Here is what works for me. I call them “rules,” for lack of a better word. They are things that I’ve noticed along the way. You might call them landmarks, just like on a road. I’ve discovered that when I don’t pay attention to these rules, I don’t write as well as I can. Yes, I know all about “the rules are made to be broken stuff,” but before breaking them, consider being mindful of them – because they really work. Be flexible. I continuously revise my rules as I discover something new that works.

If my suggestions don’t work for you, invent your own. I am not joking. Notice the pattern that supports your writing, and go with it. Also notice what undermines your writing  — and do not feed it. You know what works best for you. Tap into your strength and listen to the wisdom of your inner voice. Listen to the quiet even when it feels like it is the void. Your Voice will eventually emerge. It always does. Believe.

1/ Write at the same time, in the same place. Every day. Otherwise, write for as long as possible, whenever and wherever possible. Give yourself a minimum quota – VS Naipaul writes only 200 words a day, Stephen King writes an average of 4,000 words. Figure out your comfort zone and push for 15% more. Do timed writing as an exercise. Try writing for ten minutes non-stop. Increase it to twenty. See what happens.

2/ Suspend judgment and go through your fear. Allow yourself to write, even if it’s shit and you end up throwing it out. And believe me, sometimes you will. Writing is by definition the process of self-discovery. Breathe life into your writing by going through your fear rather than avoiding it. The more you avoid fear, the more it crops up. All fear stems from the unknown. By making your fear known to yourself, you are dispelling its power. When you are a writer it is more frightening (and self-punishing) not to write than to write.

3/ Put your “critic” in jail, for life. Note: the critic does not deserve a capital “C” here or in your writing life. The critic doesn’t write. He or she thrives on being critical and only becomes taller by making you feel smaller. The “critic” is that voice in your head that stops you by telling you things like “you’re not good enough, you’ll never be good enough, the reviews will be lousy, you are a hack, yadi yadi ya, etc. etc.” Do not stand for any of this. Be relentless. Give your critic a life sentence and never allow him or her out on parole. You may, however, forgive your critic, because all writers are by nature perfectionists. While you write, suspend judgment. This is not to be confused with “not editing.” Simply allow yourself to write – on good days, but especially on bad days. Some of the best writing is done on  “bad days.” Really.

4/ Never write drunk or high. If you are lonely it isn’t because you are a writer. It is because you are a writer who is not writing. Don’t romanticize those so-called “writer” states. In my opinion, no one ever writes anything worth reading when toasted. If you have a substance abuse problem, get help immediately. It will do wonders for your writing, if not instantly, then certainly long term.

Most writing is done alone. Occasionally you will write in a “writer’s group” in unison with other writers. However, even then, you are still writing your own words on paper, solo. Notice that once you write, you never really feel alone. Feel the smoothness of the paper beneath your hand, the feel of the pen gliding or stumbling, the memory of a place you never knew you knew so well, the mysterious future that unfolds with each word. It is the alienation of writers who do not write and or their personal life that is lonely, not the writing life. The best way to deal with your loneliness is to write. Breathe in and out as you write.

5/ Revise, edit and close your door until you’re ready to open it. I repeat. Revise and edit. That means you practice getting better and better. Just like biking, or playing an instrument or making love. Draft one of most stuff is well…let’s just say it’s draft one. Work alone without soliciting anyone else’s opinion, until you feel you are ready to open the door.

You will know in your gut when the time has come to open that door. Do not hold onto the work once you feel you have a completed manuscript. This does not mean that you will not need to revise again. It just means that you are ready to have some distance from your work. Put the manuscript away or show it to someone you trust. Don’t solicit their opinion about it for at least three to six weeks. Go back and reread your manuscript as if another writer wrote it. Make changes only if necessary. Learn to leave well enough alone. Learn to rework when necessary. How will you know if it’s necessary? You’ll know. Listen.

6/ Create a “Sacred Space” for writing that is totally and completely your own. Ideally this room has a door and at least one window. Have the tools that you need – pen, paper, typewriter or computer and printer – everything that you need, including space for your manuscripts. Don’t do your bills at the same desk if you can help it. Do not share your writing space with anyone or allow any intruders in your space. That includes the missus, the man of your dreams, holy and unholy children, your dog, your pet bird, your shrink. Even your mother. Find your place and sit in the comfort of its center.

