Thursday, April 26, 2018

Taking the Book on the Road (or: Good Thing I Like to Drive)


Before the craziness of publication arrives (Starting with Goodbye says hello to the world on Tuesday, 
May 1), I wanted to let my blog readers know that the first two months of my book tour schedule have been posted (with time, location, links, and other details)  at my website

Except for a handful of locations -- Rockville Centre, NY (5/3), Amherst, MA (5/10), Millbrook, NY (5/19), and Kingston, NY (6/3) -- I'm be sticking close to my New Jersey roots for much of May and June. After that, who knows where I may pop up this summer...so much is still *in the works*, so stay tuned. 

Meanwhile, here's a quick peek. If you come to an event, please do say hello and let me know that we're connected through the blog!





Friday, April 20, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- April 20, 2018 Edition


> In case you missed it, the 2018 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this week. Of note: the novel prize went to Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, which addresses love and growing older in the same breath and with humor. And in general nonfiction, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser, the first complete and intricately researched biography of the beloved author.

> At a workshop I led recently, many memoir writers were working through stories of trauma and grief (as is usual), but at one point we explored why readers also need to experience some happy moments amid the sadness. Then I came across Laura Gilkey's post in the Brevity blog, and she said it so well.

> At The Writers Circle blog, Michelle Cameron's post, "Lack of Control" probably speaks for every writer with a manuscript their agent has sent out on submission to publishers. 

> Funds for Writers has advice for authors on how to connect with book clubs.

> At the Front Porch Journal blog, a look at a failed novel and the (fixable) problem of writing what you don't know. 

> Finally, two items for fun. In the maybe-I'm-not-so-odd category: "20 Quirks and Strange Habits: The Weird Side of Famous Writers." Someone opens to a random dictionary page when faced with writing description, then uses word he finds there to complete the task. And, always dependable for a laugh with his reports on humans (not writers) acting strangely, there's Dr. Grumpy in the House.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Guest Blogger Rebecca Entel on the Tricks that Helped Her Finish Writing a Full Novel

Rebecca Entel’s first novel is Fingerprints of Previous Owners (Unnamed Press, 2017). Her short stories and essays have appeared in Guernica, Joyland Magazine, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Cleaver Magazine, The Madison Review, and elsewhere. Rebecca is an Associate Professor at Cornell College, where she teaches multicultural American literature, Caribbean literature, creative writing, and the literature of social justice. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin and a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Rebecca grew up in Cleveland and currently lives in Iowa City.

Please welcome Rebecca Entel.

Maybe it’s part of my process to imagine having better writing days than I actually have. In my mind’s eye, there I am at my desk or on the couch or at a table in the library, fingers flying as I produce and produce and produce. It’s much harder to be inside that body I’m imagining watching from afar – to be the one staring at the screen, resisting the click-away temptation of the internet, believing in what could come next.

I had been writing and teaching writing for many years before publishing Fingerprints of Previous Owners. Part of my process in writing that first novel was seeing if I could, in fact, even finish one. I got to travel many times for this project, which takes place at a Caribbean resort built over the ruins of a slave plantation. I even learned how to use a machete to reach those ruins for my research. But most of my time was spent staring at the screen, feeling frustrated. I’d spend too much time trying to get the conditions right for becoming the writer that existed in my mind, and then when I actually sat down to write, I’d feel fundamentally not up to the task. Those images of watching myself writing prolifically had become one more weight getting in my way.

The only way I seemed to get anything done was when I tricked myself into writing, by using all the tricks I’d counseled my students to use when they were feeling stuck. Two of these tricks had a major impact on the development of the book.

What’s something you know about that your readers may not?

A grad professor of mine once recommended we think about this question, finding something unique to describe that might inject some energy. Posing it to myself, I thought back to learning how to use that machete. I’d been taught it was a tool of gravity, not of force. No matter how strong you were, hacking away wouldn’t do much good. You need a sharp blade and the right angle, then let gravity do its job. I began free-writing about this and discovered a voice that belonged to Myrna, the book’s main character, who was secretly excavating the ruins. The machete became thematically important, too, since Myrna didn’t have much power, physical or otherwise; she had to be sharp and find the right angle to get where she wanted to go.

What will you learn if you free-write from a minor character’s perspective?

I advise my students to find multiple ways to jump away from the main thrust of their stories. This particular exercise isn’t necessarily about writing material to be included in the text; it’s about the writer discovering new information.

