Léna's Lit.Life

Léna (me): Lit, as in literature, Lit, as in light, Lit, as in a little kooky: Life.

"Well, the question is, what do you want to believe? Do you want to live in a world where things are possible, or in one where they aren't?" Cin, Edges.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Why I Love (the teaching part of) My Job

Barnard College, New York CityImage via Wikipedia

Today I am starting my second week working with two amazing teens in Westchester, and they happen to be sisters. It is a privilege working with them, as both are tremendously dedicated and understand the effort it takes to write a clean narrative, and are motivated to improve. The younger will be starting tenth grade next week and has a future as a novelist. She wrote a dramatic fiction piece last week, and as I prodded her with questions and suggestions for the layering of her piece, she created a masterful, multi-dimensional short story. This week, she is tackling a different subject, a different tone, a different voice, and I am in awe.

There is something profoundly healing about working with teenagers and their parents. First, their parents are investing in their child's inner life - they are placing importance on stoking the creative fire inherent in all of us. Second, it's the kids themselves who inspire me by their willingness to leap into "story" and take risks.

Her older sister is working on her college applications, specifically applying early decision to Barnard, both mine and her mother's alma mater. She is incredibly bright, focused and down-to-earth: a perfect Barnard candidate. What is so moving to me is that her parents are providing the best support for her. Colleges are even more competitive than they were twenty five years ago, when I was seventeen. There are just that many more people applying.

Barnard was the only college that I applied to, and I was on my own for the application process. My parents moved to San Francisco the summer that I was a Senior in college - my dad had got an incredible job offer - to be the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. How could he say no? I did not want to switch schools, so I moved into a young women's boarding house in the Village and finished my Senior year in NYC while living there. I was in heaven, on my own at seventeen.

Except as an adult, now I know how much teens need guidance, even when they think they don't want or need it.

So this is healing - working with this high school Senior and her mother, seeing how much they love and support each other, that they are willing to be a TEAM. I am proud to be part of it and a witness - we ALL need support and help. The seventeen-year-old has her own voice and style, and college essays are about highlighting the candidate in the most concise way possible. I ask hundreds of questions and take copious notes in order to understand, to excavate the objectives - much as I do to develop fiction pieces as well. Indeed, some students have remarked that it is like therapy, in that they are giving themselves the space and time to develop their unique perspective.

Go Team, and get thee thy student to Barnard!
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Saturday, August 28, 2010

That Old Cape Magic

How does Richard Russo do it? How does he keep writing fiction about middle-aged cranky men that I can't put down? I was introduced to him via Empire Falls about ten years ago, and then, raiding my mother's library, devoured all of his others, riveted by his bittersweet, comic, tragic portraits of our human condition. (Straight Man is about a man in his 60's with a prostate problem, yet I was not only intrigued, I was able to relate.)

I picked his latest up at the Katonah Library the other day, not caring what it was about, just knowing that I would be in for a treat - Russo succeeds in seamless writing - creating the universal human experience through the multi-dimensional details of a specific character. The "plot" is simple: Jack Griffiths has to scatter the ashes of his parents and he can't seem to do it. The backdrop is two different weddings, where Griffiths weaves in and out of his memories.

I always wonder about book titles, since I had such an interesting relationship with mine. Is a deeper meaning reflected in the title, is it catchy for marketing purposes, or both? The reason for title of the book is revealed at the beginning: Griffiths and his wife are going to a wedding on Cape Cod, and he is flooded with memories of summers spent there with his parents. Every time they drove over the Sagamore they would make up a song to the tune of That Old Black Magic, singing, That Old Cape Magic instead. (Kept me reading too, because I sang that song to my own husband at our wedding . . . That old black magic has me in it's spell, that old black magic that you weave so well, those icy fingers up and down my spine, that same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine . . . but this is another subject!))

Griffiths is "congenitally unhappy", but is he? Is that the inheritance he is carrying around in urns in the backseat of his car to two weddings? He is also strangely but passively looking for moments of grace. He is in crisis, but we root for him to change his perspective.

