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Friday, January 30, 2009
At a reading I did in November at Queens College, one other writer impressed me because of her quiet, haunting delivery of a short story and seemed like someone I'd like to get to know. We were seated in the same row, but since my husband and I had to make the trek from Queens back to the hinterlands of New Jersey, this interesting woman and I didn't have a chance to get acquainted. A few weeks later, I got the list of other contributors to Feed Me! Writers Dish About Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image and there was Susan O’Doherty's name. We had something in common and were going to get acquainted after all.
Susan, a writer and clinical psychologist, is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued (Seal, 2007). She's written for journals (Eureka Literary Magazine, Northwest Review, Apalachee Review) and anthologies (Mama Ph.D, Sex for America, The New Writer’s Handbook, and About What Was Lost). Her advice column for writers, "The Doctor Is In," is featured every Friday on the publishing blog Buzz, Balls & Hype (the following is a cross-post from there today).
Please welcome Susan O'Doherty.
All of my female psychotherapy clients think they are too fat. This has been true for at least the past five years; probably longer.
This is not exactly headline news, of course. The cultural pressure on women to be thin is well known. However, since most of my clients are writers, I think this phenomenon warrants further exploration.
I have worked with a few male clients who were concerned about their weight, too. Usually, their concerns centered on health issues thought to be associated with overweight: cardiac problems, diabetes, or lower back pain. The topics of attractiveness and social acceptance seldom came up.
Some of my women clients might be healthier and more comfortable physically if they were ten or twenty pounds lighter. But that isn’t the primary concern they express. Heterosexual women worry that their husbands and boyfriends no longer find them attractive. Several women have reported humiliation by strangers who complain that their “thunder thighs” take up too much space on the subway, or by physicians who refuse to believe that their symptoms could be caused by factors other than gluttony and sloth—even though recent medical research suggests that weight is determined more by genetic factors than by personal effort and willpower, and that for people in otherwise good health, being a few pounds overweight is preferable to being underweight.
My own weight was in the average range for most of my adult life, until a brush with serious illness (detailed in Feed Me) caused me to lose over 20 pounds, along with a great deal of hair, stamina, and resistance to disease. Despite eating normally, I have never regained my weight or much of my health. But I very seldom have to endure disparaging remarks about my size or admonitions that my medical issues would disappear if I would only exercise some discipline and drink more milkshakes. On the contrary, I find myself the object of friends’ and acquaintances’ expressed envy, and of sudden sexual attention from men who previously related to me only as my son’s mother, their wife’s friend, or that woman who always asks for Tahitian Blue fountain pen ink in the large bottle.
Healthy, beautiful bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and I certainly don’t claim that large, curvaceous bodies are more “adult” or “legitimate” than those that are smaller or more angular. However, it’s hard not to see the increasing fetishization of slenderness as a collective wish that uppity women would return to a state of preadolescent innocence, dependency, and powerlessness.
What does all of this have to do with writing?
No matter what we know intellectually, these attitudes tend to penetrate. And internalizing the message that in order to be acceptable, we must make ourselves smaller, weaker and more childlike can affect creativity in profound ways.
It is hard for my overweight clients to shrug off the message that they are not acceptable as they are; it is hard for me to ignore the signals that I am more attractive and desirable now than when I was robust and athletic, when my hair shone and my skin glowed.
It’s hard to take in the message that we are too large, too much, and take up too much space—and then to raise our voices and boldly express potentially incendiary ideas in our writing. It’s hard to be told that we must ignore the signals of our own bodies, but must instead starve and malnourish ourselves so that we won’t be hideous in others’ eyes—and then to find the physical and emotional strength to attend to and record our authentic feelings and beliefs.
Life is too fragile, beautiful, and important for this nonsense. If we are to write authentically and live fully, we need to be too big, too much; to take up space; to listen to and express our inner truths even—or especially—when they conflict with accepted standards. We need to convert the energy we spend planning and executing diet regimes, plodding away on the treadmill, and flagellating ourselves for perceived lapses into the creation of ambitious, audacious novels, earth-shaking lovemaking, fierce love for our children and our friends, and pursuing a richer, deeper, happier existence. We need to give ourselves this permission, because clearly, it will never be handed to us.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Leave a comment by the end of the day on February 14 and if yours is randomly selected, I'll send the book off to you, along with the wish that you love – or at least appreciate – your own body.
If you are near New Paltz, NY, drop in for a reading from the book this Saturday.
