So Many Streets, So Many Connections

Photograph of Virginia Woolf , 1911 – 1912. Oil on board, by Vanessa Bell. In the public domain.

I have lost friends, some by death… others by sheer inability to cross the street. 
 Virginia Woolf

I just finished reading an essay, “Girlfriends,” in Anna Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. In her memoir Quindlen passes along Virginia Woolf’s wise words, above. Those words struck me hard. For, you see, I am at an age where I have lost friends to death, although you might say age has nothing to do with it, and that’s true. Friends, or God forbid, family, can be snatched from us at any age, at any time; witness the recent unspeakable event in Aurora, Colorado.

How Wide Is the Street?

Having gotten those morbid thoughts out of the way, I’d rather focus on the other part of Woolf’s quote. We lose friends, Woolf suggests, “by sheer inability to cross the street.” Those words stunned me. How many times have I let friendships languish out of inertia? How often have I been unable, or unwilling, to “cross the street”?

I thought immediately of a good friend–we used to be “besties,” as the young ones might say–whom I haven’t seen in months. We haven’t even talked on the phone or emailed. I’m mystified by this neglect of a long-time friendship. I’m afraid we’ve drifted away from each other because of political and religious differences, and there’s no way one of us can convince the other she’s wrong. Even though we have “agreed to disagree,” those differences have cast a pall on our friendship. And yet, why have I not crossed the street, called one more time, and suggested we get together? I have not, and it’s a shame.

Then there’s my dearest childhood friend who writes me long, lovely, handwritten letters occasionally, newsy notes about her and her husband and what’s going on in their lives.  When we do talk, maybe once a year (why not more often?), we always pick up where we left off, as though not one of the events of our later lives has intervened. We might as well be girls again, sleeping over and giggling–or crying–about boyfriends. That’s a rare friendship indeed. My response to those long letters she writes? She’s lucky if she gets an email in return. She deserves a better friend.

And there are the friends in my book group (we call it “the bookgroup,” as in the only one). Some of us “go way back”; others are relatively new friends with whom I share a great love of books. We don’t always agree; in fact, we have spirited discussions when we meet. But we respect each other. I think it’s safe to say we love each other. We would cross the street; indeed, we have. (One of those friends shared the Quindlen essay with me. Thanks, J—.)

Coffee cup

A Whole New World

And then there’s the new world of cyber-friends. Friends, you say? Are you skeptical? That’s all right. I was, too, in the beginning. Yes, I use Facebook to keep up with my dear ones. Otherwise, Facebook “relationships” seem superficial, at best. And yet, if you’re lucky, a comaraderie develops over time as acquaintances open to each other through common interests; as they sense when someone needs a good word; as they listen (figuratively, yes); as they offer themselves unselfishly, laugh together, and cry together.

This is particularly true of writers, I think. I’ve become associated with a group of writers  through Facebook and other social media. We may have started out with the goal of increasing our online presence and creating a “platform” so that as we publish and hopefully, someday, really need a platform, we’ll be ready with the website and the Facebook Writer’s Page and a Twitter account and a nice number of connections across the Web. But I believe, as we’ve gotten to know each other better, bonds have formed among us. We don’t all know each other equally well; we don’t all share the same goals; we might not recognize each other if we were all thrown into a crowded room together. But we are connected. What we care about—our writing, mostly, but also our successes, our failures, our significant life moments, both good and bad—we have come to expect to share with these other folks whom we may never see in the flesh.

Let’s Have a Cup of Coffee

Yet we are, in a real sense, capable of “crossing the street” for each other. It’s not the same as sitting across from that old friend I miss a lot, having a cup of coffee, and catching up, or writing that long overdue letter, or having a pithy book discussion that ends in good will and laughter. It’s not the same as showing up at the home of a friend when somebody is sick or there’s terrible news.

But give us time and technology! We may just get there.

How important are your friendships, “in the flesh” or otherwise? Let me know your thoughts!

Promise and Abundance: An Interview with Lynne Barrett

I’m thrilled tobring to The Writerly Life an interview with Lynne Barrett, an extraordinary writer, teacher, and editor whose stories I’ve admired for many years. I asked Lynne about her most recent book of stories, Magpies (which won the Florida Book Award Gold Medal for General Fiction), her writing process, and her very busy life.

For some remarkable insights, read on. Welcome, Lynne!