Just wanted to share my thoughts as I finished the book this morning. Now I promised my kids that I would finish reading them Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone! (We've had LOADS of read-aloud time this week!)


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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dear Fall

autumn leaves between sun halos and flashlightImage by oedipusphinx via Flickr
Dear Fall,

I miss you, buddy. Been a long time - almost a year, no? Although you have teased me with your rain and cooler temperatures this week, I know that you are still a month away. In other parts of the country, school has already begun, but here in the Northeast, we don't start until your cool winds tinge the ends of the leaves gold. I'm getting impatient for the sense of routine you bring with you. Summer is starting to drive me a little crazy, what with it's hazy, lazy days and lack of structure. I've been all over the place, the kids are out of camp and school, and all of our friends (including us)  have been unavailable, taking their various vacations.

You know me, Fall. I am someone who needs a structure. I need a set routine in order to be creative, rather than just chaotic.

It's been too long since I've been able to work on my own writing, other than my attempts at Lit.Life blogging. (Still, this has helped my mental state, having this commitment to myself to get something down and out.) I finally received the meaty editorial letter from my most excellent agent two weeks ago, and have been chomping at the bit to dive back into my manuscript, but between teaching, vacation, settling into a new house and my own kids I haven't had the time or the head space.

So please Fall, bring on a sweet schedule that includes three hours a day of writing, three hours a day of teaching, two hours a day of the "business" of emails and lunches and social networking, one hour for exercise, and the other 15 for sleeping and my family!

Oh, and if your winds could blow some far out reviews of EDGES before it comes out in December, that would be swell.

Yours truly,

Léna
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Monday, August 23, 2010

My name is Léna, and I'm a Harry Potter Geek

P Harry PotterImage via Wikipedia
What a joy it was to come home after a long day trekking around Westchester with my Traveling Writopia Lounge and have my kids beg for me to read the fifth chapter of Harry Potter to them.

We had a severe rainstorm in our area yesterday, complete with a power outage. It was only a matter of time before the story about The Boy Who Lived beckoned. My youngest is the only one who hasn't been indoctrinated into the family's Harry Potter geekdom.

"It's high time," my oldest said. As the youngest, my girl has had the privilege of all of us reading picture books aloud to her all of the time, but she has not been included in the family read-aloud as she has been too young for the likes of Rick Riordan and JRR Tolkein. "Mom, come on, she's going into kindergarten. She's ready."

Well, I don't know about that, but I do know that the boys want to share their love of Harry Potter with her - and they also want her to be able to ooh and ahh when we visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios next winter.

She is definitely ready for the warmth and nurturing of spending time with the family this way. (We'll see how I feel when it gets to the more intense You-Know-Who parts. We'll also see if it holds her interest.) We all climb into bed and snuggle up together for my dreadful attempts at different cultural, regional and socio-economic English accents. (The kids are most forgiving.)

This will be my fourth time reading The Sorcerer's Stone, and my second time reading it aloud. I've been hooked on Harry since the book came out in 1998 - I had to pre-order each consecutive one and devour immediately. I couldn't wait to share it with my kids. Come to think of it, Cooper was in kindergarten when I first read it aloud to him. Some of his friends had seen the movie, but he definitely wasn't ready for that. AND we have a rule about having the literary experience first, since film is such a different way of telling a story.

I think I'll hold off on The Hunger Games as a read-aloud, even though I have of course, pre-ordered Mockingjay!
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Friday, August 20, 2010

Writing and Rollercoasters

Apollo's Chariot , montagnes russes à Busch Ga...Image via Wikipedia
I have to write myself into right thinking.

I am in Virginia, at the end of a wonderful family vacation - experiencing living history at Colonial Williamsburg and making history at Busch Gardens on the thrill rides, yet here I am riding an emotional rollercoaster.

The blank page beckons. You have nothing to write. Pack your bags.

My demons are at the door, gnashing their teeth. Their names are Worry and Anxiety, and they are looking for an opening in which to pounce on me and wrestle.

