Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- May 22, 2015 Edition

> If you enjoy hearing writers describe how a piece of writing began, took shape, changed, and finally grew into its final form, you'll like Matt Bell's (short) process story, about his short story, "The Receiving Tower." Best takeaway: "Discovering the rest of the story required dozens of iterations of key scenes and images and individual sentences, all of which required a lot of meticulous attention combined with an openness to revision and rewriting."  (Then you can read the story at Bark.)

> A forthcoming blog from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), is looking for "articles, essays and blog posts from all who participate in or are interested in independent literary publishing — that includes publishers, authors, readers, librarians, educators, historians, booksellers and all who care about our community." More here about Front Porch Commons, due to launch this summer. (Essays and articles are paid, posts are not.)

> Alison K. Williams a.k.a. "The Unkind Editor," explains at The Writers Bloc how sharp freelance editors work and why, and the reasons writers want to work with an editor who is allergic to B.S.   (via Sheila Webster Boneham)

> In the Boston Globe, Sage Stossel, offers one audience member's notes (and mini transcript) of a PEN New England talk on "Mothers and Writing" with Heidi Pitlor, Lily King, Kim McLarin, Megan Marshall, and Claire Messud.

> The Guardian explains this week's British supreme court ruling allowing pianist James Rhodes to publish a memoir of his childhood sexual abuse at a private school. One of the issues was whether his ex-wife could prevent publication because of the book's possible adverse impact on their son's development.

> The New York Times takes a look at United Airlines' in-flight literary magazine, Rhapsody, now 18 months old.  (Buy why limit it to first class passengers only?)  h/t @monkeybicycle

> The Six Word Memoirs website has a new-to-me feature, Behind Six Backstories, so those who post their six words can tell the longer backstory. I had fun with this last week when, after blues legend B.B. King passed away, I posted my six -- "B.B.'s birthday: invites teen. Lucky me." -- and the backstory.

> If you've ever worked in a bookstore (or wandered into one to find ...something), you'll enjoy David Raney's feature at Compose, "The Blue Book by That Woman."

> Finally, something fun. While I'm not a huge fan of online quizzes, but "Can You Guess The Children's Book by These Emojis?" was good fun (if a little too easy). via @paulakrapf

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Where Essays Begin: Sudden news, old friend, odd lyrics, far away

Sometimes an essay or piece of memoir begins in my head as a scrap of something that will not quiet--a phrase, a bit of remembered conversation, a line of lyrics. Like this one, a 1960s tidbit.

My boyfriend's back and you're gonna be in trouble.

That line circled my brain a few years ago, insisting that I write…something—in response to news I heard about my first real boyfriend. How the lyric connected to our story, or to my reaction to his news, was a mystery.


There it was, an earworm, a prod, that wonderful awful feeling as I'm drifting off to sleep or when just waking up, that says, Hey, you! Get out of bed, start writing.

Only, as I began to write, I heard the lyric differently, altered.

Your boyfriend's back and you're gonna be sorry.

Over the next few months, the piece took shape, fell apart. I put it away, pulled it out again. Pushed it aside again. Let it marinate. Let myself figure out what I had to say. Fiddled with it again. Forgot it for months. Tried again. 

Draft number four.

Then a few things happened.

First, I asked a half dozen readers for input; not my usual writer friends, but students in the MFA course I was teaching last fall. As a way of sharing in the psychic pain of their first graduate workshop experience, I invited them to comment on my draft.

Draft number five.

Next, I realized it wasn't only about an old boyfriend, but about how he helped me understand things—some then, more later—about romance, love, sex, kindness, passionate hobbies, and eventually, even a little about mothering teenage sons.

Draft number six.

Then, when the piece, eventually titled, "Your Boyfriend's Back," was accepted for the Spring 2015 issue of Front Porch Journal, smart editors had some thoughtful questions and intelligent revision suggestions.

Final piece (draft number seven).

Here's a very short excerpt of the longish piece:

...I tried to think about what Joe would look like now, and compared that to the tiny, poorly focused photograph in the magazine of him on a bike, wearing a helmet. Perhaps it wasn’t my Joe. But I didn't think M____ was such a common surname. And the age was right. The Joe I remembered had not been athletic. Yes, his arms always felt strong around me, and even then, he’d ridden his bicycle for miles, but a triathlete? But then, I hadn't seen Joe in decades. So much can change...

I'd love it if you would visit the journal and read the full piece.

Now, like all writers I suppose, in my head, I am circling another scrap of …something.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Odd Timing of an Essay about Good Timing

Earlier this week, I talked here about why I hadn't written a Mother's Day essay this year. What I didn't say is that I had written something about my mother late last year, which was published, coincidentally, just before Mother's Day, in a new collection. I didn't think of it as a Mother's Day essay, and I still don't.

