Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Another Conference. So Soon?

The AWP Annual Conference is at the end of the week and in my backyard – New York City.
I'm trying to get a ton of work done before it all begins on Thursday – panels, presentations, seminars, readings, schmoozing, receptions, networking, hanging out with writers; all that stuff I always want time for, and then when it's nearly here, I panic and think, there's no way I should go to this, I have way too much work to do.

I'm going anyway. If I don't, then next year when it's in Chicago and I'm too broke to go, I'll wonder why I didn't take advantage when it was just a train ride away.

I'll try to share some Conference tidbits (unless I use the downtime to sleep!).

Meanwhile, if unlike me you have a bit of spare time this week, these are two of my favorite ways to squander a little of it on the web.

►Don't you love it when the media makes some mistake which, in retrospect, seems all too easy to have avoided? So do the folks at Regret The Error.

►At Anthology Builder the idea is to assemble the short stories you want into a custom-built book, with the cover of your choice, for about $14. But if you're like me, you may simply enjoy spending 15 minutes picking the stories from their list, playing designer with the cover art, seeing what it all will look like….and then signing off. [I shouldn't call this a time waster, because it's a pretty darn great idea and I hope it catches on; the site notes that writers whose works are still copyrighted are being compensated.]

And one that's definitely not a waste of time at all….
►To find out which buttons to hit that will get you past the automated voice systems at hundreds of U.S. companies, check out Get Human.

Just started reading: Always Too Soon, by Allison Gilbert with Christina Baker Kline.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Happy Birthday, Virginia Woolf

My Bylines 2008 Writer’s Desk Calendar tells me today is Virginia Woolf’s birthday (1882-1941). One of my favorite Virginia Woolf quotes about the art and craft of writing:

"If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people."

Especially apt for nonfiction writers, wouldn't you say?

Then there's this Virginia Woolf idea (at the time, revolutionary) about what's necessary for a writer to create, in particular a woman writer:

“ A woman must have money and a room of her own.”

In her seminal essay, "A Room of One's Own," Woolf specified, in 1929, that “500 (British) pounds” a year was about right. That’s around $40,000 today, give or take.

Money's such a personal thing and I certainly don't have the answer to this want-to-write/have-to-earn conundrum. But I will venture to say that any way (OK, any legal, moral way) in which you can arrange your financial life so that you are able to write, Virginia would likely approve.

To the room and money requirements, I would add that a woman also needs time, and more often than not, she will have to steal it.

Go ahead. It's not a crime. Steal some time -- today, this weekend, this month.

Do you have a room of your own? A corner of a room of your own? A desk of your own? Somewhere your writing can live and breathe?

Tell me about yours.

Just finished reading: The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life, by Amy Tan

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Maybe it runs in the family....

Q: What could warm a writer-mom’s heart more than her 14-year-old son coming home from school one day last week and asking, “Hey Mom, ever hear of a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald?”

A: When that same son comes home from school yesterday and says, “We’re going to start reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel. Think it’s going to be any good, Mom?”

What I just finished reading: My Misspent Youth: Essays, by Meghan Daum

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heard It On The Radio...I Mean Podcast

When I’m in need of a little writerly inspiration (or to hear a human voice and it’s too early/late to phone up a buddy), I sometimes head over to Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s Writers on Writing, and listen to one of dozens of podcasts of her fine radio broadcast interviews with writers (an occasionally editors and agents). Either from the front page, listing interviews going back a few months, or by dipping into the archives, I always find someone interesting to listen to. Barbara has a mean blog, too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Anna and Katha: Perfect Together

I have been a huge Anna Quindlen fan since I discovered her "Life in the 30s" column in the New York Times in the mid-1980s. At the time -- way before the Web, blogs, and an ocean of memoirs -- she was the first woman columnist with the freedom to write about her personal life in the pages of the most influential major media outlet in the U.S. She's gone on to a Pulitzer Prize for commentary (for her Times OpEd columns in the early 1990s) and is now a best-selling novelist and a political columnist for Newsweek.