Magpies, available at amazon.com

Gerry Wilson:  Steve Almond calls Magpies a “stone cold triumph,” and I agree. These stories encompass such a broad range of styles, from the fun structures of “Links” and “Cave of the Winds” to noir—“The Noir Boudoir” and “When, He Wondered”— to a marvelous touch of surrealism in “Gossip and Toad.”

Do you sit down to write with a well-formed idea of what the story is and where it’s going? Or do you “write to discover” and then shape it? How do you decide what form a story ultimately takes?

Lynne Barrett:  Writing is a process of discovery that begins before I “sit down to write.” At odd moments phrases, situations, or maybe just a word that resonates will occur to me. I jot down what I can. I usually carry small pads, but I’ve been known to write on a dollar bill when desperate. Very early in the morning, when it’s quiet, I often begin my day sitting somewhere comfortable and un-work-like, writing free-floating notes in a sketchbook, and that’s when I’ll go through my accumulated bits of paper and transcribe them. I read around in what I’ve done before and add details and questions. Then I get coffee and go to my desk to work on some much more developed project.

Over time, some notes accumulate towards a story, and I’ll find a simple name (not a title, yet) to mark them and to head new pages where I’ll add bits of dialogue, details about characters, or sketches of locations. So when I’m ready to take the story to my desk, I know a lot. It’s not “well-formed,” but it has a feeling of promise and abundance, so that I want to make the story happen. Still, where I start drafting may not be the beginning, but rather some intriguing angle that I want to explore or a scene I think is going to prove difficult that I want to take a shot at.

Gerry Wilson:  Can you give an example?

Lynne Barrett:  I knew that “When, He Wondered” was going to include a man trying to fake his own death, and that this would make some use of a Florida sinkhole. I’d made up place names and worked out a history of my invented town. The first scene I wrote showed this man taking his most dramatic action. I didn’t worry about the writing being polished—my aim was to reveal who he must be and how such a character would affect others around him. In the final story the reader never sees this scene, though details from it emerge. I’d already thought that I’d like to use another character, Tom, as protagonist and point of view. As I moved into writing Tom, I saw—and I think I could only have seen this because of what I’d written already—that an ongoing question he asks himself about their friendship would spiral through the story and shape it.

Though I might describe the circumstances that led to it, nothing can ever truly “explain” an idea: writing is full of imaginative leaps. For me the point is the process: once I’ve written something, it becomes a steppingstone to other parts of the story, even though it may not make the final draft. I think it’s important not to confuse the writer’s need and the reader’s. There are lots of detours I’ll take in exploring my story, while the reader wants something that seems to have been always certain and complete.

Gerry Wilson:  Please talk about “Gossip & Toad,” which I saw as surreal.

Lynne Barrett:  It’s interesting how many terms there are for fiction that has an element that’s fantastical without being wholly fantasy: “slipstream” is the current one. I’d use “magical realism” for “Gossip & Toad”: the story has one move that’s magical, which is handled as if it were absolutely real. The professional gossip in my story has exercised her talent for nastiness to the point where what she says begins to bring out with it spiders, lizards, and a toad. This image comes from a fairy tale (“Diamonds and Toads”), but I think externalizing an aspect of character in this way goes back into myth, where metamorphosis makes visible something psychologically true: sometimes ugly things come out of our mouths. Other stories in Magpies are set against a background of booms and busts, and it occurred to me that the market in celebrity gossip is a boom that shows no signs of ending. One of gossip’s hunting grounds is Miami Beach, where I’ve seen the sideshow atmosphere of the celebrity world, so it seemed natural to me to set this leap into the grotesque there, as the character has to confront the fact that she’s in the situation of those she talks about, with a secret she must conceal.

Gerry Wilson:  In Casey Pycior’s interview at The Story Is the Cure, you talk about the differences between short and longer fiction and your love of story in particular: “[It] helps to think about what the short story is equivalent to: a painting, say, that is small enough to be taken in at once, yet that rewards more looking. Even the choice of where the edges are, the framing, has an effect. What can the painting do that the mural can’t?” I like the image of a story having “edges,” or “framing.” How do you find the “edges” of a story? How do you know when it’s done?

Lynne Barrett:  Any narrative has edges, but a shorter work can make us more conscious of them. Because the short story is ideally read in one sitting, its compression adds power (or so Poe argued and I agree with him). I think it is worthwhile always, after reading anything good, to look back to see how the beginning and end speak to each other: how much has changed? How far have we traveled? Edges to me include where the text starts and ends, but also how far into the past you reach and how much of the future has been implied.

