Is writing fiction a state of mind?

I keep being amazed at how lost in my story I get while I’m writing. … And then at how confused I am about time and space when I stop for the day.

I am trying not to overthink this, fearful it might go poof! Last week at the gym, my trainer was putting me through a new workout. One of the moves was so strange, I found myself paralyzed, until he said “don’t overthink it.” And just like that, I got it.

A day or so later, I heard part of an interview with Dustin Hoffman on NPR. He was trying to explain how he gets into a role. Essentially, he does whatever research he needs, thinks about the character, then shows up. I can’t do this justice, but what he got around to was that, after some amount of thinking and overthinking, he just falls into it. He knows, and the director knows, when it’s real.

That got me thinking, not overthinking, but just musing about it. Is this what I’m experiencing when I’m with my character? I do extensive research, and I scribble a few key words in my notebook about where I want the story to go, and then I just write. I give myself over to my character; he takes me where he wants to go. He shows me things and makes things come together. I’m just typing.

I know this is not it exactly. It’s depends upon what happens unconsciously. It’s more than a dream, because I have invited the experience.

When Hoffman was having trouble getting his autistic character in “Rainman,” he found himself using “yeah” as a filler. He recalled that suddenly it felt right. It became a defining part of his portrayal of Raymond.

I also know that having this happen requires a great deal of work beforehand. I always wrote major term papers the night before they were due. But I had started the research, reading, and note-taking as soon as the assignment was given. Once I sat at the typewriter and got the first sentence down, the paper almost wrote itself.

This edge-of-the-precipice behavior continued through all my work as a teacher, writer, and editor. I had always felt as though I had gotten away with something, until I realized I could trust this process.

That’s why I feel that becoming a fiction writer is not about the actual writing. You are either good at using the language, or you’re not. If you can’t get in touch with your imagination — that part of your mind that willingly suspends disbelief — and then let it have its way, you may sit paralyzed at the keyboard.

Curiosity annoys others, and I don’t care!

Does anyone but me remember how report cards looked in the 1950s? They were fairly simple: to the left of the fold were the grades, those things you worked so hard for and, you thought, the reason you were in school. But lurking over there, to the right of the fold, was a page of judgments, about good things and bad things you did when you thought the teacher was paying attention to how much knowledge you could soak up.

I would come home so anxious to show my mother and father all my “As.” I was a good student, I thought. Didn’t that prove it?

And then the other side of the card loomed large with its judgments. “Whispers too much.” “Annoys others.” “Fidgets.”

Imagine, a judgment of “fidgets.” I wonder if my mother tried to figure out how to make me stop fidgeting, as I did almost everywhere we went. My mother worried about these marks under the ominous label “Deportment.” Mothers in the 1950s did that.

Thinking back now, I believe my behavior was pure curiosity. I would whisper about things or annoy others asking questions, or fidget when the teacher wagged her finger menacingly at me.

I was, and still am, curious. I constantly ask questions. I want to know why, how, when, what, and what then, and why not about so many things. As I’m getting older, I am getting curiouser. I always want to take Frost’s road not taken.

“They” say that rewarded behaviors are the ones that persist.

The rewards have been many and satisfying. Sometimes I am embarrassed, because I never learned that curiosity should be tempered by thinking first. So, when we learned about space flight as the first astronaut was about to be launched, I raised my hand and asked: “How do they go to the bathroom?” Now, the advantage of thinking first would have held me back long enough to let others ask it. But no, I wanted to know then. I was really, really curious!

I’m thinking about this now because I know that it was curiosity that led me to write a book. Knowing my father and all his good and bad traits, I realized I am very much like him. I set out to find that little boy who became the man. I imagined the events and people that might have created his fears, his beliefs, his determination, his impatience, and his curiosity. Although he was annoyed at his little girl’s poor marks in deportment, I know now he was also proud of me because I did not take anything at face value. “Because I said so,” never worked on me.

If the man behind the curtain isn’t all-powerful, I don’t care! I just want to know, and then I want to know how all those wonderful things happened without him. If birds have many different calls for just as many reasons, I want to know what they are saying. (OK, if that is a bad person making noises in my basement late at night and I’m home alone, I will NOT go down there to check.) I will never turn down an invitation to visit a factory or to see how things work behind the scenes.

Curiosity brings discoveries; it advances science; it creates great art; it makes a recipe better; it gets cats killed. But most importantly, curiosity is fun. I just hope that all the initials children are being labeled with aren’t masking curiosity just because it’s annoying and fidgety. This would make me very sad.

Creating Time and Place

Telling a story from another time requires diligent attention to historical details. What was happening in the world? I was driven to get the facts right and to avoid mentioning something that was out of time. While I love to find anachronisms in movies, I was determined there would be none in my book.

