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, March 27, 2015

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- March 27, 2015 Edition

> On their web "channel," the Los Angeles Review of Books is publishing a new literary journal, The Offing. And they're paying (a little), and the first wave of submissions was so strong, they're already closed to more (but re-opening on March 30).  (via Harriet Blog/Poetry Foundation)

> Literary Hub, set to launch on April 8, an effort by publishers, bookstores, publications, and literary organizations, promises it "will feature original and curated content about books and the people who write them, read them, love them."

> Poets & Writers has an app  for keeping up with New York City events. 

> Congratulations to (one of my mentors) Leslea Newman on the republication of her once-groundbreaking book, Heather Has Two Mommies. Get to to know Leslea a bit through an essay to her teenage self over at Dear Teen Me (also a great place to study the second person essay form).

> At Vela, Kelly Sundberg names eight flash nonfiction writers she's crazy about (with links to some of their most interesting pieces).

> According to Deadline Hollywood, one of Joan Didion's most iconic essays, "Goodbye to All That," has been optioned for a feature film, as has her novel, A Book of Common Prayer.

> Check out this "Freelance Rates Database" at Contently's The Freelancer site (and, if you have a recent paycheck for a media venue not listed, they'd love to hear and add it, anonymously of course).

> This one's from November, but I hadn't seen it yet. Over at Just English, a list of "18 Common Words You Should Replace in Your Writing". (Or, everything I usually cross out on student work!).

> If you're thinking of attending the annual conference of the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors), today is the final day to register with the early bird discount. (And if you do, I'm on a panel on Saturday morning, and would love to say hello in person!).

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Guest Blogger Lucy Ferriss on Why She Had to Learn to Write Badly

I met Lucy Ferriss at a memoir conference at Trinity College in 2007. I was less than one year into a low-residency MFA program, and between on-campus residencies (at University of Southern Maine), I often went in search of literary community and inspiration closer to home (Hartford, Connecticut being only two hours away). Lucy was the conference organizer, and had put together a craft-packed and busy weekend which fulfilled my wish list. If memory serves, we also shared a meal and some lively discourse. Months later, I was pleased to find one of her creative nonfiction pieces alongside mine in Sport Literate journal. I've been noticing her work ever since.

Lucy has published 10 books, mostly fiction, including her latest novel A Sister to Honor, for which she traveled to the remote Pashtun area of Pakistan. She is writer-in-residence at Trinity and lives in Connecticut and the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

Please welcome Lucy Ferriss

I haven’t sent anything to The New Yorker in years, but when I was young and starry-eyed, I used to polish my short stories until I could see my reflection in them and shoot them off to an editor there. This was back when you licked stamps and enclosed SASEs to get your pages back, since it cost twenty cents a page to photocopy a manuscript at the local library. Perhaps in recognition of this effort, or maybe because they weren’t yet overwhelmed with emails, the editors used to respond with a dashed-off handwritten note. Thanks, but we can’t use it. Good luck!
           
One time, the note was more instructive. You need, the New Yorker editor had written, to learn to write badly.
           
Well, I never.
           
What was she on about? Write badly? I was putting myself through this exquisite torture only because I wrote well. I had always written well. Writing well, as far as I knew, was my only positive attribute. I had paid attention in English class. I knew the difference between lay and lie. I knew not to write a series of sentences in a row as subject-verb, subject-verb, subject-verb. I knew how to use the serial comma. I knew alternatives for the verb to be, and I had a list in my head of all the different ways to write he said (he exclaimed, he gasped, he pontificated, he muttered).
           
I made a paper airplane of the editor’s comment and flew it into the wastebasket.
           
But "write badly" had to mean something.   
           
It nagged at me, and I found myself noting instances in the work of my favorite authors where they wrote, well, badly. The prose stuttered. It circumnavigated the subject. It dropped into cliché. It repeated itself, and used it way too many times. Take, just for starters, Emily Dickinson. What was it with all those dashes? Did the woman have no idea how to punctuate?

