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.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Guest Blogger Laraine Herring on The Baby Story Monkey

 I'm pleased to present another guest post (her third!) from someone I respect a great deal. Not only do I enjoy reading and learning from her work, but since we first corresponded about four years ago, Laraine Herring has provided me with inspiration and motivation, excellent advice, insightful critical feedback on my memoir manuscript, many laughs; plus the gift of reading and offering feedback on one of her novel manuscripts. (I'm certain I got the better end of the deal on that one!) I've watched with admiration as she's further shaped and defined an already full writing life that includes college teaching, writing novels and craft books, and nurturing fellow writers through innovative in-person and online ventures.  

Please welcome Laraine Herring.  

I’ve tried many different ways to help my writing students become more comfortable with the essential writer’s quality of vulnerability. They want so badly to “get it” quickly, to be masters of their work, commanders of their ships. They don’t want to screw things up. Feel exposed. I understand. I do, but I have to somehow convince them that not only is it OK—it’s essential—to not know everything all at once.

Writers must spend many hours, days, and months in a space of not-knowing. It’s human nature to want to squirm away from this place. Not knowing makes us feel vulnerable and that can create tension. But our work’s deepest heart is revealed to us slowly, through committed practice and patience.

One semester, my beautiful, normally mild-mannered students turned vicious when speaking about their own works-in-progress. It was as if a tiny evil creature slipped out of their mouths wielding Wolverine-like knives to cut down everything in its path before it had a chance to grow. Where did this venom come from? And what purpose might it serve if we could look underneath it? What lives within the bully?

This class used words like drivel, failure, garbage, crap, ridiculous, absurd, and on and on to describe their early drafts. Mind you, they did not speak about their classmates’ work in those terms. They reserved those labels for their own still-wriggling drafts, treating themselves and their own creations worse than they would ever dream of treating another’s work. At first, I pointed out what they were doing, but that didn't stop the behavior, so I tried an experiment

I went to the dollar store and bought a bushel of brightly colored stuffed hanging monkeys.I brought the monkeys into class and gave one to each student. “This monkey is your writing,” I said. “It’s your early draft. It’s your beautiful creation.” They looked at me like I was crazy, but I was used to that. “Go ahead,” I continued. “Say mean things to it. Tell it it’s worthless. Stupid. Drivel. It’ll never amount to a decent monkey.” And they would try, but of course they’d end up laughing because they were fully grown adults being asked to yell at neon stuffed monkeys. It was absurd. Right?

I’d hold their monkeys’ heads, pressing down on the forehead to make the monkey look sad when they yelled at it. The class started to understand what they were doing. They were destroying something precious with their words. Something new. Something still in the process of becoming.

No one is so intentionally mean that they’ll slice down new creatures on purpose. They didn’t realize the effects of their language on their creative process and their writing lives. They didn’t know what unconscious damage they were doing to their own growth as artists.

When my students could personify their work -- which I encouraged them to refer to as ‘baby story monkeys’ to help reinforce the vulnerability of this new relationship -- they could begin to enter into a more mature place with the work. They could begin to allow it to be what it is as it moves toward becoming what it would be. I see what you’re saying–I think it’s the verb tense that was off.  Personification of the draft allowed them to understand that early drafts and final drafts cannot exist within the same form. As long as they judged their work from its first breath, the work could never trust them enough to take the necessary risks involved in evolving into its future.

Becoming is a fragile thing. We have to hold our work gently so we don’t snuff out its life.

There’s an insidious type of arrogance that most of us carry to some degree that erroneously convinces us that we are the one who is perfect, who will never make that mistake. That arrogance also sneaks in masquerading as negative self-talk. If it can convince us we’re not good enough in the beginning, then we’ll be able to avoid the risks necessary to grow.

However this arrogance manifests in a writer, underneath it lives fear. Fear of not being able to write the story that comes to us. Fear of not having the discipline or persistence or patience to finish. Fear of what might be possible. Fear of the amount of work involved. Fear of being seen. Of speaking a truth. Of being human. If we can cut down something before it has a chance to mature, then we can assure ourselves, through the magic of the self-fulfilling prophecy, that we’ll never have to deal with what could have been. Strike first. Assume the power position and eliminate uncertainty. Eliminate vulnerability. Eliminate mystery. Three elements, as it turns out, which are non-negotiable in the creative process.

Avoid meeting them and you avoid everything. 

