Story Clothed

The novelist, film director, and screenwriter John Sayles once told me that he went about town trying out his story ideas on people. This was Newark in the late 1980s, and the ideas were embryonic—inklings from the daily news that sparked his interest and that he thought had narrative possibilities.  This was the best time to test things out, he said, before there was much investment. And so up and down the streets he went, chatting with whomever would give him the time.

Newspaper sellers and waitresses, sanitation workers and subway token sellers—once he got them talking, everyone had something to say. He traded opinion, discussed motive, debated, posed questions and theories, and then went off to develop his material.

The contours of it came into focus first, the basic shape.  And after that, it was just a matter of clothing the tale.

Whether from a sense of vulnerability to a fiercely protective stance on something we regard as proprietary, some writers don’t try anything out on an audience before it’s done. But in the early stages of a work, as Sayles’ example shows, we might save ourselves a lot of effort and end up with a better product if we spend less time at our desks and more time on the street corner.

Photo Credits: figure and dressmaker dummy, Hannah Webster; dressmaker studio, Sarah-Isua-Amber

Working Papers

Something finished comes from something unfinished.

Sketches for the painting. Drafts for the writer.

Once in a while, these things are available for public scrutiny. One writer tells me of his time in the British Museum studying edited manuscripts, Charles Dickens, for example, splayed right before him. It was access to the writer’s thinking—his cross outs, his additions—and in his own hand, which in itself can be revealing.

How’d the master do it? Take a look.

But absent the ability to peruse working papers, a student can still copy as a means of learning.

Some choose Hemingway to better understand the power of a simple sentence. Joan Didion tells of her husband, John Gregory Dunne’s copying out portions of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice to see how the author “worked it out.”

When you stop to look—clinically, curiously—it’s remarkable what you can learn.

Photo credit: Ms page – Beinecke Flickr Laboratory; paparazzi –

Living Out Loud

Not long ago, in a café where my husband’s photos hung, I had breakfast with Pamela, the co-founder and editor of Seven Days. Her newspaper is the indispensable press in these parts, with print and digital editions.

Pamela’s hair—short, standing, certainly red—might be first thing anyone notices about her. But there’s also her wardrobe, a cool-retro-Jetson-rocker-chick-gallery-chic kind of look. And up close like this, over a marble-topped café table, her brilliant blue eyes are what hold me.

We got to talking about blogs.

“It’s like living out loud,” I volunteered, seven months into the game and not completely comfortable with the demands of the form.

She looked up from her eggs, her expression pert.

“Living out loud?” she said, ever thoughtful, this titan of the ceaseless weekly news. “I do that every day.”

It was a relief to hear, her hand tossed in a mock queen mum’s dismissive wave, which I found comforting, confirming.  She got me thinking. Indeed, the demands of the news, delivered right to the reader in any format that pleases him, is a constant rush of production, blogs included.

But even when a writer takes years to complete something, living out loud is what writers do. Either we get comfortable with it, assume the authority it requires, or we find another occupation.

Photo Credits: Open mouth – Laura Tulaite, sxc; Queen – Nicholas Raymond, sxc.

Anything Else?

The first line of Lorrie Moore’s essay, How to Become a Writer, reads:

First, try to be something else, anything, else.

The essay goes on smoothly and brilliantly from here, and traces a writer’s progress from an early age to maturity, but the first line hangs with me. I spend all week looking at other people. The cupcake shop owner. The college counselor. The lawyer, the doctor, the captain of industry. I see artists. And bookshop sellers. The merchant. The secretary. The postal clerk.   And all these occupations look great, and I imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of the participants.

And then I sit down and write about it.

Photo Credit: Chris Greene, sxc

What’s Important?

At the café the other day, a writer-friend of mine named Bill noted the approach of his 65th birthday and announced that it was time to let go of everything except what was valuable. If it didn’t have value, he didn’t want to do it anymore.

This made very good sense to me and I considered what I knew of him: marriages, businesses, causes, children, travels, awards, degrees, commentary, writing, truth telling—I wondered: what would be next? What has value to a guy who has done it all and finds himself at a juncture where he could do whatever he wanted?

Short stories, he said, looking up from his coffee.

Later that day, in my Chinese lesson, I was shocked to learn that the Chinese word for a novel, is xiao shuo, or small talk—something not serious, my teacher explains.

Not serious?  What do you mean, not serious?  Just try writing one.

Not serious, like a Chairman Mao speech, she answers.

And a short story is called duan pian xiao shuo, or short page novel, she went on. Something even less serious. 短篇小

I have to think about this a minute and decide that though there might be something liberating in this terminology—this purported lack of seriousness investing perhaps a devil-may-care power in the writer; if it doesn’t matter, if it’s all small talk, write it the way you want—no writer would endorse these definitions.

Not me, anyway. And not Bill, I gather. And not, I’d wager, you. For us, writers one and all, it’s a serious undertaking, and with serious and potentially powerful consequences. Further, it’s what we choose to take on when we look to make valuable use of our time.

Small talk? We try very hard to leave that to someone else.

Photo credit: Gabriella Fabbri, sxc

What’s in a Name?

The novelist, film director, and screen writer John Sayles once told me that if he had his way, he’d name all his characters Ed. It’s so short, he said. He had things to say. Why type out a Sebastian or a Giancarlo when you just want to get to it?

Compare this to the experience of a Chinese friend of mine who went back to the mainland to visit family and returned with, of all things, a new name.

The change came through a consultation with Buddhist monks in the temple near her home, and where she has a relative who is a disciple well immersed in these studies.

