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.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Author Interview Interrupted: Essay Writer Sonya Huber's Q-and-A at Cleaver Magazine

Many (many) years ago, I wrote a syndicated interview column for two dozen equestrian publications. Every month I chose someone prominent in the horse show world--a champion rider, a judge, a course designer, a top trainer, a farrier expert in keeping equine athletes' feet in top shape. Because I was on the circuit too (competing, but hardly prominent!), I simply took my target out for coffee, pulled out my Sony tape recorder, asked my prepared, carefully-researched questions, then new questions that occurred to me in the course of the conversation. Back in my hotel room, I typed it up, got copies made, and mailed them out. 

Sometimes, I miss those days. I almost always chose interviewees who I was interested in talking to, someone from whom I could learn. Now, I do Q-and-A interviews here on the blog (the coffee is enjoyed separately, as most are via email) and love bringing their words--of wisdom, caution, encouragement--to my readers. Sometimes, I'm so impressed and/or inspired by what that writer had to share, I'm caught between wanting it on my blog an wanting a wider audience, so that their insights reach more writers.

That's why my most recent interview--with the memoir and essay writer Sonya Huber--first meant for my blog--is now up at the wonderful Cleaver Magazine. (Though I'm an editor there, my narrow lane is nonfiction craft essays, so like everyone else, I had to pitch this. Fortunately, Cleaver said yes.)

I wanted to interview Sonya because I so loved reading her new, curiously-titled book, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and other Essays from a Nervous System. Here's a small sample from the interview:

SH:  I needed to find larger meaning and research to understand my own experience. So I was driven by self-interest to find those universals. I’m pretty much a ranter inside my own head. Every single essay—or many of them—start in rant mode. That’s great for a paragraph, or for fuel to begin writing, but then I would come back to those paragraphs and see how dull they were to read.
On revision I knew I had to unfold those strong emotions to make them real for the reader. I have learned to do that mainly by reading essays by other writers; doing a lot of that gets the “essay mode” inside one’s head. Every time I’m at a dead end of frustration with a personal experience, the essayist voice—which is developed through that repetition and training—asks, “But what else might that mean?” and then takes the topic at hand from a 46 degree angle.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- June 2, 2017 Edition

> In case you missed it, do read Susan Shapiro's smart, incisive rebuttal, "Taking It Personally: A Feminist Defense Of The First-Person Essay", at Forward, written in response to Jia Tolentino's piece on the New Yorker's website that declared "The Personal Essay Boom is Over."

> I'm not, like so many of my writing friends and colleagues, in Iceland for the biannual NonFiction Now! Conference, so am periodically checking out the Twitter stream #nfnow17

> And I also wasn't at Book Expo in New York City this week, so followed some of the action via #BookExpo and #BEA17. Publisher's Weekly has extensive coverage, too. (Oh, and a NYC tabloid says anti-Trump books were in evidence. True fact!)

> Leslie Pietrzyk has some advice for recent MFA grads, re: keeping in touch with your professors. 

> This past week, I was sad to learn of the passing of Brain Doyle, a remarkable essayist whose work I've long admired. Here is Brevity's round-up/tribute of some of his most memorable passages in their pages. If you've never read his work, go find it! (Start with "Being Brians" because it's fun and unusual.)

> Likewise, we lost Frank Deford, one of the best narrative sports writers, an NPR Morning Edition commentator, and author of a memoir about his daughter's shortened life (from cystic fibrosis)--Alex: The Life of a Child, 1983--at a time when that kind of book was an anomaly. He was one of my early writing idols (I started out writing about sports--ice hockey and equestrian.)

> Recently, as I edited a memoir manuscript for a publisher client that was mostly about the mid- to late-1960s in Haight-Ashbury (as in, it contained plenty of S, D & RnR!), I did a bunch of fact-checking. You can just imagine what my Google and Facebook ad stream looked like after that. I should have been using Incognito mode!

> Finally, do you too have a super duper, always admirable writing process like Hallie Cantor?

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Keeping it Simple: Memoir Finds a Publisher.

