The writer tells about how being frightened is a good sign, the truth about truth in essays and finding stories while fast asleep.
Amy Paturel has contributed essays to national and international magazines, newspapers and niche publications, including Health, Women’s Health, The Los Angeles Times, O (The South Africa edition) and Body+Soul. She is an award-winning essayist and has been featured twice in Newsweek’s “My Turn” column. She also teaches essay writing (see below for details).
Meredith: In essays, how do you find the story or, better yet, how do you know when you’ve really found it.
AMY: It’s a process of trial and error that usually begins by mining my journals. Not all of my essays started from journal entries, but many have. And yes, my journal is as boring as anyone else’s! But for me, journaling is a way of releasing emotions, recalling events or experiences and revealing my truth in the moment — all without a censor. Sometimes when I’m writing an entry, I know that it will later become part of an essay. That’s when I try to record as many details as possible in my journal, especially dialogue, and I highlight those sections of my journal in red. Later, those bits and pieces of conversation may become the crux of my story. So I guess you could say I “find” my story by journaling first and putting the pieces together later.
How do I know when I’ve found my story? When I wake up in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning and have to grab the notepad on my nightstand. When I’m working on an essay, themes and ideas are always running through my mind. Sometimes I don’t make the connections when I’m conscious, but when I tune out (like when I’m sleeping, taking a shower or going for a run), the take home message suddenly hits me. In that moment, I know I’m on my way.
Meredith: When it comes to writing would you describe your mind as a friend or foe?
AMY: Both! Initially, my mind is a friend. I do a lot of thinking and reflecting before I take to the page. As I work through the piece though, my mind often becomes a roadblock. I can’t go any further until I turn it off — hence the reason I tend to find my stories while I’m sleeping! Some writers can free write on a topic and find their story. I work a little differently. I have to set up the piece with my mind first. Then once I have a loose structure, I can turn it off and let my subconscious take over.
Meredith: Are you ever frightened of your own ideas? Do they comfort you?
AMY: If I’m frightened by an idea, it’s usually a good sign. Good essays are scary! They address conflict within marriage, anger at our parents, resentment toward our children and sadness from regret. And they often center around an issue that makes us feel vulnerable or uncomfortable. In fact, some of the information I’ve shared through essays are things I would probably never say out loud – even to my best friends. The essay is compelling because it shares a truth that I’d rather keep under wraps. If I go deep into a topic and share my experiences as honestly as possible, then at least I know I’m on my way.
Meredith: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay?
AMY: This is a tough one. Ultimately, I have to ask myself if that paragraph or sentence is critical to the story. In other words, would the story work without it. If the answer is yes, I go to the butcher block. Fellow essayist Jody Mace shared this trick with me and it still helps me part with words, sentences and paragraphs I love: “Write one sentence describing your take home message. Then re-read every paragraph in your essay and ask yourself if it supports your point. It’s tempting to throw in funny anecdotes that are related to your story but don’t apply to the bigger message or theme. Avoid the temptation.”
Meredith: As an essayist, what does “truth on the page” really mean? Now, answer as a reporter.
AMY: Controversies about the standards of truth in memoir abound. And yet, truth, at least on some level, is subjective. Ask three people to recount what happened during a showdown at a bar, and they’ll all have slightly different versions of their truths. As an essayist, truth is YOUR truth — not anyone else’s. Truth in essay isn’t just facts. It’s raw emotion, heartfelt honesty, truth that defines YOU! It’s also fallible. There are many different instances in essay when you’re relying on memory unless you keep a very detailed journal. Is your memory 100 percent accurate? Are you sure you had PB&J that day, or could it have been grilled cheese? Those details may be foggy when you sit down to write. Still, there is a huge difference between telling the truth as you see and experience it, and completely fabricating a story. Truth in essay means corroborating facts with others, checking dates in your day planner and going online for weather reports. But it doesn’t mean changing your perspective of the events.
What does truth mean to a reporter? “Just the facts, ma’am.”
As for something quirky, Amy says she is the Queen of Gooshy Socks. “At any given time, I have at least a dozen pairs in my drawer. I retire them when nubbies start to develop and replace them with a fresh pair of gooshiness. These, she points out, are aloe-infused.
