Mark David Gerson - 5 new articles
When the first words of what would become my first novel surged out of me 23 years ago in a Toronto writing workshop that I was facilitating, I couldn't know how much my life was about to change.
Within seven months, I would sell everything I owned, buy my first car and move a thousand miles east to rural Nova Scotia. A few years after that, I would sell up again and find myself living in a new country, embarked on a journey that I could never have dreamed up in my wildest imaginings.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises would be the one that continues to astound me: I became an award-winning author and optioned screenwriter.
Yet, as I chronicle in Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir, my Muse had other ideas, fiendishly applying its tricksterish ways to bamboozle me onto the writerly path I have been following since the morning after that Toronto workshop, when I picked up those rough jottings, curious to see where they might lead. They led to The MoonQuest, which like all those Biblical "begats" have carried me forward to what is now my 15th book and sixth novel.
I shared a bit about the peculiar genesis of that novel, The Emmeline Papers, in my most recent newsletter. In short, it was neither a book I expected to write nor the book I thought it was going to be once I started writing it. Not for the first time, my characters had their own idea of the story they wanted from me.
It's a situation that reminds me of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, a stage play where six strangers interrupt a theatrical rehearsal and introduce themselves as unfinished characters who are seeking an author to finish their story. Like Pirandello's, my characters are as real to me any flesh-and-blood personage and have no hesitation in hijacking my writing enterprise to demand that their story be told – their way.
I'm not complaining. Their way has consistently proven itself to be more entertaining, inspiring and captivating than mine could ever be. From a writer's perspective, their way has also been consistently more challenging.
The Emmeline Papers was no exception. Both in terms of craft and content, the story never stopped challenging me – pressing me not only to sharpen my storytelling skills but to dig deeper and deeper within myself for the not-always-comfortable emotional truths that it required and demanded. I should have expected no less from a story that, early on, gave itself the tagline "it's a matter of death...and life!"
Until now, my novels have revealed little of themselves to me in advance. I don't outline, and I generally discover the story I'm writing much the same way that you discover it as its reader: page by page and chapter by chapter. After Sara's Year, my fifth novel, was the first to divulge its ending to me early in the process.
My original idea was to weave two interrelated threads: the story of the eccentric, singleminded Emmeline Mandeville and the story of how copies of her memoir happen to fall, independently, into various related characters' hands.
In The Emmeline Papers as it wrote itself through me, Emmeline spends the final months of her 93rd year reflecting on her iconoclastic past, never imagining how profoundly her reminiscences will weave through the lives of the men and women who find themselves living in her house a decade and a half later.
If you have read my earlier Sara stories, you will recognize those men and women as Sara, Mac, Bernie, Erik and Sadie. However, you needn't have read Sara's Year or After Sara's Year to laugh and cry your way through the The Emmeline Papers. Nothing about Emmeline requires any prior knowledge of its characters or their previous exploits.
About those characters: I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am to them for continuing to live out such fascinating lives and for continuing to compel me to tell their stories – their way.
I foresee one final installment in these Sara Stories. In fact, if you promise not to tell anyone, I'll share a secret with you: I have already written the opening paragraphs of an opening chapter to this next novel. This time, I have neither title nor concept. This time, all I have is a character and a time frame. Who knows whether either will prove to be accurate!
But that's a story for another day. Today's is The Emmeline Papers, and I'm excited to be able to share it with you – especially as early reviewers have uniformly praised it as "brilliant"!
Although the book launches officially on July 9, the 20th anniversary of my arrival in the US, I am asking you to preorder your copy today. Why?
• All ebook preorders are counted as opening day sales, and it's those numbers that can propel a book to bestseller status on Amazon and other sites
• I have a limited number of paperback copies available for preorder, and I'd hate for you to miss out!
Here's what to do:
• Preorder The Emmeline Papers in ebook today from any Kindle, iBooks, Google Play or Kobo store, and get your copy delivered on July 9
• Preorder your paperback copy of The Emmeline Papers from my website and there's a good chance that you will be reading your signed copy before it's available for general release!
One final note: Just as I am fussy about my first name (it’s "Mark David," not "Mark" or "David"), Emmeline is particular about hers. Emmeline pronounces it so that it rhymes with mine not with mean.
"Your book is a trickster!"
– Book-Birthing Rule #9, Birthing Your Book…Even If You Don’t Know What It’s About
The “trickster” exists in many cultures. In myth, think leprechauns (Ireland), coyotes (U.S. Southwest), the Greek god Dionysus and the Hawaiian/Polynesian demigod Maui. In literature and popular culture, think A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck, King Lear’s Fool (along with every court jester ever conceived), Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Bart Simpson, the Pink Panther and Bugs Bunny.
