It kind of snuck up on me. I have been working away at my second novel and found myself stuck around page 200, something someone warned me might happen if I didn't flesh out my second storyline, which I am doing. I am also not done yet, there are still some hard scenes to write and I have been struggling to find my way in. In addition, I am anxiously waiting for my first novel to find a publisher as it sits on the desks of some great editors, but I am a new novelist, not a celebrity and it is always hard to launch a new author, especially these days, when celebutantes and reality stars are "writing" books and having them turned into films quickly, before anyone can forget who authored them. I am grumpy about the lack of auditions that are available to me this pilot season, again, due to the fact that I am not a celebrity. In case you didn't know, it is true, I am not a celebrity, or a model, or the star of my own accidentally leaked home porno. No, I am woman who looks like a woman, (and I like the way I look) and who was raised to believe that in order to be something, someone, I needed to study and work hard, a strategy I still believe to be true, in spite of that fact that I live in a city at a time in the entertainment industry, where I honestly think that if I had just been born looking like a supermodel and never went to school, I'd be rewarded...especially if I made my own sex tape.
I nearly screamed this morning when I read that Brooklyn Decker, the wife of tennis star Andy Roddick, and Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, will be starring opposite Adam Sandler in a film with Jennifer Aniston next year. Now of course I don't know B.D, and honestly, yay, yay, yay, good for her...but I kind of just hoped that someone with a few less, adjectives to describe their celebrity could be cast in leads. You know, like...Jane Smith, actor, NYU Grad. I'm griping I know, but honestly it is making me crazy these days. A friend of mine told me a story about a publisher who wouldn't take an established authors book, because it would be published on the heels of Sarah Palin's and the numbers wouldn't measure up! Come on! Sarah Palin? You know she didn't even write that book that she was given millions for, and why should a well respected author even be put in the same category?!
Maybe I am just tired, (no, it's more than that) but art takes time and effort and skill and HARD WORK and brains, and perseverance and talent, and HARD WORK, and brains, and did I mention BRAINS and HARD WORK?!! It's one of the reasons I started writing novels in the first place, because I knew that it didn't matter how skinny, or pretty, or young I was. I loved stories and want to tell them and I knew that writing a book, couldn't be done in a day or two, or season of TV, it would take years...years, and not a lot of people are willing to make that kind of effort. A lot of people say "Oh I could do that!" when they look at artists, and I always say, yes, you can, if you study and pay your dues and build your career, but that's just not really true anymore is it? All around us, we see examples of how just being an obnoxious fame whore gets rewarded. But a novel, when people say, "Oh I could do that!" I just smile. Like I said, writing a novel takes years, and then it can take a few more to get published, it's like pushing a large boulder slowly uphill, and by the time one gets to the top, all those chippies and celebutards, will be forgotten and a new crop will have already come and gone, and those of us who have stayed and slogged it out, all the smart girls and boys, all the talented writers, and actors, and artists, who never thought of doing this for a swag bag and 15 minutes of fame, will still be here. We'll be older, (and hopefully we'll look it), and wiser, and what we have done, will remain.
So, a big shout today to all who toil away at what they do, because they love it, and believe in it and know no other way to make it happen, than through hard work.
I did it! I found a place that I like to write in that is outside of the home. Now I have only been there once, but still, I got 2 pages done, which is miraculous. As I have written before, I like to write from my home office, where I can control my environment, hang out with my pooches and frequent the kitchen and bathroom as often as I like! (As a big coffee drinker, this is really important!) But sometimes, like when we have guests, or when the home is just busy and I need to escape, I like to think that there is somewhere I can go.
I have tried so many places, without much luck, and not one but two people recommended Bricks & Scones. The first person was my screenwriter friend Judd, who shares my need for quiet and good coffee, and the other is a cyber friend, an actor writer blogger named Lynn, who writes a smart healthy food blog I read daily, called the actors diet. And so, desperate for some additional quiet time last week, I went after Lynn nudged me to try it....and I LOVED it. It's just like the kind of places that I have enviously listened to my friends in NYC describe; a cool writer's hang out, with great coffee (Intelligentsia) and yummy baked goods, (homemade scones! espresso muffins!), and a real respect for the fact that everyone there wishes that they had a third room where they could just go and write. In fact, that is what Bricks and Scones says it aspires to be...your third room.
