Oct 142014
 
Tabula rasa

Tabula rasa — a blank slate — offers freedom and potential

When suffering from writer’s block, do as the Romans do and utilize tabula rasa.

Latin for “blank slate,” tabula rasa is a literary term that stretches back to the days of ancient Rome. In those days, people wrote upon wax tablets or tabula. When they wanted a new “page,” they created it by heating the wax and smoothing it out. Though we modern-day writers aren’t penning future best-sellers on wax tablets, we can take a page from those days of hallowed antiquity by utilizing the freedom offered by a blank slate to get the creative juices flowing. Continue reading »

Oct 092014
 
dscn5448-archive-reading-room1

Re-writing history requires intense research.

Grounded in my Jewish heritage, choosing to write about the Holocaust was never the question. It was how to approach it. I wanted to create something more meaningful than the recitation of facts and figures. Those brutalized by of one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity were more than nameless, faceless numbers. They deserved to be experienced as human beings. Breathing life into fictional characters to enact their stories, the voices of real people who had experienced historic events in actual places became the narrative. Stepping outside the role of WRITING history to relating its stories, my task shifted to RE-writing history. Continue reading »

Oct 022014
 

With just the right amount of momentum, you could go tearing down Westcombe, jump the curb into Mott Park, blaze across the rickety footbridge that spanned the Flint River and make it halfway to the golf course clubhouse without pedaling. The tricky part, of course, was in safely clearing Sunset Drive; a 25 mph street, which ran perpendicular to and had no stop signs where it intersected with Westcombe. I’d done it once before and what a rush it had been. Descending Westcombe’s steep incline (the longest steep street in Flint) was like skydiving with a Huffy bike. But unlike my friend, Jason, I was cool with having tried it just once.childhood friend dies

Every day after school, we’d ride our bikes from where we lived on Bagley Street, cut through Mott Park, and huff our way up Westcombe to its intersection with Beecher Road where we’d play a few games of Double Dragon at a party store. So absorbed were we with our daily dosage of video animated violence that we once played on obliviously while the store clerk was being robbed at gunpoint.

Let’s face it: Jason wasn’t exactly the kind of kid you’d ever spot at a Mensa Youth Scrabble Meet. He looked and acted like a young version of Axl Rose from the Appetite for Destruction days and would stare down total strangers without provocation from the passenger seat of his mother’s car as he passed them by. The undefeatable cowlick in his red hair frustrated him. He had an allergy to breakfast cereals and misinterpreted the shit out of the most basic song lyrics. He stole cigarettes from his stepfather, inexplicably called his mother “chon-chon”, and, at age 12, got caught shoplifting a box of condoms from a pharmacy by an off-duty cop. We knew where to buy illegal fireworks and knew the best hiding places to snowball cars from. We hopped trains to the Genesee Valley Mall and got banned from the campus of GMI. We discovered the Beastie Boys together and watched Friday the 13th together and although I can’t be certain, let’s just go ahead and say he was the first guy I ever smoked weed with, too. In other words, we were perfect for each other. But as if not trusting his own ability to filtrate trouble or danger, he almost always deferred to me when it came to considerations that required some element of sensibility. So when he quietly nodded when I told him I wouldn’t be taking the “Westcombe express” anymore, I took it to mean that he would give it up as well. So I was a little more than surprised when suddenly, after flashing a quick, reptilian grin, he shoved off, waving a two-fingers-and-a-thumb devil’s salute up into the air as he quickly shrank away and disappeared down Westcombe.

Jason moved onto my street in early summer of 1983. I was ten and he was nine and like most every other kid who encountered him for the first time, I couldn’t stand him. Even at that young age, he was full of attitude. He picked fights with anyone who so much as made eye contact with him and he did this infuriating thing where he would call your name from all the way down the street just so he could flip you the middle finger when you looked his way. We were enemies in June. But by July, we had somehow become the best of friends. I learned that he had moved to Michigan from Louisiana with his mother following his parents’ contentious divorce. He was one of the first kids I knew whose family owned a VCR. Most surprisingly, he possessed some of the greatest natural athletic ability of anyone I’ve ever known. He was as quick and agile as a jackrabbit on the soccer field and was lightning fast and damn near untouchable on ice skates. He used to tease the hell out of me as he watched me lumber around on my own skates, ankles wobbling and arms flailing like a guy trying to sturdy himself on a tightrope. But on a frigid afternoon in December, he called me up and told me to come down to his house.

