Try This Exercise

By | Writing Prompts | 29 Comments

We didn’t kiss relatives on the mouth. However, one summer when I was maybe six or seven, my family hosted a large family gathering in our back yard in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The day was sweet and lazy, aunts and uncles chatting and smoking on chaise lounges, some snoozing in hammocks, cousins playing store or school or movie stars in my sister’s and my playhouse, which was tucked behind the wisteria. Lunch was fried chicken, potato salad, candied yams, biscuits, and iced tea on picnic tables. Late afternoon, when the sun was growing pale and everyone was leaving, Uncle Jack kissed me good-bye on the lips. That wouldn’t have been so remarkable, except that earlier in the day I’d overheard Aunt Gertrude whisper to Mother that Uncle Jack had been diagnosed with cancer. I just knew he’d now given it to me. I didn’t say a word to my parents because I didn’t want to worry them, but that night, as I lay crying in my bed, picturing my early death, Mother heard my sobs and came to my side.

“What’s wrong, Judy?” she asked, rubbing my back through my shortie pajamas.

“I’ve got bad news. I have cancer,” I said.

What did you believe when you were a child that you know, now that you’re an adult, is not true?

What’s the Use?

By | Writing | 20 Comments

My husband twisted up to turn out the light.  He pulled the covers around his shoulders, folded the hem of the sheet over the comforter, let his entire body sink back into the too-soft mattress.  I thought I heard a sigh.  From his lips?  From the mattress?

“What’s the use?” I said.

“Hm?” he murmured, flipping his pillow to the cool underside, inching away from me in the direction of his night table.

“There are so many great poets in North Carolina,” I said.  This was in the early ’80s.  “Why would I even think I could write well enough to get my poems published?”

He kicked one foot out from under the covers, circled it a little.  “You’re learning,” he said.  “You’ll get there.”

“Yeah, but really, what’s the use?”

I started naming all the North Carolina poets I could think of.  All the ones I could never be.  “There’s Dannye Romine Powell.  And Julie Suk.  Susan Ludvigson.  Harriet Doar.  Fred Chappell.  Reynolds Price.  Kathryne Stripling Byer.  There’s Georgann Eubanks.  Ruth Moose.  Mary Kratt.  Chuck Sullivan.  Who’m I kidding?”

I heard a faint snore, then a soft whistle.

“Michael McFee,” I went on.  “Barbara Lovell.  Alan Shapiro…”

He was sound asleep.


Now, years later, after publishing two books of poetry and two novels, after completing a memoir, I want to begin writing a new book.  But I’m stuck again in the what’s-the-use? syndrome.  Lord knows, it’s hard to get anything published these days.  The industry is totally kerflooey, turned upside down and inside out by the recession and the huge popularity of eBooks.  Nobody — editors, agents, authors — knows the way forward.  Why should I embark on a project that will take three to five years, possibly longer, when I know good and well my manuscript could end up in my drawer, unpublished?  A friend of mine says the word, “frigging,” every other word.  I think of her now.  What’s the frigging use?

Besides, there are no new stories.  Every book I might think to write will be similar to countless others.

And, like that long list of North Carolina poets, there are countless accomplished authors, not just in North Carolina, but throughout the world, most of whom I could never hope to match.

How can I put into words the precise meaning of what I want to say?  My sentences and paragraphs will probably be unclear, maybe incoherent.  All those false starts and dead ends.

Why bother?

It’s so much trouble to write.


Answer to unanswerable question:

It really doesn’t matter whether the world applauds our efforts.  It doesn’t matter if our work is ever accepted.  If our closest kin starts our book but never actually finishes it, if we don’t secure representation by an agent, if a publisher doesn’t buy it, if we’re not reviewed, if we are reviewed but the reviewer hates our book, if we give a reading in a bookstore and a woman in the front row falls asleep.

We’re writers.  We’re curious.  We must probe that curiosity all the way to the bottom of page one.  To the bottom of chapter one.  To the last word of the last chapter.  Revise three, twenty, forty times.  Stay mentally engaged.  Strive, not for perfection, but for specificity, definition, purity.  We need to convince — maybe not readers — ourselves.

We have enough material to keep on forever.  We must tell our stories.  Even if hardly anyone’s listening.

