Thursday, December 27, 2007

Down Time

It’s kids-home-from-school, Christmas-and-birthday, double strep-throat week in my house. Blogging went out with the wrappings…for now. Meanwhile, some bits and pieces. See you in January, reporting when I can from my 12-day, MFA on-site residency program (if I’m not too worn down from those workshop critiques!).

►Readers who have dropped by often know all about the NonFiction Now conference. Now, all the seminars and presentations are available for audio listening. Instructions are nonexistent over on the site, but I found that one needs to scroll through the conference schedule and click on the panel’s title to start the audio; just be prepared for some rustling papers.

►Yes, book review sections are shrinking, disappearing, being merged into other sections, and having their one-time dedicated editors assigned double duties, at major and minor newspaper markets across the country. This is bad, no doubt. But it’s also not exactly new, according to this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review.

►Then, in case anyone wondered, here’s what members of the National Book Critics Circle have to say on ethics in book reviewing. Like, is it ever okay to review a book one has not read? Review a book for which one has provided a blurb? Hmm…

►It’s not often one is published in the New York Times, and I’m humbled it happened twice for me in 2007. Here’s my latest essay.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

How to Write the Holiday Letter

My least favorite chore as the resident writer in the family? That holiday letter. This year I procrastinated myself right out of the job....and wrote this instead.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reading, Writing and...Roaring

I’ve been Roared at, and the correct blog response, apparently, is to roar right back – but in a different direction. Let me explain.

My roar came via the poet, novelist and Stonecoast MFA alum Bunny Goodjohn, who in turn had been roared by another writer, and so on. Roar etiquette requires that I list three things I think are necessary for powerful writing, and then to send roars out to another five fearless writers, and then each of them….well you get the idea.

My three criteria for powerful nonfiction writing:
Pull up the curtain. Drop the good girl (or guy) façade, banish the need to make oneself appear, in print, any better, kinder, smarter, more right or wise than in life.
Keep it real. You know, don’t make stuff up. That’s called fiction. If the real stuff interferes with your point, you are making the wrong point.
Remember that no one cares. About you. About your story. But that readers really do care about themselves. The really good nonfiction writers help the readers find themselves in our stories.

So thanks to Bunny, who unlike her name might suggest, is quite courageous on the page, here are my roars.

Harriet Brown. Any writer who can call one of her blogs “Feed Me!” and make it meaningful, gets a vote from me. Harriet is an insightful writer who contributes to the science pages of the New York Times. She’s written about what comes after a child’s recovery from anorexia and is a sharp critic of the psychological harm than can ensue from the country’s national obsession with childhood obesity and politically correct eating. She’s also a terrific editor (full disclosure: one of my essays is slated for her spring 2008 anthology about eating and body image).

Erika Dreifus. When I was pondering the whole MFA idea – Should I? Where to apply? Which acceptance to accept? I discovered Erika, dispensing clear-eyed advice on the Poets & Writers boards, and then found my way to her exceedingly helpful blog and newsletter, where she helps connect and encourage writers to opportunities of all sorts. Her e-book guides to Essay Markets and Book Review Markets are painstakingly compiled (more about these in a future post).

Allison Gilbert. I don’t know Allison well, but about six weeks ago, we had one of those 15-minute chats at a writer’s gathering and went “click” (well, I clicked; I’ll have to ask her if she did too.). Before we met, I already admired Gilbert’s inquisitive mind and fluid writing, as well as her forthright manner in her HuffPo blog in which she’s chronicling her optional hysterectomy in response to a family medical history fraught with ovarian cancer.

Michelle O'Neill. Writing in an area flooded by predictability, where essays by writer-moms-of-special-needs-kids tend to all sound the same after a while, Michelle stands out for all the right reasons. Her writing is neither sentimental nor sappy, never whiny, victimized or over-wrought. She just tells good stories and they happen to all be true and about her life with her challenged child and her family.

Jenny Rough. Jenny and I have crossed electronic paths from time to time, and while I can barely remember why or when, I do remember that any time I see her byline, I know that I will probably like the essay or article that follows. I admire her grit in switching careers from law to freelance writing (we all know what that must have entailed) and her flexibility in the subjects she tackles.

Those are my Roars. Time for this lion’s siesta.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

INTERNETeresting Bits

An occasional round-up of links to stuff out there to make you smile, smack your forehead, shake your head, nod and pump your fist, react, act, or pass it on. Enjoy.

►The first lecture I recall as a freshman journalism major at Syracuse University, was about Marshall McLuhan’s then still-debated pronouncement, “the medium is the message.” McLuhan was talking about the “global village” and “new media,” as far back as the 1960s, and ignited controversy and debate for the next 20 years with nearly every book, lecture or interview. One of his more prosaic quotes was about judging a book by a single page – page 69, to be precise. Well, now another Marshal (Zeringue), over at The Campaign For the American Reader, has taken up McLuhan’s challenge. He contacted more than 200 authors of contemporary books, collected their reactions to their own page 69, and has been posting the results.

►Those blank pages sometimes found at the ends of books? Should they – will they – one day be covered in advertisements? And would that help or hurt the publishing industry? That’s what Scott Karp, whose thoughtful media blog, Publishing 2.0: The (r)Evolution of Media, ponders in a recent post.

►Missing Miss Snark? Must have your quota of jaded New York-centric literary agency rhetoric? Try The Rejecter – just like it sounds. She (he?) claims to swim the slush pile by day, and does a fair job of demystifying bugaboos of submission. Keep handy that grain of salt, and make sure you are wearing your thick skin.

