God help the living; the dead have already gotten past him.
In the early months, our relationship was one of teacher and student. She was the former; I was definitely the latter. I’ll call her Dawn, though I wonder whether she disliked her first name, being too precious, too old school cute for her. And I rarely tried being that familiar–only when struggling to find words that might mean something, to let the child inside her know she was loved.
I was still a practicing architect in an ongoing business writing nights and on the weekend, and she was a few years into a new role as a development editor. She was careful, and skeptical–probably dubious, but from the beginning she challenged my commitment to the craft. “Let’s keep this professional,” she insisted was a good idea, though as the years went by, the relationship evolved, perhaps not intentionally on her part but inevitably on mine. Oh, and we never met in person. We came close to having a phone consultation once but that fell through.
When you want to go deep into writing, the first thing you need to set aside is any kind of cover story. Either do the work, or play solitaire. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time–and your coach’s as well. Dawn was the first writing coach I ever had. Losing her was a ton of bricks dropped on my heart.
Dawn Field, PhD, a molecular scientist had gone off the research reservation. Unless you’re Oliver Sachs, it would be hard to see how a person could move from a genome project and teaching at Oxford and summers in Sweden–to speculative fiction with any grace, let alone talent, though she managed the translation with aplomb. She was cool and purposeful–yet on fire for creating fiction.
She was someone I admired for her fierce insistence that writing is important, that my writing might could be as well. And every single word counted to her. From the first email I received in reply to a blind query I had sent, she saw value in corresponding with somebody she would never meet. She gave the impression she was fine with that kind of Internet distance if not anonymity, though occasionally her shields dropped. I had done this trick of blind, long distance correspondence once before–with a girl I’d never met when both of us were fifteen. So I had something of an advantage on her–I was perfectly happy writing to someone with the seriousness of the subject while not losing sight of the person–something she seemed to struggle with.
I teased that her early email address, email@example.com translated to “Fie on the dawn.” being a very Shakespearean expression, and she said it hadn’t occurred to her–which I seriously doubt since not much got by her.
BookBaby is the writing website she often published on–and was where I first read an article of hers, a good one that gave pause. The short bio said she welcomed helping authors develop their work. So I posed a question: how does one go about dividing a slow, overly-long novel into more manageable chunks?
Typical of her responses, she never answered me directly, instead leaping into a discussion about ‘BIG’ and did I know what it was, could I write it? I sent her a first chapter of Kill Devil and she ripped it to shreds, ‘red pen praising’ as she called it, starting with the name: “You need to develop the story of this place if it’s the name of your book; make it your story! And you can’t start a book about the weather, even if Charlie Brown’s dog got away with it.” I’m paraphrasing.
She was a scientist with a literary bent–and I quickly learned that any author I had read, she had as well, and a few more besides. The misconception of scientists being linear thinkers hardly applied to her–more like lightening never striking the same ground. Her methods of digging in deep, perhaps you could say was of a scientific bent. She was investigating the theorems of literature. When I mentioned Gormenghast, she said it was a favorite story. Few I knew had even heard of it, let alone read it, being too dense and brooding. It surprised me to learn she was a serious fantasy reader. Ever so slowly she’d reveal these fragmentary clues.
Over the four or so years we communicated, we argued over everything because she was a demanding soul, not one to hide herself or spare my feelings. She raged against misogynists like Molly, the Rottweiler hated any kind of abuse. Molly was the dog D and I had rescued. And I must have sent Dawn into fits over how ignorant I was about the structure of storytelling. While she had been studying to grasp detail and nuance–wordsmithing, though she never called it that–I had been skating blithely over top of subjects. Intuition, baby!
We had been exchanging notes on such a high level (high for me) that when she sent me story fragments written by other people she was coaching, it stopped me. One, because she wanted my criticism and I’m easily flattered, and two, because the writing was sophomoric. It revealed another side of what she was doing–teaching the craft to raw recruits. I wasn’t so much a beginner, just not near her level–for sure playing catch up. It seemed I was pursuing an MFA in fiction writing by speed reading. It was a challenge to work at editing these pieces–showing as much kindness as I could muster, though she was way ahead of me in the kindness to beginners department.