My oldest son took me on a rollercoaster called Apollo's Chariot twice this week. The first time, it was dark, and the rest of my family advised me to leave my glasses with them while Cooper took me by the hand and led me through the maze of the line, excitement and hilarity building. Was I really going to do this?

(We had ridden a mediocre wooden one last year at Six Flags and I had sworn off rollercoasters, despite the strong desire to connect with Cooper in this way. I wanted to be a "ride warrior" and follow him into unknown lands, where his father, brother and sister couldn't, I could, yes? But the gifts the ride gave me were unacceptable: whip lash and abject terror. Alas, Coop was on his own for the other rides - thrill-ing in anonymity.)

My blindness leads to the surreality of the experience - there are no sharp images to focus on, and I have no balance. We strap onto a contraption with at least ten rows of four seats each, safely secured by a fat, bright red seat belt. Whoosh! We're off, and I can't see what's coming. I have no idea what to expect, so I just go with it and scream as we drop, roll sideways and upside-down.

When it's over, I am laughing with a zeal I find confounding until I put my glasses back on again, everything coming back to reality. No whip lash, no abject terror. But just because I enjoyed it in the moment doesn't mean that I have to do it again, does it?

I have to face the rollercoaster of the blank page again, yes I do. Because the fear of the blank page is nothing like the fear I feel when I'm not writing. And when I'm feeling like a rollercoaster, I must use the blank page to help me figure out what's going on, to bring the fears to light, to make friends with the demons. Worry and Anxiety aren't going away, but I know how to deal with them.

So I'm writing. Writing helps me to get the kinks out, bring those demons to consciousness. My Higher Self can write and tell me to relax my jaw, to trust in the process. I've taken all of the actions I can at the moment, and I need to say a little prayer and let go, just as I did on the rollercoaster.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Writing: The Tortoise and the Hare

Greetings from Colonial Williamsburg my friends! This is a pic of some fabulous actor/historians who performed the Native American tale: The Terapin and the Rabbit (the tortoise and the hare) which got me thinking about writing, speed and volume.

Some of the kids I work with feel insecure about the LENGTH of their pieces, that others in their group are more prolific, their writing more voluminous. I tell them a shortened version of this story - basically that the tortoise and the hare may have different speeds, but they still get to the same place. I use myself as an example: I may be able to write a lot, but most of it will go in the garbage. My husband will write a little bit, but is able to keep most of it. What about you?

Of course, there are numerous other lessons in this tale - in the version I heard yesterday, the rabbit has gotten too big for his britches and needs to be taken down a notch, so the terapin outwits the rabbit (or "cheats") by placing other family members along the track, and doesn't even run the race at all!

Speed, racing, roller coasters - oh, and our car decided to break down on our way in to Busch Gardens - there are much worse places to break down! I got to go in with the kids while my husband waited for a tow truck and got a loaner - the kids and I were able to run around like rabbits while my husband waited, tortoise-like. Today it is raining, so we are off to Jamestown, and maybe Water Country USA

Friday, August 13, 2010

Adam Langer and his Thieves of Manhattan

I had no idea that Adam was a writer, until he friended me on Facebook and I started getting announcements and reviews about his book: The Thieves of Manhattan: A comic literary thriller in which a down-on-his-luck writer finds himself ensnared in a web of deceit when he puts his name to a fake memoir.

It's his fifth book, mind you, so I don't know what planet I've been on. Planet Mommy, Planet Writer. Adam was another parent of a delightful girl at my daughter's pre-school. We had talked parenting, sleep deprivation, potty-training. Talk about ourselves? Never!

So I finally got off my duff and started reading his book the day before yesterday, finished last night. Fake memoir? Might this also be a social commentary on the publishing aka entertainment industry? The hours I spent reading Adam's book were all too short. I laughed, chuckled and snorted at Langer's humorous semiotics and publishing caricatures, creating a literary world where glasses are called "franzens" (nod to Jonathon Franzen) and cocktails are called "fitgeralds" and "faulkners". A comic literary thriller indeed! These adjectives may seem oxymoronic, but with Langer, he makes the case for a new genre with grace and finesse. All the while Langer's prose tease and stimulate as he weaves his own questions about story as truth.

