The first writing group I ever attended was at the library where I used to work. I had written for pleasure my whole life, but I never did anything with it. Not that one has to do anything with his or her writing. However, when my friend and co-worker mentioned that she was starting a writing group, I was intrigued.
I joined the monthly meetings without any expectations and a lot of desire and nervousness. No one had ever heard my writing beyond my parents and husband. Now I was being asked to share my work with strangers. Reading aloud in group did not come easily to me, and I didn’t do it as much as I would have liked. Even submitting through Google Groups intimidated me.
I kept going to the group but constantly came away frustrated and angry with myself. Then came the day when I realized the writing group wasn’t a good fit for me. I’ll refrain from listing the reasons why so I don’t sound petty or judgmental. The group still exists at a different location, members have come and gone, but the group is solid and I wish them every success.
I joined another writing group that seemed like what I was looking for, followed a few members from there to a new group, and tried two other groups on a hit or miss basis. I kept writing, editing, querying, and blogging, but I felt unsettled. I’d made wonderful friends in the writers I’d met, so what was missing?
A fellow writer from one of the earlier groups invited me to an informal meeting for writers at her home. She writes mysteries as do the majority of the attendees. The invitation to talk about craft and industry was too tempting. I went mostly to observe, listen, and learn especially since I don’t write mysteries.
If memory serves me correctly, that was close to two years ago. In that time an amazing thing happened. I remember the moment it dawned on me that the seven of us had come to trust each other. Every month we sat around the dining room table talking craft, industry, and so much more. Maybe it was the fact that we were all facing each other. Perhaps it had to do with sharing about our families, jobs, fears and joys, failures and successes. Maybe it’s because the group is small, consistent, and all women. Whatever the reason, I know that each of us looks forward to the monthly meeting with the same excitement and anticipation as one would a trip to Disney World combined with a visit to a great therapist.
The connection the group established spilled over into occasional e-mails, then a weekly check-in, and finally the need for a private means of communication via social media for questions and comments not requiring immediate attention or lengthy conversation. The group is a success because we know we’ll be there for each other. The support is invaluable.
I’m sharing this to stress the importance of finding a writing group that works for you. If you have the desire and initiative, create one. Only you can decide what makes a writing group work for you, so don’t stay in one that isn’t beneficial to your writing life. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be because I hate for the meeting to conclude, I miss my fellow writers/friends before I’m even out the door, and I can hardly wait until we’re together again.
Go forth fearlessly and find your tribe.
Recently, at my writer’s group, a fellow writer who is beginning her chosen art form told me that she was advised to not write above an eighth-grade level. I remember several seconds of stunned silence between us before I asked, “Who told you that?” Based on her troubled countenance, I don’t doubt that the horror of this suggestion came through in my tone. I’ve also been told that my facial expressions convey exactly what I’m thinking, so I hope I didn’t overwhelm the poor woman with my response. I wanted her to run screaming, just not from me. If I didn’t scare her off, I’ll make sure I soften my reactions when discussing such matters in the future.
Still, I am shocked that this type of bad advice is floating around writer’s groups. The last time I checked, there were still twelve grades a student in America needed to complete. Somebody please tell me if the progression of education stopped at grade eight. That would mean my child, currently a senior, has read nothing beyond an eighth-grade level for the past four years. That’s insane. Then again, I recall the small heart attack I experienced when I saw Stephenie Meyer’s The Host on the high school reading list. Which piece of classic literature found itself guillotined at the inclusion of that piece of tripe?
I have suspected for a long time that the art form of writing was under attack. My fellow writer’s comment confirmed this. So when did the dumbing down of American literature begin? I don’t know if I can actually pinpoint the precise moment it occurred, but I can tell you the moment I became aware of it. (And shame on me for not being more vigilant if it took place sooner.)
Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games, and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.
I remember the day I saw a t-shirt printed with the statement “underachiever and proud of it.” I had another moment, not quite as intense as that with my fellow writer, but one in which I was completely baffled. I could not fathom a person or society comprised of people who willingly settled for mediocrity in anything and a world in which one did the bare minimum to get by. There is no hope of success when one functions under such a principle.