A Bird, came down the Walk - 
He did not know I saw -
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw, 
. . .
           
And what about Thomas Hardy? I loved Hardy. I wanted to be Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd. But just have a look at what the master hath wrought, in The Mayor of Casterbridge:

One of the two who walked the road was she who had figured as the young wife of Henchard on the previous occasion; now her skin had lost much of its rotundity; her skin had undergone a textural change; and though her hair had not lost color it was considerably thinner than before.

Even accounting for Victorian wordiness, the description feels flat and diffuse. The verbs are weak—walked, was, lost, undergone. Surely Hardy could be more precise and vivid.
           
Crossing into our century, I encounter Mary Gaitskill, perhaps my generation’s most forceful dramaturge of female desire. Her novel Veronica, about a fashion model named Alison, was deservedly a National Book Award finalist. But in one scene after another, the writing seems to miss its mark:

In Paris, things happened fast. Two weeks after my first job, I met the head of CĂ©leste. His name was Alain Black; he was a South African with a French mother. He was the man I had glimpsed on my first day there.

I have no idea whether method attended the madness of these authors as they crafted these sentences. But I can tell you this. Dickinson’s dashes and oddly placed commas yield the sense of her breathing, or trying to breathe, as she writes that poem. Hardy’s uninflected description of Michael Henchard’s wife has the effect of stage directions, notes on the actress who is about to step onto the proscenium—making you feel that the whole novel is a sort of play. As indeed it is, a morality play about bad faith. As to Veronica, the third-person narration channels Alison’s indirect discourse, and she’s an insecure, narcissistic wreck.
           
The so-called bad writing, in other words, risks tasking a reader’s patience, but its rewards go beyond sharp description or elegant syntax. To learn to write badly, I had to

• abandon my own cleverness
• listen to the cadences of my characters, including their silences and stumblings
• put every bit of writing to the service of the story
• trust my reader as much as my characters trusted me.

I still struggle. I long to use words like penumbra and viscid and hate giving them up for shadow and sticky. In my latest novel, A Sister to Honor, I write of a character who has committed a terrible act, What, oh what had he been made to do?—which sounds melodramatic to me, but he’s a melodramatic guy, and that phrase kept hammering at me. Almost every time the copy editor corrected a verb to subjunctive voice (“I wish she were here”), I threw it back to the indicative (“I wish she was here”).
           
Elizabeth Bowen has a bit of advice for writing dialogue: Effect of choking (as in engine), more to be said than can come through. Though the reference has long been obscure—when was the last time any of us choked a car engine, forcing the gas through a tiny hole to give it more explosive propulsion?—I like to apply the advice to what my long-ago editor called bad writing. What can’t come through does come through, in the end, and all our velocity depends on it.

Note from Lisa: Lucy would be happy to answer questions from blog readers, in the comments section; she'll *stop by* a few times over the next two weeks, so leave your questions or other comments for her there. She's also like to give one blog reader a complimentary signed copy of her novel, A Sister to Honor. Just leave any comment here by April 11 to be in the running. (Must have a U.S. postal address.)  You can connect with Lucy via Twitter or Facebook, and visit her website

Images courtesy Lucy Ferriss

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Author Interview with Lisa Lenzo on her short story collection, Strange Love

