CANNIBALIZING YOUR LIFE

27acf-headshot-web

Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

CANNIBALIZING YOUR LIFE

One of my favorite quotes, attributed variously to writers Philip Roth and W. Somerset Maugham, is this: “Nothing bad can ever happen to a writer. It’s all material.”

I take comfort in that reminder when bad things happen in my life; at least I might someday squeeze a story out of the experience. I might think, “So this is what it’s like to be stuck in a hospital ER.” Or “So this is what it feels like to watch someone you love get sick and die.”

Do you ever find yourself taking notes, mental or otherwise, during some traumatic event?

Not to be morbid, but those moments of sheer pain or grief or terror, if captured when they’re fresh, can add depth and authenticity to your writing.

Many years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Inoperable. She was in her 70’s and knew she didn’t want chemotherapy, so she entered a hospice program. As I watched her fade away, sometimes in terrible pain, sometimes in a morphine fog, I didn’t jot notes in my journal as I sat by her bed. But when the dreadful process was over and she’d been laid to rest, I did journal the experience. The entries weren’t poetic or well thought out, but my raw emotions seeped onto the page so that years later I could pull out my journal and refresh my memory—from a safer distance.

I fictionalized my mother’s dying in my novel Mending Dreams—not to capitalize on her suffering but to try and redeem it, to acknowledge her courage. Many people who read the book have told me, “I could tell you’d been there. I have, too.” I like to think they derived some comfort from knowing they weren’t alone, from understanding “It’s not just me. Other people have felt this, too.”

Writing about life’s darkest moments gives me a slight sense of control and helps me get a handle on my pain or grief or anger or fear. And using personal experience, even if I disguise it, adds a layer of credibility to my writing.

Knowing I might eventually write about a painful incident, I try to be more observant. If I’m going to go through this experience, at least I can record it, do it justice, and convert it to something useful after my emotions have cooled.

I’m not the only writer to do this. Here’s another quote, from the late Nora Ephron, a writer I truly admire: “Everything is copy.”

She should know—she turned the failure of her marriage to Carl Bernstein into a very witty memoir, Heartburn, which went on to become a hit movie. And she was able to give her ex a little payback for the infidelity that wrecked their marriage.

So what about the flip side? Does this mean that nothing truly good can happen to a writer? I don’t think so. I journal many peak experiences too, and try to capture the good feelings before they dissipate. Those entries come a little easier.

Heck, you know life’s going to throw us some curves. We might as well use them to make ourselves stronger writers.

 

 

 

A Literary Journey in England by Rosemary Lord

06694-rosemaryatburbanklibraryjpgRosemary wrote her first book when she was ten years old – for her little brother. She also illustrated it herself. It was later rejected by Random House!

She has been writing ever since.

The author of Best Sellers Hollywood Then and Now and Los Angeles Then and Now,  English born Rosemary Lord has lived in Hollywood for over 25 years. An actress, a former journalist (interviewing Cary Grant, James Stewart, Tony Hopkins, John Huston amongst others) and a Senior Publicist at Columbia Pictures, she lectures on Hollywood history. Rosemary is currently writing the second in a series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s Jazz Age Hollywood featuring Lottie Topaz, an extra in silent movies.

A Literary Journey

I didn’t intend it this way. It just happened. I was visiting my family in England on what, I reflected later, turned into a very literary journey. ……

Firstly, as I travelled the tube (subway), trains and buses, I was surprised to see so many passengers reading. Actual books. Hard backs and paperbacks – and some kindles. Ian McEwan, John Grisham, John Le Carre,  Lee Childs, Linda Green were some authors I noticed. On a lighter side were Santa Montefiore, JoJo Moyes, Dawn French and Fiona Gibson. An interesting, different selection from what we see in L.A.

A stop British Library on Euston Road, where purses or bags go in a locker. No pens/pencils allowed either – in case you have an urge to doodle on the Gutenberg Bible.