I almost don't want to share this place, but it is too good to be kept a secret, and if other writers hadn't shared it with me, I would still be trying to write with blinders and my Bose noise canceling head phones on, with people having a great time all around me! Not that there is anything wrong with that, I love to have a good time, and I love to have guests, but I am a terrible companion if I don't get my work done, and now I never have to worry about that again.
And I can eat espresso muffins! Did I mention that they have espresso muffins?!! Fabulous!
Thanks Lynn and Judd!
It's Tuesday and I am bringing you another amazing author interview, courtesy of the amazing author Caroline Leavitt.
Caroline is the award winning author of eight novels, most recently Girls in Trouble, which was a Booksense Selection and is now in its third printing. Look for her new book Pictures of You coming out from Algonquin this Spring 2010.
I first became aware of Dani Shapiro in her knockout memoirSlow Motion. I began reading everything she wrote, and following her career, because from Black & White to Family History, she was so fearless in her writing, so honest, that every page seemed to breathe.Dani’s latest,Devotion: A Memoir, was one of those books I carried around with me for weeks after I read it. Her quest to find spiritual meaning in life was so intelligent and so moving, that I was gripping pages, and often in tears. Thank you, Dani, for agreeing to answer my questions.
There have been a lot of books and articles about the nature of God and atheism, of late. Some scientists feel that God is possibly an evolutionary and genetic development because religion supports community and keeps humans from despairing too much. Anne Lamott has said that when you start talking about your belief in God, people sometimes see your IQ points fall. Were you at all anxious about facing those kinds of critics as you were writing the book?
I was beyond anxious. I was absolutely terrified as I was writingDevotion. First of all, I felt I had no business writing it. I kept asking myself: why me? Why do I think I have anything to say about spirituality, about God, about meaning? I'm a novelist. I'm used to imagining and inventing characters and stories, and here I was grappling with the story that requires the greatest leap of imagination (and possibly invention...who knows...) I needed to find the willingness to take a good hard look and consider what it is that I really believe about the biggest questions in life. I must have asked myself Why me? a hundred times a day. It was the whispering voice in my head that I had to find a way to shut down in order to write, in order to think. Of course, I also worried that the outside world—critics, readers—would be asking the same question. Why her? I realized, at a certain point, that part of this difficulty in giving myself permission to explore these questions had to do with my upbringing itself. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, women had very specific roles, and those roles did not involve intellectual query—much less publicintellectual query. And also, I was aware that it was essential that I tell a story. After all, reading about someone's spiritual journey is about as interesting as watching water boil. I wanted to write a page-turner of a spiritual journey.
Devotion deals with finding meaning in life, but the answers you found are complex and complicated and seem to indicate to me that the journey is never really over. Where are you now on that journey?
When I finished Devotion, I was depressed for a while—perhaps I still am—because I wanted to continue to spend my days in the way I had been: practicing yoga, meditating, reading and doing nothing except thinking about these matters. The book has 102 small chapters, almost like pieces to a puzzle, or a mosaic, and I wanted to open a new document and begin with 103. I just wanted to keep going. One of the reasons I embarked onDevotion was because I so much wanted a reason to go on this search, and writing a book about it gave me that reason. But of course the search continues. I hope it's life-long. The process of writing the book was really one of living inside the questions. I never expected to find anything like an answer. I was wary of the whole idea of answers—and continue to be. But living inside the questions seems, to me, like a good way to live.
In your addictive blog, you talk about how after 7 books, your writing has gotten leaner, that you’re more concerned with the truth being told than the beauty of the language. Would you say that your writing is now following your spiritual journey in a sense?
