Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Winter, Walking Casts, Writing Books. Going on...

At the nearby track where I walk when the roads are icy or I’m recovering from yet another injury, or have time only for a quick two miles, on many mornings on the inside field, a freelance soccer coach takes groups of youngsters through what to me seem like advanced skill drills. A blur of motion, legs, soccer balls. I have almost no interest in the game, but what I love is that no matter where on the track I am, or even how windy it may be, I hear the lilt of the coach’s rich voice, his island accent, urging his players on.

When he first appeared, I noticed that no matter what mistake a player may make, no matter how much one of the kids may be struggling, what comes out of this man’s mouth is: “And, we go on.”

 At first, I couldn’t decipher it, thinking I’d heard: “andweeego own…” But then I got it, and realized he was encouraging his charges, constantly—and more, suggesting that errors, small or large missteps, don’t matter as much as going on, without pausing to worry or feel sorry.

I learned to love hearing him, and some days when I was driving to the track, hoped fervently the coach would be there, boosting those hopeful, keep-on-trying kids. When I hear him encouraging them, especially on days when I’m considering cutting my walk short, that small push is enough.

 And, we go on.

 And so, I do.

Like now. 

Middle of winter in New Jersey. And though I’ve lived here all but a half-dozen years of my life, I’m always and inexplicably a bit surprised at what happens (snow, ice, bone rattling cold), and also a little dismayed (Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as the daily gray day doldrums). Toss in two new broken bones in my foot, and here we are indeed: February, slightly depressed, too much forced sedentary-ness, staying home far too much.

 And, we go on.

Keeping me going just now, as I clump around in an awkward walking boot: teaching (this semester, an MFA course, “Reading as a Writer,” which I developed several years ago); writing (barely trudging around the track, but showing up); editing and coaching (absolutely nothing better than helping writers polish their drafts, manuscripts, and skills).

Yet, some days, when it all gets to me—like the gray and icy 13-degree day last week when my foot ached and I ran out of British crime dramas to watch—it’s my non-writer, feeling crummy but determined to do something activities that keep me going on. That is, I organize. Cull closets and shelves, then toss, sell, or find ways to give away. I’ve culled my office, notably my bulging bookshelves, three times recently. A neighborhood social media page ensures the novels and memoirs and biographies I part with find new readers nearby.

Most recently, I’ve been thinning my writing craft bookshevles. This group (pictured) is ready to go. (I've either got a duplicate copy, or read it and got what I needed from it, or for some reason it didn't speak to me but may be just what another writer needs.) And I’d love to give them to you, my blog readers and writing and reading friends. Want one? Email me with your U.S. postal address and I’ll send it via media mail at my cost. (If you can make good use of several, and are willing to share mailing expenses, we can do that too.) That’s it. Books to a new home where they can maybe inspire another writer.

Here’s hoping your winter/pandemic/getting-back-to-normal/whatever projects and activities are feeding you.

 And, we go on together.

 P.S. I have two open editing slots for winter and three for spring, to take on full manuscripts, and room for a few new coaching clients. And of course, editing/feedback for shorter works is available almost anytime. Get started here or email me.  

Thursday, November 11, 2021

I'm Good at Titles. But this time, I'll defer to the Queen.

In a 1992 speech, England’s Queen Elizabeth II characterized a year filled with turmoil for her and her family: “…it has turned out to be an 'Annus Horribilis'.” 

Can I just say, about the last 12 months for me and my family: Ditto.

Let’s get this over with quickly: One year ago this month, we lost my mother-in-law (at age 100). Later that day—Friday the 13th if anyone is keeping track—something quite upsetting befell one of my kids, who was 200 miles from home, alone. (It’s not my story to tell, so I won’t, except to say: who mistreats a person when they’ve just confided they lost a beloved grandmother that morning?). That Monday, I landed in the hospital for five days with a nasty case of pancreatitis, Zoom-watched the funeral, and had gall bladder removal surgery. A few days after I arrived back home, my other kid spent Thanksgiving Day in the hospital, 100 miles from home, alone. The next day his car died on the NJ Turnpike.

My husband Frank and I have been married for 33 years, and I had never seen him more beaten down and frightened as when he dropped me at the door to the Emergency Room. This was eight months into the Covid pandemic; we live in crowded New Jersey, in the county with, at the time, the highest Covid infection rate. Alone was the watchword for every family experience that month: grief, fear, pain, the unknown. Alone in the ER, the hospital rooms, alone without a wake or normal funeral, our kids alone far away dealing with their problems alone.

