Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Guest Post: Footnotes on the Cutting Room Floor

A guest post today by Marlena Baraf, whose lovely, lyrical memoir about growing up Jewish in Panama, resonates deeply with all of us who--to use the title of one of my essays-- "live between question marks." Marlena writes:

"I love words that illustrate different perspectives. Hybrid. Hyphenated. Bilingual. Multicultural. Synthesis. They point to the richness possible with human groups."

I asked her about the stories she couldn't tell in her memoir, what she had to leave out....
Take it away, Marlena!

 My memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, is a mother-daughter story set in Panama that moves with me to the United States when I was fifteen. It began with a single scene. A memory of my mother under the calabash tree in our brick patio. She had just received shock therapy, “the sugar kind,” my uncle said, which referred to the use of insulin to induce shock treatment many years back. It’s an image I’d buried until it surfaced during a creative writing exercise. That scene opened the door to the story of my mother’s overwhelming anxiety that pushed away the fledgling love of her children.

There was always someone’s telling line, or a snapshot in my mind. Me as a five-year-old, waiting at the door for my father to arrive from work, feeling my heart soar like a pink, party balloon. My mother’s manicured hands placing tiny boxes of matches on the bridge table, her bracelets clinking as she set them down. I built the story on scenes, scenes with emotion--show not tell—because I felt that the real truth had to arrive unvarnished.

However. There is a “however,” of course. My story happened against the backdrop of a country few Americans know, the tiny Isthmus of Panama, within a family of Sephardic, Spanish-Portuguese Jews ensconced in Panama since the 1850s. Readers could not read my mind and all I knew. (How I wished they could!)  I had to provide grounding information.

I used scene and character--my great grandmother, Julita, a matchmaker of hearts--to tell the early family story. Through family legend about my wildly creative grandfather Jicky, I was able to comment on the building of the canal and the early life of Panama City. But some information did not fit within the roller coaster of my mother’s illness and the lyrical memoir that was taking shape.

In his novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz--feeling he had to ground readers in the story of the Dominican Republic and the 31-year rule of dictator Trujillo--provided extensive footnotes. It was a controversial move, and I had understood its necessity. I considered adding footnotes to my manuscript to catch the compelling facts I was uncovering.

In my book, I describe morning mass in the nun’s school I attended. In those years there were few options for Jewish children in Panama. About three years after I left Panama, two Argentine Azkenazi brothers arrived in Panama and founded the first Jewish school, open to all religions. My little brother went to “Einstein” as the new school was called--but that was long after my story. Many of my cousins and some Catholic children attended Einstein as well. This I felt was a sidebar, but an interesting one, to orient Jewish readers.

There were also details about the treatment of mental illness in Panama and the US in the 50s and 60s. I’d visited my mother at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Father and son, Charles and Karl Menninger, are said to have introduced psychiatry to the United States. They railed against the conditions at asylum facilities in the mid-twentieth century and believed in providing psychiatric treatment in a humane environment, certain that people with chronic disorders (like my mother’s) could return to their families and lead productive lives.

I got advice from “beta readers.” One reported, “I love the footnotes. Why don’t you put them in the back of the book, so they don’t interrupt the flow.” Another reminded me of the nature of my memoir: textured and immediate. Footnotes might give it an “academic feel.” I wavered back and forth for months, and finally I decided. I wove into the narrative information I couldn’t bear to leave out. And I dumped the rest.

Here’s a scene from the memoir and the matching footnote that landed on the cutting room floor. In the book (on page 119) I’ve just returned home from college in the United States and traveling in a rickety train along the cinch belt that was the Canal Zone that cut through the narrow waist of Panama:
 “…It would be hot. My clothes would stick to me uncomfortably. The backs of the double seats inside the train would be shifted forward or back so that members of a family could face one another, though I’d be riding alone, looking past the open windows at swamps, tall grasses, and jungle—bamboo reeds sticking up in low-lying water—scenes that made me think of Vietnam, deep in my consciousness after a year of campus protests at Oxy.”

On the cutting room floor:
“At that very moment American soldiers were training for Vietnam in the jungles of Panama and in the towns I was crossing on that train ride home.”

The footnotes live in a Word file on my screen.

