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Thursday, May 24, 2012
I love when two strings of my writing world suddenly knit together. A while back, I read an article online which so clearly laid out the landscape of submitting to lit journals, I printed out the 10 pages, and passed the link to students and writing friends. Last month, my friend, novelist Christina Baker Kline mentioned that her writing friend, Lynne Barrett, was coming to our local bookstore in late May. The name seemed vaguely familiar and when Christina told me Lynne had written that fantastic article about submissions, I knew I had to have her on the blog.
Please welcome Lynne Barrett.
I’m from New Jersey. Born in Newark, I grew up in Verona, and my parents’ families lived in Essex County long before that. But now I find myself a “Florida writer,” and since my third book of short stories won a Florida Book Award, interviewers ask me to comment on why Florida is a great state for writing and how it inspires me.
It is and it does, yet I know that I am also, somehow, always, a New Jersey writer.
Most of the stories in this book take place in Florida, but the opening one is set in West Orange, NJ, and across the Hudson in Manhattan (not far in miles, but to the characters, different worlds). Though I put this story first for other reasons, it is also a bit of a claim: this is my original territory.
I could also make a case for being a North Carolina writer by training, or, if summers of scribbling count, lay claim to Maine. We could ask why states are used to label authors at all. (Or regions— Southern, Midwestern—though it seems nobody is called a Mid-Atlantic writer.) But what I’ve been thinking about lately is how origin and residence, place and displacement, have informed my work. I’ve made this list of at least some of the angles:
In my deepest memories, I’m not “in” New Jersey but of it: sliding down a mass of honeysuckle on the slope in front of our house till I was sticky and fragrant, when I was four, or tumbled in a broth of salt water and sand at Lavallette. Like all the kids in my neighborhood, I learned the secret back ways into Verona Park, as I gradually expanded the map of my known world. When I write from this state of belonging, setting and character intermingle in a way that feels both exhilarating and endangered. I’m always conscious that a character’s movements out into the world promise both adventure and loss.
Growing up where I did meant that cresting a street, looking out a high window, or gazing through binoculars from the Eagle Rock Reservation viewpoint, I could glimpse New York City’s skyline. On mornings when I walked with my mother to post a letter at the mailbox there’d be people dressed in their going-to–the-city clothes waiting for the bus. This presence just offstage always had magnetism. And when I began to go to Manhattan myself, I was conscious of the double perspective: I’m here, but I know what it looks like from afar. Sometimes I juxtapose a character’s experience being in a place and then seeing it from some height or distance. I think this helps to create a sense of its reality and significance, whether the city is Los Angeles or Oz.
I went away to college, and I was eager to go. But only then did I become from New Jersey and see the distance between how I knew home and how others saw it, or spoke of it without knowing it at all. I had to explain and defend it. Even a week ago, when somebody said, “Oh, you’re from Joisey,” I snapped, saying I’ve never heard anyone from New Jersey speak like that. If anything we hit our R's extra hard. I’ve since known many people who are “from” a place that is not well understood, whose prickliness I recognized as like my own. If characters are “from” Argentina, or Alabama, I think about how they seek to define themselves rather than be defined. I remember that they’ve lost the comfort of belonging without thinking about it, that to be from is also to be away from.
Coming to a place, being new, not knowing the rules and manners of those who are “of” it, means you notice things its denizens don’t. Being an outsider is great writer training, and writing outsider characters is an opportunity to explore trouble, as they make mistakes, get lost, misunderstand and are misunderstood. I like to plunge characters into some new territory, which could be a strange town or simply a new workplace, and let them study its language and codes. Will the character learn what’s really going on in time, or figure it out just too late?
I rarely visit a new place without feeling an urge to research it, I think because my drive to be oriented is so strong, though I tell myself it’s so I can use it as a setting. I’ll retrace my steps till I don’t need a map (though I pick up lots of maps). I think it’s better to learn a few square blocks well than just see tourist highlights. I try to find people who like to talk and set a stranger straight. It’s not hard: people love a listener. Once, in Mississippi, I was at dinner, working on my notes from that day’s research (I’d gone with an archaeologist to an Indian mound he was excavating), and the restaurant owner stopped to ask what I was doing. Learning I was a writer, he got his wife and her friends to move to my table to share stories and, soon, wine. Next day, as I was leaving my motel, a couple also checking out said to me, wistfully, “Oh, we saw you at that restaurant last night, with all your friends.” I felt triumphant: I had seemed, for the moment, of the place. Somehow this made me sure I could write my Mississippi story.
