Friday, November 23, 2012

Mitzvah Magic

by Laurel Corona

I never understood that bumper sticker a few years back that admonished us to “practice random acts of kindness.”  Kindness is not whimsical. It is not an arbitrary virtue that we can choose or discard based on our mood at the time.  If we are to practice kindness, should we not do it continuously?

In Hebrew the word “mitzvah” means both “commandment” and “good deed.”  This makes far more sense, because whether one believes in God or not, there is something about any good deed that feels commanded.  Thou shalt not fail to do it, because it is right, and kind, and necessary. Thou shalt do it, because thou art a human being.

Sometimes when Jews are thanked for doing someone a favor they shrug and say, “it’s a mitzvah.”  The shrug says it all.  It was just that obvious what needed to be done.

On this day after Thanksgiving, I write in honor of those who have been shrugging all year at my paltry attempts to express my gratitude during this difficult year. I have so many friends in so many places, from so many networks I have developed over the years, but I especially want to single out the members of San Diego Writing Women who have played such a role in my healing after the illness and death of my beloved husband, Jim.

On this website, the members of San Diego Writing Women are supposed to blog about the writing life, and I am going to take the liberty that a post about life and the writers in mine is close enough. 

I simply cannot imagine the last year without you.  You aren’t the only ones who supported me, of course, but in the time we have been working together some of my closest friends have come from this group.  You know who you are!

Thank you for checking in to make sure I was okay as Jim got sicker.

Thank you for dropping everything to come over to my house the day he died to have dinner with me and affirm that I was still going to have a wonderful, although changed life.

Thank you for inviting me out when I was in the early stages of grieving.

Thank you for not hovering too much.

Thank you for cheering me on when I won San Diego “Book of the Year” for a second time, for Finding Emilie,  and my number one cheerleader wasn’t there to see it.  (The photo is of me and a tearful Jim when I won for the first time, for The Four Seasons in June 2009.)

Thank you for coming over to my new place and letting me practice being successfully on my own again.

Thank you for being joyous when I started to date after "only" six months.  Thank you for knowing that life is a story, and it’s important to live the whole thing fully.  Who would know that better than you? Who would be less likely to judge than those who inhabit other people’s stories as writers do?

Thank you for helping me return to normal.  It’s a new normal, but a good one.

One mitzvah never exists in a vacuum, but is part of a web that in time forms a real community.  I’ll leave the random acts of kindness to people who don’t get that.  As bathed in love as I feel, I intend to pay it back, forward, sideways--any way at all, as Roy Orbison sang.  You got it!

I hope every reader’s Thanksgiving was a wonderful one, and that the year ahead continues to bless us so mightily.  Laurel

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Gestation of a Very Personal Essay