Of all the ways I considered announcing this, simple wins out. Here goes.

My memoir, tentatively titled Every Loss Story is a Love Story: The Father Daughter Reunion, will be published by University of Nevada Press in Spring 2018.

If you don't know, the road here was anything but simple, and under the calm simplicity of that sentence, I'm actually screaming with joy, dancing in gratitude, and exploding with a mixture of relief, incredulity, affirmation, and humble pride. 

(Because everyone was out and busy when I got the final news at six on Monday, I had a simple solo dinner. But there was wine (and a nice card) a few hours later when some of the menfolk got back. Yes, hubby owes me a celebratory night out!)

I have a zillion people to acknowledge and thank. For now a blanket thank-you will have to do, to everyone who has and continues to help, by cheering me on, listening to my ideas, reading my pages, offering feedback, sharing publishing advice, telling me plainly when I'm wrong, and of course, by commiserating and celebrating.

Though I've published hundreds of articles, essays, and short memoir pieces over the last couple of decades, and though I've contributed essays to several anthologies, and even though I've ghostwritten chapters and manuscripts--this already feels quite different: my name alone, on the spine.

It feels like my book found its perfect (and, in retrospect, logical) home at University of Nevada Press (more on why in a future post). I'm looking forward to working with the enthusiastic professionals there, who have made me feel like a warmly welcomed and respected artist, from the day I first chatted with the press director at a writers conference this past winter.

I hope you will follow along in my journey from here to next year's published book. I'll try to share useful information that in turn may help other writers. 

In a few days, I begin revisions the publisher wants in a few weeks time. Today and tomorrow, I'm working on completing my author questionnaire and organizing notes with my ideas for PR and marketing. (I did after all, spend 12 years in public relations!)

Here goes.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Guest Blogger Marjorie Simmins on Memoir, Starry Night Memories, and What She Learned from a Workshop Student

How I love the way the internet connects me to like-minded, interesting people across miles, borders, cultures. I was introduced to Marjorie Simmins, a Canadian memoir writer and fellow horsewoman, by Rona Maynard, a writer/editor (Canada by-way-of-New-Hampshire), with whom I've exchanged Facebook posts for years. Rona knew I would like Marjorie's memoir, Year of the Horse (Pottersfield Press 2016). Marjorie also writes essays for magazines, newspapers and anthologies in Canada and the United States, and divides her time between Nova Scotia and British Columbia. In Coastal Lives (Pottersfield 2014), she wrote about loving two coasts and one man, husband Silver Donald Cameron, a noted Canadian author. Marjorie is currently working on a third non-fiction book, which includes tips, essays, and interviews on memoir—an outgrowth perhaps of her many workshops.

Please welcome Marjorie Simmins.

“You forgot something,” says sharp-eyed Sara, a fine essayist and freelance journalist. She points to the flip-chart, on which I've written the day's itinerary. “That last one—'Starry Night Memories'—what's that?”

Sara is right, and she is wrong. I didn't actually forget, but we did run out of time, and in truth, I am relieved, as I haven’t presented that particular writing exercise to a memoir writing workshop before, and I'm not quite sure how it might go over. But I am busted now.

“Right,” I say, “'Starry Night Memories'...” I hesitate again, when I look up to see eight pairs of alert eyes focused on me, expecting some degree of teacherly articulation. You're supposed to be the memoir writing expert, I chide myself. So speak up.

“You know when you are in bed at night, you're getting sleepy, and your thoughts are moving around from subject to subject, and sometimes, from memory to memory?”  Two or three people nod.

Encouraged, I press on. “Sometimes you deliberately take out a cherished memory to visit, and enjoy. It's like an old friend you haven't seen for a while. You're happy when you think about it, and it helps you fall into a happier, more relaxed sleeping state.”

No nods this time, but several heads on a tilt; they're all still listening.

I struggle to underscore the main point. “So those memories—those 'starry night memories,' the ones we keep in our memory vaults—sometimes they're so much a part of us, they need to be written about.” I take a deep breath, wind up for the killer point: “You need to take those memories out from an inner place of safe storage, to a public place of recorded story. One memory could even be the starting point for an entire memoir.”