On the days I felt most stuck, I let myself write short narratives from the perspectives of minor characters in my protagonist’s community. I learned a ton about the island’s history, more than my narrator could know, and much of it allowed me to add texture to the fictional island I was creating, where what does not get talked about fuels Myrna’s machete adventures. That secretive aspect of the book hedged me in because I couldn’t reveal anything beyond Myrna’s perspective, which, combined with the typical limitation of the first-person narrator, and her intense focus on her excavations, isolated her character from friends and family.

Some of these free-writing exercises eventually became parts of the book in which I let other characters speak. These characters never would have come to life if I hadn’t let myself experiment with their voices. In talking to readers, I’ve learned how important these side stories were to their reading experience. They needed these breaks from Myrna’s perspective. So perhaps my feelings of being mired in the writing was actually a clue into what my readers might feel, too.

I wouldn’t have finished Fingerprints if I hadn’t relied on these tricks to help me stop thinking about the to-be-finished Fingerprints. I hadn’t thought of the various exercises I offer students as necessarily related before, but I came to see that many of them focused on relieving writers of the pressure of writing a book –  distracting writers from that larger aim so they could write something.

In speaking with other writers, particularly students, I’ve also been reminded how helpful it is to hear writers speak honestly and practically about what their processes were before their books were ever books.

Connect with Rebecca at her website, on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

She is teaching an online novel writing workshop for Catapult beginning in June.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Come Write, or Talk Writing with Me in April -- in Southern New Jersey or Central Massachusetts

I have two opportunities coming up in mid-April that will let me work with writers directly -- one in Southern New Jersey, another in Central Massachusetts. I thought I'd let you know about them in case you live in those areas and might like a day to gather with other writers. Both are open to the general public (and are paid events with advance registration).

On Saturday, April 14, you'll find me at Writing in the Pines, leading a full-day memoir writing workshop in Galloway, NJ (on the campus of Stockton University, not far from Atlantic City). 

"The Gift of Incomplete Memory" is meant to help those who are writing memoir (or personal essay, family history, or other creative nonfiction works), and must excavate memories that are often hazy, incomplete, and full of question marks. We'll alternate between exercises and prompts that will help generate new work, discussions, published examples, and helpful feedback. (Not a memoir writer? The same day, offerings include full-day workshops in poetry writing and the craft of revision.)

Writing in the Pines is organized by Peter Murphy Writing, which runs successful writing retreats at the Jersey Shore and in upstate New York, New Hampshire, Wales, Scotland, and Spain. While I haven't taught in this part of my home state before, I've heard such wonderful reports about any of the writer events they run, both from teachers and participating writers, I am excited to be part of their team for this one.

You can learn more about Writing in the Pines here.  


The next day, Sunday, April 15, I'll be at Writers Day, on the campus of Bay Path University in East Longmeadow, MA, which lies just outside Springfield, MA, a few miles over the border from Connecticut. 

My presentation, titled "Publishing: The Long and Short of It," will focus on writers' making decisions about what how, when, and why to publish their work, from personal blogs to major websites, literary journals, anthologies, chapbooks, newspaper/magazines, and books. Print or online? Short pieces or full manuscripts? Publish as you go, or wait until completing a full book manuscript? We'll tackle these questions and more, as we discuss how writers can manage the publication side of their writing lives with satisfaction (and as little frustration as possible!), while continuing to work toward long range goals, and produce new work.

The rest of the line-up for Writers' Day includes authors Suzanne Strempek Shea, Jonathan Green, Karol Jackowski, and Sophfronia Scott. One terrific aspect of this event is that you don't need to choose, as presentations are run consecutively, not concurrently, and you can sign up for one, some, or all.

I'm excited about this event because it will bring me to the BPU campus one extra time. (I teach in this university's all-online MFA program, and so typically only get to spend time on the beautiful campus at graduation in May.) I've already heard from some New England writer friends who are planning to attend, making it a sweeter proposition to drive from the bottom of the Garden State up to the Bay State in one swoop! 

You can learn more about Bay Path Writers' Day here.  

And of course, I'm happy to answer questions about either event (or find the answer for you) if you contact me directly.




Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Conference Wrap-Up or, What I Learned and Did (and didn't do) at #AWP18

Everything I do lately seems to have multiple purposes. I read for pleasure, to observe what other authors do on the page, to learn, to find fine examples to share with my students. When I cruise social media, I'm cheering on other authors with books about to publish, looking for great short essays to read and share, keeping up to date about the writing world (and the world!), having a bit of social fun, working here and there on some presence for my upcoming book. And when I'm at a writers conference? The motherlode of multi-tasking! All of the above!

