Friday, February 27, 2009

Writers Get Books in the Mail. And More.

As a writer, I get a lot of books in the oversize mailbox on the front of my house – books I've ordered, new books written by friends, books for review. I'm always happy to get any and all of them. But when I saw the return address on one of those padded envelopes a few days ago, I pushed it to the edge of my desk and piled other things on top of it. That's where it remained for several days until I finally decided -- now or never.

The book is oversize and hardback, hefty, and doesn't have a dust jacket. In fact, perhaps I should not even be calling it a book, because it's not technically "published," has no ISBN, and can't be sold, purchased, or reviewed. Plus, there are only three copies in existence. Which doesn't make it rare and valuable, only difficult to find, and frankly hardly anyone will ever go looking for it. Nevertheless, it's a book whose arrival I had been anticipating with equal parts dread and desire, though many times in the last eight months, I'd forgotten I ordered it.

It's the bound copy of my final creative manuscript, the final requirement for the MFA degree I completed last year. It looks, feels and (hopefully) reads like a book, but isn't. Still.

I opened and read the acknowledgements page and was overcome (again) with gratitude for those who influenced and supported me. I made a mental note to copy that page and mail it (in an envelope, not scanned and attached to an email) to everyone mentioned. (Except for my late father "…who wrote and read and who taught me, from so early an age I can't even remember when, that words can take you anywhere.")

I turned to the Preface, a meditation on my 20+ year development as a writer, from journalism student to public relations specialist and itinerant freelancer to creative nonfiction writer.

I scanned the table of contents. I skimmed the opening and closing chapters.

A year ago, I was reading and rereading (and revising and rewriting and editing) each of the individual pieces of the manuscript so closely that many times I vowed never to look at them again post-graduation. Mostly, I haven't. Which is why it was such a profound experience to see them again on my desk, this time bound and between deep blue covers.

I am NOT overly impressed with myself. Around the country, hundreds of MFA final-semester students produce similarly hard-wrought creative manuscripts every few months – chunks of novels in progress, short story compilations, poetry collections, memoirs in the making. Some of these go on to be published and some win contests in much their original shape. More often however, these "books" get deconstructed, reassembled, revised, rewritten, reconsidered, expanded. Once reworked, some find their way into the world, in whole or in parts. Some, sadly, are forgotten.

I'm not sure of the final fate of the material inside mine, a compilation of long interconnected essays, memoir-like and narrative, yet segmented too. Some have already been published in literary journals, magazines and essay collections. Two are still awaiting homes. One, the most personal piece, is once again under construction.

When submitting the manuscript thesis to my MFA program office, I learned that one copy would go to the permanent collection of the university library archives (likely some forgotten room). Another would be placed in the
Stonecoast MFA student library (where, over the course of five residencies, I fondly remember spending time between workshops reading others' graduate theses). None would come to me unless I paid $25 for a third, personal copy. After thousands expended on tuition, travel, books and meals, this seemed such a slight amount.

What did impress me most about receiving my "book" in the mail was not that I now had something with only my name on it to put, literally, on the shelf next to the anthologies and journals I've been published in. No, what got to me was this: In the eight months since I finished the MFA, there have been submissions, acceptances, writing assignments, publications, surprising new clients, and satisfying new teaching gigs. But also, in equal measure, there have been rejections which stung, teaching jobs applied for and not gotten, uninterested agents, magazines which have gone out of business after accepting my work, departed clients, and the anxiety of starting a new business venture in the middle of economic chaos.

Amid all of that, I had nearly lost sight of something: I can write. That probably sounds absurd. I write every day. I get paid to write and to help others write better. Still, there is something powerful indeed to be reminded that one IS a writer, in her bones, that artistic and creative expression exist despite day-to-day stops and starts, financial concerns and the administrative hiccups of working independently. Sometimes that reminder comes in the form of a glowing critique from an admired colleague. Other times in comes in physical form, like a book, or something a lot like it.

