Friday, July 30, 2010

The Future of Reading

Tonight, I fulfilled a promise to my 10-year-old daughter and took her to the local bookstore for something specific she'd been wanting, Xenocide, the third in the Orson Scott Card series that begins with Ender's Game. We threaded ourselves through the rows and stacks of books like silk in a loom until we ended up in the same place, in front of the title she was looking for.

"Oooh," she said, flipping the pages close to her nose. "I so totally love the smell of a new book!"

"Oooh," I replied, "You are so totally my daughter!" and we laughed and linked arms on our way to the checkout. We stopped and picked up a few new bookmarks for her, an accessory she loves almost as much as the books themselves, and I couldn't help but pick out a new moleskin journal for myself. And then I grabbed Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. I flipped it open and smelled the pages, just like my little girl had done moments before.

As we left the store, we stopped to look at the display for the latest e-book gadget. I have to admit: it's tempting. I travel a lot and am known for leaving books on a plane once I'm finished with them, because I don't have the room in my suitcase to haul them all from place to place. (I like to think that someone will be thankful for my little gift, and will happily enjoy their flight because I chose to leave them a present.)

"Hmmm," I looked at the stylish leather cases and thought of the possibilities: Everything I could ever want to read could be right there, in my hands. And it weighed close to nothing. Amazing.

"Mom," she said. "Come on. You can't smell the pages with that silly thing."

"True. But..."

"And you can't use these," she said, thrusting the beautiful new bookmarks at me.

I placed it back on the shelf. She was right on so many levels.

She's old school, my little girl, and so am I. She began reading at four years old and hasn't stopped since. She's spent her life watching me curl up in my favorite chair with feet tucked under me and a book in my hands. When she started chapter books at age six, we would lie together in her twin bed, she reading her book, me reading mine.

That's not to say that she isn't web savvy and doesn't love the latest electronic game or toy. But she sees something simple here: a good book. A real book that you can hold in your hands. And I think she's right that there's really no reason to mess that up.

As a writer, I also look at this new medium and contemplate the long term repercussions. Is it going to change the way we read? Sure. Will people actually read more? Quite possibly. Will it change the nature of the publishing business, or the royalties writers receive? We'll adjust. Is it a threat or just something cool and new? It's cool. So totally cool.

Perhaps one day my grandchildren and great grandchildren can look back on our ancient libraries and marvel at the number of pages we produced. They can flip through old newspapers (by then, I'm sure, extinct) with delicate fingers, in awe of the mere thought of ink on paper. Hopefully they can walk through my house and see a real library, with shelves that go all the way to the ceiling.

And there I'll be in the middle of it all, their little old great-grandmother, sitting in my rocking chair near my daughter. And we'll have our feet tucked up under us, books in our hands. Real books.

Yet who knows what the future holds? We can't predict the future of reading. And as long as we are here and communicate with the written word, it doesn't really matter if it's on paper or on a back-lit screen. What matters is that we are reading.

For now, I'm holding out. Reading the old fashioned way still works for me!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Waiting for my real life to begin …

By Julie

How many times have you heard someone use the word "When …" right before stating a goal? I've heard it more times than I can count, especially in the context of writing.

"When I'm finished with (task, event, season of life), I plan to write a book."

"When my kids are (grown, in school, out of school, out of diapers, out of debt, out of trouble out of my freaking hair!), I plan to finish the book."

"When I finally figure out (what life is all about, what I want to say, why the world is round), I plan to start my memoir."

This blog post is going to sound harsh to some of you. It's not meant to sound that way. Not much anyway.

I've just learned that waiting for your real life to begin means you probably are going to be living your fake life for a long, long time.

I totally understand the demands of life and how hard it is, when it's all you can do simply to exist from day to day, to put time into something that seems ...




