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I love my manuscript group, even when it hurts

I love my manuscript group. It has been going for over a decade. I am deeply grateful for the talent and insight of the members and the attention they pay to my work. Still, the process isn’t always smooth or easy.

Like last week. Because of a constellation of illness and travel, there were only three of us there, out of the usual seven. My 25 pages were up for discussion first. As usual, I read a paragraph aloud to begin the conversation, and then sat back to listen as my two colleagues – and good friends – began talking about what was working well in the excerpt, about 200 pages into the first draft of my fourth novel manuscript. When they started discussion of what was not working, what they suggested I consider in revision, it became uncomfortable, because I could not understand what they were saying.

You know that thing that can happen in critique groups – in any group, really – where individuals who don’t necessarily agree with each other can take on a unified position and it feels like they’re ganging up? Well, that was my feeling, except that I know these writers well, and they don’t gang up on people. Their unity was all the more confusing to me, because the content of their comments disagreed with each other – were the opposite of each other, in fact. My confusion must’ve showed on my face, because the discussion halted in concern. “What’s wrong, Elli?” “Are you okay?” “Is this making sense to you?”

No. It made no sense to me. And the more they tried to explain, the less sense it made. I went home, read their written comments, and felt no better. I admit it, I felt pretty discouraged. I had the kind of night where you lie awake and wonder if the manuscript you’ve already spent two years writing is a waste, if it totally sucks and will never go anywhere good.

I’ve never understood why some of my clearest epiphanies about my characters come when my body is working hard, freeing my brain in some way. But the next morning on the treadmill, I understood what my manuscript group friends were saying. No, they didn’t do a good job of pinpointing the problem, but they helped me accept that there was a problem. On that treadmill in the midst of a dozen other treadmills at the Holyoke Y, I saw what wasn’t working. And why. I understood what was missing in my main character’s motivation. Better yet, I knew how to begin reimagining the problematic area to fix the problem.

Writing groups are amazing organisms. They are imperfect and sometimes clumsy. But even when the feedback is limited, even when it’s painful or initially incomprehensible, the fact that other writers, writers who care about each other, are reading and thinking about your work…. Well, that’s priceless.  Read More 
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What I learned about writing on my summer vacation

Walking on the rail-trail this morning, I’m thinking about vacation. I’m just back from two weeks on the Cape with family and friends. I didn’t write a word during those two weeks (not with my wonderful daughters, two delicious grandchildren, their sleep-deprived parents, gorgeous weather, lovely beaches, and so many games of Settlers of Catan to play). Even so, my manuscript-in-progress accompanied me everywhere.

Partly, that was because my daughters read the manuscript-so-far, about 200 pages of first draft (I told you they’re wonderful) and gave me thoughtful critiques and suggestions. Partly it was that characters have no respect for vacations or weekends or sleep. And partly, it was because of the books I read on vacation, and what they taught me.

I always haul a large size L.L. Bean bag filled with books to the cape. In the days before grandchildren, I’d read six or seven of them on vacation, and my daughters and friends would do the same. These days, I read more IVY AND BEAN and SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES and MERCY WATSON. But I did manage to read two adult books, and they’ve got me thinking about story-telling in general and what I love in particular.

The first book is Wally Lamb’s forthcoming novel, WE ARE WATER. I’ve loved Wally’s previous novels, and have been eagerly anticipating this one. It’s the portrait of a family, a marriage, of children scarred by early events and traumas. It’s also the story about people breaking free of historical grief and secrets and finding joy. Like so much of Lamb’s work, it explores race and class and violence, as well as the redemptive powers of creative work. As a reader, I loved all of this. As a writer, I was particularly interested in the structure of the book, in the masterful way that Lamb reveals details of story, and back-story, from multiple points of view, in a nonlinear manner, so that the reader plays a major part in putting together the puzzle pieces.

The second book is OFFSPRING, the second novel by Michael Quadland. This was a reread; I read this book when it was first published and selected this book for the August discussion at the Odyssey Bookshop in S. Hadley, MA, where I lead a monthly fiction book group. In fact, OFFSPRING is set in a bookstore, The Strand, in lower Manhattan, where the lives of a Vietnam vet, a transgendered person, and a volatile and unstable actress intersect wildly. The past traumas are different than in WE ARE WATER, but the longing of each character to find a way to fit into an unwelcoming world resonates similarly. With enormous empathy for their often-unsympathetic circumstances, both of these authors challenge our preconceptions and prejudices.