7/ Read. Great writers read other great writers. That’s one way we learn how to become great.

8/ Copy, steal, and emulate the greats — but never plagiarize. All writers are influenced knowingly and unknowingly by what other writers have already accomplished. Be humble. You are lucky because many others have traveled this road before you and are invisible and visible guides. Tap into their energy, strength, and wisdom.

Stretch. You widen your horizons by stretching yourself in different directions. For example: try writing the same piece as seen by two different people. Or write the same story in a different tense. See what happens. Revise it, if it doesn’t work. Don’t get discouraged. Your worst pieces often lead the way to your best pieces.

9/ Listen, eavesdrop and stare. Great material is everywhere. On the bus. At the diner when you’re getting a cup of coffee. In bed, with your lover. In bed, when alone. In your dreams. When you’re riding a bike or walking your dog. Listen to your thoughts and everyone else’s. See life. More than 80% of our thinking and feeling process is through our eyes. That’s why the expression…”a picture is worth a thousand words” resonates. Great writing always paints an accurate “picture” of events and our inner workings.

10/ Be kind to yourself and to other writers. Writers are always hardest on themselves. When you allow yourself to enjoy the process even on less creative days, you allow yourself the freedom to experiment and discover what works and what doesn’t. Don’t worry if something doesn’t work. You can always throw it out, revise it, edit it or start completely anew.

Never disrespect and or hurt another writer, whether they’re great or lousy — especially if they’re lousy. Even the best writers are lousy some of the time. In fact, you help other writers whenever possible, because it will come back to you tenfold.

Give interviews, answer questions and talk to other writers. Do not consider your process as secret. Help others by sharing your views, what you have learned, where and when you stumbled. I recently read an interview with I. B Singer – and his words had a profound effect on my current work. It’s as if he came back from the dead just to help me. His words resonate and sound true. Thank you, thank you I.B. Singer! To paraphrase Natalie Goldberg from “Writing Down The Bones” – writers are carried on the backs of other great writers who have preceded them. We do not exist in a vacuum. We are connected through the Word – regardless of what language we are writing in.

11/A Do everything in your power to get published*. Correction. Get published! even if you have to stand on your head. Writing stuff and letting it collect dust in a drawer won’t do you or anyone else any good. Even Emily Dickinson (God rest her soul) finally gave her wonderful gift to the world only once she got published. Writing is communication and — as Stephen King puts it in his book “On Writing”– telepathy. Communicating with thin air is meaningless, unless all you want to accomplish is to scrimp on therapy. Listen to your agent and your editors. Be polite even if you don’t agree. Consider that they may be right. Often, you’re too close to see things clearly. Agents and editors can also be wrong. In which case you’ll have to work together, edit and rewrite. They are not doing this to torture you. When you succeed, they succeed. Listen, show respect and be polite, even when you don’t agree. Don’t burn bridges. Ultimately, it’s your work. If you still don’t agree, reserve the right to do as you please with it. However, realize that you always have to face the consequences of your choices – both good and bad.

11/B * Don’t stop writing, even if you don’t get published. While the intent of being published is important, the outcome should not determine if you continue to write or not. If you are a writer, your job is to write, regardless of your success. Remember, Kafka was not successfully published in his lifetime, and Van Gogh was too poor to buy paints for his canvases. Both are now considered giants in their respective fields. Write for the love of writing and because it helps you focus and express yourself. Let your words float on the wind. Like seeds they will find fertile ground. Have Faith.

12/ Join the writer’s union. Go on retreats. Attend seminars. Compare notes with other writers. Join a writer’s group, if it is supportive. By definition, writing is done alone, but it isn’t lonely. It’s just how it’s done. Writing material, however, necessitates that you spend time with other people. You can go to writing school, but don’t expect it to be the magic wand. There is no substitute for sitting down and putting words on paper.

13/ If you decide to use a pseudonym, choose it carefully and with love. Names are powerful manifestations of who we are. Breathe life and love into yours. Note: Mark Twain, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tony Morrison, and many more who reinvented themselves through their writing and also with the help of a new (sometimes ancient) name. Read “The Language of Names” by Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays.