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to occasionally edit essays and short stories for Brain, Child magazine—a most enjoyable freelance editing gig. That's how I met Lisa Lenzo, whose short story collection, Strange Love (Wayne State University Press) was published in 2014. I so enjoyed working with her on "Aliens," a story that first appeared in Brain, Child, that I knew I'd want to follow-up one day with an author interview. When I read the book, I was captivated not only by Lisa's prose, storycraft, and characters, but by the setting along Lake Michigan, and the role the lake and weather plays in her book. 
Strange Love is a current finalist for Foreward Review's IndieFab Book of the Year, and was also chosen as a Michigan Notable Book for 2015Bonnie Jo Campbell, in her endorsement on the back cover writes, "These stories will surprise you with their intensity and intimacy, and Lenzo's language will mesmerize you." 
Lisa L. was kind enough to answer my nosy questions.   
Please welcome Lisa Lenzo
Q. The stories move in a chronological way, with the same central characters – Annie and her daughter Marly – over 10-plus years, but also leave out chunks of time. Did you write them in that order? Did you write additional stories to make the collection fuller? Were there other Annie/Marley stories that you left out?
LL. I wrote the first story, “Still Life,” many years ago—it was finished in time to include in my first book, Within the Lighted City, but it wasn’t a good fit for that collection. I didn’t write my next relationship story until a decade later, when, after coming home from another date with an odd and interesting yet frustrating man, I thought: This is ridiculous! This is hilarious! I need to write this down. And I proceeded to write down scene after scene from that relationship, which I then transformed into a story. At some point I had three long stories about my relationships with various men, and I realized I could write several more and have a collection.
I ended up with five or six long stories, which I showed to my writing group. They really liked Marly, Annie’s daughter, who appeared in many of her mother’s stories, and they wanted to see more of her. They also thought the stories about the mom’s boyfriends should be cut way back. So I cut the five stories I had about Annie by about half and wrote four Marly stories, which I then interspersed between the Annie stories. That makes it sound easier than it was.
The most difficult thing was to write each story so that it stood alone, yet didn’t repeat what was included in the earlier stories. For instance, when I mentioned Marly’s flame-red hair or her abusive boyfriend in one story, I couldn’t mention them again in a subsequent story as if introducing them for the first time.
Q. I understand you tried to make the collection into a novel but it didn't feel right. Can you talk about that attempt, the process of understanding whether you are writing a novel or a collection, and what drove your final decision?
LL. I knew I was writing a collection early on, and by the time I was done, that it was a novel-in-stories. But my agent said that the term “novel-in-stories” was not being used anymore, that the term in favor was “linked collection,” and collections “don’t sell.” It was my agent’s idea to turn it into a novel so that she could sell it—she thought I would be able to transform it into a novel, because it was almost one already. 
So I tried to do what she asked by filling in the chronological gaps and also filling out Annie’s and Marly’s lives, so that the focus wasn’t so much on boys and men. But I ended up with my string of neat, self-contained stories—each its own little cabin--looking as if I’d tacked them together with scrap lumber. And I found the overall story was stronger when there were time gaps and the focus was mainly on men. Of course you can’t help but get some sense of the rest of Annie’s and Marly’s lives, too, especially the mother-daughter relationship, which is the strongest and maybe the most interesting relationship in the book. Ironically, I think Strange Love as it is could have “passed” for a novel—readers and reviewers keep telling me it reads like one.
Q. Lake Michigan (often ice covered) is central in the stories, and you've said that as a Michigan native the lake is in your "bones". Do you think of the lake as a character in the book?
LL. I grew up in Detroit, which is also in my bones, but when I first came to live on the lake at the age of 18, I fell under its spell, and it has held me ever since. “Character” seems too small a thing to describe The Lake, which, from the vantage point of anyone on the beach, looks as big and wide as an ocean. It’s actually an inland sea, and for Annie, it’s as large as God—or actually, maybe larger, since she’s not sure God exists. And the Lake is Godlike—vast, mysterious, powerful, both soothing and harsh. It’s larger than life, larger than any character I can conceive of, whether man, woman, or child. It is an overreaching and underlying presence in Annie’s life and mine.
Q. Annie and Marly are variously in relationships with men and always with each other; so there's some romantic love, and some is familial--representative of the pursuit of love itself, which often does feel strange or work out strangely. I wonder what you had in mind by the title?
