Tuesday, December 30, 2008

We need a new name: Fictoir? Memtion?

I told myself last time this happened that I would not post again about debunked "memoirs," but then this newest one really put me over the edge. Like the first major not-a-memoir, this one was touted by Oprah (even before its release), which is now in question.

I just want to make one point. Or a few. There's coincidence, the "can't make this stuff up" kind of wonderful, ridiculous but true coincidence which drives many good (and real) memoirs, and then there's preposterously contrived "coincidences" which smell and act like fiction – because they are.

Yes, sometimes the most circumspect nonfiction writers must elaborate beyond what they precisely can prove, such as inventing likely dialogue which can vivify actual events at which one was not present or was too young or impaired to precisely recall. But that's different than completely making up events which the author absolutely knows never to have occurred, and then injecting them into an "otherwise" true account, simply because it will make for more compelling reading (and book sales, and film rights).

I'm thinking the publishing industry needs a new category, just to keep things clear. Fictionish Memoir? Memoirish fiction? Memtion? Fictoir? Hey, I’m only half-kidding.

Here's what actually bothers me most: As a nonfiction writer, I have deep admiration for my fiction writing colleagues, and regard writing fiction as a far more difficult creative literary endeavor. So if one day I ever were to try to publish my (currently very fledgling) fiction, I'm thinking I'd be honored to call it just that -- fiction.

And hey, if you think you want to be a memoirist, but it turns out you can't keep yourself from throwing in made-up stuff, then maybe you are actually a novelist instead, so why not call it a novel? Go ahead, write it in first person if you like, and please do toss in anything that's verifiably true (don't all first novels do this anyway?), but please don't call it NONfiction. Or memoir. Or, please God, especially not creative nonfiction.

Update: In the New York Times, Motoko Rich and Brian Stelter, include this quote:

“It’s a little disturbing that this is happening so often, and as an industry we need to get our act together,” said Morgan Entrekin, president of the publisher Grove/Atlantic.

and this:

Certainly, industry observers wondered how editors at Berkley and producers for Ms. Winfrey did not at least question the veracity of Mr. Rosenblat’s story, given some improbable details. In the book, he wrote not only that he reunited with his wife in New York years after she threw apples to him over the fence, but also that he had actually gone on a blind date with her in Israel a few years earlier but did not recognize her when he met her again.

“You’d think somebody would say, ‘Hmm, that’s amazing, let’s just spend an hour or a day seeing how plausible that is,’ ” said Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of the public radio program “Studio 360.”

Comments? I'm always interested in what others think about this topic.

Monday, December 29, 2008

One Writer's Holiday Haul

In the spirit of it being a week in which not much real work will get done, I'll simply ask if you got (or treated yourself to) anything this holiday which will make your life as a writer easier, or just more fun? I did:

-An inexpensive, simple-to-use digital camera of my own (meaning it won't always be in my husband's office just when I need it, or in my 10-year-old's hands, or at the bottom of the camping bag, or the dashboard of the car).

- An oversized calendar titled, The Reading Woman, featuring gorgeous images of paintings of a woman alone reading. They are mostly carefully attired and coiffed women in period dress and lush surroundings, although I must say my favorite is At a Book, by Maria Konstantinova Bashkirtseva (Ukrainian, 1860-1884), in which a grey-haired woman dressed in plain black is at a table, her head bent over, ample hand splayed across her forehead and hairline. I guess I like it best because it's how I picture myself, me and something to read, alone, in any simple setting, shielding out the world. (Except that my grey hair is Medium Brown #43). With online calendars, I suppose I don't really need this, but my office walls always have a place for inspiration.

- A book about Latin for word geeks, Carpe Diem by Harry Mount, which I requested, since my teenager is studying Latin (and scoring 98s), and I'm convinced that if I knew more about Latin words, I'd have a better writing vocabulary. Plus, I'm one of those odd people (otherwise known as writers) who like reading about words.

- Paper. Green paper. Rectangular-shaped. With two-digit numbers on it. Every writer always needs more paper, especially that kind. Thanks, Mom.

As a show of support for the print media industry, I gave subscriptions, but since my husband made it clear that war would ensue if one more magazine or literary journal arrived in our own mailbox, this was probably the first year no one gave me one in return. He doesn't really need to know about the ones I get shipped to a friend's address now does he?

Hope you got something nice too.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Five things you can do without knowing

My friend Erika tagged me with this, and at the right time, since I was floundering around for something truly meaningful to post, in relation to the season, and coming up empty. While I'm at it, I'm tossing in five things I wish for my writer friends in 2009: Kind reviews, enough acceptances to keep going, fewer rejections, work that matters (if only to you), and that your favorite print publications continue to exist.

What were you doing five years ago (December 2003)?

1. Procrastinating about what to do work-wise, since my youngest child had just begun kindergarten.
2. Filling out, and tossing out, applications to graduate programs in journalism, business, and creative writing (it would take another two years to get serious about an MFA).
3. Enjoying being at my fittest ever, weight- & health-wise (well, that was then….)
4. Working part time as a "real estate spy" evaluating agents.
5. Over-volunteering for my kids' school, scouts, and sports activities.

What were five things on your list for today?
1. Make the absolute, final, last trip to the grocery store.
2. Send my friends this and stop feeling guilty about the unwritten cards.
3. Bake (okay, slice & bake) far too many chocolate chip cookies.
4. Send a bunch of emails about helping to promote Feed Me!
5. Sort, wrap, stack and watch for UPS, fingers crossed.

What are five snacks you enjoy?
1. Sun Chips.
2. Anything with the words "dark chocolate" on the package.
3. Pretzels.
4. Popcorn (preferably kettle).
5. Chocolate chip cookies (see above).

What are five things you'd do if you were a billionaire?
1. Look around and see who needs help, close to home/heart.
2. Say these words to my kids: "Any college you want," and really mean it.
3. Write checks to organizations I care about.

4. Invest in the New York Times so I won't have to one day try to describe it to incredulous grandchildren.
5. Stop saying these words: "Oh, I don't need any new clothes or shoes."

What are five jobs you've had?
1. Retail cheese store clerk
2. Horse show judge
3. Waitress
4. Equestrian photographer's assistant
5. Ice hockey statistician

Who are five people you want to tag?
1. Michelle
2. Isaac
3. Raye
4. Harriet
5. Lyz

In the spirit of the holidays (in other words, because we are all crazed), they have my permission to delay responses till, you know, next year).

Friday, December 19, 2008

Guest Blogger Christine P. Wang on the Experience of a Residency Fellowship

I first met Christine P. Wang a few years ago at a meeting of a local writer's organization, where she read a few pages from her memoir-in-progress. Others read too that day, but I could focus only on Christine, whose clearly articulated writer's voice (both on and off the page), reached across the table and grabbed me. We kept in only sporadic touch, but when we ran into one another at a local reading this past summer, it did not surprise me a bit to learn she had been awarded a three-month residency fellowship to work on her memoir. I know one day I'll be doing an author Q&A with her, when she publishes that book, on growing up Chinese American in Tennessee. Meanwhile, I asked her to do a guest post for me, about being in the enviable position of having several months to concentrate completely on her project.

Please welcome , Christine P. Wang.

I started a memoir -- tentatively called The Game of While -- twenty years ago. I wanted to paint the mind of a psychiatric patient who takes off on a cross-country red-eye flight (because all flights to Africa are booked); who hitches rides on 18-wheelers across Tennessee, looking for a place to call home – before deciding that the closest thing is living homeless in New York City.

