Sunday, February 28, 2010

Talking Art: Middle Eastern Beauty

Copyright 2006 Said Nuseibeh. All rights reserved.

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

“In addition to investigating my cultural heritage and selfishly seeking personal creative inspiration, my cultural or political mission is to break the narrow and negative confines of contemporary stereotypes and give viewers access to a wider galaxy of Islamic and Arab experience.

Audiences in the west rarely get the opportunity to see Islamic culture free from violence, anger, poverty, despair all of which seem to be the contemporary fruit of European colonization. To the extent that these images move us towards an opening of hearts and minds, I will be honored.” Said Nuseibeh
Said Nuseibeh’s photographs are much more than pretty pictures, though many of them depict a level of manmade beauty that is rare in any age. His photos, like this one, "Domes at Dusk," of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, provide a gateway into a culture and history that many of us in the United States will never experience or witness firsthand.

As he notes above, Said uses his art to build bridges. Like a lot of writers, musicians, and visual artists, in answering his own questions, he is creating understanding for the rest of us as well. As he writes on his website,

“Perhaps this explains how a boy whose mother grew up across a canyon from Edward Weston and whose father was dispossessed of his native Jerusalem, grew up himself between San Francisco and Appalachia, and ultimately exercised photography to build new connectivities and bridge disparate worlds.”

The warm golden glow of the magnificent dome captured in this image not only helps me see the beauty of this far-off land, it makes me want to know more about the people who built it. And it confirms what many in my country don't understand: The people living in that part of the world are like us. They love their children, they love beauty, and they want to live their lives in peace.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Never Open a Book with Weather

By David Biddle for Talking Writing

Laura Miller has a nice little writerly piece in today called "A Reader's Advice to Writers." It stems from a fabulous two-part presentation in The Guardian providing bulleted advice from 20+ writers. All three of these are worth your time (after you write today).

Miller's piece at Salon is as useful, if not better, than most of the ones at The Guardian (to my mind). We can learn more than we know from readers -- although I disagree with her point that readers usually don't care about the quality of the writing. All readers were forced to write in school for 15 years or so. Everyone likes to read good, interesting prose, especially if the characters, plot, theme, and setting are also interesting.

The Guardian's set of lists was inspired by Elmore Leonard's original list of "Ten Rules of Writing." If you're going to read just one author's advice list, his is the one. Leonard's points are quite similar to James Ellroy's in the Fall 2009 Paris Review. Their thoughts and ruminations on craft, plotting and character are funny, spot on, and hard to put into practice.

The advice lists are presented by The Guardian in alphabetic order. Part I runs from Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle and Richard Ford to Jonathan Franzen and PD James, among others. (As an aside, once again Jonathan Franzen worries me. I just don't think he knows what he's doing. Will someone tell him to stop taking himself so seriously?) Part II includes Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, and Zadie Smith.

The most important advice some of these writer's give: Read your story out loud (I do this in front of a mirror sometimes).

The worst advice -- or something I refuse to believe here in 2010 -- is that you shouldn't write connected to the Internet (watch for my next submission here on the new frontiers of publishing).

The logical thing for me to close with is my own advice to writers. I'm not going to do that. I have five points posted on a bulletin board somewhere in our house, but until I've published a book or two, I think my words would be rather silly.

I close, then, with two pieces of advice I was looking for but never found:

1). Get your spouse to read what you write first and listen to what they say because more than likely they're right (if you're not married, good luck!).

2). Understand that being a successful writer and good writing are two different things and that none of the advice most writers give has any real thing to do with being successful. Success in the writing world is no different than success in business, sports or politics -- you need quality product, for sure, but you also need to be a pit bull, pay attention to details, have a sense of humor, fake it when you have to, and be lucky as hell.

All the best to you as spring and the 2010 baseball season approach!

Photo credit:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Searching for Max Perkins: Are Writers Groups the New Editors?

By Elizabeth Langosy for Talking Writing

I have a smattering of books that address the relationship between writers and their editors. In nearly every case, the editor was Scribner’s legendary Maxwell Perkins.

