Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Problem for a Writer of Having Too Many Talents and Interests

Many people in the arts have numerous talents and interests. In addition to writing, you might enjoy quilting, or playing an instrument, or you might be a good painter or dancer. In some ways it’s a blessing to enjoy numerous arts, in some ways it’s a problem.

In my early twenties I studied many different arts and crafts. I took classes and learned some skills from friends. I enrolled in a pottery class where I tried to master the skill of knowing how a glaze would look after it was fired. I sketched models from life endlessly, trying to perfect my technique with a charcoal crayon. I even had a business with my friend Flip tying macramé purses and chokers.

I was also writing and at the same time translating French poets during this period, but my role models were artists who did not specialize in one art. I admired William Blake, who created engravings to go with his poems, and DanteGabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who wrote poems to accompany his paintings.

Rossetti's poem, "The Blessed Damozel," illustration by Kenneth Cox
Even though writing and literature excited me, like many people in the arts, I didn’t want to be strapped down to one discipline. In my case, this was partly because my father had been a widely published writer of short stories and reviews, and I didn’t want to be measured against the yardstick of his success.

At this time I was also taking classes in modern dance and ballet at the gym of my college, working at the barre in not weather with sweat gushing down my brow. (Some ballet teachers can be tougher than marine drill sergeants!). I was making pretty decent progress, and being the only male in most classes, I got a lot of attention.

Then one day, a new person entered the dance classes: Berat. He was an engineering student from Turkey, and he had never had much formal instruction in dance. Berat’s progress was amazing. He took every possible class he could fit into the schedule of his engineering studies, always arriving early or staying late to work in the mirror to check his form on the pliés. In a few months, Berat had surpassed all the other students. He was a natural. One day, Berat was gone. I asked the teacher what had happened to him. She said Berat had moved to New York, where he had auditioned for a dance company that was interested in hiring him, if he took a few more classes.

That made me pause. Yes, I was fairly good at modern dance, pottery, macramé,life drawing. But was I progressing at a pace that would allow me to make an original and professional contribution to the art, the kind of pace Berat had set? In every case, I had to answer no. Except possibly in writing.

Writing was the one art I was trying to avoid. But writing came naturally to me. I had to work at it, and work incredibly hard, but I was continually moving forward in my practice of the craft. I couldn’t say that about the other arts I was dabbling in. I was spreading myself thin, and as a result, nothing I was doing in any art or craft had much depth. 

I realized that I wanted to be an artist not just for fun—though it was great fun when it went well, more fun than anything else I’d done. I wanted to be an artist to make a contribution to the river of culture, and even if that contribution was only a few drops, I wanted it to be the best I could give. I saw that I would have to specialize to get good enough to make an original contribution that might have a chance of mattering to others, not just to myself and a few friends.

Even within the literary arts, a writer has to specialize. Yes, there are some authors who can write plays, poems, short stories, novels, libretti, and more. But not many. Most of us have to specialize in order to get good at a genre. Again, it’s partly what comes naturally, and partly what you want to work at. 

I don’t know if Berat ever became a professional dancer in New York. But I admire that he tried to make the grade, that he knew right away that dance was the discipline he needed to focus on. That type of single-minded focus doesn’t come easy to many creative people, who by nature like to experiment,. But that kind of focus often makes the difference between a dilettante and an artist. 
  
Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Writers and Collaboration, Part 4: Choosing Your Collaborators

A key factor in a writer working successfully with other artists is for the author to select good collaborators. To do that, you have to use a certain amount of objectivity, a kind of objectivity that does not always come easy to writers. Writers are emotional. We tend to lead with our feelings, not our rational minds. Feelings are a good guide in choosing collaborators, but they have to be steered by an objective appraisal of what would or would not produce a good work of art.

First of all, don’t choose a collaborator simply because that person is someone you love or like a lot. Yes, it’s great to work with people you care about, but your eight-year-old’s adorable drawings are probably not going to be the best illustrations for your writing. The last time a writer collaborated with his or her child to produce a great work of art was…well, I can’t think of any.

Likewise, spouses and best friends are not always the ideal collaborators. Most of us don’t choose our friends and loved ones for their artistic talent. Not only that, it’s difficult to judge objectively the work of those we love. There are many examples of writers collaborating well with their friends—the surrealist group in Paris, for instance, produced numerous amazing collaborations, such as the movie L’Étoile de mer by Man Ray based on a poem of Robert Desnos, or the wonderful lithographs that the artist Joan Miró created for poems by André Breton in the series called Constellations.


