You Wrote WHAT About Me?

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You wrote WHAT about me???
Back when Barnes & Noble sponsored a Discover Great New Writers program and displayed the books earning the prestigious designation on a table at the front door, my writer friend, whose novel was a Discover Great New Writers pick, said to me, “Do you think my mother will find out about my novel? A character in my book is based strongly on her, and I don’t want her to know.”

“Of course your mother is going to find out about your novel!” I said. “It’ll be displayed in every Barnes & Noble in the country, in the most prominent spot in the store!”

“You think?” she asked, wonder in her voice.

I’m not telling this story to show how delusional writers are. I’m showing how scary it is to use details – and people – from your life in your work. What will my __________________ say? (Fill in the blank: mother, stepmother, father, stepfather, sister, brother, aunt, cousin, husband.)

Here, then, is the most important advice I can give on that subject: Write as though everyone is dead. Don’t censor anything between the idea popping into your head and the words landing, in heavy black, on the page. Write honestly and boldly. Later you can decide who your audience will be – the wide world, only your husband, your desk drawer. Later you can decide what to delete and what to leave in. Later you can seek legal advice from an attorney who specializes in publication law.

But, usually, we’re not worried about legal ramifications. We’re worried about emotional ramifications. What will your mother think about that angry conversation she had with you, the one that’s now appearing word for word in your memoir? What about the uncle your dad always took care of financially because their mother (your grandmother) on her deathbed asked him to — and there it is, spelled out, in your poem? What can you do to protect their privacy? To protect your place at the table?

You can include an author’s note in your book stating you are relying on memory, that your memory might differ from others’, that you’ve included conversations and, though they might not be verbatim, they contain the essence of what was said — things like that.

You can change the name. You can revise or disguise some of the details that would identify the person. Your short, bald first husband can grow five inches and a full head of thick black hair. You can even change the gender. The doctor who operated on the wrong ankle could be a young woman instead of a middle-aged man. You can merge several people from your life into one character.

You can give a copy of your manuscript to the person you’ve written about to see if he or she is OK with it. But if you do, you have to be willing to change or cut if the person objects. Make sure you’ve thought this through before handing over pages.

But first, a few things you need to know: The person you wrote about, whom you’re so afraid of offending, might end up liking what you’ve written. My first novel was a thinly veiled story about my sister and me. All while I was writing it, I was petrified what she would think. Surprise!  She loved it! The character named Mickey, based on her, was strong and independent. At my book signing, my sister actually inscribed a friend’s book, love, Mickey.

Often, the person in your book you weren’t worried about ends up hating it. And sometimes a person who’s not anywhere in your book will hate a character he’s convinced is him.

What’s a writer to do?

Just write the novel, memoir, essay, poem. And bake some brownies for your _______________.

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?

My Version of Doing Research For a Novel

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“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.