Guest Blog Post, Elizabeth Maria Naranjo: Start at the Beginning– Using Titles as Prompts

Lightbulbs glowing in a brick warehouse.

Photo credit: Patrick Tomasso on unsplash.com

In the spring of 2015, I was beginning to emerge from the midst of a post-publication funk. Since the release of my debut novel the year before, I’d been swept up in the thrills and disappointments of book marketing, and after several abandoned projects I spent a long quiet winter simply reading.

Giving myself permission not to write had the desired effect; come spring I felt ready to dust the cobwebs from my creative brain and begin again. But the ideas wouldn’t come. Staring at the blank page day after day, I began to fear they never would.

My breakthrough came in the form of a prompt provided by my son, then seven years old. We were taking our evening walk around the neighborhood, hand in hand, and I confided to him that I’d been struggling with ideas for my writing and did he have any good ones? “Just give me a title,” I said, “and I’ll write you a story.”

It was a bold promise in the face of my persistent writer’s block, but that’s what I needed—accountability and conviction. I also hoped to tap into the unselfconscious well of creativity that all children possess and that makes writing fiction so much fun. I knew that my seven-year-old wouldn’t say “I don’t know,” or “I just can’t think of anything,” because kids can always think of something. And mine did: when I asked him for the title to my next story, he said, without hesitation, “The Shell of Light.”

“Okay,” I said. “’The Shell of Light’ it is.”

The title sounded ominous and ghostly, and its weirdness intrigued me. I imagined something dark—a tale meant for Halloween. I pictured a boy my son’s age, and a night out trick-or-treating that goes horribly wrong. I pictured a conch shell that emitted not the sound of the ocean but the sound of screams. I pictured a haunted house, girls who disappeared in the night, another girl with a black heart who gets what’s coming to her in the end.

Not exactly a kid’s story, but at least, finally, I had something. Soon I was writing again, not only “The Shell of Light,” but other stories; in fact, in six weeks’ time I wrote more than 30,000 words of new fiction. I wrote about a woman who finds her childhood diary and decides to rewrite her past, about a boy with a terrible secret who steals away at night to meet a girl beneath a willow tree—only to discover she has a secret of her own, about a father going through a divorce who witnesses a seemingly impossible motorcycle accident and is forced to question everything he thought was real.

One idea led to another that led to another. Of course, not all of them turned out the way I’d originally envisioned. Ideas often come in black and white, but the writing always finds shades of gray. In “The Shell of Light,” for example, my black-hearted antagonist wasn’t quite so simple, and neither was her fate. Characterization superseded plot, forcing me to change the title that had kickstarted my inspiration. Now that story is called “The Lost Girls.” It won runner-up in a contest last year and was published this Halloween in YA Review Net (YARN). My son, now eleven, is still not allowed to read it, but maybe in a few more years. He doesn’t mind waiting, or the fact that his title changed.

The important thing is that his odd little string of random words unlocked my imagination. Prompts do that, and it’s because they’re restrictive—they give a writer something to visualize and work with. In his book of essays Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury discusses how, when he was a fledgling writer in his early twenties, he began making lists of titles: The Lake, The Crown, The Fog Horn, The Carnival. He would then choose one of these titles, free-write for a page or two until he discovered the story, and then he would write the story. Sometimes, as in the case of The Carnival, he wrote a book.

Another beloved author, R.L. Stine (creator of the children’s horror series Goosebumps), has written over 300 books in his 30-year career. When asked where he gets his seemingly never-ending wealth of ideas, he reveals that he always starts with a title—just a title—and from there he builds the story. 

Essentially, he gives himself a prompt.

It’s been four years since my post-publication dry spell and I’m happy to say that I’ve never suffered from writer’s block like that again. Never sat before a computer screen day after day and agonized over the blinking cursor on a blank page. Never sat at the coffee shop for an hour with a pencil poised over an unmarked notebook, convinced I had nothing to say. I’ve gone through periods where I didn’t feel like writing and allowed myself time off—weeks, months even. But it was intentional, something that felt healthy and needed at the time. If I’m ever at a loss for ideas, I simply pick a word, a phrase, or even an image, and begin to free-write. Knowing the prompt will lead me to the story and trusting the story enough to follow.

Guest Blog Post, Judith Sara Gelt: But Some of My Best Friends Are Novelists

But Some of My Best Friends Are Novelists

By Judith Sara Gelt, Memoirist

Photo of author with family.

Source: http://www.judithsaragelt.com/about.html

Novelists don’t need to wait for people to die.

 

Novelists don’t have to use their families’ real names.

 

Agents don’t wear a cheesy smile and declare that a novelist’s true-life narrative “cannot be differentiated from others in the market.”

