Nuggets in a heap of stones



There’s a website called “Blogs Just In” that tracks blogs in sixteen categories: art, books, divination (!), gadget reviews, gardening, and so on, including Writing & Publishing. Twelve blogs are listed in Writing & Publishing, mine among them, though I don’t recall how TBUHB got there. TBUHB has some excellent company—Jungle Red Writers, Jane Friedman, a couple of others—as well as some less-good company.

However, even in the less-good company (the stones) there are useful bits to be found (the nuggets). Two valuable sentences resided in a strictly…hmm, what’s the right way to say this?…nonprofessional blog called The Write Practice. (That’s the link, but if you like The Book Under Her Bed, I suspect TWP won’t be for you.)

The sentences I found in The Write Practice were these: You need to ask this question every time you sit down to write. How can you make your writing more you? 

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Girl Group member Barbara Ginsberg, who is writing a riveting memoir. In this Age of Memoirs, no memoirist can help but ask, Why am I writing a memoir when there are so many memoirs already? Why would anyone want to read another memoir?

This is like asking, Why would you want to write a novel when so many novels already exist?

If you’re a serious writer, you write what you need to write. It’s not your job to scour the market, find an underserved category, and write for that category. It is your job to find your originality and write it, whether it’s memoir, fiction, personal essay, or anything else. It’s also your job to be responsible for and to your talent, to foster your thinking, to improve your skills constantly, and to do your work.

How can you make your writing more you? is an important question. It suggests its opposite: Why is your writing not you enough?, an even more important question. Are you trying to sound like some other writer? Are you imitating Hemingway, Mailer, Krakauer, Lethem, Grisham, King? Meyer, Rowling, Smiley, Erdrich, Lamott, Flynn?

These are writers who invested in their own visions and voices, who brought themselves to their work. They had no guarantee of success; no one does. But each had (or has) the understanding that what s/he had to say and the way s/he had to say it was the only possible way for her or him to write.

This is not to imply that you don’t learn from reading other writers. You learn a great deal from reading other writers; some of it goes into your toolbox and some of it goes into the garbage. All of it is used in the service of finding your own voice: “more you.” 

There’s another danger you risk if you don’t make your writing “more you“: you can find yourself writing in a generic manner that is uninteresting to a serious reader.

“Too generic” is a critique I’ve often invoked with clients and students—and one I’ve leveled at my own work at times too. Generic writing reflects a spectrum of writers’ flaws: laziness, shortage of ideas, reliance on other people’s work, imitation, obviousness, watching too much television and too many movies. Writing generically will people your fiction with stock characters—the Good Mom, the Bad Kid, the Nosy Neighbor, the Nasty Boss—and chewed-over situations, flavorless and boring. It will make your memoir just a history of what happened and to whom it happened.

What lifts any writing above the generic, the imitative, the clichéd is “more you,” if you have talent and originality. If you have talent and originality, they belong in your writing. More you.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Petunia’s Place, Fresno, CA

Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, NC

Galápagos Books, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

When you read this I’ll be on a train from NYC to Richmond, VA to visit my oldest nephew Gideon Javna  and his new fiancée Alexandra Arsura for the weekend. They are the lure, of course, but the seven-hour train trip (each way!) is not the least of the enticement. Hours and hours to write, think, write, make notes, mull new blog posts. In the Quiet Car, with any luck.

I’m hardly alone in my love of trains as venues for working…Read “The Little Writing Prize That Could,” from the NYT of September 25. This idea, initiated by Amtrak, though suggested by writer Alexander Chee, is pure genius. Don’t expect to win the train-travel prize any too soon, though: Amtrak received over 16,000 applications for twenty-four spots.



Following Sendak to Connecticut, via the Cumberland Mountains


A small article in the New York Times, Philadelphia Museum Losing Its Maurice Sendak Collection,” tells us that the Rosenbach Museum and Library will be turning over more than 10,000 Sendak drawings and other items to the Maurice Sendak Foundation. The foundation intends to create a strictly-Sendak museum in Ridgefield, CT.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1928 and died in Connecticut in 2012, and in his eighty-three years wrote and illustrated some of the most beloved and controversial children’s books of our time. You know them all.