Fake memoirs, small stories about genuine emotions, pumped-up reality, outrageous fantasy: "The only way you could sell this story is if it was true," an agent tells one of Langer's characters. Well, what if it was? The lines between fact and fiction are blurred in this society where we are encouraged to constantly reinvent ourselves.

And so obviously, I couldn't help thinking about my grandmother as I read in between the lines. STORY AS TRUTH is what Madeleine L'Engle frequently wrote and lectured about, that stories are how we learn about our humanity. She had been ahead of her time, moving between fiction and memoir in the 1970's. But was everything "true"? She always wrote and lectured about "story as truth". How can someone remember everything she/he said and did? There has to be some conceit in holding the story together, even if it the story of our lives. We have to leave some things out maybe, in order to move the story along. "I know it's true because I wrote it in my journal," she would say. Well. That's another issue. We all know how we have our own perspectives and our own personal truth. So maybe the only universal truths are in "story", and that's why we read them. To watch a character's growth or downfall. But I digress.

Adam was kind enough to answer some of my questions late last night and I will share them you here:

Me: What is your process for writing? Do you have the idea first, and then outline? Or do the characters take over and tell you what they want to do?

Adam: Usually it starts with a very small idea and I build on it by continually asking myself questions about characters and building out from there. My first novel Crossing California began with imagining three characters on a street corner--and once I had begun answering all the questions I had (who were they, where were they, when were they doing whatever they were doing, and so on), I had the beginning of a novel. The same thing happened with Thieves more or less--I started with a guy working in a cafe in Morningside Heights, looking at the book a stranger was reading. The more I thought about that small image, the more questions I had, and the more answers I had to come up with.


Adam: I don't know if the characters "tell" me what they want to do, but part of the liberating quality of writing is allowing yourself to be surprised. I never outline, largely because if I already know the answers to the questions I have, the writing process becomes less an artistic and inspired one than a matter of filling in the blanks.

Me: Which do you prefer, creating the first draft, or the revision process?

Adam: I like them both for different reasons. I love the experience of filling a blank page, of being totally surprised by what winds up on that page, of allowing a story to go any way it can. At the same time, that process can be a bit frightening. Once I have a beginning, middle, and an end, the process of revising is, in some way, more freeing because I know I have a framework upon which I can improvise and that even if I screw it up, I'll always have the basic story to fall back on.

Me: How do you balance practicing your craft with the practice of being a parent?

Adam: Well, I'm sure you know this better than me, it's a major challenge, particularly since we don't usually use babysitters, plus we have kids who don't really like to sleep before, say, 10 PM. I used to have a minimum of eight-to-ten hours of creative time per day; now, I'm lucky if I have half that. Basically, it means I have to try to be very efficient and very targeted, otherwise it's all too easy to let a day's writing succumb to cooking dinner, walking the dog, doing the laundry, buying shoes, and so on, and so on, and so on. I usually set myself the goal of 1,000 words per day--Graham Greene once set he wrote 500 words per day and that always sounded somewhat puny to me, so I decided to double it--now that I've been a parent for five or so years, I have to get those thousand words out in far less time than I was used to.

Thank you, Adam! And thanks to the three of you who read this incredibly long post. Now go and buy his book. I would lend it to you, but Husband has first dibs!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writers Need Dance Breaks

Katy Perry at the Life Ball 2009, Rathaus, Vienna.Image via Wikipedia

This morning, I had a raucous group of tween girls replete with Dance Breaks amidst a flurry of writing, sharing, and exchanging ideas. All six are going dark and dramatic with their fiction, and so need the bubble-isciousness of Kesha and Katy Perry as counterpoint.

It's impossible for me to write for three straight hours (unless I'm wading in a revision), so we certainly can't expect the same of them at Writopia. Writing is FUN!

These girls have bonded in the past few days, have exchanged emails and even planned a sleep-over, finding creative expression not only in their writing, but in how they interact with each other.

They are so "fresh", in all senses of the word: new, impudent, cool. They don't yet have the self-consciousness that will unfortunately come all too soon. They're not afraid to dance: to embrace the drama in their imaginations and then to exorcise it with movement and music.