But wait, there’s more: Amy’s next essay class begins May 3. And guess what? You could win a spot in that class! Here’s how: Just click over to her site and tell her what you love about the season — or what you hate. She asks that you share a little piece of yourself through the written word. It might be one or two sentences—but no longer than two paragraphs. Amy says: “The person whose words touch me the most will get a free essay writing class (premium version) when the class starts up on May 3, 2010.” Once you’re at Amy’s website click “Contact” to send her your message.
Photo courtesy of Amy Paturel.
The writer talks about relaxation as the path to inspiration, messy blocks of words and being a big picture creator.
JUNE SOBEL is the author of three books for children: B is for Bulldozer (Gulliver Books Harcourt), Shiver Me Letters (Harcourt) and The Goodnight Train (Harcourt). She received her MFA in painting at Stanford University and an individual grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Over the years she has created artwork for the gift industry, toy companies and advertising agencies.
Meredith: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you?
JUNE: I know I am inspired when the voice inside me says, “Quick grab a pen and get that down on paper.” My inspiration has an urgent voice. I am often hit with inspiration at inopportune times like when I am driving on the winding road of Malibu Canyon and it is too dangerous to take one hand off the wheel to write it down. Inspiration finds its way into my head when my mind is still and relaxed such as when I am laying on the floor in Shavasana after a vigorous yoga class. I admit to spending this meditative time working out passages in my work that have been problematic. I find the inspiration of an “Ah-ha” moment to be one of the most exciting parts of the creative process.
Meredith: As an artist and writer, does your creative mind naturally think/do/feel/create in images or words first? In other words, do ideas come to you in words or images, sounds or something else? Talk process for a bit.
JUNE: My background is in visual arts, which I think has helped me become a better writer. I naturally create in words first. Creating a story for me is analogous to working on a clay sculpture. I mound together a big messy block of words that I tear down and build up until I have something to edit and refine. Being a picture book writer, I am very conscious of the sensory details of my work especially how the words sound to the reader and the listener. Every word must delight the ear as well as move the story along.
Meredith: Are you a “big picture” writer, or do you take the Anne Lamott Bird by Bird approach? Can you tell us about it?
JUNE: I am definitely a “big picture” writer. [I dig-this-too, alert:] I consider knowing the end of a story before I begin to be the greatest gift. I would rather fill in the story line than write down word-by-word and see where I end up down the road. The editing process is my favorite part of writing. Once my “big picture” has a shape, I love going back tweaking the story, playing with words, re-structuring sentences. That’s the fun part.
Meredith: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using it?
JUNE: Yes, voice is a constant. An authentic voice sings through a story. I think my voice has become more confident over the years. I think a good writer should also have an authoritative voice that conveys to the reader no doubt about the veracity of the tale being told. I am currently co-authoring, Goat Head Soup, the story of the first woman to become a Maasai warrior. The biggest challenge has to preserve the voice and personality of the woman who survived this adventure. I am writing in a voice that is not my own since it is written in first-person narrative. This has brought up the question for me of whether or not a writer can create an original voice to tell a character’s story.
Meredith: Why is telling stories so much fun? I ask because I believe we all have stories inside us waiting to be told and that finally telling them satisfies a need we all have to connect with others—and ourselves. How about you?
JUNE: Stories are the fabric of our lives. There is a connection made by sharing stories that resonates with everyone. There are stories in the details of everyone’s lives. Stories are an affirmation of our being. Words are the magic that gives them life. Stories confirm our humanity.
JUNE lives in Westlake Village, California with her family. She blogs about book writing (and the book she is currently writing) and life in general right. You can read her entries by clicking right here.
The writer riffs on incorrect beliefs, tackling one’s own misinformed history and ditching the fear of being wrong.
AMY FERRIS is the author of Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis, published by Seal Press. She is also a screen and television writer, and serves on the Advisory Board of The Women’s Media Center.
Meredith: What did you have to unlearn, un-believe about yourself to find your truth as a writer? What had to go?
AMY: Ok. Big, huge question.
