Starting with an Image

Trees 5. Troncs noueux (1938) detailI’ve been haunted by an image of a forest.  There’s a bare tree, lots of dead leaves.  A man’s shoe. A child’s shoe. The feeling-tone is ominous. I suspect what the images relate to, but I don’t know the story. Yet.

And that’s how I write. A compelling image obsesses me. I’ll see a scene, or a character will appear before I understand who he is or why he’s buying ten cans of Chef Boyardee! And then I’m launched on a process of discovery—with joy and trepidation. I’m like a bloodhound sniffing out the story, literally sensing my way into plot lines, eyes, ears, and intuition geared up to answer these questions: What’s going on here? How do I take this image and expand it into narrative that unfolds into its best possible form?

El EncuentroI’m also acting as translator working from the visual into language. Seeing where I’m going with the image. My training as a poet has everything to do with how I write fiction, but then I came to poetry before prose because I saw things rather than heard stories. Part of the task of any writer is hold the intention of creating something glorious, something valuable, and accepting the hard work it will require. Keeping the love of the project alive and palpable despite the struggle to give it form. The writer is on an adventure and has entered the zone of the unknown, which is where original art hangs out.

Cultivating stillness is essential. It invites the magic. Art and magic are one kind of sister!  When I’m engrossed in a project, I enter an energy field where wild can things happen, like the proverbial book that falls off the shelf just when you need it. 1 Energía cósmicaOr, a new character shows up in a dream and tells you her heartbreaking story. Insights drop into your consciousness from odd places—bits of conversation overheard at the market, NPR stories—I’ve had to pull off the road when listening to Iraqi war veterans speak of their experiences, my mind/heart brimming with their graphic tales.

Wild things happen when you welcome the muse: synchronicities, a receptivity and shared sensitivity with others.

The spiritual side of this is that you can’t will the magic, the story, or the novel into being, though sincere attention and hopefulness attract the little iron filings of images and insights to your magnetic pull. roethkeOf course, you need to have the craft in place.  It’s a self-educational process. As Theodore Roethke wrote in “The Waking,” “I learn by going where I have to go.”

So you need to know the tools of your craft and to be able use them skillfully: dialogue, narrative summary, description, backstory. But even though storytelling is a more or less linear process, we writers spend a lot of time hanging out in our associative minds, in dream time, in the emotional limbic brain. We’re conjuring characters who display complicated and complex behavior, and we, their creators, have to know, understand, and embody on the page their complexity. And we hope to put this all together in a seamless way so the reader doesn’t notice the author’s presence. Writing a novel is world-making, in which we, the writers, welcome readers into the timeless worlds we devise.

0000 remedios varo crecion de la aves



Amazon, Hachette, Censorship, the Future of Books, and Me

censorship-1My parents gave me my first experience of censorship. When they did not want my sister and me to understand the juicy bits of gossip under discussion, they switched from English to a kind of pidgin Yiddish, the words and meaning of which were indecipherable to us. Their heated faces and waving arms told us high emotion was in the air, but their switch to Yiddish maddened us, blocking our understanding of the tidbits we so ardently longed to hear.

Today, as an author caught in the crossfire between two corporate adversaries, Amazon, the behemoth online store (dispensary of everything from razor blades to Nobel Prize-winning books) and the Hachette Book Group, parent company of my publisher, Grand Central Publishing, I am again experiencing censorship in a very personal way.

amazon tcol page cr

Anyone trying to purchase The Conditions of Love through Amazon will find no discounts, no one-click option, or even the usual “it will arrive in 3 days.” The wait for the book is two to three weeks or longer, a deliberate tactic to annoy readers into buying a different book they can get sooner. Non-Hachette books conveniently pop up as suggestions for you to buy.

book burningCensorship changes its form to accommodate religious, governmental, or corporate demands. Its more virulent manifestations are familiar: the Spanish Inquisition with its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, “Index of Banned Works,” or the Nazi destruction of “degenerative” art including books by Proust, Thomas Mann, and Einstein. The names Stalin, Pol Pot, and Ceaușescu produce shivers as do the horrifying and graphically prescient films adapted from the novels Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. Giants of early science were blacklisted by the Catholic Church for straying from established doctrine. More recently, who can forget the anxiety inspired by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses? Oh, how easy it is to point our finger at fundamentalist regimes that throw their critics in jail!

We like to brag about our freedom of speech, our freedom of religion, while what’s true is that artists in this country are more likely to be ignored or marginalized than threatened. History’s extreme examples of censorship are unthinkable now. And yet, and yet…aren’t we talking about nuances of censorship not related to religious or political concerns? For instance, doesn’t limiting access to books by making select books difficult to obtain, or impeding the distribution of selected books constitute a form of censorship? Should it concern us if a giant corporation exerts its muscle against a publishing house, albeit a large one, by encouraging customers to buy books from other publishing houses?

I’m not alone among authors in viewing Amazon’s tactics as censorship. From her aerie in Portland, Oregon, the irrepressible octogenarian Ursula K. Le Guin recently dispatched a fiery broadside making exactly this point about Amazon’s behavior: “We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author. ursulakleguinPORCHWEBGovernments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”  Every day more authors are echoing her cry and endorsing the letter organized by writer Douglas Preston, signed by some 900 authors, and sent to  Amazon’s Board of Directors on September 19.

What is awry is more than the instability of any one person’s success as an author. What’s really at stake is the value of literature in our rapidly-evolving society, and maybe even the continued existence of books in print. It’s as though we are facing the End Times of hardcopy books!

Bamazonooks serve a basic human function – they hold our collective memories. Is it any wonder that in so many dystopian novels, library sacking and book burnings reign? If you want to destroy the past, if you want to destroy curiosity, generative thought, imagination, free thinking, you burn books. Censorship always involves power – who has the right to determine what is disseminated to the public – but censorship never prevails. Totalitarian regimes topple, suppression is overturned. Or so it has been in the past. To insure this tradition continues, isn’t each of us obligated to locate and name the unnamed manifestations of coercion in our daily lives? For me, the pressure Amazon is putting on Hachette is a collective problem and reaches deep into issues of monopoly, fairness, and the value of art in our culture. Today I join a long line of angst-filled authors who not only worry about their writing futures, but the future of books. Let us hope that readers, writers, corporate conglomerates, and publishing houses will benefit from the current debate and power struggle. As Rilke said, “We must live the questions.” We certainly are!

Where do you stand?











Some useful links:

“Amazon and Hachette. The Dispute in 13 Easy Steps” by Carolyn Kellogg on her excellent Jacket Copy blog for The Los Angeles Times

Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, reveals her plaintive open letter to Jeff Bezos (reported by Carolyn Kellogg on Jacket Copy)

Jim Hightower’s two-part report on Amazon on Hightower Lowdown:
Part One: “Like Walmart, only with supercomputers and drones: At “cheap” comes at a very hefty price”

Part Two: “Amazon’s ruthless practices are crushing Main Street–and threatening the vitality of our communities”

“Publishing Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined” Column by New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan criticizing Times reporter David Streitfeld’s coverage of Amazon-Hachette dispute

Who speaks for Amazon? Read the Publishers Weekly interview with self-publishing icon Hugh Howey “Four Questions for . . . Hugh Howey”