The group is silent, not a single head nodding now. But I trust this brainy bunch. They just need a moment.

“Ohhhh,” breathes Sara. “You mean our deepest memories – the ones that make us, ourselves.”

“The ones that are as much us, as our fingerprints or our voices,” adds another participant.

“The memory-stars inside us,” chimes a third.

“Yes,” I say. “Those.”
Then I feel that usual slither of fear down my spine – which is probably why I didn't want to do this exercise, hoped no one would notice its omission from our full day of learning and sharing.
More to myself than to the group, I hear myself say: “Of course once you write about those memories, you kinda lose them as your special friends in your own might skies.” I should hold back the next thoughts, too, but somehow I can’t. “Sometimes it feels like there are only a finite number of the most intense, writable memories. So you might … run out.”
A weighted moment of consideration by all, then Sara cries out: “No! That's not it. As soon as you set one memory free, another is able to rise up and take its place. It's like water coming up in our footprints on the beach. All those footprints, all that water and sand:  that can't be counted individually, any more than memories can. And think of this,” her voice is triumphant now, “why shouldn't the memory that comes up be even more special than the one you let go of? It certainly could be as special.”

I will not gasp. I will not cry. I will not sag with relief.
“Yes,” I say, with apparent calm, my interior landscape as a memory-hoarder forever changed. “I can see that, Sara.”

What I see, in fact, is what I've known for ages, as an essayist and a memoirist: the memories do change within after you've offered them up publicly, becoming less vivid in some ways, more substantial in others. Most startling of all, they go on to have their own separate lives apart from you, in the memories of those who read about them.

But I have guarded my deepest, most personal memories partly because they are so connected to people I love, many of whom have passed on, either from simple old age, or complicated early deaths; replaying the memories seems like the only way I can spend time with them. Hence the instinct to hoard. Mine, all mine.

Which goes against every writerly instinct to share stories, I know. Somehow I’ve worked around that, my lifelong need to write and share stories winning out over my fears of losing particular, beloved memories.

What startles me more than anything from Sara's outburst is the idea of memories-in-waiting. Archaeological layers of memories, waiting to be troweled up into the sun. Bonus! I have never before thought of memories as infinite. I am exhilarated and delighted … and a wee bit intimidated. I am used to corralling, then gradually sharing what I thought was a finite selection of memories.
I stand silently in front of eight pairs of intelligent, kind eyes, and I think: I could claim that whole vast universe of memory that exists within us all, and I could experience more beauty, feel more sustenance from my waking, day-skies, too. Balance, I think, it’s all about balancing then and now.
Aloud I say: Close your eyes for a moment. Forget that it's daytime. Settle into a pretend night sky. Stars upon stars. When you go to your memories, what are the bright constellations you always go to?

Eight pens find paper. When I give workshops, next to the epiphanies that often come with the sharing of ideas, these silent, working times are my favourites..I love to see writers write. We've talked in and around memoir for most of a day, sharing what fascinates and frustrates us about this saucy, renegade genre. Now it's time for quiet, and the recording of thoughts, perhaps of epiphanies, certainly memories – starry night and otherwise.

Note: You can connect with Marjorie via her website, on Facebook, at Twitter, and

*Marjorie's next memoir workshop, The Minefields of Memoir, is scheduled for June 17, 2017, at the Thinkers Lodge National Historic Site, in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Information is posted at her site.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- May 12, 2017 Edition

>I'm just beginning to explore this new-to-me nonfiction site, from across the pond -- The Real Story: Developing Creative Nonfiction and the Essay in the UK.

> Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times (Sunday) Book Review, talks about the future of criticism and what your books say about you, on the Slate I Have to Ask podcast with Isaac Chotiner.

> Over on Jungle Red, Eight crime fiction writers talk about handling and learning from rejection, developing tenacity, and other bits from the writer's life.

> When I was preparing panel proposals for the 2018 AWP conference (multiple fingers crossed), they had to be under 500 characters, including spaces. When my word processor wouldn't fully cooperate, I found this oh-so-easy Letter Count. It even knows the character counts for all the top social media channels.

