Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lisa Genova's 6 Rules for Research

1. Do your homework before you involve other people, especially professionals or experts.  Don’t use any minutes of the one hour you have with the Chief of Neurology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital asking questions that you could find easy answers to online or in a basic text book.  Put another way, ask the questions you can’t get answers to online or in the text books.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask.  You’re thinking, “I’d really like to ask that super famous world thought leader on linguistics some questions.”  And then you immediately talk yourself out of it. “But he’ll never have time to talk to the likes of me.”  Ask.  Give the possibility a chance.  I find that most people say YES.  But you have to go first.

3. Create an interview guide. Begin your interview with a planned set of well-conceived questions.  I always deviate from this.  Learning from the conversation in real time, allow the answers you’re hearing to lead you to new questions you wouldn’t have even known to ask.  Always end the interview with this question: Is there anything I haven’t thought of to ask that’s important for me to know?

4. Do your interviews in person whenever possible.  For example, if you are interviewing a physician, go to his or her office.  You’ll pick up on details you can’t get over the phone or via email--what’s on the walls, on the desk, how he/she is dressed, body language, the feel of the room.  You might notice an unexpected detail that is authentic to the character/story you’re writing and further sparks your imagination.

5. Research is not your new career.  You can dig forever on any given subject.  But the point here is to know enough to write your story.  I typically front-load with 3-4 months of pure research before I begin writing.  Then, I quit my full time job of researching and begin the real job of writing.  Some research will be ongoing, but it’s a supporting role now, never the star.  I kept in touch daily with people living with Alzheimer’s while writing Still Alice.  I’ve been in communication with a Boston Police Officer many times a week for almost a year now while writing Inside the O'Briens.

6. Do not show your readers any of this.  For every novel I write, I could write a hefty, clinical nonfiction book about a neurological condition.  When I’m done with my research, I’ve acquired A TON of information.  Resist any urge you have to show off how much you know, any guilty obligation you might feel to not waste all that good stuff.  Only use what’s relevant to STORY and in such a way that makes sense given the story’s voice and point of view.  Trust that nothing is wasted, and the readers will feel the depth of your knowledge without being hammered over the head with TMI. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lisa Genova's 10 Rules of Writing

1. Show up and stay there.  Stay in your seat.  Nothing is coming to you, you say?  You’re staring at a blank page or the blinking cursor on a white screen?  Stay.  Resist the urge to flee and do something else (check Facebook, text someone, eat something, do laundry, take a nap).  Learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

2. You can’t edit nothing.  Write something.  You can edit something.

3. Give yourself permission to begin without it being perfect.  I begin with pen to paper, writing in a loose, sketch-like, journaling, incomplete sentence form.  This allows me to find a way into the “real” writing.  I usually begin with what I’m unsure of, afraid of, pissed off about, dreading.  I jot down a flash of a thought about what needs to happen next, what a character might say, and then and then and then.  And then, I’m in.  There’s something magical in the connection from brain to hand to pen to paper.  Grab a pen and go.  Let loose.  Don’t be judgmental or afraid to be sloppy here.  Julia Cameron calls this process “morning pages.”  Natalie Goldberg calls it “getting the pen moving.”  I call it “permission to begin.”

4. Tell the truth.  Always.  If you lie to your readers, they will break up with you.

5.  Be present.  Slow down and be in the moment within your story.  What is there to see, smell, hear?  What’s the temperature, the emotion, the energy?  Go inside moment to moment.  Breathe and really be there.

6.  Believe it’s already done.  In some kind of time-space continuum, I believe every book I write is already written.  So why am I avoiding writing chapter 12?  It’s already done.  Show up, stay there, and get the words down.

7.  Do your homework.  This is not simply a Google search, people.  Whenever possible, go to the primary source.  Your story takes place at Yellowstone National Park?  Go there.  Your main character is a lawyer?  Start hanging around a courthouse.  Writing about a woman with Alzheimer’s?  Get to know people who have Alzheimer’s, their families, caregivers, doctors.  Three-dimensional research will breathe three-dimensional life into your story.

