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, July 30, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, July 30th Edition (+ a book give-away)

►Over at The Awl, good reading for those who love copy editors, those who have worked as copy editors, those still working as copy editors, and those who, like the writer, have been there/done that and don't want to again. (Phew, 150 comments!  And who said copy editing is boring?)

►I hadn't ever thought about publishing anything on Scribd, but after reading about Hyla Molander's experience (via Jane Friedman's There Are No Rules blog), it makes me wonder.

►For writers curious about opportunities to supplement income and/or build a small portfolio of online freelance pieces, MediaShift looked at one editor's experience at a hyper-local news site. 

►I've loved the writer Beth Kephart since reading her memoir A Slant of Sun, about raising her developmentally challenged son, a decade ago. So I was happy to recently discover her blog, and this short but oh-so-true post for memoir writers, about how we remember.

►Today is the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books, and to help celebrate, the publisher asked bloggers to help them give away some books. I'm happy to oblige, because hey, where would we readers be if not for that little penguin on the spines of all those books we read as kids?  If you'd like to win a copy of Kathleen Flinn's memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry (about her year at a venerable Parisian cooking school), leave a comment on this post only (and be sure there is a way for me to contact you via email if you're chosen). Comments for the give-away will close on Friday, August 7 at midnight.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Guest Blogger Candy Schulman on How Personal Essay Writers Think (and what they need to do)

When you’re a personal essay writer, you notice the bylines on every personal essay you read, anywhere, every time, and you keep a mental list of other essayists whose work has muscle, exemplifies the craft, and is just plain good to read. Candy Schulman’s name is on the mental list I keep. So I was especially delighted (and a little embarrassed) when she contacted me not long ago to let me know she is a regular reader of this blog.

Candy's essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Newsweek, The Washington Post, Travel & Leisure, Glamour, Parents, Salon.com, and in the anthology Lost and Found, Stories from New York. She is also an Associate Professor at The New School, where she teaches the creative non-fiction workshop titled Finding Your Voice in Non-Fiction.

Please welcome Candy Schulman.

One day last winter, as I was picking up my mail in my apartment building lobby, I noticed that the front of my building was sealed off by crime tape as if an episode of Law and Order were being filmed. But this was a real life crime scene: an elderly woman had jumped to her death from her eighteenth floor window. I stayed in the lobby, mentally taking notes on neighbors’ reactions and the ensuing police investigation.

Was I intruding into someone else’s tragedy? Was I a voyeur? Or was I just a writer, doing my job?

I remember Philip Roth once remarking that at his mother’s funeral—the most profound day of his life—his mind was taking note of every detail, knowing he would use this material somewhere, someday. He felt guilty at first, but then reconciled the fact that this is what writers do. It’s part of our job.

I couldn’t get my mind off the poor woman in my building who’d committed suicide—and immediately wrote an essay called The Nameless Old Lady Who Jumped. An essayist cannot just record the facts of what happened—she must take the story somewhere. I connected this tragedy to my own mother, who had recently died after a long illness, knowing first hand how desperate elderly people can be. I was both an observer and participant in the story. The theme of loneliness in old age was identifiable and generalizable to many readers.

A writer always “takes notes” because ideas are everywhere. Once I was on the subway, rattling under Manhattan, when I heard a faceless conductor’s voice, announcing each stop with poetic descriptions of city neighborhoods. I took out the notebook I always carried with me, and started recording—not only the conductor’s lilting announcements, but the way the subway riders at first found it annoying (interrupting their reading or music selections), and slowly started to smile, bonding with each other the more the conductor orated. He was transforming a tedious job into something that made the riders feel uplifted.

Never leave home without your writer’s notebook. But taking notes isn’t enough. How do you take an idea and lift it into an artfully-crafted essay?

First you need characters. Bring them to life. Make them engaging and identifiable.

Create a point of view. Is the writer a part of the story? Are you a protagonist? You can’t just recite facts—that’s what journalists do. Why do you, as the narrator, feel passion about telling this story? What do you know about it that others do not?

Define the conflict. All literature has conflict, and essays must have dramatic tension to keep the reader curious to read on.

Develop two levels to your story. There are often two stories: the one on the surface, and the one below the surface. Be intimate with your story, yet step back to give yourself enough distance to see the underlying metaphor.

