Bay Area Book Festival

Writers talking about writing: sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it ain’t.

When you come across a writer who thinks clearly and speaks well, it can be a rewarding, sometimes inspiring time. So I spent an enjoyable hour with Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem, inspired to read their books, which was exactly the point of it all, but also feeling optimistic about my own work. Maybe it’s just the projection fantasy – seeing myself on that stage – but it’s enough to get me back to work on the next novel.

Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem
Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem

But sometimes things run off the rails – as they did with a panel of European writers – and often it’s because writers in the audience are looking for THE ANSWER. “Who are your major influences? Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Is it necessary to have an MFA? Do you? Here’s where the moderator needs to step in and limit the scope of the conversation.

Talking about the ideas in a novel, OK. Talking about the craft of writing, not so much. Because, like most creative endeavors, writing is about 10% inspiration and the rest is hard work. So there’s really not much to talk about: you’re inspired to write, or you’re not, either you sit down and do the work, or you don’t.

Bay Area Book Festival
Bay Area Book Festival

Now publishing is something altogether different and that took me to a seminar entitled the Lifecycle of a Book, featuring an agent, a small publisher, a publicist, a social media guru, and a marketing specialist. Andy Ross, the agent, found humor in the enormous odds against getting anything published in the traditional way. I didn’t.

Brooke Warner, the publisher, responded by presenting a new hybrid publishing model in which the author pays production costs and receives a larger royalty, as well as editorial, distribution, and marketing services. This is middle ground between self-publishing, where the author pays for everything then has to figure out how to get readers to find the book, and traditional publishing, where the author trades most of the income for these services, although the amount of promotion and publicity publishers do seems to be diminishing and is now seen as a shared obligation. The other speakers filled us in on how much authors will have to do for themselves and how much it’s still going to cost.

If I had left this a little earlier, I might not have been shut out of Adam Hochshild’s sold out talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War. I might have learned something useful there.

©2016 Ron Scherl

Rivesaltes

It began about five years ago in Maury with a chance remark followed by a visit to an abandoned concentration camp. I stepped past the barbed wire, walked through and around crumbling buildings, made photographs. Then I began to write.

Rivesaltes begins with two historical figures, the photojournalists Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and continues with fictional characters in stories of three wars that intersect at the Rivesaltes camp and together comprise a fictional history of twentieth century Europe. It is a historical novel, but the stories of refugees created by war have an immediate and emotional connection to the present day.

The novel’s cinematic quality is derived from the pictures of Capa, Taro, and other great photographers of the period. A significant amount of research time was spent examining their images. That was the fun part. And it was a pleasure to work in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, a place that confers serious intent with registration as an authorized researcher. A bargain at eight Euros. The microfiche archives of the Conseil Générale in Perpignan were not quite so enjoyable.

Five years of research, writing, and revising. The first draft came out in a rush. The characters drove the story to places I’d never envisioned, new characters appeared when needed and they took the story in different directions. I was just the guy with his fingers on the keyboard. The story raced to its conclusion and then the hard work began.

Photography is instantaneous. An image may be informed by years of experience but it is created in a fraction of a second that captures a facial expression, the peak moment of action, or the perfect light.

Writing is interminable. Revision on revision, finding the right word, crafting the perfect sentence, molding and shaping until you just can’t do it anymore, and decide to call it complete.

Finished? Only until an editor gets her hands on it. But it’s time to find out if anyone wants to publish it so queries will go out to agents who will say yes, no, or nothing at all. First up is an agent who was considerate and respectful of my first book, although she ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. I came to agree with her judgment and stopped submitting it, but I think there’s some value there and I may yet find the way to make it work. Rejection sucks but it’s part of the deal, much more often than not. The odds are long. Capa rarely had a winner at the racetrack; let’s hope we have better luck in the literary lottery.