> If you do any freelance writing, and need additional places to find markets, check out the listings at All Freelancing Writing.

> For your reading pleasure: there's a lot of Mother's Day related fare floating around this week. One of my favorites so far is this beautiful piece, "My Mother's Eyes," from my former MFA student Susan Davis Abello.

> Finally, after some quiet time on the blog, over the next few weeks I'll be featuring new guest posts (Marjorie Simmins and Sonya Huber are up first), and let you in on what's been happening in my own writing life lately. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by for the Friday links!

Have a great weekend!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- April 21, 2017 Edition

I'm seeing a big uptick in readers here lately, so welcome! For those who don't know: it's called Friday Fridge Clean-Out because years ago, when I began sharing links, it mirrored the way I fed my family on a Friday night--clearing the fridge of all the tidbits we'd accumulated during the week. (Nowadays, I just call for pizza!). Enjoy.

> My friend Laraine Herring shows us how to write about illness/medical events without a smidge of self-pity. Please read her "Robot Kisses." 

> When I once fell, breaking three front teeth and cutting up my face, someone told there must be a reason. My (slightly annoyed) conclusion: I'm clumsy. Maybe that's why I loved "Being Leery of Everything Happening for a Reason and Other Takes by Ariel Levy," at The Riveter.

> I concur with the headline of this excellent article by , at the Science of Us: "Writing a Memoir Is a Strange Psychological Trip Through Your Past."

> Not sure what to do next with your (writing or any) career? Try Delia Lloyd's approach and ask your future 90-year-old self.

> At semester's end, Aubrey Hirsch gives her college creative writing students a comprehensive handout, "A Beginner's Guide to Publishing" which she's made available at her website.

> I recently discovered Denton Loving's blog, which periodically posts submission calls.

> Sounds like good news from the Boston Globe, for those with books in the pipeline, looking to book promotional stops in the Northeast: "Indie bookstores in smaller towns hatch plan to lure authors for readings".

> In her post, "When You Engage in Some Good Old Literary Citizenship Because, Really, You Just Want New Writer Friends with Whom To Bitch About Publishing," Steph Auteri says a few nice things about me and The Writers Circle, but what makes it terrific is how it confirms the benefits and strengths of having a literary community in person as well as online.

> Finally, in this week's student brag box: Carol Accetta, a writing coaching client, achieved her first publication, a lovely short work of creative nonfiction, "The Geese," at Gravel Magazine.  Former student Vincent Fitzgerald, who is also a therapist, published "I'm a Client And a Clinician" at Psychology Today, and a work of narrative nonfiction in the British literary journal Into the Void. Congrats!

Have a great weekend!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- April 7, 2017 Edition

> Can binge watching have a writing purpose? Reedsy editor (and novelist) Andrew Lowe thinks so, at least about a certain eight shows.

> Somewhat related: I learned about Belletrist, the young actor Emma Roberts's online book clue when she was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Only mildly interested, I perked up when I arrived at her website to see she'd interviewed Joan Didion about her latest book, South and West: From a Notebook.

> Good listening: an episode of the #CNF podcast features Jennifer Niesslein, founder/editor of the online essay site, Full Grown People.

> Traveling? Or trying to organize a book promotion tour? Check out "The Best Bookstore in Every State," via Real Simple and Yelp.

> Find yourself torn between devoting time to writing, and making sure you are tending to business aspects of a writing life? At Catapult, Melissa Febos asks, 
"Do you want to be known for your writing or your swift email responses?"

>Speaking of Melissa Febos, I heard her read from her new memoir, Abandon Me, this week at Halfway There, a newish quarterly reading series in Montclair, NJ (my literary backyard), and was impressed by how, in the middle of what she explained was a weeks-long, cross-country book tour, she made the material sound new and fresh, even  (it seemed at least ) to herself. If I ever do readings from any book of mine, I'm going to find a video of her reading, and study it.

> Looking to get involved in behind-the-scenes work at an online literary journal? Hippocampus Magazine is in need of volunteers for several different posts.

