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7 Steps For Adapting Your Novel Into A Screenplay

Look at the Amazon Charts or the New York Times fiction list and you will likely see books that have been made into movies or TV shows

Adapting novel to screenplayIf you consider the number of people who prefer to watch than read a book, it's not really a surprise that adaptation is so popular these days.

It's also the dream of many writers to see their stories on the big – or small – screen these days. It's definitely one of my goals. 

In today's article, Alex Bloom from Scriptwriter Pro outlines how you could adapt your book into a screenplay.

Many writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), Emma Donoghue (Room) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have successfully transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps but are unsure where to start, below you’ll find the 7 Key Steps you should take in order to adapt your book into a movie script.

Writing books and writing screenplays are two entirely different beasts. If you have experience writing the former but not the latter, it’s important to understand what makes a good screenplay first before attempting to write one.

Therefore, Steps 1 – 3 below tackle some of the research you’ll need to do before adapting your novel into a screenplay.

Steps 4 – 7 then tackle the actual writing itself and how to put this research into practice.

Step 1: Read screenwriting books

storyReading some how-to screenwriting books will give you a solid grounding in writing characters, plot, structure, dialogue, theme, etc. for the big screen. I would recommend avoiding some of the heavier tomes, such as Robert Mckee’s hugely popular but rather pompous, Story.

At least for now, seek out screenwriting books that are easy to read, “fun”, and will keep you excited about your new project.

Some of the most helpful books for novice screenwriters (and my personal favorites) are:

  • Your Screenplay Sucks: William M. Akers
  • The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Pilar Alessandra
  • My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
  • Save the Cat Strikes Back: Blake Synder
  • Into the Woods: John Yorke

Step 2: Read screenplays

The reason many screenplays fail, whether they’re adaptations or not, is because the writer simply hasn’t read enough screenplays.

Attempting to write a professional standard script without reading any is a bit like trying to learn electric guitar without listening to any Jimi Hendrix, so make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

Go to a free download site like Simply Scripts, or Drew’s Script O Rama, download a bunch of screenplays and get reading.

I would recommend finding the time to read at least two scripts a week. You’ll learn so much about how to write a screenplay (perhaps even more than attending most classes or reading most books) that you can’t afford to skip this step if you want to adapt your novel into a script.

Step 3: Outline movies

It’s also important to become familiar with movies are put together structurally. Novels may contain some structural tropes within certain genres, such as Mystery or Romance, but screenplay structure is generally much more “formulaic”.

Certain beats, plots and turning points repeat themselves in movies across all genres, from Alien to Zoolander, and so it’s important to get a handle on what they are.

The best way to do this is to write outlines of movies as you watch them. This involves simply writing a short one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene as it happens.

For example, here’s what you might write for the opening few scenes of Bridesmaids:

  • Annie has awkward sex with Ted.
  • Next morning, she does herself up and sneaks back into bed. He says he doesn’t want a relationship and tells her to leave.
  • Outside, she can’t get out the gate so she climbs over and gets stuck as it opens.
  • In a park, Annie and her friend, Lillian, workout within ear-shot of an aerobics class. The instructor shoos them off.
  • In a cafe, they discuss Lillian’s relationship with Doug and Annie defends herself for still sleeping with Ted. Lillian says she should leave him because he’s an asshole.

Do this for the whole film and you’ll end up with an outline, or “step outline” as it’s sometimes called, of the whole plot. Then it’s time to break it down into acts and sequences (this is where your reading all those how-to screenwriting books will come in handy) which will force you to study and work out how the movie’s put together.

Repeat this process with as many movies as you can and you’ll soon have a pretty strong grasp of screenplay structure.

Step 4. Write an outline of your novel

building-blocksOnce you’ve spent some time on the first three steps, apply the same principle of writing outlines as described in Step 3 to your own novel.

Go through it again, but this time imagining you’re watching the events unfold on screen. Write out the key scenes focusing only on ones that contain action the reader can visualize being in the movie.

This means no flowery description, no inner character monologues, no backstory — just the scenes that push the story forward because the characters are active, making things happen.

Once you have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel, break it down into its respective acts and sequences just like in Step 3. This document will form the basic building block of your movie script, ready to be expanded upon, changed around and edited as you continue your writing process.

Step 5. Refine your movie’s core conflict

Take some time to think about the story from the point of view of someone watching it up on screen in a movie theater. What’s the core conflict here that’s going to make them pay money to want to go and see it?

As opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is predominately about making the reader follow active characters who want to achieve clear-cut goals that are in opposition to each other.

Ask yourself some key questions and jot down notes on elements, like:

  • Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s their goal?
  • Who or what is the force of antagonism stopping them achieving this goal?
  • Who or what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Thinking about these questions will give you an idea of how your novel can translate onto the big screen by focusing on its core concept.

Every great concept has at its heart a protagonist who has to struggle to achieve something. And this is usually a three-way power struggle between them, the antagonist who stands in their way, and what’s at stake in the movie (or the stakes character).

For example:

  • In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character.
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, Belloq/the Nazis are the antagonists, and Marion and the future of the world are at stake.
  • In Se7en, Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, John Doe is the antagonist, and someone else getting murdered is what’s at stake.

It’s this three-way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

In order to really solidify this, write a logline — a one or two sentence summary of this core conflict — and use it as a touchstone to keep you on track when writing the script.

Here are a few loglines from some recent films. (Note how the logline describes the core conflict of protagonist vs. antagonist over something major at stake.):

  • Whiplash: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
  • Blue Ruin: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
  • The Edge of Seventeen: High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Step 6: Finalize your outline

Some screenwriters like to write outlines, synopses or treatments of their story before starting on the script. Other’s don’t. But I would strongly advise you have some kind of document to follow while writing the actual screenplay.

Finalizing your outline will give you the chance to work out what’s staying, what’s going, and what new material needs to be written.

climbing goalA novel usually runs anywhere from 200 to 800 pages, or more. Adapting a screenplay from your novel, therefore, will largely be an exercise in editing: cutting out characters, plot lines and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overall core concept.

Focus only on the one clear goal your protagonist is struggling to achieve, why it’s not easy for them to achieve it, and what’s at stake if they don’t. Everything else can probably be cut.

Screenwriting is all about brevity and getting to the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Every scene in the movie needs to either move the plot forward, reveal character or expand upon the theme. (A great scene will do all three.)

Therefore, if you have a novel in which your protagonist has two antagonists, five friends, three brothers and a sister, as well as different subplots with each of them, it’s probably a good idea to cut some of these characters out.

Focus on the key characters and storylines that are relevant to the core conflict, fuse one or more characters together to make one single character, and generally “cut the fat” so you’re left with just a clear triangle of conflict.

Step 7: Start writing the screenplay

Once you have your outline, it’s time to finally start writing and I’d recommend purchasing some professional screenwriting software first, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. (WriterDuet is a great free alternative if you’re strapped for cash.)

Familiarize yourself with the software and you’ll soon find that screenwriting is restricted to just three elements on the page: description, dialogue, and technical formatting, such as scene headings.

As opposed to novel writing, the key to writing a successful screenplay scene is brevity. One page in a script translates roughly to one minute of screen time, and most scenes should be between one and two pages in length.

The best way to make sure you’re keeping your scenes nice and tight is to remember that each one should relate back to the stakes inherent in your protagonist’s goal and the overall core concept.

For example, in Stranger Than Fiction every scene has high stakes attached because they each revolve around Harold’s attempt to either stop himself being erased or to win the girl.

The next time you watch a film, make a note of how much screen time passes without any conflict that revolves around the overall stakes of the movie. One of the biggest problems with spec scripts is that the writer fails to make their protagonist struggle to achieve something, not only in the movie overall but within each individual scene.

Old style movie projectorThis results in scenes that are “flat” and predictable because a protagonist who’s not struggling to achieve anything just ends up hanging out with other characters and shooting the breeze, which doesn’t make for good cinema.

Remember also that film is primarily above all else about communicating story through images, therefore it’s important to avoid having your characters rely on dialogue to move the plot forward.

Actions speak louder than words as the saying goes, and so focus on showing us what your characters are thinking through their actions, rather than their words or inner thoughts.

Final Words

As you write your first draft, keep up Steps 1 to 3 and learning and perfecting your craft. Maybe take a screenwriting class as well in your area, or online.

Acting classes are also a great way of improving your skills as a screenwriter as they’ll force you to see things from “the other side” and understand how actors interpret description and dialogue on the page.

Steps 4 through 7 are also part of an ongoing process but should be accompanied by frequent feedback. Resist the temptation to work in a bubble and get opinions of your logline, outline and screenplay as you go along.

Friends and relatives are the obvious go-to people for this but they come with the baggage of trying to please or being afraid to tell you what they really think. I would suggest getting feedback on your ideas from free screenwriting community websites such as Stage32, joining a screenwriting group if there’s one near you, or paying a professional script consultant for a review.

Writing a screenplay may be tough, but put in the work and you’ll soon start seeing results and maybe the first steps toward emulating the careers of novelists like Dave Eggers and Gillian Flynn.

Have you ever thought about adapting your novel into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Alex BloomAlex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.

7 Steps For Adapting Your Novel Into A Screenplay

Look at the Amazon Charts or the New York Times fiction list and you will likely see books that have been made into movies or TV shows

Adapting novel to screenplayIf you consider the number of people who prefer to watch than read a book, it's not really a surprise that adaptation is so popular these days.

It's also the dream of many writers to see their stories on the big – or small – screen these days. It's definitely one of my goals. 

In today's article, Alex Bloom from Scriptwriter Pro outlines how you could adapt your book into a screenplay.

Many writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), Emma Donoghue (Room) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have successfully transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps but are unsure where to start, below you’ll find the 7 Key Steps you should take in order to adapt your book into a movie script.

Writing books and writing screenplays are two entirely different beasts. If you have experience writing the former but not the latter, it’s important to understand what makes a good screenplay first before attempting to write one.

Therefore, Steps 1 – 3 below tackle some of the research you’ll need to do before adapting your novel into a screenplay.

Steps 4 – 7 then tackle the actual writing itself and how to put this research into practice.

Step 1: Read screenwriting books

storyReading some how-to screenwriting books will give you a solid grounding in writing characters, plot, structure, dialogue, theme, etc. for the big screen. I would recommend avoiding some of the heavier tomes, such as Robert Mckee’s hugely popular but rather pompous, Story.

At least for now, seek out screenwriting books that are easy to read, “fun”, and will keep you excited about your new project.

Some of the most helpful books for novice screenwriters (and my personal favorites) are:

  • Your Screenplay Sucks: William M. Akers
  • The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Pilar Alessandra
  • My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
  • Save the Cat Strikes Back: Blake Synder
  • Into the Woods: John Yorke

Step 2: Read screenplays

The reason many screenplays fail, whether they’re adaptations or not, is because the writer simply hasn’t read enough screenplays.

Attempting to write a professional standard script without reading any is a bit like trying to learn electric guitar without listening to any Jimi Hendrix, so make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

Go to a free download site like Simply Scripts, or Drew’s Script O Rama, download a bunch of screenplays and get reading.

I would recommend finding the time to read at least two scripts a week. You’ll learn so much about how to write a screenplay (perhaps even more than attending most classes or reading most books) that you can’t afford to skip this step if you want to adapt your novel into a script.

Step 3: Outline movies

It’s also important to become familiar with movies are put together structurally. Novels may contain some structural tropes within certain genres, such as Mystery or Romance, but screenplay structure is generally much more “formulaic”.

Certain beats, plots and turning points repeat themselves in movies across all genres, from Alien to Zoolander, and so it’s important to get a handle on what they are.

The best way to do this is to write outlines of movies as you watch them. This involves simply writing a short one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene as it happens.

For example, here’s what you might write for the opening few scenes of Bridesmaids:

  • Annie has awkward sex with Ted.
  • Next morning, she does herself up and sneaks back into bed. He says he doesn’t want a relationship and tells her to leave.
  • Outside, she can’t get out the gate so she climbs over and gets stuck as it opens.
  • In a park, Annie and her friend, Lillian, workout within ear-shot of an aerobics class. The instructor shoos them off.
  • In a cafe, they discuss Lillian’s relationship with Doug and Annie defends herself for still sleeping with Ted. Lillian says she should leave him because he’s an asshole.

Do this for the whole film and you’ll end up with an outline, or “step outline” as it’s sometimes called, of the whole plot. Then it’s time to break it down into acts and sequences (this is where your reading all those how-to screenwriting books will come in handy) which will force you to study and work out how the movie’s put together.

Repeat this process with as many movies as you can and you’ll soon have a pretty strong grasp of screenplay structure.

Step 4. Write an outline of your novel

building-blocksOnce you’ve spent some time on the first three steps, apply the same principle of writing outlines as described in Step 3 to your own novel.

Go through it again, but this time imagining you’re watching the events unfold on screen. Write out the key scenes focusing only on ones that contain action the reader can visualize being in the movie.

This means no flowery description, no inner character monologues, no backstory — just the scenes that push the story forward because the characters are active, making things happen.

Once you have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel, break it down into its respective acts and sequences just like in Step 3. This document will form the basic building block of your movie script, ready to be expanded upon, changed around and edited as you continue your writing process.

Step 5. Refine your movie’s core conflict

Take some time to think about the story from the point of view of someone watching it up on screen in a movie theater. What’s the core conflict here that’s going to make them pay money to want to go and see it?

As opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is predominately about making the reader follow active characters who want to achieve clear-cut goals that are in opposition to each other.

Ask yourself some key questions and jot down notes on elements, like:

  • Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s their goal?
  • Who or what is the force of antagonism stopping them achieving this goal?
  • Who or what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Thinking about these questions will give you an idea of how your novel can translate onto the big screen by focusing on its core concept.

Every great concept has at its heart a protagonist who has to struggle to achieve something. And this is usually a three-way power struggle between them, the antagonist who stands in their way, and what’s at stake in the movie (or the stakes character).

For example:

  • In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character.
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, Belloq/the Nazis are the antagonists, and Marion and the future of the world are at stake.
  • In Se7en, Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, John Doe is the antagonist, and someone else getting murdered is what’s at stake.

It’s this three-way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

In order to really solidify this, write a logline — a one or two sentence summary of this core conflict — and use it as a touchstone to keep you on track when writing the script.

Here are a few loglines from some recent films. (Note how the logline describes the core conflict of protagonist vs. antagonist over something major at stake.):

  • Whiplash: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
  • Blue Ruin: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
  • The Edge of Seventeen: High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Step 6: Finalize your outline

Some screenwriters like to write outlines, synopses or treatments of their story before starting on the script. Other’s don’t. But I would strongly advise you have some kind of document to follow while writing the actual screenplay.

Finalizing your outline will give you the chance to work out what’s staying, what’s going, and what new material needs to be written.

climbing goalA novel usually runs anywhere from 200 to 800 pages, or more. Adapting a screenplay from your novel, therefore, will largely be an exercise in editing: cutting out characters, plot lines and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overall core concept.

Focus only on the one clear goal your protagonist is struggling to achieve, why it’s not easy for them to achieve it, and what’s at stake if they don’t. Everything else can probably be cut.

Screenwriting is all about brevity and getting to the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Every scene in the movie needs to either move the plot forward, reveal character or expand upon the theme. (A great scene will do all three.)

Therefore, if you have a novel in which your protagonist has two antagonists, five friends, three brothers and a sister, as well as different subplots with each of them, it’s probably a good idea to cut some of these characters out.

Focus on the key characters and storylines that are relevant to the core conflict, fuse one or more characters together to make one single character, and generally “cut the fat” so you’re left with just a clear triangle of conflict.

Step 7: Start writing the screenplay

Once you have your outline, it’s time to finally start writing and I’d recommend purchasing some professional screenwriting software first, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. (WriterDuet is a great free alternative if you’re strapped for cash.)

Familiarize yourself with the software and you’ll soon find that screenwriting is restricted to just three elements on the page: description, dialogue, and technical formatting, such as scene headings.

As opposed to novel writing, the key to writing a successful screenplay scene is brevity. One page in a script translates roughly to one minute of screen time, and most scenes should be between one and two pages in length.

The best way to make sure you’re keeping your scenes nice and tight is to remember that each one should relate back to the stakes inherent in your protagonist’s goal and the overall core concept.

For example, in Stranger Than Fiction every scene has high stakes attached because they each revolve around Harold’s attempt to either stop himself being erased or to win the girl.

The next time you watch a film, make a note of how much screen time passes without any conflict that revolves around the overall stakes of the movie. One of the biggest problems with spec scripts is that the writer fails to make their protagonist struggle to achieve something, not only in the movie overall but within each individual scene.

Old style movie projectorThis results in scenes that are “flat” and predictable because a protagonist who’s not struggling to achieve anything just ends up hanging out with other characters and shooting the breeze, which doesn’t make for good cinema.

Remember also that film is primarily above all else about communicating story through images, therefore it’s important to avoid having your characters rely on dialogue to move the plot forward.

Actions speak louder than words as the saying goes, and so focus on showing us what your characters are thinking through their actions, rather than their words or inner thoughts.

Final Words

As you write your first draft, keep up Steps 1 to 3 and learning and perfecting your craft. Maybe take a screenwriting class as well in your area, or online.

Acting classes are also a great way of improving your skills as a screenwriter as they’ll force you to see things from “the other side” and understand how actors interpret description and dialogue on the page.

Steps 4 through 7 are also part of an ongoing process but should be accompanied by frequent feedback. Resist the temptation to work in a bubble and get opinions of your logline, outline and screenplay as you go along.

Friends and relatives are the obvious go-to people for this but they come with the baggage of trying to please or being afraid to tell you what they really think. I would suggest getting feedback on your ideas from free screenwriting community websites such as Stage32, joining a screenwriting group if there’s one near you, or paying a professional script consultant for a review.

Writing a screenplay may be tough, but put in the work and you’ll soon start seeing results and maybe the first steps toward emulating the careers of novelists like Dave Eggers and Gillian Flynn.

Have you ever thought about adapting your novel into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Alex BloomAlex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.