Us "grown-ups" need to take a page from their book. Life is too serious to be taken seriously.
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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Kids Books Are MORE THAN All right

I was alerted to this NY Times article yesterday by friend/author Deborah Heiligman. I read said article, delighted at first, but then began to think more critically as I followed Deborah's fantastic discussion on Facebook. Today, Deborah linked to her friend Gayle Forman's awesome blogging about her own response to this article. Deborah and Gayle both responded in the way my grandmother would, that the article damns with faint praise.

"I write for people," I can hear my Gran's exasperated voice. "Aren't children and teenagers people?"

I applaud though, anything that highlights YA as bona fide literature. Where else can you find really tight writing, where every word counts? Saying that we shouldn't be embarrassed to read YA implies that everybody thinks of it unsophisticated brain candy, fluff.

I'll end this short post with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut that I found on Zelda del West's blog:

Well, I've worried some about, you know, why write books ... why are we teaching people to write books when presidents and senators do not read them, and generals do not read them. And it's been the university experience that taught me that there is a very good reason, that you catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth and you poison their minds with ... humanity, and however you want to poison their minds, it's presumably to encourage them to make a better world.

Doesn't that say it all?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Writing Hints and Journaling Helps

Salvador Dali desert rocks, BoliviaImage via Wikipedia
I have been asked by Anonymous in Utah to "consider posting writing hints and journal keeping helps," and I am blushing that someone thinks that I would know something about that.

But I do. Of course I do! I'm a teacher, so I don't know where this modesty is coming from.

I am a writer. I write, even when I think I can't. When I think I have nothing to say. Especially then. My Gran always told me that journals are never to be read by other people, so we can feel safe to practice writing. Daily. (Although she has let me read some of her very early journals, and they read very well!*)

I've kept a journal since I was nine - at first, short stories and detailed observations, then my more complex emotional landscape, discovering what I was feeling and working those feelings out. Getting out all the ugliness. Journals are boring to read: I'm mad at my mom, dad, sister, I feel fat, I feel jealous, I feel miserable . . .then chronicling my daily activities, adventures (yet still boring).

In my mid-20's I read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and for years I did those morning pages, "emptying out the garbage" as she calls it. After having my first child, I found it impossible to write first thing in the morning, but I discovered that I could turn them into evening pages. Today I do some kind of writing every day, be it journaling, working on my fiction, and now blogging! (In fact, I read somewhere that blogging is the number 1 way to become a better writer.)

As for "hints" and "helps" dear Anonymous, PROMPTS are delicious. For fiction: Get them online, or think of a person, place or thing, and an action. A personal favorite of mine is "The glass shattered . . ." Can you see the infinite possibilities from those three words? Or look at a painting that you love and discover a story in the picture. I love Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory . . .or a photography book. (Use the photograph above if you like.) Or take 3 inanimate objects in your bag, your house, your car, and discover their relationship. What would they say if they could talk?

For journaling: I am a woman (man) who . . . It makes me angry when . . . I love . . .or write everything about an object that has meaning to you. Use all of your senses.

The world is rich and layered - there are prompts all around us.

But most of all, give yourself permission to write. Give yourself the personal and physical space. Don't be afraid to sound boring!

I will leave you with a prompt for today: She was about to fall off the chair . . .


*Gran stipulated in her will that her journals couldn't be accessible to the public until fifty years after her death.
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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rejection is . . . God's Protection . . .

god is a writerImage by [blu:]skin via Flickr

I've been sitting here trying to slog through an old manuscript of mine, one that I thought I had "finished" last summer, one that I had been heart-broken over it's rejection by my editor a few months ago.

She took six months before calling me and saying "I don't think that this is a good follow-up book for you." Fortunately, at the time, I was knee deep in my WIP (the companion book to EDGES and the one I'm waiting for my agent's editorial letter. Edward, if you are reading this, hint, hint!) and didn't start beating up on the "rejected" one right away.

