Friday, February 05, 2016

The Power of Place: The Dead of Hart Island

Wasp nest on an old monument:
cemetery we found on the Eastern Shore in Maryland

I tend to listen to NPR a lot. I work from home, often in silence, though sometimes with instrumental music in the background, but I can go long stretches of hours where the only 'voice' I hear is my writing voice. So when I take breaks, I turn on the radio.

Yesterday, I caught a story about the cemetery on Hart Island in NY.

"In New York City, there's a little-known island where as many as a million people are buried."
Hart Island is run by the Department of Corrections and is where they bury the remains of homeless individuals, stillborn babies, and the unclaimed dead.

It is a place that must be thick with ghosts: The island has been home to a workhouse, a hospital, several prisons, a civil war POW camp, a reformatory for delinquent boys, a nike missile base, and now a potter's field.

It was closed to visitors - even the families of the dead - until 2015, when NY opened it up to carefully curated visits once a month.

I was struck by the contrast between the city's use of the island as essentially a dumping ground where bodies are interred by prisoners and the desperation of the families of the dead to see it become a sacred place of memory. 


There is a beautiful cemetery near where I live: Mt Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. It's a place of beauty and solemnity and one I never tire of visiting. I often spend time just wandering around and lightly touching the names on the gravestones. Each name represents a universe; a history stretching back generations.

No matter what you believe about an afterlife, there is power in linking to the past.


My father was the last member of his generation to know where all the family members were buried. For years, I thought about sitting down with him to record the history of the family, at least as much as he knew, from the time his grandparents came to the US from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s.

While we joked about knowing 'where all the bodies were buried', my father passed away in May of 2015 at the age of 92 and we never did have that conversation.

The graves of my fore-bearers will be like so many of the graves I visit in my cemetery meanderings: names for strangers to trace, histories for them to invent.


I want to walk the earth of Hart Island. I want to honor the silent dead; those who have no one to remember them, to mourn for them. 

Perhaps, in turn, some stranger will linger at my great-grandparents' headstones and share a moment of grace.


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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Fail Again. Fail Better.

Photo by Feral78 used under CC license, with attribution

So far, this year - and it's not even the end of the first month of the year - I've already done 2 things that challenge me.

The first was to craft a short story that fits as a prequel to the universe of Halcyone Space. The second was to submit a manuscript to a publisher during their open call.

The short story was hard for two reasons - first, short fiction doesn't come easily to me. Creating a story is  vastly different than creating a novel and most of my short stories end up reading either like ultra-compressed (and ineffective) novels or the first chapters of a novel. Where I have been successful is in writing more poetic/literary speculative fiction short stories that are less plot driven than idea driven. But for this project, I needed to capture the narrative flow of the novels in a format that worked for a short story. AARGH.

The second reason it was a challenge is that I needed to match/sync up with what I have already written in 2 published and 1 in process novel for this universe AND make it work as a standalone short story. It's the problem of continuity on a whole other scale.

The submission challenge involved a full revision of a project I had written a number of years ago and make sure it was at the point where I would be proud to have it stand next to my recent work. Then I submitted it to Angry Robot for their open call.

Why was this a challenge? Let me tell you - writing something new, starting from scratch is far easier than doing a revision of an old work. Think of the difference between building a new home and renovating one from 100 years ago. You have to find the healthy foundation and bring everything around it up to code.

And submitting it for publication consideration means that rejection (my old friend/nemesis) is a very likely outcome. It's also letting go of a degree of autonomy and creative control I've enjoyed on all my own imprint's projects.

I decided to go ahead with submitting OATHBREAKER'S PRICE to Angry Robot because I'm focusing on the Halcyone Space books under my Interrobang Books imprint. I had the manuscript available and I didn't have a publication slot for it this year. I'm not fully convinced that going with a publisher will be a significantly different experience than being my own publisher, but I'm interested in finding out.

And before the month is out, I'll be starting on my third out-of-my-comfort-zone project: a collaboration with writer Rick Wayne on a novel whose inception happened in a strange conversation thread on google plus. I've never written with someone before and I'm nervous, but also excited and energized by the thought of it.

This is what I believe: The life of an artist of any stripe means living balanced on the edge of fear and joy, being driven by both. I believe the act of creation is essentially an act of sacrifice. Being willing to fail is part of that sacrifice. If I don't challenge myself, if I'm not willing to reach past my limits, I back away from that place where what I create is greater than what my mundane self can imagine.

So, yeah, this is the year I'm planning to fail better.   



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Saturday, January 23, 2016

The essential purpose of feedback

Let no page escape unscathed.. .
I'm a writer. Which means I spend a lot of time alone in my head. While I am almost never lonely with the company of my imaginary friends, it can lead to living in a creative vacuum.

It's extremely difficult to both draft a story and objectively assess that story. One process needs the red hot fire of creation; the other needs a cold, dispassionate assessment.

That is one of the reasons solid writing advice always includes 'turn off your inner editor' when writing. I have more or less made my peace with my internal editor. She is usually awake and alert while I write and lets me know she's waiting for the draft to be finished before she tears it apart.

And I can be, if not dispassionate about my own writing, at least willing to admit it will need work. Hard work. And I'm willing to do that work.