7 Steps For Adapting Your Novel Into A Screenplay

Look at the Amazon Charts or the New York Times fiction list and you will likely see books that have been made into movies or TV shows

Adapting novel to screenplayIf you consider the number of people who prefer to watch than read a book, it's not really a surprise that adaptation is so popular these days.

It's also the dream of many writers to see their stories on the big – or small – screen these days. It's definitely one of my goals. 

In today's article, Alex Bloom from Scriptwriter Pro outlines how you could adapt your book into a screenplay.

Many writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), Emma Donoghue (Room) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have successfully transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps but are unsure where to start, below you’ll find the 7 Key Steps you should take in order to adapt your book into a movie script.

Writing books and writing screenplays are two entirely different beasts. If you have experience writing the former but not the latter, it’s important to understand what makes a good screenplay first before attempting to write one.

Therefore, Steps 1 – 3 below tackle some of the research you’ll need to do before adapting your novel into a screenplay.

Steps 4 – 7 then tackle the actual writing itself and how to put this research into practice.

Step 1: Read screenwriting books

storyReading some how-to screenwriting books will give you a solid grounding in writing characters, plot, structure, dialogue, theme, etc. for the big screen. I would recommend avoiding some of the heavier tomes, such as Robert Mckee’s hugely popular but rather pompous, Story.

At least for now, seek out screenwriting books that are easy to read, “fun”, and will keep you excited about your new project.

Some of the most helpful books for novice screenwriters (and my personal favorites) are:

  • Your Screenplay Sucks: William M. Akers
  • The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Pilar Alessandra
  • My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
  • Save the Cat Strikes Back: Blake Synder
  • Into the Woods: John Yorke

Step 2: Read screenplays

The reason many screenplays fail, whether they’re adaptations or not, is because the writer simply hasn’t read enough screenplays.

Attempting to write a professional standard script without reading any is a bit like trying to learn electric guitar without listening to any Jimi Hendrix, so make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

Go to a free download site like Simply Scripts, or Drew’s Script O Rama, download a bunch of screenplays and get reading.

I would recommend finding the time to read at least two scripts a week. You’ll learn so much about how to write a screenplay (perhaps even more than attending most classes or reading most books) that you can’t afford to skip this step if you want to adapt your novel into a script.

Step 3: Outline movies

It’s also important to become familiar with movies are put together structurally. Novels may contain some structural tropes within certain genres, such as Mystery or Romance, but screenplay structure is generally much more “formulaic”.

Certain beats, plots and turning points repeat themselves in movies across all genres, from Alien to Zoolander, and so it’s important to get a handle on what they are.

The best way to do this is to write outlines of movies as you watch them. This involves simply writing a short one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene as it happens.

For example, here’s what you might write for the opening few scenes of Bridesmaids:

  • Annie has awkward sex with Ted.
  • Next morning, she does herself up and sneaks back into bed. He says he doesn’t want a relationship and tells her to leave.
  • Outside, she can’t get out the gate so she climbs over and gets stuck as it opens.
  • In a park, Annie and her friend, Lillian, workout within ear-shot of an aerobics class. The instructor shoos them off.
  • In a cafe, they discuss Lillian’s relationship with Doug and Annie defends herself for still sleeping with Ted. Lillian says she should leave him because he’s an asshole.

Do this for the whole film and you’ll end up with an outline, or “step outline” as it’s sometimes called, of the whole plot. Then it’s time to break it down into acts and sequences (this is where your reading all those how-to screenwriting books will come in handy) which will force you to study and work out how the movie’s put together.

Repeat this process with as many movies as you can and you’ll soon have a pretty strong grasp of screenplay structure.

Step 4. Write an outline of your novel

building-blocksOnce you’ve spent some time on the first three steps, apply the same principle of writing outlines as described in Step 3 to your own novel.

Go through it again, but this time imagining you’re watching the events unfold on screen. Write out the key scenes focusing only on ones that contain action the reader can visualize being in the movie.

This means no flowery description, no inner character monologues, no backstory — just the scenes that push the story forward because the characters are active, making things happen.

Once you have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel, break it down into its respective acts and sequences just like in Step 3. This document will form the basic building block of your movie script, ready to be expanded upon, changed around and edited as you continue your writing process.

Step 5. Refine your movie’s core conflict

Take some time to think about the story from the point of view of someone watching it up on screen in a movie theater. What’s the core conflict here that’s going to make them pay money to want to go and see it?

As opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is predominately about making the reader follow active characters who want to achieve clear-cut goals that are in opposition to each other.

Ask yourself some key questions and jot down notes on elements, like:

  • Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s their goal?
  • Who or what is the force of antagonism stopping them achieving this goal?
  • Who or what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Thinking about these questions will give you an idea of how your novel can translate onto the big screen by focusing on its core concept.

Every great concept has at its heart a protagonist who has to struggle to achieve something. And this is usually a three-way power struggle between them, the antagonist who stands in their way, and what’s at stake in the movie (or the stakes character).

For example:

  • In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character.
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, Belloq/the Nazis are the antagonists, and Marion and the future of the world are at stake.
  • In Se7en, Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, John Doe is the antagonist, and someone else getting murdered is what’s at stake.

It’s this three-way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

In order to really solidify this, write a logline — a one or two sentence summary of this core conflict — and use it as a touchstone to keep you on track when writing the script.

Here are a few loglines from some recent films. (Note how the logline describes the core conflict of protagonist vs. antagonist over something major at stake.):

  • Whiplash: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
  • Blue Ruin: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
  • The Edge of Seventeen: High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Step 6: Finalize your outline

Some screenwriters like to write outlines, synopses or treatments of their story before starting on the script. Other’s don’t. But I would strongly advise you have some kind of document to follow while writing the actual screenplay.

Finalizing your outline will give you the chance to work out what’s staying, what’s going, and what new material needs to be written.

climbing goalA novel usually runs anywhere from 200 to 800 pages, or more. Adapting a screenplay from your novel, therefore, will largely be an exercise in editing: cutting out characters, plot lines and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overall core concept.

Focus only on the one clear goal your protagonist is struggling to achieve, why it’s not easy for them to achieve it, and what’s at stake if they don’t. Everything else can probably be cut.

Screenwriting is all about brevity and getting to the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Every scene in the movie needs to either move the plot forward, reveal character or expand upon the theme. (A great scene will do all three.)

Therefore, if you have a novel in which your protagonist has two antagonists, five friends, three brothers and a sister, as well as different subplots with each of them, it’s probably a good idea to cut some of these characters out.

Focus on the key characters and storylines that are relevant to the core conflict, fuse one or more characters together to make one single character, and generally “cut the fat” so you’re left with just a clear triangle of conflict.

Step 7: Start writing the screenplay

Once you have your outline, it’s time to finally start writing and I’d recommend purchasing some professional screenwriting software first, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. (WriterDuet is a great free alternative if you’re strapped for cash.)

Familiarize yourself with the software and you’ll soon find that screenwriting is restricted to just three elements on the page: description, dialogue, and technical formatting, such as scene headings.

As opposed to novel writing, the key to writing a successful screenplay scene is brevity. One page in a script translates roughly to one minute of screen time, and most scenes should be between one and two pages in length.

The best way to make sure you’re keeping your scenes nice and tight is to remember that each one should relate back to the stakes inherent in your protagonist’s goal and the overall core concept.

For example, in Stranger Than Fiction every scene has high stakes attached because they each revolve around Harold’s attempt to either stop himself being erased or to win the girl.

The next time you watch a film, make a note of how much screen time passes without any conflict that revolves around the overall stakes of the movie. One of the biggest problems with spec scripts is that the writer fails to make their protagonist struggle to achieve something, not only in the movie overall but within each individual scene.

Old style movie projectorThis results in scenes that are “flat” and predictable because a protagonist who’s not struggling to achieve anything just ends up hanging out with other characters and shooting the breeze, which doesn’t make for good cinema.

Remember also that film is primarily above all else about communicating story through images, therefore it’s important to avoid having your characters rely on dialogue to move the plot forward.

Actions speak louder than words as the saying goes, and so focus on showing us what your characters are thinking through their actions, rather than their words or inner thoughts.

Final Words

As you write your first draft, keep up Steps 1 to 3 and learning and perfecting your craft. Maybe take a screenwriting class as well in your area, or online.

Acting classes are also a great way of improving your skills as a screenwriter as they’ll force you to see things from “the other side” and understand how actors interpret description and dialogue on the page.

Steps 4 through 7 are also part of an ongoing process but should be accompanied by frequent feedback. Resist the temptation to work in a bubble and get opinions of your logline, outline and screenplay as you go along.

Friends and relatives are the obvious go-to people for this but they come with the baggage of trying to please or being afraid to tell you what they really think. I would suggest getting feedback on your ideas from free screenwriting community websites such as Stage32, joining a screenwriting group if there’s one near you, or paying a professional script consultant for a review.

Writing a screenplay may be tough, but put in the work and you’ll soon start seeing results and maybe the first steps toward emulating the careers of novelists like Dave Eggers and Gillian Flynn.

Have you ever thought about adapting your novel into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Alex BloomAlex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.

7 Steps For Adapting Your Novel Into A Screenplay

Look at the Amazon Charts or the New York Times fiction list and you will likely see books that have been made into movies or TV shows

Adapting novel to screenplayIf you consider the number of people who prefer to watch than read a book, it's not really a surprise that adaptation is so popular these days.

It's also the dream of many writers to see their stories on the big – or small – screen these days. It's definitely one of my goals. 

In today's article, Alex Bloom from Scriptwriter Pro outlines how you could adapt your book into a screenplay.

Many writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), Emma Donoghue (Room) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have successfully transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps but are unsure where to start, below you’ll find the 7 Key Steps you should take in order to adapt your book into a movie script.

Writing books and writing screenplays are two entirely different beasts. If you have experience writing the former but not the latter, it’s important to understand what makes a good screenplay first before attempting to write one.

Therefore, Steps 1 – 3 below tackle some of the research you’ll need to do before adapting your novel into a screenplay.

Steps 4 – 7 then tackle the actual writing itself and how to put this research into practice.

Step 1: Read screenwriting books

storyReading some how-to screenwriting books will give you a solid grounding in writing characters, plot, structure, dialogue, theme, etc. for the big screen. I would recommend avoiding some of the heavier tomes, such as Robert Mckee’s hugely popular but rather pompous, Story.

At least for now, seek out screenwriting books that are easy to read, “fun”, and will keep you excited about your new project.

Some of the most helpful books for novice screenwriters (and my personal favorites) are:

  • Your Screenplay Sucks: William M. Akers
  • The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Pilar Alessandra
  • My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
  • Save the Cat Strikes Back: Blake Synder
  • Into the Woods: John Yorke

Step 2: Read screenplays

The reason many screenplays fail, whether they’re adaptations or not, is because the writer simply hasn’t read enough screenplays.

Attempting to write a professional standard script without reading any is a bit like trying to learn electric guitar without listening to any Jimi Hendrix, so make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

Go to a free download site like Simply Scripts, or Drew’s Script O Rama, download a bunch of screenplays and get reading.

I would recommend finding the time to read at least two scripts a week. You’ll learn so much about how to write a screenplay (perhaps even more than attending most classes or reading most books) that you can’t afford to skip this step if you want to adapt your novel into a script.

Step 3: Outline movies

It’s also important to become familiar with movies are put together structurally. Novels may contain some structural tropes within certain genres, such as Mystery or Romance, but screenplay structure is generally much more “formulaic”.

Certain beats, plots and turning points repeat themselves in movies across all genres, from Alien to Zoolander, and so it’s important to get a handle on what they are.

The best way to do this is to write outlines of movies as you watch them. This involves simply writing a short one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene as it happens.

For example, here’s what you might write for the opening few scenes of Bridesmaids:

  • Annie has awkward sex with Ted.
  • Next morning, she does herself up and sneaks back into bed. He says he doesn’t want a relationship and tells her to leave.
  • Outside, she can’t get out the gate so she climbs over and gets stuck as it opens.
  • In a park, Annie and her friend, Lillian, workout within ear-shot of an aerobics class. The instructor shoos them off.
  • In a cafe, they discuss Lillian’s relationship with Doug and Annie defends herself for still sleeping with Ted. Lillian says she should leave him because he’s an asshole.

Do this for the whole film and you’ll end up with an outline, or “step outline” as it’s sometimes called, of the whole plot. Then it’s time to break it down into acts and sequences (this is where your reading all those how-to screenwriting books will come in handy) which will force you to study and work out how the movie’s put together.

Repeat this process with as many movies as you can and you’ll soon have a pretty strong grasp of screenplay structure.

Step 4. Write an outline of your novel

building-blocksOnce you’ve spent some time on the first three steps, apply the same principle of writing outlines as described in Step 3 to your own novel.

Go through it again, but this time imagining you’re watching the events unfold on screen. Write out the key scenes focusing only on ones that contain action the reader can visualize being in the movie.

This means no flowery description, no inner character monologues, no backstory — just the scenes that push the story forward because the characters are active, making things happen.

Once you have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel, break it down into its respective acts and sequences just like in Step 3. This document will form the basic building block of your movie script, ready to be expanded upon, changed around and edited as you continue your writing process.

Step 5. Refine your movie’s core conflict

Take some time to think about the story from the point of view of someone watching it up on screen in a movie theater. What’s the core conflict here that’s going to make them pay money to want to go and see it?

As opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is predominately about making the reader follow active characters who want to achieve clear-cut goals that are in opposition to each other.

Ask yourself some key questions and jot down notes on elements, like:

  • Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s their goal?
  • Who or what is the force of antagonism stopping them achieving this goal?
  • Who or what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Thinking about these questions will give you an idea of how your novel can translate onto the big screen by focusing on its core concept.

Every great concept has at its heart a protagonist who has to struggle to achieve something. And this is usually a three-way power struggle between them, the antagonist who stands in their way, and what’s at stake in the movie (or the stakes character).

For example:

  • In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character.
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, Belloq/the Nazis are the antagonists, and Marion and the future of the world are at stake.
  • In Se7en, Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, John Doe is the antagonist, and someone else getting murdered is what’s at stake.

It’s this three-way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

In order to really solidify this, write a logline — a one or two sentence summary of this core conflict — and use it as a touchstone to keep you on track when writing the script.

Here are a few loglines from some recent films. (Note how the logline describes the core conflict of protagonist vs. antagonist over something major at stake.):

  • Whiplash: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
  • Blue Ruin: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
  • The Edge of Seventeen: High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Step 6: Finalize your outline

Some screenwriters like to write outlines, synopses or treatments of their story before starting on the script. Other’s don’t. But I would strongly advise you have some kind of document to follow while writing the actual screenplay.

Finalizing your outline will give you the chance to work out what’s staying, what’s going, and what new material needs to be written.

climbing goalA novel usually runs anywhere from 200 to 800 pages, or more. Adapting a screenplay from your novel, therefore, will largely be an exercise in editing: cutting out characters, plot lines and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overall core concept.

Focus only on the one clear goal your protagonist is struggling to achieve, why it’s not easy for them to achieve it, and what’s at stake if they don’t. Everything else can probably be cut.

Screenwriting is all about brevity and getting to the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Every scene in the movie needs to either move the plot forward, reveal character or expand upon the theme. (A great scene will do all three.)

Therefore, if you have a novel in which your protagonist has two antagonists, five friends, three brothers and a sister, as well as different subplots with each of them, it’s probably a good idea to cut some of these characters out.

Focus on the key characters and storylines that are relevant to the core conflict, fuse one or more characters together to make one single character, and generally “cut the fat” so you’re left with just a clear triangle of conflict.

Step 7: Start writing the screenplay

Once you have your outline, it’s time to finally start writing and I’d recommend purchasing some professional screenwriting software first, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. (WriterDuet is a great free alternative if you’re strapped for cash.)

Familiarize yourself with the software and you’ll soon find that screenwriting is restricted to just three elements on the page: description, dialogue, and technical formatting, such as scene headings.

As opposed to novel writing, the key to writing a successful screenplay scene is brevity. One page in a script translates roughly to one minute of screen time, and most scenes should be between one and two pages in length.

The best way to make sure you’re keeping your scenes nice and tight is to remember that each one should relate back to the stakes inherent in your protagonist’s goal and the overall core concept.

For example, in Stranger Than Fiction every scene has high stakes attached because they each revolve around Harold’s attempt to either stop himself being erased or to win the girl.

The next time you watch a film, make a note of how much screen time passes without any conflict that revolves around the overall stakes of the movie. One of the biggest problems with spec scripts is that the writer fails to make their protagonist struggle to achieve something, not only in the movie overall but within each individual scene.

Old style movie projectorThis results in scenes that are “flat” and predictable because a protagonist who’s not struggling to achieve anything just ends up hanging out with other characters and shooting the breeze, which doesn’t make for good cinema.

Remember also that film is primarily above all else about communicating story through images, therefore it’s important to avoid having your characters rely on dialogue to move the plot forward.

Actions speak louder than words as the saying goes, and so focus on showing us what your characters are thinking through their actions, rather than their words or inner thoughts.

Final Words

As you write your first draft, keep up Steps 1 to 3 and learning and perfecting your craft. Maybe take a screenwriting class as well in your area, or online.

Acting classes are also a great way of improving your skills as a screenwriter as they’ll force you to see things from “the other side” and understand how actors interpret description and dialogue on the page.

Steps 4 through 7 are also part of an ongoing process but should be accompanied by frequent feedback. Resist the temptation to work in a bubble and get opinions of your logline, outline and screenplay as you go along.

Friends and relatives are the obvious go-to people for this but they come with the baggage of trying to please or being afraid to tell you what they really think. I would suggest getting feedback on your ideas from free screenwriting community websites such as Stage32, joining a screenwriting group if there’s one near you, or paying a professional script consultant for a review.

Writing a screenplay may be tough, but put in the work and you’ll soon start seeing results and maybe the first steps toward emulating the careers of novelists like Dave Eggers and Gillian Flynn.

Have you ever thought about adapting your novel into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Alex BloomAlex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.

