- The Writers Circle (Northern NJ) Fall 2015. I'm teaching in Ridgewood and Summit
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Wednesday, July 29, 2009
"INTERVIEWER (Kate Roiphe): Do you like that the bunker doesn’t have windows?
TALESE: Yes. There are no doors, no time. It used to be a wine cellar.
INTERVIEWER: How do you write?
TALESE: Longhand at first. Then I use the typewriter.
INTERVIEWER: You never write directly onto the computer?
TALESE: Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I want to be forced to work slowly because I don’t want to get too much on paper. By the end of the morning I might have a page, which I will pin up above my desk. After lunch, around five o’clock, I’ll go back to work for another hour or so.
INTERVIEWER: Surely there must be some days in the middle of a project, when you’re really going, that you write more than a single page.
TALESE: No, there aren’t.
INTERVIEWER: But your books are so long.
TALESE: I take a long time. I have published relatively little given how long I have been working. Over fifty-five years I’ve only written five long books, two short ones, and four collections. It’s not that many.
INTERVIEWER: Is that because you spend a lot of time editing?
TALESE: Not really. I type and I retype. When I think I’m getting close, that’s when I put it on the computer. Once it’s on the screen I make very few changes. It’s the reporting that takes so much time. "
A longer excerpt is up at The Paris Review website, and you can purchase a copy of the Summer 2009 issue here, to read the entire piece. There is also a fascinating visual here of Talese's original handwritten outline for his famous genre-defining piece of literary journalism, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Today's notes are from a session on writing the personal essay:
Think longer before you begin writing.
Don't "wind up" on the page. Know what you want to write first.
Periods don't cost money.
Unfold the story like dealing a deck of cards; turn over only one at a time.
End a sentence with the most powerful word.
Think of scenes in terms of visual frames; what image next? Next?
It's not that interesting for the reader to hear what the writer doesn't know.
Write as you'd talk, only say less.
Trust the reader to get it.
- Joyce Maynard, author of the new novel Labor Day, and of this past Sunday's
Modern Love column in the New York Times
You can read the first and second installments here.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Still, I did promise photos after the deed. Well, the deed is about 80 percent done.
And this is how the office looks now,
in contrast to how it looked then.
I thought at this point, I'd have some nifty ideas to pass along about how to best organize things, some ingenious new system I'd share, a few terrific tips. I don't. I can only offer that the tried-and-true advice works; toss out a lot (12 bags and counting), group what's left in ways that make sense, and be ruthless about what's necessary and what's just nice to have around.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Book publicity, indie bookstores, prompts, genre-blurring, funny punctuation and more
> How Larry Smith managed to wrest a Six (not a five!) Word Memoir from the late Frank McCourt for one of the upcoming installments in what has now become a series of Six Word Memoir compilations.
> If you are an author and doing some (or all) of your own book publicity (and who isn't?), then these tips from Maria Schneider, about how to approach book bloggers and a list of 25 worthwhile book blogs, might be useful.
> Writer Mark Fitten, on an extensive (and one assumes, self-financed) tour to promote his new novel, is blogging about the best 100 independent book stores he visits. He's at store number 40, and working his way through the Pacific Northwest right now, providing great photos and commentary on each store, until he reaches the East Coast.
> Does Ben Mezrich's newest nonfiction book, The Accidental Billionaires, belong on the fiction racks? In this Boston Globe interview, he notes, “I see myself as attempting to break ground. I definitely am trying to create my own genre here. . . . I’m attempting to tell stories in a very new and entertaining way. I see myself as an entertainer.’’ Ahem.
> Need writing prompts? Or better yet, curious about how to find dozens of writing prompts by looking around your everyday life? Cameron Chapman can help with both here.
> Find all kinds of inspiring yet realistic writing advice, tips, stories about the writing life, and other good stuff from Barbara Abercrombie over at her blog
> Just for fun: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. Just what it says. Enjoy.
Have a great weekend.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Here, a few gems, in no particular order, from a faculty presentation.
•When writing dialogue, leave out anything the reader can intuit from previous dialogue. Stop before the reader is really ready to leave the scene.
•Alternate sentence structure.
•Please leave out all the boring details and descriptions of everyday activities, such as "she got into bed," "he got in the car."
•Don't try so hard to explain things. When the writing is good, the reader will be engaged.
•Incongruity is more interesting than symmetry.