And yet, this is exactly where we, as a society, have fallen twenty-five years later. It’s as if those who bullied the smart kids for hanging out at the library weren’t content to just harass their fellow students. They wouldn’t stop until the smart kids not only condoned but encouraged this stagnation of the intellect. If you don’t get on board—don’t hold yourself back from seeking knowledge or temper your drive and ambitions—you’ll be labeled a snob in the least and intolerant at the worst.
So again I ask: why this attack on art? Because art is dangerous. Art tells the truth. Artists are freethinkers who challenge the status quo. It was a novelist and playwright who said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” A gold star to anyone who can tell me who said this. Here’s where the problem of proud underachiever comes in. The generation in which this concept became acceptable doesn’t care enough to find out who said the above-mentioned quote or what the quote even means. They are too lazy to want this information for themselves and are disdainful toward anyone who does. If it isn’t required of them in school, and based on the poor quality of curriculum in American schools I doubt that it is, they won’t reach out and grasp the knowledge.
That’s pathetic when you consider that we live in an era where knowledge is readily accessible. No more searching through the card catalog or plowing through large volumes of encyclopedias. You don’t even have to go to the library. Just ask Alexa, Cortana, or Google what you need to know from the comfort of your couch. Be sure to wait until the commercial or you’ll miss the best part of your favorite recorded TV show.
What troubles me about his indolent attitude is that it’s creeping backward and contaminating older generations. Hopefully it won’t pollute the writing of those already established and feeling pressured to churn out more or older writers just beginning to pursue their passion. As for me, I am personally committed to fighting this process of dumbing down by writing the best literature I can and by seeking to improve myself in every way. I am not afraid to compete, to go for the gold. After all, why run the race if I don’t intend to win?
I’ll most likely be among the first to die if America ever succumbs to an oppressive regime because we all know how much tyrants fear artists. But If I can leave behind a written work that the next generation, possibly the survivors, smuggle from home to home and hold up as an example of what they should strive for, then my art—my writing—will not have been in vain.
I enjoy sharing reviews for books, movies, and music in the section of my blog by the same title. Every now and then, I mention one that didn’t quite hit the mark in my opinion because I also enjoy generating discussion on the material especially if a follower disagrees with my review.
Such is the case with Pete Hamill’s novel, Tabloid City. I would never discourage anyone from reading this book because I allow people to come to their own conclusions but mostly because I’m hoping he or she will point out what I missed. Until then, I believe this novel would appeal solely to people who lived or are living in New York and/or are currently employed or retired journalists. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into those categories.
It’s not that I find New York and journalism boring, but the way both subjects were presented in Tabloid City did nothing to pique my interest regarding them. It’s not unusual for me to grab my phone while reading to Google something for reference even if it’s a subject with which I am familiar. Many of my favorite authors spur this kind of self-education in me, and I love it.
Let me also say that I adored Forever, North River, and Snow in August also by Pete Hamill, and that one mediocre book will not keep me from reading his other works. Still, I’m not sure what the author was thinking when he wrote this jargon-filled tale. I know he writes his passions into his works (New York and journalism), and while I can bestow an A for effort here, I cannot go much beyond a D- for the result.
Tabloid City is incredibly disjointed. It’s a scattering of stories that read like newspaper clippings replete with jagged backstory and each character’s knowledge of New York, other characters, events, etc. I kept searching for continuity in this laundry list of stories, something to tie them together or make me care for the characters. Slow going defines the novel until about page 104. The thin thread of a tale about a Muslim terrorist and his police officer father and another about the demise of newspapers and libraries saved the book; otherwise I’m left feeling that this was the framework for a better story handed off too soon.
Let me end on a positive note and encourage you to read the other three books by Pete Hamill I mentioned above. Also, I haven’t read the Sam Briscoe mystery/thriller trilogy written by Pete Hamill, but fans of the books will be happy to see Sam reappear in Tabloid City.