7 Steps For Adapting Your Novel Into A Screenplay

Look at the Amazon Charts or the New York Times fiction list and you will likely see books that have been made into movies or TV shows

Adapting novel to screenplayIf you consider the number of people who prefer to watch than read a book, it's not really a surprise that adaptation is so popular these days.

It's also the dream of many writers to see their stories on the big – or small – screen these days. It's definitely one of my goals. 

In today's article, Alex Bloom from Scriptwriter Pro outlines how you could adapt your book into a screenplay.

Many writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), Emma Donoghue (Room) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have successfully transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps but are unsure where to start, below you’ll find the 7 Key Steps you should take in order to adapt your book into a movie script.

Writing books and writing screenplays are two entirely different beasts. If you have experience writing the former but not the latter, it’s important to understand what makes a good screenplay first before attempting to write one.

Therefore, Steps 1 – 3 below tackle some of the research you’ll need to do before adapting your novel into a screenplay.

Steps 4 – 7 then tackle the actual writing itself and how to put this research into practice.

Step 1: Read screenwriting books

storyReading some how-to screenwriting books will give you a solid grounding in writing characters, plot, structure, dialogue, theme, etc. for the big screen. I would recommend avoiding some of the heavier tomes, such as Robert Mckee’s hugely popular but rather pompous, Story.

At least for now, seek out screenwriting books that are easy to read, “fun”, and will keep you excited about your new project.

Some of the most helpful books for novice screenwriters (and my personal favorites) are:

  • Your Screenplay Sucks: William M. Akers
  • The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Pilar Alessandra
  • My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
  • Save the Cat Strikes Back: Blake Synder
  • Into the Woods: John Yorke

Step 2: Read screenplays

The reason many screenplays fail, whether they’re adaptations or not, is because the writer simply hasn’t read enough screenplays.

Attempting to write a professional standard script without reading any is a bit like trying to learn electric guitar without listening to any Jimi Hendrix, so make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

Go to a free download site like Simply Scripts, or Drew’s Script O Rama, download a bunch of screenplays and get reading.

I would recommend finding the time to read at least two scripts a week. You’ll learn so much about how to write a screenplay (perhaps even more than attending most classes or reading most books) that you can’t afford to skip this step if you want to adapt your novel into a script.

Step 3: Outline movies

It’s also important to become familiar with movies are put together structurally. Novels may contain some structural tropes within certain genres, such as Mystery or Romance, but screenplay structure is generally much more “formulaic”.

Certain beats, plots and turning points repeat themselves in movies across all genres, from Alien to Zoolander, and so it’s important to get a handle on what they are.

The best way to do this is to write outlines of movies as you watch them. This involves simply writing a short one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene as it happens.

For example, here’s what you might write for the opening few scenes of Bridesmaids:

  • Annie has awkward sex with Ted.
  • Next morning, she does herself up and sneaks back into bed. He says he doesn’t want a relationship and tells her to leave.
  • Outside, she can’t get out the gate so she climbs over and gets stuck as it opens.
  • In a park, Annie and her friend, Lillian, workout within ear-shot of an aerobics class. The instructor shoos them off.
  • In a cafe, they discuss Lillian’s relationship with Doug and Annie defends herself for still sleeping with Ted. Lillian says she should leave him because he’s an asshole.

Do this for the whole film and you’ll end up with an outline, or “step outline” as it’s sometimes called, of the whole plot. Then it’s time to break it down into acts and sequences (this is where your reading all those how-to screenwriting books will come in handy) which will force you to study and work out how the movie’s put together.

Repeat this process with as many movies as you can and you’ll soon have a pretty strong grasp of screenplay structure.

Step 4. Write an outline of your novel

building-blocksOnce you’ve spent some time on the first three steps, apply the same principle of writing outlines as described in Step 3 to your own novel.

Go through it again, but this time imagining you’re watching the events unfold on screen. Write out the key scenes focusing only on ones that contain action the reader can visualize being in the movie.

This means no flowery description, no inner character monologues, no backstory — just the scenes that push the story forward because the characters are active, making things happen.

Once you have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel, break it down into its respective acts and sequences just like in Step 3. This document will form the basic building block of your movie script, ready to be expanded upon, changed around and edited as you continue your writing process.

Step 5. Refine your movie’s core conflict

Take some time to think about the story from the point of view of someone watching it up on screen in a movie theater. What’s the core conflict here that’s going to make them pay money to want to go and see it?

As opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is predominately about making the reader follow active characters who want to achieve clear-cut goals that are in opposition to each other.

Ask yourself some key questions and jot down notes on elements, like:

  • Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s their goal?
  • Who or what is the force of antagonism stopping them achieving this goal?
  • Who or what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Thinking about these questions will give you an idea of how your novel can translate onto the big screen by focusing on its core concept.

Every great concept has at its heart a protagonist who has to struggle to achieve something. And this is usually a three-way power struggle between them, the antagonist who stands in their way, and what’s at stake in the movie (or the stakes character).

For example:

  • In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character.
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, Belloq/the Nazis are the antagonists, and Marion and the future of the world are at stake.
  • In Se7en, Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, John Doe is the antagonist, and someone else getting murdered is what’s at stake.

It’s this three-way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

In order to really solidify this, write a logline — a one or two sentence summary of this core conflict — and use it as a touchstone to keep you on track when writing the script.

Here are a few loglines from some recent films. (Note how the logline describes the core conflict of protagonist vs. antagonist over something major at stake.):

  • Whiplash: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
  • Blue Ruin: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
  • The Edge of Seventeen: High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Step 6: Finalize your outline

Some screenwriters like to write outlines, synopses or treatments of their story before starting on the script. Other’s don’t. But I would strongly advise you have some kind of document to follow while writing the actual screenplay.

Finalizing your outline will give you the chance to work out what’s staying, what’s going, and what new material needs to be written.

climbing goalA novel usually runs anywhere from 200 to 800 pages, or more. Adapting a screenplay from your novel, therefore, will largely be an exercise in editing: cutting out characters, plot lines and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overall core concept.

Focus only on the one clear goal your protagonist is struggling to achieve, why it’s not easy for them to achieve it, and what’s at stake if they don’t. Everything else can probably be cut.

Screenwriting is all about brevity and getting to the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Every scene in the movie needs to either move the plot forward, reveal character or expand upon the theme. (A great scene will do all three.)

Therefore, if you have a novel in which your protagonist has two antagonists, five friends, three brothers and a sister, as well as different subplots with each of them, it’s probably a good idea to cut some of these characters out.

Focus on the key characters and storylines that are relevant to the core conflict, fuse one or more characters together to make one single character, and generally “cut the fat” so you’re left with just a clear triangle of conflict.

Step 7: Start writing the screenplay

Once you have your outline, it’s time to finally start writing and I’d recommend purchasing some professional screenwriting software first, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. (WriterDuet is a great free alternative if you’re strapped for cash.)

Familiarize yourself with the software and you’ll soon find that screenwriting is restricted to just three elements on the page: description, dialogue, and technical formatting, such as scene headings.

As opposed to novel writing, the key to writing a successful screenplay scene is brevity. One page in a script translates roughly to one minute of screen time, and most scenes should be between one and two pages in length.

The best way to make sure you’re keeping your scenes nice and tight is to remember that each one should relate back to the stakes inherent in your protagonist’s goal and the overall core concept.

For example, in Stranger Than Fiction every scene has high stakes attached because they each revolve around Harold’s attempt to either stop himself being erased or to win the girl.

The next time you watch a film, make a note of how much screen time passes without any conflict that revolves around the overall stakes of the movie. One of the biggest problems with spec scripts is that the writer fails to make their protagonist struggle to achieve something, not only in the movie overall but within each individual scene.

Old style movie projectorThis results in scenes that are “flat” and predictable because a protagonist who’s not struggling to achieve anything just ends up hanging out with other characters and shooting the breeze, which doesn’t make for good cinema.

Remember also that film is primarily above all else about communicating story through images, therefore it’s important to avoid having your characters rely on dialogue to move the plot forward.

Actions speak louder than words as the saying goes, and so focus on showing us what your characters are thinking through their actions, rather than their words or inner thoughts.

Final Words

As you write your first draft, keep up Steps 1 to 3 and learning and perfecting your craft. Maybe take a screenwriting class as well in your area, or online.

Acting classes are also a great way of improving your skills as a screenwriter as they’ll force you to see things from “the other side” and understand how actors interpret description and dialogue on the page.

Steps 4 through 7 are also part of an ongoing process but should be accompanied by frequent feedback. Resist the temptation to work in a bubble and get opinions of your logline, outline and screenplay as you go along.

Friends and relatives are the obvious go-to people for this but they come with the baggage of trying to please or being afraid to tell you what they really think. I would suggest getting feedback on your ideas from free screenwriting community websites such as Stage32, joining a screenwriting group if there’s one near you, or paying a professional script consultant for a review.

Writing a screenplay may be tough, but put in the work and you’ll soon start seeing results and maybe the first steps toward emulating the careers of novelists like Dave Eggers and Gillian Flynn.

Have you ever thought about adapting your novel into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Alex BloomAlex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.

7 Steps For Adapting Your Novel Into A Screenplay

Look at the Amazon Charts or the New York Times fiction list and you will likely see books that have been made into movies or TV shows

Adapting novel to screenplayIf you consider the number of people who prefer to watch than read a book, it's not really a surprise that adaptation is so popular these days.

It's also the dream of many writers to see their stories on the big – or small – screen these days. It's definitely one of my goals. 

In today's article, Alex Bloom from Scriptwriter Pro outlines how you could adapt your book into a screenplay.

Many writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), Emma Donoghue (Room) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have successfully transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps but are unsure where to start, below you’ll find the 7 Key Steps you should take in order to adapt your book into a movie script.

Writing books and writing screenplays are two entirely different beasts. If you have experience writing the former but not the latter, it’s important to understand what makes a good screenplay first before attempting to write one.

Therefore, Steps 1 – 3 below tackle some of the research you’ll need to do before adapting your novel into a screenplay.

Steps 4 – 7 then tackle the actual writing itself and how to put this research into practice.

Step 1: Read screenwriting books

storyReading some how-to screenwriting books will give you a solid grounding in writing characters, plot, structure, dialogue, theme, etc. for the big screen. I would recommend avoiding some of the heavier tomes, such as Robert Mckee’s hugely popular but rather pompous, Story.

At least for now, seek out screenwriting books that are easy to read, “fun”, and will keep you excited about your new project.

Some of the most helpful books for novice screenwriters (and my personal favorites) are:

  • Your Screenplay Sucks: William M. Akers
  • The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Pilar Alessandra
  • My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
  • Save the Cat Strikes Back: Blake Synder
  • Into the Woods: John Yorke

Step 2: Read screenplays

The reason many screenplays fail, whether they’re adaptations or not, is because the writer simply hasn’t read enough screenplays.

Attempting to write a professional standard script without reading any is a bit like trying to learn electric guitar without listening to any Jimi Hendrix, so make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

Go to a free download site like Simply Scripts, or Drew’s Script O Rama, download a bunch of screenplays and get reading.

I would recommend finding the time to read at least two scripts a week. You’ll learn so much about how to write a screenplay (perhaps even more than attending most classes or reading most books) that you can’t afford to skip this step if you want to adapt your novel into a script.

Step 3: Outline movies

It’s also important to become familiar with movies are put together structurally. Novels may contain some structural tropes within certain genres, such as Mystery or Romance, but screenplay structure is generally much more “formulaic”.

Certain beats, plots and turning points repeat themselves in movies across all genres, from Alien to Zoolander, and so it’s important to get a handle on what they are.

The best way to do this is to write outlines of movies as you watch them. This involves simply writing a short one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene as it happens.

For example, here’s what you might write for the opening few scenes of Bridesmaids:

  • Annie has awkward sex with Ted.
  • Next morning, she does herself up and sneaks back into bed. He says he doesn’t want a relationship and tells her to leave.
  • Outside, she can’t get out the gate so she climbs over and gets stuck as it opens.
  • In a park, Annie and her friend, Lillian, workout within ear-shot of an aerobics class. The instructor shoos them off.
  • In a cafe, they discuss Lillian’s relationship with Doug and Annie defends herself for still sleeping with Ted. Lillian says she should leave him because he’s an asshole.

Do this for the whole film and you’ll end up with an outline, or “step outline” as it’s sometimes called, of the whole plot. Then it’s time to break it down into acts and sequences (this is where your reading all those how-to screenwriting books will come in handy) which will force you to study and work out how the movie’s put together.

Repeat this process with as many movies as you can and you’ll soon have a pretty strong grasp of screenplay structure.

Step 4. Write an outline of your novel

building-blocksOnce you’ve spent some time on the first three steps, apply the same principle of writing outlines as described in Step 3 to your own novel.

Go through it again, but this time imagining you’re watching the events unfold on screen. Write out the key scenes focusing only on ones that contain action the reader can visualize being in the movie.

This means no flowery description, no inner character monologues, no backstory — just the scenes that push the story forward because the characters are active, making things happen.

Once you have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel, break it down into its respective acts and sequences just like in Step 3. This document will form the basic building block of your movie script, ready to be expanded upon, changed around and edited as you continue your writing process.

Step 5. Refine your movie’s core conflict

Take some time to think about the story from the point of view of someone watching it up on screen in a movie theater. What’s the core conflict here that’s going to make them pay money to want to go and see it?

As opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is predominately about making the reader follow active characters who want to achieve clear-cut goals that are in opposition to each other.

Ask yourself some key questions and jot down notes on elements, like:

  • Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s their goal?
  • Who or what is the force of antagonism stopping them achieving this goal?
  • Who or what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Thinking about these questions will give you an idea of how your novel can translate onto the big screen by focusing on its core concept.

Every great concept has at its heart a protagonist who has to struggle to achieve something. And this is usually a three-way power struggle between them, the antagonist who stands in their way, and what’s at stake in the movie (or the stakes character).

For example:

  • In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character.
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, Belloq/the Nazis are the antagonists, and Marion and the future of the world are at stake.
  • In Se7en, Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, John Doe is the antagonist, and someone else getting murdered is what’s at stake.

It’s this three-way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

In order to really solidify this, write a logline — a one or two sentence summary of this core conflict — and use it as a touchstone to keep you on track when writing the script.

Here are a few loglines from some recent films. (Note how the logline describes the core conflict of protagonist vs. antagonist over something major at stake.):

  • Whiplash: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
  • Blue Ruin: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
  • The Edge of Seventeen: High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Step 6: Finalize your outline

Some screenwriters like to write outlines, synopses or treatments of their story before starting on the script. Other’s don’t. But I would strongly advise you have some kind of document to follow while writing the actual screenplay.

Finalizing your outline will give you the chance to work out what’s staying, what’s going, and what new material needs to be written.

climbing goalA novel usually runs anywhere from 200 to 800 pages, or more. Adapting a screenplay from your novel, therefore, will largely be an exercise in editing: cutting out characters, plot lines and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overall core concept.

Focus only on the one clear goal your protagonist is struggling to achieve, why it’s not easy for them to achieve it, and what’s at stake if they don’t. Everything else can probably be cut.

Screenwriting is all about brevity and getting to the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Every scene in the movie needs to either move the plot forward, reveal character or expand upon the theme. (A great scene will do all three.)

Therefore, if you have a novel in which your protagonist has two antagonists, five friends, three brothers and a sister, as well as different subplots with each of them, it’s probably a good idea to cut some of these characters out.

Focus on the key characters and storylines that are relevant to the core conflict, fuse one or more characters together to make one single character, and generally “cut the fat” so you’re left with just a clear triangle of conflict.

Step 7: Start writing the screenplay

Once you have your outline, it’s time to finally start writing and I’d recommend purchasing some professional screenwriting software first, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. (WriterDuet is a great free alternative if you’re strapped for cash.)

Familiarize yourself with the software and you’ll soon find that screenwriting is restricted to just three elements on the page: description, dialogue, and technical formatting, such as scene headings.

As opposed to novel writing, the key to writing a successful screenplay scene is brevity. One page in a script translates roughly to one minute of screen time, and most scenes should be between one and two pages in length.

The best way to make sure you’re keeping your scenes nice and tight is to remember that each one should relate back to the stakes inherent in your protagonist’s goal and the overall core concept.

For example, in Stranger Than Fiction every scene has high stakes attached because they each revolve around Harold’s attempt to either stop himself being erased or to win the girl.

The next time you watch a film, make a note of how much screen time passes without any conflict that revolves around the overall stakes of the movie. One of the biggest problems with spec scripts is that the writer fails to make their protagonist struggle to achieve something, not only in the movie overall but within each individual scene.

Old style movie projectorThis results in scenes that are “flat” and predictable because a protagonist who’s not struggling to achieve anything just ends up hanging out with other characters and shooting the breeze, which doesn’t make for good cinema.

Remember also that film is primarily above all else about communicating story through images, therefore it’s important to avoid having your characters rely on dialogue to move the plot forward.

Actions speak louder than words as the saying goes, and so focus on showing us what your characters are thinking through their actions, rather than their words or inner thoughts.

Final Words

As you write your first draft, keep up Steps 1 to 3 and learning and perfecting your craft. Maybe take a screenwriting class as well in your area, or online.

Acting classes are also a great way of improving your skills as a screenwriter as they’ll force you to see things from “the other side” and understand how actors interpret description and dialogue on the page.

Steps 4 through 7 are also part of an ongoing process but should be accompanied by frequent feedback. Resist the temptation to work in a bubble and get opinions of your logline, outline and screenplay as you go along.

Friends and relatives are the obvious go-to people for this but they come with the baggage of trying to please or being afraid to tell you what they really think. I would suggest getting feedback on your ideas from free screenwriting community websites such as Stage32, joining a screenwriting group if there’s one near you, or paying a professional script consultant for a review.

Writing a screenplay may be tough, but put in the work and you’ll soon start seeing results and maybe the first steps toward emulating the careers of novelists like Dave Eggers and Gillian Flynn.

Have you ever thought about adapting your novel into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Alex BloomAlex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.

