Thursday, June 24, 2010

You Are A Writer (Yes, You Are!)

You are a writer.
You are a writer of power, passion, strength
and, yes, courage.
For writing is an act of courage.

You are a writer.
What you write is powerful.
What you write is vibrant.
What you write, whatever you believe in this moment, is luminous.

These words are from my guided meditation, "You Are A Writer," which appears in The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write and is the final recorded meditation for writers on The Voice of the Muse Companion CD.

"You Are A Writer" is now also a video, an empowering meditative experience designed to reaffirm your innate creativity, your writing ability and your identity as a writer.

Sit back...and take a few deep breaths as you relax, look and listen...

(If you're on my mailing list and seeing this in an email, click the image above, which links to my blog and the "You Are A Writer" video. Clicking on the thumbnail of my June 23 mailing, "Facing the Void: Coping with a Blank Page," will take you to another inspiring video.)

• For more videos about writing and the creative process, visit my YouTube page. And watch for the debut of MuseTV, my new series of video interviews with writers and creators of all types and stripes.

• For more tips and inspiration, visit my web site, where you can read my "Rules for Writing," sign up for my mailing list and read/hear free excerpts from The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write.

• Need help with your projects or creative process? Consider one-on-one coaching/mentoring (over the phone of via Skype) or my upcoming online coaching group (starts Tuesday, June 29 at 6:30pm PT and runs five weeks, skipping July 6).

Buy The Voice of the Muse Companion: Guided Meditations for Writers and The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write from my online bookstore, and be sure to ask for a signed copy of the book. Both are also available on Amazon

Photo/video credits: "Guiding Light" photo, Oceanside California. Title video shot, "River Flow," Olympic National Park, Washington State. All other video photos, Sandia Foothills, Albuquerque, NM. All photography/videography by Mark David Gerson (c) 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Facing the Void: Coping with a Blank Page

What do you do when you face a blank page? It's all about trusting the mystery and taking that leap of faith into the unknown...into the infinite realm where your stories reside.

• For more videos about writing and the creative process, visit my YouTube page. And watch for the debut of MuseTV, my new series of video interviews with writers and creators of all types and stripes.

• For more tips and inspiration, visit my web site, where you can read my "Rules for Writing," sign up for my mailing list and read/hear free excerpts from The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write.

• Need help with your projects or creative process? Consider one-on-one coaching/mentoring (over the phone of via Skype) or my upcoming online coaching group.

Art Credits: Creative Community Image from

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Muse & You with Mark David Gerson (#12): Radio About Writing, Creativity & Life

Episode Twelve: Thursday, June 17, 1pm ET

(click here to listen live or to listen to or download the archived version any time after the show airs)

• Inspiration for your writing, creativity and life

• Feature interview with author Lev Raphael

There are days when Facebook makes me crazy and days when I'm grateful for the magic that not only connects people across the miles but reconnects them across time.

I first met Lev Raphael what seems like many lifetimes ago. I was still in my 20s and he and his partner turned up one evening at the Montreal gay Jewish group I was part of. I don't remember whether he was promoting his then-new and later award-winning short-story collection Dancing on Tisha B'Av. I do remember reading it after meeting him and being deeply touched by it.

At the same time, I didn't give Lev much thought in the ensuing decades (sorry, Lev)...until one day his name and face jumped out at me from my computer screen and I was suddenly back in that Montreal apartment on that long-ago Friday night.

I immediately sent him a note and we became online friends. He followed up a time later with news about his brilliant essay on the writing life, which became a guest post on this blog back in March and which I reprinted and reposted earlier today. After that, his appearance on The Muse & You was inevitable!

The son of Holocaust survivors, Lev Raphael is a pioneer in writing fiction about America's Second Generation, publishing his first short story about children of survivors in 1978. Many of his early stories on this theme appeared in Dancing on Tisha B'Av. Lev is the author of 18 other books, including novels about survivors, a series of mysteries and his latest, a powerful memoir, My Germany: A Jewish Writer Returns to the World His Parents Escaped .

Of My Germany, Library Journal wrote, "True to his other works, his book is powerful and captivating to the end, painting vivid pictures of his parents’ suffering, his hatred of Germany, and eventually his healing and reconciliation."

Author as well of hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, Lev has seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means, as he puts it, "I've become homework. Who knew?"

He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and, as he says, has never looked back.

I could go on and on about Lev's varied accomplishments (and mention his radio interview show and his hundreds of talks, readings and interviews on three continents). But why do it here when you can hear him yourself, live on the radio! On this next episode of The Muse & You with Mark David Gerson, Lev talks about his journey to Germany, his alter ego as a mystery writer and his thoughts on the writing life. Please tune in!

The Muse & You and MuseTV with Mark David Gerson, are all about writing, creativity and life -- an opportunity to listen to writers and creators of all sorts talk about how and why they create and, of course, about what they create.

