Archive for March, 2011

Crisis Management

March 26, 2011

Memorial to shipwreck victims, Copenhagen

Revolution and repression in the Arab world, natural and nuclear disaster in Japan. With so much upheaval in the news, just living your normal life can feel pretty insignificant. How petty to wonder why Editor X hasn’t gotten back to my agent about my book when people are being shot in the street for expressing a political opinion. How pointless to worry about wording in my work in progress when in Japan entire towns have been washed away and radiation keeps leaking from those damaged power plants.

You can’t stay ratcheted up for very long and stay sane. After the first flush of fascination with the uprisings in the Middle East, the story starts to get a little tired. After a few sleepless nights of picturing monstrous waves and deadly particles, the psyche resets. And as life returns to normal, a new concern emerges: guilt for not paying sufficient attention to the world’s troubles.

How much can you obsess over events outside your immediate life and completely beyond your control and remain healthy? How much can you abide the suffering of distant strangers and still be moral? What can we learn from all this?

Historians and political scientists, military strategists and others will be analyzing this Arab Spring for years to come, from all sorts of angles. Geologists, physicists, engineers public-health experts and others have much to learn from the March 10 earthquake and its horrendous after-effects. Lots of these lessons won’t be obvious for a long time to come.

As a writer, I’ve been drawn to the smaller, human dramas within these larger-than-life stories. As I hear the stories on the news, I try to imagine myself as the little boy riding on his father’s shoulders, leading the crowd in a chant. The mother who hasn’t heard from her son since he went off to face down the dictator’s army. The petty bureaucrat watching the growing crowds outside his government office. The grandmother spending her days in an evacuation center. The farmer destroying his spinach crop. The young woman whose home was swept away, taking her whole family with it.

I have also been paying attention to language.

Tweets encouraging the pro-democracy activists in Egypt cheered, Yalla! which means “hurry up” or, as in this context, “let’s go!”

A story about the Japanese people’s much-noted cooperation and calm in the face of emergency explained the term ganbatte, which might translate as “persevere,” “do your best” or “hold on.”

Let’s go! Hold on. Hurry up! Do your best. Yalla and ganbatte come from different cultures, and arise in different contexts. Both are good to have on hand, whether you’re dealing with a dictator or a natural disaster, or you just need to keep the more mundane challenges or ordinary life in perspective, and stay motivated.

Sound Track

March 19, 2011


My friend Damien recently posed this question on her blog: When you write, do you listen to music or do you need silence? A week ago I would have answered, Silence! Today my reply is: It’s complicated.

It used to drive me crazy when my kids listened to music while they did their homework. How could they concentrate? Wasn’t the distraction making them stupid? And when I saw other writers (on Twitter, say) discussing the play lists they’d assembled to listen to while they worked, I felt like they must be undermining themselves. Without absolute silence, I couldn’t properly hear the voices in my head. My pro-quiet view was bolstered by media reports of studies that showed, for example, that people who multitask actually have more trouble switching off distractions than folks who just do one thing at a time.

But take a minute to look and you’ll find all sorts of studies that paint a more nuanced picture.

It’s true that if you listen to purely instrumental music while taking a reading comprehension test, you’ll do better than if you listen to songs with words. But not that much better.

However, if you’re a people person, you’ll get a better grade on that musically accompanied test than if you’re someone who prefers to be alone.

Ask a bunch of students to do a “selective attention test” while listening to their favorite background music, and music majors will do better than their peers from other departments.

And just as music affects different people differently, its effects vary throughout the writing process.

Writing isn’t just one activity. It’s several. Brainstorming and free writing entail one kind of thinking, and writing the first draft, another. And still other mental functions come into play when it comes time to edit and revise.

When I’m in the earliest stages of a project, when I’m casting around for interesting ideas and associations, total silence can be paralyzing. I need my thoughts to be as uninhibited as possible. Just the right amount of distraction can keep my conscious, critical mind busy, so the intuitive, creative part of my mind can have free rein. I sometimes think of this approach as tricking myself into writing. It’s like I’m telling my brain, Don’t worry, I’m not really asking you to work. We’re just listening to a little music and writing some junk down.

The distraction doesn’t have to be music. When I was writing short stories as an undergraduate, I got some of my best work done while riding the Five-College Bus. The hum of a coffee shop works – and the background sound of half-heard chit-chat also helps me create a compelling voice and realistic dialogue, maybe because it activates the conversation section of my brain.