Shameless self-promotion: One of my poems, “Flight of Fancy” is up over at Literary Mama.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Pushcart Nod to A Good Friend

We writers cannot hear it enough – perseverance plus talent equals….well in the case of my good friend Kathy Briccetti …a Pushcart Prize nomination. Kathy is one of those writers who just keeps going. While her memoir is making rounds at publishers, she just keeps on: writing, re-writing and submitting -- essays, flash fiction, poetry, nonfiction in experimental forms.

Kathy will have a long career because she believes in her work enough to keep going, even when the rejection notices seem a tad too plentiful, and – just as significantly – even when a big success comes her way and lesser writers might be tempted to kick back.

In addition to her literary work (which is extraordinary), Kathy writes book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, teaches writing in the Bay Area, and occasionally works as an editor. She keeps her eye trained on long term goals – publishing her excellent memoir Blood Strangers: Searching for Family, Finding my Place – and in the meantime, she puts her butt in the chair, at her Internet-free, away-from-the-house-and-kids writing studio, a set number of days and hours each week.

Kathy’s Pushcart nod is for her essay, “Blood Strangers” (adapted from her memoir), which appears in the December issue of Dos Passos Review. When she graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program last January, Kathy read this piece, which she explains, “includes scenes from the beginning and the end of the memoir, in what I hoped would be an interesting juxtaposition. I guess it worked.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

NonFiction Now – and For the Last Time

Here's my last installment of posts on the NonFiction Now conference. [If you want to read the first three posts on NFN, you can find the first one here, the second here, and the third here.]

→ Best “extra” I almost passed by: The Prairie Lights Bookstore. I know, it’s a legend, but I had overspent on books (is there such a thing?) for weeks before, and the travel expenses were making me feel far more frugal than usual, so I had vowed (to no one in particular, thank goodness), not to buy books this trip. When my friend returned from the literary shrine, with tales of entire walls devoted to literary nonfiction, shelf upon shelf of literary journals lining the (non-chain) café, well, I had to relent. And since the credit card bill has yet to arrive, I can still marvel at my good fortune at not missing this experience.

→ Best program event I almost didn’t attend: A short talk by literary documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, and screening of his Bright Leaves. If you ever wonder what a personal, memoir-like narrative looks like on film, resonant with the author’s own voice, with all the reflection intact – and none of the dots connected for you with the redundancy and overarching simplicity of Hollywood – this is it. And funny, too.

→ Best budget-friendly ways to meet other writers: Sharing the cost (and 30 minutes) of the shuttle van to/from the airport, at the bank of free computers with Internet access in the basement of the Memorial Union, queuing up for an inexpensive soup and sandwich at the River Café.

→ Best meet-up: Hanging with seven graduates of the Stonecoast MFA program (where I’m still in fourth semester). Very motivating to listen to them discuss and debate their post-MFA lives -- getting published, getting energized by a new genre, getting on with the writing life.

→ Best thing about watching so many “established” writers make presentations, perform readings and field questions: At various times, almost all at times make mistakes, stumble over a word here and there, say something questionable, appear nervous and look relieved when their time is up.

Just like the rest of us. Phew.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Country of Book Buyers Who Don't Read. Huh?

The country is either morphing into illiterates, or we are collectively obsessed with books.

The New York Times recently reported, “The National Endowment for the Arts delivered the sobering news that Americans — particularly teenagers and young adults — are reading less for fun. At the same time, reading scores among those who read less are declining, and employers are proclaiming workers deficient in basic reading comprehension skills.”

Meanwhile, Mediabistro adds, “The Association of American Publishers released its latest figures on book sales: an increase of 5.7 percent for the month of September, and yearly sales maintaining their climb with an increase of 9.9 percent.”

The folks at Reuters pass on results of a study showing, “Reading tops the list of favorite leisure-time activities, but it does not seem to be as popular among Americans as in previous years.”

And the Seattle-Post Intelligencer not too long ago, said, “Not only are teen book sales booming ....but the quality is soaring as well. Older teens in particular are enjoying a surge of sophisticated fare as young adult literature becomes a global phenomenon.”
So what's with the NEA's gloomy "news"?

A fellow blogger (sorry can’t remember who at the moment, but if it comes to me, I’ll update) adroitly notes that most polls, book-purchasing tabulations, surveys and other measuring devices only look at the reading Americans do in their leisure time, and don’t take into account the heavy amount of reading done in the workplace, on college campuses, or otherwise related to professional or student life.

Yes, reading is a bona fide “leisure time activity” for many (probably for you, who is just now reading a blog about writing!). But reading also permeates the average American’s life as a tool – to access entertainment or information.

If your high-schooler spent four hours this week reading The Things They Carried – why doesn’t that count? Because it’s required and not strictly leisure reading? If you spent most of last evening re-reading Beowulf to prep for teaching a unit on British lit, why would the pollsters not include that time as reading? My cousin who works in truck scheduling, pores over Commercial Carrier Journal at her desk at lunch time. Is that reading?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for reading as a pastime, a hobby, an obsession, an incurable compulsion; reading as therapy, escape, enlightenment and intellectual discourse. Reading because you love words, ideas, and how a favorite “leisure time” author plays with words. I want everyone to read to learn, feel, think and engage. But even when one reads because one “has to,” I for one, still think that should count.

Come to think of it…if the Kindle catches fire, will time spent with books that way count as reading? Or will it come under the heading, using a hand-held mobile electronic device?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Readings are great. But not all the time.

