voice of the Middle Ages. I was particularly compelled, though, by the desire to dramatize the struggle of a pioneer. It’s particularly important to me as we write stories of women of the past that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking them to be one-dimensional super-heroes. I teach writing historical fiction and I tell my students that despite our bumper stickers that say ‘Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History’ we seem to create female characters that are unblemished. In fact, many of our pioneers  Read More 
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The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction but it’s a recent appreciation and it was born of a reading of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind because it’s a historical setting but a modern novel form and it is incredibly artful; it is literature because the period of time involved is usedas another device to examine a universal truth. It’s not just a story of the building of a bridge or a queen, a beheading, a war. It’s art.

I think it’s important to remember that fiction, regardless of genre, setting or format, is about illuminating the human condition; it’s not about “gosh, something interesting happened.” That doesn’t work for modern stories either. It has to be “gosh, this interesting thing happened and look at the fascinating emotional transformations that happened as a result.”

But historical fiction faces at least two additional challenges,  Read More