Tony Morrison & The Author’s Dilemma

I never met Morrison but she helped me cope with one of the most vexing aspects of being a writer.

It happened in Chicago.  I was on a short Midwestern book tour with another author.  Over a steak dinner one night, we shared our admiration of authors including Morrison.

Like many of her fans, I read The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and essays of hers in a state of wonderment and delight. Writers like Morrison, Ann Tyler, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan are so polished, so deep, so memorable that reading them, I feel like Viola in Twelfth Night: “O brave new world to have such people in it.”

Done with talking about her work, my travel buddy told me a story he had first hand that has stuck with me for twenty years.

A young writer contacted Morrison to ask for a blurb for her forthcoming novel.  Now, whether you do an MFA or follow a different route to becoming a published author, nobody warns you how demeaning it can be to beg authors you know–or would like to know–to endorse your book.

It’s not enough to have fought your way through to find an agent or a publisher, now it seems like you’re starting all over again, a supplicant in a universe of wealth.

Some authors never bother to reply.   Others wait till it’s too late to fill their spot to let you know they’re busy and can’t do it.  I’ve even had one well-known author change his mind at the last minute, without offering a reason.  Another said she never blurbed books, which made my editor at the time laugh because this author had skyrocketed to fame thanks to a blurb she got for her first book from someone as famous as she was now.

Then there are the writers who say they’ll blurb the book but don’t have time to read it, and tell you or your editor to write whatever.  And you’re stuck wondering if it’s ethical to have their name on your book when the quote is in effect bogus.  Does it taint the book’s karma, or your own?

So the young author waited and waited for Morrison to reply.  Then the author wrote a second request which was on the desperate side.  This time, she got a speedy reply: “My dear: I understood your letter to be a request, not a demand.  Sincerely, Tony Morrison.”

My first response after laughter was pity for the newbie author. But then my focus turned to Morrison herself.  She probably was the recipient of hundreds of blurb requests–and that was before she won the Nobel Prize.  I felt sorry for her and admired the elegance of her note.

Would Morrison’s blurb have made a difference?  There’s no way of knowing.  Best-selling authors have blurbed my books and it’s been lovely to have their imprimatur, so to speak, but the excitement fades too quickly because there’s always another book in the pipeline and a different sent of authors to hit up for blurbs.

When Morrison died, that story about her note was the first thing I thought of.  It had turned the obnoxious task of getting blurbs into a mild comedy of errors, and we authors need to laugh more about the vagaries of our business.  As an author friend once warned me, “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”

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

The Joy of Mentoring Writers

My college creative writing mentor was amazing: funny, good-natured, and inspiring. I took every course she offered, both literature and creative writing. I even took what that college called a “January Project”: a short intensive course between first and second semesters. In hers, we studied a novel and some short stories through the lens of psychologist Karen Horney’s work on cultural conflicts. It was unforgettable, and gave me a whole new way to read and enjoy fiction.

My mentor offered me the chance to do unofficial teacher training with her because I wanted to become a teacher as well as an author. So I got to sit in on one of her classes in my last semester; afterwards we’d discuss what was going on “backstage.” We didn’t just talk about how she had put her syllabus together and picked the books, but analyzed how she orchestrated a class moment by moment. She was especially good at working with what might look like chaos to outsiders—those moments when the class seemed to go off on a tangent.

While I’ve been a full-time author and reviewer since graduate school, I was recnetly an adjunct at Michigan State University for six years in a row and fortunate enough to teach writing workshops and literature courses I love. Perhaps because I’ve published more books than all the tenured creative writers in my department combined, and knew the publishing world in ways academic writers couldn’t, writing students asked to work independently with me.

No matter what the genre they’ve chosen or how often we’ve met, everyone has grown as a writer. That’s been my goal, because my question before working together has been: Can I help this student do what they already do better?

Assisting students as they progress through various drafts and deepen their stories, I can pass on what I’ve learned from all the accomplished newspaper, magazine, anthology, book and magazine editors I’ve had over the years. Best of all, I feel myself connected to my college mentor, whose devotion to students was exemplary. Working one-on-one during office hours, I’ve heard my students ask questions that I asked when I was their age and discovering myself as a writer, learning my craft, finding my voice.

And now that I’m teaching writing workshops online and helping other writers edit their manuscripts, the experience of mentoring has blossomed in new ways.  My workshops are limited to only ten participants, and I truly feel I can give them the in-depth feedback they need.  I’m free of the stresses and strains of working in an environment that doesn’t always put students first, and isn’t very collegial, either.

But one thing hasn’t changed.  As always, if I’m momentarily stumped for a comment or response, my mentor seems to pipe up with the right thing to say. All these years later, she’s still guiding me.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery, available on Amazon, and his work has been translated into fifteen languages.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and his next month-long workshop runs August 1-31: Finding Your Memoir.

Falling in Love With Ghent

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.