The Power of a Story: Ponderings on The Paris Wife

Posted on Nov 3, 2011 in reading, writing | 0 comments

This story hit me on an emotional level that I was not prepared for.

Yes, in technical terms, many of the right things were there: The writing was eloquent. The story was interesting and well-paced. The characters were developed into believable persons. (According to the author’s “Note on Sources,” she did a great deal of research–using Hemingway’s memoir and other writings–to capture the characters and circumstances as accurately as possible.)

But the most important thing is what this story left with me after I turned the last page: It brought me closer to a very famous writer and helped me care about him and understand why he is important.

I started this novel feeling about Hemingway the way I’ve felt about most classic authors: there was a cold distance between us. His world was not like my world, his writing was not like the writing I’m used to, and as such, he felt like a fictional character that I could never really know or understand.

It took a fictional story to bridge the emotional gap between me and a once-living person.

At some point in my reading of The Paris Wife, the distance between generations fell away, Hemingway became real, and I found myself wanting to know more about him: his world, his story, his struggles, the way he approached writing, the reasons behind his fame.

Even though (or, perhaps, because) the story is written from the perspective of Hadley (Hemingway’s first wife), the spark to know Hemingway was still ignited in me. And that interest continued to expand, until I felt a similar interest in other classic writers–many of whom were Hemingway’s friends.

When I put the book down for the last time, I felt feverish. For days, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was a distraction; it had sent my mind into a flurry on all sorts of topics and emotions: from compassion for Hadley to questions about what makes a person a writer and what a writer must do to influence his or her craft.

To know where to take your craft, it helps if you know where your craft has been. I’d been missing this important piece of the puzzle because my heart couldn’t relate. Until now.

This is a powerful place to be. I continue to feel a desire to connect to the past–to other very successful writers–and I imagine this perspective can only increase my effectiveness as a writer in the months and years to come.


Should you read this story? 

Yes, definitely. I think it is worth your time. You may not have as powerful a connection with the story as I had, but even without that, I think the story is entertaining and fascinating. The writing draws you in; the relationships between the characters are complex, beautiful, and heartbreaking.

And of course, if you’ve already read The Paris Wife, I’d love to hear your thoughts!




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Why We Blog

Posted on Oct 28, 2011 in life, writing | 0 comments

In the past hour, I’ve attempted to start three different blog posts. I finally stopped–I could feel the frustration building–and decided to write about that frustration instead. I find it amusing (in an “I hate you” kind of way).

When I write a blog post, I cannot control my mind. I start out on a topic–often a very abstract one, like “What’s the relationship between people, personal space, and possessions?” Then, suddenly, I find that the thoughts I’ve typed out have bred like two rabbits in a hutch, scattering little baby ideas all over the page without any hope of control.

I am a writer on so many levels–I need writing to think–so my behavior shouldn’t surprise me. When I sit down to write, suddenly my mind connects to my fingers, which connect to the computer keys, which make magic happen in the words that scrawl across the virtual page. Then I’m reading my genuine ideas, emotions, and perspectives on life–when two seconds ago, I didn’t know that’s how I felt.

Writing can do that to you. It’s a window to the soul.

On the other hand, that kind of mind-to-page connection means a lot of writing (a.k.a. exploring) before I settle on a final post that is organized and still feels true.


Business vs. Art

In my frustration a moment ago, I sat here whining at myself: “Rachel, what’s your problem? Your ideas don’t scatter in all directions when you write for your corporate clients.” And then I realized the silliness of that question and had to laugh, almost in an “I pity you for being so thick-headed” kind of way.

Of course I don’t write this way for my clients! Corporate writing, although it takes a lot of creativity, is essentially just finding a million ways to piece together similar information. It is designed to capture the weakness in humans–to make arguments against your better judgment so you feel inclined to buy that thing that you don’t need.

Blog writing, on the other hand, is capable of capturing the intricacies and paradoxes of a human mind, a human life, and uplifting people to a new understanding of themselves. To utilize a blog is to capture those intricacies and paradoxes in yourself and others, then simplify them before you send them out into the void (where other people are waiting to connect).

Even though blogging is virtual, which creates distance between people, it is still a type of art, in a way. Like fiction writing, design, painting, or photography, it is unique and emotional and real, because it is based in human story.


Practice Makes Perfect

People are complex and so are their lives. If blogging is a way to capture all of that ambiguity, it’s no wonder I struggle to write a blog post on occasion!

Coming to this realization doesn’t make blogging any easier for me. I can be impatient sometimes, and I tend to edit things nearly to death, so my uncontrollable writing habits often lead to feelings of dread when I think about writing another blog post.

I don’t think blog writing has to be frustrating, though. I’m guessing that like everything, the more I do it, the easier it will get. Likewise, the more I pour my mind out onto pages and explore the depths within, the fewer tangled messes I’ll have to deal with when I sit down to write.