For the mammoth annual AWP Conference two weeks ago in Tampa, I headed down with at least four (not exactly competing) items on my to-accomplish list: Talk to folks about my forthcoming book, Starting with Goodbye, and hand out/sign advance reading copies. Meet in person the literary folks I only know online, but really like. Read from, and meet follow contributors to the anthology, Flash Nonfiction Funny. Attend break-out sessions and other formal activities that piqued my interest, to continue learning.

I did all that, and more. 

Having ARC's of Starting with Goodbye was thrilling. To be in the AWP bookfair with those in my hand...well, I can hardly describe the feeling as far-flung writing world friends stopped by to have a look, take a book, and sincerely wish me well. I wanted to hug them all. Come to think of it, I did hug them all!

AWP's bookfair is a sprawling, two-football-field sized maze and can often feel like a bit of a cold place, filled with pressure to accomplish something, to meet someone, to have the right conversations. Last year though I seemed to crack through my own personal shoulds, relax and look at it differently: as a place to find, meet, and talk with writer friends I interact with online, editors who have published my work, former students, and my own fellow MFA alums, and also a place to explore, meet new folks, and not worry one whit about what may come out of those interactions.

While I did attend a few stellar break-out sessions this year, I spent fewer hours than usual in those, opting instead to continue meaningful conversations rather than dashing off to make it to a chilly meeting room exactly on time. Those in-person meet-ups now feel like a more urgent part of any conference experience than before.

One session I especially found interesting was focused on creative nonfiction chapbooks, which I reported on here for Assay Journal; there you'll also find reports on many more AWP 2018 panels. I picked sessions to attend mostly based on what I'm curious about now, including: an excellent panel on narrative medicine (coinciding nicely with an upcoming community teaching gig I have to help those recovering from injuries to write their health stories); one on how authors can collectively help one another on myriad levels; another on effective online teaching methods; and one more on mastering digital book promotion.

Because I had family in the area to visit, and my knees can only take so many hours of hard floors, I missed what I'm told was a masterful keynote by George Saunders, and some other evening events. Time was, I would have been upset about that. Now, I'm taking the long view. There will be other big conferences (AWP in Portland, OR next year?), and other gatherings nearer and smaller.

At my first job, a mentor once advised that if you can leave any professional conference having made at least three satisfying new connections, learned a couple of key strategies you can put into practice, and not come home sick or injured, that will have been a successful outing.






Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- March 16, 2018 Edition

> Assay Journal asked many writers attending the AWP conference last week to each report on one specific break-out session. I was happy to contribute this piece covering a panel presentation on chapbooks as a viable publishing option for (not poets, but) creative nonfiction writers. And if you want more on CNF chapbook publishers/ contests/opportunities, see Chelsea Biondolillo's post and generous list at Brevity's blog


> What would it be like to get news only from print for two months? This guy found out.

> Poet Stephanie McCarley Dugger, on what it's like to win a book publication contest, ordering poems in her manuscript, and the ups and downs of submissions, at the Prairie Schooner blog.

> Gayle Greene, at Women Writers, Women's Books, on how she shaped her grief memoir, Missing Persons.

> Creative nonfiction writers have to make their characters come alive on the page, too. Shuly Cawood has some good advice for this. For novel writers, here's Jessica Morrell with tips on "Creating Vivid Minor Characters."

> Feeling lucky? You can win a bookstore. Yep, an entire store, to own and operate. Deadline to enter is this Sunday, 3/18.

> Finally, if you are one of my local northern NJ readers, come work with me on Sunday morning, 3/18. As part of the Montclair Literary Festival, I'm leading a 90-minute workshop, "Writing from Memory," geared to helping memoir, personal essay, and family history writers pry prose from partial memories.


Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

AWP Writers Conference: All Aboard

In a couple of hours, my train pulls in to the station in Tampa, Florida for the annual AWP conference. Really, I made the trip from New Jersey on the rails! (Since I'm writing and scheduling this post four days in advance, I won't know if that idea was brilliant or demented, so check with me later..)

Meanwhile, onward...to the wonderfully ginormous, teeming, swirling controlled chaos that is AWP. What? You think 14,000 writers (and editors, publishers, writing teachers, etc.) descending on an enormous conference center and a slew of hotels is calm and orderly?  That 500+ breakout sessions, a few dozen of readings and gatherings, a dozen or so keynotes and special appearances and talks and on-stage interviews, are easy to navigate? Throw in a three-football-field sized bookfair, after-hours and off-site readings and parties (sorry, sponsored meet-ups), biz dinners and lunches and breakfasts, and you've got AWP.