7 Steps For Adapting Your Novel Into A Screenplay

Look at the Amazon Charts or the New York Times fiction list and you will likely see books that have been made into movies or TV shows

Adapting novel to screenplayIf you consider the number of people who prefer to watch than read a book, it's not really a surprise that adaptation is so popular these days.

It's also the dream of many writers to see their stories on the big – or small – screen these days. It's definitely one of my goals. 

In today's article, Alex Bloom from Scriptwriter Pro outlines how you could adapt your book into a screenplay.

Many writers such as Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men), Emma Donoghue (Room) and Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have successfully transitioned from writing novels to writing screenplays. If you’d like to follow in their footsteps but are unsure where to start, below you’ll find the 7 Key Steps you should take in order to adapt your book into a movie script.

Writing books and writing screenplays are two entirely different beasts. If you have experience writing the former but not the latter, it’s important to understand what makes a good screenplay first before attempting to write one.

Therefore, Steps 1 – 3 below tackle some of the research you’ll need to do before adapting your novel into a screenplay.

Steps 4 – 7 then tackle the actual writing itself and how to put this research into practice.

Step 1: Read screenwriting books

storyReading some how-to screenwriting books will give you a solid grounding in writing characters, plot, structure, dialogue, theme, etc. for the big screen. I would recommend avoiding some of the heavier tomes, such as Robert Mckee’s hugely popular but rather pompous, Story.

At least for now, seek out screenwriting books that are easy to read, “fun”, and will keep you excited about your new project.

Some of the most helpful books for novice screenwriters (and my personal favorites) are:

  • Your Screenplay Sucks: William M. Akers
  • The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Pilar Alessandra
  • My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Jeffrey Alan Schechter
  • Save the Cat Strikes Back: Blake Synder
  • Into the Woods: John Yorke

Step 2: Read screenplays

The reason many screenplays fail, whether they’re adaptations or not, is because the writer simply hasn’t read enough screenplays.

Attempting to write a professional standard script without reading any is a bit like trying to learn electric guitar without listening to any Jimi Hendrix, so make sure you don’t fall into the same trap.

Go to a free download site like Simply Scripts, or Drew’s Script O Rama, download a bunch of screenplays and get reading.

I would recommend finding the time to read at least two scripts a week. You’ll learn so much about how to write a screenplay (perhaps even more than attending most classes or reading most books) that you can’t afford to skip this step if you want to adapt your novel into a script.

Step 3: Outline movies

It’s also important to become familiar with movies are put together structurally. Novels may contain some structural tropes within certain genres, such as Mystery or Romance, but screenplay structure is generally much more “formulaic”.

Certain beats, plots and turning points repeat themselves in movies across all genres, from Alien to Zoolander, and so it’s important to get a handle on what they are.

The best way to do this is to write outlines of movies as you watch them. This involves simply writing a short one or two sentence summary of what happens in each scene as it happens.

For example, here’s what you might write for the opening few scenes of Bridesmaids:

  • Annie has awkward sex with Ted.
  • Next morning, she does herself up and sneaks back into bed. He says he doesn’t want a relationship and tells her to leave.
  • Outside, she can’t get out the gate so she climbs over and gets stuck as it opens.
  • In a park, Annie and her friend, Lillian, workout within ear-shot of an aerobics class. The instructor shoos them off.
  • In a cafe, they discuss Lillian’s relationship with Doug and Annie defends herself for still sleeping with Ted. Lillian says she should leave him because he’s an asshole.

Do this for the whole film and you’ll end up with an outline, or “step outline” as it’s sometimes called, of the whole plot. Then it’s time to break it down into acts and sequences (this is where your reading all those how-to screenwriting books will come in handy) which will force you to study and work out how the movie’s put together.

Repeat this process with as many movies as you can and you’ll soon have a pretty strong grasp of screenplay structure.

Step 4. Write an outline of your novel

building-blocksOnce you’ve spent some time on the first three steps, apply the same principle of writing outlines as described in Step 3 to your own novel.

Go through it again, but this time imagining you’re watching the events unfold on screen. Write out the key scenes focusing only on ones that contain action the reader can visualize being in the movie.

This means no flowery description, no inner character monologues, no backstory — just the scenes that push the story forward because the characters are active, making things happen.

Once you have a scene-by-scene outline of the whole novel, break it down into its respective acts and sequences just like in Step 3. This document will form the basic building block of your movie script, ready to be expanded upon, changed around and edited as you continue your writing process.

Step 5. Refine your movie’s core conflict

Take some time to think about the story from the point of view of someone watching it up on screen in a movie theater. What’s the core conflict here that’s going to make them pay money to want to go and see it?

As opposed to writing a novel, writing a screenplay is predominately about making the reader follow active characters who want to achieve clear-cut goals that are in opposition to each other.

Ask yourself some key questions and jot down notes on elements, like:

  • Who’s the protagonist?
  • What’s their goal?
  • Who or what is the force of antagonism stopping them achieving this goal?
  • Who or what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Thinking about these questions will give you an idea of how your novel can translate onto the big screen by focusing on its core concept.

Every great concept has at its heart a protagonist who has to struggle to achieve something. And this is usually a three-way power struggle between them, the antagonist who stands in their way, and what’s at stake in the movie (or the stakes character).

For example:

  • In Sideways, Miles is the protagonist, Jack is the antagonist and Maya is the stakes character.
  • In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is the protagonist, Belloq/the Nazis are the antagonists, and Marion and the future of the world are at stake.
  • In Se7en, Somerset and Mills are the protagonists, John Doe is the antagonist, and someone else getting murdered is what’s at stake.

It’s this three-way power struggle — the protagonist and antagonist both fighting in direct opposition over a stakes character or something big at stake — that gives a screenplay its power.

In order to really solidify this, write a logline — a one or two sentence summary of this core conflict — and use it as a touchstone to keep you on track when writing the script.

Here are a few loglines from some recent films. (Note how the logline describes the core conflict of protagonist vs. antagonist over something major at stake.):

  • Whiplash: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
  • Blue Ruin: A mysterious outsider’s quiet life is turned upside down when he returns to his childhood home to carry out an act of vengeance. Proving himself an amateur assassin, he winds up in a brutal fight to protect his estranged family.
  • The Edge of Seventeen: High-school life gets even more unbearable for Nadine when her best friend, Krista, starts dating her older brother.

Step 6: Finalize your outline

Some screenwriters like to write outlines, synopses or treatments of their story before starting on the script. Other’s don’t. But I would strongly advise you have some kind of document to follow while writing the actual screenplay.

Finalizing your outline will give you the chance to work out what’s staying, what’s going, and what new material needs to be written.

climbing goalA novel usually runs anywhere from 200 to 800 pages, or more. Adapting a screenplay from your novel, therefore, will largely be an exercise in editing: cutting out characters, plot lines and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overall core concept.

Focus only on the one clear goal your protagonist is struggling to achieve, why it’s not easy for them to achieve it, and what’s at stake if they don’t. Everything else can probably be cut.

Screenwriting is all about brevity and getting to the “meat” of the story as quickly as possible. Every scene in the movie needs to either move the plot forward, reveal character or expand upon the theme. (A great scene will do all three.)

Therefore, if you have a novel in which your protagonist has two antagonists, five friends, three brothers and a sister, as well as different subplots with each of them, it’s probably a good idea to cut some of these characters out.

Focus on the key characters and storylines that are relevant to the core conflict, fuse one or more characters together to make one single character, and generally “cut the fat” so you’re left with just a clear triangle of conflict.

Step 7: Start writing the screenplay

Once you have your outline, it’s time to finally start writing and I’d recommend purchasing some professional screenwriting software first, such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. (WriterDuet is a great free alternative if you’re strapped for cash.)

Familiarize yourself with the software and you’ll soon find that screenwriting is restricted to just three elements on the page: description, dialogue, and technical formatting, such as scene headings.

As opposed to novel writing, the key to writing a successful screenplay scene is brevity. One page in a script translates roughly to one minute of screen time, and most scenes should be between one and two pages in length.

The best way to make sure you’re keeping your scenes nice and tight is to remember that each one should relate back to the stakes inherent in your protagonist’s goal and the overall core concept.

For example, in Stranger Than Fiction every scene has high stakes attached because they each revolve around Harold’s attempt to either stop himself being erased or to win the girl.

The next time you watch a film, make a note of how much screen time passes without any conflict that revolves around the overall stakes of the movie. One of the biggest problems with spec scripts is that the writer fails to make their protagonist struggle to achieve something, not only in the movie overall but within each individual scene.

Old style movie projectorThis results in scenes that are “flat” and predictable because a protagonist who’s not struggling to achieve anything just ends up hanging out with other characters and shooting the breeze, which doesn’t make for good cinema.

Remember also that film is primarily above all else about communicating story through images, therefore it’s important to avoid having your characters rely on dialogue to move the plot forward.

Actions speak louder than words as the saying goes, and so focus on showing us what your characters are thinking through their actions, rather than their words or inner thoughts.

Final Words

As you write your first draft, keep up Steps 1 to 3 and learning and perfecting your craft. Maybe take a screenwriting class as well in your area, or online.

Acting classes are also a great way of improving your skills as a screenwriter as they’ll force you to see things from “the other side” and understand how actors interpret description and dialogue on the page.

Steps 4 through 7 are also part of an ongoing process but should be accompanied by frequent feedback. Resist the temptation to work in a bubble and get opinions of your logline, outline and screenplay as you go along.

Friends and relatives are the obvious go-to people for this but they come with the baggage of trying to please or being afraid to tell you what they really think. I would suggest getting feedback on your ideas from free screenwriting community websites such as Stage32, joining a screenwriting group if there’s one near you, or paying a professional script consultant for a review.

Writing a screenplay may be tough, but put in the work and you’ll soon start seeing results and maybe the first steps toward emulating the careers of novelists like Dave Eggers and Gillian Flynn.

Have you ever thought about adapting your novel into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.

Alex BloomAlex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants. They have also produced a practical screenwriting course, and book on screenwriting structure using sequences.

The American Prison Writing Archive

In the fall of 2009 writer Doran Larson put out a call for essays from incarcerated people and prison staff about what life was like inside, and five years later, in 2014, Michigan State University Press published a selection of them as Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America. But the essays never stopped coming. “I’m holding a handwritten essay that just arrived today,” Larson said in August. “Once people knew there was a venue where someone would read their work, they kept writing.” Instead of letting this steady stream of essays go unread, Larson decided to create the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA), an open-source archive of essays by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as correctional officers and staffers. Accessible to anyone online, the APWA (apw.dhinitiative.org) is a “virtual meeting place” to “spread the voices of unheard populations.”

With more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. But most Americans don’t know anything about life inside, which can leave them both indifferent to those who live and work there and divorced from the justice system their tax dollars reinforce. Larson hopes to rectify this disconnect with the APWA, and after receiving a $262,000 grant in March from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the archive is poised to do just that.

Larson, who teaches literature and creative writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, first became involved with the incarcerated population when a friend invited him to a discussion group at Attica Correctional Facility, a New York state prison. Larson listened to men speak about how they were coping with being in prison and was “floored by the honesty and earnestness of those conversations,” he says. A few months later he started a writing group at Attica and became interested in prison writing as a genre. “I spent two summers at the Library of Congress reading all the prison writing I could. I wanted to start an undergraduate course on it. There are a few anthologies of [work by] political prisoners like Martin Luther King Jr. and some small collections from prison writing workshops, but I couldn’t find a wide, national sampling from currently incarcerated people.”

With more than 1,200 essays from people all across the country, the APWA fills that need. The database currently holds three million words’ worth of writing, enough to fill more than eighteen volumes the size of Fourth City, which is a hefty 338 pages. “While reading individual essays can be moving and inspiring, it’s reading in the aggregate that’s valuable and instructive,” says Larson. “One of the extraordinary things has been to see the same themes emerging: staff violence, neglect and abuse at home, drug and alcohol addiction, police aggression.” These shared experiences are part of what inspired Larson to name the collection Fourth City—to represent the fact that the prison and jail population in the United States is larger than that of Houston, Texas, currently the fourth largest city in the country,  and that stories told from inside any prison in the nation can seem as if they’re all coming from the same place.

The APWA is part of Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative. With additional funding for the archive from the NEH grant, Larson plans to continue to solicit, preserve, digitize, and disseminate the work of incarcerated people and prison workers and to hire a part-time assistant. The grant will also go toward finishing an online tool that will allow anyone to transcribe handwritten essays into fully searchable texts and to improve the site’s search functions so users can search by author attribute (race, religion, age, ethnicity), keyword, location, and more.

Larson hopes the archive will be a resource that people will use regularly for academic, policy, and social research. “In the age of big data, we’re trying to help create the era of big narrative, people writing very concretely about what works and doesn’t work,” he says. “Policy-makers might consult this to investigate: How much human pain might be caused because of this policy? When does the law become little more than legalized suffering?” Larson published a book last July, Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration (Rowman & Littlefield), that compared prison writing in Ireland, Africa, and the United States; he is currently working on another book about the archive tentatively titled “Ethics in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”

The APWA doesn’t espouse any political view. “The advocacy is done by the writers,” Larson says. “You read ten Holocaust or slave narratives and no one has to tell you what the message is. The difference is that there is a fixed number of slave and Holocaust narratives. But this collection will continue to grow.”      

 

Gila Lyons has written about feminism, mental health, and social justice for Salon, Vox, Cosmopolitan, the Huffington Post, Good Magazine, and other publications. Find her on Twitter, @gilalyons, or on her website, gilalyons.com.

Gila Lyons

Lit Mag Gives Voice to Homeless

by
Adrienne Raphel
10.12.16

Every Tuesday morning, twenty to thirty writers gather in a meeting room in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street in Boston. Each member of the Black Seed Writers Group gets a pen and a yellow legal pad and, after catching up with one another, sits down and gets to work. The writing they produce will eventually fill the pages of the Pilgrim, a literary magazine celebrating its fifth anniversary this December. The Pilgrim looks like just about any of the small literary magazines lining the shelves of local bookstores and cafés, but it is different in one major respect: Its contributors are all part of Boston’s homeless community. 

The Pilgrim is the brainchild of James Parker, a contributing editor and cultural columnist for the Atlantic. In 2011, while on a sixty-mile pilgrimage with the MANNA ministry of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Parker was inspired to launch the writers group and journal with the idea of pilgrimage as a guiding theme. “Homelessness is a state of acute pilgrimage,” writes Parker on the journal’s website, “a condition of material and occasionally moral emergency, and thus a place where the world reveals itself under the pressure, or the pouring-in, of a higher reality.” When he returned from his own pilgrimage, Parker established the Black Seed Writers Group to give homeless people in downtown Boston an opportunity to gather, write, and share their work. The group is named for the nearby café where it first met, but its ranks soon swelled beyond the café’s capacity and it moved to the cathedral next door. Each week, Parker provides a few open-ended prompts to get the writers going. There is no formal workshop, and anyone who is homeless, recently housed, or transitioning into a home is welcome to join. Members of the group come and go, though each week there are at least a few regulars.

“If we’re the Black Seed Writers Group,” says Margaret Miranda, a writer in the group, “the people helping us are mission figs: They surround the black seeds at the center, they’re nurturing, and they’re on a mission. Besides,” she adds, “think of the literary significance of figs.” (When Miranda presented her metaphor to Parker, he asked her if that makes him a mad vegetable. Miranda replied, “In forty years, you will be.”) In addition to Parker, the other volunteers who help facilitate the workshop include Kate Glavin, an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston; Libby Gatti, a diocese intern; and James Kraus, a graphic artist who refers to himself as “the other James.” 

Miranda and several other regulars set the group’s tone: After a few minutes of greeting and banter, they settle into their various writing processes and work diligently through the hour. A man named Joe dictates into his phone and transcribes his recording; Steven thumbs through a dictionary; Cody paces back and forth before plunging into his work. Rob, a wiry writer in a Red Sox hoodie, brews the coffee.

“This is the most punk-rock thing I’ve ever been part of,” says Parker, who first connected with the homeless community through music. At age twenty-two, Parker was immersed in Washington, D.C.’s independent music scene, and discovered the city’s Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a thriving facility for the homeless, through the liner notes of a music album. Parker lived at CCNV as a volunteer for several months, but soon moved to Boston and lost touch with the homeless community over the next two decades, until founding the writers group.

After each session, Parker gathers all the work and splits it among himself and the other volunteers to transcribe. He then prints the writing in packets that he distributes the following Tuesday. Within a week of attending the Black Seed Writers Group, therefore, every participant is a published author; additionally, the packet entices writers to return the next week. Parker then chooses work from these packets to include in the Pilgrim, which he publishes eight to ten times per year. The Pilgrim is printed right where it’s produced; the administration at the church lets Parker use its printers, and subscription fees—the journal has a circulation of a few hundred—provide funding for the paper and ink. 

As a writer himself, Parker believes fervently in the power of publication. While he was writing his first book, his wife had one of the chapters printed as a chapbook, and it transformed the way Parker approached his work: “It was so powerful to me to have something published,” he says. When he founded the Pilgrim, the heart of his mission was to publish as many voices as possible—particularly those that would normally go unheard. In 2015, according to government census figures, the homeless population of Boston was 7,663—a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year. Since it was established, in December 2011, the Pilgrim has published more than 150 different writers.

The Pilgrim does not have a specific style; instead, writers are encouraged to find their own style, and to push their voices deeper. Participants write poems, stories, memoirs, prayers, protests, and everything in between. One regular attendee, Rolando, is a journalist who catalogues various aspects of life at the shelter through a series of bullet points that create something between a list, a poem, and an essay. One week he wrote about lost property; the next week he categorized the various safety nets at the shelter. Cody writes prophetic images from his imagination. He describes a dream cover for his book, were he to write one: a rendering of the globe with a seven-headed serpentine monster crawling out of a deep chasm in the center.