What had to go was my belief that I was not a good daughter, or a kind sister, or a good woman. And I say this only because I was writing about my life, and what began as my story, my memoir about midlife and menopause, became—quite organically—a journey about my mother’s rapid descent (with dementia) along with other relationships within my immediate family. So all of that stuff, that “incorrect belief about myself” had to go.What also had to go was my belief that I was invisible, that I didn’t matter, that what I had to say was of no importance within those relationships. What also had to go (God, so much shit had to go) was this deep seated fear that since I had not graduated from high school (I dropped out when I was 15-1/2)—which on some level had kept me from thinking I was smart & intelligent, because all that stuff just gets pushed down and corked—that had to go. Definitely. Beliefs that I had to face daily and unlearn, un-believe. I think when you set out to a write a memoir—in particular—you’re gonna run up against your own misinformed history, and if you’re a pleaser or a giver as I am, you will constantly be questioning if it’s okay to write the truth. Your truth. I had to get rid of and let go of a whole lot of shit that kept me from really deeply allowing my own voice to emerge, and when I finally said fuck it, and let it rip… I was astonished. I fell madly in love with what I was writing. But everyday I did battle with it. It was a love affair, and now we’re happily living together.
Meredith: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” When you write are there “rights” and “wrongs” for you? What’s that like?
AMY: The thing is, how I see something—my opinion or view—may be very different than how you see it, and that’s where the questioning, the doubting comes in [and] the fear of being wrong comes in. For example, my relationship with my mom was very different than my brother’s relationship with her, as was my relationship with my dad. We loved our parents very differently, we had completely different relationships with them, but it’s very easy to get stuck in believing that unless we all do something, or love someone in one particular way, in the same exact way—then it’s gotta be wrong. It’s a big issue. And one that has been liberating for me. Yeah, I’d say I had to lose my fear of being wrong.
Meredith: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
AMY: Oh yeah, my process definitely comes from a place that’s scary, which if I tackle it, face it, come to grips with it—then it becomes a place of strength for me. It’s the changing poison into medicine. So many folks sit in front of their computer and think, “Holy shit, I can’t do this. I can’t write this. I’m not a writer…” (Great writing analogy alert:) It’s frightening. I hate to fly. Hate it. But I always, always get on the plane. No matter what. I’m not even sure where the fear originated, but the fear is never as great as the desire to get somewhere. Same with writing. I am always afraid, but I know that won’t stop me. It’s sort of like winning over yourself.
Meredith: How did you know when you found your voice? And once you found it did you trust it immediately?
AMY: I knew when I started writing about women-centric issues, that’s when I truly found my voice. For many many years as a writer, I would try to please the ‘reader,’ and I would write what I thought someone wanted to read or hear, and then what happened, I began writing about all about women & self-esteem issues and bam …. all of a sudden, I wrote my experience in my voice, and I stopped caring what others thought, and the response was astonishing. It was unbelievable. I realized—in that moment—that I had hit a nerve because I had finally written in my own voice. That was a few years ago, and it was around that time that I decided to write about my midlife/menopausal journey—all the weird, funny, strange, poignant, amazing experiences I was having in the middle of the night, and the response has been so unbelievably rewarding.
Meredith: When you write do words come first, or images, sounds, a sensation maybe?
AMY: Great great question. What comes first for me, always, is the very first line, the very first sentence. Once I have that … once it feels absolutely one hundred percent right, cause you can feel it, you can feel it in your life … that’s when I continue. I know I have something when I have that. And sometimes that takes an awfully long time. But once I have it, there is no turning back.
I asked AMY FERRIS to tell me a few quirky things about herself…
♥ “I dropped out of high school when I was 15-1/2, got my GED, never went to college, have never looked back. [And, to provide a bit of back story for the avid reader, courtesy of Amy’s website: “Coming from a middle class Jewish family on Long Island, this was, as you can well imagine, not received as well as I hoped. My parents sat shiva for two years.”]
♥ “I love my husband more now than I did 17 years ago.”
♥ “I tell everyone that I write everyday, and I don’t. Pants on fucking fire.”
Images courtesy of Amy Ferris.
The author talks about the beauty of outtakes, compassion for the self and, well, the possibility of everything (in writing).
HOPE EDELMAN is the author of five nonfiction books, including the bestsellers The Possibility of Everything, Motherless Daughters, and Motherless Mothers. Her articles and essays have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, and her work has appeared in anthologies ranging from The Bitch in the House to Racing in the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader.