“Bring your skates,” he’d said.

When I arrived, I found that Jason and his stepdad had converted a section of their backyard into a miniature ice rink so that he could spend some time with me teaching me how to be a better skater.

The pivotal event in our lives happened when we were 14 years old. Jason and I had started hanging around with a new group of kids from across town. We spent our summers at a weed-overgrown park off Bradley Hills doing all sorts of naughty things and shooting hoops. One morning, we all met up on some railroad tracks near Bradley and Court Street. Within minutes, four Flint police cars swooped in and we were forced down to the ground at gunpoint. In a flash I was lying facedown, handcuffed, with a boot planted on the back of my neck. When I meekly asked the officer what was going on he ordered me to shut-up. I did. But Jason didn’t. I watched as the cop hauled him up from the ground then slammed him back down over a track rail. Unbeknown to Jason and I, two of the older kids in the group had robbed a party store about a half-hour earlier using a toy gun. We were all hauled away to the youth home on Pasadena Road where we remained until the matter could be sorted out. When it was ultimately determined that Jason and I didn’t have any involvement in the incident, we were released. I quit going to the park after that but Jason didn’t. And when the school year picked up again, we gradually began to fade from each other’s lives.

During a brief stint of academic eligibility, Jason made an appearance in our high school’s hockey program. During a halftime team congress in the locker room, Jason and I had words with one another. Given our mutually vitriolic demeanors, things quickly devolved into a fistfight between us. Grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, I repeatedly pounded him in the face until my teammates pulled us apart. By the next semester, his poor grades had forced him off the team and within months, he had dropped out of school altogether. At some point, he and his mother moved away.

We never made peace with each other.

Just a day before Christmas in 2012, my mother called to tell me she had happened across Jason’s obituary in the newspaper. It contained a recent photograph of Jason. Fuller in the face and sporting a mustache. He still had his cowlick. I was happy to read of his life’s accomplishments and aspirations. His goals and interests. He had a daughter named Jessica.

On a blustery, snowy afternoon, my wife, daughter and I made the drive to the O’Guinn Funeral Home in Clio so that I could pay my respects to my old friend. His mother, ever sweet and warm, embraced me and, with tears in her eyes, thanked me for making the visitation. She was surprised to learn that I had become a police officer.

“You always did know when to keep your mouth shut,” she said. When I asked her what had happened with Jason, she told me about his lifelong struggles with addiction and how he had, just within the past year, overcome a lengthy alcohol addiction. But one addiction soon gave way to another and before long Jason began abusing prescription pills. “He always needed a high,” she told me, shaking her head.

Standing at his casket, I took his hand into mine and said the words I wish I had said to him so many years before. I apologized for how things had ended between us and for the years of distance and separation that had grown between us. In some ways, I suppose I knew that the separation had been necessary, at least at that particular time in our youth. But I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I hadn’t tried harder to get him to once again follow my lead, just like he had so many times before, only this time down a better path. It occurred to me that if his essence was present there in the room, he was watching me with his characteristic smirk and making fun of me for showing up in a suit. It would have been his way of expressing forgiveness.

I found his daughter and introduced myself, offering her a few anecdotes about the youth her father and I had shared. Then, giving his mother a final hug, I scooped my daughter up into my arms and gave her a kiss.

Sep 232014
 

Jerri BellThis week I had the great pleasure of being introduced to Jerri Bell, who was kind enough to share some thoughts with us on the process of editing and how she got to this point. Jerri Bell served in the Navy from 1988-2008. Her fiction has been published in Stone Canoe; her nonfiction has been published in The Little Patuxent Review and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and on the Quivering Pen and Maryland Humanities Council blogs; and both her fiction and nonfiction have won prizes in the West Virginia Writers annual contests. She is currently the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project.

