Here I blog about writing, editing, reading, books, submissions, freelancing, getting published (and rejected), journalism, revisions, life after the MFA, teaching writing, and living the writer's life. Welcome. BUT -- if you are a writer: Write first, read blogs second.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scratching a Familiar Writing Itch in New Way Keeps Horses on the Page

I've mentioned before that themed calls for submission—announced by literary journals, mainstream websites or magazines, or anthologies—are an excellent way to spur writing and create outside deadlines. For any writer struggling with maintaining a disciplined writing practice, or those overwhelmed by too many writing ideas, or dismayed by not having enough ideas, submission calls can help define writing time and energies.

Peruse the calls at various sites and listservs (some links here), pick one or two that appeal, and…you're off. Writing a piece that addresses the theme, adheres to the required word count, fits the style or tone of the venue, and meets any other criteria noted, are powerful ways of developing writing chops. And of course, meeting the deadline is paramount, especially for those who start but don’t finish writing projects, or just have trouble with deadlines.

The unspoken rule is that you must, of course, have something to say on the topic of the submission call. Such was the case last fall when I noticed a planned anthology on writing about animals. In my 20s and early 30s, I made a living writing about horses. In the last few years, I've been itching to write about horses again, but it's been two decades since I've been around horses on a daily basis, so I've been finding new ways of integrating horses into my writing life, resulting in many personal essays. And here was a chance to combine horses and writing into an essay about, well, horses and writing!

Off went my piece to the anthology, a combination personal essay and advice on one aspect of writing about horses. And a few weeks later, back came the rejection. That's okay, it's part of the writing life. First, you wallow. For minutes, hours, days—depends on your personal rejection wallowing style. Then, you decide: Scrap it? Make a few tweaks and send it right back out? Revise, rethink, rewrite?

I rarely scrap something, though I may let it sit for weeks or months (or longer) before I gin up the interest or energy to revise, or have the time to do so properly. That's okay, too.

With my writing-about-horses piece, I believed it had merit as it was, so I made only a few minor tweaks. The next question was where to send it. "Advice for those writing about animals" is not that common a themed submission call! So I turned to venues that publish all kinds of essays about writing craft and the writing life; in fact, I've begun to maintain a list of such outlets because I want to write and submit more pieces on writing craft.

Then, as often happens, serendipity intervened in the form of an announcement that the literary journal Hunger Mountain (published by the Vermont Center for Fine Arts, which runs a fine MFA program), was seeking new work for its writing craft website series.

And off went my piece again.

Hunger Mountain published it two weeks ago in Ephemeral Artery, the Hunger Mountain Online Companion. Here's an excerpt:

"… On the “A” level horse show circuit where, even in the 1980s, top jumpers were bought and sold for the high six figures, one of the most reassuring relationships I witnessed was between these high-priced performers and their minimum-wage earning grooms…. A fiery Thoroughbred ex-racehorse could be snorting, galloping might in the ring, but transform, once handed by the professional rider to his groom, into a cuddly, frolicking pony….My advice to those who want to write about modern horses at work or play in America: find them with their caretakers. The ones who love them whether they’ve had the fastest jump-off round that day, or if they spooked at the stray plastic bag at the side of the ring, tossing a rider on his duff. That is when you will see the real horse, the one who knows he’s safe and seems to understand when nothing is expected of her except that she exist…"

You can read all of  "When Prose Turns to Horses, Remember the Humans," here. And, for more on the horse-writing connection, see Annie Penfield's essay in the same section, "On Rhythm—In Sentences."

Let me know of your experiences with writing to themed calls for submission. Or writing about animals, or horses, or whatever's going on in your writing life now!

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Day at the Museum: Matisse Nearby, and Letting Inspiration Find Me

Henri Matisse "Yellow Odalisque"
I value inspiration, but I don't often go in search of it. Inspiration usually finds me via something else I’m doing—research for an already-begun writing project, a planned personal or business outing.

