Here I blog about writing, editing, reading, books, submissions, freelancing, getting published (and rejected), journalism, revisions, life after the MFA, teaching writing, and living the writer's life. Welcome. BUT -- if you are a writer: Write first, read blogs second.




Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking back, thinking ahead. No regrets, please!

Happy New Year, writers!  Perhaps you'll spend some time today thinking about the writing year that has passed, and the one ahead. I hope so.  And I hope you do so with some satisfaction, and with anticipation.

Many of us are in the looking back/thinking ahead mode, it seems, as I've already received several newsletters today from fellow writers and publishers on that theme.

I've been a subscriber to Erika Dreifus's monthly Practicing Writer newsletter for at least five years now, and I am honored that she featured me as a guest writer in today's newsletter, with an adapted version of my *I Did It List* post.  If you are not yet a subscriber to her excellent newsletter, here's a link to the online version. Read - and sign up!

My own newsletter went out  a few days ago, and likewise, you can find it online if you are not already a subscriber (and if you want to subscribe, just click on the link at bottom).

See you next year!


Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, December 21, 2012 Edition

> My well-read friend Chris led me to BookDrum, where one could spend hours. The beautifully rich site offers a panoramic experience of all that surrounds a book. I'm not explaining it very well. From the site: "..companion to the books we love, bringing them to life with immersive pictures, videos, maps and music."  Plus author background, film notes, reviews, summary, setting info, glossary, more. Visit. Click on a book (classics to contemporary). Don't look at the clock.

> Vaughn Roycroft on "Surviving the Full Force of a Manuscript Critique" at Christi Craig's blog.

> Lee Gutkind at the New York Times Draft blog, on "Three R's of Narrative Nonfiction." 


> Jenny Rough contemplates writers, perseverance, struggle and faith.

> California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera , with a Poem for Newtown, "Little Ones We Carry You" (and several response poems), at the University of California/Riverside news site.

> Meghan Ward on "20 Great Places to Publish Personal Essays."


> BookPatrol with a great graphic and the good news that America's largest libraries are growing.


> Annie Evett on why it's a good idea to keep calm and just keep submitting.  I like her math.


> I knew I wanted one for myself, but I'm not completely sure for whom I bought four more copies today of Anne Lamott's slim new book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.  Like this interviewer, I'm attracted I guess to the idea of an irreverent approach to the simplicity, and power, of praying as a personal, possibly idiosyncratic act.


> Reminder: Don't let your writing year end without creating at least a few entries -- on paper, in your head -- for your personal 2012 * I Did It List* (which I explain in the post immediately prior to this one).

> Finally, for some levity,  a compilation of poorly worded, proofread-by-dummies, hilarious or embarrassing real headlines over at Freakonomics.

Have a great weekend, and good wishes for those celebrating holidays.

Monday, December 17, 2012

It's Beginning to Look Like *I Did It* Time


It's mid-December, almost time for me to begin thinking about The I Did It List – my small act of defiance against all the emotionally upsetting lists we humans tend to mentally make as the year draws to a close: the one that ticks off the things we failed to do all year.  We didn't lose weight, clear out the basement, organize the photos, cook better meals, take that trip, call that old friend.

As writers we do our own version of the miss list – we take ourselves to task about the books or chapters or essays not completed, the conference not attended, the acceptances not received, the work not submitted, the agent not contacted, the class not taken, the revision left undone. We tend to see our writing year as a finite lot of things not yet achieved instead of a valuable step along an infinitely curvy road.

Give yourself a break. Please.

Write your own writer's version of The I Did It List.  

Make it a good one.  Please. Write down everything that's happened in your writing life in 2012 that's been good, maybe even great.  At least positive. Little steps accomplished. Medium goals reached. Medium ones broached.

What did you do that moved your writing life ahead?  What did you get done? Who did you help with their writing goals?  Were you published someplace that meant something to you? Did you begin a project?  Finish something, anything?  Did someone you respect say something encouraging to you about your work?  Were you invited to participate in a writing project you are pleased to be involved in?  Did you finally "get" some aspect of writing craft you'd been stymied on before?  Did you write more regularly? With more conviction?  Did you?

In my own I Did It List, I include all the small and the big things. Why not? The tangible and the intangible. The noteworthy and public, the private. Not only does everything add up, it's all part of the whole. Without a lot of small "I did it's" the larger ones can't have transpired. That's how I choose to see it.

I know you did something, many things good for your writing life in 2012. You know you did too. Write it down.

That's the challenge.  Some time between now and December 31, write your own "I Did It List" all about your writing year.  

You can even get started now, and share one "I Did It" in comments.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Seat at the Table of Alone and Still.


