Monday, December 13, 2010

The Joys… and Sorrows of Being a Writer!

Last week a friend gave me a copy of Nicholas Sparks’ Three Weeks With My Brother (http://www.nicholas promised an insightful and entertaining novel. Now, being familiar with many of his books (The Guardian, Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle, Dear John, The Lucky One, The Notebook, etc.) and in the wake of such praise I was eager to jump right into the book. Though I must admit my tastes for pure entertainment reading run more toward the Sci-Fi/Fantasy and action romances, I needed some R&R. Considering the fact that I had not read a book since January when I purposefully limited my reading in order to finish and edit my latest book, I was more than ready for some relaxing hours on the couch submerging my mind in someone else’s world.

Familiar as I am with Sparks’ writing and a fan of several of the movies made from his books, I looked forward to not just a good read, but a great read! The anticipation was almost as good as the moment I sat down to crack the cover and discover the secrets of brotherhood. To my surprise and complete disgust, I found myself evaluating each paragraph as I read, looking for similes and metaphors, checking for spelling errors and POV changes. I hunted through the text for dangling modifiers, passive and active voices, over use of conjunctive adverbs, weak plot points, nominalization, and a host of other no-nos of the professional writing world. Half way through the book I realized I was not enjoying myself at all but intensely studying the manuscript. My mind wound around Sparks’ witty dialog and found doublemeaning in every comparative passage. I carefully examined the style and timing of his past and present recitations. I questioned the placement of memories, drawing parallels between the current day trip of the two brothers and Nicholas’ trip through childhood with Mica. In short, I spent three days passionately immersed in a novel written by one of the most successful writers of the contemporary market. By the time I finished Three Weeks With My Brother I was exhausted, depressed and disgusted with myself. It seemed my reading for pure pleasure was ruined! Possibly…

I think at some point, all authors reach the same stage in their own personal struggle to write as I have; the point where you can no longer pick up a book for simple enjoyment but where everything you read becomes an elemental study of the craft of writing at some conscious level. A problem, to be sure, but only bothersome if over done.

Then, true to my overly obsessive form, I saw the problem grow to encompass my entire life! What did I say about over done? Now when I travel every encounter, every new tidbit of information is fodder for a new story. When I go out to dinner with friends, their personal anecdotes burrow into my work manifesting some new plot or character. Political intrigue of the day colors my plots and lends imaginative scenarios to my manuscripts. I have even taken to keeping a journal of story starters close at hand. Had anyone told me a few years back I would be carting around a journal and taking notes on life I would have laughed at them. What is that famous saying; he who laughs last?

For example, one evening last fall my husband, Tim and I attended a dinner party with old family friends. Being new to the area, our “old friends” invited us to their home in Baltimore to catch up and for some “family talk”. Little did we know our friends had also invited their uncle and aunt who are, in the distinct eastern manner of speaking, old Baltimore. Fascinating people, Uncle Joe and Aunt Bev lived exciting lives and in their nineties, still worked at their antiquities business. The history of their connections and social networks were captivating. We sat for hours around the dinner table listening to tales of Uncle Joe, Aunt Bev and the rich and famous of America and Europe. At one point Uncle Joe mentioned his brother, an infamous antiquities dealer who currently lived in France with his family. In his nineties as well, he was still awaiting a trial in Italy on charges of illegal dealing in antiquities. Any writer out there just get the chills? Hang on because it gets better!

During our conversation it came to light that Uncle Joe and his brother were children in France during WWII and their mother worked as a secretary tabulating the possessions of Jews as the Nazis pillaged the wealthy Jewish families of Europe. My mind spun out of control and all the way home I crafted a wild tale of a secret cache of stolen antiquities pilfered during WWII that one family was responsible for returning to their owners as a kind of generational atonement.

