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Ask me anything (really)

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Goodreads authors can now enable the “Ask the Author” feature, allowing readers to submit questions to their favorite (or maybe no-so-favorite) writers.

When I heard about this, the acronym “AMA” came to mind. AMA is Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” open question forum where everyone from Guillermo Del Toro to President Obama can answer questions of all kinds.

When I started thinking about Reddit, I started thinking about Aaron Swartz, the prodigy/tech genius/hacker/activist/lead developer of Reddit who took his own life at age 26 in January, 2013.

The fact that it took me only two conceptual leaps to arrive at this place may be partially due to recently hearing an interview with Brian Knappenberger, the director of a new film about Aaron’s life, “The Internet’s Own Boy.”

And I may have gotten there so fast because I too have a boy, a boy who is now just a decade younger than Aaron got to be and only a couple of years shy of Aaron’s age when he helped build Reddit. My boy, too, is at home on the Internet. He has a different set of interests and skills, but reading Aaron’s parents’ reflections about their son after his death gave me chills.

Having arrived at this place of sober contemplation, the idea of readers asking authors questions on Goodreads seemed suddenly lacking in gravitas.

But of course it’s not, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Sure, readers will ask their share of silly questions, like what authors eat for breakfast or whether they write in their bathrobes.* But the potential is there to engage at deeper levels.

SlippersThe things I write about—searching for meaning in life, how we find the will to live in the face of the vastness of the universe, making meaningful connections with other human beings—go to the core of what it means to live and breathe on this earth. Questions asked of an author have the potential to matter as much as any others.

So go ahead: ask me anything—below, on Goodreads, Twitter, or Facebook—wherever suits your fancy. I’ll do my best to do justice to your questions.

*Toast and tea. Bathrobe: no; slippers: yes.

Another way to stay in touch

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Bunny on the run reveals work in progress

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One thing you learn about life after a while is that there is never a perfect time for anything.

A few weeks ago, my former doula client, Fault Zone assistant editor, fellow writer, and friend Dorcas Cheng-Tozun e-mailed me to ask if I’d be interested in participating in a “blog hop.”

By Paulo Costa (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Paulo Costa (Own work)”, via Wikimedia Commons

Flexing my haunches and wiggling my ears, I read on to see what was involved. (Forgive the tired metaphor; I cannot help but picture those small mammals of the family Leporidae whenever I hear the term “blog hop.”) Despite falling in the chain-letter category of online publicity, it seemed a worthy undertaking: women writers highlighting one another’s work by answering a few questions about their own work and then providing links to several other blogs. (Here’s how Dorcas answered the questions.)

The one problem was the terrible timing. I would need to get my post ready for the week of June 23, and line up the other writers for the following week. Meantime, I was in the middle of organizing Fault Zone readings for the San Mateo County Fair, editing submissions for Fault Zone: Diverge (non-member entries open till August 1), and preparing for a week on the east coast.

But I said yes, and I’m glad I did.

Hopping in the real world

My east coast trip felt like a real-world manifestation of a blog hop. I spent time with two dear long-time friends: Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, professor of gender studies and literature at Simon’s Rock College and founder of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and Rochelle Nemrow, founder and CEO of FamilyID.

These are not the women to whom I passed the blog hop baton, but I wanted to recognize the extraordinary work both are doing. Jenny has created a community of women writers in the Berkshires that has spawned an annual month-long celebration of writing with readings, workshops, theater, and storytelling for women of all ages—and now an anthology. Rochelle has created a company that not only provides a valuable service to families but supports families in its business and hiring practices. I’m really proud to call them my friends—and to brag that I knew them when. (Jenny’s faculty bio mentions that our childhood friendship is partly responsible for her attending the college.)

Now on to the blog hop questions and answers. Get ready for a tiny bit of a “reveal” here as I discuss my current writing project—but very tiny, as I am one of those writers who doesn’t like discussing my work too early in the creative process.

What am I working on/writing?

The phrasing of this question allows me to brag about all the writing other people are doing since I’m in the middle of editing submissions for the next Fault Zone anthology, Fault Zone: Diverge (contributors, please be patient!)

I really love editing. I know some writers don’t—and I know it is easier to edit the work of others than to edit one’s own. But I gain enormous satisfaction from helping writers bring out the best in their words. (I wrote about this in a post in which I compared the joy I derive from editing to the joy I derive from supporting families during childbirth as a doula.)