Which I must say, actually is remarkably organized and orderly for all its girth. And also, unruly.

But hey, Florida instead of NJ in March? I'm there. Or here, by now. 

Like last year, I'm here to learn, to listen, to meet up with my far-flung but fiercely valued writer friends I only see once a year (or every few years). To absorb it all, make new writer-world friends, take it all in. To ogle and soak up the wisdom of writer idols (and not be shocked  when they get drunk at the after party, no not me), to dream and plan and set some new goals.

While I've marked up the program in a nifty app so I won't miss my must-see sessions, I'm also reserving--as I also did probably for the first time last year--my personal right to follow my nose and not fulfill an agenda. That worked out remarkably well in 2017, so hey, why not!

Officially, I do have a few places to be, things to do at AWP this year: 

Three literary journals, which have published my work (Sweet and Under the Gum Tree in the past; Tiferet in a forthcoming issue), are hosting me to sign and give away ARC's (advance reading copies) of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love after Loss (coming May 1 from University of Nevada Press). Even if the books run out, I'd still love to chat with any interested folks who stop by (and there may be some book swag on hand too). 

You can find me here, in the sprawling bookfair: 

Sweet Literary Journal (Thursday, 3/8, 3:00 - 4:00, Table 1109)

Under the Gum Tree (Friday, 3/9, 3:30 - 5:00, Table T1732)

Tiferet Journal (Saturday, 3/10, 11:00 am - noon, Table T1939)

(Here's a floor map of the bookfair layout, in case you like looking at things that make you dizzy.)

And, for something completely different, I'll be reading with contributors to the forthcoming anthology, Flash Nonfiction Funny: 71 Very Humorous, Very True, Very Short Stories, at the Tampa Marriott Waterside (host hotel), Meeting Room 13, 6:30 - 8:00 pm.on Thurs, 3/8. I don't often get funny on the page, and this short piece might surprise (shock?) some folks. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Perhaps we'll run into one another. I love whenever I can connect with blog readers; though given the size and scope of AWP, I may just have to wave from here. 

Which reminds me, I'll be back here next week (or soon, anyway), sharing some of what I learned and observed. And if I know myself, while there I'll be offering this space to other authors with just-published books, writers with something compelling to say, who I think you may like to hear from in future guest posts or Q/A's. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Memoir Book Report, Part VI: Tables Turned. Author Interviews and More

Interviewing authors, and loaning out this space to feature guest posts by other writers, are the great pleasures of publishing this blog. I ran the first Q/A interview in February 2008, about eight months after starting up the blog, and the first guest blog post not long after. Both featured authors of memoirs, although I've also spotlighted novelists, poets, and the occasional screenwriter, playwright, editor, and publisher. 

When I interview an author of personal creative nonfiction -- both here and when those interviews appear on another site, or in a book -- I like to think up questions that likely aren't the same ones they've already been asked time and again while promoting their books or other activities. That isn't always easy, but it is always fun and interesting for me. It pushes me to look thoughtfully at their work, to think deeply about it, and to get even more curious about the writer.

Now, I'm finding myself at the other end of that equation as PR activities are starting up for my forthcoming memoir.  First there was the author interview that's now part of the publisher's press kit and distributors' mailing.

Recently, I've been fortunate to be asked to answer interview questions for future publication. Never have I so appreciated the value of original, probing interview questions. I'm being asked to think about things I hadn't anticipated being asked. These include well-formulated and outside-the-ordinary questions about the book's content, my writing process, publishing with a small/university press, writing about family members, what my writing life looks like, and my hopes and goals for the book.

You'd think I'd have known these interview questions would invite me to look deeper, think more broadly, enter unexplored territory. You'd think I'd have been ready.  I was in a way, but not completely. And frankly, that's what's making it fun. With a podcast and a webcast interview also in the mix, I'll get an opportunity to see what it's like to field those questions--gulp--live.

When I ask someone to contribute a guest post here (or I respond to a request), I emphasize that to best serve blog readers, original content is highly valued. (No cookie-cutter blog posts templates culled from the press kit, please!) And I've been pleased time and time again by writers who always come up with something new and worthwhile to say, and allow me to post it here on their behalf.

Now -- you guessed it -- I'm writing some of those kind of guest posts myself. And hoping they will be equally valuable and fresh.

Overall, as this process unfolds, I've never been so appreciative of the thoroughness and generosity shown by bloggers, editors, freelance writers, and others. Their kindness, intelligence, professionalism, and sincere desire to help are striking.