What I found much more important was the need to get into the hearts and minds of the people living in it. And that was truly an enjoyable quest. If I wanted authenticity, then I had to be there with my characters.

My journey into my young boy’s life growing up in the Bronx of New York City in the 1920s required so many different sources. I now have a small library of pictorial histories about the Bronx, interspersed with memories of those who lived there. I would stare into some of the photos, willing myself to imagine feelings. I have a laminated map from 1930 NYC on my wall, covered in colored marker notes and stickies. (Woe to the unsuspecting visitor who asks about it! I’m only too happy to tell all.)

I have collected newspaper articles from the days on which big things happened. The front page of the New York Daily News from April 19, 1923, gave me a chapter on the first day the Yankees played in the brand new Yankee Stadium the day before. I had a play-by-play of the game, a who’s who of the dignitaries, a feeling of the weather from photos showing how people were dressed, and a sense of the excitement from the journalist’s account in the language of the day.

My most important source was my father. His stories and answers to my endless questions were the impetus for me to write a story that let me imagine how he might have grown into the man he was. He and I sat with that map for hours. He showed me where things were — homes, schools, parks, the library — and gave his streets life for me.

As a child, I was glued to the TV, watching Walter Chronkite create an audience of historical peeping toms with “You Are There.” I was also fortunate to have a history teacher who made us look at what was happening in art, music, and literature around major events. Two of my English teachers also brought history into the classroom. I learned about context early.

I must give credit to one book that I think does this better than any other: Time and Again by Jack Finney. Finney made me believe I could travel in time.

My hope is that I am creating a story that gives readers a Walter Chronkite/Jack Finney moment or two.

Baby steps to being published

Today, I took a first, bold step; I sent a query to a publisher on the recommendation of a published friend.


But first, I’d like to offer a recommendation to read her book, which is out this week, in both Kindle and printed form on Amazon.

Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul: One Woman’s Journey to Self-Realization and Acceptance 

Madeleine Lenagh

This is an amazing book that reads like mythology and magic, while portraying the author’s journey through life. She bares her soul without a hint of sentimentality. It’s authentic and I could not stop reading it!
OK, back to me. I believe that this first step will be the hardest because I just put something out into the world that feels a bit like walking naked down a crowded street. For some reason, maybe because a friend had such a good experience with this publisher, I at least feel like I’m presenting something worth publishing, albeit with hours and weeks and maybe a year of revising.
To begin to get some feedback, here’s a very brief synopsis of the book. Please feel free to give me your opinions. That’s what this blog is about. And please take me up on my invitation to offer you my expertise (blog post from April 6, “An invitation…”.

 “Bread for My Father” is about a Jewish boy (from age 11-15), growing up in the Bronx in the 1920s-1930s. His mother came to America from Russia in 1906, her parents having sent her and her sister to flee the pogroms. While she is not the main character, her strength and adaptabilty inform her life in America and that of her three children. 

Issues arise for our young boy/man about being Jewish as he becomes aware of Hitler and new persecutions around the world, and as he sees obstacles for his brother and others in America. He becomes involved tangentially with the Mafia as it is revealed that his father is rising in the garment industry in Manhattan due to an association with one of the mob bosses. Ben learns about how Jewish enforcers are used by the mob to break unions. 

All these forces converge on Ben, who must navigate a minefield of dangers, entanglements, and the demands of his stern father. He finds joy and escape in exploring… ideas, the relationship of people and nature, the New York Public Library, and his own fertile imagination. The Bronx at this time is populated by expatriates from many places and cultures and makes a rich setting for this book. 

An invitation…

As I am slogging through the hard work part of being a writer — editing/revising — I wonder if anyone would like some expert advice on such activities. In several former lives, I have been an English teacher, writer, ghostwriter*, and editor…and now fiction writer.

I’m inviting readers, and friends of readers, to send me questions about our difficult language. I will work hard to answer each one promptly and with sources if needed.

I have also done considerable research for my novel, set in the 1920s-1930s in NYC. I think this is very important if an author wants to present an authentic sense of time and place. There are incredible resources in personal stories, old newspapers, local historical societies, and so much more. I’d love to share.

So have at it. I’m ready to enjoy some avoidance behavior here!

*Not like Stephen King or Dean Koontz, but rather writing in other people’s voices. Although I wouldn’t mind being able to spin tales like either of them, ghosts or not.

Whose book is it?

When I started writing my novel, I had no idea what I was about to do. All I knew was I wanted to find the child who became my father. He had shared many memories, insights and stories about his youth with me over the years. I had been writing them down as I heard them, and I just kept asking questions. Once I brought him a map of the Bronx from the 1920s, and together we found his homes, schools and places of import to him.