I’m also trying to find the time to work on a new novel that popped up unannounced one day a few months ago. Here are a few things about it:

  1. It’s a departure from my usual genre of literary fiction into speculative fiction, set in the near future.
  2. Though the world of the book contains technology of the future, the focus is not on the gadgetry but on the human beings who are immersed in it.
  3. The central idea of the book is that storytelling can save the world.

How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?

After receiving degrees in creative writing and in journalism, I struggled for years with the question of popular vs. academic (or commercial vs. literary) fiction. Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that I wanted to combine the best of both.

By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Guilty pleasure. By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the literary tradition, I aim for language that is rich and appealing in its own right. But that appeal must never be for its own sake. The words must always reveal character or advance plot, even as they please the ear. I want to walk the tightrope between commercial and literary, offering books that people label pleasures rather than guilty pleasures. Kind of like dark chocolate sea-salt caramels rather than M&Ms.

Writing in a new genre—speculative fiction—is humbling. I have enjoyed stories set in the future since I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But realizing what a rich body of work exists in this area—and wondering how I will contribute anything original to this sea of stories—keeps me up at night. I’ve had to make a conscious decision not to think too much about existing books and established authors, but instead dig deeply into the world I’m imagining. I have to believe that my take on the world of the future won’t be exactly the same as someone else’s. In literature, after all, there are no original themes.

Why do I write what I do?

I still write fiction for the same reason I did when I was ten: “to find the answers to life’s persistent questions” (the raison d’être of the fictional detective Guy Noir in A Prairie Home Companion). Of course, the questions I worked out through writing in elementary school are vastly different from the ones I’m tackling in my current novel.

These days my questions are about culture, society, and technology. What are the unintended consequences of smart phones, driverless cars, wearable computers, computers you swallow—especially on creativity? Should I worry that my kids spend as many hours in interactive gaming as I used to spend with my nose buried in the pages of a book? What’s an older generation to do when it feels its core values are threatened by the evolution of technology and culture? Are there such things as universal cultural values? Is our society really going to hell in a handbasket?

How does my writing process work?

I write every day. I floss regularly, exercise 40 minutes 4 times a week, and get at least 8 hours of sleep.

One of those statements is true. Ask my dentist.

I do understand the value of maintaining a regular writing schedule. When I’m not on deadline for another project, I try to write in the morning, for at least a half hour. When I’m on deadline, I fall back on weekly dates with my writing partner, which guarantee at least two hours of writing. Since two hours a week is not sufficient to maintain momentum on a novel, I’ll be back to daily writing when my editing deadlines ease.

But my characters are with me throughout the day even if I’m not sitting down and typing. I collect scraps of ideas, images, and scenes. I often work out plot or motivation problems when walking, cooking, or practicing yoga.

I’m a firm believer in the power of the seeded unconscious to fuel creativity. That is, first tackling a problem head on, then letting it go and letting the mind to turn to other things, or to nothing, allowing solutions and ideas to arise from a place that is often inaccessible when you try to reach it directly.

And I edit as I go. I usually begin each writing session by reading over and lightly editing the previous session’s work to get me in the frame of mind to move ahead. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, few things are more painful than putting down fresh words in a story.

Who’s next on this exciting blog hop?

Next up are two writers I know in different ways. I met Darlene Frank in person through the California Writers Club. I then had the pleasure of editing her work for the Fault Zone anthologies. I “met” Julia Whitmore by chance, stumbling on her blog in my many serendipitous journeys around cyberspace, and I’m glad I did. I can’t wait to hear what they both have to say in answer to these questions, and I hope you’ll check them out too.

Darlene FrankDarlene Frank is a writer, editor, and creativity coach who helps writers gain creative confidence and fulfill their artistic vision and dreams. She works with nonfiction authors especially in the self-help and memoir genres and with writers who have undergone a radical life transformation and want to create art from that experience. Several of her memoir stories about being raised as a Mennonite in Pennsylvania are published in literary anthologies, including Fault Zone and Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the ’60s and ’70s. As an editor and book consultant, Darlene guides first-time authors through the “indie” publishing route to create a book that shines. She is author of two business books, has written and edited thousands of pages of corporate training materials, and teaches workshops on how to navigate the writer’s journey. She lives by the ocean in the San Francisco Bay Area, her creative home for over 30 years. Visit her at www.DarleneFrankWriting.com.

