Tag Archives: creative writing

An Evening with Wally Lamb

Wally Lamb is one of my favorite authors. The themes in his work resonate with me. Interwoven in his stories about flawed characters struggling to find their way are themes of social injustice, racial prejudice and ways in which the powerful prey upon the powerless. And I like Lamb’s setting as his books are set in my home state of Connecticut.

On April 16 I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Wally Lamb sponsored by the Friends of the West Hartford Public Library. The author of four New York Times bestsellers, including Oprah Winfrey Book Club selections She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True (my favorite) and The Hour I First Believed, Lamb read from his short novel, Wishing and Hoping, and his current book, We Are Water, and shared insights into his writing process. Here are some highlights:

The genesis of We Are Water: During a radio interview with a local station after Wishing and Hoping was published in 2009, Lamb was asked what was next for him. He wasn’t working on anything, but he didn’t want to “sound dopey,” so he told the interviewer he might write about the catastrophic flood that devastated his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, in March of 1963. “It was total BS,” he recalled. The next day, the cousin of one of the families victimized by the flood called and put him in touch with her cousin, who survived the flood but lost his mother. The cousin, Tom Moody, was an engineer living in Texas. Moody and Lamb connected and shared their experiences. Moody later wrote a nonfiction book about the flood and Lamb used it as a major plot point in We Are Water.

Writing process: “I don’t have an outline. It doesn’t work that way for me,” he said. “A lot of people outline and work toward a preconceived ending. That is not something I can do. I always write in the first person and I let that person tell me what’s next and what’s next isn’t always chronological…It took me nine years for each of my first two books, six years for my third and four for We Are Water, so I must be doing something right.”

Transition from teacher to writer: Lamb taught English for 25 years at Norwich Free Academy and was later an associate professor who directed the creative writing program at the University of Connecticut. He runs a writing workshop at the York Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Niantic, CT. He said he grew frustrated as a high school teacher when he would write helpful comments in the margins of his students’ work and they would ignore them as they were only interested in the grade they received. He changed the format to a workshop so he could give feedback as the students wrote. “In truth I’m still teaching. It’s volunteer teaching now…As tough as the balancing act is, one feeds the other. I became a much better teacher of writing when I started writing…I threw out everything I thought I knew about how to teach writing and we would figure out what each person individually wanted to explore in their writing.”

Inspiration for his characters: In an interview with The Hartford Courant, Lamb said, “I’m always attracted to what outrages me. What outrages me more than anything else is stories about the powerful abusing the powerless.” He told the audience in West Hartford his characters are not based on his own life. “My characters’ lives don’t much resemble my own. What we share is that we are imperfect people seeking to become better people,” he said,

Why he writes: Lamb said he writes fiction to “move beyond the boundaries and limitations of my own experiences so I can better understand the lives of others…I write about people who have worse lives than I’ve had. I was only 21 when I started teaching and I realized a lot of people don’t have a fair shake. Life isn’t fair. I’ve always had a strong sense of empathy but it’s been honed through my writing where I can live life in their skin. That’s been a perk for me. It has stretched me beyond my limitations.”

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Avoiding the Social Media Time Suck

Writers blog about it–the amount of time they spend on social media: monitoring blogs, writing blog posts, tweeting, facebooking, leaving comments on other blogs. It’s a huge time suck, and yet writers still do it. Guilty on all counts.

I’m still trying to figure out how to spend less time on social media time and more time on my passion–fiction writing. I don’t have the answer yet, but let me share what I’ve learned:

Be selective about the blogs you follow regularly. At first, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Every week I would discover a new writer’s blog and add it to my favorites. I spent hours on social media and my writing output suffered. Now, I follow a few blogs religiously: Writer Unboxed, Rachelle Gardner, Nathan Bransford, Kathryn Magendie, K.M. Weiland, Jody Hedlund, Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman. Well, I guess that’s more than a few, but you get the point.