 

By creating names, places, people and events (and, well, whatever they want), novelists build a bulwark of invention to keep their agonizing, lived experiences at bay while concealing them in their fictions.

 

Novelists don’t create in a genre tagged with terms like “naval gazing” or paired with adjectives like misery as in misery memoir.

 

Agents don’t shake their heads and explain that novelists’ life stories don’t have enough of a “hook.”

 

Novelists don’t workshop their manuscripts in mixed-genre groups only to be neglected—

“I couldn’t really write my opinions or leave comments. I just wasn’t comfortable. After all, yours is so personal.”

 

When someone asks, “Come on, did that really happen?” Novelists answer, “Of course not.” (Whether it did or not.)

 

When novelists compose outrageous fictitious scenes, readers don’t flinch. When a memoirist records an outrageous real-life scene, readers complain—

“No way this happened!” “I don’t believe it.”

 

Novelists don’t confront questions like—

“What is a memoir, again? Okay, and who wrote it? But, who is it about? Shit, you must have had a really amazing life!”

 

After their books are published, novelists aren’t in jeopardy of family and friends ostracizing them or of being disowned. They don’t witness their families and friends sob and dodge others when their lives are exposed.

 

Okeydokey, novelists, bring it on!

Guest Blog Post, Ashley Roach: The Privilege and Anxiety of Catharsis

Note: Since time of writing, Brett Kavanaugh has been confirmed as a Justice of the Supreme Court

This month we endured the grueling twin testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh and are facing a very likely confirmation of (another) proven liar to the Supreme Court. It’s been rough. It seems impossible to think about anything else, or to experience anything other than continuous retraumatization. I’ve been working on a book of poems dealing with my own embodied trauma rising from the steam of a decade of forgetting and then remembering, then remembering, then remembering. And asking myself over and over – who is culpable, who invited what, what was forgotten in the darkness, in the not-negotiating? Interrogating the lines, yes, the blurred lines. I have written a book, considered every angle, plumbed my most vulnerable memories. I thought I was strong, self-congratulatory even. I remember telling a friend: I was raped, but I don’t let it determine my life.

These two weeks, I have triggered my own trauma over and over again, looking at the New York Times first thing every morning, checking Twitter every few minutes, calling and writing senators, building and bleeding rage. I’m so angry all the time. I can’t sleep. I lie awake and try to breathe. I go the gym to try to out-aggro myself. I need to feel strong but I’m exhausted. I’m so goddamn mad.

I’m supposed to be planning poetry readings this Fall to sell a few copies of my chapbook, to feel and act like a poet, but it feels so distant. The first reading is in mid-October, on my wedding anniversary. I had completely forgotten about the anniversary and now it seems almost beside the point. I have no interest in conversations with men, even my husband. I want to explode in elemental heat and gravity and destroy this corrupt world. The privilege of all of this (gym, marriage, news subscription, white woman rage) is astounding. I want to crawl into a hole and die. I steam like a volcano. I see a poll that shows a majority of white women believe Brett Kavanaugh over Dr. Ford. I don’t sleep. My mother tells me that she doesn’t think that men should be judged by what they did in high school. I argue with her, then leave. Senator Susan Collins argues the importance of the #MeToo movement then votes for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. My throat is always closed. I can’t stop talking about the injustice of this nomination. I try to tell myself to be prepared for the obvious outcome. Thirty years ago, Anita Hill came forward against Judge Clarence Thomas and was dragged. Need I say it? Donald Trump is president. Here we are today. I steam.

I am also worried that if I read any of the poems I’ve been writing that I will cry, that I will make someone else cry, or worse, I will show that I was wrong, not wronged. All these years later, I still have the internalized misogyny of a lifetime of being told that I put myself in a place where I was vulnerable, and I invited what happened. My mom asked me why I didn’t report it. I don’t know where to begin. It took a decade for me to realize that it happened. I don’t want to share the details, so I leave. I am a coward in my own life. Am I a coward in my own life? A poet recently tweeted that she would not be reading poems of sexual trauma at an upcoming reading because everyone deserves a break. I wonder if I should do the same. But if I don’t read the poems I’ve been writing, why am I reading? If I read them and people are upset, or I am upset, or create a sense of catharsis, am I being performative and insensitive? If I center myself, in my privilege and whiteness, am I perpetuating injustice? I feel sick. I steam.