By 2006, I wanted to finish the book so I could think of other things. I took Mediabistro's course, Memoir Writing Basics, by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, author of Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana (Villard, 2004). I began dreaming of being “a residency whore” (as Stephanie called it): someone who jumps from one artist or writer residency to another, doing nothing but their art.

In December of 2007 I was laid off as a developmental book editor in northern New Jersey. I was freelancing for a local newspaper. Now was the time. I applied to five residencies. Three rejected me, one offered too little financial aid, and the third -- the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) – sounded too great to be true: a three-month fellowship, stipend, backdrop of the College of Santa Fe. On October 1, 2008, I climbed aboard a flight to New Mexico, free to do nothing but finish my memoir during the next three months.

It took me nearly half of October to find my rhythm (not to mention adjust my lungs to the 7,000 ft. altitude here). I began writing and editing chapters pretty intensely: five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to noon, resuming again 6 to 9 p.m. In between writing sessions, I jogged or biked along a trail filled with local flora, went to dinner with my new friends or just piddled around in my room. I've discovered there is a reason for two-day weekends: It's crucial to rejuvenate.

My room is an incredible space with cathedral ceilings and a skylight in a bathroom I don’t have to share. It's comfortable, amply furnished, well-lit and equipped with answering machine and hair dryer, and the laundry room is free. A communal kitchen is stocked with staples (bread, cheese, eggs, milk, etc.), and although we do our own shopping for anything else and cook all meals, the center does provide monthly communal dinners. At first, food prep was a nuisance, but it’s a welcome break now – any chance for variation in the work routine. Can it get lonely? Sure, but the cure is hiking at gorgeous national monuments in the area and shopping and gabfests with other artists.

There are one or two lectures a month, but finding entertainment is otherwise up to us. Guest lecturers living among us have included MacArthur Fellows, photographer Fazal Sheikh and artist/architect/filmmaker Alfredo Jaar. Sheikh gave a slide show on his images of displaced women and children in the Middle East; Jaar played examples of the migration of sound with international recordings of a song his father used to sing. Both were part of SFAI’s current exhibition theme: “Outsider: Tourism, Migration and Exile.”

Living with 8 to 10 artists and writers can be as intense as the writing. We eat, sleep and work in the same area -- bedrooms, communal kitchen and living area, and studios (for visual artists). Writers who don’t want to work in their bedrooms head out for space in the library, common areas or around town. One of the best parts of my residency is being inspired by other artists committed to their craft.

Still, there have been clashes and close bonding in this microcosm of the world’s personality types. One resident left early because of issues with another resident. I’ve heard another left because she couldn’t handle a communal kitchen. I’ve found the best antidote to the tension – real or imagined -- is focusing on my work. Everything falls into place when I’m writing.

Work habits vary here as much as personality. I came expecting to find a group as obsessive as I was who wanted to do nothing but eat, sleep and dream about creating art. But I learned after the first month to head out each morning to a downtown Borders to write because I found it too hard to say “no" when residents come knocking, wanting to go hiking or take a road trip.
"Freedom" can be either cure or curse, even for the most committed artist or writer. But if "self-starter" is your strong suit, a residency may seem like heaven.

The only thing that really disappointed me about Santa Fe is the preponderance of strip malls and shortage of walkers and bicyclists that I’d envisioned in this southwestern town. That and not having a fiesta every other day.

My three month stay is winding down now. Our third and last open studio is in a week. In an open studio, we get to show the public what exactly we’ve been working on. I'll read chapters from my memoir; visual artists give a short talk and tour of their art studios. I’m only slightly nervous -- even though I’m the only writer, even though a Q&A is planned

I remember the intimidation I felt when I first arrived. I had published little; I imagined that all the others had such courage to do nothing but their art. The life of the artist is one I’d dreamed about, but never thought possible. Making friends with artists here, I see that dreams need the reality of hard work, and intimidation is really the need for a working plan. The most successful artists here are simply ones who committed to a dream, consistently worked hard at it – and always kept dreaming.

Some of us are wondering what to do next.

I came wanting to finish my memoir, not really believing I could. At the end of December, I’ll be leaving Santa Fe with a finished manuscript, an idea for a new project I've been thinking about, and a new conviction, set blazing by this residency and the encouragement of the artist-role-models around me. My art has a place in the world, too, I know now -- as well as the courage to believe: I am a writer.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On Writers and Plumbers and Others

I'm in a bit of a snarky mood today, which reminds me I wanted to point readers to this recent OpEd piece about writers and other "authors" (think Joe-the-Plumber types who garner huge book deals to "write" a memoir).

I was once at a party when a man asked what I did for a living. I said I was a writer, and he suddenly got this game face on, as if I had just challenged him to an arm-wrestling contest in a seaport bar.

"Oh really? Ever write anything I would have read?" he asked.

I started on a list of my publishing credits but noticed his eyes glazing over, so I simply stopped mid-sentence. He seemed not to notice.

Then I asked, "And what do you do?" The man puffed up and said he was a plumber. Union. Twenty-three years.

"Oh really?" I asked. "Ever install any toilets I might have…." Well, you get the idea.

I've since learned to be nicer, if only to decrease my own agita. But I'm in total agreement with Timothy Egan, who wrote the above OpEd piece. Writers should writer. Plumbers (and other infamous famous folks) should...well you know. There's also this article, about how some publishers are fueling their own demise; hint: publishing so many stupid books is well….you get the idea.

Then there's this, about the over-coverage of the "collapse" of the book-magazine-newspaper industry, which I read somewhere recently but can't find again (and if anyone knows, tell me so I can link it): When Starbucks announced hundreds of store closings, no one wrote 72-point headlines about the end of the coffee industry.

Could it be that publishing is just changing, evolving, as every industry does and must? And that we don't do the industry or ourselves any good running around talking about it all being just about over? Yes, even when we are all losing jobs and contracts and assignments and confidence. Something tells me that, while whining has its function, it's probably better to focus on where the industry is going and how we can find a way to continue our creative endeavors within that new framework.

Okay. Now that's done, I can go back to work. You know, writing.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Author Q&A: Christina Baker Kline on the essay collection, About Face

I collect three things: shoes, magazines, and well, collections--essay collections. I recently kicked the shoe habit (involuntarily: heel spurs), and I cancel subscriptions whenever my husband rants about magazines cluttering the living room, kitchen, bedroom, car and loo. But as for the personal essay collections – well, I find it hard to express the circumstances under which I will stop acquiring new ones without resorting to trite clich├ęs: cold days in hell, flying pigs and all that.

About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, edited by Anne Burt and Christina Baker Kline, had extra appeal, since I know both editors, who live just a few miles from me. And it would have been hard to resist attending their book event held at the Bobbi Brown Studio (Brown wrote a foreword). Beyond that, however, Christina Baker Kline is one of those rare established writers who is known for extending a warm and deep generosity and meaningful support to writers still less well established. It was a delight to talk with her recently about the collection.

Lisa Romeo: About Face was published in August. How is the book doing now?

Christina Baker Kline: I don't even know! This book is published by
Seal Press and they have a different strategy than major New York publishers. It's a small press, but they will keep a book in their backlist for a very long time. They are wonderful. If you go to their website, you will see it looks very different than what you see from a big publisher. It started as a feminist press, and they publish some titles that are very outside the mainstream, and some others that have pretty broad appeal, which I think is the case with this book. Seal seems to be moving a bit more toward the commercial mainstream – by buying books like About Face and The List (which was just published, written by our friend Gail Belsky). Also, they publish fewer books than a bigger house, but they stick to them. So, I actually have no idea how About Face is doing in terms of sales, but the feedback we are getting is terrific. The word of mouth has been great.

LR: What has the response been like at the events you and Anne have done?