The Muse & You Show Archive
If you miss any live broadcast, you can listen to the archived episode, which is available immediately after each show on the show's web page. You can also download any show directly into your computer for later listening. Click here for links to all episodes and information about each show and its guest.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Lev Raphael: 7 Secrets About the Writing Life

A version of this guest post by author Lev Raphael originally appeared here in March. I'm reprinting it this week to coincide with his June 17 appearance on my Muse & You with Mark David Gerson radio show.

More information about Lev Raphael and this week's radio broadcast (June 17, 1 pm ET)

While author Lev Raphael had the good fortune in college to have an inspiring writing professor, neither she nor any other writing profs he took classes with later on talked to him about the writing life itself.

"I studied other writers and I studied my craft," he says, "but career was terra incognita, and what I discovered has often come as a surprise."

Here’s a partial list of what he's learned, since over three decades after publishing his first short story, he says, "I’m still learning about the life I chose."

1) Writing puts miles on you

As a kid, I wanted to write, as opposed to be a writer, but when I did imagine my future work life, I saw myself at work in a very serene large study with green velvet sofas facing each other in front of a fireplace, walls lined with leather-bound books, and a desk in a bay window overlooking the Hudson River. My visions were solitary, except when I imagined being interviewed in that serene, solid room. But since publishing my first book twenty years ago, I've been all over the country many dozens of times and traveled abroad to places I never dreamed of: Oxford University, Israel, The Jewish Museum in Vienna -- all to speak about my work.

Luckily for me, I'm an extrovert, took theater classes in college, and taught for many years, so being in front of an audience is second nature. Otherwise, I think the public side of my career would have been too draining. That was only the foundation, however, since I had to learn to do something most writers don't understand is vital: make the work I do in private a public entertainment.

After twenty years of touring and several international tours, although the glamour and excitement have worn somewhat thin, there’s enough there that I can still enjoy myself thoroughly engaging in the performance side of being a writer. And I still get revved up

2) Agents aren't super heroes or magicians.

I’ve known many people who feel that securing an agent, or switching to a different agent, is all they need to find fame, fortune, and glory. Well, as hard as it is to get an agent, and as indispensible as they may be for placing your work with a major publisher, having one doesn’t guarantee anything.

My first agent, in a time before email, never answered a phone call or letter, never sent me rejections for my novel, and I later found out that her lack of contact was due to over-involvement with her most famous client.

My second agent sent my mystery to editors who didn't like mysteries and before we could talk about that, she left the business. My third agent was so slow editors would ask "Is he dead?" My fourth agent was charming, but didn't move my career forward in the slightest. My fifth agent got bounced from her agency. My sixth agent moved to Japan. My current agent took my newest book to New York just as the bottom fell out of the stock market and publishing, too. I think you could safely say I have odd Agent Karma.

3) Being a writer takes more patience than writing does, and you have far less control.

Five years passed between the publication of my first and second stories. Five years of endless rejections. Some days, two to three manila envelopes would slide out of the mailbox in my apartment building's lobby into my hand when I opened it up. I’d won a prize for my first short story, which appeared in Redbook -- how could I have hit a dead end so quickly? Surely some other editor somewhere would feel the same way about my stories?

I’m stubborn, so I kept going, but with a diminishing sense of mission and hope. I reached such a low point that I was prepared to abandon writing as a career and seek another life path. For a while in the early 1980s I contemplated rabbinical school or training as a psychologist. I didn't get far with either venture. What happened? A poem by Joseph Brodsky -- “Aeneas and Dido” -- says it best: “But, as we know, precisely at the moment / when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.” A story I wrote in less than forty-eight hours, in almost a repetition of what led to my first publication, was accepted and the drought was over. That first dry spell was the longest, but it wasn’t the last, and they don’t get any easier to cope with.

4) You’d be surprised where your name or work might show up.

Back in the early '80s, I had two unexpected publications. A literary magazine in Ohio answered my submission of a prose poem with five copies of the magazine including my piece. Not that long after, a Jewish newspaper printed my short story without having told me it was accepted, and this bothered another editor who had already accepted it (though she ran the story a year later). A friend said, "Lev, head down to the bookstore and start checking magazines, who knows where else you were published without knowing it!”

I would go on to see my work quoted, referenced, written about in conference papers, academic articles and books. My first appearances in The New York Times weren't when a book of mine was reviewed, but surprisingly when my name was mentioned in an article about other Jewish authors, and then later when a review of mine from the Detroit Free Press was quoted in big print on the back page of the Arts Section.

5) No, I mean really surprised.