8.  Cross-training.  I write novels.  I read everything—scientific journal articles, medical textbooks, spiritual texts, nonfiction, memoir, classic literature, contemporary fiction, plays, poetry.  Listen to all kinds of music.  Go to the theatre, the ballet, museums.  Keep your senses open for what works and what doesn’t, what’s beautiful, what makes you care, what lights you up, for the universal threads of human experience.

9.  Show yourself.  Be brave.  Be vulnerable.  Open your heart.  That’s where the real stuff lives and breathes.  Now write.

10. You’re going to be dead someday.  Write it now.

Friday, January 24, 2014

There Is a Bridge

I recently attended a 3.5 day "There Is a Bridge" workshop in Stewart, Florida, run by the brilliant Michael Verde of Memory Bridge.  Here's what I had to say about the experience:

“Outside of a cure, the most vital need of people with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones is real emotional connection. How do we continue to communicate with someone with AD who doesn’t talk or remember us? How can we be with people with AD so they are not left feeling the pain of isolation, abandonment, and loneliness? How do we overcome our own feelings of self-consciousness, discomfort, and fear of AD to be fully present and connected with someone with dementia?

I’m confident that everyone in this workshop came away understanding the answers to these questions, but it wasn’t through taking notes, reading power-point slides or listening to lectures. We embodied the answers. We remembered how to feel safe while vulnerable, how to let go of judgment, to offer empathy, to see the humanity and vulnerability in every person, to remember that everyone matters, how to communicate joy, understanding, and love without words or memories—through body language, emotional connection, and the willingness to be fully present in front of another human being.
Everyone should experience this workshop.” -Lisa Genova

Memory Bridge Website

Video clips from "There Is a Bridge"

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Chapter 11: Writing fiction is not for sissies

Today I began chapter 11 of book 4 (still untitled).  Here's an excerpt from the writing I did before the writing:

Okay, this chapter scares the hell out of me.  Is this how it's going to go now, scared every chapter?  Yes, probably.  Because here's the rub--you are falling fast now (momentum is a good thing) into the dark, meaty depths of Huntington's Disease with the O'Briens.  You know this family now, and you like them, and bad things are happening to people you care about.  What they are about to face is hard and heartbreaking and cruel and scary, and you have to go there with them.  And not only that, you can't go there with any armor on.  You can't go as a tourist.  You have to be as vulnerable as possible, holding their hands, hugging them while they cry.  You're going to cry, too.  And while we're all exposed and suffering together in the dark, it will be your job to keep an eye open for the pinholes of light, moments and words and spaces where there is the possibility for hope and inspiration, change leading to deeper love and connection and meaning despite this horror.  So deep breath.  Here we all go.

And that led me into chapter 11.  Writing fiction is not for sissies.

This also reminded me of a quote from "From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction" by Robert Olen Butler:

"You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white hot place….Whatever scared the hell out of you there--and there's plenty--you have to go in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can't flinch and walk away.  That's the only way to create a work of art."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book #4, in progress


I'm concerned about this book on a number of structural levels.  Let's list them here on paper so they're not all knocking around in my head all day.

1.  I think it takes too long to get Joe diagnosed.

2. Mentions of 4/15/13, Boston Marathon, makes this all happening in present day.  If I want to advance Joe's HD at all, even assuming he's at least 7 years in from page 1, we have to go into the future.  At least 3 years, probably 5?  Do you want to write about these characters in 2016, 2018?  Is that too weird?  You can drop out all reference to 4/15, but then the Red Sox references to post season play will have to jibe with previous seasons.  That's doable.  But I like the mentions of 4/15 and how it has affected Joe.  Readers will be wondering if I don't mention it.  Pink elephant in the room.  Must figure out how to reconcile all this.