But at some point I need to turn off the background noise. For me, each successive stage of the writing process requires cranking up my concentration level another notch. The closer I get to the final product, the more quiet I require.

I’m at the rough, first-draft stage of my book. I have mapped out the general shape of it and sketched in, in very broad terms, what needs to happen in each chapter. Now I’m going through the rough sketch chapter by chapter, writing an approximation of the sentences that will end up on the page. It’s an in-between stage, half exploration and half fulfillment. I’m not trying to write as quickly as I can, but I do want to keep up a good clip. I don’t want to get bogged down in details, because I need to get to the end, so I can step back and see the book as a whole.

One of the biggest challenges for me right now is not to get snagged on too many specific sentences, and to keep my inner critic at bay. Some days, the best way to do this is by putting on some music. I’ve tried listening to radio and I’ve tried Pandora. Both worked okay. But the announcements and ads were a nuisance. And some of the music that came on just annoyed me. After reading so many people touting their playlists, I decided to give it a try.

I think of my iTunes playlist for my work in progress as the musical equivalent of sitting in the international terminal at JFK. Maybe with a little construction going on in the distance. It’s a mix of purely instrumental music and songs with lyrics. But almost none of the lyrics are in English, and very few the instrumentals are songs with lyrics I know. The pieces tend toward the slow and atmospheric, and the texture is eclectic, with an emphasis on sounds I don’t usually hear in Western classical music or jazz. I’ve thrown in a few songs I know well and love. They pop up unexpectedly – little rewards, like coming across a macadamia nut in mix.

Serious music lovers would argue that this is a terrible way to treat music. I agree. But it’s also a seriously good way to get some writing done. At least for me. And for now.


Here’s a sampling from my playlist:

Bahram Sadeghian “Chaharmezrab” from Dosthah Nave

Matt Haimovitz “Rhondo Variations” from Anthem

Radiohead “Pyramid Song” from Amnesiac

Habib Koite “I Ka Barra”  from Muso Ko

The Beatles “Sun King” from Abbey Road

Low Anthem “Charlie Darwin” from Oh My God Charlie Darwin

Ned Rothemberg “Minutia” from Inner Disapora

Sergio & Odair Assad “Agua e Vinho” from Saga Dos Migrants

Grateful Dead “Attics of My Life” from American Beauty

Amalia Rodriguez “Foi Deus” from The Story of Fado

Evelyn GlennieDream of the Cherry Blossoms” from Light in Darkness

Phish “Guelah Papyrus” from A Picture of Nectar

Gogol Bordello “Sun Is On My Side” from Trans-Continental Hustle

Frederic Chiu “Standchen” from Schubert-Liszt Transcriptions

Robert Shaw Singers Rachmaaninov Vespers

Iron and Wine “The Trapeze Swinger”

The Waiting Game

March 12, 2011

It’s been hard for me to be patient and remain optimistic as I wait for the excruciatingly slow gears of the publishing world to turn the next notch in my direction. But I’m doing what I can to stay sane – and that’s to keep plugging away at my new book.

It’s going pretty well. The work got a huge boost last month, when I became critique partners with Emily, another writer is also writing a second novel while her first is out on submission. Every Friday one of us emails the other a chunk of our work in progress, and our partner sends back comments.

I have shown friends my work before, on an informal basis, but I have never had a formal critique partner. I recommend it. It’s been hugely motivating to have a formal framework in which to write, and tremendously helpful to have a second pair of eyes see what I’m up. And I have loved reading her stuff. She’s a great writer, and commenting on her work makes me realize how much I’ve missed exercising my editing skills on someone’s work other than my own.

Last month I made another important decision about my writing (important to me, anyway). I agreed to write a monthly column for The Jewish Voice and Herald of Rhode Island, a biweekly newspaper that serves the local Jewish community. The paper’s not as widely circulated or journalistically ambitious as my old paper, but lots of the people I run into in the course of my week read it. It’ll be good to have the regular assignment. It’ll let me write about topics outside the scope of my new novel, including issues around religion, which wouldn’t have worked for Seven Days. And it’ll be nice to enjoy the instant gratification of being read; that’s the hope, anyway. The column will be called Ad Lib. I’ll post the pieces here as they come out.

And in the meantime, I’ll keep keeping my fingers crossed for Little Grandma’s Mirror – except when I’m uncrossing them in order to write.

p.s. My first column came out today. I’ll be linking to them here from now on.