 

 

Writers and Agents

My first novel attracted some interest from an agent who read three very different drafts before finally deciding it wasn’t right for her. She was encouraging and complimentary and her feedback was very valuable to me. It made me really want to work with her. The novel has taken on a much darker tone – it’s no longer a light-hearted travelogue of southern France complete with food, wine and colorful natives – it’s more honest, more personal and painful, a true first novel. I may not have revised it to a book the agent wanted to sell, but I’m happy with it, now. Of course I had to go through the early rejection stage of thinking it was all shit and I couldn’t write a want ad, but I’m past that now and submitting to other agents.

I’m close to finishing the first draft of my second novel. This is a totally different animal; set in twentieth century Europe, it tells multiple stories in different time frames that converge in a single location. It too has taken some surprising turns – into consideration of issues of personal responsibility in the face of evil and how we learn violence. And two characters who were not in the original conception, both female, have assumed prominent, catalytic roles.

Let’s talk about agents. They are the gatekeepers to the world of traditional publishing; there’s no entry to major houses without one. There’s some variation but the basic process goes like this: I send a one page query letter describing my novel and hope that some word or phrase strikes a chord that makes her want to read a few pages of the book I’ve been writing for the last three years. If she hears the sweet music in those pages, she may ask to read more. If she doesn’t, there’s only silence. Now I understand the pressures on all sides. The agent already has clients and her first responsibility must be to them. What comes over the transom is future business development, part of the job but not the highest priority. Still, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for an automated return email that says: “No, thank you.” The writer’s only option is multiple submissions, a process that feels something like trying to strike a piñata without knowing it’s in a totally different room.

There are web sites like Agent Query and Publishers’ Marketplace that list recent publishing deals and give me an idea which agents might be a good fit. Then I go to their web sites, see who they represent and what genres they’re looking for, and try to decide if they’re right for me. It ain’t easy. Genres are marketing categories and they’re fluid. Where’s the line between literary and commercial fiction? Why do some mysteries cross over to become literary? What on earth is women’s fiction?

And where do I fit in? If an agent has big name authors will she have time for me? If she doesn’t, is she any good? Is a big agency with multiple divisions and foreign offices better than a boutique with personal relationships?

So I look for any clue that might indicate there’s a chance to break through the clutter, and send another query.

The alternative is self-publishing which holds no appeal for me; although many people think it’s the future, most of them happen to be part of a whole new industry that’s developed to support the new writer-entrepreneur. And if, as my friend Mike Shatzkin writes, very few self-published writers are selling many books, and agents and traditional publishing houses are wary of taking on a title that’s been self-published, then what’s the difference between the new model and the bad old days of vanity publishers?

Enough for now, I need to research the record for oldest writer to publish a first novel.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Gateway to Understanding

Is emotion the gateway to reason or is it an obstacle to understanding?

I had always believed in the power of the intellect, that an educated intelligence should be sufficient to decode the clues and understand the opportunities and conflicts we all face. Now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure the opposite is true; it is only through emotional engagement that we can truly understand anything at all. How we respond to art offers a window.

Angle of Reflection contains a scene in a museum where Ben and Emma are discussing a Picasso exhibit. Ben is able to admire the technique and appreciate the results from an intellectual distance but maintains that Picasso never moves him. (Let’s assume he’s never seen Guernica.) Emma tells him it may yet happen and to beware of sealing his emotions in today’s opinion.

Later he reflects on a painting that moved him more than most: Vermeer’s, A Maid Asleep. “I couldn’t turn away. I was immediately and profoundly drawn into that world, I could walk into that woman’s dreams and imagine stories that explained all the elements Vermeer chose to include.” We can’t know whether the artist had the same stories in mind but it doesn’t matter, what is significant is that the emotional reaction to the image made the content knowable.

Here’s where we get back to the question of antidepressant medication: it is my contention that one of the severe effects of many years on SSRIs was a stifling of emotion, which led to a failure to understand what was happening to me. I couldn’t get to it because I couldn’t feel it.