Catching up with my friend Marie Rowe, we wandered around Seven Dials, near Covent Garden. Agatha Christie wrote, The Mystery of Seven Dials. Then to Foyle’s Bookshop, famous for Literary Luncheons. Moved down the road from its’ 100 year old,  rickety, wood-lined shop, it now gleams white and chrome and boasts 4 miles of book shelves. Across the road is the site of Marks and Co, the antiquarian bookshop star of the movie 84 Charing Cross Road. It closed in 1970 and is now a MacDonald’s.

limehouse
A Limehouse victim?

My brother Ted and I took the Docklands Light Railway to Limehouse in London’s East End. The setting for many historic mysteries, Limehouse – on the northern banks of the Thames – is the former site of China Town and opium dens. Remember the jazzy Limehouse Blues? Thomas Burke wrote Limehouse Nights, Dickens set books here and Peter Ackroyd  wrote Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem.

The Docklands were reclaimed and developed in the 1980 s  with smart high-rises and apartments. Vintage narrow-boats moor next to fancy yachts.

Walking back along the Thames, the river bank is littered with flotsam and jetsam – where many literary bodies are washed up. The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping was a  smugglers’ haunt. Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens imbibed here. On the sands behind, the gibbet where pirates were hung, remains. Further along, at London Bridge, are Nancy’s Steps, where Dickens had Bill Sykes chase poor Nancy in Oliver Twist.

Another day took us to Oxford, setting for Colin Dexter’s novels about Inspector Morse – and the historic Bodleian Library.

Next, a family outing to Rudyard Kipling’s House, Batemans, in Sussex. He was 36 and world-famous when he found this 33 acre estate. Now a National Trust property, we saw the room where he wrote the Just So Stories, Kim, Puck of Pook’s Hill and more. His large writing table overlooks a serene garden. His Nobel Prize on the mantle-shelf, the faded sofa is where Kipling lay in writing mode. Inspired, he would jump up and hand-write pages. His secretary would later type out his words on the small portable typewriter that sits on a side desk.

He wrote The Jungle Book when he lived in Virginia with his American-born wife, Caroline. Kipling was born in India, his great inspiration.

England was freezing, so my siblings and I flew to sunnier climes in the Peloponnese, Greece. Perfect, sunny weather. We visited the village where Nicolas Katzenzakis wrote the book based on local character, Zorba, who found celluloid fame with an iconic dance on the beach.

We visited the house of the late English writer and war hero, Patrick Leigh Furmor. ‘Paddy’ wrote successful books about The Mani, this area of southern Greece. The film Ill Met By Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogard, was about his wartime heroics.  His overgrown, red-tiled villa on a pebbly beach off the beaten track, is presently being prepared to open as a museum.

I could go on. It was a wonderful trip and over too soon. But I returned to Hollywood with a case full of books and a replenished Kindle. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind. For me, it feeds my soul.

 

DIVERSITY MATTERS

by Bonnie Schroeder
 
Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.
 
The recent uproar over the lack of non-white nominees for the Academy Awards got me thinking, because I seldom explicitly depict people of color in my books and stories. I don’t think I’m a racist, so why is that?
First off, although I have many friends who are Black, Asian and Latino, I don’t think of them by that label. I think of them as my friend who was with me during a traumatic purge at our former employer, or my gal pal who shares my love of classical music. And so on.
Therefore, I don’t often assign a racial label to the characters I write about. Many of my characters could be black or green or blue or purple, but it’s not relevant so I don’t go into it.
Should I?
The reason I ask is that our books and stories are often source material for films and television programs, so in a sense, diversity starts with the writers. But is it myjob to impose diversity? I’m not sure.
When I was working in the business world, I certainly enjoyed a diverse assortment of co-workers, many of whom became close friends. Then I retired and spent more and more time in my home community, which has a predominantly White population. I didn’t notice the change at first, preoccupied as I was with making the transition from worker bee to independent writer.

