Writing about writing

Cynthia Bond

In May I was able to do a Q&A with Cynthia Bond whose novel, Ruby, I really admire. The full Q&A is posted here, but I wanted to pick out this one question particularly because she talks about her experience in writing. Enjoy!

Me: Some of the most harrowing scenes in the novel take place in the house run by Miss Barbara. Were they (or others) as difficult to write as they are to read?

 Cynthia Bond: Oh my God, yes. I love writing, and of course, I fear it as well…because it is difficult to write about such tragic events. In addition to being a carpenter, my grandfather was a douser. He would take his diving rod and start walking. The rod would just point down, begin to shake, and then he’d tell the farmer how deep the water was and start to dig. He was uncanny in his accuracy regarding depth. Sometimes he would take my mother, put her in a bucket and wheel her down, to collect rocks, and dig earth. Once, when she was down at the bottom of the well, water starting rushing in. It quickly reached her shoulders, she pulled on the rope and shouted and he quickly pulled up the bucket. Sometimes writing feels a bit like being lowered into the bottom of a great well. Sometimes it is fascinating to observe the minerals and roots, and at other times the water rushes in so quickly that I must scramble, leap to freedom. Because for me, writing is something I experience viscerally. Then I rewrite…then rewrite it…then rewrite it again! One of the reasons that I list three baristas in my acknowledgements is that, for a period of time, it was difficult for me to work alone, and I needed people around me—not talking, or distracting me, just there. The folks at a coffee shop named Swork in Los Angeles let me park in a corner with my laptop for at least two years, quietly weeping at times into my cappuccino—the foam artfully crafted into a swirled heart.


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Setting prompt

The following excerpt from Cynthia Bond’s powerful new novel (you heard it here) Ruby makes a great prompt to start a story or just tackle a familiar setting in a new way. Read and model your writing as closely as you can or as loosely as you like…

The crow caught a cross current and gained altitude as the man grew small and then vanished behind a rise in the earth. she tilted with the curve of the horizon. The sun warmed her hollow bones, her blackest feathers holding its heat. She flew over thatches of land, gold, green, brown following the red river road until she reached the town square. Far below she saw a knot of men crowded onto the store’s steps, the women fanning their faces and looking on, headscarves tied. A woman chasing three boys off with a broom. She saw the different roofs, black tar, shingled, wood. She flew on. More farms. Wide wild pines spearing the clouds. Pockets of green. Bony fences leaning into the road or boxing in pigs, chickens, cows. A berry cobbler set out to cool. A red melon split on an outdoor table, children gathering around it like flies. The crow saw two men plodding home, carrying empty pails. Smoke from the mill in the distance. She flew past Marion Lake and the tangle of woods beneath, a wealth of beetles, grasshoppers and other legged insects, until she finally reached Bell land. The dried grass, empty hard field. Figs and apricots wormy on the earth. Gravestones litterring the hillside. The house with holes poked through the roof. Rain and sun cutting them larger each day until now the foot of the girl’s bed was in view. She was asleep on her belly, her black soles facing the sky.

18282970I have just finished reading Ruby and am very excited to be have had the opportunity to ask Cynthia Bond some questions about it as part of a feature I’m writing for the Historical Novel Society. It’s an amazing book. Hard reading but rewarding.

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Monday prompt on a Wednesday (oops)

So we have my mother-in-law over from the UK and I am not keeping up my self imposed blogging schedule, but here are a couple of writing prompts and some thoughts based round the writing of Jhumpa Lahiri whose novel, The Lowland, I recently reviewed for the Historical Novel Society and LOVED! It is shortlisted for the National Book Award in the US and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize so I guess I am not alone in this view :)

1. Place two characters with a problem or secret between them in a situation where both are out of their respective comfort zones. Let the truth out. (This is inspired by Lahiri’s short story A Temporary Matter.

2. Imagine two siblings who could not be more different. Write about them. (That’s from The Lowland).

And while you write, consider this Q&A from an interview with Lahiri in the New Yorker I’m copying, but if you want to read the whole article, it’s here.

“In “The Lowland” there are times when your writing is quite different than it’s been in the past. The sentences are sometimes shorter and more clipped—you use more sentence fragments, for example, than you’ve done previously—and there’s a greater sense of urgency in the voice. Was this something that you were aware of as you were writing?