But here’s something I’ll bet you don’t know: Between 1951, when Sendak first made illustrations for a children’s book (The Wonderful Farm, by Marcel Aymé), and 1956, when he wrote and illustrated his own first children’s book, he made ink drawings for a book called Singing Family of the Cumberlands, by folksinger Jean Ritchie.IMG_0396

Singing Family was published in 1955 by Oxford University Press, and it is one of the most charming and affecting memoirs you’ll ever read, written long before the emergence of tell-all family stories—yet it’s full of drama, romance, comedy, tragedy, and American history. IMG_0397Ritchie, born in 1922, describes growing up in tiny Viper, Kentucky, deep in the Cumberland Mountains—the southern Appalachians—with her parents and thirteen older brothers and sisters.

Hardscrabble farming and raising some animals sustained them, but the most important activity for the Ritchies was music: singing (especially ballads), often accompanied by mountain dulcimer. In her memoir Ritchie includes the words and music to many of the songs she later sang at festivals, and recorded as well.

My mother owned all her records; I grew up knowing that reedy southern voice very well. But it was the memoir I adored, almost to the point of pain, certainly to the point of being unwilling to share the actual book with anyone: I borrowed it permanently from my parents when I left for college. Some years later, in a moment of madness, I loaned it to a friend who not only took his time returning it but appeared, for a brief while, to have misplaced it. I’ve never let it out of my hands since then.

What I loved so much in Singing Family of the Cumberlands was the value Ritchie’s community placed on a fine storyteller and a well-told story; I loved also the intimate view of family life, the privilege of looking in through the Ritchies’ windows. I loved learning about a tradition almost unimaginably different from my own.

And all of the stories were enhanced by Brooklyn-born Maurice Sendak’s gentle, respectful drawings. There are only thirteen chapters and only one drawing at the head of each chapter—not very many drawings, but they are as eloquent as the memoir. It was many years before it dawned on me that those drawings were by that Maurice Sendak.

Singing Family of the Cumberlands is still available in paperback, even from non-Amazon sources: try Powell’s,, Alibris, Barnes & Noble.

For a real treat, listen to Jean Ritchie talk about writing and publishing Singing Family.

 SIDEBAR: Maurice Sendak hated e-books.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers, Farmington, ME

Island Books, Mercer Island, WA

Nicola’s Books, Ann Arbor, MI

Do you know it’s Banned Book Week? IMG_0464

Indeed it is, and this article called “Banned & Challenged Classics,” which you’ll find on the website of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, will tell you all you need to know. It will make your eyes pop and your jaw drop too.

The list is a shocker—Of Mice and Men?—and also NOT a shocker. But what got to me even more than this list is the fact that the American Library Association actually has an Office for Intellectual Freedom. That discovery made me cry.

Librarians are just plain amazing.

The jolt, part 2


Last Thursday, September 18, I posted “Tales of the Girl Group: the jolt, part 1,” about jolting two members of the Girl Group out of their book outlines and into their actual manuscripts. It was inadvertently easy: To get them moving, I gave them an assignment to write something playful, and as soon as they realized they didn’t want to do the assignment they got down to writing their books.

The point of a jolt is to move you from running in place to running. To kidnap you from writing that’s repetitive and going nowhere, and transport you to writing that has energy and substance.  The deliberate writing kind of jolt (as opposed to the accidental jolt described above) turns you temporarily away from the work you’re not doing and gets you writing something completely different. It’s a little like taking a busman’s holiday, but more fun.

Jolts come in all sorts of forms, lengths, topics, and moods. What they have in common is that they’re not like the writing you’ve been doing. If you’re writing a memoir about your family, a jolt could be a short story or a poem. If you’re mired in a novel, a jolt could be a memory piece about your grandmother. If you’re working too hard on a collection of nonfiction essays, a jolt might be writing a fairy tale. Of course you can’t write something you’re completely unsuited to—poetry isn’t for everyone—but there’s always some new direction you can go, just for a short time.