> Every week, novelist Elizabeth S. Craig compiles a long juicy list of links to writing advice and writing-related articles and posts that appeared that week on the web.

> That collective groan you heard last weekend was thousands of essay, memoir, and other nonfiction writers upset over the demise of the Lives column which will, after 19 years, no longer appear in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. (And the scratching was all of us crossing it off our publication bucket list. Sigh.)

> Three cheers for these high school student journalists who understand the value and power of fact-checking.

> Finally, from the department of that-sounds-completely-crazy-but-it's-still-(alleged)plaigarism, comes this story about how cultish hip-hop musicians apparently stole a poet's work.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Write. Read. Repeat. Susan Sontag said it first. I just follow Directions.

By now, you probably know that I simply do not understand writers who aren't also constantly reading. Because how--other than through reading--do we even begin to want to be writers? And what's paramount to learning more about writing than reading?

I'm over at Story Dam today, participating in their April A to Z blogging challenge. I was asked to name a favorite bit of writing advice, and then say something about it.

It's posted today under "D is for Directions" and is a brief commentary on the Susan Sontag command: “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as needed."

"I’ve heard this advice interpreted several ways. Some folks think it means that you should write and then read what you have just written, then rewrite it. And of course, that’s true. But I take this advice in the broader sense..."

Read the rest here.

Image: Story Dam

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Recognizing When Life (not writing) Could be the Start of a Beautiful....Essay

The actual dress, made to twirl.
If I weren't already a natural born advance planner (or an annoyingly, meticulously, obsessively detail-oriented nag, as my kids and husband might say, eyes rolling), my former career in public relations would have transformed me anyway.

Like many magazines, I often run a few months ahead of schedule. So since I'll be presenting a one-day event on writing short nonfiction prose in May, and a submissions class over the summer, I'm gathering examples for both. Some are my own work because that way I can answer student/writer questions, and by sharing my writing / revision / submission / rejection / acceptance process, I believe I can be helpful to others.

This past Monday, my 250-word work of flash nonfiction, "A Dress for the Wedding," appeared on the River Teeth website, in their Beautiful Things column. I think I'm correct in saying this is a somewhat coveted spot for many creative nonfiction writers, and I'm extremely proud about this particular publication.

Here's how that happened.

In many ways I went about this as I did when working to break into Brevity Magazine with this piece. (I went on to describe that writing/submission process here.).

One of the keys was not trying to slice a small chunk out of an already written long piece. Flash, I've come to understand, needs its own place to, perhaps ironically, expand and breathe, to open up space between sentences, even as it carves away.

The other thing I learned is that, for me anyway, short pieces are more often suggested by something I experience or remember independent of the act of writing. In other words, life is probably the more generous well for these short flashes, not editing.

The dress piece began with notes scratched in the tiny notebook I keep in my purse—while in the ladies' room at the wedding. Having gotten drenched in a downpour walking back from the church to the car, I ducked in the restroom as soon as we got to the reception venue to try to salvage my hairstyle.

It was while looking in the mirror, and twisting to get a glance at the back, when a few things happened. I realized (1) The blowout is a total loss, and (2) This dress was exactly the right choice. Then (3) A cascade of images: turning around in the dressing room at the store…showing my husband the dress choices in our bedroom…all my rules about dressing as a fat middle-aged woman…then: (4) Wait – there's an essay in this…somewhere.

I jotted a few notes. When Frank and I danced an hour later, and I found myself twirling, I had the rest of the piece. So it was back to the ladies' room, a few more notes, and then—I forgot about it.

Forgot on purpose. I wanted it to marinate. Then I returned to it, wrote a draft, read a bunch of past B.T. essays, and revised.

This was my second submission to River Teeth's Beautiful Things; the first, from 2015, was rejected. When I went back to read it again, I realized it didn't stand up so well on its own, and it wound up being absorbed into my memoir manuscript, where it probably originally belonged.

Figuring out how to write for very limited word counts, what to write for which short-form venues we aspire to be published in, and where to send off what we write, are arts that are always evolving. I'm still learning. And though the "rejected" column in my submission tracking spreadsheet is routinely, robustly full, occasionally I do get it right.