Once, when I was in my twenties and home for a visit, I needed to pick up a friend at Newark Airport. My grandfather wrote out directions for me, and I drove off. His road numbers were the little, last ones you see on signs, the old roads that have been overlaid by highways. One of his instructions read: “Turn where Dugan’s Bakery used to be.” I had to guess, and managed to guess right, and didn’t tell him how poignant I found it that he steered by landmarks no longer there. A person who continues in a place watches it change out from under him. And one who comes back can’t help but measure what’s altered, can’t help but feel that there was some alternative life that would have been continuous, instead of ruptured. The place revisited is always haunted.
In stories, I like to combine characters who represent different relationships to the setting. I’ll have a first-time visitor meet someone deeply embedded in a locale, or bring together people who have arrived from different places, for different reasons, yet are now sharing and attempting to define a new “home.” I pay a lot of attention to who’s on whose territory. In the end, I think the setting should act on characters and characters should affect the state of things in that place, so that we feel that nothing will ever be quite the same.
Notes from Lisa:
>>Lynne will be back in New Jersey on May 31, reading at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair at 7 PM, with a reception starting at 6:30.
>>Magpies, winner of the Gold Medal for General Fiction in the Florida Book Awards, is Lynne’s third collection of short stories. She co-edited the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion, and has won the Edgar Award for best mystery story. She teaches in the M.F.A. program at Florida International University in Miami.
>>Everyone who submits to literary magazines should read “What Editors Want,” from The Review Review (also cited in the L.A. Times and New Yorker book blogs).
Monday, May 21, 2012
I am approaching a season of endings. Or rather, the endings have already begun, mostly in the area of my parenting life. In less than a month, my elder son will graduate from high school and his younger brother will finish middle school. Instead of a summer filled with camp, Boy Scout projects and events, and a family vacation, there will be summer jobs, and an orientation visit, and me working more hours than I usually do in the "off-season" (tuition bills take no holiday!)
In August, the first one starts college in another state, and the second heads to an out-of-town high school, boarding a train each morning as his brother did. And I'll begin…worrying, making adjustments, crying a little, praying a lot, planning, and feeling as if the earth has tilted.
But first, and all along the way, I am taking notes.
Now you know why I am talking about this on my writing site.
Isn't that what all personal essayists and memoir writers do when life shifts, when things end, when things begin? In between the adjusting, crying, worrying, changing, shifting, praying, feeling nostalgic and maybe regretful and certainly grateful and hopeful?
We take notes.
We observe – ourselves and others. We listen.
And we sneak off and write it down. You know, in all those little notebooks we squirrel away – in purses, briefcases, backpacks, cars, laundry rooms, kitchens, bedside tables, gym bags, desk drawers.
You do stash tiny notebooks everywhere, don't you?
Or we send ourselves a text, an email, a voice message if no notebook is available. Or we scribble on receipts, soccer schedules, pizza menus, deposit slips, coupons, junk mail envelopes.
I do, anyway.
We write it down. Or, we forget. Nonfiction writers don't want to forget, because when we forget, if we forget, we are sunk.
We write nonfiction, after all, because we don't forget, and because it's in the not forgetting that we find meaning. Or at least, we try to.
And so, as I begin to stockpile dorm room necessities in big plastic storage tubs, I'll be taking notes. When I have a moment in between the graduation ceremony and the family lunch, I'll be taking notes. If either or both sons sit at the kitchen counter and leaf through their yearbooks with me, I'll disappear right after and take notes. After my husband and I drive away from the college campus, and after we wave goodbye to a departing train, I'll be taking notes.
Better get a new pen with ink that doesn't run.
Update: I wrote this last week and scheduled it to automatically post this morning. Yesterday I got the ultimate call about endings: My mother passed away at age 86. In the last four years, she had four heart attacks, a stroke, and was suffering from kidney disease and congestive heart failure. I wasn't there at the end. Not long after I got the news, I immediately thought of a writer who once wrote about sitting at her dying mother's bedside, and her mother, knowing how much her daughter was comforted and sustained by writing about life's seminal moments, told her daughter, kindly, "take notes." I can't remember right now
Friday, May 18, 2012
► The New Yorker's new blog, Page-Turner, offers "Criticism, contention, and conversation about books that matter."