Marlena Maduro Baraf is a Jewish Latina who immigrated to the United States from her native Panama. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine, Lilith, Lumina, Sweet, Huffington Post, and other publications. In past lives Marlena was book editor in New York City. She also studied at Parsons School of Design and the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. You can visit her at

Monday, October 14, 2019

9 Tips for NaNoWriMo

At a recent writing workshop I led, everyone was talking about NaNoWriMo with varying degrees of panic and excitement. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month or, as non-writers call it, November.
            NaNoWriMo has become a global phenomenon with thousands of writers participating, joining in online communities, charting word counts and progress, sharing stories of success and failure, and providing pep talks for each other.
So what’s the deal? You try to write a novel in one month. Can it be done? Sure. At least a first draft for fast writers. Writers who move to a different beat may not get a complete draft down, but they can get an overview of the novel and quite a bit written, often more than they thought they could. At the very least, it’s a catalyst that gets your ass in chair and your mind moving. It also forces you to focus on narrative momentum and getting the story in gear.
To that end, I’ve put together a few tips that writing colleagues and I have found useful, and that I hope will help put this journey in perspective. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo before, and I’m going to do it again! I’m at the tail end of one novel and hoping to plant the seeds for a new one.

Here goes!

1. Prewrite!!! Start prewriting now, if you can. Write a tentative outline, draw a map, brainstorm circles and connections, list key scenes and beats, motifs and symbols… whatever it takes to help you envision the big picture.

2. Clear the decks of other obligations as much as you can. But hey, life goes on. Families, jobs, responsibilities—we’re not islands. Do what you can with what you have. Make that enough, and it will be enough.

3. Dive right in and write what excites you, what you’re dying to write, the reason that drives you to write this novel. You can work your way out from there, and back and up and forward. Start at the throbbing heart of your story.

4. Maintain a regular writing schedule. Whatever your lifestyle/work habits, wherever you are-- train/bus/coffeeshop/library/your own study—create a time that is yours, preferably the same time everyday, devoted to writing. But make it realistic, the kind of schedule you can keep up for a month.

5. Try to get the big research issues dealt with before you start writing, but inevitably questions will arise. You can sink into the quicksand of google and spend days looking up details. Keep it to a minimum. Wherever I need to research, I type: XXX. When I’m looking back over the manuscript, that’s easy to find. I tell myself: “I’ll XXX it now and look it up later.”

6. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t get too precious with your words. There’s a time for that. It’s called December.

7. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t expect perfection in a first draft. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not a speedy writer who races to the finish line. Focus on getting as much done as you can.

8. Don’t stop writing on November 30th. Be thankful you’ve started a great practice. Try to maintain it, with modifications of course. The reason diets don’t work is because they’re intense and exaggerated for a brief period, and impossible to maintain over a long time. What does work is changing your attitude and lifestyle. If you make writing a part of your daily life, NaNoWriMo will simply intensify what you’re already doing.

9. Have fun with it! Don’t get so tense and obsessed with daily word counts that you can’t be playful. Think of this month as an adventure, a voyage you’re embarking on. Look at the blank page as a place where anything is possible, your Queendom or Kingdom. This is the beginning—every road beckons, every door is unlocked, and your imagination is the only limit.

Here’s my writing mantra:

            Say it hot.
            Say it short.
            Say it you.
            Say it now.

Writing is such a solitary practice that whenever we can connect with other writers and form a community it helps on many levels. If you’re in a writing group, you may decide to work on NaNoWriMo together, sharing encouragement and experiences as you go through the month. If not, you may find it helpful to get a writing buddy, online or in person, with whom to compare notes. The most valuable part of this experience may be the heightened awareness that although we write alone, we are not alone.   

Good luck and happy writing, you wizards and witches! And if you have any tips to add, please share them in the comments!

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Guest Post: The Reader and the Writer’s Imagination

Hello, friends! Back with another guest post by a wonderful writer and dear friend, Miryam Sivan, whose new novel, Make It Concrete,  just came out last month. It's a beautiful novel, and I highly recommend it! By the way, I took the above photo during one of Miryam's and my long walks, during which we talk about everything under the sun. This one was taken in Central Park on a hazy summer afternoon, a good time to brood over the power of the imagination.