I rarely think of myself as more productive than the next writer, and certainly I'm never convinced that I deserve a seat at the table. Most days, I'm certain my productivity cannot possibly keep pace with my unrealistic expectations. But I try to maintain a minimal level of confidence that what I'm doing has some merit; some days that's enough, and those are the days when I hole up, work in blessed absolute silence, ignore the clatter and lure of phones and social media, turn down invitations to meet for coffee or lunch. Me. Alone. A pen or keyboard.  That is all, and that is more than enough.

The other days, well -- those are the days when I go out. To the bank, supermarket, shoe store. For breakfast, coffee, lunch. To the post office, gas station, Target. To the music store to get my son a new cello string. To the municipal building to pay the water or tax bill. To anywhere, away from the silence. Because the silence is what I must fill up – with words, with writing.

I love silence. I love when silence feels like solitude. I love being alone. But when the writing isn't going well, and if the editing clients and writing students don't need me, then the silence isn't solitude, but condemnation, criticism, disapproval; vast and unfilled, yawning and beckoning and mocking all at once. So I leave it.

Some days, I don't choose to leave it, but life needs attending: Meetings. Appointments. Travel. The thing is, no matter why I leave the silence for the distraction and activity and noise and sometimes the necessity of errands or shopping or meetings, there's still a space in my head that represents that quiet, the silence, that writing place.  And I'm always trying to fill it. Silas House described it beautifully in his New York Times essay last week, about a writer's relationship to the art of being still, no matter where, no matter what.

Today I'm in the quiet silence all morning. This afternoon, and tonight, I'll move out into the noise – banking business, a son's dermatologist appointment, a client's holiday party.

I'll be there, but still.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Care for a Critique? Place your bid. (Updated)

Some time ago, I was fortunate to receive a patient, thoughtful, and helpful critique on a very long essay, from a writer/editor I admired. I wasn't enrolled in a course and I hadn't hired her. Instead, I "won" a bid for her services in an auction set up to raise funds for a charity. 

At the time, I would not have been able to afford her services; in fact at the time, I wasn't even actively looking for help with that particular writing project.  But when I saw the listing, I put in a bid and was so glad I did.

That's why I decided to join with Publishing Gives Back, a grassroots auction effort, set up by BookEnds, a New Jersey literary agency. They've corralled more than three dozen agents, publishing house editors, freelance editors, and others to offer services to the highest bidder, to raise funds that will help restore the state after Hurricane Sandy's damage.

Most of the offerings -- full and partial critiques of query letters, synopses, chapters, and manuscripts -- are for works of fiction, in many different genres. But mine is for the nonfiction writer: a critique of a query letter, synopsis and the first 25 pages of a nonfiction manuscript, and an in-person coffee date (if the winning bidder is local; otherwise it's a phone call).

Traffic is picking up on the site, but there are plenty of services that are still relative "steals". Beyond the manuscript critiques, on the block are a consultation on cover design, editorial phone consults, and in-person meetings at upcoming writing conferences.

Would love it if you'd pass this along - to anyone, but especially to other Garden State writers!

Update: The auction is now closed 12/11). Thanks to those who bid on all the items. Looking forward to working with the writer who won my offering. 



Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, November 30, 2012 Edition

> You know the year is just about over when the "100" lists begin to appear. The Sunday New York Times Book Review editors have compiled "100 Notable Books of 2012."

> Flavorwire has chosen "New York's Most Important 100 Living Writers," and you'll have to click through 100 times to get to number one (someone I adore). I noticed immediately that at least half a dozen on the list live in New Jersey (we Jersey literary folk know this stuff!) -- and to be fair, the article intro does say, "we’ve chosen writers and journalists in the NYC area." Still, why do they have to be listed as "New York writers"?

> Scholars & Rogues offers a list of online resources for creative writers -- literary journal lists and databases, submission and tracking tools -- including a few I had not known about.

> In case you were busy this week, you know, writing...and missed the controversy that immediately erupted over Simon & Shuster entering the self-publishing market (via Archway Publishing), Porter Anderson has carefully summarized the issues

> What do you do while your agent sends your completed book manuscript around to publishers? First, you try not to think about it, which is not so easy, according to Natalia Sylvester; and then, when the rejections creep in, you learn something.

> Think you're having a rotten writing/submitting/rejection kind of day? Check out the Face Lift/Guess the Plot posts, like this one, over at Evil Editor, where we're given a list of possible (usually preposterous) plots and then the real synopsis for one of them, which Evil Editor then slashes -- while offering solid advice.

> Finally, of all the items on a soon-to-be-published author's to-do list, tchotchkes. Karen Pullen mulls it over (and could use some ideas!).

Have a great weekend.

Monday, November 26, 2012

'Tis the Writing and Submitting Season.