Continue reading »

Sep 102014
 
Learning by doing

Learning by doing isn’t the hard way; it’s the only way.

Writers, by definition, have to learn by doing.

“A writer writes.” Yeah, duh…

It’s that “doing” that separates the dreamers from the aspirants and achievers.

“A writer writes,” uttered with conviction by a fictional character, was one of the catalysts that induced me to commit to full-time writing. I wrote now and then for non-profits. I reveled in the fact that my cousins all thought I should write a book after they read my annual holiday letter. Strangely though, it was the urging in the young adult novel Sahara Special that made me start taking risks.

“A writer writes,” struck a chord with me. Ability, creativity, ideas, and aspirations didn’t mean anything if I wasn’t actively writing and developing my craft. Finding my voice.

Redwoods Society and Learning by Doing

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” With that, John Kingston pretty much summed up the Redwoods Society writers’ experience with launching a group website. Blogging and curating a website require different skill sets than writing a book. The Redwoods Society writers are also learning by doing—and by adjusting and growing to find our collective voice and to refine our focus.

We could try to do all that based on others’ expertise. In fact, we did—try that is. But, we didn’t know… you know… all those things that we didn’t know.

What we didn’t know

Redwoods Society grew out of a meeting of minds and purposes at the 2013 San Francisco Writers conference. We expected writers from the West Coast to join us. One of those things we didn’t know then was that four out of five of us would live in Michigan.

We also didn’t know that the mantle of “expert” or “teacher” would sit heavily on our shoulders. We’re all learning and experimenting. All of us are much more comfortable with sharing our journey as writers and authors than telling others the right way to do it.

What we’ve learned

Writers aren’t bound by a geographic region.

Writers can help themselves by helping each other.

Looking forward

This site will continue to be a site full of content for writers by writers, a meeting place for writers to share content and thoughts.

In addition to our blog, we’ll be rolling out some additional resources pages and prompts. No matter where our travels might take us, we look forward to meeting you here to share the road less written.

Sep 032014
 

 

manuscript

To see me standing there, in the dim light of our basement, glancing around at the shelves and dark skyline of sheet-covered shapes, you’d have thought I was some rendered figure in a Lester Johnson painting. I was just, I don’t know…looking, the way you sometimes do when you’re standing in the doorway of a room you’ve just entered while having forgotten your reason for doing so.

Pre-kid days, I would sit at the large, salvaged office desk down here beneath the interrogation-style lightbulb on a cord and crank out words and sentences on my old, Russian Space Station Mir-sized desktop computer. With the blind appointing of some migratory bird, I was heading towards “something” that was novel length. When I write, I rarely plot anything out. Fine, maybe there’s a name list that I keep and/or a rudimentary list of plot notes that I create simply to avoid plot conflicts, but I don’t have the organizational skills to plot the course of a story from beginning to end. In other words, I don’t always know where I’m going with a story. Most of the time, I’ll write a few words or even a few pages and if I like how it sounds, I keep going.

There’s a line in the Danny O’Keefe song, “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”, where he says, “you’re not a kid at thirty-three…”. In the spring of 2007, at the age of 33, I really started thinking about this. It’s true. The elevator only goes one way. As if my ten years in law enforcement hadn’t already revealed to me life’s true delicateness and ephemerality, I seemed to enter a certain “freak out” period where I suddenly recognized that I was already 1/3 of the way to life’s finish line.

I imagined a guy who had or was just about to turn 50 and the sorts of things he might be experiencing emotionally. And with this idea in mind, I began to pound out a few words on the computer. Soon, a few words became a few pages. Then a few chapters. And before I knew it, I had the beginnings of a decent story about mid-life crisis on my hands.

