Thursday, May 31, 2012

Vinegar and Salt

Hi readers and writers,

When I write my first drafts, definitely to Anne Lamott's prescribed degree of non-excellence, I often reread them and wonder, "Where's the beef?"  The thing I tend to leave out is the tension.  One of my friends from many years ago once made a dish called Slum Gullion, essentially Beef Stroganoff with burger substituted for the steak.  She forgot the vinegar and salt, and it was so bland we had decided never to use the recipe again until she reread it and realized what she had left out: the taste, the subtle items that make you want more so you can figure it out.  My first drafts can be that way.  The bones of the story are there, but the lines between them are all slack and there's nothing urgent about how things are connected.  Revision is where I actually put together the motivation, the tension, the stress and write them into the story.

Adding tension sounds like there's no way it could work.  Not true, though.  It's implied there already, but in the written part, it's not featured.  I just need to bring it out, show the dialog with subtext and conflicting desires, let the characters try to move the story towards their individual dreams.  I often cut out text that is over-the-top descriptive or contains information in excess and replace it with these elements that ratchet up the stakes for the characters.

What are your revision strategies?  Do you need to add tension, or do you concentrate on the beauty of the sentences, or do you add subplots?

Image from Creative Commons/Wikipedia with thanks.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sand in the Oyster

Dear readers and writers,

I've been reminded several times lately that things-out-of-place make a great theme for writing.  One reminder was in my Pomona College Magazine, where I read about Angolan students studying in Portugal when Portugal embarked on slaughter of Angolans in Angola.  You may have read Heart of Darkness by Conrad in one of your literature classes.  It was about the Portuguese occupation of the Congo, the next door neighbor of Angola.  When the dictator and his henchmen recollected the ones studying in Portugal, would they be far behind?  So the story was about a man who spent days driving batches of these students across Spain to France, where they could get papers and receive protection.  It was riveting.  I mean, I started reading it in the bathroom when I was about to go to bed and could not stop, no matter how sleepy I had thought I was.

The next reminder was my reading in preparation for our trip to the inland passage mentioned in my last posting.  As the glacial ice disappears, the ocean rises and the safety of animals that cross the glacier decreases.  The animals WERE in their place but the place has changed so much it's no longer safe.  So now, home is out of place, a scary concept for thirsty humans living in a big city in desert country; a concept that made me write a few sad poems lately.

The third reminder was my husband's shoes.  We both take off our shoes in the house, but unlike the Japanese people, we don't keep them on a rack by the door.  Each of us has a favorite spot.  But sometimes, they come off elsewhere and then when we need them, they're elusive.  It almost seems as if they're hiding on purpose.  What if they did?  So goes a funny little microfiction.

Think about the sand in the oyster when you're looking for inspiration.  Things out of their normal places make great story or poem starters.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Glaciers and Icebergs and a Blue, Blue Sea

Dear readers and writers,

We've just decided to go up the Inland Passage of Alaska this summer, after talking about it from time to time for years.  We worry that waiting much longer will erode the glaciers too much and there may be nothing to see.   The glaciers seem to believe there is global warming; they are retreating a noticeable amount every year.

I don't know if you've seen pictures of the Inland Passage or Glacier Bay, but the azure ice rises a thousand feet above you and ice bergs split off with thunderous booms and float away.  The cold water is a deep blue, not the anemic grey-blue foamy ocean I grew up knowing from Myrtle Beach, SC or even the aqua-then-navy shading of La Jolla's beach.  It's such a deep color it's hard to photograph successfully, I've been told.  I don't know why this scenery has captured my imagination so thoroughly, but it may have something to do with the dolphin and whale games I used to play with my kids.  Anyway, this will be one for my bucket list for sure.  No doubt, it will show up in a story or poem soon.

Do you plan to go somewhere that will stimulate your imagination this summer?  I hope so!

Photo from Wikipedia/Creative Commons with thanks.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Waiting and Hoping, Etc.

Dear readers and writers,

I've just sent off my novel, The Bad Project, for a cover-to-cover review, and I'm feeling tumultuous again.  This is the third time I've sent the text of one of my books to someone this way. I can't call what I feel anticipation or fear, it's a mixture of both.

