Caroline Bock - BEFORE MY EYES
Six random things you don’t know about me…
-I can’t stand coffee, the taste or the smell. (I drink lots of tea!).
-I’m afraid of Ferris wheels and apartments on high floors
with lots of windows (that’s why I always lived in brownstones in Manhattan).
-The summer after I graduated high school, I biked from
Hyannis to Provincetown and via ferry onto Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard with
my brother Mark, still one of the best trips of my life.
-I hiked the High Peaks in the Adirondacks and climbed Mt.
Marcy and Haystack among a dozen other mountains and had my first kiss in a pup
tent with Howard from Brooklyn. I was fourteen and on a three-week backpacking
trip with the American Youth Hostels.
-I miss my dad, who passed away last October, every day. He
brought four kids on camping trips every summer. He made a great kugel. He gave
us the world and all the love in it.
-In Mrs. Murano’s class third grade class at George M. Davis Elementary school in New Rochelle, I wrote my first poem,
and I can recite it to this day: In the woods/where there are tall. towering
trees/tiny. timid animals/rigid, rustling leaves/I stand there/just me.
“In all major genres, vivid detail is the life blood of
fiction…the reader is regularly presented with the proofs—in the form of
closely observed details – that is what is said to be happening is really
- John Gardener, The Art of Fiction
“When people ask me the
personal-experience question, my response is that I write from my personal
experiences, whether I’ve had them or not…I treat it personally; if it is not
personal, I don’t want to be involved. If it is solely intellectual, some
concept of puzzle I’m tempted by, I will explore it until I find the personal
element and something sparks. Having a feeling for my material means sending
myself on each journey, whether I’ve actually been there or not, and it
involves the powerful act of the imagination that good writing requires:
– Ron Carlson, Ron Carlson
Writes A Story
I was recently asked to do a professional workshop for middle school teachers. I had never done one before--and so I was told to teach what I know. My first young adult novel, LIE, had ten distinct point of view characters; my upcoming novel, BEFORE MY EYES
, has three. I've spent a lot of time figuring out to write compelling, realistic characters. But the older I get, the less I know, particularly about writing. Or, I've discovered how much I still need to learn. One thing I've spent a lot of time is developing characters. I feel like I've spent my whole life observing people but as a writer I've worked at looking, thinking, reflecting, dreaming about the characters I've writing.
Still, I'm a student of writing. So for this workshop, I read a book that an on line group recommended to me from a master teacher -- Ron Carlson. And I re-read a book that my first writing master, Raymond Carver,
suggested that I read: The Art of Fiction.
Here are two character-writing exercises,inspired by Ron Carlson Writes a Story
and The Art of Fiction:
1) Take a simple act, say unbuttoning a shirt, pulling on a
sock, pouring a cup of milk, and write it in slow motion, on that is,
give it two hundred words. Don’t automatically lapse into hyperbole (and
thereby the comic), but think of the effect: make it matter-of-fact, sinister,
gross, full of touch, feel, sight, and smell. Go from a wide lens on the room to a close up on the details. Let the details show you the emotion of the moment.
2) Write two hundred words on a character entering a space
(a car, a classroom, a kitchen, a backyard, etc). Inventory all the sense of
the space as she moves toward the one thing that she desperately wants in that
space. Take your time and describe in detail what the character sees, hears,
smells, senses and knows – and doesn’t know—about the surroundings.
3. Bonus – Revise one of the above into a
“flash” short story of 500 words. Delve deeper into the character with dialogue
or more details on setting, other characters, and conflict. Read your story out
loud to yourself before finalizing the work. Ask yourself: have you created a
fictional dream or movie in the reader’s mind?Have I created it in my own?
And keep writing! And reading... look for my new novel:BEFORE MY EYES,
the story of three fragile young adults at the end of a long, hot summer, from St. Martin's Press in February, 2014!
Great Group Reads 2013!