Over the months, I reveled at the sight of this swelling manuscript. Finally, I was writing something that, by the light of the new day, I didn’t entirely consider to be shit. I created characters I had developed a genuine care and concern for and after I had written the book’s final word, I felt a sense of loss. Of course, the story was saved and backed-up, both on my computer’s desktop as well as on a flash drive. But I also kept a hard copy around that I would use as a blueprint and make corrections on before correcting the corresponding part of it on the computer-saved version. Five revisions later, I had a manuscript that I felt reasonably confident in to begin pitching to literary agents. When I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference in 2013, it garnered the interest of no less than five agents.

They’re publishing it next summer and suddenly, I feel as if all the experiences and wins and losses that I’ve ever experienced in this soulful journey hasn’t been in vain, after all. It’s redeeming. But along the way, that original manuscript that I had printed off; the old clunky 300+ stack of papers that I carried with me constantly like an old friend, had gotten misplaced. Although I knew I never would have set it down and left it anywhere, it bothered me that I had no clue where it was or what I had done with it. So, when on a whim, I began sifting through the boxes of photographs and old personal effects in our basement, I was thrilled when I happened upon it. Thumbing through the old, tattered, coffee-ringleted, written-on pages, I reminisced, remembering even where I was when I had written certain parts of it. Remembering how Cody, my old beloved golden retriever who has since passed away, would remain loyally by my side as I continued to self-inflict psychic damage with my computer.

I persisted. I never gave up. And what I had written was something that beheld an elemental truth about life and the ways of the world as I saw it. When I wrote those first few pages, I had no way of knowing where the journey would end. But at the risk of sounding banal as hell, it’s true: every journey DOES begin with a single step. Your life is your journey. With bravery, and a whole lot of persistence, you can embark on one of your own.

Aug 292014
 
Writing Career with a Muse

Muse Attack

Having rescheduled yet another appointment due to my predilection for getting lost in my writing, I decided that it was time to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with my Muse. Seriously! When I chose a literary career, I thought I was supposed to be in charge of the writing process. After all, many successful authors describe how they structure their days, “reporting to their offices” to write for several hours, after which they go about the rest of their lives as they see fit.

Obviously, they never met my Muse. Like a selfish child, it can clamor within my head at the most awkward times. The following is an example of a recent exchange. Feel free to offer suggestions as to how you would handle my quixotic Muse!

MUSE:  “Hello there! Remember me? I just thought of a way you can improve that chapter you’ve been struggling with!”

ME:  “It is 3:45 am. Can’t I just put in a wake-up call for 7:30? I’ll be fresher, and my fingers should work better then. OK? Good! Keep in touch . . . . “

MUSE:  “’Fresher?’ And how do you think that is going to fix that overwritten, narrative-starved, clunky excuse for writing? I need you edgy. Nervous. That’s what’s missing in that chapter. Now, get your butt out of bed and let’s get busy!”

ME:  “Get busy? I’ve been pounding away on that keyboard until my fingers have gone numb. I’ve had to call to push up meetings with kind and patient folks who have decided that there is simply no way they are going to get me to conform to a ‘normal’ schedule, and even find me mildly amusing in an eccentric way. Besides, who put you in charge anyway? I’m the writer, you know!”

MUSE:  “Really? And who do you think planted Max inside of your head anyway, ‘Madam Writer?’ Who do you think woke you up that morning so many years ago with a little old man chattering away in a Yiddish accent you simply couldn’t ignore? Who do you think presented his entire story, beginning to end like a shimmering rainbow, even showing you the pot of gold on the last page? Who kicked you out of bed and drove you to your computer, so you could quickly record a rough outline of chapters before the Universe reabsorbed the story? ME, that’s who! So, who is in charge here? Do you really think you have much of a choice in the matter?”