Fans of Ivan Doig’s storytelling will not be disappointed with his novel, Work Song. The tale picks up with the character of Morgan Llewellyn, alias Morrie Morgan, after he departs the cast of characters living in Marias Coulee in The Whistling Season.
Morrie, still mourning his loss of Rose to widower Oliver Milliron, finds his way back to Montana and the copper mining town of Butte. He takes up residence in the boarding house of the lovely widow Grace Farraday where he meets Griff and Hoop, the twin-like retired miners full of life, full of the love of mining, and full of themselves.
Morrie’s first job as a funeral crier introduces him to the woes of life for the miners and their struggle with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and the Industrial Workers of the World. But it is his love of reading and a fortuitous trip to the Butte Public Library that lands him in the position of glorified errand boy for the enigmatic and terrifying ex-rancher turned library administrator, Samuel S. Sandison.
Before long, Morrie is dragged into the copper miners’ battle between Anaconda, the IWW, and the union all the while dodging company goons who try to peg him as an IWW agitator and Chicago mobsters still looking for him for the gambling debacle he perpetrated with his brother. As if that weren’t enough to keep him hopping, Morrie finds his plate even fuller when a former student from Marias Coulee, now engaged to the union leader, presses him into service on behalf of the union. The Latin-loving bibliophile can no longer stay neutral in the battle, but he must operate below his tyrannical employer’s unpredictable nature and ever-watching eye.
At the eleventh hour, Sandison, a large man with an even larger secret, comes to Morrie’s rescue. All is saved, yet Morrie, who has fallen in love with the Widow Farraday, knows he cannot stay in Butte for it is only a matter of time before the mob finds him. A final, well-placed bet secures the financial future for those Morrie has come to care for. His last goodbye to Grace, another widow he must leave behind, produces the best windfall Morrie experiences to date.
Doig’s tales of western life transcend the clichéd cowboy story. He writes from the working class point of view and evokes the joys and hardships of life in his beloved Montana. One of my absolute favorite authors, it was my sincere wish that he write a third novel summing up the lives of Morrie Morgan and the marvelous cast of characters spanning both the The Whistling Season and Work Song. Alas, with Ivan Doig’s passing in 2015, not only did his unforgettable characters lose their voice, literature lost one of the best storytellers known to man.
Several years ago while shelving AV material at the library where I used to work, I came across a CD titled The Goat Rodeo Sessions. What caught my eye, besides the unusual title, was Yo-Yo Ma on the cover. I was familiar with Yo-Yo Ma as a classically trained musician, but here he was featured on a CD devoted to music of a completely different genre. Without hesitation, I checked out the CD and couldn’t wait to listen to it on the drive home. What I heard started a love affair with a type of music I’d previously tiptoed around.
Probably what kept me from exploring this genre earlier was the fact that much of it was labeled Bluegrass. My opinion of Bluegrass included all things twangy and hick-i-fied. Yes, that is a word. What I discovered that day was something called Classical Crossover. Classical Crossover is a genre that hovers between classical and popular music, and is usually targeted at fans of both types of music. In the most common type of crossover, classically trained performers sing or play popular songs, folk music, show tunes, or holiday songs.
Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan also contributed to the CD’s eleven tracks of music based on English and Irish fiddle music that gave birth to what we know as Appalachian fiddle music. The closest I’d ever come to anything like it was the little bits of fiddle I’d heard in songs by Clannad and The Chieftains.
After listening to The Goat Rodeo Sessions, I went in search of other CDs by the same artists or those featuring similar music. I discovered Appalachian Waltz, Short Trip Home, Appalachian Journey, and Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology all of which are now in a playlist that became the soundtrack of my mind as I wrote my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. One song in particular, “Sliding Down” featuring Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Mike Marshall, epitomized John Welles’s experience in the later years of his life.
By the time John lived in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, his life had taken so many downward turns that he believed he’d never dig himself out from under them. Yet through it all, he retained a shred of hope buried deep in his heart. “Sliding Down” is the musical representation of what John felt during those years: melancholy with a touch of optimism on the horizon that he was too afraid to reach for.