When I started writing this, I determined that I would write a helpful post about battling imposter syndrome, overcoming doubts of self-worth, and getting over self-promotion anxiety. Work with your friends! Reach out to trusted members of your community! You are worthy! I deleted all of it. It felt so hollow. On Twitter, women post #WhyIDidntReport. I feel like shit every day. My mom wants to talk to me. If I don’t read these poems, how will I reckon with any of this? Is this ultimately the most selfish act – wanting reckoning, wanting catharsis, wanting wanting? My friend and poet Emma Bolden tweeted a gif of a wolf growling, baring her canines. The growl is practically audible. Caption: “YUPPPPPP actual image of me rn.”

Me too. Me too. Me too.

Guest Blog Post, Mary Ann Thomas: Asking for Elephants

Photo credit: she-explores.com

In 2017, I bicycled around India for four months with a friend. We witnessed an immense range of humanity: kind strangers who led us through chaotic cities, fellow cyclists who brought us into their homes to stay a few nights, pilgrims lined up outside of temples to pay for blessings, and barefoot men smashing rocks on the edge of steep cliffs as they built roads. I was an experienced bike tourist. My travel partner was well-versed in the complications of international travel. Our skill sets complemented each other well and, as we rode through deserts, mountains, and beaches, we became intimately acquainted with the multitudes of experiences within India.

I, a queer daughter of Indian immigrants, couldn’t have expected we would pull this off. It seemed like a pipe dream. Cross a country with over 1.3 billion people and 700 languages? Ride some of the tallest mountain passes in the world, carrying everything we need on bicycles? Even though I’d bicycled across the United States and Canada, riding across my parents’ homeland seemed like an impossible feat.

When I returned to the US, I was shaken: my cells rattled from the unpaved roads, my eardrums damaged from the persistent honking, my lungs coated in diesel fumes from trucks and autorickshaws. I sought stillness. I moved to upstate NY, where I lived on a property with four horses, thirty chickens, two dogs, a cat, six ducks, and wild turkeys.

While in India, I posted on my social media every day. I documented my emotional truths as they happened. At times, I was ecstatic as I cycled through busy streets with Indian bicyclists during festivals. At other times, I was overwhelmed by the men, the crowds, the chaos of the country. Because I was actively sharing these stories, people reached out to me. They asked for advice in planning their own bicycle tours. They told me that my daily posts were a source of inspiration as they drank their morning coffee. They told me that these stories made them feel like they could do anything they wanted.

As I sifted through my memories, I realized bike touring taught me a valuable lesson: Fuck Impossible.

My previous bike tour in 2014 helped me talk about my own queerness in ways that I never had before. I shared my writing for the first time through a blog. Biking across India in 2017 allowed me to be claimed by Indians as a child of the country, and allowed me to claim India for myself.

Owning my queer identity, sharing my writing and telling stories, and embracing India as where I’m from, were all things I couldn’t have imagined myself capable of. They seemed impossible to me prior to bicycling. Each time I’ve gone on a long bike ride, I’ve found myself unearthing new possibilities for myself and finding different ways to exist in this world.

The time and space of that house in upstate NY allowed me to assess why I’m writing. I’m writing for the people who messaged me on my tour. I’m writing for the kids of immigrants who are disillusioned by this country, its historical and current violence against our peoples, and who rage against the trap of the unattainable American Dream. I’m writing for queer folks, who have had our gender identities boxed in by a specific heteronormativity that lives in this culture, and who undermine colonial gender norms every time we choose to love.

My story is important in ways I couldn’t have a expected before this all started. So, my travel partner and I self-published a CNF chapbook, in which we included photography and writing from both of us. I planned a way to tell this story more broadly, to gift a physical object to the communities that have held me thus far.

I called it the Fuck Impossible Road Trip. I traveled between more than ten cities all over the United States, using my savings to give talks in bookstores, bike shops and coops, and REI stores across the country. I scheduled time in which I could sit in stillness with friends, organizers, and writers, in order to learn. I went on bike rides with Women, Trans, and Femme (WTF) folks of color in Portland. I organized a WTF Bike camping trip in Anchorage, where I’d once lived. I spoke to rooms with fifteen people and standing-room-only rooms of seventy. Everything about this tour has been outside my comfort zone. As an adult, I’d never made a PowerPoint presentation or spoke in front of a group. I’d never self-published anything, worked with an illustrator to take the experiences in my head and translate them visually, or edited the intimate work of a friend with whom I shared experiences with. It was a new experience for both of us.

We said: If we could bike across India, we can make this chapbook together.

And I said to myself, every time I got on a stage: If I biked across India, I can tell a fucking story.

As a young woman growing up in New Jersey to Indian immigrant parents, as a brown bicyclist for whom riding across rural North America seemed like a way to get killed, as a woman for whom queer love has seemed like an impossibility for so long, I’ve learned to say Fuck Impossible over and over and over again.