Reading good books enriches my writing life in so many ways. I can’t wait to get back to my manuscript tomorrow morning, filled with inspiration and energy, enthusiasm and new ideas.  Read More 
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Still wondering about Goodreads

I’m appalled at how long it’s been since I’ve written a blog. Oh, I’ve got lots of excuses: June was totally taken up with the Rosenberg Fund for Children event at Town Hall and then a week in Brooklyn hanging out with my beloved Josie.

July has been busy too –I’m now almost through a trip to New Hampshire and Maine. Two days at World Fellowship Center, in the shadow of the glorious Mt. Chocorua and as a guest at the Stonecoast MFA residency in Brunswick. These activities have given me a chance to talk with lots of writers about a topic so close to my heart – writing and social justice. And reminded me how much I enjoy doing readings, leading discussions and workshops, and listening to other writers’ thoughts on these subjects.

But the subject I want to tackle in this blog is a different one. Since Amazon’s purchase of Goodreads was announced in early April, I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond. On the one hand, I was (and still am) upset that the Amazon empire has overthrown another small literary country, one I particularly like to visit. On the other hand, if I left Goodreads, I would miss tracking my books – those I’ve read and want to read. (I can usually remember what I’m reading at the moment.) I would miss reading reviews written by my literate and book-loving friends. I would miss raving about a just-finished book I loved. I didn’t like knowing that Amazon could use my Goodreads ratings and reviews however they choose.

Actually, I don’t miss rating books. I find it very difficult to put a number on a work of literature. Partly because I know and admire so many writers and I know how much time and energy and heart and muscle most writers put into our work. I’m still chewing on this, but in the meantime, I’ve read all these books and had no way to share my thoughts with the online world. So, below are the books I’ve read in the past three months that I really enjoyed reading, that I’ve liked a lot, or loved.

And, I have two questions for my passionate reader/writer friends: Have you read any of these? What did you think? And, are you still rating/reviewing books on Goodreads? Any thoughts about this?

At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
Quiet Dell, Jayne Anne Phillips
In the Body of the World, Eve Ensler
A Marker to Measure Drift, Alexander Maksik
The Realm of Last Chances, Steve Yarbrough
Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat
You Are One of Them, Elliot Holt
Archangel, Andrea Barrett
The Son, Philipp Meyer
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon
The Illusion of Separateness, Simon Van Booy

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Looking back; looking forward

These few weeks feel historic and hopeful, containing both joy and sorrow. I look back and forward, trying to balance on the moment.

Looking back: Forty-five years ago last month, Robby and I giggled our way into marriage at the Rockville County courthouse. One friend predicted, “They won’t last two weeks.” I’m so glad Nick was wrong.

Looking back: Sixty years ago next month, Ethel and Julius were executed, orphaning my sweet Robby at age six.

Looking forward: In a few days, my grandson has his first birthday. He is named for his great-grandfather Abel Meeropol, who wrote Strange Fruit and who, with his wife Anne, adopted Robby and his brother after the execution.

Looking forward: In three months, Robby will retire as Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, the foundation he started to honor his birth parents and continue their work for social justice by supporting today’s targeted activists. In September, our daughter Jenn will take over leadership of the organization that embodies her father’s constructive revenge. It delights and tickles me that one daughter litigates to protect civil liberties and the other supports targeted activists.

Looking forward: One month from today, at Town Hall in Manhattan, the Rosenberg Fund community of friends, family, and supporters will gather for “Carry it Forward,” a dramatic program to commemorate the anniversary of the execution and the RFC leadership transition. I’ll also be thinking about the generations of activists that are gone, and the generations now joining our family and our world. Read More 
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Forty-five years ago today...

Forty-five years ago today, Robby and I went to the Rockville County courthouse, accompanied by our close friends Becky Bolling and Hernán Drobny, and giggled our way to marriage.

We were so young and so earnest – so young that Robby had to get his parents’ notarized permission. Our friends thought we were nuts. One friend predicted, “They won’t last two weeks.” I’m so glad he was wrong.

