It’s All About the Research

By Midge Raymond,

Allegra Goodman has been garnering high praise from scientists for her new novel, Intuition, a tale about morality and ethics in a science lab that, the experts say, has been so meticulously researched that scientists are shocked to find it was written by a Ph.D. in English rather than one of their own.

“[I]t completely nails this world,” Dr. Jerome Groopman, an oncologist and professor of medicine at Harvard, told the New York Times in yesterday’s article about Goodman, whom the Times describes as “a 38-year-old car-pooling mother of three grade school boys and a 3-year-old girl.” How did she do it?

For starters, the Times notes, her husband, sister, mother, and a few friends are all scientists. But she didn’t simply rely on the overflow from their work to feed her own — she sought out other scientists who let her step into their world, and, once there, she spent a good deal of time, took copious notes, and let it all sink in.

Research like this is what closes the gap between a great idea and a great finished novel.

This certainly doesn’t invalidate the phrase “write what you know” for fiction writers — certainly we all have our own areas of expertise in life. But, perhaps because we live it, we may not always want to write about it. One of the joys of being a fiction writer, I think, is stepping out of one’s own world — taking an idea, as Goodman did, and finding a wonderful metaphor for exploring it. And this means, of course, that you will need to do research.

As both a fiction and nonfiction writer, I love research, especially the hands-on kind, and I’ve been fortunate to have had many opportunities to walk into others’ worlds. I’ve gone behind the scenes at science labs and hospitals; I’ve spent time in a medium-security men’s prison. I’ve interviewed an endless variety of people, from psychic mediums to leaders of the 1989 student uprisings in Tiananmen Square. In order to write knowingly about a character whose world is entirely different from your own, you must spend time with people in their natural habitats, becoming intimately aware of what they do and what’s at stake.

You may be wondering, “How do I get access to these people and places?” But before you despair, realize that you have more at your fingertips than you know. Think about your family and friends, your writers’ group, your colleagues, your neighbors: among their talents and professions, you will most likely find that one of them has the information you need, or knows someone who does. Whether you want firsthand information on how to prepare a witness for trial or want to know what it’s like to work the night shift in a psychiatric hospital, if you ask around, chances are you’ll find someone who can point you in the right direction. And even if you can’t find a connection that breaks the ice, don’t hesitate to reach out to total strangers: pick up the phone or send out an e-mail. Explain your project and see what happens. You will never know unless you ask.

And if you think people might be reluctant to have you hanging around, you will be pleasantly surprised by how welcoming people can be. I’ve found that most people love to have a little company, love to talk about what they do, and love the idea that someone finds it interesting enough to write about. Again, you can’t know until you ask. At worst, you’ll get no for an answer (and then you just ask someone else) — but at best, you could have the foundation for your next book or story.



Keep on Keeping On

By Midge Raymond,

Monday’s New York Times story on the Dan Brown trial, “‘Da Vinci Code’ Author Testifies in London,” covered the author’s testimony, which happened to focus mainly on his background and his writing process. The bestselling author also revealed his earlier struggles as a newly published writer. Brown said “he felt that Simon & Schuster, which published his earlier books, did a terrible job of promoting them.” He also wrote in a statement that his wife had to handle the marketing, that they had to pay for his book tour out of their own pockets, and that they literally sold his books out of their car — all of which, he contends, was enough to make him consider giving up writing.

I’m sure he is very glad he didn’t.

This reminded me of all the stories I’ve read and heard about the myriad struggles of now-successful writers — which I am so glad they share with us. If we didn’t know better, we might think that it’s easy to write a bestseller or a work of literary genius. But fortunately, we do know better. We know, for example, thanks to his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, that Stephen King was living in a trailer and working in a laundry when he tossed his novel-in-progress, Carrie, into the garbage. His wife discovered it there, encouraged him to keep working on it, and he later sold it for a modest advance, with the paperback rights selling for $400,000.

Rumor also has it that an editor once told Vladimir Nabokov that the manuscript for Lolita should be “buried under a large stone,” and that F. Scott Fitzgerald was told, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

These writers were wise to stick with their ideas and to stand by their works, and they have proven that while it’s not easy for anyone, success is only possible if you keep trying. So when you get that next short-story rejection slip, remember that Jack London was rejected more than 600 times before he published his first story. When your agent sends you another stack of publishers’ rejects, remember that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected by 20 publishers before finding a home, and that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was rejected 21 times. And don’t forget that John Grisham was turned down by more than 30 publishers before selling The Firm — and that J.K. Rowling, once unemployed and on welfare, is now a bestselling author and a billionnaire.

All of these writers have one thing in common: not giving up. Remember that next time you think of giving up your story or poem or novel or memoir — and keep going instead.