Your Notebook: The Key to Beginning Your Novel or Memoir

By | Journal, Writing | 11 Comments


Do you want to write a novel or memoir, but don’t have any earthly idea how to begin?  Don’t know what the plot of your novel might be or which part of your life you should pick as the focus of your memoir?

Start your notebook.

Record every memory that floats up:  The spring you and your sister poured Mercurochrome onto the roots of the dogwood, hoping to turn its blooms pink.  The summer the two of you peroxided your bangs and lay on chaises in the back yard, waiting to turn blonde and glamorous.  The last Thanksgiving your family was together in your parents’ house.

Write down your dreams, ideas for scenes, gestures you observe in the people around you – the way your mother pushes back her cuticles, the guy who repairs your car (how he keeps scratching the back of his knee).  Clip newspaper articles that capture your imagination.

A great benefit of keeping a notebook is that it’ll help you become a better noticer. Which is crucial.  Curiosity is part of the job description for a writer.  You’ll need a lot of details to fill the pages of a book, and the particulars you’ve written down can be used to make your characters in your novel more alive or you can draw upon those memories for scenes in your memoir.

What else do you record?  Awarenesses about your life, which you can then use in your memoir for reflection or analysis — or give to a character in your novel.

Years ago, a friend admired a vase or some other pretty thing in my house and I said, “If you look closer, you’ll see that it’s been broken many times and glued back together.  In fact, everything in my house has been broken and glued back together.”  Then I thought, “That’s an interesting sentence.  Everything in my house has been broken and glued back together. What if I invented a family for whom that sentence would be true?”  I recorded that sentence in my notebook, and it became the opening of my second novel, Early Leaving.  Later I moved the sentence to the middle of the book.  Then it got bumped to the end.  Finally, I cut the sentence altogether.  But it served a purpose – it gained me entrance into the story.

What else do you store away in your notebook?  Conversations you overhear in the garden area of Lowe’s, next to the mulch.  Conversations you overhear in a restaurant:

One morning my husband, my son-in-law, and I were having breakfast at Honey’s in Durham.  At the table next to us was a family – a man, his wife, and their son, about five years old.  The little boy was talking when we sat down and kept on talking throughout the meal.  All of a sudden, the father reared up, glared at him, and said, “You know what your problem is?  You’re hardheaded and you talk too much!”  Now I didn’t like what the father said to his son, but I did appreciate the rhythm of his sentence.  I whipped out my notebook and wrote down his exact words.  If you look on page eleven of Early Leaving, you’ll find an entire chapter wrapped around those thirteen words I overheard while eating bacon and eggs at Honey’s.

Now here’s what’s interesting about keeping a notebook:  You’ll find that you’ll become a magnet for details that pertain to the project you’re about to begin.  Ideas will coalesce and you can actually see your story forming, because your sub-conscious is doing the work for you.

When you feel that you’re ready to begin, scan your notebook.  Which lines have the magic?  You might take an actual sentence from your notebook to use as your first line, to get your pen moving across the page or your fingers tapping on the keyboard.

What’s floating up through the layers of your mind right now?  The girl who won the Good Posture Prize in the fifth grade?  The time your sister asked if she could have the Majolica vase your mother gave you right before she went into the nursing home, how your father – overhearing your sister’s request – told you and your sister that she has the right to ask but you have the right to say no?  The knock-knock jokes your two-year-old grandson tells?  Grab your notebook.  You’re already on page one of your book.

How Much Do You Need to Know Before You Begin?

By | Memoir, Novel, Writing | One Comment

You’d be appalled at how little I knew each time I started a book.

After my second collection of poetry was published, I began to feel I’d written all the poems I had to write.  I knew I was writing the same poem over and over; I also knew I needed a new challenge.  I believe it’s important for all of us, as we get older, to continue taking on new challenges — we have to decide what we want to do next and try.  It’s the trying that counts.  I decided what I needed to do next was write a novel.  But I had no idea what that novel might be about.

I started by jotting down notes in a notebook.  Now I’m not talking about recording my daily doings or deepest dreams.  I’m talking about a notebook in which I wrote down, verbatim, conversations I’d overheard in the hardware store, titles that popped into my head, words whose texture I liked (nandina was one), memories that floated up, personal insights about my own behavior and those close to me.

