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




Friday, April 27, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, April 27, 2012 Edition


Duotrope continues their beta launch including literary journals that publish nonfiction into their system, and has begun a series of interviews with nonfiction editors, like this one with River Teeth managing editor Sarah Wells.


There's so much great material and fun stuff over at RedRoom, for both writers and readers.


► At the Parents blog on HuffPost, Lisa Belkin writes about Anna Quindlen's new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, and notes that in the book, Quindlen  "writes of a friend 'who has always provided dispatches from the foreseeable future because her children are just a little bit older...' Anna has always provided those dispatches, those glimpses, for me." Lisa B. said what I've been thinking, for years, and still do.


►Don't have any inside information about the Self-Publishers Online Conference (May 8-10), but the experts line-up looks promising, including book marketing/publicity experts Sandra Beckwith, Penny Sansevieri, and Dana Lynn Smith.


►The folks who run the site IndieReader, which carefully selects books to review and recommend, reminds writers "The Big Reasons Indie Authors Aren't Taken Seriously". Be prepared.


►The American Library Association's blog posted a Best Books of 2011 Honor Roll: Narrative Nonfiction, How-To, and Art


►A few nonfiction panelists at the Los Angeles Festival of the Book were asked for key advice. They replied:  Read. Write. Expect to be poor.  Who knew?  (via GalleyCat


► Finally, check out these "crazy and unusual book designs."  Really unusual.


Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I've been thinking. That's all.


Over the past few months, I've been absent here more than present. (If I recall my basic Emily Dickinson knowledge, she made a pretty good case that absence is indeed presence, compressed. But I digress.). I suppose you've noticed. I have run many guest posts, and am grateful to the writers who have been willing to share their stories and advice here about aspects of writing, publishing, and the writing life. 


Yes, partly my non-blogging is a result of (thankfully!) being quite busy with paid work – writing, editing, teaching, coaching, and with family…stuff. (Sartre was wrong, by the way, hell isn't "other people," it's shepherding one's oldest child through the college application, admittance, visit, scholarship, financial aid, and decision process.)


But.


The silence has also been partly intentional. 


I have been thinking. Thinking about so many writing-related things. Thinking takes time, or at least, it should. And sometimes, it requires more input, less output. 


Sometimes one needs to regroup, to listen and not speak, to absorb and ponder, and refrain from churning out more words, advice, ideas, (noise?). That's what I've been doing.  Observing, considering, reading what (many) others have to offer in the way of writing and craft advice, publishing guidance, career development. 


Being in that kind of mode typically is not that interesting to anyone else; it doesn't look exciting from the outside, either in person or on the page. I decided that while I'm in that zone, it's probably not all that useful, at the same time, to also write blog posts. 


Often I point out to writing students and coaching/editing clients that in the total writing process, in both the act and business of writing, the most underrated facet is -- thinking. We are all so busy writing, talking, revising, editing, explaining, defending, pontificating, discussing. Thinking falls off the radar. 


When I want to, when I can, I'll have something more to say. Maybe tomorrow, maybe not.


Meanwhile, I'm thinking.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Guest Blogger Mary Rice on Finding Virtue in Women's Narratives

This is the second in a series of guest posts from writers who, like me, are contributors to Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing. You can read the first in the series here.  
Please welcome Mary Rice.

"And what do I say to my children?  Honesty has always been the bottom line between us, but did I really want them going through this with me during their final difficult years in college? On the other hand, how could I shut them out of this most important decision of my life?"  - Audre Lorde, from A Burst of Light: Essays on Living with Cancer
I admire women who, as storytellers, explore virtues in subtle, non-self-conscious ways. In the memoir excerpt above, Audre Lorde outlines the conflict in negotiating a personal plotline of living with breast cancer. As Lorde faces the decision of undergoing invasive and expensive treatment or letting nature take its course, readers begin to see the complexity of her circumstances. 

On the surface, her dilemma is whether to be honest with her children about her disease and the reality that she will die.  A deeper problem is whether treatment and fighting for her life demonstrates greater integrity than surrendering early to her mortal ailment.  For Lorde, the question of what is virtuous sustains the tension of the narrative. Whichever decision Lorde makes will carry consequences not only for herself, but for her family. Bravery is not demonstrated merely in the choice, but in the acceptance of whatever happens afterward. That acceptance, grounded in honesty, gives her narrative power. 