– Kelly Link, author of the short story collections, Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen, and winner of Nebula, Hugo, and Small Fantasy Awards
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
This week, while in the middle of a massive office reorganization project, I had the chance to unearth the notebooks I filled over the two years I spent in that program. There's one from each residency, and one from each semester in between. Residency notebooks are filled with notes from faculty seminars, peer workshops, visiting author talks, guest lectures, and graduating student presentations, as well as tidbits culled from conversations during lunch, carpool rides, and evening coffees. Semester notebooks include advice from my faculty mentors on my work-in-progress, and ideas for the annotations I needed to produce on a dozen books.
Opening those notebooks brings up many mixed emotions, but the overriding sense is one of finding treasure. Sure, I have already acted on much of the advice, incorporated many of the tips and techniques into my writing process, and clearly remember some of the best-phrased counsel. But I was amazed at how much I had either forgotten or filed away in a far part of my brain.
Rather than read through each notebook from beginning to end, I thought it might be more fun, over the next few weeks, to open them up in a completely unsystematic and arbitrary way, and see what I'd find. And, I'll blog about it.
First up -- from a seminar on vision and a possible approach to the prewriting process:
Get a huge sheet of paper or white board. I call it a Chaos Board. Write down all the key words about your subject. Have absolutely no order. Write words, prompts, ideas. Sketch in visual things too. Keep it uncensored. Use placeholders if you can't think of the exact idea. Make sets and subsets. Make word webs, by drawing connecting lines between words and phrases. Notice the high traffic areas. - Debra Marquart, author of The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere
Monday, July 20, 2009
One of the key mandates in a client-focused communications business is this: On the other end of every single piece of work I produced – a news release, press kit, public service announcement, press event invitation, client report – there was going to be an individual (or, hopefully, a whole lot of them) – reporters, editors, talk show bookers, programming directors, consumers -- with only one thought in mind: What's in it for me? If I answered that question poorly -- made it all about the client's product and never showed those target individuals what was in it for them -- I'd have been out of a job.
I try to remember this now when I am writing, whether it's memoir or personal essay, literary journalism, or even a prose poem. At the other end are individuals who are reading with the question in their mind of whether the work will deliver anything for them. I constantly try to remind myself that people don't read creative nonfiction because they care about what happened to me, but because they care about whether what happened to me might have some meaning for them. It keeps me honest, sometimes.
Friday, July 17, 2009
First, because it’s certainly not true. Second, because I don’t aspire to it. Third, and most important, because I don’t consider it a compliment.
Taking these three objections in reverse order:
(3) I have always equated extreme organization with negative characteristics -- being closed-minded, dull, lacking in curiosity, creatively stuck, and a lot of other not-so-great traits which of course intellectually I know cannot be so easily assigned to all organized persons. Still, you can understand how the “most organized person I know” comment would drive me a little crazy. And feel more like a judgment than high praise.
(2) I don’t particularly want to be that organized; I always wanted to be creatively quirky (see above), and I suppose to rebel against an upbringing during which I constantly heard, "put that away," "get this out of here," and "why is this here?" So I've sort of become someone for whom once physical objects are neatly and logically stored away from sight (a file folder, notebook, photos, book), they are forgotten. The notes on a potential new essay? Once inside a folder, tucked in a drawer, will easily slip from the part of my brain where urgency resides. (Funny how this does not seem to happen when I slip the secret stash of peanut butter fudge behind the seldom used condiments in the back of the basement refrigerator, but I digress.)
(1) It’s not true. I am NOT as (physically) organized as people seem to think based on other factors. See for yourself. These photos are of my a few areas of my office as it appears this morning. And yes, I do realize how extremely lucky I am to have this generous and private room of my own, and the guilt over how I've let it get overrun is huge.
Oh, I can find what I need; but often it goes like this: Let’s see, the last time I saw that proposal/clipping/notebook/magazine/business card was when we had that barbecue and I showed it to Mary along with the advance copy of such-and-so's book, so it’s probably on (or near) the shelf where I keep ARCs. Or not.
So you can see how my leave-it-all-out-where-I-can-see-it methodology can be a time-waster, and frankly, visually annoying. Which is why over the next week or so I am going to make a major organizational assault on my office. To keep myself accountable, I will post the “after” photos.
As for why so many think I deserve a medal from the Organization Olympics, maybe some folks mistake other characteristics for organization, such as being punctual and prepared, being well-researched and curious, having a good memory and keeping copious notes, planning ahead and anticipating problems, being resourceful and asking enough questions to amass a mass of both useful knowledge and useless information.
Not that I’m all those things. But toss a few of them together, along with a tendency to be rather intolerant of disorganization in others, and maybe that’s where the overly organized label derives.
So I'm asking – what are your best tips for organizing the office of a writer/editor/consultant/teacher? Obviously I need them.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
>I love this new-to-me blog, Three Guys One Book. So much great advice for writers, plus author interviews, reviews, and some fun.
