Forget about MFAs and consider voice

Now, I don’t have an MFA and so maybe that’s why I especially like the article I’m about to talk about. MFAs are okay–especially if you want to teach or if you want to be in a writing environment for a couple of years–but they are just not necessary if you want to be a writer. I known so many writers who, when they don’t get into the MFA program of choice, believe, if only for a little while, that they’ve failed, somehow, as a writer. What is necessary for a writer is not an MFA but the cultivation of that esoteric thing called voice.

In the July August issue of Poets & Writers, James Frey, author of My Friend Leonard

, talks about voice.

Writer Daniel Nester says, “One thing that occurred to Frey was that most of the wriers he loves–Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Celine, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac and Bukowski–taught themselves how to write. ‘They didn’t go to school for it, they didn’t have mentors who explained to them how to do things or now,’ he says. ‘They just sat down and started working. They kept working until they were able to do what they wanted to do.'”


“But Frey didn’t want to be just a writer–he wanted to be unique. ‘I read all these people and I started thinking about what they all had in common,’ he says. ‘And the most obvious thing was that, when their books came out, there was nothing like them that had preceded them’…. And so Frey reasoned, he needed to find a style of writing that was new, fresh, unlike anything that had come before. It took years to find that voice, he says.”

Check out the entire article. It’s a good one. I’d post the link to the piece if there was one, but it’s only excerpted at You gotta go out and buy the magazine, or stand in the bookstore and read it.

He’s coming on my show on 6/30 at 5:30 p.m. PT. In my view, he’s a writer’s writer. You can listen online at (The side panel on this page has a link that connects to the KUCI-FM Web site.)

One more thing about Harriet Doerr

Here is the other thing about Harriet Doerr’s work and why I’m a fan: As I read Consider This, Senora, I found myself appreciating life more–the things which might be considered the simple things. Laughing with my son at comedians–George Carlin, Henny Youngman, Joan Rivers–on vintage Johnny Carson tapes from the library. The sun on the magenta bougainvillea. The morning air filled with a misty rain. The Mexican seller of vegetable plants, flowers and cacti at the Farmer’s Market down the street. The bamboo wind chimes hanging outside our front door. Loyal friends. A ball of violet yarn. The UPS man dropping a package–most likely a book–on my front stoop. My husband.

And the title, Stones for Ibarra, has always puzzled me. What could it mean? I love that I had to reach the end of the book to find out.

Yes, I am a major Harriet Doerr fan.

Curious who strikes y’all that way, what author(s) illuminate your life in some new way.

One dead author I’d like to have on my show: Harriet Doerr

I’ve been studying Spanish (I’m in a little private class with three others) and it’s made me seek out novels that have to do with Mexico or something Spanish, and so I came across one author’s books on tape whom I’ve known about for years and have even written about in my book, but never read.

Harriet Doerr didn’t even get a BA till after she was 60 and she was around 73 when she won the National Book Award for Stones for Ibarra

. In the library I found Consider This, Senora

on tape, which came after Stones and I checked it out. Such beautiful writing, and with a third person, omnicient narrator, which I tend to find too distant. But Doerr pulls in close and has just the right touch.

The book is made up of several connected stories about American ex-pats living in Mexico. The book is worth her metaphors and similes alone. (It’s so hard coming up with fresh ones…)

Then I picked up Stones for Ibarra, her first novel, and again, such great writing, and that close third person omnicient narrator. Which is another reason to check out this book: Omnicient can be done well, which Doerr proves in this book. No wonder she won a major award for this book.

She’s also proof that, in the world of letters, age matters little, if any. In the end, it’s the writing that counts. I love that.

It’s been so long

It’s been so very long since I posted anything here, and lest you think I’m disinterested, I thought I had better. It’s just that I have so very much on my platter (a plate no longer fits it all) and, on a daily basis, it seems, I try to imagine giving something up. But what? I’m saying that too much: But what?

Last night, as Travis warmed up with his soccer team before the game, I sat in the Sienna in the parking lot and I wrote in my Moleskine. Take your own advice! The words careened about my skull. So I wrote a couple of pages, then a minute before the game began, joined the other parents.

When I have too much to do, so much I’m committed to, it’s hard to do any one thing well. I imagine I’d be a better_____ fill in the blank: parent, writer, teacher, blogger, deluxe gourmet veggie chef, knitter, artist, friend, if I didn’t do so much. But I like it all, is my continual refrain.

What’s a girl to do? If anyone out there has some good advice, send it my way. (And please, smart alecks…don’t bother. I’ll just hit “delete,” anyhoo….. ; }

Coming up on this blog will be more Q&A’s–soon by literary agent John Ware and author Amy Rosenthal Krouse, so do come back and visit often. I promise I won’t be so lax and let my bloggie poo wither away.

Phil Doran, The Reluctant Tuscan

Phil Doran is the author of The Reluctant Tuscan (Gotham)

. He’s a former TV writer and producer (The Wonder Years, All in the Family, Sanford and Son) whom I met him when he first took my workshop a couple of years ago. His book was published in April. Last week I sent him some questions and here is what he said:

Moi: I know that The Reluctant Tuscan isn’t the first book you completed. What happened to the others?

Phil: RT is actually the third. The first was one that everybody liked and nobody wanted to publish, the second was one that nobody liked, and the third was rather well accepted. I think it took some time for me to figure out the market place and to determine that yes, after years of doing TV, I did want to write what I wanted to say, but a bigger yes was, I did want to get published. It doesn’t take a genius to determine that they publish a lot more non-fiction than fiction, so then, in the non-fiction genre, what was going on in my life that I could write about? Well, I happened to be fortunate enough to have worked in show business and I was now living part-time in Tuscany. So I felt that if I could combine those two facets and do it with humor I would have something that publishers would be interested in.

