A writer’s day can be a mixed bag. Yes, my ideal is four uninterrupted, morning hours at my desk, but writers can’t always be writing – there are many other activities that go along with the job. Some days I take a class, meet with a writing group, do research, or attempt to solve technical problems. I’m fortunate that the Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods offer many locales for staying productive. Come along with me as I take a writerly walk through Boston.
When I need a change of scenery, writing at the Boston Athenaeum is truly inspiring. To work here, you will need to become a member of this magical private library, but fun fact: dogs are allowed.
My favorite writing haunt on Charles Street is Panificio at number 144. The soups are heavenly and their big windows let in tons of light. It’s also close to my local post office where I often have an errand to run!
https://jeanneblasberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/dan-dimmock-3mt71MKGjQ0-unsplash-1.jpg6191100jbadmin/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/blasberg-logo.svgjbadmin2020-03-10 11:33:592020-03-11 12:13:3812 Top Boston Spots for the Working Writer
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I sat on a panel last weekend at theBoston Book Festivalwith three incredible authors of recent releases to discuss “The Campus Novel.” Long-held favorites in American literature, campus novels are set in academia with protagonists coming of age among a variety of pressures. Schools, after all, have long provided ripe settings in literature — think THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE by Patrick Conroy. They are convenient microcosms, mysterious islands unto themselves with specific codes of conduct and traditions. If a writer’s primary objective is to ‘world-build,’ then campuses provide a great head start.
In addition to my novel, THE NINE, the Boston Book Festival panel included CJ Farley with his novel AROUND HARVARD SQUARE, Mona Awad and BUNNY, and Elizabeth Ames who wrote THE OTHER’S GOLD. While THE NINE is set on a fictional boarding school campus, AROUND HARVARD SQUARE and THE OTHER’S GOLD are set on college campuses, and BUNNY portrays one young woman’s experience in an MFA program. Our moderator, Lisa Borders, kicked off the discussion with the ways we had each spun this recognizable genre, however, CJ Farley was quick to point out that the four novels, with regard to subject matter at least, were more similar than different.
There was head nodding on the stage. We were, he continued, all dwelling on the theme of exclusivity and groups — whether cliques of friends, societies (secret and otherwise). Our protagonists are disheartened as they meet continuous tests of acceptance inside their respective academic settings. And while our young heroes and heroines may have been conflicted about these groups at first, they ultimately wanted in. Whereas one (a parent for instance) may have assumed gaining admission to the likes of Harvard was success in itself, our characters are disheartened with the continuous tests of acceptance that are set out before them. BUNNY and THE OTHER’S GOLD are interesting in their deep dive into the world of female friendship and the intense bonds (for better or worse) that are created on campuses during early adulthood. After touching on the theme of acceptance, loyalty and betrayal were obvious follow-ups in all of our novels.
Farley talked about the seemingly endless interaction with gatekeepers. His novel is about a young black man attending Harvard and his discovering ways he did not belong. College admissions opens the first gate — and then the fun begins. Our panel discussed the tension between insiders and outsiders — a timely topic with college admissions scandals in the news. Timely, but also timeless — we talked about the fact there have always been those with special access (legacies, and athletes) — groups who seem to hold a master key. Indeed, a protagonist’s ability to navigate new worlds within a campus’s walls where learning the secret handshake is hard, creates confusion and mystery and is at the core of the campus novel genre.
In BUNNY, Awad shares my fascination with secret societies — their power of seduction — and underworlds facilitated by tunnels and dark places. In the vein of DEAD POET’S SOCIETY, or THE SECRET HISTORY, we write about primal sisterhoods and fraternities with incantations and candles glowing in the dark, taking us back to an impressionable time in life — one of all night sleepovers, Ouija boards, and the potential for Lord of The Flies type cruelty.
Besides the aforementioned novels on my 2019 Boston Book Festival panel, there have been a number of campus novels to hit the scene recently, attracting my attention for obvious reasons!
THE EXPECTATIONS by Alex Tilney is set at a boarding school in the 1990’s, where Ben and his roommate Ahmed are from vastly different backgrounds, one dressed in Brooks Brothers classics, attending the school as his Yankee birthright, while the other is from a Muslim, oil-rich country, and dresses in custom suits tailored-made on Seville Row. This novel paints a stark contrast between insiders and outsiders, with material wealth and parental pressure providing potent external stressors.
In THE GIFTED SCHOOL, Bruce Holsinger creates an atmosphere of intense competition among parents in a Colorado town when word spreads that a new school will be opening with room for gifted students only. With contemporary, fast paced prose, this novel takes a heartbreaking look at what we’re doing to our kids in the name of getting ahead. Hannah Webber, a major character in THE NINE, is that type of mother. From a modest background with parents too busy to pay much attention, she works tirelessly for her son’s acceptance to a prestigious boarding school, to have ‘more” in life. Unfortunately, her drive is rooted in her own insecurity and wanting ‘more’ out of her own life.