At some point, I realized the boy who was emerging was my father’s edited self-portrait. When I accepted this, I knew that I had been given the freedom to find that child for myself.

And then, I just began! One day I sat down and it started pouring out of me, out of order, little vignettes, a foray into his imagination…as I imagined it. At least three times, and probably more, I finished a chapter that I’m sure had written itself.

Here’s one. Ben, the 15-year-old, found himself working at a garage whose owner was paying protection to the mob. Ben’s father, with his ladies coat and suit factory in the garment district, was also involved. The boss was big in the clothing unions, enforcement, and the protection racket. Ben was getting nervous the more he found out. One day, Rocco, owner of the garage, told Ben to deliver a mysterious box to Tony, the boss in the garment district.

I was in a writer’s mess, as I needed to get Ben out of all of this, and really couldn’t figure it out.

So, I took Ben and the box to Tony’s office. Neither one of us knew the contents of the box. This was frightening. Ben knew there was something awful about this transaction. And I was just along for the ride so I could report on the findings. When “we” delivered the box into Tony’s hands, we saw a gun and something wrapped in what looked like a bloody cloth. Something about it made Tony blow his top. Ben beat it out of there, and “we” didn’t know until later that evening, when Ben saw a headline about a mob shooting and a missing hand.

It was a right hand, and the victim was Anthony “Lefty” Cappuccio! Uh oh! Was Rocco the hit man? Did Tony think Ben was involved? …and what about Pauline? 

Well, I can’t tell the whole story here, but this piece of writing was an amazing experience for me. It made me wonder: Whose book is it?

A toe in the water

Today I will send a 50-page piece of my novel to a professional editor for review and advice on continuity, character, and the elements that move fiction forward. I’ve been polishing, tightening, tweaking, nudging, etc.

Many of you will recognize avoidance behavior, my real skill. I’ll know it’s time to send this when I need sunglasses to look at my kitchen floor.

But I will send it in a few minutes. I realize this will be when I accept the notion that I have really meant to be published all along. I don’t want affirmation as much as I want to develop readers: people who might be moved by or even just enjoy my writing. I want to stand on a street corner and read portions of this aloud; and later I can read this to the other people on my ward at the “home.”

This is the moment, just before I may be seriously shot down, when I say to more than myself “look what I’ve done. Don’t you think it’s good too?”

Here goes; stay tuned.

Writing and nature

I’ve been doing a great deal of bird watching in the past year, including monitoring an osprey nest, from nest-building through final flights on a live web cam, all last summer. As I continued working on my novel, the osprey family provided me a metaphor for the creative process.

Bird families start when the mating instinct brings forth the eggs. There is much sitting and waiting and waiting, followed by the first tentative taps and peeps from inside the shells. Already it’s clear that not everything emerges at this point. Some don’t hatch.

Nurturing and feeding, meeting demands, encouraging are all done for the chicks. Lack of attention at any point can create disaster. But nature tends to take care of itself, win or lose. With commitment and luck, there will be fledging, then much practice, then finally flight.

At the risk of beating this metaphor to death, what I’ve learned is: we get an idea and start something. If it feels good and real, we edge it forward, feed it and see what happens as it grows. Bottom line: it doesn’t always work. Statistics show that about fifty percent of osprey don’t make it. There are hazards everywhere. I’ve always known, whether or not this makes people sad, we need to trust nature. What lives is stronger. Ask Darwin.

I’ve been working on this novel since I started wondering about my father’s childhood. It’s been almost five years, and last week I typed “The End.” While this writing has been possibly the most exciting thing I’ve done since having children, what I have to now admit is that I’ve just become acquainted with my chicks. I anticipate the next steps with hope, but the real work starts now.

Welcome to Writerly

This site is where I will share my thoughts, inspirations, and some of my writing for honest feedback. Of course, it’s only shared if someone else sees it. I’ll be trying to direct friends here through Facebook and other sources.

I’m editing my first novel (read: slogging through and trying to be outside of it). From time-to-time, I may post a small piece for comments. I hope you will feel free to give me constructive criticism. A book is only as good, interesting, or entertaining as its readers think it is.

A note about the scene above: This was an incredible sunset in Newport, Oregon, where I have gone to find my muse. The ocean has always been important to me. It’s where I dream; it’s where I heal; and it’s where I am inspired. Whether East Coast, where I grew up, or West Coast, where I now live a bit inland; I need an ocean nearby. I spent four bewildered years in Iowa, where there is no ocean. I looked everywhere. There was much to love about Cedar Falls/Waterloo and the people I lived and worked among, but I was drawn to the ocean.

So, please feel at home here. Leave comments. Ask questions about writing and editing…or language and grammar.

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