Back to the NonFiction Now conference I attended in early November at the University of Iowa. You can read my other two posts here and here. [Warning – long than usual post ahead.]

Did the conference live up to expectations? Yes and no.

The positives: It would be hard to think of a venue (except maybe for AWP) where so many leading lights in creative nonfiction are under one tent. The names on the program, readings reminded me of when I was a freelance sportswriter and an amateur (and quite average) horse show competitor, I was assigned by an equestrian magazine to cover the selection trial jumping events leading up to the Olympics: Every single one of my riding idols was there, up close – talk about a personal moment gift-wrapped in a professional ribbon. The kicker, of course, was that I was free – entitled – to walk right up to any one of them and ask questions. I usually engineered my questions about their performance that evening to also elicit information I could use once back on my own horse in the practice ring the next morning…

So it was in Iowa. Flummoxed about writing of personal tragedy? Chat up Sue William-Silverman over lunch. Wondering if it’s ever okay to blur the truth a little in nonfiction? Ask Philip Gerard. Need ideas for integrating creative nonfiction into the freshman comp curriculum? Nab Robert Root for a moment. You get the idea. Because the presentation rooms and reading venues are all in close proximity, and especially because everyone has their (included) meals buffet style in an airy ballroom, it’s relatively easy to locate and engage in informal conversations with icons, colleagues and newcomers.

So what’s not to like?

Writers who conducted their presentations with heads lowered, eyes fixed to their printed lecture and READ each and every word. Often with little or no emotion, emphasis or eye contact. Many presenters did this, and frankly it’s boring. It’s tiring. It’s uninspiring. And it’s sort of rude.

With fellow attendees (writers and teachers of writing), I speculated why this was so and here’s what we came up with: Teaching writers, who put in the time and work necessary to put together an interesting and topical (and often original) presentation for a major conference, will want to get it published, and rightfully so. Thus, the ready-to-publish printed-out, 5,000 word craft article masquerades as a “presentation,” instead of the presentation serving as a springboard for the future article.

Some presenters tailored their “performances” so that those printed-out tomes were merely outlines to guide their oral presentations. I won’t name here, of course, those who surprised me by reading, from first word to last, their entire presentation, without even one aside, or unplanned anecdote, digression, or other nod to the live audience. Frankly, it’s just too frustrating.

But I will mention a few whose lively, relaxed, engaging, audience-friendly presentations were worth the two airplane flights. Some had their papers in front of them too, but didn’t read word-for-word, and remembered that there were other humans in the room. They looked up, they paraphrased. They were comfortable off the printed page.

Gregory Martin, (author of Mountain City). Gregory brought props and did a terrific job of integrating them into his talk – the paper bags, scraps of paper, receipts and other papers on which he took notes while working for a year in his grandparents’ grocery store in the Nevada mountains. His students at the University of New Mexico are lucky.

Mike Steinberg, (author of Still Pitching), who can talk about teaching creative nonfiction probably for days without a script, and it’s fresh and personal and interesting each and every time. Readers of The Fourth Genre, and MFA students at Pine Manor already know this.

Roy Kesey, (author McSweeney’s China Dispatches), the closest thing to a stand-up creative nonfictionist as you’re likely to find at an event like this. Funny without really trying, and a unique take on most any aspect of his craft.

Hope Edelman (writer and editor of popular anthologies), had a willingness to point out her own mistakes, and little need for a script. She and her fellow panelists all talked from experience – that would be Dale Rigby, Patricia Foster, Daniel Jones and Faith Adiele.

Michele Morano, (author of Grammar Lessons). Here’s an example of someone who worked from a prepared piece, in fact she probably even was reading from it, but her ability to connect with the people in the room made it palatable.

There were others, too. These I’ve mentioned because they stuck with me, five minutes after I left the room, and now, three weeks later.

Another gripe: 4- and 5-member panels who turned presentations into readings instead of teaching-and-learning opportunities. It’s one thing to read a short passage or two from their own or another’s work to illustrate a point on topic. It’s quite another to fill a room with 30 or so paying conference attendees who think they are going to hear a discussion about some interesting facet of creative nonfiction, only to find that everyone on the panel plans to “illustrate” the topic by reading for their allotted 15 minutes from their own just-released book.

So here’s my message to conference organizers of all writerly events. Thank you for all the painfully-detailed and often uncompensated work you do to make these events happen. Really, I’m a big conference fan. But, please: Just because writers have tremendous respect for the written work of our colleagues and icons, does not mean we want to listen to them read, when they should be presenting. There is a difference. Encourage presenters to give a presentation. Unless of course, it’s billed as a reading. In which case, I’m there – lots of inspiring readings took place at NFN. Just don’t call it a presentation or a panel discussion, and don’t expect that after one has spent hundreds of dollars, taken one cab, two airplanes, a shuttle bus, and walked a half-mile across a windy campus to get there, a paying conference attendee will be happy.

Of course, panels and presentations run concurrently, so I could see only one out of three or four simultaneously running events. Perhaps in the other rooms, things were different. I doubt it, however, since my six writing buddies, who had differing interests than I, and attended a number of the other seminars, came away with similar impressions.