>Ellen Neuborne, ghostwriter, editor, and almost-there-novelist, has a fun new blog in which she is chronicling her quest to (at least once in her writing career), command one of the most coveted pieces of literary nonfiction real estate – the Modern Love column in the Styles section of the Sunday New York Times. Ellen is forthright, open, and sometimes hilarious. Her Monday Morning Quarterbacking feature is a must-read for nonfiction writers everywhere who already spend a portion of their Sunday evenings dissecting what ran in that day’s column. (For those who don’t know, scoring a Modern Love clip often leads to serious agent inquires and book deals.)
>And finally, some days I feel like a relic. Like when my 11-year-old teaches me how to use the shortcut to some feature on my cell phone which I didn’t even know I had, much less ever used. Other times, it's because, as much as I love my computer (and my blog, my Facebook page, LinkedIn, Twittering and all of that) I can also actually still remember the sound of typewriter keys and putting -- 30 -- at the end of an article. So that might explain why I occasionally enjoy checking in over at When Editors Were Gods, where even I get to feel kind of young in comparison.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” -- my husband
“Remember to stop while it’s still fun.” – my son’s preschool teacher
A writer in a workshop was frustrated because she felt unable to write a satisfying ending for her nonfiction. Hers were some of the common mistakes writers make when it comes to endings, such as…wrapping things up a little too neatly…overwriting and explaining too much…forcing the material to come “full circle"…fitting in that one really terrific line which just doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else…sticking on a tagged ending which screams “and the lesson is…”
This was really holding her back, and rather than a lengthy discussion about how to craft endings, I wanted to give her some tips she could put into action quickly, because if you always feel every piece has no ending, it's difficult to move on.
So here are three really great “tricks” I find myself returning to when it comes to nonfiction endings. Each has served me well.
1. Don’t end, just stop. (This is not an attempt to be cute. When exhausted by the topic, stop writing and don't try to craft a perfect ending.)
2. Stop tinkering. (What’s on the page may actually already be working.)
3. Lop off the final sentence or final paragraph (or two). This is one of the best pieces of advice I received from a one-time writing mentor of mine, Joyce Maynard. Over and over, I find I’ve already written a pretty good ending, but it’s usually about 50 words or so above the final line.
Next time you are stuck – or more precisely, can’t seem to find a sticking point – try one, or all, of the above. What are your tricks or techniques for endings?
Monday, July 13, 2009
You can read the rejection post here. And while you are over there, do check out the rest of Christina's blog for all of her other great writing advice.
Friday, July 10, 2009
I did learn.
Still, in the back of my head is always a journalism-based sensibility. I ask myself if a fact-based description can do the job, and if the answer is yes, I try not to deploy anything more. Can a sensitive but literal passage about say, an older-than-average father and his keen but unathletic son discussing baseball strategy in a dugout, really be improved upon by describing the scene with a suggestion of a decorated field general advising a scared new recruit in a foxhole? Often, the answer is no.
Following the excellent suggestion of a former writing mentor, I question every use of a metaphor or suggestive image, each simile and allegory, all the crafty doo-dads I sometimes tend to throw into a first draft and ask, is this really necessary? Does it add to the pleasure of reading, or simply strive to impress the reader, even slow down the flow because it asks the reader to do a little too much in the way of mental gymnastics? Is it original?
I think this serves me well. Yes, I do kill a lot of “little darlings.” Good riddance.
I’m reminded of this because occasionally I read something – an essay or an entire book -- which suggests that it may have first come to life as an assignment in a writing craft class in which students practice their skill with metaphor and imagery, by over-exaggerating.
A novel I read the other day was just this kind of book. Although by the half-way mark I wanted to toss it on the floor and cry Uncle!, it was in fact a terrific story, with rich characters, percolating dialogue, a sense of urgency. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the author’s constant use of metaphor and imagery – new ones seemed to sprout in every paragraph – was getting in the way. I found myself not fully engaged in what was happening, because instead I was watching for how the author was going to describe it. And, being annoyed that this was overshadowing the experience of the book.
Something else too. Getting through this book made me feel like a terrible reader -- not intelligent enough, creative enough, imaginative enough, not literary enough. It was as if the author was saying, in almost every other sentence: see if you can keep up with my writerly prowess.
I’m not an expert of course in how and when and why to use metaphor and its literary cousins. I suppose the answer is different for each piece of writing. I do know, however, when I reach the saturation point as a reader. Or, was I just was not the “right” reader for this particular book?