ME:  “Well, I agree that you got the ball rolling. But, I don’t see you sitting hours upon end at that computer until your tailbone screams for relief. I don’t see you longing to be lost in Max’s world when your beloved partner impatiently calls you to yet another dinner he’s prepared just to hear, ‘Five more minutes. I just need to finish this paragraph!’ (With me generally appearing an hour later, my plate of food in the microwave awaiting resuscitation). I was the one who went into postpartum depression when I completed the first draft of the manuscript because I couldn’t bear to lose Max. Why shouldn’t I have the choice as to when to write? I’m not a television remote control device, you know. I have never found it comfortable to write, ‘On Demand!’”

MUSE:  “Because of ME! Do you know how lucky you are? Just think of all the people in the world who are asked to write on a subject that bores them to tears. Yet, they have no problem doing it. You’ve been there. I’ve rescued you time and again from linguistic drudgery in dreary offices. And this is the thanks I get? ‘Wake me at 7:30?’”

ME:  “OK, OK. You have a point there. How about we make a deal? You are allowed to wake me at 3:45 am to plant a thought, but as I need all the strength I can get to finish these revisions, how about your letting me hit your ‘snooze button’ so I can get a little extra shuteye until 7:30 instead?”

MUSE:  “I am more than a little bit offended! Likening me to an alarm clock is like comparing a brilliant sunset to the streetlights that go on at appointed times. I can’t give advance notice as to when I’m going to burst forth with some magnificent insight, rain glorious words down upon you like a refreshing shower, or fill your head and heart to overflowing. No, I’m afraid there are no deals if you want to be a writer. Writers aren’t doctors. There’s no vacation time, weekends, or full nights of sleep. That’s simply the name of the game.”

ME:  “But, doctors certainly get paid a lot more. A LOT more when you consider that being a full-time writer often means having to go long periods ‘on sabbatical,’ from any type of meaningful employment!”

MUSE:  “’Meaningful employment?’ Crunching numbers, or trudging to an office with bland people doing bland things while they answer to bland bosses who direct their lives? Writers are on their own! If you want a structured existence, than forget living a life with a Muse to provide you with pictures that dance in your head. It boils down to one simple question. Are you really serious about being a writer? If not, I can look for somebody else . . . . ”

ME:  “NO! Don’t leave me! Without you, Max wouldn’t be jabbering away in my ear and I don’t quite think I’d ever be whole again without him. He takes long walks with me and draws me into his world so I can experience the full flavor of his life and times. We’ve become very close. If you left, I’m not quite certain he’d know how to find me, nor I him. You win. If you can’t wait until a reasonable hour, than I suppose my nickname, ‘The Late Sue Ross’ will have to stand. Of course, I may never have work again, not to mention friends or colleagues who have trouble understanding the way of the writer, but that’s the way it will have to be.”

MUSE:  “Truly, I really don’t want to cost you friends, or employment, but I think you’re being a little melodramatic here. We’ve been working on this book for 14 years, during which time you’ve held down some pretty impressive jobs (with a few breaks here and there). I guess it’s hard for me to hold back when the energy is flowing.”

ME:  “I get that, but keep in mind that when you aren’t holding back, neither can I!”

MUSE:  “True, but if I’m on a roll, and you decide to come along, you’ll just have to accept the consequences. I will continue to wake you up and typing whenever the spirit moves me. You will simply have to accept your lot in life as a writer enslaved to me, your Muse, for as long as it takes. Not really a bad gig. You could have been born into a life as a telemarketer or bill collector! Instead, you are living two lives. Your own, and Max’s.”

ME:  “My own, and Max’s, hmm? Well then, let’s get back to work!”

MUSE:  “Now, that’s more like it! OK, get some rest for now. But, remember . . . I’ll see you in your dreams.” 

(“Muse Attack” created by – http://intergalacticwritersinc.wordpress.com)

Aug 272014
 

Poets and WritersFor all of us writers, publishing at least SOMETHING can be the difference in our lives that keep us writing. It’s what makes you feel like a writer, and feel justified when you tell others you are a writer. Today I would like to discuss the process of submitting short stories and poetry for publication.

I am not going to go into the craft of short fiction or poetry, as there are so many great books and blogs out there on this subject, but simply discuss the advice I have received and lessons learned regarding publishing.