It's still early days, but already an interview has appeared on the TRUE section of Proximity magazine, and at the Bay Path University MFA Director's blog.

As we get closer to book publication (May 1), I'll post other interviews and guest posts that appear. If you happen to be someone who interviews authors, publishes guest posts, plans author coverage or book reviews, I'd love to hear from you, as the interview and blog post calendar takes shape.

And now, back to answering questions...


This is the sixth in a series following the manuscript-to-published journey for me and Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter's Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press, May 1, 2018). Find the others in the series here.


Friday, March 2, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- March 2, 2018 Edition

> Publishers Weekly is reporting that Barnes & Noble is opening five new prototype stores over the next 14 months, each about half the size of their typical large format. Turns out the first will be in northern NJ -- my stomping grounds!

> Writers who have taken classes at Grub Street or attended Muse & the Marketplace in Boston, will be interested in this Boston Globe interview with founder Eve Bridburg.

> Another interview of interest, this one with Natalie Singer, about her brand new essay collection, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation (Hawthorne Books).

> I'm in the thick of planning bookstore events for my forthcoming memoir, and appreciated this straight-shooting advice from Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago.

> If you're struggling through a revision, these quotes from 15 poets on revision, might help (via The Millions).

> Lee Martin, with another excellent post on writing craft, this time, the power of a pause in a narrative (and, by extension, in life!).

Have a great weekend!


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Author Interview with Jean Harper about her memoir, Still Life with Horses

I devour memoirs and novels about horses—but I’m also a harsh critic when it comes to prose about our equine partners. That’s why I was so thrilled to read the stunning memoir, Still Life with Horses by Jean Harper, recently #9 on the Small Press Distributors’ bestseller list. Like a fangirl, as soon as I read the final sentence, I set out to connect with the author, who graciously agreed to answer my many nosy questions.

Jean teaches literature and writing at Indiana University East, is the author of Rose City: A Memoir of Workand wrote and directed the documentary film 1:47. Jean’s essays have appeared in The Florida ReviewNorth American ReviewIowa ReviewHarpur Palate, and Yemasee Review. She’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Indiana Arts Commission, has been a Scholar in Residence at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and in residence at Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Please welcome Jean Harper.

LR: So you were writing about your horse and how you came to riding as an adult, for a few years, but struggling with shaping those drafts into a coherent memoir—and then had a turning point. What changed?

JH: I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and my studio looked out over a field. The first day, I was standing at the window, staring into space, not writing or really thinking anything at all, and then I saw a horse. A large, black, gorgeous horse. I had an apple left over from lunch and went out to see this horse. He came trotting up and leaned his head over the fence; I took bites of the apple and gave him bites. We shared that apple and I felt as though – even though I’m not really a believer in these things – that this horse was some kind of sign. I remember holding my hand out, empty of apple now, and the horse breathing on my palm. I thought of the James Wright poem, “A Blessing,” the last lines, when the poem’s speaker has been nuzzled by a horse:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

And I knew that moment was how my book would end: with that black horse giving me a blessing, giving me permission to write. I went back into my studio, sat down, and wrote the chapter that would be the hardest to write. The rest unfolded from there.

LR: Your book was published as a result of winning the Howling Bird Press 2017 Nonfiction Prize at Augsburg College. I’d love to hear what that experience was like.

JH: Oh my, it was fantastic. I remember meeting the students at AWP in early 2017, and how interesting I found the idea of a publishing project working with MFA students. I liked the students, and liked the books they had on display, and so I decided I’d submit my manuscript. Their word limit was 40,000, which meant I needed to edit out about 15,000 words. Honestly, it was liberating. Whole chapters got the ax, plus anything that I had even slight doubts about. I was killing a lot of darlings. I highly recommend cutting a manuscript by 25 percent, even as an exercise! It will open up your work in ways you might not imagine.

Then, of course, you submit and you wait. Ironically, about a month before I got the call that told me I had won, I had a very disheartening meeting with a literary agent at a conference. The agent had read a portion of the memoir, and in our meeting, she pushed my pages across the table and said, “So, what’s the story?” I summarized it as best I could, and she shrugged and said, “Well, my horse died too. What’s the story?” The implication being, I suppose, that if I wasn’t famous, or my horse wasn’t famous, then the book was a waste of her time. I left that meeting about as discouraged as I had been in a long time.

Fortunately, the phone call telling me I’d won came soon enough. I’m a writer, but I am also a dedicated teacher, and the notion of working with students sounded just perfect.  The editing process was the best I’ve ever been through. The publisher, and faculty mentor, Jim Cihlar, is a thorough, gentle, wise, and very particular editor, and the main student editor, Katherine Fagen, was exactly the same.