Other tracks from the above-listed CDs also played perfectly to the scenarios I wrote whether it was John as a boy on the family farm, as a student at the University of Maryland, during his relationship with the beautiful, enigmatic Garland, or the months following the D-Day Invasion. I don’t doubt that the music shaped what I wrote as if the songs were indeed a custom-made soundtrack. However, I finished writing over a year ago, so I haven’t accessed my Appalachian playlist in some time.
Last week, I had the opportunity to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. It had been over thirty years since I had done so as an Honors English student in high school, but thanks to one of my book clubs, we revisited the classic. During one scene, Scout mentioned that Atticus liked listening to fiddle music on the radio. Suddenly my forgotten playlist rushed back to my memory. A quick check on Google confirmed that the Appalachian Mountains extend as far south as northern Alabama. As I read, all my favorite pieces became the background music for Scout, Jem, Dill, and Atticus’s adventures, and I listened to my playlist for two days straight.
By the way, the term goat rodeo refers to a chaotic event where many things must go right for the situation to work, a reference to the unusual and challenging aspects of blending classical and bluegrass music. Yo-Yo Ma described a goat rodeo saying, “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork the right decision was made then you get to a goat rodeo.” In the case of The Secrets of Dr. John Welles and To Kill a Mockingbird, the right choices weren’t always made, but somehow life worked out for the majority of those involved. This fact further reinforces my belief that the music of Appalachia is truly the music of real life.
A couple years ago, my friend and fellow writer, S of JSMawdsley, talked me into trying NaNoWriMo. She mentioned it at the writer’s group she facilitates at the library where we worked. At the time, I was mainly a short story writer and dabbled in the occasional picture book. As luck would have it, I had an idea for a novel in mind, and NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect way to get it out of my head and on my laptop.
Being new to the world of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t prepare at all. I just started writing on November first and quit on November thirtieth. I had 50,000 words, which satisfied the requirements of NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t have a complete novel. What I did have was a lot of work ahead of me and the conviction that maybe I really hadn’t won.
At this point, S would probably have told me I needed to outline my novel, but the first thing I discovered from writing such a lengthy piece is that I’m a pantser. I plot a little when approaching my writing, but I love to explore the rabbit trails because that is where I discover my best writing. My opinion on pantsing can be read here: Are You A Pantser?
So, did I win NaNoWriMo or did I cheat? I started at about the last one-third of the novel because I had the most information for writing that portion. In short, I learned the valuable lesson of researching before you write especially if it’s for a contest such as NaNoWriMo. You don’t want the added stress of trying to conduct research while keeping up a word goal.
I pressed on throughout the year editing what I had written and creating the rest of the novel as I wanted it to be. I researched more thoroughly and ended up chucking quite a bit of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo. Again, part of that was my fault, but I also wondered if one 50,000-word novel every year is what I wanted. Is that what the creators of NaNoWriMo want?
I suspect and sincerely hope the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep people writing because that’s what I did. Before I knew it, November had rolled around again, and with it NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t finished with my first novel, so why on earth would I abandon it for the added pressure of creating a new novel. Admittedly, I had no new ideas at the time, and I didn’t want the burden of coming up with one. Also, there was no time to research even the slim ideas that passed through my head.
Instead, I cheated, and I cheated grandly! I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and without a single ounce of shame, I re-entered my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Dr. Welles’s story was almost complete, but I needed a little motivation to finish the missing chapters and tie it all together. NaNoWriMo provided this inspiration by keeping me on track with a daily word goal, but it also became a beneficial editing tool. If I edited my daily word goal, I counted it along with any new writing.
What I achieved wasn’t another half-baked novel, but rather a well-written, well-edited novel with which I was extremely pleased. A titch more editing after the fact, and Dr. Welles was ready for the hands of beta readers.
I took a couple years off from NaNoWriMo, but the point of the contest was always close to my heart. I knew I couldn’t devote time to a new novel and make The Secrets of Dr. John Welles all I wanted it to be. Then there is the fact that when story inspiration comes to me, I have to begin which sometimes means starting before NaNoWriMo starts. Yes, there is Camp NaNo, but my heart belongs to the original taking place in November.