One of my mother's best pieces of advice -- really more a slice of wisdom -- was:  Timing is everything.  Though she didn't work outside the home, and dated my father exclusively since the age of 15, she offered the adage to me when I was in my 20s, in relation to bosses and dating. And boy was she right! I've found it holds up in many other areas of life, too.

Like when it comes to timing our writing submissions. 

Last week, two former writing students asked me about venues where they could submit holiday-themed essays. By now of course, the choices were daily or weekly newspapers (and their online versions), and websites.  Monthly, or less frequent print publications, were out of the question.  

One writer, whose piece revolved around an event unique to her area, decided to stay local and submit to regional newspapers and websites. The other, whose essay was wider in scope,  brainstormed a list of web venues and major daily newspapers. Both resolved to start the submission thinking process sooner next year.

The ideal is to have plenty of time to submit the work to the top venues on our lists, which often means planning out and beginning submissions many months (sometimes a year) in advance.  

Which brings to mind my own philosophy about when to write  (not submit) the seasonal essay, and explains why -- four days after Thanksgiving -- I'm working today on a Thanksgiving essay, and why last week I was revising a piece about visiting a child's college in the Fall for Parents Weekend. 

Do you write ahead like that?  Storing up an inventory of pieces to submit at some future date when the timing or season is right? How does timing fit in with your writing or submission process?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, November 23, 2012 Edition

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving yesterday!  As always, I'm grateful that you take the time to read my blog, comment and pass it along. 

> Have you explored the new website for Creative Nonfiction, the journal?  This short piece, by a family physician and CNF writer, made some interesting parallels between those endeavors. (If you're a visual artist, editors are seeking illustrations for future issues.) 

> If you were considering a subscription to Poets & Writers magazine (or if it's on your holiday wish list), now might be a good time. Their offices were flooded during superstorm Sandy, and part of the special $35 Friends rate will go towards restoration.

> Speaking of P&W, here is their list of 27 small presses worth following on Twitter.

> Narratively  is a new site devoted to literary journalism about New York City, and according to MediaShift will offer original in-depth storytelling, as well as Q&A's with authors. This week's topic is "The Flipside of Food."

> A writer on Facebook noted he'd gotten an email rejection from a literary journal early on Thanksgiving morning. Gee, thanks!  Well if he submits to this new online venue, at least he won't get one on...his birthday.

> Finally, according to young adult author Angela Scott, Editors Hate Everything. She's right!  

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About The Storm


Gathering, we swap stories. In New Jersey (and I'm guessing surrounding eastern seaboard states), much of tomorrow's holiday table exchanges will be about our experience during and after superstorm Sandy.  I can't help but think how much we communicate underneath the surface talk:
Because when we talk about the storm and its challenges and aftermath, what we are really talking about is something else entirely. When we complain about being unprepared for how long power was off, the high cost of generators, the downside of TV/phone/internet bundling, we are talking about vulnerability, loss of control, the underbelly of modernity. When we cite crippled mass transit systems, we are talking about anxiety, isolation. The stories about discarding ruined food are stories about guilt and money; the stories about fighting with spouses over not having batteries or working flashlights are stories of blame.
The stories themselves are about more than, often something other than, their topline narratives. This is the goal of memoir, the personal essay, and nonfiction narratives: to illuminate what’s percolating under the surface, what drives the unfolding event, and what it tells us about ourselves.
This is why people read creative nonfiction in the first place.
The renowned spiritual thinker Henri Nouwen wrote, “That which is the most personal, is the most universal.” Readers must be able to find, in any nonfiction work about a personal experience, that which is universal – but the only way through to the universal is by way of the personal.

The excerpt is from an article of mine at the blog of The Writers Circle, titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About the Storm." I invite you to click over and read the full piece, which explores this craft aspect of writing creative nonfiction, how CNF writers must constantly excavate the real story from under the one we talk about.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Full Circle, Storm Surges, Writing, and a Reunion

Today, I have a guest post running over at Empowered Spirit, a lovely blog published by Cathy New Chester.  My essay explores how an 8-day power outage spurred (Cathy would say empowered!) me to make some changes in my life after the lights came back on.

Cathy and I grew up in the same small northern New Jersey town (where I again live). We knew each other only slightly in grade school (through mutual friends), better in high school when we shared many classes, and then, for a few decades, fell out of each other's circle.

About five years ago, Cathy and I were brought back together via class reunions, mutual friends,  and her desire to make writing an integral part of her life. Conversations and emails followed, and while we talked about writing classes, programs, and options she might pursue, her life was already brimming over with career, family, and dealing with multiple sclerosis.

Challenged by time and budget, she simply got busy, making her writing vision happen when ever and how ever she could. Today, Cathy writes for several health websites, in addition to frequently posting inspirational pieces at her blog. More, I'm certain, will happen in her writing life.

