The Thriller in the Shadows

“My novel was sparked by a true crime, but it refused to become a thriller.

Nearly two decades ago, a friend of mine was raped. In these days, when trending hashtags have empowered women to talk about sexual harassment and assault, this statement may elicit no more than a knowing nod, and a half-raised eyebrow about why a crime that I wasn’t present for would be important to me. It was the stuff of my nightmares: a woman alone; an attack in the night. But it was also my fault.

My friend had come to New York for a life that fell through before she even arrived. She stayed in our guest bedroom for what was supposed to be two weeks while she waited for her promised apartment to be finished. But as a New Yorker will have already guessed, her visit stretched into months, with her move-in always around the corner. We were approaching a year-long “visit” when I suggested that she look into a sublet: a place that could be her own, even for the short time she would need it. Instead, she pressed the developer and he deemed her apartment ready—the only one in an otherwise uninhabited construction site. I told her not to move in.

It was a matter of days later when the phone rang with the news that she had been followed to her building. The shock, and the guilt that it would not have happened if she had stayed with us, were crushing. Of course, she moved back in. We fed her, read her bedtimes stories because she couldn’t sleep, tried to make sure she was never alone. I sat beside her in the back seat of police cars as we drove our nighttime neighborhood to see if she could spot the guy on the sidewalk. Rapists have patterns, it seemed, and generally didn’t bother to go far from home to find their victims. I went with her on trips to the police station to make statements, to search through stacks of red binders full of mug shots. Threaded through all of it, the hope and fear that we would find him: the hope that she could be saved by his arrest, and the fear that, with his existence confirmed, the terrible night she had suffered would have to be relived in court.

I had started writing a new novel, my second. It was historical, literary, domestic, and yet parts of my experience started to appear on the page. It wasn’t an account of the attack on my friend that was worming its way into my novel. What haunted me, and left me in tears, was the reminder of our lack of safety. Even months later, as we returned from a weekend away, I could barely breathe as the New York skyline grew in front of us. I did not trust my home.

But I stayed, and my novel about two sisters—one labeled good, the other bad—took shape in the ravaged, ragged aftermath for another year. After several drafts, I decided it was finished and my agent sent it out and got a bite from a major publishing house. It was deemed “good…but.” The good was the urgency that had kept the editor up all night reading. The but was that she wanted me to rewrite it as a thriller.”

Read the rest on Crime Reads.  Here’s a taste of what’s to come:

“I WROTE MY WAY INTO SOME KILLER SCENES; I CHANGED MY TOWN TO ACCOMMODATE THEM; MY CHARACTERS BEGAN TO DEVELOP NEW PERSONALITY QUIRKS, ARTISTIC TALENTS, DARK SECRETS….”

Acknowledging My Community

Last week I finished my first pass page proofs for Shadow Child, my new novel coming out in May. I started it in the year 2000.

Jacket for Shadow Child by Rahna Reiko RizzutoHolding those pages in my hands, with their elegant design and their printing marks, I was amazed at how much effort has gone into the creation of this book, effort from people at the publishing house with whom I have become deeply connected and others I have never met. After almost two decades, my book has a face – the jacket I have attached here is brand new and just posted by Grand Central – and it’s a face that, as gorgeous and perfect as it is, is also one I could never have dreamed of. The birth of this book is much like the birth of a child, in that you imagine what your child will look like, but the person who was created in some magical and mysterious way from your DNA is both instantly recognizable and utterly unfamiliar.

It is taking a publishing village to get Shadow Child out into the world. At Goddard, when we write, we might imagine that we are done once the final draft is ready to send out into the world. This is not true. The draft that will be published, which had already been read in various stages by friends, writer friends, agents and editors, was so thoroughly…engaged with…by my brilliant editor that on some pages there were so many comments I literally had to take a deep breath, close the document and come back to it a different day.

As wonderful as my pre-publishing experience has been, we hit a snafu the other day when I turned in my acknowledgements and was told that they had only saved three extra pages for them, never expecting that I might need…eight.

I couldn’t cut the names of the people I interviewed, around fifty, even if my story changed and I didn’t use the material, and even if some of them have already passed on. I couldn’t cut the people who helped. I held onto the list of books that served as resources and inspiration because my novel is partly historical and the reader might want to know what really happened. Some of the decisions I made about how to use that history, what to identify, where to let go of fact in my quest for a greater truth – I felt that context was essential to include. And more than all of that, I could not cut my community.