Last week over dinner, the four of us (three at home, one via Skype), recalled how difficult last November was for us individually and as a family—and that the difficulties didn’t end then. From last December through this October—individually and/or collectively—we’ve weathered break-ups, college career derailments. Jobs were lost, teaching gigs disappeared. Clients, facing their own difficulties, cancelled. My husband’s business wobbled; our finances strained. For more than one of us, there have been more/other surgeries and health challenges and injuries.

Have you noticed yet that this blog post—my first in more than a year when I haven't featured a guest blogger—is not about writing?

Or maybe it’s all about writing. In the middle of all that muck, I reluctantly, and probably permanently, put aside a developing memoir manuscript on a beloved topic. I sadly turned down some memoir manuscript editing projects I knew would require more of me emotionally than I could, at the time, give them.

I nearly stopped writing altogether. I did stop writing for a long while.

And me, the writing coach, editor, and writing teacher who typically counsels any clients and students who are worried they’ll never write again, “Be kind to yourself,” could only hear a mental loop about what a lazy writer I was—for not writing as my life lurched from one crisis or emotionally, physically, and financially debilitating situation to the next.

I am trying now to be kind to myself. It’s not easy. Yes, the writing is there, waiting, and yes, I’m making eyes at it again.

The easy analysis would be, as Nora Ephron, once advised, for those of us who write nonfiction about real life: “It’s all copy someday.” Maybe. But it’s not easy copy. At least not yet.

Yet, we’ve all come through. Me, my beloved husband of 33 years, our two adult sons—we are all okay, together, close, healthy (or nearly so). Frank reinvented his business. My ankle is healing, finally and very slowly, after the worst injury in a life already plagued with constant ankle injuries. Hearts are whole, bodies (mostly) healed. Sometimes, money solves problems: a new car relieves worry, new (ankle-friendly) shoes make everyday routines secure. Sometimes (more often), people do: a wondrous new physical therapist, a son who realized what Frank’s business needed and then did it, everyone focusing on doing rather than complaining.

Sometimes, the old chestnut proves itself: time heals, or at least allows us the time needed to move along, move on, move toward or away from people, situations, emotions.

I may never write about any of it beyond this back-to-the-blog post. I may, like the Queen, simply slap the annus horribilis label on it and watch as it moves away in the rearview mirror, as I, we move… 


Images: Flickr/CreativeCommons - Queen (Mags); Jacket (Sajith TS); Hurricane (NASA Goddard Space Flight); Sunrise (Andre W).


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Guest Blogger Desiree Villena on Lessons Learned from Reading Dozens of Short Stories Every Week

Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, which connects authors with self-publishing resources and professionals. She also writes her own short stories.

 Please welcome Desiree Villenna.

 I’m more of a novel person at heart, but I read dozens of short stories every week. My consumption is varied, ranging from space operas set in Alpha Centauri to domestic realism confined to a tiny kitchen. Some of these stories are ideally suited to my interests, touching on the themes and tropes I tend to seek out in novels. Others, though, feel dropped into my lap like unexpected gifts — the kind you end up loving even though you’d never pick them out yourself.

Where do I find all these stories? I’m a judge for Reedsy’s writing contest. Every week, short story writers from around the world send 1000 to 3000 words of fiction in response to a set of prompts. That’s where judges like me come in. Together, we assess entries for everything from plot to prose, until the best story of the group emerges to take the crown.

Few of us judges are professional editors, but judging stories every week has honed our instincts when it comes to evaluating short fiction. I think I speak for all my fellow judges when I say this process has also sharpened our senses for craft, giving us all eagle eyes for what makes short stories work.

Here are five lessons I’ve taken from this experience.

1. The most important part of any story is the beginning. In literature, as in life, first impressions can be hard to shake. If you’re a short fiction writer, the onus is on you to dazzle readers right from that outset — you can’t rely on a mesmerizing cover design (or worse, have to overcome a possibly misleading image). And that means crafting a compelling opening.

 I’ve found that the best indicator of a stories overall quality isn’t its climax or conclusion — it’s the beginning. A strong start activates the reader’s instinct for narrative, exactly the way a mouthwatering aroma triggers the appetite. Those enticing opening lines say: Pay attention. You’re in for something good. 

2. Strong beginnings can sometimes save misshapen stories. Unfortunately, writers sometimes squander the potential of a gorgeous opening. But in my experience, that initial intrigue can buy them quite a bit of readerly goodwill, even if the story starts to unravel a bit. At its most extreme, the halo cast by a perfect beginning can blanch away all kinds of flaws, making unsatisfying endings seem sophisticated in their ambiguity and reframing rambling passages as nuanced and philosophical. 

Of course, you should strive to make your story uniformly strong. But if you want to pour a little more effort into one particular part of it, invest in the beginning. 