In the last decade, I spent several years as a single-again mom, getting an infant out of diapers and into school, living paycheck to paycheck, wondering how I was going to ever get enough sleep, much less get ahead. Then I spent a few more years as a newlywed, going back to school full-time to get my master's degree while working full-time and still trying to fit raising three kids in there somewhere. Then I spent some years working many hours per week doing freelance work simply to contribute to my household's income.

Somewhere in there, in the midst of all that activity, I finally realized it was time for my real life to begin.

So I started writing a book. Eventually, I finished one. Then another. And I'm still going.

And guess what? I decided I like my real life, and I'm glad I stopped waiting for it to begin.

I've been fortunate enough in the process to have the opportunity to begin writing full-time (but not until we went through our budget and decided what we really, honestly could live without in order for me to do it). I know that one day I may have to return to some kind of job to bring in money if I don't start earning money as a writer and if our circumstances call for it.

I have to be honest. Some days, I think about my other real lives:

  • The one where I live in a walkable city – one with great public transportation, great music performed live frequently, great theater, great restaurants, great weather . . . you get the picture. But last weekend, my husband and I decided it was time to stop complaining and start doing our research. We plan to take some of our upcoming vacations in places we believe might come close to that dream so that when it's time, we'll be ready.
  • The one where I'm skinny again and exercise almost every day and still eat dessert on Friday nights. Several months ago, I started heading that way and have lost about 15 pounds, but I still catch myself dreaming about the ultimate goal instead of being thankful that I am already a little bit healthier and that I can fit back into things I couldn't wear last year and knowing I might meet my goal if I keep on keeping on.
  • And the one where I already have an agent and a publishing deal and I'm going crazy trying to write one book, revise another, and market another. But hey, at least I'm finishing books and sending out queries (okay, Joan, probably not as often as I should be these days, but I have a master plan, you see).
And baby steps do count, I think.

What about you? What does your real life look like? Are you still waiting for it to begin?

I love this song by Colin Hay (yes, formerly of Men at Work!), and this scene from Scrubs brings the point home even more with a little bit of humor and a good dose of goosebumps at the end. The first time I found the song online, I played it over and over again and some kind of light bulb lit up in my mind. It was about then that I got serious about my writing and started living my real life.

Don't be that girl.

Photo credit: anna qutermuth's Flickr photostream / by Creative Commons License

Monday, July 26, 2010

I think you meant...

By Pamela

Nitwit strode to the front of the room and handed in his essay. He’d never written anything longer than a text message before but knew his college professor would be blown away at his mastery of the English language.

Here’s a look at his essay, followed by Professor Style’s comments.

She was the most beautiful girl in the room, and he shuttered as their eyes met. He chanced a peak at her from behind the planter and waded with baited breath. He had honed in on her like a heat-seeking missile since the first day he saw her after class, longing to rap his arms around her.

Could it be her interest in him was just as peaked? Did he wet her appetite and leave her wanting more? He’d herd that falling for an older student was a right of passage for most freshmen. But he knew he was the exception to the rule. Playing hard to get was out of the question, but he kneaded to pair down his enthusiasm or she’d never give him a second glance. Everyday that past maid him want her more.

He’d been tossed into the throws of battle before. This wasn’t his first hayride. He walked up to her and handed her the poem he’d comprised on sented stationary. She read it and fell immediately in love.

Dear Nitwit and trust me, I was tempted to write: Deer Nitwit. Your command of the English language is deplorable at best, but let me try to straighten out this garbled attempt at a story.