In 2014 Parker expanded the Pilgrim to include a book imprint, No Fixed Address Press. Its first publication was Paul Estes’s science fiction novel, Razza Freakin’ Aliens, a madcap space opera featuring the intergalactic adventures of Dave the Spy, who encounters many multispecies creatures, such as rebel alien cats that yell, “Hairrbawlz, kill ’em all!” This year, the press published Miranda’s debut collection of poetry, Dressing Wounds on Tremont Street. The book is at once devotional and jocular, weaving together portentous subjects with light banter; think John Donne meets Kenneth Koch. 

 

Now, Parker says, No Fixed Address Press is concentrating on what he calls broadsheets—chapbook-length collections that are easier, cheaper, and quicker to produce than full-length books. Any profits that the Pilgrim and No Fixed Address Press might bring in from sales go directly into producing the next publications. Parker is excited to watch the group’s reach naturally expand, but is careful to avoid a “dissipation of essence,” as he puts it. As the group grows, it’s important for Parker to maintain an environment of openness, encouragement, and safety—an intimate space where members can nurture each other as writers. “We want growth that’s real growth,” said Parker. “Growth as writers.” 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review Daily, Poetry, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University. 

Publishing, Empowering Teen Writers

by
Tara Jayakar
6.14.17

For Chicago teenagers with a passion for writing, there is no shortage of resources. Young Chicago Authors; 826CHI, a branch of the youth writing organization started by writer Dave Eggers; StoryStudio Chicago; and Writopia Lab, among other programs, have been offering writing workshops, open mics, summer camps, and poetry slams for kids throughout the city for decades. But a new organization has a more specific goal in mind for Chicago teens: to offer them hands-on experience in editing and publishing their peers. Launched last year by poet and educator Jennifer Steele, [Y]volve Publishing (YP) is an extension of Revolving Door Arts Foundation, which Steele founded in 2014 to empower and publish young and emerging writers and to get them actively involved in the publishing industry. Steele runs the organization almost exclusively on her own, with some help from a volunteer board that includes writers Fred Sasaki and Kenyatta Rogers. While Steele has other projects in the works for the organization, including workshops for young and new mothers, an anthology about postpartum depression, and a reading series, her primary focus is currently YP and its inaugural project, the Teen Chapbook Series, which features poetry chapbooks written and edited by teens. 

The chapbook series began last summer, when Steele asked four teenagers on the slam poetry team she coaches to each write five poems and then expand that work into a chapbook-length collection. The four young poets—Nyvia Taylor, Semira Truth Garrett, Kai Wright, and Jalen Kobayashi—worked with one another, along with Steele, to edit their poems. “Each book has been a personal journey for these writers, as they explore personal ideas and also think about how to expand the craft of their writing,” says Steele. “Semira, for instance, was really interested in learning how to write short poems. Jalen has learned about truth versus fact when writing a poem. And Nyvia has been writing brave poems that are confronting difficult, personal subjects.” 

The chapbooks, each featuring artwork the poets chose themselves, were published in May. Steele also invited four established poets, including CM Burroughs and Jacob Saenz, to write introductions to the chapbooks. For the young poets, seeing their words in print has had a powerful impact. “When you have a hard copy of something, it’s forever,” says Kobayashi in a video on the press’s website. “As poets, we share our work on social media, but that can only get you so far. Once you actually have that physical copy of all your words on the page, nobody can take that from you.” Wright agrees: “I’m just a little Chicago kid from the West Side, but to be able to put my work out there in a permanent way—these are just my words that are here and nobody can take my story, or my truth, or my life away from me as a result of that.” 

The Teen Chapbook Series will be published annually, and next year’s series will be expanded to include fiction and nonfiction. (Submissions will open this month, and the chapbooks will be released in Spring 2018.) Steele is also in the process of developing a teen editorial board, which will oversee the production of each book in the series from start to finish. “We’re hoping to have a full-fledged publishing program that includes graphic design, marketing, and promotion teams by 2018,” Steele says. Students will create a call for submissions, read and select manuscripts, and then be paired with a more established editor or writer to edit the selected manuscripts. They will also work on every stage of production, from layout and design to promotion. Steele plans for the press to release three to five chapbooks through the series each year and to put out other books as well. This summer she is working with a group of teens to curate, edit, design, and publish a book of poetry and fashion photography centering around the Gwendolyn Brooks centennial, which is being celebrated this year in Chicago. The anthology will be published in October. 

By teaching teens how to publish books, Steele believes she will help equip them with both entrepreneurial and collaborative experience that will be applicable within and beyond the creative industry. By taking on the role of an editor, publisher, or marketing executive, Steele says, the young people involved with the YP will acquire marketable skills before they even graduate high school. She also hopes to reach more teens by bringing YP books into classrooms. Starting in the 2017–2018 school year, she plans to provide the chapbooks to teachers in Chicago schools and help them develop lesson plans based on each book’s content or theme. “We often hear from teachers that they wish they had more books written by teens to share with their students, so we’re hoping this could fill that need,” she says. “As far as I know, there aren’t many collections of poetry being taught in the classroom, let alone collections by teens.” 

Steele’s commitment to empowering teens is partially motivated by her own experiences as a young person. “I didn’t know I could be an editor,” she says. “I thought if I got my English degree, I was just going to be a high school English teacher. But if someone had told me that I could be editing a magazine, I probably would have made different choices. We’re trying to create these experiences for kids at this age so they can make more informed choices about what they’re interested in doing. That’s the underlying point of all of this: creating, through the literary arts, skills that can be transferable to any career path they’re interested in.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

[Y]volve Publishing's poets (from left) Semira Truth Garrett, Jalen Kobayashi, Kai Wright, and Nyvia Taylor. (Credit: Kikomo.p Imagery)

Amanda Gorman Named National Youth Poet Laureate

by
Maggie Millner
4.27.17

Last night in New York City, at a historic ceremony at Gracie Mansion, nineteen-year-old Amanda Gorman of Los Angeles was named the first national youth poet laureate. The unprecedented title, to be awarded annually, honors a teen poet who demonstrates not only extraordinary literary talent but also a proven record of community engagement and youth leadership.

For Gorman, poetry and civic outreach aren’t separate interests. The Harvard University freshman knows firsthand that creative writing can build confidence and a sense of community among young people whose voices are often underrepresented in mainstream dialogue. In 2016 she founded One Pen One Page, a nonprofit organization that provides an “online platform and creative writing programs for student storytellers to change the world.” She continues to serve as the organization’s executive director.

Gorman’s own writing often addresses the intersections of race, feminism, and adolescence, as well as the changing landscape of her native Los Angeles. For both her poetry and her advocacy, Gorman has been recognized by Forbes, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the YoungArts Foundation, and the OZY Genius Awards. She has also performed on The Today Show, ABC Family, and Nickelodeon News, and helped introduce Hillary Clinton at the 2017 Global Leadership Awards.

“For me, being able to stand on a stage as a spoken word poet, as someone who overcame a speech impediment, as the descendent of slaves who would have been prosecuted for reading and writing, I think it really symbolizes how, by pursuing a passion and never giving up, you can go as far as your wildest dreams,” said Gorman at the ceremony on Wednesday evening. “This represents such a significant moment because never in my opinion have the arts been more important than now.”

Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate.
 

The event represented the culmination of years of work by arts organizations across the country. In 2009 literary arts nonprofit Urban Word NYC, in partnership with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and Mayor’s Office, began bestowing the annual title of New York City youth poet laureate on one visionary poet between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, says the program was founded on a belief that “young poets deserve to be in spaces of power, privilege, and governance, and to have their voices front and center of the sociopolitical dialogue happening in our city.”

Since the inception of New York’s youth poet laureate program, arts and literacy organizations in over thirty-five cities have followed suit, launching their own youth laureateship positions. As it spread nationally, the program garnered support from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and PEN Center USA, among other major poetry organizations. Finally, in 2016, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities partnered with Urban Word to bring the program to the national level.

Last July a jury of prominent poets, including U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang, and Academy of American Poets executive director Jen Benka, narrowed the pool of local laureates down to five national finalists. Poets were evaluated on the caliber and subject matter of their poems, as well as their commitment to serving their communities through volunteer and advocacy work, and each finalist was selected to represent a geographic region of the country (Northeast, Southeast, South, Midwest, and West). Along with Gorman, Hajjar Baban of Detroit, Nkosi Nkululeko of New York City, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay of Nashville, and Andrew White of Houston were named the first annual regional laureates and finalists for the inaugural national youth poet laureateship.

Each finalist received a book deal with independent press Penmanship Books, which published Gorman’s first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015. Over the past year, the finalists have also had the opportunity to perform for large audiences at renowned venues, including the Poetry Foundation, the Kennedy Center, and the White House. As the national youth poet laureate, Gorman will continue to give readings and participate in events across the country throughout her yearlong term.

“The role of poetry, especially in marginalized communities, is to provide a voice to those who are traditionally silenced,” says Cirelli, “and the best way to effect social change is to provide platforms for youth to tell their stories. We hope to leverage our work to allow these diverse stories to be told in spaces that have historically omitted youth voices, and to energize and engage the issues that they are most passionate about.”

The ceremony at Gracie Mansion featured performances by three of the finalists, as well as a roster of current and former New York City youth poets laureate. The performers were introduced by a group of acclaimed poets, including American Book Prize winner Kimiko Hahn and four-time National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith. Nkululeko recited a poem about his hair, a metaphor through which he discussed his relationship with his mother and collective African American history. Baban, who was named runner-up for the national title, recited a sestina on language, family, and her Muslim name. Finally, Gorman delivered a poem about how her speech impediment led her to discover writing.

“I am so grateful to be part of this cohort of young creatives who are taking up their pens to have a voice for what is right and what is just,” Gorman said in her acceptance speech. “I don’t just want to write—I want to do right as well.”

 

Maggie Millner is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.  
 

Q&A: Yang Inspires Young Readers

by
Dana Isokawa
2.15.17

In 2008 the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the nonprofit organization Every Child a Reader established the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature position to celebrate and promote books for children and young adult readers. The current ambassador, graphic novelist and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang, started his term in January 2016. Yang has devoted much of his work to his Reading Without Walls Challenge, which encourages kids to read books with unfamiliar characters, topics, and formats. Yang is the perfect advocate for such an undertaking: His popular graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints have pushed against cultural stereotypes and blurred the lines between the comic-book and book-publishing industries. More than halfway through his two-year term, Yang spoke about his work as the ambassador.

What inspired you to come up with the Reading Without Walls Challenge?
We want kids to read outside their comfort zones, and we want them to do it in three ways. One: We want them to read about characters who don’t look like them or live like them. Two: We want them to read about topics they don’t know anything about. And three: We want them to read books in different formats. So if they normally read only graphic novels for fun, we want them to try a chapter book, and if they read only chapter books for fun, we want them to try a graphic novel.

What are you planning next?
Right now we’re trying to promote the Reading Without Walls program. We’ve put together a bunch of downloadable materials: recommended reading lists, posters, and certificates of completion. We’re hoping librarians, booksellers, and teachers will download, print, and use these materials to promote the initiative with their classes. And we’re trying to do a wider national push for the summer.

What else is involved in the national ambassador position?
It’s pretty flexible. I have a few speaking engagements—I was at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in the fall, which was a ton of fun. I’m going to go again this year, and I’ve done a few school visits, some of them in person, some of them over Skype. We’ve tried some online stuff. I have a video podcast called the Reading Without Walls podcast—it’s just me having conversations about children’s books with people I really like. I had one that came out with Lois Lowry, who wrote The Giver; another one with Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls. I also do a monthly column at Book Riot about making comics, and we’re probably going to start another podcast this year.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books with characters who don’t look or live like them?
There are studies that show that fiction in particular builds empathy—that when you read about characters who don’t look or live like you, you begin to understand them a little bit better. You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps you to be a little bit more compassionate toward people who are different from you. Right now it seems like—not just in America, but around the world—we need a little more empathy. And I include myself in that too. I worry about how technology affects us. Just recently with the presidential election, there was all of [this research] about how Facebook basically shows you stuff you like to read. And then even beyond that, you can literally read about yourself all day. You could just fill your whole day with pure narcissism because of digital media. And I think fiction is the exact opposite of that. Well-written fiction pulls you out of your own mind space and helps you see into the thoughts and lives of somebody else.

Can you think of a book where you were reading without walls as a kid?
As an Asian American kid growing up in America in the eighties, almost every book that I read was outside of my own walls, because they were about kids that were part of the majority culture. I do think that maybe gender-wise there were books that pushed me outside of my walls. Like almost every kid in the eighties, I loved Beverly Cleary and I loved the Ramona books. I think as a character Ramona really broke stereotypes and cultural norms about the way little girls should act, because she was creative and rambunctious and kind of loud. And there was a lot of overlap in the way she saw the world and the way I saw the world as a little kid. So I think that that pushed me out. And there were also books that mirrored my life. I started collecting comics in the fifth grade and got really obsessed with superheroes. I wonder if part of that obsession comes from the fact that these superheroes negotiated two different identities—Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was also Clark Kent. In some ways that mirrored my own reality since I had a Chinese name at home and an American name at school; I lived under two different sets of expectations. And Superman is actually an immigrant too—he deals with the cultures of both Krypton and America.

Have your experiences as a graphic novelist informed the challenge, especially the part about reading in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. I think in America, up until pretty recently, the comic-book market and the book market were really two separate entities. They had their own stores, distribution systems, norms, and readerships. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years that they’ve started working together. I really think I’ve been a beneficiary of that merging, and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see how publishers and authors who are prominent in one area are starting to embrace the work from the authors in the other area. More and more we’re seeing publishers who typically only publish prose books start to add graphic novels to their list. On the other side, we’re starting to see comic-book publishers recruit writers who are primarily known for their prose, like Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Marvel.

Do you think that’s because people’s opinions or the form itself is changing? Can you diagnose why that shift is happening?
I think there are three prominent comic cultures in the world. There’s the American one; there’s an Asian one that’s centered primarily around Japan, and there’s a European one centered around France and French-speaking Belgium. And in those other two cultures, comics have been prominent for a long time. If you go to Japan, there will be people of every age and gender reading graphic novels and manga on the subways. In France, it’s the same way: They televise the comic awards shows. In both of those cultures, it’s always been a big deal. It’s only in America that comics have been in this backwater. And that really goes back to the 1950s when the child psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress took it very seriously and had a series of congressional hearings where they called comic-book authors, publishers, and artists to Washington, D.C., to testify to see if comics actually caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted for a few weeks, but didn’t end conclusively—there was no congressional decision that came out of it. But they damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the American public, and that lasted for decades. That didn’t happen in Japan or France. I feel what happened in Japan and France was a much more natural development of the medium, whereas in America it was stunted. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that people have forgotten about what happened in the fifties. People have finally started to realize that comics don’t cause juvenile delinquency.

What draws you to working with and writing for young people?
I think it’s kind of my natural storytelling voice. When I first started writing comics, I was a self-publisher. I was working at a tiny scale. I would Xerox comics and I’d try to sell them at shows. I’d sell probably a dozen or two—tiny scale. And when you’re working at that level, you don’t think about demographics. I wasn’t actually categorized as a young-adult author until I signed with First Second, my primary publisher. They come out of the book world, not the comic-book world. In the book world age demographics are huge; that’s how booksellers decide where to shelve their books and how to sell them. So I was categorized there. It’s not something I had in my head when I first started, but I think it sits well—probably because I was a high-school teacher for a long time. I taught high-school computer science for seventeen years, so I was just surrounded by teenage voices, and a lot of that just bleeds into you. When you spend so much time in the hallways of a school, the voices of those hallways just kind of get into you.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Academy Establishes Web Resource for Teen Poets

6.18.09

Yesterday, the Academy of American Poets launched a new online poetry resource targeted at teenage readers and writers of poetry. The initiative was conceived after the organization conducted a survey of visitors to its Web site and found that 75 percent of users developed an interest in poetry before the age of eighteen.

The new home page features writing resources and a collection of poems for teens, as well as links to the organization’s discussion forum and a comprehensive index of Web sites and reference materials for poets. A "Leave Your Mark" feature prompts teen users to share indispensable lines of poetry, upcoming events, and to create virtual poetry notebooks of their own design featuring poems, writer profiles, and interviews culled from the Academy’s site.

Young writers are also prompted to sign up for the "Street Team" newsletter, which will notify them of poetry projects and contests in which they could participate. Planned programs include the Free Verse Photo Project, in which a line of poetry is written using a temporary medium and photographed before it disappears, the National Poetry Writing Month challenge and pledge drive, and Poem In Your Pocket Day.

The home page initiative was funded by close to five hundred Academy members, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which supports advancement of artistic inquiry and scholarship, and the graduating class of 2008 from Holmdel High School in New Jersey.

Doran Larson, founder of the American Prison Writing Archive. 

Why We Write: The Unwilling Suspension of Disbelief

Jay Baron Nicorvo
Nature is as well adapted to our weakness as to our strength.
—Henry David Thoreau

 

Like most writers, I consider myself reasonably self-aware. I do believe the unexamined life is worth living, but it’s not a life I’d care to live, at least not as an adult. Yet I’d managed to work on a novel nearly every day for five years, and it never occurred to me that the emotional hardships, the traumas, I was running my characters through were so plainly, and painfully, my own. About a month before a publisher acquired my first novel, The Standard Grand—a novel that concerns a large cast of characters, civilians and veterans, fighting through trauma and its aftermath—I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Which came first, the writing about traumatic stress or the traumatic stress? It’s an insincere question. Me being flippant. A way to delay—yet again, and for just a little while longer—writing something I’ve never before written, not without the guise of fiction or the elision of verse.

Writing trauma, and reading trauma, induces trauma in the traumatized—you may take this as your trigger warning—but I’ve found that this induction, coupled with proper care, can also help us to live with, rather than be done in by, our traumas. So here goes.

