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"