For me, as a writer, the process of being edited by them, and the rest of the student team, was truly enlightening. Through Jim and Kathy’s guidance, I was able to see where things needed to be tightened, expanded, tinkered with even slightly. And then there’s the experience of working with a small, independent press, where you and your book are given close, personal, scrupulous attention. It was kind of like an intense workshop with very skilled practitioners. I only wish I could publish my next book with Howling Bird Press.

LR: You employ a segmented form within each chapter, and – I loved this – in between chapters, short (flash?) pieces, no more than a paragraph or two. These are visually varied on the page and have a different feel/voice, more like prose poetry, rich in imagery. Some draw on the narrator’s girlhood memories, art and mythology, equine psychology or behavior. When and how did these bits come about, and what did they mean to you?

JH: I have always loved playing with form in nonfiction, in service of the story, not simply form for form’s sake. In part, these prose poem pieces came about as an experiment, inspired by the “Entre’acte” pieces Mark Doty used in Dog Years. I found those short pieces between chapters to be very effective and intriguing as counterpoints to his main narrative, and thought I would try something like that. I’d also been playing with poetry and wanted to have the feel of poetry in the book, how through poetry we can come at things in a less direct, perhaps more mysterious and visual, even visceral, way.

So I was thinking about all this, and then when I decided to submit to Howling Bird, and had to cut those 15,000 words, I saved a few slices, images, moments, and re-fashioned them into the prose pieces. It was so interesting how it just clicked into place, and I found myself again thinking that the constraints of form—only 40,000 words—helped put a kind of creative pressure on the manuscript that really worked.

LR: In the book, the narrator begins to take control of a disappointing personal life as she’s learning to become a confident, capable horsewoman. Was that connection evident as you were living it?

JH: Absolutely, yes. When I got interested in horses I was about 40, and a complete and utter novice. I was also, and I think the book alludes to this more than once, terrified of just about everything related to horses: riding, lunging, ground work. All this fear, at the same time that I felt drawn to horses in profound ways, you’d think I would have taken a lesson or two and stopped. But I was also mentoring Mia, the young girl in the book, and I wanted, I think, to be a role model for her,to be that strong, determined, committed woman she could emulate and look up to. So I kept taking lessons, and kept going with Mia to hers, kept playing the role of a confident woman.

Then I got Buddy, and suddenly I was responsible for this beautiful, huge, unpredictable, wise, intuitive horse. That was really the tipping point: once I had Buddy, there was no turning back. I had to not simply play the role, I had to embody confidence and capability because he was a funny horse: brave about so many things, but terrified of others. We could trail ride anywhere, and he never shied once, not even the day we turned a corner on a trail and there was a fully opened bright blue umbrella on the path. He just kind of looked at it, and we kept going. But, he was afraid of very specific things: streams and puddles, wash stalls, horse trailers. So I felt my job was to teach, protect, and be his leader.

And when you learn how to be the trusted leader of a thousand pound animal, whose first instinct at any danger is flight, you learn a deep-seated sense of confidence in yourself. It’s confidence at the body level, the cellular level. You learn how to be calm in the face of fear, how to be centered, grounded. All of that did change me as a person, and did give me a new sense of self, allowing me to imagine a different personal life, both with and beyond horses. It also allowed me to be calm in the face of a somewhat turbulent personal life, and see a way past it, and thus, out of it.

LR: You’re a full-time college writing professor, so presumably much of your personal creative writing is completed on breaks, weekends, and other found hours, like other writers with “day jobs.” With each book, does that balance become any easier? Any advice for writers struggling to produce long works in short bursts of time?

JH: During the school year I have a small mantra I repeat to myself: “Touch the work every day.” Even if I only have ten spare minutes, and I can probably find that in any given day, I make a point of looking at what I am writing. I think about what I’ve got, where I’m going. I write one sentence, a phrase, a word. That’s incremental progress, of course, but it’s still progress.

On breaks between semesters, and in the summer, I work to create a large chunk of writing I can edit during the school year. I was fortunate to have a yearlong sabbatical last academic year and so wrote the first draft of my next book. It’s a bit of a mess, but that’s okay. It’s a draft.

You have to allow yourself to write badly. That’s what revision is all about: turning the bad writing into good writing. Now, back in the trenches of teaching, and committee work, and all the rest, I’m touching that draft every day. I would say that this particular process – create a full rough draft, then edit it over time – is something I have learned to do more fluently now, working on what will become my third book.