The photographer Alfred Stieglitz did a terrific series of portraits of his partner Georgia O’Keeffe, incorporating her paintings and sensibility in several of the photos. 

Alfred Stieglitz photo with Georgia O'Keeffe's hands and horse skull
But not all of us have friends as talented as Man Ray, Joan Miró, or Georgia O’Keeffe. If you do have a friend or spouse who is artistically accomplished, great! Collaborate with her or him. But don’t expect emotional closeness alone to produce a successful collaboration.

I think it’s often wise to choose as a collaborator an artist whose work you admire, but don’t necessarily socialize with. You might get to be friends in the course of your collaboration, but that’s not a crucial part of the process. The important factor is that you appreciate each other’s work, and that your artistic styles, themes, and visions harmonize and combine well together.

It’s also advisable to choose an artist who is at least as accomplished in his or her own domain as you are in yours. You want to grow as a writer in the collaboration, to learn from the artist(s) you’re working with. That’s not going to happen if the artist you’re collaborating with is much less seasoned than you are. In fact, choosing a collaborator who is not as accomplished as you are could produce a work of art that is not as effective as your own work, which doesn’t do much for your development as a writer.


The more I work with other artists, the more I feel that personality is also an important factor in choosing a collaborator. When I first began collaborating, I didn’t care about temperament. I just wanted to work with artists I admired. I realized through a series of negative experiences that the stress of working with someone who is difficult or egotistical or just plain selfish is not always worth the result, even if it ends up as a successful collaboration artistically. I know this seems to contradict what I just said about not choosing your friends as collaborators. I do think there is a happy medium, where you work with collaborators you admire and like, but who are not necessarily the people you are closest to.

Writers and Collaboration, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Steve Bannon on the Culture and Reason for Being of the United States—A Different View

In his talk to the Conservative Political Action Committeein National Harbor, Maryland, on February 23, 2017, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said about the United States, “We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” Oddly enough, I agree with the ultra-conservative Bannon on this point—but I completely disagree with his definition of the culture and reason for being of the United States.

I think that Bannon and Trump believe in a culture of the U.S. that is dominated by one group—white Christians. In fact, their directives are all aimed at creating a world lorded over by nations where white Christians rule. Every one of their policies points toward this: the travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries, the denial of the Black Lives Matter movement in favor of a blanket law-and-order policy, the expulsion of immigrants from Latin America who have put down deep roots in the United States, the building of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, the embrace of Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian state in Russia. Clearly the “reason for being” of the United States in the mind of Steve Bannon is to for white Christians to predominate in America and globally.

What is the alternative to this culture and nation of white Christian domination? There is another concept of the United States that generations of Americans have been working toward, from the white-dress demonstrations of the suffragettes, to the pro-union strikers who occupied the GM plant in Flint in 1936, to the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, to the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, to the Native American encampment resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline. That idea of the United States is one based on the most enlightened and progressive strains of the American Revolution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women!] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” as Thomas Jefferson so beautifully phrased it in the Declaration of Independence.

That fundamental belief in the equality of all people and the sanctity of life is the true reason for being of the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed that vision of the U.S. when he said in his “I Have a Dream”speech: “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The culture of the United States is not a private club. It is an open culture rooted in the traditions of Native Americans and added to by every wave of arrivals to this country from every latitude and longitude of dry land on the globe.

The culture of the United States is inherently a hybrid culture. American culture blends melodies from Scotch-Irish fiddlers with Yoruba drumming patterns to create jazz and country music. American culture combines the humor of Yiddish theater and vaudeville with the theatrics of the English stage to give birth to Hollywood movies. In American culture, lesbian feminist poets write in the ghazal form devised by Arabic troubadours and elaborated by Persian bards. American culture wants to try out knishes with Spanish rice, it needs to taste Korean kimchee in Mexican burritos. It fuses ballet and African dance and creates Alvin Ailey and Paul Taylor.


