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.