I'm really proud of her progress, and honored that Cathy credits me for helping her get on the writing path; but really, she did that herself -- because she wanted to. Cathy recently asked me to be her first guest blogger, and I'm so pleased. There's something lovely -- Cathy would likely say empowering! -- when strands once undone early in life, knit themselves back later on.

I hope you'll hop over to her blog to read my post, and some of Cathy's too.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, November 16, 2012 Edition


> The National Book Awards have been decided. All the winners and nominees, with links to excerpts from each, are at GalleyCat.

> The upside of being stuck in traffic: catching an NPR interview with Barbara Kingsolver talking about her newest novel, Flight Behavior - which by the way, has the glorious opening line: "A certain feeling comes from throwing your good life away and it is one part rapture."

> Now that the Silver Linings Playbook is in movie theaters, I'm reminded that Matthew Quick, author of the original novel, wrote a guest post for this blog back in 2008, about meeting readers during the early leg of his debut book tour.

> In a Bookslut interview, Dinty W. Moore, author of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teacher, has this to say: "...I'm almost always scrapping my beginning and ending somewhere in revision, because it is somewhere in revision that I begin to realize what it is I am trying to say in an essay, and thus for me to nail it, to get it as nearly-perfect as can be, I have to start somewhere new, and often end somewhere other than where I thought I was going."


> I was introduced to the Reddit feature AMA (Ask Me Anything) months ago by my teenage son. The idea is, an expert of some sort, or at least someone others want to ask questions of, agrees to answer any inquiries readers toss at them for a specified period. Last week, there was an AMA with Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writers Digest and current web editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.


> If you are one of my New Jersey contacts, you know I can't stop talking about my upcoming teaching assignments at The Writers Circle. Yesterday I wrote about TWC's director, novelist Judith Lindbergh, and her turn as expert commentator on the History Channel documentary series Mankind. Such fun to know such interesting people.

Have a great weekend! 

Monday, November 12, 2012

The One.


Every writer has at least one. Some, I think, realize it at the moment they reach the last line of the finished draft of a particular piece of writing:  a realization leaps up -- this is it, the one. Others only see it only in retrospect.

I'm talking about a breakthrough piece, a piece of writing which embodies a clear jump from one level of craft and skill to another one, a level a good distance up the slippery hill that is our writing climb.

Last week, a writer with whom I have been working on and off for about three years, had hers. I suspected it was coming, was watching for it, hoping for her it wouldn't be much longer; and then I knew. I knew it from the first page; it was the latest draft (number six, I believe) of a long nonfiction narrative she's been working hard at for about seven months. 

This was her breakthrough piece.  

Everything had come together - narrative arc, character development, pacing, rhythm, language, voice, dialogue, detail, description. There was a confidence on the page, a conviction, a assured hand, that had not been there before.

Let me be clear – this is a talented, hard working writer anyway, and her work is already good. Yet she was, shall we say, working her B game, maybe B+.  I knew there was an A game in her. And then, in this particular draft, she stepped up, dramatically; she'd found her sweet spot and I could tell it wasn't a fluke. The piece was at once both powerful and carefully planned, and yet appeared effortless, organic. 

Bam.

We talked about it, and I was not surprised to hear that she already knew there was something different, something important about this revision. We talked about the wonder of the moment when a writer realizes how much more she can do on the page.

Oh, I can do that?  Yes, I can do that. I can do that.  I have an A game.

That's delicious, and a little bit terrifying. Because next, of course, comes the idea of maintaining that A game. But that's another writing life story.

A breakthrough, meanwhile, requires savoring. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, November 9, 2012 Edition


> The 2013 Pushcart ranking of literary magazines has been released, and Clifford Garstang has posted the lists along with brief commentary about the nonfiction, fiction, and poetry honorees.

> Laura Brown constantly pulls together links to dozens of writing-related material at Creative Writing Inspiration.

> Looking for an online tracking system to keep tabs on progress toward your goals?  Lifehacker lists five interesting options

> I may be late to the party, but I just discovered The Mayborn and can't stop reading;  I suspect most creative nonfiction writers will want to dive in too.

> Some literary journals are not charging small reading fees, typically in the $2-$4 range. Justified?  Jessica Bell says no.

> From a writing instructor, some common writer fears, and how to conquer them (or help someone else).

> What should journalism education look like in the (not-so-distant) future? Jeff Jarvis weighs in.

> And finally -- Yes, old books really do have a specific smell; here's why and what it is, scientifically.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, November 5, 2012

When Just One Word Will Do. Or, 22.


For me (and many others) in New Jersey this week, three words have been key: continue, adapt, laugh

In the 7 days before power returned to my street this afternoon, we have dealt with: cold; dark; spoiled food; a leaking refrigerator; no power at my husband's warehouse; and worry about how my son's flooded school will manage to re-open.

