Monday, March 31, 2008

Because, what the heck? I'm a fool anyway.

Starting tomorrow – NO FOOLING – I will be writing one poem a day for the month of April. It's National Poetry Month, after all, and a bunch of folks, both on- and off-line, are taking the plunge, too.

I don't write a lot of poetry, but I enjoy when I do. Lately, I have wanted to kick up that part of my writing life half a notch. [You know, 'cause I have so much free time.] I like the change it provides me from nonfiction, and lately poetry has been getting me out of a few nonfiction writing messes too. When I just can't seem to get to the essence of a piece, I flip open my poetry notebook. The act of dealing with the part of the essay that is giving me a problem – distilling it to spare and exacting words and images -- often breaks open my mental logjam, and I return to the prose with a different perspective.

Usually, it doesn't produce a terrific poem; most of the time, not even a passable poem. On the other hand, I've had a few published. But neither is really the point.

When I used to ride horses competitively – hunters and jumpers, English style – I had one trainer who encouraged his riders to spend one day each week out of the practice ring, doing something different: ride bareback, take a fast trail ride through the woods or a walk at your horse's own pace, play 4-H style horse-and-rider games with other riders, take your horse for a walk (dog style). The point was to do something, anything, that broke up our usual routine but still was about that horse and rider connection. Newly arrived riders at this highly competitive and nationally-known stable used to scoff at the suggestion, but within weeks, they came to realize what this wise trainer knew: to get better at what you do as a rider, do something different as a horseperson.

That's how I think about poetry, at least for now. A different, but equally nourishing part of the writing life.


the pause that

There, that's my first poem. Oh, that one's taken already? Shucks. Well, I have 30 more days to go.

Anyone want to join in? I'm participating with a group of fellow students/graduates from my MFA program on a private site; but there are open sites where you can play too, like
this one and this. Or start your own poem-a-day initiative by yourself or with others.

Need a nudge? Try
Poefusion – where they are posting prompt a day all month.
I don't know what theirs will be tomorrow, but as for me, I'm going with foolish.

Let me know what you think and how it works out.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Spring is Award Season

I LOVE magazines, all kinds. (Could that be why I majored in magazine journalism at college?) And while I'm not all that much influenced by industry awards, I do like to see what's being singled out.

The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) has already named the winners in their Annual Writing Awards Program, and you can see the list

The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) has also announced
finalists for the National Magazine Awards (also known as the Ellies); winners to be announced May 1. The list of finalists for their many categories of Best Magazine Writing is over at Bookslut with links to all those you read online.

I was especially interested, of course, in the Essay category, and was so excited to see that one of the best essays I can remember reading in The New Yorker last year,
Parallel Play, by Tim Page, made the cut.

Beyond the wonderful prose and terrific storytelling woven into this essay, it hit me for all kinds of personal family reasons, and also put me in mind of the book-length essay,
The Invention of Solitude, by Paul Auster, which I was required to read (and annotate) the first month of my MFA program. I recall disliking the work intensely at the time, but in retrospect (don't you just love hindsight?), it was one of the most important things I've read in the last two years, in terms of influence on my own writing.

See what you like on the lists.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Reading: For What Ails You

The perfect cure (antidote, kick-in-the-butt) to feeling stuck (burnt-out, unmotivated, lazy) as a writer, is to read a good book.

Every writer knows this, of course.

But I am always surprised that I forget it so easily, as I did these past two weeks, when anything connected with writing has made my teeth itch. All I wanted to do was crawl under the covers – and not with a book. And that's precisely what I did, at least for a few days. Then I roused myself, worked fitfully on two essays for two days, and then fell right back into that unfortunately comfortable place: malaise (also known as "everything I write is crap, so why bother?").

It was my 10-year-old son who reminded me.

He came home from school the other day, smiley and buoyant, with six books he'd purchased from the school book fair, mostly with his own money. "I can't wait to read them all," he said. "You can borrow one if you want, Mom."

How did he know?

I went straight to the section of my bookshelf that's most overloaded – the to be read section – and pulled out
Carolyn Parkhurst's novel, The Dogs of Babel. I started the book at 6:00, and with short breaks for dinner and kids' good night routines, I finished around midnight. I read hungrily. I'm sorry, but I have to say it: I just couldn't put it down. Sure, I may have been a little reading-deprived, but this is also a terrific book – by turns surprising, odd, lovely, funny, quirky, sensitive and satisfying. And, by the way, I don't even like dogs very much.

Today, I worked on my own writing – passionately, happily, hungrily; like a dog. Aah.

Now, I must go and join my son who is watching a Harry Potter movie; he's got a plan, watching each movie as he finishes each book in the series. I’m not all that interested in the movie, honestly. But I'm really interested in what else this smart kid of mine might have to say.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In Short

There's a discussion going on over at After The MFA, and I get the sense, at a lot of other writing sites, about the health of the short story. I don't write them (at least not yet) but I think short stories are such a vital element of reading for a writer, and maybe just as importantly, for the health of the the literary tradition, period.