MEREDITH: You’ve written extensively, poignantly about the loss of mothers. Shifting your perspective onto writing, can you tell me what it feels like to let go of a piece of work that is meaningful to you, but that isn’t working. Do you become attached? How have you learned to release and find serenity in doing so? Please share.
HOPE: In my first editorial job, at a publishing company in Knoxville, Tennessee, a very wise editor once told me, “Readers will never know what you took out.” I remind myself of that often when writing, particularly when I need to omit a scene or a chapter I personally like but that isn’t serving the essay or book the way it should. Every time I write a book I create a file called “Outtakes” where I move all the material I’ve had to remove from the manuscript. That’s just in case I can find a place for those descriptions or scenes in another essay or book later down the road, though I almost never can.
The biggest challenge, I find, is to omit material in a way so the reader doesn’t know it’s gone, but also doesn’t feel as if something important is missing. If, for example, I edit out a scene of conflict because it isn’t working the way it needs to, I have to be sure that there’s still enough conflict in that chapter for the narrator’s actions or motivations to still make sense to the reader.
It’s harder to let go of an essay I believe in but that just isn’t working at a particular moment in time. Often that’s because I don’t yet have enough distance, perspective, and insight with regard to the events; or because the real-life story is unfinished; or for some unknown emotional reason deep within my psyche that I may or may not figure out over time. Sometimes it’s because the essay isn’t worthy of being a standalone piece and I haven’t yet figured out what other storyline to pair it with. And sometimes it’s because I just don’t have the skill or the knowledge base to pull off writing about that material in a meaningful way.
When I stop writing a piece midstream, I try to think of it not as an act of abandonment, but an act of postponement. I’m putting it away to look at again at a later date, to see if it can be resurrected then. Sometimes it can, but sometimes I have to put it back on the shelf for a while longer. Maybe that stems from my inability to let go of things I really love, but I think it’s actually more an agreement with myself that I came to over time, when I realized that even though a story may have taken place twenty years ago I still may not be ready to write about it yet.
MEREDITH: What is going on inside the writer when we hear that he/she has hit his/her stride? Can you describe how this happens? Did you have a sense this was happening as you wrote? Was there a turning point?
HOPE: I think it’s the moment when a kind of inner synergy emerges between the writer and her material, and whatever struggles she was experiencing with the writing dissipate and the words begin to flow uninterrupted and freely. I’ve heard some writers talk about it as the moment when they feel they’ve reached out and grabbed on to an outer creative source, but I believe it’s the moment when we connect with a creative source within ourselves. If you believe in the tripartite idea of a Higher Self, a Middle Self, and a Lower Self all coexisting in us all, with the Middle Self being the everyday persona we reveal to the world, I think hitting one’s stride as a writer are moments when our Middle selves and Higher selves align, and we begin writing from a consciousness that we’re otherwise not able to access on an everyday plane.
I was very much aware when this happened during the writing of my first book, Motherless Daughters. For the first five chapters I’d struggled—oh my god, how I’d struggled—with how to blend memoir, interviews, and research in a way that would feel seamless to readers. There weren’t many good models for this kind of writing at the time. This was back in 1992, 1993. My chapters were coming out choppy and uneven, jerking back and forth between the different components. And then, when I was writing the sixth chapter, something just clicked. I found myself able to shape the material into a cohesive whole in a way I hadn’t been able to before. When I finished that chapter I immediately sent it to my editor and she called me right away and said, “You’ve got it!” I asked if I should go back and rewrite the first five chapters and she said, “No—just keep going. You can go back and fix them later.” She wanted me to keep the momentum going.
MEREDITH: When I first started writing personal essays I was surprised at how personal the process was—to me. (I know, it sounds strange.) I was most timid of what I’d reveal to myself about myself. You’ve written on personal subject matter before, but what was the process of navigating such personal subject matter like, on the page, in your memoir?