Today, I thought about the list of helpful words for any crisis situation, which I once posted here. I don't recall where I first saw the original list of 17 words, but I've been carrying it in my wallet for years, and added rest and ask myself a few years ago. Now, it's up to:

22 Words

Accept
Act
Believe
Care
Change
Choose
Focus
Forgive
Listen
Persist
Pray
Prepare
Relax
Risk
Smile
Trust
Wait

Rest
Ask
Continue
Adapt
Laugh

Have you any words to add?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, Post-Hurricane Sandy Edition

Friday Fridge Clean-Out - for real. 

My Friday link round-up gets its name from the way I sometimes feed my family on a Friday night, using as many leftovers as possible. I have been doing a version of that frequently since our power quit on Monday. Living in New Jersey is challenging this week but fortunately we had no property damage and family members are all okay. 

Packing coolers with ice and thawed food, cooking and eating by flashlight, piling on warm clothing, and long gas lines are nothing compared to the devastation to our south, now a Jersey Shore no one would recognize. Right now I'm camped out at my mother-in-law's dining room table, where there's heat, lights, and a neighbor's wifi signal. Hoping my East Coast readers are faring well. 

And so, the links...

> What happens to your submission once it reaches the editorial offices of a literary journal? If The Missouri Review's process is any indication, it does NOT fall into a big black hole, as writers sometimes suspect.

> Jody Hedlund has some tips for Using the 5 Senses to Make Our Stories Jump Off the Page.

> Nick Flynn, poet and author of the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (now a film titled "Being Flynn"), answers Laurie Hertzel's 10 questions about writing.

> Over at Jane Friedman's blog, guest poster Gabriela Pereira has a three step plan (that includes rolling actual dice!) for "Using Prompts to Write Better & Get Published."

> I haven't poked around there that much yet, but Storylane looks like a promising new social-media-type way to find interesting essays and other nonfiction to read. Based on the people behind it, TechCrunch thinks the sharing platform and options could spell success.

> Two things I love: Ben Yagoda and the em dash.

> Finally, what a way to go. Flavorwire's slide show of "Famous Last Words: 15 Authors’ Epitaphs." 

Have a great weekend!



Tuesday, October 30, 2012

When in crisis, I write. When the crisis is real, and when it's in my head.

Yesterday -- just after Hurricane Sandy began blowing through northern New Jersey, and just before a transformer blew up and caught fire down the block, and we lost power and phone service -- I was finishing up a long day of editing, and worrying about and missing my older son, a freshman meteorology student. So, I did what I always do -- wrote about it.

I wrote, in part, about the last time there was a hurricane in New Jersey, and we were on vacation in California, and how this time, he's not here either:

In one way, my son is missing it all again—he’s 220 miles to the west. Then again, he’s in the center of everything, watching events unfold on the 45 monitor wall in the Weather Room of his university’s meteorology department, where everyone from the lowliest freshman to graduate students and the department’s top professors are huddled.

“Stay safe,” I begged him. “Don’t wait too long to get back to your dorm.” 


He reminded me first that. as “someone who has watched the Weather Channel every day since the age of two,” he knew all about storm safety and, more important, the windows of that particular room were constructed to withstand a category F5 tornado.

Besides, they were ordering in pizza and chances were good they’d all spend the night there, storm tracking, making predictions. Classes are cancelled, after all.

Here’s where it gets particularly difficult to be the mother of a college student, something I’m just learning. What advice to pour into our cell phone texts and Facebook chats, what to keep to myself, how to bridge the distance between worried Mom and trusting parent, adviser and cheerleader.


You can read the entire essay here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Guest Blogger Liz Sheffield on Banishing the Inner Editor with NaNoWriMo


Liz Sheffield has been a writing student and editing client of mine over the last few years. She is a blogger and freelance writer focused on the topics of parenting, wellness and leadership.  Her essays, articles and short fiction have been published in national and regional publications, including Brain, Child and Family Fun. Until recently, Liz spent more than 11 years writing, editing and designing training materials for Starbucks. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two young sons.