Note from Lisa: You can join Laraine on February 28 for a deep-dive virtual (and affordable) retreat: Your Story’s Inner Genius. Early registration ends January 31; registration closes February 21.  Laraine also teaches annually at The Kripalu Institute for Yoga and Health, works as a premium consultant with Tracking Wonder  and is the founder and Head Monkey of Fierce Monkey Tribe.

All images courtesy Laraine Herring.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- January 23, 2015 Edition

> "Like Pushing an Elephant Into a Volkswagon" seems such an apt title for this round-table discussion at The Morning News, with writers talking about how they fit in the writing around day jobs, family obligations, more.  

> Ever wonder if you can get new life from an already-published article, essay, blog post? Here are "16 Sites That Accept Previously Published Writing".

> What writers don't like lists of new ideas or smarter ways to further their art, craft, and business? Brooke Warner gives us 52 ideas of things to try in 2015. I've decided on at least a half-dozen already.

> Many thanks to The Write Life for including this blog again, on their second annual "100 Best Websites for Writers List." Please plan to head over there soon and check out (at least some of) the other 99. I'm in such great company and have found several new sites I want to follow!

> I meant to pass this along a while ago - at Women Writers, Women's Books, Aine Greaney has some smart tips for avoiding certain types of editors and publications.

> Do you go through word nerd phases? A recent one of mine is the contronym, a word that is its own opposite, or one that has contradictory meanings (ex: clip -- fasten together, or cut apart; and here's a great one: fix -- to mend, or...castrate!). They're also called antagonyms or Janus-faced (or just Janus) words. Here's why.

> Years ago, a new, young, and industrious editor at one of the equestrian magazines I wrote for had everyone saying she'd do great things one day. Everyone was right about Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken (and Seabiscuit),but could not have predicted how difficult it would be for her to write those stunning books. I've mentioned her resilience here before, but want to point you to the recent New York Times Sunday Magazine article  about her -- an important read for writers just beginning to tackle (and maybe question and ponder abandoning?) their new year's list of writing goals.

> Reminder - my interview at Storytellers Summit goes live today, and you can hear it until Jan. 31. (Scroll directly below for more info on the 22+ other participants.)

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons (Wackystuff)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Listen In: Storytellers Summit Presents 20+ Creative Conversations (including little ole me)

As writers, we love getting information via the printed word. But there's something wonderful about not reading and instead listening, just listening, to other writers and creative professionals talk about their work. That's why I tune in to radio discussions about books and writing, bookmark podcasts, and click those "hear from the author" buttons. 
That's also why I am so pleased to be participating in the first StorytellersSummit, taking place right now, online, at no cost. At the site, you can choose to listen to any of the 22 creative folks in conversation with Decoding Creativity founder Julia Roberts.

Roberts recorded the 30-minute conversations, then set up a schedule which, over four days (Jan. 21 – 24 – yes, we're in the middle of it right now!), delivers a thoughtful mix of people, specialties, genres, professions, and entry points. Her core question is about creativity and the creative life. Each day, five or so conversations go live at different times (mine is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 23 at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time) – and then all will remain available, at no cost, through Saturday, January 31.

Some of the pros whose interviews I enjoyed listening to already  (and can now be heard in any order you like) include Marion Roach Smith on memoir and writing with intention; agent Liza Dawson on nurturing a long writing career; and Beverly Belling on aligning with your creative intuition.

Today's line-up includes talks on storytelling, overcoming writing resistance, graphic novels, and gaining clarity before writing. On Friday, besides my conversation, titled "The Writer's Life," you can hear from others about creative branding, self-publishing, the power of fairy tales, and time management. Saturday brings talks on writing community, crowdfunding for creatives, and lots more.

I chatted with Julia yesterday about her experience organizing and presenting Storytellers Summit:

LR: After talking with all the experts, what did you notice about their creative impulses and creativity practices? What sets them apart?

JR: What sets them apart is that they are very clear about their creative choices. Not only have they made craft choices – various degrees, jobs etc – but they have made life choices to promote their work to others. Many of them also know that if you want a life of creating/writing, you have to do that. No one will do it for you.

LR: How did you decide whom to feature in the Summit?

JR: I set up my learning tracks  – Tell a Story, Sell a Story, The Story in Your Head, Picture Story, and HerStory -  just to suit my own interests. Then I reached out to over 100 experts; some said yes (yay). I pre-interviewed everyone to make sure they had energy and ideas to contribute.

LR:  What are a few things you learned yourself?