► My morning walking buddy let me know that Anne Lamott was recently on Studio 360. You now have my permission to leave my blog and possibly never return...
► At the Knopf Doubleday YouTube page, the Writers on Writing series features 30-second insights from 28 authors, including Cheryl Strayed, Alexander McCall Smith, Isabel Wilkerson, Chris Bohjalian, and others. (via GalleyCat)
►In preparing for a mini-workshop last night, in which I would be talking about the segmented essay, I stumbled on "This is What the Spaces Say," from Robert Root.
►A many-times published novelist (who's been a midlist and a NYT best-selling author) shares some financial facts of the writing life.
► Finally, rethinking your writing space? For inspiration, check out this post at Metre Maids, where "Some ladies and this guy blog about poetry."
Have a great weekend!
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Over the past few weeks, I've featured guest posts from some of my fellow contributors to Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing. But none of us would have been tossed together were it not for the efforts of the book's co-editor, Carol Smallwood. So today it's her turn.
Please welcome Carol Smallwood.
Style is impossible to see in your own writing even though you automatically detect it in the writing of others. The more you write, the more you want words to flow effortlessly. Once you no longer have to think where the letters of the keyboard are, words flow so much faster which brings make mistakes. Really a remarkable process -- that automatic pressing of keys to form words whether copying someone else’s or writing in the moment -- not unlike driving a car, turning on the television, and the hundreds of things we do without thinking every day. The flow of ideas, that is, changing ideas into words by keyboard via typing, gets easier with practice. When we're less concerned with mechanics, our style emerges.
The word, style, is often associated with the fashion world; my dictionary gives 18 versions of style used as a noun or verb. But as far as writers, style means the way sentences are put together. Are they wordy, awkward, unclear? Do they involve poor word choices? Too artsy, too chatty, choppy, or just plain boring?
John Galsworthy, a Nobel laureate (1867-1933), who enjoyed a revival with the very successful television series, The Forsyte Saga, is a writer I keep rereading because of his style. He gives an excellent definition of it in a 1923 address: “Style is the power in a writer to remove all barriers between himself and his reader—the triumph of style is the creation of intimacy.” No matter if it is short stories, novels, plays, essays, letters, Galsworthy is a master.
The quote, Character is Fate, appears in Greek on the half title page, and is the last sentence of The Patrician. The beginning of Chapter I resembles an entrance song of a Greek tragedy: "Light, entering the vast room -- a room so high that its carved ceiling refused itself to exact scrutiny-travelled, with the wistful, cold curiosity of the dawn, over a fantastic storehouse of Time." And, as in a Greek tragedy, it is followed by dialogue. Greek myths such as the River Lethe are alluded to in the novel. Bliss Perry, in his Introduction to The Patrician, compares Lord Dennis's solution "with the finality of a Greek chorus."
In his preface to W.H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, Galsworthy wrote: “Style should not obtrude between a writer and his reader; it should be servant, not master. To use words so true and simple, that they oppose no obstacle to the flow of thought and feeling from mind to mind, and yet by juxtaposition of word-sounds set up in the recipient continuing emotion or gratification—this is the essence of style; and Hudson’s writing has pre-eminently this double quality.”
Style has been compared with fingerprints: our writing style is ours alone whether we like it or not. We may try to imitate other writers, but style is so personal, readers will be able to tell the difference. We are all unique and style reflects that, adding to that special flavor and fabric of words. Each of us sees through our own eyes which in turn decides our writing style. Each of us has our own DNA that is unique. Our own finger prints.
Our backgrounds can’t help but hone our style. My affirmation of brevity is expressed by Alexander Pope, “Words are like leaves and where they most abound, Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found,” and most likely was further confirmed by taking quick notes as a history and English undergrad and grad. Annotations as a library science grad student topped it off.
But my love for the concise came in handy as a columnist for newspapers like The Detroit News in the 1980’s and the anthology pieces I still write today. As an editor, my submissions guidelines for anthologies and essay collections include a preference for short pieces, which contributors say are harder to write. I pass along Gustave Flaubert’s advice: "Whenever you can shorten a sentence, do. And one always can. The best sentence? The shortest."
Carol Smallwood's first poetry collection, Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) won a Pushcart nomination. She also co-edited both Women and Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (Foreword by Molly Peacock), a 2012 McFarland anthology.
Friday, May 11, 2012
► Wonder how authors decide on book titles? (Hint: they often don't. Publishers' marketing departments do.)