 People shudder, houses are shuttered

 People peek and seek with their eyes (remember the double e, as in two eyes)

 It’s waited, not waded unless you’re standing in a puddle

 Breath is bated, not baited unless you’re sucking on a fishing lure

 You home in on a target (like this poor, unsuspecting girl) but better hone your skills first

 Only Jay Z raps with his arms; the rest of us wrap

 Her interest might be piqued rather than peaked, though it’s doubtful

 Her appetite might be whetted but likely not; wetted appetite involves liquids

 Herd is a group of cattle

 Rite of passage, not right

 Bread is kneaded, people are needed and many are needy, like your character

 Pare down the enthusiasm; please don’t pair it and make it double

 Everyday as one word means ordinary; as two separate words it means happening daily

 Passed is a verb; past is an adjective or noun

 A maid cleans; made is a verb

 People experience throes of battle, not throws unless a catapult is involved

 Poems and songs are composed, not comprised

 Scented is the adjective you're after, not sented

 And stationary with an a means not moving; stationery with an e pertains to writing material

Please review my notes and resubmit your essay with corrections.

Professor Style

Nitwit dropped the class and was later found hanging around the local barre, wondering why he was the only one not wearing a tutu.

Friday, July 23, 2010

So, Kim, how have those summer survival strategies been working out?

By Kim

While I consider my two young daughters to be the most precious people in the world, school vacations are trying times in the Bullock household. Sasha and Ashlyn ‘try’ to get equal billing in Mommy’s day. I ‘try’ to comply and yet still get some writing done.

At the beginning of the summer I made up a list of strategies I intended to follow this vacation in order to keep everyone sane. I thought you might enjoy knowing how that’s working out for me.

I will accept the fact that it will be impossible to write every day and that some days I shouldn’t even try. Accepting I couldn't write every day was easy, but I’ve yet to experience that day I SHOULD try since May 24th.

I will involve my four-year-old in chores. This idea led to a fairly detailed allowance plan for both children. The good news: my house is far neater than it was a couple of weeks ago. The bad news: the only words written last week were ‘the plan.’

I will bribe my eight-year-old to entertain her sister. That’s how I’m writing this post on Sunday afternoon.

I will relax and enjoy our family vacation to Italy this summer. As you can tell from my last post, I excelled at this one. Unfortunately, now I can’t look out my window without wishing the view looked more Tuscan than Texan.

On those days that I can’t work, I’ll do things from which I can be painlessly interrupted. I meant things like transcribing old letters, updating my website, even painting. I’ve accomplished laundry. Does that count?

I will not feel guilty for putting one child in day camp and the other in summer school for part of the vacation. I’ve only succeeded in having both children out of the house for five days since May, so I haven’t had the opportunity to feel guilt. Two of those days were spent frantically packing for four people since my husband was unexpectedly on a business trip until the day before we left for Italy. Ashlyn’s first week back at school was supposed to be this past week. Monday at 11:00 AM I got a call saying she had thrown up and I needed to come get her. She was perfectly healthy and active the rest of the day. I got another call on Thursday for the same reason, and again she was fine. (The doctor says she's fine, too.)

I’m beginning to wonder if I'm ever supposed to write again.

I hope that by finishing this post today I can open my work-in-progress Monday morning, read over my last chapter to remember what Carl and Madonna Ahrens were up to when I last communed with them and (gasp) write something new…

What about you? Did you go into the summer with the best intentions only to accomplish very little or have you been able to keep with a schedule? If you are in the latter group, I'm envious. Please share your secret for success.

Photos by Deborah Downes. For my Roycroft readers, the photo of my children was taken on Via Appia Antica in Rome, a.k.a. the original Appian Way.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jennifer Weiner at Legacy Books

Last night Julie, Joan and Pamela went to Legacy Books along with Julie's daughter Kristen and Pamela's daughter Amelia, to hear Jennifer Weiner as she promotes her new book Fly Away Home.

Jennifer greets the crowd.
I thought I'd share some pictures of Jennifer and the nice crowd of (mostly) women in attendance. The complimentary cupcakes were a huge hit.

Join us September 9 again at Legacy Books when we go to hear Amy Bourret talk about her debut novel Mothers & Other Liars. And be sure to read her interview on this blog August 2

Monday, July 19, 2010

Send your characters on a journey

by Joan

When I woke this morning, I knew we were brunching with the in-laws, but that’s as far as my day was planned. If it had been a predictable Sunday, I’d have read the paper and a book while golf played in the background, maybe hit the gym, then made a predictable dinner of chicken or beef, fruit and salad. A nice relaxing day, but nothing we hadn’t done many times before.