About this time, my aunt called to say that a distant relative had sent her eight letters written by my grandmother to my grandmother’s sister in the late 1920s, early 1930s.  My grandmother lived in Denmark (South Carolina), her sister in Lebanon (Pennsylvania).  My aunt chose me to receive the letters because I was the relative most interested in family history.  I was thrilled — for three reasons:  (1) I’d never met my grandmother.  She died at fifty-six, before I was born.  All I’d ever heard about her was that she “was a saint.”  I was finally going to meet her, through these letters; (2) The letters were written just before and after my parents’ wedding, so I’d be reading about that event from my mother’s mother’s perspective; (3) I knew — I knew in my heart — my grandmother was going to give me my novel.

The letters arrived; I tore open the packet; my aunt had neglected to tell me the letters were all written in Yiddish!  I held those tissue-thin pages up to the light and struggled to decipher the squiggly little curves and angles.  “Try, Judy,” I told myself.  “If you concentrate, you can read it.”  But, of course, I couldn’t.  I finally found a woman who would translate my letters, and she sent the translations to me, one at a time, over the course of that summer.

By August, I had all eight letters translated.  And here’s the sad part:  The letters were charming, my grandmother was adorable, but there was absolutely no plot in those letters.  I was looking for dirt, and my grandmother was telling her sister how to make banana cake with cherries.

One day I mentioned the letters and my disappointment to my daughter, who said this very wise thing:  ‘Mom, why don’t you write the story you wish was in the letters?”  So that’s what I did.  I used the letters for the spine of the book and invented a story to wrap around them.


Years later, when I started writing a memoir, how much did I know?

Within five days, three things happened that turned my life upside down.  My sister was diagnosed with bile duct cancer, my daughter found out she was pregnant with identical twins, and my brother revealed to me that a daughter whom he’d fathered forty years before had just contacted him (she’d been put up for adoption at birth).  Immediately, the title, The Arithmetic of Family, popped into my head.  The additions and subtractions within a family.  Like a Dr. Seuss book — people coming in, people going out.  I could see funny little Dalmatians wearing red and blue hats, walking on their hind legs, entering a house, leaving a house.

I started my memoir in July 2005, finished it in January 2006, the day of my sister’s’ funeral.

I then spent the next two and a half years revising.

But when I’d finished, I realized I had not written the memoir my lifelong preoccupation had led me to write.  I tell writing students to write about what keeps them up at night.  I had not followed my own advice.  At that point, there were three sections in my book.  I cut two sections — which left me with a haiku!  No, not really.  I was left with a memoir about my older sister and me — the book I’d always wanted to write but didn’t feel I had the right to write.

I’d explored the subject of sisters in my first novel, The Slow Way Back, using the letters between my grandmother and her sister, my memories of Mother and her sisters, details from my life and my sister’s life to invent a work of fiction.  The novel enabled me to work through this very personal material at a distance.

What would happen if I got close, made myself susceptible to change and loss, re-inhabited those memories?

I went back to work on my memoir — for a total of nearly five years.


Do you see how little you have to know when you embark on writing a book?  Do you see that you will not begin to understand what your story is about until after you’ve actually written it?

Learning to Live with Failure

By | Writing | 2 Comments

failure vs success

When I started writing, my goal was to have a poem published in Southern Poetry Review.  I sent them batch after batch.  Each time, the editor returned my poems with the same rejection note:  “Sorry, Judy, these just didn’t work out for us.”  I’d send poems, he’d send them back:  “Sorry, Judy, these just didn’t work out for us.”  Finally, I made a collage out of his rejections and mailed it along with my submission.  I wrote across the collage:  “Perhaps these new poems will work out for you.”

It worked.

I got a different rejection note.

Fast-forward a few years.  I’d had one poetry collection and a chapbook published.  I now had a second full-length poetry manuscript I was dying to get published.  Over and over, I was a finalist in those contests that offer publication as a prize.  I could’ve bought a Honda with the money I spent on submissions.  With each letter congratulating me on being a finalist and assuring me that my book would find publication elsewhere, I became more disheartened.


The point of those stories is not whether I ever got a poem accepted by Southern Poetry Review.  (I did.)  And not whether I ever got my second full-length poetry collection published.  (I didn’t.)  What’s important is how those failures strengthened my resolve to write.