By Caitlin Rother

It’s only taken me fourteen years, but I’m proud -- and relieved -- to say that I’ve finally finished a very personal essay. Frankly, it feels like I’ve completed an intellectual and emotional marathon.
It’s no coincidence that it took me fourteen years. That’s how long it’s been since my husband committed suicide, and it’s taken me that long to process and balance the emotions about my marriage and its tragic end to a healthy enough place that I could write about this sensitive and inflammatory topic for people other than myself to read.
Until very recently, I didn’t fully realize that the trauma and the aftermath of these experiences were still affecting me after all this time. I guess I should have known, because I’d stopped and started this essay multiple times, feeling like I still didn’t know how to finish it, or even what it was really about.
It needed to be about more than our relationship and his death. As I tell my students, you need to know what your story is about, but you also need to know what it’s really about – in other words, what you, as the writer, discovered while writing it, which gets incorporated into the piece, the underlying themes, and also what message you want to leave with the reader. I knew the answer to none of these underlying questions until just a couple of weeks ago.
I wasn’t always planning to write about this topic, but as a journalist who has made a name for herself writing about heavy topics such as bizarre deaths, murder, mental illness and addiction, it seemed fitting to others that I tell this story.
“You should write about it,” an editor from Cosmopolitan told me back in 2001, as we were editing a piece for the magazine about the Kristin Rossum case, which was the topic of my first book, Poisoned Love.
“Well, I guess I could,” I said.
It did seem like a good idea at the time -- what better way to heal myself than to write about the medical and psychological issues involved in my own story, to try to help and educate others in the process. But I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure why, I just knew that I wasn’t. I didn’t know where to start.
Some years later, I thought it was time. So I sat down for several hours and wrote in longhand about the various memories that I used to relate to people – the worst things, the most shocking things, because there were many. There were several 911 calls, a call from jail, a trip to the county mental hospital in the back of a police car, his numerous trips to rehab. There was fighting, lying, fear and anger. But it all seemed like a rant, so negative, and so one-sided.
As I discussed the idea with an editor I was working with on one of the memoirs I was helping someone else write about his own traumatic and emotional journey, I knew I needed to find some positive things to say about my own, but I still found that very difficult.
My husband was a talented and well respected investment executive who ran the San Diego County pension fund, and he probably loved me more than anyone ever has or ever will. But he was also a severe alcoholic with borderline personality disorder who was in a blackout when he took items from the gift shop at a resort in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was attending a conference. The sad thing was that he was so ashamed of being seen as an alcoholic that he decided to let people think he was a thief instead, and resigned from his job rather than go through the public humiliation of admitting to his addiction during the civil service process. There were so many sad, scary and awful moments during our four years together that the end was more of a relief than anything else.
Recently, I went through some things in my personal life that brought a lot of these emotions back up again, and somehow, I managed to break through the paralysis that had prevented me from finishing this story.
These events finally helped me figure out what my essay was really about. It was about me finally reaching the point where I realized I was still hanging on to emotions I thought I’d already processed, and by writing about this, I was able to deal with them, find those positive things, and balance myself to a point where I could let go and move on.
I made some changes to the essay and added a new ending, then showed the piece to a trusted friend, asking him if he felt I’d truly finished this time, and resolved the issues for the reader that I’d felt were hidden or left hanging.
As much as I didn’t want to hear this, he told me that I still wasn’t finished. That it still read like “I had my bra and panties on.” He said I needed to go deeper, reveal even more. Ugh.
He suggested that I sit down again with pen and paper and write longhand, starting with, “I remember…”
I wasn’t sure I could face that, but I did that the next day, and by golly, the day after that I added 1,500 words to my essay. In the following day or two, I remembered more, and added nearly 1,500 more words. The essay ended up being twice as long, far more balanced and far more comprehensive than it was before.
I read the new portions I’d just written aloud to another friend, and when I started to cry, unable to say those new positive thoughts, those healing thoughts, out loud, I knew I was really done. I had healed myself, and in the process, my essay as well.
So now that that journey is over, I am faced with the next step, which is trying to find the right place to publish 6,000 words of this new form of writing, the literary essay, which is a whole new challenge in and of itself for me.
But that’s never stopped me before.

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as an investigative reporter for nearly 20 years, has written or co-authored eight books: Poisoned LoveDeadly Devotion/Where Hope BeginsMy Life, Deleted, Body Parts, Twisted TriangleNaked Addiction, and Dead Reckoning. Her latest book is Lost Girls, about the murder of innocents Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. For more information, please check her website,