Yes, the United States has a reason for being and a culture. That culture and that reason for being are fundamentally democratic, pluralistic, and multicultural. Nothing that “the Donald” or Steve Bannon can do will ever change that.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Linda Tillery on How to Clap and What It Means for Writers

A few years ago I took a workshop at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco with singer and arranger Linda Tillery. Linda said many remarkable things in that workshop. She has a profound understanding of the roots of African American music and she interprets traditional music, from children’s rhyming games to spirituals, in a way that makes those sounds as contemporary as Kanye West.

Linda Tillery
At one point in the workshop, Linda asked everyone to clap. After a few measures, she waved her hands in a Stop, Stop, Stop gesture. “That’s not how you clap!” she shouted at us. We were trying to make music in that I’m-so-embarrassed-to-be-clapping way where our hands had all the crispness of two overcooked butterfly pasta noodles. 

“If you clap, you have to commit to it!” Linda insisted. “You were clapping like this…” And she made us laugh by imitating our half-hearted, self-conscious motions. “No, you cup you hands, and you bring them together like this!” She pounded that left hand so hard against her right one (I think she’s left-handed), I couldn’t believe how loud the sound was that just her two hands made. “Now you do it!” And sure enough, when we cupped our hands and brought the strong one together with the still one, using concentrated force, the sound was ten times louder, and so much clearer, and so much more powerful. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Linda praised.

If you want to see an example of what Linda means by clapping with commitment, watch the video below and pay attention to the woman on the left—that’s Linda. It’s amazing how something so simple, something we all think we know how to do, can be done much better if it’s done with conviction.



So, what does this have to do with writing? I think it’s true of all art, that if you take on a project, if you give yourself a homework assignment, you have to it with all your heart. You can’t do it half-heartedly, or self-consciously, as if you didn’t have the right to do what you’re doing.

That doesn’t mean that if you compose a sonnet it has to be exactly fourteen lines with just the right rhyme scheme and number of syllables and stresses. Writing with commitment is not about following rules. It’s about following through on your idea.

For example, if you write a story or a novel or a persona poem with a certain type of narrator or if you create a character in a play, that voice has to be true to the person who’s speaking, and true throughout. You can’t just phone it in if your narrator or character is of the opposite sex from you, or has a different way of talking. You’ve got to make every word ring with that voice.

Similarly, if you’re writing about some part of your life or about an issue that’s important to you that you’ve never revealed or confronted before, you can’t just give little hints that hide the story more than tell it. You’ve got to let it rip. If you’re making the rhythm of the words an element in the poetry or prose, those words, those sounds, have got to have the impact of Linda Tillery’s hands when she claps. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Friday, February 24, 2017

Movies with Great Screenplays You May Not Know

To mark Oscars week, I’m devoting this blog to movies you may not have seen, with great screenplays. Some of the movies were suggested by friends or family members.

The Clouds of Sils Maria was chosen by the poet and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield. This is an amazing movie about a middle-aged actress, beautifully played by the great Juliette Binoche, who is returning to the stage to appear in a play that she acted in when she was an ingénue, only now she’s playing the part of the older woman. A beautiful and brilliant screenplay by Olivier Assayas, who also directed. Great ensemble acting. Highly recommended. If you like Assayas, who also writes and directs French films, Summer Hours is also quite good and also stars Juliette Binoche.

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in The Clouds of Sils Maria
The Way Way Back is a surprising movie about a teenage boy caught in a world where grownups act like kids, and kids have to find their way without parental guidance. This film was recommended by the playwright Tamar Shai. Strong screenplay by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The movie is lifted above the usual coming-of-age story by the character of Trent (played by Steve Carrell), the ne’er-do-well owner and denizen of a water park. Trent becomes the guru and unlikely father figure for the teenage boy. 

The poet Patricia Spears Jones suggested a couple of movies, including The Kids Are All Right, screenplay by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, a complex story about two lesbian mothers who have kids by the same sperm donor. When the man appears on the scene, the plot thickens. Great cast with Annette Beining, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo. Pat also recommends Do the Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee, who also appears in the film as a character named Mookie—I love it! Probably Spike Lee’s best film, a nuanced treatment of race, set in Brooklyn.

Poet and fiction writer Robert Thomas picked an oldie but a goodie, the film noir Out of the Past, screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring. This movie has everything you want in a suspense drama: a decent tough guy pursued by scary villains, a femme fatale, and settings all over the West Coast, including vintage footage of San Francisco. Kirk Douglas plays against type as the bad guy—it’s one of his stronger roles.