Use dialogue. You can’t always remember exactly what someone said, but do the best of your ability. As Vladimir Nabokov said, “Memory is a form of fiction.”

Balance the narrative, description, dialogue. Think of the essay as a piece of music, with different tones and harmonies. Incorporate fictional techniques to make your essay multi-dimensional rather than monochrome.

Move the plot forward. Of course you must compress and leave the mundane details out, but ask yourself: what are you trying to write about? Why are you crafting this story? You’re writing to tell—and show—the reader something you know, something you’ve discovered, something you’ve learned. Avoid trite phrases such as, “In conclusion,” or “I learned that…” Be subtle, especially with the ending.

Visualize the arc of your story. Build toward the climax, the denouement, the resolution.

Revise, rewrite, revise. Don’t underestimate the number of revisions it takes to finish a 1,000 word essay. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” I have printed out hundreds of revised pages before calling an essay “finished.” My ecologically-minded teenage daughter worries that I am wasting paper, but my response is: this is how writers write. And then I donate my old drafts to the recycle bin.

Note from Lisa: To find out more about Candy, visit her website.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On writing revisions and craft, Cash is on the money

I've mentioned once or twice, my utter fascination with, and interest in, the craft of writing song lyrics. (Not, mind you, that I think I'm going to be doing much of this myself, but a girl can dream.) This past weekend, I had the delicious gift of two afternoons poolside, and tore through the new memoir Composed. It's written by Rosanne Cash, an accomplished lyricist, composer, recording artist and performer, and previously published short story writer and children's book author. Cash's somewhat elliptical structure appealed to my stubborn nonlinear inclinations, and her sometimes lyrical (sorry, there's just no other word for it) prose, anchored in clear-eyed story-telling, made it a pleasurable read.


In several places, and particularly in the final chapters, she discusses how her craft evolved over time as life experiences piled up alongside creative confidence. Here, she talks about the "hard earned craft of songwriting," but I think her point travels well across literary genres.
"…as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration. This maturation in songwriting has proven surprisingly satisfying. Thirty years ago I would have said that the bursts of inspiration, and the ecstatic flood of feeling that came with them, were an emotionally superior experience, preferable to the watchmaker's concentration required for the detail work of refining, editing, and polishing. But the reverse is proving to be true. Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid and sometimes more potent. I have learned to be steady in my course of love, or fear, or loneliness, rather than impulsive in its wasting either lyrically or emotionally."
Which to me means, more or less, that the more intimately you work within your craft, the more you work at "refining, editing and polishing," the better your writing will be, whether that's songwriting or fiction writing, or memoir writing. The part about coming to this knowledge after a certain number of years elapse, while certainly true for most artists, doesn't mean we all have to wait that many years to learn this lesson.

[Disclosure: Before I could act on my own to-be-ordered book list, I received a complementary copy of Composed from the book's publisher, Penguin.]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Writing exercise -- use these four words in a sentence: Happy. Married. Happily Married.

For years I wrote about motherhood and avoided writing about my husband and/or my marriage. That began to change when I focused the research semester of my MFA program on exploring how contemporary women nonfiction writers represent the spouse in memoir and personal essay.

More recently, my regular personal essay writing gig over at Your Tango's LoveMom section more or less requires that I examine the marital relationship in the larger context of "the intersection of life, love and kids."  My piece over there today pivots on the difference (if there is one) between being happy and married, and being “happily married” (whatever that means!). It begins this way:

A decade ago, when one of my sons was still a preschooler, a friendly old gent in the grocery checkout line tried to make small talk with the boy, who was attired in a New York Yankees jacket.
"Oh, are you a real slugger?"
From the kid, silence.
"Are you a big strong boy?"
More silence.
Finally, winking, "Are you married?"
The boy spoke. “No, I’m happy.”
You can read the rest here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, July 23rd Edition

►Novelist Janet Fitch has 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone. I concur.

► Neiman Storyboard did it again, this week with a Q/A with Rebecca Skloot (author of recent NYT bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), on the subject of writing narrative history. You'll want to click over just for the photo of Skloot's visual organizing board.

► Do you like interviews? Mark Twain clearly didn't. I found this over at the UMagazinology blog, which concerns itself with the material carried in, and the creation of, magazines published by colleges and universities.