Whether you write your novel with or without an outline, you probably have some idea of where your story is going. But is it predictable? Have you read that same plot before?

On the way home from brunch, my husband suggested we go somewhere. Maybe to the Nasher Sculpture Museum. “Why not?” my son and I said. Then, on the way down the Tollway, someone brought up the zoo. “We’ve never been to the Dallas Zoo.” And just like that our plot for the day changed. We had no sunscreen or water or hats with us, but we showed up anyway and were treated to a day in the sun by giraffes, elephants, gorillas, tigers and a few hundred other animals. Some I’d never seen before, like an okapi, which looks to me like half-giraffe, half-zebra. Others brought back fond memories, like the meerkats, who instantly had us visualizing Timon from The Lion King.

How did we handle the heat? We tried to keep cool in the shade or under mist machines, ate lemon chills and cherry ices, stepped inside the occasional air-conditioned building. We braved the 104 degree temps. Other people gave up and headed home. Some kids whined, others didn’t seem phased by the heat at all.

When writing a novel, sometimes you have to set your many-faceted characters on an excursion. Put them into unique situations, have them bump into strangers. How will they react? Will your protagonist freeze or run from a confrontation with a mugger on the Tube, or will she douse him with pepper spray and take back her purse? Will your secondary character encourage her best friend to take that job in California? Or get a tattoo which lands her in the hospital? If you send them to the zoo, one of your characters might end up nose to nose with a giraffe and another, bumping into someone they didn't want to see. Wherever you send them, make it new and unusual. It’ll make for a more memorable journey.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What Do You Need?

I've been avoiding my manuscript for about five days now.

We move this way, my WIP and me, sometimes frantically together, stealing every extra moment to scribble (or type) in the quiet darkness. Then, for no real reason, five or six thousand words later, it's over. I'm done with it for a little while and it's lost in my life until, with a flash of embarrassment and shame, I realize I have neglected it for far too long.

I had a moment last night where I thought about double-clicking the file, and then I let the moment pass. What was wrong with me?

"I need a retreat," I said to myself. "That's what I need. Then I'll write every day."

Today, I worked from home and spent the majority of the day on the phone, pouring over budgets and planning work-related travel plans for the rest of the year. Through all of this, I could see 'my book' sitting on the computer desktop, waiting patiently.

"Not a retreat. A class, really," I thought again. "My MFA! Maybe I'll finally go DO that."

Tonight, I looked over curriculum's for MFA's online and realized that NO, I do not want to do that.

"Time alone!" my inner self shouted. "You never have time alone!"

And then I remembered that my children had been at sleep-away camp all week and now I'm totally out of excuses.

So what is it that I need?

I need to chill out.

I need to let it breathe. Let it relax. When I peek at my words a few days from now, I'll have a good perspective on what it needs, and I'll take care of that. Knowing me the way that I do, I will probably spend a few days correcting broken sentences, working on the outline, verifying some facts, and then I'll start again with new words, moving the whole thing forward again.

Instead of beating myself up for not writing 2,000 words a day (Stephen King says to do that! I should do that!), perhaps I just need to follow my own rhythm. And if that means writing like crazy for a week or so and then letting it marinate on its own with no help from me, then so-be-it. Maybe focusing on what it needs is better than focusing on what I think I need.

What about you? Do you write straight through from start to finish? Do you jump around, choosing certain scenes over others? Or are you bumbling along like me, in short bursts of creativity?