Fuck Impossible: a rallying cry for misfits who’ve always been questioned whether they can do something, who’ve always been told they can’t, who’ve drawn lines around themselves to keep themselves safe, to protect their hearts, and kept themselves from chasing the life they want.

Guest Blog Post, Tim Reilly: How a Former Tuba Player Becomes a Writer of Short Stories

I had played the mandolin since age seven, but when I entered high school, in 1964, I chose the tuba as the instrument I would play in the concert band. At the time I had little knowledge of the dented brass contraption in the corner of the band room, but it seemed to beckon me: like the Sword in the Stone. As it turned out, I had a natural talent for the tuba. The first notes I produced were stable and centered, and in less than five minutes instruction, I was playing a B-flat major scale. Four years later, I enrolled in junior college as a music major (I had been offered a one-hundred dollar “scholarship”). The junior college music department had no tuba instructor, however, so I set out on my own to find a private teacher, and in 1969 I contacted Roger Bobo—one of the greatest musicians ever to hoist that magnificent horn. He was then the tubist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He had also been the first tubist to give a solo recital at Carnegie Hall (see John Updike’s light verse poem: “Recital”).  

I can remember clearly my first lesson with Roger. His home, at that time, was in the Hollywood hills, not far from the Hollywood Bowl. I arrived a little early and he offered me some coffee (very good coffee, as I recall). He was wearing an Irish fisherman’s sweater and he looked a little like Tyrone Power (if Tyrone Power had been a tight end for the Rams). We sat and talked for a while, and then, before hearing me play a single note, he said: “I hope you’re not planning on making a living playing the tuba.” Becoming a professional tubist was exactly what I had been planning to do. I was stunned by his remark, but when the color returned to my face, Roger added that he was not trying to discourage me from pursuing a professional career, only that I should have something else to fall back on. “It’s a tough way to make a living,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition, few openings, and no guarantees.”  

I studied with Roger Bobo throughout most of the 1970s (the topic of “having something else to fall back on” was never again mentioned). Roger was (and still is) a remarkable teacher. During our first year of instruction, he would often perform with me in unison the etudes or solos I’d prepared for my lesson—his tuba-bell a foot or two from my right ear. This gave me confidence and a strong concept of proper phrasing and rhythm and sound. But he discontinued this practice after our first year. Instead, he would sit—or stand—and sometimes sing and/or conduct a passage. His comments were always precise and beneficial and never sugar-coated. In the following years, we worked almost exclusively on orchestral repertoire. I was encouraged to study the tuba part in the context of a full orchestral score. Roger helped me learn the principles of artistic discipline, daily regimen, and a reverence for the smallest details (attributes not foreign to a good writer). During one particular lesson, he said something that would take root in my mind.

“What would you say is a teacher’s job?” he asked.

I thought it was a rhetorical question and I answered without thinking. “A teacher’s job is to teach.”

“Wrong,” he said. “A teacher’s job is to help students learn how to teach themselves.”

By the mid-1970s I was making my living as a professional tubist. In 1978 I traveled to Europe and was offered the tuba chair in the orchestra of The Teatro Regio, in Turin, Italy. It was a wonderful experience (for the most part), but at the end of the opera season, I decided not to renew my contract, and I returned to the States. Once home, I took up where I’d left off, only now my situation had improved: I was offered more studio work and I performed regularly with several of the local orchestras and other ensembles throughout southern California. And then my friend and mentor, Roger Bobo, gave me the highest honor yet: he asked me to substitute for him in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This was something akin to being Olivier’s understudy filling in as Hamlet.

Performing with one of the world’s top symphonic orchestras is a near-approach to the gates of Heaven. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. All those years of hard work had paid off. And I was up for the task; I felt right at home. But something horrible happened during the second concert. A malevolent force suddenly weakened my left jaw and my embouchure muscles. I was terrified. I leaned over to Jeff Reynolds, the bass trombonist, and whispered my situation. Jeff’s response was outstanding: he doubled my part, where he could, and helped me sandbag through the rest of the concert, without a hitch.

The condition that ended my music career is called “Embouchure Dystonia.” (You can read about the different forms of dystonia in Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia.)

II

Midway on my life’s journey (the 1980s), I found myself with nothing to “fall back on”—except a series of low-paying, low-skilled jobs, and a major funk. My spirits rose a little when I took my mandolin out of mothballs and performed with a traditional Irish music band, but—tasteful and challenging as the music was—it didn’t supply enough nourishment to heal my soul or turn my life around.

I had been a hungry reader my whole life. As a child I loved fairytales and Arthurian legends and the poems and stories of Edgar Allen Poe. In my twenties, however, I started reading more nonfiction: history, biography, and science. It was an unbalanced diet. Fortunately, during a particularly low stretch of my mid-thirties, I instinctively increased my intake of poetry and fiction, and my soul resumed its proper course, leaving behind my overabundant self-pity.