3. Style matters more in short fiction. When it comes to novels, I tend to be somewhat style-agnostic. As long as the writer’s voice doesn’t strain understanding, what they say is far more important to me than how they say it. Even flat, colorless prose can be an effective vehicle for a dazzling plot or an unforgettable protagonist. 

As a short fiction reader, I’ve grown more and more attuned to the importance of distinctive, aesthetically pleasing treatment of language. In a form as compressed as a thousand-word story, the boundaries between style and substance feel blurred — there’s no room for carelessness in the writer’s expression. 

4. But good style is genre-dependent. Know that “good” style doesn’t have to mean Nabokovian gorgeousness or Hemingway-esque minimalism. It just means that the prose conveying the writer’s ideas complements them in a way that seems thoughtful and intentional. Different types of stories naturally demand different treatments. 

A story aimed at young readers can be zippy and cute, full of short sentences, snappy dialogue, and delightful onomatopoeias. Meanwhile, a piece of mature historical fiction might be staid and restrained in its language, filigreed with period phrases that give it an air of authenticity. As different as they are, these are both examples of thoughtfully crafted, appropriate literary styles.  

5. Short form makes it easier (and more rewarding) to take stylistic risks. The formal restrictions imposed on short fiction writers might amplify stylistic problems, but they also make it easier to take big risks.  

Some of the strongest entries I’ve encountered as a judge make a point of flouting established writing guidelines. I’ve seen second-person stories, stories written entirely in future tense, and even stories that, on balance, do far more telling than showing. Somehow, they’ve all worked, and not just worked — they won.  

If you want to gamble on a controversial narrative choice, your next short story is the perfect chance. Even less adventurous readers will find unusual storytelling techniques more palatable in short form. Meanwhile, those with avant-garde sensibilities will applaud you for your daring. Even after all the stories I’ve read, there’s nothing I admire more than a stylistically ambitious story told with conviction and verve.

Visit Reedsy to learn more about their contests and other resources.

Images: Flickr/CreativeCommons - Stack of Papers, Philip Wong; Handwritten Pages, Julio Garciah.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Guest Blogger Shelley Blanton-Stroud on Fact and Truth, Fiction and Nonfiction

Shelley Blanton-Stroud grew up in California’s Central Valley, the daughter of Dust Bowl immigrants. She teaches college writing in Northern California, consults with writers in the energy industry, co-directs Stories on Stage Sacramento, and serves on the advisory board of 916 Ink, an arts-based creative writing nonprofit for children. Copy Boy is her first novel. She also writes and publishes flash fiction and nonfiction, including pieces at Brevity and Cleaver.

Please welcome Shelley Blanton-Stroud.

It took me quite a while to figure out what my book, Copy Boy, would be, my trouble mostly arising from the gap between fact and truth. Facts are verifiable things. Truth is the meaning an individual makes of the facts we choose to consider.

I first began to write ten years ago by focusing on my own family’s history of moving west to California from Texas and Oklahoma in the Dust Bowl exodus of Okies looking for work in the Great Depression. I was thinking about a memoir because I had access to the facts. My father, especially, had dramatic stories to tell, one of which now sets my book in motion. But it soon became obvious that the “facts” changed in his every retelling—how old he was, exactly where the incident took place. And the facts really changed when my father’s siblings shared their versions of the family story. That’s what happens with memory and with storytelling. Though I knew my father was telling his truth, I was unsure of what the facts really were. I didn’t think I could get a memoir right.

So, I decided to turn to traditional historical references—books and newspapers about the Dust Bowl/Great Depression period in California—for a more-complete context on my family’s life. But there was often so much missing in these sources—the feel of the time.

I turned to more subjective, artistic, personal work from the period—the photographs and biography of WPA photographer Dorothea Lange, the essays of the iconic columnist Herb Caen, the biographies of folk roots musician Woody Guthrie and SF Chronicle editor in chief, Paul C. Smith. There was a lot in these sources to use.

I decided. I was going to write a historical novel. 

But I soon learned the problem with doing so is the way fact and truth conflict, every scene requiring a negotiation between the two. Could I use the names of real-life people in my fiction? Many authors do this, to great effect. And I have done so, on the periphery—most notably, letting J. R. Oppenheimer wax philosophic and bed an important character. But I didn’t feel I could do so with the major characters. I couldn’t take the risk of getting their lives wrong, factually, in order to create what was my truth about these lives. I couldn’t limit the story to what “really happened.”

Yet, even though a person might think authors of straight historical nonfiction would have an absolute obligation to only rely on facts, many such authors turn to fictive techniques—creating composite characters, recreating conversations the writer never heard or read, creating interior thought based on speculation.