I think a little bit. I had been wanting to write in a slightly different way with this book. I didn’t want the book to feel heavy, because I felt that the book was heavy—I mean that the story was heavy, the material was heavy, the situation, the circumstances, all of this was very weighty. And I didn’t want the writing to feel heavy. I just wanted to say what I needed to say in the sparest way that I could. I wanted to have some sort of lightness. So I was trying to pare back even more than I normally try. The earlier drafts did feel heavier and clunkier and not satisfying, because I just felt there was so much information, there was so much history, the emotions of the book—everything that was going on. It just felt very burdened and I wanted to free the book up in some way.”

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Something for the weekend #33

Impossible to visit Banksy’s website and not be inspired by what he’s getting up to in NYC:


Here’s one of my favourites…

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Monday prompts

exlibrisSomewhere in the house I still have this really cool game where you have to make up what you imagine is the first or last line of a given book. Everyone’s attempts are pooled (including the real one written by the person who drew the card which told you which book to do) and read out. Then everyone guesses which is the real first or last line. It’s fun.

I was reminded of this game by today’s prompts. All three link to opportunities to get the resulting work published. What could be better?

1. From Apokrupha:

Write about the end of the world. “Show us your moment from the end of the world. Show us the tragedy, the beauty, and, of course, the horror.” Stories of 500 words and under to be published in their anthology. $20 per story. Deadline is November 5th.

2. From The First Line:

For winter submission, this website is looking for stories with the opening line:

“I came of age in a time of no heroes.”

We also tried another of their openers this morning which was:

“I started collecting secrets when I was just six years old.”

Submissions by November 1st. Word count guide is 300-3000, payment is $30 per story.

3. From Mslexia:

Poetry or prose on the theme of Troubled Minds.

“Phobias, depressions, delusions, compulsions – whether you’ve iimagined or lived with mental illness, transform it with the alchemy of creativity into poems (up to four poems of up to 40 lines each) or stories (up to two stories of up to 2,200 words each).”

Due by December 2nd.

Happy writing!

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Something for the weekend #32

To get the whole story on this visual prompt, you need to check out Brain Pickings post The Burning House: what people would take if the house was on fire.

Alternatively you go straight for the book itself, written by Foster Huntington and a snip at $12.18 on Amazon.

Or you could take a wander around your house and imagine which 10 items you would take with you if your house was burning down. Assemble them, take a picture (time permitting) and then write about a character who cherishes these things.

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Pica prompt

Here’s a prompt, prompted by discussion at this morning’s writing session :)

Write about a character who has the disorder pica – where a person has an appetite for a non-nutricious substance. Like wool.

woolAnd if wool doesn’t appeal, here is a list of other substances:

  • starch
  • feces
  • soil
  • clay
  • chalk
  • glass
  • sand
  • pebbles
  • mucus
  • paint
  • your own body
  • hair
  • urine
  • wood
  • paper
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Writing prompt – Finders Keepers

pandoras box
On our regular Monday get-together, we wrote to a prompt from a short story contest, specifically Round 11 of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction feature.
Author Karen Russell challenges us to write a story in which a character finds an object that he or she has no intention of returning.
The story should be no longer than 600 words, so that it can be read in about three minutes. More information and submission details are here.
We had a fab time with this prompt.  Kate’s story features an unexpectedly tasty treat, but you’ll have to wait until Monday to find out what it is.

The deadline for submissions to NPR is 11:59 EDT, Sunday May 12. What are you waiting for?
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Something for the weekend #31


There’s a story here. There’s a hundred stories here. I came up with picture because I was thinking about a story I HOPE KATHY IS WORKING ON (!!) on about a girl who finds something she shouldn’t in a storm drain. Looking at pictures of storm drains, I came across this. If you look at this and think there’s story there – start writing.

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Writing prompt – The Rift

600px-BarbwireYesterday we started with a prompt to help plot a story. It’s a quick one: you name your character, give them a couple of traits, a setting and a problem. You think up three events and a possible solution. Although we were skeptical, this actually worked out okay.

Where things got interesting, though, is when we decided to develop those ideas and instead of writing about the story she’d outlined, Zoe was inspired by the decorator character I’d thought up to start a completely different piece. I hope I’m not spoiling anything if I say it involved decorating and barbed wire and that it was based on a real-life experience.

This brought us to discuss The Rift as a prompt. We all have them. Break-ups with friends, flat-mates, family and lovers. And the great thing about writing is that we don’t have to stick to the facts. Here’s the prompt.

Think about a rift or break-up you have personally experienced. Keep true to the emotion of the experience but change the characters and the setting. Write.

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