Please welcome Liz Sheffield

This year, when I asked the young writers in the early weeks of my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) workshop to tell me what their inner editors say, the kids (ages 8 to 11) didn’t hesitate to respond:
“You suck.”
“That’s no good.”
“You can’t spell.”
Ouch! Our inner editors develop at such a young age.
These fifteen students are part of the afterschool NaNoWriMo workshop I’m teaching at my son’s elementary school. A few years ago, the Office of Letters and Light (OLL) – the group that oversees NaNoWriMo for adults – created the Young Writers Program as well as a NaNoWriMo curriculum for kids and youth. It’s the same concept (write a novel in a month) but with a word count goal that is reasonable for each young writer.
September and October are all about training. In our weekly lessons, we discuss topics such as the inner editor, main characters, plot and setting . The goal is that by November 1, these students will be able to write their novels in 30 days. In order to succeed, I know from personal experience, the first step is to get their inner editors out of the way.
“Next, we’re going to draw these inner editors,” I continue after hearing the feedback from my students’ inner editors.
Villains wielding swords, with scowling faces, missing teeth and furrowed brows evolved on the blank pages of the kids’ workbooks.
“Now it’s time for these inner editors to take a hike,” I told my students.
I walked around the room with a shoe box covered in bronze-colored paper. After the last editor was in the box, I closed the lid and wrapped metallic string around and around the box to lock it.
“Is that barbed wire?” a sixth grader asked, incredulous.
“Yes. Star-studded barbed wire.”
The box rattled in my hands. I could hardly contain the energy inside the bronze-covered shoe box.
“These editors are desperate to get out,” I warned, “but if we want to write a novel in thirty days, we can’t let them out until December 1.”
Some of the younger students looked worried. (Okay, so maybe the shaking box was a little bit much.)
“Are we going to let these inner editors out of the box?” I asked.
“No way!” the kids hollered, a few boys adding an air-punch for emphasis.
If keeping their inner editors in the box is the one thing my students learn through this NaNoWriMo experience, I’ll be thrilled.  
And, they’ll be decades ahead of me.
I have a powerful, demanding and often hope-dashing inner editor who has played a leading role in my writing life: You’re going to use that word? Who will want to read this? You can’t write. You don’t have an MFA. You’re not old enough. Wait, you’re too old, it’s too late. You don’t have time.
I’ve heard this voice for years, but it wasn’t until I took the NaNoWriMo challenge myself in November 2010 that I understood the power my inner editor had over my creative process.
My sons were age two and six, I was working full-time in a corporate cube and commuting an hour each way. Since college, I’d been too busy (drinking beer, teaching ESL in Japan, romancing with my future husband) to write. Skeptics, including my inner editor, told me I had no business taking on the challenge of writing a novel, much less attempting to write one in thirty days.
I signed up anyway. And I wrote 50,064 words in 30 days.
“How did you do it?” everyone asked after I came out of the NaNoWriMo fog.
The answer was simple: I told my inner editor to take a hike.
During NaNoWriMo, I gave myself permission to write a less-than-perfect novel. I ignored the thoughts that I had to come up with the “perfect” first sentence, find the “perfect” time to write, or labor late into the night, attempting to format a document so that it was “just right”.
With thirty days of practice, I gained confidence. My inner editor got quiet.
"Don’t look at this early stage for every sentence to be perfect—that will come. Don’t expect every description to be spot-on. That will come too. This is an opportunity to experiment. It’s your giant blotter. An empty slate, ready to be filled."

These encouraging words in Jasper Fforde’s pep talk to participants in the 2010 NaNoWriMo rang true. Having sent my inner editor on a hike, day by day, word by word, I was able to fill the empty slate.
My creative self took over. I added a hospital to the setting. My protagonist befriended a homeless teen. The plot twisted and turned in ways that my inner editor would have avoided (and admonished) but which I welcomed. I finished on November 30 with a novel that wasn’t perfect, but that had a beginning, a middle and an end. A year after I finished NaNoWriMo, I read what I’d written. While there are revisions to be made, I can say that I like what I wrote. (Take that, inner editor!)
As my students prepare for their NaNoWriMo adventures, I hope that locking their inner editors away in that shoe box will bring them the same sense of freedom; that they will embrace the time for creativity.
Most creative folks will agree that keeping the inner editor at bay is difficult. In fact, since I banished mine two years ago during NaNoWriMo, I’ve noticed my inner editor creeping back into my writing world.
But I’ve had enough. I make my way to the garage in search of the box covered in star-studded barbed wire. There’s got to be enough room for one more inner editor in the shoe box in the garage: mine.

Note from Lisa: NaNoWriMo begins on November 1. You needn't write a novel during the 30 days; it's also a great way to generate around 50,000 words towards any manuscript or writing project, keep track of your progress, and commit to a regular writing practice. For the math-challenged, 50K words in a month works out to about 1,670 words per day.



Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, October 19 2012 Edition

> At his excellent blog, Aaron Hamburger considers whether "Writing is...Depressing?"

> A mentor once told me my work wouldn't really sing until I was uncomfortable with what I was putting on the page. I thought this may only be so for nonfiction writers, but in this interview at Fiction Writers Review, Steve Almond notes: "Literary writers, no matter how refined, are always seeking to express unbearable feelings. At least the ones I’m interested in. And that means exposing those feelings to the world, whether in fictional disguise or not. My work only got interesting when I started exposing myself on the page, dealing in radical truths."