JR: I learned so much. Debbie Reber’s pre-writing process will influence me. David Doodleslice Cohen's and Veta Bates' talks on branding got me thinking. My talk with agent Liza Dawson changed my perspective on how “they” think about “us.” I loved talking with Scott McCloud about his creative work over a lifetime and his upcoming book, The Sculptor. And to be honest, I loved the simplicity of your point of view: if you’re going to write, you're going to NOT do something else. Like yoga. Everyone taught me something.

LR:  As a creativity coach, do you find there's a difference in the way people take in and process information via audio interviews than via the printed word?  What can we get from listening?

JR: I like audio, because it’s spontaneous and has energy and humor. You can write with those same qualities, but you can hardly have a live conversation without them. Strange things sometimes happen.

LR: Most people won't be able to listen to all of the conversations they want to at the time they first air. How and when can they access the interviews later on?

JR: The interviews go live at 10:00 a.m. on their day of the schedule. If you listen live, then there’s tweeting from me @heyJuliaRoberts and Facebook discussions immediately following Also the conversations will remain active until January 31.

Check out the Storytellers Summit website for the full schedule and roster of interviewees; and follow #StorySumit on Twitter. If you happen to listen to my conversation with Julia, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Image (Listen) - Flickr/Creative Commons, Striatic

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Of Writing Goals, Hope, the Old Year, a New Year, and One Word

My end-of-the-year, start-of-a-new-year newsletter went out about 10 days ago. If you're not on the distribution list, here's the main story, one I hope will speak to writers setting out with new goals for 2015. The full newsletter is here (along with a link to sign up for future ones).

Last year, my word was HOPE. Each year I choose a word, or short phrase, as a beacon of sorts. It helps me remember my way when the writing life (and life, period) acts up.  
I wanted to remain full (or at least mindful) of hope, as I sought to publish a memoir-in-essays. As I let go of freelance editing and writing jobs that I enjoyed and which provided part-time income, but were preventing me from developing longer range projects and nailing down teaching jobs. As I worried, as always, about income and health insurance and when and why and how to publish and in what venues.
So I hoped.
Some things worked out (teaching jobs, journal publications, editing projects); others didn't (a book publishing offer, mainly). Life acted up, as usual.
The manuscript was a finalist in a few contests. Some publishers expressed interest. Some are still considering it. Some sent (what seemed to be) sincere notes:  the best of the worst of the rejections, was from my #2 wish-list publisher, and read in part, "...This is so very lovely, and comes so close, really within a whisper, of what we like to publish. But, alas...".
Another publisher invited me to resubmit after/if I revise the individual essays into a linear narrative -- advice I've heard before (even from myself), thought seriously about, and up to now, have rejected.
A mentor of mine who did that told me, "It was like breaking the back of each of those essays." But she did it, and something else, different but lovely, emerged.
Could I break the backs of those essays I loved and labored over? The ones editors at various literary journals over the last eight years read, accepted, edited, and published? Those I carefully shaped, revised, polished?  The ones I thoughtfully envisioned as singular, segmented, stand-alone?
It's time to think. Maybe my word for 2015 will carry me through. 

I keep my current year's word private, in a perhaps juvenile attempt to protect its potency. It's a word that seems to suggest two contradictory ideas (contronyms, they're called, words like cleave, bolt, strike). 

t's a new year. Do you have a word? 
Don't tell me. Tell yourself, over and over. Whisper it, or shout it. Write it down, in your heart, on the inside of your forehead, on your desk, in the air you breathe.
Alas, it may be what carries you through your writing year. I hope so. 
Images: Flickr Creative Commons: Hope Sign (Pol Sifter); Words (Joe Fife)..

Monday, January 5, 2015

Writing Inspiration Redux: 15 Posts Writers Keep Reading

In case you missed a few, and before we move on to all new material, here are the 15 most trafficked posts from 2014 (exclusive of the Friday Fridge Clean-Outs). I'm pleased so many are guest posts from my valued contributors. (And yes, I know "Top X" lists should be published before the new year begins; this is what happens when you schedule a post in advance for December 30, 2016). 

14.  Acceptance After (Multiple) Rejections: It Only Takes One Yes, One Editor, One

Thanks to all my readers!  And by the way, I'm now scheduling guest posts for the first half of this year; let me know if you have an idea.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One More Year-End List for Writers: I Did It. Did You?

For the past couple of Decembers, I wrote here about what I call my *I Did It List,* and encouraged other writers to draw up one of their own before the year ends. While I did make my own list a few weeks ago, I haven't mentioned it here, yet. Actually, the blog's been unusually quiet since mid-November, as I grappled with the end of an unexpectedly busy teaching semester. 