It's the shoulder daemon, you see.  When he's in his editor phase, he tells me so clearly that I cannot write beautiful prose, that it's full of errors, that it stumbles when it should fly.  But when he is in his writer phase, he can't wait to see what the characters can do any more than I can, and he tells me how fascinating they are, and how well the things they do reveal their deeper selves.  And even how well I've written about them at times.  There's no way I can tell which phase has the upper hand on the truth.  But an outsider, a knowledgeable reader, my reviewer'll know for sure.

So, I throw salt over my shoulder, cross my eyes at the evening star, cross my fingers, eschew my husband's lucky number (13), etc and feel on edge.  It's not reasonable that the ms has even arrived and I'm already nervous.  No one can read it as fast as I'd like this to be over.  I tell myself to calm down, breathe deeply.  I rub my feet with hand cream.  I stretch.  I answer old emails that I've almost forgotten about.  Is it still the same day?  Egads.


Image: Comedy and Tragedy masks from mosaic at Hadrian's Villa, Creative Commons with thanks.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Can blogging increase book sales? Uh, no.

Hi readers and writers,

Yesterday, I moderated a panel on "Blogging to Increase Sales" at the Biographers' International Conference, held this year at University of Southern California.  My panelists were Beverly Gray of Beverly in Movieland blog and author of Roger Corman, An Unauthorized Life; Scott Martelle, author of Detroit: A Biography; and Mark Sarvas of the famous literary blog, The Elegant Variation, and the novel Harry, Revised.  Each of the panelists agreed that blogging doesn't produce a noticeable spike in book sales.  NO, OUR TITLE IS WRONG!

What blogging does is to provide a platform, a way to connect with many potential readers interested in your subject, and a road to publication.  These are all valuable services, but not ones that directly link to sales.  Yet, the audience still was interested and eager to learn the ins and outs of blogging, how much, how often, how tantalizing, how snarky, how you-relevant, how historical, how up-to-the-minute, how well written?  We discussed all that and more.  Like the rest of the workshops at this super meeting, it was well worth attending.

I recommend the conference next year and into the future if you're interested in writing about lives or even if you will only use biographical material in passing in your writing.  A lot of the sessions were more general than just about biography.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Gayle Greene on Insomniac

Gayle, you are an insomniac, so did you find yourself with a mound of research for your own purposes and decide to write this book, or how did you decide to do it?

It was a middle of the night inspiration. My partner was trying to get to sleep and I was yammering away, with the 3 AM spurt of energy I usually get, and I said, out of nowhere, “I think my next book should be about insomnia.” Long pause, I thought I’d lost him— then much to my surprise, he said, “that’s a very good idea.”

Turn your obsessions into books, I tell my students; I mean, how else are you going to stay with the material long enough to make it into a book, unless you’re obsessed with it? I think of Laura Hillebrand, ill and impoverished, hanging in there writing the book she had to write. Her friends probably thought she was crazy—“you’re writing about a racehorse?” –but what a great book Seabiscuit turned out to be. Well, insomnia is the problem I’ve been obsessed with, that I’ve lived around, that’s bent my life into its weird shape, vampire hours and all; and I had so much frustration built up around this issue, from hearing useless advice from doctors and well-meaning friends and family, telling me I should just relax, drink some warm milk, take a hot bath. You have to live in the body of a person who can’t sleep night after night to know what chronic insomnia is , how it wears you down, and no doctor I ever talked to had a clue.

You describe a less-than-helpful response of the medical establishment to insomnia. What do you think causes doctors to act like it’s not a serious problem?

