Monday, November 20, 2017

Guest Blogger Stephanie Urdang on the Differences between Writing Her Own Memoir, and Writing Someone Else’s Memoir

Occasionally a writer I meet at a conference (or online) confides that it’s hard to find other writers where they live. I have no idea what that might be like: the part of northern New Jersey where I live might be dubbed Writerville. Stephanie Urdang lives here too, though she was born in Cape Town, South Africa. Her memoir, Mapping My Way Home: Activism, Nostalgia, and the Downfall of Apartheid South Africa will be published this month. She is also the author of two books on Africa, including And Still They Dance: Women, War, and the Struggle for Change in Mozambique. Stephanie is currently working on a book with a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide (forthcoming in spring 2019).

Please welcome Stephanie Urdang

It took me about ten years – but who’s counting – to complete my memoir, Mapping My Way Home. It is taking me about one year to write a book with a survivor of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, who was eleven at the time.
            The first book is my story, my history, my memories. It charts the events on the international stage -- in which I was a participant or close observer -- that contributed to the end of apartheid. In the process of writing it, sub-themes raised their heads and demanded space as leit-motifs: the sense of home, the nagging of nostalgia, the concept of exile, all interlinked.

            The second book is Gustave Mukurarinda’s harrowing but courageous story. It is his story, his history, his memories. I am writing it in close collaboration, in the mode of creative nonfiction. We are co-authors.   I am the writer. But he is the storyteller.

            My memoir was my first sortie into creative nonfiction. It was a learning curve. I had to tap into a more literary style of writing, freeing myself to explore more evocative and lyrical ways to bring a scene to life, to describe a context. I had to rein in my tendency toward streams of consciousness that sent my narrative veering off course; I had to subdue, no exorcise, an inner voice that would exclaim “Who the f*#k I am to write about my life!”.  I had to learn to scale the inevitable writer’s blocks that told me I was incapable of doing justice to this project.  And I had to allow myself to relish, in the moment, the highs when my writing was flowing and it felt right.

Writing my own memoir provided basic tools for writing the Rwanda book, which is still in draft.  But writing a memoir in collaboration is a very different undertaking, although some of what I had practiced in my own memoir could be applied: forgoing my first-instinct journalistic style and adopt a more literary style;  thinking more intentionally about craft;  taking a critical scene remembered in just a few snippets, and fleshing it out, completing with dialogue; transforming an often fabulous but too lengthy anecdote or scene and trimming it to size so that it doesn’t dominate.

            Writing in collaboration is another learning curve entirely. From it I can tease out a few lessons that for me were “musts”.

The need for trust. Without mutual trust and respect the collaboration will founder. In our case, trust began some ten years ago. I had established a small US-based NGO, Rwanda Gift for Life, that partnered with African Rights, in Kigali. The project supported women who had been raped during the genocide and were living with AIDS. Gustave was on the staff of African Rights and acted as my interpreter when I visited Rwanda. We spent many days together. Later, he stayed at my New Jersey home for a few weeks on his way to Canada where he now lives. Once we began working together, I could appreciate that more than friendship was needed. Without a deep sense of mutual trust, a writing project such as ours could not move forward. There are times when this trust is tested. When he doesn’t approve of the way I am casting a scene, when he thinks the narrative is veering in the wrong direction, we are able to discuss, and where necessary, come to a compromise. We move on, knowing that the next glitch will be met with the same mutual respect, the same trust.

            Need for clarity about scope.  There should be as few surprises as possible. We made our expectations clear from the beginning, including the audience, the writing process, the deadlines. Before I began to record his story, we talked about the nature of creative nonfiction, how my intent was to produce a narrative that reads like fiction. We agreed the book would target a young adult readership, while also appealing to adults. Based on this understanding, and our lengthy interviews, I drafted three sample chapters. Gustave liked how I was conveying his story, how I was portraying his voice. Only after this did we feel confident moving forward. We agreed on the publisher’s terms and both signed the contract. We could begin in earnest.