Many things go into the naming of a Chinese baby—birth date, time, place, family, the fortunes ahead . . . But this was no baby at the feet of the monks but a young woman, married, working, and with babies of her own. The monks, all scholars, considered how she stood in relation to the five elements—water, earth, gold, wood, and fire.


When she left town, her name was Miao written with three signs for water strung together to signify a vast watery expanse.



Too much water, the monks decided. Wood and fire needed.

Dutiful daughter, she deferred to her mother. Attentive mother, she did what was best for her daughter and took the guidance of the monks. Zhenyan, her new name, has the element for wood and a double fire sign.

Some months have passed and I asked her: has her life changed? Yes, she conjectured, but less as a result of a new name than due to the wisdom of the monks who spoke about tolerance and balance and other Buddhist teachings in the course of their conversation. Still, she loves her new name and feels like it ushered in new times, new destiny.

We are writers. We get to choose. We can go the John Sayles route, and just get to the point, or we can deliberate and decide a character’s entire trajectory through a carefully meditated pick. My preference is in the middle: a name that fits like interlaced fingers but which won’t slow me down.

Photo credit: water – Timo Balk, sxc; wood and fire – Alessandro Paiva, sxc

How to Write an Opening Line

In an effort to learn from my betters, I’m always on the lookout for a great opening line, and the daily news never disappoints. This is how one of my favorite writers—Michael Kimmelman, art critic for The New York Times—started a front page story earlier this month.

By at least one amusing new metric, Michelangelo’s unofficial 500-year run at the top of the Italian art charts has ended. Caravaggio, who somehow found time to paint when he wasn’t brawling, scandalizing pooh-bahs, chasing women (and men), murdering a tennis opponent with a dagger to the groin, fleeing police assassins or getting his face mutilated by one of his many enemies, has bumped him from his perch.

It’s a perfect opener: vivid, precise, surprising, well-rhythmed—the human drama in Technicolor. Of course, I wanted to read more, which is the best and most useful test of a great opening line.

He makes it look easy, the mark of a master: Set the stage, draw your reader in by the collar if you have to, and be nice.

Check out: “An Italian Antihero’s Time to Shine,” by Michael Kimmelman, NYTimes, March 10, 2010.

Photo credit: Mateusz Stachowski, stock.xchng

Owning a Word

Word by word, writers build something. Once in a while—not too often if ever, for most of us—a writer will employ a word so well that it becomes his or her property for the indefinite future.

American playwright, performer, feminist, activist Eve Ensler comes to mind. As it happened, Eve was a college classmate—intense, even in those years, still the dark hair, only long then, not bobbed, as is her iconic look today, and no red lipstick either. But she was a writer and activist even then, and you couldn’t miss her fierce intellect.  Best known for her 1996 work The Vagina Monologues, the word “vagina” has been hers for the past fourteen years.

Of course no one much wanted it before she used it, and many avoided it as taboo, which gave her a starting advantage. She took it, mulled it over, worked it, and used it 128 times in her 106 page play. By the time she was done, she had imbued it with so much meaning that a single word has come to represent an entire shift in thinking—politically, sexually, societally, and even economically, given the proceeds she donates worldwide.

Use the v-word today, and tribute must be paid to Eve.

It’s like in the game of Monopoly. If you have acquired something, the property is yours. And until you lose it or give it up, everyone who lands on your turf owes you.

Kudos to Eve who uses the tribute paid for a greater good, as she defines it. Another player would simply keep the money.

The word “player,” by the way, is owned right now by another college classmate, another striking figure in the English department hallways, always a clutch of typed pages in hand. It belongs to Hollywood filmmaker and writer Michael Tolkin, who used it in his 1988 novel The Player, which became a Robert Altman film by the same name.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Eve or Michael expected to own a word for their troubles. They just kept writing in a work-a-day world, which is what writers do.

Photo credit: Monopoly – Michael Metz

Winged Messenger

Bruce Chatwin, English novelist and travel writer, was the first author whose death, twenty-one years ago, made me sad.  A devoted reader, I thought we could have been friends.

I liked his work, admired his storytelling. I was intrigued by his life.  And I learned from him.

A free man, he could take off on the idle suggestion of a near-stranger. A one-line telegram— Have gone to Patagonia—served as notice at work. He had a large social crowd, arty friends, some of whom he met where he began, at Sotheby’s London. By the time he quit, he was a director and an expert in Impressionism. And only after that, he began to write.

As if with wings, he took off—Africa, South America, Australia. To lose a passport was an inconvenience, he said, but to lose a notebook—the small, black Moleskines to which he was devoted—was a catastrophe.

A bookish wanderer, his stories told of distant lands. The people he met, the places he’d been—it was as if he did my dreaming for me.

And if, as some say, he blurred the line at times between fantasy and reality, I put it to his wings.

They took him places, allowed him to see the world with his stranger’s eyes. What could have been, what might have been, what maybe even was if you looked at it from a certain perspective—Chatwin laid it out.

“[N]ot a half truth, but a truth and a half,” said his biographer, a perfect description of what a free man can write.

He died in 1989 in southern France, at age 48, of AIDS.

When I think of him, when I come across, say, a Mercury dime, I ask myself: How free am I?

Photo credit:
Photo credit for Chatwin: unknown; widely used

Although most commonly referred to as the Mercury dime, the coin does not depict the Roman messenger god but the goddess Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap, a classic symbol of liberty, with its wings intended to symbolize freedom of thought.