At any rate, for me, it doesn’t make sense to expect a big fat line between fact and fiction; because scholars have by now established that all memory is a kind of fiction. We never remember things objectively. Such nonfiction is less like fact than it is like what we call “truth”—a mix of verifiable facts and one person’s impressions and reflections about those facts, arrived at via memory.

Even when the nonfiction historical writer has zero intention to use fictive strategies, if they collect ten facts but use only nine, the elimination of that ninth fact, the choice of the writer to focus here, but not there, in favor of their sense of the truth, introduces the potential for inaccuracy. When you collect verified facts and then choose which of those you will write about, you are subjectively creating a particular truth the reader will perceive, and perhaps believe.

This is a moral weight that historical novelists must bear.

In Copy Boy, I found early inspiration for my protagonist in the life of iconic San Francisco columnist, Herb Caen. I never considered using his name (even when my protagonist was a boy, before I turned him into a cross-dressing girl), not just because it would be too hard to get everything “right” but because I wanted the freedom to make my protagonist behave very badly. I wanted to let her run to the edges of what the real-life writer might have been tempted to do. I wanted the freedom of letting her do awful things, without the guilt of attaching a real person’s name to that behavior.
This was doubly important to me about my father’s stories, which inspired so much in the book. But those scenes in the novel are not the same as his stories. The facts aren’t the same. And my truth in using those stories is different than his truth in telling them in the first place.

Still, I breathed in relief at his comment after he read my final version of the first chapter based on his story—Good job. That’s not what really happened.

Connect with Shelley via her website, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Find all links to purchase Copy Boy here, including major online retailers as well as independent bookstores. Join her online for the book’s launch. Register at Crowdcast.

All images courtesy Shelly Blanton-Stroud

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Guest Blogger Christin Geall on Insta-prose: Developing an Audience Through Images

Christin Geall is a Canadian writer, designer, photographer, and author of Cultivated: Elements of Floral Style (Princeton Architectural Press, 2020). Her writing and floral work focuses on the intersections of nature, culture, and horticulture, and she teaches internationally. Trained in horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, she completed a BA in Environmental Studies & Anthropology and a MFA in Writing (at the Stonecoast Program in Maine, which is where we met), and has been a writing professor and gardening columnist for Gardenista. Architectural Digest called her book “delightfully vibrant” and the Seattle Times recently quipped "Geall might just be the M.F.K. Fisher (American grande dame of food writing) of flowers." 

Please welcome Christin Geall

Flash nonfiction? The segmented memoir? The prose poem? When I was in graduate school studying creative nonfiction, I mastered none of these forms. Despite a background as a lifestyle columnist and editor, I couldn’t write both poetically and short. But I yearned to, so I studied stylists like Abigail Thomas, MFK Fisher, and Annie Dillard.

To get one thing straight right away: I’m a terrible storyteller. And not a great consumer of aural nonfiction stories, either. At dinner parties I’d sooner listen to someone tell a tale as watch them pick their teeth. I like ideas, conversation, and a bit of banter, yes, but I didn’t think myself ironic enough, clever enough, or frankly even online enough, for Twitter. And Facebook, well, I found it either too political or too congenial for decent exchange of thought, much less story.

Enter the image as a writing prompt. A subject for discussion, and suddenly all my storytelling and audience problems were solved. Looking back on how I accumulated 97,000 Instagram followers, and the success of my recent book Cultivated: The Elements of Floral Style (Princeton Architectural Press, 2020), I see now how my training in the micro-essay changed my career as well as my relationship to nonfiction.

I had evolved into a personal essayist, memoirist, and an academic by the time I joined Instagram in 2015, yet I had always struggled to write the longform pieces that my career required. I did possess a deep knowledge and love for plants, so I had thirty years of passion to write about, in addition to a fascination with the ideas and language of the fine arts. Creativity is universal—what I’d learned in grad school about the process of writing, workshopping and critique, I applied to my work with flowers – and then to how I’d tell short stories around them.

On Instagram, where a post is driven by one image, you are limited to 2,200 characters, or roughly about 350 words. Given I’m more sprinter than marathoner, the platform fit. Those 350-ish words, I found, are ample space for a concept to be explained, an idea explored, or even a bit of narration.

As I lobbed ideas to a hash-tagged audience and reflected on their comments, I found my thinking (and opinions) refined. As I encountered friction, or clarification, I entered into conversation. I made friends, of course, learned, networked, and steadily over the past few years, became a sought-after voice in my field.

 When the speaking invitations arrived, I was ready; I built my talks with multiple short “stories” about flowers and the ways they connect us with nature, painting, history, ourselves—just as a good essayist, memoirist, or columnist might do on the page.

