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.




Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Bookfests, Book Marketing, Books in NJ, and Going Bookless?

• Check out this funny "syllabus" in McSweeney's, by Robert Lanham, on writing and reading in the "postprint era."

• Authors and other book folks in northern New Jersey might want to see about getting involved in BooksNJ 2009 coming up in June.

• A few (new-to-me) online lit journals I've stumbled across and enjoyed recently: Litter Box, Stone's Throw (with an essay by my friend Harriet Brown), and something unusual (hint: keep those envelope backs, folks): Hit and Run, "publishing the raw materials of fiction, poetry and other creative work: scrap metal; index cards; napkin notes; etc."

• Walter Boyer is co-owner of the dominant independent bookstore Bookends, in Ridgewood, NJ, not far from where I live. The store is known for celebrity author appearances, but also puts on its share of lesser-known author events. Boyer is interviewed in the latest Bookhitch newsletter (which by the way always delivers a bunch of smart book marketing ideas). Here's a small part of his response to a question about what he looks for when asked to schedule an event for a newly published author:

"Since we’re talking about relatively unknown authors, I prefer a detailed email including a bio of the author, a bio of the book, a picture of the jacket, and a publicity plan, or a marketing outline. With an unknown or first-time author, a lot of what they do to market themselves is what determines the success of a book signing. I want to know what they are doing already, before the signing is even proposed, to market themselves and their book. I want to know what kind of following they have now. It’s a challenge, and you cannot expect success without the author’s involvement in publicity."
It looks like the current (April) newsletter content is not yet up on the Bookhitch site, but you can sign up for the electronic newsletter here.

• Wish you were at the London Book Fair recently? Then enjoy this vicarious visit.


Have a great weekend. Don't forget to write.*


* I say this all the time, with a smile, to my writing workshop students and even to writers whose essays, manuscripts, synopses, book proposals and other works I'm editing or critiquing. They think I'm being funny. I'm not. I know firsthand how easy it is to "forget" to write, though it's often cloaked in other wording: too busy, too tired, blocked, stuck, burned out, overworked in the day job, uninspired, muse-less, etc. So I'll say it again: Don't forget to write.


And, have a great weekend too.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Writing & Editing Blogs & Tips, Author Events & the Metaphor Gauntlet

I've decided to spare you all from my planned post today about how reading poetry has helped my nonfiction writing. (Maybe I'll get back to that next week.) Meanwhile, I noticed my lists of links and interesting things to share has gotten too long. So here goes:

• There are so many blogs over at NYTimes.com, it's difficult to keep up with the half-dozen or so I really like. When I'm in a word geek mood – or when something I'm editing makes me want to throttle someone – I head over to After Deadline, which "examines questions of grammar, usage and style encountered by writers and editors of The Times." Yes folks, I actually find that sort of thing entertaining.

• Not as nimble with metaphors as you'd like? I like this advice, from novelist Lisa Michaels, via the Write Free newsletter:
Take one of your missed opportunities, one you feel is crying out for metaphor, and Throw Down the Gauntlet. Give yourself two minutes to delve into that part of your brain that's creative and juicy, and fill a page with possible metaphors for that passage. You might have a moon that's rising over the eastern ridge. Set your timer and go, barring none: "The moon is a . . ." . . . "golden pocket watch," "white crystal of snow," "full circle," "round cherry pie." Just go until you find one you like. If too many minutes pass and you've exhausted your possibilities, give it a rest. Come back to it later. You may find you like one you've already written, or you may want to try again.

• The self-publishing industry has planned its first major national book expo for this fall.

• There is a deep archive of fiction writing advice and tips at Casting The Bones, a blog maintained by screenwriter/novelist Robert Gregory Browne, who seems genuinely interested in helping aspiring novelists.

• Creative nonfiction is the subject of No Titles, which is "what happens when a blog meets a literary magazine," according to the site. Lots of interviews with accomplished practitioners of the craft, including this one with Dinty Moore.

• I live an "easy" commute from Manhattan, and each month make a list of the literary events I plan to attend in the city. Then what usually happens is one kid's important game conflicts with a reading; another kid's important school project is due the morning after an authors' panel; both kids get sick the day of another….until one by one, all of the alluring literary outings get crossed off the calendar until there is often only one left. One month soon, I'm going to make sure that the one I get to is the reading series sponsored by PenParentis, "a confluence of authors who are parents." It would be all too ironic if I didn't, no? Their next After Work Reading Series, on May 12, features Jonathan Henkin and Joanna Hershon. (I'm pretty sure they don't always pair authors with identical initials, but hey, it does have an interesting ring to it.)