There are those who think one is not a real writer without a published book on the shelf. I don't believe that. And yet, my handsome sort-of-a-book, now on the shelf nearest to my desk, does seem to say something to me that a boxful of manuscript pages and clips cannot. What that volume is saying is not, look here see you did it, but here, look – see what's possible (now, again, still).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Guest Blogger Christin Geall on Writing in Heaven and That Other Place

In a new situation, surrounded by people I've never met, within a short time I'm usually able to point out those with whom I am likely to strike up a friendship. Then there are those unpredictable friendships that take me by surprise. That's the way it was when I was befriended by Christin Geall during my first MFA residency three years ago. On the surface, Christin was – is – so many things I am not: in her 30s, gorgeous, intelligent and highly educated in several languages and varied disciplines, comfortable writing about sex, diplomatic, relaxed at parties, spontaneous, and succinctly forthright (here's what I mean – when I asked for a bio, she sent this: Christin Geall writes nonfiction from her home in Victoria, British Columbia. A Stonecoast MFA grad, she has an agent, a lover, a son and a dog, but she still isn't sure if she's lived the ending to her first book.).

One thing (among many) which I admire about Christin is how she is able to claim the badge of writer, regardless of what her publishing status may be at any given point in time. She's been a newspaper columnist and magazine feature writer, but more recently has been less published, yet also more sure of being a writer. Me, I seem to keep needing that affirmation of frequent publication, yet I keep hoping that my friend's belief in her right to call herself a writer--with or without frequent publication--will rub off on me.

Please welcome Christin Geall.

A writer dies. She goes to heaven. At the pearly gates she meets St. Peter who asks, “Would you like to stay here for eternity or would you like to take a look at hell first?” The woman, thinking what writer never wanted a glimpse of hell, replies, “Sure. I’ll take a peek. Thanks.” In hell, the woman sees a forest of tall fir trees, densely packed, their bases burning, the air gray with smoke. “You may want to look up,” St. Peter suggests. Atop every tree the woman sees a person typing on a laptop. Chains glint in the light. “What are they doing there?” She asks. “They’re writing.”
“I think I’d like to see heaven.” St. Peter takes her up through the clouds, opens the pearly gates and they again enter a burning forest of tall fir trees. On top of every tree sits a writer, chained to a laptop. The woman turns to St. Peter. “I don’t understand. There’s no difference.”
“Well,” he says, “the only difference is that in heaven you’re published.”

Janet Burroway told this joke in a chandeliered ballroom in Chicago last week at the annual conference of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. In the room sat a couple hundred people, mainly women, curious about the lives of those in ‘heaven’ - the women with multiple books, essays, professorships, prizes and invitations. These ‘women of a certain age,’ as the panel described them, also included Hilda Raz, Alicia Ostriker, Linda Pastan and Rosellen Brown.

I must reveal at this point that I am not a journalist by trade so my notes are sketchy. I tend to draw in my margins. Nevertheless, between the scrolls, I captured a few pithy one-liners about the writing life, (attributed where possible):

· The two most difficult things to write about: 1. Your mother 2. Yourself.
· Beware the twin imposters: success and failure.
· Do a writing program, but remember -- you have to figure out how to make writing a continuing part of your life after you are done.
· Ego will always demand more – money, prizes, prestige. So just focus on the work.
· Invent a discipline. Sit down for a few hours every day, no matter what. Eventually you’ll get so bored, you’ll write something.
· ‘If it’s any good, it will sell’ is a capitalist mantra and frankly, not true.
· Work is its own cure. You have to like it more than being loved. – Marge Piercy
· We get the children we deserve.
· Kill your censor and write what you are afraid to write.
· Share your work in a community.
· It’s fear rather than time that prevents us.
· Keep a low overhead. – Grace Paley

I’m neither young nor aged, but I’ll take hindsight over foresight any day. Writerly wisdom is too rare and I’m not in heaven yet. Sure, I’ve been published here and there, but I do not have one book. Not one. I sense this puts me in writer’s purgatory, between heaven and hell, where I am destined to smolder atop a tree of anxiety and ambition until my agent says, “You’re done.” This could take years; I once read it takes five years, on average, to get that first book out. And then? The pearly gates open to a new forest of writers, typing atop their proverbial trees.

No wonder you gotta love the work.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Guest Blogger Linda K. Sienkiewicz on Self-Promotion for Writers: Make it Shameless Please!

While an MFA student, I met many different types of fellow student writers, and when it came to how they talked about being published, most fell into two extreme categories – born self-promoters who confidently pointed out their many publications, and incredibly modest types who hardly ever mentioned their published pieces.