In short the trickster is an archetypal figure that dupes its victims into doing its bidding. Mischievous by nature, it will lie unashamedly and break any rule to get its own way.
To date, I have written five books on writing and each includes some version of what I say in Birthing Your Book’s Rule #9: “As you craft the book you think you are writing, [your book and your muse] will often trick you into writing something you never expected to write, something you never thought you wanted to write, something, perhaps, that is uncomfortable to write.”
When the idea came to me for The Emmeline Papers, the third book in my award-winning Sara Stories, it was going to focus on one of the minor characters in After Sara’s Year: Mac's quirky, eccentric, single-minded Aunt Emmeline Mandeville. The idea for the story arrived nearly fully formed (or so I thought), along with the title.
Had I been smart, I would have remembered not only my Book-Birthing Rule #9, I would have recalled how that same tricksterish rule played out in Sara’s Year, the first of my Sara novels.
When I sat down in a Santa Monica Starbucks to begin Sara’s Year, I also had a concept and a title. The title never changed, but my original idea vanished within minutes of launching into that first day’s writing.
Because, like lightning, a trickster never strikes twice in precisely the same place or the same manner, my experience with The Emmeline Papers was entirely different, if with the same ultimate effect: The title has not changed but everything else about the book has!
Part of the impetus for that change came from a book that I was asked to not only edit and design but contribute to, an anthology titled Still Me…After All These Years: 24 Writers Reflect on Aging.
I began my first draft of Emmeline the same way I began my very first novel: in a writing workshop I was leading. This time, I was teaching at Unity Santa Fe, not in my long-ago Toronto living room. And this time, I assumed that I knew what I was doing. (Never assume anything!)
Twenty-three years earlier at that Toronto workshop, I had felt guided to participate in a writing exercise that I was facilitating. The result eventually became The MoonQuest, and that evening’s writing would become an integral part of the novel.
With Emmeline, I set out to begin a novel whose plot I believed I knew. Within a few weeks, however, I had trashed that opening scene and begun again, from an entirely different premise.
(This time I didn’t dare fight the title, which insisted on remaining intact. With Sara’s Year I did fight it, only to discover in the final scene of the first draft why that title was perfect!)
What happened to me that changed the Emmeline story? Author Karen Helene Walker, who had conceived and was compiling the Still Me anthology, sent me the first of its essays to edit.
Those, along with the essays and poems that followed in the ensuing weeks, moved me, inspired me, made me laugh, made me think and, in a few instances, made me cry. As a 62-year-old, I also recognized myself and my experiences, joys and concerns in many of them.
But the Still Me essays did more than that. The more I read, the more I began to think about Emmeline and her “papers” in a whole new way. It didn’t take long before I realized that the book I thought I was writing was to be something else altogether — something more engaging for its readers and, for better or worse, more emotionally and creatively challenging for its author.
Ironically, The Emmeline Papers is not a book about aging. All tricksters move in strange and mysterious ways, and my trickster-muse is no different. Aging is a component of Emmeline, but the story is more about many of the things that we experience regardless of our age. It’s about hopes and dreams. It’s about mortality and death. It’s about fear and courage. It’s about loss. It’s about relationship. It’s about life. It’s about many of the themes addressed — both touchingly and humorously — in Still Me…After All These Years. (And for fans of Sara’s Year and After Sara’s Year, it’s about far more than Emmeline: All your favorite characters are back for this third installment of the series.)
It will be a couple of months before you can get your hands on The Emmeline Papers (I’m aiming for a late spring release, but you can preorder your copy now). However, Still Me…After All These Years is available today and well worth the read, regardless of your age. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a contributor!
And what about my contribution? It also links back to The Sara Stories. It’s called “It’s Never Too Late to Follow Your Dreams” and it tells the story of how I came to write Sara’s Year. A series of age-related health scares forced me to ask myself the question many of us of a certain age find ourselves asking, even without medical prompting: “If I’m to die sooner rather than later, what is it that I want to make sure I do before I go?”
It won’t surprise you (though it did surprise me!) to discover that it’s a question that also pops up in The Emmeline Papers.
As I move forward with Emmeline, I continue to be struck by the creatively tricksterish wiles of my muse and I have to wonder whether the fourth and final book in The Sara Stories (as yet untitled) will bear any resemblance to my current notion of it!
Meanwhile, The Emmeline Papers continues to unfold, thanks in some measure to the gifted and engaging contributors to Still Me…After All These Years!