Fiction and nonfiction author Richard Chiappone, who has also written screenplays, mentioned the movie Slap Shot. Great setting—minor league hockey in a rust belt town. One of Paul Newman’s best roles, scripted by Nancy Dowd. Great one-liners, engaging love story, political resonances.

Poet Lisa Houlihan Stice chose Paris, Texas, screenplay by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson. This is a haunting film about amnesia and broken family ties set in the Southwest. Memorable.

My friend Ava Torre-Bueno reminded me of the film The Best Years of Our Lives, a classic about the difficulties soldiers face returning from war. Still a current topic, with resonant messages about disabilities. Robert E. Sherwood wrote the screenplay.

My daughter Lena Rogow mentioned a movie with a great screenplay that she loves, Mostly Martha. It’s an exquisite German movie about a gourmet chef who winds up raising her orphaned niece, a girl in deep mourning who refuses to eat.

I don’t think I could write a blog about screenplays without mentioning John Sayles, who is also a fine fiction writer (check out his books The Anarchists Convention and Union Dues). Sayles has the ability to dive into a region or topic and find the truth below the surface. My favorites are Baby It’s You (class differences in high school), Eight Men Out (one of the best baseball movies ever!), and Passion Fish (stellar performance by Alfre Woodard).

Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish
A few other films where I’ve enjoyed the screenplays, randomly selected:

A Voyage Round My Father, an autobiographical film written by John Mortimer of Rumpole of the Bailey fame. This could actually be Laurence Olivier’s best screen performance. He plays a cranky old lawyer who is a loving father to Alan Bates, almost in spite of every single thing the dad says and does.

I love the movie Va Savoir (Who Knows?), the masterpiece of director Jacques Rivette, who passed away in 2016. The screenplay was a collaboration of Rivette, Pascal Bonitzer, and Christine Laurent, based partly on a play by Luigi Pirandello. It’s a play-within-a-move device, with a moving story and great ensemble acting.


I can’t finish a blog about great screenplays without mentioning the films of the French director Patrice Leconte. His movies are all incredibly provocative, intelligent, and haunting. My faves are The Hairdresser’s Husband (written by Leconte and Claude Klotz), and The Girl on the Bridge (about a knife-thrower performer who finds his assistants by rescuing would-be suicides from jumping off bridges—screenplay by Serge Frydman).

And one last one, a favorite flick: Norma Rae, Sally Fields’ best role, and the script is also beautifully written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Funny, emotional, politically powerful, about unionizing workers in a Southern factory town.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Importance of Persistence for a Writer

Sometimes a writer becomes so popular, so suddenly, that you wonder how it happened. In the late 1980s, the fiction writer Ann Beattie was on fire. All her stories were appearing in The New Yorker. A novel was in the works, there were rumors of a movie contract.

Ann Beattie
I was a fan of Ann Beattie’s—I still am. Her short story “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” in Secrets and Surprises is still among my favorites. But I have to admit that I was furiously jealous of Ann Beattie. She’s only five years older than I am, and she was the most popular young writer in the United States at the time.

In 1978 I went to hear Ann Beattie read at the Sheridan Square Bookstore in New York. The room was packed—I had to sit on the floor because there were no more chairs. Ann Beattie gave an terrific reading, but a part of me was holding back from really appreciating it, because I couldn’t stop envying her.

After the reading there was a Q&A, and someone blurted out the question we all had in mind: “How did you first get published in The New Yorker?” I probably wasn’t the only person in the audience who was thinking She probably slept with an editor or had a friend who edited stories there.

Ann Beattie took a deep breath. Maybe she had heard this question many times before and she was controlling her temper. If she was, she was doing a good job. “Well, the first nineteen stories I sent to The New Yorker, they rejected. I went back and worked on my writing. The twentieth story, they accepted.”

All right, I thought, if that’s how Ann Beattie got published in The New Yorker, more power to her. 

How many of us have that persistence? Not just to keep sending our work out when most of the responses are rejections, but to keep refining and correcting our work. Sometimes, it takes the kind of persistence involved in sending your work twenty times to the same magazine, improving it each time.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Are Correct Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation Important for Creative Writing?