Medical training is a hazing in sleep deprivation, and many doctors pride themselves on how little sleep they need. You have to be a good sleeper to get through medical school and residency, you need to be able to drop off easily and wake quickly, and it helps if you don't need much sleep; someone like me would never make it through. There’s enormous variability in how much sleep we need and how we react to sleep loss, and the differences are genetic; they’re not a matter of character or will power. So the medical profession is to some extent self-selective when it comes to sleep, which is why doctors don’t have a lot of tolerance for sleep problems: buck up, get a grip, a little sleep loss never hurt anybody, it must be something you’re doing wrong, you have bad sleep habits, or (my least favorite) you probably don’t need as much sleep as you think. When a condition is not well understood, there’s a tendency to blame the patient—we’ve seen this with migraines, ulcers, and other problems once said to be psychological, now known to have a physiological basis. Narcolepsy used to blamed on the laziness or craziness of the sufferer, and sufferers of REM Behavior Disorder, who act out their dreams, were said to have a screw loose; but in the past several years there have been breakthroughs with both of these sleep disorders, so that they’re now understood to be a glitch in the brain, not the mind gone awry. We’re far from any breakthrough like that with insomnia, and it’s always easier to say, "it’s something you’re doing wrong" than to say, "we don’t know and we can’t help." Doctors don’t really know much about sleep: they get 1-2 hours instruction about sleep in their entire medical education and training. And even sleep researchers can’t tell us how we sleep, or why.
I’ve heard people say Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson would still be alive if they had not had insomnia. Is that your impression? Who else has struggled with this disorder?
Insomnia is practically an occupational hazard for actors. Lady Gaga and George Clooney are recently in the news with this problem; a few years ago, it was Eminem and Drew Barrymore. My question is not why some actors have it, but why they all don’t have it, considering the stress they’re under. Imagine having an early morning shoot, needing to look bright-eyed and beautiful before a camera, the world watching at close range, as you appear, hollowed out and haggard from lack of sleep. You’d need nerves of steel, you’d need a “heat-hits-the-pillow-and-I’m-out” kind of sleep system, which not everybody has. Elvis had serious insomnia and got hooked into an upper-downer cycle, as did Judy Garland, uppers to control her weight, sleeping pills to sleep. She died of an overdose; so did Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith. The prescription drugs found in Heath Ledger’s apartment, Lunesta, Ambien, Restoril, Ativan, Xanax, Valium, were all for sleep; he was desperate for sleep, as was Michael Jackson. Insomniacs shudder at these stories; most of us have had moments when we’ll do anything for sleep.
In a poignant moment for me, I read that you were ignored at scientific meetings you had visited trying to learn what scientists were studying to help cure insomnia. Do you think this treatment was because you were out of the field, because you are a woman, or both?

Those meetings were so awful I had to laugh—in fact, that’s the only way I could write about them, in comic vein. I think it was ageism more than sexism, actually—if I’d been 30 rather than late fifties-early sixties, I’d have had no trouble getting those guys to give me the time of day. A few were friendly and interested and forthcoming, but with most, eyes would click up and down, doing that measuring thing people do, ticking off sex, age, style, position, figuring out whether you’re important enough to warrant time. One man turned on his heel and walked away, mid sentence; two refused to speak to me without honoraria; one hung up on me. I think it was partly that I was not a scientist, but also, there’s also a deep dislike of insomniacs —“the only thing I like to see walk through my office door less than a kid with ADD is an insomniac,” I heard a doctor say. “It’ a swamp,” a researcher said, “a can of worms.” So I had pretty much everything going against me, I had outsider stamped all over me, with my peasant skirts and unruly hair, and I probably did look a little alarming, doing these conferences on 3-4 hours sleep, and I probably came on strong, as the questions pent up for years came rushing out. But the bottom line is, they’re used to being the observers, the ones who are doing the studies, not the ones being studied, especially not by the likes of me. And I did feel like I was studying them as an alien tribe. (Did I tell you, Insomniac was shortlisted for the Gregory Bateson Prize, Society for Cultural Anthropology?)
How did you get the science background to write the book?

The chutzpah, you mean. I grew up in a family where bodies were interesting and a subject of conversation. My father was a doctor, and my mother was tremendously knowledgeable about bodies and health. The book I wrote before Insomniac was a biography of a woman scientist, Dr. Alice Stewart (The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secrets of Radiation), and though her area was radiation epidemiology, she was a physician, and working with her taught me how to read a scientific study, and made me bolder about writing about science on my own. She discovered in the 1950s that if you x-ray pregnant women, you double the risk of a childhood cancer, a discovery that revolutionized medical practice and made her a guru of the anti-nuclear movement. Before that, I co-authored a book on cancer and the environment with a physician, Dr. Vicki Ratner, and learned an enormous amount from her; that book never got pushed through to publication, because I ended up writing about Stewart instead. But I’m a great believer that you can get a background in anything if you’re motivated enough, you just plunge in and start to read, and amateurs’ insights may be valuable, because they’re closer to basic questions— questions like, how come the emperor has no clothes? 