Some years back when I was visiting Toronto, a friend treated me to a ticket to Barbra Streisand's first-ever concert performance in that city. Although we were sitting high in the rafters in a hockey arena that was anything but intimate, I was startled by how fully and personally her energy filled every corner of that venue.
I fell asleep early but woke, stressed, 90 minutes later. Unable to get back to sleep, I broke my "news fast," hoping that good news would ease my anxiety. As you likely know by now, the news – at least as I saw it – was not good.
After obsessing online for an hour, I tried again to sleep. Again, I was unsuccessful. Finally, I did what I do best: I put what I was feeling into words and posted it on Facebook.
Some of those who read my words found them inspiring and comforting and encouraged me to share them here and in my newsletter
To be clear, this is not intended as an attack on anyone's voting choices. It is an expression of how I felt on election night and how I continue to feel days later.
It's 2:30am, and as I lie in bed unable to sleep, I feel moved to set down my thoughts about tonight's election results – as much to put something into words for myself as to share those thoughts with you. Maybe thinking "aloud" will help still my mind and free me to sleep. Maybe it will help someone reading this to do likewise. I hope so, on both counts.
I will try, in the days ahead, to find some redemptive value in what has just happened, as I do my best to do with all perceived setbacks. I know that redemptive value is there because it is always there, somewhere in the "big picture," even if it is not always easily visible.
For right now, though, I'm just heartsick...
It is easy to be frightened and angry right now. I have been both over the past several hours and have yet to let it all go. It is easy, too, to demonize and blame. I have done those, too. It is also hard not to feel powerless. I have felt that as well.
But it is fear, anger, blame and feelings of impotence that created tonight's results, that got us into this situation. They cannot get us out of it. They will not get us out of it.
I wish I had an easy alternative to offer, for myself as much as for those of you who have been feeling as I do. Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions, no quick fixes, despite what some of those elected tonight might believe.
There is only the always difficult, moment-to-moment step of acknowledging our feelings, of not letting our fears and anger rule our words and actions, of not giving in to despair, of continuing to do our best to be the best we can be and of continuing to keep our hearts as open as we are able, as heartsick as we might feel in many of those same moments.
It is difficult for me to feel hopeful at 2:50am, when it seems as though this darkness I am experiencing will never lift. I don't imagine it will be a whole lot easier when light dawns in a few hours.
Yet in moments like these, hope is all I have. In moments like these, I have to push myself to remember that without hope, I have nothing.
Is that simplistic? Perhaps. But if it gets me to sleep tonight and, coupled with constructive word and action, gets me through the next days and months, it will be enough. It will have to be.
One final thought before I switch off the light and try again to sleep: I told a friend earlier today on a different topic that when times are tough, writing is the only thing that makes sense for me. Perhaps what I should have added is that when nothing else in my life seems to make any sense, writing is often the only thing that helps me to understand what I'm feeling and to find sense in the seemingly senseless. It has certainly begun to do that for me just now.
Perhaps my sentences are the seams that hold me together. Perhaps, that's the real reason I write. Perhaps, in the end, it's the only reason.
I invite you to share your feelings, experiences and comments. Please note, however, that insulting or inflammatory remarks will not be posted.
I am often asked at the end of an interview whether I have one piece of advice for the writers listening to the show. Or, if it's November, whether I have pointers to offer those writers cranking out a 50,000-word novel as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it's popularly called.
My problem with the question is not that I can't answer it. My problem is that I have more to say than the allotted time will allow!
My solution? This blog post, timed to coincide with NaNoWriMo but filled with suggestions that will work for you year-round. All apply to fiction or screenplays; many are equally relevant regardless of your form, medium or genre. So, here goes...
My Top Ten Writing Tips for Authors & Screenwriters
1. You Don't Have to Know What Your Book Is About Before Starting.
I have rarely known what my books were going to be about before I began writing them. With three of them, I didn't even know I was writing a book when I started!
With The MoonQuest, for example, a writing exercise in a class I was teaching sparked a story I knew nothing about. When the class was over, I just kept writing...and a novel eventually emerged. The Voice of the Muse and Dialogues with the Divine each grew from journaled jottings that were never (consciously) intended for an audience.
(It's those experiences that prompted me to write a book I did know I was writing and what it was about: Birthing Your Book...Even If You Don't Know What It's About, a step-by-step guide to getting your book written, whether or not you think you know what you're doing.)