It was about this time I encountered the first of two lifechanging events. The first event would end in an unintentional negative sell. I was at a party, engaged in a conversation about great literature. I was the greenhorn among the group, and I naively asked the Leader of the Pack about James Joyce’s Ulysses. I said I’d heard about the book and was wondering should I read it. The Leader of the Pack smirked and said that I should instead read something by Steinbeck; Ulysses was for scholars.

The next morning, I started a syllabus for what would be my self-taught course to conquer Mount Ulysses. (“The best way to get an Irishman to do something is to tell him he can’t do it.”) I made a list of the books I knew Joyce would have read: The Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy; the works of Shakespeare, Ovid, Virgil, and, of course, Homer. I included Greek and Irish and Nordic myths and legends. I would also read Joyce’s Dubliners (three times) and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

I am a very slow reader. The process took about three years to complete. When I felt ready, I went to a used book store and paid a dollar-fifty for a hardbound copy of Ulysses. It was one of the most enjoyable books I’d ever read. I learned what I knew as a child (“The child is the father of the man”): a book is something to read; not conquer. One of the best side effects from all this reading was the uncontrollable urge to write something of my own. This time, however, I decided to go the traditional route of the university, and I enrolled for night courses. I tapped into my past musician’s discipline and developed the joyful habit of writing every day. (I would eventually earn a degree in liberal studies and an elementary teaching credential.)   

1991 brought the second of my lifechanging events. It was the year I met Jo-Anne Cappeluti: the most extraordinary human being I have ever known, the love of my life, and the woman I would marry. At the time we met, Jo-Anne was already a published poet and scholar, with a Ph.D. in English. She was then teaching creative writing and literature courses at a local university (a position from which she retired a few years ago, after thirty years of service). Over the years Jo-Anne has coached me on how to be my own editor—emphasizing a reverence for the smallest details and the necessity for revisions. She makes suggestions but never edits my work nor tells me what to do. Sometimes we disagree about things (sometimes we argue)—but she’s the one who usually had it right from the start. We listen to classical music and read aloud to one-another from great works of literature. Recently we read aloud from George MacDonald’s The Golden Key.

In 1997 my first publication, “The Awakening,” appeared in the Seattle Review. Since then I have had the good fortune to receive more than three-dozen acceptances in various literary journals (including two short stories in Superstition Review). Every acceptance is a magical experience; the excitement never diminishes. (I have received far more rejections than acceptances—but I quit counting them years ago.) God willing, I will continue writing short stories as long as I draw breath in this life. My passion for writing has given back to me something I had lost (and then some). I never intended to make a living by writing, and it looks like I’m in no danger of ever doing so. This doesn’t bother me in the least.

Guest Blog Post, Anne Colwell: What Writers Can Learn from Actors

Photo Credit: https://flic.kr/p/7eVwrs

On Mondays, after our graduate Shakespeare seminar, we would get lunch at The Malt Shop on Main Street. Four tiny tables huddled in the rear of the store; a counter stretched across the front. Behind the counter was the chalkboard full of the day’s salads, soups, sandwiches, and also behind the counter, three or four of the most attractive young women at the University of Delaware. It was a very popular lunch spot.

Our Shakespeare seminar ended about fifteen minutes before the graduate acting seminars did, so when the actors came in, we had already snagged at least two of the four tables for their show. That’s what we used to whisper to each other as they entered to the jingling of the bell on the door, “Here comes the floor show.” It wasn’t just their clothes – the long, brightly colored scarves, the patchwork pants and Birkenstocks, the hats. It was everything. How they ordered a sandwich – “I would ADORE a tuna MELT” – that final “T” clear and ringing, bouncing off the chalkboards. How they stood in line – taking up space, gesturing to the ceiling and floor. How they each picked up their order and swept out the door, calling back to those waiting, the exit line hanging in the air. We writers and literary types found them amusing and a little absurd. I discovered later that the actors found us, when they found us, arrogant, and frankly, a little dull.

Ironically, of course, we had all spent our mornings falling in love with exactly the same plays, exactly the same characters. With Shakespeare. And we’d all been trying to discover the same things: character motivation, dramatic arcs, the symbols in the world of the play. As a young writer and a new teacher, all these things fascinated me, but especially Shakespeare’s genius at creating characters I felt I knew, even hundreds of years away, characters I believed. Falstaff deciding that “discretion is the better part of valor” and pretending to die. Ophelia, bereft and mad, passing out imaginary flowers and singing bawdy songs. But even though the acting students and I shared this fascination, we lived in different worlds. When the actors came in to The Malt Shop for lunch, they may as well have been speaking another language.