One of your Amazon reviewers comments that your book is not a how-to guide for insomniacs trying to get to sleep. Were you ever tempted to write such a book?
There are no one size fits all solutions with insomnia, because it’s so complicated—it’s not one thing (as narcolepsy is), it’ s many things; there are no markers for it, not even a clear way of diagnosing it; we all come to it by different routes, and therefore what works for me may not work for you. There are obvious “do nots”: avoid caffeine and alcohol, avoid evening naps, don’t engage in work or social activities that hype you up in the evening, don’t eat big meals late at night. Most insomniacs already know such things, and yet there’s an entire cottage industry of books that announces them like they were new news.

Here’s an Amazon review I’m proud of:

"This isn't a 'self-help' but a self-helping book. Here's just about everything you can try, with details about what happened to the author when she tried them. She is wonderfully careful to stress that everyone experiences insomnia differently, and the best she can do is share her own and a few other's experiences. And her indignation that medical science has simply given up on insomnia as just too hard."

I like the idea that the book is self-helping: that’s what I hoped to do, help people find a way of their own, learn how to trouble-shoot their condition and work out ways for themselves; and I’ve had dozens of emails from readers telling me that the book has worked this way for them. Talking to insomniacs was a big part of this, because we’re the experts, we’re the only ones who know what works, not some man in a white coat who may have a degree but who’s probably given sleep all of ten-minutes thought, or who has a CPAP machine he wants to sell you. So it is in a way a self-help book, though not in a usual package.

You present evidence that drug development, rather than understanding, is the goal of most scientists who study insomnia. Has there been any more basic research since the book was published, that you know about? Do you see any promising findings on the horizon?

Actually, I found a split in the world of sleep medicine, between the mind people and the brain people: neuroscience is trying to understand the neurophysiology of sleep, to figure out how the sleep system works, while most insomnia research tells us insomnia is about conditioning, bad habits and attitudes that we can retrain by going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, cleaning up our sleep habits, restricting our sleep. Drug research is done mainly by drug companies, and they’ve certainly tried to find a better pill, but it’s difficult, when so little is known about sleep. The hope is in the basic research that will figure out how sleep works; then maybe someone can figure out why it doesn’t work for some people and develop treatments that target the problem, rather than just bludgeoning the central nervous system, as current medications do. Since my book came out, there have been new discoveries about genetic factors in long and short sleep and how people react to sleep deprivation—this is all very exciting, and exactly what I predicted; but research has a long way to go before it will understand sleep well enough to develop effective treatments .

When people hear you have insomnia, what is their response? How do you cope with it?

They assume you’re crazy, screwed up, stressed out, that you have a guilty conscience, or something like that. For a long while, I kind of accepted this—I know I don’t live a stress-free life. But then I opened m eyes and started looking around at the people I know—and hey, wait a minute, she’s got a lot more anxiety than I have, and he’s a lot more stressed out, and she’s tangled up in knots of rage about her life and work—and they sleep like a stones. Sure enough, when I started researching sleep, I learned that the sleep system is a physiological system, like the digestive system or respiratory system; some people have weaker or stronger systems, just as some people have strong stomachs or musculoskeletal systems; and the differences are coming to be understood as genetic. People tend to assume that their good sleep is on account of something they’re doing right and therefore my insomnia is on account of something I’m doing wrong, but the good sleep is no more something a person can take credit for than being tall or blond. It’s a gift, like extraordinary beauty, talent, or intelligence. 
You’ve connected with insomniacs all over the world through talks, radio broadcasts, and blogs. What insights did you get from talking with all these sleepless people?

The main thing I learned talking to other insomniacs is how much misery this problem causes. I knew this from my own experience, but I hadn’t seen anything yet. I’m in a profession where I can pretty much set my own hours, and I have access to medications— I’ve got it easy. But for people who have to function in a 9 to 5 world, who have to get kids off to school, it can wreak such havoc that the person can’t hold a job, has to go on disability. So it knocked some of the self-pity right out of me. “Nobody ever died of insomnia,” I’ve heard doctors say, but it’s not true: insomnia is a risk for depression, alcoholism, suicide. “People die of insomnia, all the time,” says a character in Stephen King’s Insomnia, “although the medical examiner usually ends up writing suicide on the ‘cause-of-death’ line, rather than insomnia.” Then too there’s the death by a thousand cuts it inflicts: Insomniacs have two to three times the rate of doctor consultations as people without sleep complaints, twice the number of hospitalizations, and more than twice the rate of auto accidents. So we may not drop dead of insomnia the next day, but chronic sleep loss may be cutting years off our lives. It’s simply outrageous that it’s not taken more seriously.