Having grown up poor, in poverty’s requisite deficit of security, I’ve got trauma to spare. The longest-lasting, and most stress-inducing, arises from a time when I was around six years old. That’s when my years-long molestation at the hands of my babysitter began. The chronic sexual abuse, my chronic sexual abuse, was hard enough. Worse was the way I was forced to keep the secret of it—first in the face of violent threats and then in simple, brutal shame. There, I did it. And you know what? I don’t feel one bit better. I even feel somewhat worse, and from experience I know that the feeling will carry over into the next days and weeks, at least. But the hardest part, for me, has simply been getting to this point—this very goddamn paragraph—and it’s taken me only thirty-five years from that formative moment of trauma.

***

There is a character in my novel who’s something of a Bizarro me, a me I would have become had my mom not moved us out of that abusive Jersey Shore town and down to Florida when I was ten. In creating this character, I was trying to imagine what would’ve happened had I spent my entire childhood in the same neighborhood as my molester, who was a minor at the time. The alternate reality I kept coming back to was that I would’ve enlisted—something I nearly did on two occasions anyway—to get out from under the long shadow of my intimate victimhood, so my novelized not-me, Ray Tyro, is a veteran, but a vet who’s somewhat compromised. He’s spent more time as a security contractor than a soldier. He’s a mercenary—a population with little representation in our war literature—and I lent him my molestation mostly as I remember it.

Foisting my sexual abuse onto one of my characters helped me to experience my trauma but at a level of remove, and with a little less stress. Very literally, I rewrote the narrative of my trauma, reclaiming some small measure of control over the single most defining, and damaging, moment of my life. Novel writing has by no means saved me, but it has allowed me to reach a guiding hand, tentative, into the past to help shake free that helpless boy still pinned, all these years later, under a teenage boy trusted with my care.

***

My brand of PTSD is somewhat peculiar. It manifests as panic disorder, mostly, but it’s complicated by—comorbidity is the clinical term—an additional, and somewhat controversial, diagnosis of hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). My panic attacks are hallucinogenic. Before an attack I perceive a distortion in my visual field, somewhat akin to the disturbances that can presage a migraine. Whatever setting or social situation I’m in, I begin to “see” a spiraling arrangement of surfaces and gestures.

These unvaried hallucinations, leading invariably to full-blown panic attacks, began when I was eighteen, during a bad acid trip, right around the time I first spoke of my molestation. All these years later, my hallucinogenic panics have lost none of their disruptive clarity. I might even consider this trick of cognition a psychedelic bargain—freebie flashbacks—if every one of them didn’t feel so catastrophic. And they’re often inspired by stimuli I mistakenly, but understandably, associate with my
molestation.

By and large, with the help of a cognitive behavioral therapist, my devoted wife, and my mother, who is a survivor too, and a years-long secret keeper of sexual abuse, I’ve learned to negotiate, if not control, my symptoms. Writing helps. But I’ve come to believe that writing can’t be therapy. If anything, I’ve learned otherwise: Writing, without familial and clinical care, can cause more emotional harm than good.

***

Listen to the author read this article

***

As I understand it, novel writing is largely pattern recognition followed by the expression of the recognized pattern. At one end rests the simple symbol of the letter, a fixed arrangement of marks that, in turn and in conjunction, establishes ever more contingent patterns of words, sentences, syntax, and formal structures, ad infinitum. At the far other end of the modest letter looms the novel, arguably the furthest artistic advance of human pattern making in language.

Novel writing is the extreme extension of an everyday application, what neurologists call pareidolia: the perception of a familiar pattern—given a stimulus, a sight or a sound, usually—without the existence of the actual perceived object. Seeing faces in strange places (faucets, for example) is a common example. This is distinct from, but may lead to, apophenia: the perception of connectedness in unrelated phenomena. If, while in the bath, the faucet face gives you a queer feeling, bearing a peculiar resemblance to your grandfather, a retired plumber recovering from a recent angioplasty, and you’re struck with the worry that something’s happened to him, well, that’s pareidolia plus apophenia. Pareidolia is the mind finding form in noise, and apophenia is conferring meaning upon the found form.

What novel writers are actively doing when they write, what novel readers are passively doing when they read, is entertaining a shared sense of pareidolia and apophenia. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called this cognitive phenomenon “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Putting it more plainly, Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (W. H. Freeman, 1997), dubs it patternicity, his pet name for a concept that unifies pareidolia and apophenia. He believes our brains are “belief engines: evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature,” and all our art is—to a lesser degree—the expression of this nature.

What those of us with PTSD experience, on a too-regular basis, is the unwilling suspension of disbelief. We encounter some stimulus and the past is dragged kicking and screaming into the present. During this psychological meantime—having perceived a familiar pattern and established some connectedness, however false—we have difficulty reestablishing our disbelief.

***

I have come to believe that twenty years spent in the daily exercise of patternicity has strengthened my imagination but weakened my ability to regulate disbelief. This is what I mean by saying writing can, on its own, do more emotional harm than good. Is it any real wonder that artists are so often beset by madness? The mad may well gravitate toward art, but making art also asks the artist to isolate and habitually entertain a condition of madness. These days, whether I want to or not, I perceive more connectedness than I did. This is partly the result of a more mature neural network—some would call it wisdom—but it’s also a symptom of trauma.

Those of us living with PTSD have an exaggerated sense of both apophenia and pareidolia. But as Phil Klay, author of Redeployment (Penguin Press, 2014), has pointed out, in an essay for the New York Times in which he bridges that gap between child abuse and battle stress, “If we fetishize trauma as incommunicable, then survivors are trapped—unable to feel truly known.” For veterans coming home from war, for the sexually abused engaging in sex and all of its social suggestions, for any of us who’ve survived the radical amazement induced by life’s awful extremes, but especially those who’ve had to tend, and stoke, the seeming exclusivity of such extremes, the world and its infinite stimuli encourage a great deal more connectedness. As a result, we traumatized are both weaker and stronger for our traumas. I’m convinced I wouldn’t be the writer I am if I weren’t constantly engaged in the practice, often against my will and with significant stress, of finding meaning in what others—the unfortunate untraumatized—deem blissfully meaningless. But I need to be careful.

During stressful times, which for me often coincide with social settings, every single thing—every word, every breath, every movement, mote, and instant—can be cause for heightened awareness leading to panic. In these moments, my perception dilates as my consciousness shrinks. Tapping into our collective cognitive past, what Robert Bly poetically but unscientifically, and in a very 1970s sort of way, referred to as the reptilian brain, I see more and understand less. This overstimulation, finding interconnectedness in every single minuscule thing, feels inexhaustible, and terrible. But afterward, alone or talking with my wife or my therapist, when I’m trying, and largely failing, to make sense of all the dizzying misconnections and disconnections, I’m often left with one or two ties tangible enough to hold tight to.

Once I regain some semblance of myself, the first thing I try to do is write them down.

 

Jay Baron Nicorvo lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek, Michigan, with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens. He is the author of a novel, The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), which was picked for IndieBound’s Indie Next List and Library Journal’s Spring 2017 Debut Novels Great First Acts, as well as named “New and Noteworthy” by Poets & Writers Magazine. He has published a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books, 2012), and is working on a memoir.

The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act

by
Melissa Febos
12.14.16

In a recent nonfiction workshop I taught at Sarah Lawrence College, a female student cringed when I suggested she include more of her own story in an essay. The narrative experimented with form, suggested a history of sexual trauma, but quickly shifted into a more lyrical and analytic musing on the general subject. She frowned. “But I don’t want to seem self-absorbed. You know, navel-gazing.” The rest of the room—all women—nodded. It is a concern I have heard from countless students and peers, and which I always greet with a combination of bafflement and frustration. Since when did telling our own stories and deriving their insights become so reviled? It doesn’t matter if the story is your own, I tell them over and over, only that you tell it well. We must always tell stories so that their specificity reveals some universal truth. 

And yet. How many times have I been privy to conversations among other writers in which we sneer at the very concept? We compulsively assure one another that writing isn’t about enacting a kind of therapy. How gross! We are intellectuals. We are artists. And the assumption is that these occupations preclude emotional self-examination or healing. “I mean, you can’t expect people to be interested in your diary,” a friend and fellow teacher recently exclaimed. I nodded. What kind of monstrous narcissist would make that mistake?

I am complicit. I have committed this betrayal of my own experience innumerable times. But I am done agreeing when my peers spit on the idea of writing as transformation, as catharsis, as—dare I say it—therapy. Tell me, who is writing in their therapeutic diary and then dashing it off to be published? I don’t know who these supposedly self-indulgent (and extravagantly well-connected) narcissists are. But I suspect that when people denigrate them in the abstract, they are picturing women. I’m finished referring to stories of body and sex and gender and violence and joy and childhood and family as “navel-gazing.”

At a recent writers conference, during a panel of literary magazine editors, a female audience member posed a question about the potential audience for her story of trauma survival. One of the male editors rolled his eyes and shrugged. “I mean, I’m not sure we need any more of those stories.” The other panelists nodded in consensus: Stories like hers belonged on Oprah’s talk show, not in the hallowed realm of literary prose. Everyone knows we don’t need another one of those. The genre of victimhood is already so crowded. So gauche.

Later that day, while serving on a panel of memoirists, I polled the audience—a room packed with a few hundred readers and writers. I asked for a show of hands: “Who here has experienced an act of violence, abuse, extreme disempowerment, sexual aggression, harassment, or humiliation?” The room fell silent as the air filled with hands.

***

In response to a surge of popular memoirs, William Gass, in a 1994 issue of Harper’s, asked, “Are there any motives for the enterprise that aren’t tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification? To halo a sinner’s head? To puff an ego already inflated past safety?” He went on: “To have written an autobiography is already to have made yourself a monster…. Why is it so exciting to say, now that everyone knows it anyway, ‘I was born…I was born…I was born’?’” It is an argument that has been made for centuries, and that I have heard all my writing life.

It is the reason that I did not want to write a memoir. At twenty-six I was an MFA student in fiction, deep into what I believed was a Very Important Novel about addiction and female sexuality. Then I took a nonfiction craft class for which we were asked to write a short memoir. Though the content of my novel drew heavily from my own experience, I had never written any kind of nonfiction. The twenty-page essay I drafted about my years as a professional dominatrix was the most urgent thing I had ever written. When he read it, my professor insisted that I drop whatever I was working on and write a memoir.

I cringed. Who was I, a twenty-six-year-old woman, a former junkie and sex worker, to presume that strangers should find my life interesting? I had already learned that there were few more damning presumptions than that of a young woman thinking her own story might be meaningful. Besides, I was writing a Very Important Novel. Just like Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth or Hemingway, those men of renowned humility.

“No way,” I told my professor. I was determined to stick to my more humble presumption that strangers might be interested in a story made up by a twenty-six-year-old former junkie sex worker.

Do you see how easy it is to poke holes in this logic?

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. So I wrote it. And it was urgent, but not easy. In order to write that book, I had to walk back through my most mystifying choices and excavate events for which I had been numb on the first go-round.

That book was about being a sex worker and recovering from heroin addiction. It was about desire, shame, bodies, drugs, and money. It was an intellectual inquiry into these topics as much as it was a psychological and emotional reckoning. In hindsight, I can say that the compulsion to write it was an expression of my need to understand what the connections were among those things. To answer my own questions about why a girl from a loving family ended up shooting speedballs and spanking men for a living, and how the power of secrecy could become a prison. I wrote it because I wanted to show the strangers who shared those experiences that they were not alone.

I didn’t write a memoir to free myself, though in the process I did.

***

In the 1980s, social psychologist James Pennebaker conducted some now famous studies on his theory of “expressive writing.” Pennebaker asked participants in his experimental group to write about a past trauma, expressing their deepest feelings surrounding it. In contrast, control participants were asked to write as objectively as possible about neutral topics without revealing their emotions or opinions. Both groups wrote for fifteen minutes for four consecutive days.

Some of the participants in the experimental group found the exercise upsetting. All of them found it valuable. Monitoring over the subsequent year revealed that those participants made significantly fewer visits to physicians. Pennebaker’s research has since been replicated numerous times and his results confirmed: Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers. And this is after only four days of fifteen-minute sessions.

Let’s face it: If you write about your wounds, it is therapy. Of course, the writing done in those fifteen minutes was surely terrible by artistic standards. But it is a logical fallacy to conclude that any writing with therapeutic effect is terrible. You don’t have to be into therapy to be healed by writing. Being healed does not have to be your goal. But to oppose the very idea of it is nonsensical, unless you consider what such a bias reveals about our values as a culture. Knee-jerk bias backed by flimsy logic and bad science has always been the disguise of our national prejudices.

That these topics of the body, the emotional interior, the domestic, the sexual, the relational are all undervalued in intellectual literary terms, and are all associated with the female spheres of being is not a coincidence. What I mean is, this bias against “personal writing” is a sexist mechanism, founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.

That is, Karl Ove Knausgaard is a genius, a risk-taker, while all my female graduate students are terrified to write about being mothers for fear that they will be deemed (or, that they already are) vacuous narcissists. Or, as Maggie Nelson, in her latest book, The Argonauts, says of a man inquiring how she could possibly pen a book on the subject of cruelty while pregnant: “Leave it to the old patrician white guy to call the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that wild oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks.”

I suspect I could write something relevant and dynamic and political and beautiful and intellectual about my own navel. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to wonder if the navel as the locus of all this disdain has some faint thing to do with its connection to birth, and body, and the female.

***

Acknowledging all of this will not get your book published. Being healed by writing does not excuse you from the insanely hard work of making art. There are plenty of mediocre memoirs out there, just as there are plenty of mediocre novels. I labored endlessly to craft my memoir. But after it was published, I still fielded insinuations that I had gotten away with publishing my diary. Interviewers asked only about my experiences and never about my craft. At readings, I would be billed on posters as “Melissa Febos, former dominatrix” alongside my co-reader, “[insert male writer name], poet.” Even some friends, after reading the book, would write to me to exclaim, “The writing! It was so good,” as if that were a happy accident accompanying my diarist’s transcription.

Writing about your personal experiences is not easier than other kinds of writing. In order to write that book, I had to invest the time and energy to conduct research and craft plot, scenes, description, dialogue, pacing—all the writer’s jobs, and I had to destroy my own self-image and face some unpalatable truths about my own accountability. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. It made me a better person, and it made a better book.

Navel-gazing is not for the faint of heart. The risk of honest self-appraisal requires bravery. To place our flawed selves in the context of this magnificent, broken world is the opposite of narcissism, which is building a self-image that pleases you. For many years, I kept a quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet tacked over my desk: “The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you.”

***

Listen to me: It is not gauche to write about trauma. It is subversive. The stigma of victimhood is a timeworn tool of oppressive powers to gaslight the people they subjugate into believing that by naming their disempowerment they are being dramatic, whining, attention-grabbing, or beating a dead horse. Believe me, I wish this horse were dead. To name just one of many such statistics in a grossly underreported set of crimes: The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey recently found that 46.4 percent of lesbians, 74.9 percent of bisexual women, and 43.3 percent of heterosexual women have been the victims of sexual violence.

But we shouldn’t write about it because people are fatigued by stories about trauma? No. We have been discouraged from writing about it because it makes people uncomfortable. Because a patriarchal society wants its victims to be silent. Because shame is an effective method of silencing.

***

I have just finished writing a second book about my own experience. It’s called Abandon Me, and it’s about having a sea captain father, about loving women, about being annihilated and invented by love and sex. It is an exercise in applying my intellect, and the intellects of other thinkers—philosophers, psychologists, holy people, poets—to the raw matter of my own abandonments. It is about having abandonment issues.

This sort of admission might make you cringe. But white straight male writers are writing about the same things—they are just overlaying them with a plot about baseball, or calling their work fiction. Men write about their daddy issues constantly, and I don’t see anyone accusing them of navel-gazing. I am happy to read those books. I just wish that male authors—along with the greater reading populace—were not discouraged from reading such books by women. That women were not discouraged from writing them.

The new book is a collection of linked essays, and I have never worked so hard, sentence by sentence, image by image, on anything. But I struggled with the title essay, which, at over 150 pages, is more than half the book and tells the story of a time when I lost myself in love, acted in ways I would never have believed until they happened.

I showed an early draft of the essay to a close friend. After reading it, she said: “This is a very pretty story, but this is not what happened. If you want to tell the real story, you are going to have to be more honest.” My heart sank. I knew she was right. I had included only the parts that I felt safe revealing. I had hidden the ugliest parts. When I thought about taking her advice, a cold fear surged through me. “I am not allowed to write this,” I thought. “No one can know how profoundly I lost myself.” But I knew that she was right. So I rewrote it. I faced the truer version that I had tried to avoid. Because it was a better story, and because I wanted to be free.

What I’m saying is, don’t avoid yourself. The story that comes calling might be your own, and it might not go away if you don’t open the door. I don’t believe in writers block. I only believe in fear. And you can be afraid and still write something. No one has to read it, though when you’re done you might want someone to. One of the epigraphs of my book is a quote from the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: “It is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.” The book I’ve written is about secrets, too. About my father’s father, who terrorized his family; about my mother’s father, who was mad. About my biological father, his father, and his grandfather—who lied on a census and said he was Polish, instead of native. It’s about the legacy of those secrets, how they ruined us for generations, how they have formed me.

To William Gass’s argument, “To have written an autobiography is already to have made yourself a monster,” I say that refusing to write your story can make you into a monster. Or perhaps more accurately, we are already monsters. And to deny the monstrous is to deny its beauty, its meaning, its necessary devastation.

Transforming my secrets into art has transformed me. And I believe that stories like these have the power to transform the world. That is the point of literature, or at least that’s what I tell my students. We are writing the history that we could not find in any other book. We are telling the stories that no one else can tell, and we are giving this proof of our survival to one another.

What I mean is, tell me about your navel. Tell me about your rape. Tell me about your mad love affair, how you forgot and then remembered yourself. Tell me about your hands, the things they have done and held and hit and let go of. Tell me about your drunk father and your sister who lost her mind. Give them whatever names you want.

Don’t tell me that the experiences of a vast majority of our planet’s human population are marginal, are not relevant, are not political. Don’t tell me that you think there’s not enough room for another story about sexual abuse, motherhood, or racism. The only way to make room is to drag all our stories into that room. That’s how it gets bigger.