By the time the book deal happened—a book combining my photographs with short essays on style, creativity, and everything from Baroque music to wabi sabi to the psychology of colour—I not only had an audience who wanted to learn more, but also 20,000 of the 40,000 words needed for the book.

Photography was not something I’d ever truly wanted to learn, but now that I have, I’m grateful for its silence and the way it pulls me creatively. At first, I had to stretch to create images I thought worthy of an Instagram post, let alone a book, but as I learned to use a camera I found the art itself became another subject for inquiry, which is of course, always a good thing for an essayist. Long or short form.

Note from Lisa: You can connect with Christin at her website, and on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. You can find her book, Cultivated, at major online retailers, or order from Indiebound or through your local independent bookstore.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Guest Blogger Michelle Cameron on: Launching a Book in the Time of COVID-19: A Personal View

 A little more than seven years ago, I began teaching with The Writers Circle, a regional New Jersey writing community, in large part because of Michelle Cameron, an historical fiction novelist and poet. Since then, we’ve become colleagues in so many ways, and friends.

Please welcome Michelle Cameron, whose newest novel launches today.

I’ve been here before. Sort of.

My first novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, was published by Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books, during the recession of 2009. My beloved editor was let go three days before my launch, meaning I was then – using the term for authors who experience this phenomenon all too often – orphaned.

No editor means no advocate in the publishing house, so while I had the foresight to hire a publicist who knew the Jewish reading market (my novel was a Jewish historical) and who scheduled many events locally and further afield, I was largely on my own.

The book – a $25 hardcover – was a tough sell. People were hesitant to spend any extra money in a recession, and even those who showed up to events and seemed like the ideal appreciative audience, told me they’d wait for the paperback. But the publisher decided my numbers weren’t strong enough for a paperback.

Fast forward eleven years.

In that time, I’d written three novels. The first, based on the Babylonian Exile, was completed during the long wait for Fruit to be published. I loved the book; I still love the book. My agent did not. After a lukewarm attempt to place it, it went back in my drawer. The second, based on Jewish emancipation during the French Revolution, never really gelled. When I finally, reluctantly, realized the story wasn’t strong enough, I put it aside.

The third novel launches today.                           
Beyond the Ghetto Gates, a historical novel set during Napoleon’s first Italian campaign when he liberated the Jews from their restrictive ghettos, had a long slog to publication – an initially enthusiastic agent who tried hard, some nice rejections from publishing houses looking exclusively for the now-pervasive WWII novel. (The trend was for “contemporary historicals,” a phrase that still makes me shake my head in disbelief.)

Finally, I approached the hybrid publisher She Writes Press. And I loved what they did with the book – the beautiful cover, the care and attention to production values. After years of writing, revising, and trying to get published, I wanted to give the novel the best possible chance to find its audience.

From the start, my promotional strategy was to secure synagogue events close to my New Jersey home – hoping that by the time I reached the Jewish Book Council’s presentation to Jewish organizations nationwide, there’d be enough buzz that I’d be one of the lucky authors to be invited to present my novel further afield. (JBC covers airfare and lodging for those authors.)  I hired two publicists – one who worked the media side and a second who by February was doing a brilliant job, booking me for more than two dozen events during April, May, and June.

I was set. I was excited.

Then, COVID-19 struck. And everything unraveled.

Now, I know my problem is tiny in the face of this deadly pandemic. I’m home and my family is healthy. I can continue to teach and work virtually. There’s enough stored food in the house for weeks. I can walk outside without undue fear. I have so much to be thankful for.

Still – this stinks. I’ve postponed or canceled most events. Some may be rescheduled when things return to normal. But I’m not na├»ve – I know some simply won’t. People move on. Newer books always seem shinier, more appealing.

And I realize this is what publishers have always worried about – sudden catastrophes no one can anticipate or prevent that steal the spotlight from new books. Julia Alvarez’s first novel in 14 years, Afterlife, is pubbing today too. Just imagine how the folks at her publishers, Algonquin, must feel!

But here’s where my bleak story turns positive. Through the generosity of fellow authors and organizations, I’ve pivoted energetically toward social media, accepting offers of video placement, podcasts, blog posts, interviews and live book events on Zoom.

I was featured in a recent virtual reading presented by Murphy Writing of Stockton University and my first chapter will soon be read aloud online (see link below). My publisher is dramatically boosting one book a day for all April releases – my day is April 8. 

The friends I’d tapped for my Street Team are making tremendous efforts on my behalf – re-posting my teaser passages and blurbs, talking up the novel. I’m grateful to them all.