CBK: What's been fascinating is that we've now done a wide variety of appearances -- book clubs, readings, presentations, panels -- and we see a huge range of ages, from women bringing along teenage daughters, to college students, and much older women. I did several events in Maine over the summer, and in New York City, Anne and I did about ten events this fall, and no matter where we were, we found the book had something for any age.

Several years ago, I became interested in editing this collection for a number of reasons. A woman in France had just had a facial transplant; a number of plastic surgery shows were on television -- and I was fascinated with the cultural implications of all of this, and what kinds of new choices women were making about their appearance. The question that interested me was: how does what you see in the mirror affect the way you live your life? It begins as a question about beauty, but Anne and I managed to find such a diverse group of writers that the conversation widened to include culture and racial identity, and it became a deeper and broader discussion than I ever anticipated.

LR: At a recent event, one of the contributors, a best-selling novelist, talked about how her first essay was actually rejected. "And you know what?" she quipped, "these two women are my friends!" That must be a precarious position – to commission essays, and then having to edit, and sometimes ask for rewrites, from accomplished writers.

CBK: It is tricky. When you ask an established writer to contribute, I think you always need to know going in that if their first effort is not quite what you were looking for, you have an obligation to them to try to work together to the end product. Sometimes it’s a matter of helping the writer figure out what it is they are really getting at, what they truly need to say; sometimes the writer is dancing around it. Anne and I always tried to help our contributors wring the resonance out of what they were trying to say. In some cases, we sent back the work because it needed more depth, and then it came back much richer.

The really professional essay writers have figured out how to talk about themselves in a way that is both revealing and yet within the very firm boundaries they have set for themselves.
Kathryn Harrison, for example, knows exactly how much she wants to reveal about herself and no more; she is very clear about the territory she is getting into. When you've written personal essay for a while, you figure that out. On the other hand, as editors, Anne and I did have to watch out for the very seasoned magazine writers who may tend to wrap up the pieces too easily with an unearned epiphany. We would push them to go deeper and give those pieces more nuance.

LR: How did you select contributors?

CBK: The contributors range in age from 23 to 75, and the book encompasses a huge range of cultures and backgrounds and ethnicities. With a subject like this, it would be easy to have a lot of repetition, and it is important that the pieces are very different from each other. Early on in the process, our editor asked us to have each piece start with a paragraph in which the writer described her face, but those paragraphs sounded too similar. In the end we took that out, and encouraged our contributors to use their faces as a way to reflect on the larger issues about the way they live or their place in the world.

LR: I noticed neither you nor Anne have an essay in the book.

CBK: Anne was interested in writing a piece, but her life at the time was just too busy. In my case, I have edited three essay collections and have not written a piece for any of them. I love to edit; in another life I would be a book editor. Although it can be very satisfying to take a piece of your life and frame it and give it meaning, I am uncomfortable, myself, with the revelatory aspect of writing memoir. I prefer to write fiction. I particularly like the combination of writing fiction and then editing other people's essays. (I also love to be edited by a good editor when a piece of writing is under construction, and I get pushed to see things I couldn't recognize before.)

Montclair, NJ, where you both live, is extraordinarily rich in writers; you probably could have done an entire collection – a series! – by knocking on doors in your own neighborhood.

CBK: Consider that there are 80 published book authors in Montclair, and this is where we live! We wanted to avoid complications and hurt feelings. Our original plan was to have no Montclair writers, but we ended up having a few after all. Our list came together organically. Anne and I both know a lot of writers and have a broad pool to draw from in the wider world, and there were only 25 slots, so we had to choose carefully.

LR: What's next for you?

CBK: I just turned in a novel that is coming out next summer from
William Morrow/HarperCollins, called Bird in Hand. The book is very different from my previous novels. It's about New York and a suburban town (not unlike Montclair), and it's contemporary and rather dark, about four people whose marriages are crumbing.

I actually started it before I wrote
The Way Life Should Be, but finished it after that book, because it's very intense (it involves the death of a child) and was complicated to write. I just wasn’t able to finish it at that particular time in my life. So I put it aside and wrote The Way Life Should Be, which was great fun – it’s in the first person, present tense; it moves along at a fast clip, and resembles in some ways a romantic comedy.

After that, I was ready to go back to Bird in Hand. I really had to figure out how to make it come together; there were a lot of problems with structure, because it moves forward and backward in time from four different points of view. My editor, Kate Nintzel at William Morrow, gave me such amazing guidance.

I also just handed in a proposal for a new novel, which begins with a 90-year-old woman living alone on the coast of Maine, and in alternating chapters goes back to her life as an orphan in New York City, and how, when she lost her family, she was placed on an orphan train and sent to the Midwest. I’ve been doing a lot of historical research about the
orphan trains in the early 20th century – a fascinating part of American history that hasn’t been talked much about.

LR: If you had no other responsibilities, and were offered a fully funded year's time to do anything you please, how would you spend it?

CBK: Well, I'd write the orphan train novel and travel! Actually this is exactly what I’m going to do this coming year. Next summer I am going to teach at the
University of London in Kensington, four mornings a week. (I get a two-bedroom apartment and lots of free time, so my family will come for a while, too.) Fordham (where I'm Writer-in-Residence) just started a new London program, and I proposed a class called "Writing for Granta" (the literary journal). It’s a creative nonfiction class; at end of the four weeks, the students will have created literary journals of their own, with their own pieces.

Writer-in-Residence at Fordham is my dream job, and I'm sad that it's only a three year appointment (I finish in 2010). I really enjoy working with both undergraduates and grad students. I am teaching the things that interest me most – this year my classes include “Fiction Boot Camp,” “The Arc of the Novel” and “Writing the Personal Essay,” for example. I love the collaborative aspect of teaching creative writing. I work hard to give my students serious advice and encouragement; in turn, they give me new ideas, send me in new directions. It’s a lovely alchemy.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bookstore Bailout

Received this timely message from the Author's Guild, and although I'm guessing I'm preaching to the choir a bit, I'm still passing it on. The Guild encourages everyone to pass it along, as well, so please join in and post it (with attribution) wherever you think it may do some good.
I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party.

Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves.

Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
Authors Guild

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Reading on Writing. Reading. Writing. All the same activity?

Maybe I just miss school. Or, now that I'm teaching some, I realize (with humility) how much more there is to learn. Either way, I've been spending time with a few craft books lately, culling bits here and pieces there. The first one's newer, the rest have been around--with good reason.

The Sound on the Page by Ben Yagoda, subtitle: Great writers talk about style and voice in writing. Those two huge (and largely undefinable) factors separating good writing from great writing - style and voice - are addressed by Yagoda and more than a dozen others.

Creating Character Emotions by Ann Hood, subtitle: Writing compelling, fresh approaches that express your characters' true feelings. Though aimed primarily at fiction writers, equally necessary for the nonfiction writer -- and especially the essay writer -- who often relies too heavily on explaining emotions, rather than illustrating them. Making myself do the end-of-chapter exercises.

Telling True Stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, subtitle: A nonfiction writers' guide from the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University. Gold from many top tier literary journalists. (And though I can't, how I wish I could attend the 2009 Neiman Conference on Narrative Journalism.)

Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, subtitle: Instruction and insights from the teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Gems. Excellently drawn, clear, concise. And killer exercises throughout.

That's it. Try one, if you haven't. And let me know what you're reading, too.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Killer Blog Posts, Killer Writing: No Big Differences

I was talking yesterday to a friend who uses her blog, mostly quite well, as her primary marketing tool for the services she offers. She was looking for input about her posts, how to improve them, and at the same time, refine her writing as well.