Fast forward a dozen years.

My husband, James Keegan, who’d attended that Shakespeare seminar with me and gotten a literary Ph. D, realized that the dream he’d put off when he was eighteen, the dream of going to Cal Arts and becoming an actor, could not be deferred any longer. Even in graduate school, he’d come as close as he could to uniting the two worlds, the world of the writer and the actor. He’d done his Ph. D. specialty exam in “Shakespeare in Performance,” a study of different stagings of Shakespeare’s plays. In 2003, he bridged the gap between the two worlds. He auditioned for the American Shakespeare Center (the ASC) in Staunton, Virginia and became a professional Shakespearean actor, all the while retaining his roles as a college teacher and a writer. He taught his literature and writing classes at the Georgetown Campus of the University of Delaware on Monday and Tuesday, and then drove five hours to be on the stage Wednesday through Sunday. He worked with some of the same people we used to gawk at in The Malt Shop. He spent his days rehearsing and performing, not reading and talking about the plays, but embodying the characters. That’s the crucial word, and the one I want to talk about here – embodying.

Because he became an actor, I had the tremendous opportunity of seeing the plays he was cast in, not just once, but sometimes over a dozen times during the ASC’s long summer/fall season. Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Henry IV and many, many more. I may be one of the few people in the world who has seen plays so often as a true audience member and not someone connected professionally to the production. I also had the opportunity to go to rehearsals and to live with the actors and listen to and watch them prepare to do their work. All of this has profoundly changed how I feel about myself as a writer and about the creation of character. Don’t get me wrong, the actors were often every bit as absurd and amusing as they had been when they came into The Malt Shop. But now I understood in a much more profound way how closely our worlds were related. Suddenly, I found critical lessons for my own writing in the actors’ craft and in their preparation.

One of the amazing things about watching an actor become a character is that they have to do it first in the flesh; they can’t think themselves into the character, they have to find the character in their bodies. Although actors might begin the process intellectually, memorizing text, talking about themes, when it comes to the stage and the performance, the actor must be in the body. In the house my husband shared with other actors, right across the street from the theater, everyone would come into the kitchen to make lunch or dinner before rehearsals or the evening show. They warmed up their voices as they microwaved leftovers or made sandwiches, and the kitchen and house filled with sound. They sang snatches of songs softly and then loudly, hummed strange high notes, yawned to warm up their facial muscles. In the hallway sometimes, you’d find an actor with a leg thrown over the bannister, talking to himself, or someone holding the bannister and leaning forward like the figure on the prow of a ship.

In just a little while, someone else would inhabit their bodies, and they to prepare their bodies to let them in. King Lear’s voice would be my husband’s voice. James, only forty-seven when he played Lear, an eighty-year-old king, would, as he and his director agreed, “not put on age, but remove youth.” He found the movements and the posture that made him young and set them aside. His shoulders and hips stiffened. He shortened his stride. When James played Macbeth, he had been certified in stage combat, and he planned the way Macbeth would hold himself in a fight –erect and forward, the way he would command space on the stage — central and large. All the actors did similar work for their roles.

So, if you are a playwright, you can count on trained actors to do this for you in every performance. The beautiful thing about writing for the stage is that your work will be literally embodied. I remember my friend and teacher, Jeanne Murray Walker, telling me that one of the most surprising things to her when she transitioned from being a poet to being a playwright was that the words that she wrote on the page became real in the world. When she said that a character wore pink Mickey Mouse sunglasses, someone went out and found pink Mickey Mouse sunglasses.

Ironically, then, it’s playwrights who have the least to do to bring their fictional worlds and their characters to life.

However, as a fiction writer, and even as a poet, I began to realize the extent to which I need and want to do the actor’s work on the page, to imagine myself into the body of the character that I am creating – or better said, the character that I am discovering as I write — and to ask myself a new set of questions. How does it feel to be in the body of this character at this moment? What is he doing with his hands? What aches or pains does she have? Do these pains change the way she walks? How long has she lived with them? Are his feet cold? What happens in her body when she gets angry?

What are you doing with your body right now? What are you aware of in your body?

These are questions that I think it’s easy to forget when we are writing. Sometimes even the best writers get so deeply consumed by the thoughts and emotions of a character that they all but forget the character’s physical existence. Not long ago, for example, James and I listened to Amor Towles’ novel Rules of Civility. It’s an excellent novel, and I appreciated his intelligent structure, his vivid description, and his strong sense of the voice of particular characters. However, one of the things that was missing for me was this sense of the embodiment of the character. In this paragraph from the novel, you can see Towle’s great clarity in his description of the Hotspot Nightclub in Greenwich Village, but you can also feel the absence of the body of the narrator, Katey Kontent:

“From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist. The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos. While the bass player, a coffee-and-cream mulatto with a small deferential mustache, was being careful not to hurry him. Boom, boom, boom, he went, at half the pace of a heartbeat.”