That's such a great question. I think that's very true. I realized recently that Devotion is my seventh book, and the number seven has great mystical significance in many traditions—often it marks the end of some sort of life cycle. That feels apt when it comes toDevotion, which feels like the culmination of everything that I have learned and understand up to this point in my life. The painful and the joyful facts of my life—the losses, my father's early death, my mother's recent death, family rifts, my son's serious illness when he was a baby, as well as the great gift of his recovery, and the great gift of my marriage—all have brought me to this place, in midlife, the necessity of seeking, the longing to make sense of it, not in a literal way, but in a way that creates greater empathy and solace and meaning. I hope that, whatever I write next (and, tellingly, for the first time I have no idea) it will spring from this new place in which I find myself.
Threaded in the narrative is the story of how you almost lost your baby to a rare illness. Even though he survived, the fear remained. Why didn’t it occur to you to blame God?
When my baby was so sick, as I write about in the book, what I did—among other things—was pray. I found myself, in every quiet moment, praying. Sometimes these prayers were the Hebrew prayers of my childhood, even though I didn't have the first idea what the words meant. Other times, the prayers were a lullaby as I rocked my son to sleep. Other times, I was aware that the word please kept running through
my head. I didn't feel I was directing these prayers toward a specific God, because I wasn't at all sure that I believed in that kind of God. So it was kind of hard to blame God or be angry at him/her/it, because that wasn't my conception of God, and still really isn't. I mean, to blame God is to believe in that kind of causality. If God could have singled out my son to be sick, then God can also get my parking spaces, stop the plane from crashing. That God would be able to stop genocides and famines. It's hard to believe in a God who could do those things (parking space aside) but doesn't. I've spent a tremendous amount of time since those years of my son's illness (he's now ten and completely fine, which I consider a miracle, but don't believe that God saved him any more than I believe that God made him sick) and I do believe there is something greater than all of us, some sort of pattern or invisible fabric that connects us, but I don't think of this fabric as the God of my childhood, up in the sky, writing our fates in the Book of Life, making plans. I guess I don't believe in God as micromanager.
You talk about the between space, being still and empty, and how helpful that can be. But how difficult is that for a novelist to do that, when the urge to create story, to make meaning out of everything, is so large? Or, is that ability to make story a kind of salvation?
I think that space between being still and being empty is enormously helpful to anyone doing creative work! It's where it all happens. When my mind is cluttered with the million things I need to do, or worse, with the toxic crap of: why did she say that, and I should have done this and I feel guilty about x, y, or z thing, that is not |conducive to any kind of creative mindset. When my mind empties during meditation—even if just for a few seconds—I think that's where the seeds of creative work reside. And yes, Caroline, I absolutely think that being able to create a story is a kind of salvation. Don't you? I think we novelists are enormously fortunate to be able to take some of those seeds—the yogis word for this kind of seed is samskara—and build stories out of them. Otherwise, at least for me, they sit there and fester. In the silence, this is where I find them.
You also write about midlife when those losses get larger and we know they will continue to increase—and how you grappled with them and discovered that being in the moment, that just standing there and paying attention helps. Do you think you could have accepted this kind of knowledge in your twenties? Does it all have something to do with being in midlife
Oh, I don't think I could possibly have accepted this kind of knowledge in my twenties. It's so much a midlife thing. When I was about halfway through writingDevotion, my agent called one day and asked how I was. I told her I felt like I was staring straight at the sun. The foreknowledge of loss—of loss being the way of life—is something that the Buddhists know and teach so eloquently. Carl Jung terms midlife (which he defines as everyone over the age of 35) the afternoon of life. He also says that the knowledge and tools we attained in life's morning—in our youth, in our twenties—is of little use in the afternoon. How true this is! We have to keep opening ourselves to the truth of what is, otherwise we become...I don't know...somehow stunted. My fear, at this point in my life, of being stunted is greater than my fear of recognizing the truth of loss and change.
What are you working on now, and what question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask you?
No, these are great questions and there's nothing I'd rather be thinking about! I'm getting ready for the publication of Devotion, and trying to stay in the same mindset as I have been for the past two or three years since embarking on this journey. I'm working on small things, but the big thing for the moment is this.