Perhaps the problem is this: I thought NFN was for nonfiction writers who write, but maybe it’s really intended primarily to reach nonfiction writers who write and who also teach nonfiction. Someone did point out that at other strictly academic conferences, presenters typically read their papers. I’m all for nonfiction faculty exchanging ideas and promoting their profession, and of course, I came away from NFN with pages of notes, ideas and new connections. And I’ll probably even take those cabs, planes and walks again in 2009 when NFN re-convenes. Because I did learn something while interviewing Leslie Burr and Michael Matz way back in 1984: You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t get back in the saddle the next time.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nonfiction Poetry

Bump up against enough poets in an MFA program – faculty and students—and eventually it begins to rub off. I arrived at poetry via what I enjoy reading most -- memoir. That is, it was reading two memoirs-in-poetry that fueled my poetry aha moment: We Didn’t Come Here for This, by William Patrick, and Blue Suburbia, by Laurie Lico Albanese. Patrick’s book was recommended to me by nonfiction writer and poet Richard Hoffman, back in summer 2006, just after I had been in Richard’s workshop the first week of my MFA program. I resisted. I was not interested in poetry, I insisted. Thanks but no thanks.

Fast forward one month to the Jersey Shore with my family, who had more stamina for the sun, humidity and heat than I did. A lazy hour at the air-conditioned local bookstore turned up Albanese’s book, which I opened only because I noticed on the end flap that the author lives in the next suburb over from mine, and I bought it more to support her and the independent bookshop than my own (then-nonexistent) poetry habit.

Three days later, restless from jetlag -- our vacation interrupted by my need to fly to Las Vegas, where my father was hospitalized with a stroke – I pulled the book from my poorly repacked suitcase. In less than an hour, I had finished reading and started again. Then I opened my laptop and ordered Patrick’s book. Since then, I’ve been tacking on poetry volumes to most of my book buys.

I’m going about it in a completely haphazard and non-academic way. I just pick up a poetry book, skim, read a few poems, and if I like what I read, I buy it. Or I hear a poet read, stumble over his or her work in print somewhere, or think the book’s cover is kind of intriguing (yes, it’s that illogical; but then poetry isn’t logical, is it?). Nikki Giovanni and Jeffrey Harrison arrived home with me this week; Ai and Holaday Mason got here somehow. And of course, Richard Hoffman.

And then…well, you know what’s coming, right? Rarely content with merely reading something I find fascinating, I usually need to try writing it too. And sometimes, it gets published. I’m not really a poet, I’m a nonfiction writer. But now I sometimes write poetry.

A contentious essay that just isn’t coming together morphs into verse in front of my eyes. A small moment seems to demand unusual punctuation. A misbehaving essay calls out for line breaks. I’m enjoying myself, even the rejection slips, like the one I got yesterday, from a mid-tier literary journal, which said, “This shows graceful and intuitive use of line breaks, and we especially enjoyed the spare use of language. Submit again.”

Submit again. I will. To the recommendations of writers who know better, and to the lure of poetry. Even if another is never published, I submit that reading and (trying to) write poetry, will always feed my writing.

Get started: Read a new poem each day. See what happens.

I'll be back in a day or two with more about the NonFiction Now conference.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Quotidian. Listen up: It's nothing trivial.

Quotidian. Don’t you love that word?

Continuing with my (admittedly random) posts on what struck me and stuck with me, from my participation in the NonFiction Now conference at the University of Iowa earlier this month…

Finding older, classic essays is now a whole lot easier (students and faculty alike know the frustration of hunting down an 1895 essay). Check out Quotidiana, where more than 260 essays that are in the public domain are housed, and at your fingertips, at no charge.

The site is the brainchild and passion of Patrick Madden, an assistant English professor at Brigham Young University, and excellent essay writer himself. You can search for essays alphabetically, from Joseph Addison to Zitkala-Sa, chronologically, from Seneca through Edith Stein. And who knows what you’ll find in between – thanks to Madden’s panel, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things,” I spent an hour that evening back at my hotel reading the humor essays of A.A. Milne (yes, of Pooh Bear fame; who knew he spent 10 years penning personal humor essays for British mags about the quotidian aspects of his own life?).

Also included on the site are interviews with contemporary essayists and editors. What a find for MFA students, faculty, and others interested in the essay, to locate and enjoy the classics that often are only to be found in out-of-print, obscure, or expensive anthologies and texts.

Madden’s panel reminded writers – as Patricia Hampl did in her keynote address – of the trove of creative writing unleashed when one ponders the ordinary and ruminates on the otherwise routine; how the not-so-quotidian aspect of an everyday object, conversation, and place, can shape a story. Hampl described how a single, chipped teacup could unlock for the memoirist a torrent of memories, sensations, and feelings. Madden and his panel-mates, Michael Danko, Shannon Lakanen, Desirae Matherly, and David Lazar, reflected on creatively written essays resulting from the mundane, including – pointing to Milne again here – an outsized annoyance resulting from the cleaning lady’s repeatedly returning a single piece of bric-a-brac to the shelf upside down after dusting.

So go dust off something everyday, commonplace, ordinary, garden variety, routine, familiar, day-to-day, accustomed, run-of-the-mill, prosaic, unremarkable, old hat, humdrum, plain, pedestrian, or unexceptional – and see what happens on the page.

Monday, November 19, 2007

NonFiction Now...and Then...and Again

So many people have asked me to share my impressions and notes from my attendance at the NonFiction Now Conference, and frankly there was so much to take in and digest – and because I am still mulling it all over and thinking it all through -- I have decided to do it in short bursts over the next few weeks. I also thought this would be a nifty way for me to start my writing day, spending a few minutes recalling what it was that transpired over those three lit-rich days in Iowa.

So, today’s NonFiction Now minute will focus on the keynote remarks of Patricia Hampl. (And if you are a nonfiction sort and unfamiliar with Hampl’s work, better start reading, and don’t stop until you have made your way through a good part of her oeuvre.) Hampl started things off with a candid, relaxed and vibrant talk that challenged the conventional wisdom about the importance of a narrative arc in creative nonfiction.