Like what happened during a trip to see the "Matisse and American Art" exhibit at the Montclair (NJ) Art Museum. Though this museum is a well-respected gem only a few miles from my house, I don't get there often enough. But my 2017 resolution is to support (not just talk about) organizations that matter—ranging from social justice to the arts. So I made a plan to attend the much-celebrated new exhibit, and pony up annual membership (so I'll be financially inspired to return). The timing meant my sister Cathy and I would have something to do together (other than haunt our favorite diners and bakeries) when she visited.

Cathy's the real art lover in the family; she knows the difference between Monet and Manet, and whether something is impressionist or impressive (or both). I enjoy looking at art, but for me it's always been an enjoyable sometime thing, not a passion.

Henri Matisse—and the American artists influenced by him—may have converted me. But the real bonus: new observations and thoughts about why I'm write  about some of the things I write about, my relationship to the prose, and even a few essay ideas. I'll keep the essay ideas to myself (half-baked as they are still), but as a writer, here's what I came away with:

+ Color! Rich, vivid, bold, drenched colors.(Yep, I used four adjectives in a row.) Colors saturated with ideas and emotion, suggestive and nuanced! Colors were speaking to me. Hard to believe some of Matisse's early critics called his use of color ugly and his first paintings something to laugh at. The world caught on, of course. A magazine feature on Matisse displayed notes, "All the colors sing together…like a musical chord." Like the words and sentences in a piece of writing.

Matisse, "Woman in Blue"
+ Matisse influenced so many artists. I was struck by John Baldessari's "Eight Soups" and Roy Lichtenstein's bronze "Goldfish Bowl II", which build on details in Matisse's works, combined with Warhol's soup cans. I'm reminded of how writers create new prose that couldn't exist if not for the foundations, references, styles of writers who came before. When writes quote Proust, build on a Shakespearian pun, obliquely reference Didion, they are both acknowledging those who paved new literary paths, and paying tribute, and if very lucky (and very good), perhaps making something that extends and expands instead of imitating.

+ Matisse believed in using "all the colors," and this spurs me to think more widely about all the literary tools at my disposal. It nudges me to remember about all the forms I don't regularly try, structures and organizational methods I want to experiment with but often pass over for the safer, more reliable methods.

+ Standing too close to visual art warps perspective. Stepping back brings the visuals into focus. Like creating distance from a manuscript draft is vital. Too close to the same material—page or canvas—and you no longer really see it.

Matisse, "Pianist and Checker Players"
+ My two favorite Matisse works were "Interior at Nice" and "Pianist and Checker Player"—the former because it brings me back to the feeling of being cosseted at a seaside inn (beautiful hotels being one of my favorite places), and the latter recalls my many childhood evenings when my sister was playing piano (beautifully), and I was playing checkers (poorly) with my mother. For writers, memory triggers—that can turn into stories and pages—are waiting everywhere!

+ Cathy and I were captivated by the bold, exquisite works of contemporary mixed media artist Janet Taylor Pickett and her "Matisse Series," which includes many pieces that play with the shape and colors of Matisse's
"Woman in Blue" and his later-career cutout works, and the form and symbolism of women's dresses.

Janet Taylor Pickett, "Wrapped Up in Blue"
+ Like all great acts of inspiration, the visit tipped me into exploration—finding more Matisse works to look at online and reliving Pickett's exhibit via this compelling video, which she narrates and appears in, tracing her own inspirational journey to and from Matisse.

+ You can't visit the Montclair Art Museum without stopping at the George Inness permanent collection, and there on a placard was this, describing the 19th century American landscape artist:

"He refined an approach of conveying the greatest amount of information by means of the fewest marks of the brush."

A reminder about doing more with less, about, essentially, editing. How appropriate to end my excursion to the visual art world with this gentle reminder about the art of brevity in all art forms.

Images courtesy Montclair Art Museum

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- March 17, 2017 Edition

> For now, essayist Phillip Lopate's regular column in The American Scholar, "Full Disclosure," is focused on his teaching experiences in Shanghai. (hat tip @NStuckeyFrench)

> What does it mean to "read above your head"? And why is it important for all writers to do so? Marion Roach Smith, an excellent memoir teacher, will tell you.

> The Open Notebook is a database of successful pitches to noteworthy media, sent by freelance writers who mostly cover science stories. But if you're any kind of freelancer who routinely must query editors for assignments, you will learn a ton from this deep and smart trove. W
hile there, also check out this survey on gender differences among querying writers.