In the late 1980s I started combining research on the emotion of shame with my love for the writing of Edith Wharton and published some articles about her lesser known books like The Touchstone. A Wharton scholar to whom I'd sent some of my articles used my ideas about this novella in her next book without crediting me, and when I phoned her to mention it, she said, "We must have been working along the same lines." I reminded her she'd read my articles and enjoyed them, suggested her publisher put an errata slip in the book. She said, “But that would look like plagiarism!”

I grew up reverencing The New Yorker before I could even read more than its cartoons in issues lying around in the doctor's office. While I've never been reviewed there, or had any work accepted there, I have gotten in sideways, so to speak. A photo of one of my readings wound up in an ad supplement a few years ago, which was unexpected fun. Not so amusing: Daniel Mendelsohn recently echoed my unique linkage of Oprah, William Dean Howells, and a faked Holocaust memoir -- without mentioning my name. See page five of his review here.

6) Fans share more than you would imagine.

A book is such an intimate exchange between author and reader that fans may tell you very personal details of their lives, their histories. It's an honor to be the recipient of such revelations. I’ve met many readers who shared stories about their own problematic Jewish upbringing, which has made me feel my work gave them a voice, or at least catharsis. While touring with my book Winter Eyes, in which survivors of the Holocaust abandon their Jewishness when they come to America and hide their past from their son, I kept meeting people who told me even more dramatic stories of discovering they were Jewish. And then more recently on tour in Germany, listening to Germans tell me privately, and with great pain, about Nazis in their family made me find myself glad to be the son of Holocaust survivors because I didn't have to deal with their kind of legacy. My own had always seemed a burden, but by comparison, it seemed far lighter.

7) Not writing can be as wonderful as writing.

It’s only in recent years that I found myself truly enjoying time off between books. Previously I’d never felt so alive as when I was writing, thinking about writing, or even just revising something I’d been working on. But having sold my literary papers to Michigan State University, I feel my legacy for the future is secured, and the pressure to publish is off. I didn’t work on any new book at all in 2009. I’ve been living what a friend half-mockingly called “The Countess Tolstoy Life” when she was briefly unemployed, a life of relative leisure. Reading without being in a rush. Building a fire in the winter. Listening to music. Sitting in the hot tub. Cooking. Going to the gym. Having lunch with friends. Taking the dogs for a walk. Getting massage therapy. Watching a movie. Napping.

I’ve spent so many years turning the world into words, feeling not just bound by a project but surrounded by it, that it's a profound and pleasing release to not be experiencing the intense level of concentration mixed with abstraction that governs my life when I'm in the middle of a book. With another book tour this spring in the U.S. and one in Germany in the fall, I don’t expect to be working on a new book in 2010 either. Time off. There’s music in those words.

In one of my favorite Henry James stories, “The Middle Years,” a writer sums up his life and the life of many artists: “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

It’s good, for a time, to not feel that driven.

For more about Lev Raphael, listen to him live on The Muse & You with Mark David Gerson, Thursday, June 17 at 1pm ET. If you miss the live broadcast, you'll find the download link here.

You can also learn more about Lev and his work on his web site, which also contains contact information.

Lev thanks editor and memoirist Mike Steinberg for the discussion that led to conceiving this essay.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

New ONLINE Coaching Group for Writers: Starts June 29 via Skype

An online coaching group for writers...

Available wherever you are!

Online via Skype

"I LOVED and was absolutely inspired by the coaching group!"
~ MM, Los Angeles, CA

...a small writers’ group that blends sharing, support and creative community with inspiration, instruction and professional guidance...
...a group that keeps you accountable and committed...
...a group that honors where you are in your creative process yet challenges you to meet your potential and move forward in your writing and in your life.

That group exists for you. It's the
online version of my
Coast to Coast Voice of the Muse Coaching Group for Writers, and it launches on Tuesday, June 29 online via Skype for a 5-week guided experience of creative commitment and acceleration.

It doesn’t matter where you live.
• As long as you have access to a computer with a high-speed (not dial-up) connection.

It doesn't matter what your genre or medium is, or your level of experience.
• This online Coast to Coast Coaching Group is open to everyone -- even non-writers...whether you're a novice or seasoned, whatever is you create.

It doesn't matter whether you have a project that’s ongoing, stuck or ready to kick off, or whether you just want help establishing and maintaining a regular writing rhythm...
• The
Coast to Coast Coaching Group will keep you empowered, motivated, inspired and on track with your writing and creative projects.

See it as a blend between a writing workshop and individual coaching, an opportunity to bring your creative projects, writing questions and related life issues into a forum that carries that same nurturing and accelerating energy as you would expect to experience in my classes or workshops.

"I'm amazed by the insights I've gained by being part of this group."
~ HK, Spencer, NY

The group runs for 5 Sunday evenings, beginning June 29 (skipping July 6).

Sessions start at 6:30pm PT / 9:30pm ET and take place online on your computer using Skype. (Free Skype software required. Webcam not required.)

The number of participants is strictly limited to insure that everyone has a full opportunity to be coached.