Be back tomorrow with some more.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Literary Journal Subscription Winner

We have a winner.

Congratulations to Bonnie Naradzay, a poet and fellow Stonecoast MFA alum, who is now the recipient of the one-year subscription to the literary journal Prairie Schooner.

Bonnie's name was chosen at random by my very high tech in-house random selector, otherwise known as an 11-year-old who reached into a bowl filled with folded up pieces of paper on which I had written the name of each commenter from the two Prairie Schooner posts we ran.

Thanks to all who entered and have a great weekend.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Guest Blogger Susan Lilley on Delicious Truth: A Poet in Nonfiction Land

Susan Lilley has a fine literary bio and I'll get to it. But first, something about Susan her terrific bio doesn't say. When thrown into the mix of genres, personalities and possibilities in an MFA program, it's easy – and wrong – to dismiss entire groups of people and ideas in order to focus intently on one's interests (in my case, creative nonfiction). Lucky for me, during my MFA experience, among the wonderful (and patient) faculty and students from other specialties, was poet Susan Lilley, whose outstretched hand and genuine interest in connecting across genres made a real difference. She's a gem both off and on the page.

Okay, now the facts: A Florida native, Susan is the 2006 co-winner of the
Yellow Jacket Press Chapbook Contest for Florida poets for her collection, Night Windows. She's a 2009 recipient of a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, and her work has appeared in anthologies and journals including The Florida Review, The Apalachee Review, The Fourth Genre, and Poet Lore. Susan has taught literature and writing at the University of Central Florida, currently teaches at Trinity Preparatory School, and is an adjunct professor at Rollins College. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast at University of Southern Maine

Please welcome Susan Lilley.

When I had the chance to be part of a cross-genre workshop last summer during my MFA graduation residency, it made sense to me that poetry and nonfiction should be paired together. After all, don’t my poems usually start with true-life experience? Many times I have wondered if a certain poem or another really should be allowed to grow into an essay, but usually ended up cutting back instead of pushing outward, distilling further instead letting loose the tide of information and detail that would surely overwhelm me if I dared to consider the subject more fully--and in prose.

But I followed the orders of our master class leader, poet Kazim Ali, and wrote one piece in the other genre to put before the group, all women of rich and skillful experience in the craft of creative nonfiction. They did the same, and their brave and lovely poems convinced me that poetry is indeed closer to CNF than it is to fiction. And the poetry I found in their prose—such moments of dazzling lyricism and liberating (sometimes shattering) honesty! They also blessed me with special insights on tone and the overall shape a poem takes for a reader. With less emphasis on line breaks and other nuts and bolts of a poetry workshop, I was able to see my work through a different kind of literary reader’s eyes.

Mostly, I was in awe of these writers’ commitment to courageously telling the truth. I began to wonder; as a poet, don’t I tell the truth? It’s complicated. My friend Ruth Foley, a poet, reminds me of this complication in every email with a quotation from Cocteau that appears as her signature: The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.

I hadn’t fully realized how much I depended on the liberty, in poetry, to speak emotional truth by making stuff up. Sure, I start with the truth. Then as I work on a poem, if things are going well, the piece begins to have needs of its own, which I now must pay more attention to than the facts. Sometimes people are surprised or feel cheated when they learn that there are a few big fat lies in one of my poems they just read or listened to. (“You mean you did NOT eat the poison berries in your grandmother’s garden?” “What? That wasn’t you who had that fight and roared off in the silver car?”*)

In trying to produce a viable piece of nonfiction, I found that I constantly had to restrain my natural urge to change, replace, embellish along the way. And I developed even greater respect for the writers of nonfiction who stick to the facts while still shaping a riveting piece of writing. I am not saying that poetry is full of bald-faced lies. Some of life’s most ineffable truths are best illuminated in poetry, I believe.

Lately, it’s clear that the once-reliable division between poetry and nonfiction is turning into a delicious, messy shoreline. The concept of the lyric essay is exciting for those of us looking for new ways to think about writing. Some subjects lure me to explore the edges, where one genre spills into another and becomes a new element. I hope I’m brave enough to wade in.

Note from Lisa: C'mon in, Susan. The water's fine.

Readers, to enjoy one of Susan's poems, The Endless Boogie, click here. She swears every word is true.
* Susan has also allowed me to post below more of her work, this one from Night Windows (Yellow Jacket Press 2006; originally published in The Florida Review). She's not saying how much of this one springs from real life.