Let's look at the virtuous explorations of two other women authors—Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and Barbara Kingsolver -- who both negotiate questions of virtue in interesting and admirable ways that are also literary.  

"Suffice to say, I was the first member of our family to finish college and the first to marry out of my race.  As my husband and I began to raise our family, and as I sought for ways to live agreeably in Anglo-American society, my memories of Manzanar stayed far below the surface."  - Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, from Farewell to Manzanar.

Houston’s memoir of her experiences at Manzanar, an American camp of concentrated Japanese citizens during World War II, was assuredly about herself. Even so, Houston spends much of her narrative about Manzanar discussing her family she arrived with, as well as the family she came to know through friendship and trust.  She worked to harmonize family life and personal satisfaction.  Houston mentioned that she married “out of her race” as a confession to Japanese readers and as a way to assert honesty with herself.  Describing the ways in which she sought to live “agreeably in Anglo-American society” as a Japanese woman married to an Anglo man, simultaneously suggests acquiescence to a system while interrogating it. 

"I thank Virginia and Wendell Kingsolver, especially for being different in every way from the parents I created for the narrators for this tale.  I was the fortunate child of medical and public-health workers, whose compassion and curiosity led them to the Congo.  They brought me to a place of wonders, taught me to pay attention, and set me on an early path of exploring the great shifting tension between righteousness and what’s right."  Barbara Kingsolver, Author’s note, The Poisonwood Bible.

Kingsolver reasons in her author’s note that even though her parents are not literally in the text, they make it into the book because they were the ones who took her to the Congo, taught her the observational skills necessary to be a gifted writer, and started her on a long journey of trying to figure out the balance between “the righteous and what’s right.”  Kingsolver’s statement suggests, just as Lorde’s and Houston’s did, that the virtuous action does not necessarily fit tidily in one recognizable place. The “shifting tension” Kingsolver delineates in her author’s note is precisely the mechanism by which narrators are bound together in story and authors are bound to the narratives they have designed. 

Lorde's, Houston's, and Kingsolver's writing explores the claim that truth is important to most people, but how truth interacts and entangles in life, is relative.  It is that kind of realization that I admire when I read and I hope makes it into my work when I write. 

Mary Rice writes frequently about the methodology of narrative in the context of folklore, geography, women’s studies, literacy, linguistics, and teacher education. Her work has appeared in many journals and collections. Her book Adolescent Boys’ Literate Identity was named Outstanding Publication of the Year by the Narrative SIG of the American Educational Research Association. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Guest Blogger Jenn Brisendine on Directing Scenes of Dialogue


A perk of contributing to a collected work is making contact with the other contributing writers. One way I like to explore those new connections is to invite fellow contributors to write a guest post here, and at the same time (let's face it, for every perk, there's a payout) bring attention to the book to which we've contributed. So for the next couple of weeks, I'll periodically feature a post from another writer whose work also appears in Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, edited by Carole Smallwood (The Key Publishing House/Canada).

 Please welcome Jenn Brisendine
I love the theatre. I spent more on hours onstage and backstage in college than reading all the works assigned in my English major. When I taught high school literature and writing, I also directed school plays. One semester I designed and taught a fiction writing elective, and many student actors signed up. Teaching them how to craft natural, dramatic dialogue was exciting—we likened their story characters to actors in a play, and I encouraged them to first “direct” the sound and appearance of the scene on an imaginary stage, complete with props, actions, and cues.
When I write dialogue now—fiction or creative nonfiction—I don’t just compose the conversation; I "direct" the dialogue as a theatre director coaches a scene for emotion and meaning. The director listens for emphasis of certain words, but also suggests pauses, inflections, vocalizations, movement, and nonverbal action. Similarly, a writer can control a scene of dialogue in ways that enhance its significance and mood.