Today, I stumbled across
this detailed post, by Chris Brogan. It's not only a brilliant and eminently readable formula for bettering a blog, but it contains some rather excellent writing advice, period.

Like this:

"Deconstruct what your favorite writers do, and try it your own way.
Occasionally, try something completely different.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid of not being interesting enough."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Fridge Clean-Out

► Yes, it's a long way off. But the folks at Nonfiction Now/The Bedell Nonfiction Conference have announced their next date: November 4-6, 2010. Maybe by then the publishing/media/entire world will have rebounded enough so that we can all afford airfare to Iowa. And for those thinking of proposing a panel presentation – no excuses - now you have plenty of time to plan.

► Apparently, I'm a Flower Smeller, according to my blogger-writer friend at Exile on Ninth Street. Yikes, can it really have been almost a month since he said so? I'll be passing on the accolade here next week. Thanks to Todd, who apparently is not only a Flower Smeller himself, but a semi-famous one too.

► I'm intrigued by entrepreneurial journalists like those behind
Spot.us, where writers suggest investigative pieces that think ought to be written, and site visitors vote with dollars to fund the project, so writers can get on with what they do best. I'm guessing we are going to be seeing more ventures of this kind, what with thousands of print journalists being pink-slipped, magazines dying by the dozen, newspapers disappearing, and the trend, unfortunately, likely to continue through a good chunk of 2009.

► Even the grey lady is (finally) getting linky. The New
York Times homepage now has a (sort of hard to find) small square button which says "Try our EXTRA home page." Click it and you get an enhanced NYT home page, with lists of links to relevant stories from other sources. There are the likely, predictable suspects, such as the Weekly Standard, Washington Post, and Talking Points Memo, but many also from less obvious sites – today, for example, Hot Air TV, Half Sigma, even Gawker.

►Blood Dazzler, by my friend Patricia Smith was named one of the top five books of the year by NPR. Patricia's brand new (really new) blog is here.

►Following the advice of a (successful) writing coach friend, I've stuck a name on my next nonfiction workshop series, calling it: Resolve to Write in 09. For info, email: LisaRomeoWrites at gmail dot com.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Winning & Writing

Now that it's all over, I can fess up.

I signed up, back in late October, for National Novel Writing Month - in which thousands of writers try to write an entire 50,000 word novel during the month of November - not because I wanted to write a novel, but in order to get some better traction on the memoir. I wanted mostly to increase my output, and decided that a commitment to write at least 1,800 new words a day was not a bad way to do it.

So I did it. I wrote 53, 576 new words in November. Some are, thankfully, memoir-bound. Others are the drafts of new essays. There is one short story in there (go figure), two poems, and pages and pages of what I think has been missing from other stalled works-in-progress.

I asked one of my writing buddies to make sure I reported in each night with the day's word count. She did. I skipped one day because I was sick, but wrote double the next. Six times, I thought about quitting. I didn't.

When I'm writing nonfiction at this pace, I notice that I tend to read only fiction, and so I was burning through short story collections like M&Ms. Which may explain why I wrote a (probably very bad) short story on the last day - today. My first. Or only?

I started out with a linear narrative in mind, but as usual, I wandered, from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next, far from the mapped-out route. My nonfiction doesn't much like to stay inside the lines. About half-way through, I decided it didn't matter and I'd just keep writing. So I did.

I'm a little sad that it's over, if only because the power of a group and the pressure of a commitment are powerful productivity partners. So, I got my "winner's badge" (everyone who logs in 50K or more words in the month gets one) and to celebrate I'm taking some time off from writing.
That would be the rest of today.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Writers Judging (Their Own) Book Covers: Discuss

I know, you'd think – if, like me, your work has yet to appear between two hard covers with only your own name on the front – that once you get to the point when a publisher is running proposed cover designs by you, you would be so darned happy about having a firm upcoming publication date, you just might be in a pretty agreeable mood.

Or, not.

Ken Whyte, editor-in-chief of
MacLean's magazine, got into a cover art tug-of-war with Random House for his upcoming first book (Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst) and shares the brief mess in an earnest and ultimately self-chastising piece on his magazine's blog. An excerpt:

"I went on strike. I quit answering emails from my editor’s production staff and announced that I was no longer in a mood to promote the book upon publication.
A few days went by.
My agent called: “Are you an idiot?”"
Read the whole (short) story
here, and learn more about the book and Whyte's writing process in this interview.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Friday Fridge Clean-Out (Late. Again. Shrug.)

I must remember to post this on Fridays, because Saturday Fridge Clean-Out wouldn't be very alliterative, would it? Okay, here's my round-up of some of this week's web finds:

► GOOD magazine has a new blog Signature, about books.

► At the
Shifting Careers blog (on the NYTimes site), Michelle Goodman had a lot to say about working for free. Not that writers would know anything about that.

► Attention all grammar geeks: get thee to the
Times Topics Grammar page.

► And see what you think of
Jacket Copy, the book (and more) blog at the LA Times.

► I just (barely) am getting the hang of
Twitter. And now I'm told it's time to Plurk. Think I'll pass. Distractions are not a writer's friend.

Note: "Both!" -- The only way to answer when your 10-year-old asks, while at the library and holding up two books, "Which one should I get Mom?"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Poetry Readings (or, how to test a marriage)

There's a line in one of my son's favorite movies, National Treasure, which goes like this: "Albuquerque. See, I can do it too. Snorkel." It's said by bumbling, wise-acre apprentice treasure-hunter Riley Poole (actor Justin Bartha) in response to the main character, Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage), who is deciphering heavily cloaked clues in a century-old series of codes and ciphers. Gates is spitting out answers in a rapid blitz, and while he's correct, it sounds random, like this: "Key. Stain. Silence. Iron. Pen. Prison." That's when a confused Poole cracks, "Albuquerque. See, I can do it too. Snorkel."

It's also what my husband sometimes says when he comes along to a reading where poetry is on the agenda as well as prose. After a poet has concluded a particularly sketchy poem, built on esoteric language and unusual phrasing, a range of seemingly disconnected images and what sound like disjointed word combinations, that's when my husband turns to me – all the while clapping and smiling – and says, "Albuquerque. Snorkel."

He's not being snide. Any spouse who takes over parenting and household duties for weeks so his partner can attend an MFA residency, or spend weeks at an artists' colony, is never snide (at least in their spouse's presence) about creative writing. The thing is, there are poets and poems which I still find it difficult to listen to aloud. Even two years ago, when I first began to write some poetry, it still puzzled me. And, it often still does, though I no longer think it's a matter of tossing any old eclectic combinations of words on the page. (Now abstract painting, that's another matter….)

Maybe I hope that at some reading, some time, some poem will strike him as interesting and compelling not because it's "strange," but because it's good – to his ears. Not that I think I will be the one whose poem will transform my husband from poetry skeptic to poetry lover. Ha!

But this weekend, when I'll be
reading my poetry in public for the first time, he won't be in the audience. I'll miss sitting next to him as others read their poems, so that I can lean my ear in close (during the applause, so others won't overhear): "I could do that. Albuquerque. Snorkel."

I'm sometimes tempted to say, "If you think it's so simple, go ahead and try." Then I remember that's what someone said to me a few years ago when I was a nonfiction-only snob who would never write poetry. Ever. See where that got me?

Anyway, he can't come because he'll be with the Cub scouts touring the
Old Dutch Church and Sleepy Hollow cemetery. Shall I tell him Washington Irving also wrote poetry? Nah.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rights, Schmights...Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

I've seen all kinds of contracts, from the good to the grotesque, and often the worst are for online venues. This one, however, really got me thinking: Why even bother with a contract? Why not just say something like (cue TV pitchman voice): "write it, send it, then forget it"?