Browsing through Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence and Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, it’s clear that Max, in addition to serving as editor extraordinaire, was literary advisor (Max to Scott: If the Cosmop would give you $30 or $40,000 for the serial, I think the only strong argument that could be advanced against taking it would be the quality of the magazine.), book club leader (Ernest to Max: There were too many bayonets in it somehow. If you are writing a book that isn’t romantic and has that as one of its greatest assets it is a shame to get awfully romantic about bayonets.), bank account (Scott to Max: I see by the memo that I have had a $3,243.00 advance... Could I have $500.00 more?), and friend (Ernest to Max: Wish you could come down... We could make a whole succession of new good old days...).

My single experience of working with a book editor was highly professional—no insider gossip or savvy career advice. Long story short: My husband and I wrote a detective novel, had it placed by our agent as the first in a new series of mysteries, worked with the series editor for six months to get it in final shape, then had it rejected by the publisher at the last minute because he wanted the first five years of the new series to feature previously published authors (which we were not). Our agent shifted his focus from book to film writers, detective novels fell out of fashion, and I went back to penning short stories. All this happened 25 years ago. I really have no idea what sort of support one can expect from the average book editor of 2010.

Where, then, does a writer like me find both encouragement for my efforts and hard-nosed critiques of my work? While developing the list of Max Perkins’s value to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the other authors he nurtured, I realized that I could well be listing everything I value in the members of my writers group. Well, maybe I haven’t hit them up for $500, but they have come through for me in the difficult periods in my life. Could my writers group be my Max Perkins?

Max journeyed to Key West (in his suit, tie, and jaunty cap) to fish with Ernest Hemingway. My writers group travels from New Hampshire and various Boston-area towns for potluck dinners, story critiques, and mutual commiseration. A writers group as small and long-lived as mine is a sacred trust. You know everything about each other, and that knowledge is both helpful and traumatic when you’re called upon to be brutally honest about a creative effort.

As with the members of my writers group, Max Perkins was an excellent editor and softened his criticisms with praise. In most cases, his suggestions appear to have been well-taken (Ernest to Max: We’ve eliminated Belloc, changed Hergesheimer’s name, made Henry James Henry, made Roger Prescott into Roger Prentiss, and unfitted the bulls for a reproductive function).

My writers group alerts me to useless minor characters, unintended changes in point of view, and places where getting too close to “what really happened” actually weakens the story. Their suggestions for word changes and additional illuminating sentences can be so superlative that I can’t think of any alternatives and use them verbatim. Then I’m racked with guilt and doubt. Does this mean the story is no longer my own? Even if only one suggested sentence in an entire story has been used verbatim, I can torture myself by imagining that critics in the distant future will point out that specific sentence as an (undeserved) example of my writing excellence.

When I began editing the long (60-page) short story I recently completed, I realized that I had another model of productive editing, different from both the long-distance communiqu├ęs of Max and company and the intense meetings of my writers group. During my long (now ended) tenure at Harvard University, I worked closely with a colleague on the final editing of reports and proposals. We sat side by side for days on end, reviewing documents one line at a time. One of our primary goals was to ensure that each sentence was both accurate and understandable even to someone who knew nothing about the proposed or reported project. When problems were identified, we made a highly effective team in brainstorming solutions.

I asked this colleague, Judy, if she would help me edit my story using the same method that worked so well for the dozens of reports and proposals we finalized over the years. The experience ended up being phenomenal. Due to our differing schedules and the length of the story, we weren’t able to work side by side on the entire piece as I originally had hoped, but we did have one long afternoon session that was both very productive and more fun than diligent work is supposed to be.

Judy also read through the entire story and was especially astute at identifying previously overlooked places where a reader might question the accuracy of a word or concept. Her very first comment was on the names I’d chosen for my main characters (Judy to Elizabeth: I don’t really like the names–Chloe is too out of the ordinary and her parents probably wouldn’t have come up with that 40-50 years ago. Ishmael is too distracting...). I located a website that tracks government statistics on the use of names and found that she was right. The two names were not only generally uncommon (particularly Ishmael) but were given to few, if any, babies born in the 1950’s and 60’s. Because I didn’t want others to get bogged down by questioning the names, I changed them to ones that I verified were popular during that time period.

I have never been as pleased with the final version of one of my short stories as I am with this one. I’m sure this is due in large part to my recent retirement and my ability to now work on my writing all day, every day, for weeks on end if I choose to. But I also believe that my composite Max Perkins served me well.

How do you undertake the editing process? Who do you turn to? Do publishing houses still have a Max Perkins on staff or is this role filled in a different way today?