But then  Erika Dreifus reminded me today about the importance of the list and why I feel so strongly that writers write one. So, with a few hours left to 2014, here goes.  
The idea, in brief, is that you sit down at the end of the year and list all the things you accomplished – big, small, significant, minor, planned, surprising: whatever you find worthy of patting yourself on the back about. Most of what goes on my list is related to writing and work that is tied to literary endeavors – publishing pieces I'm proud of in particular venues, teaching a new class, hitting income goals.
But occasionally more general things make the list, things that contribute to my writing/work life, or to my life, but aren't the kind that result directly in publication, assignments, jobs, or books: one year, I listing having remade my home office after 23 years; another, that I learned more about photography; this year, I listed that I read more for pleasure than usual and began touring colleges with my younger son. 

I've written before about why I think the process of making and thinking about this kind of a list  matters a lot more than scratching out the tired old writers' New Year's resolutions (Write more! X words per day! Get a book deal! Write every day! Quit procrastinating on Facebook!).  
And, I find it a lot more instructive, helpful, compassionate, and interesting than the self-recriminating lists many of us make (if only mentally) of all the things we had planned (resolved?) to do and did not get done, the list of letdowns, perceived failures, rejections, and false starts.
You can see some of my thoughts about why the *I Did It List* is important -- and what kinds of things you might considering putting on it, and why it's different than a list of goals -- here, here, here, and here
One of the caveats I put on myself (though you are welcome to ignore) is that I keep my full *I Did It List* private. I don't post it here or anywhere; it's for me, only. Sure, during the year, I've mentioned  things I'm proud to have accomplished on the blog, or posted on Facebook. But I like knowing, when I'm making the list, that it isn't for publication. The list, I believe, reads quite differently than if I knew others would be reading it. But make your own any way you like, and do with it what you want.

 The other "rule" I have is not to make the *I Did It List* some kind of accountability activity, holding it up against any list of goals I've made throughout the year. For me, it's not about whether or not I succeeded at X or Y, but about what I did.
Did I try something new? Learn something?   Say YES to something and have it work out? Make some interesting mistakes? Some of the best things on my list this year could not have ever appeared on any "to do" list, because they represent my taking a leap when an unexpected invitation, request, or prod was provided -- and having it turn out well, not-so-well, disastrously. But you know what, I did it!
Here's what I was thinking today: My *I Did It Lists* are beginning to represent for me, an answer of sorts to that wonderful Mary Oliver poem/question; it's what I've done, this year, with my one wild and precious life. As I'm making the list, I love remembering, then writing something down, and thinking, "Oh yeah, I did do that. Cool!" 

Before the new year starts, or in its early days, look back for just 15 minutes, and write your own *I Did It List.*  If you're like me, or dozens of others who have told me what the experience was like, I'm betting you'll find more on there than you imagined, and feel pretty darn good about it in the process.
Images: All Flickr Creative Commons.  Mary Oliver quote, Julie Gibbons; Red notebook, Alexander Levin; Woman in snow, Benjamin Staudinger; Happy man, Neal Fowler.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- November 21, 2014 Edition

> I love Katie Riegel's "Literary Magazine Wishes"over at The Gloria Sirens. Sample: "A human-sounding 'about' page. Pretentious = no. You don’t have to deride other branches of the literary world in order to do what you do."

> Via the New York Times' Learning Network: "500 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing". (Yes, 500. Neatly categorized. 500.)

> Perhaps a bit surprisingly, for someone who thinks of herself as something of a word nerd, and at the risk of seeming old or out of step, I had to look up the top three new words of the year named by the Oxford Dictionaries.

> It could be that this kind of word fun is more my speed: Popsonnet, where pop song lyrics (old and new) are rendered as Shakespearean sonnets.

> At the Writer Beware blog, a reminder of "How NOT to Register Copyright," including scams, fees, and the law.

> Ten major writing errors a manuscript editors sees often, and ways to avoid them.

> Caroline Leavitt details the complexities of literature and litigation involving several of her books' characters, both real and imagined.

> Finally, some odd punctuation marks.

I'm putting together my next newsletter. If you'd like to stay in touch, please use this to sign up (you'll get about four a year):
Newsletter Sign-Up

Have a great weekend!

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons - Roger Wollstadt

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Acceptance After (Multiple) Rejections: It Only Takes One Yes, One Editor, One

On Facebook a couple of weeks ago, a friend had something to say about acceptances and rejections – a good news/bad news post; not exactly an infrequent topic among writers toiling in the upside down world of literary submissions, occasional publication, and hope.  

