“I rely on words, both verbal and on the page, to communicate with nuance exactly what I’m trying to express, and I relish language in the books I read.”
1. What are you working on right now?
I’m working on several projects, both fiction and non-fiction, but it’s the current book, Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing that I’m most excited about. Its purpose is to help new speakers of English improve their communication skills by responding to 238 specific prompts that touch on deep and important aspects of themselves. The book contains exercises such as, “when has forgiveness brought you inner peace? And, when have you accepted disappointment without losing hope? And, when has pain or loss been a motivating force?” I had been using these prompts for years to help novelists find deeper aspects of their characters and then, while working with new speakers of English at a university in Spain, I realized that the exercises were a wonderful and unique way to help them improve their English language skills. Of course, I still use the exercises for novelists and memoirists in my current classes and workshops, but it’s been wonderfully rewarding to have found a new purpose for them.
2. What have you learned from your current project?
In my international travels, I’ve met many people who fear coming to the United States because they have a limited vocabulary in English. It’s difficult to convince them that we can communicate our thoughts and feelings without focusing on grammatical correctness. Those who have tried my method of writing from the heart with a limited English vocabulary are surprised at how easily they can be understood. What’s particularly fascinating to me is that these very same new speakers of English aren’t shy or embarrassed once they begin writing in a language they’re still learning. They love knowing they can be expressive and understood with their limited English vocabulary. I called the book “Accidental Poetry” because the words are beautiful and heartfelt. I don’t like the expression “broken English.” There’s nothing broken about this writing! To the contrary, it’s rich and profoundly satisfying to both the writer and the reader. Here’s an example, from a second year English student: “I’m the bird that drinks the water and eats the wounded worms.” Beautiful, isn’t it?
3. How have your goals as a writer changed over time?
I still enjoy writing fiction, but what appeals to me most right now is helping novelists and memoirists hone their craft, in addition to my continued work with new speakers of English. I currently teach five classes a week for novelists and memoirists at a variety of locations including the UCLA Writers Program, and I love the idea of sharing with writers what I’ve learned in my thirty-eight-year career as a motion picture executive, an expert witness in copyright infringement law, a writer of daytime drama, a novelist, and a writing instructor. As a movie executive, I worked with winners of the Academy Award, the Golden Globe, the Emmy, the Tony, and the National Book Award. It was thrilling to be part of their creative process; I learned quite a lot from so many talented artists, and I love sharing what I’ve culled over the years with new writers. For example, the published novelists I’ve worked with have their own process that is particular to each of them. They might outline exhaustively or not at all, or outline somewhere in middle territory; a two-page sketch, perhaps, of the beginning, middle and end before they begin, including the protagonist’s psychic shift at story’s end. Some authors I’ve worked with like to share their work with other writers in a room, some prefer individual feedback from me along the way, and others wait until they have a completed manuscript before asking for editorial comments. I like to work with writers in whatever way makes them most comfortable, staying mindful of their chosen process and not imposing my own beliefs and preferences onto it.
4. Why do words matter?
I feel fortunate as a native English speaker to have so many words to choose from when expressing my feelings and sharing my stories, both verbally and on the page. While I believe in whole body expression—I’ve had long conversations in southern Italy, for example, using hand and facial gestures—I rely on words, both verbal and on the page, to communicate with nuance exactly what I’m trying to express, and I relish language in the books I read. Is there any greater joy than sitting down with a wonderful novel and feeling the story open up, the characters revealing themselves, the senses activating, through the magic of words? I will never tire of this experience. I love all that nature has created, and what I love most about what humans have created is the magic of language.
5. What do you listen to when you write?
I listen to emotional clues within myself as the sentences take shape. During the writing process, I’m not overtly conscious of this dance between mind and spirit, but on an unconscious level I always know it’s there. Listening to my internal voice—What am I feeling right now? What are my characters feeling?—precludes me from listening to anything external as I write. I’ve spoken with lots of authors who play classical music during the writing process; they believe the rhythm and cadence of the music adds to the rhythm and cadence of their words. While I can understand this, it doesn’t work for me. I find it amazing that some writers watch TV or listen to songs with lyrics as they craft a novel. This is unfathomable to me, since the voices of others would surely interfere with my own. I much prefer my silent writing room at home, with its muted colors, wall of books and its view of the small garden outside. I often light a scented candle to bring another level of peace and texture to the room, but it’s the silence I crave when I write.
Lisa Lieberman Doctor, author of the writing book, Accidental Poetry: Improve Your English Through Creative Writing and the novel The Deflowering of Rhona Lipshitz. She has been working with writers since 1977. Over the years she has served as: a development and production executive at Universal Pictures, Warner Brothers, TriStar Pictures (where she was Vice President of Robin Williams’ company, Blue Wolf Productions) and several independent production companies; a staff writer on ABC’s “General Hospital,” where she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy and Writers Guild Award; an expert witness in motion picture copyright law; and a writing instructor at the UCLA Writers Program; the California State University; The Esalen Institute; The University of the Balearic Islands; and the TV Writers Fund For The Future.