            Accept that this is not the writer’s story.  Even with the best of intentions, it’s too easy to get carried away, and begin to think that the book is the writer’s alone, given the thought and hard work that goes into drafting it. I had to be careful not to imprint myself onto the story, and to stay true to Gustave’s voice. Ultimately every word is to be approved by him, it is his story, his family’s story, not mine.
            Accept criticism without defensiveness.  There were times when, as a westerner, even though I grew up in South Africa, even though I have written widely and for decades on Africa, I discovered that I was not as sensitive to Rwandan culture as I would have presumed. I made assumptions, or used language that caused him discomfort. I tended to pride myself that I wouldn’t fall into such traps. I did. He pointed them out politely when he deserved to be annoyed.

For example, cows are central to Rwandan culture. They are revered. I described Gustave’s father’s herd as containing Jerseys, Friesians, and “skinny African” cows. I recalled seeing cows that were, well, skinny. But this is no benign, neutral term. It was an insult. It reflects western bias. I apologized when he pointed it out. I was able to laugh at myself; he was able to laugh at me. Another similar lesson: I created dialogue between his brother and mother that was inappropriate to Rwandan culture where children were expected to be polite and respectful of adults and not assume to join in adult conversation unless invited. When he points out the error of my ways, all I feel is relief. It allows me to feel safer in my role as writer of his story, knowing that I will be challenged when I don’t get it right. This too reflects trust.

            Figuring out structure.   Structure can be a real challenge for memoir writers.  There is a life-time of material to draw on, so much that seems vital, but in the end really isn’t, that getting the flow and arc can be daunting. There is a deep emotional connection. But writing someone else’s story means the writer comes to the project from a distance and can discern the narrative’s scaffolding earlier on.  In my case, this process began soon after Gustave’s stories poured out during our many hours of skype interviews and I became energized by the twists and turns of this action-packed narrative. The story pulls me along without me being stuck trying to see the wood for the trees.  And so I am less encumbered to push the story forward, even as sometimes it brings me to tears.

            I have come to see, that when a memoir is written in collaboration, the story teller is the one to give birth. The writer is the midwife.  
Note: If you too are local to Writerville, you can catch Stephanie at Watchung Booksellers (Montclair) onThursday evening, Nov. 30, at 7 pm, and further afield, and at Powerhouse (Brooklyn), on Wednesday, Nov. 29 at 7 pm.

Stephanie would be delighted to answer any reader questions left in the comments over the next week or so. She’d also love to give one of my blog readers a signed copy of her book. Enter by leaving a comment by Sunday, Dec. 3. [Must have a U.S. postal shipping address.]

Connect with Stephanie at her website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- November 17, 2017 Edition

> Looking for traditional, independent"memoir-friendly" small presses? Check out this list (and other helpful writer resources) at Jodi Sh Doff's website.

> At The Writer magazine, Beth Ann Fennelly (whose new book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, is on my TBR list), has on-point tips for writing the micro-memoir.

> Fascinating behind-the-scenes video and interview on book cover design.

> Each year writer Clifford Garstang does an exhaustive ranking of literary magazines, based solely on Pushcart Prize stats. The newest is here.

> Dina Honour, at Cleaver Magazine, makes a case for writing through "girl-colored glasses."  

> Does your writing (and maybe the way you think about what you're writing) sometimes seem as if it's tilted? Looking at things sideways? Well, yay you -- so says Paul Crenshaw over at North American Review.

Have a great weekend! 

Image:  Flickr/CreativeCommons

Monday, November 13, 2017

Writing in the Discomfort Zone -- A New Essay in The Nervous Breakdown

A lot of writers have a particular writing discomfort zone. For me, it's when I'm trying to write on topics that I feel shaky about, issues that I wonder: do I have the right, the authority, to write about this? Or, that? It's when I seriously ask myself if writing about a particularly vexing experience or situation is territory I want to wade out into, and once there, will I even know what to do?