We writers have great devices at our disposal, including punctuation, pauses, and action tags. Punctuation is a tiny tool that wields great impact on dialogue:

“I’m leaving, and you are too.”  (With a comma, there’s barely a pause.)
“I’m leaving. And you are too.” (Now it’s a period, and a much stronger break.)
“I’m leaving? And you are too?”  (The meaning has changed.)
“I’m leaving! And you are too!”  (Wow! Use exclamation marks sparingly!)
“I’m leaving. And you…”  (Trailing off indicates uncertainty or distractedness.)
“I’m leaving. And you–-”     (The speaker is interrupted.)

Pacing the scene with pauses adjusts the sound of the dialogue to your reader’s ear:
“Would you sit down?” He hesitated. “I have something to tell you.”
 
With action tags, you can pace the scene, adjust the mental sound of it, and let slip a tidbit of characterization:
“Would you sit down?” He sipped the bourbon and waited for the burn to fade. “I have something to tell you.”

I often write important scenes in play format first, to focus on the characters’ words:
Barney: If you’d sit down for ten seconds, maybe I’d know what you’re talking about.
Alicia: Why should I believe a word out of you?
Barney: Because I’m your husband. Or did you forget that in New York too?
Alicia: That’s not fair.
Barney: No, you’re not fair. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to take turns? You got to do the leaving last time. This time, you stay here. I’m going.

Then I add stage directions to pace the beats of the scene, so the “actors” can emphasize or punctuate the spoken words:

Barney: (watching Alicia for several seconds from his place by the bedroom door) If you’d sit down for ten seconds, maybe I’d know what you’re talking about.
Alicia: (folds two shirts and places them in the suitcase before speaking) Why should I believe a word out of you?
Barney: Because I’m your husband. Or did you forget that in New York too?
Alicia: (stops moving, stares straight ahead) That’s not fair.
Barney: No, you’re not fair. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to take turns? You got to do the leaving last time. (opens door, stops) This time, you stay here. I’m going.

This helps me frame a mental stage performance of the scene. Finally, I can rewrite the scene in fiction format:

Barney watched Alicia yank clothes off hangers. “If you’d sit down for ten seconds, maybe I’d know what you’re talking about.”
She folded two shirts and placed them in the suitcase before speaking. “Why should I believe a word out of you?”
“Because I’m your husband. Or did you forget that in New York too?”
Alicia didn’t move. “That’s not fair.”
“No, you’re not fair. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to take turns? You got to do the leaving last time.” He yanked the door open. “This time, you stay here. I’m going.”

In my mind’s theatre, not only can I see and hear the beats of the scene, I can feel the tension between characters that is generated by the pacing. Ultimately, what we crave in dialogue is that tension; mentally directing the scene before composing it allows the writer to heighten emotion, emphasize conflict, and deepen characterization all at once.

Jenn Brisendine’s essays have appeared in many print and online venues, including Rosebud, The Pedestrian, LiteraryMama, and the anthology The Maternal Is Political (Seal Press); she is also a contributor to Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction. A former high school English teacher, she currently works as a freelance editor and writer. Jenn lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two sons, and a petite 100-pound Great Dane. At her blog, she reviews great writing guides and discusses the quest for balance in the writing life.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Guest blogger Ellen Cassedy: On writing about the up close and personal – and the universal – in nonfiction.


As occasionally happens, I cross paths with an author through a mutual writing friend – or in this case, a writing/blogging friend -- and recently met Ellen Cassedy via our mutual connection to Erika Dreifus. Ellen is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, recently published by University of Nebraska Press, a source of so much rich and wonderful nonfiction. Her memoir chronicles what began as a personal journey to Lithuania to poke around in her family's Jewish history. That took on a much larger and more urgent scope as she uncovered unexpected truths and dug further, simultaneously excavating ancestral stories and exploring how a country and culture moves on from an unthinkable past. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Please welcome Ellen Cassedy

Lately I have been pondering what I adore about my favorite memoirs. It is the balance of the personal and the universal, I’ve decided – an individual life rubbing up against the sweep of history. I love writing that offers me an intimate vantage point from which to learn about a larger world – another culture or another era. 

Both as a reader and as a writer, I find that a memoir’s vibration between big and small is more than just a pleasure. It is also a political and a moral matter. When family stories are told in a larger context, we learn a fundamental truth:  that human history is made not only by generals and kings, but by each and every one of us.

So, paradoxically, my advice to fellow memoir-writers goes in two opposite directions:  1) Come closer; and 2) Step back.   