“Narrative arc?” she asked quizzically, moving an index finger in the air to form an archway, then rhetorically shrugged her shoulders and deadpanned, “Huh?” Rather, she talked of memoir as “a series of tableaus, not a story,” or as “photographs, not a film,” in which “blanks, absences are expected.” She warned that the memoirist’s “chief sin is nostalgia,” and emphasized the important role that remembered objects and object descriptions can play in evoking story and character in memoir.

From a reader’s perspective, what is the point of memoir, she asked, and concluded: “You tell your story, and somehow, I get my own.”

When Hampl read from her powerful, haunting new memoir, The Florist’s Daughter, on the final night of the conference, she capped off a trend in conference readings, during which many writers shared works about a deceased parent.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Addicted to Books? Here's Help for Your Wallet, Shelf

I have no affiliation or vested interest in it, but my new favorite place on the web is Bookmooch -- simple, “green” and a little bit fun.

You join for free and list the books languishing on your shelf that you are willing to give away. Then you browse for a book you want and when you find it, you “mooch” it from another member who ships it to you, at their cost. When someone requests a book from you, you pay the postage. You can keep a wish list going and when a book you want enters the system, you get notified, usually within minutes.

In two weeks, I’ve received five books and sent off six. The point system is easy: Every 10 books you list earns you one point, good for mooching one book. Every time you send a book out, you earn another one point. Incremental points are earned in various ways, such as leaving feedback and acknowledging transactions.

Now, even though the New York Times recently ran a feature on Bookmooch, and I think it’s a brilliant way for book addicts to collectively enable each other, this won’t replace your patronage of -- and please, for all my writer friends whose livelihoods depend on it, don’t let it – your eclectic and service-rich neighborhood independent book store, or the deep inventory of your favorite online retailer, or even that nifty website where you pick up used books.

However, when faced with a groaning shelf of volumes that, for one reason or another, you doubt you will read again, swapping them for the cost of a media mail package (I paid $2.50 today to mail a heavy hardcover; and $1.15 yesterday to send out a slim paperback) sure beats selling books at a yard sale for 25-cents each--or having your local librarian look at you funny if you walk in with books to donate.

Mooch away and let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Iowa in October, Writing in the Air

- Top Shelf: Spent three days at the NonFiction Now conference at the University of Iowa last week, which is arguably the epicenter for graduate level literary writing in the U.S. Lots more on the conference in a (near) future post. Lovely weather, a setting beside the Iowa River, hanging out with some of my best writing friends from afar -- and presentations by a few dozen of the country's finest memoirists, essayists, nonfiction teachers/professors, literary journal editors, anthologists, creative writing craft book authors: Well, what's not to like?

- On the Ladder: Had a surprisingly terrific time at a small, local gathering of writers in my suburban backyard a few weeks ago. Women Reading Aloud turns the read-comment segment of the workshop on its head and puts the emphasis on active, thoughtful listening.

- Near the top: The anthology (in which my essay appears as the opening piece), Special Gifts: Women Writers on the Heartache, Happiness, and Hope in Raising a Special Needs Child has been named a finalist in the parenting/family-general category of the National Best Books 2007 Awards, over at USABooknews.

- Over and Done: That thesis I was moaning about a few weeks ago? Been there, aced that. Thanks for all the crossed fingers, well wishes, prayers and even the grumbling friends who wondered when/if I'd ever talk about/work on anything else, ever. I'm sort of sad to see it end. It was such fun (and really, an honor) to interview such an interesting group of writers, including, among others, Anna Quindlen, Peggy Orenstein, Meredith Hall, Mimi Schwartz, and Ayelet Waldman.

- Bottoming Out....and then, after the thesis, after the conference, after an October perhaps too crammed with literary doings....the inevitable crash -- exhaustion, over-stimulation and burn-out (and that was just me). Then there is my ailing computer. Cross fingers again, please.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My MFA Faculty in my Backyard

Hey, literary sorts who are in or around New York City, join me tonight at Stonecoast in the City, where about eight of the accomplished writers, who happen to be faculty members in the low-residency MFA program in which I am enrolled, will be reading and schmoozing -- novelists, memoirists, poets, the whole shebang.
Admission: free.
Drinks and food you will probably end up ordering: varies.
An evening of fine literary readings on a mild fall night in Manhattan: priceless.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Wherefore Art I ?

Where have I been you ask?

Answer: Thick in the Thesis – in which your erstwhile third-semester MFA student must read, annotate, and think deeply about a dozen or so books and many dozen of essays; posit theories and give illuminating examples of issues of writing process and craft; and develop erudite-sounding and somewhat scholarly arguments about how and why accomplished authors made the choices they did – and then put it all together in a cohesive, well-written manuscript.

How long a manuscript you ask? Minimum 30 pages; maximum – as much as one’s faculty mentor can bear to read and respond to. I am at the 100 page mark and you can bet that not even I am interested in reading that many pages on a topic which I myself chose and actually like a lot (more about the topic in a future post. Hint: part of the title reads: “…to love honor and omit...”)

Oh yes, and in my case, I added the earnest and almost fun-sounding option of interviewing six of those authors (it WAS fun and in a future post, I’ll write more about the six generous writers of memoir and essay, including a Pulitzer prize winner, who shared their time and insights with me, and in some cases, tea and homemade cookies).