Linda K. Sienkiewicz was mostly in the second group, but belongs in the first. From the first, she struck me as a writer intensely interested in improving her craft, across several genres and in many areas of interest. You wanted to be in her workshop, she always asked great questions following a faculty presentation. Yet Linda rarely mentioned her accomplishments, and unless you were lucky enough to spend a quiet one-on-one lunch together (as I was), you might conclude there wasn't much to tell. You'd be wrong. Linda is a Puschart Prize nominee, has authored a poetry chapbook, been published in dozens of quality literary journals, and is a frequently published humor and erotica essayist. More people should know about Linda's work. That's why I'm so pleased that for her guest post today, she's summarizing a panel from last week's AWP Writers Conference about…self-promotion.

Please welcome
Linda K. Sienkiewicz.

When you have published a book, the notion of self promotion as being shameful is flat-out wrong. Publicity is an act of generosity. Promotion should be a joy. It is a writer’s duty and right.

This is what poet Todd Boss, novelist Marisha Chamberlain, nonfiction author Jon Spayde and poet Margaret Hasse said in one of the most exciting and well presented of the AWP conference seminars -- Shameless Promotion: Get the Book to the Readers. It was also one of the best attended, with writers sitting on the floor in the aisles and standing in the back. Their subject is an important issue because it is very hard for some humble writers to embrace "selling" themselves.

Boss, Spayde, Hasse and Chamberlain say authors need to deep-six the underlying assumption that if one has to put effort into marketing themselves, it might indicate there isn’t enough talent to carry the work. It’s foolish to believe that your talent should be recognizable to all and therefore, that there should be no need to promote your work.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way, and with marketing budgets at publishing houses being slashed, you don’t want to have a box full of new books and no plan. This was something echoed in other presentations I attended, given by editors and book publishers from small presses and to trade houses.

Authors must start their own pre-book buzz, plan their readings and signings, launch a website, and basically sell themselves. There’s no need, however, to dole out thousands of dollars to hire a publicist. Create your own shameless marketing plan and fund it. And do it in the spirit of sharing yourself with the world. This is your right and your duty.

To demonstrate, attendees were given a nifty card with the four authors' color photos and bios (with, of course, their books and publishers listed) on one side and 10 “Shameless Book Publicity Tips” on the other:

1. Schlepp your books. You never know when a conversation might lead someone to say “Hey, where can I buy your book?” and when they do, you better have a copy on hand. Don’t feel guilty either. Feel good about promoting the reading of good literature. Look the person in the eye and say thanks.

2. Embrace your “authority” as an author and an expert. Spayde says it’s not inflating yourself. As a writer, you know things; you’ve done research, honed a craft, worked with editors, and undoubtedly have expertise to offer others as a speaker. Speak, teach, and interact.

3. Become a local laureate. Boss offered to be the laureate of a local coffee shop. It’s true that the coffee shop didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded good, and now he’s hosting a monthly poetry series there with 40 or so attendees. Everyone in his town knows who he is, a copy of his book is in the coffee shop where patrons can read it, and he got a feature article in the city’s newspaper’s arts section.

4. Write to your heroes. I remember reading this in Carolyn See’s book Making a Literary Life. Write fan letters to those writers or publishers you admire, and do it without expectations. When you give yourself to other writers, you never know it what ways it might come back to you. Because writing is a solitary act, we need to remember to let other writers know that what they’re doing matters to someone.

5. Blog, but blog deep. The value in this is, simply, human connection. Think about making connections and inviting response.

6. Do a little publicity daily (365 days a year). Who can’t devote 15 minutes a day toward publicity? Make a list of ideas and adjust your schedule to fit in a daily task, like a publicity multi-vitamin.

7. Snag private commissions. This was Boss’s idea. He says creating a poem for someone for a special occasion is a joy that has given back to him many times in many ways.

8. Map your fans, and travel. Collect emails and keep records of people you meet and are/were affiliated with. Contact them. Stage a themed reading with a few other writers. Go to book clubs. Cross promote. Collaborate.

9. Court opinion leaders. Think about who your ideal readers are and what organizations they might belong to. Think non-profit, leisure groups, hobbies and politics. Find the names of those who run and attend these groups and get them a copy of your book.

10. Memorize and record your work. Yes… think performance! Writers are communicators and the world is expanding in many ways. Launch a virtual tour. Get on YouTube. Record a CD, DVD, or podcast.