►At the Guide to Literary Agents blog, a step-by-step outline of a proposal for a (reported or prescriptive) nonfiction book. (hat tip to Nathan Bransford).

► Harriet Brown, a brave women writer (who edited the Feed Me! collection in which I had an essay), debuts the book trailer for her forthcoming memoir, Brave Girl Eating, about her family's efforts to help one of her daughters overcome anorexia.

► Ever take on a writing project specifically to rev up a non-writing part of your life? One of my New Jersey writing buddies Steph Auteri got a taste recently.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Writing Reruns: Posts from the Past.

Over the last few weeks, I've noticed a bunch of new comments here on old posts. Which suggests that perhaps newer readers might find some value in some posts from the past. (How's that for justifying a too-busy-to-blog day?).

So what do editors really do with a pile of submissions? In which I feature excerpts and links from Peter Selgin's cop to how he manages his role as literary journal editor.

A Writer's Creed: Get What You Need. Maybe It's What You Want After All. In which I discuss how getting that MFA, or any good chunk of writing education, will disrupt life in general.

Point of View: A 10-year-old Explains it All. In which my son teaches me something. (Happens all the time.)

Writing the Seasonal Essay: This Time Next Year. In which I advocate getting a really big jump start.

Writing and Kids: Not So Mutually Exclusive. In which I get a little tough with writers who blame poor productivity on having procreated.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Stuff My (Writing) Students Say, Part Five

In this series, I usually note something a writing student has said, observed or complained about, and then offer my ideas. This time, I'm giving the floor to the student, who made this insightful comment about process when writing memoir. It followed a discussion about dispensing with the need to know exactly, early on, where one should begin with a piece of writing and/or where it's going.

Angela said:

I am happy and relieved that the creative process can be just that. A process that happens as it should without the stress of wondering if it's all going to fit together. Life is such that not everything starts at the beginning, goes to the middle and then ends. Take a jigsaw puzzle. It begins with the first piece but it's mate may not show up until 20 or more pieces in. Eventually it is all put together, but in pieces. Perhaps the center is completed first or maybe one of the corners. The end result is the same no matter how it is constructed, a complete puzzle.

As I see it, LIFE is always being "written" from the middle. We all know how we began this existence and we know that it will end. It is the middle, the juice, the meat of the journey that entices us. The "story" of our life can sometimes be re-worked. Not deleted, but rather redirected. It will still make up the heart of the journey and the beginning and end will take care of itself. I think this should be true in writing, because as we draw out the middle it will become evident how we got there and where we might end up.

The first three Stuff My (Writing) Students Say posts are here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What writers can do while waiting for acceptances, offers, and you know, the other thing.

You've sent off your article query, or your submission, or your agent representation query, or that requested manuscript or partial. And now you wait. Well of course you are also busy writing something else – many something elses – but in the back of your mind, you are waiting, waiting, for a reaction, an assignment, an acceptance, a sale, a contract, an offer.

While you are waiting, get ready.

• Resolve that you will be open to an editor, publisher or agent's suggested edits, title changes, and other ideas. Develop the mindset that you will listen and seriously consider what may be suggested. You know, they are editors, agents and publishers for a reason. They know stuff.

• Keep working on that personal website and/or blog, and keep building that online presence and network of literary friends, readers, writing colleagues. No matter what any particular response holds, you are going to need those folks for marketing purposes, support, sanity, or all three.

• Have a long and a short bio ready to go, w/hyperlinks in place.

• Know what you will do if a contract arrives: Sign right away or have an attorney look it over? Ask a professional organization's legal services office to do so (the Author's Guild, for example)? Have a more experienced writer friend weigh in? Compare it to those you've signed in the past and decide yourself?

• Make sure you know the rights you will want to keep, those that matter to you. Contracts can be altered. Learn how.

• If you're waiting on an acceptance for a piece that will get published relatively quickly afterward, now is the time to do the final fact checking you may have (oops) neglected to complete before submitting.

• Be ready to respond in a timely manner, even if you need to ask for more time to respond fully. Fire back with, "Thanks, I'm very excited! I am in the middle of an urgent project today (or this week), but will respond fully on ____ ( name the day). Is that okay?"

• Have a digital author photo ready to send.

