The good fight

Although I’ve been living up and down the west coast for many years, I’d never made it far enough north (or south) see the Redwoods National Forest.

Until last fall.

It is a strange feeling to stand next to another living thing that has been on this planet for more than a thousand years.

These trees are survivors, and not just because they’ve outlasted centuries of Pacific storms. But because they’ve outlasted the loggers.

I asked a park ranger how these trees escaped logging. He said only 3% of them did. He said that even today there are people who would like to get at what’s left of them with a saw.

Thankfully, we have the Save the Redwoods League. It got started back in 1918, when a handful of people realized that something precious was about to be lost and very nearly was. There was no national park then (not until 1968). In the absence of government protection, the people protected those trees. And this organization is still around today as there are still trees in danger.

After visiting the redwoods, I visited the coast south of Crescent City and I watched grey whales in the distance.

More survivors. And, thankfully, people have stepped up to protect them as well.

The Sea Shepherd Society has done a valiant job of protecting the whales from the Japanese. No government is protecting these whales. Just people.

From Save the Redwoods to Save the Whales, these fights are not fought by governments or militaries, but by people. And for that reason alone I remain optimistic that we can save many more creatures, many more habitats.

The fight is only just beginning.

PS: I just came across a great TED presentation on the redwoods:


Write (beyond) what you know

Many writers firmly believe in what they’ve been hearing for years: Write what you know. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but I find that students who are just starting to write often find it difficult to branch out, to assert their authority as writers beyond their own experiences. At this point I’ll usually point to Melanie Rae Thon’s brilliant story “Little White Sister,” which not only an amazing read but an important lesson to writers: Write beyond what you know.

In this interview with BOMB Magazine, Thon talks about her decision to write from the perspective of a black male in first person:

“Those voices of censorship become ridiculous. The extrapolation of that kind of thinking is that you can’t write as a child, you can’t write as an old person, you can’t write as somebody of the opposite sex. I move into my material intuitively and if I’m paying attention to that, if the things that I’m writing are things I feel I must understand, then I have a right to explore them. I have a need to explore them and ultimately a duty to do so.”

In the same way reading opens up our understanding of the world around us, writing from perspectives beyond our own (and in the process, understanding them) not only makes us better writers but better human beings. We all need to get outside our own lives once in a while.

A great opinion on this topic is this post on Erika Dreifus’s awesome blog, Practicing Writing, in which she discusses writing from the POV of a mother even though she’s not a mother. After being critiqued in workshops  — not for her writing but for her non-motherhood — she makes the very good point that good writing has nothing to do with the writer’s personal life but with the authenticity of what’s on the page. She writes: “… my fellow writers failed to appreciate elements that go into fiction writing that transcend one’s own lived experience.”

Unless you’re writing memoir, try to write beyond what you know. You’ll probably find that you know far more than you think — and you’ll probably also have to do a lot of research (which always enlightening anyway). The more you challenge yourself, the more you’ll challenge your readers — in the best possible way.


Finding quality writing time

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

This New York Times article, “Street Lit With Publishing Cred: From Prison to a Four-Book Deal,” seems to be  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; eventually, he got a six-figure book deal with 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.”

I couldn’t agree more. What I recommend, however, is not a trip to prison. Instead, I’ll suggest a few ways to create your own “solitary confinement” — especially for writers who need to fit their work in among day jobs, families, and other things that might otherwise make writing time a challenge.

Think of yourself as a writer. 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.

– Schedule your writing time. My friend Stacey is a life coach who offers this amazing advice: Take your writing time as seriously as any job. If you work at Starbucks, she points out, you’d have to clock in, right? And so it should be with your writing time: Get it on the calendar, show up, and complete your shift.

– Find a writing buddy. Having a good support system is essential for all of us, and especially for writers. Join a writing group that forces you to show up with written pages on deadline, for example — or find a writing buddy to meet at a cafe for an hour of freewriting. The nice thing about a writing buddy or group is that you’re accountable: you have to show up (or you have to have a good excuse for why you didn’t).

Happy writing.


On cover art, translation, literary drunks, and more

While most writers know that book titles can’t be copyrighted, we have yet to see another Moby-Dick or Gone with the Wind. What’s far more common, as this site shows, is using same cover art for many different books.

Doesn’t every writer love a good malapropism? This NY Times article reminded me of my days living in Taipei, when I’d encounter various bizarre English translations. Visitors to Shanghai won’t be able to enjoy similar mistakes much longer, thanks to the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use, which is fixing everything from menus to street signs. So long to menus listing “monolithic tree mushroom stem squid” and restroom signs reading “urine district.” Check out the Times slide show for a few hilarious examples, including the one below.

Speaking of being lost in translation: From Jhumpa Lahiri to Chuck Palahniuk to Donald Barthelme, authors’ names are often mispronounced with such authority that soon even the correct pronunciation sounds wrong. Click here for a guide.

I rather enjoyed this Life magazine slide show entitled “Famous Literary Drunks & Addicts.” If nothing else, it made me feel pretty healthy by comparison.

Having trouble jump-starting your latest story? The American Book Review lists the best 100 first lines from novels here … it’s inspiring, if a little intimidating.

And finally — and definitely inspiring — is this blog from Alan Rinzler on finding courage as a writer, with such advice as not being afraid to talk to yourself, to let things simmer, and to start over.



The physical act of writing

I can still remember the first story I ever wrote, when I was maybe eight or nine years old, on school notebook paper in what was then my fairly neat, legible handwriting. I think it may also have been illustrated. Perhaps because, back in my day, we still wrote high-school English papers by hand (I had a word processor in college but didn’t get my first computer until graduate school — and yes, that does make me feel old), I still often write out scenes by hand. I find writing longhand especially helpful when writing a first draft, or when polishing a close-to-final one. I’ve always loved what Natalie Goldberg says about writing by hand: “Arm connected to shoulder, chest, heart.”

But I do remember taking both computer and typing classes (on actual typewriters). And these days, nothing makes you feel quite as old as admitting you used to write by typewriter. Often, while visiting the Seattle Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, I would hear people younger than me wondering what this odd sculpture is:

(Note to young people: It’s a typewriter eraser. We use to employ these to get rid of typos before we had backspace buttons and the delete key.)

Eventually, the keyboard took the place of the pen and the notebook in my academic life, and even in my writing life. But not for long: I always continued to write by hand, whether taking notes during an interview or scrawling out an outline. And now I use some combination of the two.

Many writers are particular, even superstitious, about the way they get their words on the page. I enjoyed discovering this site featuring Authors A-Z, “an ongoing project featuring the lives, works, and typewriters of the most outstanding authors around the world.” Here, you’ll find out that Harper Lee wrote on an Underwood portable. That Joseph Heller used an SCM Smith Corona Electra. That even Joyce Carol Oates has rejected the computer: She writes in longhand, then types her notes into scenes using “a Japanese made Swintec 1000 electronic typewriter with ‘a little memory’ but no screen.”

And if you’re interested in owning a piece of these antiques, here’s even an (expensive) online store where you can browse old typewriters and jewelry made of their keys. (Check out eBay and flea markets, too.) Over the last few years, my husband and I have been picking up typewriters here and there (we have three Underwoods and and have recently added a Remington), and will probably keep adding to the collection, at least until we run out of space. Only one of ours is in any sort of working condition, but that’s not why we bought them. Even bent and broken, with sticky keys and dried-out ribbon, we think they’re pretty cool — maybe because they always look as if they’re smiling.