14/ See yourself as a writer who earns a living through writing and use spell check. Writing is a life calling and a vocation. It is work (though it may not feel like work because you love it), and like all work, you need to get paid for it. You deserve it. However, in order to earn it, you must “Show up” at the office or (in your case) at your desk. Many of us look at work as “not fun” or joyous. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you are on your life’s path, it won’t feel like work, though you may work very hard at it. There will be many moments of joy. There will also be moments of despair and frustration. Keep writing. Go through it, knowing that this is just a bump in the road. Believe that your writing is worth reading and you will have readers – who will pay for your books. Don’t worry about the money. The money will eventually come. Believe. Believe. Believe.

Even the best writers are too close to their writing to proof their own manuscripts. Use the spell check on your computer or get a proofreader. Ideally you should have a professional proofreader read your manuscript before you send it out.

15/ Write and pray regularly with great reverence. It doesn’t matter if you are religious or not. Even atheists and agnostics feel a greater power at work when they are writing. Great writing is about making a spiritual connection and this only comes with great faith.

Do you still want to write? If your answer is YES — start writing. Keep writing, keep saying YES – and never, never, never, give up.

When you’re a writer, you know who you are!

All my best,

Heaven help me…I am this close to pub date (March 30!) for my first book, and I have not yet officially thanked my guardian angel, Frank McCourt. To be sure, Mr. McCourt is never far from my mind, since he unknowingly helped me get through some of the toughest moments during the writing of  “Under a Red Sky.”

The first time I met him, it was at the Post Office on Columbus Avenue and 68th Street, right around the corner from Barnes & Noble. The intersection of these worlds — mail and literature — did not escape me since I was then still writing direct mail copy, but was also in the midst of writing my first book. In fact, the reason I was at the post office to begin with is I had to mail a chapter of my manuscript to a prospective agent. I don’t remember the exact words we exchanged, but we did acknowledge each other. Not in a formal way, though I felt that rush of recognition! I was well aware of Frank McCourt, the legend; the Pulitzer prize author of “Angela’s Ashes,” and the fact that he was a late bloomer. I could relate to that. I too, am a late bloomer. I too, have ink running through my veins.

To the unsuspecting observer, that first encounter might have been described as two dogs circling each other before darting off to play in the park. The entire meeting must have taken less than a minute, but when it was over, my overarching impression was that Frank McCourt was far more than a brilliant writer. Here was a very kind man.

The second time I bumped into him, it was again at the same Post Office. The thought that this may not be entirely by accident vaguely crossed my mind. Still. I decided to stay firmly rooted in what I then called “reality,” and chalked this second encounter to coincidence, chance, or at best, my “good luck.” This time we had a brief conversation about Ireland. I had actually been on a trip to the Emerald Isle, and I told Mr. McCourt that I had never seen so many shades of green in my entire life. He smiled and nodded knowingly. Again, his kind face stayed with me.

The third and last time I saw Frank McCourt, was not a coincidence. I went to one of his readings. He had just published “Teacher Man” and I was standing in a long line of admiring readers waiting for his autograph. As I waited, it occurred to me that perhaps Mr. McCourt might help me by referring me to his agent. After all, I was more than halfway through my memoir! As I inched closer to the table where he was sitting and signing books, I lost my nerve. Who do you think you are? I thought. He doesn’t even know you, he doesn’t know if you’re a good writer or not, so how could you ask for an agent referral? Besides, you’ll be holding up the line, and that’s not fair to everyone else. These were my thoughts as I found myself face to face with Mr. McCourt. He looked up and smiled. To this day, I have no idea whether or not he recognized me from our last two encounters at the Post Office.

“I’m writing a memoir myself,” I stammered. “Wish me luck.”

He autographed the book, closed its cover, and looked straight into my face. His eyes were piercing and startlingly clear, as he asked in his Irish lilt:

“Have you gone through the pain yet?”

I shook my head, and stammered affirmatively, but in truth, his question had completely taken me by surprise.

“Good luck to ya! Good luck to ya!” He said, beaming a great big smile at me.

Months later as I immersed myself deeper into the writing of my book, and long-forgotten memories of my family emerged quite painfully, his words struck home.

Have you gone through the pain yet? Aha…so this is what he was talking about! I realized then, that I had to write through my pain. There was no other way out, but simply to complete the task of writing.