Write the Way You Speak

Verbal communication seems to demand more preemptive organization of the ideas behind our mental floodgates, so why not write my posts as though I were talking to someone I know?

Some of the hardest posts for me to write are stories about our travels–but these are just the kinds of things I tell my family on a (semi-)regular basis. Maybe if I write these stories as though I were on the phone with a family member, my mind will work out the organization of the post beforehand–so instead of flopping gloopily onto the page, it flows out smoothly.

That’s an idea, at least. Maybe it will prove too controlling for those elusive thoughts in my brain, or maybe it will save me time and frustration in the long run.

It’s worth a try.

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Building Life-Like Characters through Real-Life Observation

Posted on Jun 23, 2010 in writing | 1 comment

It’s funny how you start to paint a picture of people’s lives when you’ve been around them long enough. I’m talking mostly about strangers here. My husband and I moved across the country, from Utah to Ohio, for the summer, and we now live in an apartment complex full of complete strangers. From my couch, computer desk, or porch, I can easily observe the world as it runs by with my day, and I’ve recently realized just how many pieces I’ve put together about the people in my community—without any conscious effort at all.

Here are a few examples that come to mind as I consider the people around me as I work (I suppose it’s mostly children then). One apartment below and to the right of mine, there’s an Indian family with a beautiful little girl about age 7. She seems to like cartoons a lot (I know because they blare through my open sliding-glass door on a regular basis). On fair-weather days, she races around on her teetering training-wheeled bike, up and down our street, and occasionally heads over to the apartment building across the way to play outside with her girl friends.

The girls may have a screaming match with one another one day (after which I want to hurt someone), or they may play with their little toy kitchen. Some of the best moments I’ve seen, however, are when they play-act the role of adults. One will exclaim, “Oh! I’m late for work!” then gingerly sip the last of the “tea” from a plastic teacup, pick up a bag brimming with books and plastic food, and dash off. In moments, they’re all scurrying around in mock exasperation at the many things they can’t possibly manage to get done. (Were we all like that as kids, dreaming of the day when we would get to do all that grown-up stuff for real? Now I sometimes dream that life were a bit more simple, like it was when I was a kid. How ironic.)

And then there are those times when it is just the little girl across the street, with no one to play with. She is quite creative about entertaining herself, from finding new ways to stand and pose on her bicycle seat to leapfrogging over the rope she’s just tied to the building’s staircase. No matter what it is, you can’t miss her voice as she discusses the next activity of the day with an imaginary friend. I always wonder what goes on in the minds of these children as they play.

Anyway, there’s a look at some of the characters I’ve come to know through observation. Before you peg me as a creepy or nosy neighbor, let me assure you that I’ve noticed these things simply from the many times I’ve glanced up from my computer and noted whatever it was that was happening in that moment. I don’t spend all day long (I don’t even spend 10 minutes) looking around for someone to watch like a hawk. And I certainly don’t have the binoculars out to peek into people’s houses. No, I’m just quietly observing people on my own time.

As I’m writing my novel (Did I mention I’m writing a novel?), I’ve realized just how beneficial these unconscious exercises in observation have been to me, and they’ve been even more helpful as I’ve taken them to the next level. No, once the again the binoculars are missing. Instead, I’ve started taking my subtle observations of people and creating actual fictional characters out of them. Most likely than not, these characters will find very little placement in my novel; however, just imagining the possibilities has helped me stretch my imagination and improve my character development skills. I want the characters of my novel to be believable, and I think the best way to achieve that is by observing what real life feels like and how different people deal with it.

So if you get stuck in your writing, or you feel like the characters you are writing about (fictitious or not) aren’t popping off the page like you want them to, take a few moments to quietly watch the people around you. You might even keep a pen and pad of paper with you to jot down any general impressions you have. Again, you aren’t judging the person in real life. You are looking at that person as a narrator would look at a character, then expanding upon the possibilities of that character’s life in a way that makes them seem real and relate-able.

Want to make it even harder? Try to pinpoint the actions and expressions that define each person’s moods, interests, and dislikes as you write about them. If you think, “Wow, she is really angry,” get to the bottom of how you came to that conclusion. What tipped you off to her mood? Was it the way her eyebrows tilted inward as she glared at the space in front of her? Was it the way she muttered under her breath and sought out rocks to kick across the sidewalk? Or was it the stiffness of her stride as she hurried past you down the street?

To be able to describe someone by the things they do and say, instead of simply by their thoughts or through an omniscient narrator, is an invaluable skill that can make your writing more real and natural. It’s difficult to master, but it is possible to achieve with practice. I’d say this exercise offers a great first step to describing characters well. The next step might be to actually meet the people you see regularly, get to know them, and see how accurate your portrayals of them are.

Here’s to great character development as we write!

photo by Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore), under a creative commons license

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A Copywriter’s Place

Posted on Jun 21, 2010 in writing | 0 comments

From a logistical standpoint, the copywriter’s job is very straightforward. Here’s a glimpse at how many marketing departments are set up, so you get an idea of where the copywriter fits in.