Tiered Submissions

One of my early workshop teachers told me a great idea – submit your stories in tiers. For example, tier one would be the big-dogs, the literary magazines that we don’t likely have a great chance of being published in, but what they heck. Why not try?

Tier 1 examples: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, Ganta, Ploughshares, The Paris Review. etc. 

Tier two publications would still be pretty tough to get into, but maybe less impossible. What I mean here, is I’ve known people to get into them, but no one I know has ever been published in a Tier one publication, that I know of. Tier three, even more so.

Tier 2 Examples:The Gettysburg Review, Zuotrope, Kenyan Reivwe, Missiouri Review, Iowa Review, etc. 

Tier 3 Examples: Indiana Review, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The Colorado Review, etc. 

However, I want to get into the reality of publishing now. Until you are awesome (I’m still working on that), getting into any of these publications will be tough. If you have done so, that is terrific. Congrats! But what do we do when we really just want to be published, and the big named publications aren’t giving us the time of day?

Duotrope and Poets & Writers

Two great places to look for publications, and to narrow your search by genre, word count, and other categories, are Duotrope (which now costs money, unfortunately) and Poets & Writers (which is still free, I believe). This is great for those writers out there writing fantasy or scifi, or other niche categories, such as military, nature, etc. Even if you are writing literary fiction, you can find a great deal of publications through these resources.

Niche Publications

As I mentioned above, you may be targeting a niche. That is how my first story was published. I was a Marine for five years and wrote a short story that was inspired by that time and had a military angle going for it, so when I heard of the veteran focused publication “O-Dark-Thirty,” I was sold. You can find it at here, and more information on it and The Veterans Writing Project. I also published my first poem in a niche collection, this time focused on nature. If you have a niche you can target, go for it. I promise, it isn’t cheating.

Writers Conferences

Another great source is writers conferences, where you get to actually meet the editors of these publications. It’s great to chat with these folks and see what they’re looking for, and when you submit you may get some feedback, which always helps! Just to warn you thought, some of these conferences can be very overwhelming. Don’t be ashamed of brining a good book and hiding out in Starbucks for a break from the crowds.

Some I have enjoyed include the San Francisco Writers Conference, LitQuake, AWP, and Conversations and Connections.

Writer’s Market Guides

The Writer’s Digest offers a great resource for getting published, the Writer’s Market. In addition to listing sources of publication, this tomb offers advice for getting published, samples of query letters and all sorts of other helpful advice. The Writer’s Digest also offers advice for screenwriting, novels, etc., and I highly recommend it.

Craigslist

Finally, I would like to discuss Craigslist and other such avenues. Maybe you have a story that you love and for some reason it isn’t getting published, but you’re sure it is complete and you love it. You could always pop on Craigslist and find an up-and-coming publication that may love your story. Are they a big deal? Probably not, but who cares. They may become something someday, it may just be that your story helps them shine, or it may just go on their website and no one reads it except the people who follow the link from your tweet. I say go for it, but only if you’ve tried the other avenues first. A lot of these publications are started by college kids, maybe MFAs, and they mean to go somewhere someday. If your story touches them, you may have just made a connection, and who knows where that can go.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, my advice is to work through the tiers, search the sites and network at writers conferences, and if you just want it out there, give Craigslist or something like it a try. Whatever it takes to get you to keep writing and feel happy with yourself as a writer.

Let me know when you have some success, and I hope this helps.

 

Aug 152014
 

Grave

Now that there is time you feel as if you have none.

But ignore this. Keep your pace. And take in the serenity of your surroundings.

You don’t realize how absurd it seems until you try explaining it to your child: the concept of cemeteries.

“You mean there are dead people…like, in the ground?”

You nod matter-of-factly and watch as she glances around at the serene and perfect symbiosis of garden and stone. Gentle slopes of green cascade down from hills dotted with statuary and there, against the gathering velvet of dusk, you can make out the coifed gothic structure of a mausoleum on a hilltop. Continue reading »

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