Of course, the essential question remains: will all this virtual activity turn into book sales? For now, I’ve decided only that it certainly can’t hurt. Maybe I’ll reach readers that I never would have before. I truly hope my novel can provide a much-needed escape from this nightmare we’re all living – that my words can touch someone who would never have heard of the book otherwise. May it indeed be so.

Note from Lisa: Connect with Michelle on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and at her website.

You can catch part of Michelle’s Social Media Tour at the following. (More being added daily. See the Events page on her website.)

April 7 – Readers Coffeehouse
April 8 – She Writes Press KEEP CALM AND READ ON Spring Virtual Book Tour with Girly Book Club
April 15, 7:00 pm (Eastern) – She Writes authors Eileen Sanchez and Michelle Cameron in conversation about Beyond the Ghetto Gates via Zoom; click here to register  
April 26 – First Chapter Fun on Hannah Mary McKinnon’s website and on her Instagram Live

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Writers Writing in Rooms in Winter. Sign me up.

A few months ago, while completing details related to teaching a three-day memoir workshop at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway (where I'm at this weekend), I hesitated at the question, Would you like to attend a complimentary master class for faculty, with featured special guest poets Denise Duhamel and Yusef Komunyakaa? 

This would require arriving about five hours earlier than strictly necessary, and on the last full day I'd have to prep for the start of the spring MFA teaching semester, which would begin the morning after my return. Could I really spare three hours? Still, I knew my schedule that day would likely be flexible. Also, the thought of getting out of hectic northern NJ and settling in to a sprawling old world/completely remodeled hotel by the ocean seemed appealing. 

What clinched it was that it occurred to me that I had not sat in the student/writer participant chair for quite a long time. Had not written anything resembling a poem in even longer, but have always loved being in the room with poets, which pushes me to think differently; I usually emerge with something that I later revise into a prose poem, or a piece of flash creative nonfiction (which is how this one got started a few years ago). Or even if not, I leave that kind of room lighter.

Sign me up.

A few things conspired to make me late. (You know those dumb scenes in movies where someone's suitcase explodes, spewing contents all over? Picture this, between my back door and garage, at 7:30 a.m., then me going back in the house, into the attic, to fish out the only remaining suitcase, so old there's no rolling wheels or pull handle.) So when I slid into a chair, the several dozen other writer-teachers were discussing intricacies of one of Komunyakaa's poems and it took a bit to settle in and catch up. But then, for the next two-plus hours, my pen moved, my brain slowed down. I was able to look off into space, and think, muse, wonder. Write. Consider.

Then Komunyakaa -- a Pulitzer Prize recipient and eminent voice -- said a few things that stopped me in place, lit me up with that familiar sense, a combination of intuitive understanding and driving curiosity. 

Here's some of what he shared; I'm paraphrasing here, and of course can't even begin to convey the richness of his speaking voice, his quiet wit alternating with gravitas:

- A poem is a dialogue, a beckoning. It's all about the tone, the music of a phrase.
- Titles should never be a resolution stuck on top of a poem. Titles are an invitation. The poem is not equal to the title.
- I always and only revise a draft of a poem from the bottom up, because that's usually where it's needed. I often write right on past the natural ending because I'm trying to explain everything, and I had not left that door ajar, as you must. I may start out with 150 lines, but the final poem is 40 lines. But that original ending is not usually the real ending. It all comes down to the right confluence of images and connections.
- A prompt can take you anywhere.

The prompt he gave next was to write an ode in praise of oneself, and I wrote about my love/hate relationship with my legs. Like most workshop-generated rough writing, I loved and hated it! What it may one day be, who knows.

After a brown bag lunch, Denise Duhamel asked us to engage with an excerpt from I Remember, a book-length poem by Joe Brainard in which every line or small paragraph begins with "I remember..." and then to write for 15 minutes in the same way. Since an "I remember" list is one of my go-to writing prompts in memoir classes, I sat up straighter in my chair, and wrote, mostly about what I remember of the two years I spent living in Orange County, California in my 20's, riding horses and competing in shows.

Next up was to consider three poems which all end on the word "life", to take one of those ending lines and make it the start of something. I went with (from "A Moment" by Ruth Stone), "you do not want to repeat my life," and wrote of how, at various times in my life, I did or did not want to repeat parts of my own life, my sister's life, my mother's life. 

Too soon, it was time to pick up my folder with my roster of writer participants who would be sitting around my workshop table the next morning. But when I got to my hotel room, before I pulled out all my materials and shifted back into teaching mode to prepare, I pulled on layers of clothing, hat, scarf, and gloves, and struck out to walk the paved cart paths of the golf courses behind the hotel for a chilly but restorative hour (in 34 but "feels like 23" degrees). Walking, and thinking about images, endings, about not explaining so much, about remembering and what we don't remember, and how to write about it all. 

