Martin Luther King, Jr. and My Life as a Writer

My Holocaust survivor parents arrived in the U.S. in 1950 and followed the Civil Rights movement in the 50s and 60s with hope and horror. When they saw TV footage of demonstrators being dragged, beaten, attacked by dogs, it triggered terrible memories of Nazis and other oppressors for them. But they sincerely believed that this country would fulfill its promises of freedom and equal rights.

As a kid I read a lot about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, especially biographies, but none of those figures moved me the way Martin Luther King, Jr. did. His eloquence and passion weren’t something from the past: they were immediate–like his speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

LIFE Magazine was always in our house along with a handful of newspapers, and somewhere, somehow in fourth or fifth grade I read at least part of King’s powerful and eloquent “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I was an early reader and read beyond my grade level, but this manifesto was completely different from the books of various country’s folk tales, books about dolphins, and science fiction that I brought home from the local public library every week.

King offered poetry, passion, and inspiration–things I hadn’t truly encountered in any book before.  My favorite books at the time were Alice in Wonderland, Cheaper by the Dozen, and The Three Musketeers, each of them entertaining in different ways.  But King’s words soared:

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
“The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
“If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

I can see myself curled up in a big, wide-armed living room chair, some green material shot through with bold threads, transfixed.  And in my own head, I made connections between how Jews had been considered less than human in Nazi Germany with how America’s blacks were being treated as they fought for equality.

I did a school report on King and it must have been noteworthy because it was sent to a display at the local school district’s offices.  I have no memory of what was in it, but can picture the illustration pasted to the construction paper cover: a black hand reaching up, something I’d probably cut out from LIFE.

It was the first time my writing had been recognized, but more importantly, it was the first time I’d felt propelled to write, to pay tribute.  And the first time my writing had affected anyone but me. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the real start of my career as a writer because I discovered the power of words to change the world.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery including Writer’s Block is Bunk.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

4 Things Writers Should Know Before Doing Readings From Their Work

I’ve done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three different continents and I love being out there with my writing—it’s a dream come true. But even though I’m an extrovert, I found doing readings more challenging than I expected when I started out touring twenty-five books ago.

I had the benefit of some acting experience in college, so I was very comfortable with my spouse coming along to give me director’s notes on my first book tour. I learned a lot from every single reading: what worked, what didn’t, and how I needed to up my game. I began to look forward to every reading with excitement. Do I get nervous even now? Absolutely, but in a good way.

I’ve taught workshops about how to do author readings because I believe that there are skills you can learn if you’re dedicated enough. And whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, here are four things authors should know and consider before they meet their public in a bookstore or any other venue.

1. The word “reading” sounds a little flat because it actually involves a whole lot more than the text at hand. It’s a performance. You’re performing your own work, acting it out, giving it texture and color that might not even be there on the page, but that audiences crave. I’ve seen people actually fall asleep at some readings because the authors read as if they were sitting at their desk, in a monotone, with no shading, no nuance, no drama.

2. You need to prepare for this performance as if you’re going on stage, which in effect you are. You don’t have to memorize your text, but you need to have practiced reading it enough times so that you’re familiar with it and can look up at the audience as often as possible. Making eye contact is important in a reading, and this is a chance to connect with your audience in a very deep way. It’s not just your words that count, it’s the power you imbue them with.

3. Picking the right thing to read can be tricky. Whether you’re reading for ten minutes or half an hour, what you present needs to have a clear beginning, middle, and end. You want to satisfy your audience’s need for structure in the entertainment. Don’t choose anything you feel iffy about, or that you don’t have emotional control over. Crying or even choking up in a reading can be very embarrassing for people who are listening.

4. Trying to win the audience’s favor right off by apologizing isn’t a good idea. Telling them that this is your first time, or that you’re not entirely sure this story or novel chapter really works undercuts your authority as a performer. Likewise, announcing that you decided on what to read “on the way over here” is disrespectful to the audience: they deserve an author who’s prepared. And be careful about making jokes to warm up your listeners—they might fall flat.

It doesn’t matter how big your audience is. Every audience deserves the best you’ve got, and you can learn how to give that to them, no matter how shy you might be, or how anxious, or how reluctant.  Readings are a unique way to reach your audience–and they can make you a better writer, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: All Hail Our New Literary Genius?

Garth Greenwell has a new book out and when he published his debut a few years ago, the response from critics reminded me of my many years reviewing for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications.  Back then my colleagues sometimes struck me like a pack of wolves. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo everywhere. The raves often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really earth-shattering?

The panegyrics about What Belongs to You when it came out had put me off, but a creative writing student of mine told me he found it interesting, so I decided to read it.

The narrator was a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who got involved with an increasingly demanding hustler he met in a public toilet. One British reviewer said this novel actually made her tremble, while another hailed it as “incandescent.”  That’s apparently the official word of choice for Greenwell’s work since it’s been applied to his latest book, too.

A New York Times reviewer called that debut an “instant classic” and compared the book to a Jackson Pollack painting, which seemed wildly inappropriate given its overall lack of energy.

Aside from listless prose, the major problem I had was the obnoxious, dishonest grifter. We were supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to this Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features were a chipped tooth and being well hung.  The sex scenes were minimal and boring, which was problematic since the narrator’s sexual obsession seemed design to drive the book forward.  They didn’t.  It crawled.

