Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Beginning Book 5

After many months of research, and writing bits of this and that, I need to start chapter 1, the legit beginning of this next book. SO much resistance here. I feel like I don't know these people well enough to get started. But you're not supposed to, remember? That's how this relationship starts. You don't know them yet. You can only know them by writing them. So how do you solve this dilemma, Lisa? You begin writing.

You can (and will) adjust whatever doesn't work, right? Right. You've done this before, so don't panic. What is this book about other than ALS? Regret. Forgiveness. Feeling trapped. Letting go. Communication. Connection. Death. Freedom.  BOOM. There it is, the whole book. Trust that you have it. Your job is to show up to the page/computer and allow it to come, word by word. The story and details will unfold as they come.

You don't get to know the whole thing before you begin--like any relationship, right? You agree to leap in not knowing everything about the person, not knowing how the journey will unfold, how it will end. This is how it must begin. Beginnings take courage.

So get to it, girl. Pour your heart and soul into this one. Don't hold back. Let it heal you.

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.