I’m not the first to report this. “SSRIs also cause a multitude of troubling side effects. These include sexual dysfunction, suppression of REM sleep, muscle tics, fatigue, emotional blunting, and apathy. In addition, investigators have reported that long-term use is associated with memory impairment, problem-solving difficulties, loss of creativity, and learning deficiencies.” Robert Whitaker: Anatomy of an Epidemic, Broadway Books, Random House, 2010.

I’m beginning to feel that I’m nearing the finish line for Angle. Could be wrong, of course, I’ve thought this before, then I sent it to my editor. I began to wonder how you know when you’re done with a novel. There is no requirement for length, no facts that have to be explained, no rules to follow. Thinking won’t get you there. I suppose you can say that it’s finished when someone decides to publish it, but Fitzgerald was still trying to rewrite Gatsby as it was on the press. I asked a friend who is a wonderful painter how she knew when a painting was finished. She said: “I don’t know, I just feel it.”

Feels right to me.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Work

I’m beginning to understand how Donna Tartt could spend ten years writing a novel. I used to think it would be impossible to maintain interest in the same book over that long a time. I used to think you could rewrite and polish only so many times before it was perfect. But that was before I tried to write a novel, and before I hired an editor to help.

A few weeks ago I sent my latest draft to my efficient and perceptive editor, a draft that I had polished through the technique of reading it aloud, recording it, and making changes as I listened to the playback.

I was really pleased with it. I thought reading aloud had helped to make the dialogue flow better and cleaned up some awkward sentence structure. I had noticed that when reading I stumbled over inaccurate punctuation and fuzzy thinking. Any text that I wasn’t fully committed to didn’t read smoothly. I had discovered a way to get to the truth of the book.

I was also weaning myself from antidepressant medication and was sure I was seeing the effects of clarified thinking and emotional access in my writing. I was right about that, especially in the passages dealing with relationships, but I was missing the bigger picture. In the process of stripping down some characters trying to get to the truth I wanted to convey, I lost some objectivity and allowed reality to overwhelm the fictional narrative resulting in a loss of pace, tension, and structure.

In other words, in finding some truth about myself, I managed to lose my reader. My editor had no trouble pinpointing the problems: “I think what’s missing in this chapter is an emotional hook that will compel the reader to care…As a reader, I feel unsure of what the book is about and therefore unsure of what I should care about, and why.”

Ouch!

I was surprised and disappointed.

When we talked she was quick to apologize for being so blunt, then added: “but isn’t that what you’re paying me for?”

She’s right, her comments and suggestions are enormously helpful, and I’ve gone back to work with enthusiasm, understanding the task is to fictionalize the narrative while retaining the emotional truth.

Not a problem, this is only year three of this book.

©2015 Ron Scherl

ANGER

From Angle of Reflection:

“Ben wanted to see Michel’s organic vineyards and chemical neighbors again. It wasn’t far. He couldn’t look at these two plots of land without believing the absence of intrusive chemicals just had to be better for everyone, for the entire ecosystem of the vineyard, including the people and animals who worked there. So why was he introducing foreign substances into his own body to alter the natural balance? Anti-depressant medications were unnatural and they worked in subtle and insidious ways: reinforcing harmful behavior by making you comfortable with it, reinforcing passivity by making it seem acceptable behavior. Depression is difficult, but rounding off the edges doesn’t help. It just makes it worse. He had made his decision.”

Ben decided to change because he didn’t like the way he felt, or didn’t feel, and because he had come to believe in the need for man to live with, and work from what nature gives.

Now I’ve begun to look into the research on anti-depressant medication – something I should have done long ago – and what I’m reading is making me angry. Whether I would have had this reaction while still taking the meds is an open question, but I feel healthier just being able to feel the anger.

The first stop was the first of a series of NY Times opinion articles by a writer named Diana Spechler called “Breaking Up With My Meds.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/breaking-up-with-my-meds/?_r=0

Her condition would seem to be more severe than mine, but her description of some of the side-effects of the medication was similar.

