Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 33
 
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
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All in a Day’s Work

A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN:  Writer Lauren B. Davis says her “resting state is to be alone, but I’ve worked out how to both be involved in the community and to work in solitude.”

Writer Lauren B. Davis was born in Montreal, lived in France for over a decade, and now resides in Princeton. In addition to keeping up with her own writing, she serves as Writer-in-Residence at Trinity Church, coordinates monthly Sharpening the Quill Writers’ Workshops, and teaches a creative writing class for inmates at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown. Her most recent publication is “An Unrehearsed Desire,” a collection of short stories, published by Exile Editions in 2008. She is also the author of the novels “The Radiant City” (HarperCollins Canada 2005), a finalist for the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize; “The Stubborn Season” (Harper Collins Canada, 2002), chosen for the Robert Adams Lecture Series; as well as a collection of short stories, “Rat Medicine and Other Unlikely Curatives” (Mosaic Press, 2000). For more information visit her website at: www.laurenbdavis.com.

Ellen Gilbert

As I writer, I write to make meaning of the world and to figure out what I think about things, and thus, I’m always working, always taking notes, listening to conversations, watching the birds, the clouds, listening to the winds sing through the leaves. Writers pay attention; there’s a meditative aspect to the art. It’s a mysterious, humbling process, with a sense of being connected to something greater than yourself. Writing is like dreaming with your eyes wide open (which is also what happens when you read a great book). For writers and readers both, the gift of literature is that we get to live lives we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to live; we get to wear another person’s shoes, as it were. Perhaps that’s why I’m always asking people to read books outside their comfort zone; I want them to stretch, to try something new, to experience, just for a moment, another world. It’s a wonderful way to exercise your compassion and empathy.

I’m often asked questions about my routine. Well, it takes me three to four years, on average, to write a book. I consider it a job, and I work best when I keep regular hours. I get up at about seven o’clock and, cup of coffee in hand, I start work by about nine. I work a regular “business” day; a discipline which I suspect is the result of many years spent as an office worker. If I’m writing a novel it must go forward by 500 words each day. Often, of course, I write more than that, since I start every day reading what I wrote the day before and deleting a great deal of it. So I probably write closer to 1,000 words — at least on a good day.

I try not to read reviews of my books, although sometimes I slip. Even though the reviews I’ve been lucky enough to receive have been fabulous (I blush), now and again there’s been an unkind word and I find although I have a short memory for praise — about two and a half hours of effervescent joy — criticism is searing, corrosive, and lasting. So I have to be careful about what I read because when I begin leaning out for the approval of others, I’m off-balance and liable to fall flat on my face.

But since there’s very little else I do well (apart from making a mean lamb tagine), I keep on. I’ve just completed a novel about an orphan girl in 7th century Britain, struggling for her survival during the time when paganism clashed with Christianity, and am starting a new book about the suicide deaths of my two brothers. I thought I might write about my brothers in non-fiction, but ultimately, I’m more comfortable writing an allegorical novel, one that involves an archetypical journey to the underworld. Early stages yet.

Writing is a practice, like meditation or prayer. You have to keep at it, day after day, even when it seems absolutely nothing good is happening. Perhaps especially then. I write because I don’t have a choice. I tell my students, “if you can NOT write, you shouldn’t — it’s not a great way to make a living.” But if you must write, you have to get on with it, and accept all of the writer’s life — the long hours, bad pay, rejection, criticism, isolation, and self-doubt, as well as those glorious moments of delight when the writing is going well, or when a reader contacts you and tells you they know, and appreciate, what you were trying to do.

I started the Sharpening the Quill Workshops, which meets the last Saturday of every month at Camillo’s Café in the Princeton Shopping Center, because I want to build a community of writers in the Princeton area. We get together for a day of writing practice, networking, and critiquing, as well as a splendid lunch! Writing can be psychologically unsafe — you’re working with your own subconscious and the mind is, as they say, a place you shouldn’t go into alone. Then again, as perilous as writing is, publishing has its own dangers — rejection, criticism, and envy being just a few. Being part of a group of writers who understand what you’re trying to do, and who support your efforts is extremely valuable, and that’s what I’m trying to create.

Some of the Sharpening the Quill participants have been students since I taught at the YWCA six years ago, some are brand new faces. There are men and woman, fiction and non-fiction writers, as well as poets. It’s a nice mix of ages, races and interests, all of which enrich the group. Apart from being enormously enjoyable, teaching is good for my writing; it keeps me studying the craft, thinking about technique.

And my community of writers includes the inmates I teach at the Wagner Correctional facility in Bordentown. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to Administrator Kandell for his support, and to the Petey Greene volunteer organization, led by Jim Farrin here in Princeton. Teaching in Wagner is wonderful, humbling, and inspiring. I am constantly delighted by how willing the inmates are to be vulnerable in their writing, and how supportive they are of each other. They’re reading James Joyce, Kafka, Chekhov, and doing some terrific work. When I first arrived, I admit I expected them to be tough, full of resentment and attitude, but they aren’t. They’re just young men who’ve lived hard lives, and made terrible choices. In the final analysis we have more in common than not. Robert Benchley said, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.” I don’t.

Writing, as I said earlier, is spiritual practice for me, and an important part of my community is the spiritual home I’ve found at Trinity Church. I converted to Christianity when I came to Princeton, which is another, long story, but suffice it to say that as someone with a Baha’i/Mohawk/Objiway background, married to a Jew, discovering that the symbols and metaphors of Christianity resonated with me was a wee bit inconvenient, and I was delighted to find a church that would honor my spiritual history, and help me to make my embrace wider, not narrower. I am honored they would ask me to be writer-in-residence and love leading the Trinity Church Reading Series.

As a writer the personal, spiritual and professional are intimately entwined, and although I haven’t been a resident of Princeton very long, I’ve found a home that balances all three. How very lucky, and grateful, I feel.

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