And if by chance you are thinking of buying the book via Amazon, consider doing so on February 1, the book's Amazon Spike Day. No one (certainly not me) will earn any more if you do, but it does bump up the book's ranking -- always a good thing.
When leaving your comment, if you are so inclined, I'd love to hear at least one thought about this love-hate relationship almost everyone seems to have with their body, appetite, eating, food, and weight.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
"Does my butt look fat? Well, it is. And it's OK to say it, because after decades of agonizing over my weight, I've finally realized that the F-word isn't dirty."
I didn't write the above lines, but I'm awfully glad Kate Harding did, because I've often had those exact sentiments. Harding writes the Shapely Prose blog, and is one of my fellow contributors to the essay collection Feed Me! Writers Dish About Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image.
Today, Salon excerpted her piece on the front page of their site. By noon, it had already spurred more than 75 letters, and wow – talk about a spectrum, from supportive to snake-like vicious, from literate and well-informed to…well, you get the picture.
Quite separate from how anyone may feel about the issue, I think Harding's essay -- slightly humorous, thought-provoking, and with a strong voice -- is well-written and worth a read.
You'll find it here.
Friday, January 23, 2009
►My friend Kathy Briccetti is posting sections of her memoir-in-progress, a nontraditional book of lyric essays and poetry reflecting on her life as a school psychologist working with children on the autism spectrum, as well as the mother of a boy with Asperger's Syndrome.
►Most writers, and almost all of those who compete for freelance writing assignments, are protective of our ideas. Sometimes too protective, as one long-time magazine editor, Michael Caruso says in an interview over at Mike's Writing Workshop:
"I know a lot of writers are skittish about this. They think their ideas are going to be stolen. Believe me, at major publications, theft of ideas is not really a huge issue. So don’t be worried about losing an idea. And if you are, if you’re too attached to one thing or a couple of things, then you don’t have enough ideas. You have to become better at coming up with them. If you’re really having trouble coming up with more than one idea at a time, you need to work harder at that skill. The people who are the most successful at this are the least afraid of someone stealing from them. Their attitude is, “Okay, I dare you, steal this one. I have 20 more.”
If you think one of your ideas is so precious, you probably don’t have enough of them to make it in this business. You have to be a little more cavalier, and less attached to your ideas, just as you need to be less attached to your words during the editing process.And just because you have one really great idea doesn’t make you a writer. Just like having one great idea for a movie doesn’t make you a filmmaker."
►Stumbled upon Good Books in Bad Times. Need I say more? If so: "a resource for books that provide comfort and serve as a force for good in difficult times"
►Have a bit of fun with Literature Map. Type in the name of an author you like, and get a visual "map" to other authors you might like. The closer their name floats to your author, the greater the chances their books will also appeal.
Have a great weekend.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
The collection, due out next week, is Feed Me! Writers Dish about Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image, edited by Harriet Brown, from the Ballantine Books imprint of Random House. Besides the work of Hood and Maynard (and little ole me!), the book features the strong voices of Susan O'Doherty, Sari Botton, Diana Abu-Jaber, and many others.
I've got lots to say about the book, its core messages about body acceptance and how American women think about and behave around food, and the powerful and unfortunately large role these issues play in our lives. But I won't go into all that here and now.
For now, I just want to share with you a digital sneak peek of the book, which features three of the essays (not mine, sniff!) and the introduction. [You may need to do the quick, free sign-up when you get to Isuu, to download for easier-on-the-eyes reading; It's worth it – the 47-pages are funny, authentic, raw and real.] While all of the writers have done a superb job, each from their own idiosyncratically unique viewpoint, I especially recommend Caroline Leavitt's "The Grief Diet" which you can read on the advance peek.
There is a reading scheduled in New Paltz, NY, next week, a panel discussion at Syracuse University in February, and possibly others coming up in Manhattan and northern New Jersey.
On this blog, I try to only mention my own publications once and move on, but in this case, please bear with me if I gush periodically at my good fortune, and chronicle some of the book's journey as it sails into the world on January 27. Look for a give-away sometime in February, too.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Vicki Forman first caught my attention with her special needs parenting column at Literary Mama. (Her last column there must be read sitting down, and with a prepared heart.) Her work has also appeared in the Seneca Review, Santa Monica Review, and the anthologies, Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child With Special Needs, and This Day: Dairies From American Women. She lives outside Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.