So I have been away from the blog because I went a little overboard, as is my way, on the reading and research. And the planning. And the pre-writing. And the drafting. And the revisions. And the editing. And worrying, worrying that I will never get past this project and get back to the personal essays and memoir pieces I think I am actually meant to do, and leave the critical theses to the academic folk....(Hey wait – was it not I who a few weeks ago said, to no one in particular, “When I finish my MFA I think I’ll try to find a job teaching writing?” Hmmm.)

The good news is that the deadline is closing in and once I hit the send key, I am going to have the biggest little personal desk-clearing party yet, and treat myself to a teeny little shopping spree – and this time it will not be at Barnes & Noble. I think.

Wish me luck.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Literary Las Vegas

My (longish) nonfiction personal narrative, "Two Weeks in Vegas," appears in the current issue of Quay/a Journal of the Arts, in print and online here.

Contrary to the kitschy title, the piece is by turns somber, sober and maybe a just a little bit sweet (but not saccharin I hope), written in the days following my father's death, and dealing with the surreal feelings that particular life event churns up, set against the backdrop of the very strange city that was his home for 25 years.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

So I'm hip deep in research, note-taking, author interviews, reading and planning for a critical thesis that's the major part of my third semester work in my nonfiction MFA program. I'll write more about it at a later date, especially on contacting, meeting, interviewing and learning from the writers one admires.

That was how I approached the critical thesis, which is often the most dreaded requirement of the MFA cycle, and turned it into something incredibly fun. Instead of spending hours and pages speculating about what the authors really intended, I thought, why not just ask them?

So I did. Probably because, from the time I was eight-years-old, my father's reply, when I asked for horseback riding lessons, was: Pick up the phone.

But in the meantime, a few links to check out -- frustrating, or funny, or disturbing, or just plain worth a read, and all touch on some aspect of reading, writing or the literary life. Enjoy.

We knew it all along, but now it's official - females read more.

With this nifty calendar/reminder service all about book tours, author appearances and signing, you will never again miss a nearby event.

Oh sure, that's the answer: book banning in a place where open minds are most needed. Brilliant.

Well, maybe the Oprah book-fairy dust works even when it's just nearby. We should all have such problems - a steady columnist gig, a book on the shelf, and that ability to write about the injustice of it all...

Yo, Adrianne. A cool new online semi-literary place to find intelligent essays and other nonfiction from the folks in Philly.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Traveling? Book it !

Some people buy themselves a new outfit or piece of jewelry or a schlocky souvenir on every trip. Me? I buy a book, often a few books. Not so exciting for a writer, huh?

Thing is, I make it a point, on every trip I take, to buy a book from an independent bookstore. Which means I first have to find an independent bookstore, which usually means I need to walk around in whatever new place I find myself (which helps a very little bit to offset the other thing I bring back from every trip -- extra pounds -- but that's another story.).

So -- I ask around, look around, take a walk, and usually always manage to find an independent bookstore no matter where I am. Like last week. Too hot to sit on the beach with my husband and kids, I wandered the little New Jersey shore town of Manasquan and stumbled upon Booktowne. Forty-five minutes later, I left with a memoir-disguised-as-a-novel for me and a Yankees history for my teen son.

'Course I buy books all the time -- a few times a week, at least. But truth told, most of my book purchases are through the B&N website for a couple of reasons. I buy far too many books and earn far too little to pay full retail and my BN membership gets me 10 % percent more off their discounted prices, once I spend the first $250/year (and believe me, that happens real fast). Charge it to the BN Mastercard, and I save another five percent. Second, if I leave my house/office to visit a bricks-and-mortar store (any kind of a store) I invariably spend two, three or 10 times the amount I intended (and can afford). Third, since I live close to the BN warehouse, my books arrive fast -- often in less than 36 hours. Fourth, through the BN site I can get used books for a lot less. And when you are an MFA student, or just an extremely avid (rabid) reader, that's extremely useful.

OK, but this is not an advertisement for the big box/big site book purveyors. Just the opposite. It's a reminder to support the independent bookseller. Huh? Yes, I do that too.

I do patronize the independent bookstores closest to my home, Watchung Booksellers. When I'm out and about, I'll stop in the only other three I know of within 15 miles and if you're wondering if I buy something then too, you haven't been paying attention. So I try to spread my book buying around so that the independent bookshops get some of it. When I attend a reading or other literary event at one of them, I always buy a book while there. Always. Usually two.

But it's when I am out of town, away from my usual routines, that I gravitate exclusively to the independents. I love the challenge of finding the local bookstore, and I have found a bunch of great ones. Last month I discovered Gulf of Maine, which gets my award for cramming in the largest number of really good books and aggressively supporting the local writing community and publishing economy.

Plunk me down in unfamiliar territory and I will find the most comforting place around, the bookstore. I love walking in, the smell, the hush. I browse, get lost in the stacks, and I buy something. Something to read on the beach, something I never would have thought of looking for but there it was, something by a local author. A book. Not lobster earrings, flamingo glasses or a tee shirt with an oddball slogan. And since one or both of my sons are usually with me when I visit a bookstore, chances are we leave with three books instead of one.

As travel rituals go, I highly recommend it.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

When You Gotta Go (and write about it)

Sometimes we want to talk about something just because it's fun, or because we want to vent or (try to) be witty, or we just have to get something out of our heads, and because we are writers, of course, we do so in print. That's what I did when I got very, very tired of being ribbed about needing to use the, ahem, facilities, seemingly all the time. It's a short read (just like all visits to the aforementioned facilities). And, you get to discover, if you haven't already, a nifty little site for short bursts of personal writing.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How it Happened or: GET ME REWRITE !