My best advice for writers is written on two notecards over my desk. 

The first: "All real writers go through this." The this being anything related to writing: getting stuck, searching for the right word, getting rejected, getting published, fiddling endlessly with a paragraph, getting it right on the first try. If you are writing and going through whatever you are going through, you have company. You are a real writer.
And, from Chuck Close: "A quilt may take a year, but if you just keep doing it, you get a quilt."

LR: It’s easy to get sentimental when writing about the profound relationships between a horse and human being, but sentimentality usually pulls down the prose. Your book is frequently loving, saturated with memory and meaning—but never sentimental or sappy. What was it like to write about an experience that clearly meant so much to you, without getting nostalgic?

JH: When I was first writing about Buddy, it was awful, to be honest. I adored that horse, and right after he died, I was completely wrecked. For months, I wrote in ragged fragments, just flashes of memory, words, images. And then I couldn’t write at all. It was just too difficult. When I finally went to the writing retreat for two weeks, I had the solitude and unbroken time to focus on the chapter about his death. I spent a lot of those two weeks just weeping. But I also was writing. I wanted to get his story right, to honor the life of that brilliant animal. When you love an animal, it's almost a primal thing. Especially with horses, you speak to each other in ways beyond language, through the body; so when I was writing about Buddy, it was as though my whole body was writing. It was exhausting; it was exhilarating.

I also had to give a reading at the end of the residency, and when I finally had a draft chapter, I practiced reading aloud what I had written about 25 times before I could read it without tears streaming down my face. And when I did read it for an audience of my new writer and artist friends, I was not the one weeping. They were. A painter came up to me afterwards and said something like, you know you’ve described the Pieta, don’t you? I hadn’t intended to do that, but I understood what he meant: the death scene I wrote was intimate, raw, a physical manifestation of grief. I think it’s that physicality, the details we can see and touch, that keep us from sentimentality. I know it keeps me from sentimentality.

LR: The artwork on the cover is gorgeous. The horse’s large brown eye, the way it’s mirrored in the sketchy lines, is so hauntingly, achingly lovely—to me it evokes the depth of love between horse and narrator. Is there a story behind how you came to find the artwork or what it means to you?

JH: I have a dear friend who works at an art museum; my friend is also a poet, and she and I were writing back and forth about what we thought the cover ought to look like. This was at the same time that design students working with Howling Bird Press were coming up with their cover ideas. My poet friend found the artist’s website and told me to go look. I don’t remember now if she found this particular painting, or if I did, but it was my poet friend who led me to it.

It took some back and forth between the press as we hashed out what the cover should look like, but I was certain this was the right image and so gently kept putting it before them. I think that’s the beauty of a small press too: they listen to the author, and care about the author’s vision for the cover art. I love this artwork too, and I’ve gotten to know the artist a bit, and she is just a delightful person, who really understands horses on a visceral level.

LR: You describe horse-related activities, behaviors, equipment, and medical issues so that those without horse experience can understand, but without talking down to knowledgeable horse-people. Was that was particularly challenging? Any advice for writers dealing with specialty topics?

JH: It was challenging, yes. I’ve read so many horse books that struggle to do this well, that it became a particular writing goal of mine to write good prose about horse “stuff.” Too often the prose is too technical and dreadfully dull, or overly explained and awkward, or convoluted descriptions of nuanced things that end up killing the nuance.

As a writer, I grew up learning to write by way of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and still keep copies of that thin brilliant book in my office, so I can give it away to students. Strunk (and White) stressed the beauty of plain prose, and that is what I have come to value most. The ability to write plain, luminous sentences comes with practice and patience and more practice. I appreciate well-crafted extravagant prose, but I much prefer plain prose, the kind of writing that becomes almost invisible, allowing meaning to rise from the page without calling attention to the way meaning is made.

I also read widely, looking for this kind of prose, writers like Michael Cunningham, JoAnn Beard, John McPhee, Joan Didion. That, and I read everything that I write aloud, listening for the music of the sentences. If it falls flat on my ear, back to the drawing board. 

LR: You mentioned you have a current work-in-progress. Care to elaborate?

JH: I'm writing about five generations of women in my family, going back to a whaleship captain's wife in Nantucket. I am very interested in how women in this family, probably many families, tell stories about themselves and to themselves. I'm interested in how stories of the past shape our present, how stories get passed down, passed around, altered, the alterations becoming accepted as true, about the power stories have over us, how arguments are embedded in stories, yet in a way we almost don't see them, we just see the story. 