Here’s the paragraph that hit home:

My thinking is slowed, my creativity stymied. When I work, I feel as though boulders are strapped to my brain. I’m constantly thirsty. I’ve lost my taste for exercise, a mood-enhancer I’ve long relied on, and become more sedentary than I’ve ever been. Perhaps most disruptive of all, depression still lies, dead weight, on top of me — a few hours here, a few hours there — and medicated, I feel less motivation to wriggle out from under it.

Embedded in the article was a link to a piece from 2011 in The New York Review of Books titled: “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why?” By Marcia Angell, Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine 
at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. She discusses three books on psychiatry and the use of anti-depressant drugs

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/

Here are the three books she discusses:

The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth by Irving Kirsch

Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker

Unhinged: The Trouble with Psychiatry—A Doctor’s Revelations About a Profession in Crisis  by Daniel Carlat

I don’t intend to summarize or criticize any of these works, read Angell’s article, but as always with this blog I want to explore my personal reactions to what is significant in my world and, specifically, how it affects creativity.

I feel so strongly that trashing the meds has enabled me to reach an emotional awareness that has, in turn, allowed me to write with a greater precision, clarity, and depth than ever before. That’s only my belief, but at this stage, it’s the only one that counts.

Kirsch has two major theses, both strongly supported by the data he presents. One: anti-depressant medications are no more effective than the placebos used to control clinical trials, and this fact is well known to the pharmaceutical companies, the FDA, and doctors who have taken the time to read the literature. It is easy to understand why nothing is done about it: the drug companies make a lot of money selling these meds, the FDA receives half its funding from the drug companies, and the doctors don’t have anything else to offer their patients.

Two: The marketing and prescribing of these meds is based on the theory that depression is caused by a chemical balance resulting in a deficiency of neurotransmitters in the brain. There is no evidence that this is true. None.

The meds are designed to increase the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain, thereby acting on a condition that is not proven to exist.

Here, from Angell’s work is the nut of the problem:

“…because certain antidepressants increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, it was postulated that depression is caused by too little serotonin. (These antidepressants, like Prozac or Celexa, are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) because they prevent the reabsorption of serotonin by the neurons that release it, so that more remains in the synapses to activate other neurons.) Thus, instead of developing a drug to treat an abnormality, an abnormality was postulated to fit a drug.

That was a great leap in logic, as all three authors point out. It was entirely possible that drugs that affected neurotransmitter levels could relieve symptoms even if neurotransmitters had nothing to do with the illness in the first place (and even possible that they relieved symptoms through some other mode of action entirely). As Carlat puts it, “By this same logic one could argue that the cause of all pain conditions is a deficiency of opiates, since narcotic pain medications activate opiate receptors in the brain.” Or similarly, one could argue that fevers are caused by too little aspirin.

That’s interesting and amusing, but here’s the real problem for me: once a person is put on a psychiatric medication, which, in one manner or another, throws a wrench into the usual mechanics of a neuronal pathway, his or her brain begins to function…abnormally.

So here’s the deal: these drugs (SSRIs) increase the level of serotonin in the brain, but there is absolutely no scientific evidence that my depression or anyone else’s resulted from a deficiency of serotonin. In my case, the result was an enormous dulling of emotions, loss of mental acuity and creativity, and an increase in passivity that kept me from trying to overcome the effects of depression. I believe it worsened over time but can’t say for sure; it may be that changed circumstances finally forced me to recognize what was happening all along.

For me, the only way past this was to quit taking the meds. I feel very strongly that this has resulted in reversing these debilitating conditions and that has, in turn, freed me to write the insight and clarity I was seeking. We’ll see.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Reading Aloud

The hardest part of the transition from photographer to writer is mastering the difference in the creative process.