Let us know!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gone to the Dogs

By Julie

The summer doldrums and dog days, they are here.
I thought this loose definition of "Dog Days" from Wikipedia was interesting:

"Dog Days" (Latin: diēs caniculārēs) are the hottest, most sultry days of summer. In the northern hemisphere, they usually fall between early July and early September. In the southern hemisphere they are usually between January and early March. The actual dates vary greatly from region to region, depending on latitude and climate. Dog Days can also define a time period or event that is very hot or stagnant, or marked by dull lack of progress. The name comes from the ancient belief that Sirius, also called the Dog Star, was somehow responsible for the hot weather.


Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies" according to Brady's
Clavis Calendarium, 1813.

Here at What Women Write, we're all kind of in between at the moment. In between returning from vacations or leaving for vacations. In between sending visitors home or preparing to greet them.

I fall into the camp of having just sent my brother and nephew from California home, and while I'm starting to gear up for a vacation in August, it's not time to pack just yet. About three weeks stretch out before me when my I can write to my heart's content while my relatively independent teenage girls laze around or swim or have multi-night sleepovers with friends.

My writing is still progressing quite nicely, but I'm definitely entering the time of summer when I would rather take a nap than do almost anything. Going somewhere for ice cream (Hello, BRUSTER'S and SWEET SAMMIE'S!) is about the only activity that trumps naps, but because it's not practical or healthy to do it every single day, naps win the majority of the time.

As enjoyable as it is to have down time, as lovely as it is when nothing much is expected of you for a few days or weeks, it can be a bit mind numbing. So, here's a proposal: What better time is there to do some things for your writing that you might not normally do because of lack of time or energy? Here are a few ideas you might try:
  • Dig out old magazines, fabrics, buttons, or anything else with texture and create that collage you've always wanted to make to see if it grounds you in your story better. For my last manuscript, I created a photo collage using snippets of photos I found online. I used it as wallpaper on my laptop. Every time I opened my computer, it reminded me what I needed to be working on, and it was also fascinating to see what parts of the collage became more or less important as my story evolved.
  • Go on an artist's date to somewhere inspiring and cool, and I mean that in the literal sense of the word. Get away from the heat if you can. Take your camera. Take a notebook. Take a voice recorder. Or don't!
  • Create a playlist for your WIP. I rarely listen to music while I'm doing the actual writing, but I find exploring song titles and lyrics and new-to-me musicians often creates jumping off places to new plot points, or even new story ideas if I'm ready to start something new. ( is a great place to browse, and largehearted boy writes a fascinating blog where he frequently interviews authors about their writing playlists.)
  • On a night when you don't have to get up and be somewhere early the next day, go to bed with a story question in mind. It might be as simple as asking one of your characters, "What do you want?" And I'm totally serious about the part where you don't have to be anywhere the next day. You might find yourself half sleeping, half dreaming, half thinking all night, and though your question could be answered better than you ever imagined, it might take another day and night to recover. But hey, it's the dog days, so it's all good, right?
And doggone it, if you just can't manage to pull yourself up from the couch for a few days or weeks, well, you can always blame it on Sirius.

What about you? What gets you out of the summer doldrums? What reinvigorates your senses and along with it, your muse?

Photo credit: Kristen, by permission given to her mother! Our beautiful Sophie, gazing out the window and dreaming of chasing lizards on the patio when the sun goes down.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Five reasons to find a writers' group: Joan, Julie, Kim, Susan and Elizabeth

By Pamela

During the school year, we at What Women Write regularly meet for lunch to recharge, reconnect and reestablish our writing goals. No one brings a spreadsheet of word count calculations or an outline of a project, but we talk for hours about writing, books, movies and whatever else six women find to chat about.

Over the summer, it’s a bit more difficult. Last year we met one afternoon at the botanical garden, kids in tow, for a picnic. This year has proved to be more sporadic. Susan and I managed a lunch last month. Joan and I met for tea last week. We email constantly and are in the early stages of planning our second annual fall writing retreat.