LL. Yes, it’s the pursuit of love that feels strange and works out strangely. And all love is somewhat strange, when you consider it closely enough--both weird and wondrous. At the same time, I think most people will agree that Annie and Marly’s men, with maybe one exception, are odd or strange or eccentric to varying degrees, and that Annie and Marly are somewhat unusual, too. As Marly says at one point, “You’re not exactly casebook normal, Mom, and I’m on medication.”
Q. We first came into contact when I was a freelance editor for Brain, Child, working with you on minor revisions for the story, "Aliens," in which a teenage Marly tries to distance herself from her mother. I was so happy to see Annie and Marly again in the pages of your book, as if they were old friends. I wonder, is that a small glimpse of what it's like for a fiction writer when you go back and revive characters?
LL. I tend to come back to the same characters, based on my family and myself. Then I need a break from them, so I write something totally different. Then I come back to my family again and, yes, it is nice to be in familiar territory, where I know the people so well that the main challenge is not in creating characters but in conveying them to the reader as richly as I can.
Q. Some writers find it easier to write about a geographic place when they are away from it, while others like to be in the environment they are writing about. Where do you fit in? Do you write best about Michigan and the lake region while there? Did you get away at any time while writing, and did that help or hinder your ability to conjure the place on the page?
LL. I think I work better when I’m in the place I’m writing about. Then,for instance, if I want to describe the ice on the lake, I can just walk down to the lake in winter and check it out. I’ve recently finished Taking the Blue Star, a novel set in and around Saugatuck, Michigan, and after one of the earlier drafts was done, I had a friend drive me to all the places where the characters traveled, at the same time of year (November) that the novel takes place, so I could look around me as my friend drove and flesh out the details related to setting.
Looking out at the fields of corn, still standing but dead, the stalks pale and dry, I thought ghost corn, unsure of whether I’d made up that phrase or heard it somewhere, and I gave that thought and phrase to one of my characters. One of the scenes happens at a nearby monastery, and another at the local gun and pizza shop, places I don’t normally frequent, and I wandered through both several times, getting a feel for them and seeing what was on display and for sale, casing both joints for whatever details I needed to use for my novel.
Q. Your introduction mentions you couldn't have completed the collection "without my writing pals". Can you talk about your writing community? Is it a matter of getting actual feedback on drafts? Or is it (instead or also) more about support and encouragement, having someone around who knows what an editorial rejection feels like?
LL. I rely on both things—feedback is essential and emotional support is, too—but since I am dedicated to writing and am not going to be deterred by rejection, it’s the feedback that I need the most. I sometimes worry that I’m missing out on greater connection to writers and writing communities, because unlike most writers, I have a nonacademic job, and I work too late in the evenings to attend most readings. I’m looking for an agent to sell my finished novel, and I wonder if it would be easier if I were in an academic setting and had access to more writers. But I’m grateful for all the writers I do know. And I truly rely on my closest writing friends to help me make my rough manuscripts into finished ones.
Q. In the online MFA program I teach in, we talk about designing a writing life, given that most students will always have a full- or part-time "day job" that isn't writing (and not every writer will want to teach). I believe that, like your character Annie, you work for a bus company. Can you describe how you organize time around your job, and how you sustain a writing life? In terms of productivity and craft, what does a writer, in it for the long haul, need to do to continue to write and not be frustrated by lack of time?
LL. I’m lucky in that, rather than working 9 to 5, I work in the afternoons, so I have the whole morning to write—more time than a lot of my teacher friends who are writers. The drawback is I usually work at my job six days a week and also into the evening, I don’t have summers off, and I’ve never had a sabbatical. Like any serious writer, I still have to draw lines around my writing time and create a balance between time for writing, family, friends, errands, etc. I worry that sometimes my friends and family are disappointed in some of my choices. But they mainly understand, I think, and it helps tremendously that I have a super supportive husband.
Q. What are you working on now? In addition to fiction, do you write in any other genre or form?
LL. Right now I’m doing research and taking notes for a book whose working title is None of Us Are Free. It’s an autobiographical and historical novel that takes place in Detroit, focusing on 1972 and 1973, when I was 15 and active in a city-wide radical movement whose main concerns were the criminal (in)justice system, the heroin epidemic, and a lethal and racist police unit known as STRESS. In addition to fiction, I also write creative nonfiction. My work often falls between the two, and I’m constantly struggling with trying to decide and define which of the two I’m creating. Some pieces are definitely one or the other, but many occupy a middle ground.