> When is a writer writing? Answer: Always. In this post at The Writers Circle, Jennifer Walkup explains how and why she is writing while not writing.

> So proud! A student in a recent Writing the Personal Essay class, Robin Sloane Seibert, worked on a piece about slowing down in her piano practicing, and it was later published on a lovely site about adult piano passions.

> Sean Bishop on the good, bad and meh about constant, high-volume poetry submissions: "Even a poverty-stricken twenty-something can submit to eighty journals at once when he or she doesn’t have to pay the printing and postage for that submission, or put in the envelope-licking time and endure the requisite oral papercuts. Submissions and rejections can now be almost instantaneous, and if it’s free to submit to eighty journals then why the hell not, right? Right." Read the whole article at the Virginia Quarterly Review blog. (via @ErikaDreifus)

> Friend, mentor, wonderful writer/poet/activist Leslea Newman, describes her 11 year effort to write her just-released book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Sheppard. Be sure to read or scroll to the end to watch the book trailer too.

> Registration is still open for my next Online Creative Nonfiction 4x4, which starts Monday. 

> Finally, just for fun: "Is it Shakespeare or is it...Hip Hop?" Take the quiz at Sporcle. (hat tip: New Guard Review)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

This one is about speaking, not writing. And living.

If you've been here before, you know that I am a big fan of lists. Not writing in list format here on the blog, but making lists, using lists in my writing life, as a means of organization, record-keeping, perspective -- and inspiration.

This falls into the last category.

As I wrote the other day over on Baristanet, "Do you have a bunch of those books (collecting dust?) in your house – you know the ones that tell us the 1000 or 100 things we must do, eat, see, try, visit or experience before we die? Do you get frustrated that most of them are written with the assumption that everyone also has buckets of money earmarked for such excursions?

Me too.

That’s why I was intrigued to stumble across a different sort of bucket list the other day, on the Forbes website, which anyone can add adopt without breaking the bank. Writer/illustrator Jessica Hagy lists “40 Things to Say Before You Die." They’re short and direct, and combined with the simple intersecting circle diagrams that will remind you of elementary school Venn diagrams, I predict you’ll find yourself scrolling through slowly, thinking and nodding. The best part of course is that nothing on this list will cost you a dime. But you may find yourself a bit richer."


Hope you'll click over to Forbes and read the list.




Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Guest Blogger Rosalind Brenner on Finding Inspiration by Dusting Off Your Old Journals (and how an assignment can’t hurt either!)


Rosalind Brenner is a writer, frequently exhibited painter/stained glass artist, and innkeeper.  Her newest book of lyric and narrative poetry is Omega's Garden, just out from Finishing Line Press. Another, All That's Left, combines her art and poetry. She lives on Long Island, where she and her husband, photographer/artist Michael Cardacino, operate Art House Bed and Breakfast, in the historic Springs section of East Hampton.  Recently I had the pleasure to work with Rosalind on some of her wonderful nonfiction pieces, which she's experimenting with for a future book that will mix poetry and prose.
  
Please welcome Rosalind Brenner.

I’ve been rolling around on the wheels spinning my brain, trying to think of subject matter for this guest blog post. I had just finished another guest post. Easy. Something I know about: the value of sharing poems with friends who are good poets and offer great critique; and the value of prompts. These two subjects went together with no trouble, for I’ve been doing exactly that with four poet friends with whom I graduated in 2009 from the MFA Poetry Program at Sarah Lawrence. We meet once a week on Skype, write from our own sometimes serious, sometimes silly, prompts, and then happily slice and dice, slash and burn and suck in gerbil breaths of admiration in the hours we are together. We end up with well-polished poems, many of which have been published.

But now, asked to write another guest post, I find myself in a slump. Usually, I turn to tried-and-true methods for poetry writing: reading others' poems to inspire myself. A word or phrase triggers the little gem which until that moment has been hiding from me, and voila, I write.

But lately I’ve been having trouble with dry eyes. The medicine is making it hard to read and to stare at a computer screen, not to mention that I’m aggravated as hell by the constant physical irritation. Try as I may, my eyes, about which I’m thinking all the time, have not become an inspiration to write some ‘woundology’ piece for this blog post. Damn, I don’t want to be a whiner and that’s how I’m feeling. So what do we do when dry eyes or other maladies, mental and physical, turn into dry times for us as writers? 

Meanwhile, in my quandary, yesterday I sat in the sun and wondered if my life is worthwhile and what’s the point anyway of all the reams and reams of journals, notes, beginnings and actual finished poems? Why should anyone want to read what I write?

I tried to assuage my lack of motivation and my self-pity by remembering the book, Writing Down the Bones, in which Natalie Goldberg, besides offering ideas for writing and tools for awakening the dormant spirit, gives writers permission—no !—advice, to take three days off and stay in bed and to be alright with that.