To be fair, a couple of paragraphs later, Katey does mention that she wears comfortable, flat shoes, but that’s it, and that’s it for pages and pages. It isn’t that the writing is bad – it’s detailed, careful, vivid – it’s that I am missing the sense of the body that an actor will give Katey when the book gets made into a movie.

Why is that important? As a writer, when I think deeply about the physical body of a fictional character, I have a chance to enter the world that character inhabits in a specific and unique human body, that is, in an imagined human form. And, as a reader, if I feel within a character’s body, I move through that specific and unique world with a depth of compassion that isn’t possible in any other way. It is our bodies that separate us, but it is also bodies and inhabiting a body that connects us.

I yawn when I see someone yawn. I have been cold, so when I write about a character trudging through snow who struggles to breathe the freezing air and can no longer feel her numb feet, I am connected to her humanity in a deeper way, and my connection becomes the reader’s connection.

A passage from Amy Tan’s book The Bonesetter’s Daughter comes to mind. This moment is from Part I, and here the main character, Ruth, a preteen, wrongly believes that she is pregnant:

“Now whenever Ruth saw Lance, she breathed so hard and fast her lungs seized up and she nearly fainted from lack of air. She had a constant stomachache. Sometimes her stomach went into spasm and she stood over the toilet heaving, but nothing came out. When she ate, she imagined the food falling into the baby frog’s mouth, and then her stomach felt like a gunky swamp and she had to run to the bathroom and make herself retch, hoping the frog would leap down the toilet and her troubles could be flushed away. . . . First she cried a lot in the bathroom, then sliced her wrist with a dinner knife. It left a row of plowed-up skin, no blood, and it hurt too much to cut any deeper.”

The beauty of this passage comes from how deeply we as readers are allowed into Ruth’s physical reality, and I think that the connection to her body, particularly to her body in this tense, human moment, allows us to feel her panic and have a kind of compassion for her that isn’t possible without imagining ourselves all the way into her situation. I’m also arguing that Amy Tan, as the writer, had to inhabit Ruth’s body first, to imagine what it might physically feel like to be an uninformed, terrified young girl staring down at the toilet and trying to throw up. We make the connection as readers because Tan made the connection as a writer. Through the character, we all overcome the loneliness of the individual body and imagine ourselves, writer and reader, into a shared humanity. Actors teach us that characters begin in bodies and move out into the world.

Guest Blog Post, M.L. Rio: We Shall Overcome (Someday?)

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The Vietnam War is closer to home for me than it is for most twenty-somethings in 2018, probably because our schools tend to gloss or ignore the conflict. What I remember of my American history classes is that the narrative came to a screeching halt after World War II. Nobody wanted to wade through the moral quagmires of Korea and Vietnam when it was so much easier to end on the high note of Allied triumph over the Nazis, with the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s on the horizon. I’m sure this isn’t a universal experience, but from what I’ve learned in conversation with my peers, it’s a common one.

This war is entrenched in my family history—my grandparents were in the Foreign Service, my mother and her sister raised in Asia while their father worked at the U. S. Embassy in Saigon—so it’s something which has preoccupied, obsessed, and haunted me. I’ve read my grandfather’s letters from Tet. I’ve heard my mother describe waiting for her father to come home, while her mother tried to hide her fear that perhaps he never would. What tormented me most as I got older was how little I understood the conflict. So I did what I do best: research. I devoured books and newspapers, letters and interviews, movies and documentaries, music and memoirs and museum exhibits. The experience was unique in my archival pursuits in that the more I read and the more I learned, the more confused I became. But there’s some strange comfort in that, because that is the common thread running through so many different narratives of Vietnam: confusion and frustration of such agonizing magnitude that words simply cannot do it justice. But, as a writer, I am trying.