I am a much newer fan of Katha Pollitt, a columnist at The Nation, author of the recent essay collection, Learning To Drive, and recent visitor to my MFA residency.

So imagine how happy I was to find this podcast of a talk they did together a couple of months ago at the City University of New York. They jaw about the media, feminism, politics, the candidates, blogging, readers, reviews, their own writing process.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Not Posh, Just A Little Spice

My friend Susan Bono over at Tiny-Lights, a Journal of Personal Narrative, asked recently about how writers spice up their work. Here's what I said.

By the way, my favorite spice is fresh ground black pepper. Which has nothing whatever to do with this post at all. I just threw that in.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Getting Away, Getting Back

Getting away from my normal routine, for the 10 day intensive that’s part of my low-residency MFA program, is bliss. Getting back (after a day snowed-in in Maine), getting organized, getting updated with my family -- and getting over a certain sadness at seeing those days of doing nothing but thinking about and talking about writing -- is hard.

Here’s what helps: getting welcomed home with more hugs and appreciation than one can usually expect from teenage- and pre-pubescent sons; getting an email that an essay has been accepted by an unusual literary journal; and getting good news about writer friends and finding nifty new sites.

- My friend David Healey, a witty newspaper columnist/editor, and not incidentally, a gifted writer of historic novels, has had the good fortune of seeing one of his books, Sharpshooter, originally published in 1999, re-issued by Bella Rosa Books.

- Jenny Rough offers a quick guide to 30 markets for personal essays over on

- After enjoying Bill Bryson’s engaging biography Shakespeare: The World as Stage (part of the Eminent Lives Series, which pairs unlikely writers with prominent historic icons), I happened onto this site, which delivers a different Shakespeare quote weekly.

- Persimmon Tree features wonderful writing by “women over sixty” – writers who have plenty to say about nearly any issue you can think of that’s mattered to women in the last six or so decades: in other words: everything.

- Say what you want about self-publishing, pro or con. When a writer has written, re-written, and revised a book-length manuscript, and is ready to face that fickle public known as readers, they’ve earned a rung on the literary ladder. I’m off to a launch party for Thinking of Miller Place: A Memoir of Summer Comfort, by New Jersey writer Ethel Lee Miller, a successful motivational speaker and life coach, whose book is a series of recollections of lazy, promise-filled mid-century summers on Long Island. Who couldn’t use some of those right about now?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Staying in Drive

This doesn't happen every day.

You attend a reading of a writer you have admired for a long time, and the next morning, she sits down with you for a half hour, ready to answer anything you care to ask. And -- since earlier in the week, you, your instructor Barbara Hurd, and the others at the table read and discussed this author’s new book – a lot comes to mind.

I’m talking about Katha Pollitt, who read from her essay collection, Learning To Drive and Other Life Stories, one evening lat week at my MFA residency in Freeport, Maine. Her humorous recollections of a long-ago copy-editing gig for extra cash was perfect for an audience of writers. Pollitt really enjoyed her reading; she smiled, laughed, engaged with the audience, and generally had a blast at the microphone. (Can’t we all recall dozens of readings at which the author never smiles, much less enjoys himself?)

Next day, Pollitt visited the manuscript workshop in which five other MFA students and myself had been participating for three days. She was open to any question, any topic, and her answers were fresh and candid, sometimes thoughtfully meandering and other times gracefully succinct –just like her essays. Here’s a small sampling.

On how she approached the personal essay form (as opposed to her usual social/political commentary pieces for The Nation.): “I thought of the essays in Learning To Drive as stories.”

On whether or not she will write another collection of personal essays: “I don’t know. If you have any ideas, call me.”

On what keeps manuscripts from winning contests and/or getting published: “The person has insufficient literary talent. The language is boring. The writer does not use language in an interesting way.”

On what she looks for when judging contests (more on this later): “Prose is the thing for me. Is the writer in love with the English language?”

