Pen On Fire blog

Book tour tales: Pennsylvania, now

Right now it’s Friday morning and I sit in my hotel room while a girlfriend, Carol (Polite) Sanford from high school, and just after, showers. She and I hadn’t even talked since the late ’70s and last week got in touch through classmates.com. She drove down from New York for my book event and we decided to room together. We picked up where we left off. Interesting how that is.

Last night I did my Borders appearance in Montgomeryville, PA, near where I went to junior high through high school. Lots of relatives came and so did a few high school friends. A few people I didn’t know and one whom I met on Readerville.com. It was such a moving night, actually. My Uncle Jerry was there. Back in the late ’80s, after I published my first major travel article, Uncle Jerry started telling everyone that I was one of the highest paid writers in Southern California. Which is when I began to believe it might be possible to even be a full time writer (at the time I was doing something else for $$, besides writing).

Today I’ll drive to New Jersey to see my half-sister Sylvia, whom I write about in my book, the chapter that begins with the line, “Bigamy runs in my family.” Then to Manhattan for the ASJA conference. First, though, this evening, I’ll meet with my editor at Harcourt for dinner. We’ve had so much contact over the last 22 months since my book sold but we’ve never met. Sort of like dating someone, even marrying, without having ever been in the same room.

Writing about someone still living

A comment was posted in the Jan. 27 blog on fear that goes like this:

“Both you and Anne Lamott talk about writing as if your parents are dead. In my novel in progress, I write about my mother as if she’s dead. The problem is that she’s very much alive, we’re estranged, and the mother character in my novel is portrayed in a negative light. The fact that she’s a mother is an important aspect of the story, so I can’t just give her a sex change. If the book gets published at some point, I’m afraid of litigation. I’m not sure what to do. Any advice?”

Where to begin??!

So many authors who’ve written about dicey themes or based their fiction on someone still living have come on my show and when I asked how they did it, mostly they said, “I wrote it as if it would never be published.”

I would say, just write it and worry about it later. By the time you reach the end, it may be a very different book, so don’t censor yourself now. Wait. And write.

I don’t know if you’re writing it in the first person. If so, perhaps doing it in the third person would change it enough.

Some writers wait till the person is no longer living, if it’s that dicey. I’m working on a project right now where I’m encountering the same worry, but the story is important enough to me that I’m writing and putting off worrying till later.

So again, I’d say, go for it. You need to write this book, so worry about it after you have a final draft.

Write what only you can write

Last night after Travis went to bed, Brian put on the movie, Cross Creek, with Mary Steenburgen, Peter Coyote and Rip Torn. Has anyone seen it? I bought it at a flea market some months back. Rarely do we buy movies, but I wanted this one. It’s based on Rawlings’ life. Steenburgen plays author Marjorie Rawlings, who wrote and won the Pulitzer in 1939 for The Yearling. She leaves New York for rural Florida where she’s planning to write gothic romances, big at the time. But her editor, Max Perkins (played by Malcolm McDowell), keeps rejecting her novels He tells her he loves her letters about life in rural Florida and maybe that’s where her story is, not in the gothics she’s been trying to do.

This is how The Yearling comes about, a moving novel about a boy (not a girl, like in the movie) and his pet deer.

I’m trying to remember who said it and it’s not coming to me–I’ve looked through quotes I collect and a favorite quote book–but the quote is about not writing what you can write but what only you can write. What is the story that only you can tell? In Pen on Fire, Barbara Seranella talks about this, how she had written a book about divorce and a book about World War II, both of which she put aside. And then she focused in on what she knew, experiences she’d had, that were unique to her. That’s when her Munch Mancini character, a lady auto mechanic, was born and her novels started getting published (Barbara had been an auto mechanic for 20 years).

Rawlings’ 1953 New York Times obituary says, “For more than ten years, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings tried hard to become a fiction writer–with complete failure. She made up her mind to give up. “Then I thought, well, just one more,” she told a New York Times reporter years later. That short story “sold like a shot, and I have had no trouble since,” Mrs. Rawlings said.

Rawlings learned to write what moved her, and writing the stories only she could write gave her the success that had eluded her for so long.

