by Susie Berg
It is both a blessing and a curse of being a writer that most of us are also readers.
The blessing is pretty clear: books! Covid lockdown? Bring on the "to be read" pile. Put every book I ever wanted to read on hold as an e-book at the library. Buy books to support independent booksellers and authors whose voices shout with both anger and joy from the margins. Read more about anti-racism. Alternate between reading fiction and non-fiction. Read middle-grade fiction to help me understand the audience as I write my first middle-grade novel. Read two books at once and also have one on the go to listen to when I walk. Nowhere to go, nowhere to rush to, time after long work days to read and read and read and read. Do I know I'm lucky? I do.
So where's the curse? No, it's not the tendency to trip over piles of books in the dark or worrying that my devices can't handle my reading capacity. It's coming across a book that so perfectly shares the message of the book I am writing, or that so elegantly structures its storytelling, that I put down the book and say "never mind, why bother, I'm never writing again."
I finished one of those books this morning: "Watch Us Rise," by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan. The good news is that my manuscript has been finished for two months. It's out with agents. The bad news is that it's been returned by some agents. It's been turned down by the publishing program that I was sure would want it. The good news (now I feel a bit like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, with his internal monologue of "on the one hand…") is that, despite my feeling that Watson and Hagan have perfected all books forevermore, I'm not disheartened. I'm motivated to use the book to keep revising my manuscript.
Look how the authors both told and showed the story! Look at the places they let the reader in on the character's thought process! Look how they let the character say a little more about something! Where can I do that with Leah and Sasha and Jameel and their nemesis, Oden Moscowitz?
Have you ever noticed that if we want to get better at something like a sport, or playing music, or coding an app, we're encouraged to learn from others, to imitate what they are doing, and to practice? We imitate where to hold our arm before throwing a Frisbee, or where to place our feet before a long jump. Yet when we want to get better at writing, nobody suggests we imitate. Writing, though, is like anything else we want to learn. We need to imitate the experts and practice in order to make the skill our own.
For novel-writing, I keep a tip in mind from Kathleen Winter (I highly recommend her brilliant novel, "Annabel,"). She suggests you re-read a favorite text to find the place that the writer pivots; that place that the story takes its turn and starts its path to the inevitable end. She happened to be talking about how to write a best-seller, but of course the pivot is there in every book, and we should all be so lucky to write a best-seller. The pivot isn't a major, action-packed moment; it's the careful moment to which all of the writing leads, the quiet place where the reader has no choice but to follow the story where it's meant to go. Not an easy spot to find, but the more you look for them, the clearer the pivots will become. The pivot that Winter showed us is a scene in which a woman is in the kitchen making mashed potatoes for dinner. After that moment in the kitchen, there was no other possible path than the one that the story traveled to its end. Now: what's happening in the book you're writing that shifts the story to its inevitable end? If you can't find that spot yet, think about what it should be, and where it should go. Imitate a pivot from another book, and practice writing pivots until you can write the right one for your book.
For poetry, my first writing love, I follow the advice of poet Ellen Bass (read everything she writes, it's all the best), who encourages imitation. Imitate the poems that you love. Practice writing long lines, or short lines. Copy phrasing that resonates with you. Describe an image in exactly the same number of words, using the same parts of speech. Imitation is not plagiarism. It's practice. Use that practice as your first draft, and then deepen your piece from there. Let go of any or all parts of the imitation that don't serve the poem; whatever works. It's your poem.
Back to "Watch Us Rise," and the irony of my wanting to put aside writing forever after I read it. (Fine, I'm dramatic.) The novel is about girls and women finding and using their voice. If I've learned anything at all from reading it, I had better be willing to keep listening, imitating, practicing, and working on my novel until it stands up and shouts for everyone to hear.
BIO: Susie Petersiel Berg's most recent poetry collection is "All This Blood," from Piquant Press. She is the former co-curator of the Plasticine Poetry reading series and the author of two full-length collections and three chapbooks. Her work has appeared in a variety of anthologies and in both print and online publications. Her middle-grade novel about a 12-year-old girl learning from her bat mitzvah Torah portion how to find her voice to make change in the world is currently on submission with literary agents. Susie lives in Toronto, Canada.
Find her online at @SusieDBerg on Twitter, SusieDBerg on Instagram, or at her totally-going-to-get-to-updating-this website.