On what makes a compelling text: “Manuscripts that are interesting to read are those where the writer is pulled along by a long thread.”

Pollitt was in Maine partly to present the first Stonecoast Book Prize, which she judged last summer. The contest was won by Maine writer (and my new friend and Stonecoast MFA grad) Penelope Schwartz Robinson, for her stellar essay collection, Slippery Men, and includes publication by New Rivers Press in September 2008.

Like any good author surrounded by writing students -- Pollitt had a book recommendation: My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum, which she said avoids the essay collection curse of featuring a handful of stand-out pieces among others easily identifiable as filler.

That must mean it’s like Pollitt’s excellent Learning To Drive: Everything moves forward, from start to finish, never pausing in neutral.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Low Residency, High Impact

When I explain why I am working on an MFA through a “low residency” program, I get a share of glazed looks. Mostly, people wonder if such a program can deliver a high impact experience.

It can. It does.

I’m at the end of the second day of this winter’s 10-day intensive Winter Residency (the Stonecoast Program, University of South ern Maine). The days, and evenings too, are filled with seminars, lectures and panel discussions by permanent, visiting and guest faculty members; presentations by graduating students; manuscript workshops; faculty readings; and graduating student readings. All of which would be fabulous on its own.

But what makes the experience work for me is a combination of setting, proximity, and community. The entire student body -- about 100 spread across fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and popular fiction – as well faculty and administrators, are all in the same building all day it doesn’t hurt that the building in question is a century old mansion overlooking the harbor in Freeport, Maine). We are all brushing up against one another all the time, encouraging conversation, inter-genre fertilization, and a ceaseless sense of community. Lunch is communal, and faculty members break bread with students.

Here's how that looks: Today, during breaks, lunch, rides from the hotel, book-table browsing (and bathroom lines): I talked over memoir forms with a fellow nonfiction student, discussed mentor selection with the program’s associate director, compared writing routines with a beginning poetry student, answered questions from a prospective student visitor, eavesdropped on an alumnus and his former fiction faculty mentor discussing the merits of an independent press; and picked the brain of a graduating student about how she put together her final thesis.

Then tonight, just when the effects of the over-stimulating, overly cerebral 9-hour day tempted me to skip the evening faculty reading, I was instead more or less carried along by the four fiction and poetry students with whom I shared dinner, and the next thing I knew, I was listening to – and being blown away by -- Debra Marquart, reading from her rich memoir, Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, and thought: Who needs sleep?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Any Writing Resolutions?

Have you vowed, in 2008, to spend X number of hours with seat glued to chair, fingers on keyboard? Or to produce Y number of pages per morning? Or is your resolution to finish the novel or finally start the memoir? Set your sights on being published in a prestigious journal, important magazine, or major newspaper?

Good for you -- go for it.

Mine for 2008 is to go on a submission diet. Why? Fourth – and final – semester of my MFA program starts in two days: Six months focused on producing a manuscript-length piece of quality nonfiction. So, it’s curtains for submitting for a while.

Thing is, when it comes to submitting, I’m zealously, ploddingly disciplined: five a week, no matter what (that was 2007’s resolution, and it’s paid off). Still, something has got to go if I’m going to get through this semester. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, for those times when resolutions weaken and a little diversion is called for, try this: OneUpMe. The challenge changes daily. Only metaphor maniacs need apply.

If you are interested in what resolutions some digital-challenged journalists are making, look here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Truly Well Balanced Equation: Reading+Writing about Reading=Books for Hospitals

Fair’s Fair, a Canadian used book seller, is sponsoring an online, and later, a print project, called Women Who Love to Read. Every two weeks, a different essay from a woman lit lover in Canada or the U.S., is showcased in the Book Club section on the site.

My essay is up there now. Check out the archives, too.
When the print anthology is compiled later this year, proceeds will benefit several pain centers in Alberta, earmarked to purchase books for patients. (Essay submissions are still being accepted through April; details on the site.)