Then, one of two things happen: I either scribble a few lines in a notebook or start a draft on the computer, but walk away before I even really get started. I decide, this is not my topic, and writing about it is not something I feel confident about. Sometimes though, I plunge ahead: draft and write and revise and edit the darned thing. But then I often sit on it until either the moment passes and I'm fairly sure no publication would be interested anyway--or, I polish it up, swallow that rock in my throat, and hit send.

That's what happened with my most recently published essay, "Unspoken Words that Begin with N (even when they don't)" which found a home at The Nervous Breakdown. Perhaps what propelled me to write and finish (and publish) this time lies in the title itself: things unspoken must be discussed, must be aired, acknowledged and examined. 

The imprinted, ugly words some of us heard as children, when we were being formed   --connected to race, words that illustrate racist thought and action even in places we don't want to admit it existed--do lodge in our core, and crawl back out, unbidden, years or decades later. I thought that was worth discussing, in 2017, in America.

After I sent the piece in, I was fortunate to have good editorial feedback and guidance from TNB editors Chelsey Clammer and Bernard Grant. I love it when I get that kind of collaboration, and I was especially grateful for it on this piece, because even after submitting, I still had one foot firmly planted in the writing discomfort zone. 

We worked back and forth to be sure that the nuance was clear, that as narrator I was exposing flaws without asking for sympathy, and that the piece asked readers to think, not simply nod in agreement. I admit, I had some nervous moments during editing, worrying that the writing stood up to seriousness of the subject matter, that I wasn't being self-indulgent or whiny on the page. I wanted to add something to the conversation about what we carry around from childhood, not simply bemoan it.

At some point, I remembered something one of my writing mentors had once told me: If we only write what's comfortable, what's the point? And, this from another: The only time anything good happens on the page in nonfiction, is when we write outside our comfort zone.

I hope you will read the essay in full, here. And I welcome your thoughts on writing in your own personal discomfort zone.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Guest Blogger Martha Moffett on Writing Submissions and the Race to the Bottom: The Rejection Club

Some writers that I like very much I’m just not able to stay in steady contact with, but I’m always happy when we cross paths. Like Martha Moffett, a New Jersey writer I like to talk to anytime we’re in the same room. Martha was born at the end of a dirt road in St. Clair County, Alabama, worked in book and magazine publishing in New York City, and has written for Cosmopolitan, New York Magazine, and British Heritage. She’s also worked as a librarian, and is now a freelance editor and ghostwriter. Her novels include The Common Garden and Dead Rock Singer. She’s also the recipient of fellowships from the Florida State Council on the Arts individual fellowships, and Yaddo.

Please welcome Martha Moffett

My plan, this past summer, was to work on one story and get it polished and ready for rejection by Alaska Quarterly, One Story, and Glimmer Train, some of my favorite journals. 

That’s an inside joke for “The Rejection Club,” four writers who decided to send out work at a fast clip and to keep score and compare notes.  The winner (loser) with the most rejections was assigned to treat the rest of us to a bottle of wine in our favorite pub at the end of a year.

I had traditionally sent out one story to one journal and waited for a response. Sometimes it was months in coming. Sometimes it never came. We had two thoughts about the general wisdom of this: If they don’t respond promptly, they aren’t interested. Or, if they keep your work a long time, they are seriously considering it. We weren’t convinced of either but knew that at this rate, months became years and the work waited patiently in my computer. My three writer friends followed more or less the same routine.

But after Kim Liao’s article “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year” circulated on the Internet in June of 2016, we rethought our position. In addition to increasing our submissions, I said, “Let’s make it a competition. Who can get the most rejections fastest?”

That same summer, it was on my calendar to take a workshop with Lisa Romeo at The Writers’ Circle called Submission Strategy. Lisa’s spreadsheet was a revelation to me. I began to keep better records of what I sent, where I sent it, the date, the outcome—rejections, yes, but as Lisa also said, record any feedback you get.

The four of us had a backlog of unpublished work. We’d met in a workshop where one of us was finishing a novel set in New York City and Italy; another was working on a crime novel; the third member’s novel was about an American family and how it changed over two generations; and I was bringing my chapters of a novella to workshop to be picked over for the problems of consistency, tone, and point of view. In addition, we all had stories, essays, short-shorts, and other bits and pieces in reserve.

