Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Art of the Writers Residency

                                                Rocaberti Castle
I've been to many writers residencies, and in fact, I'm looking forward to returning in late September to the wonderful Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A writers residency can offer the priceless gifts of time and space to create, but it definitely helps to know how to prepare for one, and my friend Georgia Clark offers helpful tips below. Take it away, Georgia!

Abby Rodriguez, Georgia & me at Rocaberti

By Georgia Clark

Ruth and I met in a 14th century Spanish castle, a few hours north of Barcelona, on my sixth writers’ residency. I’d never been on a residency before moving from Sydney to New York, and stumbled across my first one (the wonderful Martha’s Vineyard residency) quite by accident. Now, I absolutely love them. Allow me to share my passion with you…

What the hell’s a writer’s residency?
An organized time and space for writers to work. Some are free, some cost money. (The free ones are generally the most competitive). Some include meals, some include one meal, some have a space for you to cook. Some are structured (our Spanish residency included time with a mentor), most are not. Some will be life-changing. All exemplify the adage ‘you get out what you put in’. They exist because writing is hard, community is important, people are generous, and hey—who doesn’t want to spend a few weeks somewhere gorgeous, bashing away in a room of one’s own?

How do I get in?
The application for a residency can be a lot of work (possibly including a writers resume, sample, outline of intended work and references), but once you’ve done one you can pretty much repurpose it for other residencies. Be as human and engaging in your project pitch as possible: explain why the work matters to you and what you’re about, really. Don’t be too formal. The magic of a good residency is about artists who think and feel, not business people who have perfect CVs. Overwhelmed by choice? Narrow it down to ones you can travel easily to, ones friends recommend (and might be a reference for; this helps), ones you can afford.

Find your ideal residency at Res Artis, Poets & Writers, Artist Communities or random Googling.

What do I prepare?
Great question, Georgia. Even though most writers’ residencies are self-directed, it’s a great idea to mentally and physically prepare for them. Decide well in advance what you’ll be working on, and set the bar high for yourself. At my last Martha’s Vineyard residency, I committed to writing the outline for my next novel, which was a big, unwieldy task that would’ve taken me three times at long in my usual, distraction-heavy environment. At the Obras residency in rural Portugal, I made the mistake of assuming I was there to polish what I thought was an almost-completed novel, only to hear back from my editor on Day 1 that is was an “okay” first draft. I wasn’t prepared for that and consequently spent a lot of time crying into large glasses of admittedly excellent port.

Alternatively, you might be on residency to relax and find inspiration: long solo walks, time away from the kids, etc. Again, set some goals for this: maybe you’ll commit to finding three great ideas for your next project.

Tips on having a great residency!
·      Join your fellow writers for at least one meal a day, ideally dinner. It’s a great way to take a break and make real connections. Pair up and take turns cooking meals.
·      Bring sleep aids and exercise gear. You’ll be mentally exhausted but not physically which can make it hard to sleep.
·      Disconnect from the outside world. Set up a vacation email and manage loved ones’ expectations of contact. Once phone call a day is fine, constant texting is not really the point.
·      Don’t worry about anyone else’s work. It can be easy to feel annoyed or jealous at how much or little other writers are doing or have achieved in their careers. Let it go. This is about you.
·      Know that there will be at least one crazy person. Give them a wide berth. Don’t get involved in drama; just enjoying gossiping about.
·      See something special as a group. To make it especially memorable, plan a group outing to see a local landmark/museum/bar. Being a good writer means having a good community.

Have fun! I’ve met wonderful people from all around the world in residencies; they really are one of the most fun parts about being a creative.

Share your tips, stories and advice about residencies in the comments below!

Georgia Clark is the author of THE REGULARS, forthcoming from Emily Bestler Books/Atria in August 2016. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @georgialouclark. Sign up for monthly writing tips at georgiaclark.com

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Packing Heat: Writing the Sex Scene

If you've been struggling with writing scenes of desire, eroticism, and sex, you're not the only one! 

In today's post, my friend, talented writer, Katherine Ramsland, shares her journey into writing the sex scene. Take it away, Katherine!

Many of us who write fiction face decisions about how to portray erotically charged scenes, especially those involving sex. The decisions are fraught with personal issues:

Will my mother read this?

Will readers think this is what I like?

Will anyone but me think this is hot?

Those scenes that succeed for me might say something about me, but they also affirm word choice, delivery, and the ability to pull me into the characters. So, there’s a lot to build before you get to the sex act. Sensuality can be achieved in many ways, and we probably won’t succeed universally, since sex is so personal. But whether sex is important to a plot or just an enticing sideline, we must figure out our approach.

I’ve read novels that start with characters coupling. Because I don’t know them, the scene falls flat. I’ve also read novels where no matter how much the sex partners grind and bounce and beg, the scene lacks energy. This means it lacks credibility. And I want to skip over such scenes.

Unless you’re just writing porn, you need to make readers care. Elizabeth Cratty, who wrote How to Write a Sizzling Sex Scene, says that emotional intensity is the key to making sex scenes pop. This means longing, a sense of connection, and vulnerability. “When you’re writing a sex scene,” she says, “both parties bring to the union their entire histories.”