As a writer I find it imperative to have a support group outside my family. My mother, my sister, my spouse and especially my children see me in a role best suited to their needs. To my family I provide a listening ear, a sympathetic shoulder—emotional support and physical care. If I were to solely depend on those closest to me to provide enthusiastic feedback on my writing or encouragement when I receive yet another rejection letter, my writing would suffer. Family members can tell me how wonderful they think I am, or silently nod while inwardly thinking, Don’t get so worked up over a ‘hobby.’

But Joan, Julie, Kim, Susan and Elizabeth offer me a unique perspective. They know me in a way others do not. They’ve read early, early drafts and offered much-needed feedback. They aren’t afraid to tell me something I’ve written is horrible because they understand they’re doing me no favors by encouraging a project that has no market potential. When I get a rejection letter, at least one has probably queried the same agent with a similar response. Stuck for a way to phrase a sentence, I can email it out and within the hour have two or three unique twists on it. Without the support of these five women, I would not be the writer I am today. I doubt I would have ever attended a writing conference—let alone four. And I’m fairly certain I would have stopped writing fiction after my first manuscript had been rejected by dozens of agents.

Much of this is speculation, but one thing is certain: I am the writer I’ve become because of them. Thanks, all of you!

If you are a writer without a support system, I encourage you to find one soon. I met Joan and Kim at a local writers’ group, Elizabeth at a critique group and Susan at a conference. Check your local library or book store for writing groups or critique groups. Join a book discussion group to get a feel for what readers want. Do an online search. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. But one caveat: Make sure the environment is healthy, positive and honest. The last thing a fragile writer needs is negativity; we provide enough of that to ourselves.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Going to Italy is Like Having a Love Affair – Without the Guilt

By Kim

As some of you know, I returned from a family vacation in Italy less than two days ago. If this post meanders a bit more than usual, it is because my jet-lagged body still insists it’s bedtime though it’s only mid-afternoon.
It will likely take me months to fully absorb all that I’ve seen and done since June 19th. Being in Italy was, for me, like throwing myself into the arms of a new and particularly fervent lover. With the exception of one awful pizza in Siena, when this suitor placed a meal before me, it was meant to feed my soul not just my body. The wine, while never indulged in to the point of drunkenness, left me warm, satiated, and grinning like a Cheshire cat. Even the air was seductive – often infused with the scent of jasmine. Around every bend in the narrow winding roads was something unexpected: a Roman ruin, an Etruscan tomb, an ancient and gnarled olive tree, a castle, a village perched precariously upon a cliff, a Tuscan valley so dramatic and beautiful I could do nothing but stare and weep. I have no doubt that heaven looks like Tuscany.

As a writer of historical fiction, this sensory overload included a whole other dimension lost on the rest of my family. I would look at a medieval street and marvel at how similar it all would have looked a thousand years ago. My daughters laughed at me because I could not stop touching stone walls and dipping my hand into every fountain. I noticed by the end, though, that Sasha began picking up stones from places that obviously moved her. I’m sure her future husband will be as baffled by that habit as mine is.

I brought my laptop with me but never opened it. In fact, I didn’t give my WIP a single passing thought. Despite having a torn ligament in my foot, I climbed the bell tower in Siena, explored the ruins of Hadrian’s villa and the catacombs, ate wild boar, navigated Rome by train, subway, car, streetcar and city bus, indulged in a daily gelato, toured the castle where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes got married, had an audience with the Pope, swam in the Mediterranean, and watched as my children made friends with a little girl who spoke no English. Watching Sasha and Ashlyn thrive on the freedom of being in a country where children are adored and fretted over was the most rewarding part of the whole adventure. They didn’t particularly want to come home.

Now that I am back in Dallas, refreshed, and will soon have both children in summer activities, I’m ready to dive back into my WIP. I have the feeling that my progress will be greatly enhanced by having left both my comfort zone and my muses behind for a little while. What about you? Have any of you had a big boost of creativity after going on a grand adventure?