Julia WhitmoreJulia Whitmore lives in the Pacific Northwest, and is a lifelong closet diarist. She came out (as a writer) three years ago, and now juggles the rocky business of learning to write fiction, with a host of interests and activities. She teaches yoga, plays in a band and enjoys travel, hiking, skiing, gardening and cycling. Over the years, her passion for politics has led her to school funding, environmental projects, helping out at the local library and youth symphony. Her first try at novel writing, which she describes as a classic beginner seat-of-the-pants effort, is tucked high in a dark closet. She hopes to finish draft one of novel two this summer. This second story might, she says, be read by more than her critique group, perhaps by her sweetie and an editor, before undergoing major surgery revisions. She and her husband are celebrating thirty years together this year, and have two children. Visit her at http://holdouts.wordpress.com.

Please stop by and visit them.

 

 

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Where do your stories live?

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As a Mother’s Day gift this year, I asked my family not for a thing but for an experience.

“Let’s get together once a week and read a book aloud.”

Lady readingWith much grumbling—and some one-upsmanship involving my 16-year-old proving how much more mature he is than his 13-year-old brother by being more agreeable—the three men in my life concurred.

I loaded the book I’d like to start with, Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation, onto my Kindle. But as of today, nearly a month later, we have yet to engage in a single reading session. We almost pulled it off a few weeks ago, but Older Son informed me at the last minute that he was committed to walk his friend’s dog.

Honest misunderstanding… or passive-aggressive avoidance?

Either way, I’ve been thinking lately about the different ways we tell and listen to stories. Stories are everywhere: in TV dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Orange Is the New Black. They’re in video games like Outlast and even Minecraft. They’re in 140-character conversations among friends and strangers. They’re in words spilled across a cafe table between near strangers who seem to share an outlook on life.

I’ve written before about the place of long-form fiction in this new world of stories. The arguments seem ceaseless about whether “the novel” is dead. All that hand-wringing used to worry me. What if I am a dinosaur, a dying breed, the last gasp of a civilization unraveling as a result of its addiction to brevity and technology?

Recently, though, I’ve concluded that I don’t care whether the novel is dead or dying, because storytelling is alive and well. It’s like that old business trope about the railroads being superseded by the automobile because the rail companies thought they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. If writers think of themselves as only about words on paper, then their work will be superseded by newly emerging art forms. But if we define ourselves as storytellers, we’ll endure no matter what the medium.

The impetus to share personal journeys, to shape the events of life into a comprehensible narrative, to turn tragedy into anecdote, to understand ourselves by speaking the truth of what we have experienced—these elements of story will only be extinguished with the last breath of human civilization.

This tension between old and new means of expression is part of the theme of my new work, which I am—somewhat ironically—conceiving of as a novel. Consider it the last gasp of a dying dinosaur.

Where do you get your story fix? Take the poll or leave a comment.

Reluctant bride of Twitter falls in love

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I joined Twitter in June, 2009. Naturally, husband was the first person I followed.

"The Reluctant Bride" - Auguste Toulmouche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Reluctant Bride” – Auguste Toulmouche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I began blogging in 2011, I automatically tweeted my blog posts (thank you, WordPress) because that’s what authors do, the way girls used to get married whether or not they really understood why.

Between the time I joined and about a month ago, I visited Twitter only a handful of times. I never tweeted and I had about ten followers. Twitter overwhelmed me with its seeming chaos. #WhatIsaHashtagAnyway? Looking at random tweets made my head hurt. So much noise—how could I find anything relevant among the cacophony?

Then, this past March, I read a post by the ever-helpful Joel Friedlander called “A Google Toolbox for Authors,” which led me to (re)discover Twitter’s power.

Alert, alert

Regarding Google alerts, Friedlander said, “If you play around with this tool I guarantee you’ll find some neat and useful ways to use it.” I decided to experiment. I had already set up alerts for my name and book title. Now I created an alert for “literary fiction.” This turned out to be particularly helpful. In the years since publishing “Dance of Souls,” I have often felt that readers and writers of literary fiction must be lurking somewhere on the Web, but I never seemed to be able to find them.