In the corporations I’ve worked for, copywriters (also called staff writers, a term I really despise) are on the lowest end of the totem pole—with the exception of interns. If the copywriting team includes more than one person, the person with the most experience may receive the title of “senior copywriter,” which leaves the junior copywriter title to the other writer(s).

Senior copywriters typically help supervise/mentor the junior copywriters while taking on the larger, more difficult projects (print projects requiring communication with a printer, etc.). If you get lucky, your senior copywriting companion will become a great friend and career mentor along the way. If you get really lucky, you’ll be the only copywriter and can get a wide range of experience without much competition for projects.

Above the copywriters is the marketing & communications manager, who reports to the marketing director, who typically reports to the CEO. In some companies, the creative services department (the design team) is also a part of the marketing department. That was my experience with my first copywriting job (at a startup company), but it wasn’t with my second.

Being last in line means that we typically get paid the least in the department (insert frowny face here); however, that doesn’t mean we are any less talented, skilled, or important. Copywriters are responsible for doing most of the actual tangible creative work, while the managers’ time and energy is focused on attending company meetings/events, researching project possibilities, and organizing project information and ideas. (All in all, I think I’d rather get paid less to do more of what I love.) If all goes well, everyone supports and lifts one another in their individual roles and makes the process that much smoother. It can be a really fun team environment to work in.

I think you could safely say that, generally, those above you were once junior copywriters (or in some other role on the low end of the marketing-department ladder) and have since gained valuable years in the work/industry as they’ve progressed up the department ladder. As a result, they know what your job entails, how to support you most effectively, and how to do their job well, too.

I can tell you, however, that there are times when a senior copywriter or manager (1) has equal or fewer skills than you (and may still feel comfortable sticking his/her title in your face) or (2) has the experience and know-how but is just downright lazy. In either instance, you may end up doing both the copy direction and the work (without much credit for the extra effort), even though you are getting paid a lot less than they are. It happens to the best of us. My advice would be to work whatever challenges you encounter to your advantage. Having a lazy or incompetent senior copywriter/manager sucks, but it’s also a great opportunity to build a solid reputation quickly, try new things, and start collecting awesome portfolio samples for the future. Who can say no to that?

With that said, even if senior copywriters or managers lack in certain areas (as nerve-wracking as that may be), it can be extremely refreshing to have someone who supports your work, takes all the heat when trouble arises, and is always there to bounce ideas off.

My guess is that the structure of every marketing department you encounter will be similar, with a few differences here and there. Even then, your copywriting responsibilities will probably remain unchanged (with the addition of a few hats, depending upon the company’s needs). The key to success here is talent and a passion for writing and editing. You didn’t get into writing to make millions. You got into writing because you wouldn’t have it any other way. Copywriting, in particular, can be an extremely lucrative form of writing, which can make it even more satisfying over the long haul. If you can survive the corporate drama, that is.

photo by UGArdener, under a creative commons license

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Define Copywriting

Posted on Jun 18, 2010 in writing | 2 comments

For three years, I worked as a professional in-house copywriter/editor, so I’ve been around the block before. Since I have some familiarity with the industry, I’d like to talk more about my experience with copywriting, to give you a sense of what it is and if it’s for you.

There are a lot of rumors floating around about just what a copywriter is and does (some of them true; most of them not), so let me start us off on the same page here and define the term copywriter as I see it.

copywriter. n. A staff writer in the marketing department of a corporation; the person or people responsible for the creation of the company’s copy (which is coupled with design to create a coherent marketing piece for customers)

Copywriting, then, would include all of those marketing projects that a company creates in order to find/attract and educate customers on its products and services. Since companies have tons of options these days when it comes to marketing, a copywriter’s projects typically span a wide variety of media: everything from social media, blogs, and websites to announcements and emails to printed/electronic brochures, catalogs, magazine/newsletter articles, and flyers. If the company is small, the copywriter might also take on advertisements, film scripts, press releases, media kits, etc—projects that are typically done by an advertising, film, or public relations specialist.

And you can’t forget the final act for every writing job: editing. Everything you write also needs to be superbly edited by you. In fact (and this has been the case for me many a time), you may be one of the only employees in the entire company who knows how to edit. In that case, you’ll be responsible for all company editing on top of your writing projects. (Since this happens to be one of my favorite parts of the job, however, I never minded the added responsibility.)

As one co-worker and I liked to put it, corporate writers and designers (and trainers and illustrators) are the creative talent. No, we aren’t managers (some people seem to think that’s important), but we bring our unique skills to the table and those skills carry the company along. Without copywriters and designers, there would be no communication, so it’s a pretty important place to be in an organization. And if you like to write, it can be a bucket of fun, too.

photo by mark sebastian, under a creative commons license

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