I have to confess that I have a visceral reaction when I see creative writers or literary magazines use incorrect grammar, spelling, or punctuation. For instance, I recently browsed the website of a new, online magazine that is calling for submissions for what they describe as “non-fiction.” For some reason, these editors, who aspire to be at the forefront of their genre, don’t know that “nonfiction” has not had a hyphen for at least ten years. Given how easy it is to look up spellings online, is there any excuse for that sort of error?

Did Shakespeare use “correct” grammar and spelling?
How important is it for writers to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Some of us are more particular about these mistakes. Those slips and lapses bother me a great deal. They indicate to me a lack of seriousness and professionalism. For a writer not to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation is like a would-be lover who dresses up for a date but puts his sweater on inside out.

Maybe I’m influenced by the fact that I make my living as an editor. I traffic in rules of language and usage on a daily basis.

I have to keep reminding myself that the rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation in English are a relatively recent phenomenon. Grammar and spelling began to be codified in the late eighteenth century. Shakespeare, for example, spelled words differently all the time, and he often made what we would call grammatical mistakes, using phrases such as “more fitter,” or “more sweet.” See the fascinating essay on this topic by Professor Karl Tamburr, “Why Shakespeare Didn’t Know Grammar.”

Not everyone has the same tolerance or intolerance for errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation, anymore than everyone wakes up on the weekend at the same hour. My biggest quarrel with incorrect usage is that it leads to confusion. That is where rules become more than just conventions. 

Some authors feel as if their work is just the creative side of writing. That’s why they became a poet or novelist or playwright and not a journalist. They sweat the details when it comes to characters, plot, dialogue, imagery, the music of language, etc. “Don’t bother me about grammar and spelling, that’s what they pay copyeditors for.” Yes, but isn’t that a bit like expecting someone to clean up after you? Do I detect a bit of elitism in that attitude?

There are other class and cultural issues here. Those with a more polished education often have a firmer command of the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I find that my students in the large public university where I’m now teaching creative writing are less likely to know these norms than students in elite private colleges, who had more expensive educations.

My mother, Mickey Rogow, was a product of the New York City public school system. She ingrained in me from an early age the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The child of immigrants, my mother learned English as new Americans often do, with an accent, since Yiddish was also spoken in her home. Attending elementary school in the slums of Harlem and the South Bronx, she had teachers from the previous groups of immigrants who made fun of her accent and her mistakes in English. To her, making errors was not simply a matter of academic rules. It was evidence that you might not sufficiently belong to U.S. society, that you were a greenhorn, fresh off the boat, someone with less of a claim to being and remaining American. That’s partly why the rules of English are not just arbitrary conventions to me. They are shibboleths that demonstrate that you are an accepted part of society.

Should we look beyond that somewhat colonial heritage to reject the rules of the dominant culture? I do believe that creative writers have the ability and the right to make their own rules. I love the creative way that Ntozake Shange has invented her own spellings and punctuation to render Black English on the page in a lively and accurate way:

she wuz sullen
& the rhinestones etchin the corners of her mouth
suggested tears
fresh kisses that had done no good



But that’s a different story, when you set out to make your own rules. If your goal is to follow the rules of standard English grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and you fail to do that correctly, be aware that some editors, and some readers, may judge you.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Writers and Collaboration, Part 3: Writers Working Together—Breton’s Earthlight

In the first two blogs in this series, I’ve talked about collaborations where an artist, such as an illustrator or composer, interprets the work of a writer. I’ve also discussed projects where a writer repurposes text already written, for instance, turning a poem into a children’s picture book.

In this post I’m going to talk about two or more writers working together to create a new work. One area where I’ve done this quite a bit is literary translation.

The first book that I translated was a collaboration with writer/translator Bill Zavatsky


It’s a funny story how this collaboration began. In the late 1970s, I was a young poet just starting out, living in New York City. Bill Zavatsky was a relatively established writer—two books of Bill’s poems were in print and he was the publisher of two literary magazines, Sun, and Roy Rogers. The latter was a wild child of Sun for special projects such as the memorable 100-page issue devoted entirely to one-line poems.

I was a totally unknown writer (mostly I still am!), living in a fifth-floor walkup in the East Village with a bathtub in the kitchen. At the time, I was going out with another poet, a woman named Susan, who was taking a creative writing workshop with Bill Zavatsky at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. I was translating early poems by the French surrealist, André Breton, because I loved them, and because I wanted to hear what Breton’s unbridled stream of consciousness sounded like in American English.