OK, here it is – bold, italics and colored type is mine, just so that you don't miss a single miserable rights-grabbing word. The offending offal-eating "publisher" shall remain nameless, not because I think such media world menaces should not be publicly uncloaked, but because frankly, I don't want to deal with them again. Anymore. Ever.

"Rights. You shall retain all of your ownership rights... However…you hereby grant ___and its affiliates a worldwide, non-exclusive, fully paid-up, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, sublicenseable, and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, modify, adapt, prepare derivative works of, display, perform, and otherwise exploit your..submission in connection with ____ and ____'s (and its successor's) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the ____ site (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels now known or hereafter discovered. You grant _____ and its affiliates and sublicensees the right to use the name that you submit … if they choose. You also agree to irrevocably waive (and cause to be waived) any claims and assertions of moral rights or attribution with respect to your..submission. You also hereby grant to each user of the ____ site a non-exclusive license to access your submission, and to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform …. "

I think what really put me over the top on this one – even though it's horrible throughout – is that someone really thought it would go over well with creative contributors to use the word "exploit" in a rights contract.

Yup, I really want to write for them.

Writer Home Alone. Uh-oh.

Things to DO when you have the house to yourself for two days and you could really use those hours to write and bulldoze your desk: Screen calls, banish email, ignore the Tweets, hide the TV remote, forget the laundry, order dinner in, leave the Times in the driveway, set the alarm, put on clothes too decrepit to wear out of the house, order dinner in, rent only one DVD your spouse would refuse to watch if he/she were there, tell no close friends or relatives you are alone so they won't do the kind thing and invite you for dinner, and certainly do not contemplate reading even the first page of that thick shiny new book on the night table.

Wish me luck.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Essays: Personal, and Paid

This is a quickie. I just noticed that over on my friend Erika's blog, she's giving away several copies of her new e-book, Directory of Paying Essay Markets.

Check it out here. While the give-away ends on Nov. 17, the e-book is a smart purchase anyway.

And if you are one of the students in my "Writing Your Personal Stories" classes -- you know, the ones whose recent assignment included finding outlets for essays -- well, you know what to do.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Write or sleep. Write or Die. Hmmm.

In case you have what some people insist on calling writer's block, also known as extreme procrastination, staring-at-screen-but-not-writing syndrome, or the condition known as I-get-way too-distracted-by-Twitter-email-Solitaire, or even the cyclical depressive episode recently identified as I'm a lousy writer, so why bother, then consider this: Write or Die.

Amusing and perhaps, effective.

Or, if you are a born nocturnal creature who manages to rise by 7:00 a.m. on weekdays only because children must be driven to school by a legal adult, then simply tell an early-riser spouse (mine is up at 5:45) that you would like him to help you wake up along with him for the entire month of November in order to write 2,000 more words than usual.

Warning: Consider canceling large-death-benefit life insurance policy on said husband first.

Monday, November 10, 2008

When the Bee Stings, Nonfiction Writers (of Course) Must Write It

My new friends at a new online journal, Ozone Park, have kindly asked me to be part of their launch today, so I'll be reading at Queens College this evening, along with others whose work is showcased in the inaugural Fall issue.

Ozone Park Journal is a project of the newish
MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, part of the City University of New York system. The launch party, open to the public, takes place from six to eight at the Godwin-Ternbach Museum.

For reasons I still do not quite understand, I enjoy reading in public. (The thought of it beforehand, however, is nauseating.) Maybe, when I finally get up there, it reminds me of when my cousins and I wrote silly plays and performed them for our tired parents at the end of long family barbecues, or the time I narrated a school play (after much prodding from Sister Judith Ann). Had I only known then how comfortable I would one day become in the role of narrator…

Or maybe what I like about a reading – specifically one for which you are asked (told) to trim your piece to fit into way-too-short-a-time-segment, is that the preparation and editing forces you to find the heart of a story, making it a gift to the audience, like offering a lovingly crafted sample: Here – if you like this, there's more. (Okay, it's not anything like the samples at the Godiva counter, which I like much better, but still.)

If you can't come for the sample, find the whole, much longer version of my nonfiction narrative, When the Bee Stings,

It's about sisters and being Italian-American in 1960s suburban New Jersey, and generations and lifelong bonds and...what is that line from an old Andrews Sisters song..."God help the sister who comes between me and my mister." No, I'm not that old, I just like old movies.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friday Fridge Clean-Out

….in which,on those frantic Friday catch-up days, I occasionally suggest, check this out:

►The American Society of Journalists & Authors (ASJA) has a worthwhile free monthly e-newsletter .

►Happened upon this new-to-me online portion of the journal Etude, which publishes, "new and emerging voices in literary nonfiction as well as author interviews, book reviews and columns on the art and craft of writing."

►I tend to follow the careers of editors and journalists who start new ventures on the web, so I've been checking in on The Daily Beast from time to time, creation of Tina Brown. Claims to "curate the news," but to me, it reads and feels a bit more like a magazine, which I like.

►There's fiction and "faction" by new and emerging writers over at VerbSap, whose tagline reads, "Concise prose. Enough said." I'm especially liking the Editor's Notebook.

And for completely-off-topic fun, these:

►Every once in a while when I need a short screen distraction and don't mind if it's a little bit silly, or a lot provocative, I click on TrendHunter, which rounds up the newest (and often, strangest) in marketing, advertising, art and ephemera from around the globe. Just remember, as you do when watching those World's Strangest/Funniest/Sexiest TV Commercials shows at 2:00 a.m., much of this stuff comes from outside the U.S., where standards are, shall we say, more relaxed.

►For my diet-, weight-, eating-challenged friends out there (uh, is that everyone?), there's this: The OCD Diet's Rhyming Dining Five Day Plan. It's hilarious British fun, in the vein of Bridget Jones meets bad but very funny poetry meets every terrible diet idea ever heard.

And with that, the fridge is now empty.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

So what do editors really do with a pile of submissions?

A discussion rose up on a listserv about a piece by Peter Selgin, co-editor of the literary journal, Alimentum: The Literature of Food, in which he recounts his ruthless, subjective and occasionally random process of reviewing work submitted to his journal.

Selgin's clearly trying to be helpful (as well as entertaining); trying I think, to paint for writers an authentic portrait of what the submission system really looks like, and how it functions, at editor eye level. He rants that much of what comes in is boring, badly crafted, and off-target, which is nothing new really – editors and agents of all kinds have said so for decades. He adds, perhaps a little too gleefully, that sometimes rejecting is fun, though he backs it up with examples of writing so clearly in need of rejection, it's hard to quibble.

An offshoot discussion on the listserv veered into another conversation about journals that do not pay their writers. Sandra McDonald, a published novelist (and fellow Stonecoast MFA graduate), notes:

"The article was very funny! But I did notice that this appears to be another non-paying market. It's funny how often printers get paid, the postman gets paid, but the content providers do not. I have heard, and understand, the argument that literary journals are all about carrying on a conversation, and about being part of a community that values words, and how literary journals can't afford to pay their writers and often not even their staff. This is all lofty and lovely, and a lot of time, crap. A publisher who can pay postage, pay for the paper and printing, and give interviews on how hard his or her job is (while bemoaning the slush) can surely find a token payment of five or ten dollars for an author's work."

Yes, Sandra. And apparently, no.

Journals that do not pay will always exist and quality writers will continue to submit. That's because there are so very many writers (or as Sandra observes, 'content providers') willing to swap work for exposure, publishing credits, CV lines. And I say this as someone who occasionally does so, for reasons that always seem sensible to me at the time. If every even halfway good writer (or every writer, period) stopped submitting to non-paying journals, would that force payments into existence? Or just thin the journal ranks?

