A writer’s touch: bestselling author Janet Fitch offers tangible advice

by Emily Wallace ’20
Have you ever picked up a scarf and just felt it? Closed your eyes, no talking, just your touch and the scarf. You don’t know what color it is, where it came from, or who gave it to you, but you just feel it. And as you are feeling, you smell a familiar scent and hear the sound of nature in the background. The room’s edges become defined, the light is reflecting and making shadows...you no longer feel the fabric in your hands. Instead, you feel the story, the character.
Acclaimed author Janet Fitch, known for her national bestselling novel White Oleander, taught Mayfield students how to feel during a writing workshop last month. She spoke of her journey as a fiction writer with special emphasis on the genres of noir and historical fiction. She also spoke of the importance of letting the senses guide one’s work. 

“Having guest authors is a wonderful opportunity for the students to dive into a professional writer’s thought process,” said Conservatory for the Arts Chair and Creative Writing Conservatory teacher Kimberly Gomez. “Our writers got to hear, firsthand, Ms. Fitch explain how she involves herself in the lives of her characters.”

One of the most immersive experiences of the workshop was feeling random objects and writing words that described their texture. The students were not allowed to look at the object in order to experience Ms. Fitch’s method of expressive writing, which includes writing more than just what one sees or based upon the cliches found in descriptive language. Students felt scarves, rocks, and wooden spoons, but most importantly, they felt the passion that is evoked when a reader is truly connected with the story or to a character.

“Nothing exists in writing that the character doesn’t interact with,” noted Ms. Fitch. 

As Ms. Fitch pulled out a nifty box of small corked bottles she shared that “[s]cent makes it easy to access materials and what they mean to you. When I smell orange blossoms, I smell the street I grew up on and am instantly brought back to that time and place.” Each of the small bottles contained a piece of cotton on which she had collected a specific scent she resonates with that might seem obscure to others.

“Never write a room without windows—you have to have a way into the space” was another gem of advice to the aspiring writers in the audience. Ms. Fitch reminded students that the creative writer should write “what you have never read before.”  

In addition to White Oleander, Ms. Fitch authored Paint it Black and The Revolution of Marina M. She also delved into her most recent novel about a woman experiencing the Russian Revolution. The author passionately emphasized the importance of research for the historical aspects of her two novels set in Russia; Ms. Fitch spent time in Russia while writing the stories and dwelled on the character Marina in order to write “as a Russian during the revolution would have seen it, not as we see it now.”

If you are interested in learning more about Ms. Fitch’s work, check out some of her books in the Mayfield library. White Oleander has also been made into a film and Ms. Fitch has worked with numerous colleges including USC, UCLA, and Pomona College. If you are interested in attending one of her sessions or would like to contact her, feel free to visit her website, janetfitchwrites.com.

Written by Emily Wallace ’20
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.