Then I joined a Tai Chi class at the local Y, and the first people to welcome me were an Asian couple. The teacher was Black. A graceful Filipina taught me some of the moves. Suddenly, my world grew more colorful again—no pun intended there, or maybe it is. And I realized how I’d missed hanging out with people who didn’t look or talk like me. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

We need variety and color in our lives; it enriches us and makes the world more interesting. The universe offers a panorama of colors, shapes, sizes, sounds, tastes and smells to experience.
But back to my question: should I be more explicit in my character descriptions to make it clear that the protagonist or her friend or her boss is a particular race or color? Is there a way to denote ethnicity—to make my writing more polychromatic—without being obvious or patronizing?
After all, despite the self-important proclamations of certain performers, Hollywood would be nothing without the written word. So to circle back to my original premise, your book or my short story might be the starting point.
Sometimes the story or the situation demands a character be a certain race, but often he or she could be any race, at least in my stories. Then the reader can decide for himself or herself if the character is Black or Asian (or Martian.)

 

Weigh in with youropinion on this admittedly tricky subject. Do you consciously include a variety of ethnicities in your writing? Do you think it’s a good thing to do? Or is it better to let the reader fill in the blanks and imagine a character in any color they want?

The Value of Critique Groups

THE VALUE OF CRITIQUE GROUPS 
by Miko Johnston
Did you know that Writers in Residence began as a critique group? Gayle, Bonnie, Rosemary, the Jackies and I met monthly to discuss one member’s set of pages. Although we all benefited from the peer review, we grew to enjoy each other’s company and finally accepted that work interfered too much with play. From then on we became a social group, meeting monthly for lunch and conversation. We relegate critiquing to a by request as needed basis (to which we always say yes).
As much as I enjoy getting together with my WinR friends, which now includes Kate and Madeline, I must credit their critiques for my success as a published author. Aside from their helpful comments to me, evaluating their work sharpened my ability to judge my own. Critique groups have been invaluable in my personal life as well. Last year I moved from California to Washington, where I knew no one. After spending over a week alone in my house, I researched local writing groups and found one in my new hometown. The members welcomed me and since then we’ve become good friends.  I also belong to two other groups dedicated to critique – one strictly online, one in-person.
Membership in a writers group can provide support, encouragement and networking opportunities for the independent writer. You’re probably aware of the national organizations that champion a popular genre like romance or mystery. However, if you want to join a critique group, here are some things to consider:
There are two basic types – public and private. Public groups tend to be large organizations like the Ventura County Writers Club, Whidbey Island Writers Association, and the recently defunct Alameda Writers Group.  They hold monthly general meetings featuring a guest speaker and offer various special interest groups – SIGs – geared to a specific genre of writing. You pay an annual membership fee, which entitles you to participate in their SIGs. The group I found in Washington, Just Write, is a unique public group anyone can attend. We gather once a week at a coffeehouse with our notepads or computers and just write for two hours. Afterward, we head to a nearby pub to socialize.
Members of public groups who want more autonomy or have different aspirations often form private groups like WinR. Membership is by invitation only and usually requires a probation period, where the newbie participates in a set number of critiquing sessions before presenting his or her own work.  Some private groups meet in person, where members read their work aloud. Others exchange pages online and email their comments to the author.
Which type of group is better? That depends on what you need. I always recommend public groups for beginners – if you’re interested in writing but haven’t done much, if you’re unsure of what genre suits you, if you’re unsure if you truly want to write. Public group SIGs host a variety of skill levels. You can experiment with different genres to find one you like. You’ll learn a lot very quickly, for you’ll get to read some awful stuff. Since membership tends to fluctuate you’ll interact with many more writers and get a broad diversity of opinions in these groups. Best of all, if you find other members with whom you’re simpatico, you can start your own group.
If you’re well on your way to publishing or have published already, then consider a private group. Working with people you know builds trust and you minimize overexposure of your pre-published manuscripts. There is some debate as to whether it’s better to limit a group to a specific genre. I think that makes sense if you’re working outside mainstream fiction, particularly controversial or quirky sub-genres that traditionalists might not ‘get’. Otherwise seek or form a mixed genre group comprised of writers with a comparable skill level.
Writing is such a solitary endeavor we often get lost in our own head. It helps to connect with like-minded people who can spot the glitches in our work that we sense but can’t quite see.  So does sharing a common goal, whether it’s completing that first novel or getting it published.
Do you, or did you ever, belong to a writers critique group? Share your experiences with us.