And then of course, I annoyingly, meticulously, obsessively record all the details. For any future reference.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Guest Blogger Judy Mollen Walters on Creating Fictional Worlds From What We Know

I shared a meal at the AWP conference last month with four other writers. We're all part of the same Facebook group of women writers, and when discussing where we each live, they assumed I already knew their mutual friend Judy Mollen Walters, who lives less than an hour from me in New Jersey. Well, I didn't then, but I do now. Judy is a novelist and also writes occasional essays, with work in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, SheKnows, Spring St. Scary Mommy, Kveller, and other places. Looks like I met Judy just in time to learn about her fifth novel, A Million Ordinary Days, published this month—and invite her to write this guest post.

Please welcome Judy Mollen Walters.

You know what writers I admire the most? Historical fiction writers, who are able to catapult themselves—and their readers—into a completely different time, whether it be back to the ancient days of the Romans, the time of twentieth century World War I or WWII heroes and survivors, or when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Even those who write about the 1960s and 70s, when flower power and bell bottom jeans were in full fashion, impress me.

Historical novelists can go back and visit a completely different space and time, and literally plunk their readers right there beside them. They need to conduct hours and hours, and days and days, and months and months of research—online and in person research, talking to historians, librarians, and experts, taking countless notes, and reading countless books about their subjects. And that’s all before they start writing. And, as they go along, drafting, revising, rewriting.

I hate research. I always have. I can remember when I was in middle school, trying to learn the techniques of research, annoyed and bored out of my mind. As soon as I got to the library, I didn’t scurry to the encyclopedias to look up my topic. I went to the fiction section to find a new novel to read. Research was painstakingly agonizing for me, looking up articles, trying to find good, interesting information, and then just as painful to try to flesh it all out into a solid paper. I just didn’t care. I only wanted to go back into worlds I knew along with authors like Judy Blume, worlds I was familiar with. I loved realistic fiction about girls my own age, then.

Now as a writer, I have the same tastes. I am the opposite of the go-into-other-worlds, spend-a-lot-of-time-researching historical fiction writer. I’m in the solid write-what-you-know camp. For me, that’s contemporary women’s fiction. I write about families and mothers and wives. Many of my characters have some sort of affliction or illness or struggle that I’ve either gone through personally or can identify with because I know someone who has experienced it. 

Subjects I’ve explored in my novels include a Jewish family struggling with adoption (I am Jewish and know many adopted people); autism (My best friend’s son is an adult autistic man.); infertility (I went through it myself twice!); a best friendship that ends with a shock and a secret (With one of the women discovering a shocking truth about her ex-best friend, which happened to me, too.)

Yet the characters in my novels are not me, nor are they my children, husband, or family. (My sister kept trying to find herself in my books, so finally I created a character who was a middle school math teacher, like she is, so she would stop bugging me about it.)

My latest novel, A Million Ordinary Days, is about a mother like me, at the prime of her life with two daughters, battling a chronic illness. While I have Crohn’s Disease, my character has multiple sclerosis (MS). I have several friends with MS, and I reached out to them in order to make sure I was telling an accurate story. Okay, so maybe I do some casual research after all!

These friends were so supportive—and excited about—a novel about MS. They wanted a character like them to rule a novel. So they were happy to read my drafts, offering suggestions to make my character more “real.”  They also suggested blogs by writers living with MS that helped me get an accurate picture of living with the disease.

But to create my protagonists, I do not have to pursue pure research. I simply watch the lives of those around me, listen, and am able to reproduce what I observe well enough to, I think, build a credible story. My fictional worlds have everything in common with the current-day world my readers and I all live in.

If I was trying to replicate historical times, I would be miserable. There’s so much to get right: language and dress, food and lifestyle, politics and environmental conditions.  Even if I wanted to write a coming of age novel set in the 1970s and 80s when I was growing up myself, I still think I would have a hard time. I don’t remember all the fads, music, movies and TV from then!

