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The First Sentence

“The opening sentence should be like an arrow shot from a bow: it will shoot through the entire text.” The late biographer Henry Mayer, a generous man, once gave me this advice. I’d approached him after a reading for his biography of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and when I asked him a question he offered to meet me for coffee.
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Writing Feeds My Soul

Writing, for me, is pure: totally involving, pleasurable, existing only for itself, not the end product. In the same way I cherish hiking a trail in the woods early morning, eager to see cottontail rabbits leaping into the brush, or the joy I get pulling weeds in my flower garden--where the aromas of leaves and fresh dirt fill my nostrils--writing is an activity that fully absorbs me. When I finish, I'm flushed with pleasure. Read More 

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HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU NEED TO REVISE YOUR MANUSCRIPT?

She's revising!

I am the queen of revision. Every one of the five books I've published has taken years. I write, revise, and revise some more. Whenever I finish a draft I think, "That's it!" But alas,  Read More 

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WHAT DID YOU SEE IN THE DEMOCRATIC DEBATE?

With Kamala Harris March 29, Oakland, CA.

How can we ever know that what we think we saw is what really happened? I've been fascinated by this question ever since I saw Rashomon: a film where four witnesses describe a murder, but each tells a conflicting version. Maybe one or more are lying, or maybe they simply saw divergent—competing—"truth" because of their different perspectives.

 

This came to mind when I saw today's shocking New York Times page one headline about yesterday's Read More 

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The Courage to Write

Millicent Fawcett, British writer and major activist for women's suffrage

“It is always a thrilling risk to say exactly what you mean, to express exactly what you see,” wrote the marvelous author Patricia Hampl. Each sentence we write boldly asserts, This is my viewpoint and I believe it worthy of utterance.

That takes courage, especially for women constantly defined as “other,” with its implication  Read More 

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HAMILTON, Its Power--and Its Blind Spot

In front of the Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco

I'm a Motown baby. I loved the musical Ain't Too Proud about the Temptations. The familiar beat, the Detroit community where they grew up— it all inspired me. A group of teenagers teamed with a dynamo producer, Berry Gordy, mined the music of African American life and circulated it all over the country. I never thought I could like another kind of show more. Read More 

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The Life of a Writer

Me in my late 30s, when I finally began publishing personal essays.

Being a full-time writer is a strange occupation. I work all day alone in a tiny cottage behind my house, hunched over my computer, lost in an imaginary world. If I weren't producing coherent literature some might consider this peculiar at best–or worthy of psychiatric intervention. Read More 

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The Role of the Writer in Perilous Times

My wife Carole and me at demonstration to Keep Families Together (Immigration), 2018

I’ve been sitting at my computer wondering if it’s selfish to be staring at the screen, searching for the perfect word, when our democracy is under threat? What is my role in times like these; what can writers do?

Searching for writers’ impacts in previous eras I think first of the long,  Read More 

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What Keeps You From Writing?

Did you plan to start on that new writing project yesterday, but then discover that your oven needed cleaning—urgently? You simply couldn’t stand the flaky grime one more day. Or the phone rang just as you sat down to begin and two hours later you realized you allowed yourself to get caught  Read More 

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IS SEEING BELIEVING?

Kamala Harris and me at a fundraiser, March 29, 2019

By Joan Steinau Lester

"I like Kamala Harris but I don't think she's electable," three female friends recently told me.
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