The message I took home is that promotion is more than self-service. Writers have an obligation to share their work with the world. We build a better world by our literary presence. As Boss states, his work is a reflection of his true spirit as a human being; “therefore, its celebration is blameless.”

The four enthusiastic authors maintain a website where you can read more.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Writing it Short

I'm a bit under the weather (again or still), so here's a quickie bunch of links you might like. Enjoy.

♦ Have you read The Rumpus yet?

♦ Nonfiction book reviews by a reader who also happens to be a librarian. Check it out.

♦ A list of 100 Creative Nonfiction Blogs.

♦ I'm past the mother-of-very-young-kids stage, but I still check in every so often over at Babble, and so I was interested in this interview with its founder.

♦ Wondering how you might use Twitter to job hunt? Check these tips.

♦ I went to journalism school (Syracuse) with so many talented folks and I've enjoyed following their careers. It's heartbreaking to think about all the full time journalists now out of work, much less to contemplate the possible future of those now starting out.

♦ The Columbia Journalism Review book blog.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Packing 101 For Writers: What Not to Bring.

I am packing for a trip, and since it's a car trip, I get to bring whatever I want. And so I begin a ritual that I think is unique to writers. Here's what I have put aside in preparation for packing:

•Three books -- two novels and a memoir. I'm going to a wedding, but since I don't know what mood I'll be in – euphoric, nostalgic, wistful, hopeful, sad -- I'll take them all.
•Four magazines. Two are good for my brain, one is good for my soul, one is good for nothing – and sometimes that's just what I need.
•Two literary journals. Usually, there will be a short story or a couple of essays just the perfect length for a late-night quick read, and perhaps the perfect match for my post-nuptials mood.
•Two newspapers. Yesterday's and today's New York Times (minus the sports section, which I am forsworn to leave home for the teenage son). I don't mind day old news and anyway I don't really read the Times for the news, but for the writing – the OpEds, special sections, etc. There will likely be a Boston Globe in my hotel lobby, and I'm sure I'll grab that too.
•Drafts of two essays, neither of which are behaving and both might benefit from a change of scene. This has actually happened in the past.
•Two notebooks. The one for writing down ideas, notes, scribbles, horribly rough first drafts, quotes I hear and like, snippets of conversation I (deliberately) overhear. The other, for poetry and unmailable letters (which often morph into very bad poems and even worse rough essay drafts).
•Six pens. If you write, think about writing, plan to write, or want to write, there's no explanation necessary.
•The outline for my next writing workshop class, badly in need of something to follow, "everyone introduces themselves and talks about their writing goals."
•One computer. The practical reason: At least one clients will be waiting for work while I am away.
And sadly, I can no more imagine leaving the computer behind as I can imagine NOT leaving notes behind for my husband and kids on the refrigerator, counter, breadbox and bathroom mirror.
•One camera. I have been thinking about photographing things I want to remember when I am writing about a particular moment. So I tell myself that is my writerly reason. But the truth is, people are depending on me to snap the betrothed. (I am very bad at this, and so will be handing the camera off to a willing bystander.)
•A legal pad, sticky notes, a pre-stamped envelope. Hey, you never know.
•Something, anything, to wear.

If any of this sounds familiar, then maybe this will too: Someone who knows you very well and is standing nearby, observing the scene, snickering, shaking head side to side, and asking, "Are you really bringing all that stuff for just two days?"

And you know what? He hasn't even seen the tote I already stashed in the car. The one with the two books on CD, extra notebook and pencils (pens quit in freezing cars), and the three articles ripped from the magazines I reluctantly tossed in the recycling today…..

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Winner of the Feed Me! Book Giveaway

And...we have a winner. Thanks to everyone who entered to win a copy of Feed Me! Writers Dish About Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image. My son picked a lucky number, and it corresponded to commenter number seven, Susan Breen. Enjoy the book, Susan.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Guest Blogger Susan Ito on AWP Day Two: Tapas, Tears and a Literary Heroine

Susan Ito, who wrote yesterday about her first day at the AWP Writers Conference in Chicago, is back to bring us up to date on her activities.

Please welcome Susan Ito.

AWP Chicago: Day Two

I think it is going to be tough to beat this day of AWP. It was a standout wonderful day. I started at the great fitness center in my little hotel. I am feeling more and more glad about not staying at the Hilton. Then breakfast with my dear friend Masha Hamilton. The tapas restaurant turns out to make awesome omelets. It was good to have a leisurely morning. I skipped the first two morning sessions, but it was important to pace myself because I had a long afternoon and evening ahead.