The timing, however, is interesting, as the piece is titled "All in Good Timing," and pivots on something my mother taught me that's applicable to so many areas of life—the kitchen, workplace, family life, even the bedroom: Timing is everything (though she never said it quite that way).

She taught me that strategically timing requests, demands, suggestions, and advice, will skyrocket your chances of success. In the essay, Mom's own impeccable timing is on display, as well as her timing advice for me.

 Here's an excerpt from the middle of the piece, which appears in Only Trollops Shave Above the Knee: The Crazy, Brilliant, and Unforgettable Lessons We've Learned From Our Mothers.

"…What she had to teach me about timing had more to do with timing what we can control.

Besotted with horses practically before I could talk, my pleas for a pony, from age 10 to 13, only made my father smirk (Are you crazy? Where would we put a pony? Do you think I'm made of money?). But Mom was on my side (and knew we could afford it). She told me, with a wink, to drop it, for a while.  

Then I signed up for a summer acting camp that my father had found and supposedly vetted, one that cost a bundle and was such a bust, I left, along with dozens of kids, on the first day. The parents would all wind up in small claims court in September; but I arrived home in early July downtrodden, a vacant summer sprawling ahead.

That first night home, while eating out, I asked for a dog. Both said no, but when my father went to the men's room, Mom leaned in.

"Now," she said. "Ask for a horse now. The timing is just right."

One horse turned into five, into 10 years on the horse show circuit, into blue ribbons, into my parents both beaming from the bleachers. 

When I was 24 and my on-again, off-again boyfriend…"

I'll leave it there. Suffice to say, Mom's advice worked that time too (he's now a husband of 27 years).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Mother's Day Essay I Didn't Write

Unlike many writers, I did not write an essay timed for Mother's Day, though I read many. Some were achingly beautiful, others funny, or sad, or interesting in novel ways. I'm glad to have read them, but surprisingly not upset that I didn't have one among them. 

I thought I understood the reason for this; that I was busy doing other things, things I was happy to be doing. (Isn't this just the flip side to my belief that If you are going to write, you are going to NOT do something else?)

Lately, my calendar awareness has shifted to teaching markers. When is the class proposal due? When must the syllabus be turned in? When is the first day of class? Spring break? End of the semester? Which is fine. The work energizes me at the same time it leaves me scrambling for the mental energy for personal writing projects keyed to the calendar. It was understandable that I hardly noticed the closing window to write and submit a Mother's Day essay. I simply needed to get more accustomed to balancing teaching (and editing and coaching) with writing. 

Yet many writers with much heavier teaching loads than mine still managed to write that Mother's Day essay, and come to think of it, I did write other essays that were time-sensitive in the not-so-distant past, as well as many other pieces too. So the teaching calendar can't be to blame.

Finally, on Mother's Day, as I was posting a photo on Facebook, of my mother and I on my wedding day, I discovered the real reason I didn't write a Mother's Day essay.

Mother's Day, I noticed, was only a week before what would be the third anniversary of my mother's death. I had skipped writing a Mother's Day essay for…three years.

What makes us write? What makes us not write? The answers are complex and complicated, even, or maybe especially, when we think they are simple.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons - Dave Bleasdale

Friday, May 1, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- May 1, 2015 Edition

> Does your throat go dry (or your email go blank) when you need to ask someone to do something that will help your writing career? Check out Kamy Wicoff's excellent tips and get that Yes!

> In the final session of nearly every class I teach, I spend time answering any student questions about getting their essays and short memoir pieces published, so Richard Gilbert's "A Teacher's Advice to Students on Revision and Submission" was of special interest -- and not just to student writers!

> Any writer over 50 (me!) will probably find themselves nodding at Nikki Stern's post at Brevity on being a writer of a certain age.

> At Apostrophe Books' an Advice for Writers page offers video clips from folks like Margaret Atwood dispensing, well, writing advice.

> Though not everyone ranks him among favorite writers, nearly every writer I know swears by Stephen King's words of writerly wisdom, and 10 terrific quotes are graphically captured here.

> One last bit of AWP coverage: Michele Filgate's attendance adventure essay at LitHub.

> What's more fun than seeing my #cnftweet on the back page of Creative Nonfiction magazine (issue # 55)? Seeing that one of my undergraduate students from fall semester has one there too (posting a #cnftweet--or 10--was part of an extra credit assignment).

> While I can't vouch for the accuracy (though it mirrors other illogical and accurate explanations I've read), and I can detect just a slight whiff of snark (which I rather liked), there's a lot to think about in "How the New York Times Bestseller List Works".