HOPE: Honestly? It was brutal! My memoir is set nine years ago, at a very low point in my life as a mother and wife. Because I chose to write the story in the present tense it was important for me to go back and re-inhabit the person I was back then and write from her point of view. Nine years later, mostly as a result of what happens in the book, I have a very different outlook on just about everything, and it was emotionally very, very difficult for me to write from the perspective of who I was before we made our journey to Belize. I rediscovered parts of myself that I didn’t like very much, and I found myself judging my younger self rather harshly. My initial impulse was to gloss over moments in the story when I was acting entitled or ungrateful, but I knew that wouldn’t be telling an honest story to readers. So I put those moments in anyway, even though some of them made and still make me cringe. To do this, I had to own those behaviors and find compassion for a younger self who’d been trying to navigate motherhood and marriage without much guidance, instead of depicting myself with the kind of tough-chick exterior I’d publicly adopted at the time. Some readers have judged me as a character as harshly as I first judged myself, but many others have written to tell me how much they appreciated my honesty in depicting myself as imperfect because it helped them feel better about their own perceived shortcomings.
Still, that was very hard stuff to grapple with as I was writing. I didn’t have to just portray myself as a character, I had to understand and accept myself as a character, which is something all memoirists have to face when they commit to writing an honest self-portrait, I believe.
MEREDITH: As an author with many projects in motion, many platforms at work and many works in the public eye, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Does it feel like you are moving forward on parallel tracks or is the process more unified and seamless?
HOPE: It’s felt more like alternating tracks this time around. My last book came out in 2006, and I was responsible for creating a web site and cultivating a discussion forum and mailing list, but the publisher took care of the majority of marketing and promotion. By 2009, authors were expected to be much more involved with promoting their books, with blogging, Tweeting, Facebook-ing, Goodreads, Redroom.com, etc. etc. etc. I find the acts of writing and promoting each to be so absorbing that they become mutually exclusive, and if I try to do both at the same time I don’t do a particularly good job at either. So when I’m promoting I don’t try to produce any writing, and when I’m writing I have to stop thinking about and engaging with promotion. I don’t really balance the two very well; I bounce back and forth between them, instead. I wonder sometimes if the most successful authors in the future will be the ambidextrous ones, or if the pendulum will eventually swing back to allow authors to be predominantly the means of creation again rather than also being the means of promotion. I think we’ll know the answer to that before long.
Equally challenging for me has been to find the right balance between the Motherless Daughters work I’ve done for the past 15 years and the literary memoir I just published and have been promoting. Although the theme of mother loss is very much evident in The Possibility of Everything, it’s a very different book than the others I’ve written and has attracted a different audience. I have two web sites, one just for The POE and the other a more all-purpose web site for my workshops, articles, and other books, but I have the same blog and mailing list for all my readers. (That’s mainly because I can barely find enough time to keep up with one newsletter and blog, let alone two!) And then I also have all the writing students I’ve taught over the years, and the contacts I’ve made through the Maya Spiritual Healing community. So I have to really plan and think about what kind of news and updates will appeal to everyone each time I communicate with readers.
MEREDITH: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength? Is this a constant? Does it change?
HOPE: I’d love to say it comes from a place of strength because that would make me sound like a warrior writer, but in truth I think it comes from a place of vulnerability, a place of uncertainty, a place that scares me because it’s so full of the unknown. That’s probably why I think of writing as an act of faith, because it requires us to immerse ourselves in this place and stay there for an unspecified period of time. When I go in, I don’t know where the exit route is or what it will be. I have to have faith that I’ll find it, every time, through the audacious act of pulling words from the ether and arranging them in a pattern that will lead me out. Hopefully it’ll be a pattern that will create a path for readers to follow as well. Hopefully.
That’s what we’re all striving for as authors, isn’t it? To create something lasting, something uplifting, something that will have a positive effect on others, out of what initially seems like nothing at all. It’s exactly as impossible and as attainable and as magnificent as it sounds.
HOPE has been teaching nonfiction writing for more than twenty years, and can be found every July at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The rest of the year she lives in Topanga Canyon, California, with her husband, their two daughters, two crazy cats, and a pet tarantula, Billy Bob.
The writer talks about her struggle with judgment, rejection and a personal policy when it comes to sending out a manuscript.