• Don't research the media venue / agent / publisher AFTER getting an acceptance / assignment / offer, and then decide you'd rather not. But if that's the case, know what you will say to graciously back away.

• Resist the urge to follow up too soon, too often, or rudely. Everyone is busy, everyone has an overflowing email inbox, and most of the time, most people actually are trying their best.

• Think of what you will do next, if the response is negative. Have a tiered list of "next to try" at your fingertips. Each time a "no thanks" arrives, you'll already have the next destination in mind. This is especially effective if you harbor doubts that you sent it to the wrong places the first time around.

• If you sent out simultaneous subs, know how you will handle withdrawals so you won't waste others' time now that the work is taken.

• Have a simple invoice template ready to go.

• Decide that you will be professional and humble whatever the response. Practice saying YES with gusto, saying "sorry, this won't work out after all," with grace, and saying "thanks for considering it anyway," with appreciation. Mean it.

• Remember that you are not going to exhibit any prima donna tendencies, making those who actually are interested in your work crazy with ridiculous demands. Or way too many reasonable demands. In other words, be a writer about whom editors, agents and publishers say, "She/He was great to work with." Because you know what, most of them know one another!

What did I forget?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, July 16th Edition

►At The Paris Review blog, poets review songwriters. Or is that like saying poets review poets?

► Do you puzzle over when, how and whether you should use cultural references in your work?

► Blogs worth checking out: Work in Progress, a new blog from the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux; author Allegra Goodman's; and freelance writer Kelly James-Enger’s Dollars and Deadlines (hat to Erika Dreifus for the latter two).

► Writer Jesse Kornbluth’s Head Butler offers sometimes offbeat reviews of, and other musings about, music, books, movies, writing and more.

► At the Nieman Storyboard (which is always full of great material), Peggy Nelson looks at how short attention spans and technology may be affecting narrative.

►The literary journal Ploughshares has a good blog. I liked this guest post by Aimee Nezhukumatathil – with lots of photos – on the spaces where writers create.

► The Colorado writer who blogs at A Writing Life is sharing her experiences in a workshop with author Pam Houston, like this one, on Houston’s advice about that “analytical bitch in the closet.”

► Finally, if you haven’t seen it yet, Dennis Cass’s quietly funny Moby Award winning best performance by an author in a book trailer. Procrastinators, Luddites and lazy authors who would rather write than promote books will love this.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: A family essay about spending time with -- only me.

Over at YourTango, where I contribute a short essay every other week, I most recently wrote about how selfish I am. That is, how, and why, I regularly take time away from my family.

"In the last two weeks, I have only seen my husband and two sons for less than 24 hours and that is just fine with me. I love them all, enormously. But I love being alone, too. It's what feels natural to me. This was my biggest concern before getting married—could I live with someone, or several someones, for an extended time, no matter how much love was involved? To my relief, I discovered having a family, and living with them, is lovely—but only most of the time...."

You can read the rest here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Guest Blogger Lorri McDole on Writing For Real

Washington resident Lorri McDole took one of my 4-week online Memoir and Personal Essay classes this past winter and I've enjoyed keeping in touch with her and reading her work ever since. Once a technical and marketing writer for Pacific Northwest companies, she put that aside a decade ago for motherhood and creative nonfiction writing. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including The Seattle Times, Epiphany, A Cup of Comfort for Writers, Eclectica, The Rambler, New Madrid, and Brain, Child. She was a finalist for the 2007 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction (Bellingham Review) and her story, “Authors of My Salvation” won the 2008 Spirituality category on FieldReport.com. She has work forthcoming in A Cup of Comfort for Couples (January 2011). Here, she looks back at what it took to finally commit to the writing she was meant to do.

Please welcome Lorri McDole.

In 1990, after about a year of pursuing a byline, I published a feature story in the Seattle Times and a personal piece in an obscure alternative magazine. At the time, I was working as a technical writer and had taken a nonfiction continuing education writing class, but still did not really think that I could get published. I was 29, a late bloomer, but I told myself I had all the time in the world. So I took it, and didn’t write another word for more than ten years.

I had the usual reasons—work, marriage, children—but the truth is a littler darker.