I have been missing my characters lately. We have friends staying with us, and we are having the most amazing time, and they are the most wonderful house guests, but my writing time has been scarce. It seems that when I have the time, (they are generous friends who insist that I make time to write) my characters go into hiding and make themselves unavailable. They whine that we only have a few hours together and demand whole days and nights and sulk when they can not get it.
Alas, I thankfully got 12 pages out before our friends arrived and 3 more while they are here, which is great, and tomorrow I will indulge my characters and once again give them my undivided attention for 5 whole days. A friend of mine once said that writing takes space...physical, mental, psychological, and she was right. Writing takes time, and not just the time one spends at the keyboard. These days if I only have 2 hours, I get nothing done. It takes me 2 hours just to find my groove. I have awesome headphones to block out noise, but I also seem to need to be able to close a door, so that my visual stimuli is blocked out too. This is why I am unable to write in coffee shops, too many things going on that I can not control, not to mention too many pastries!
Seeing as my office becomes the guest room when we have company, and I lose my private space to write, I decided to order a narrow desk on line and stick it in our bedroom, so that I have somewhere to go. It means that the dogs will have to give up their crate, but as they have taken over the whole bed anyway, I decided that this is a sacrifice that they could make. And I got it in a gorgeous mustardy yellow!
Soon I will have a little retreat for when company comes. A place to go and hide out for a few hours each day, without being tempted to play. And maybe, just maybe, when my characters learn that I have bought us a new desk...they will stop sulking and come out and join me.
As I had written earlier, this week is all over the map, and as a result, well, so is my blog. I am trying to just go with the flow. This has always been a big lesson of mine to learn, to not be so rigid, to be flexible, to somehow have greater acceptance for the lack of scheduling and normalcy that my life as an artist holds. As a reformed compulsive list maker, I used to make copious to-do lists and schedule everything. I would tell people that it was the only way that I would get things done, but the truth of the matter is, that it was the only way that I would be able to relax about the fact that my life didn't run on a 9-5 (well, 7-8 now) day like everyone else. Although I had been an artist my whole life, I craved what I thought that everybody but me had...structure.
Over time I have learned to make that structure for myself out of unstructured days that have no time card to punch, no insistence of schedule, no punishment for straying from the plan. I still have my lists, but they are looser. Walk the dogs, exercise, write, e-mail, cook, write some more. And when I am doing freelance work or auditioning, these things get added to the mix. I no longer have to write or work out at a certain time to feel like I am accomplishing what I need to get done, I just have to get it done at some point during the day, and it seems to work.
However, the only thing that really trips me up is being away from my computer, and lately as we have had house guests, that has been happening quite a lot, and I realized that I have a very hard time writing any other way than on a laptop at my desk. What happened to all those journals and notepads that I used to carry around and spill my thoughts into? What happened to writing with a pen? When did my brain only learn to communicate my thoughts to a keyboard?
Yesterday, I decided that I needed to break this habit and once again practice being flexible. And so after a tour of the Getty's grounds and a lovely lunch outside, I stayed behind as our friends went to look at the paintings inside and wrote...on a notepad...and it was hard. I liken it to old school calisthenics, no fancy weight machines for my brain, it just had to drop and give me 25o...words...at a time. I managed to eek out two pages in an hour and a half. Two hand written pages, so probably more like a page typed, and today I will see if I can even read my handwriting. My brain has gotten used to my faster typing hands, and it has a hard time with my clumsy messy handwriting. Hopefully some of it will be legible, and I will once again start to carry a notepad around with me, so that I can work anytime... anywhere.
We have dear friends in for a few weeks visiting, and as Monday was Presidents Day and a holiday, we took advantage of the fact that the phone wouldn't ring by going away for an overnight visit to wine country.
Monday we drove up to Solvang, (a 3 hour trip thanks to traffic) visited some gorgeous vineyards and then had dinner overnight in a cute little town called Los Olivos. The weather was perfect, the wine was delicious and the setting...gorgeous. Tuesday we visited a beautiful organic winery called Sunstone and then headed to Santa Barbara for lunch, a walk on the beach and the sunset...stunning. It really does help to remind myself that California, isn't Los Angeles, and that there is so much more to do and see outside of the city. I still can't really believe that I live here, surrounded by mountains and ocean and having friends see the sights with fresh eyes, really reminds me, just how amazing this place is.