It is difficult to explain (especially to people like me who never talked about ’Nam in their history classes but unlike me had no reason to wonder about it) why I spend my scant spare time immersed in something so deeply, indefinitely disturbing. It is difficult to explain that this is something I feel tyrannically compelled to talk about, especially right now. The political climate of the United States is perhaps the most volatile it has been since the Vietnam War—which was ten months into its deadliest year exactly fifty years ago. Daily, anniversaries of deaths and battles and marches—at home and abroad—go by. On October 21, 2017, I walked the same route tens of thousands of anti-war protestors followed to the Pentagon in 1967. In the past two years, I’ve attended protests of my own, dragged out into the streets by a moral obligation to object to what I cannot countenance in this country of my birth: rampant gun violence, virulent misogyny, unchecked corruption, tax cuts for those already obscenely rich, the political legitimization of white supremacy. Since returning to the States from London immediately after the 2016 election, I have lived in a state of constant anger, fear, and confusion. And while I will never really know what it was like for the hundreds of thousands of men who fought for their lives or lost them in Vietnam, I am beginning to understand what it was like to live in a domestic American warzone, where families and friendships and illusions shattered under the pressure of such insurmountable conflict. I feel like I can never quite relax. Random crying jags while reading the Sunday paper have become the norm. Signs lettered with slogans are piled up in my coat closet. Every time I’m off to a protest I dress for a riot, a lesson learned from history and current events alike. Wear sneakers in case you have to run, tie a bandana around your neck to breathe through in case you get tear-gassed, keep your ID and cash in your pocket in case you’re arrested, and don’t forget to call your folks before you go and let you know you love them—just in case. But worse than anything, I think, is the feeling of desperate breathless exhaustion, like you’ve been screaming your lungs out for two straight years and nobody can hear you—or if they can, they’re not listening.

So. Where does that leave you? What do you do?

As historians are fond of pointing out, the Sixties witnessed socio-political unrest unseen since the Civil War. The Sixties also saw some of the most remarkable artistic achievement of the 20th century, and that is hardly a coincidence. Without the cultural revolution which was undeniably intensified by the Vietnam War, we would be bereft of a rich artistic groundswell which gave us freeform radio and music videos, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Slaughterhouse-Five, Bob Dylan and the Doors. Art has often been rebellious, sometimes revolutionary, and never apolitical. It has held a mirror up to nature, since Shakespeare coined the phrase (and long before). Art is one of the most powerful forms of protest we have, which is why artists are usually among the first to be exiled, arrested, punished, and persecuted when totalitarianism rears its ugly head.

For me, art is also a way to make some sense of senseless things. For the last year or so I have been working on a novel which follows the staff of a college radio station from 1967 to ’69. They are students and activists, lovers and fighters, poets and potheads, disc jockeys and GIs and draft dodgers, all dragged kicking and screaming into the chaos and turmoil of Vietnam. In their company I have marched on the Pentagon, watched the Tet Offensive unfold on television, felt crippling fear for a friend who just lost the draft lottery. I’ve also shared their wild delight at the vibrant life of the counterculture, their exhilaration at hearing “Purple Haze” for the first time and knowing it was something extraordinary, their contradictory conviction that peace is worth fighting for, their noble and naïve belief that they can arrest the forward momentum of a powerful political machine if only they, as Mario Savio so memorably put it in the days of Berkeley Free Speech, are brave enough to throw their bodies on the gears.

It’s not an easy story to tell when you know how it ends. The war dragged on until 1975, leaving almost 60,000 Americans dead—including four students killed at Kent State by the National Guard—and many more Vietnamese. It’s not an easy story to tell fifty years later when it couldn’t be plainer how little we’ve learned from the ugly parts of our history that nobody really wants to talk about. But that, of course, is exactly why I feel compelled to tell it.

Last week I marched with hundreds of other people from the U. S. Capitol to the steps of the Supreme Court to protest the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In light of Dr. Blasey-Ford’s testimony that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a high-school party with his hand clapped over her mouth, the analogy that we’re all screaming and no one can hear has become painfully, horribly real. Doubt eats away at me daily, and I can’t help wondering if all our efforts, all our marches and protests and outrage, will ultimately amount to nothing.

As I stood by the Capitol Reflecting Pool under gray skies and drizzling rain, an elegant older woman passed by me—dressed in black, with short gray hair and a face that was familiar, though I’d never met her before. When I realized she really was Joan Baez and not just someone who resembled her I thought, My God, she must be so tired of this. But then I felt a strange, unexpected stab of hope and realized how grateful I am for someone like her, someone who hasn’t given up fighting inequality and violence and war for fifty years, no matter how tired she is. Later I saw her standing under a tree (surprisingly not mobbed by people; perhaps other marchers my age and younger don’t know who she is) and managed to mutter a strangled, inadequate “Thank you.” Because I needed the reminder that apathy is not an option. Because now I can return to the story I’m trying to tell, a story of then and now, art and outrage, small hope and long odds that we’ll ever learn from our mistakes. Because no matter how small the hope or how long the odds, I refuse to fall silent. Of course, I’m no Joan Baez. I’ve only been marching around in the rain for two years and I’m already exhausted. But I will keep marching, and I will keep screaming, and I will keep writing, because just maybe someone will hear me, and just maybe, someday, it will matter.