► I know, I know, no Pulitzer was awarded this year for fiction…but in case you wondered about the other winners, the list is here.
► On a related note, there also was no award in the nonfiction manuscript category this year for the Bakeless Prize (administered through Bread Loaf Writer's Conference and Greywolf Press). Sigh.
►I'm interested in Pressfolios, a new site where a freelance writer can build an online portfolio. GalleyCat reviewed it.
► Ever wonder if a publishing "opportunity" is really just a scam or at most, borderline ethical? Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors may help.
► Some of these "super sad true habits of highly effective writers" you may not want to know. But there's also a bit of reassurance, too.
► In case you missed it, here is the essay by Meg Wolitzer from the New York Times Book Review which sparked a lot of discussion the last six weeks about women who write literary novels and why they still aren't included in fiction's elite.
► Finally, England's largest online bookseller has a fun new feature that lets anyone see what books have sold and in what worldwide location, in real time.
Have a great weekend!
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Last time I was stuck in Minneapolis airport, I spent a desultory five hours doing what one does: having no fun. Next time, I think I'll call Kate Hopper and ask to hang out with her for a few hours. We'll have a lot to talk about – writing, motherhood, teaching writing, and the intersection of all that and more. Kate is a fellow contributor to the anthology Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing, and this is the third in a series of guest posts from some of the book's contributors.
Please welcome Kate Hopper.
How many years were you writing before you could say “I’m a writer” and really believe it?
I didn’t call myself a “real writer” until after my daughter, Stella, was born in 2003, even though I had been writing for a few years and was just beginning my third year of the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. Clearly I was writing, but I still felt uncomfortable claiming the title “writer.”
Then I developed severe preeclampsia and Stella was born two months early. She spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and the two of us spent the following long Minnesota winter months at home. I withdrew from graduate school, and spent my days walking my fragile and very fussy infant around the dining room table.
For the first time in my life, I was desperate for words. I craved stories that revealed something other than the rosy versions of motherhood so often perpetuated in our society. I wanted to know that the exhaustion and despair I felt some days did not make me a bad mother. But I didn’t find much out there that validated the complicated emotions I was experiencing as a new mother.
So when Stella was five months old, I left her bundled in her daddy’s arms, and went to the coffee shop near our house and pulled out paper and a pen. The images of her—writhing on white blankets, beamed from the NICU into the television set in my hospital room—came spilling out, and after an hour, words covered the page. For the first time since she was born, I felt grounded, and the world felt a little bigger. After that, when I had a free hour, I wrote for an hour.
I started calling myself a “writer.”
And an interesting thing happened: When I began to believe in myself as a writer, I started to carve out more time to actually write, I took myself more seriously, and I began to write more than I’d ever written before. I no longer waited for inspiration, no longer spent hours rearranging the spice cupboard instead of tapping away at the keyboard. Part of this certainly had to do with the fact that as a new mother I had very limited writing time, and I wasn’t about to squander it making sure that the cumin was next to the coriander. (Who needs coriander anyway?)
In calling myself a writer, I also learned to see my writing as work, which helped me value the time I spent at my computer. I discuss the need to view your writing as work in my Women Writing on Family essay, “It’s Not a Hobby.”
If you were starting a career in business administration, it wouldn’t be unusual to have one or two (or more) internships before you landed your first “real” job. These months, though often unpaid, are invaluable, helping you learn the ropes of the business world. The same goes for your writing. You need time and space—and many months—to make headway with your writing, to learn the craft of your trade. If you’re not making money from your writing yet, think of it as a long-term unpaid internship.
Once you reframe your writing as work—whether you’re working on a paid freelance article or a short story that’s unlikely to ever make you a cent—you will be more likely to treat your writing as work. Set a schedule that’s realistic, and on those days, show up to the office or dining room table or coffee shop and log in your hours. (This may be only once a week or even once every two weeks. Don’t set yourself up for failure by planning to write every day if that’s not feasible.)
And if you don’t already, start calling yourself a writer. (Buy an “I’m a writer” a pin and wear it proudly if that helps!)
Kate Hopper’s first book, Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, has just been released from Viva Editions. Kate teaches writing online and at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where she lives with her family. She blogs at Motherhood and Words.
To read more on this blog from Women Writing on Family contributors, click here.
Friday, May 4, 2012
► Michael Steinberg, founding editor of Fourth Genre, one of the few literary journals fully devoted to nonfiction, has links to several useful articles about creation nonfiction craft at his brand-new blog (scroll down left margin for craft essay links).