I asked Vicki for a glimpse into the wonderful, nerve-wracking and occasionally tedious pre-publication process she's currently involved in for her first book, a memoir, This Lovely Life: A Memoir of Premature Motherhood (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), due out in July. Her manuscript earned the 2008 Bakeless Literary Prize for creative nonfiction.
Please welcome Vicki Forman.
Great news: you’ve finished a book and even landed a contract. You’re in love with your agent, and even more in love with your editor. From here on out, it’s all fun and games, right?
Sort of. Writing a book is absolutely hard. But getting a book through production—from the friendly Word document you have come to know and love into a thing in print, between covers—is a different sort of hard. There are tricky steps to learn, and all the nomenclature that comes with them (blurbing, bound galleys, ARCs,) and then there is the simple psychological aspect of seeing your own words become more and more engraved in stone as the publishing wheels turn.
My own book is currently making its way through production and I recently had the first encounter with the fact of my words becoming real when I was asked to review copyedits. Most writers will confess to a love-hate relationship with copyeditors. We need them to point out errors in continuity; they remind us of the rules of grammar and punctuation (rules we may adhere to only in the most perfunctory way as we create). In other words, I fully expected the task of reviewing copyedits to be strenuous at best, tiresome at worst.
I didn’t expect to find myself faced with words, now reviewed and altered by someone else—and a stranger to me at that. I am thoroughly familiar, to the point of intimacy, with this book that landed on my desk. I’ve been writing it for four years. But to see words changed, suggestions made, grammar or style questioned? These marks on the page had the effect of severing me, in some elemental way, from those same words. They were not only mine now, they belonged to a reader. And a reader with a point of view.
Which is exactly the point. The difference between that same friendly Word document you’ve come to know and love as a writer, and a published book, is that it will have readers. As my favorite songwriter, Jeff Tweedy says in “What Light”:
"And if the whole world's singing your songs
And all your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone's from now on"
My first reaction in seeing the make up of my sentences questioned was to become defensive. But then I remembered Tweedy’s words and realized that I had a new job: not simply to protect those words, but to see how they were now being experienced by someone else. My job as a writer had evolved into that of shepherd.
And so shepherd I did. I looked at every suggested change and asked myself if it made the sentence better. I reread aloud each new sentence to evaluate rhythm and clarity. I made at least two passes through the book before sending it back to my publisher, and wrote a careful cover letter explaining (in general terms) the changes I chose to accept—and reject.
A good friend explained that while I was the performer, the publisher was in charge of the auditorium. If they moved the metaphorical lights or microphones of my words, I could certainly move them back if I chose. But I should also know that they knew what they were doing when they moved them. And that our goal, in the end, was the same: a solid piece of writing we could all stand behind.
What follows is an insider’s guide to surviving the copyediting process:
- Ask your editor or production manager about house style. The publisher may even have a writer’s guide to which you can refer. Make sure you know which style guides the copyeditor has used (e.g., Chicago Manual of Style) as well as which dictionaries.
- Clearly understand directions for accepting or rejecting changes. These instructions should come in a cover letter from the production manager.
- Respect the copyeditor for being better at his or her job than you. This person has been hired for a reason, and it’s not simply to make your life complicated.
- Enlist the help of a friend. In some cases, I was so close to certain sentences, I honestly couldn’t tell if a suggested change was better or not. I ran at least four or five such examples past another good friend who has also read my manuscript.
- Allow yourself enough time. You do not want to rush this process. It will take far longer than you expect, and you will have a hard time reading more than 40-50 pages at a time without losing perspective.
- Meet your deadline. I know many authors feel they can squeeze an extra day or two at each production deadline, but your book is just one of many in the pipeline. I have worked with production managers before and they value above all writers who help them stay on schedule.
- Find out about next steps, and prepare yourself for them. If you know you’re going to get bound galleys at a time when you have other deadlines, for example, try to clear some room in your schedule. Each part of the process takes longer than you think, and brings up unexpected psychological aspects in your personality. I had completely forgotten about my emotional “finishing” problem, for example, until I took so long reviewing the manuscript I was forced to send it back via Express Mail. An expensive quirk.
A few last words: as with any step in the writing process, it’s important to enjoy yourself along the way. I felt a great sense of relief and accomplishment when I put the manuscript into the envelope and sent it on its way. Always honor each moment—you never know when you’ll get to do this again.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
In-Person Class --
Filling the Blank Page: Creative Writing Boot Camp for Procrastinators and Busy People. Get moving or keep going on that writing project(s). Boost your productivity, develop and maintain a regular writing habit, deal with stumbling blocks and mental clutter, expand your craft, build a writing plan you can stick to, and learn to enjoy the writing process. Combines instruction, discussion, suggested reading, in-class exercises, weekly assignments, support, and feedback on your work.