ALL THESE BEAUTIFUL STRANGERS by Elizabeth Klehfoth, is about a young woman plagued by dark secrets in her family who joins a secret society at her New England boarding school. Her secret group called “The A’s” is intent on terrorizing the administration and faculty in much the way “The Nine” are. The trope our novels share is one of brilliant youth showing up the adults in charge, sticking it to the man, one where students become teachers.
Besides all the recent releases now in the world, there are the classic campus novels that can’t be missed. CATCHER IN THE RYE, A SEPARATE PEACE, and OLD SCHOOL come to mind. THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE by Helen Schulman and TESTIMONY by Anita Shreve were two that influenced my conception of THE NINE. They are both campus novels that include a mother’s voice, of women who could only sit back and watch as their teenage sons made mistakes. Just as the litany of adolescent insecurities is a long one, the syllabus of great campus novels will last a lifetime.
https://jeanneblasberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Boston-Book-Fest2.jpeg10851440jbadmin/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/blasberg-logo.svgjbadmin2019-10-23 17:34:372019-12-11 15:17:32Beyond Admissions: The Campus Novel
This post was originally published on diymfa.com as a part of the #5onFri series.
As I home in on the publication date for my second novel (The Nine, She Writes Press, August 20), there is excitement whirring in my mind as well as the anxiety that comes with keeping track of a to-do list. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to some underlying trepidation, as well. Having launched Eden (She Writes Press, May 2017), I am aware of the stamina and tough skin it requires to be a novelist. Regardless of whether you are publishing your first piece or your tenth, the following list includes five reminders intended to calm you down and boost you up in equal measure.
1) Remember, a life that includes creating art is a privilege
Expressing ideas with the written word is a noble pursuit. If you carry that mindset on this journey, all else will fall into perspective. Whenever doubt or fear creeps into the process, breathe deeply and come back to a place of gratitude. Really, what you are offering is a gift. I know this sounds very crunchy, but the vulnerability that comes with publication is an opportunity to attract and connect with all sorts of good things.
Despite your attention being focused on your now published work, keep writing. It always feels good to have work-in-process to turn to, and even if you write a modest amount every day, your word count will still accumulate. Writing something fresh every day keeps a positive spirit alive. Go to bed each night secure in the knowledge that, if nothing else, you are making forward progress and that you are one of the creators.
2) Make the Ask
Now that you’ve accepted the fact what you are creating is your offering, your gift…. don’t be shy. The world is not going to know about the insight you’ve poured onto the page unless you share it, and share it proudly. Ask for feedback and ask for help. When your work is accepted for publication there will be much more asking in store: for blurbs, for pre-orders, for reviews. The asking never stops.
My publisher, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, always says the creative world operates on a currency of generosity. So ask with humility and be the type of artist who looks forward to being generous when it is her turn. When Eden was published, I worried a lot about asking. But once I swallowed my fear and did it, a deep well of support was there for me. I have to say, stepping into it was life-changing and one of the greatest byproducts of this writing endeavor. Sometimes I even think it is the reason I was meant to take this on.
3) Be a Good Literary Citizen
That’s right, the writing community is waiting to embrace you, but first you must become a good literary citizen. Go to readings and review recent publications. Cultivate relationships with fellow authors and attend their events. Support local bookstores, listen to and share podcasts, and attend book festivals.
Again, humility is important. When people sense sincerity, they are more apt to help. This can mean blurbing your book or inviting you to participate in a festival. This can mean inviting you to book clubs and library readings. I tried to say yes to everything humanly possible. For the introvert writer in me, this was a newfound skill, and again it was life changing because there is a lot that can be done from home, behind the safety of your lap-top screen…. but there really isn’t anything that equals the connections you will make with real life human beings. So, do as much as possible in person, and when that is not an option use social media….
4) Embrace Social Media
When I published my debut, I didn’t quite understand the role social media and blogging would play in my writing career. Twitter? What are you talking about? Now I stay in touch with readers through my blog and I find myself buoyed by robust communities on Instagram and Facebook. As an indie author, the digital world has opened up a world of readers to me, and specifically a niche of readers who like the type of books I write. So figure out how this works and if you become overwhelmed or if this gets in the way of your writing practice, ask for help!
5) Celebrate every small victory along the way
Know there will be ups and downs, and not everyone will like your work. But just one door-opening opportunity, one great publicity hit, one influencer’s endorsement can make all the difference. And if you dare, celebrate the defeats too because it all adds up to experience and the learning curve is steep. You aren’t really a writer unless you’ve experienced rejection and bad reviews! Just embrace the fact that you are climbing. There is something blissful about not knowing much during that first go round at getting published, but subsequent times be grateful for your expanded vantage point. You’ve earned an amazing view and can see what truly matters: how far you’ve come.
https://jeanneblasberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/christin-hume-Hcfwew744z4-unsplash-1.jpg7331100jbadmin/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/blasberg-logo.svgjbadmin2019-08-05 19:38:142019-08-05 19:41:25Five Publishing Tips from a Sophomore Novelist
This article originally appeared on Indagare under the title “A Song of Gratitude: Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg Reflects on her Journey to Japan.”