Of course having friends stay with us, also means that my calendar is all off whack, and so is my blog, so apologies for that. I want to visit when people are good enough to make the long trip down here to see us, and I want to keep moving forward in my writing. This is easier said than done of course, but one thing that seems to really help me, is to keep my characters alive with me and when I go to sleep at night, try and dream what is going to happen to them next. Well, I am having some crazy dreams, not all about my novel, but about complicated stories with great plots and twists and turns, and I can only think that my subconscious is working out problems in my novel, doing test runs with these dreams. I hope. Now if I could only write in my sleep, that would be something!
Yesterday Jeff and I spent the day with a very dear friend of ours whom we've known since she was 8 years old. We were her witnesses for her wedding. She is 22 now, and an incredibly beautiful and talented young woman. Her name is Katie and I adore her. Although years separate us, Katie and I have always shared a special bond. We are alike in so many ways, and have shared so many similar experiences that it is uncanny. We did our first television series together, her mom a brilliant director, gave me my first role in a feature film, and my husband and Katie have worked together a bunch of times as well. We both adore our families and talk to our moms everyday and when she is in L.A. we are Katie's L.A. family.
Once we had our families together for brunch and they were just shaking their heads at how alike we are, both now and also how much I was like Katie when I was younger. I felt the wind move, as my husband liked to say. I loved deeply, hurt deeply, gave freely and often, wanted a big life and a big love (still do!) and often felt out of place with people my own age, earning me the label of an old soul. It's amazing to look at someone 16 years younger and see not just so much of myself, but also how much further ahead they are in figuring some things out that I didn't get a handle on, until years later. Well, yesterday Katie married Glenn, a fabulous Irishmen that she has known and loved for years, enduring a long distance relationship and much travel. She asked us to be her witnesses at City Hall and we were honored to do so. The only thing is, I had never met Glenn! We had managed to cross paths with every visit!! I hoped I liked him, (I knew I would), I hoped he was as wonderful as Katie said he was (he is) and on the car ride up to Ventura County, I realized that I was talking to Glenn like I had known him forever. Some people are like that. Sometimes you just know...this is someone I am going to like. This is someone I am going to love. And when that happens, it is the strangest and most wonderful feeling.
I felt that way the first time I met my husband, at 22 the same age as Katie, and although I didn't know if it would be forever, I knew that it would be...something that involved the two of us, and I wanted to know more. I wanted to set out on an adventure with this person and see if we couldn't grow and evolve, alongside one another, walking next to each other all the way. There have been ups and there have been downs, and we have weathered some trying times, but we have done it together, and love each other more for it. In each other we have found a true partner, someone to take on this big adventure that we call marriage. There are so many reasons people get married, everyone's different, and yesterday when Katie and Glenn were excited and nervous, I asked them what their reason was, they said that they loved each other and wanted to be together. Well, I can not think of a better reason than that.
All the best you two....
Caroline is the award winning author of eight novels, most recently Girls in Trouble, which was a Booksense Selection and is now in its third printing. Look for her new book Pictures of You coming out from Algonquin this Spring 2010.
Miller, the author ofWelcome to Heavenly Heights, agreed to let me ask her some questions-thank you, Risa!
I’ve read a few articles, notably one in the NYT, which label you as an Orthodox writer. Both your first novel,Welcome to Heavenly Heights and My Before and After Life deal with Jewish Orthodox Religion which informs, changes, and transcends the characters’ lives. Do you think labels like these are confining, or do you simply feel that our subjects choose us, rather than the other way around?
Alas, no car chases, chemical explosions, or Harlequin love scenes in my book. But if you want to fall down the rabbit hole of family secrets...then you are in luck.
Alas I have 2 new things to make me smile when my back stiffens up and my arms feel like they might fall off from typing so much....wine gums and cue cards.