I've been told I am a glutton for punishment when it comes to critique. I seek it out on each and every project I work on. Some of my early readers are my fellow writers, some are incisive readers. Regardless of where I receive my feedback, I take it very seriously and I am grateful for it, even if sometimes it hurts to accept.

No one wants to know their creation has flaws, even as we know that it does. (Silly humans and their denial!)

This week has brought me to a place where I had to accept feedback I really didn't want, but knew I needed on two different projects.

One is a novel that I originally wrote in 2006/7. I revised it at least twice, had a close call with a small publisher, then closed the folder on my laptop and moved to other things. But the potential of that manuscript has always nagged at me and I worked with a developmental editor to try to give it a new life. She wrote up 20 pages of notes that I put away because I was enmeshed in other projects. Until last week. I've been working through the story, reading and re-reading her notes, and trying to bring the story to my current abilities. (Thankfully, I can see how much better I am as a writer, instead of simply cringing about how I think this book stinks.)

Much of her commentary is spot on and makes sense. Some I don't agree with, but that's the author's prerogative. It does mean that I have to examine what I don't agree with and understand why. But that's also part of my job and I do enjoy this process.

I also have a short story in process that's due for an anthology project and has a drop dead deadline that is fast approaching.

Short stories are not my forte. Especially not ones that need to be between 5,000 and 10,000 words. I seem to be able to naturally write either really short - poetry and very tight short stories or novel length. Just not anything in between. But this one needed to be written. Again, it's part of the job of the writer and I do recognize the need to push out of my comfort zone. That's where growth happens.

I put out a call on G+ for beta readers for the story and many of my readers offered their time. I am extremely grateful to them. There are days where I wake up and realize 'hey! I'm a writer. And I have fans! Holy shit!' 

So back to feedback.

Yesterday, I received and was able to internalize several sets of critical feedback on both the manuscript and the story. And by critical, I mean in all senses of the word. Critically important. And critical as in deconstructing and assessing.

These are paraphrases (for both projects):

Why did you skip the scene where your main character has to react to realizing she's just been manipulated again and start with her waking up the next morning? This is a bad habit of yours in that you constantly 'pull your punches' on the emotionally difficult parts. 

I didn't like it, sorry. So while well written I didn't buy the plot. The sudden change at the end didn't stack up with anything we know about the character.

The pace was off. A bit of a rough start.

I wasn't hooked at all. ( -- that was from my husband! Ouch!)

Here's what's not working for me: We don't really know what's at stake for G. I think the problem is that the story is told chronologically  and it reads too much like a novel. Reader expectations are very different for a short story. Give us cause to worry about G right from the beginning.

Full disclosure: I did whine and stomp my feet (metaphorically, of course) in getting this feedback. But I'm a big girl and I put on my big girl pants and did what I needed to do. I took a deep breath and went back to work. For the manuscript, I added scenes and chapters showing the characters reacting in real time to difficult situations. For the short story, I cut nearly a third of it that I recognized was 'throat clearing' and rearranged the rest to start with the stakes. I also filled the plot holes that made the main character's actions implausible.

And sent the new version out for a few test readers. My husband gave me the thumbs up. A reader friend did as well.

Here's the interesting thing: I didn't make enormous changes to the bones of the plot. I just listened to what wasn't working for the readers and let my editor brain free to do her work based on objective feedback, instead of running around in circle in my own head.

When I was a young writer, I never wanted to 'sully' my creative endeavors with feedback. What emerged from my muse was sparkling and perfect and right. Any revision would only ruin it. If someone didn't like it, they simply didn't understand it. The act of creation wasn't work; it was waiting for inspiration to flow through me and onto the page.

It is any wonder that I didn't write anything of substance until I was in my 40s? That's when I finally understood the essentially relationship between art and craft and had matured enough to be willing to do what it took to be better.

So, I will end this by saying thank you to my colleagues and my readers who are willing to be honest and push me to be the writer I aspire to be. I am grateful.

Thank you.



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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

This is where I am

The view from our front porch

So I'm sitting in the back of a golf cart just outside Lorraine's Cafe in Black Point, Exuma in The Bahamas doing our daily email check in with the outside world.

This week has been moment after moment of simply being present. 

This is Where I Am

A young black boy loses his hat
from the open bed of a pick-up truck
and I am grateful for his shrug and his smile
as the driver keeps driving. The hat
is a tan smudge on the washed-out road.
It will be there when the man
in the truck and the boy return.
In an hour or a day; it doesn't matter.
It will still be there. Up that same road,
a rooster reminds me it's morning,
though the sun woke me hours ago.
Yes, yes, I see the day, I want
to assure him, but he keeps crowing
and I am grateful for his joyous persistence.

My sister in law made me coffee
in the little pink cottage we are sharing
by the beach. We engage in
synchronized scratching and compare
mosquito bites, our ankles written
in bumps of insect braille. And I
am grateful for this sign of abundance
for the dragonflies who dance and dart
in the air above this wraparound porch
where I can see the waves lap the shore

and the baseball cap waiting for its head
and the half-empty coffee cup
and the rooster who won't shut up
and the dragonflies. Always the dragonflies.

--LJ Cohen, January 12, 2016


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