Writing Truth in Reverse

Photo credit: Pierre at theunicyclist.com
Photo credit: Pierre at theunicyclist.com

Writing the truth has always been a challenge for me. In college, I started out as a journalism major, but it was strongly suggested that I transfer into the fiction department as quickly as possible. Let’s just say I have a tendency to embellish that wiser minds quickly realized would make journalism a poor career choice.

So I became a fiction writer, and I’ve never been happier. But recently I was asked by friends to write a nonfiction piece describing an incident that reflects the emotional impact of a tragedy I’ve tried hard to erase from memory. Just the thought of the project made me sweat.

Several of us are writers, with various memories of that time. Our stories will be as different as our emotional responses were, which is exactly what they wanted. The assignment seemed simple enough:  Detail the times, the event, and a random memory that is somehow connected. Something true.

They had me until those last two words: something true.

I had great ambivalence about the project. Simultaneous and contradictory emotions pulled in equal and opposite directions and kept me up at night. But, because the cause was a good one, and since it would put me back in touch with old friends, I reluctantly said yes. And then I had a full-on panic attack.

The more I tried to begin, the more ambivalence I felt about the subject matter. For me, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. In the end, the truth was some place in between, in the seemingly random and mundane details of memory, which were the only memories I was able to summon.

My notes are skeletal at best, but here’s what I’ve got so far:

It was the ‘80s, and I was living in LA’s Laurel Canyon. Nightlife was just down the hill on Sunset: The Whiskey, the Roxy. It was the proverbial “sex and drugs and rock and roll” lifestyle. Anything was possible. By day, I worked at a sound-stage facility where anything possible was actually happening: from MTV videos, features, sitcoms, to porn and cartoons. Every Monday night I met with Bob McKee and nine other writers in his development group to workshop our screenplays.

My housemate, Russell, had just come out of the closet and was enjoying his equivalent of the same wild and happy life. I was renting the downstairs of his canyon home, with its hazy view of the distant downtown skyline, the smell of eucalyptus, and the night howls of coyotes. We shared a kitchen and a deck. It was during that time that I met the man I would marry.  Eventually, Gary and I moved to a bungalow in the hills of Los Feliz. It was indeed the best of times.

And then something happened. [Read more…]

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About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.

Happy Halloween! Love, Salem

Ghoul in Salem webSince many of you will be joining us for the WU Un-conference in Salem this next week, and because I’ll be co-teaching a seminar called “Place as Character” with Liz Michalski, I thought I’d share the character chart for Salem that I created for my upcoming novel.

Salem, where I’m fortunate enough to live, has been a major character in all three of my novels, but the city’s character chart has changed from book to book. The first chart bears little resemblance to this new one. Either I’ve gotten to know the place better in the almost twenty years I’ve been back, or it has grown and changed as any character should. In a city where history casts such a long shadow, it’s refreshing to see change. I’ve watched Salem grow from aging historical/industrial, to tourist mecca, to real estate goldmine for escaping young Bostonians.

Before I begin a new novel, I write detailed biographies for my main characters, sometimes up to 30 pages. But in my first book, beyond mentioning that one character had red hair, the physical descriptions of characters were almost non- existent. This was due, in part, to the first person POV, the protagonist was so deeply burdened by her past that she barely noticed the world around her and spent little time interacting with other people, much less noticing how they looked. For that book, evading physical descriptions made sense. What was interesting in retrospect was that my readers weren’t aware of the omission. I visited a number of book clubs with that first book, and, since everyone knew that the film rights had been optioned, the clubs always got around to casting the movie. Arguments ensued, with physical descriptions that were so wildly opposing that it was difficult to believe the club members were all reading the same book. This repeated experience taught me a great deal about the collaborative process between writer and reader, and just how big a role the imagination of the reader can play.

For this third book, which takes place in three distinct time periods, not only was backstory extremely important, but so was physical description. My editor helped me put together a new chart, which, as you can see, still has some blank spaces I haven’t been able to fill. Most of the details in the chart do not appear in the novel, but they are still important for me to understand. The three most important questions are the final ones. I’ve asked them of each book, and, though I am writing about the same place, they always elicit different answers. This surprises me every time, but it shouldn’t. If place really is character, then that character should change and arc the same way any other would.

For those of you coming to Salem next week, let this serve as a quirky travel guide. For the rest, here’s my introduction to:

SALEM AS CHARACTER [Read more…]

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About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.