During the years of an architectural practice, I had coached intern architects, and while the tools of the craft are wholly different, the techniques of searching for someone else’s creativity aren’t dissimilar. The last building project was a multi-story urban library. My typical practice was to take the design through schematic design, even into early working drawings before turning it over to be fully worked out. Out of scheduling necessity I needed design help from the beginning. A new intern architect with serious potential became the ‘pencil’ needed for the concept; I guided and critiqued what he was doing, sometimes insisting we add my own designs into the mix, but he worked through the weeds of the design like a pro. The project took eight hard years from concepts to occupied library, and if I was going to conclude a career in architecture–as it happened–it was one hell of a way to go out. I like the drama of the final building, but I like even more that he and I designed it together.
Coaching a creative process requires sharing a passion that isn’t a singular, one size fits all affair. Above all, it requires an ability to communicate. Beginning with frankly explaining your own vision and helping students find theirs–not to develop clones of yourself, but to find another’s talent. Pursuing creativity has to be a personal goal, or teaching easily falls into pedantry. A brilliant coach will be judged by the success of her students.
With Dawn Field, I was writing to an obvious genius, striving to attain the same level, writing the best I could to gain her approval. Writing to genius.
I would make an off-the-wall comment about one of her pieces, and we’d be gone to the races–she correcting me, me debating her, annoying her greatly, no doubt, when I didn’t catch on immediately to what she was saying. I learned that several hours necessarily were demanded for one of these engagements. Our email exchanges were, to be polite, intense. Mostly due to her. She brooked no light banter; I caught hell more than once for trying it on her–or anything of a personal nature.
She liked to bounce off writing concepts she was working through, which were cerebral to say the least. I’m an only skin-deep conceptualist–and a visual person to the core–so dry concepts don’t attract me the way a beautifully turned phrase, or an image might. Though with Dawn, because she asked me, I tried to follow her into these wells of abstraction.
I sought to give honest feedback–even though she’d argue my own leaps weren’t always pertinent. She’d write a lawyer’s brief on the subject, detailed and careful, and I’d respond with a flight of fancy until settling down to reply in kind–lots of deletes and rewriting required.
A Man Called Ove
“The best way to learn to write is to read. Not just read, but close read. Not just once slowly and looking for how a book is put together, but again and again.” Dawn Field, PhD
Dawn wrote for BookBaby’s blog, which was how I first came across her work. She was always searching for ways to explain writing techniques and concepts of good structure in fiction. BookBaby was an early website for me when I began to think seriously about writing as a profession. And Dawn’s articles were particularly attractive.
Late in our correspondence, she came on an idea from Socrates she borrowed called “dialogues,” essentially employing the dialectic between two people to provide examples of strong writing. The first practice dialogue she sent was interesting, but when she emailed the dialogue based on A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, she struck gold. Her first draft sent in an email:
“Oh, I’m just starting the book, ‘A Man called Ove’ “
“Oh, what a great movie. Brilliant. What a huge Swedish export.”
“Yes, I’ve been meaning to read the book for ages. I’m five chapters in. I had a really hard time starting.”
“Ah, weren’t the same as the movie somehow?”
“Exactly, I love the first scene in the movie when he [Ove] buys flowers for his wife’s grave, and in the book he’s trying to buy a computer and he doesn’t really know what one is. I just couldn’t get into it. I like the character too much. But after about 5 false starts, I put aside time and got into it. So glad to be in now. The second chapter is right in step with the start of the movie–Ove doing rounds.”
(Smiles thinking of the movie.) “I remember. Ove’s great act of responsibility. The cat, walking the neighborhood, kicking signs.”
“Yes! Once you know the story, you see all those ‘planting seeds.’ “
(Read a book twice to see them)
“And there is a true stand out feature, right from the start.”
(Big smile of anticipation. The best part of developmental editing is finding the great features–let’s call these the stand out features–the something special an author adds.)
“Fredrik Backman, the author, has got this unique way of ‘elaborating,’ let’s say. He presents a phrase, then defines it in a really unique way. Here’s an example.”
‘…and shoved his hands in his pockets in that particular way of a middle-aged man who expects the worthless world outside to disappoint him.’