We proceeded to build our attack. We met and exchanged literary journals, to improve our knowledge of what they printed and what the editors liked. I came home with an armload of Ploughshares, which I had never read despite its reputation, and I passed out copies of Chattahoochee Review, where I’d been lucky in the past. I had a lot of back issues of One Story for the taking. I picked up Gulf Coast, New Letters, and Bellingham Review.

We also exchanged lists of journals looking for submissions or running contests. One member subscribes to Literistic, a good source. I subscribe to Practicing Writing, Erika Dreifus’s daily blog, for the Monday list, and her monthly newsletter The Practicing Writer.  We also consulted Publishing . . . and other Forms of Insanity. And of course, Poets & Writers is available to all of us, magazine or online, a great guide and vetted by P&W—no rip-offs there.

We started our first round of submissions, and soon our emails were reading like this:

I got two rejections in a week. I’m surging ahead!
Do you know how many editors have “loved” this story but rejected it anyway?
Five agents have decided not to represent my novel.
I’m getting rejections from journals I don’t even remember submitting to!
Your submission was read with interest.” (But WAS it?)

We sometimes got the same standard rejection letter from different journals. And we discovered favorite tropes:

“Although your story was not selected, it does not mean it was without merit.”

And our current favorite:
“We were blown away by the quality of this year’s contest submissions . . . “

But we learned a lot. First, to take any word of encouragement as an invitation: “We liked your long story but there was no room for it in this issue.” Or, better, “Try us again.” A personal note from an editor in an email that showed she’d read and thought about our work, or a scribbled note in pencil on a standard postal rejection was to us fit for framing.

We got better at matching our work to certain journals. We now send out work in batches, not one solitary story bearing our only hopes for publication. Our common effort has lessened the pain of rejection—and has given us many laughs. We’re ready to start a new wave of stories flying in all directions, electronically and by snail mail.

In her article, Kim Liao writes that early on, a friend once told her, “Shoot for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances too.”

We in The Rejection Club know it’s going to work.

In fact, it has already worked! A few days ago, I received news that I had won the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for The Novella, sponsored by Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society and selected by the author Stewart O'Nan. I know my writing friends will soon follow with their acceptances.  And that bottle of wine is waiting.

You can connect with Martha at her website  or her blog

Friday, November 3, 2017

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- November 3, 2017 Edition

> Late the other night I found time to read this fabulous piece in the Sunday NY Times Magazine on extraordinary nonfiction writer John McPhee, and how he works. (The online version linked here includes drawings and diagrams of how he envisions, designs, and writes into the carefully crafted structures that hold up his books and articles.) 

> I often teach the list essay, and here, Jillian Schedneck has summed up a lot, in "How to Write a List Essay," and links (among other pieces) to her own list essay on Compose Journal (which I'm pleased to say I had a hand in selecting).

> Speaking of Compose, the Fall 2017 issue -- our tenth -- is now live, with fresh fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and features/craft pieces.

> If you're doing NaNoWriMo (or any self-adapted version of it), there are lots of  encouraging posts circulating, from the official  NaNoWriMo Pep Talks from household-name authors (first up is Roxane Gay), and elsewhere, short, helpful tips , writing apps tips, and round-ups of advice.

> Can swapping your cool smartphone for a less-capable model help your writing productivity? Amy Collini says yes, in "I Flipped,"' over at the Brevity blog.

> Fiction Writers Review features an interview with Claire Messud, about her newest novel, The Burning Girl.

> Finally, I've just started down the dark and alluring path of book PR (since the memoir is now listed on several online retailers), and could so easily go overboard. So I found this funny/snarky piece, "How You Can Help Me Sell My Book," at McSweeneys' spot-on (and a little scary). Precious blog readers, if I get annoying in my book excitement, do tell me! 

> Oh, but first, did I mention my newsletter went out the other day, and if you scroll down, it features a promo for those who pre-order the book and send me.....ugh. See what I mean?

Have a great weekend!