The cue cards are for helping me map my novel out and I have written every scene and thread up until page 176 on them! It's great to be able to flip through and check something out on the cards, rather than scrolling through my whole novel when I need to.
And the wine gums are from Canada. This packet has remained closed since last September when my folks visited! Talk about restraint. I have found only one or two specialty shops that sell small roles of these weirdly delicious gummy candies. My mother and I can polish off the whole bag, which makes opening the bag, a big decision! But this week, an easy one.
Who out there would like to be my guest? We can talk about what you do, we can talk about what you like, we can talk and talk and talk...and then I will transcribe it and share it with everyone! Come on, don't be shy....you know you want to! Let me know...
Last night our first houseguest of 4 this month, arrived. I had spent the day doing crazy, we-have-a guest-coming- things! These usually include small projects like cleaning the house,transforming my office daybed to guest bed, arranging flowers, doing laundry and grocery shopping, to larger ones like obsessing over the garden, trimming the trees, mulching, raking, washing front steps and windows. At about 4:30, I finally showered and then sat at my desk and did homework, critiqued a fellow writer friend's excellent pages and stewed about my own writing. By 10:00pm I was done and our friends plane was delayed. I wanted to stay up, so I made another homemade soup, hoping that the cleaning and chopping would help me stay awake, and it did. Finally, just before midnight our friend Frank arrived and it was just after 1:00am when we all got to sleep. Six and a half hours later, I am up and back at it. The house is quiet, the guys have gone golfing and I am ready to have a day tackling a huge scene in my novel. I want to work my butt off, so that I can play tonight. That's the thing about guests, their visits are like sweet rewards that make all the effort worth it!
Last night, finally a small breakthrough. After getting 170 pages into my new novel and having stalled at the excruciatingly painful middle, for months, eeking out a page at a time, I finally saw some light on the pathway to the end that I have written. After much hair pulling, random note taking and mapping, I decided to TALK it out with my husband. Jeff often reads my work part way through and he is a master of plot and structure, but more importantly he possesses this amazing gift for summarizing things. Now this gift can alternately make me crazy and envious in my regular life, but in my writing life it is a wonder!
Last night I decided, instead of giving Jeff what I had written so far, I would tell him the story, and see if it made any sense. I told him what I had, what I knew, what I didn't know yet, but sensed and where it all took me. At the end of my rambling, he said, "So what's the problem? It sounds like you have it all there..." ??? What?! Was he crazy?! No, he was right, I knew that, and it wasn't the first time I have heard it, my mentor had told me the same thing, but there were big holes and I didn't know how to fill them and I really didn't know what had happened with one of my characters, and so we talked some more. And in talking I was able to really see the gaps, in my story, the threads that could go somewhere but didn't yet and most importantly, I hadn't found a way in. It's like I had all these colors swirling around, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple...and then Jeff would go...rainbow. Yes! Rainbow. Sometimes we are staring so hard at the details of something that we miss the whole of what we have created, the obvious, the through lines that connect all the parts to make a whole, and it takes outside eyes or ears to help show us.
One of the things that Jeff and I talked about afterward while eating the meal that I had compulsively cooked while talking, was the difference between the right side and the left side of the brain. There is a strong theory and a great book called "Drawing On The Right Side of The Brain", that basically refers to the right side as the creative side and the left side as the analytical side and that the mere act of putting pen in hand or fingers on keyboard removes us one step away from that creative right sided source as we can not help but filter and censor and analyze what it is we are writing, rather than just telling the story. This doesn't happen when we are speaking, well not as much, and that is why talking it out was so helpful. For me it is similar to, to what Robert Olen Butler refers to in his book on writing fiction, "From Where You Dream", the dream state; that place where you are just living and breathing the story and the characters and then writing them.
Now I think I have an idea of where I might be going. I have put all my mapping notes on cue cards and cleared the erase board so that I can draw where I am going next. I am both relieved and full of anxiety, as I now KNOW just how much work I have to do. But it sure beats not knowing.