You write it, and I will read it.

 

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart: The True Story of a Secret Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), and an essay collection, Abandon Me, forthcoming from Bloomsbury in February. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesTin HouseGrantaPrairie Schooner, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts and serves on the board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her website is melissafebos.com.

 

 

 

Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe

by
Frank Bures
12.14.16

Growing up, I only knew that my grandma had been “sick.” Later I heard more, and learned that she had taken her own life. But it wasn’t until I started researching a book about culture-bound syndromes that I uncovered the fuller version: Late one night, in 1968, my grandma woke up, opened a bottle of barbiturates, swallowed them all, then climbed back into bed. The next morning my grandfather found her body next to his. She was fifty-six years old. They had been married since she was sixteen and he was nineteen.

At the time the doctors said she had a nervous breakdown, or sometimes that she was depressed. But that meant something different to the doctors than it meant to her family. And as I researched my book, it started to become clear that even today it probably means something different to everyone around the world.

Rates of depression vary widely. In Korea or Japan you have a one in fifty chance of having experienced major depression over the past twelve months, while in Brazil your chance is one in ten. Symptoms vary too. According to Handbook of Depression, a textbook on mood disorders, Koreans and Korean Americans experience manifestations that others would never consider related to depression: constipation, abdominal cramps, heartburn, stiff joints, sore muscles, and increased heart rate. In cultures where excitement and happiness are considered normal, people with major depression show low energy and blunted emotional response. In cultures where emotional control is considered the norm, the opposite is true: Intensified emotional responses are a common symptom of depression. The British psychiatrist Christopher Dowrick, author of Beyond Depression: A New Approach to Understanding and Management (Oxford University Press, 2004), has suggested that depression itself should be considered a culture-bound syndrome.

Culture-bound syndromes (or “cultural syndromes,” as they’re now called) are mental illnesses that mainly occur in certain cultures and that are shaped by those cultures. They are things like koro, a genital-retraction syndrome found in Asia and Africa; or khyâl cap, which is a panic-related condition from Cambodia whereby the wind flowing through one’s body is believed to be blocked; or taijin kyofusho, a paralyzing fear of other people’s embarrassment (not your own) that strikes people in Japan.

When I started researching these conditions, there seemed to be a clear line between them and the depression that afflicted my grandmother. But as I dug deeper, that line began to blur. The belief in the United States that depression is biochemical or genetic in nature—always assumed, but never proven—began to seem culture-bound as well. How could something so big, so terrible, and (sometimes) so final differ so much around the globe, or across a family?

My father, my two brothers, and I are all prone to waves of darkness rolling through our lives, which does point to a likely hereditary component. And yet the way it has played out in all our lives is so different that we each might as well be living in his own country: My youngest brother turned to religion at age fifteen, which is still his source of great joy. My other brother spent many years self-medicating before joining Alcoholics Anonymous, after which he felt better. As for me, while I’ve sunk into dark places many times, for a variety of reasons I have never gone all the way down my grandmother’s road.

If depression were a simple biomechanical process, a series of cellular dominoes falling, the effects should be more uniform from Korea to Kenya to Kansas. But they’re not. And after spending several years reading and thinking about these things, I now see that there is something else at work. Something layered over, and woven through, our biology.

I came across this almost by accident, when someone recommended the work of James Pennebaker, a social psychologist who did some of the first studies into the effects of “expressive writing” on health. His interest started in college, at a time when his marriage was falling apart and he fell into a depressive spiral. He started smoking. He drank more. He stopped eating.

Then, after a month, he started writing, first about his marriage, then about his feelings, his parents, his career, death, and so on. “By the end of the week,” he wrote in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others (William Morrow, 1990), “I noticed my depression lifting. For the first time in years—perhaps ever—I had a sense of meaning and direction.”

So he embarked on a series of experiments in which students wrote about various topics—some emotional, some not. Those who wrote about their emotions experienced a bizarre health benefit: Their trips to the campus health center dropped by half. Their immune function increased. Yet those who merely “vented” about trauma, or who wrote on superficial events, saw no such benefit.

Another of his studies focused on almost fifty professionals (average age fifty-two years) who had been laid off from a computer company in Dallas, where most had worked for thirty years. All were fired the same day, with no warning, and, as Pennebaker noted, were “among the most bitter and hostile group of adults I have ever seen.”

One group was instructed to write about “their deepest thoughts and feelings about getting laid off,” for thirty minutes each day for five days. Another group wrote about time management. And a third (control) group didn’t write anything. Within three months, 27 percent of the first group had found jobs, while only 5 percent of the second two groups did. Several months later, 53 percent of the first group had jobs, compared to 18 percent of the other groups.

Having kept a journal since my late teens, I found this fascinating. Writing in it has always made me feel better, though while I was doing it I had no idea why. I told myself I kept it to collect material that would later become essays and stories. But honestly, there was never much worthwhile in those pages. Mostly it was just me trying to figure out why I felt so bad, or working through problems, or trying to figure out what kind of person I was. I rarely looked at the pages I left behind.

But I kept writing in the journal, first when I went overseas alone, then again when I traveled with my wife. Not long after we returned to the States, having settled in Madison, Wisconsin, I stopped journaling without knowing why. Whenever I opened the pages, it seemed tedious, pointless, and painful. The little I did write felt trivial. I wondered for whom I was
writing: Who would care about these things? I started losing touch with old friends and made few new ones. I had no  idea who the audience for my stories might be.

Fortunately, I still had an audience of one—my wife—who grew alarmed at the dark turn I had taken, which showed no sign of passing. I felt a strange, new kind of hopelessness that went all the way to my fingertips. Soon she insisted we leave Madison, and within a few weeks our house was on the market (we had one daughter and another child on the way). This time we moved to Minneapolis, and after that things slowly began to improve. Fitfully, I started writing in my journal again.

All this made more sense when I read Pennebaker’s work. But it made even more sense when I stumbled into the field of “self-affirmation” research (not to be confused with “self-esteem”), which uses short writing exercises to change the way people see themselves. One of the most common is to write for ten minutes or so about your values, about why they are important to you, or about a time when those values came into play.

Repeated just a few times, these exercises can have significant effects. They can boost students’ gpa for years. They can improve subjects’ health and relationships. The reasons for their power are not fully understood, but it seems to have something to do with expanding your sense of self, of who you are, and of what caused you to become that person.

In a 2014 overview of this research, Geoffrey Cohen and David Sherman noted that “the self” can be best understood as a kind of “storyteller” with “a powerful need to see itself as having integrity.” We need to believe we are good people, moral people, and that we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves. This is what Cohen and Sherman call a “narrative of personal adequacy.”

Yet the world does not always confirm our adequacy. In fact, it often tells us the opposite, in the clear language of failure, rejection, exclusion, pain, and other unpleasant things. These can threaten the idea of our self. And when the idea of our self begins to crumble and we can’t quite hold it together, it can take an emotional and physical toll. Long before anyone talked about this kind of thing, the psychiatrist George Engel looked at cases of 170 people who died suddenly and unexpectedly. He found that there were various circumstances that precipitated death: the loss of a spouse, child, sibling, or friend; denial of a promotion; loss of a job; a robbery; the demolition of a hotel where one man worked for thirty years; and a reconciliation with long-lost family members. Engel noted that these episodes marked periods of extreme excitement, loss of control, or “giving up.” Many involved the sense that the person “no longer has, or no longer believes that he has, mastery or control over the situation, or even over himself,” Engel wrote. In other words, when your sense of self unravels, your actual self can too.

Writing affirmations seems to offer some protection from these slings and arrows. In one study that Cohen and Sherman cited, both affirmed and non-affirmed people were shown a live caged tarantula. The affirmed group correctly judged the distance between themselves and the spider. Non-affirmed people saw the threat as physically closer than it really was. When the story we’ve told ourselves about who we are is threatened, the world feels more dangerous. Things can look more dire, more risky, more hopeless than they are. That’s a feeling I remember clearly. It’s one I’m sure my grandma knew well.

Culture-bound or not, depression is a complex beast. Even today there are no known physiological causes, despite our perennial assumption that these will soon be found. There is no biological test you can take for it. That’s why, for me, the intersection of narrative and neurology is where a key piece of this puzzle can be found.

Surely nothing as simple as a notebook and a pencil could have saved my grandma, just as when things turned darkest for me, my wife had to intervene. Yet I still feel lucky that I became a writer when I did. Because for years those journal pages helped me hold myself together when the world pulled me apart. They helped me figure out who I was, who I wanted to be, and how to bridge the distance between the two.

But most important, I see now that in all those years when I thought I was writing one kind of story, I was writing another. Now when I open my journal, I know which story that is. I know why I’m writing it. And I know the end is still a long way off.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Why We Write: In the Presence of Living

by
Lise Saffran
3.1.11

Until the summer my grandmother was dying, my children were the only people I had ever watched sleep. I used to lie beside them at nap time, taking shallow breaths, while I waited for a thumb to fall away from a mouth or for a jaw to drop open: the signal that they had drifted off. I willed them unconscious with all the silent concentration that a white-knuckled passenger in the back row uses to fly a jetliner. Sounds from outside the room seemed magnified then; a distant door slamming or a slightly raised voice threatened to wake them. In the presence of my sleeping grandmother it was altogether different. Even nearby noises—a car starting in the lot outside her window, the phone ringing—seemed curiously muffled. A neighbor down the hall conducted mysterious business in his home office, but his voice sounded as if it were coming from far away. I adjusted the fan toward her bed and covered her legs with the sheet. I watched my grandmother’s breath enter and leave her body and willed it, not to steady into the even metronome that accompanied my children’s dreams, but to stop.

She was dying at home, and home was a shady one-bedroom apartment crowded with books. The shelves in her front room were heavy with story collections from the forties and fifties, the works of Shakespeare, Beowulf, The Adventures of Augie March, and tomes that promised cures for back pain, leg pain, and, though they did not promise but implied it, the indignities of old age.

She kept a handful of favorite books in her bedroom, as well as the latest reading assignment from the literature course she’d taken at the local community college for the last sixteen years. Volumes of contemporary poetry sat next to Portnoy’s Complaint, Dubliners, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and a long-ago gift from me: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. My grandmother’s all-time favorite book was Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. It came up so often during discussions of my writing (she liked a lot of my work but I was no Isak Dinesen) that I often teased her by intoning in a nasal imitation of Meryl Streep in the movie version, “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” She always laughed.

Early in the summer I had thought to bring my laptop over and work while she slept. When she woke she’d call my name. Sometimes she needed help getting up from the bed into her chair. Sometimes she just wanted to make sure she was not alone. I brought my machine into the back room and showed it to her. She was suspicious of computers. I told her I was working on a novel. She brightened and urged me back to work. She wished me luck.

Luck was just one of the things I needed. I write about the challenges of parenting wild teenage girls, and late-life love, and the dramas of living in a close-knit community. I asked myself who could possibly care about such made-up stories when this flesh-and-blood woman I loved (who had secured her own release from the hospital with the firmly delivered words “I’m not interested in staying safe, I’m interested in staying sane”) had received a terminal diagnosis? Her decline was so swift that each day rendered yesterday’s arrangements obsolete. The nursing student my mother hired to pop in twice a day to help with the washing up became the home health aide to administer baths became the person to sleep on her couch at night became the twenty-four-hour companion who meted out morphine at two in the morning. All within a few days.

I arrived one morning midway through the summer and found my grandmother sitting on the edge of the bed. Josie, the night helper, stood beside her. I bent to put my arms around my grandmother’s waist. This was how we lifted her onto her legs: one, two, three, hup. Josie waved my arms away. No more. It took me a few moments to understand. Sometime during the night, it seemed, my grandmother had lost her ability to stand. She sat. We waited. She was groggy, as if she had been woken from a deep sleep. After a while we lifted her legs into the bed. Josie left to get her bus. My grandmother dozed. I reached for An American Childhood and read the opening paragraph:

When everything else has gone from my brain—the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.

She’d loved these words as I did, but I doubted she’d have any use for them now, if she could even hear them over the Morse code of pain that her body was sending her. For most of the rest of that day, and the days after, it was hard to gauge how conscious my grandmother was. Her eyes opened only partially, if at all, and when they did she seemed to be gazing at something far beyond her quiet bedroom.

My mother came to take over, and with only an hour left before I had to pick up my youngest child from camp, I headed to a reservoir located near where she lived, just north of San Francisco. The sunny fire road was patrolled by biting blackflies that I had to jog to outrun. I was sweating by the time I reached the path around the lake. I worked the muscles in my legs hard, charging in and out of shadow and leaping over roots and rocks. My grandmother’s life was falling away from her like acorns from a chinquapin, and music, literature, and art seemed to be the lightest of objects. They made hardly a sound when they hit the ground. My mother was singing to her when I left. She had been holding her hand and singing in the voice she used with me as a child when I had a fever. I stumbled and my hand clutched at the spongy bark of a redwood.

As a writer who was also the mother of two small children, I was no stranger to the nagging fear that time spent spinning tales might be better spent spinning lettuce. In the presence of my grandmother or my children or even the blue-bellied lizard that skittered over the path and into the brush, the balance seemed to tip decidedly toward lettuce. The next day, when I got in the car to go to my grandmother’s apartment, I left my computer at home.

As a writer who was also the mother of two small children, I was no stranger to the nagging fear that time spent spinning tales might be better spent spinning lettuce. In the presence of my grandmother or my children or even the blue-bellied lizard that skittered over the path and into the brush, the balance seemed to tip decidedly toward lettuce.

My grandmother stopped drinking water shortly after her legs failed. Her spells of consciousness were briefer and less frequent. Each breath seemed to cause her pain. The hospice people assured me that she could still hear my voice. They told me to tell her that she could let go and I did it, thinking that if there was anything I could give her that would help her die, I did not want to hold it back. I told her that my mother would be all right. We will take care of her, I said. We will take care of each other. I turned to other subjects for relief. To the antics of my children. To books. I told her how much I liked Billy Collins, whom I had moved on to after Annie Dillard. He was funny and sneakily profound. In the tradition of the writers I loved most, he led the reader to surprising places with deceptively simple language, like a child who tries to describe what he’s seen and finally just grabs your hand and takes you to it. 

My mother stood with me in my grandmother’s bedroom and I told her about Billy Collins, not because she was a particular fan of poetry (that gene seemed to have skipped a generation) but because I was searching for something cheerful to say. On the spot, I decided to read her the poem “Dharma,” which begins, “The way the dog trots out the front door / every morning / without a hat or an umbrella, / without any money / or the keys to her doghouse / never fails to fill the saucer of my heart / with milky admiration.” Billy Collins deserves a dozen yellow roses, I thought, just for making my mother laugh. Between us lay my grandmother. I looked down and saw that her eyes were wide open, as they had not been in days, and that they were filled with tears.

The next day and for the remaining days of my grandmother’s life, I read aloud. From An American Childhood and from Sailing Alone Around the Room. One day I read a poem titled “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” which began: “I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna / or on any river for that matter / to be perfectly honest.”

I finished the poem and read another and then another.

Cleaning the apartment with my mother after my grandmother was gone, I would find several copies of Out of Africa and ask myself with reproach why I had not read to her from it. Grief and remorse sit close to each other on the scale of human emotions; they are easily confused. Only later would I realize that the thing I was feeling at that moment was loss rather than guilt. I would turn to “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills” and read on until the words began to blur. This was the compelling voice of a mature woman with a story to tell and it is not something that you can easily set aside before the end. It was clear to me then what I must have suspected before: My grandmother and I had not had that kind of time.

Those last days passed in high summer and the trees next to her back deck dropped layers of pollen-covered pods. I slipped outside whenever my brother the doctor would call from the East Coast with instructions to increase her Ativan and morphine. Each time I came back inside I brushed the layer of gold dust from the bottom of my bare feet. I watched my grandmother shrink on her hospital bed. I read aloud.

“You’re not alone,” I reassured her, after a prolonged silence. “I’m just resting my voice. I’m still here.”

“I know,” she said. She had long ago stopped accepting water or food; she had not responded in days. Her body was gaunt and her voice was parched but unbelievably, it was her own.

“Grandma?” I laced my fingers through hers, talking, talking, talking, hoping for more. More never came.

What had made me think there was a difference, I wondered then, between the love that we had for each other and the words we used, or tried to use, to express it? It was the searching for words that was so uniquely human and precious—it was the very audaciousness of trying to capture feeling into something as tangible as a poem or a story that meant so much. I returned to my imagined mothers and children, to all the characters in my head, and greeted them with renewed affection and respect. There are worse ways to spend one’s brief time than in the attempt to write something good. After all, is it so very disappointing if the amazing thing a child drags you to see is something as ordinary as a hummingbird or a snail? What matters is the taking of your hand.

Lise Saffran is the author of the novel Juno’s Daughters, published in January by Plume. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has published stories in a variety of literary journals. She lives in Missouri with her husband and two sons.


AN INVITATION

If you’d like to share your story of perseverance or offer some perspective on why you continue to write despite rejection, lack of recognition, or other challenges, e-mail us at whywewrite@pw.org. Your essay could be the next installment of Why We Write.

Bullets Into Bells

It has been just over five years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, during which twenty first-graders and six educators were killed. Since then, more than 150,000 Americans have lost their lives as a result of gun violence, and the public debate about guns in America—recently magnified by a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October and at a church in rural Texas in November—rages on. But a new anthology of poetry and essays aims to offer a different perspective on an issue that is so often oversimplified by the media.

Published a week before the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting and coedited by poets Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, Bullets Into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press) is a powerful call to end gun violence in the United States. The anthology includes poems by dozens of celebrated poets—including Billy Collins, Ocean Vuong, Natasha Trethewey, and Juan Felipe Herrera—paired with nonfiction responses by activists, political figures, survivors, and others affected by gun violence. The anthology’s “call and response” structure showcases the direct relationship between specific acts of gun violence and the poems that were generated as a result. In the book’s foreword, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—who survived being shot in the head at a 2011 meeting with constituents in Arizona—and her husband, retired astronaut and Navy captain Mark Kelly, write, “Survivors, advocates, and allies can change hearts and minds—and move more people to join our fight for solutions—by telling stories about the irreparable damage that gun violence does to families and communities across the country.”

