Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What We Write

Recently, I read a newspaper article that saddened my heart. The journalist spoke about writers disparaging other writers, and though I loathe to admit it, I know from experience that we writers can be rather snobbish.  The hierarchies we mentally – and even verbally – hold vary, but they exist nonetheless. Some place prose over poetry. Others argue that poetry is more sublime than prose. For most, a published book is deemed more impressive than authoring an article in a magazine. The monetary benefits for creative fiction frequently overshadow the notable awards given for nonfiction.  Many don’t consider romance novels “good literature” while some spurn the classics as outdated and undesirable.  A few would never write for a newspaper; others believe journalism hones writing skills the best.  Self-published books are not given the same regard as traditionally published stories. 

The list continues, because inherent among writers seems to be the need to prove the worth of our particular genre or style of writing.  While this is understandable, it can be detrimental to the community of writers as a whole.  Writing is a sensitive endeavor.  Like plants which need good soil, watering and sunshine, writers need nurturing so the creative desires we possess can come to the forefront and produce stories and essays and poems and commercial ads and songs and newspaper articles and more.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist, once said, “I believe that world literature has it in its power to help mankind, in these its troubled hours, to see itself as it really is, notwithstanding the indoctrinations of prejudiced people and parties.”  Writers and what we write – no matter what it is we write – have the power to impact the world around us.      

Little children learn about character through stories we share.  Adults wrestle with politics, war, and famine through the articles we pen.  Teenagers discover their selves through songs written about joy and heartbreak and love and life.  People turn to poetry when they cannot find words of their own.  Novels – of all genres – provide respite for some, inspiration for others, and entertainment for all.  Historical essays help us ponder our past and therefore our future.  Ads on the train make us question and think.  What we write can be pervasive, and as writers our goal should always be to encourage one another, not disparage. 

Paula Castner is a mother of three and a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer, writing and baking workshop facilitator, and drama director. She receives emails at pajamalivingwriting@gmail.com.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


10:30 - 12:30


The Nature of Narrative: What Are Stories, and How do We Make Them?

Learn where stories come from and find ways to discover, shape, and tell them.  Writers of all ages at every level of writing of any genre are invited and welcome to attend. Local writer, Winona Winkler Wendth, will be facilitating. 

Ms. Wendth holds an MFA in literature and writing with an emphasis on creative non-fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She currently teaches writing, literature, and other humanities courses at Quinsigamond Community College. Winona has been a resident of Lancaster since 1992, a writing mentor since 2007, and a workshop leader in Lancaster for the past two years. Her work appears frequently in print and online literary journals and was listed in Best American Essays/2010. She writes both fiction and creative non-fiction, and she is finishing a collection of memoiristic essays and working on a short novel.

Don't Let The Little Things Stop You

"I'm sick of rejection letters."

"I'm not a good writer."

"I'm blocked." 

"I don't have time to write."

Used any of those before?

We come up with a lot of excuses for not writing when we're either blocked, insecure, or not sufficiently motivated.

The truth is, writing is a mental muscle: If you don't flex it regularly, it loses strength and can even disappear.

I never could have imagined having "writer's block." I had so many ideas, and so much to explore in writing, that the idea of stopping didn't occur to me. I read indefatigably, wrote routinely, edited and re-edited with dedication.

Then two things happened: A. The world did not come to my open doorway, panting for my book. A few agents gave me feedback, a story sold and earned praise, other stories were rejected repeatedly. My courage faltered. B. Something happened in my family that squelched the creative flow, leaving me gasping for air like a kid punched in the stomach.

The solution to both A and B is more simple than it sounds: Keep writing.

Don't let rejection or tragedy become excuses. If you realized how many known authors had persevered through failure, you would be heartened. Really. While a pile of rejections may (or may not) be a signal that you need to rewrite or re-edit your manuscript, crisp it up, workshop it or shove it in a drawer—all of which have been done—it can just as well be a failure to find the right agent or market. Timing and connecting are critical, but there's no formula for making them manifest themselves.

So don't blame yourself: keep writing, keep submitting.

It took famed mystery writer Agatha Christie five years to find a publisher. Dr. Seuss was told his stories were "too different" to sell.  His books have had over 300 million sales.
Louis L'Amour, westerns author, received 200 rejections before Bantam accepted him; he became their best-selling author."Chicken Soup for the Soul" racked up 140 rejections because, hey, anthologies don't sell. The Chicken Soup series is still riding high on the lists, with all sorts of new editions. After five publishers rejected her manuscript, L.M. Montgomery shelved "Anne of Green Gables." Then, she dug it out two years later ... and tried again. Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times that she self-published. Her story, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," has sold more than 45 million copies.

The list goes on: Margaret Mitchell, "Gone With the Wind," 38 rejections; "The Diary of Anne Frank," 16 rejections; Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight," 14 rejections; WM Paul Young's "The Shack," 20 rejections; Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," 26 rejections; Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife," 25 rejections; Kathryn Stockett, "The Help," 60 times.