Great Groups Reads 2013
are carefully vetted books by book lovers for book clubs everywhere via the wonderful Women's National Book Association
. Last year, I was part of the selection committee; this year, I am was not able to join in the fun of reading and selecting these books, but I am thrilled to share this list:
Americanah by Chimamanda
Ngozi Adichie (Knopf)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra (Hogarth)
David by Ray Robertson
The House Girl by Tara
Conklin (William Morrow)
How It All Began by Penelope
Lively (Penguin Books)
Is This Tomorrow by Caroline
Leavitt (Algonquin Books)
Life After Life by Kate
Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books)
Margot by Jillian Cantor
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
(Blue Rider Press)
The Middlesteins by Jami
Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing)
Nowhere Is a Place by
Bernice L. McFadden (Akashic Books)
The One-Way Bridge by Cathie
Pelletier (Sourcebooks Landmark)
Ordinary Grace by William
Kent Krueger (Atria Books)
The Other Typist by Suzanne
Rindell (Amy Einhorn Books)
The Round House by Louise
Erdrich (Harper Perennial)
Schroder by Amity Gaige
Sparta by Roxana Robinson
(Sarah Crichton Books)
Wash by Margaret Wrinkle
(Atlantic Monthly Press)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin
Powers (Back Bay Books)
*Even though I wasn’t part of the official ‘Great Group
’ review committee this year, I have read these two novels and highly
recommend them for book clubs. I look forward to reading more on this list with my book club.
What happens when you google yourself and ... you find out you’re a porn star?
least that’s what popped up near the top of one of my searches – not Caroline Bock
don’t go looking there – but it’s
I couldn’t help it. I clicked. (But I am not including a link here – this site is visited by
people across age groups, including students. Sorry to disappoint:
this is more a quick
literary story of discovery rather than any other kind of adventure. You can leave now, if you must.)
So I clicked, and I was pleasantly surprised. She has high
cheek bones and auburn hair and full lips and a rather commanding, bold, Teutonic
presence. She looks like someone who drinks lagers, recites the score of whatever game is on in the bar and has slept with the guitar player and the drummer and neither of them know about the other. She seems to be European, with a brash, ‘come get me if you can look’
of someone in their infallible twenties.
Am I falling into fantasy with this other c. bock? I wonder
if she googles herself and ponders me with a similar speculation? Does she peer
at my writerly self portrait and wonder what am I thinking? Or, is this a
On my website, I have a number of page views from Russia and
Germany and I’m certain it can’t be for my novels. They must be searching for
this other too and finding me in frustration, and I wonder if they spend even a
second curious about this Caroline Bock?
want to tell them that I am still working out who she is -- a writer, a wife, a mother, a sister, a tea-drinker, a reader of historical novels and history and young adult and just about anything else that has great characters and a story to match --but, still a work-in-progress. And yes, that other woman
tantalizes, and maybe, I’m a little bit of her too.
I was feeling like I couldn’t write
– it doesn’t really
matter why – it was one of those days: sticky hot, rife with pollen and undone
dishes and dreams drifting, uncomfortably unattainable— so I picked up Ron Carlson Writes a Story
From the First Glimmer of An Idea to the Final Sentence
includes his entire short story: “The Govenor’s Ball” at the end). This slim
book is a mini-MFA semester with this head of the MFA program in fiction at the
University of California, Irvine. The biggest lesson: stay at your desk.
Keep writing. Stay twenty minutes more. And twenty after that. Finish.I loved this advice (of course I was reading not writing it). But I do believe that the hardest thing is to finish, to get the first draft done, to let the words out.
But there is more. Here are the top five writing insights that I culled from Ron Carlson Writes A Story
. I hope he writes many more.
“When people ask me the personal-experience question, my
response is that I write my personal experiences, whether I’ve had them or
not…Having a feeling for my materials means sending myself on each journey,
whether I’ve actually been there or not, and it involves the powerful act of
the imagination that good writing requires: empathy.”
“I’m constantly looking for things that are going to help me
find the next sentence, survive the story.”
“The most important thing a writer can do after completing a
sentence is to stay in the room. The writer is the person who stays in the
room.” (Carlson’s italics throughout, but I agree!)
“The single thing I say the most to writers of dialogue is
slow down. I actually don’t see much clunky dialogue, but I see a lot of scenes
that are too brisk., to summarily done…And in the process of writing dialogue,
remember: your characters can’t advance the story because they may not know it yet
. That is a reason to slow down, to listen,
“Our mission is to write the physical scene as closely as we
can, knowing that our intentions lie just beyond our knowing. Write, don’t
So we begin again. We turn toward autumn, toward possibility;
we return to writing.
This is flash fiction
- "Counting Backwards"
-- less than 750 words-- submitted to Akashic Books,an indie Brooklyn press, infamous publishers of "Go the F--k to Sleep," a parent's classic.