I know there are ultra literary novels, even experimental ones, in which the writing matters more than the story -- craft above context -- and it may be that I simply don’t have the patience for them. But this book didn’t feel that way; it felt like a novel trying to tell its story in spite of what on the surface appears to be inspired writing.
If nothing else, however, this reading experience served as a potent reminder to me about the fine lines which exist in a piece of writing, separating something terrific when done in moderation, and – as my mother used to say – too much of a good thing.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
> Those who wish to get feedback on their work from qualified published writers, but would like to do so on a controlled hourly basis instead of committing to a more structured and expensive multi-week course, ought to check out the affordably priced Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions.
> Just in case you think you've written a really terrible sentence (or in my case, when you are absolutely sure you have), take heart. At least your prose didn't win this contest.
> Great guest post over at literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog, with plenty of insider info on how books get sold -- not to the public, but to bookstores. Definitely worth a read.
> When a writer needs a freelance editor for his or her manuscript, here are some excellent tips on how to choose one, from acquisitions editor and freelance developmental editor Alan Rinzler.
> Looking for reviews of a particular book and not especially interested in wading through what Google has to offer? Check out Metacritic, where all of the major reviews for any book are grouped, sorted, annotated, and linked.
> If you are female and a writer, you need to get involved over at SheWrites.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
How often do writers take the time to read what surrounds our own work – whether in a print or online venue? Certainly we make it a practice to read a magazine, journal, or website deeply before submitting to be sure it would be a good fit for our work. But how about after, when the piece actually appears? Do we read all, or at least a good portion, of the other material which appears in that issue?
Sometimes I’m guilty of only checking on my own work – are the final edits correct, is my name spelled right, does the writer bio appear, are links working, is my work where and how I expected, what do I think of the photos or illustrations chosen by the editor? Sometimes I admit, that’s the extent of it. Then I either put the journal, anthology, or magazine on a shelf (for safety, I tell myself), or bookmark the link into my published work file, and call it a day.
Not always. I’ve spent hours reading the other essays which appear in the anthologies to which I am often fortunate enough to contribute. I discover new-to-me writers, revel in the work of writers I already admire (and sometimes know personally), and usually find myself marveling at how such an assortment of good writers have found so many interesting angles from which to approach the same theme.
When it’s a magazine in which my work appears, I might leaf through quickly, put a sticky note on pages I want to read later. Then I get busy and forget that. For work that’s online, I’m more apt to notice interesting titles of other work, or bylines I recognize, and usually click right away. But when I get there, do I read the piece through to the end, or do I email it to myself to read later, and then lose it in the abyss of the email inbox?
A few months ago, I decided that when a literary venue of any kind is interested enough in my work to publish it, then I’m going to “return the favor” and make a more conscious effort, when the piece appears, to read more of the other writing within its pages. By doing so, I’ve read wonderful work, some of which I’ve studied closely for craft and structure, learning a few things in the process.
I’ve also gotten several ideas for future work, connected online with at least three new writers whose work intrigued me enough to visit their websites or blogs and reach out. I’ve been entertained, informed, and pushed to more thoughtful consideration of important issues. This makes so much sense. If we like a media venue enough to want our work to appear in its print or online pages, wouldn’t it mean that we respect the editors’ choices? That we will find, likely not more than a few pages or a click away from our own work, other writing to inspire, challenge, and take pleasure in?
The other surprising advantage of doing this, I’ve noticed, is perspective. I realize my work is just one small part of a whole, no more or less important than what surrounds it; that as independent as writers are, we are also part of a team which makes that particular issue of that particular literary venue work.
Occasionally I’ve read a piece of mine in print and agonized, “how awful.” But when I read pieces on the pages before and after, they seemed so good, that I had to reason that if my work is swimming in the same waters, then it’s likely better than I think. On other occasions, I’ve read something of mine and smugly thought how good it was. Then I skipped around a bit, read some other pieces which seemed far, far better, and decided how lucky I was to even be in that kind of company. Then there were the (very few) times when I found my work surrounded by other work which seemed on a lower skill and craft level, and then I knew I had probably undershot when I made the submission. No matter, I just chalk it up to the learning curve of submissions.
So, fellow writers, if our work appears side by side, adjacent, or nearby, from here on in, I’ll be reading.
Now, back to that CV. And the worry that it’s not as impressive as it could be. Too bad there’s not a section on it for reading. Now that would take up some pretty impressive space.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
My answer, always, is yes, of course. I sometimes want to add (usually silently) – and, some not-so-good books, some damned-if-I-know-what-that-was-about books, and the occasional wish-I-hadn't-read-that book. Also, the stopped-reading-it-halfway-through book, the don't-know-why-I-ever-wanted-to-read-that-in-the-first-place book, and the can't-believe-I read-the-whole-thing book.