All but one photo in this post were taken by Sasha Bullock, my nine-year-old, who was presented with her first digital camera upon arrival in Rome and quickly developed a love of photography.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In the Mood

by Elizabeth

I love to read books by Indian authors. Just finished one by a new guy, Farahad Zama (The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, a fun read!), and have gulped down Divakaruni, Pradhan, many others. One thing I've learned reading them is that in India, in the middle of a heat wave, people enjoy a cooling drink: a steaming cup of tea. The idea is that by heating the insides, it helps cool you off. I'll buy it.

So now, in the middle of the hot Texas summer, I've got a cup of English Breakfast doctored up with milk and fake sugar, just the way I like it. A hot drink, and it's like it loosens its way down my throat, into my core, and then on to the extremities, and my fingers can fly.

I've mentioned before that I like to write in coffee houses, restaurants, even in grocery stores that feature tables for weary or hungry shoppers. (My favorite, Central Market, even has a fireplace roaring away on cold winter days!) It's free office space, but there is also something about a hot drink at my elbow that gets my creative juices flowing, gets my pen moving, gets my words on the page. I guess you could say that a hot drink (or a cold Diet Coke with fresh lime if it's lunch time and my venue of choice is Taco Cabana) puts me in the mood.

I'd stop short of calling it a ritual, though it might be to my advantage if I went the extra step and made it so. Rituals are such for a reason; they help people create a muscle memory, and they contribute to the feeling of community. Both are necessary for writer. We need to flex that writing muscle, over and over. That's even more so once we leave the what-if-land of the still-to-be-published and enter the world of a contract and the second book has a deadline. As for community--isn't that why I'm here right now? And you?

If my task is writing--and it is--then ritualizing and recognizing the power of a hot drink to my production is a valuable consideration.

My cup is drained, the world is still hot, but I wrote. I wrote this. I did my work, and all that's left is to wonder about you: what is your ritual, or what ritual do you think will help you?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Three Boxes of Stories

by Joan

Last week we spent a week in Maryland with my family. One of the highlights of the week was a whirlwind Sunday where we hosted a family brunch and then dinner for friends we don’t see often enough.

For the morning shift, I dug out three boxes of old family photographs. As we munched on bagels, quiche, and Costco granola (we swear it’s laced with crack), I sat next to one of my cousins, whose mind holds three generations of our family tree. With a pencil I jotted the names of great grandparents, aunts and uncles on the back of thick sepia photos, some so old the corners had disintegrated. Many remained unmarked as we debated to which side of the family the stern-faced, bustled ladies belonged.

Maybe one of the men is the artist of the Falmouth sailboat watercolor hanging above my desk and between the pages of the CEMETERY GARDEN. Maybe the guy with the beard is Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky. (Actually, he’s my paternal great-grandfather Zachary Levinson!)

In some faces we saw the shape of my face and eyes. In others we saw three generations of full lips and wavy hair. We’re fairly sure a few pictures were shot in Russia, before our relatives journeyed to Ellis Island. Others were taken in Brooklyn studios. Still others captured their daily life: three familiar faces posing proprietarily in front of a grocery/delicatessen, others in a confectionery, a young married couple standing tenuously side-by-side, my father (as a child) demurely atop a horse.

How will we ever identify those faces shamefully abandoned in the past, like elementary school friends who once pricked fingers and blended blood? Will our great-grandchildren forget us in the same way?

It got me thinking about the layers of our lives, how our ancestors’ actions and decisions affected not only our looks, but where and who we are now. Had they stayed in Russia, they might have lived in an isolated frozen community or been arrested and sent to Siberia. Maybe I wouldn’t be here now. Maybe I’d work in a government job and walk to work in knee-high boots and a parka. I wish my ancestors had written some of it down, like Kim’s great-grandmother. I have bags of WWII letters from my father, but nothing from the previous generation.