  1. Write a dialogue between your parents. Not a dialogue you’ve actually heard—a dialogue you hope never to hear.
  2. Write a huge, screaming fight between two close friends. Do they get past it?
  3. Describe, in detail, a place you love. Invoke all your senses—but don’t explain why you love the place; that should be revealed in what you write about it.
  4. Write a one-act play.
  5. Write a short story in the genre of fantasy or science fiction.
  6. Describe the worst, most humiliating experience you had in high school.
  7. Write a short-short story about your favorite painting. The story behind the painting? Or the story that happens in front of the painting?
  8. Write a memory piece about a relative you love dearly. It should be so touching that you make yourself cry.
  9. Write a memory piece about a relative you loathe—no holds barred. Get enraged.
  10. Find a photograph you’ve never seen before, one you really like, and write a narrative about it.
  11. Take one paragraph from a story you wrote a while ago and expand it to ten pages.
  12. Write a short epistolary story. That means letters sent between characters, or letters sent by one person, which add up to a story.
  13. Tell about a sexual encounter—good, bad, or indifferent. Details, please.
  14. Invent three short poems about three times of the day. Make them work together.
  15. Write a children’s story you would have loved when you were five.
  16. Write a biting political satire.
  17. Describe the best meal you’ve ever had, where you had it, and with whom (if anyone).
  18. Tell a story about a journey—any kind of journey.
  19. Your beloved pet—need I say more?
  20. Write a song. Make it long.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, MA

Full Circle Bookstore, Oklahoma City, OK

Diesel, a Book Store, Oakland, CA

creepy, creepier, creepiest

This is it: Amazon at its creepiest, aside from its business tactics. The Campfire Weekend.

You’ll notice that all Bezos asked and asks in exchange for this lavish, gift-loaded writers’ getaway weekend is…silence.

No attendee was or is supposed to talk about this event. And they pretty much have not–until now. And now they’re talking about it because they’re not invited this year, because they took a stand against Amazon.

That agreement to silence, by writers no less, is just as shocking as the Machiavellian weekend itself. I didn’t think it was even possible to silence writers. Didn’t certain writers who attended notice a slight cognitive dissonance in the Santa Fe air?

plant dreaming deep 

I’ve borrowed, respectfully, the title of one of May Sarton’s memoirs to lure you into reading this article from The Millions: “The Profits of Dreaming: On Fiction and Sleep,” by Chloe Benjamin.

It’s a little bit all over the place, but the interesting parts are very interesting. Here’s a taste:

But in the absence of conclusive evidence, sleep’s utility—like that of fiction—is still in doubt. How much, in the end, does either one matter? Neither fiction nor dreams are what we call “real life,” that conscious space sandwiched in the sunny hours of each day. No matter how vital my dreams are to me, they—like my writing—exist in the margins of my daily life, the shadowed wings to either side of whatever action is happening onstage. The decrease in the financial support and cultural priority allotted to all forms of the arts has enhanced the sense that what writers are doing is not quite a job, not quite worth professional payment—not quite, well, necessary.

The all-over-the-place-ness is the result of trying to cram too many fascinating topics into one article: sleep, night dreaming, daydreaming, the quality and use of dreams, the relationship of dreams to fiction, reading and writing fiction, and…arts funding. Scattered, but definitely worth reading.

Tales of the Girl Group: the jolt, part 1


About three years ago, two members of the Girl Group were struggling with the problem of how to write what they wanted to write. Each knew her topic and her general subject matter but could not decide how to shape the material into a coherent structure for a book-length work. Both writers were making outlines, outlines, and more outlines.

They were getting nowhere, but they were convinced that if only they could get the outlines “right” they’d be able to start their manuscripts. The deeper problem, though, was that each was coming down from a grueling year of issues that had nothing to do with the writing they wanted to be doing. Neither could find focus because their heads were still full of leftover overload.

Every writer has been there. For some writers, writing is the way to work themselves out of a headful of junk; for other writers, trying to write before they clear out the mess is an exercise in futility. Another way of saying this: some writers respond to more pressure; other writers have to get free of pressure before ideas begin to flow again. And for yet other writers, a little of each can get them moving forward—a three-hour push of writing followed by a bike ride or choir practice or a movie.

You probably know (or think you know) which kind of writer you are. I wasn’t sure, at that time, which category either of these two GG members belonged to, but they definitely needed an assignment that would give them a jolt.

What  you need is a change of plan, not a change of outline. I would like each of you to put aside for the moment all notions of work and think only of play. I would like each of you to write only something that is fun and pleasurable. No heavy dissections of life, no complex behavioral analyses. Let all that go for the moment.

Sit down and write something that delights you. Something frivolous or funny or sexy or silly. It might be about food or clothes or your childhood best friend. The first time you French-kissed. The best manicure you ever had. How much you hated your English teacher or your sibling. Anything that you will enjoy writing about. That’s your assignment.