Four Monday mornings, Jan. 11, 25, Feb. 1, 15. $110. Cedar Grove, NJ. Registration deadline: Dec. 22. Pay in full by Dec. 12 & get one free critique. Register/questions to email address below.
Online Class --
Memoir and Personal Essay: Four by Four. Four keys of creative nonfiction in four weeks:
- Beginnings & Endings
- A Strong "I" Narrator
- Powerful Small Details
- Dynamic Dialogue
Work on writing high-impact openings and strong endings; creating a narrator readers will want to follow around; identifying and using small details to big effect; and crafting dialogue that's authentic and provides narrative momentum. Whether writing a full length memoir, shorter memoir pieces, or any kind of personal essay, you'll learn and try new skills to dramatically enhance your prose. Each week, there will be a new lesson to read, examples to study, and writing assignments to turn in for comment and feedback from the instructor. Plus, a private online forum to interact with others enrolled in the class.
Session I -January 4 - 31 OR Session II -February 1 - 28. $125
Registration deadline: Dec. 18. Pay in full by Dec. 12 and get one free critique.
For information and to register: LisaRomeoWrites (at) gmail (dot) com. Specify if you want to mail a check or be invoiced via PayPal.
If you want to talk by phone, please send me your number and a convenient time to reach you. Thanks.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Where, and how, do writers begin on a piece of work?
My best friend from childhood is a successful professional, a really smart woman, but whenever we talk about writing, she says something like, "I don't know how you write. I wouldn't know where to begin." She thinks I do – hah!
Well, maybe I do. When it's a short essay, say, under 2,000 words, I often have a possible, or probable, opening in mind and almost always, a definitive idea for – or even the complete -- closing line. I find this intuitive approach works something like a boundary; I know the parameters and make sure to stay within the borders – which of course I have planted and so I do feel free to move as I go along, but I find a short piece often demands that one keep to a relatively narrow course.
On the other hand, when I'm writing a much longer piece, say in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 7,000 words or more, the edges are less clear, and it's not unusual for me to not know quite where or how to begin. But begin I do, invariably in the middle. Sometimes at the end. Less often, at the beginning.
I find I usually write some of the beginning as I go, though it often stays unrelentingly murky far into the project. At some point, I begin to panic that I don't have a good opening, especially when I'm near to closing in on what I think will be the right ending. This occurs only after a completely circuitous and unexpected route through the piece in all directions, involving much rewriting, thousands more words than I need, and high anxiety. It's at this point when I see -- for the umpteenth time -- that all will be well, that in fact I had to get to the end first because, at least for me, the end almost always dictates how the beginning should be written.
I'll say that again. On a longish piece, it's when I get to the end that I usually know where to start.
I keep trying to tell myself, and lately I've begun suggesting to students, to trust this somewhat mysterious methodology. Perhaps one day I will be able to listen to my own advice.
Susan Bono, the editor at Tiny Lights, an online journal of personal narrative, recently asked me to write something, something quite short, to share with other writers on this topic of beginnings.
Read it for yourself here. Then let me know how you tackle beginnings and getting started.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
The original context may have been related to weight loss (and when I tried to track down an author, the list did pop up on many weight loss sites, always anonymously). Still, I find it useful when confronted with family, work and other personal challenges, too. Yeah, it's a little bit Pollyanna. Sue me. It's my guess that we can all do with a few words of encouragement going into 09:
A few of these I use frequently when I'm troubled, especially: Wait. Listen. Act.
A few I should use more often, but invariably remember too late: Forgive. Relax.
And to this list, I'll add two more words that have become important to me recently:
Enough, as in, maybe I've already got enough --of anything, or even everything. Anyway, enough to get by. I have a feeling in the economy ahead, this is a word many of us will need.
Quit. In my opinion, quitting is underrated and mistakenly thought of as an easy out. For me, quitting is often quite difficult, especially when it involves stopping a project bound up in a lot of emotional and creative "equity." But sometimes, under certain circumstances, the right decision really is to stop what I am doing. Put it aside. For awhile, or forever. And start something else.
In fact, I'll go further and say that I hope to quit a bunch of things in 2009. Some of them I will talk about here.
What about you?