> Finally, 
is Times New Roman really the death knell on a resume? Do we care?

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons - Boston Public Library

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Back to the Summit: In Conversation About Making a Writing Life

In January of this year, along with two dozen others, I participated in the Storytellers Summit, a limited time, online interview series presented by Julia Roberts, coach and creativity expert at Decoding Creativity

While the window for listening to all the 30-minute interviews has since closed, I'm pleased to bring you a link to my interview,  about "The Writing Life," which focused primarily on creating a workable, satisfying writing life amid the conflicting demands and time constraints of an already full life. (Warning -- I say this a lot: If you are going to write, you are going to not do something else.)

Along the way, Julia and I also touched on freelance writing, craft, revision, writing what you know, and productivity. If you have an opportunity to listen, I hope that you hear at least one thing that will help you. (And if you're interested in other interviews, the full Summit is available for purchase.)

Audio interview music by BenSoundImage: Flickr/Creative Commons - Il Microfono.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Guest Blogger Kate Walter on Finding the Narrative Arc for Your Memoir

One of the perks of signing on to help present a panel at a writing conference is that, even before the conference happens, you sometimes make internet friends with other writers who know your fellow panelists and/or who are also on the schedule with their own panel. That explains how Kate Walter and I crossed paths: we have mutual friends, and upcoming panels at ASJA

Kate is the author of Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing, due from Heliotrope Books in June. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and the New York Daily News, and she teaches writing at City University of New York and New York University. 

Please welcome Kate Walter.

       I knew something was off with the structure of the first finished draft of my memoir manuscript when an agent said my writing was strong but, "The reader knows how this will end before the narrator does.”

       Ouch! That comment sent me back to the memoir drawing board. I had to rethink my book.

      Since a memoir is not autobiography, you must find the right framework for your
story. A memoir needs an arc, a trajectory, a focus. The narrator must start some place and end up some place else. Not necessarily a physical place but an emotional place. There has to be a struggle (conflict) and wisdom gained. You are not just telling your story but reflecting upon what happened and how these events affected you and changed your life in some way.

     It took me three drafts to figure out the container for my debut memoir, Looking for a Kiss:  A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. In the first draft I was just writing out my story and creating major scenes but it lacked a narrative thread.

     My second draft had more structure but it ended with me getting my heart broken when my 26 year lesbian relationship ended. When I shopped around this version, the feedback from agents made me realize that structure was not working either. So the rejection was actually helpful.

       The third draft, (which I sold), instead began with the break up and showed how I healed my life. I had found a universal theme. The reader is rooting for the narrator to get her life back together and laughing along with her as she tries internet dating at age 60.

        For me, I had to write all three drafts over 10 years until I  figured out the narrative arc. Meanwhile, I was also writing and publishing personal essays. Two local papers were regularly using my work, which gave me steady emotional support, and was a boost, reminding me of the value of the material.

        Writing essays, which can be woven into your memoir manuscript, and writing shorter pieces, can help you find the larger focus or container for your long memoir project. I recently reread an essay I wrote five years ago for NY Press. Looking back, I can see how the first 50 pages of my book are an expansion of this tight
personal essay.  

       Beside a little income, and the professional support of those newspaper editors, I got emotional support and feedback from my weekly writers group in Greenwich Village, run by the author Susan Shapiro. I could not have completed this memoir without the ongoing critiques from my trusted colleagues, who pulled no punches. I workshopped every chapter and then rewrote each one.

       When I finished my third draft (about 225 pages), I hired an experienced book doctor to read the entire manuscript (cost $2,000); then I rewrote some more.  After my book saw the doctor, a chapter originally in the back of my book landed up closer to the beginning in the final draft.

     The weekly group did more than critique my pages; they believed in my project and
helped sustain my morale when I kept getting rejections from agents, which was frustrating because by then, I knew I had finally nailed the structure and had a powerful book.

      That’s when a member of my group (Royal Young) hyped my book to his publisher
(Naomi Rosenblatt, at Heliotrope Books). I met her at his book party and she encouraged me to send her my manuscript. The rest, as they say, is history.

            I owe a lot to my workshop members, and I’m grateful Naomi realized the potential of my story about break up and renewal. It’s been a pleasure to work with a small independent press and have hands on involvement as my manuscript became a book. I even took the cover photo.

      From inception to publication was a long journey of 10 years, but it has been
very rewarding, and for me, cathartic. Writing my memoir was literally part of my
healing process. And as a teacher of creative nonfiction, this book will open up new
doors for me.