AMY FRIEDMAN has been writing the syndicated series Tell Me A Story since 1992, in collaboration with illustrator Jillian Gilliland. Together they have produced more than 1000 illustrated stories and two book collections, The Spectacular Gift and Tell Me a Story (Andrews & McMeel) that have millions of fans around the world. Amy is also the author of two memoirs, Nothing Sacred: A Conversation with Feminism (Oberon Press) and Kick the Dog and Shoot the Cat (Oberon Press). Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Chatelaine. She is a former columnist for The Kingston Whig-Standard. She has just completed a third memoir entitled, The Murderers’ House.
Meredith: Why is telling stories so fun and so satisfying? I believe it satisfies a need we all have to connect with others. How about you?
AMY: I’m sure of it.
I wrote my first story when I was 11 years old; it was the story I was sure my grandmother would tell IF she could. By then she was drowning in mental illness, and she had stopped talking, but I knew she had things to say. And I wanted others to hear HER story. In some ways that notion of hearing “the other side” (the outsider’s) story has fueled much of what I write, though I haven’t before framed it in those terms. I just completed a memoir about the seven years I spent married to a man in prison; while I was fighting the prison system, I was also writing my column “for kids”—Tell Me a Story, now in its 18th year—and many of the stories I chose to write and to adapt are metaphors for tales I wanted told, the stories I heard from prisoners who had and have little voice in this world. [This was one] way to articulate in creative form my own struggle with the judgment that came down upon my decision to marry, the jobs and friends I lost.
But fun? Is writing and telling stories fun? I don’t know that I would call it fun, precisely, but it does feel right. And in the memoir and personal essay classes I teach, I watch the way writers in unfolding and discovering their truths, transform them from what might have been pure sadness or fear or even glee into something more complicated and dense. And each time that happens, I learn again how extraordinary writing is.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned? How about as far as your own personal process in creating?
AMY: A most amazing question today since just before Christmas, I received the first three rejections on the memoir I just spent the last seven years writing; the rejections were unacceptable as Christmas gifts, but having been a working writer for more years than I like to remember, I know they’re just part of the process, and something all writers must build up a tolerance against. For years I worked as an editor and part of my job was to reject manuscripts; I hated it because in those cover letters I could feel the writer’s anticipation and longing. But I said “no,” for so many reasons, and “yes,” for so many.
I know acceptance and rejection have less to do with the work itself than with the marketplace, and that marketplace is a fluid and impossible-to-comprehend place. I’ve always followed this policy when sending out a manuscript for consideration: as I place it in the post (or hit SEND), I know where I’ll next be sending it. That way, if/when the rejection arrives, right away I send it out again. The despair that comes with rejection (forever) never goes away, but by sending it out again, hope arises anew, and it’s the hope that keeps me going.
Meredith: Do you judge your work before it’s finished? I guess a better question to ask is how do you keep from passing too much judgment on your work in order to keep moving forward?
AMY: Do I judge my work? Always, forever, constantly. There’s that little voice saying, “This sucks/who cares/how dumb…” and there’s another little voice saying, “Wow, that is fantastic/you’re brilliant/wait’ll people read this…” and I don’t know that they ever shut up. But I do talk to them. I tell them they have no idea what they’re talking about and they must just leave me alone to carry on finishing whatever it is I’m trying to say. I believe, deeply, that our feelings about our work while we’re in the process of creating it are none of our business and only serve to keep us quiet. I shout back at them; I wish them away; I try hard not to listen (at least not until the end of the work day).
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?
AMY: This varies with the work, but I do set deadlines. Since 1986 I’ve worked as a weekly columnist, and this has taught me that the only way to finish anything is to tell myself I’m going to finish and to give myself an inviolable deadline. I don’t have a daily deadline, ever, but I do set monthly and weekly deadlines. The book I’ve just finished took me seven years to write, and if not for this year’s self-imposed deadline to finish and promises to two writer friends who for 30 years have been my readers and touchstones, I would be working still. But I like the idea of making a deal each time I sit down to write, so perhaps I’ll start.
Meredith: Using the “six-word memoir” approach, please give us your six-word description of how you write.
AMY: Attend, sit, stay, like the dogs.
AMY lives in southern California with her husband. She teaches creative writing at UCLA extension. She works as an editor, a ghostwriter, a tutor, and a mentor to students through the Pen in the Classroom (PITC).