This short short was written after reading another writer's flash and feeling that flush of jealousy-- one of this writer's main motivators, though maybe one shouldn't admit that-- amid the swirling of loneliness, sadness and regret. Maybe one should say that deep thoughts and world disasters motivate me (what motivates you?) and leave it at that.
My seven-year-old announced that she wants to read ‘real’
books. She doesn’t want to read on any of our multiple electronic devices. Oh,
she is happy to play games on them. She will make her father a digital
cupcake and he will have to pretend to eat it.
It's July and she she wants to go to our public library
. She wants to check
out as many books as she can hold in her outstretched arms. She wants to use
her own library card, which she carries in her own Mickey Mouse wallet. She
wants to check out books that are pictures books and big kid books, which means
books with chapters. She wants books with lots of chapters. She wants to curl
up in my reading chair and ask if someday she can have her own special reading
chair and read. She wants to feel herself going through the pages. She wants to
see how much she’s read by holding the heft of the book in her fingertips. She wants
to turn pages, she says, and see real words. Don't distract her. Don't read over her shoulder or ask if her is she wants a cold drink of water or stroke the top of her head. Don't hum. Especially don't hum old Beach Boy songs. She wants to read not play. She wants to live inside the book.
She announces every chapter she’s finished. She shows me how
many pages she’s read and my job is to be impressed, and I am.
As a writer who is at
peace with the digital age, who blogs and tweets and posts, I’m absolutely fine
with reading on an electronic device. Except, that I still like books too. I
want to hug her. However, she’s reading her book.
I just finished a new book about writing, GOOD PROSE: The
Art of Nonfiction
by Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. This is worth a read for new writers and
more established ones. Some of its gems include a chapter on point of view in
creative nonfiction as well as a chapter on “Being Edited and Editing.” The
work ends with an insightful chapter on usage and grammar, which includes a
warning against medical, political and digital age clichés including my own pet
peeve—use of “mega” and “giga” and “nano” as prefixes.
The back and forth between the writer and the editor is what
delighted this writer the most. We live inside our heads as writers and good
editors help us take what’s inside out – freely, unwieldy at times, wildly at
Why does this matter on the 4 of July? In too
many places around the world, people are denied basic freedoms of expression –
they cannot assembly, speak or write freely. In the United States of America, our Founding Fathers thought
it critical to write down what we as Americans are guaranteed in exchange for
our good citizenship, our allegiance.“We the People, in Order to form a more perfect Union,
establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,
promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves
and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United
States of America.
” We wrote our Constitution down and have been debating
different aspects of it ever. And while we need to remain vigilant about our freedoms, especially in an age of easy surveillance, the Constitution of the United States
still stands 237 years later. Today, on the 4th
of July, we celebrate our freedom, and I write
The lion sleeps at the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum.
my daughter and I are drawn to him in his stone-cold repose.
On the opposite
side, in the light, are the Rodin’s. My daughter stands in a circle of bronze men. I tell her that these are sculptures of a French writer, Balzac. When
she asks what has she written, I can’t name a book
of his (La Comedie humaine or The Human Comedy,
I look up later).
Upstairs, we visit the watercolors of John Singer Sargen
and I want to dive into one of his paintings the water looks that real. My
daughter says that I’ll get wet.
She prefers: “The Dinner Party,”
by Judy Chicago, feminist installation art.
What is that? She asks. She wants a seat at the table, and I tell her that’s
what it is.
I write lines in my head while walking through the museum.
This is summer so far.
I've thought about this a lot -- how to start. I came across this on Bloom
, website for writers, age 40 and over - from the startling writer of short, flash fiction Meg Pokrass
. I don't think you have to be 40 plus for this advice to resonant:
"I think you can start by looking at the mess in your room, in your kitchen, or in your life—and writing some words about it. See if the words are as messy as the mess. Those words are important. Mess is important.
Alternatively, look at the orderliness in your room, your kitchen, or your life. Write about the satisfaction or the tyranny in that order. Who does it remind you of? Who do you remind yourself of?
Write about the phone call or e-mail that doesn’t come, the one that you were waiting for your whole life. Write about the call that comes too often.
Write about the call that is strangely just right on time, what the ring sound is like, and what the room temperature is when the phone rings.
Write about what you love as much as what you dislike. Imagine people you despise when they were children, write about an imaginary moment that made them who they are. Lie and create. Deceive your way to the truth. Tell your own story, and then find characters living inside yourself."
Now I'm off to look at my mess -- I have so much more of that than orderliness.