Happiness in Writing

By Midge Raymond,

The Fall 2005 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review focuses on happiness (I’m not actually a Buddhist, but I do enjoy the review; and yes, I am still reading magazines from 2005). The issue offers many articles and ruminations on the nature of happiness, but what caught my attention was a piece by Thanissaro Bhikkhu in which he wrote of “skillful” and “unskillful” desires. He writes that we all desire happiness and that “whatever the desire, if the solution actually leads to happiness, the desire is skillful. If it doesn’t, it is not. However, what seems to be a skillful desire may lead only to a false or transitory happiness not worth the effort entailed.”

Naturally, I found myself thinking of the desires of writers — not only as a writer myself but also as a teacher of writing. As a university professor, I found that many, if not most, of my students desired a good grade more than they desired becoming a good writer. And among my adult students and fellow writers, I find that we are often attracted to being published almost more than we are drawn to writing stories that we are genuinely proud of.

Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by Bird that her students “believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo…But this is not exactly what happens.” Having read Bird by Bird before publishing my first short story, I didn’t believe her, just as none of my students believe me when I tell them the same thing. But if and when we do become published authors, we realize that Lamott is right. Nothing really changes after you publish your work. (And, as she points out, it’s actually very discouraging when you tell people you’re a published writer, and they’ve still never heard of you.) It’s wonderful to know that your work is being read and enjoyed, of course — but in the end, if you continue to write, it’s still only you and the blank page, and it always will be.

So I encourage students to focus on the work itself, on what they have to say. I advise them not to worry about publication until their writing is the best it can be, and remind them that rushing a piece to agents or editors before it’s ready is a lesson in futility. They will most likely not believe me — and that’s okay. Part of the process of becoming a writer is discovering, through the predictable highs and inevitable lows of publication, that the joy is in the work itself.

I ended up envisioning my own writerly definitition of “skillful desire,” which is to desire what is within our reach as writers. This, of course, means the work, not who publishes it (or when or where or for how much). While the term “happy writer” may be an oxymoron, I think we’d all be happier if we focused more on our growth as writers rather than our publication credits.



Long Live the Short Story

By Midge Raymond,

As tonight’s 78th Annual Academy Awards ceremony celebrates “Brokeback Mountain” for its many accomplishments — most of which have an Oscar nomination attached — I’ll be continuing to celebrate the fact that this beautiful film originated as a beautiful short story. While turning novels into films is nothing new, there’s been a wonderful new trend over the past several years in which short stories are making their way to the big screen — with great success.

In her 1999 interview with The Missouri Review, Annie Proulx called Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s adaptation of her 1997 story “Brokeback Mountain” an “exceptionally fine screenplay.” Those familiar with Proulx’s story will note the script’s faithfulness to Proulx’s original; whereas adapting a novel to film requires a certain degree of reductionism, adapting a short story, on the other hand, usually requires fleshing out, if anything — and remaining faithful to the original work is far easier for screenwriters to achieve. (This is good news for both writers and readers.)

In addition to Oscar nominations for actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and for director Ang Lee, “Brokeback Mountain” was, of course, nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (not to mention Best Music (Score), Best Cinematography, and Best Picture). But this isn’t the first time in recent years that short stories have been successfully adapted. Previously nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay was Rob Festinger and Todd Field’s 2001 script “In the Bedroom,” based on Andre Dubus’ short story “Killings” (the film also scored nominations in the Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress categories). (More of Dubus’ short stories — “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Adultery” — were adapted to the screen in the 2004 film “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” starring Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, and Peter Krause.) And let’s not forget “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Stand By Me,” just two of many films based on the short works of Stephen King.

And the short story is being celebrated in myriad other ways — The Los Angeles Times recently named Amy Tan as literary editor for its weekly magazine, West, which last month replaced the Los Angeles Times magazine and now publishes short fiction. Small presses such as Hourglass Books are devoted to publishing collections of short stories; anthologies such as the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories publish selections from literary magazines; and perhaps best of all is The Story Prize, an annual book award honoring a collection of short fiction with a $20,000 cash award. The prize was created in 2004 by Julie Lindsey and Larry Dark to support short story collections and help abate the difficulties authors face in trying to publish them.

A lot of writers believe that they must write a novel in order to have a career as a writer. Being a short-story writer can indeed be frustrating — with a few exceptions, story collections don’t sell as well as novels and aren’t nearly as high profile. Yet a short story remains the perfect medium for today’s busy readers: it can offer all the elements of a novel in a trim, accessible format. And seeing both the film and publishing industries embrace it means the short story will be around for a long while.



Truth and Memory

By Midge Raymond,

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.” — Oscar Wilde

“Most writers regard truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use.” — Mark Twain

One of the big questions when it comes to memoir writing has always been how much of a story is actually true — and it’s now an even bigger question since author James Frey has admitted to embellishing and fabricating much of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and its sequel, My Friend Leonard. Yet when it comes to personal writing, truth has never been particularly easy to define, and this is confusing (and perhaps appealing) for writers who may be tempted to sacrifice truth for what they think makes a better story.

