In my new blog,
writing NOW & THEN: entries from an author's life
my mission is to excavate and extract entries from past journals that still resonate and perhaps even offer wisdom or insight into the life of writers today. Please visit and let me know what you think!
WRITE WHAT YOU LOVE… AND HATE
Here’s an exercise to convey emotion without describing the emotion.
I. Write from the gut and don’t think too much as you do the following:
1. Write a paragraph-long description in third person (i.e. do not write “I love…”) of something or someone you absolutely adore. How does your subject look, think, work, move, smell, sound, taste, feel…etc.?
2. When you finish, take a break, go for a walk, call a friend, clear your head.
3. Now write a parallel paragraph, applying the same rules as in #1, describing something or someone you absolutely loathe.
II. Place the two paragraphs side by side and examine the language you’ve chosen to express objectively what you feel. Would a stranger reading these graphs be able to tell how you, the author, feel about your 2 subjects? How? What specific words and syntax convey your attitude?
III. Consider writing a short story or essay about these 2 subjects. What situation or theme might bring them together? How would they interact? How could you use your opposite feelings for these two subjects to intensify your narrative – without explicitly stating your feelings?
My first book deal might be described as an intentional accident.
The year was 1977. All of 24, I was working as a flight attendant and aspiring writer without much writing to show for the aspiration. One day between flights I picked up a Vogue magazine and read a column about a little-known condition called anorexia nervosa. This was the first time I’d heard that phrase, but the list of symptoms told me that I’d suffered from this disease for seven years. Though I was now recovered, I had no idea how I’d developed the illness or how I’d gotten better. More to the point, I thought, no one had ever written a memoir that tried to make sense of this eating disorder.
I spent the next year scribbling during layovers and typing on my days off. What began as an attempt at an article turned into a manuscript.
One summer day I bumped into a college friend outside my Greenwich Village apartment building. He had been my senior prom date. He had won the Mademoiselle fiction prize. He had a literary agent. He asked if he could come up and use my bathroom. I said, sure.
Honestly, I had no ulterior motive. We were old friends. He spotted the manuscript on my coffee table when he came out of the bathroom and asked if he could take a look. After skimming the first few pages he asked if he could show it to his agent. I said, sure.
A couple of weeks later I had a deal with the late Harper & Row. The memoir was reviewed in the New York Times, and readers even today tell me that it changed their lives. That is the very good news.
The bad news is that I had no appreciation for how lucky I’d been. After finishing my memoir I spent the next year working on a novel that my agent made me promise never to show to another living soul. I went back to a paying job and co-authored a string of self-help books before attempting fiction again. My first published novel, Face, came out fifteen years after Solitaire.
In retrospect, I attribute my “luck” to several key factors, both plotted and serendipitous. First, I wrote about a topic that was truly fresh and marketable. Second, I had something intensely personal and meaningful to say on the subject. Third, I pushed myself to find my own clear voice to tell the story. Fourth, when I had a solid sample, I showed it to someone who would not bullshit me about its value, someone who had connections and was willing to help.
Ultimately, writing is all about making and extending connections – with yourself, your characters, your agent, your editor, booksellers, and your readers. The real purpose of getting published is to extend those connections. Never underestimate or overlook the role of those human connections in your writing career.
"Literature is the result of a kind of divine interweaving of intention and serendipity, tightened by hard work and attention. Like painting. The subconscious plays a word over and over, it lands with a splash on the page, and on revision the writer notices a pattern forming, wonders what that pattern means, starts working the pattern intentionally, and eventually you have a Jane Kenyon poem or a Degas painting. You can’t plan it; you just have to pay attention."
- Aimee Liu, letter to a student
Students are often instructed to “write what you know.” I prefer the suggestion, “Write what you deeply and truly want to know.” I write in order to understand. This process began with the diaries I kept as a child.
At age twenty-five, I sought through my memoir Solitaire (Harper & Row, 1979) to understand anorexia nervosa – years before “eating disorders” became a household term. In my first novel, Face (Warner, 1994), I explored the identity collisions that so often occur within mixed-race families. My second novel, Cloud Mountain (Warner, 1997), was my attempt to comprehend two grandparents I had never known and, through their story, a father who always seemed an enigma to me growing up. In my third novel, Flash House (Warner, 2003), I struggled to make sense of the unintended consequences that so often occur when well-intentioned people – and cultures – attempt to “rescue” those who don’t necessarily wish to be rescued. And most recently, in Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders (Warner, 2007), I’ve tried to make sense of all that I could not understand about eating disorders when I was recovering from one back in the 1970s.
I believe writing is a journey as varied and unpredictable as each writer’s curiosity. In my opinion, the role of a teacher is to offer students support, encouragement, and constructive criticism to facilitate that journey. What a writer needs to hear is not so much what a teacher likes as what works, and what doesn't. Does the piece hold together with a consistent and authentic narrative voice? Is the world as created on the page believable and vital? Are the characters and their problems compelling? Is there passion in the prose? Of course, when the answer to these questions is no, the job of the teacher is to offer suggestions for fixing the problems – but not to explicitly spell out how the fix “should” be done. I believe that good writing can be nurtured. It can be assisted. It cannot be imposed. My goal as a teacher, then, is to equip students with the necessary skills to make the writer’s journey. They must dig deep within themselves to discover where that journey will take them. My own writing career has led me in many unexpected directions both on and off the page. My fiction and nonfiction have been published in periodicals ranging from Self and Cosmo to the literary magazine Other Voices, as well as in several recent anthologies.
I’ve served as president of the national writers’ organization PEN USA, and mentored young novelists through PEN’s Emerging Voices program. At UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program I’ve taught a variety of classes and workshops. And at age 50 I decided to earn my MFA through the Bennington Writing Seminars. Returning to school for this degree was a gift to myself and to my career. The journey is ongoing.
For more information, please explore this website, and also visit my web site focusing on eating disorders and related issues at: www.gainingthetruth.com