> Did you know Submittable (the submissions portal) now has an app? (Heaven help those who already can't resist checking their status multiple times a day...)

>Not new (from Summer 2016) but very interesting thoughts at Solstice from DeWitt Henry on what makes a "contemporary" writer.

>Writers - your coffee break humor is here. Check out "What Happens When Bookstore Employees Get Bored" (and pose with book covers).

> Finally, here's my  piece at Grown and Flown about what filling out March Madness NCAA brackets means to me (who knows nothing) and to my son (who definitely does).

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons-Pieces of the Past

Monday, March 13, 2017

A TV Friends Reunion Essay: The Ones About How it Used to Be

Here in New Jersey, we're expecting a major snowstorm to begin tonight, with possible accumulations up to two feet. I'll be peeking out the window tonight, likely at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning (I don't sleep much), while I'm intermittently reading, finishing some needlepoint, or scribbling feedback on student work. 

But in the background: my own version of nostalgia TV, shows from the 1960s and 70s. I don't have to watch every scene, because I know those characters, I love those characters; I'm comfortable in their company. Recently, I started to think about why. And so of course I wrote about it.

The essay, "Reminiscing with my TV Friends," appears today at The Sunlight Press.

Here's an excerpt:

"...I began to linger. Then to seek out those old shows. Slowly, I understood: I was revisiting a time when I had a beautiful mother who walked this earth, a time when a cool aunt waited for her pimply chubby niece on Saturday nights, a time when a kind father never ran out of time for me, when my lovely now-67-year-old sister was as fresh and young as Patty and as unlined and peachy as Laura Petrie. I’m revisiting, even more than all of them—myself."

You can read the entire (short) essay here.

Short pieces like this, which is just under 750 words and is often called "flash nonfiction," will be part of the focus of a day-long writing event I'm leading in early May.

Image: courtesy The Sunlight Press

Friday, March 3, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Weekend Links for Writers -- March 3, 2017 Edition

> Annette Gendler gave up on submitting to literary magazines, and it was the right thing for her writing life.

> Interesting (and slightly odd) interview with George Suanders at Lit Hub.

> What not to do at a writing conference, according to Author Accelerator's Jennie Nash. So much good advice here.

> American for the Arts is now tracking "Arts Mobilization Efforts" at their website, as arts groups nationwide gear up for possible cuts and losses under the new administration.

> At The Sunlight Press, Nina Badzin offers a look at her idiosyncratic system for capturing writing ideas before they fade away.

> If your guest post ideas/pitches aren't getting the go-ahead, Jessica Lawlor (who edits guest posts for two blogs), lists all the possible reasons why.

> At The Masters Review, a round-up of TED talks by writers, including Billy Collins, Roxane Gay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lidia Yuknavitch, and others.

> What to do when you hire an editor and the feedback on your manuscript indicates a key fundamental issue that you agree needs attention, but you might not be ready to tackle it? Jennifer Lang explores the territory on the Brevity Blog.

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/CreativeCommons

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Jersey Day in May: Announcing - The Art of Short Nonfiction Prose. Write with me!

I know it's just a trick of the senses, that the unseasonably warm weather in northern New Jersey the past few weeks is lulling me into the false idea that spring is already underway. Which leaves me eager to traverse the intervening weeks to arrive at May 6, when no matter what, spring will be firmly in bloom in the Garden State.

I'm very happy to announce that I'll be leading a full-day writing event in Bedminster, NJ, on Saturday, May 6 -- The Art of Short Nonfiction Prose. Everything about the day has been thoughtfully arranged for an intimate, challenging, supportive, and edifying experience. 

We'll be welcoming about 10 to 12 writers, who will come together to explore ideas, generate new work, share, learn, and in short (!), dive deeply into the craft of writing short nonfiction. Short, in this context, will include the newer forms of mini-, micro-, and flash essays (from 50 to 750 words), as well as more traditional "short" pieces that are more than flash but less than long-form.