Is that why we write? So years from now, a descendant will find our words and understand us a little more clearly? When we write, we capture a mood or a setting in much the same way a photograph does. With just the right shading and lightening, cropping the boring parts. Posing our characters on a backdrop of plot.

Seeing these pictures also got my creative mind lassoing ideas for a future novel. Like Julie, I need to finish my WIP first, but I’m already excited about where these pictures will lead me. I’ve got about 500 more treasures to scan and, with that, a lifetime of stories to tell.

What about you? Have you found crumbling family photos? Do you know who they are?

Thursday, July 1, 2010


By Susan

In June, my family and I spent a luxurious week at the Paradise Village Resort in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, a much-anticipated and saved-for vacation. Our sunrise patio overlooked the yacht harbor. Our sunset dinners gave us a view of a Pacific expanse of purple skies, jagged mountain peaks, and a quiet surf. We sang along with the Mariachi band on Fiesta night and drank tequila out of little silly cups the resort staff hung around our necks on strings. We zip-lined over canyons, hiked in the rain forest, and swam in a cool stream famous for- of all things- being the set for the movie "Predator". My eight-year-old, with her hair done up in tight cornrows braided by an elderly Mexican woman on the beach, swam with me in the resort pool on our last day there, smiled broadly, and said "Mommy, this is THE LIFE."

In March I spent two weeks travelling in Ghana, West Africa for my work with Touch A Life Foundation. The capital city, Accra, teems with people; legless men sitting on modified skateboards dart through traffic, begging for cedis, the Ghanaian currency. Women carry baskets full of fresh bread, or bags of water, or shrimp, or hard-boiled eggs; they carry everything perched high on their heads in a Carmen Miranda-esque balancing act of both grace and danger. Their babies are tied to their backs with long swaths of fabric, safely sleeping, suspended there, legs wrapped around and feet pointing forward. People. Color. Sound. Everywhere. Everything smells, whether it's the sweet stickiness of body odor, the bursting blooms from the garden, old garbage, fufu cooking over an open flame, or the stench of open sewage. I work with children rescued from human trafficking -- kids who tackle me with hot and dirty hands and hugs and love every time they see me. I look around and say: "Wow. This is REAL LIFE."

In Texas, I have two dogs and a cat. I live in a neigh-
borhood of families who move silently in and out of their homes, and anything I could possibly want to purchase is within a five mile radius of my house. I have a husband who is crazy about World Cup soccer, the Tour de France, his children, and cooking (not necessarily in that order). My daughters do well in school, love to sing, play guitar, and play sports. I work full time (always have) and at night, when everything is quiet, I sit by myself, curled in a chair with my laptop, and I write. "Hmmm," I think to myself, "This is MY LIFE."

And it's all the same life. Writing is like this life too, whether it's an escape into a luxurious world we're not so sure we belong to, or something far-flung and foreign, or something comfortable and familiar. We can write about things we know, places we've been, and sunsets we've seen.

The important part is to connect -- to find the familiar, to write something that might mean something to someone. By writing this little blog, maybe you see my sunset in your mind's eye. You smell the streets of Accra with me, and you see me sitting here right now, in my quiet home, writing in the dark. We connect, ever so briefly, and share something together, without even knowing one another.

So pick your life, the one you live, and pick the one you write. Have your heroine swept away by that beautiful Mexican cabana boy or the handsome yet lonely stranger who owns the yacht in the harbor. Tell the stories of the scars on the bodies of the little boys rescued from slavery on the waters of Lake Volta, fall in love with a child who calls you "Ma" and leaves grubby smudges on your already sweat-stained clothes. Or write about the heartaches that go on inside every home on every street in America, where the hero lavishes himself with excess and still can't figure out exactly what he is missing in his life, because he already has everything that money can buy.

Just write. Write it all down and connect your story with mine. I'll connect mine, hopefully, with you. Choose your life and choose your story; just keep writing.
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