Saturday, June 30, 2012

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Easily the most compelling WWII narrative I've ever read. The story of Olympic track star Louie Zamperini, from Torrance, CA, starts out slow, but as other readers have noted, it is indeed worth staying with the book -- after the first 100 pages, the story explodes with details about Zamperini's stint as an Air Force bombardier, flying in the notoriously dangerous B-24's before being shot down and lost at sea. The details of his harrowing 46-day-journey on the ocean without food or water, where he and his pilot are the only survivors, are barely outdone by the twenty-seven months of horrific starvation, torture, and vicious beatings at the hands of the infamous psychopathic Japanese corporal, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, referred to as "the Bird" by his captives.

Carefully and compassionately written, Hillenbrand's narrative never veers into melodrama or accusation; instead, she faithfully documents the details of Zamperini's life, including his family's steadfast belief that he was alive, even when the war department declared him dead, and his struggles with PTSD and alcoholism during a rocky return to civilian life after the war ended. I found some of the details in this book so amazing and, in parts, horrifying, that I read a number of passages aloud to my husband and daughter. Most unbelievable to me was the number of U.S. airmen lost due to aircraft accidents, engine failures, gas leaks, oil pressure problems, and faulty landing gear. In WWII, Hillenbrand writes, "35,933 AAF planes were lost in combat and accidents," and "in the air corps, 35,946 personnel died in non-battle situations, the vast majority of them in accidental crashes." It was a dangerous time to be an air force recruit, and for those who survived crashes in the ocean or on land, the horrors were just beginning if they were unlucky enough to be captured by the Japanese who, at that time, were indoctrinated into believing that POW's deserved to be beaten, starved, and enslaved, and ultimately executed in "kill-all" orders at the first signs of American invasion.

Everyone should read this book; it simply and clearly describes the horrors of WWII without sensationalizing or amplifying the details. The ghastly events that American POWs experienced during WWII become achingly vivid and real, which makes Louie Zamperini's trials and those of his fellow surviving servicemen, more compelling and unbelievable because, as Hillenbrand's book illustrates, their stories are true.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Writers’ Salon: When It’s All About the Writing

A couple of months ago, I entered a Red Room ( writing contest and won free admission to the USC Writers Conference. Since this was the first annual writers conference for the university, I correctly assumed that it would be small (it was) and that most of the attendees would be USC students (they were). Even so, it was nice to spend some time at a conference as a participant rather than a speaker, and I enjoyed meeting the attendees and hearing the presentations, especially the keynote by Red Room founder and CEO, Ivory Madison.

Madison’s talk focused on the amount of time writers spend on peripheral writing activities versus the time they spend actually writing. As Madison pointed out, writers spend a lot of time on activities associated with writing that don’t involve creating any words. For example, she explained that talking about writing is not writing, reading about writing is not writing, blogging or perusing social media about writing is not writing, and yes, attending writers’ conferences is not writing. The only activity that can be considered writing, she said, is sitting down and actually putting words on the page.

One of the activities writers spend a great deal of time on is meeting in groups to critique each other's writing. Meeting in critique groups, Madison pointed out, can be useful for helping to revise a finished work, but it’s still time spent not writing. Although writers need feedback on their work, Madison recommends that they wait to do that until after the first draft of a work is completed.

Madison does acknowledge that writers are social animals, and that group energy and camaraderie are important to writers in helping to provide inspiration, keep each other motivated, and lend a shoulder to cry on during times when the writing gets tough. Although she doesn’t recommend critique groups during a work’s creation, she advocated belonging to what she calls writers’ salons. These are groups of writers who get together for a specified amount of time to do a limited amount of socializing, but whose main focus is to write (she runs a number of these for writers in the Bay Area).

I have personally been a member of some writers groups and found them invaluable when I was writing my first novel, Coyote Heart. Although the meetings did take up some time (my group usually met once a week for about 4 hours), I found the feedback and the interaction extremely helpful to honing my work. But Madison’s point about activities like critique groups taking time away from writing struck home with me. Though the feedback in these groups was useful, why did I have to get it as I went along? Couldn’t I finish a book and then work with a critique group, as Madison suggested?

While mulling this information over at the conference, I discovered that a number of the students there were also big fans of writers’ salons. One woman said that she was in a group that met weekly and found it productive and stimulating. Another said that her salon met online via Skype “We all just sit there and type,” she said. “All you hear are keys clicking while everyone gets the work done.” All of the attendees who are salon members agreed that they were the best way to get work done and still have a social connection with other writers. And all of them said that they were willing to wait until their books/works are completed before having anyone edit or critique them.

Since I had recently begun work on a new novel, I decided to try the writers’ salon concept once I returned home from the conference. There are a couple of organizations that run salons here in San Diego (San Diego Writer’s Ink, for example, runs weekly open writing sessions that cost $5 each to attend). But I decided to start my own unpaid group; I ran ads on Craigslist and in the newsletter of a friend who runs writing workshops and, within a week, was able to form a group of five members that has been meeting for two hours once a week.

What have I learned since starting a writers’ salon? First, it’s a lot easier to set up than a regular critique group. Most of the critique groups to which I’ve belonged required that the group members wrote in a similar genre (for example, all were novelists or short story writers). They also required that everyone wrote at a somewhat decent level, had the same level of comfort and experience with giving critique, and were committed to generating work every week for the group to review. Finding a group that meets all of these criteria can be a daunting task, and when a member or two drops out, groups often fold.

None of that is necessary in a writing salon. The salon concept requires that everyone be there to write, but what each person writes is up to him or her. So, in our salon, we have novelists, short story writers, poets, and song writers. Our group liked the idea of starting out with a ten-minute writing exercise, but after that and a little bit of chit-chat, we get down to work and write for a solid hour and a half (we usually set a timer). After that, the group is free to discuss the writing, share ideas, questions, and concerns, and then disband until the next meeting.

At first, I was a little leery of the notion of writing with a bunch of other people sitting around the table, but I’ve found the group sessions to be amazingly energizing and productive. And the best part of being in a writers’ salon is that there is little-to-no drama. Since we aren’t there to critique each other’s work, there is none of the hurt feelings or resentment that often comes with honest judgment of what we’re each producing. If any of us wants his/her work critiqued, we can easily arrange that as a side option with our fellow group members or with beta readers and/or professional editors.

So, I’m glad I entered that Red Room contest and especially glad to hear what Ivory Madison had to say. If I hadn’t entered, I would never have met the members of my salon group, who I’ve come to treasure, or made as much progress on my new novel, which is moving along nicely.