Our trip to Japan followed a week in Hong Kong where my husband had business and I spent mornings working and writing before doing my best to take in the city amidst unrelenting rain. Our introduction to Japan was eye-opening, and sightseeing in Tokyo felt both educational and sensual: the Imperial Palace, the fish market, the samurai tradition, the infrastructure being built for the upcoming Olympic Games, a new Emperor literally ushering in a new era…it was a lot to take in, and I was still struggling with the tragic news of a friend’s unexpected death, as well as missing my children on Mother’s Day and dealing with an overflowing inbox each morning. But, despite this unease, my husband and I immersed ourselves in Tokyo’s complexities, tackling the sprawling subway system, crisscrossing neighborhoods for shopping, visiting museums, attending sumo wrestling contests, taking cooking lessons and more.
We left Tokyo to spend 24 simple, meditative hours at a traditional ryokanoutside the city, where I felt myself finally begin to relax into my surroundings. We enjoyed massages and delicious meals. We listened from our crisp white futons atop tatami mats as the rain fell and the birds chirped. I began to appreciate the culture’s continuum of generosity and hospitality behind everything we encountered: the insistence on cleanliness, the way food was selected and served, the calligraphy, the tea ceremony, even the slicing of sushi.
Our first full day in Kyoto, toward the end of our trip, was designed to be the climax, and I had high expectations for a very special day. After breakfast, we met our guide, who escorted us to a tea ceremony and on a stroll through a lovely, ancient neighborhood. The weather was perfect, and we were off to a great start. The next stops on the itinerary were the bamboo forest and the Golden Temple on the outskirts of the city. Perfect, I thought, we would avoid Kyoto’s throngs of tourists and have a walking meditation through nature. We were met, instead, by tour busses and selfie stick-wielding masses. In addition to the usual population of international tourists, this was “school trip week,” and large clusters of students in uniform had been dispatched to Kyoto, the country’s cultural capital. The peaceful, contemplative ambience we’d been grasping for was quickly evaporating.
When our guide explained that the Golden Temple would be just as crowded, I expressed my desire for a new plan. I didn’t need to check major attractions off a list. I yearned for more mystery, more beauty. Although an abrupt change of course isn’t exactly common in Japan, our guide, like any great hostess, proved adept at “calling an audible.” We hailed a cab and escaped to a quiet lunch over noodles where we could discuss adjustments.
We decided to visit the Daitokuji Temple complex, comprised of 25 Zen Buddhist temples and monasteries, of which three were open to the public that day. Our guide taught us about the symbolism within each garden. We meditated where monks have meditated for centuries. We strolled the pine tree-lined paths through the complex. There were hardly any other people in sight. It was perfect.
“Should we go in one more?” our guide asked, almost as an afterthought, keeping her eye on the time.
“Sure,” we answered.
After removing our shoes and making a small donation, we proceeded to the garden, passing an elderly man in black robes sitting at a table. I remarked to my husband that he resembled my grandfather (who was not Japanese and who had died 23 years ago). But he had the same glasses, same eyebrows, same large forehead.
The building was similar to the previous Zen Buddhist temples in terms of its layout, but hanging on the wall of the inner sanctuary garden, we spotted the English translation of a poem that stopped us in our tracks.
A Song of Gratitude
The whole family, harmonious and devout. Aware of debts to our parents and ancestors. Revering nature, grateful for society. Always humble, learning from others. Able to give, demonstrating kindness. Making one’s motto: “A bright life.” Overlooking other’s faults, correcting one’s own. Moderate in speech, not getting angry. Gentle, kind, honest. Let’s appreciate the joy of life. Patient. Peaceful. Not getting angry. Careful in speech. This leads to long life.
It turned out that the elderly man we passed upon entering was the Senior Monk and the poem’s author, Soen Ozeki. He had not only penned that poem, but also several others on racks beside the table—all written in beautiful Japanese calligraphy. Six of his books were on display, as well, including one with an English translation blurbed by Steve Jobs. How ironic that as an author angsting over her new book, I would stumble upon a signing by a cheerful celebrity monk—the Dr. Ruth of Zen Buddhism, a man who spoke wisdom and helped people solve their problems on a weekly TV program. He spoke English well and had a sense of humor. He had a presence that defied age and emanated positivity, embodying the sentiments he professed. We took pictures together, although when he took his glasses off for the camera, he didn’t look as much like my grandfather.
Several of his writings resonated with us, and our purchases would likely put him over his daily sales quota, allowing him, as he joked, to take an afternoon nap. As we sat together, discussing his work, he smiled and laughed. Before we left, he looked into my eyes and, as if noticing something was a little off, said to me, “Be happy.” It was a moment that took my breath away: such a simple message after a happenstance meeting, but likely what I’d traveled ten thousand miles to receive.
https://jeanneblasberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/jeanjapan2.jpg413620jbadmin/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/blasberg-logo.svgjbadmin2019-06-20 13:25:232019-11-13 14:45:18A Song of Gratitude: Reflecting on Japan
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