When NaNoWriMo rolled around this year, I was already a little over halfway through my current novel. During the month of October, I had to set my writing aside to prepare for my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. When I was ready to restart, good ole NaNoWriMo once again came to the rescue as a means up jumpstarting my writing. Although I didn’t sign up with the official website, I created a spreadsheet to track and tally my daily writing goal. I’m using it to finish the current novel, for which I am prepared research wise, as well as for any writing I do that can be published including my blog posts.
Yes, that’s cheating because it’s not a single new novel of at least 50,000 words. But again, I have to believe the heart and soul purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep writers writing. That is what I am doing.
People who know me are aware of my love of books but may not know that I enjoy picture books every bit as much as novels and works of non-fiction. For those who don’t know me, start here (My Love Affair With Books).
A couple of weeks ago, as I shelved picture books in the children’s department of the library where I used to work, I discovered Shaun Tan’s book, The Rules of Summer. The unusual artwork on the cover immediately caught my eye, and I indulged in a few stolen moments to read the book. What a treasure.
The lean text tells the story of two brothers and the unique and arbitrary rules that govern their summer. The pictures, semi-abstract creations in oil and acrylic, relay a deeper story about the nature of the boys’ relationship.
I believe the story speaks volumes about how people treat each other whether they’re children or adults, friends or family. It’s testimony to how far we will go in our relationships and exactly what we’ll tolerate and for how long. This may sound heavy for a picture book, but the beauty of the subtle message is that there is hope even when human nature ensures that this process repeats itself. When it does, we learn and grow, love and forgive.
I’ve already enjoyed reading The Rules of Summer five times and have decided that I must own a copy for my private library. The book as a whole is an incredible work of art, and I’ll never tire of sifting through the many layers of the story, both words and pictures.
I struggled a bit with chapter two of Page After Page because I couldn’t relate to the exact experiences Heather Sellers presented, and her advice seemed to contradict other things I’ve been told, most specifically regarding social media. While she didn’t address social media directly, what she proposed would require a noticeable change in how I handled the various aspects of my author platform.
Rather than allow my resistance to flare, I decided to go forward with closing the gap between my writing life and the rest of my life because I am a writer, plain and simple, whether or not I’m published, all the time, period. I’ll do this by drawing on all the positive writing and reading experiences, thus quelling my fears and doubts. This will be an ongoing process for me. At least I know how to seek out and find quality input.
As for conserving my energy to write, that’s going to require a step back from social media. What an unusual request when we live in an era that is all about social media. How can I build/grow/maintain my author platform if I’m not tweeting, posting, honking, and tooting my own horn, shouting, “Hey, look at me! See what I’m writing?” Whose advice do I take?
Let’s consider the point Ms. Sellers makes when she says that talking about writing all the time means you aren’t actually writing. That’s true. Then there are all the stats on social media to gauge how well we’re liked, or not, which can really make or break one’s confidence. I decided to trust Ms. Sellers and withdrew to a safe distance.
The first couple of days felt as if I didn’t have anything to do. I picked up my pen and wrote, and I listened to the voices of the characters in the book I’m reading, and I treated myself to two new writing books, and I read, and I wrote, and I scratched out what I had written, and I listened to the instruction presented in my new writing books, and I wrote some more.
The best part is I don’t have to tell you what I’m writing; that’s for me. What I will share with you is that Page After Page, Story Trumps Structure, and Fiction Writing Master Class have been phenomenal in breaking through my resistance and writer’s block.
The positive momentum kept me moving forward. In addition to my writing group, I joined a book group online and at the library, and I will be attending two “Meet Your Local Author” events. I know this is going to further enhance my writing because I’m all about the tactile experience.
Never fear, though. I shall not abandon my blog. I’m just tweaking the focus to build a community of reading, writing, interactive friends whose presence in my life goes far beyond that of just follower.