“See that? The phrase ‘shoved his hands’ is expanded. He keeps doing this. It’s his stand out pattern from the get go. Or:”
‘…shakes his head in disbelief, as if he’s just witnessed the sales assistant walking around the counter and licking the glass-fronted display cabinet.’
“Oh, that one is funny!”
“Yes, humor is his other stand out feature from the get go. Here’s a great description–the first we learn of [Parvaneh] the other main character.”
‘…she’s either very pregnant or suffering from what Ove would categorize as selective obesity.’
(Laugh. Nods.) “You can just see one of those super pregnant women who otherwise doesn’t have an extra ounce of fat.”
“I see great elements everywhere. The writing is rich and readable.”
“Oh! Look at all your circling, and underlying and annotations in the margins! Your method of ‘red pen praising.’ “
“The biggest standout feature, is Ove’s love for his wife. Here’s an ‘I love this!’ “
‘He was a man of black and white. And she was color. All the color he had.’
“Oh, stunning. Really memorable. A ‘summer-upper,’ I call them.”
(Nods.) “Great basis for a story. So relatable and heartwarming.”
“A single sentence paragraph, followed by a two sentence paragraph. Really makes the message stand out.”
“And it gets better:”
‘The only thing he had ever loved until he saw her was numbers.’
“What a great description of his character. You can guess loads of things about his just from those few words.”
“And even better. Guess the clincher at the end of chapter 5?”
“He repeats it?”
“Yes! He uses it again as the end of the chapter. And we remember exactly where we’ve heard it before. Right before it he uses a flash forward to set up the book:”
‘Then one morning he boarded a train and saw her for the first time. That was the first time he’d laughed since his father’s death.
And life was never again the same.’
“Another single sentence paragraph for emphasis.”
“What a love story. Really stands out.”
“That’s still the best objective measure of a great read and a novice one, don’t you think? It’s the only ‘rule’ that truly matters. It’s not exactly what you mark up as great, but how much of it there is to mark up.”
“And especially the presence of stand outs.”
“And I’m just getting started!”
Creative Writing by iPhone
Initially, I had the impression Dawn was too impatient to employ salutations and closings to her emails–or even punctuation. Was it a deconstructionist thing? An affectation the way e e cummings never capitalized his name–or closer to the present day, Sally Rooney’s lack of quotation marks in her novels’ dialogue–looking for glory in all the wrong place? Years into our correspondence I realized most times she was using her iPhone to correspond therefor less was more. I’m slow.
And she was writing to someone who up until recently did first drafts longhand in legal pads or a chapbook, a difference in styles to be sure. I employed an email style based on formal letter writing. No emojis and more than one exclamation point!!!–like that–was verboten. Occasional sentence fragments because ‘one does want a hint of color’ as Nathan Lane’s character exclaims in Bird Cage.
By contrast, Dawn wouldn’t always complete her thoughts, let alone her sentences, so leaps were required to follow her. On an iPhone. Eventually, I would catch myself unconsciously imitating her cryptic ways, to which she’d reply “I don’t understand” and grumpily I’d need to explain.
What one comes to see by reading another’s fiction is a different persona–that of a storyteller if it’s good. With some writers, the person and the persona are close. No so with Dawn. I’d not read a full story of hers–so it was a revelation when I finally did.
As the story goes, one day Dawn sent me an email ‘hey, look at this and tell me what you think.’ About all the explanation I got. I’m paraphrasing again; she would never use ‘hey’ in a sentence.
The initiating scene–the one that launches the story–describes a young girl who, it’s already been suggested, has powerful but unexplored psychic powers. She’s waiting with her mother to board a ship to leave England for? They are on a dock in Victorian times so effortlessly described like a scene in a Dickens novel, when they are assaulted by goons, one after another. These are devils of some kind, though hardly biblical. It is a very dystopian world–a parallel one to our own world–and the young protagonist is being thrown into it along with the reader–‘in medias res.’
So I wondered where she was in the process–the piece seemed polished–second draft?–third? Nah–Dawn was writing the first draft on her iPhone, explaining later that it was her most comfortable way to write. Who the hell writes fantasy novels on an iPhone?
She was sharing this wonderful fantasy and thanking me for reading it. Thanking me?