Merriam-Webster defines truth as “the state of being the case: fact”; yet its listing also includes an archaic definition — “fidelity, constancy; sincerity in action, character, and utterance” — which is much more in line with the way memoirs are written. The psychotherapist Alice Miller, in the preface to her newest book, The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting, writes, “I never use the word ‘truth’ in a metaphysical sense. The meaning I give it is invariably that of a subjective entity, related to the actual life of the individual concerned.” In other words, when it comes to remembering your past, especially if it was a dramatic or traumatic one, the only truth that exists is the truth that you experienced, the truth that you remember.

Yet this does not — and should not — give writers license to embellish or fabricate events; it’s one thing to remember an incident differently than your sister remembers it, and it’s another to recreate it for dramatic effect, thus misleading your readers.

I found myself applauding Riverhead’s decision last week to cancel its contract with Frey (not that it’s any of my business). But I was pleased to know that despite the controversy and the questions, the accusations and confessions, in the end, the truth does matter — at least to this publisher. The desicion shows respect for its readers, an acknowledgment that they deserve to be treated honestly, something that I think should be on every writer’s mind, every time he or she sits down to write.



A Few Words on Revision

By Midge Raymond,

My friend Sean, who’s working on a novel, recently asked me how I go about rewriting (and he knows how painstakingly I rewrite everything). I’ve found that revision is probably the most important stage of the writing process, and yet it’s often the most overlooked. Why? Because it can be really horrible to read over something you’ve written and realize it’s not that great. Also, revision is hard — it takes a lot of time, a great deal of focus, and a willingness to sacrifice a few things you might love about your story (usually things you’ve spent hours and hours working on).

So why must we do it? Because it makes the difference between poor work and good work, good work and great work, or great work and brilliant work. Revision always helps.

Here are few revision rules to live by:

Take one step at a time. Look at the big picture first — character, story, theme — before tackling your work scene-by-scene, or before worrying about comma splices. Once the overall story is flowing, then you can sweat the small stuff.
Don’t be afraid to trim. It may be hard to cut sentences or paragraphs you love, but be ruthless and see what happens. You might discover wonderful results — and if you don’t, you can always revert to your original. But you won’t know unless you try.
Revise when you’re ready. If you’ve got good momentum on a piece, don’t stop to reread it; just keep writing. Then give it a little space. Then go back and have a look with fresh eyes. This is the best time to start a rewrite, when you’ve got enough distance to ask yourself, What am I trying to say? and Am I actually saying it?
Engage a friend, writer, editor — someone who will be honest with you and offer you constructive feedback. These people can be hard to find but are well worth having in your writing life.



Finding Quality Writing Time (Prison Time Excluded)

By Midge Raymond,

“I’ll never have it as good as prison again,” said author Dewitt Gilmore in yesterday’s New York Times. “For writing, anyway.”

This New York Times article, “Street Lit With Publishing Cred: From Prison to a Four-Book Deal,” is proof that writers do need rooms of their own: Gilmore (whose pen name is Relentless Aaron) began writing his street-lit novels in 1996 during a stint in a federal prison in New Jersey; now, the Times reports, he has a six-figure book deal with publisher St. Martin’s Press. He’s written thirty manuscripts, has printed ten of them himself, and will publish his next four with St. Martin’s.

As Gilmore told the Times, referring to the time he spent in the solitary confinment of an eight-by-four cell, “Nothing could match solitary for writing.” As a writer and writing instructor, I couldn’t agree more. What I recommend for my students, however, is not a trip to prison but finding ways to create their own solitary confinement — on the outside.

Full-time writers — those who are fortunate enough to live and write without holding another day job — don’t have quite the same challenges in carving out time for writing. For them, it’s their work day. For the rest of us — those who work, teach, parent — finding even an hour or two of writing time can be next to impossible.

Here are a couple of the tips I find useful in making time to write:

Think of yourself as a writer. As Miles told Joel in the film Risky Business, “If you can’t say it, you can’t do it.” If you don’t see yourself as a writer, how will you allow yourself the time to write? First, tell yourself that your work is important. Remind yourself that you have things to say. Be adamant about setting aside time to say them.

Remind your friends and family that you are a writer. When you create time in your schedule to write — especially when it takes time away from them — make it known that you are working. Because you are working — no matter what pleasure writing brings you, it’s also hard work.

Create your own writing space. Even if it’s just a tiny desk in the smallest corner of your home, make it your own. Get rid of anything that might distract you, and keep near you the things that inspire you: books, candles, artwork.

What’s probably most inspiring about Gilmore’s story is that of all the excuses I’ve heard (and come up with myself) for procrastinating a writing project, “going to prison” has got to be one of the best. But for Gilmore, it’s not an excuse but an invitation.

Consider yourself invited — to your own writing space, starting today.