         I’m glad I never gave up. Maybe it’s because I’m a  Capricorn. If you
believe in your story and your voice, keep going, keep writing.

Note from Lisa:  Kate would like to give one reader a complimentary signed copy of her book when it's released in June. To enter, leave a comment here by midnight on 
Tuesday, May 12. (Must have a US postal address.)

You can connect with Kate at her website, and on Twitter, and read an interview with her at WestBeth. 

Images courtesy Kate Walter.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What Not to Say in Your Cover Letter to a Literary Journal (or possibly, to any media venue, ever)

My students often ask me about cover letters when submitting completed works, specifically what not to do. Here, a list compiled from my own limited experience as an editor wading through the submission queue (two years  and counting), along with some contributions from a handful of writer friends who also are journal editors. Yes, all of these treasures showed up in submission cover letters.

 Things not to say or do in your cover letter when submitting work to a literary journal (or maybe anywhere):

This is not what you normally like to publish….(Then why did you send it?)

I am giving you the opportunity to be the first to publish….(WOW! Really? Actually, at this point, it is the journal that may give you the opportunity.)

I wrote this for a college class…(While it may be great undergraduate work, that line doesn't inspire confidence.)

I hope you will consider publishing this in X… (when you have actually submitted to Y. Proofread, people! Especially when you are using the same template over and over, which is not a bad thing, but could lead to bad things if you are not careful.)

I'm sure you have read my work…(Maybe so. But really, let the editor figure that out. Humble always wins.)

I know this is longer than your guidelines state…(Yep, journals only publish those guidelines for their own amusement.)

Though I haven't read (name of pub) before…. (Maybe you should; just one issue maybe?)

I'm not really a writer…  (Why are you here then?)

You published something just like this in the last issue…  (Then perhaps we're done with that topic. Or is yours from a unique, fresh, or new angle?)

The enclosed story/essay is about…[followed by several hundred words of description]. (You want an editor to move quickly from the cover letter to the actual piece. And what if he/she doesn't  like the cover letter description?)

I began writing as a child…[then 200 words, tracing the path from childhood to the present day]

A professor in my (undergraduate/ graduate / MFA) class assigned us to submit something to a journal…(Even if that's the case, who really thinks such an admission in a cover letter will entice an editor to read the piece, pronto, instead of sighing and complaining about how it's too easy to submit these days, dammit? And trust me, the submission queue will, on its own, reveal this backstory. How many submissions do you think would otherwise arrive the same week from two dozen writers in the same town?)

I could revise it if it's not what you want …(Let editors decide if they want to request a revision. But also: that line suggests you are not confident it's your best work.)

We met at X conference….[Okay, but be specific, and only if it's relevant, for example: We shared a cab from the airport, and chatted about Irish dancing, the subject of this piece of work. We were seated next to each other at the X conference luncheon and you suggested I send this along (but only if he/she DID suggest that; not if you chatted about the weather). If you did discuss rain, a better strategy might be to let the editor ponder why your name is so familiar, and assume she's seen it on some good work published elsewhere!].

You probably won't have the courage / won't understand the importance of / won't want to step outside your comfort zone to publish this ….(Insulting an editor's intelligence, commitment, or integrity? Not a great opening gambit.)

You can read my bio and find links to my work at (URL for website or blog)…(No one has time for that.)

I am an "award-winning writer"… (Always a suspicious phrase. Which award? If it's not named, the assumption will be that it's from an exceedingly small contest, possibly a meaningless award. Better to write, "One of my essays/stories/poems won the X award..." Then again, most editors really don't care.)

I have been published in….(Editors really don't care)

I have an MFA from….(Editors really don't care)

…though you can, and probably should, include the three above items in the writer bio. Mine goes underneath my signature; some writers include theirs in the body of the cover letter (which I find a bit awkward, as the cover letter is a direct address, and the bio should be in third person).

So what should you say?

Dear Editor Name (it's not that hard to find it),

Please consider "Title Here" (123 words) for future publication in (name of journal, plus theme or special call, if applicable). This is a work of (specify fiction or nonfiction, if necessary).

I am a big admirer of your journal (only if it's true!), and especially enjoyed your recent X (be specific).  

Perhaps you recall (any relevant, specific, personal contact).

This is a simultaneous submission (if it is).  A writer bio follows, below.

Thanks for your time and attention to my work.



(Writer bio here, in third person. Keep it brief. And humble. And relevant. Editing your high school newspaper doesn't matter, unless you are still in high school.)

Good luck, submitting writers (and that includes me. Forever, I hope).

Images -- Flickr/Creative Commons: Writer at desk, Akeg; Letters slot, Paul Simpson; To Whom, Frankieleon