Over two decades, the community around this book is vast, and I know that, as much as I tried to list my many supporters, by name and affiliation, there are perhaps an equal number of people who have not been named. This is because my brain is old, but also because the people who made a difference are not always the ones who read the whole manuscript or gave me feedback. They are my friends, my colleagues, the people I spent time with. They are my students who, in asking questions about their own work, sparked an answer to a problem I was having in my book for me. They are fellow travelers, Pele’s Fire writers who create an electric buzz of brainstorming around them wherever they go; listeners who insist that the passage I read cannot be cut, even if I have to reshape the novel to keep it there, or who remember a scene from six years before; friends whose comments on a piece of art we saw together, or a movie, crystalized an idea in my brain. We don’t always know where our ideas come from, or how they shift and change. There is a time when it is just us, and our muse. But there is a far longer time when we are writers in the world, and the others around us are collaborators and inspiration whether they know it or not.

I offered to drop my bio to accommodate the acknowledgements. They refused. They offered to compromise the internal design. I refused. We were able to move a few things around, and I got ruthless with my sentence structure to gain some pages, and so far, it looks like the acknowledgements are going to fit. They won’t be as long as a book two decades in the making requires, with apologies to anyone whose name I have forgotten.

My advice to you who are still writing? Jot down those names, make a note of the passing conversations. Seek out your community and cherish it. Never forget you are a writer in the world.

Getting Unstuck

Sometimes I feel like my whole year has been in Mercury retrograde.  With one thing after another, there has been a lot of waiting, a lot of postponing, and a lot of loss.  I have been stuck—in situations that are not my choosing, with no path forward—and in talking with my friends and sister writers, I know I am far from the only one who would rather watch reruns of clips from The Voice (or Aquaman GIFs) than face my ever-growing list of things that just stubbornly refuse to get done.  As we enter the holiday season, which has its own joys and challenges, it can be helpful to recall that, as writers, we have complete control over our tools and our voices.  We don’t need anyone’s permission, or an infrastructure, or a legal ruling, or even an outside opportunity in order to write.

So my current burning question for the Tarot is:

How do we get unstuck?

To find my answers, I pull a single Tarot* card.  I use it for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is The Knower of Rivers.

Knower of RiversThe Card: In the Shining Tribe Tarot deck, the Knower of Rivers is analogous to the Knight of Cups: a card of action, and also emotions and the subconscious. It follows the Place of Rivers: a place where we go to meditate, withdraw, and revitalize our emotions. The Knower comes out of this place renewed, ready for action, with the tools for success literally clutched in their hands.  The card suggests power, and also victory (in the “seven” of the four figures and three fiery trees on the ridge).  But this is a victory fueled by self-knowledge, and it comes from the courage to gaze deeply into oneself and “enter the deep and limitless waters” of our own mysteries.

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

Embrace retreat.

Of course, it is great to pull a card that promises action and transformation when your life feels like you are running in place. But this card reminds us of two things:

First, change comes from within. This is not an external card, where success comes from wielding a sword or forcing an issue.  The suit of Rivers is about intuition, and mystery, and dreams.  It is intensely creative.  It suggests that all the power you need lies within you. And forward motion comes, in part, from embracing the darkness you find there, accepting it, and transforming it into radiant light. This has been a really important reminder for me, since it is the darkness that makes me stuck: I don’t want to feel it or deal with it. But the darkness—our struggles as humans—is what gives our creative stories and images energy. Without it, there would be no plot, no vision that haunts your readers, no powerful connection to their own lives.  To be writers, we need to tap that darkness.

Second, you are doing something. Sometimes the self needs renewal. All the “doing” that our society equates with progress can get exhausting, and hollow.  “Being” is important too, especially for writers.  We need to gather—our energy, our material—and since we do work on a subconscious level, we may not be aware we are doing it. So instead of thinking of ourselves as stuck, better to think of ourselves as resting. Retreating.  Recharging. And to be open to just being very aware of what is going on around us, and the messages we find there.

How can you apply this card to your work?

Relax. Open. Don’t try to escape.