The draft fragments held misspellings and grammar mistakes because she was creating it on the fly. I’d get one version of a scene, then a corrected or expanded one in a day or two. This went on for weeks, a couple months; I’d think she’d dropped off, and ‘surprise!’ there’d be another several scenes. Typed on her friggin cell phone! I’d get a blast of images, comment on them and get back her cryptic, yet on-target responses.
To explain my astonishment: when writing fantasy, there’s a ton of backgrounding if you’re going to do it right. First you need to have a unique world, develop it’s peculiarities and characters, and have an idea of where the story begins and where it will end–all before you begin to write. It’s not enough to say there are angels and devils; what kind of angels, what are their powers, how do they relate to mortals? The same for the devils. Are there gods? What does this world look like? Does it resemble Earth, or is it an utterly alien planet like Ursula Le Guin’s in Left Hand of Darkness? It all has to be in your head to begin with. Read Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny–or better, read his Amber novels.
My first novel was a fantasy I’d begun in high school, and from the years that I stumbled scene to the next, developing the ‘rules’ as I went, I can say in full truth what Dawn was winging with an iPhone was genius of an order I hadn’t witnessed that closely. And I’d have never guessed she wrote without an outline of any kind.
A singular image of her young heroine flying a black sky at night over Lake Maggiore, searching for a fabled Library stays with me.
The story is brilliant. And it was largely complete in its first draft. Yes, there would be work to polish it, and inconsistencies to iron out, but what a place to start from! Not only could she describe this place with nuance, but the abrupt shifts in scenes, the skill to convince readers she’d carry them through a very complicated plot, revealing only so much, making it clear, throwing a new twist then making that one clear, a tumble of ideas that just flowed… The gift she gave me was to witness a story come to life, one that amazed me. Why she chose me, I’ll never know. Then she stopped.
You need to finish this, Dawn! I would have offered to help polish it but was too chicken to suggest it.
She said she’d gotten what she wanted from the ‘exercise’ as she called it. Easily a year later, she’d still comment on how grateful she was that I had followed the story as she wrote it, almost like I was a muse to her writing. When all along, it was a powerful gift–to me. I knew it then, and I know it even more clearly now.
She hated my sense of humor, yet her own was acerbic enough. Nights when she’d begin an email chain at midnight and continue a dialogue for the next few hours before I finally had to go to bed during a workweek, those long sessions drove me to take up the novel I swore I’d never touch again.
If I had ever considered not rewriting Kill Devil, the novel I’d first asked her about, now I have no choice.
Dawn worried about her son, then in high school. She and her husband had separated. On their own, she and her son. Though she never told me his name–Ryan–even after I’d bled over my own son, Ryan’s suicide, babbling about all the poems I’d written. I yelled at her to take care of herself for his sake. If you can’t take care of your son, what else matters? I couldn’t find words strong enough to describe to her the pain of losing close family. We had those conversations.
It seemed there were only the two of us in a close correspondence and it was flattering–as much as I had to believe she carried on multiple such correspondences. Her grace was in being able to touch people. I wondered who she was to those closest to her, though if this was how she treated someone she never met, I probably did.
This gets to the core of something that’s captured me since a teenager–my being drawn to certain people–akin to intimacy in simply how well they can communicate–in writing or in simple conversation. Did Dawn believe my views on her work were that incisive, or was I simply a foil for her testing ideas? Either way, I didn’t mind, because she valued enough in our correspondence to continue it, and I knew full well what I was being gifted.
The last email I got from her was just this past April, and as usual it was short and to the point–would I send her my novel’s draft? No explanation why, only would I send it? Yes, of course, but what format? I never heard back.
Except that she was in the University of Virginia hospital, I don’t know how Dawn died and probably never will. Though it doesn’t matter for all that she gave me. Rightfully, the only reason heaven should exist is to reconnect with people like her.
I’m getting too old for this sadness. I still need to talk to her. Just now I sketched out the climax scene in the third Kill Devil book and I need to tell her about it! I’m sure there’s stuff in it that needs to be made bigger — with her there always was.
Dawn Field, PhD died this past May 2, 2020. She was 50 years old.
[An earlier version of this essay was posted on http://www.goposted.com/blog]