Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bonjour! Writing Happiness: Author Jamie Callan on the Joy of Discovery

Jamie Cat Callan,Paris

Award-winning author and instructor Jamie Cat Callan tells about French secrets to joie de vivre in her latest book Bonjour, Happiness! Elizabeth Bard, author of Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes said, "With warmth and sincerity, Callan shares that most precious of French life lessons — when to say 'enough.'" To research her topic, Jamie traveled throughout France, interviewing hundreds of women to find their secrets to living a well-balanced life. In this guest post, she describes the process.

AMA: What's your background?
JCC: I grew up in Connecticut and taught creative writing at Fairfield University, Wesleyan University and the Educational Center for the Arts. My grandmother was French-American, and inspired me to find the secrets to joie de vivre and true happiness.

AMA: Tell me about the new book.
JCC: Bonjour, Happiness! Five Ways to Find Your Joie de Vivre, American Style goes beyond relationship advice and offers a unique brand of whole-life happiness, sharing French women's secrets to finding joy.

Bonjour, Happiness!
AMA: What are some of the particulars you address in the book?
JCC: I describe my journey throughout France and the U.S., meeting with hundreds of women and talking about struggles with weight and body image, accepting middle age, and for me, coping with a new marriage — at age fifty — and rediscovering my French heritage.

AMA: Sounds like fun research. What did you learn during the process?
JCC: I embraced the beauty, mystery and magic of discovering a new culture, a spiritual journey told from the viewpoint of an innocent abroad, someone searching for inspiration, not just from the French, but particularly from French women. As a middle-aged woman living in youth-obsessed America, I looked for French answers to aging gracefully and finding joy in an imperfect body. I'm not so much interested in finding the fountain of youth as I am in finding the fountain of happiness. As Dove's "real beauty" ad campaign suggests, I learned to find the joy of loving my perfectly imperfect self.

AMA: How did the process of discovery play into the writing process, and life in general?
JCC: This is such an excellent question! French Women Don't Sleep Alone was so successful that by the time I began researching Bonjour I felt much clearer about what I wanted to do with this new book. Also, I had met so many great women on my American (as well as French women) book tour, and a lot of their questions and concerns went into the writing of Bonjour. My language skills had improved along the way, so I was able to connect with and interview a lot more women. The more I got to know and become friends with French women, the more I understood my grandmother and her sense of joie de vivre. It was as if these women were bringing her back to me. I would say this was especially true of my French tutor, Madame M. who is very beautiful, very elegant and in some ways a surrogate grandmere to me.

AMA: What an amazing journey. What was the writing process like?
JCC: Here's something that might surprise your readers. The book proposal for Bonjour, Happiness! was originally for a memoir. I wanted to write about my childhood, my grandmother, my experiences in France. However, my very wise editor at Kensington said she wanted another advice book similar to French Women Don't Sleep Alone, but that this new book could use narrative as well as prescriptive. In the end, I wrote a kind of amalgam of memoir and self-help. I blended the genres into something new—I'm not sure what to call it. Maybe literary self-help? Whatever it is, I'm happy with the outcome and readers are responding positively.

For more information on Jamie's amazing writing journey, visit Bonjour, Happiness! Or see her at Jamie Cat Callan. The book is available on Amazon at Bonjour, Happiness! Five Ways to Find Your Joie de Vivre, American Style.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Tale of Two Stories: What Is Your Piece Is Really About?

One of the many maxims we learn in journalism is to not just report a story, but to get at what the story is really about. The difference between the two perspectives is the difference between a cloud and solid ground. The principle applies to all nonfiction (see The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers), and to fiction as well.

Also see the Online Workshop
To finish a first draft, you're basically looking to include, organize and establish the main points of a story, the key facts. As you go through the process, a more well-defined image appears. Imagine an old darkroom, where the photographer (the good ones anyway) would immerse photographic paper in developing solution and watch the image appear. In looking closely, you not only see the main subject, but the details you hadn't noticed before.

That's when you start getting at what a story is really about (see "Find Focus by Asking What the Story is Really About"). It's also when questions arise that you must follow to their logical conclusion. Ask yourself, what does what I've discovered really say about this person or character, event or plot point? 

I just had this conversation with a biographer (see How To Do Biography) as we discussed his subject. In getting at the real person he's writing about, he has to decide which details to include and which to leave out, how to organize what he has and how much of himself to inject into the piece. With the blurring of the lines among genres, this question is increasingly common. I told him he could decide based on how he answers these questions:
  • Does the fact reveal something about the subject?
  • Does it enrich the story?
  • Does it compel the reader to read on?
When deciding whether to include information, you should answer yes to all three of these questions, not just one or two.

The same principle applies to fiction. As you write and revise your work, ask yourself, what does what I've just written or the idea I've just had say about this character? Is the answer different from what I thought the person was like? If so, how so? How does this impact the other characters, and the plot? Writers often fear these questions because they fear the answers will lead them afield. But keep in mind, if you don’t answer these questions now, you'll answer them later, and that can mean lots of extra time spent running headlong to a dead end.

As you go through the vetting process, note the new reality that emerges. This is what your story is about. It may not be what you started with, but it should be richer and more original than where you began.

For more information on the blurring of the line between genres, see "Poets & Writers'" "An Interview With Creative Nonfiction Writer Hank Stuever."