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Path Paved By Doing

By Caitlin O'Connell

I woke up this morning with Carol King’s lyrics in my head: “I feel the earth move under my feet”, before learning that there had been a strong enough earthquake at 1 a.m. to shake the bed, causing my dog’s sudden outburst of barking. It wasn’t the moon shadows cast in an unfamiliar back yard this time. Poor little Frodo spooks easily—but this time with good reason. There was indeed a quake caused by a shifting of plates out here in the middle of the pacific where I am ensconced on the most isolated island chain in the world for another month, partly for paid work as a scientist and partly fishing for a new perspective for a creative idea that I hope will bear fruit eventually. Perhaps the margarita or two that I had to celebrate my first royalty check from the UK (barely enough to finance the first round, but for me, still worth the celebration) dampened my senses to the quake because I had no memory of it. But clearly I was shaken enough to allow King to enter my psyche.
As a writer, I often place myself in unfamiliar surroundings to facilitate what I view as a “lens” effect to help focus my writing and energize my senses with a new environment. This physical and psychological novelty helps to breathe new life into an idea that has become tired or has languished in writer’s block for too long—or in some cases gives birth to a whole new and fresh idea much better than the one that I couldn’t seem to let go of until the new one appeared. Of course dropping everything and going on a trip this isn’t always a convenient thing to do, but sometimes there’s only so much rearranging of one’s desk, or massaging of talismans, headstands, hyperventilation, or whatever it is that a writer finds helpful to elicit inspiration, before picking up and experimenting with an entirely new place as a path to inspired writing.
The road to success as a writer for me started out with a six-figure offer and a deal with one of the top six houses (the Simon & Schuster imprint Free Press). I was flying high at the time (as depicted by my horribly na├»ve enthusiasm captured in this photo taken on top of Haleakela, Maui when I heard the news) but it didn’t take long to realize that sustained success was only going to come with incredibly hard work (and ditching the optimistic photographs). Fortunately, I didn’t quit my day job as a scientist as the honeymoon quickly turned into the same mountain that I thought I’d never have to climb again. My agent at the time told me that it wasn’t enough to write a first book. A second book was not going to be guaranteed. In fact, a first book that didn’t sell well was almost worse than not having written a book at all. Really? A tried and true author was not as valuable as the new new untested thing? That’s what I was told.

Three books later and a new contract with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for a fourth and another one pending, I’ve learned that my path is my own to make and maintain, but not always the desired one. I’ve had to make sacrifices and write what others have wanted me to write in order to position myself closer to my vision of where I want to be. I have written creative nonfiction as a way of developing a writing portfolio, but the stories I really want to tell require fiction to convey the truth. And although the nonfiction path is not what I would have chosen, it was a necessary one, one from which I’ve learned a great deal about how to become a better storyteller—a tool that I hope will allow me to carve my way into fiction more easily. My first adult fiction manuscript (based on my first nonfiction book) is currently being considered and the road hasn’t been smooth but I’m hoping for a new beginning.
Over the course of my career as a writer, I’ve had to create my own little earthquakes to shake up my perspective and help envision the road ahead. I’ve had to be light on my feet, make my own opportunities and shape my own destiny as a writer because it became abundantly clear over time that no agent or editor was going to do that for me. I’m the only one that’s going to move the earth under my feet. In a previous writing trip to Paris, I latched on to an expression that I read in a Soulages exhibit at the Pompidou. He said: “It is in doing that we realize what it is that we are looking for.” These words have become an important mantra for my writing. For the times that I’ve had the confidence to allow myself to write myself into a new world with uncharted territory, the story has been much better for it. And that’s how I hope to continue my writing journey: as a slow but steady path paved by doing.