At noon I attended Masha's panel, Writing Your Passions: Forbidden Topics. It included authors writing across racial lines, about sexuality and adultery, about writing as a scientist when one is not a scientist, and about the Other, in her case, getting into the mind and heart of a killer. I saw people wiping tears. Several parts of the panel were totally brilliant and all were provocative.

Next I went to Approaches to Historical Fiction. It was structured in a good way: instead of having the four panelists speak one at a time, as usually happens, each panelist first read a brief excerpt from their novels. REALLY brief but well chosen and interesting to hear. Then the moderator asked questions about research, and each answered, ABCD, briefly. Then they moved through other topics, marketing, other details, and the discussion was so dynamic it was impossible to get bored. One tidbit that stood out for me was somebody's notion that a character who is set in the 1940's will have memories of the 1920's, of their youth and growing up, so we must not only research the time they are living in, but the time that they remember. (I groaned inwardly at this.) "Characters ruminate, remember… we are caught in our pasts." Good point, but more work.

After that I hurried up to a reading by my literary heroine, Marilynne Robinson. I had not realized she was going to be here until I arrived this week and I was so excited. Let me explain: her novel Gilead is my favorite book EVER. My husband and I have one tattered copy that we have each read about four times. We pass it back and forth. It has moved us to tears over and over. It's one of those rare books whose sentences are new, and startling, and very moving, every single time. So I was thrilled to hear she was going to read from Gilead. I had heard her speak in San Francisco this year, but it was a conversation/interview, not a reading.

She skipped throughout the book, mainly focusing on passages that evoked a sense of the Midwest (the book is set in Iowa). I started tearing up a bit. Then I realized she was reading from the last two pages of the book, which never fail to break me up. I can't even describe how beautiful it was, the cadence of her voice, how it softened every few seconds, it was the perfect vehicle for those sentences. I had excitedly bought an audio version of the book a few years ago, and it was read by an actor, supposedly to evoke the elderly male narrator. It was SO WRONG. My husband and I listened for about three minutes and had to return it, it felt so not authentic, so NOT what we envisioned when reading.

But Marilynne Robinson's voice was It. I was reduced to a blubbering heap on the floor. I was madly texting my husband about this experience while gathering myself up and walking out the door. My face was completely wet. I looked to my right and who was standing right next to me, but Robinson herself. She kind of looked at me in that "Are you all right?" concern, and I just blurted out how Gilead was my favorite book of all time, how it had moved me so much, and to hear her read it had been just… incredible. She was so gracious and kind. We were the only two people standing there. She thanked me and then we both walked away.

It was hands down one of the best reading experiences I have ever had, and I have been to hundreds of readings. I don't think it can get better than that, and it made this AWP unforgettable and amazing.

I sat around and recovered for the next hour. Then it was time to hop in a cab with nine other Literary Mama writers/columnists/editors for our reading at Women & Children First bookstore (totally awesome bookstore! I wish they would move to California!). We first ate dinner at a fantastic "Japanese country" restaurant, with no atmosphere – just a hole in the wall – but the best food and incredible service. I felt like I was being served by my grandmother.

The reading was wonderful – so moving and exciting to finally meet Literary Mamas I've known for years, but only online. People came from California, Michigan, Alaska, Chicago, Oregon, and South Carolina. It was quite heady and emotional to all be in one room, to hear each others' voices. I was floating. One of my dear friends who moved away years ago was there, and we got to catch up after the reading.

It was a good day. It was the BEST day, and I seriously don't know how it can be topped. And I STILL haven't made it to the Book Fair. Tomorrow, I hope…!

Note from Lisa: Jealous, jealous, jealous. And happy for Susan.

Seasonal Essays. Short. Occasionally Sweet.

I like writing seasonal personal essays, particularly the shorter, lighter fare. When in the midst of struggling with other much more long-term, long-form writing projects, these short fun bursts are a great way to break up the relentlessness of writing, writing, writing...and never seeing an end in sight (and wondering if when the end does come, the beginning and middle will even matter).

My take on Valentine's Day is here. Mix one part thoughtful, romantic gesture, one part superstitious flashback, and one part neurotic fixation. Throw in a little fortune telling. Don't let this happen to you.