I don't always mind the clunkers. As a writer I understand the energy the author expended on the effort and I tend to be forgiving. I learn what not to do. And, unless I'm stranded somewhere with no other reading material and no Internet access, I don't get upset. I move on. There's always that never-depleted tower known as TBR (to be read).
While I've had most of the above reading experiences lately, I'm not going to itemize the disappointments. But if you want to know if I've read any good books lately: Yes, of course.
I just finished the memoir, Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup, a chronicle of her experiences as a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service (think rescue rangers, not prison) and being widowed with four kids. It's also about (and though this will sound cliche, in Braestrup's hands, it isn't) finding joy in unexpected places. She writes with unusual clarity and occasional kind humor about the most terrible circumstances – she's called out to minister to families of lost hikers, children missing in the woods, husbands who don't return from drunken ice fishing trips.
The book was published in the summer of 2007, and has since been in my TBR pile. It's a slim volume, so I'm not sure what took me so long to read it. In the interim, I've taught from personal essays Braestrup's published. I admire the way she structures her shorter pieces (and hence her essay-like memoir chapters), how she withholds a key piece of information until exactly the right moment in the narrative and then deploys it with grace, and the way she invites her reader to engage with the nonfiction story by writing just enough and not one word more. I knew immediately that this qualified as a good book I've read lately.
Then there are the books which don't immediately announce themselves to be in that category.
A few weeks ago, I read the not-yet-published memoir by Stephen Elliott, titled The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder (Graywolf Press, Sept. 2009). Wanting to widely distribute advanced reading copies, Elliot asked a group of those interested in reading the book (and by extension, hopefully talking about it online somewhere) if they would read it and then, for the cost of postage, pass it along to the next person on the list.
This appealed to me on so many levels: as a former public relations person (and someone who currently advises authors on do-it-yourself book PR), I found the plan brilliant – it builds community, encourages online pre-publication buzz via a select group of readers who are often also writers, and puts the author directly into the conversation. And yet. I knew that Elliot's book was being compared with Nick Flynn's unusual memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Now that's a book I read and didn't like. At first.
Flynn's book was assigned during my first semester in an MFA program by a faculty member whose entire required reading list seemed to consist of memoirs written by men about troubled relationships with their now-dead fathers. I explained that, as my own father was then currently in his final days, I would appreciate a change in the reading list. I was told to buck up and read. I did. (A few weeks later I asked for, and got, a new faculty mentor, but that's another story.) I wrote my required annotations, angrily, and tossed the books aside.
Fast forward a few months: I am writing about my deceased father. What books do I find myself re-reading? Of course. (I still think the faculty mentor was insensitive, not prescient, in refusing to adjust my reading list; but again, another story.) Today, Flynn's book is still one of those on my shelf which I occasionally pull out, read a chapter and feel I've learned something. I'm still not all that fond of it cover-to-cover, but it's a book I'll keep and keep reading, in sections.
Now, here I was three years later, with Elliot's book fresh out of the mailing envelope from the last reader. It is not another bullshit book about dysfunctional families, not only a participatory witness-to-the-dark-side take on Elliot's criminal friends, and not just a chronicle of his dependence on prescription drugs; but then it's not entirely something else either.
As I read, in terms of subject matter, I was by turns disturbed, fascinated, interested, disapproving, engaged, repelled; I was eager to find out the ending but at the same time not always all that sure I wanted to turn the page. Elliot's writing made sure I did turn those pages. The fact is, I wasn't always comfortable reading this book. I was careful not to leave the book around the house where my teen and pre-teen sons might find it. But occasionally being taken out of one's comfort zone is a good thing, as a reader and a writer.
This is not a joy-from-grief kind of memoir. It's raw, frank, graphic, odd. Yet, it's also well-crafted, structurally interesting, equivocal, and a shift from all the happiness-growing-out-of-sorrow memoirs crowding the genre today. It shook me up. Made me think about the rougher worlds outside of those I usually read about. Elliot edits the edgy online magazine The Rumpus; the sexual/cultural/literary mix of material over there will give you a small idea of where this book might fall on your TBR list.
I also read a bunch of good novels last month, too. I'll write about them later this week or next, especially in terms of how reading fiction feeds my own nonfiction work.
Meanwhile, what good books have you read lately?
Update: Just got this note from Stephen Elliott:
Thanks Lisa. That's very kind of you. Could you let people know that they can still sign up to get advanced copies by going here.