I used to get upset about this, but I don't anymore. Editors would do something about the financial structure if they could, if only because many of them submit to, and have their work published in, other (often non-paying) journals too.

In his article, Selgin notes that:

"…despite being a brand new journal, already Alimentum is averaging over three hundred submissions a month. That’s seventy-five a week, or ten a day: two hours’ work, potentially. That’s on top of all the other unpaid responsibilities that come with running a literary magazine: filling out orders, doing mailings, planning events and promotions—let alone the time needed to design, assemble, and proofread an issue, and handle the thousand-and-one other details that rear their prickly heads in the middle of our insomnia. And that’s on top of whatever else we do to make a living. All of which is to say that, like our brethren at the big publishing houses, we editors at little magazines are a harried lot…"

I know a few lit journal editors, and I think I understand Selgin's perspective as much as anyone on the outside can. Personally, I have work pending publication at a few non-paying literary journals, and I'm happy about each one, and while one essay earned some contest dollars, of course paychecks from all of them would be better. But I knew the score when I submitted, and frankly, I have gotten so tired of the entire pay/no-pay conversation, that I ignore it until something like this listserv discussion comes along.

Then I get a little upset. In the case of lit journals, or so we are meant to believe, editorial payments are dictated by tiny budgets, nonexistent budgets, severely strained budgets. These journals are, for reasons varying in validity, positioned as "labors of literary love," published not by media executives but by lovers of craft. As Sandra correctly points out however, somehow these entities manage to pay other providers and vendors, because there's no chance on earth that any printer, or utility company, or delivery service, or paper supplier, or furniture retailer, or internet service provider, is going to work or supply service in exchange for "copies."

So I make some new resolution – again – to limit my literary journal submissions to paying markets. Until I read some journal, fall in love with it, and decide it would make the perfect home for something I'm working on. Or I spy the prestigious and non-paying journal I've longed to be published by, still on my bookshelf, beckoning, teasing. Or I hear about a new journal that sounds particularly good. Or a writing contact with a new gig as a lit journal editor asks me to submit. And I do. And I always hope, because I also write for magazines and newspapers and websites and popular anthologies, that at the end of the year, the paying pieces outnumber the rest.

You know, so I can pay myself.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Reading: No Shoulds Allowed. Well, maybe a few.

Lately, I get this question.

"Oh, you're a writer. Tell me, what should I read?"

Oh, boy.

What I'd really like to say: Sorry, but I cannot tell you what you should read. I have no idea. Anyway, in my experience, the surest way to turn someone off reading something – even if it's the greatest piece of literature ever written – is to say, "You should read this."

For example, for years I resisted reading
Annie Dillard, I think because for years whenever I admitted to not knowing her work, everyone, it seemed, in an appalled voice, told me I should read her. And so I did, because finally, because I was assigned to read and annotate several of her books and excerpts during my MFA program. I learned a lot from reading her, and as I begin to teach, I'm finding myself looking back over some passages – and yet: I still never pick up one of her books for pleasure, and I'm not really sure if that's because the shoulds still overshadow her work, or if she's just not my particular cup of literary tea.

So, when folks ask me what to read, I'll probably change the subject. If I can't, they get my much longer answer (remember, the person asked) which involves my asking a lot of questions, trying to get to know the person a little better, finding out at least a little of what makes him/her tick. Then, I might make a few suggestions, which I try to tailor for each individual. If I can determine what they are reading for – information, entertainment, comfort, escape, knowledge, fun – then I could probably name some books and writers who I think fill those niches nicely.

If the person wants to know what books to read in order to improve his/her own writing, then I like to spend some time talking about their writing and maybe I even read some (or a lot) of it, and then I might be able to recommend some great books and authors which, if read slowly and deliberately, could speak to that need/desire. Maybe.

If someone merely wants to know what books are in the news, which ones are popular, which books to read so that at parties the small talk is not too excruciating, I can probably reel off some, but more likely, I'll suggest checking the
New York Times.

By now, the person has more than likely lost interest. And the truth is, as much as I love to talk about books, it's sometimes a relief. Except for the person whose real question all along was not what really what he/she should read, but what am I reading.

But here's the thing. What I’m reading more than likely has nothing to do with what that person will want to read. Reading, I think, is highly personal, idiosyncratic, often unpredictable. Oh it's great social fun when someone has read the same books and bam – you're off on a great conversational tear with someone new who immediately feels like an old friend. But I have no illusions that simply because I write that what I read is any better or more interesting or more valuable than what the next person reads.

Maybe because I am exposed to a wider range of authors and books on the upper end of the literary scale, my picks may include a higher percentage of well-written books (not always). But that often translates to a lot of books which most people have never heard of and are probably not interested in hunting down. In any case, that does not make them better books, for anyone else's reading diet but my own. Every day, it seems, I learn of another book which interests me, another writer whom I add to the "to be read" list – and that information comes to me from non-writers, too.

So, back to the original question, which I think in most cases, really does boil down to what are you reading?

I'm always in the middle of at least one memoir which I believe, even before I open the cover, will be well-written, either because I'm familiar with the author, I've read a review, or it's been recommended by a writer friend or an author I know or admire. If it delivers, terrific. If not, I put it aside, often sadly, but lately with alarming speed. Life is too short to read books that don't hook me. (And since no one is assigning them these days, my "never mind" pile can get as high as I want.)

The good ones I tend to talk about, write about, recommend, lend out, re-read. Often, I email the author (whether or not I know him/her) and express my interest/gratitude. Every writer likes positive reader reactions. Over the last few weeks, the good memoirs have included
The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere (Debra Marquart); Epilogue (Anne Roiphe); and Safekeeping (Abigail Thomas) – a re-read, because I'm trying to learn something about shorter segments. There were two clunkers I abandoned, one on page 10, the other nearly 1/3 of the way through. It happens.

As for novels, I often have one or more going if they are long; one at a time if shorter. I have a much less predictable pattern when it comes to choosing novels; beyond reviews and those by authors I already know I like, I tend to pick fiction (novels and short story collections, too) for the most insignificant, non-literary reasons – I like the title, the cover illustration or design, I overhear someone somewhere say something interesting about it, the collection editor is someone I admire, it's on the bargain book table at my local bookstore. With all that in mind, make what you will of my fiction list from the last few weeks:

She's Come Undone (Wally Lamb) – a re-read because how does he stay in that other-gender voice for 465 pages? Horseplay (Judy Reene Singer) – chosen for a laid-up-in-bed-with-a-sore-back-for-a-morning read; a horsey frolic. Most of the stories in High 5ive: An Anthology of Fiction from 10 Years of Five Points (Ed. Megan Sexton) – each story the perfect length while waiting for my kid in the car pick up line after school.

Then there are the essay collections and anthologies – usually three or four, on end tables, the arms of couches, and desk corners throughout the house. Right now, I'm working through, slowly, randomly:
About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror (Ed. Anne Burt & Christina Baker Kline); they threw a fun reading/panel discussion/party last month nearby. The Slate Diaries (intro. Michael Kinsley); I guess I wasn't really paying attention to Slate back in 1997, so I’m catching up. And, Best American Essays 2003 (ed. Anne Fadiman); why that year? Beats me.

I'm also a magazine junkie, a (physical, in my hands, print edition) newspaper addict, and I love to graze the web in search of good literary grub; it's great fun to find an online literary journal that will keep me reading, onscreen – which my eyes generally dislike – a 3,000 word piece of nonfiction narrative or short fiction.