►I'm loving the new email newsletter from the Review Review (a site that reviews literary journals), overflowing with links out to up-to-the-minute articles, posts, contests, and other things literary, from many sources.
► Nicola Morgan (Britain's "Crabbit Old Bat" blogger) reminds us that publishers are "in it for the money," so we'd all best just get over it.
► Book trailers: fan, skeptic, or on the fence? Randy Susan Meyers has a few thoughts – and some great video examples.
►A friend recently asked me for tips on writing a nonfiction book proposal, and while I couldn't locate the excellent template I found just last week (and was certain I had bookmarked!), I could pass along these worthwhile resources, found here, and here, and here, and here.
► Finally, what Alison Espach thought twice about listing as a writing business expense on her taxes. Almost makes me want to go back and re-do my own taxes.
Have a great weekend!
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
"I'm doing the assignments and reading, taking in all the feedback, and doing a lot of revising and new writing based on all of that, but I just don't know if my work is improving. I keep waiting for the 'aha' moment and it's not coming."
There's a short, and I believe, simple answer to this, and I'm not being flip or glib: Stop waiting.
Really, how often do moments of epiphany, instances of "Oh now I get it!" come along in precisely that fashion, at just the time when you anticipated, hoped, planned for? Mostly, sudden moments of realization, striking occurrences of forehead-thumping, Oprah-esque "aha" moments sneak up on us. When we don't expect them.
But that's too simple of an answer to the frustrated writing student who is working diligently, with an open mind, and willing spirit.
I have been in this student's shoes. Many times. I can recall writing workshop experiences, where I had willingly signed up for the tough love of a stellar mentor, and been working hard, trying this, experimenting with that on the page…and waiting for the clouds to part and a balloon caption to appear over my head: "Oh now I get it. Look how much better my writing is now. Wow."
This never happened. Only later was I able to trace back a dramatic shift in my work to a precise discussion in a workshop. Over the years, I have found that the "wow" moments don't typically occur in the middle of a workshop series, class, seminar, or any other organized writing improvement situation. And now that I'm on the other side of the table (at least sometimes), I understand why.
When writers are trying their best to absorb, to push, to step out of the comfort zone, to experiment on the page, to read and expand their knowledge base about craft and story and technique, to grow as writers – that's not really the ideal time to step back, stroke one's chin, examine their newest pages, and wonder: Have I really gotten significantly better in the last few weeks?
Because there's too much going on, then. The brain is in overdrive trying to assimilate all the new information, input, and ideas. We're evaluating suggestions and advice, trying out new approaches. We look here at the craft readings and ponder their importance to our work. Then we look over there at the instructor's and/or peer feedback and wonder if we agree with it or not, and how much. We study published works to observe the masters at work on the page and consider, How did she do that? What can I learn from it?
We are in motion on many fronts – which is all good – but it's a lot to take in, and there often isn't enough mental energy, or time, to understand how it's all going to shake out, eventually. It's tiring for the mind. Then there's the compressed deadline nature of most classes/workshops which demand that writers start, revise, and finish a piece of work in less time than is ideal.
In my experience – and I'm talking here in broad terms that include not only writing but also motherhood, marriage, career, relationships – the aha moments come in two general forms. Either they hit me all at once at an unexpected and always later time: in the shower hours after the marathon writing session, while awaking the morning after an argument, during the long drive home from the much-anticipated event…or a few weeks or months after a writing workshop/conference/class ends.
Or else they creep along, small and quiet at first, and then build speed and grow in size and shape until one day I realize (with very little fanfare) that some new writing craft understanding, a technique, angle, method, mindset, approach, skill or proficiency has worked its way onto my pages. And that's when it occurs to me: Oh, look at that. Now I see. Aha.
This has been borne out by a number of writing students and editing/coaching clients who contact me weeks or months after we've finished our time together to let me know that what we were working on during a class or editing project has all fallen into place. I had a breakthrough, they say. "Suddenly" it all makes sense.
So my advice for the writer I quoted at the top of this post, the one who said this about two weeks into a four-week class is this: Corner-turning, breakthroughs, aha moments have their own agenda, and it's not yours. Relax. Stop waiting. Your job now is to take it all in, to read, to study, to try, to experiment, to think.
Call me in six to eight weeks.
You can read the first 12 installments of the Stuff My Writing Students Say series here.