Susan knew that Bill had an interest in Breton and she urged me to send a few of my translations to Bill for publication in his magazine, Sun. I did. Months went by. I heard nothing.

Then in the summer of 1977, Susan and I crashed a publication party at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street, ironically in the heart of the diamond district where Hassidic jewelers sold stones for engagement rings. I think the book being launched that day was John Ashbery’s poetry collection Houseboat Days. I knew almost no one at the party (certainly not John Ashbery!) There were a few familiar faces, as anonymous as mine, but Susan spotted Bill Zavatsky in the crowd. I was too shy to talk to him—after all, Bill actually was chatting with John Ashbery. Susan literally pushed me to approach Bill about my Breton translations.

I did talk with Bill, and to my amazement, the reason he hadn’t gotten back to me about my translations was not because he hated them, but because he had been extremely busy. Bill suggested that since he was also translating poems from the same period in Breton’s work, we should collaborate on translating a book of Breton’s poetry.

A lesson here for less established poets—you may have more to bring to a collaboration than you think. Although Bill was a widely published poet, editor, and translator, he had not studied French for as many years as I had or spent as much time in France. I did have something to bring to the mix. We also had a similar vision of creating a version of Breton informed by the language of the Beat Generation and the New York School writers who had been influenced by the surrealists. (Read Breton’s poem “Free Union” and then Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and you’ll see what I mean.)

Bill and I set about to translate roughly two hundred pages of Breton’s collection Earthlight (Clair de terre), including many of the surrealist’s best poems. For me, the collaboration was an apprenticeship. Bill was the older and more experienced poet and he brought a wealth of knowledge about the practice of translation that I learned a great deal from. He was also more widely read. 

Bill Zavatsky
But for Bill, I think it was useful to have someone on the team who had a firm grounding in French grammar, vocabulary, and culture, and could say, “Breton is probably referring to the town of Pont-à-Mousson because most of the manhole covers in Paris are made in that town and are stamped with that name.”

Collaborations between writers are not symmetrical. If every writer brought the same set of skills, we wouldn’t need to collaborate. Different writers bring different knowledge to the mix. On the other hand, there has to be some common ground for the writers to compromise and enjoy one another’s work.

Bill and I worked on the translation of Breton’s Earthlight off and on for seventeen years. Through many vicissitudes, we always kept our vision for the book in sight. When Earthlight finally appeared in print for the first time in 1994, it won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award, which at that time was the annual prize for the best translation into English.

I’m excited to announce that our translation of Earthlight by André Breton has just been re-released by Black Widow Press. The new edition not only includes the French text en face for the first time, it has an updated introduction and notes that Bill contributed, incorporating the latest scholarship from France on Breton and his sources.

I’m delighted to see the book finally published as Bill and I had first imagined it forty years ago. This edition is bilingual with extensive notes to provide background on Breton’s encyclopedic interest in the occult, politics, botany, zoology, art, and history, and the way they infused his wild and passionate poetry.


My collaboration with Bill Zavatsky not only led to the publication of Earthlight, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
Writers and Collaboration, Part 1, Part 2Part 4
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Homage to Marilyn Sachs, 1927–2016

Acclaimed children’s writer Marilyn Sachs passed away on December 28, 2016. Author of more than forty books, Marilyn played an important role in children’s literature as it moved from the idealized and sentimental stories of the 1950s to the more realistic situations and multidimensional characters that developed in the 1960s and beyond. Her books inspired deep loyalties in children who strongly identified with her heroines. Marilyn was also my literary mentor during the time she was my mother-in-law from 1986 to 1998.

Marilyn Sachs
When I think about Marilyn I always recall the apartment where she lived for more than four decades on 31st Avenue in the San Francisco’s Richmond District. That flat was a temple to art, filled with the wonderful woodcarvings of female figures by her husband of seventy years (yes, seventy years!), the sculptor and political activist, Morris Sachs. All of Morris’s statues have Marilyn’s wide hips.

The Sachs apartment also held many works by artists whom Marilyn and Morris had befriended once they moved to the Bay Area in 1960: a print of farm workers in a field by Emmy Lou Packard; and furiously charcoaled figures by Ethel Weiner Guttman. There were Navajo blankets on the walls of the dining room, and Persian carpets on the parquet floors, as well as a table in the breakfast room that Morris himself crafted from a redwood tree burl.