OK.

I managed one day doing nothing and not feeling too guilty about it, and then today I climbed the stairs to my writing desk to write this post, blurry eyes and all, about the poet’s dilemma. How can I wake myself up? How can I surprise myself? How can I make old information new or find new ways to talk about my own experience? I’ve already written quite a lot about matters of importance to me and hope that perhaps one line or two has struck a universal chord— for those few who read poetry and find their way to my poems.

But we go on, don’t we, because poetry heals, poetry relieves, poetry is the universal language. Even people who insist they don’t understand or like poetry, sway to its truth at weddings, funerals, inaugurations, graduations, demonstrations or in quiet moments of need.

I look around my office. I see the pile of scribbled journals. I think, yes I’ve already written about things that interest me, but not everything I’ve written has become a poem. I open one of my old notebooks at random. Ah, there’s something— I was obviously at play with the idea of making a triolet on a summer day:

Beach

Here people color the world with umbrellas
umber sand is passage for a stray balloon
offshore breeze laps at blue and red and yellow
and pinks the ruffled mob of parasols (umbrellas)
here people color the world of bumbershoots (umbrellas)
being human here feels cool sherbet mellow
the way the tide pulls at the constant moon
here people color the world in parapluie (umbrella)
and umber sand is passage for a stray balloon.

Not necessarily a finished work, nor a classic triolet, but maybe something to give me the pearl I need to begin again.

Here’s another journal entry; I was obviously looking at a painting by Redon. I don’t really remember, was I looking at his “Ophelia Among the Flowers?” Hmmm. Where are the Greek keys? No matter. Maybe I can find something here.

Redon’s ghost remains inside his painting.
Rust becomes rose as he dips his large brush into lush paint
Orange flavors the bristles. He slides color into canvas, into being,
into other, in strokes that keep his ground
a mystery of application and vision. Lavender spirits
surround a blue violet vase,
Greek keys appear and disappear on the surface,
flowers push their way out of the picture plane.
Redon still holds the brush, his oils juicy
heart absolutely humming with the moment.

 I think maybe these might have something worth pursuing.

Again, on a dry day, some long forgotten journal entry can take me out of the doldrums. It has today. For not only have I found a fit subject for this post, but I can feel something stirring me to re-visit these unfinished writings.

One day very early in our relationship, I was looking at my husband’s finger, a stump, cut off in a climbing accident when he was nineteen, long before I met him. I scribbled a note about how horrified and almost repulsed I was the first time I saw his cut off finger and how that feeling disappeared.  On second look, the entry made me think how our relationship has molded both of us, aged us, but made us more content and compassionate, and how we are grateful for all we’ve found together.

Here is the first draft poetic result of my new look at those scribblings.

loss

his missing digit a sliced off stub
how would he meander over my quiver
when he couldn’t even hold it     but I was filled
with fishing lust and the river cannot reverse
its downstream flow     on the slow crawl
bus to nowhere men and women
cram on Wednesdays    come to eat
donuts and to get their feet manicured so attraction
can start below its normal course and does not include
the list of usual sights in their front yards

lust drove away and left us wrinkled
waiting for the next stop    but still in love
it’s seniors discount day at the IGA.

This method of random searching through old work could serve you too. Find your  journals. Open at random. Once inside, you will swim through memories. Copy one line. Let your thoughts ramble into a free write. Take a walk to a coffee shop or to the beach. Cradle the old notes, a pen and an empty pad. 

Take off from the memory piece into the scene around you. Maybe the bearded man that looks like Santa Claus drinking coffee in the next booth reminds you of your ex husband. Maybe seeing this stranger can trigger your muse from your re-read of that line in your old journal: “He sat all afternoon squirming and running a dental pick over his teeth in his living room piled high with bird books while I tried to talk to him about our sons. What an idiot I was…” and you find an empty page in your old book and write:

‘this closing air of  new October
reminds me that his voice, cracked
from surgery,  chords removed,
is fixed now
silence, not a bird to watch
in his fledgling nest…’               

If you don’t keep a notebook with you at all times, better start. There are pearls inside that can’t be strung together otherwise. How many times have you thought of a poem or a line, or heard a bit of dialogue and forgotten it?  So mine those journals. Discover. Uncover. The possibilities are waiting to be unearthed.

And certainly it helps to be asked to write a blog post. This one especially has led me out of the desert. 

Notes from Lisa:  We will be sending a complimentary signed copy of Omega's Garden to one blog reader who leaves a comment below (chosen at random). Might be interesting to talk in comments about how old notebooks inspire your writing. For your chance at the free book, please comment by midnight (EST) on Tuesday, Oct. 30.

You can see Rosalind's artwork combined with poetry, in "Shadows” at Ashawagh Hall in East Hampton, Oct. 25 - 28,