The alternative magazine editor asked me to write a monthly column and I panicked: stuffed the fledgling writer I was into the trunk of my sporty black Nissan so the fantasy writer in my head still had a chance.

Eleven years later, idling at a stoplight in my suburban neighborhood, I looked into the rearview of my minivan and there she was, that fantasy writer, messy-haired and wrinkle-faced, crawling out of the hatch. Not the beautiful, brilliant writer I’d imagined, but a cusp-of-middle-age woman, now more afraid of not writing than anything else.

She’s been prodding me on ever since, her voice loud and insistent.

Don’t stop writing, but if you do, start again as soon as possible. Do what you have to—mother, help your husband run various businesses, read, drink, shop QVC, exercise, lose weight, think about exercising, gain weight, wait—and then when your son starts kindergarten, sign on at Gotham Writers' Workshop. Imagine that your instructor is your fourth grade teacher, who will be very disappointed if you do your chores instead of your assignments.

Work your frog of a process. Write slowly. Write quickly, page after page, and delete most of it the next day. Agonize over every word, sentence, and paragraph, and then rearrange them all so that the end becomes the beginning and the beginning belongs in a new piece. Repeat until you finish a story, even if it takes forever, and then start another. It’s okay if you’re ashamed to take your process out in public, but make sure you cozy up to it in private.

Don’t expect your mother or your friend to want you to write. Be prepared for your mother to say, “So, how’s your cat?” when you tell her you’re a finalist for the upcoming Cup of Comfort anthology, or for your friend to ask, “What good’s a class if you don’t get a grade?” Expect mostly new acquaintances to be interested in your writing, and for most of your readers to be strangers.

Do some things wrong. Waste whole days hopping blogs, Facebooking, printing coupons and recipes, cyber window shopping, and deciding whether to open emails labeled, “Try this move for a supermodel butt.” Listen to the French music CD you won in a writing contest and spend the whole afternoon with a French-to-English dictionary. Obsess about things you can’t control, like getting older and dying and going all but broke due to a business failure.

Do at least one thing right. Write, even after you’re rejected 50 times and a fellow student says he can’t stand your writing. Even when you can’t stand your writing. Then, when your blog-hopping leads to a 75-word contest sponsored by Lit Park, or a submissions call for A Cup of Comfort for Writers, finish a couple of in-process pieces and surprise yourself by having them accepted. Turn your mortality obsession into a story published in Epiphany, and your money problems into an essay published in The Rambler.

Choose your epitaph. She had a supermodel butt, a floor you could eat off of, the trendiest clothes/smoothest face/shiniest hair. She was sure all that glittered was gold and didn’t stop till she got enough. She wrestled with words until she figured out how to make some sense of things in surprising ways.

Make peace with the sound of one hand clapping. Expect your writing life to be full of silence: when you’re at your desk; while you wait to hear if a story is accepted; even after you publish a piece, when you wonder whether anyone is reading you. Seek out other writers for inspiration and commiseration, and revel in the times someone notices

Be Jane Eyre. After everything, if you can say about writing what Jane said about painting—that you are “fully engaged”—there’s only one other thing you need to do. Keep writing.

Note from Lisa: If you're looking for Lorri's blog or website, she's working on both. She has lots of time, right?

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Summer Writing Prompt Project

It's summer prompt time.

If you are having a tough time churning out words, if you occasionally feel (in addition to overheated) that you really should be writing more, or just enjoy a creative kick, a daily writing prompt may be the ticket.

Last winter I offered to send a daily writing prompt for 60 days to anyone who wanted them, the same prompts I distribute to my writing students and coaching clients. Dozens participated, and I enjoyed hearing about how various writers used the prompts and what resulted.

Starting today, I'm making the same offer. Sign on and from now until August 31, every day in your email inbox, you'll get a one-line (sometimes one-word) writing prompt. That's it. The rest is between you, the prompt and your internal writing compass. (You can opt out at any time.)

Here's what I say to my students about the prompts: The prompts are completely optional. You could write a few paragraphs if you want to. Or one sentence. You could write something in (or transfer it to) your writer's notebook, for some future use, or not. You could challenge yourself to write a new essay, chapter, poem, blog post, short story, prose poem using the prompt as a starting point. You could write toward or away from the prompt. You could ignore the prompts. Or stockpile them for another day/time/life. They are yours to play with, or not.