I do not know how other writers do it, when they’re going through the pain — be it the pain of memory, or just the everyday ups and downs that come with the territory of writing. But I do know that Frank McCourt’s few words sustained me in ways too big to put into words. I am sorry that I cannot thank him in person for his kindness today, yet something tells me that he already knows it.

When you’re a writer you know who you are. Good look to ya!

haya signatue 2

On Inspiration

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I have an aversion to certain public places. The more crowded and bureaucratic, the more I do my best to avoid them, or at least I try to limit my time in these places. For example, I hate airports, yet I love to fly. My dislike of airports used to make me chronically late, until one day — I missed my flight. This made me rethink my relationship to airports, and now I am always on time, but not without some trepidation. Right up there with my airport aversion is my intense dislike of subways at rush hour and parades of any kind; whether they are political or celebratory, I hate parades.

By now, you may think I am claustrophobic, but I swear I’m not. I function fairly well, despite my little eccentricities. But I admit that my aversion of public spaces does not include elevators. Elevators are different. For one thing, there’s not much room for bureaucracy in an elevator. Elevators are quite interesting. Being in such close proximity with complete strangers always tempts me to stare at my fellow passengers. This makes people uncomfortable, I know it, but I can’t help it. What else is a writer supposed to do? Here is an opportunity for research! Can you think of a better place to examine another human being at such close range without getting personally involved? In an elevator, I can imagine all sorts of things; the details of that person’s inner life make up the kernels that are the beginnings of STORY. Here are just some of the things that spring to mind as I stare unabashedly at my fellow elevator riders.

Is this person in a relationship? Married, or not? Good in bed or not? Cheating on the spouse or not? Any children? What does this person do for a living? What secrets is this person hiding from his or her family? What secrets is this person hiding even from him or her self? What is the worst thing that has ever happened to this person? What’s his or her greatest fear? What’s this person’s secret dream? What’s the most unexpected thing this person has ever done? Would I want to be stuck in an elevator with this person, or not? There are lots more questions…but hey, remember, this is just an elevator ride!

Of course, if you’re not the type or writer who is comfortable staring at your fellow elevator passengers, you can strike up a very time-limited, meaningless conversation. Why not? It’s done all the time, and I admit, I’ve been guilty of it myself…Hi, pretty hot outside, isn’t it? Good thing it’s Friday! Or…Did you have to wait forever for the B train too? If you don’t feel like engaging in chatter, you could let out an accidental fart, and glance at everyone else in an accusatory manner, shrug, and if you’re really brave, declare, It wasn’t me! — just as the elevator door opens and you run out like the coward that you know you are.

Another option for smooth elevator riding is to avoid eye contact, especially when the elevator is packed. You keep your eyes riveted to the changing floor numbers above the elevator door. Ever wonder, what’s so fascinating about those lights?

No matter which option from the ones enumerated you choose — if you’re a writer — you should have the beginnings of a PLOT by the time you’ve exited the elevator. The CHARACTER part of your story is already taken care of, since you’ve been studying your specimen at such close range. Here are the beginnings of just one possible plot scenario. WRITERS TAKE HEART: There are as many plot scenarios as there are writers, and … there are many more revisions to any given plot than there are writers.

Elevator Scenario #1. A young woman who has just moved to the big city from Omaha, Nebraska gets into the elevator from the lobby of the New York Life Building. The elevator is empty because she is early. It is 7:45 AM, and this is Mary Malarsky’s (I’ve just given her a name!) first day at her new job and she does not want to be late. She is nervous. She’s had a hard time sleeping last night (on an air mattress) since she is staying at cousin Janet’s apartment in Astoria, Queens, until she saves enough money to get her own place. Mary is holding a cup of Dunkin Donuts Coffee (she hates Starbucks; it’s too bitter and it’s pricey). Her job as an actuarial intern at the insurance company pays very little, not enough for Mary to afford her own apartment, but once she completes her internship, she will be gainfully employed. Mary’s real dream, however, is to write an Op Ed column for the New York Times. Her secret hero is Maureen Dowd.

The elevator stops on the 15th floor, and Benjamin Walker gets in. Ben is about three years older than Mary and he is a native New Yorker, and a trust fund baby who has graduated from Princeton. Ben has a job at New York Life, but Mary is unaware of that.

Mary, who is very friendly by nature, greets him with, “Good morning, Benjamin.”