Of course, with the Internet, research isn’t nearly as difficult now as it was back when I was in school. But that doesn’t make it any more appealing to me. I still love to write about the lives I see unfolding around me now. Mothers. Wives. Friendships. An illness or condition that's familiar. That’s how I’m most successful.

My hat's off to all the historical fiction writers out there. And the science fiction writers. And the biographers. Writers who really dare to take us into worlds so different than we could ever imagine. I admire them. But for me, I’m still sticking to the old adage: write what you know.
Note from Lisa: You can connect with Judy at her website,  Facebook, or Twitter. Find a review of her newest novel at Books is Wonderful, and order the book here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scratching a Familiar Writing Itch in New Way Keeps Horses on the Page

I've mentioned before that themed calls for submission—announced by literary journals, mainstream websites or magazines, or anthologies—are an excellent way to spur writing and create outside deadlines. For any writer struggling with maintaining a disciplined writing practice, or those overwhelmed by too many writing ideas, or dismayed by not having enough ideas, submission calls can help define writing time and energies.

Peruse the calls at various sites and listservs (some links here), pick one or two that appeal, and…you're off. Writing a piece that addresses the theme, adheres to the required word count, fits the style or tone of the venue, and meets any other criteria noted, are powerful ways of developing writing chops. And of course, meeting the deadline is paramount, especially for those who start but don’t finish writing projects, or just have trouble with deadlines.

The unspoken rule is that you must, of course, have something to say on the topic of the submission call. Such was the case last fall when I noticed a planned anthology on writing about animals. In my 20s and early 30s, I made a living writing about horses. In the last few years, I've been itching to write about horses again, but it's been two decades since I've been around horses on a daily basis, so I've been finding new ways of integrating horses into my writing life, resulting in many personal essays. And here was a chance to combine horses and writing into an essay about, well, horses and writing!

Off went my piece to the anthology, a combination personal essay and advice on one aspect of writing about horses. And a few weeks later, back came the rejection. That's okay, it's part of the writing life. First, you wallow. For minutes, hours, days—depends on your personal rejection wallowing style. Then, you decide: Scrap it? Make a few tweaks and send it right back out? Revise, rethink, rewrite?

I rarely scrap something, though I may let it sit for weeks or months (or longer) before I gin up the interest or energy to revise, or have the time to do so properly. That's okay, too.

With my writing-about-horses piece, I believed it had merit as it was, so I made only a few minor tweaks. The next question was where to send it. "Advice for those writing about animals" is not that common a themed submission call! So I turned to venues that publish all kinds of essays about writing craft and the writing life; in fact, I've begun to maintain a list of such outlets because I want to write and submit more pieces on writing craft.

Then, as often happens, serendipity intervened in the form of an announcement that the literary journal Hunger Mountain (published by the Vermont Center for Fine Arts, which runs a fine MFA program), was seeking new work for its writing craft website series.

And off went my piece again.

Hunger Mountain published it two weeks ago in Ephemeral Artery, the Hunger Mountain Online Companion. Here's an excerpt:

"… On the “A” level horse show circuit where, even in the 1980s, top jumpers were bought and sold for the high six figures, one of the most reassuring relationships I witnessed was between these high-priced performers and their minimum-wage earning grooms…. A fiery Thoroughbred ex-racehorse could be snorting, galloping might in the ring, but transform, once handed by the professional rider to his groom, into a cuddly, frolicking pony….My advice to those who want to write about modern horses at work or play in America: find them with their caretakers. The ones who love them whether they’ve had the fastest jump-off round that day, or if they spooked at the stray plastic bag at the side of the ring, tossing a rider on his duff. That is when you will see the real horse, the one who knows he’s safe and seems to understand when nothing is expected of her except that she exist…"

You can read all of  "When Prose Turns to Horses, Remember the Humans," here. And, for more on the horse-writing connection, see Annie Penfield's essay in the same section, "On Rhythm—In Sentences."

Let me know of your experiences with writing to themed calls for submission. Or writing about animals, or horses, or whatever's going on in your writing life now!