My exercise offering is designed to help you notice what you are experiencing and find a way to use it. In these times of unconscious gathering, you may be getting messages that you aren’t bringing into your conscious mind. You may even be actively blocking or resisting them.  So we will mimic the journey that the Knower of Rivers takes.

It is helpful to find a quiet place, where you can relax and release your mind. (Have something to write with handy.) If you find that your thoughts are racing and your brain is telling you that either you don’t have time for this or it’s all useless, be aware that those are defense mechanisms. As long as you don’t have a train to catch, you can give yourself ten quiet minutes.

Deep breaths help, as does closing your eyes. Your mind does not have to become a perfect vacuum.  There simply has to be enough space to allow some images or words to bubble up. Don’t chase them.  Do imagine bubbles: let them rise, with ease, then let them go.  See if something starts repeating. [For me, it’s been witches! For whatever reason, witches keep appearing in random tarot readings, in my email inbox, in conversations with friends.]

Once you notice a pattern or a repetition, or even just one single image or word that has some energy behind it (even the energy of resistance or fear), you might know exactly what to do.  If not, jot down some notes.  When does this message appear?  What emotions are associated with it?  What archetypes?  What colors? What size is this thing you are feeling?  Where is it in your body? What words are associated with the image?  What images with the words?  Most likely, once you’ve made these notes you’ll have a direction to explore, but if not, the final step is this: Pick a pronoun and write: “She is… They are… It is…” (whichever pronoun you chose) and then follow that with any associated or descriptive word from your notes above.  [Such as, “She is red.”]  Then freewrite a sentence to follow that.  And another to follow that.

I hope this exercise helps you get in sync with yourself and start feeling unstuck. Happy writing!

*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.

When You Are Overwhelmed

This last month has left me reeling.  My father passed away suddenly, and what spins into that (as we raced across the country to say goodbye), and out of that (in the long process of settling and celebrating his life) is a lot to do and feel.  Add to that that my novel, more than a decade in the making, needs a final edit on its way into the world (it will be published next May), and I have a 17-page editorial letter, a ton of great ideas that require some finesse and feeling, and only two weeks to get them done.  The same two weeks that I have to plan my father’s memorial.  So it may not be surprising that my burning question for the Tarot has a very personal impetus:

What to do when there is too much to do?

In this Tarot feature, I pull a single card* to find my answers. I use the card for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is The Seven of Birds.

The Card: In this deck, the Birds is the suit of the Air.  It signifies the mind and the spirit, as well as prophecy and information.  It is the suit of art, and also – in its correspondence to the Swords in a traditional tarot deck – it offers us ways to transcend and transform sorrow and anger. Sevens also correspond to communication, which gives us a double dose of communicating for the writer.  This is the card of boundaries, and the importance of drawing them clearly, and with song, which makes it perfect for today’s question.

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

Know what you want. Get what you need.

The image of this card is of two people working, individually but beside each other, according to the clear and mutual boundaries they are creating.  Above them, birds have also claimed their territory, through song. Evoking behavioral bird studies, and Aboriginal land claims, creator Rachel Pollack introduces the idea of a song as a map. And what is a song, but a celebration, an expression, a story?

From this card, the message I am getting is that you can’t do it all, you can’t have it all, but every being in the card does have what they need and what they claim.  A reminder of the common wisdom that you can only do so much, and that you have to prioritize, makes sense here. But sometimes, when there are too many balls in the air, we move instinctively to grab the ones that are dropping first.  This card reminds me that I have a particular song to sing, and it has its own tone, and emotion, and story.  What is my song and what do I want to sing? is a much more helpful, and more grounding, way to figure out how to go forward than What do I have to do and what’s about to collapse?

So how do we apply this card to our work?

Go back to the shape of your intention.

What does that mean? Well, in my case, not only do I have a lot going on in my life, I have a lot going on on the page: three narratives, three timelines, three locations. My final edit calls for moving some of these pieces around, while trying to track all the pieces to make sure they make it back in somewhere to do the work they were originally intended to do.  I’m a big fan of the outline, and going back to the beginning to remember what I put in, where and most importantly why, is a help to me. But for today’s exercise, I want to suggest a trick that can help if you have so much going on in your story and your revision that you can’t remember or recognize what you set out to do.