While the novel’s framing sections were way too languid, the middle section worked best because the prose was more direct and compelling, less writerly.  In those pages we experienced the narrator’s shameful memories of growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book and my iPad screen didn’t glow, but I felt the author was far more deeply engaged. He spoiled it, though, when the narrator found a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of that section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Yes, dude.  We totally got it.  The narrator was trapped.  Thanks for clarifying that.  The sequence was like one of those corny songs at the end of a movie filled with lyrics explaining what you just saw in case you were too dumb to understand the two hours you’d just sat through.

Nobody recommended the new book Cleanness to me, but I started it anyway out of morbid curiosity.  I found the same overlong, airless, flat sentences that weighed down What Belongs to You and had to give up.  Greenwell is being compared to Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and D.H. Lawrence.

Calls for a Nobel Prize are probably next.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: “Sword of Kings” is Another Bernard Cornwell Triumph

The best historical novels create a world so immersive that you don’t just live inside of it while read the book, you carry that world with you for days or weeks afterward, and see everything around you through new eyes. That’s the genius of Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon tales set in early medieval England, books that make him the king of this genre.

England in fact does not exist as a country in the period he explores.  The land is divided into rival kingdoms and they themselves are split between Christians and Danes.  Standing athwart two very different religious and political cultures is a hero who knows both of them intimately: Uhtred, Lord of Bebbannburg, which is a redoutable fortress in Northumbria, the last Kingdom ruled by a pagan king.

Each of these books is epic in scope but as intimate as a confession, thanks to that unforgettable narrator in a series with a cast of thousands: priests, lords, soldiers, slaves, wives, peasants, children, traitors, spies, royalty, raiders, lords, thugs, runaways, starvelings, sailors, witches. All of them are as real as your neighbors, thanks to Cornwell’s quick brush strokes and his sly humor.

His prose is brisk but never mechanical. He can find poetry in the rush of water under a bridge or the changing light at dusk, and even in the gory slide of a sword into a man’s guts. Cornwell doesn’t hold anything back in portraying the brutality of this period which he evokes through its sites and sights, sounds, and smell and the way people dwell on the importance of dreams and find omens at every turn.

Uhtred was born Christian but raised by Danes and his heart is pagan.  Despite that reality, he’s served Christian kings through sometimes bizarre twists of fate he hasn’t been able to escape.  Fate is inexorable he keeps saying, and events keep proving him right.

The Lord of Bebbanburg is a keen strategist and fierce warrior, but first and foremost a man of honor who values keeping an oath even if it takes him into danger, which it does time and again.  Why?  Because he believes that a man leaves nothing behind when he dies but his reputation.  And yet, as he says, “We seek it, we prize it, and then it turns on us like a cornered wolf.”

In this book Uhtred is a grandfather but as a brave as ever and no less determined to fulfill the oaths he’s sworn to keep, which paradoxically bind him to the dead King Alfred who dreamed of one vast English-speaking Christian land uniting all the warring kingdoms.

Uhtred’s first mission seems hopeless amid the turmoil sure to follow the death of King Edward: rescue a queen and kill a king.  That adventure involves unique dangers, amazing hand-to-hand combat, a breathtaking battle at sea and a remarkable chase scene, capped by a humiliation as profound as anything Uhtred has suffered in the previous 11 books.

Though he may be battered and battle-scarred, he’s still remarkably thoughtful, and he’s still a man of bold action.  After a crushing defeat when someone advises rest, his longtime comrade in arms violently disagrees: “He must fight.  He’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  He doesn’t lie in a bed feeling sorry for himself.  Uhtred of Bebbanburg puts on his mail, straps on a sword, and takes death to his enemies.”

The stakes here are higher than ever: in the battle between Danes and Christians, should the Christians keep expanding their reach, they will eventually swallow his native Northumbria and change his life and the life of everyone he knows and loves forever.

The prize-winning author of 26 books in many genres, Lev Raphael teaches creative writing and offers editing services at writewithoutborders.com.

I Ditched My Famous Literary Agent–And Never Regretted It

Back in the eighties, I landed a major New York agent and felt I was truly launched as an author. Up to that point, I had only one fiction publication: a short story in Redbook which had won a prize at my MFA program, made me a lot of money, and garnered fan mail. The judge of the contest was Martha Foley who had been editing the yearly anthology Best American Short Stories, and Redbook had an audience of 4.5 million readers.

The agent took me to lunch at a classy restaurant, told me she loved my novel and that my short fiction was ready for The New Yorker. I was blown away.

Her outer office was filled with copies of books in many languages by her major client, bookcase after bookcase trumpeting his fame and her connection to him. Having this woman as my agent made life seem golden. And yes, I admit it: I assumed that sooner or later I would meet the international celebrity, or at the very least get a blurb for my novel Winter Eyes about Holocaust survivors trying to start a new life in New York.

What happened next was like a bad love affair: my agent never wrote or called to keep me up-to-date—what had I done wrong? She never sent me copies of rejection letters from editors, so I had no idea where the book had been submitted. The only actual feedback she shared was that an editor at Knopf thought my novel was “too short.” She also rarely answered my queries or returned my phone calls, and after a year and half of this bizarre treatment, I gave up, ending the relationship by registered mail.

It turns out that I was actually lucky to drop this agent before she sold my book. In the 90s, she was accused of not passing on royalty checks to her clients who included a handful of major literary authors.

Un-agented, that first novel of mine ended up being accepted by St. Martin’s Press and I had fantastic editing and copy-editing there. Though I did go on to work with other agents, some of whom were duds in different ways, my first agent won the prize for most unprofessional. Ironically, over the years, the books that have earned me the most money were books I sold myself.

I guess I should have seen that first experience as an omen.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing workshops year-round at writewithoutborders.com.