A Woman and Her Car

Gone. Gone in a blaze of red tail lights
and dust, that’s me,
dust swirling on the dirt road.
Better than horses, it roars—
my ally, weapon,
partner in crime.
Helps me say, “I’m leaving,”
and really do it,
floor it.,
miles in minutes.

There’s no sense in running after me.
So you don’t.
I exceed the limit,
but I won’t be stopped.
Patrolmen look into their coffee
when I streak by.
They, too, are terrified of angry women;
they don’t want to know why.
But my car is not afraid,
my chariot of fury,
my dented silver beauty!
My demons are released in little screams
with every curve.

Later, I’m back in your driveway
honking brazenly for forgiveness,
car idling nonchalantly beneath me.
I put on lipstick in the rear view
while I wait for you,
my laughter spilling out
through eyes washed blank with happiness.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Two Takes on an Essay from Prairie Schooner

It was no fun last week being a writer with a double eye infection, sinus infection, mega-headache, head cold and assorted other complaints. Can you imagine how much reading or writing got done? Enough said. Now that I'm clear-headed and, ahem, clear-eyed, let's move on. We're giving away a subscription to a fine literary journal this week.....

Last week I had the privilege of previewing and commenting on one of the poems in the current issue of the literary journal Prairie Schooner, now in its 83rd year. Today, it's a creative nonfiction essay which has our attention. The piece, A Grand Canyon, by Lee Zacharias, appears in the print version of the journal, and in part online at their website.

Of the four good essays in the Spring 2009 of PS which I was graciously permitted to preview, I knew immediately I was most connected to A Grand Canyon. She had me at hello, with an opening sentence that's tight, enticing and effective – and not only because it brought up something intensely personal for me, and I suspect, for many adult children juggling teenage children and the seemingly trivial wish of an aging parent.

In Zacharias's piece, it's a trip to the Grand Canyon her mother yearns for; for me, it's Williamsburg, Virginia my own mother longs to see, never mind that she's unable to handle the walking about required. Okay, I admit that's perhaps a bit like judging a book by its cover, but there you go. Yet, I can think of no better way of selecting how to spend my reading time than to find an opening line so arresting it makes a reader decide, immediately, yes, I'll spend time with that narrator, I'll follow where she leads – take me.

Zacharias opens her narrative this way:
"My mother said she always wanted to see the Grand Canyon. Actually what she said was "I always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, but I guess I'll never get there." Then the guess fell silent, the comma disappeared, she was sure she'd never get there, and the pause between the two clauses grew so short, the thought was one, desire and disappointment a single breath. She wasn't going to see the Grand Canyon before she died, and to her it surely seemed a melancholy measure of her life."

You can read a longer excerpt of the opening of the piece here.

Then, after a few paragraphs of backstory, we're off, physically and metaphorically; daughter and mother will travel to the Canyon, along with the narrator's 14-year-old son: "But the truth is I didn't really decide to take her to the Grand Canyon. One night when she began, "I always wanted...," I snapped, "I'll take you," because I never wanted to hear the rest of that sentence again."

Now here, Zacharias had entered my particular emotional territory, and the landscape in which I often travel as a writer – mothers and sons, daughter and aging parent, grandparent and grandson. Yet the truth is, Zacharias's prose is excellent all around, and her narrative style is compelling enough to pull a reader through the journey of the plot as well as the journey on the page, regardless of whether a reader shares any of her particular situational dynamics. Of course, isn't that the sweet spot of personal nonfiction, the embodiment of why people read nonfiction at all? Not because they necessarily want the narrator's story, but because they wish to find, somewhere within that story, some way to process and understand their own.

Zacharias delivers, weaving a piece rich in family dynamics and generational chasms. The questionable pairing of travel companions, grandmother and teenage grandson, begins sweetly, devolves into perhaps predictable bickering, and – once all have seen the physical Canyon – ends with the narrator's confiding a future separation between mother and son of a far greater emotional distance, with more at stake than a mother's unrequited wanderlust. There is as especially effective segment where, much later, the narrator is looking at photographs from the trip, and trying to make sense of the gaping distance to come: "Max and I should have lingered on the trail – why didn't we? My mother is fine and he is so soon to retreat from me – but the shadow is long, it's late, we're tired and hungry, it's time to move on."

In reading through Zacharias's essay and the Christiano poem, I was struck by the mirrored themes of sons growing away from their parents, as of course, all teenagers must As Zacharias puts it, "One day the love affair ends for the child, though it never does for the parent….As children always do, he grew up and became someone else, a young man I love more than anything on earth even though I will never know him in the way I once thought I knew the boy."