My editor called to tell me this as I was on my way to the monthly Writers 4 Writers lunch, proving to be the perfect venue for shedding a tear, for these women had all been through it. "What? Send it to another editor!" They all cried. But thoughts immediately went to my grandmother, whose Wrinkle in Time, legend has it, was rejected 17 times! Did she send out the same manuscript over and over again? No, she reworked it each time, and that's what I would do.

But first I had to finish my WIP, hand it into my agent, and move to the suburbs, you know, little things.

So here I am blogging and procrastinating from reading the old manuscript, GRATEFUL that it was rejected. The characters need deepening, it needs restructuring. It's plot driven! Oh the scandal!

Rejection is God's protection - a dorky creed I say to myself to remind me not to take things (too) personally. It also implies that there is a reason for everything, which I believe most of the time, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, you know? Sometimes amazing work is rejected and there's no reason for it. But this manuscript is not amazing, and I know that I can do better, and that I need to keep slogging - I mean writing and working on it as I do on myself.

I don't think that I'm alone in being a writer who has highs and lows regarding their work. I'll have a writing session one day and feel on top of the world about it, and then come back the next day and scratch my head. This was good? So I'm probably just being especially hard and unforgiving of my manuscript, the baby I worked on for a year of my life . . . but what's another year?

And in the meantime I can look forward to the release of EDGES and be proud that I am putting the best work that I can out there. My gratitude list is immense!
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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Author's Statement, take 2

At the risk of being redundant, I am posting the next draft of my Author's Statement, or, "Why I Wrote Edges". The feedback I got from Beth Potter at FSG and my publicist, Jessica Zimmerman, was very enthusiastic. They assured me the more personal, the better, and even though it would make it longer, they asked me to include a nod to my grandmother. So I've revised and tweaked because I can't help myself. What do you guys think?

EDGES was borne out of the year I spent in Moab, Utah. I had never heard of Moab before I went out west from New York City on vacation with a friend. We stayed at the Lazy Lizard Youth hostel where I met a cast of characters, including the man who would ultimately become my husband.

The surreal landscape of barren earth and red rocks called me to change my life, lobbied me to quickly, almost impulsively, quit my job as a Drama Therapist on the psychiatric floor of a hospital in the Bronx. It was meant to be: Moab’s Four Corners Community Mental Health Center needed someone to help start up an intensive out-patient program for teens.

My adventure to the desert shocked my family, friends, and most of all myself. Counseling teens in rural Utah? I was pushing the boundaries of my self-perception. To get on my feet, I stayed at the youth hostel where I had made some friends. Among the personalities at the hostel was a charismatic teen who had pitched a tent in the back and was ostensibly "living" there. Nobody knew his real story, and then one day after a long hike, I heard that this boy had moved on.

I’ve wondered about him ever since.

My work that year consumed me. I was naively shocked when a 14 year-old girl was sent to me for her habit of shooting crystal meth. She wound up in the hospital and an in-patient program. Most of the teens I worked with were court-ordered; it was all intervention and no prevention. I introduced them to a variety of tools, including behavioral therapy, the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and some outward-bound type hiking sessions. My faith in love and the universe was sorely tested treating these young men and women who were only seeking a way to transcend a hum-drum existence: drugs and alcohol replacing faith.

I was constantly asking myself questions. Aren’t we all seekers of some sort? Isn’t that what I was doing in Moab? Why is addiction so pervasive, and allowed to go unchecked? What road map can we offer kids who are lost, to help them find their way? Books have always been a kind of map for me, but I couldn’t find any fiction about the process of recovery. We all need some kind of guide, but our society trains us to use people, places and things in an addictive way, leaving us no room for faith in ourselves, let alone a Higher Power.

Years later, back in New York City, I had gone on to work as a high school counselor, was beginning to raise my own children and was helping take care of my aging grandmother, author Madeleine L’Engle. It was she who’d given me my first journal when I was a child, and though I always wrote, I’d never dared follow in her literary footsteps. She’d won the Newbery for A Wrinkle in Time and written over sixty books! My grandmother had always encouraged me spiritually and creatively, yet as her health declined she felt lost to me. It was only after she died that I felt her spirit again and found the persistence to finish a novel.