There are no formulas. Some authors bring characters right up to the moment of unclothing and then cut away. Others are highly graphic. Some use clinical words; others think you should never do that.

Go on any blog that gives advice about how to write a sex scene and then read through the comments. They will range from “thank you, this really helps” to “you’re so wrong. My sex scenes use blah, blah, blah…” I once read a novel in which a specific image had a strong impact. It kept coming back to me as the hottest moment in the book. To my surprise, the author said that if she could do it over, she wouldn’t use that image. So, who really knows?

I’ve seen advice that we should do only what feels comfortable to us. By putting our character in motion, we discover our boundaries. But here’s the thing: I cut my teeth on the multiple drafts of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, some of which were shockingly crude to a teenage girl. I’ve read the Marquis de Sade books, I wrote a companion to Anne Rice’s erotica, and I’ve written nonfiction about all kinds of BDSM, including the kinky sex of necrophiles. But I still find it difficult to decide how much I want to describe in a sex scene in my fiction.

I can imagine it all, but I find that packing heat into words diminishes the impact. So, am I just not finding the right words or the right ways to string them together?

For me, the kind of embodied emotion that draws characters together is an intensity that keeps growing, with the hint that they will become more. It’s a force that they struggle against but also facilitate in a way that triggers conflicted feelings. Eventually, the craving becomes too strong to block. It’s a raw, commanding force that undermines the characters’ calculations but still gets them to their goals.

My novel, The Ripper Letter, inevitably involves sex, because the core of my supernatural universe is erotic. My protagonist, a female detective named Dianysus, finds a divination device that works best with sexual energy. To get the goods she must work herself up. She creates a fantasy figure, but she still must turn all the dials.

I was going to include a scene here to illustrate what I mean, but it doesn’t work. I could tell you how she slid her fingers down the curve of her side, and how her breath shortened and heartbeat increased as heat flushed through her. Or her first impression of the character with whom she will eventually entangle. But taking these scenes out of context is like deflating a balloon. If you don’t know her, you won’t feel her.

So, I think that a good sex scene is not necessarily about the words. It’s about emotional rhythms that play covertly in the background. We need to figure out how to fuel this while also guiding the overt plot. When Dianysus does have her “entanglement,” it happens at a time, in a place, and for reasons that surprise her, and yet the thrust of energy that propels her has been there all along. That’s what makes it work. (I think.)

How do we accomplish this? Whether we outline or write more spontaneously, I think we must remain alert to multiple layers of emotion. This will arise from our character development, so creating character profiles, with motivations, goals, and flaws, is part of the process. This means focusing on what they desire, how they deal with being thwarted, how this changes them, and how it impacts their momentum.

Writing dynamic sex scenes could be similar to the fluid genius of good improvisation. An NIH-funded f-MRI study on jazz musicians revealed that when they played their extraordinary riffs, the part of the prefrontal cortex that engages self-awareness shut down: the musicians lost their internal censors and moved boldly into the music.

“It’s a remarkable frame of mind,” says Johns Hopkins researcher Charles Limb, “during which, all of a sudden, the musician is generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before. What comes out is completely spontaneous. What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

Writing a memorable sex scene needs more improv than formula, more exploration of the titillating unknown. Still, we also know that improv experts have generally practiced for many, many hours. They know their instruments and methods so well that they can totally indulge. They can enter what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the state of flow. This is a complete absorption in a given activity that produces a sense of effortless concentration. The moment is exciting and alive, inwardly attuned. We are one with the work.

Becoming good at writing sex scenes might involve such uncensored focus. So, like musicians who know all their notes, it might help to make a list of the sensual and sexual words that appeal to you, and then bathe in them. Immerse. Get so familiar with them that when it’s time to work up some writing improv, you’re already intimately connected to the most useful words. You can choreograph your sex without having to think.

I think I’ll go try that now.

Katherine Ramsland has published 59 books. She teaches forensic psychology, is an expert on serial murder, and has personally explored the Ripper murder sites. www.katherineramsland.com

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Sweetness of Doing Nothing

It was my thirteenth summer, and the livin' was easy.... My parents had planned no activities for me, no summer camp, no piano lessons. Each day was an eternity to be filled by my own desires. Eventually my bike led me to the pool or the library-- ah, that old high-ceilinged, sunny library, where I could explore freely, and sneak into the adult section, and pick whatever caught my eye: new and old, glittering titles, fairy tales and mysteries, travel books and biographies. I lay in my backyard and read for hours, and afterwards, closed my sun-dazed eyes and imagined myself traveling to exotic lands, and maybe even creating one of my own....

When it got dark, my friends and I played games and leaped after fireflies....

It was one of the best summers of my life.

I have a Mediterranean temperament-- work hard, play hard, and savor sleep, food, and sun. I write everyday, except those periods when I am forced to stop, either because of life's demands or because my mind and body tell me it's time to slow down.... To play with kids... to lie out back and read like I used to... to linger over lunch with friends... to walk in the park...  It's time for me to be quiet. To gather words again, slowly and lovingly, the way I used to gather ripe berries with joy and wonder, eating them from the bush, dizzyingly sweet.... To catch words the way I used to catch fireflies-- a flash of light and heat between my palms-- and then, to release them.