Prairie Schooner's managing editor James Engelhardt, had this to say about A Grand Canyon:

"Here again, families are at stake. What’s good to note, at least in passing, is how the two genres (poetry and creative nonfiction) differ in their compression. Zacharias has a lot more (dare I say it?) space in which to work. But also notice the strength of the opening and how the narrator moves so deftly through the paragraph, establishing the breadth and narrowness of the mother’s ambition (note, too, the sly alliteration of “Nashville, New Orleans, and Niagara Falls”). We get a very quick look at how the mother/daughter relationship around travel was built, but with very little commentary or judgment. And then the end of the second paragraph when we read that the Grand Canyon “was big enough to hold everything that had failed to come her way in life.”

Then the focus switches to the narrator's son and by the end of the third page (probably five or so manuscript pages) the characters are onstage and off on their adventure. As the essay moves along, I find myself nodding over the ways that Zacharias situates each tension explicitly. I mean that instead of saying that the grandmother and teenaged son bicker constantly over small things, she picks two small points: legroom and earphones. There are other conventions that Zacharias borrows from fiction besides a tight focus. She tells us that “the stark beauty of the land seemed to bode well” in a deft example of foreshadowing that seems lovely (and notice that the comment is within a visual detail) and yet ominous. Not too much later, she sketches out some of the trouble her son would have, but not on this trip.

She compresses time marvelously at different points to work us through the narrative more quickly. Every scene picks up some new aspect to the characters and their relationships. The narrator is slightly distracted, distressed, we wonder about some of her decisions, but we never lose identification with her.

At the end of the essay, Zacharias does a kind of summary that is pretty well strictly forbidden for poetry. She makes explicit that the Canyon is a metaphor for the divisions within family, and the erosion that left the Canyon AS a canyon reveals how a relationship can change and yet remain wonderful. And yet she leaves some things unsaid, and it’s the wonderful job of the reader to find the theme of Otherness that also runs through the piece, as we discover with her how each of them experiences their environment and each other as wholly different."

UPDATE: If you leave a comment here, or over on last week's post about the Roberto Christiano poem, you'll be entered in a giveaway of a year's subscription (four issues) to Prairie Schooner. (Be sure to leave an email or another way for us to contact you.) We're going to extend the contest until midnight PST on Friday, April 17. You can also order your own subscription or back issues here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Writers' Stew

• Gerry Marzorati, editor-in-chief of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, spoke last week about long form journalism at an industry conference. I found this excerpt of interest:


"Always, always, it requires a tremendous amount of reporting. Weeks and weeks of reporting. Hanging out with the subject of your piece, hoping some scene will emerge that because of where it is and what the dialogue is, will reveal that subject. Journeying to all sorts of places, hoping the trip will encounter drama, and meaning. Painstakingly re-creating a moment – like the one when the tsunami hit – through hundreds of interviews. It is arduous, all this reporting. The weeks, the months. And all this time, of course, costs money. A typical cover story in the Times Magazine, when you add up what we pay the author and what the expenses for travel are -- and this leaves out the editing and fact-checking costs, the photography, and so on -- the tally is north of $40,000, and often, if a war zone is involved, considerably more. Do we still have the time to report and read such pieces? And will we have the money? If the reader is an on-line reader, paying nothing, who is going to foot the bill?"
You can read the rest here.

• Was glad to read some good news apparently for some smaller independent book stores.

• Author Allison Winn Scotch (novelist, magazine freelancer) regularly answers readers' questions about writing and publishing over on her blog.

• This week, another media outlet asked -- for what, the thousandth time? -- if poetry is dead. Funny, the question keeps being asked, year after year, for decades. And yet, poetry thrives.

• Simple, short advice, on so-called(?) writer's block and first draft phobia, via WriterJenn blog, which also frequently posts interviews with authors of new books –
"Write. Write it well, write it poorly, write it with margin notes and incomplete sentences; just get it down. Write."

•In my writing classes I don't have to "grade" papers, but if I did and it was getting to me, and I thought I needed a proven scientific guide, I might seriously consider this stress-free grading method.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Three Takes on a Poem from Prairie Schooner: Editor, Poet...and Me

To mark the first day of National Poetry Month, here's a treat.

The venerable literary journal Prairie Schooner, published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, celebrates its 83rd anniversary this year, and I'd love to bring your attention to their wonderful contribution to the literary community. In their current issue (volume 83, number 1), published last week, the editors put a focus on Portuguese poets. James Engelhardt, Prairie Schooner's managing editor, was kind enough to share the poems with me before publication, so that I could choose one which spoke to me and feature it here. Here are the first lines from the poem below.