“How’d you know my name?” Ben asks her.

She points to his shirt pocket, “Your name tag.” She answers, taking a sip of her coffee.

Ben laughs. “Oh, I forgot about that.”

Mary smiles back the kind of smile that lights up all 40 floors of the New York Life Building.

Cut. We are now on the 36th floor and Mary walks out of the now empty elevator crying. What happened between the 15th floor and the 36th floor that made Mary cry? END of Scenario #1.

Okay. Whether you like this scenario or not, is irrelevant. And please, please, don’t write me back with possible answers to the “What made Mary cry?” question. Honestly, I have no idea! And the only way I’ll discover that is by writing it. I’m trying to make a point here. When you’re a writer, stories are all around you, waiting for you to breathe life into them. In fact, stories are EVERYWHERE. If you’re a writer, you will surely recognize a story when it walks through your elevator door. Even when the elevator is empty, except for you. Especially when the elevator is empty.

If you are a writer, you know who you are. Keep writing!

All my best,

haya signatue 2

A long time ago, when I was in kindergarten, my teacher called my mother in for a conference to express her concern about my future.

“I asked your daughter, What do you want to be when you grow up?” my teacher told my mother, “And your daughter answered: I have a pencil that’s writing stories in my guts!

My mother, a former dancer turned ballet mistress, was worried enough to talk this over with my pediatrician, who reassured her by confirming that I have a wild imagination that needs an outlet.

Writing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of standing up on a wooden crate in front of my kindergarten classmates and their parents to recite a poem I had written.

I’ve always loved a good story and writing comes naturally to me, though not effortlessly. However, writing has not always been at the center of my life. There is an inherent danger in being born with any gift or ability; it is so easy to take it for granted!

Truth be told, I didn’t consider myself a real writer for a long time, despite the fact that I made a living as an advertising copywriter and creative director for over twenty years.

“What took you so long?” Frances Foster, my editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux, asked.

I didn’t have an answer to this question and it has been gnawing at me ever since, because so much time has been lost! The easy answer is, of course, LIFE got in the way: emigrating from a Communist country to Israel and then coming to America in the span of two years, learning English as a third language, culture shock, an early marriage and the birth of a first child, a difficult divorce, single-motherhood, remarriage, the birth of another child, the need to make money, a career in advertising that demanded long hours, shopping, cooking, walking the dog, driving the kids to doctors appointments and sporting events, making time for family, friends, holidays, vacations, taking care of parents and sick in-laws, having no physical space of my own to write. Being born a woman, and having to multi-task before the term was ever invented! The list goes on and on. TIME, and SPACE, and MONEY, or the lack of any one of these, or a combination thereof — all got in the way.

Interestingly enough, it was never the fear of the blank page, but rather the fear of the poorly written page. I lacked the self-confidence in my God-given ability to recognize it, acknowledge it, and honor it by making it my life’s work. That’s what got in the way. Notice, I didn’t say avocation or lack of inspiration. And I’m not saying vocation or even career. I’m saying, my life’s work. It took me half a lifetime to discover my life’s work. And it will undoubtedly take the other half of my life to get to be really good at it. I have high standards and I’m my toughest critic.

I am not alone. I shudder at the thought of all the wasted talent, all the great unwritten stories waiting to be told, when I ask myself, how many wonderful writers are dry, or blocked, or perhaps depressed, right now? How many have conquered their fear, written something that shimmers right off the page, even something that got published and became a best-seller, only to have their fear resurface because of one lousy review, a negative comment by a literary agent, or even a friend’s innocent remark that is perceived as criticism? This can be very debilitating — if you let it.

So how does a writer keep writing? When asked about the endless intrusions into his writing life, Isaac Bashevis Singer once answered: “I am interviewed and otherwise interrupted. But somehow I manage to keep on writing… I think that being disturbed is part of life, and sometimes it’s useful to be disturbed because while you are busy with something else, your perspective changes or the horizon widens. All I can say about myself is that I have never written in peace…”

In order to write from the heart, your soul must be as sensitive as a fine tuning fork that resonates to life’s stories. But in order to survive as a writer, one must grow a skin that’s as thick as an elephant’s — and keep writing, day in and day out.

If you are a writer, you know who you are. Keep writing!

All my best,

Haya