In that apartment, Marilyn entertained a river of guests. A master of the art of conversation, Marilyn could draw out the shyest person. She was not afraid to toss in her two cents with even the most gregarious visitors. Marilyn once taught me that you could tell how interested a person was in what you were saying by their occasional unconscious replies. “Uh huh, uh huh,” means polite interest, but the person is mostly bored, and you should change the topic. “Yeah, yeah,” on the other hand, means “Tell me more!”

There were always travelers passing through San Francisco having tea or dinner at the Sachs’s apartment. Marilyn was the most entertaining of hosts, keeping everyone laughing with her sharp witticisms delivered with her unpretentious, New York accent.

Marilyn’s work as a writer was evident in her study, which had an entire wall decorated with photos and letters sent by devoted fans who had written personal appreciations of her books. Her novels particularly appealed to what is oddly called in the trade, “the middle-aged child”kids from 10 to 14—pre-teens. Marilyn understood that age group extremely well, partly because she could recall so many great anecdotes from her own life during those years, anecdotes that often found their way into her novels.

At the time Marilyn started writing, children’s books in the 1950s were often artificially sweet and innocent, particularly those with female main characters. These novels often portrayed unrealistic, idealized situations. I’m thinking, for example, of Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, published in 1951, with five sisters whose worst problem seemed to be finding a misplaced a library book.

Marilyn spent many years as a children’s librarian in the Brooklyn and San Francisco Public Library systems. In New York, she worked on a bookmobile that brought reading to far-flung neighborhoods, many not near a local library. She became convinced that real children needed more naturalistic fiction that reflected their real-life problems.

Marilyn wrote her first book, Amy Moves In, around 1954, but the novel was so unlike most of the children’s literature of the time that it took her ten years to get the manuscript published. In that book, the mother of the two sisters is hit by a car, and the girls have to become self-sufficient in a way that many children must do when there is an absent or ill parent. Amy Moves In is still in print five decades later.

Marilyn also depicted Jewish American characters in a way that no other children’s writer had done before. In All-of-a-Kind Family, for instance, the main characters seem to be incessantly lighting candles for Hanukah or Shabbat. Marilyn showed the lives of American Jews as she knew it from growing up on the tough streets of the South Bronx in New York City.

Marilyn almost never wrote a bad book, to my mind. She was an incredibly consistent writer. She’s best known for The Bears’ House and Veronica Ganz, two stories of compelling misfits, Marilyn’s preferred heroes.

Among my personal favorites of her books is Call Me Ruth, a historical novel about a girl whose single-parent father is a labor leader in the garment industry in the early 1900s in New York. 


Although Call Me Ruth is a deeply sympathetic and well-researched portrayal of the trade union movement, the character of the mother is complex and believable. She’s a true crusader for social justice, but a neglectful mom. This is just one of her books that shows the influence of the great novelists, such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Willa Cather, whose work she read over and over with enormous enjoyment and profound understanding of how those authors structured their fictions.

Another favorite of mine is one of Marilyn’s last books, The Four Ugly Cats in Apartment 3D. This novella is about a girl who finds several cats abandoned by a neighbor and has to get them all adopted quickly to prevent them from being put down. It’s interesting that the apartment number is 3D. Marilyn is a three-dimensional children’s writer if ever there was one. She expertly combines humor and pathos—for me, the signature of the best writers.

In addition to being an award-winning and enormously prolific writer, turning out more than a book a year during her prime, Marilyn was also a mentor to many authors and illustrators. Judy Blume credited Marilyn with being both an inspiration and a help to her when she was first attempting to get her own groundbreaking and realistic fiction published. Marilyn was also an influential member of a circle of talented children’s book authors and illustrators in the San Francisco Bay Area that included Beverly Gherman, Susan Meyers, Maxine Rose Schnur, Susan Terris (also a poet and editor), and Ashley Wolff.

Marilyn was also a mentor to me. I attempted, unsuccessfully, to write my own young adult novel, in emulation of her accomplishments. When I showed Marilyn the manuscript, she had one cryptic and wise comment I’ll never forget: “Don’t try to tie up all the loose ends.”

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer