Paris Note #2: Word Games

As I’ve mentioned already, I spent last week participating in the Paris Writers Workshop. Not only was I lucky enough to receive a Patricia Painton Scholarship to help with that nasty exchange rate, but I also won a prize in another conference-related event!

Last Friday night we celebrated the close of the week, and the 20th year of the conference, and 10 years of co-director Marcia Lèbre’s service to the program (Marcia is pictured to the left), with a “Surrealist Dinner” on the rue Racine. And in keeping with the evening’s theme, we all joined in a game of “Cadavres exquis” (“Exquisite corpse”).

I wish I still had the directions that we received, but since I don’t, I’ll rely on Wikipedia to provide a decent enough substitute:

Exquisite corpse (also known as “exquisite cadaver” or “rotating corpse”) is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled, the result being known as the exquisite corpse or cadavre exquis in French. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule (e.g. “The adjective noun adverb verb the adjective noun”) or by being allowed to see the end of what the previous person contributed.


The technique was invented by Surrealists in 1925, and is similar to an old parlour game called Consequences in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution. Henry Miller often partook of the game to pass time in French cafes during the 1930s.

It’s a lot like Mad Libs, just without the intervening printed words. You come up with ALL the words yourselves. The first team member might be told to write down a pronoun. The folded paper goes to the next person, who is instructed to come up with an adjective. And so on.

At our table, my new friends (and workshop classmates) Jill and Karen formed one team; Jill’s husband and I made up another. Jill and Karen’s exquisite creation (“Our fertile kidneys festered like clockwork”) captured first prize; the one that emerged from my collaboration with Mr. Jill (“Her French mustache jumps where no one else could see”) was the first runner-up!

It was an amusing and appropriate way to end a week at the Paris Writers Workshop!

The prizes: books (bien sûr!).

Paris Note #1: (Un)Assigned Reading

So, as you know, I spent last week in Paris, attending the Paris Writers Workshop. It was a wonderful week on so many levels: revisiting my beloved city; catching up with a dear friend who happened to be there at the same time; focusing on the possibility of turning something that hasn’t quite worked as a short story into a novel; and establishing what promise to be a couple of long-lasting friendships with others in my workshop.

That workshop, billed as a “Master Class” in the novel, also included discussion of two assigned novels: Andrei Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers, and James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Before I left New York I expected that after my return I might write here about one (or both) of those books, and the workshop analyses of them. But rather than write about either of those fine works of fiction, I want to tell you instead about the essay collection I read while I was away: William Styron’s Havanas in Camelot. Because, quite simply, I loved it.

Actually, I’ve mentioned this book here before. And it’s doubtful that I can do as good a job of writing about it as “Oronte” already has.

So all I’ll say is this: I found it nearly impossible to put this book down (and fortunately, due to its slender size, I didn’t need to do so very often). Its appeal wasn’t, I think, simply a matter of my longtime admiration for the author of Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible. In many ways, Styron was a witness to history, and his accounts of everything from his presence at “what turned out to be possibly the most memorable social event of the Kennedy presidency” to the culture of censorship that surrounded his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (finished, writes Styron, “about two hundred years ago—it was 1951, to be exact”), will capture and hold the attention of any reader remotely interested in the social and cultural history of the United States from World War II forward.

And then, as the mention of his first novel may suggest, the elements of this book based in Styron’s experience as an author among authors proved irresistible for this practicing writer. See especially the pieces grounded in Styron’s friendships with Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern (the account of a special VIP tour of the Cook County Jail that Styron and his wife enjoyed in Southern’s company, thanks to the efforts of their Chicago host, Nelson Algren, is unforgettable).

I finished reading Havanas in Camelot early in my Paris week, sad that I’d reached the final page. And sad, once again, that Styron is no longer with us.

(More “Paris Notes” to follow.)

Friday Find: Vacation!

For the first time since I began working at my full-time “desk job” 17 months ago, I am going on vacation! What’s more, I am going back to one of my all-time favorite cities in the world: PARIS. Even better, I will be attending the Paris Writers Workshop, hopefully jumpstarting a novel from a failed short story (and the icing on the gâteau is that I’ve won a conference scholarship).

I don’t expect to post while I’m away, but I will be sure to report back once I’m home. You can count on our regular posting schedule to resume on Monday, July 14. Meantime, Happy 4th of July to all the American practicing writers out there. À bientôt!

P.S. If you’re looking for more writing/publishing opportunities in my absence, don’t forget that July is SALE MONTH for The Practicing Writer’s Guide to No-Cost Literary Contests and Competitions. Get your copy for a mere $4.95 (50% off the regular price!).

The Wednesday Web Browser: Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, New Munro in the New Yorker, and My Latest CUNY Profile

If you’ve ever wondered what the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Gambier, Ohio, might be like, you’ll want to read these posts by 2008 attendee Kirsten Ogden.
Not that I’ve had a chance to read it yet, but there’s a new Alice Munro story in the current New Yorker. Any new story by Alice Munro merits mention here!
Finally, as you may remember, I do get to do some fun feature writing in my job-that-pays-the-bills. Here’s the latest published piece, a profile of James Oakes, a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York and winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize for his latest book, The Radical and The Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (Norton, 2007).

Writing About Motherhood: A Childless Scribe Speaks Out

“They bring the heat,” Stace Budzko, an instructor at Grub Street and at Emerson College, said of the young mothers in his classes. “When it comes to conflict, they’ve seen it all. Nothing scares them.” One mother in his class wrote a story about a young boy who built a bomb, and in the story the boy’s mother was pleased, despite herself, at her son’s inventiveness. The portrait rang true, said Budzko, and a non-mother might have painted it quite differently.

When I read these lines in a recent Boston Globe article, I started fuming. Again. This post explains why.

You’ve probably heard this maxim: “Write what you know.” Beginning fiction writers hear it, too. It’s a tricky concept. For too many people, “knowing” is synonymous with —and limited to—personal experience. When they turn to their sources of “knowledge,” they reflect back not necessarily to what they might “know,” but rather to what they have lived. That’s fine—for them.

What’s not fine is condemning other fiction writers to this same circumscribed material, and reflexively discrediting another’s work depending on what they “know” (or think they know) about an author’s own life.

Or, as Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy have noted in Creating Fiction: A Writer’s Companion:

When carried to its extreme, “write what you know” means that the writer who does not have divorced parents cannot write about a divorce, and the writer from a broken home cannot describe a happy family. “Write what you know” might discourage you from following the natural leaps of your imagination to new but fertile places; worse still, it might discourage you from developing empathetic bonds with individuals and emotions that have been previously foreign, an acquired skill that has value far beyond the pursuit of creative writing.

The narrow vision of “writing what you know” has long seemed restrictive and unproductive to me. And one area where it has caused particular tension concerns writing fiction that focuses on motherhood and/or mother characters.

People challenge fiction writers’ credibility in other ways. Can a man write convincingly from a woman’s perspective? Can a person of one race or religion write from another? Can a young person write from the perspective of someone older? I don’t see the point to these questions. Skilled fiction writers have the right and the freedom to take on any material they choose. That’s part of the beauty of the job.

As a (reasonably young) Jewish woman, I’ve published fiction featuring protagonists who are male, female, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or of no clear religion. They’ve ranged in age from their twenties to their eighties. Some of the stories and novel excerpts take place in times that precede my memory. Many initially made their way through writing workshops where others offered their comments, responses, and suggestions for improvement.

My workshop classmates (and here I’m speaking mostly of my MFA workshops) often knew some basics about my life outside the workshop—that I was a (reasonably young) Jewish woman writer, and that I was not a mother. And while they rarely questioned the authenticity of my fictional Catholics, Protestants, men, older people (or, for that matter, pediatricians, psychiatrists, liquor store owners, or people living through events I’m too young to have possibly have lived through myself) it was amazing how intensely my parent characters and themes—particularly of the maternal variety—came under the critical microscope.

Apparently this topic I couldn’t possibly grasp. Not like certain of my “mama writer” classmates. They knew everything. The protagonist of my historical novel (never mind everything else I’d already established about her) wouldn’t behave as I’d shown her six weeks after having a baby! Why? “Your hormones are just going crazy!” they informed me. (Really? Thanks for letting me know that, since neither the multiple instances of postpartum depression in both my mother’s and my father’s family trees—nor the sheer “knowledge” I’d accumulated in more than 30 years living on this planet—had yet clued me in to that possibility.)

And by the way, one classmate remarked, your stomach isn’t “flat” so soon after delivery. What my expert editor didn’t realize was that I’d chosen the adjective not out of the ignorance of the childless scribe, but rather based on photographs and observations of some of the mothers I am closest to: my own mother (who, at five feet four inches tall weighed barely 98 pounds when she left the hospital with newborn me in her arms), my younger cousin, and my college roommate, all of whom were wearing their “old” clothes within days of delivery.

Here’s what those workshop classmates failed to grasp: Motherhood is something that has surrounded me since—well, the day I was born. Maybe since I was conceived. Maybe even before that: If History—if the experiences of persecution in Europe of those who came before me left traces in the person I became, as it’s clear that they have—perhaps the more private history of mother-child relationships in the preceding generations may have transmitted something, too.

It’s not merely a matter of my status as my mother’s daughter, a child named for her own mother’s mother. Motherhood has permeated my life in other ways. I have learned about pregnancies of close friends and family members almost as soon as the pregnancies were confirmed. I’ve (tried to) console mothers who have lost children to miscarriage or premature birth. I’ve celebrated adoptions. I’ve worried over infants’ health problems. I met my own niece when she was a few minutes old, because I’d spent the hours preceding her birth waiting at the hospital. I even helped name her. (“You two just decide,” said my brother-in-law, as my sister and I continued to mull over the matter, a topic we’d discussed for months, an hour after the birth.)

I’ve also watched mothers prepare to leave their children after fighting illness for years. And I’m watching the grandchildren named for them grow up.

In other words, my fellow writers failed to appreciate elements that go into fiction writing that transcend one’s own lived experience. In their belief in the all-deciding power of lived motherhood—and their championing of a somewhat remarkable uniformity of that experience—they failed to appreciate that it is something I, too, “know.”

For an essay workshop, this might make sense. As a reader, I, for one, certainly expect that essays and memoirs depict actual lived experience. According to my own code of writerly ethics, it would be fraudulent to write an essay or memoiristic piece that in which I am giving birth or raising a child of my own without having gone through such an experience.

But for fiction? For poetry? Is it not enough to have grown up on family stories of mothers separated from their children all too soon, through death or disease, to write about attachment? Must my name appear on a child’s birth certificate to address the questions a four-year-old asks as we stroll down the sidewalk, or to marvel over a toddler’s bright blue eyes?

So here’s my plea to all those “mama writers” (and for that matter, to all the “mama-centric” publications) out there. You know who you are.

Please give those of us who have not birthed and/or are not raising children a little credit. Please allow for the possibility that we, too, may have human qualities and capacities for empathy, imagination, and observation that, when all is said and done, matter much more to the practice of writing than does one’s reproductive history.

Thanks ever so much.