As I commented over there:

Funny, all I read about is how Americans’ attention spans are so much shorter today, so it’s kind of baffling why the short story — seemingly tailored for short bursts of time — would be unpopular at such a time. I think it has a lot to do with the marketing and packaging of the genre. In nonfiction, essay anthologies are selling very well, so maybe publishers need to think about marketing short story collections in the same way, even gathering them according to theme (instead of single-author) the way the nonfiction anthologies are assembled.

The short story collections I seem to like the most are just like that -- assorted authors, gathered either by theme, place of original publication (see post directly below), year (Best American), or some other criteria that tosses together an interesting and often unexpected mix of writers and styles. That way, I get exposed to stories and writers I might never have encountered on my own often biased trips through the bookstore.

Ever wonder why the hot nonfiction anthology marketing success train hasn't migrated to the short story side of the shelf? I suppose one could argue that the hundreds of literary journals published should logically fill this market niche, but with their current means of distribution, uneven funding, and other obstacles besetting lit journals, it's unlikely they can make a dent as far as the general reading public is concerned.

I would enjoy reading a combination anthology that mixes nonfiction essays with short stories of fiction -- all labeled accordingly -- on a specific theme. Many times I have found it compelling to read a novel (or short story) and then a memoir (or essay) on similar subjects and marvel at how each writer handled the material and emotions. What about you?

Are you reading any short stories? Writing them?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What Page Are You On?

Kate Evans tagged me to pick up the work of fiction closest to where I'm sitting right now that has 123 pages or more, turn to page 123, find the fifth sentence, then post it and the next three sentences.

So, here goes

- Book: High 5ive: An Anthology of Fiction From 10 Years of Five Points

- What's on page 123: it's the fifth page of a 14-page short story, "The Wedding of Snow and Ice" by Alice Hoffman

- Here's the fifth sentence and the next three sentences:

She liked the way he looked at snow, the intensity on his face, there when they made love, there whenever he was concentrating and trying to figure things out.
"Hal might be away. I think he might still be working on that house in Bourne. She might be alone there with Josephine."

I tag anyone who will have fun with this. Pass it on.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Books, Poems, Plaigarism and TV

Another local independent bookstore is closing, which always makes me sad. But I was glad to here of this counter-trend.

I used to subscribe to a poem-a-day email, but when the emails weren't showing up, I discovered this site instead.

In case anyone needs a reminder, check out Jack Shafer at Slate on why plagiarism is a really bad idea.

Need a little bookish entertainment? Try this just launched site, for a video interview with four authors.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Almost-Finished-the-MFA Slump: Truth in Nonfiction

Now that I am about halfway through my final semester of an MFA program in nonfiction, I've hit that infamous slump my already-graduated friends warned me about. Mine is an icky grey funk with symptoms that include alternating bouts of buyer's remorse, a quiet panic, ebbing confidence, debt anxiety – and the overwhelmingly discomfiting sense of reaching the end of something which I want to last forever, and also can't wait to finish.

How on earth did I get here?

No, I won't take you down the pitted and not-so-unusual path of why and how I decided on the MFA. Or even tell you about how, on the first day of the first workshop, I agonized for hours about how to tell my husband I had made a big mistake and how to get my money back. I won't go into the details of how, over the course of that first week, I came to realize I was in the right place after all.

A place where things end.

An end to thinking I was a pretty fair writer – and the beginning of the realization that my writing needed a whole lot of work. An end to the unarticulated fuzzy sense that this MFA thing could be a sort of part-time writing exercise, rather than a major commitment of time, work, and mental energy to dismantle all of my notions about what I was actually capable of writing.

I wasn't really looking for surprises. I simply wanted to progress in a smooth line, picking up ways to polish my prose and along the way figure out how to rejuvenate a motherhood-stalled career, while making some grown-up friends who loved books and reading as much as my two kids.

What's that saying about life laying waste to one's plans?

Trained in journalism, experienced but rusty as a freelance writer, established as a public relations specialist, I was stunned and frankly a little annoyed when I discovered – because of faculty who pushed and insisted that inside my "B" game was an "A" game too – that I could write outside my comfort zone. Literary essays? Wow, didn't know I could do that. Memoir-type narrative nonfiction? Didn't see that one coming. Then there was poetry, humor, criticism, and…well, the point is that sometimes finding out you can do something you never thought you could is not only exhilarating, but frankly – scary.

Now what?

That once-envisioned line was not smooth and at the moment I am both intrigued and terrified of where it's leading. To graduation, yes. But beyond that?

It's still four months off, yet thinking about "after the MFA" occupies far too much of my time. If I were one of my kids, I'd tell myself, in my best mom-speak, "Let's not worry about that yet. There is a lot to do in the meantime…."