After Southern Poetry Review’s rejections, I began taking writing workshops, I joined a critique group, I read, studied — swallowed — the work of published poets.  Soon I was publishing poems in a variety of literary journals.

Being a frequent finalist for publication changed my life in an even more dramatic way.  When I couldn’t find a publisher for that poetry collection, I thought, “Well, I guess I’m not a poet.  I’ll just write a novel.”  Out of failure grew success.  I wrote two novels, both published by Morrow.


As writers, this is how our lives go:  We experience failure.  Then we experience success.  Then failure, another failure, and another.  Then maybe a small success.  Two more failures.  Then maybe success.  But there’ll always be another failure.

After each of my failures, I was so crushed I could easily have taken to my bed.  Instead, I took to my typewriter.

When I decided to try fiction, I literally put myself back in school and found my own teachers.  I learned about writing dialogue by reading Anne Tyler.  I learned the importance of concrete descriptive details by reading Eudora Welty’s stories.  I read Toni Morrison for inspiration to push the language.  I learned about structure by reading classics, such as The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, Catcher in the Rye; I studied how those authors stitched together chapters, how they balanced scene and summary.  I went to the bookstore and read the first chapter of maybe forty novels, just to see how good writers snare the reader right off.

Then I made an appointment with myself.  I actually wrote on my calendar:  “Write today.”  As though it were a dentist appointment, which I would never dream of breaking.  I kept making regular appointments with myself until I established a writing schedule.  In the beginning I didn’t have the time to write every day, but I could write regularly.

Success makes us smug.  Success makes us complacent.

Failure is what forces us to question ourselves and our writing.  Failure takes our shoulders, turns us slightly, leads us in a new direction.  Failure can be the best thing that can happen to us.

When You Write Personal Essays or Memoir, Go Deeper. And Then Go Deeper.

By | Memoir, Writing | 8 Comments


We all know people who are really good conversationalists.  They not only ask you about yourself; they ask follow-up questions.  They’re never just being polite; they’re truly interested.

Part of writing memoir (or personal essays) is using reflection, or analysis.  You re-examine an experience you didn’t fully understand when it happened.  You write about telling your nursery school teacher you wanted to sing a song for the class, how you walked to the front of the room and sang the entire song without making a sound, just moving your lips.  In your memoir, you explore what it felt like to be you at that time.  More important, you explore what you see now that you didn’t see then.

One way to find your way into these large observations is to pretend you’re telling your story to a great conversationalist.  Allow that imaginary person – your ideal reader — to ask questions:

But what else did you feel?

Is there another way to look at what you just said?

By questioning, by going deeper, you’ll discover the unknown.  You’ll embrace the complexity of wanting to know and getting to know all the contradictions that reside within a life.

Your reader wants to witness your struggle toward discovery.  By observing you reaching conclusions, the reader will reach conclusions about her own life.


Memoirist Helen Epstein says, “Most good memoirs are like picaresque novels of the soul, journeys of intellectual quest where the author’s gradual understanding of the meaning of experience is as interesting as the experience itself.”

So, there’s your reader, sitting across from you, leaning forward, her thumb under her chin, forefinger pressing softly into her cheek, staring at you with that intense gaze, asking you yet another question.

My Version of Doing Research For a Novel

By | Novel, Writing | 6 Comments

“I’d like to go to Denmark next week,” I said to my husband.  “I’ve never been there.”

“I’m sure there are a lot of places you’ve never been.  Why not Afghanistan?” he teased.  “Or maybe Iraq?”

“I’m talking about Denmark, South Carolina, where my mother grew up.”  (My mother’s parents died before I was born, so — with no family there – my parents, my brother, my sister and I never had a reason to visit that tiny town in the South Carolina Lowcountry.)

I pulled out my calendar and wrote in big letters across the following weekend:  RESEARCH — DENMARK!

“Don’t you think you should make motel reservations?” he asked.  “Contact people?  Figure out what you’re looking for?”

“No, I think I’ll just let it unfold, be loose,” I answered.  I’ve never been loose in my life.  The truth is, I had no idea what I was looking for.  My agent had suggested, while editing the manuscript of my first novel, The Slow Way Back, (in which I used details from my mother’s childhood in Denmark, South Carolina) that perhaps the Denmark scenes could use more vivid description.