I used to worry about losing words after I'd set them free, but then I remembered my grandfather on his rooftop in Morocco. He raised fifty homing pigeons in two enormous brass cages. He never locked the gates. He trusted they would return to him. They always did.

I had to trust that my words would eventually return, too. And they do. They know I'm on my own rooftop, waiting.

Sometimes I think we just have to trust in life, in its organic rhythms, to carry us where we need to be. And sometimes that place is right where we are at this moment.

The Italians have a delicious phrase for the art of doing nothing: Il dolce far niente.

The ancient sages of religions incorporated a day of rest in the weekly calendar. Farmers learned that fields cannot be harvested year after year without being given a season to lie fallow in order to renew and replenish. Humans are the same: we need time out from our increasingly regimented schedules.

Doing nothing is hard work, particularly when balancing our jobs and children, but if we can try to wrest a moment, an hour, a day from our busy lives, we find unexpected rewards.

So what can we do to increase our enjoyment of the art of doing nothing?

  • Get over the guilt. This is my personal challenge. 
  • Savor the moment. Be in the moment. Whatever you're doing, try to do it with all of you.
  • That means putting the phone away for a moment. Look at who you're with. Look at your surroundings. Look at your food. Be here, now.
  • You can also withdraw for a bit to dream and recharge. Enjoy a siesta... you don't have to sleep, but you can close your eyes....
  • Read a book for pleasure. 
  • Actually, do something, anything-- garden, cook, draw, paint, play music-- for the sheer joy. No judgment, just for yourself and the people you love.
  • Play. Borrow children if you don't have any and follow their rhythm. 
  • That means slowing down. If you've ever walked with a child, you know that the way to where you're going may have fascinating detours you never explored. 
  • When you have leisure time, try not to over-organize it. Leave time to be spontaneous.
I find profound similarities between the Zen art of mindfulness and the art of doing nothing. They're all about living in the moment, as much as you can. 

 ‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.’ 
~Thich Nhat Hanh

We can't live in the moment all the time, but the more we practice doing it, the better we get. 

If you have any suggestions, please pass them along!

Remember: you don't have to go away on vacation to experience the sweetness of doing nothing. It's inside each of us, waiting for us to discover it. 



Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Becoming Human

            I recently finished a screenplay, inspired by a novel I wrote, that takes place in 1963. From the beginning I wanted the neighborhood to be composed of different ethnicities coming together to form a community—to me, that is the true meaning of the American dream. Not a melting pot, but an immigrant stew, rich with a multitude of spices and ingredients. Or as Danny, Sophie’s Moroccan-Jewish trumpeter father, puts it, “a blues song sung in different languages and accents.”

1963 was a pivotal year in America. In March Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. In August Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington. And in November, the president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated. Two days later, millions of Americans, glued to their TV sets, watched Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner, shoot and kill JFK's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald

Violence had entered the American living room.

Newscasters, including Walter Cronkite, were visibly emotional. People all over the world were shown, weeping and stunned with grief. Frank McGee said on TV: "This is a moment that will be emblazoned in your memory and you will never forget it... as long as you live."

It changed the path of our country, and also the journey of TV news coverage. Images were indelibly branded in viewers' minds: the convertible procession through Dallas... Jackie's pink pillbox hat and pink suit... the smiling, handsome President suddenly crumpling in the seat of the convertible... Jackie refusing to change her bloodstained suit... Lyndon Baines Johnson being sworn in as the new leader... Oswald's smirk in his mug shot... his murder... the State funeral -- Jackie in black, little John-John saluting his father's casket....  

Less than a week later, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving in a country, and a world, changing before their eyes and spinning beneath their feet. 

People ask me how it felt to write a historical story. The truth is I never felt I was writing a "period piece"—the events I describe still burn with urgency, the words crackling with relevance: racial tension, women's rights, religious intolerance, xenophobia, gentrification. All I had to do was look at today’s headlines to see them reflected in the past. 

But 1963 was also the year of Hitchcock's "The Birds" and the musical, "Bye Bye Birdie." Beatlemania was born, and so was the Smiley Face. The first Bond film was released, and eerie Barbie Doll and Ronald McDonald commercials aired on TV. 

The thing is I'm not writing about issues -- I'm writing about people trying to figure out what it means to live life as a human being. One of my characters, reeling from the horrors of the Holocaust, only 18 years earlier, says, "To become human is the challenge. It's not enough 'to be' anymore. We have to learn to 'become.' It's the greatest war we have to fight. Against ourselves, first of all. If this war has taught us anything, it's how difficult it is to become a human being." 

It's the greatest question we can ask ourselves: What does it mean to become a human being in our world?

In 1963 the seeds were being planted in American soil, all the 'isms and issues that govern, and haunt, our lives today. Imagine if they'd been watered and cherished and allowed to grow free under the sun. 


It's not too late to become human.