Set aside time for social media and time for fiction writing. That’s an easy rule to set down and a much tougher one to obey. How many times have you said, “I’m just going to check my stats, respond to a few comments and check a couple of blogs and then I’ll start working on my work-in-progress?” Three hours later, you haven’t put a word on the page. It takes great discipline to treat these as separate activities, but the writer must.

Use technology to manage your blog feeds. There are a number of tools available. Subscribing to your favorite blogs through email is one that I find helpful. Getting your favorite blogs on Twitter is another useful way to keep up, while not impacting your writing time.

Devote large blocks of time to writing and use social media as a reward. I’m a binge writer. If I’m not feeling it, I will produce drivel, but when I’m on fire creatively, I can crank out 3,000 words in one sitting. OK, it might not be riveting prose, but in some cases I’ve done my best work while on such creative rolls. The trick is to tell yourself you are going to write for three hours, four hours, whatever, and stick to it. Then treat yourself to a couple of hours on social media.

Go someplace else to write. This is a sound strategy. Pick a place–your local coffee shop or the library. Find a quiet table. Sit down with your laptop, find some music that inspires you and plug in your ear buds, and write for two or three hours. Try it sometime. Do your social media at home or on a mobile device, but not at your writing place.

Is social media a time suck for you? How do you find the time to write?

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The “Creative Pause”: Rx for Writer’s Block

Reading an e-newsletter recently, I came across the term, “the creative pause.” This term may have been popularized by Edward deBono, a physicist and a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. He described it as a deliberate break from a problem-solving activity to consider alternative solutions.

de Bono described it as a deliberate, self-imposed pause to consider alternative solutions to a problem — even when things are going perfectly fine — for “some of the best results come when people stop to think about things that no one else has stopped to think about” (Serious Creativity: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas). He suggested these pauses can be as short as 30 seconds.

In his paper for International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Professor Lajos Székely described creative pause:

“The ‘creative pause’ is defined as the time interval which begins when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness.” (“The Creative Pause”, 1967)

In other words, deliberate interruptions, whether short or an unknown period of time, may help scientists, mathematicians, business leaders and writers solve problems

Numerous articles and blog posts recommend some form of the creative pause as the cure for writer’s block. When the words are not flowing, take a walk or leave your work space for a short interval of time. It’s worked for me. When my brain is locked up, there’s nothing like taking the dog for a walk or going for a vigorous run to get the juices flowing again.

You’ve heard people say, “I do some of my best thinking in the shower.” In a 2008 blog post, Cameron Moll posits the idea that thinking in the shower may be an ideal way to experience the creative pause. Moll cites several reasons: little opportunity for distraction, minimal mental engagement required, the white noise effect, and the change of scenery as a way to spark new ways of thinking.

BBC producer and blogger Hugh Garry talks about the science behind the creative pause in this post. Garry wrote that when we come up with solutions by using the creative pause, we are using the unconscious part of our brains:

“When we solve problems we not only use different sides of our brain, we are also using different bits of memory: our ‘working memory’ and our ‘unconscious memory’. Because we are more familiar with our working memory we tend to give it more credit for problem solving than our ‘unconscious memory’. Let me explain how they differ. Our ‘working memory’ is used to solve simple mathematical problems like simple addition, multiplication and conversions: calculating the cost in dollars of a £5 meal (if the dollar is $1.60 to the pound) is something our ‘working memory’ can cope with without having to resort to using fingers, a paper and pen or calculator. Change the cost of that meal to £5.37 and all of a sudden the ‘working memory’ is beginning to struggle. In fact, for most people it has probably fallen over.

Your ‘unconscious memory’ has an incredible ability to call upon stored information to help us complete challenges way beyond the capabilities of the ‘working memory’.”

–Hugh Garry, blog post, October 13, 2011

What’s the lesson here? Sometimes the best solution to writer’s block is not to sit at the computer and stew. The best solution is to simply walk away and come back later.

Do you use the creative pause? Where do you do your best creative thinking?

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