Then, it was a morning with a sky so blue it could have been a child’s crayon drawing, and my husband and I were cruising down SC-321, past cotton fields, through Norway, Sweden and Finland — into Denmark, a town that looked as though nothing had changed since 1920.  Picture-perfect.

We pulled up to the train depot, now the Welcome Center.  I had a strong feeling someone other than my husband was with me.  When I went into the bathroom, I said out loud to the mirror, “Can you believe where I am, Mother?” I turned on the water to wash my hands.  It sounded like someone very happy, laughing.

I gathered up “I’ve been to Denmark” bumper stickers and “Compliments of the city of Denmark” pencils and got directions to City Hall, where the three people who worked there gathered around to hear me describe the book I was writing about their town.  They tried to think of someone my mother’s age who might still be alive.  Rhoad’s Furniture Store is where they sent me.

The minute I sat down with Mr. Rhoad, it was obvious he was too young — seventy-nine — but he told funny stories about the early years in Denmark and sent me next door to Brooker Hardware.

Mr. Brooker thought my best bet was the Juice Group, eight older men who’ve lived in Denmark all their lives, who get together every morning just to talk.  They call themselves the Juice Group because they can’t drink coffee anymore.  My husband and I would join them the next morning at ten.

I made one more stop.  I knocked on the door of my mother’s house.  An elderly woman, raised in Denmark, had bought the house seven years before.  She told me stories that rounded out the picture of the town in the ‘20’s.  Her granddaughter showed me around.  I could tell from the photographs I’d studied in Mother’s scrapbooks that very little had changed.  The built-in china cabinet in the living room was still there, as was the tangled grape arbor out back.

The next morning, my husband and I sat in Brooker Hardware — stiff overalls hanging behind us — and listened to the Juice Group reminisce.  They talked about the ice truck (“Ice!  Get your ice!  Made in the shade, sold in the sun!”), my grandfather’s department store, my mother’s family (“your mother was beautiful,” “your uncle was a ladies’ man, “I went to parties out at the river with your aunt”).  The ceiling fan was ticking like a clock.

From there, we went to the public library, where I found a list of honor students at Denmark Elementary in 1917:  Second grade — Margaret Bogen (my mother).  Fifth grade — Emma Bogen (my aunt).

As we pulled back onto 321 on our way home, cotton fields on either side, my husband asked if I’d gotten what I was looking for.  He wasn’t talking about the branch of cotton I’d stopped to pick a few miles back.

Well, I said, I didn’t meet anyone who was my mother’s age, who would have known her really well.  And sometimes the reminiscences went on a little long.  And Saturday night was frustrating when we couldn’t find a decent place to eat, or sleep.  But yes, I did get what I wanted.  And it was more than concrete descriptive details for my novel.  I’d gone somewhere I’d never been.  All the way back to my mother’s childhood.

What’s a Plot?

By | Novel, Writing | 4 Comments

Because I came to fiction by way of poetry, the idea of plot terrified me.  I’d never had to worry about the and then thing.  I’d never given a thought to narrative tension.  How do you create a long line of suspense that carries the reader from the beginning of the book to the end?  How do you get that little twist, the turn in the story, that keeps readers flipping pages?

And then, I held in my hands a slim and affecting novel that had very little plot.  It consisted of small anecdotes involving a large, unruly, close but cantankerous, New England family.  A family in which the children broke rules and tattled, the older children took care of the younger ones, the father drank, and the mother died in a car wreck.

That novel, Monkeys by Susan Minot, made me think, “Heck, I could do that.”

I could write a novel about family.  How we connect, disconnect, reconnect.

I could use details from my own life in inventing a work of fiction.

I read Monkeys a second time, then a third.  I underlined.  I made notes in the margins.  This anecdote of Susan Minot’s reminded me of an anecdote about my own family I could tell.  Oh, that characteristic of her sister made me think of my sister.  Her brother did something very similar to what my brother once did.

It wasn’t long before I was writing my first novel.


After completing two novels, I still don’t know what a plot is, or how to get one.  But, at least, I’m no longer paralyzed by the thought of having to find a trajectory for the story I want to tell.  I no longer obsess over constructing a narrative – even though there are times I think that, surely, I ought to know how to do that by now.