When they began compiling the book, the editors knew it would have a political purpose. “We agreed that the anthology would do more than simply collect literary responses to a political issue—it would need to be a political artifact in itself,” says Clements, for whom the anthology has a personal thrust. His wife, Abbey, worked as a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and has since become an outspoken activist for gun control. Clements and his fellow editors envisioned the anthology as both a tribute to those who die by guns every year and a way to find common ground in the discussion about gun violence.

Several poets the editors invited to contribute, including Robert Hass, Tess Taylor, and Yusef Komunyakaa, chose to write new poems for the anthology. “These poems tend not to respond to specific events but are, instead, often deeply personal meditations on the poet’s relationship to guns or their individual experiences with shootings,” says Rader. He points to two poems in particular: one by Brenda Hillman about her family’s gun, and one by Bob Hicok that revisits the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where he was a professor at the time and even had the shooter, who killed thirty-two and wounded seventeen, in one of his classes. “Both of these poems move beyond mere ‘anger’ and toward some larger notion of individual and communal ethic,” says Rader.

With more than fifty poems and fifty responses, the anthology brings together many perspectives on a complicated issue. “A big part of the impetus for the anthology was that conversations in the media about gun violence often become a loop of the same few sentiments, without the range of voices that poets were offering,” says Teague. “Christopher Soto’s ‘All the Dead Boys Look Like Me,’ for instance, written in the wake of the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, draws together personal experience with the often fatal dangers that queer brown bodies face in our country, as well as with family connections, activism, and a call for reimagining this legacy of endangerment and death.”

In another of the anthology’s pairings, Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy who was shot by police in Cleveland in 2012, responds to Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,” which opens:

 

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of Tamir Rice & shed tears…

 

Rice responds, “When I think of Tamir as his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, I wonder why my son had to lose his life in such a horrific way in this great place we call America…Tamir was an all-American kid with a promising and bright future…. Who will govern the government when they continue to murder American citizens?”

In another pairing, Po Kim Murray of the Newtown Action Alliance responds to a poem about the Sandy Hook shootings. Antonius Wiriadjaja, who survived being shot on the sidewalk in New York City as he walked to the subway in 2013, responds to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “A Morning Shooting,” about a young man who is shot in a driveway on his way to work. “The poems themselves are exceptionally powerful, but the combinations of poem and respondent results in another order of emotional impact,” says Clements.

“Throughout the collection, the poets and respondents imagine how the lives of those killed by gun violence, and their survivors, could have been different if not for racial discrimination, homophobia, and other forms of violence that have replaced listening and supporting the lives and potentials of all our citizens,” says Teague.

The Bullets Into Bells editors hope to expand the project’s reach beyond the book. In the coming months, a number of events will be held across the country, featuring readings and panel discussions with the poets and essayists from the anthology. A related website for the project (beacon.org/bullets-into-bells-p1298.aspx) includes additional poems, statements from activists, opportunities for action, data on gun violence, interviews, and more. “One of my hopes,” says Clements, “is that this project—the book, the web content, the events around the country—will be part of a perhaps slower but more direct and more personal approach, bypassing the national media, that will encourage poets, readers of poetry, and literary audiences who might not otherwise have become involved in this movement to get more involved.”

Colum McCann echoes this hope in his introduction to the book: “The conviction behind this anthology is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope. It is, in the end, an optimistic book. The poems assert the possibility of language rather than bullets to open up our veins.”       

 

Maya Popa is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017). Her website is mayacpopa.com.                  

Maya Popa

Writers, Editors Resist

by
Sarah M. Seltzer
4.12.17

The Wednesday morning after Election Day delivered a political shock for just about everyone, including writers—but hot on the heels of the electoral surprise came an existential dilemma: How could writers attend to the quotidian concerns of sentence structure, agent-hunting, and sending out work when America was so divided on seemingly every major issue—from reproductive and LGBTQ rights to immigration laws and the environment? Like much of America that morning, many writers turned to their friends and colleagues for answers. “On Facebook, everyone was saying, ‘Now more than ever we need fiction, art, and books,’” says writer Anna March, who had spent time in Pennsylvania that week, knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton with her mother. “I got a little bit panicky. I thought, ‘Oh my God, are people really thinking that art is going to save us?’ Because it’s really about organizing and getting out the vote.” Similarly, fiction writer Paula Whyman, based in Bethesda, Maryland, described the morning after the election as a rare world-changing moment. “As a fiction writer I had a lot of questions in my mind about what would happen to fiction and how we would go on working,” she says. “Does it really matter now?”

Both Whyman and March reached for similar outlets to channel their doubts and reassert the power of writing. Whyman answered a call on Facebook by her friend, the writer Mikhail Iossel, for help launching a new publication and with a small group started Scoundrel Time, an international online journal intended to foster artistic expression in the face of political repression and fear. March, eager to harness the energy of the arts community for political activism, decided to start Roar Feminist Magazine, an online publication that would provide a platform for politically informed fiction, poetry, and essays—as well as a way to strike back against an election that frequently devolved into disrespectful language, most notably the leaked Access Hollywood tape showing Donald Trump making lewd comments about women. “We wanted to do something that was both literature and revolution,” says March. 

These efforts are part of a growing number of projects and events started by writers, editors, and literary organizations in response to the election and the current political climate. Poet Erin Belieu and PEN America organized Writers Resist rallies, which brought out thousands of writers and citizens in cities all across the United States on January 15, five days before the presidential inauguration, to “defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.” Poet Major Jackson started a collaborative poem, “Renga for Obama,” at the Harvard Review, while the Boston Review released the poetry chapbook Poems for Political Disaster, and Melville House published What We Do Now, an essay collection focused on “standing up for your values in Trump’s America.” 

Roar and Scoundrel Time both launched in late January—Roar on Inauguration Day and Scoundrel Time ten days later—and have since produced an impressive body of work and attracted large followings in just a few short months. “The idea of starting a new journal would be laughed at otherwise,” says Whyman. “There are so many excellent journals doing beautiful work that I in no way want to compete. But I think of this as something entirely different.”

Indeed, the interest both magazines have received in terms of financial support and submissions suggest that the audience is engaged. With a very small inheritance from her grandmother, who died shortly before the election, March was able to launch the Roar website and with her collaborators held a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised $12,000 in just a few months. The Roar staff includes Sarah Sandman and  Bethanne Patrick as executive editors, Jagjeet Khalsa as production editor, and several section editors, including novelist Porochista Khakpour and humor writer Cynthia Heimel. The title is a play on the “pussy” motif that appeared on posters and signs, and in knitted hats, after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood remarks were made public. According to March, the journal’s mission involves “roaring, not meowing.”

The most prominent feature of Roar, which publishes three new pieces each day, is a section called “My Abortion,” in which women relate their experiences with abortion. The daily column serves to remind readers of what’s at stake under the strongly antiabortion Trump administration. Other columns include the Roar Meter, which uses numbers to tell a story: “Number of votes by which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote: 2,864,974 / Number of Americans who receive Planned Parenthood services: 2,840,000” reads the beginning of one entry. A column called Fight This Hate highlights “a small selection of hate crimes and/or harassment,” alongside fiction, poetry, and art sections. “Think about if Guernica met the Nation or VQR met Mother Jones,” says March. “We want to be at the intersection of the finest writing and political activism.” The editors plan to expand in the spring by publishing six pieces a day and bringing on more explicitly political writers.

Scoundrel Time (named for the 1976 book by Lillian Hellman about the McCarthy era) is, in Whyman’s words, “a place for artists to respond as artists” to the postelection reality. “There are wonderful and thoughtful journalists and commentators, people at think tanks, and activists in every realm doing important things,” says Whyman. “But this is a place for artists to speak to what’s going on from their particular perspective. We can keep telling one another stories, and those stories will draw people in and give them some relief.” The journal is a registered nonprofit organization, and the all-volunteer staff plans to look into nonprofit partnerships. Slightly less confrontational in tone than Roar (though no less political), Scoundrel Time publishes fiction, photography, poetry, essays, and dispatches from around the world, with a focus on content that’s current. “The strongest argument I can think of for satire and parody is that despots and authoritarian regimes of all stripes hate it so,” Tony Eprile writes in a February essay tying recent Saturday Night Live sketches to a long tradition of political subversion through mockery. Fiction writer Jodi Paloni also spearheads an Action section, encouraging readers to make calls and show up to protests.

Scoundrel Time and Roar also drummed up support at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. in February. Whyman and her fellow Scoundrel Time founders gathered in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and read aloud from James Baldwin, Emma Lazarus, and Claudia Rankine. Meanwhile, Roar supporters wearing pink “pussy hats” handed out pink Roar-branded condoms and stickers at the bookfair. They weren’t the only ones making a statement at AWP: Split This Rock, a D.C.–based organization focused on poetry and social change, collaborated with organizations such as VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and CantoMundo to hold a candlelight vigil for freedom of expression outside the White House, during which writers such as Kazim Ali, Ross Gay, and Carolyn Forché delivered speeches about the importance of writing and art.  

Scoundrel Time plans to organize similar actions in the future, but for now it carries on that spirit of standing together and holding space, albeit online, for writers to freely speak their minds. With their new journals, both Whyman and March hope they can help writers to, as Whyman says, “hang on to our humanity and feel like [we] can gain understanding.” 

 

Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, and ill-advised tweets. A lifelong New Yorker, she is the deputy editor of the culture website Flavorwire.com.

Protesters march on Trump Tower in New York City as part of the Writers Resist rallies in January. (Credit: Ed Lederman)

The Radius of Arab American Writers

by
Marwa Helal
8.16.17

When poet Glenn Shaheen first started writing, he had little sense of community as an Arab American writer. He felt constrained from writing about Arab American issues or identity, and his undergraduate writing professors scoffed at “identity writing,” telling him it would be “a cheat to write like that, because you’d immediately get published.” But when fellow poet Hayan Charara introduced Shaheen to the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), Shaheen found a community that supported and empowered his artistic freedom. “RAWI helped me be proud of my Arab heritage. Knowing there was a thriving community of Arab writers of all backgrounds and genres made me realize I was actually a part of that community,” says Shaheen. “I feel free to write about anything now after meeting so many other Arab writers—some working on science fiction novels or ecopoetry or experimental dramatic works. It helped me see that there isn’t a specific mold of an Arab American writer that I should aspire to or avoid.”

Shaheen is not the only writer who has found community through RAWI, a nonprofit organization that for the past twenty-five years has worked to support and disseminate creative and scholarly writing by Arab Americans. RAWI—a word that means storyteller in Arabic—was first established in 1992 by journalist and anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz as a seven-person group of writers that met in Washington, D.C. It has since grown into a thriving community of nearly 125 writers, artists, and journalists all over the world, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. Members include literary heavyweights like Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami, National Book Award finalist Rabih Alameddine, poet and translator Fady Joudah, and poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The organization now hosts workshops and a biennial conference that features panels, readings, and workshops for Arab American writers. The last conference, which focused on a range of topics including craft, publishing, and the effects of Islamophobia, was held in Minneapolis in June 2016 and cosponsored by Mizna, a nonprofit that promotes Arab American culture. The next conference will take place in Houston, Texas, in June 2018. In the meantime, RAWI has also launched In Solidarity, a series of daylong workshops and craft talks for people of color, members of marginalized communities, and allies in various cities throughout the United States. The series was spearheaded by fiction writer Susan Muaddi Darraj, and the first workshop, which took place in March in Washington, D.C., gave writers space to talk about identity, publishing, and being a writer in the margins. The second was held in San Francisco in April, and more are in the works around the country. “We hope these workshops foster communication and a feeling of solidarity among various communities,” says Darraj. “At least one writers circle has been formed as an outcome of these daylong workshops.”

In the coming year RAWI will be doing even more. In March the organization began advocating for the first-ever Arab American caucus, to be held at the next Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa, and is currently planning a twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration. In October the University of Arkansas Press will publish Jess Rizkallah’s poetry collection the magic my body becomes, winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, a new award given for a first or second book of poetry by a poet of Arab heritage and cosponsered by RAWI. “Leading RAWI has always been rewarding and challenging, but it is especially so this year,” says executive director Randa Jarrar. “I’m dazzled by our community’s literary output—we have so many excellent books out this year and next, and on and on.”

RAWI’s growth hasn’t been without some pains. “The challenge is often fund-raising, and belonging to a nation that often doesn’t celebrate our work alongside us, but picks and tokenizes, or silences,” Jarrar says. Both before and after 9/11, Arab American writers have had to balance the desire to be read and recognized for the quality of their work with being hyper-visible spokespeople for their homelands while struggling to live and work amid ongoing hostility toward Arab people. With the president’s recent ban on travelers from several Arab-majority countries, Arab Americans face increased challenges. “More than ever,” Jarrar says, “I hope that RAWI can be a solace and provide its members and the Arab American literary community support and a sense of belonging and connection and resistance.”

For many writers, RAWI has done just that. “It has shown me that we exist,” says Palestinian American poet Tariq Luthun. “I think, like any population, we are at least vaguely aware of the fact that we aren’t the only ones of our kind. But seeing and experiencing this community firsthand is so vital to one’s resolve in continuing to do this work.” Emerging poet Kamelya Omayma Youssef agrees. For her, RAWI provided the foundation she needed as a writer. “Imagining that I can eventually read to a room full of people and be heard without the threat of reductive thinking or fetishization or demonization should not be as radical as it is for me today,” she says. “But it is totally radical. RAWI is that room.”        

 

Marwa Helal is a poet and journalist who lives and teaches in Brooklyn, New York. She is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest and the author of the poetry collection Invasive species, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2019. Her website is marshelal.com.        

Hayan Charara addresses attendees at the 2016 RAWI conference in Minneapolis.  (Credit: Makeen Osman)

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by
Marwa Helal
12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

Singapore Unbound

by
Melynda Fuller
2.15.17

Every month in New York City, thirty to forty writers and literature enthusiasts gather at the home of a fellow writer for a potluck and reading of American, international, and Singaporean literature. Established in 2014 by Singaporean writer Jee Leong Koh, these salons, called the Second Saturday Reading Series, have featured dozens of emerging and established writers from around the world and allowed Singaporean and non-Singaporean writers alike to connect over literature. Koh now hopes to expand on that cultural exchange with his new project, Singapore Unbound, which will celebrate and raise awareness about Singaporean literary culture. “We want to expand the idea of who is Singaporean,” says Koh. “You’re not Singaporean just because you’re a citizen. You’re still Singaporean if you move away, or you could be a guest worker in the country. We want to encompass both groups.” 

Launched in February, Singapore Unbound serves as the umbrella organization for the Second Saturday Reading Series and the biennial Singapore Literature Festival, which was created in 2014 by Koh and writer Paul Rozario-Falcone and was last held in New York City in Fall 2016. Under the same umbrella, indie poetry publisher Bench Press will join forces with the blog Singapore Poetry, which features cross-cultural book reviews (Americans review Singaporean books, and Singaporeans review American books). Koh hopes that by aligning these projects under one organization, he can provide Singaporean writers with a “prominent and independent platform for open and free expression of their views.” 

That platform is important to protecting and advancing the literary culture of a country that has not always supported free speech. While Singapore boasts a rich stew of cultures with four official languages—Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English—and a burgeoning indie literature landscape that showcases a diversity of cultures and ideas, literature is still restricted by the government. Although the state grants large sums of money to publishers and writers, giving them greater freedom to take risks on young writers in particular, the money comes with stipulations: The work cannot undermine governmental authority and must not advocate for what the state deems “objectionable lifestyles”—namely, those of LGBTQIA writers. In response, Singapore-based publishers like Ethos, Epigram, Landmark, and Math Paper Press have been pushing censorship boundaries for the past few years, and Koh himself doesn’t accept government funds. Kenny Leck, owner of the popular Tiong Bahru–based bookstore BooksActually, says, “At the bookstore, and with our publishing arm, Math Paper Press, we sell the titles and publish the content that most compels us. In that way, our government, the state, has no say in what we choose to do.” 

Singapore Unbound is committed not only to freedom of expression, but also to the idea that cross-cultural exchange leads to a healthier literary culture. Alfian Sa’at, who participated in the 2016 literature festival, where a portion of his five-hour epic play Hotel was performed in the United States for the first time, notes the positive impact of the kind of exchange Singapore Unbound fosters. “Having links with writers from other countries helps us learn from one another’s experiences,” he says. “For a long time I think we’ve looked toward a place like the United States for guidance on issues such as freedom of expression, how institutional solidarity in the form of something like the PEN American Center can aid writers who struggle with censorship and persecution.” Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean writer living in New York City, agrees. At the 2014 festival Tiang worked with the political arts collective Kristiania to organize a panel of two Singaporean poets alongside writers in exile from Indonesia and Nigeria. “I think the best conversations happen when people from different contexts are able to exchange ideas in this way,” says Tiang.

With the introduction of Singapore Unbound, Koh plans to further those conversations. He hopes to start a scholarship program that will pay for Singaporean writers to spend two weeks in New York during the summer to experience the culture of the city and collaborate with local writers. This past fall Koh also created a fellowship program designed to bring more voices to the organization, help it reach a wider audience, and build its online presence. “With Singapore Unbound we want to bring outstanding literature to a wide audience,” says Koh, “and by doing so liberalize our politics and sentiments.”

 

Melynda Fuller is a New York City–based writer and editor. She received her MFA from the New School and is at work on a collection of essays. Her website is melyndafuller.com. Find her on Twitter, @MGrace_Fuller

Correction
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2016 Singapore Literature Festival included both a performance of Alfian Sa'at's play Hotel in English and a panel organized by Jeremy Tiang. Alfian Sa'at's play is actually multilingual and Jeremy Tiang organized a panel at the 2014 festival, not the 2016 festival.

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by
Marwa Helal
12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

Abbey and Brian Clements (holding an orange sign) at the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America march across the Brooklyn Bridge in May 2016.