Friday, November 2, 2012

How I Became a Novelist and Lived (Learned) to Tell the Tale

By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

Can a dog become a cat? Can a non-fiction author write fiction?
Historians are plainspoken creatures. They arrange narratives in the clearest possible order, shining the bright light of reason on events to illuminate their causes. They are the dogs of the story-telling world: happy, guileless, transparent.
Novelists are the cats. Subtle and mysterious, they employ indirection to send readers down blind alleys. They meander and feign indifference to the auditor’s understanding. Smoke and mirrors are the tools of their trade.
E.B. White observed in The Elements of Style that either the writer works or the reader works. Historians labor so that the reader doesn’t have to wonder what’s going on. The novelist, conversely, raises ambiguous questions. While the historian glories in analysis, the novelist forces the reader to analyze events for herself.
I wish I had known all this when I set out to write my first novel after many years of writing history. It would have saved me a lot of time.
The concept was likely enough. In teaching foreign relations at San Diego State Unviersity (SDSU), I had long been entranced by the story of Charles Francis Adams’s duel with Britain during the American Civil War and his efforts to keep the reigning world power at bay. The stakes could not have been higher. Liverpool shipyards launched Rebel cruisers with sickening regularity, and London merchants made substantial fortunes on the smuggled supplies and equipment that kept Confederate armies fighting. Aristocrats laughed up their gold-lace sleeves at the United States putting down—yes—a war of independence.
Charles’s task was to save the nation his grandfather and father (John Adams and John Quincy Adams) had built. What was that like? How did he bear the psychic burden? A lesser man than his progenitors, perhaps, Charles nonetheless had the responsibility for preserving their legacy. As any historian knows, it’s a great story.
And so fools rush in. I promised myself I would write the book and thus I had to.
In the course of eight months, I plowed dutifully through the story of Adams’s ministry to London and his desperate attempts to foil aristocratic Europe’s hopes for the dissolution of the American republic. For company, I gave him and his son Henry a fictional friend from Henry’s days at Harvard College, based upon references in The Education of Henry Adams. To this Southern friend, whose allegiance to Virginia tempts him to rush the Union blockade, I gave the love of a spirited, complicated, too-tall English gentlewoman. Fine.
It was when I began marketing the manuscript that I learned how different the historian’s methodology is from the novelist’s. My writing was too clear and straightforward. And whereas I might normally make a few phone calls to place a non-fiction manuscript, I instead sent letter after letter to the list of agents I found in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents, working my way down the list from “A” to “Q.” I received encouraging words with almost every rejection—but no cigar—until I got to “R.”
My first literary agent, whose last name began with R, loved the book. She immediately launched an impressive assault on the New York publishing world. But editor after editor told us they were accepting no, or very few, new novels because the industry was in the doldrums. Some said that only women buy fiction these days, and they “wouldn’t accept” a male protagonist. Others indicated that they liked historical settings, but didn’t want actual historical characters. A number said they were just not captivated by my “voice.” Indeed, I heard so often about my “voice” that I began to think about gargling.
Instead, I drew several favorite novels from my bookshelf, determined to find out what I was doing wrong. That’s when I saw the light. My reader’s brain—dashing through prose to follow a story’s quick path—had never noticed the purposeful, willful convolution of so much literary writing. Its modus, I realized, was to hint at meanings, not explicate them.
The lesson was underscored by reading B.R. Myers’ illuminating essay from the Atlantic Monthly, “A Reader’s Manifesto.” Myers lays into the intellectual fashion that scorns “any accessible, fast-moving story written in unaffected prose …[as] ‘genre fiction’—at best an excellent ‘read’ or a ‘page turner,’ but never literature with a capital L.” Too many of today’s writers and reviewers believe it is “more important to sound literary than to make sense,” Myers asserts.
But persistence pays. I went back and re-ordered bits of my story, dangled odd clues in unexpected places and ironed the prose to introduce wrinkles. Unwilling to shuck my commitment to clarity as a historian and friend-of-the-reader, I nonetheless had fun: complicating my usual streamlined style and trying on new hats. On my first agent’s advice, I finally decided to self-publish with iUniverse. It was easier to swallow my pride than my words.
But the story has a happy ending. Following publication, another agent picked up the book and marketed it successfully to Random House, which brought out the manuscript in 2011 in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Broken Promises became a “real” novel.
The book subsequently turned out to be useful in my classroom, as well, where I first imagined what it might be like to tell the old story in a new way.
Fiction has a pedagogical function. My own interest in history was first piqued by historical novels as a child. Fiction forces the reader to watch history unfold as it does in life—looking forward onto an uncertain future rather than backward onto the dead past. Contingency, chance, and risk deepen the reader’s empathy. Keeping suspense alive is the novelist’s daily writing challenge—and something I finally learned how to do.
This fall my students at SDSU are reading Broken Promises along with their non-fiction books. So far, it’s working out. The genres seem to get along in the classroom. Even better than cats and dogs.

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman is the Dwight Stanford Professor of American Foreign Relations at San Diego State University.