Flash! Crucial Advice for Writers!

By | Writing | 2 Comments

Write!The most important thing I have to tell you can be put into two words:

Show up.

That’s what separates the real writer from the person you sit next to at a dinner party who tells you that some day he’s going to write a book.  A writer friend of mine was at the dentist and just when her mouth was stuffed with steel and cotton, the dentist told her, “You know, some day I’m going to write a novel.”  My friend couldn’t answer but if she could, she would have said, “Yes, and some day I’m going to do a root canal.”

Everybody wants to have already written.  Not many people want to do the writing.  People long to wear black turtlenecks and tweed jackets with worn-to-a-shine elbows.  But who wants to do the actual work?

We get brilliant ideas – those sparks that ignite us in the middle of the night when we scramble for paper and pen, knocking to the floor everything on our bedside table.  But inspiration is only a piece of the pie.  95% is perspiration.

I wrote my first novel in three months.  I didn’t have the self-confidence to believe that if I stopped to revise, I would actually finish.  I was like an arrow – my aim was to go from beginning to end as quickly as possible, without stopping to revise.  When I look back on that time, I see myself in my bathrobe and furry slippers.  I’d pad up to my computer first thing in the morning – when I was closest to my sub-conscious, my dreams – and begin.  Then I’d hear my husband down in the kitchen calling up to me.  It was already the end of the day, he was home from work, and I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet.

Leaving all those clunky sentences and paragraphs – without stopping to fix them – felt like I’d had company for dinner five nights in a row and left the dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the counters.  The opposite of my normally tidy self.

Which leads me to the second most important thing I have to tell you:  If you want to write a book — just write it.  Before you have a chance to intimidate yourself by thinking, Gosh, I’m writing a book! Do not show your work to other people and don’t stop to revise along the way.  Both of these can be a form of procrastination.

James Dickey said, “Just get black on white.  Ink on paper.”  (Pre-tech words of wisdom.)

While you’re writing, don’t be attached to results.  Don’t allow yourself to even think of publication.  Do not say the words, agent, editor or publisher, out loud.

Just before I decided to try fiction, I read a novel called Velocity.  It was written by a woman who’d just graduated from college – and she wrote an incredible, powerful book in three months.  I wanted to be an instant genius like her.  Now you remember I wrote my first novel in three months.  But the rest of the story is, I spent the next three years and three months revising.  I had a lot to learn.  A lot to fix in that first draft.  The truth is, I’ve never been an instant anything.

Which leads me to the third most important thing I have to tell you:  If I can write a novel, anybody can.

Including you.

The Two Traits You Need To Be an Author

By | Writing | One Comment

driving at night

“Writing is like driving at night with the headlights on.  You can only see two feet ahead of you, but that’s OK.  You can make the whole journey that way.”

That’s E.L. Doctorow describing what I believe to be the only route to getting a novel or memoir written.

Start with a word.  Then get five or six words in a row.  A sentence!  Suddenly, you have your opening paragraph.  And pretty soon, after a lot of fiddling around, you’ll actually be finishing the last paragraph on the last page.  But it won’t be a straight, smooth line.  You’ll make a little progress, then take a wrong turn.  You’ll find yourself moving forward.  “Great!” you think.  “I’m on my way!”  But then you’ll get lost again.

So what keeps you going?

You need driveness.  Every book has a point beyond which you simply cannot go.  And then you go beyond that.  Usually, when you find yourself stuck and the words are flowing like glue, it’s because your subconscious has more work to do.  When this happens to me, I turn my attention to the world’s best encouragers:  published authors.  I read the books that can teach me how to do the thing I need to know in order to move to the next level.  I read the books that teach me the very thing I don’t yet understand.

But, just as you need driveness, you also need indifference.  You must be indifferent to whether or not your book will sell.  You cannot care whether or not your writing will be appreciated — by family members, friends, creative writing teachers, agents, editors, or reviewers.  Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life.  Edgar Allen Poe sold very little.  Most of us toil away in obscurity.

When you focus on your craft instead of your career, when you persist in spite of everything pulling you in the opposite direction, you’ll find yourself maturing as a writer and also enjoying the quiet pleasures only the actual work can bring.