Lynne Barrett

I like to play with form, as part of the meaning of the story. In Magpies, “Links” covers about a year, beginning near the peak of the dot com boom and continuing a bit beyond its collapse. Pasts that reach as far back as the 19th century are pulled into it, and, since the story borrows the form of a website, there’s an implication of a future from which the narrator is writing. “One Hippopotamus” covers a short space of time—an hour or so—on a stormy summer night when the power goes out and one character tells another about an event in his past, so there is a story within the story. By the end we see that the telling and the listening are going to alter both characters’ futures. The possibilities of form are infinite.

As to when a story is finished—there is just no simple answer. But as a teacher and editor I find that often the part that hasn’t gotten enough work, that’s underdeveloped or slack, is the middle. The middle should be interesting in itself. Well, everything should be interesting and feel necessary. Easy to say, hard to do.

Gerry Wilson:  All the stories in Magpies are suspenseful—rife with secrets, twists, mysteries, tangled relationships. Would you talk a bit about the role (or necessity) of suspense in your stories, or in fiction generally?

Lynne Barrett:  Suspense comes from anticipation. The reader has to know that there is trouble and that something is at risk. Everyone understands it’s necessary in a crime story, whether the threat is of physical danger or punishment or the consequences of accusing the wrong person. But in other situations, the reader must be made to grasp what the stakes are, for instance that the balance of a marriage can change forever because of something revealed, as in Joyce’s “The Dead,” to name one great example. I think it’s a mistake to think “literary” means “no suspense.”

Gerry Wilson:  Your essay “What Editors Want” went viral when it was published last year in The Review Review. Every writer looking to publish (and who isn’t?) should read it. I’ve read that you were surprised by the response the essay received. In hindsight, why do you think “What Editors Want” took off the way it did?

Lynne Barrett:  The editor of The Review Review (which is a great online magazine that covers the world of literary magazines) was surprised as well as she saw the count of readers mount into the thousands while I was getting contacted by editors who liked it and teachers who were assigning it to all their students. We could see online that it was being blogged about and commented on. Within two days it was written up in the L.A. Times book blog. Glimmer Train, whose editor wrote to me at the very start, republished it in their Bulletin, last fall. The system by which the Internet can slingshot links around is much clearer to me after this, but the response was spontaneous.

I think my piece was both fun to read and met a need. It tries to dismantle the stereotype (which is damaging both to editors and to writers) of the editor as a scary curmudgeon—editors work very hard and are never happier than when they find something great—and to re-explain the relationship as one in which being organized and professional and polite matter. (That’s true on both sides, of course.) It has been read so widely that I got Twitter followers from as far away as New Zealand. I’ve also been in conversations where the subject of publishing comes up and someone will recommend the essay to me, not realizing I wrote it.

Gerry Wilson:  You wear many hats: writer, editor, teacher, not to mention wife and mother . . . Would you offer some tips about juggling the writer’s life with other demands? How do you prioritize?

Lynne Barrett:  I say yes to too many things, no doubt, but they’re things that attract me. I get up early and write, first—even if I can only give it a short time. I’ve always written in the morning, but once I had a child it became more of a necessity to start very early. My son is now 20, but I’ve stayed on that schedule. To me it means I’m telling myself writing comes first, and what I do will stay in my mind all day as I do other things.

Not mentioned in your list is the public side of writing: I give readings, speak with book groups, and teach at conferences. These—even just the arrangements for them—take a surprising amount of time. I had made what I thought was a fairly sane calendar for this spring, but when Magpies won the Florida Book Award, a lot of appearances were added and my time got very jammed up. There simply was no choice. It’s hard for a book to get visibility, and you must do your best. But I have blocked out a long stint this summer with no events, when I’ll be hiding and writing.

Tips? I have found that it’s good to put things on my calendar that are, in effect, appointments with myself. I add reminders for pieces I am writing, not just deadlines, but I’ll block off days or half days for particular projects. Somehow when it’s written down, and my computer is nagging me about it, the commitment is easier to defend. I think it helps to bunch types of tasks. I try to corral advising and appointments and meetings into teaching days. And I might designate a “travel arrangements afternoon” or “research Friday.” That way every day isn’t chopped up into a lot of bits and pieces. I get more done and I am not chafing, too much, at the fact I’m not writing every minute. Well, I do chafe. But in the early mornings I restore my serenity.     