ELLEN MEISTER is the author of two novels, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA and The Smart One, a Woman’s Day pick for one of 2008’s 10 Best Beach Reads, and which Library Journal called Library Journal called “character-driven” and “fast-paced” with “great dialog.”
But very early in her career, she says, “I took a job as an assistant to a high-powered literary agent at ICM in New York. It was a crazy work environment, but I’m too afraid of being sued to spill the details. Suffice to say one co-worker remarked that I looked like Alice in Wonderland sitting at my desk. I lasted five months before I quit.
“But one highlight was that Richard Yates was a client, and I was the one who answered the phone whenever he called. I gushed like a blathering idiot every time, and he was always so gracious. In fact, he inscribed my copy of Liars in Love, and to this day it remains my most prized possession.”
Meredith: The Talmud says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer? Do you have an angel–or something equivalent?
ELLEN: In my interpretation, the story is the blade of grass. Sometimes the little bugger doesn’t want to grow. Other times it wants to meander along the ground in the dark. I’m the hardworking angel coaxing it toward the sun.
Meredith: What did you have to unlearn to find your truth as a writer? What had to go? Can you share how? Was there a turning point to your own narrative?
ELLEN: For me it was a process of learning, unlearning and then finding my way back. In college, I had a creative writing professor who was very experimental. He pushed us hard to leave the conventional behind and explore brave new worlds of writing. It was good for me. I loosened up and found more creativity than I knew I had.
Years later it became clear to me that my natural place as a writer was in a third-person, past-tense limited perspective. Not exactly meta-fiction, but it was important journey for me. Those years of experimenting taught me to take chances, and that has helped my writing immeasurably.
Meredith: Is it true—for you—what “they” say, that every character in fiction is really a part of the author, a reflection of their personality. So, do your stories create the characters or do the characters create the story? Would you say this was true for all your novels?
ELLEN: I think it’s vital to find something of myself in each character, something I can relate to on a fundamental level. Because if I can’t relate to the character, how can I expect the reader to?
I like your question about whether my characters create the story or the story creates my characters. It’s not something I’m conscious of when I’m laying the groundwork for a new book, but what I’ve noticed is that it’s the relationship between the characters that drives both.
For instance, in my first book, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA, I knew that the friendship between my three main characters would be the engine that drove the story. I wanted each of the women to have an arc that was directly related to the journey of their friendship. So I came up with a plot device that would bring the characters together and present obstacles they would have to work together to overcome.
Likewise, in my second book, The Smart One, I knew I wanted to write a story about the relationship between three sisters whose adult lives were impacted by their childhood labels. So I developed both the characters and the story to achieve that goal.
My third book, which is in production now, started with a high concept; I wondered what it would be like if a woman could find a pathway to the life she would have had if she had made a very different life decision. I played with the idea for years, and came up with all sorts of rich details about the main character and her story. But the book didn’t come together for me until I realized that her relationship with her mother was at the center of the tale. As soon as that occurred to me, the story unfolded.
I guess it worked, because the proposal generated a lot of excitement among editors and the book sold at auction. It will be published in January 2011 by Putnam. The working title is The Other Life, and here’s how it was summarized in the trades:
Pitched as “Jodi Picoult meets THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE,” THE OTHER LIFE tells the story of a suburban mom expecting her second child who discovers that she might be able to slip through a portal to the life she would have had if she never got married. When a routine sonogram reveals unexpected problems, her grief lures her to escape to the life that might have been—in which she discovers that she’s stayed with her neurotic ex-boyfriend, and that her mother, who committed suicide several years before, is very much alive.
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children, but sometimes I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?
ELLEN: I like your imagery here. My work absolutely does feel like part of me, which is why harsh reviews hurt so much. It always feels so personal. People have often told me I need to get a thicker skin, but they never tell me where to buy one. Do they sell those online? I’ve looked at Target and they always seem to be out of stock.
Meredith: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you can discover what will work?
ELLEN: When I bang my head against the desk so many times I can no longer think straight, I know it’s time to move on.
Seriously, I don’t think I ever really tell myself something I worked hard on is hopeless. Rather, I put it aside with the understanding that I can come back to it later with a fresh eye. But I usually have another idea nipping at my heels to get me to this point. Otherwise, I tend to keep rewriting over and over and over …