Oh, and I usually have one poetry book going too – right now it's
The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni 1968-1998. Why? Frankly, because I listened to her read a poem on a web video link someone sent me a few months ago, which reminded me of the poem she wrote for, and read, on the televised memorial service for the Virginia Tech students last year, and then last month, I went to a local book store to special-order (at full price) an obscure out-of-print memoir I had never read, but somehow felt I "should" read, only to find it wasn't available, and on the way out, I spotted a friend and when I went over to say hello, I knocked Giovanni's book off a shelf with my purse.

Which should only reinforce – if I haven't already – that if someone is inclined to ask me what books they should read, they'd better have some time on their hands.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Writer's Creed: Get What You Need. Maybe It's What You Want, After All.

About six months ago, a new acquaintance, a would-be MFA student, was complaining about being too broke to apply to nearby schools that didn't offer funding; unable to relocate to take advantage of programs that do offer funding; and unimpressed with the low-residency model. What to do?

I'm sympathetic to this dilemma because it's one I faced several years ago when the traditional programs I could reasonably commute to didn't offer much in the way of funding, and in one case offered me a "scholarship" that sliced the tuition, but only down to a level that made me gasp instead of pass out. I didn't think I would get enough out of a low residency program, and at the time (and I don't think it's changed much since) no low residency programs I could find offered funding that would substantially reduce costs. Eventually, I realized that for me it was going to be low-res or nothing (as is the case for many other mid-life, mid-career folks) and I found a low residency program to suit me, one that was more-or-less reasonably priced (in comparison, friends), got a loan and got on with it.

Which is what I told my new acquaintance. Leap, I said. He wasn't ready and wanted to know if he could get at least some of the literary training he longed for without disrupting his family, job, and home, or going broke, or both.

I told him there was good news and bad.

First the bad: Want to seriously write? It's going to be disruptive. You are going to need to steal the time, from somewhere – family, job, home, hobbies, sport, friends. I've yet to meet or read about any successful writer (and I’m defining success broadly here, not in best-seller terms) who describes their transition to becoming a dedicated, serious writer as a smooth one which pleased everyone around them.

More bad news: It's going to cost you. Maybe you don't need to fork over a tuition check the size of a house down payment, but you know what? If it's top quality instruction, guidance, coaching, and advice you are after – and not just that you want to spend more time writing – there's a price tag, even outside the MFA. Really fine writing teachers who take on private students or who teach in non-academic settings or non-degree programs have value and are priced accordingly.

A little more bad news: Debt is bad for a writer. I'm learning this first hand right now. Sign on for those student loans and sure, you get to pursue the MFA without working three jobs at the same time. But six months after graduation, those loan payments begin. True, they can be spread over 10 years, and as my husband keeps trying to explain to me, an extra monthly payment that's less than the combined cable/broadband/phone bill is manageable. Most months. Unless the entire economy tanks, throwing both of your self-employed incomes into a tailspin. Like now. The point is, if you are worried about paying for that MFA, if you find yourself having to take on work that's soul-sucking but better-paying just to whittle down that MFA loan – well, I can tell you that's not a great way to feel post-degree. But I wouldn't trade those two MFA years either.

The dilemma is, now that I finally feel I'm ready to write full time, my family's financial outlook isn't ready for me to do so. Maybe it's just me, someone who abhors debt, who pays off entire credit card balances every single month, who won't buy a car unless I can put down 50 percent and also get 0% financing. I'm sure others have much higher tolerances for debt. But a writer who is emotionally burdened over cash flow (hey wait, doesn't that describe most writers?) is not in the best of all possible creative places. But enough about me. I'll get the loan paid off, maybe later rather than sooner.

Back to my friend. Here's the good news. If the MFA is out of reach financially, or logistically, well -- forget about it. Concentrate on what is possible and create your own "program" to elevate your writing. I'd build it around having at least one traditional type of workshop-style "class" going most of the time. Writing coaches, authors and MFA-level instructors are all around, teaching a course or running a workshop here or there out of their homes, a writing or literary center, or community colleges – why? To supplement their writing income, or because they want to teach but don't want the administrative burden of a traditional faculty position, or because they just like the independence.

My friend located three excellent, well-published writers who teach privately, all less than 90 minutes from his somewhat rural town, at various price points, but all within his budget and right for his skill and craft level. He's starting his first workshop with one of them next week. Meanwhile, he's found a
literary festival near his parent's house, with free workshops and lectures, so he's combining that with an overdue visit. He joined two writers' organizations, in two different cities, and one smaller one much closer to home. He's applied for workshop scholarships at two writing conferences, and is just now thinking about a few low-residency MFA programs in cities where he has relatives or friends who can offer free lodging. Last month, he attended a reading, lingered afterward, fell into conversation with the author, who offered (yes, without being asked or begged) to read the first chapter of his novel-in-progress and pass on some tips.

All good. But there is some bad news. The money he's spending on the workshop was supposed to be for a guys-only weekend to watch his old college football team. His wife tells him his writing life is cutting into their time together after the kids are in bed, not to mention how he's monopolized the basement corner she'd once planned to turn into a craft studio.

See? Disruptive. Good for him.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Teaching (Writing) is to Learning as Learning is to Teaching -- or Something Like That

A few things about teaching writing that drive me a little bit crazy:

- Writing students who say they don't read much (huh?).
- Giving an open-ended writing assignment and having students ask for very specific guidelines.
- Giving a tightly-defined writing assignment and having students ask for fewer guidelines.
- Students who say they'd rather write than do anything else in the world – and then can't (won't?) complete a short writing assignment.

Some things I love:

- I read an excerpt from an author I'm very familiar with, and when students respond, I learn something new and unexpected.
- How quickly a supportive atmosphere develops around any table where writers gather to learn.
- When I think I've said everything I can on a topic, and then someone asks a great question and the discussion continues.
- Watching a student intently scribbling, just after class ends, eager to get their words down, which were somehow pried loose by something they read, heard or thought about during class.
- When I worry that I'm veering off topic a little, and then finding students fully engaged, and realizing it's a lot more on-point than what I had originally prepared.
- That aha look. Theirs, or mine.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Takes Two (Complete Opposites?) To Tango

Over the summer, I was asked to write an essay about being a "white collar" wife to a "blue collar" husband. I don't often think of me and my husband in those terms, as I'm more likely to say something glib about opposites attracting, and leave it at that. But it got me thinking -- about how, even after 20 years, in a thousand ways, we're both more different than we are alike, and yes, the disparity in career trajectory is not insignificant. In the end, it's a piece about how being different can be great – and greatly frustrating – but it also makes one important point about enduring love.

The piece went up today over at
YourTango.com (formerly TangoMag.com, the web descendant of the no-longer-in-print magazine Tango).

It's titled I Like NPR, He Likes NASCAR. Here's a taste:

He likes NASCAR, I'm into Nova. His food comes bland, mine spicy. He's a beach person, I hate sand in my suit. He watches CSI, I'm liking Medium. Frank skied, I was a competitive equestrian. I listen to NPR, his tastes run to (do I have to say it?) a.m. talk. Then there's the biggie. Frank never went to college. Not a semester, not a day. Me? I just completed a master's degree. In literary nonfiction. Which my husband never reads…I read in order to keep breathing. Frank reads the sports pages and Consumer Reports, and he even reads long involved fantasy books about bats and bots aloud with our ten year old. But I long, yes, still, after 20 years for him to really read—a novel, any novel, or a memoir, even a ghostwritten one about a quarterback…
Do I sometimes wish I'd married a man who went to college, who works in a more lucrative, higher profile business, who likes Springsteen, knows the difference between The Nation and The New Republic, and who has already read the book I'm in the middle of? I do……

You can read the rest here. Oh and yes, he does read what I write – if I ask, and nicely.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Twitter, Tweet, Twitterpated

One of my clients is using Twitter to lure in more website visitors, so they'll get interested in subscribing and/or buying products from the site. An editor friend is taking a break to read through the Twitter postings of friends every hour or so, to keep from going insane while doing tedious edits on a scientific manuscript. Me? I'm wandering around Twitter every so often to get a feel for this newest social/business communication tool. Occasionally I also Tweet.