2. You Don't Need to Plot, Plan, Outline or Otherwise Prepare.
Of course, you can plot, plan, outline or otherwise prepare. There's no right or wrong way to write a book...or any other creative project. The only right-write way is the way that works for you on this book. (It might be different next time!) Just so you know, though, I have never outlined. Nothing. Ever. Not even my screenplays, which orthodox screenwriting lore would have you believe is compulsory. (That's why I wrote Organic Screenwriting: Writing for Film, Naturally – to free you from creativity-stifling orthodoxy.)
So how do you begin? With one word, any word. And then another and another and another. And another. No stopping. No editing. No censoring. No going back. Just racing forward through and past the fear, anxiety and inevitable nonsense and into the story that will reveal itself to you through the writing of it, if you get out of its way and let it. That's a Cliff's Notes version of my "Writing on the Muse Stream" method. Read more about it in any of my books for writers.
3. Forget the Rules. All of Them.
All my books for writers include a set of tongue-in-cheek "rules" for writers. And although they vary depending on each book's theme, they all share the same first and final rule: There are no rules.
Whether during NaNoWriMo or at any other time, write the book (or short story or poem or screenplay or stage play or essay) that demands to be written as it demands to be written, not according to anyone else's rules or strictures, including those set out by the folks at NaNoWriMo.
4. Don't Judge.
Just as you are not judging your process, don't judge your output. If you're participating in NaNoWriMo, you are racing against the calendar to meet a November 30 deadline and have no time to fix 'n fuss as you go. That's a good thing. The most uncreative thing you can do is edit while you write that first draft...of anything. NaNoWriMo or not, let your first draft be as chaotic, repetitive, inconsistent and illogical as it needs to be. Just get your story onto the page, however it comes out. Use subsequent drafts to polish, hone and refine your rough stone into the jewel it was meant to be.
5. Trust Your Book & Its Characters.
Your book and its characters (if it's a novel) are smarter than you are. Get out of their way (and your own) and let them tell their story through you. Abandon control!
6. It's Okay to Be Out-of-Order.
Like movies, which are rarely filmed in sequence, your first (or second or third) draft may not write itself in final book order. That's okay. In this as in all aspects of your writing enterprise, let the bits and pieces of your book or other writing project come as they come...and write them that way, knowing that your project's innate wisdom will determine the appropriate order when the time is right.
7. Take Risks.
Creative expression is about risk-taking. It's about pushing boundaries – your own as well as those of others. It’s about boarding Star Trek’s starship Enterprise, taking off for parts unknown and journeying to the edges of the creative universe. Commit to taking more risks. Commit to the creative artist you are.
8. Do the Best You Can, and Let It Be Good Enough.
Your book may be excellent, accomplished, creative and insightful. It may be brilliant, compelling and universally lauded. But perfect? Not possible. It’s not possible because when we translate an idea or concept into language, we’re taking something that is infinite (energy) and dynamic (neural impulses) and converting it into something that is finite (language) and static (squiggles on a page). The resulting “translation” can never be more than an approximation. Do the best you can, and let it be good enough...because your book will never be perfect. Not. Ever.
It seems obvious, particularly in a month devoted to novel-writing. But it can be easy to put writing aside in favor of research. It’s even easier to put writing aside while you try to figure what your book is about.
Don’t wait to figure out what your book is about. Don’t worry about its direction, theme, structure or focus. Don’t worry about chapter breaks (my first MoonQuest draft had none). Don’t worry about what people will think of it, or of you. Don’t worry about anything. Set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and, without judging or second-guessing what emerges, let your book do its wizardly work – on you as much as on the page.
In other words: Write...the book (or other project) you didn’t know you had in you...the book you could never have imagined writing...the book you believed you could not write...the book that is yours to write.
As I noted in Tip #3, this is the one rule that never changes. No matter what you’re writing, the only certainties are that flow is fluid, your creation is unique and your book makes its own rules. Truly, there is no universal right way or wrong way. There is only your way, the way of your book.
10. There Are No Rules
You may be wondering whether I have ever participated in NaNoWriMo. The answer is yes. Three years ago, I wrote The SunQuest, the third and final installment in my Q'ntana fantasy trilogy, during NaNoWriMo. Amazingly, I did it in 21 days. But not every book can be written in 21 days...or 30. The StarQuest, The Q'ntana Trilogy's Book II, took me 11 years and two false starts to get from the first to the final word of a first draft!
However long it takes, the important thing is that you're writing. So hurry up and finish this blog post, open your notebook or writing application and WRITE!
Oh, and don't wait until your book is finished and released to start promoting it on social media. The best time to start talking about it online and off is now...even if you haven't started writing it yet! My newest book – Engage! Winning Social Media Strategies for Authors – has lots of tips to help you do just that!