I am always thrilled for my writer friends when they achieve a writing goal -- that first byline, getting published in a choice spot, snaring an agent, snagging a book contract -- and after I say Congrats! the next thing that usually comes out of my mouth is: How did that happen? What I don't mean is how-did-you-get-so-lucky. I know it's not luck (well at least not all luck). What I am interested in is the backstory. I want to know what happens when sheer writing talent (a given among all my brilliant writer-buds), intersects with revisions, self-censoring, rewrites, critique, instinct, contacts, chutzpah, business savvy, whim, gut feelings and, above, all, perserverance.

And so it wasn't too much of a surprise that when I achieved one of my long-standing writing goals -- a personal essay published in the New York Times -- a few weeks ago, many nice emails from writing pals included inquiries along the lines of: How'd ya do that?

Here's how.

Let's go back about 19 months. I was just starting to think about applying to the Stonecoast MFA program. The piece began as a 2-page exercise based on a prompt from an instructor at an NYU continuing ed class. Then I expanded it into a 5-page piece for a different private class last winter and included it as part of my portfolio for admission to the MFA. When it came time to submit manuscripts for workshops at my first MFA residency, I rewrote and expanded it into a 12-page piece. My terrific workshop leaders, Richard Hoffman & Baron Wormser, had some input, of course, as well as the other writer-students around the table.

The workshop input led me to revise it, this time into a 4,000-word piece which I submitted, in September '06, to the editor of an anthology of mothers of special needs kids. When it was accepted, I began to submit it, in December '06, to magazines, with an eye for a prepublication excerpt, hopefully in a magazine that runs longish pieces. It didn't work out that way.

Oh, and on a dare, I also sent it to the New York Times. One can dream. A few magazines expressed interest; one was noncommital (we're thinking about it); one couldn't run it until six months after the anthology was due to be published; another simply confused me, with an elaborately worded semi-acceptance that had many strings attached.

In January '07 (on the day I arrived home from Stonecoast), a NY Times editor called to say she liked the piece, but of course it was entirely too long. Would I be interested in trying to adapt it into a 1,100-word piece? That sounded difficult and it was, because the difference between 4,000 words and 1,000 is not about line edits or cutting a few paragraphs here and there. It's about revising in the literal sense: Re-seeing, and thus, rewriting.

With the helpful critique of my MFA faculty-mentor, the fabulous Ann Hood, and critique from my friend and recent Stonecoast grad Kathy Briccetti, I did it. Well, I got it down to 1,200 words, and the editor helped me see how to trim the rest (trust me, there is a reason editors do what they do).

The piece was scheduled to run on April 1 (I shuddered to think my first crack at the New York Times was on April Fool's Day), but a week before, it was postponed to May 13 -- Mother's Day, a better fit for the tone of the piece. And that's when it ran.

Phew. If you had told me 10 years ago, when I was churning out P.R. copy by the boatload, most of which was completely disposable an hour later; or writing short newsy features with weekly deadlines, that I stick with a piece so long, I would have laughed.

I read the piece at the Montclair library last week, and afterward someone asked me, "How long did it take to write that?" I told her a short version of my write/edit/rewrite/revise/adapt saga. She looked horrified. Later, I thought about the previous 13 years -- of observations and scribbled notes while raising my son Sean (the star of the piece).

So, how long does a piece of writing "take"? And how does publication"happen"?
Depends. What's your story?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A First TIMES for everything !

My mother's day gift to myself: One of my essays appears in the New York Times on May 13.

It's titled, "When A Child Outgrows the Safety Net," and it traces the journey, as my son begins to navigate his way in the world, without the therapy sessions, special accommodations, school pull-outs, and other supports that began in preschool. It's also about my emergence from the dual role of mother-advocate -- a longed-for transition, but not such an easy one after all. My brave and fabulous son Sean not only allowed me to share this story, but cheered me on and was a thoughtful editor, too.

When I announced the impending publication at dinner the other night, my nine-year-old son Paul, already attuned to how long I often wait between the acceptance of a piece and its publication, asked, "Mom, have you been waiting a long time for this?"

"Yes, honey," I said, "About 35 years."

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Let's Get Lost

Meredith Hall's memoir, Without A Map, which I read over the past weekend, is lovely. It is a beautifully written reflection on what it means to love, to lose the love of those you trust most and those who are kept from your love, about abandonment and guilt, and ultimately about living a loving life anyway.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Almost Halfway Through the MFA: Meltdown Time

I had lunch the other day with the talented and generous writer who is my fabulous graduate school faculty mentor this semester. I was doing well, she said, working hard, even getting some pieces published in a few decent places. She had written me a solid mid-term evaluation. She knew I would be getting published in even better places in the not-so-distant future.

So why was I feeling so adrift and confused? Why did I feel that everything I thought was good about my writing, when I started this MFA program, last summer, suddenly now feel weak and trite? Why was I unsure of my direction? Where was my writing going and how would I reconcile the new strength I detected in my craft, with my huge frustration over structure? Why were my goals shifting each week?

I'm too old for this, I said. I can't re-invent everything about my writing at this point, even if it's tempting to try. I'd need five years or more to do that, I complained.

More or less, she said: Too bad. Basically, you only get these two years while you are in grad school, to sort things out, and that I can be really very grateful to be falling to pieces now. Once this MFA program ends, you are on your own, and all your shaking-out better be settled down for the most part by then. Besides, she assured me, this is what grad school -- especially a writing program -- is for. If you enter expecting to exit with just a brighter polish on the strengths you already had when you began, well, that's a big waste of time and money.