At the opening reception, Peter Murphy, who began the Poetry & Prose Getaway more than two decades ago, reminded the 200-plus in attendance, we are all -- teachers, mentors, workshop leaders, special guest -- just writers together after all, writers writing in rooms, stoking energy and words and more.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Working for a Living, Living Like a Writer, Working with Writing: Not the same as making a living AS a writer. And that's OK.

“I admire that you make a living as a writer.”

A young woman writer said this to me at an event recently.

I’m quick to correct her: No, I don’t.

Because it’s the truth.

I make a living, I tell her, because I’m a writer.

Each January I calculate how much I earned from each of the activities I get paid for and in which percentages in the previous year. I want to understand where the money comes from, where the time goes. (I hate math and I'm bad at it; my husband cannot understand how I was once the statistician for the men's ice hockey team at Syracuse University, but I digress: check out the Percentage Calculator.)

In 2019, some 33 percent of my income came from editing book manuscripts, essays, and book proposals, and acting as a writing coach. The largest amount, 40 percent, was earned by teaching in an online MFA program, and about 23 percent from teaching other writing classes and speaking and leading workshops at conferences, retreats, and libraries. That leaves just 2 percent from book sales and royalties and another 3 percent from paid freelance writing.

That’s it. That last figure is how I did not even get close to making a living as a writer. My income right now comes mostly from helping others with their writing, their writing life. 

This is fine with me, for now. Many years ago, I did in fact make a full time living as a full-time freelance writer—back when there were scads of print magazines and newspapers doling out living wages for articles. But now, my husband (also self-employed) and I have two kids in college, live in one of the most expensive areas of the country (northern NJ, 10 miles from NYC), fund our own health insurance and retirement.

I’m not complaining. I’ve chosen this. Although often it feels like I’m cobbling things together with whatever comes my way, I’m also fairly methodical about seeking opportunities, proposing things, applying for gigs. It’s good that people notice I’m busy, that I work a lot—mostly because that often leads to future work.

I guess that’s what the young woman above was reacting to—my busyness, perhaps combined with getting published enough (in short forms, though often in unpaid literary journals) so that it appears I spend a lot of my time on my own writing. I don’t.

Depending on the cycle of the academic semester, and how much freelance editing/coaching work I have in the house at any one time, my own writing gets done—much like most writers on the planet, I suspect—in between. When there’s a lull, some breathing space. Over holiday breaks and on Sundays and very late at night and occasionally when I need a respite from others’ words and writing problems and editing needs. I like to think this reality helps make me more understanding of the time management, energy, and brain-drain challenges my writing clients and adult MFA students deal with daily.

So, to the dear lovely young writer above—who I might add said this to me at a reading/speaking engagement for my memoir where I was (a) getting paid; (b) trolling for prospective clients; and (c) hopefully selling books: No, I don’t make a living as a writer. But thanks. Right now, it’s enough that I make a living among writers.

Now then. It’s Sunday morning and I have my (abbreviated) work day mapped out: edit four more essays in the manuscript of a client’s essay collection; finish the schedule for the three-day memoir workshop I’m teaching next weekend about 130 miles from home.

Then, maybe, if I’m not too tired, and if my husband is still mainlining playoff football, and if I have anything left in the tank, I want to work on an essay of my own I’ve been tinkering with for three months…

Image, top: Flickr/CreativeCommons - Trending Topics 2019

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Yep, I Still Did it.

Every New Year's Eve, I make two *I Did It Lists* for the year that's ending (one professional, the other personal), I choose my super-secret word for the next year, and I toss out old make-up and expired stuff in the bathroom.

I won't bore you with make-up and cabinet clear-out. But I would like to say a few (hundred) words about the two lists and one word.

Some years ago, I wrote the first "I Did It List" blog post, encouraging myself and other writers to look back with acknowledgement of our writing life accomplishments--no matter how small or un-measurable they may appear to anyone else--and be proud that we...stuck with it, wrote, sent work out, learned something, tried, explored, experimented, revised, rewrote, changed, learned.

Not only the obvious, usual standards of writing accomplishments, like number of pieces published, sold, or finished, agents landed, book deals inked, submissions accepted, freelance checks cashed. Instead, I want to look the other perhaps small yet meaningful things that kept us on course, kept us stimulated, interested, productive, curious writers--at whatever level or frequency our lives, jobs, obligations, hopes, and goals allowed.

If you did it, and it made some difference in your life as a writer, it qualifies for the list.