The plumber’s here: A prompt

The bathtub wasn’t draining again–it’s an old house, old plumbing–and so the plumber is here, using something in there that sounds like a dental drill. My teeth are tingling. There he goes again. I want Novacain.

What’s going on where you are? If you haven’t written today, begin with where you are right this very minute.

I wish he’d stop.

Easter is in a few days. Lent will be over. I hope the Easter Bunny brings a lot of chocolate–tiny Whopper eggs, especially. Then I’ll be hearing the real dentist’s drill.

If you haven’t already, start writing. Set the timer for 15 minutes. And go to it. Distractions and all.

I am so rude

People know you work at home and yet they come over unannounced. You want to be polite and friendly and so you open the door, you let them in, yet your mind is awash in words, in what you were just writing, so you stand there a little spaced out but trying to be sociable so they don’t feel totally uncomfortable. They talk on and on, you say little and begin to wonder why you opened the door at all, being all closed-mouth and rude as you are.

Writers tend to feel guilty over exhibiting this behavior. I do, and yet I don’t. I mean, I hate being rude. But I work at home! Do I just not answer the door at all? What if they saw me sitting in here typing away as they walked up to the door? Wouldn’t that be worse, and even ruder?

When I answered the door, my friend said, “What’re you doing?”

“Working.”

She sniffed. “You baking?”

“A pot of garbanzo beans is simmering.”

She started chatting and I just wanted to get back to my work. I should have said, “Travis will be home from school very, very soon and I really need to go right now.”

When she left–10 mintues later, at that–I thought, “You were so rude! You should have done it some other way!”

Maybe wearing a sandwich board as you walk up to the door that says, “I’m writing and rude today.”

I dunno.

What’s the right thing to do here, when someone already knows you work at home? Or do you just not even open the door?

What’s hiding in your drawers?

Okay, get your minds out of the gutter. I’m talking about the drawers of your desk or file cabinet. Or maybe they’re in a closet or in the garage in cardboard storage box. Do you know what I’m talking about yet?

I’m talking about stories, essays, articles, novels. It’s an all-too-common scenario–you have something that’s finished, or is close to being finished, and you think about sending it out to a magazine or agent, but instead, you file it away for some later date. Maybe somewhere in the back of your mind you think that an editor will come looking for you, that one day you’ll get an e-mail or phone call from an editor asking you what you have hiding in your drawers, pleading with you to let him/her read it.

Wrong.

Until you become a well-published author, there’s an almost 100 percent chance that no one at a paying magazine or respectable publisher will approach you to see what unpublished work you have hiding somewhere. It does happen, but generally you have to be published for that to happen. After I published my first major travel story in Morning Calm (Korean Air’s inflight), I was approached by an Australian magazine to reprint that piece and then a local Southern California publication asked me to write for them, and to give them reprints. Other things have happened as well. But it’s been published writing that has generated that–not just being me, hiding out, waiting.

Other authors I know who have published short pieces or novels or nonfiction books are approached to submit pieces to anthologies or write essays or review books for magazines. The key, though, is that they have something of note that’s already out there.

Pen on Fire would probably still be sitting alone and ignored in my garage if I hadn’t, on my own, taken it out and given it another look.

I’m thinking of that old joke that many of you know, the one where there’s a flood and the town is evacuating all the residents and one guy says, “Nah, I’m not going. I’m waiting for God to rescue me,” so he waits and the floodwaters rise. He goes upstairs and a rowboat comes by with a rescue team aboard, and they try to convince him to join them, but he says, “Nah, I’m waiting for God to rescue me,” so the flood waters keep rising and he climbs up on his roof. A helicopter hovers above him, lowers a rope and he turns it down. “Nah, I’m waiting for God to rescue me.” Of course the waters keep rising, the guy drowns and sometime later he’s in heaven and runs into God, whom he berates. “God, I depended on you and you let me down!” God says, “Hey, I sent you an evacuation notice, I sent a rowboat, I sent a helicopter–what more do you want!”

Okay, publishing is a little different than that, but you get my point (hopefully). You have to take action yourself and it may take more energy and cleverness than you think yourself capable of. But your friends and teachers and mentors who encourage you, who give you ideas, who keep you going–those people are, in effect, performing God-like acts, and you can choose to pay attention to them, or not.