The Art of Short Nonfiction Prose will take place in a lovely countryside setting, and it's sponsored by Tiferet Journal. Tiferet (tagline: Promoting tolerance through literature and art) was founded and is published by Donna Baier Stein, my teaching colleague in other endeavors, and a champion of literary work that has meaning.

I'll be assisted by Ryder Ziebarth, who is a former student/mentee of mine, a graduate of the Vermont Center for Fine Arts MFA program, and a Tiferet associate editor. In fact, Ryder is hosting the event at Cedar Ridge Farm, which goes back generations in her family and is listed with the Smithsonian Institute of American Gardens. In addition to her expertise at nonfiction, Ryder is a dedicated steward of the land, and an accomplished cook (who's planning to serve a healthy farm-to-table lunch!).

I've spent time at her farm, and I'm certain that the gracious farmhouse, welcoming guest cottage, and spacious grounds, along with the lush gardens, and rolling hay fields will be a perfect backdrop. It's a place for deep thought, quiet contemplation, relaxed conversation and also the kind of spirited camaraderie that so often springs up between writers brought together for common purpose.

If you're within driving distance, and you have a desire to dwell for a full day in the possibilities that short nonfiction allows, and do so alongside other like-minded writers, then I invite you to check out this unique event. (Enrollment is limited. I'd be happy to answer any questions, here or via email.)

As March approaches, and who knows what its winds may bring, I'll enjoy knowing that spring will arrive, and with it, this special day.

Images: courtesy Ryder Ziebarth

Friday, February 17, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- February 17, 2017 (and more Post-#AWP17) Edition

There's a lot in the fridge this week...

> At the Masters Review blog, check out the Literary Terms Library.

> If you tweet, you may already know that on Twitter, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary feed (@MerriamWebster) is on fire. Vox recently featured the voice behind the tweets. More broadly, the New York Times reports that internet searches have dramatically increased all dictionary sites.

>The Write Life's "100 Best Websites for Writers in 2017" is available, and while 
this blog is not on the list this time around (breaking our 3-year run), you can be sure I'll be scouring it for new or unknown-to-me resources.

For those who want more post-AWP coverage, check my post from yesterday, and then try some or all of these: 

>Bethanne Patrick at Roar with "Some Feminist Observations from the AWP Conference.

> Kim Liao traces her growth as a writer via "In Search of Lost Swag: My Decade of AWP Conferences" at the Brevity blog.

>Publishers Weekly covers the political aspects in "AWP 2017: Politicized Writing Conference Ends With White House Vigil." There's also a round-up of all PW coverage.

>Full video of an off-site event, held at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Memory Transferred: Voices from the Descendants of Destruction and Displacement".

> Reflections, observations, and post-AWP thoughts, from: Amanda Lewan; Melville House; Kenyon Review; Emily Buehler (first timer).

>Finally, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, deployed a clutch of writers to report on many panels and presentations. These include (and it seems more are being added daily): 

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

What I Heard and Learned at the AWP Writers Conference

Last weekend, I spent a day and a half at the AWP conference, and because I hadn't planned things out in advance, I missed a lot I'm sure that, had I spent more time studying the program, would have been useful. I went with my gut, with my knee's pain level, and my energy and willingness to scout out a tucked away presentation room three-quarters of a mile of connecting walkways and escalators away.

As many conference attendees do, I sometimes caught the first half of a panel presentation, then ducked out to listen to the second half of another. It may be that someone, in one of the sessions I mention below, said something extraordinarily exciting and I missed it. Nevertheless, here's a potpourri of the takeaways I either jotted into my notebook, or that made their way into my brain. 

At a panel playfully called, "Nope, That Still Ain't a Story: Developmental Editing in Creative Nonfiction," two authors and their editor discussed their joint experiences. Bill Patrick, of Hudson Whitman Excelsior College Press, explained that while Amy Ryan "didn’t have a book" when she brought him her manuscript of living with diabetes, writer Anthony D'Aries "had four books" lurking in his manuscript about learning to understand his father. Ryan talked about getting instructions from Patrick about chapters she needed to write, often more personal and revealing than she'd planned; D'Aries discussed the process of locating the essence of his story, and paring away. 