So, it being Sunday night, and having just wrapped up plans for a class I'm teaching tomorrow morning, and my brain feeling a little lazy, here's what just occurred to me: In the movie, when Bambi emerged from hibernation to discover he'd started growing antlers and no longer felt like a little boy, and instead starting falling in love with Faline, all the other little animals said, "Aw, he's twitterpated".

So, what'll we call falling in love w/Twitter?

P.S. If you feel about Twitter the way I did six weeks ago (What the??), then click here for the details - clever & quick.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Fridge Clean-Out

Tidbits for a Friday. Because sometimes the brain just can't put together more than that.

►Seems everyone I know who has been through an MFA program can name one person in their class about whom every other student wondered, "Why is he/she a student and not on the faculty?" That's what I thought each time I listened to
Patricia Smith read – no I should say, perform -- one of her poems. And now I can say I have a friend from grad school whose poetry book, Blood Dazzler, has been nominated for the National Book Award. Go, girl.

►The blog title says it all:
The Three P's of Post-MFA 08: PhDs, Publications and Panhandling. Go, you'll like it.

►While contemplating whether the sky will cave in, I found this well-put, practical advice to being a writer during the big, bad economic crisis our country – and likely everyone's wallet – is facing. On her blog, Tamara Kaye Sellman, has a lot to offer on the subject. Like this:

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with putting your economic needs ahead of your writing life if the writing life doesn't reconcile your bank statement at the end of the day. Of course, the challenge in writing while having a full-time job and possibly a family to raise, is always going to be about finding the time to write. But let me give you some advice from a 13-year veteran of that battlefield: the busier you are, the more likely you'll become a better time manager and overcome issues such as writer's block."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Guest Blogger: Matthew Quick, on First Novels, Readings, and Those Questions Readers Ask

As is so often the case, I first "met" today's guest blogger Matthew Quick on the page, through an essay of his in The Sun, nearly two years ago. Then we both wound up with nonfiction work in the same issue of the literary journal Quay and discovered we were both writing and living in New Jersey – he closer to Philadelphia, me nearer to Manhattan. Later, I interviewed Matthew, who has an MFA from Goddard, for an article on Mediabistro. Then one morning at breakfast not long ago, I found him – or rather his terrific first novel, The Silver Linings Playbook (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) -- in the coveted Newly Released column in the weekday arts section of the New York Times, and heard it touted on NPR. I had to find out on my own, since Matthew doesn't mention it, that the film rights to his book have been optioned by The Weinstein Company. While I understand his pragmatic "anything can happen" reason for not shouting this last news from the rafters, I, on the other hand can whoop all I want for him.

Please welcome Matthew Quick.

Last month, I embarked on what I will loosely refer to as my debut ‘book tour’—a few readings, signings, and interviews in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.

I was excited, hopeful, thrilled.

Four years before, I had left a tenured teaching position and sold my house to pursue fiction writing seriously. In that period I wrote three unpublished novels. My fourth, The Silver Linings Playbook, weathered more than 70 rejections from literary agents, and, once Doug Stewart began to represent me, the book endured many courtships with US publishing houses that were initially interested but ultimately passed. We actually sold rights in Europe before the US.

And then, suddenly, somehow, I was finally a published novelist with positive reviews, ready to greet my fans. One of my first appearances was during the opening of an architecture museum of sorts that has a bookstore attached. Feeling proud, sitting behind a big desk, pen in hand, with stacks of my novel prominently displayed throughout this hip new venue, I was approached by a man in a suit.

“Is this book about architecture?” he asked me.

“No, sir.”

“What’s it about?”

I gave him my one-minute pitch

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I’m signing books.”

“Were you asked to come?”


“Why? Your book has nothing to do with architecture.”

“But it’s set locally. And it did get nice write ups in
The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and in People too.”

He examined the cover of my book more closely. “May I read the first chapter?”

“Sure, please do,” I said, and then for the next five minutes I anxiously watched this potential reader sample my words.

When he finished, he snapped my book shut, placed it back on the table, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Nope,” popping the ‘p’ triumphantly. Then he walked away.

There was no one behind him, and so for a few moments, I just sat there, sort of stunned.

Now, I fully realized that not everyone would like my book, that some people would fall outside of my target audience, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for a face-to-face p-popping ‘Nope.’

Shortly afterward, a woman in a cocktail dress walked up to me and said, “There’s a football helmet on your cover. I’m a woman. I don’t like football. Why should I read your book?”

There was no smile on her face. She was demanding to know why I expected her to crack open my book—which, if you really think about it, is a perfectly legitimate question.

For a good five minutes I smiled at this potential reader, told her that my editor is a woman who does not particularly like football, nor does my agent,
Doug Stewart, and they both love the book. Plus, we were getting a really good response from women readers so far. I talked about how my novel really isn’t a football book at all, but a quirky love story, a book about family, hope, new beginnings, and finding promise in unlikely situations. By the end of my pitch, I had her smiling, but she moved on without buying my book, and I began to feel slightly exhausted, crestfallen, even though I would go on to sell a few copies that night.

Recently, I did a corporately sponsored event. It was the grand opening of a bank branch. There was a string quartet, free food and booze, and the sponsor had purchased 100 copies of my novel. Anyone who attended could have a signed copy—for FREE.

The sponsor had made beautiful posters of my novel’s jacket, and I had all of my positive reviews framed on the signing table. I thought surely I’d have all the free copies signed and moved in under an hour.

But early in the evening a man walked up to me and asked, “So why should I read your book?” Again, this was posed as a challenge—there was a confrontational edge to his question, as if he were insulted by the bank’s offering of a free novel.

In my mind I was thinking, These are FREE tonight. All you have to do is say your name and I sign your book and then you take it home. But it quickly dawned on me that this man wanted to know why he should carry my book around for the rest of the night, why he should even bother to lift it off the table. And so I gave him my pitch, smiling unceasingly, and he ended up shaking my hand and taking a signed copy home.

I would go on to sign many books and have dozens of genuinely pleasant conversations that night, but a long line never formed and, at times, I had to lure people away from the free drinks and food long enough to convince them to take a free copy of my novel.

Why should anyone read my book?

When I was writing The Silver Linings Playbook, like most writers, I was trying to craft a good story that would move people, something I thought readers would generally like, but I never really thought objectively—from a purely market-driven point of view—about why many people should bother to reach specifically for my book, especially considering that there are so many other equally entertaining, well-written books they could read. When you publish, you are absolutely asking people to choose your book—to pluck it off the shelf, pay money for it, and then devote hours to reading your words. It’s an incredible request. Going through the publishing process has really changed the way I now think about this reality.

I have always loved to read fiction. I taught my students that reading fiction makes you a more humane person. I respect anyone who takes the time to arrange words carefully and is brave enough to share stories with the rest of the world. And so the ‘sell-it-to-me’ attitude of many potential readers I met on ‘book tour’ was slightly disheartening, but extremely illuminating. And because I want people to read my books, because I love writing fiction and want to keep doing what I am doing full-time, I am adapting my pitch, becoming a better salesman, learning every day.

Note from Lisa: Read an excerpt of the novel
here. Though he's officially "on hiatus," Matthew will still answer occasional writing and publishing questions on his blog.