My bottom line is always this: If you manage to do no other writing that day, then a few lines in response to the prompt may help you to continue to feel like a CREATIVE writer.

Prompts are open-ended. Let them take you anywhere you like, anywhere they pull you. Let's say the prompt is: Lemonade. You might write about the lemonade stand you once had (or wished you could have); the one your kids failed at; the fresh lemonade Grandma always made; being allergic to citrus; how you hate the saying about making lemonade out of lemons; why the smell of lemon reminds you of a certain lover; the time you got drunk on Limoncello.....

To get on the prompts distribution list, send me an email, with "Prompts Please" in the subject line. Please go ahead and pass this offer along to others who may be interested. In September, there will be opportunities on the blog to share your writing-to-prompts experiences.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: July 9th Edition

► Crossword aficionados will enjoy this March interview with Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crosswords.

► Author Julie Buxbaum (The Opposite of Love, After You) has launched Julie Has Writer’s Blog, and it’s already brimming with inspiration, interviews, and her wonderfully idiosyncratic brand of writerly musing.

► Ira Sukrungruang, founding editor of Sweet, an online literary journal, also publishes a blog, The Clever Title, filled with his own and guests’ thoughts on books read. Even though Ira has graciously published my work in Sweet, I actually stumbled over his blog because for months I’ve been teaching from Roger Rosenblatt’s wonderful memoir, Making Toast, and was searching out additional online opinions, and found one there.

►Over at the Renegade Writer, Linda Formachelli asks Would You Rather Get Paid or Get Read?

► Another blog you might like: Narrative Nonfiction.

► Don’t you love a pseudo-procrastination tip that’s actually also a creative, craft-enhancing exercise too? Check out Sharpie Poems. I had way too much fun with this the other night.

►The Savvy Book Marketer has some useful tips for planning and choosing an author photo.

► And finally, anyone who has spent some time alone home with a baby will appreciate this Message With a Bottle tumbler, in which a stay-at-home writer Dad gets creative (and likely keeps from going crazy).

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Stuff My (Writing) Students Say: Part Four

"But I don't want to write about X."

I understand this complaint, I do. I've been there. Twice, during my MFA program, two different faculty members insisted I write about topics I had rather not. The assignments annoyed me. I had no time to waste and wanted to stick to my own writing agenda. But I had also made a commitment to myself at the start of the program, to try anything, to say yes, to remain open to creative possibilities.

One assignment was to write an essay about the "danger of memory." I wanted to vomit. Not only was I not interested, I found myself strongly resisting. At the time, I was working on memoir pieces rooted in my childhood and far from viewing memory as dangerous, I thought of it as my ally. Yet, I reasoned this mentor must have a reason. I wrote the piece, which was an unwieldy mess at first, but then, as I revised and researched and rewrote, a strange thing happened. Something in the memoir pieces I thought of as my "real" work, began to shift. Something about the process of writing that piece had moved the rest of my work to a different, and better, place. I was connecting to my own memories in a different, more complex and much more self-aware way.

The other time, a faculty member who had been offering critique on several of my pieces, circled a reference, in each of four pieces, to a relationship in my life which up to that point I was not writing about, and had no plans to ever write about. "This," she said, "is what you are avoiding. Write about it."

I growled inwardly and on the one hand felt she was wasting my time on something insignificant, but on a deeper level I must have known that she'd hit the one nerve I was trying – obviously awkwardly – to protect. Later, after I'd written the long and surprisingly satisfying essay, she explained: Always go where you are resisting. Write what you are avoiding. Write what you don't want to write about. Write what scares you. When you think, "oh I can never write about that," that's what you need to write. There's a reason you have those feelings.

Fast forward a few years. A writer I was coaching, who I'll call Jim, keeps turning out lovely essays about various aspects of his life as a husband, father, son and friend. Each one has publication potential and he works hard on them, but somewhere in the revision process, he always loses interest and sets the piece aside. After about four of these pieces, I notice something. In each, whether it seems connected or not, there is always a line or two, often buried and mostly as an aside, about how, years before, as a new father, he was working in a highly-paid position at a prestigious company, exactly the sort of job his Ivy-league business school education has prepared him for, yet it had made him profoundly unhappy.