1) Come closer.  Just like a work of fiction or a play, a memoir needs vivid scenes and vivid characters. A memoir sometimes needs to slow down and draw the reader in close – close enough to be right on the spot, minute by minute, soaking up all there is to see, hear, smell. 

As I gathered material for We Are Here, my account of my journey into the land of my Jewish forebears, I kept a diary – a total of nine spiral notebooks, in which I scribbled down observations, impressions, and feelings. I also took nine rolls of film (remember rolls of film, before the digital age?)

Once I was at my desk, conjuring up the encounter with the old man in my ancestral town who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died (and wanted me to be that Jew), I could tell my readers all about his green cap, his aluminum cane, and the blood-red gladioli that framed the door of his tin-roofed cottage.  

Also like a work of fiction, memoirs require vivid characters whom the reader can cozy up to.  With a first-person narrative, that means creating yourself as a character. As the reader’s guide through a difficult moral terrain, I had to work hard to make myself into a someone readers could feel close to. My character had to be just as sharp and memorable as Uncle Will, with his complex secret from his Holocaust past, or Ruta, the passionate young woman driving a Holocaust exhibit around the country in her pickup truck.

2) Step back.  For a family story to become a book, detachment is vital. When I first sat down to write, what was on my mind were my own feelings:  how agitated I felt when my uncle revealed his secret, how perplexed I felt when I learned about the old man who wanted to speak to a Jew before he died.   

But only when my own story came to illuminate something larger was it launched it on its way toward publication. By stepping back, I widened the lens, placing my family story within the broader context of a nation’s encounter with its “family secrets,” its Jewish past. My book became not only a personal journey but also an inquiry into how people in a country scarred by genocide were seeking to build a more tolerant future.

Detachment also helped me understand what did and did not belong in the manuscript.  In writing my story, I found I was less a builder than a sculptor. I had to carve away what wasn’t needed.  That meant even my discovery of my great-grandfather’s grave had to go.  Deeply moving though it was, it didn’t advance what had become the real story.

(Don’t throw away those scraps that end up on the cutting-room floor, though.  You may find a place for them in something else you write.)

It is the balance of big and small that makes me care about someone else’s family story.  What about you?  What makes you care?   
  
Notes from Lisa:  Ellen will be stopping by the blog periodically today and tomorrow to respond to your questions and comments. After, you can continue leaving comments until midnight on April 29 to be entered in a random drawing for a free signed copy of her book.  (Must have a U.S. postal address.)

Ellen is also offering to share a copy of a handout she prepared for her panel at the recent AWP conference, entitled “Your Family Stories:  Ten Ways to Make Your Readers Care.” To request one, use this contact form.  You can read an excerpt from her memoir here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, April 13, 2012 Edition


►Stuck in a "creative drought"?  Julia Cameron, beloved advisor to thousands of writers, has tips on "Soldiering Through". (hat tip Michelle O'Neill)

► Ben Yagoda is one of my favorite current-day craft and style gurus, and he has excellent commentary here on the comma.

► Standard submission advice -- to be familiar with (to read!) the publication first – is often frustrating:  how to afford subscriptions, or even single copies, of every journal that might be a good fit?  One literary journal editor discusses why the advice is still solid (and after all, today a writer can study a publication's tone and vibe from their website, online submission guidelines, and (often) posted sample pieces).

► Whoever says the publisher-sponsored book tour is dead (okay, it pretty much is, but still), needs to check out the Atria Great Mystery Bus Tour, now ongoing, with four mystery authors currently traversing some 2,375 miles, stopping at 12 book stores. Check out the video from opening night in Manhattan, and the schedule, at USA Today's Book Buzz blog.

►Shout-outs to two former writing students who work on short personal essays. Lisa Singer recently published one of hers, with a distinctly Baltimore bent, in Eight Stone Press. Alyssa C. Martino's piece, in Author magazine, combines thoughts on writing, inspiration and what she saw in a boy's face on a trip to Target.

► Finally, Hilma Wolitzer's lovely homage to her now-gone writing mentor, Harry Crews. May we all be lucky enough to have that in our literary lives. (via Christina Baker Kline)

Have a great weekend!