One morning seven years ago, the boy from the youth hostel figuratively tapped me on the shoulder and whispered the first scene of EDGES. I wrote furiously as if taking dictation. I called my protagonist Luke, and he was running away from his mother’s death and father’s alcoholism in New York City to a youth hostel in Moab, Utah.

I wrote the first draft in about three months, and then kept revising. At first I was obsessed with the crystal meth problem. I read great books with graphic depictions of the descent into addiction, but nothing about the journey beyond that addiction. I was more interested in asking: what happens when you take away the substance? Or, if like Luke, you just run away? What does it take to remain authentic, to maintain a sense of who we are when our perceptions of the world are challenged?

I write to map the world, and EDGES came from my desire to portray transcendence amidst bleakness, my interest in flirting with the edges of mysticism and insanity, my curiosity in challenging where our personal edges are.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Why I Wrote EDGES, take 1

This is WAY too long for an Author's Statement, but I thought I would share with you my first draft. The problem is, I've cut so much already! And I will have to keep cutting. "Less is more," I keep hearing my editor say . . . but in the interest of sharing my journey, here goes . . .

EDGES was borne out of spending a year in Moab, Utah. I had never heard of Moab before I went out west from New York City on vacation with a friend, staying at the Lazy Lizard Youth hostel where I met a cast of characters, including the man who would ultimately become my husband.

The landscape called me to change my life, pushing me to lobby hard to find a job so that I could move from the Upper West Side of New York City to this surreal place of barren earth and red rocks. It was meant to be: Four Corners Community Mental Health Center needed someone to help start up an intensive out-patient program for teens.

To get on my feet, I stayed at the youth hostel where I had made some friends. Besides my future husband, there was a charismatic 16- year-old boy who had pitched a tent in the back and was ostensibly "living" there. Nobody knew his real story, and one day after a long hike, I found out that the boy had left. I’ve wondered about him ever since.

My work that year with the teens was all-consuming. I remember being naively shocked when I had a 14 year-old charge come into see me for shooting crystal meth. She wound up in the hospital and an in-patient program. Most of the teens I worked with were court-ordered; it was all intervention and no prevention. My faith in love and the universe was sorely tested treating these young men and women who were only seeking a way to transcend a hum-drum existence: drugs and alcohol replacing a Higher Power.

I was constantly asking myself questions. Aren’t we all seekers of some sort? Isn’t that what I was doing in Moab? Why is addiction so pervasive, and allowed to go unchecked? What road map can we offer kids who are lost, to help them find their way? Books have always been a kind of map for me, but I couldn’t find any fiction about the process of recovery. We all need some kind of guide, but our society trains us to use people, places and things in an addictive way, leaving us no room for faith in ourselves, let alone a Higher Power.

Years later, back in New York City, after more work with teens and taking care of the first two of my three children, the boy from the youth hostel figuratively tapped me on the shoulder and whispered the first scene of EDGES. I wrote furiously as if taking dictation. I called my protagonist Luke, and he was running away from his mother’s death and father’s alcoholism in New York City to a youth hostel in Moab, Utah.

The first draft spilled out in three months, but then I had to work on my craft and keep revising until I got it right. At first I was obsessed with the crystal meth problem. I found a lot of books with graphic depictions of addiction, but nothing about the journey beyond drug/alcohol induced behavior. It became more interesting to ask questions: what happens when you take away the substance? Or, if like Luke, you just run away? What does it take to be authentic, maintaining a sense of who we are when our perceptions of the world are constantly challenged?

We write to understand the world, at least I do, and EDGES came out of a need to find hope in a sometimes bleak world, hope in a time where it's so easy to go over the edge, and somehow more difficult to find your own personal edge - stretching yourself and your mind beyond what you thought possible.

I am glad that EDGES will find it’s way to a teen and adult audience. It is my hope that it will make people think about their relationships to addiction and transcendence, that it will serve as one of many road maps along the way to adulthood, and comfort to ones who are already there.

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