Category Archives: Writing is everywhere

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em

It’s lucky that just the other day I told a coworker my idea, otherwise I wouldn’t have a witness. Here’s the idea: A website where various contributors give advice on how to get started reading the work of famous authors, giving recommendations of three or four books and the order in which to read them.

And it turns out, of course, that such a site–or rather, column on the book blog Book Riot–already exists. And will soon become a book called Start Here.

I learned long ago that any good idea will probably occur to more than one person. And if you have an idea for an article or book and someone else puts it into writing before you get a chance, you should just pat yourself on the back for having had a smart thought, be thankful you didn’t actually write the book or article only to be lapped, and move on to the next good idea.

In this case, however, there’s an opportunity to pitch in, in the form of a Book Riot contest, so watch this space for my Start Here article and use the comments to (a) guess who I’ll write about and/or (b) tell me who you would want to write about (and maybe you should write about them!).


Inspiration in the Mail

Today, I got a clipping in the mail from my friend J. She sent me this article. Pretty neat story involving the supernatural and handwriting, both of which figure in my novel.

I sent J. an e-mail thanking her and saying I might be able to borrow something from the little boy’s story for my novel. Five minutes later, I realized that this THING that happens in my novel might make much more sense if … I immediately started revising the chapter in which the THING happens.

People, send your writer friends clippings. Usually, it takes years for these kinds of things to turn into stories, but sometimes you might be providing them with instant inspiration.

Thanks, J!


I’m about a month behind on my New Yorker reading (when am I not?). This morning, during an unusual 30-minute window of quiet, I read Adam Gopnik’s article on dessert, which appeared in the January 3 issue. It’s a great piece of food writing, and an interesting meditation on art-making. Gopnik bookends the piece with his attempts to recreate his mother’s apricot souffle. And he ends on an inspiring note that could be applied to novel writing:

Ferran’s question still counts: How do we finish the meal? But then how do we finish anything? At least I know now that if we beat hard enough, and long enough, and do both more than we ever thought we would have to, we might yet arrive at a lighter end.

What does novel writing have to do with the protests in Egypt?

I’ve often heard fiction writers admonished not to have an agenda in their writing. The story’s the thing, we’re told, and everything we write should serve the story.

Of course, a lot of great writing has an agenda (Dickens, anyone?), but it’s best when it’s organic to the story, not shoved down our throats.

All of that is to say that in my writing and my aspirations as a writer, I do have a bit of an agenda. I try not to write from that agenda, to let it just be there, part of me the way my knowledge of how oranges smell is part of me and what I bring to my writing.

Here’s my agenda: I want to write about Arab and Muslim peoples in a way that is true, in a way that reflects the diversity of who we are and the complexity of our societies.

I want to show readers who don’t know us that we aren’t all angry, woman-hating, suicide-bombing, humorless, louts.

The best way to do that, I’m learning, is to ignore it. To just try to be as true to my story and my characters as I can.

There are loads of reasons that the protests in Egypt have moved me. I’m not Egyptian, but growing up in the Middle East I saw Egyptian movies and TV, watched Egyptian comics, heard Egyptian music. So, looting and huge uncertainties about the future of the country notwithstanding, I’ve been feeling a sense of joy. Joy that the Egyptian people are able to show their true nature to their leaders, to the rest of the world, to each other.  That they are able to request dignity, change, and freedom. And that they have the opportunity to demonstrate that Egyptians–and Arabs generally–want the same things in life that anyone does.

The protests have enabled the rest of us to be transported to Egypt, the way a novel transports us to another world, and to see a truth there that’s reflected in all of us.


Kill all the editors. Wait … stop … I didn’t really mean that …

Last week, I gave a workshop called “Turning True Life Stories Into Support” at an annual conference for people who provide social services to runaway and homeless teens. Three hours before my session, a young man named Billy give the keynote speech at lunch.

Billy ran away from a family that couldn’t, wouldn’t accept him for who he was: a gay young man who liked glee club, who just wanted someone to listen to him without criticizing the way he talked,who  just wanted to walk and laugh and be without feeling slighted or judged by his family and peers. Luckily, he wound up at the doorsteps of several organizations that helped put him on the road to success. Today Billy is in a program that helps older teens and young adults who would otherwise be homeless learn to live on their own.

Let’s just say Billy brought many people in the audience to tears.

I edit other people’s writing for a living, and I’m used to dissecting how words go together and figuring out how to arrange them in the most effective sequence. The thing is, Billy’s speech wasn’t polished and neither was Billy. He kept losing his place and saying, “Sorry, sorry,” then repeating a line before getting back on track. He kept stopping because he was too nervous or because he was on the verge of tears. Yet he had an enthralled audience. He made me cry.

So kill all the editors, because Billy’s rawness–his unedited, uncensored voice–lent his story power.

But no, don’t kill them. Just hit them with a stun gun occasionally. Billy’s speech, in fact, illustrated all the principles I had planned to talk about in my workshop. His story had a beginning, middle, and end. It had conflict and resolution. It included a hook: Here’s what runaway and homeless teens need. And it included a call to action for everyone in the room: Maybe if you hear this, you’ll go back and serve the young people in your programs even better than before.

November is National Runaway Prevention Month. If you’d like to support an organization that works with homeless youth, try:

The National Runaway Switchboard

Larkin Street Youth Services

Any of the runaway and homeless youth programs listed on this map.