Finally, I gave him an assignment: Write about that job and how it sapped your soul and affected your family and how and why you eventually got out. He resisted, strongly. He was done thinking about that period of his life. He had moved on. It had taken a huge emotional toll to break free. He had a great job now, a balanced life. He didn't want to go there.

Go there, I advised. He did. Not overnight and not happily at first. Eventually though, Jim began to produce a series of pieces around this topic, pieces that were so much more nuanced and energetic than his previous work that he was able to place one in his alumni magazine, one on a men's website, and another in an essay collection.

Now, let me be clear. I take no credit for Jim's success. Eventually someone else would have given him the same advice. Or he may have noticed it himself. He'd have gotten around to it at some point, whether out of frustration or curiosity, or an annoying urge to scratch some vague but persistent itch.

Or, maybe not. Maybe what we all need is someone to say, "Hey, how come you aren't writing about…."

Take a look at your work. What keeps showing up? What often seems to be missing? What do you tend to skip over because you just can't quite figure out how to deal with it on the page? What are you dead set against writing about?

When I say one can grow as a writer by writing about what one is avoiding on the page, I don't always mean that you must write about some painful topic you'd be happier leaving alone. Maybe you are funny in short bursts but avoid (or just won't let yourself) try an entire humor piece. Perhaps you unconsciously keep sneaking in small references to a favorite deceased relative, when what you may truly be itching to do is write about how much she influenced you or why you miss her. Or have you made a conscious decision to never write about X? Hmm.

I have a favorite saying which I believe stems from Confucius: What you resist, persists.

Sometimes the more we avoid writing about something, the more it haunts our work. We avoid writing about certain topics or in certain ways for a number of reasons. Fear that it may lead nowhere. Fear that it may lead somewhere we're not sure we want to go. Habit. Feeling inadequate to the task. Being uncertain about where or how to begin. Thinking it's not really all that interesting. Knowing it's so complicated, if we start, we may never have the time or energy to write about anything else.

And we may be right, about any or all of these reasons. Or, we may be ducking a rich source of material. Chances are good that if someone else notices something, especially if it's a repeated quirk, there's something there worth exploring on the page.

Here's the thing. It might not work out. But what if it does?

The first two installments of the Stuff My (Writing) Students Say series are here.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Guest Blogger Julie Maloney on Finishing the First Draft of a First Novel

I met Julie Maloney, a fellow New Jersey writer, about five years ago. Although I was already completely entrenched in the writing community of the low residency MFA program I was attending, I wanted to enlarge my local writing community. I attended a one-day workshop sponsored by Women Reading Aloud, the non-profit organization Julie founded and directs. I came away with a clutch of new writer acquaintances (now friends), as well as a sense of gratitude for Julie's gifts to the writing community.

Julie's book of poems,
Private Landscape, details her journey through breast cancer. In addition to workshops and a Writing Wellness Day, she also offers a three-day Writers Weekend Retreat on the New Jersey shoreline. Through Mango Press, Julie also designs and sells a line of stationery and writing journals.

Please welcome Julie Maloney.

"Six years ago, I discovered a character in response to a writing exercise. Four of us sat near a lake in the heat of a July afternoon and wrote to different prompts each had brought along with the watermelon. I remember it well because it was then and there that a character entered my life so defiantly she wouldn’t let go.

What choice did I have but to listen? So I decided to write a novel. The decision was easy. I'm not partial to one genre, although people tell me I'm a poet. I write memoir and have written a column for a magazine for years. I had not even dreamed of writing a novel.

I wrote the final words of the first draft on June 15, 2010. I walked around close to tears most of the following day. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and worse, I couldn’t name it. If it was a twenty-four hour virus, the flu, or an intestinal screw-up, I could have anticipated some kind of closure but I knew it was none of the above. It was fear. Fear that when I revise, edit, and delete, I might not have the same insatiable writing experience.

Bottom line is that I was scared I had poured everything into the draft. Okay, I know that’s not really true because I have pages of notes in giant notebooks referencing scenes to revisit and stating why. My favorite word in the margins is “fix.” I have files of research, notes written on yellow post-its and stacks of papers on the floor all around my writing room. One lone pad sits on my night table by my bed with fragments and questions written in an almost
unrecognizable scrawl.

But now it was time to stop. I wasn't sure how.