Monday, March 20, 2017

A Day at the Museum: Matisse Nearby, and Letting Inspiration Find Me

Henri Matisse "Yellow Odalisque"
I value inspiration, but I don't often go in search of it. Inspiration usually finds me via something else I’m doing—research for an already-begun writing project, a planned personal or business outing.

Like what happened during a trip to see the "Matisse and American Art" exhibit at the Montclair (NJ) Art Museum. Though this museum is a well-respected gem only a few miles from my house, I don't get there often enough. But my 2017 resolution is to support (not just talk about) organizations that matter—ranging from social justice to the arts. So I made a plan to attend the much-celebrated new exhibit, and pony up annual membership (so I'll be financially inspired to return). The timing meant my sister Cathy and I would have something to do together (other than haunt our favorite diners and bakeries) when she visited.

Cathy's the real art lover in the family; she knows the difference between Monet and Manet, and whether something is impressionist or impressive (or both). I enjoy looking at art, but for me it's always been an enjoyable sometime thing, not a passion.

Henri Matisse—and the American artists influenced by him—may have converted me. But the real bonus: new observations and thoughts about why I'm write  about some of the things I write about, my relationship to the prose, and even a few essay ideas. I'll keep the essay ideas to myself (half-baked as they are still), but as a writer, here's what I came away with:

+ Color! Rich, vivid, bold, drenched colors.(Yep, I used four adjectives in a row.) Colors saturated with ideas and emotion, suggestive and nuanced! Colors were speaking to me. Hard to believe some of Matisse's early critics called his use of color ugly and his first paintings something to laugh at. The world caught on, of course. A magazine feature on Matisse displayed notes, "All the colors sing together…like a musical chord." Like the words and sentences in a piece of writing.

Matisse, "Woman in Blue"
+ Matisse influenced so many artists. I was struck by John Baldessari's "Eight Soups" and Roy Lichtenstein's bronze "Goldfish Bowl II", which build on details in Matisse's works, combined with Warhol's soup cans. I'm reminded of how writers create new prose that couldn't exist if not for the foundations, references, styles of writers who came before. When writes quote Proust, build on a Shakespearian pun, obliquely reference Didion, they are both acknowledging those who paved new literary paths, and paying tribute, and if very lucky (and very good), perhaps making something that extends and expands instead of imitating.

+ Matisse believed in using "all the colors," and this spurs me to think more widely about all the literary tools at my disposal. It nudges me to remember about all the forms I don't regularly try, structures and organizational methods I want to experiment with but often pass over for the safer, more reliable methods.

+ Standing too close to visual art warps perspective. Stepping back brings the visuals into focus. Like creating distance from a manuscript draft is vital. Too close to the same material—page or canvas—and you no longer really see it.

Matisse, "Pianist and Checker Players"
+ My two favorite Matisse works were "Interior at Nice" and "Pianist and Checker Player"—the former because it brings me back to the feeling of being cosseted at a seaside inn (beautiful hotels being one of my favorite places), and the latter recalls my many childhood evenings when my sister was playing piano (beautifully), and I was playing checkers (poorly) with my mother. For writers, memory triggers—that can turn into stories and pages—are waiting everywhere!

+ Cathy and I were captivated by the bold, exquisite works of contemporary mixed media artist Janet Taylor Pickett and her "Matisse Series," which includes many pieces that play with the shape and colors of Matisse's
"Woman in Blue" and his later-career cutout works, and the form and symbolism of women's dresses.

Janet Taylor Pickett, "Wrapped Up in Blue"
+ Like all great acts of inspiration, the visit tipped me into exploration—finding more Matisse works to look at online and reliving Pickett's exhibit via this compelling video, which she narrates and appears in, tracing her own inspirational journey to and from Matisse.

+ You can't visit the Montclair Art Museum without stopping at the George Inness permanent collection, and there on a placard was this, describing the 19th century American landscape artist:

"He refined an approach of conveying the greatest amount of information by means of the fewest marks of the brush."

A reminder about doing more with less, about, essentially, editing. How appropriate to end my excursion to the visual art world with this gentle reminder about the art of brevity in all art forms.

Images courtesy Montclair Art Museum