This writer noted that she'd received a third place finish in a literary journal contest, from a publication near the top of her wish list -- after she'd already received 51 rejections from other journals, some of which she admitted she might have been less than enthusiastic about appearing in anyway.

I understood this too well. You begin with a small list of places you'd love your work to appear; a few might be a reach, but you're not insane, you don't over-reach and chuck every single thing you write at all the top tier publications. You build a list that makes sense, but still represents places you'd be humbled and honored to get an acceptance from. Then you wait. Rejections arrive. You add to your list, this time dipping further down the coveted top tier. More rejections come your way. The list grows, and submissions go out, again.  

But once you reach double digit rejections, you begin to doubt a piece's substance and chances and adjust your submission list yet again, scanning a bit lower. You still keep sending to those near the top of your list but you're realistic and send to second and third tier places too.

Then the acceptance comes from a venue near the top, one you had submitted to with hope but also pragmatism, and you wonder once again: Were all those other editors wrong? Is it a matter of taste? Was Mom right (about jobs, spouses, everything), that it only takes one, and sooner or later it will happen?

Sometimes, I think so.

When I saw that writer's post, it was just one day after I'd received an acceptance for a nonfiction narrative essay from a journal I consider desirable (at least to my own idiosyncratic, individual system of ranking)—after having received, over the previous year of submissions, rejections from 26 other publications, a mix of those less stellar, more stellar, and roughly equal to the one that said yes.

Go figure.

After virtually high-fiving that other writer, I got curious. I pulled up my Excel spreadsheet that I use to track submitting activity and did a quick, calculator-less analysis. Just how often did this happen, I wanted to know? How often does it take hearing a lot of No, before I hear Yes? I had a sense that the answer was, pretty often. But suddenly I wanted proof, numbers, stats.

Not only was I curious in light of that writer's post and my own almost simultaneous experience, but I wanted to know because I am known to encourage fellow writers thus: "Don't be discouraged, keep sending it out, this is how it works." Was I right? And how often? So I pulled up my personal Excel spreadsheet stats, along with my Duotrope tracker.

Here's what I found: Over the past 18 months or so, I had submitted 15 different pieces of creative nonfiction (all kinds of essays and nonfiction narrative), to a total of 47 different venues (a mix of print and online literary journals and mainstream media markets that publish CNF). That amounted to 116 total individual submissions, resulting in: 10 acceptances, 19 personal rejections, 52 form rejections, 21 withdrawals by me, and 14 never-heard-back-might-as-well-have-pitched-it-into-the-ocean. [Not included in this count are submissions associated with the book-length memoir manuscript, my smattering of poetry subs, and other hard-to-classify stuff.]

I'm neither surprised nor upset by these stats. (Not as upset as this poet who describes a sometimes zero-sum game of poetry chapbook/contest submissions.) Duotrope, for example, tells me (not that I asked, but there is it displayed on my Submission Tracker page): Your acceptance rate is higher than average. Okay, then. Then again, Duotrope doesn't know the whole picture, only the journals I've submitted to which are in their database. Still, I'll take the praise/encouragement, as there's precious little of it around.

In a very odd sense, I have come to the idea that the only way to stay in this particular system is to think of the submitting-rejection-submitting-acceptance game as just that, a game. Do I hope to "win"? Sure, whatever that means. Publication? Certainly. More frequent, reliable acceptances? I hope so. CV-building? Yes, that's necessary after all. Platform building? Meh. And also, colleague-making, affirmation, participation, a dollop of validation!

But unlike the Scrabble, gin rummy, and shouting-at-the-TV Jeopardy games I play frequently (and rather expect to actually win), I have to think of the submitting game the way I do the tennis, shuffleboard, and other outdoor games I play with my competitive husband and strong teenage sons while on vacation: nice (though rare) if I win, enjoyable (mostly) when I tie or lose by a little, and fun enough (usually) that I will play again the next day. I  know that while every game is about skill, I'm always aware there are other dominant players on the field and that field is not always precisely level. My son's legs will always hold up better than mine, my husband's killer instinct will forever surpass mine. But they forget: they're playing against someone who, on a daily basis, often before breakfast, sloughs off rejection, has learned to study but then ignore the competition, and who knows, perhaps even enjoys, the underdog position.

They're dealing with a writer who, at the present moment, has five different pieces of work in the submission pipeline, awaiting their fate at 25 different venues. And I haven't even checked my email yet today.

Game (still) on.

Images: All Flickr/Creative Commons -- Cookies: Stallio; Yes and No: Abhi; Rejected: Sean MacEntee.