Why I Sang at Dinner
Roberto Christiano

I was not permitted a word at dinner
because you were too hot from laying
brick in the sun to bear the voices
of children, and mother too tired
to oppose you. My sister and brother,
five and six years older, had graduated
in allowance to one sentence
and on your good days two.

Click here to read the rest of the poem at the PS site. Then, pop back here for an inside view of editor Engelhardt's reaction, my own thoughts on the poem, and some insights from the poet too (all below).

Lisa:
As a nonfiction writer with particular interest in family narratives, I had little trouble selecting Why I Sang at Dinner from the packet of poems Engelhardt sent me. Not only does Christiano's poignant piece tell a compact, unique, but also universal story about a father and his adolescent child, it does so in a way which allowed me to enter the world on the page without losing the battle of slippery imagery which poetry often presents for this prose writer.

From the outset, I'm pulled in by the narrative mood of the piece, a feeling of frustrated static within a family situation which is also changing as we progress through the poem. The voice is charged with the pain of naiveté and longing, as the narrator transitions to puberty, and the more nuanced understanding of a parent's existence as a person apart from his familial role. The poem pivots on that unavoidable but bittersweet time when a sensitive adolescent realizes things about a parent which cannot be unlearned. The emotional transition and sadness are palpable, as is the lingering childlike wish that things will change, that a father will look at his son, see what's behind the hope-filled eyes, and make a change. Instead, Christiano takes us, quite correctly and understandably, into the painful territory of the moment when a child gives up that hope, because a parent has already given up on it himself.

Roberto Christiano:

"It is my belief that writing should stand on its own without any qualifying explanations from the author. That said, I usually draw encouragement from Rilke's exhortation to mine one's childhood as a source of inspiration. The fabulous thing about this endeavor is that the writer can alter events that he was often powerless over when they originally happened. Sometimes poetic license doesn't just make for a better poem, it also makes for a better recollection. I have also taken inspiration from my friend and fellow poet, Norma Chapman, whose poems reflect on the major events of her life with as much clarity as she can muster. "
For those of us who submit any kind of work to journals, here's a small glimpse inside editor James Engelhardt's thoughts:


"There’s a bit of received wisdom in the writing community that editors stop reading after the first few lines (three or five, depending on who heard what from whom), so you’d better have a strong opening. The latter half of the advice is right: have a strong opening; but most of us do read the rest of the poem—you never know what delights await.

Looking at the Christiano poem, the opening is incredibly strong and assured. The opening line speaks back to the title and sets up a tension that follows throughout, a tension between what the reader might expect from family life and what happened in this particular family. The line ends on the syntactic unit – "a word at dinner"-- but that expectation of regularity is immediately shaken in the second line when the break occurs in the middle of the phrase – "from laying / brick." I’m delighted he didn’t describe the father as tired, so that we get “hot” and “tired” in two different places but still in one sentence, still calling to each other.

So that gives you an idea of how an editor might read openings. Throughout the poem, the tensions invoked in the opening play out clearly, but never explicitly. The father silences the boy with “You have no responsibility.” But the boy wants “to loosen the knot / between your brows”—a kind of responsibility he feels toward the father, born of love. The end of the first stanza strives, when describing the abuse the father had received, to explain the source of pain, even if the passage doesn’t excuse the father. The boy feels the weight of responsibility so heavily, he sings: “Slenderly, I quavered out tunes.” So the son breaks the imposed silence, but to what effect?

At the end, the father has not “softened,” and instead it is the boy who changes, at a point traditional for coming of age, thirteen, his “new male voice was starting to break in / and I couldn’t care anymore.” The responsibility has shifted, and the boy turns outward, but the tensions between father and son are never named exactly. The boy is looking for affection and connection, and he finds something like it in the music they don’t quite share, but have in common. What’s particularly nice is that song sets the boy free, and we can always read “song” as “poetry.”

I want to note how tightly the poem stays to this small narrative about family dinners. One night becomes many, but the focus remains on how this relationship intersects so profoundly at this one ritual so many of us recognize. It takes a long time to center a poem so neatly, pare a story down to be available to many people, and lose none of its impact."
For a chance to win a one-year subscription to Prairie Schooner (four issues, $28 value), compliments of the editors, please leave a comment below (and be sure there is a way for us to contact you). You have until midnight PST, April 15 to leave your comment. Good luck. And if you can't wait, check out the subscription options here.

NOTE: IMPORTANT -- please leave a way for us to contact you if you win the sub, either an email address or a link to your site/blog/Facebook profile/whatever, so we can contact you if you're the winner!

P.S. Also, check back here again in a few days, when Engelhardt and I will introduce and discuss a personal essay from the same issue.