I remember meeting my characters for the first time. Sometimes, I shouted a big yes over their entrance onto the page. Other times, I tried keeping the door shut but they came in anyway. One mysterious woman refused to give me her name but I kept her alive all the way to the end. I loved getting to know them. I want them all to come to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. Even the not-so-pretty ones.

And now? Now, friends and writing colleagues are telling me to put the manuscript away for two or three weeks. You mean walk out on them? I want to scream.

A friend came to my rescue this week and passed along a quote by Truman Capote about how revising is the time to discover the “inner music.” After reading this, I calmed a bit and my stomach problems disappeared. I’m still pretty darn scared that I’ve let my characters down, maybe gave them troubles they didn’t need or asked them to reveal things they’d rather not. But I did allow myself a glass of sparkling Prosecco on June 15th and thanked them for sticking with me all this time. Never abandoning me when I left them to write poetry and they were stuck mid-sentence for weeks (sometimes months) at a time. Always, they welcomed me back to the page like friends waiting for me to pick them up at the train station.

So now, I’m going to listen as hard as I can to get that musical thread of the novel just right. And when I get scared, I’ll do what I always do. Put one foot in front of the other. Only this time, I’m hoping to find that inner music of the novel to help me waltz through my separation anxiety."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: July 2nd Edition

Here are just a few quick links for your long weekend. Enjoy!

►Highlights and takeaway from The Future of Freelancing conference, held last month at Stanford University, are here (see the yellow box at right of page).

►If you've been told (by a publisher, agent or writer friends) that it's time to begin blogging, or you just plain want to, but are worried about filling the screen, this post by Michelle Rafter will come in handy.

► The 10,000 Words blog asked its Twitter followers for the best advice they ever received from a mentor or colleague, and posted the results.

►And finally, what's an author to do when, following industry advice, he puts up a Facebook page using the title of his book, quickly racks up more than one-half million fans -- but almost all of them aren't even aware that it's a book they "like"? Gregory Levey discusses his strange dilemma.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Books in My Bag: Used Bookstore Haul, part II

The other day I posted about a mini-spree at a used bookstore and mentioned the memoirs I had picked up. Today, I'll fill you in on the books about writing that wound up in my bag.

Bookworms: Great Writers and Readers Celebrate Reading, edited by Laura Furnam & Elinore Standard (Carroll & Graf, 1997). Sixty short essays by a wide-ranging and somewhat eclectic collection of noteworthy writers and readers, including: Tobias Wolff, W. H. Auden, Sven Birkets, Charles Lamb, Miep Gies, Jane Kenyon, Alan Cheuse, Wallace Stevens, and Anne Lamott. I opened to a page at random and found this: "Reading while watching baseball on television is especially fine, and given light reading, is easily brought off with the help of the instant replay. Why do one thing at a time when you can do two? And between the two done simultaneously, light reading and watching television, the former almost always wins out." – Joseph Epstein

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (Fourth edition, 2000). Yes I already have two copies. So what? This one is in a larger format, in pristine condition; mine are tattered, yellowed and often out on loan. Plus there's a foreword by writer (and White's stepson) Roger Angell, who says, "Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time." My favorite Strunk & White admonition? Two: "Don't explain too much," and "Be clear."

The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Steinburg (Norton, 1980). Another essay collection, bringing the total of essay collections on my shelf to…oh, you don't want to know! Essays by 17 notable women writers, including so many favorites – Joan Didion, Toni Cade Bambara, Mary Gordon, Honor Moore, Maxine Hong Kingston. Opened at random, I read this: "A writers needs certain conditions in which to work and create art. She needs a piece of time; a peace of mind; a quiet place; and a private life." – Margaret Walker.

Roget A to Z, edited by Robert L. Chapman (Harper Perennial, 1994). Yes, I use an online thesaurus; yes I have a battered old copy of Roget's from college. But, you should see this one. Nearly three inches thick. So beautifully laid out, graphically and visually pleasing. And organized alphabetically. 300,000 words! I especially love the slightly tongue-in-cheek quotes, for example, under the synonyms and other information for the word conservative, you'll read: "the leftover progressive of an earlier generation - Edmund Fuller."

So that's my haul. What did you emerge with the last time you stepped into a bookstore, used or otherwise?