~Lynne Barrett

About Lynne:

LYNNE BARRETT’s third story collection, Magpies, was recently awarded the Gold Medal for General Fiction in the Florida Book Awards. Her other books are The Secret Names of Women, and The Land of Go, and she co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion. Barrett has received the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best mystery story. Her work has appeared in One Year to a Writing Life, Miami Noir, Delta Blues, A Dixie Christmas, The Written Wardrobe and many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she received her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Florida International University in Miami, and teaches at many writers conferences. Learn more at her website.

“If I could write the beauty of your eyes” —William Shakespeare

A few days ago, I launched my Writer Page on Facebook.

Novel note card, April 2011

Over the last six weeks or so, I have gone places I’ve never gone before—on the Internet, that is. No, I have not been visiting naughty websites. I’ve been doing something the publishing industry calls “Building a Platform.” Note the caps, a signifier of importance. It seems a platform is important for writers. Even those of us without a published book are encouraged to go ahead and start putting ourselves “out there.” So that’s what I’ve been doing under the fabulous leadership of one Not-Bob, or Robert Lee Brewer, who led the My Name Is Not Bob April Platform Challenge.

April, you say? Yes, the challenge ended when April did, but the momentum continues.

I was already a Facebook person, and I “did” LinkedIn. I had signed up for Twitter, added Google+ and Red Room, and I’ve been visiting my fellow platformers’ blogs like crazy, with great admiration for their ability to write posts (daily, some of them; wow), juggle jobs and kids and lives and still write their novels or poetry or memoirs or whatever is dearest to their hearts.

My final goal was to create the Facebook Writer Page. Did I dare call myself a writer and make it a public declaration? When I finally held my nose and dived in, it wasn’t all that bad. In fact, it was fun, and many friends and fellow writers dropped by quickly and “liked” the page, so it’s gotten off to a good start.

Something interesting surfaced in the midst of all that. When I started to create the page, I had to choose a category from among businesses, organizations, nonprofits, brands, and such. I considered all the options and decided on Artist, Band, or Public Figure. I’m not an Artist (well, that one’s close; I like to think I am, with words); I’m not a Band; and I’m certainly not a Public Figure. (Notice those caps again.) The ah-ha moment came when I held my breath and clicked on Artist and saw I had choices there, too.

What kind of person am I? What’s my identity?

Two of the options were “author” and “writer.” Hmmm. Author sounds a little stilted, I thought, so instinctively, I went with writer. After all, that’s what I call myself these days.

It started me thinking. I’m a former English teacher. I should know the distinction between those two words. Writer is more generic? An author is someone . . . more established? I finally gave in and looked them up. Here’s some of what I found.

(If you hate it when people quote the dictionary, you should maybe stop here.)

According to Merriam Webster: an author is “one that originates or creates; the writer of a literary work (as a book). Author originates from the Middle English auctour, from Anglo-French auctor, autor, from Latin auctor promoter, originator, author, from augēre to increase.” The word dates from the 14th century.

A writer is “one that writes [refers to the definition of write] as a: author [one and the same? Really?] and b: one who writes stock options.”  The word traces to the 12th century.

So the word writer pre-dates author, but it doesn’t have the fancy pedigree.

My Dashboard dictionary on the Mac defines author as “someone who writes books as a profession” and writer as “a person who writes books, stories, or articles as a job or regular occupation.”

Are we splitting hairs here?

Let’s look at the word write. Merriam Webster begins with the simplest definition—to “form characters or symbols on a surface with an instrument (as a pen)”—and progresses  to “to set down in writing; to be the author of; to express in literary form.” Ah, getting closer. The example that follows is a line from Shakespeare: “if I could write the beauty of your eyes . . .”

So which am I? I think I’ll stick with writer.

A writer puts marks on a page, yes. She makes words, yes, and symbols, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters. Stories, memoirs, novels, poetry. She records the world as she sees it. She creates people and places and worlds that didn’t exist before.

A writer makes her mark on the world. That’s what I’d like to do. So call me writer, please. That’s the word for me.

Here’s a question for you: how do you see yourself? Do you call yourself a writer or an author? Is there a distinction in your mind? I expect there’ll be different opinions. I’d love to hear yours.