In this post, she poses fascinating questions about points where "reality" and our lived experiences intersect with the imagined experience of "fiction." Where does one end, and the other begin? And does it matter? These questions are in my mind as I navigate the final stretch of my novel-in-progress. More on that in the next post! For now, enjoy Miryam on The Reader and the Writer's Imagination!

Recently I read a book review that praised the writer’s autofiction.  That got me thinking about that genre and what we once called autobiographical fiction. After a little reading I realized there’s a bit of a muddle. To some degree the new name (since the 1970s) of autofiction has added cache to the older familiar genre of autobiographical fiction. Autofiction sounds sexier and often includes the voyeuristic meta aspect: writers writing about writers writing. I get it. And I like it, if, like with Philip Roth’s Zuckerman trilogy, the writing itself is superb. And in general, since I don’t read to mine a writer’s private life, I don’t care what’s auto and what’s not. I care about the quality of the sentences themselves, the story being told, the larger philosophical or political concerns of the text.
Not caring about sources is reflected in my own fiction. I do not have an agenda to use or not use my life’s experiences. And I do and don’t use them. For the most part though, I don’t, at least not in terms of plot and characters. The most deliberate mining of my own life comes in the emotional lives of my characters. Which is also where the deepest motives for writing a story are revealed. Example: if I write about violence against women, then I will use the feelings I may have had in relation to a specific incident (either a news item or from someone’s life I know) to express my character’s pain, fear, anger, helplessness, etc. What exactly happened, to whom, and how I make up, imagine, if you will, but the emotional landscape is often already known. Though even then it’s blended with the imagined….
I am less interested in what happened and more interested in what might happen. Sticking to a character based on myself, seems to me infinitely boring, limiting, and frankly I don't think I could pull it off.... I would be hyperconscious all the time of how I was molding and resisting strands of what I think are true, want to be true, want to erase – both from memory and certainly from the page. I know how profound influential unconscious bias is and would track it in my sentences. This would compromise my great pleasure in the freedom of making stuff up. And while I believe in the wonderful work of psychotherapy, I don’t want it to become part of my writing process.
The irony of course is that no matter how imagined, readers who know me think much of the material in my fiction is autobiographical. In my recently published novel, Make it Concrete, my protagonist, Isabel, has a boyfriend, a lover near home, a lover in a foreign country, and is capable of picking up a sexual adventure in her travels depending on her mood. Not only have certain readers expressed discomfort with her sex life (another subject I intend to write about soon), but they assume it reflects my life style. “I wish,” I respond, not going defensive on Isabel’s account. Je ne suis pas Isabel Toledo! And stop looking at me like I’ve invited you into my bedroom. Same goes with many details of the book. Isabel has 3 children. I have one. One person actually asked me how I was able to write about this. Huh? Or how about Isabel’s dog? She has a small Jack Russell terrier while I have always had large dogs. Someone said to me that they knew I’d put my dog in my book. Guess all dogs look alike to some people.
Back to emotional mining. I am the mother of one and can easily imagine being the mother of three. I am a dog lover and size in fiction or in real life doesn’t matter. I know this emotional bond very well. It’s not hard to put it on the page and it’s certainly not hard to imagine loving a dog with a very different temperament than the ones I’ve been lucky to live with. Luckily for many writers their readers are not always people they know personally, so they’re not subject to this kind of personal scrutiny.
I say all this stridently, but I don’t feel this way. I actually find it amusing, not upsetting. Even when I write imaginatively people assume I’m writing autofiction. And in Make it Concrete  I confuse them even more since the novel is about a writer who writes! Isabel Toledo is a ghostwriter for Holocaust survivors… something I did once years ago. Isabel has been doing it for twenty years and is on her sixteenth book…. like one child versus three…. So heck, let readers think I’m having fabulous erotic encounters with gorgeous men in unusual sexy locations. Yippee!

Originally from New York City, Miryam Sivan has lived for over twenty years in Israel. She is a Ph.D. and teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa. Many of her short stories have come out in American and British journals and two were staged. SNAFU and Other Stories, was published in 2014 (Cuidono Press), and her novel, Make it Concrete was published in 2019 (Cuidono Press). Sivan is currently revising a novel, Love Match, a Romeo and Juliet story set in Haifa, and is working on a screenplay about Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s.