My point: This list goes on and on and on, including some of the best-known authors of all time. And what that means is that we all get rejected. Over and over again. Don't give up.
"You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance," Ray Bradbury once wrote. And that requires belief in yourself. Sure, a critic may, as Dorothy Parker famously advised, say that your book should not be tossed lightly aside but instead be hurled with great force." It doesn't matter. Readers have shown, again and again, that they may love what a publisher or agent hates.

As for the second matter: write through tragedy. Even if it hurts. If you shelve the worry and try to go on, it will end up weighing so much in your heart that you may be unable to write about anything at all.

My first attempts to write were read with tears in my writing group. The pieces I wrote were emotional, heartfelt, and mostly venting. I have no current intention of publishing them. I wrote them for me.

That's OK. You may, like myself, have to write it out several times before you put some distance between it and your creative spark. By then, you will have freed yourself to write other things.

If you don't work on it, you are unlikely to move forward. Believe me, I know this. It took nearly three years for me to break free. I wrote when I no longer cared about writing. My writing group literally saved me from completely stopping. It was the one safe place where I could let it out. I'm not a fan of crying while I read, but it happened, and they were cool with it.

You are a writer. Don't let anyone say anything different.

Now, carry on.

Ann Connery Frantz is a freelance writer/editor and author of "Read It and Reap," published monthly in the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette. She has written a novel and short stories, one of which won the annual Dr. Neila C. Seshachari Award for Fiction from Weber University’s “Weber: The Contemporary West” literary journal (http://www.weber.edu/weberjournal/Fall09pdf.html).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What To Do When All the Pencils are Sharpened . . .

Like creative journalist John McPhee, you might defer your writing by sharpening pencils all day and re-arranging note cards. But what can you do when you can’t get the first word down after hours and hours, days, weeks, or months. . . ?

“Page Fright,” “Writer’s Block,” “Dry Spells”:  They are part of a writer’s life. Richard Ford admits that he suffers though dry times that can last for months.  Fran Lebowitz finally gave up on her book project after decades of what she called a “writer’s blockade,” and wrote a book about why she couldn’t get the first book written. 

“The Terror of the White Page.”  For some reason, we think we suffer more acutely than anyone else, or we fool ourselves into thinking we don’t suffer, at all, push through, writing what we recognize as nonsense, but writing something.  All of us suffer from some form of this.

The lengths some writers go to break a dry spell are endless and infamous:  You can try one thousand words a day, even if it’s a beautifully crafted letter to your town councilor, the National Grid, or the tax guys (surely, you have something to say to any of these); three hundred words a day to yourself, as a reminder of what you have to do that day and why; one hundred words to your cat or dog or muse, reminding one of them of what they are to see to and why.  You can simply “chain your muse to a desk,” as Barbara Kingsolver suggests—if your muse isn’t on vacation somewhere restful and your desk isn’t covered with class lectures and folded underwear.  But try:  At best, you will break through; at worst, you will have handy material for a new setting, character, or scene—you might even discover the kernel of an innovative narrative this way.

Ford simply waits.  And waits.  And then stops thinking about it.  Eventually, suddenly, something happens.  Many writers just get up and out and away from the project (or hoped for project) and leave the house.  Or leave town.  “Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck,” Ann Lamott writes.  Hilary Mantel won’t “just stick there scowling at the problem,” like Barton Fink, and abandons it for a while.  But if you are waiting for language to fill an empty place, she says, “don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your [own] words should be.”  So go for a walk, take a hot bath, sit in the park and watch people.  Go to a movie. 

For some reason, movies often help writers, but knitting typically doesn’t; naps are good, cooking not.  Reading something entirely different from what you normally write loosens up both thought and language; reading in another language often brings new rhythms to your sentences.  These, however, work best when a writer’s word flow has already opened up and then is stuck, like the swing of a swollen door that should be letting words and ideas in and pushing others out.  What can you do to avoid this, in the first place?  Stop writing when you’re on a roll, when you know what’s going to come next—Hemingway, among scores of other writers said this. Like a good guest, leave the project when your host still wants you to stay—starting up again will be easy.

But back to that entirely empty page and its blank terror . . . No one addresses it in the same way, all the time.  Self-deception sometimes works: Eighteenth-Century writer Laurence Sterne changed his clothes from top to bottom and even resorted to shaving his beard because the person he had been was simply not producing.  Sometimes, you can fool yourself into prohibiting a word on the page for ten days—by Day 11, you’ll have four or five ideas and dozens of lines of dialogue you will be frantic to put down on paper.  But Sometimes, like Ford, we just have to wait. 

Or scrounge around under the bed or in the couch cushions for more pencils—you’re bound to find one or two you threw across the room in writer’s despair.

Winona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative.  She has been a resident of Lancaster since 1992 and teaches writing, literature, and other humanities courses at Quinsigamond Community College. Wendth holds an MFA in literature and writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars. You can read her work in a variety of literary and general interest publications.