In many types of photography the creative act is instantaneous. To reduce it to its most basic Cartier-Bresson decisive moment: see it, shoot it. Of course, there’s a lot that must happen before that moment in order to be in position to capture it, but the act of creativity really does take place in an instant. This is true of almost any journalistic type of photography but also holds for portraiture, fashion, even landscapes; any time the subject is alive, or changing light is an element.

Even when there’s a great deal of pre-production preparation and post-production processing and elements of creativity are spread throughout the process, even then, the critical creative act is the instant of releasing the shutter.

Only still life photography is exempt from this and only when the lighting is fully controlled. Maybe that’s why the French call it nature morte.

The act of writing a novel is a very different process.

Larry Walker sent me a quote from William Faulkner on the subject:

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

That was certainly true of my first novel – but then the work began and hasn’t yet been completed. The creative process evolves from writing to editing and the number of revisions mounts at an alarming rate. It amazed me how often I could revise the same text and still find absolute clunkers that had to go. I would repeat the process until I hated every word then take a break and ask a friend to read it, after which I could admit that not every word was worthless and revise yet again.

Now, I’ve revised my revision process. I found that when I had trouble with a passage, reading it aloud would often point to the problem. When I stumbled over the reading, it was because either the thought or the language was unclear. In dialogue, it showed mostly in the placement of the “he said, she said” attributions. But in expository passages, reading aloud revealed awkward structures or fuzzy thinking. Enough time and consideration would eventually lead me to an improvement, often after several iterations, and I learned that when the words flowed easily from my mouth they were just better written.

I mentioned this to my friend Jess, who said she’d love to hear my reading, so I recorded the first chapter and sent it to her. In doing so, I discovered a new process: record, then listen while reading the text, stop to revise where needed and record again. Repeat until the words sound right.

Not exactly ready for “This American Life,” but Jess now has a podcast for one, and I’ve discovered an editing tool that works well for me.

I don’t know if other writers work this way. I’d love to hear from anyone who does.

Charting Progress

It’s been a month without medication. I’ve been keeping a journal, a daily emotional temperature chart, and a few trends have emerged.

One: I’ve been able to stabilize sleep patterns and that’s a big relief. I sleep through the night now and wake feeling rested, most of the time. Occasional glitches, but that’s always been true.

Two: the Hallmark emotional moments continue, but there was also genuine bad news this week and my response was real, nakedly emotional, and appropriate. My emotional range has expanded and I’m grateful for that. The medication was designed to flatten the roller coaster, but I don’t think I need that anymore. I need to feel it all.

Three: My internal censors are breaking down. I’m much more inclined to say what I’m feeling and I tend to think that for the most part, this is a positive thing, as long as it doesn’t become a burden to others, and as long as I don’t use it in a constant search for positive reinforcement.

It is definitely a good thing for the development of Angle of Reflection, allowing the exploration of Ben’s character to deepen and to provide the opportunity for change and growth. In early chapters, while searching for intimacy, Ben tends to deflect challenges to his defenses with humor.

“So making the photo becomes a way of making the connection?” Emma asked.

“It does, usually the object is nothing more than a good portrait, one that reveals some truth about the subject. By the way, I’ve always wondered about the method, I mean seeking to make a connection with a camera hiding your face? Anyway, it worked for us and the connection was profound, and I have the pho­to too. Someday that might be all I have.”

“Do you worry about that?”

“I think about it. I try not to. I try to just enjoy what is happening now, but some­times I can’t help it.”

“You need a bit of the yogi in you. Live in the moment.”

“The only Yogi I know used to be a catcher for the Yankees.”

 

This will change.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Ben and Sarah Talk About Medication

“Ben, you need the meds. They help you function. They’ll help you make sense of things.”

“No, they make it worse. I can function. I’m not even sure I could write a novel if I were taking them. I mean. I’ve never written one before, never tried while I was on the drugs.”

“Ben, listen to me. I’ve known you and loved you for a long time. You have depression. You can’t change that. It’s some kind of chemical imbalance and the meds get you part of the way back. Going off the medication only makes it worse.”