The whole idea is to shake yourself up. To shake up your style and invite yourself to question how you write and why you write that way and what else you might find out about the possibilities in your writing. To try new approaches and ideas. Work the process differently than what has always felt comfortable. In other words, to get over yourself and your inflated idea of how well you write....and really find out if you have anything to say, and how you want to say it.

And by the way, this wise novelist and insightful and well-published essayist mentioned, don't think that's all over when you graduate. Every writer goes through this, sometimes, several times in his or her career.

A call that night, from a friend about to graduate from the program, reassured me as well. Oh yeah, she said, when you get about halfway through the program, you kind of have a major meltdown. Oh.

I feel so much better now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

RSS for Almost-Dummies

I know my way around the web. Well at least I thought I did. I even thought I knew what those little RSS buttons mean - you know the ones with the white sideway arches? But now I really know. Really. And you can too -- watch this witty very short video - about 3 minutes - and you will know too. Hint: It saves a lot of time and helps you stay updated on your favorite (or business-wise, necessary) websites and blogs with one click.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Memoir Required Reading

Writerly folks who enjoy talking about (or writing) memoirs may want to check this out. In late March, Slate ran a series of articles on the State of the Memoir, about 15+ pieces on all aspects the the memoir, especially writing about family and its many repercussions.

And here's the list of pieces ( I think these links will work too). Lots of interesting opinions here.

"For Whom the Memoir Tolls: How to write about the dead," by Allen Shawn. Posted March 29, 2007.
"Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone," by Elizabeth Rubin and Mike Vazquez. Posted March 29, 2007.
"Collateral Damage: How I told a former lover I had written about him," by Edmund White. Posted March 29, 2007.
"Just Screw It: Writing about my family's feud over the Sweet'n Low fortune," by Rich Cohen. Posted March 29, 2007.
"Momma's Boy: How I wrote a memoir about the mother I once hated," by John Dickerson. Posted March 28, 2007.
"Inside Autism: What two memoirs can tell us about the disease du jour," by Ann Hulbert. Posted March 28, 2007.
"Ivory-Tower Ambassador: The studying, and selling, of America," by Christopher Benfey. Posted March 28, 2007.
"In a Land Far, Far Away: How I wrote a memoir about my father," by Danielle Trussoni. Posted March 28, 2007.
"Publish, Then Flee: How to tell your family you're writing about them," by Sean Wilsey. Posted March 28, 2007.
"Road to Nowhere: My life as a victim of Hurricane Katrina and the ineffectual Road Home program," by Blake Bailey. Posted March 27, 2007.
"When Irish Tongues Are Talking: How I told my colleagues, family, and former countrymen I was writing about them," by Frank McCourt. Post March 27, 2007.
"The Woman Warrior at 30: Maxine Hong Kingston's secrets and lies," by Jess Row. Posted March 27, 2007.
"My, Myself, and I: The role of autobiography in contemporary poetry," by Dan Chiasson and Meghan O'Rourke. Posted March 27, 2007.
"What the Little Old Ladies Feel: How I told my mother about my memoir," by Alison Bechdel. Posted March 27, 2007.
"The Liars' Club: How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood—and what they said in return," by Mary Karr. Posted March 27, 2007.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Moms Who Write

The folks over at Mom Writers Literary Magazine, an online journal, are going to have a go at the print side of the business, with the first issue due out in June. One of my short little pieces of fun nonfiction is up at the online version right now. I'm going to send in my subsciption and another submission too.

Monday, April 23, 2007

My Essay in new Special Gifts Book

So here it is - the cover of the anthology in which my essay, Thump, appears. Mine is the opening essay in the collection, which features reflections from more than 40 mothers about the unique experience of raising a special needs child.

Special Gifts: Women Writers on the Heartache, the Happiness and the Hope in Raising a Special Needs Child, will be out in June 2007. When that happens, you can order it on the Amazon and Barnes & Nobles sites.

Meantime, ask your local independent book store to order it from the publisher!

My piece is about the journey I took with my son Sean, navigating through his multiple developmental difficulties, without the comforting map of a specific diagnosis -- and how, at age 12, Sean was ready to face his world without the support of all the different therapies, interventions, and special accommodations that had been a major part of his childhood until then. The question was: Could I let him be the "normal" child he had become? Giving up the role of mother-advocate was not an easy transition for me. But, as he had done all his life, Sean showed me the way.

Only Day One of Kids School Vacation

Here's what I'm thinking about this afternoon, on the first real, lovely, warm, breezy spring weekday in northern New Jersey.

- Why is it that all of the events that, when they happen, make me feel like I am the most horrible parent on the face of the planet, but later make the best fodder for writing about what it's like -- what it's really like -- being a mother?

- How much I would like to slap across the face all the vapid reporters allowed to wield microphones and ask parents of murdered children what it felt like when they got the news.

- Why my sons, ages 9 and 13, know precisely what aggravates me -- from crumbs on the computer keyboard to overly-talkative salespeople -- yet my husband often hasn't a clue. He eats chips at the computer nightly and likes listening to product highlights from the commission-only guys at Best Buy.

- How I am going to finish revising four 15-page personal essays this week (about the above-mentioned worst moments in motherhood) for two of my MFA requirements with both boys home from school. Did it have to coincide with Turn Off The TV Week which, for some counterintuitive reason, they think is a good idea?

- Where to find a butter dish that fits into the door of my 25-year-old refrigerator. Target and KMart both bombed out. Since when did butter dishes get so stylish?