10 Tips about Process

to do list
@istock.com: Atro Ydur

So recently, when guest speaking at a college creative writing class, I was asked for ten writing tips I’d like to pass along to students. My first impulse was to run screaming from the building, but, when I thought more about it, I realized that the one sure thing I’ve gained in knowledge is an understanding of my own writing process, something I didn’t have a clue about while working on my first two novels.

Today, I thought I’d pass those tips along. I’m not suggesting you adopt them, just telling you what works for me.  After you read, I hope you’ll share some tips of your own.

1. Ask the question, but don’t necessarily answer it: “What if?” is almost always the question that inspires my stories. As I work, I usually find that this initial, situational question leads to a deeper, more philosophical one, which becomes the theme of the novel. I don’t try to answer that deeper question. I don’t presume that I could. I hate to see the ego of the writer in a story, and I’m not fond of stories that tie things up too neatly.  Certainly plot must be resolved and characters must arc, but I believe that writing and reading are collaborative, and I leave the larger question for my readers to answer for themselves.

2. Write a mess of a first draft and never show it to anyone:  The initial pages I write are almost always discarded, but somewhere among them, I discover the beginning of my story. The first draft is where I begin to hear the voice of the main character and allow myself to follow her for a while, never knowing where she might lead. If I thought I had to show those pages to anyone, I’d probably stop writing. I think first drafts should be messy, like finger painting. When I finally finish the book, I burn them. [Read more…]

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About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.

Why Do You Write?

Surreal writer
© Yulia Popkova (iStockPhoto)

I turned in my third novel on April 12th after a six-month extension that required nights, weekends, and workdays that often began at 4AM. To say I was burned out would be putting it mildly. Fried, torched, or incinerated were better words for my condition. This one got me, on every level and to my core. The morning after I turned in the manuscript, I stood at the mirror brushing my teeth and barely recognizing the exhausted woman who stared back at me.

And two questions came to mind: Do you really want to do this again? Why do you write?

I had no answers. Instead, I saw a fleeting image within the reflection, a glimpse of one of the characters from my just finished manuscript. Rose is a schizophrenic homeless woman who “sees” music. She isn’t my protagonist, but she is the character who has stayed with me, the one who has most touched my soul.

I often joke that I am a  “method writer,” and that was truer with this book than with any other. To get into the head of my characters, I try to become them, to walk in their shoes, sometimes for many days at a time. A writer friend has called this “empathy taken to the extreme,” implying that it might not be an entirely healthy practice. In the case of Rose, I cannot disagree. But each writer has a process, and this is mine. Generally, I like becoming my characters. When a story is finished, I want them to remain. They have become friends.

To which even I would reply, “You really have to get out more, Brunonia.” True enough. And I’m trying to do just that. But when I go out into the world after finishing a book, at least at first, my characters go with me. Rose certainly did. I have found her to be one of the most compelling and authentic characters I’ve yet written, and I not only want to keep parts of her with me always, but I realize that it is inevitable that she will stay. Rose isn’t going anywhere. She has been internalized. The results have left me with the residual appearance of a woman who has seen too much of the street for people to be entirely comfortable around. [Read more…]

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About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.

When It Absolutely, Positively Isn’t Ready

DeadlineswebPosted on the file cabinet next to my desk is a refrigerator magnet someone bought me with a quote from Douglas Adams that reads: “I love deadlines. I love the wooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

I only wish that sentiment was mine. The fact is, I hate deadlines. Though I understand the benefits, they weigh upon my soul. The thought of NaNoWriMo fills me with dread. I wish the best of luck to all of you who are working so hard this month. I see the benefits, but I will probably never participate. For me, deadlines are the stuff of nightmares. Growing up, I was the kind of girl who couldn’t enjoy a bit of fun until all my homework was finished. That’s not to say that I always did my homework before going out, just that I could never really let go if I knew I had assignments waiting. I still have dreams that I had to relinquish my high school diploma because they found out I had not turned in a social studies paper in tenth grade.  I know, some sort of therapy might help, but, most of the time, my obsessive nature works for me. Especially when it comes to deadlines.

Until recently, I have never missed a deadline, self-imposed or publisher mandated. That doesn’t mean I get things done early. I will hold a manuscript until the last minute, rereading and polishing until it is torn from my hands. I made the two-year deadline to my last book by only forty minutes.

But, on August 31st, I missed a deadline. [Read more…]

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About Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain college in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire, and was one of the founding members of the Portland Stage Company. She's the first American Writer to win the Woman’s International Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award. Her first novel, The Lace Reader, a New York Times and international bestseller, was translated into more than 30 languages. Her second novel, The Map of True Places released in May, 2010.