Think of a shape you are familiar with. Possibly a song, a poem, a three act.  Maybe, more radically, the structure of Catholic mass, or the architecture of a high-rise building, or the five stages of grief, as my colleague at Goddard College, playwright Kyle Bass, suggested at a recent residency. How does your work fit into that shape?

What is your ground floor/processional/first act?  How does it fit the requirement of the new structure (to hold everything up, to move everything into the space)? What is being “denied” in your first stage of grief?

Or, going with the idea of song, think about how the elements of your work correspond with the elements of a song (even a symphony!) to “test” them and make sure they are there and doing the necessary work.  Find your melody, your base line. Think about your verses and your chorus.  Is there a bridge?  What does the harmony sound like?

There are so many structures you can use to get fresh eyes and ears on your work, to help you when you are so close to your material that you can no longer see all of it for what it was meant to do.  Use your “song” to help you identify, pare back, rearrange, and most importantly, remember the emotional journey you are creating for your reader.

Happy writing!

 

*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.

Loss

We are living in a time of reversals, losses.  There are political shifts, yes, but also very immediate human suffering, both on the incomprehensible level of war, aggression, terror, refugees, exclusion, and brutality, and also the personal level of the individual.  As writers, we are empaths, and speaking only for this one writer, I admit that sometimes this loss, this suffering, derails me and leaves me unable to write. But this is also our material, and our calling: to render the human condition in all its complexity.

So my burning question for today is:

How do we deal with loss?

As you may know, if you have been following this blog, to find my answers, I pull a single Tarot* card.  I use it for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is The World Shining Woman.

World ShIning Woman TarotThe Card: In this deck, the World Shining Woman is the final card in the Major Arcana. She is the culmination of the journey of life: wholeness, the perfect being. Inside her body, all the pieces of creation, all the stories, the dreams, everything we imagine and call into being.  This is a card of fulfillment, but it also draws on the Kaballah story that the original cosmos was broken into pieces and now all of us bear the responsibility of restoring it to wholeness.

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

There is no life without loss.

There are two ways to approach this card.  One is as a writer in the world who is experiencing some kind of loss that you are finding difficult to get on the page (or perhaps you are finding it difficult to get to the page period).

For this, the card reminds us that wholeness requires it all: the light hand and the dark hand, the hermaphrodite (as the World card is often rendered), the soul of the fish, the endurance of the turtle, the tomb, and the cross. As empaths, we need our wound-raw sensitivity, and our courage in the face of it, in order to do our jobs. We need to feel, and sometimes this is hard but it is the essence of the writer’s voice and the writer’s role in society, culture and community.

The second approach is to think about the content of what you are writing.  How do you connect to the losses in your story, and render them?  How do you bring truth to deep emotions without being melodramatic or too abstract? What if you are too close (as is sometimes the case in memoir)? How do you find the balance?

For this, I look, not at the figure, but at the space around her. As Rachel Pollack, who created the image writes, “She dances in the void.” Rachel draws our attention to the “second body” of white space between the World Shining Woman’s body and the lines of energy in the corners of the card. She reminds us that everything creates an echo, a halo of “inexpressible mystery.” And sometimes the best way to describe something is to describe its halo. Or, that the body is only one aspect of the perfect being, and the spirit or soul, the intangible, is greater than what we think we know.

How can you apply this card to your work?

Loss is sacred, and essential to life.  Feel the feels.

My exercise offering is the same whether you need grounding as a writer grappling with loss, or are looking for a technique to render it. Use this as you see fit.

First, find a quiet place that feels safe and is meaningful to you. Look around you. Take your time. Select an object in your space that calls you and pick it up.

Sit with it for a second, maybe with your eyes closed.  Feel the weight of it in your hand; the temperature, the texture.  Feel whether it changes as it acclimates to your skin.  Let your mind drift and see whether, just with this connection to your body, images come. Write down a few notes if you want, then keep going.

Open your eyes if you like.  Use your other senses to connect to the object.  Give yourself space to make associations.  Is there another object in the room that wants to connect to this one?  A person? Is there a place where this object belongs? Comes from? Is there a desire associated with it? An emotion?

Let yourself make notes and associations.  Keep them as close as possible with your senses. If you find that the object, and the associations and the stories that are beginning to form around it, are connected to your feelings or your loss, that will help you explore it and experience it from a safe place.  If it takes you to a different emotion, that’s good too.  Maybe that lifts you out of your block, your overwhelm.  Maybe it reminds you that everything is a cycle, is in flow. And loss is just one awful, beautiful, human part of that cycle.  All of this is helpful to enrich your material and get you writing again.

Wishing you inspiration.

 

*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.

Going Deeper

Every day, I work with writers. From those who are just starting out, gathering their thoughts and looking for tools, to those who have been published. Right now, I am sending off my last letters of advice to my MFA students at Goddard College, and I am also trying to work on my own final revisions of my upcoming novel. Which reminds me that this week’s question is not one that a writer ever outgrows. Nor is it limited to any particular stage of the process, or even to writing. As you will see, this is a question for all artists and creative thinkers.

Today’s tarot question:

How do we go deeper?

To find my answers, I pull a single Tarot* card.  I use it for insight, as a confirmation, to get around my blocks and habits, to take some risks and find some epiphanies. Often, it gives me an energy that I need to hold onto, so I put it on my altar. Today’s card is 7 of Rivers.

7 of rivers, Shining Tribe tarotThe Card: In this deck, the suit of Rivers is for feelings, dreams and fantasies. An emotional suit, it is rooted in love and harmony, and reminds us that the easiest way (as in “ease”!) to get where we are going is to go with the flow. The 7 in every suit stands for daring and communication.  The 7 of Rivers is the card of fantasy, and wondrous journeys.

So what does this card mean for you, as the writer?

Don’t just go deeper.  Let yourself go crazy!

This card is about the imagination, about the storyteller letting images float up from the unconscious. In that way, it’s a very direct answer. But sometimes the cards work by reminding me of a message that is already in the air. So let me tell you a story.

I am surrounded by artists.  My sons are dancers and musicians; my partner is a potter; my father is a writer; and my step-mother is a painter and textile artist. So we talk about art a lot. Recently, one of my sons was in California working with a mentor on his choreography, and they were discussing freestyling, and, in particular, what to do when you find yourself following your habits and your strengths, and therefore doing the same thing over and over again. One school of thought might be to do the opposite, or to move your feet more if you are relying too much on your hands.  This dance mentor’s advice was, if you find yourself stomping on your left foot over and over, go with it. Play with it. Make it bigger, then bigger still, then bring it back. Make it weirder.

In other words, don’t pull yourself away from your inclinations. Trust that your habit has something to offer, maybe a safe place where you know you are strong, that will give you the courage to tip over the edge and find the unknown.

Besides inspiration and wild stories, the 7 of Rivers also reminds us that too many fantasies or possibilities can be paralyzing.  How do you choose? Which are the right choices? Are there any to be feared? This aspect of the card convinces me that the advice from the freestyling dancer is the right message here, because it recommends that you build off your strengths. When you are in front of a crowd, there is no room for fear and judgment, for telling yourself you are wrong to have habits and to throw yourself into the blank unknown.  This is also true for the writer at her desk.

Be playful. Embrace your fantasies.  Flow into the unknown from your strengths.  Trust yourself.

How can you apply this card to your work?

Here’s one strategy for the writer who wants to go deeper. There are so many others, and I hope that this post has already given you some ideas of your own.  For this one, take the piece of writing that you want to go deeper with and ask it: What if?

What if the end wasn’t the end?

What if the highs were higher, the lows lower, the stakes greater?  Exaggerate them.

Look for secrets that are kept, messages that are delivered and understood, images that resolve or that we have seen before and explode them.  What if one character never got the message?  What happens then?

What if you admitted something (in personal essay or memoir) that makes you uncomfortable? Or vulnerable? (You can always delete it later.)

What if the resolutions didn’t resolve?

We tend to work within the safe spaces, where we are comfortable, and that translates to our characters: we don’t ask more of them than we would ask of ourselves. What if you asked for everything, held nothing back?  Think of this as an exercise to discover what’s on the other side of safety.  You may only use a little bit of it, but your story will be deeper than it was.

Happy writing!

 

*In this feature, I’m working with The Shining Tribe Tarot: Awakening the Universal Spirit, created by renowned Tarot scholar Rachel Pollack, who taught me that the Tarot “is a vehicle to remind yourself of what you already know.” If you want to know more about the deck and its images, or have your own Tarot practice, here are the links.