An *I Did It List* shifts focus to what brought us pleasure and pride, and encourages a pause. To say to ourselves: see, you moved ahead as a writer after all. You stayed in the game. You took a few (maybe baby) steps. You didn't quit. You did something. Probably many things...

Read the rest--and find out the meaning of the word just below, by clicking over to my newsletter here.

Happy New Year and wishing you all much success on all of your creative endeavors in 2020!

Images: Flickr/CreativeCommons

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Publication Goals 2019, Mid-Year Report: Numbers and What Really Matters

Every January, when I think about my upcoming writing year, in addition to working on one big work-in-progress project, I envision what I’d like to see happen with publication of short pieces of work. I’m usually pretty consistently writing and sending off short memoir, essay, and nonfiction narratives (in the 100 to 2500-word range) and it’s motivating to have some submission and publication goals in mind.  

This year, I knew that by early summer, I’d want to begin my next book—and that is indeed underway…slowly. I’m having fun getting it off the ground, writing some crappy rough draft pages, making plans. (More on this in a few months, as its still in early infancy, and since it’s an experiential project, I first have to do the stuff I want to write about!)

In early 2019 I set the goal of getting 12 short pieces published—roughly one each month—in print or online, in literary journals, mainstream media/sites, anthologies. Mostly I picked that number/frequency to keep myself motivated and on track with writing and revision, and to keep filling the submission pipeline.

Now that we’re just past the halfway mark in the calendar, it’s time for me to evaluate progress. Over the years, I’ve gained a lot from peeking inside other writers’ goal-setting and progress reports, so I’m sharing it with you.

First though, I had to ask myself, how do I define “success” when it comes to this goal? Is it hitting the mark of one piece appearing each and every calendar month? Or just 12 publications by year’s end? Is it more logical to measure success as submitting enough work to reasonably attain 12 acceptances? (Some folks measure submission success in numbers of rejections, figuring that each rejection brings one closer to an acceptance. They have a point, but I don’t like measurements based on negativity myself.) Perhaps success is producing, over the course of the year, enough quality polished short works that are ready to go, even if, by December 31, they didn’t move all the way through the pipeline from submission to 12 acceptances yet?

Well, all of that matters—or at least a little of each of those things, I suppose.

The tally for publication (and one acceptance, w/publication forthcoming) of short pieces in 2019 so far stands at six for creative work, plus one article and one guest post, and looks like this:

-       - An essay on a mainstream website covering couples and relationships. (February)
-       - An essay on a website that focuses on spirituality and mindfulness. (March)
-       - An essay in one of Medium’s edited publications. (July)
-       - A short nonfiction piece in a popular mainstream print anthology. (August)
-       - A piece of flash nonfiction in the online portion of a literary journal. (August)
-       - Another work of flash nonfiction in a specialized online literary journal. (September)
-       - An invited guest post on memoir craft for an educational venue’s website. (April)
-     -A Q&A interview w/a fiction writer about her new book, on a cool literary website (May)
My (exceedingly exhaustive, multi-page, bordering-on-obsessive) submission tracker spreadsheet tells me that at the moment, I have four completed pieces out on submission at a total of 11 venues. That’s not a lot, and a bit short of my usual making-the-rounds total. Twelve publications (not just acceptances) might not happen by year's end.

While the little Post-it list on my desk that lists works still-in-progress says there are three more almost-ready pieces that should make it into that submission pipeline over the next few months, with the teaching semester getting underway in three weeks, that’s perhaps doubtful. (Then of course, there's life, interrupting and insisting on my attention all the damn time!)

Funny thing about writing/publishing goals though, at least for me. Seems that whether I get close, or achieve the goal, or fall just a little bit or a long way short, the result is often the same: I usually feel just fine about it. Because no matter what, I learn something, sometimes something important—about my writing process, my subject matter, myself. 

And especially, I learn more about what it means to move personal nonfiction stories out into the world—and how, when, why, and where I want that to happen.

I’ve learned that by the time a piece is published, it sometimes means something different to me thing than it did when I first wrote it. With some pieces, some stories, simply sharing them with readers is deeply satisfying. With others, the satisfaction comes from having brought a treasured now-gone relative or friend back to life on page or screen, or from sharing a cherished experience with the world, even if that world is a relatively small number of readers who care about true, personal stories.

And in the end, regardless of numbers and goals and keeping track, that’s very often enough.

Did you set a publication goal for this year? How’s it going?

You can find some of the above-mentioned pieces via the links in the left margin of this blog. The latest is “A Grave Duty,” over on Flash Glass, the online home of Glassworks journal from Rowan University (which, in a cool unrelated but fun twist, is where one of my sons is now a student!).

Image: keyboard with petals - Marco Verch at Flickr/Creative Commons