….like finish the thesis manuscript, plan that seminar graduating students must teach, and make those revisions to an essay I need to hand in. But that's not how funks work. They grab hold and obliterate everything else one should be focusing on. However, if I'm lucky – and I think this is already starting – a really good funk, one that seems like an ending, will catapult me to...well, who knows, but certainly the beginning of something.

So…as I agonize about not having a book-length manuscript ready to shop to agents the day after the MFA graduation, and not knowing what exactly I want to do writing-wise from there on, or the holes I'm beginning to see still exist in my literary education, I just have to keep reminding myself of what one of my sons said recently: "Wow, Mom, you're going to graduate. Cool."

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Little Pieces of Lies

It happened again.

Nonfiction writers sometimes confess that they – and by that I mean I -- get discouraged because our story is not compelling enough, not about a dysfunctional enough past.

So forgive me for being just a bit relieved to see that another hot new "memoir," is not, in fact a memoir at all. It is a novel, or it would have been had it been published under the proper genre. Now it's history. It was published last week, and was getting some good reviews. And now, the author says yup, she made it up.

The latest flap is over Love and Consequences, an alleged memoir about growing up white in gang-ruled, poverty-stricken black foster homes in South Central Los Angeles, by "Margaret B. Jones." The book was recalled by Riverhead Books (Penguin Group USA) this morning, because the author (outed by her sister) has admitted the book is a fabrication based on brief associations she had with gang members years ago.

None of this negates that Ms. Jones – sorry, Margaret Seltzer -- may in fact have written something that offers beautiful prose and a readable, moving story. But why not call it a novel? The answer may has much to do with the marketing machines of the major booksellers which paint a dollars-and-(no)sense picture that claims a great memoir will outsell a well-written novel.

And, there is a lot wrong with the way publishers don't spend even an hour or two vetting the veracity of a prospective nonfiction author's story.

But the answer also has to do with the reading public, and that includes all of us, writers or not. Attach the words or phrases "a true story," "her life story," "the real life account of…" and most of the reading public today – including me, I am a little embarrassed to admit – is more likely to plunk down the fifteen or twenty bucks.

I’m not sure why. I do know that the longer I write and the more deeply I study writing, the more I find myself gravitating away from reading mostly memoirs and towards the great novels – even though I write only nonfiction at the moment. You want stories? Novelists know how to tell them. So why do we want our modern stories, need them, all to be true? Why do we spend more money, more time, and pay more attention when it's labeled "true"?

And publishers – and maybe agents too – have they learned nothing since the James Frey debacle? How much would it take to have a researcher – or for that matter, anyone with an Internet connection, a phone and a brain – do even the most cursory digging to determine if the story they are about to publish, under the heading of memoir, is in fact, even mostly true?

It usually seems that people who lie about an entire past and put it on paper, usually do so pretty uniformly, so checking something simple that is quickly verifiable might turn up the first indication that all is not as it seems. From there, it's not too difficult to imagine confronting the would-be author, before galleys are in hand: By the way, our researcher was doing a routine check and while you say you are a Stanford alum, they've never heard of you…..

I don't know what machinations, if any (maybe none), may have gone on inside the agent and publisher offices; whether they took the writer at her word? Or were there discussions about how to best market the work? And about the writer: Didn't she think, when the New York Times photographer showed up, that someone might say, hey, I went to high school with her, where she lived in an intact affluent family, in a white suburb?

And what about me? I had clipped the review and was about to put the book on my "to be read" list, ready to put in an inter-library loan request for it. And now? I've completely lost interest. But I'm glad of one thing: the more of these NOT-memoirs that are exposed, maybe the reading public will get the message that real life does not always have to be so over-the-top, so unbelievable to make a good memoir.

The very best memoirs, I think, are those in which either nothing earth-shakingly dramatic happens, but the prose makes up for it; or something explosive does happen, and yet the quietly powerful writing does not overpower the story. Either way, the writer has done something with the telling of the event; he or she has not created the events.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Fellow Writer on the Financial Needs Spectrum

My writer-friend Michelle O'Neill keeps a fabulous blog, where she beautifully mixes stories about her life as a writer and as a mother of a child with autism, sans saccharine.

I usually don't pass along fund-raising requests on my blog. But today I have to. Please stop over at Michelle's blog, where today she is spearheading an effort to ease some severe financial burdens for another Mother-Writer-Advocate, Kim Stagliano, who is a leader in communicating the realities of raising children with autism, and an advocate for research and services. Her three daughters are all autistic; an expensive proposition even when times are good. Kim's blog on the Huffington Post, and her other writing projects are all forthright, bold and carry truth without wrapping it in sentimental ribbons.

And now she needs help. If you can send any amount (via an email gift card), then check in over at Michelle's blog for details and the rest of the story.