Why do I start almost every writing class by asking people to write a letter to someone they miss?
–Writing a letter is easy and natural.
People are generally comfortable saying things that start with “I.” A letter is written directly from the writer, so it’s a good use of the first-person (“I”) voice. If you’re intimidated about writing anything–a report, a paper–they can start out by writing it as a letter.
–Writing a letter “to” someone or something the writer misses gives the writer a point of focus.
The writer isn’t writing about life in general or how WiFi works or the life-cycle of raccoons–he/she is simply writing things he or she remembers to someone he/she knows.
–Writing to “someone or something you miss” elicits feelings of loss and yearning.
People writing this prompt sometimes start to cry. Sometimes they sit staring in the air or fiddling with their pencil. They may or may not want to share the whole letter. Feelings of loss and yearning are real and human. They are something every reader can relate to.
–It’s easy to pick out the details in a letter and “feel” how they support they support the feeling of loss. Details I remember from classes through the years: the difficult bed-bound aunt who used to ring a bell when she needed something; the uncle who made hot pickles; the big brother who carried his little sister around on his shoulders so she could pick oranges. These aren’t details I experienced or thought up, but ones that were vivid enough they live in my mind today. The root of vivid, by the way, is the Latin “vīvidus” meaning animated, from “vīvere” or “to live.” Vivid is a word I love to use.
I’ve started writing workshops for teenagers, adults, older people, and children with “write a letter to someone you miss.” The only group I’ve had problems with is American children, because some of them said “But there’s nothing I miss” or ” No one’s died.” So to them I said: write about a friend who moved away or a lost pet or even a stuffed animal you’ve lost track of. The first time I taught in Israel I worried about children not having something to write about, but everyone did, immediately–either they had some relative who had died or someone close to them had moved to America or Europe.
Write a real letter to someone you miss. Use details to describe what you remember/miss about them. If you’re stuck for details, think of your senses–sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. Remember, sensory details call up the real world for your reader. And that’s where the reader lives.
Dear Grandma, I miss you so much since you died. I really really love you and miss you. I used to love playing cards with you.
Dear Grandma, I miss you so much. I remember playing cards with you in the summer when it was too hot to move.
Dear Grandma, Remember the time we played cards in that summer rental on Lake Cumberland? It was too hot to move and Jerry knocked over his Coke and you grabbed the bottom of your shirt to wipe off the table. The cards were sticky after that but no one cared.
Thanks to my friend and fellow Dayton author Sharon Short for tagging me!
Below is my “tag” Q and A.
1. Title of your current book? Sharp and Dangerous Virtues
2. Where did the idea come from? Driving home from my (suburban) grocery store in 1998, I saw tanks coming down a side street. I’m not used to visions, so I paid attention. I thought: why couldn’t a war happen here? About that time, I’d been reading about Dayton history and the history of water in Ohio, and making frequent drives over the flat fertile land between Dayton and Lake Erie. The possibility of future American water and food shortages came to my mind. From that I got the idea of a possible solution: The Grid, a huge dedicated agricultural area in the middle of–but isolated from–the rest of the country. And from that a whole host of problems and characters came to mind.
3. Genre? Speculative fiction
4. Who should play your characters in a movie? Chad and Sharis (the index couple, a surburban couple with two sons): John Goodman at the age he was in Rosanne; Anna Kendrick Lila (the aging, lonely local commissioner of water who yearns to be part of the Grid): Janet McTeer. Tuuro (the church custodian who believes that General Nenonene, the head of the invading forces, will understand him): Chris Rock, minus twenty pounds. Charles and Diana (the good-hearted naturalist and his troubled paramour holed up at their nature center): Jack Black, Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith on Downton Abbey) with an American accent. The city of Dayton and its rivers: themselves.
5. One-sentence synopsis. If a war was threatening your city, what would you do?
6. Publisher and agent? Publisher, Ohio University/Swallow Press. Agent, Elisabeth Weed of Weed Literary.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft? About three years. I used to sit in my writing chair and feel like my head was steaming.
8. Book you would compare this book to? Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale
9. What inspired you to write this? This book was a labor of love for my four sons. I knew this story was outside my usual “upmarket women’s fiction” genre and that it was a big, risky feat for me. I suspected my usual publisher might not want it (true) but I had health issues in 2001–when my sons were ages six to ten–and I believed (still believe) that there are big, hard things in this novel that I wanted to be sure my sons thought about. Even if Sharp and Dangerous Virtues would never be published, I thought, I had to finish it for them, so that someday they could find the manuscript in the back of my closet and see the sort of things I wanted to pass on. And now it’s published and they’ve read it!
10. Anything else to pique a reader’s interest? a. Since the novel deals with war and war as I understand it is random, in the middle of writing the first draft I put the names of the major characters in a paper bag and had my sons pull out names of characters who would survive. Everyone who dies was left in the bag. b. My sons love the book. c. A couple weeks ago at a Mt. Vernon, Ohio, library event, one of the attendees said, “My friend and I spent three hours arguing about this book!” I thought: Oh my. I am living the dream.
For next week, I am tagging Lucrecia Guerrero, the author of Chasing Shadows (inter-related short stories) and the novel Tree of Sighs. In clear and lovely prose, Lucrecia writes distinctive tales about tough things. For more, go to www.lucreciaguerrero.com.
I’m a self-taught writer of fiction. I did study writing poetry in college, but I’ve never taken any courses in writing any sort of prose.
On my own through the years I’ve learned things about writing fiction (and writing in general) that I’m happy to share.
This is a blog about writing, not about getting published or marketing. Three things I believe:
- the first job of a writer is to write
- inspiration is magic but writing is a craft
- good writing is thoughtful writing
Find out more about my work with translator Jamal Assadi and the English summer camp we started in Israel and that now continues with students from Deir al Assad visting Dayton! Visit the In Israel section for more, including photos and updates from 2012.
Jennie Szink of The Dayton Jewish Observer writes about Sharp and Dangerous Virtues and the writing process:
Moody described a recurring theme in the feedback she’s received: It makes readers examine the ideas they had of America’s security and of human nature.
Read full article »
Listen to interview with Martha Moody by Barbara Gray on WVXU (Cincinnati NPR): Listen here »
See write-up of Sharp and Dangerous Virtues in the Dayton Daily News’ Book Nook. Read article »
Martha’s new novel, Sharp and Dangerous Virtues, is coming Fall 2012 from Ohio University Press / Swallow Press. This book is set in Dayton, Ohio, in 2047, during a war that threatens the area. Listen to Martha reading a selection from the manuscript: Listen on WYSO.org »
Check out this article written by Martha’s son, Simon Jacobs, “Lessons in an Arab-Israeli village.” Read article »