Do you have any advice on agents, publishing, e-publishing today?
The last article I wrote, “Science with a Skew: The Nuclear Power Industry After Chernobyl and Fukushima,” was turned down by alternative print media, and so I gave it to the Asia-Pacific Journal,

—and it went viral, more than 39,000 references, last I Googled it, and was translated into Japanese. That was a lesson to me—skip the print and go straight for the web. Of course you have to be willing to write for nothing, but I’m used to that.

Do you use social media? What are the up and down sides to them for authors today?

Sort of. I wish I were less of a technoklutz. I joined Facebook because I was told I’d need to promote my book—I ended up doing nothing by way of promotion, but I’ve had fun connecting with former students and long-lost friends—and with anti-nuclear activists. So it hasn’t done a thing for Insomniac, but it was helpful when I was writing about Fukushima, it put me in touch with stuff published all over the world. If you’re writing about something that isn’t honestly presented in mainstream media—and that’s a lot of things—the Web is where it’s at.

Any other thoughts about writing Insomniac you’d like to share with the readers? 
Turn your obsessions into books—I think that was a good instinct. It was a 6–year slog, writing Insomniac, and a steep learning curve, but I’m glad I did it. Do I sleep any better? Not really. But I know a lot more about sleep, I have a better understanding of where my problem came from, in terms of nature and nurture, and I know there are many people far worse off than I am. It’s a great mystery, sleep, and it still fascinates me, which is pretty amazing, after such a total immersion in the subject.

Do you have a blog, and/or do you want to refer the readers to your Amazon book page?  (though I haven’t done much with it in awhile)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Commencements and Neat Finishes

Dear readers and writers,

This is the graduation season, the time of commencements of later lives and endings of academic endeavors.  I missed my husband's diploma ceremony at Claremont School of Theology/Episcopal School of Theology at Claremont last weekend because I was in New Haven (saw lots of good pictures!), but today I went to ceremonies for Scripps and Pomona Phi Beta Kappa students and tomorrow I will go to my daughter's MBA ceremony.  I was very taken with what the scholarship winner at the Scripps PBK initiation said, urging us all to shamelessly follow our passions.

One of her introductory remarks noted that it's neither the start nor the end of anything; life is continuous and so are our passions.  That reminded me of something I heard at Libby Grandy's critique group way back when: where you choose to end to your story, whether memoir or fiction, will cause it to be a tragedy or a comedy.  But of course, there is no end.  Chekhov said of his short story characters that he liked to return them to their lives once the story was over.  The neat "happy ever after" or the disastrous tragic death scene are not real enough to satisfy.  We all enjoy trying to guess what the characters will do next, and we don't really want to find the author dictating their future.

Enjoy your speculations about what you read, and if you like, share some of your favorite final ambiguities in the comments!

Image from Creative Commons, with thanks!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Inspiration from Anne Lamott

Dear readers and writers,

I just saw a fascinating selection of ten things a writer named Leeann Tankersly learned from Anne Lamott, one of my own favorite writers.  For my part, I have a top two.  The first is, I feel AL gave me permission to write "shitty first drafts" instead of waiting until it's all perfect to write anything down.  If I waited, perhaps nothing would ever appear on that sheet. The second is the advice her father gave her brother about how to write a long paper about birds, "Bird by bird, buddy."  Just start. Do something. Go forward. It's easier once you've begun.

So what did Leeann Tankersly pick?  I'm only going to spoil one of hers.  Do click on the link and read her whole posting, it's full of interesting ideas.  But here's the quotation I liked best: "'having a child can help you slow down, which is one of the first steps toward paying attention' – love this, though, I will admit a certain level of agony in the slowing down. makes you feel mental, like you are forced to crawl through life stopping to look at every last rock, leaf, ladybug. perhaps AL is saying, yeah, that’s the point."

photo credit: Creative Commons, with thanks!