Moi: Will you bring those other books back, now that you have one out?

Phil: Yes, I am in the process of dusting them off, re-reading them, and wondering what I was thinking to have written down what I did. On the plus side, I think those books were written when I still had my TV writing habits and if I may say so myself, my prose style is much more polished now than it was when I started.

Moi: Talk about the challenges in writing this book.

Phil: There are a lot of books about Tuscany–a lot of very good books–written by people who really know things. Since I don’t, I needed to be funny. Also, I needed to find a way not to have the reader think, “Wait a minute–you’re living in Tuscany and complaining? I live next to methane processing plant in Bayonne, New Jersey, and you don’t hear me complaining!”

So I had to find a way to keep the reader’s sympathy and I did that by going deep into the characters and revealing their needs and inner struggles. Also, I needed to make the drama more universal so that anybody who has faced a painful life change can relate to it and not just baby-boomers facing retirement.

Moi: How does writing dialogue for TV differ from writing dialogue for a narrative?

Phil: The visual element changes everything. The way an actor gestures or uses an expression both enhances and limits how the line is communicated. In a book, the reader is free to cast each character exactly as they imagine it and hear them say their dialogue in any voice imaginable. In either event, unless someone has stopped to make a speech, and that should be very well motivated, dialogue should be short, crisp, and entertaining. Ask yourself: Is there sufficient reason to do this in dialogue, or could it be better imparted by describing the action?

As for the differences between a book and a TV show, there are practical considerations galore. Say you have a scene where a group of people are having dinner … on TV (or in a movie) the audience can see all the characters who are present, but on the page if someone doesn’t speak for a while, the reader can forget that they are there.
Moi: Advice for writers?

Phil: There are many fine books on the mechanics of writing (Pen on Fire being one of the best). My advice is more about the psychological armor one must don to pursue this profession. This is a very difficult way to make a living. If you are interested in making a lot of money, I would suggest you go into banking or real estate.

Writing is lonely, frustrating, and it will often seem like you are the only one in the world who believes in what you are doing. To this end, I will impart the greatest piece of wisdom I ever heard about either Hollywood or the publishing world. It was said by William Goldman in his book, Adventure in the Screen Trade, and he was talking about how your work is judged by those in control of your destiny, that is to say, agents, producers, and publishers.

Goldman said that he is governed by one unshakable law: WHEN IT COMES TO WHAT WILL WORK, NOBODY KNOWS SHIT.

The marketplace is a dynamic, quirky, mysterious place and as far as what will sell, one person’s guess is as good as another. If all the formulas and theories worked, every book would be a best seller and no TV show would ever get cancelled. We’re all guessing here, so why isn’t your guess as good and anybody else’s?

What is truth, anyhoo?

In the last comment of my last post on rejection, Valerie said, “We don’t need truth, we need hope,” and that got me to thinking, What is the truth, anyway, and what is hope, and what about when the two intersect?

Of course we do want the truth when we read reportage; at least I do. It is more and more difficult to believe what is written because more and more it comes out that a reporter embellished the truth or just made it up.

But here’s where it gets foggy, as regards truth vs. hope. When we hear how very difficult it is to publish your work in a respected journal or get picked up by a major publisher, we believe it and we take it to heart and we let it destroy our hope. Yes, it’s true; it’s difficult to get published. Did anyone say it’s impossible? No. No one’s said that.

Many things worth doing are competitive and achieving that which we desire can be difficult. But do we stop, do we roll up and die because it’s not easy? No, we don’t. At least we shouldn’t.

I was never a cheerleader in high school and still don’t quite get it, why women would want to do that gig, but I am a cheerleader when it comes to creative ventures because I believe that everyone has a creative streak; everyone just employs it differently. I think women–and some men–are so into shopping because, for them, it’s a way of being creative. We all have a drive to create; it’s one of the human conditions.

I know a few artists who have no need to make their art public or make a living from it. These are people, though, who have quite enough money to live on and just do their art because they love it.

But for most of us, we want to make it because we have to make money one way or another and why not make it by doing that which we love?

So, difficult, yes. Impossible, no.

And you have to hold onto the hope that it can and will happen, because if you don’t have hope, you’ve got little. Hope got me through a ton of obstacles.

So the truth is that hope brings with it energy–energy to continue to strive and achieve your starry eyed dreams. Does anyone out there know the book, Max Makes a Million

? I love this book. It’s a kid’s book by Maira Kalman, who does quite a bit of New Yorker covers, but I bought this book before I ever had kids, when I was working at what was then Rizzoli’s bookstore at South Coast Plaza, back in ’86 or so. Max is a dog who wants to be a poet and his dream is to go to Paris and write poetry there. Here’s an excerpt:

But do you think it is easy for a dog to pack a small brown suitcase, put on a beret, and hop on a plane? Ha! Plane tickets cost money. Mazuma, shekels, semolians. I have none. Because no one wants to buy my book. I’m flat broke. But someday fat families and skinny families around the world will be reading my poems. And laughing, and crying. I feel it in my bones. I want to say, before anything, that dreams are very important.

I won’t tell you what happens; read the book; it’s one of my favorites.

But I will say this, before I go, that dreams are very important. Dreams fuel hope and hope makes it happen.