Currently, I have a draft of this book done, and am slowly but surely working on revisions.

Connect with Jean Harper at her website/blog. You can read another interview with her about publishing the memoir at the Howling Bird Press website.

Images: Book cover and headshot, courtesy Jean Harper. Inside book, L. Romeo. Strunk & White: royalty free clip art.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Guest Blogger Stephanie Vanderslice on Rest, Writing, and the Walking Cure

The name Stephanie Vanderslice often comes up when discussing best practices for teaching writing. I’ve happily hosted her here on the blog before, and am pleased to welcome her back. Her latest book, The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life, is chock full of solid, writer-tested, smart, and innovative tips on living a writing life in the 21st century. Stephanie holds an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University and now directs the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas.

Please welcome Stephanie Vanderslice

I originally put the book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, on my reading list last summer because the title was so tempting, because I am a victim of the modern culture of “busyness” as much as anyone else, and because I thought I might find in its pages the secret to managing my time.

Instead, what I found more than anything else was a history of artists and the creative life over the last several centuries, a history with a surprisingly common thread: walking.  Walking, or some kind of meditative physical activity undertaken without distraction, without trying to multitask or do anything else but put one foot in front of another. 

I was astonished to learn how important walking had been throughout history, how many of the world’s great writers and artists have been walkers. Jefferson, Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis. Alice Munro, Barbara McClintock (Geneticist), Lin Manuel Miranda. They all got their best ideas walking.

I am no stranger to physical exercise. I ride for miles each week on a stationary bike while staring at my Kindle or reading a magazine, and I power walk around my neighborhood while listening to podcasts. Anything to keep my mind occupied, because even though I’ve exercised for 30 years, I still find it pretty boring. 

The kind of exercise advocated in Rest was different. The kind of physical movement that inspired the creatives of the past was exercise for its own sake. It was supposed to be boring. That was the point. As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard reveals, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.”

After reading Rest, I became so enamored of walking that I first began scheming to make my commute to the university where I teach on foot—a 20-minute prospect each way—but the problem of figuring out what to do with all the stuff I’d need to schlep back and forth persisted. In the end, I decided to start smaller, with a 45-minute neighborhood stroll after my morning writing sessions. The new caveat: headphones not allowed.  I had to give my mind as much freedom to roam as my body. 

The results have been impressive. Each walk has ended with so many writing ideas, especially development ideas for my novel-in-progress, that I quickly had to start a file called, “walking ideas,” to keep track of them. Moreover, I am learning not to pressure myself on these jaunts, telling myself that my mind can go wherever it wants, even if that means perseverating on what I should have said at yesterday’s faculty meeting. Still, I have yet to return home, even on the most stressful of days, without a revelation about something I was writing.

It’s not just Rest that’s onto something. Recently at a reading at my university, a student asked renowned poet Maggie Smith how she generated her ideas. “Put your phone away and take a walk,” she said.

No wonder the Romantics spent so much time wandering the moors. So, while Rest (the book) has not necessarily granted me an extra hour a day or helped me maximize my REM sleep, it has changed my creative life. See for yourself—read Rest and give the “daily constitutional” a try.

Connect with Stephanie on Twitter, Facebook, or at her website.


Images courtesy S. Vanderslice

Friday, February 9, 2018

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- February 9, 2018 Edition

> Do you hedge and cower in your writing, using a lot of qualifier words and unnecessary amplifiers? Jessi Rita Hoffman has some notes for you, via Jane Friedman's site.

> On Tiferet Talks (podcast for Tiferet Journal), Gayle Brandeis, author of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis, chats with one of my former mentors, Leslea Newman, author of the poetry book, I Carry My Mother, and many other significant works, including A Letter to Harvey Milk and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.

> Many writers who have put up posts and articles on Huffington Post since its inception have hoped the site would wake up and end its non-paying policy; instead, HuffPo will simply stop publishing any outside contributors.

> Anyone else love dissecting short works by looking at their opening and/or closing lines in isolation? In this post, the editors at Brevity are luring readers in with the first lines of essays published in their newest issue.

> The NBCC (National Book Critics Circle) has announced its 2017 Award Finalists in advance of the March 17 presentations.

>In the category of Print-This-Out-and-Give-It-To-a-Non-Writer-Friend, Leslie Pietrzyk notes all the ways to help a writer.

> Finally, this one's just for my New Jersey/NYC/Eastern Pennsylvania writer friends: looking for a relaxing place and atmosphere to disappear for a day and write? Check out next Saturday's Cedar Ridge Writers Series mid-winter retreat.



Have a great weekend!