3. Switching over to Katie's pov now feels like it took too long.  Maybe if I introduce her sooner that will give us the chance to know her, care and place her story in advance of her having to be concerned with HD.  It might also help "space out" Joe's story over time more.  I could make the kids a bit younger at the beginning of the story, allow for more time to go by before mention of B&E (and first mention of 4/15).  I like that.

4.  Not taking Joe all the way to end stage.  I think I want to leave him vulnerable, in full courage, no longer able to walk or talk much (think Meghan).

5. Joe's mother, Ruth.  Maybe we should be hearing from her.  Make this a true generational story.  Ruth's story with HD is one of ignorance, shame, isolation.  I like this idea of Ruth, Joe, and Katie chapters to portray the different phases of HD:  Nursing home/late stage; diagnosis/early and middle years; at risk/gene status questioning/symptom hunting.  But man, that scares the shit out of me because that's A TON more work that I haven't even imagined yet.

Let's say that Joe's story drives the narrative.  He's the powerhouse of this book, so keep going with his story.  Maybe imagine Ruth and Katie separately and write their chapters as smaller vignettes aimed at revealing the generational tentacles of HD, how this is Joe's story but it is a repeating tale.

Thinking of that family tree again.  Shaded circles and squares....

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Chapter 7, Book # 4

A page taken from my writing journal, 9/17/13

Joe and Rosie are at MGH in Boston, heading into the Wang Building.  Joe has been to the ER at MGH while on duty many times, but never in the Wang, never up the elevator.  He was referred by his PCP to a neurologist, to a "Movement Specialist."  Seems like a lot of fuss over a bad knee.  But he's going.  He's going for Rosie.  She made the appointment.

Here we go into the meat of the story, Lisa.  It feels like it took a long freakin time to get here, and there is still a long way to go.  Keep going the way you're going.  I think the thing that has you worried is fitting Katie in.  She's essential.  The kids need their experience and voice represented in this book.  Huntington's Disease is a family disease.  It affects everyone, every generation.  But how will I give Katie enough to make her important and yet not a distraction?  Her story needs to stand alone, and then it needs to find interplay, connection with her dad's story.  How will their journeys intersect and impact each other?

I'm not there yet, so all this worrying is about something that hasn't happened.  Now you are with Joe, and he is at the neurologist at MGH, and that MUST happen no matter what.  So go there with him, Lisa, and find out what happens.  Be open, be vulnerable.  See it, feel it, moment to moment, and infuse it with real information from your research.  Tell the truth.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Love Anthony is now in paperback, which means, among other things, that it has a new cover design.  I love the new cover.  I think it’s eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing, and the image is even highly relevant to the story.  Books covers are so important.  It’s the first thing a potential reader sees and can be the singular, pivotal reason why someone picks that book up and decides to see what’s inside or alternatively decides to walk away and choose something else.  The entire content of book can be deemed desirable or undesirable based on a quick glance at the cover.  So many unspoken assumptions are made about the story on the inside based on the cover on the outside.

This has me thinking about autism.  I’ve been speaking about autism at book events since September, and there are a lot of false assumptions circulating out there, especially among people not directly affected by autism—so many misconceptions based on a quick glance at someone’s “outside cover” with little or no experience with the “inside story.”  Many of these misconceptions have been told and retold for so long, they’ve reached an almost urban myth status.

  • ·      Nonverbal people with autism don’t understand language.
  • ·      People with autism are cognitively impaired, or less nicely put, mentally retarded.
  • ·      People with autism don’t feel love.

Most people I talk with who aren’t directly affected by autism often admit to me that the sum total of what they know about it was gleaned from Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man.

So let’s “open the book” and debunk these myths.

Myth #1: Nonverbal people with autism don’t understand language.

It’s possible that for some nonverbal autistic people, language is not intelligible.  But what if it is?  Can you know for sure?  I think it’s safer and far more humane to assume that all nonverbal people with autism have inner voices.  They understand what you’re saying.  And they are listening.