Many painters—when they’ve had too much of the heavy-duty painting—go back to simple, entertaining, undemanding media. Like paper and crayons. I’m suggesting that you do the same, for now. The point is to write, not to write War and Peace.

Free your mind; stop being so demanding. Being demanding will only freeze you up even more. Give your unconscious some recuperative time. While you’re writing things that give you pleasure (instead of torture), your psyche will be relaxing and hatching new ideas.

Did these two woman take my excellent advice? They did not. What we found out simply by my suggesting that they lighten up for a while was that they weren’t experiencing resistance or avoidance; they were just confused, running in place. They needed to be shoved into making a choice, and giving them an assignment forced them into choosing: do I want to play for a while or do I want to take on the bigger work?

Neither of them wanted to lighten up: the very idea of lightening up and having fun shocked them. Gave them a jolt. They swung into gear, ditched the obsessive outlining, and started writing.

Does that mean my advice was bad? It does not. My advice was good—for someone who needs a time-out to try something different before returning to her primary work. If you’re that person and you’re obsessing over some part of your work, consider giving yourself a temporary writing assignment that will help you break out of repetitive writing behavior.

MONDAY’S POST will be “The jolt, part 2: 15 temporary writing assignments to jolt you out of whatever you need jolting out of.” Don’t miss it.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO

Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, VT

Hicklebee’s, San Jose, CA

Reader’s Diary: What I didn’t read this summer

IMG_0071When I was ten, eleven, twelve I’d give myself summer reading projects. There was, for instance, a summer of reading adventure novels: Nordhoff and Hall’s Bounty Trilogy, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Pimpernel. I had no idea that these were not “girl” books; to me they seemed romantic, and far, far removed from Tenafly, New Jersey. More than enough to ask from any book.

I begin every adult summer hopefully, optimistically, with plans to read dozens of books—because, like so many of us, somewhere in my head I retain the childhood notion that summers are long, even endless. They go on for dozens and dozens of weeks! Freedom! Time! Leisure! Cool, quiet corners and shady, leafy hideaways…

This, as we know, is a complete fantasy. Summers are short, maximum three months, if you count June (and I do). They are barely a dozen weeks long. They offer no more freedom than any other season (less, if your kids are home for the summer), there are the usual twenty-four hours per day, and leisure is more of a concept than a reality. As for quiet corners and leafy hideaways, I live in Manhattan where there is no quiet and very few hideaways that aren’t hotel bars.

Nonetheless, each year I begin my summer reading program with misplaced enthusiasm, and this year I believe I’ve achieved a lifetime record in unfinished books.

  • Robert Oppenheimer: a life inside the center; Ray Monk
  • The Interestings; Meg Wollitzer
  • The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories
  • Union Street; Pat Barker
  • The Stranger’s Child; Alan Hollinghurst
  • Unorthodox: the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic roots; Deborah Feldman
  • My Father and Myself; J.R Ackerley
  • The Headmaster’s Wife; Thomas Christopher Greene
  • Savage Beauty: the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay; Nancy Milford
  • A Tidewater Morning: three tales from youth; William Styron
  • Where the God of Love Hangs Out; Amy Bloom
  • During the Reign of the Queen of Persia; Joan Chase
  • Dream Date: stories; Jean McGarry
  • My Age of Anxiety: fear, hope, dread, and the search for peace of mind; Scott Stossel
  • Best American Short Stories 
  • Burn Lake; Carrie Fountain
  • The Lost Art of Dress: the women who once made America stylish; Linda Przybyszewski
  • Thunderstruck & Other Stories; Elizabeth McCracken
  • Showing the Flag; Jane Gardam
  • The Friendly Persuasion; Jessamyn West
  • The World of Suzie Wong; Richard Mason
  • Bad Blood: a memoir; Lorna Sage

On the other hand, I did finish with pleasure the following:

  • Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It; Maile Meloy
  • Liars and Saints; Maile Meloy
  • Regeneration; Pat Barker
  • Trailerpark; Russell Banks
  • Come to Me: stories; Amy Bloom

Time to think about what books I won’t be finishing in the fall. Suggestions welcome.


FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, NC

Book Hampton, East Hampton, NY

Murder by the Book, Houston, TX


The last lines say it all: if it hadn’t been Hachette, it would have been another publisher. Amazon is being Amazon. Have a look at this, from the NYT.