Note from Lisa Romeo: You might enjoy this Michigan Radio interview with Lisa Lenzo. And be sure to visit her website.

Swag ! Lisa Lenzo would like to send one blog reader a complimentary signed copy of her book. Just leave a comment here by Sunday, April 5. (Must have a U.S. postal address.)

Images of Lake Michigan ice, courtesy of Charlie Schreiner; others courtesy Lisa Lenzo

Thursday, March 5, 2015

My Husband and I Didn't Have a "Meet-Cute" Moment. So of course, I wrote about it.

Personal nonfiction writers often ponder the delicate issue of writing about loved ones, in particular spouses, a subject I once spent months researching. What I found, and have observed, is that most contemporary memoir and personal essay writers fall into (or straddle) three categories:

- show work to a spouse while it's still in very early draft form, giving him/her full veto power to delete anything
- share it only in late stages of editing, with either (a) a willingness to discuss cuts, but no guarantees; or (b) just as a heads-up
- stay mum until publication

I'm mostly in the second category - b - *Honey, FYI, this piece is coming out next week, and you're in it.* But sometimes I slip into the third. Why? Because I can. Because my husband, bless him, has a sense of humor about himself and us; because after 27 years of marriage he knows to pick his battles; and (maybe best of all) because he is almost completely isolated from social media (his choice).

Seven years ago, I began a narrative essay about how we met, fell apart and come back together multiple times over 12 years. In its various incarnations, the piece grew, deepened, languished, shrank, came back to life in varying forms. 

Once, I showed a draft to a writing friend for input and -- because we had dinner planned with this friend and her fiance -- I let Frank read it, mostly so that if the topic of what my friend and I were each writing came up, he wouldn't be in the dark. He shrugged. That was four years ago. I brought the drafts out to play with a few times since, then buried it again.

Finally, last fall, something shifted. I started with a blank screen, and after only a few hours (and 7 years) of rewriting, out it went on the submission trail.

Happily, Blue Lyra Review liked it and "Not Quite Meet-Cute" is part of their newest issue, now live. Which is why, last week, I told Frank, in a by-the-way moment, "A piece I wrote about how we met and dated is going to be published." He shrugged. 

I titled this one after a line in the film The Holiday, when the lovely actor Eli Wallach (who plays a now-elderly but once famously productive screenwriter from the golden age of Hollywood), explains that the magical, sweet, sometimes comical moment when fated lovers in a film first encounter one another, is called the "meet-cute."

My husband and I didn't have one of those. 

Here's how my story begins: 
People often ask how my husband and I met, confusing meeting with meaning.I tell them the meet-cute version: it happened at a New York Giants football game, two teenagers who forgot umbrellas and shared an improvised over-sized black trash-bag poncho. It is true, this story, and you can get by with this story, entertain and please people who want to know it is still possible to be sleeping beside the love of your life some thirty-eight years after he first made you swoon. 
But it’s not that simple. 
I first saw and heard my future husband when I was twelve and he sixteen, filling multiple roles in a high school production of My Fair Lady: dreamy looks, a swath of dark curly hair, and that last name – Frank Romeo. When we finally met at that football game three years later, I was with my best friend Anne, and he with his best friend Jeff. About five weeks of double dates followed, but I failed to notice Frank’s distracted twitch. I had forgotten that I first encountered him as an actor...
I hope you will read the rest here. And, if you're inclined, give it a boost with the Facebook Like button at the bottom of the essay on the BLR site