Register now on my web site, using a credit/debit card or PayPal. (For other registration options or for information about private coaching/mentoring, contact me.)

I hope you can make it. I’m looking forward to helping propel you forward in your writing, in your projects and/or in your creative expansion!

• For information about all my upcoming events and experiences, visit my page at

Art Credits: Beach computer from The Harvest Blog; Creative Community Image from

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Whose Story Is It?

"Without characters there's no story."
~ Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact

"When I hit a real block, I find it’s usually because I've...said something false or made a character do what he doesn't want to do."
~ Anne Tyler

About a year ago, I was listening to a guest speaker -- let's call him Tom -- at a writer's group. He was talking about characters.

"In the first half of your story," he said, "let your characters do what they want. But when you get to the second half, you've got to reign them in."

Tom was pretty insistent, and it was all I could do to not jump up and shriek NO!...not to the first half of his statement, but to the second.

I was reminded of that story some months later when I began working with a new coaching client. She'd written a powerful memoir -- so powerful that it had been nominated for a literary award. Now, a fictional character had accosted her in a misty Irish glen and was insisting that she write his story.

"But I've never written a novel," she exclaimed. "I don't know how!"

"You don't have to know how," I replied. "All you have to do is write his memoir."

Thing is, whatever story we're telling -- whether it's a novel, short story, stage play or screenplay -- we're writing someone's story.

What we're writing is their story. And what we're often discovering in that first draft is not only what that story is but who that character is...who all the characters are who make up that world.

"I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected."
~ Stephen King

Tom's point was that we spend the first half of our story discovering who the character is. From there, we spend the rest of the story making sure the character hews to that portrait.

My point is that we may only truly discover who that character is and what she's about by writing through to the end. Why stifle the creative process just when we've finally surrendered to the story's unfoldment? Why limit ourselves and our characters by insisting that at a certain point in the draft, character and story are fixed for all time?

When I was working on the first draft of The StarQuest (the first of two projected sequels to The MoonQuest), I had a pretty good idea who the villain of the story was and to what unpleasant end she would come in the final scenes. At least, I thought I did...

Then, on my last day of work on that draft, as I was letting one of the final scenes write itself, something unanticipated happened: Instead of the ugly death I was expecting, the villain had a profoundly redemptive experience that, within a few paragraphs, had transformed her from ugly antagonist into a positive force for continuing good. I was stunned.

In that moment, I had two choices: I could follow Tom's advice and refuse the villain her redemption, or I could surrender to the character's higher imperative and permit the alchemy to occur. I chose the latter, not only because I believe my stories and their characters are smarter than I am, but because my villain's transformation supports one of the story's central themes in ways I would have been hard-pressed to consciously manufacture.

In The MoonQuest, much about the character O'ric shifted -- not only through the first draft, but through many of the drafts. He shifted not because I couldn't reign him in. He shifted because, through the writing, I began to understand more clearly who he truly was, both within himself and to the story.

In the "rules for character-building" that I use when I teach workshops on characterization, Rule #10 reads "How did John become Jane? And why is she suddenly the villain?"

Often, characters in our stories want to undergo radical changes through the course of that first draft. Too often, we follow Tom's advice and refuse them that freedom.

My view is that our job as Writer God is to give our characters absolute freedom through the entire first draft of our story...and, sometimes, beyond.

Unlike Tom, I say, Let your characters be as inconsistent and mercurial as they want to be. Let them veer off in completely different directions partway, if that’s what they choose. Let your villains become heroes and your heroes become villains. Let them change names, physical characteristics, motivations and story-significance. Let them change gender.

Only by allowing them that freedom in your first draft will you learn who they truly are and be true to their story. After all, it's their story you're telling.
I do my best work when I feel least like its source and most like its channel.
~Lawrence Block

Let your first draft, as I said earlier, be your journey of discovery: of your characters and of their story. Through that journey, you will grow into your story and its characters. You might, as I did in The StarQuest, only discover something of major significance about an important character on the final page of the draft. That’s okay. Use your next draft to bring consistency to the characters you now know more fully.

Remember whose story you're telling...and get out of the way!
"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 a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does."
~ William Faulkner

• How can you better trust your characters to reveal themselves to you?

• How can you stop trying to control your stories and, instead, let them emerge organically?

• How can you better surrender to the magic out of which all creativity is birthed?

• How can you trust that your stories and characters know themselves better than you do?

• How can you let yourself be surprised -- by your characters and by their stories?

You'll get help answering these and other questions about your writing process and projects by participating in The Coast to Coast Coaching Group for Writers that starts up on June 13. Register through this link.

Art credits: 1) Detail from the Zazzle "fictional character" t-shirt; 2) Image from the Talk Stephen King blog; 3) Detail from the cover of Karl Iglesias's book, Writing for Emotional Impact