I’d like to share a couple of examples here of nonverbal autistic people, heroes really, who have battled and broken through the silence to reveal their inner voices.

Carly Fleishman: “I want people to understand that autistic people are people and we all have an inner voice.”

Elizabeth Bonker: “On the dark side is the traditional belief that we have no language. Free your minds from disbelief.”

Myth #2: People with autism are cognitively impaired.

Some people with autism do have some additional cognitive challenges, but IQ tests that rely on expression of language or pointing, outputs that can be unavailable or severely impaired in some autistic people, aren’t going to be sensitive enough to reveal to the intelligence that might lie within.

Autism does not equal unintelligent.  Autism does not equal unable to learn.  In fact, some of the smartest people living on the planet today have Asperger’s--Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet, to name two.  It’s been speculated by many that if Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, and Wolfgang Mozart were alive today, they’d be diagnosed on the spectrum.  A pretty smart crowd, if you ask me.

Myth #3: Autistic people don’t feel love.

I recently did a book event with AndrewSolomon, author of Far from the Tree, on World Autism Day in Toronto, and he admitted to having this misapprehension prior to doing the research for his book.

It’s easy to see where this preconception comes from, especially if viewed from a distance, “from the cover” so to speak.  If a child can’t say “I love you,” if he doesn’t like to be hugged, if he can’t make eye contact and exchange all the magic that can happen in a shared gaze, if love can’t be reciprocated in the ways we traditionally show and feel it, is love there?

It is.  Without question.

All of the parents I know and spoke with about autism love their autistic kids and feel loved in return.  And I’ve witnessed it—in a knowing smile, in an exuberant hand flapping, in an unspoken energy, in how hard these kids work to please their parents.

Myth #4: People with autism are poor social communicators.

Wait, you’re thinking, this one can’t be a myth.  This is the actual clinical description of autism.  According to DSM IV, autism is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive, restrictive behaviors.  Even people with autism who can speak have trouble communicating, especially with comprehension of double meaning, facial expression, and body language.  This deficit in social communication is a DEFINING symptom of autism.

So if it’s a defining symptom, how can it be a myth?

In March, I attended the Tucson Festival of Books to promote Love Anthony.  In addition to the two panels I was on with other fiction writers, I was scheduled to be on a speaking panel with JohnElder Robison.  John has written three books—Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby.  John has Asperger’s.

About ten minutes before our scheduled time to begin, the room was already filled to capacity (300) with people standing in the hall, willing to stay and only listen.  John arrived, and I introduced myself.  He said hello, gave me a courtesy, fleeting moment of eye contact, and then he paced.

We were supposed to sit side-by-side at a table before set microphones and cards bearing our names and next to a moderator, but John wasn’t going to be able to sit still.  He needed to stand and move.  The organizers adjusted, and I decided to join him and stand, too.  Meanwhile, John continued moving, touching everything on the table as he passed it.

I do a lot of speaking, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it.  One of the challenges in speaking in front of an audience of 300 is to make everyone feel included, like they’re part of an intimate conversation.  It involves not just getting up and talking but talking TO PEOPLE, engaging them in what you have to say, sharing an experience together.  In short, it involves social communication.

And here is John, pacing around with Asperger’s.

So I thought to myself, “Okay, Lisa.  You’re probably going to have carry this hour.  He’s not going to be able to do this.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  He was AWESOME!  He was smart, funny, dynamic, and incredibly entertaining.  HE was the one who could’ve carried the whole hour (and pretty much did).  After our presentation, the line of people waiting to connect with him personally and have books signed far exceeded the line of people in front of me.

So there you go.  John has autism, AND he’s an exceptional communicator.  Myth busted.

The great lesson in all of this has been told to me over and over by parents of children with autism.  “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.”  Or, put another way—please don’t judge a book by its cover.