Patrick also mentioned the value of "bridge chapters". These explore the less personal aspects of the main memoir topic/story, but are related and connected to the larger picture. They give the reader a bit of a break from heavy unfolding narrative, and act as a way of moving the camera from close-up to a wider angle; they can also provide context of how the narrator's story fits into the broader world.

> If you're thinking of running a one- or multi-day workshop, retreat, mini-conference, there was the panel, "Starting Small: Grassroots Workshops and Conferences". Dave Housley from Barrelhouse suggested finding a like-minded organization to partner with—like a college, arts center, etc.—that can provide free or low-cost space. Tyler McMahon, who runs the Ko`oalu Writers Workshop  in Hawaii, warned, "Don't run at a deficit; you want to break even or make money from the start." Another good tip: serve a free lunch at a session for which you want a large audience! For those seeking gigs as presenters or workshop leaders at small conferences, panelists advised developing a unique program that other writers can't offer, and/or something you've developed specifically for their audience.

> At "Opening the Doors to Discovery: The Generative Writing Workshop," panelists offered interesting ways to utilize prompts, writing exercises, and reading for inspiration when conducting one-time workshops with time for writers to produce new material. Baron Wormser (one of my MFA workshop leaders a decade ago), said he thinks of a prompt as "a quick way into the unconscious, to get at the unknown, the unbidden." It forces a writer to access some new area of thought because something must be produced in the time allotted. Another panelist advised that at one-time gatherings (as opposed to on-going workshop series), reading and sharing be met only with positive responses, absent critical feedback. Kim Dana Kupperman recommended locating prompts within a piece of published work the group reads together.

> "Essaying the Edge: Teaching Alternative Forms of Nonfiction," focused on the so-called hermit crab essay, hybrids, collage, and other experimental nonfiction. Panelists talked of sneaking in these forms without at first identifying them, so that students might simply read and like them, and decide on their own what to call them.

> At the panel, "Just Don't Read the Comments: On the Joys and Risks of Publishing Personal Essays Online," I heard just the last ten minutes, including advice from Laura Bogart to ask for headline approval and hashtag/tagging approval, pre-publication. Her awareness of this was spurred by an incident when one of her essays was headlined and tagged in a way that included Trump's four-word slogan; she asked that it be changed, and the editor/venue complied, but not before it had resulted in unpleasant emails and online thrashing.

> At an abundantly informative panel, "Beyond the Classroom: Teaching Outside Academia," I was scribbling so fast, and all four panelists were making so many useful suggestions every minute, I didn't record who said what. The following bits of advice came from Stuart Horwitz, Julie DuffyJane FriedmanAndi Cumbo-Floyd, and Gabriella Pereira.

Know what you WANT to teach (not just what you've been teaching all along). You'll earn more by teaching/leading an add-on workshop at a conference than if you are one of the general presenters. Develop packages and products to offer repeat clients/students. Offer a free something to attract mailing list sign-ups. Hand out (or offer to email) something useful following an in-person teaching event. Pitch your online or in-person class with a very specific outcome highlighted ("After four weeks, you'll have two essays ready to submit.."). Students and coaching clients want to be held accountable, so build in a deadline/reporting/accountability component. Offer tiered pricing if possible [$X for the full feedback option; $(X-Y) for a scaled down version.] Include student/client accomplishments in your promotional materials. 

> Finally, it seemed fitting that, in Washington, D.C., during the final session of the final day, I ended by listening to one particular panelist whose sincere, practical and pragmatic, encouraging talk on "How to Publish Your Book Without an Agent," made me want to stand up and shout, Nevertheless, She Persisted! That panelist was Janice Eidus, someone I recognized from Facebook and from her essays, but had never met. But by happy coincidence I'd share dinner with her later that evening (via invitation of a mutual writing friend). Eidus and her fellow panelists' stories of perseverance and eventual publication—and the sprawling Book Fair where I found at least a dozen independent traditional publishers of literary works that I was not previously aware of (and trust me, I'd already compiled a long list!)—capped off my personal AWP experience on a hopeful note.

Want more post-AWP coverage? I'll have a bunch of links to others' blog posts in the Friday link round up later this week.