Now Google began sending me six to ten links every day to new material about literary fiction. Some of the links were dubious, but many were interesting and relevant, for example:

At last, I had a way to discover things in a manageable, bite-sized way. Instead of a search yielding thousands of results, I had an e-mail with a few links I could quickly review, once a day.

Then came my next brainstorm. What if I were to share the items I found most interesting with my Twitter followers? And what if I were to start following, on Twitter, some of the organizations that are creating these interesting items? Suddenly, I had a path through the chaos, a method to curate, and a reason to pass on information.

Tweet, tweet

I tweeted. I followed. Twitter suggested more people for me to follow based on the people I had just followed. Sometimes the people I was following tweeted interesting things, which I retweeted. Suddenly, I began receiving several notifications a day in my in-box informing me that “So-and-so is now following you on Twitter!”

I have nearly reached the milestone of 100 followers. I realize this is quite underwhelming, but to someone who, mere months ago, avoided Twitter because it gave her a headache, this seems like an accomplishment. In fact, I’ve grown to enjoy the process so much that I’ve now had to do what so many other authors have advised: dedicate a particular time of day to social media, lest it swallow up all the time I could otherwise have used for writing and editing. (J.D. Moyer has some reflections on this.) Evening works well for me because by then my brain is too addled to focus on long prose anyway. Reading articles and tweeting is about what I can handle.

Brick by brick

By Titus Tscharntke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Titus Tscharntke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

So, I’m actually building my “author platform.” It will be a long haul to get from where I am now to where I need to be to successfully market my writing. But now that I’ve started, it seems a less daunting task. Best of all, I’m no longer anxious about Twitter. I’m excited to “meet” new authors and potential readers. Besides, I’d better have multiple social media platforms, because Facebook is getting more challenging every day.

What’s your relationship with Twitter? A virgin? Just-married? Divorced? Longtime partner? Do you use Twitter to discover new authors and books or to share ones you’ve discovered? I’d love to hear! Respond below or send a Tweet to @audreykalman!

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Spacetime, Buddhism, and my mother

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Lately, I’ve been missing my mom, who died in 2007.

If you ask most people what they miss about their moms, they might say “feeling close to her” or “her cooking” or “the way she braided my hair.” Well, my mother and I were never close in a typical mother/daughter way. She was not a great cook and I don’t think she ever braided anyone’s hair.

I miss my mother the physicist.

Eileen Handelman Patent

My mother’s patent

Only recently have I come to understand that my mother’s path and mine may not have been so different after all, that physics wrestles with the same questions as art and philosophy. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone? What is the nature of reality? What does it all mean? What exists beyond that which we can observe?

During my young adulthood, I thought art was the only approach to answering such questions. Draw about them. Paint about them. Write about them.

My youthful hubris put blinders on me. So I never got a chance to discuss with my mother how she chose to deal with these questions. By the time it occurred to me to wonder what she thought of string theory, multiple universes, and the controversies in physics, it was too late to ask her.

Reading Max Tegmark’s book, “Our Mathematical Universe,” gave me a glimpse into some of what must have drawn my mother to her chosen field. As I struggled through the book’s more mind-bending concepts, I wished I could pick up the phone and chat with her about it.

I find myself a little jealous of my mother’s former students at Simon’s Rock College, who probably did get to discuss some of these ideas—or their predecessors—with her during her long tenure as a professor of math and physics. Although I attended the college myself, I was much too busy being a callow college student and indulging my love of literature to take my mother’s physics class. Now I regret that decision, though I’m not sure my taking the class would have been a particularly pleasant experience for either of us at the time.

My mother the Buddhist?

Another topic I wish I could discuss now with my mother is religion. She was quite a-religious, even a-spiritual, and I spent a good bit of my adolescence working in opposition to her views. I realize with the benefit of hindsight that we may not have been as far apart as I thought on this topic either. Perhaps, given time, she may have come to appreciate and even embrace a spiritual practice like Buddhism—as long as it didn’t involve any dogmatism.

My mother may never have braided my hair, but she bequeathed to me a legacy of questions that have consumed me and fueled the passions I’ve pursued for most of my life. While I don’t believe that she waits for me in any conventional heaven, I feel privileged to take up a conversation with her through my own thinking and writing about things that obviously mattered to us both.

Thanks to Kay Huber for her recent post that inspired my thoughts on this. 

What conversations do you carry on with people who are no longer with us?

 

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