I could hardly sit still in my seat. Ever supportive, my husband drove quietly with a willy smile pasted on his face. He had learned from experience there was no stopping the mind of a writer once it had locked and loaded on a story! By the time we got home I was in a rush to find my computer and outline the next best seller. Tim just went to bed. Such is life with a writer's spouse. Hours later when I dragged myself up to bed my wonderful husband didn't even gasp at the cold feet and frigid hands. He rolled me up in his warmth and murmured in my sleepy ear, "When you get a contract don't forget my cut!"

I believe the most telling moment came when I was watching an action movie on opening day with Tim and a guy from my office. All three of us are dyed-in-the-wool hard core action fans so it's become a tradition to attend opening days of true shoot-'em-ups. As we sat glued to the screen delighting in one special effect after another amid crashes, gunfire and explosions I calmly stated, “for an action flick the hero’s dialog is way too passive.” My husband, bless his heart, just shook his head, smiled and handed me the popcorn bag! He had already figured out what took me a little more time to realize. You can take the writer out of the office but a writer is a writer and always will be.

Pursuing writing as a professional has truly changed the tenor of my life. That epiphany could have been discouraging, but it wasn’t. I soon realized I had not destroyed my reading and viewing pleasure but simply taken it to new heights! In my case the realization was not only encouraging but optimistically validating. When I told Tim about my intuitive leap of self-understanding, he got that look that said "I've known for a while even if you are just figuring it out." Did I mention his patience?

While I may not enjoy reading for the same kind of pleasure I used to, I have attained a new level of awareness of the craft of writing which is a joy in and of itself.

In simple terms it means I have finally become what I have bee

n striving to be. Finally, I am a professional writer, even dare I say, an author!

Miriam Matthews

For more information about Miriam's books go to:

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Alaska-Hawaii Connection

I’m about to let you in on a well-kept secret about Alaskans. I only discovered this when I moved up here. It came as a bit of a surprise…but then again, not really. Alaskans LOVE Hawaii. After all, it’s only a five-ish hour flight from Anchorage to Honolulu, from the Arctic to the Tropics, from ice fields to lava flows.

It’s much easier to get to Hawaii from here than to the East Coast. I know quite a few Alaskans who try to take a well-timed mid-winter trip to Hawaii each year.

Myself included.

I happen to be getting married in Hawaii at the end of this month. I keep meeting other Alaskans who tell me they got married in Hawaii, so I think my choice of location is perfect. And it got me thinking about the Alaska-Hawaii connection.

It goes way back. In 1778-9, during his final voyage, Captain Cook explored both Alaska and Hawaii—meeting his unfortunate end on the Big Island. More recently, Alaska and Hawaii were the last two states to join the Union. We’re also the only non-contiguous states, never feeling that we’re entirely part of the mainstream of American life.

Other common ground: Hawaii and Alaska are the only two states with indigenous populations who are not Native Americans. Both states rely on imported goods that have to travel long distances, which makes prices ridiculously high. Both states, with their spectacular scenery, are tourist destinations. Plenty of workers in the tourist industry spend summers in Denali and winters at Hawaiian resorts. Both states have active volcanoes and both have been struck by tsunamis. In both states, there’s a constant sense of living at the mercy of nature, whether it’s Pele the Volcano Goddess in Hawaii, or the bitter cold in Alaska.

Alaskans love for Hawaii isn’t a one-way street. I’ve found that Hawaiians have a fondness for Alaska too. I’ve been told it’s because they appreciate how difficult it is to survive here. I’ve seen many Hawaiians turn extra friendly when they find out I’m from Alaska. I’ve even gotten discounts on roofing materials and such. Maybe it’s because they feel sorry for us. Maybe it’s because we Alaskans appreciate Hawaii all the more when we stumble off the plane in our wintry, light-starved state.

Here’s what we do when we travel to Hawaii in the winter. We blast the heat in the car. We leave our winter boots, coat, long underwear, hat, gloves, and scarf in a tidy bundle, then run into the airport in our shorts and flip flops.

Of course, this time I’ll be bringing my wedding dress too.

Jenny Bernard