“I don’t think it does. I think I’m pretty stable. I just wish I slept better. But there’s something that keeps me from making a real connection to others, to someone I really need, like Emma. And I think it’s the meds.”

“Think, Ben, maybe it’s not you or the meds, maybe it’s her. It’s not hard to imagine that your relationship just isn’t right for her.”

Ben fell silent for a moment, just long enough to consider that and reject it. “But what if that’s true because she hasn’t been able to get close enough, because I won’t let her, even if I think I am?”

“Ben, what separates you from connection, from emotion, is not the meds; it’s the depression. Think back to before you were on the drugs. Remember your family, how you always felt disconnected. That’s who you are. It’s not what the drugs do to you. You know this. I’ve heard you say it yourself. Please trust me.”

“Sarah, I know you mean well; I’m just not sure you’re right. You’ve been on these meds as long, maybe longer than me. Maybe this creates a challenge to you. Maybe I’m leaving your sphere of influence and that threatens you. It shouldn’t. It has nothing to do with you. This is about me, only me. I really want to write this novel and I think I have to get as close to the bone as possible to do it. I can’t be removed and dispassionate and still convey passion.”

“That’s nonsense Ben and you know it. You’re confusing your book and your life and making about as much sense as a Raymond Chandler plot. You don’t have to experience something to be able to write about it; did you have to drive into that cliff so you could write about it, or did we have that accident because your mind was elsewhere?”

“God damn it, Sarah. It’s my fucking life. Stop trying to produce it.” His anger was so rare, it startled both of them. Sarah was reeling. This just wasn’t Ben. “You’re wrong, Sarah, this is me. Me without the drugs. Me being honest. Not afraid of the anger. I need to feel this.”

“Ben, I don’t know what to say. You have reasons to be angry with me but this isn’t one of them. I’m trying to help.”

Angle of Reflection 

©2015 Ron Scherl

 

 

Chapter Two

Here’s a bit of text from Raffi Khatchadourian’s article in this week’s New Yorker on the development of emotion recognition software. He’s writing about a scientist named Rosalind Picard who did much of the early work in this field that has now been hijacked by ad agencies and phone companies.

“She became convinced that reasoning and emotion were inseparable; just as too much emotion could cause irrational thinking, so could too little. Brain injuries specific to emotional processing robbed people of their capacity to make decisions, see the bigger picture, exercise common sense…”

I don’t mean to suggest that I have some kind of brain injury, I don’t, but symptoms described here very closely mirror some of the trouble I’ve had using anti-depressant medications, which makes me wonder if the effects of the medications might not be compared to brain injury.

I’d expect the medical and pharmaceutical industries to argue that it’s not the drugs, it’s the depression, but I’d counter with the idea that the meds exacerbate the problems by making the patient comfortable with his condition. By rounding off the rough edges, dulling emotions, and allowing one to function, the drugs extend the damage caused by the depression.

If I can’t feel the anger, how can I summon the will to fight it?

I’m not suggesting that everyone quit the meds and sue the drug companies; I’m only talking about my reactions and desire for change.

Almost two years ago, when I first began writing the semi-autobiographical novel now called Angle of Reflection, I made my first attempt to quit the meds. Early effects including disturbed sleep patterns and overreaction to sentimentality were the same then as now, but then things got a little out of control. Just beginning to write fiction, I became a bit confused about reality, and a phone call from a friend who is the model for a pivotal character drove me over the edge and back to the meds. Looking back at that now, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I tend to think I got caught up in my own fantasy, resulting in an extremely exaggerated reaction. Whatever it was, it’s different now, well some things are. I’m still working on the book, but I’ve learned a lot about the process of writing fiction and a few things about myself.

And now that I’m learning about withdrawal from the medication there are several scenes that will need to be rewritten – again.

By the way, the New Yorker piece is terrifying to those of us who still think we have some privacy. It’s in the current issue.