Thursday, February 21, 2013

Clearing The Oprah Fog

By Ellen Meister

I'm excited to announce that my new novel, FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER, hits stores today. Since I've been a Dorothy Parker fan forever, this book that feels as if it's been a lifetime in the making.

And as I reflect about the road here, I'd like to share with you some thoughts about a problem so many of us writers have. I call it The Oprah Fog ...

E.L. Doctorow once said that writing a book is like driving a car at night. "You can never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
            Very true. But sometimes, after the muse strikes, writers float into a seductive place where headlights do no good.  I call it the Oprah Fog—that cushiony mental space between the formation of an idea and the cold hard mechanics of executing it.     
            In this dreamy mist, we imagine words flowing effortlessly from our fingers to the keyboard. Frustrations will be minor and adorable, crumpled in pretty balls around the trashcan. We envision a cinematic shot of a bookstore window with our hardcover on glorious display. Even our morning coffee will taste better, as we linger over the newspaper, seeing our title climb the bestseller list. The book will be so beloved that Oprah will go back on network television just to interview us. We will wear great shoes and a beautiful suit. We will be thinner.
            There's nothing wrong with the Oprah Fog. It can, in fact, be a valuable vacation before the real work begins. But you have to know how to find your way out.
            Recently, one of my adult ed writing students came to me with a problem I had heard many times before. "I have a great idea," she said, "but I'm stuck. It's writer's block. I don't know what to do."
            "You don't have writer's block," I said. "You're in the Oprah Fog."
            She stared at me, her eyes light with hope. Did I know the way out? Had I been there myself?
            Of course. Even authors who have already traveled the twisty road to publication get bogged in the Fog sometimes.
             Not long ago, I had a spark that lit up my frontal lobe: My next novel would summon the ghost of  Dorothy Parker—arguably the greatest wit of the twentieth century. I would bring her spirit to life as mentor to a timid woman movie critic. I was so excited by this concept I didn't follow my usual course, which is to spend months making notes and working out the story, writing a few chapters to see if I could nail the voice, pace and characters, and finally constructing a loose outline to show my agent. This idea just felt too hot to sit on, and so I rushed to my agent's office and breathlessly pitched it, in much the same way I imagine movie people do. I got the exact response I had hoped for—electrified enthusiasm.
            Traveling home, I was abuzz. This would be my best novel ever! It would tear through the bestseller lists. Terry Gross would call me begging for an interview. Even erstwhile network television hosts would want me as a guest.
            Best of all, it would be easy to write. The storyline was already falling into place. The characters were almost fully formed. And I didn't even have to invent a voice for my main attraction. She already had one. I would simply reread Dorothy Parker's poems, stories, essays and letters, and I'd hear her perfectly. She would speak right through me.
            Except she didn't.
            Why? Because I was in the Oprah Fog. 
            So I did exactly what I advised my student to do. I put my fingers on the keys and started typing. I wasn't writing chapters yet, but making notes. And that's the thing about finding your way out of the Fog. The focus of writing is the exact thing that clears the air. So even if you feel stuck, doing your thinking on paper (virtual or actual) is the true beginning of your journey. Then, with your muse seat-belted in beside you, you can travel down even the darkest road, your highbeams lighting the way.
Ellen Meister's latest novel, FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER is in stores today. To order online, visit any cyber bookseller, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, and Penguin. For more information visit


  1. Ellen, happy pub day! I'm so thrilled for you--the book is amazing!!! :)

  2. Great explanation. I like the term Oprah Fog. Now that I have a name for that feeling I can paint a target on it and blow it up...hopefully.

    The best exercise I've ever done to help me through the fog is Nanowrimo. I've tried to explain to others how it helped me, but didn't do near as well as this article. Good job.

  3. It's always a good day when you have a new book out! And that's not the collective "you", but rather, the Ellen Meister "you".

  4. Happy, Happy Pub-day, Ellen!! Your post is a terrific tribute and thoughtful insight to the book writing process!

  5. Loved every word of the Oprah fog. Been there. Especially the part where when the writing gets too hard, it's time to online shop for the perfect TV interview outfit. But more to the point, it does all come down to putting time in the chair to capture ideas, visions, scenes, characters and plot points. Out of the darkness comes light. Great, great post!

    1. Thank you, my friend! And oh yeah ... it's easy to drift into the fog when the going gets rough. We've all been there. But you are always an inspiration! xoxo

  6. Congratulations, Ellen, and happy pub day! Love the Oprah Fog concept!

  7. Thank you so much, Jess and Brenda. It's such an exciting time ... as you know!

  8. Thank you so much, John. I have HUGE respect for anyone who the discipline to do NaNoWriMo. I don't think I could do it!

  9. Ha! Thank you, Lauren. It's a big day for sure!

  10. Ah, those fingers on the keyboard. Yes, ma'am. Plugging away through whatever fog happens to grind us to a halt--love your name for it!

    Congratulations on pub day! The book sounds delightful.

    1. I appreciate that, Normandie. Good luck with your writing!

  11. I would sing you a Happy Pub Day song, but because I like you, I won't torture your ear drums. Love that idea of my muse seat-belted beside me. Makes it more difficult for her to jet!

    Seriously, a spot on topic, and I can't wait to read your new book!

  12. I read this yesterday and didn't get to comment, but I kept thinking about it. I totally have this Oprah fog. It's a good name for it, but I find it can be motivating. The carrot at the end of the stick. I have a very detailed fantasy of our interview. I'm glad I'm not alone.