I’m grateful too that some of the friends from that time are still in our lives – like Hernán Drobny and Laura Dubester and Karen Shain and Christi Johnson and Susan Riecken and Mary White and David Rosner and Arnie & Patti.

Most of all, this one's for you, Robby. Read More 
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I never met my husband's biologic parents

I never met my husband’s biologic parents. They were executed twelve years before I met their son. But Ethel & Julius are a profound part of my family; their murder was a critical part of my political education.

I’ve worked alongside Robby as he sued the government under the Freedom of Information laws and as he fought to reopen his parents’ case. When he started the Rosenberg Fund for Children in 1990, I joined the RFC Board. It is now sixty years after Ethel and Julius were executed at Sing Sing. In September, Robby will retire as the RFC’s executive director, our older daughter Jenn will take over leadership of the organization, and I will resign from the Board.

But before these big changes, there’s one more thing, one more event, one more remembrance. On June 16th in New York City, Carry it Forward: Celebrate the Children of Resistance will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the execution and the legacy of resistance that Ethel and Julius left their sons, and all of us. I wrote the script for this program.

I’m primarily a novelist, but this isn’t fiction. Carry it Forward integrates the frightening past of McCarthyism and our family’s loss with current assaults on civil liberties in the name of freedom. It joins the struggles of targeted progressive activists today with our fears and dreams for the future. It fuses Ethel and Julius’ words with those of the activists who are part of the Rosenberg Fund for Children family, our beloved community of supporters and beneficiaries. Over the past 23 years, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many of these individuals, either in person or through their writing. The challenge of creating the script for this program was to bring these people alive on stage for the audience, through reading and poems and dramatic vignettes.

Please consider joining us on Sunday, June 16 at Manhattan's Town Hall to commemorate the past, nurture the present, and dream together for the future at Carry it Forward.  Read More 
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Why I love AWP

I’ve been thinking about why I love AWP so much. I mean, it’s too big and too loud, with far too many choices and inevitable conflicts. Actually, I find it totally overwhelming. But I love being stuffed with 12,000 writers and editors and small press publishers into a conference center with recycled air and never enough bathrooms.  Read More 
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Recent reads on the faultlines of politics and people

Sometimes I feel like a divided woman, caring fiercely about both social justice activism and literature. On first glance, it might seem easily reconciled: write fiction about injustices and resistance, right? Only – of course – it’s not at all that simple. Sometimes the brain cells, the synapses and dendrites and neurons (all that anatomy I studied years ago and have mostly forgotten) that make connections necessary for activism seem not only very different from those that create good fiction, but also in direct contradiction.

And then, just when I despair that I can’t get it right, I read books that are so good, such exquisite combinations of bearing witness to the world and fine literary work, that I’m inspired to keep working. Three recent books made me feel this way.  Read More 
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The Next Big Thing

Thank you to my friend and writing buddy, best-selling author Jacqueline Sheehan (see Quick Link to the right). Jacqueline invited me to join this online community, “The Next Big Thing,” where authors share current projects by answering a set of questions, then tag writers they like and admire to do the same. So, here goes:

Hurricane Island.

One day, while I was waiting in the security line at JFK Airport, frustrated with all the shoes-off, liquids-in-the-plastic-bucket regulations, a main character simply appeared in my imagination. I immediately knew who she was and why she was in the airport. I “watched” as she was hooded, handcuffed, and taken away. When she did not return, I had to write the book to find out what happened to her.  Read More 
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Delicious new books in 2013

Reading advance copies of novels is one of the pleasures of my job at the Odyssey Bookshop. Here are some of my favorites, of the books coming out this winter and early spring. I know, I know: I promised this list a couple of weeks ago. But I got sidetracked, partly with reading a lot of IVY & BEAN (very literary stuff!) to my granddaughter Josie…

KIND OF KIN by Rilla Askew will be out in January. DON’T MISS THIS BOOK. Set in Oklahoma, it tells the story of a local man whose barn is used to shelter undocumented migrant workers. When Brown is sent to prison, his young grandson tries to set things right. Told through multiple points of view holding conflicting opinions about the events, Askew shows us a community at the explosive intersection of politics and loyalty.  Read More 
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