Hope you have reason -- any reason -- to celebrate a loving relationship in your life.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Reminder: Food and Book Lovers

Reminder: Tomorrow, Saturday Feb. 14, is the last day to snag a chance to win a copy of Feed Me! Writers Dish About Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image.

Think of it as my Valentine's Day gift to everyone who loves food, for better or worse.

I'll announce the winner here on Sunday.

Guest Blogger Susan Ito on Exhaustion, AWP, and Why it Might Help to be a 20-something MFA Student

At the 2008 AWP Conference in New York last year, one of my favorite presentations was by a group of women nonfiction writers who discussed writing about family matters. One of the panel members was Susan Ito, who I had already come to admire for her work on Literary Mama, where she chronicles Life in the Sandwich, caring for both children and elderly parents. She is also the co-editor of A Ghost at Heart's Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption, and her work appears in anthologies and literary journals. Recently, Susan and I crossed online paths, found we have a few friends and interests in common, both writing-wise and beyond. I asked her to provide some on-the-scene morsels from the AWP Conference in Chicago this week.

Please welcome Susan Ito.

AWP Chicago: Day One

Yesterday and this morning involved so many travel snafus that I will not bore you with the details, but I have never had SO many things go wrong, travel-wise, in such a short brief period. They included, but were not limited to: delayed flight, cancelled flight, emotional meltdown in a certain airport, hunger, having one's luggage lost and missing pajamas at bedtime, having one's hotel reservation cancelled under one's nose and having to find a new hotel.

All that happened. And more. But now I am comfortably ensconced in the (in my opinion) nicer hotel across the street, and I have a comfy king bed on which to collapse, and all is more or less resolved on that end.

But I missed the first session because of having to tend to the pesky details above. I went down to Registration around 8:30 this morning, and about six thousand other people decided to do the same thing at the same time, so the line literally snaked around and around the floor about six times. It was worse than Disneyland during Spring Break week. Needless to say, I missed the 9 am session.

But it did give me time to peruse the entire AWP catalog and to meticulously fill out my Personal Planner for the conference. The AWP catalog, if you have never held one, weighs as much as a gold brick and contains 340 pages of literary goodness. It can inspire awe, excitement, overwhelm and exhaustion. My heart did go pitter-pat as I opened the pages and read excitedly through the offerings. Then my eyeballs began to melt and my vision blurred and by the time I reached Saturday I was officially numb.

The personal planner is a lovely tool for nerds. It's a grid with seven blank spots for each day, and as you go through the calendar you fill in your choices. There are sessions scheduled basically from 9am to 10pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with only a short break from 6-8pm. There's no lunch break, or pee breaks. You have to write those in for yourselves.

I think I remember from past AWP conferences that it's a good idea to go to no more than three sessions a day, but do I learn? Not very quickly. I wrote seven sessions into my planner, but hunger and fatigue only allowed me to attend three. Which was just fine.

All of the sessions I went to today were excellent in their own ways. They all inspired me and stoked me up and made me think about my writing in ways I haven't in a while.

My first session was "Writing as Parents: Our Children as Subjects." This featured Literary Mama writers Shari McDonald Strong and Sonya Huber, as well as the wonderful Kate Hopper, Jennifer Niesslein of Brain, Child, and Jill Christman. They pondered the ethical, moral and literary issues to consider when writing about one's own children. They all spoke with great candor and humor, but I wished they had at least one panelist whose child was older than ten. I do think (and in my own experience) these things change a lot when you have teenagers and young adults.

After that I went to a session of "Memory of Wounds: Memoirists Tell Truth, Lies, and Memory." The room was packed, overflowing. I couldn't even get in. It was a little painful to think that there were so many wounded memoirists around (including me, I guess?). I sat on the floor in the hallway outside and every once in a while caught a word that floated out. Usually words like, "truth," "story," "healing." I really wanted to get into this because my dear friend Joy Castro was speaking. Thankfully, I was able to squeeze myself into a little patch of carpet in the floor right as she began. She is so calm, poetic, brilliant and kind. The last part of her talk really put a lump in my throat, when she said, it's not enough to write about the pain and the loss, the damage, the horror, but that every life includes moments of joy, seeing the blue sky, and it is important to reflect life in its wholeness. I didn't do justice to her actual words but her delivery of it was so evocative and beautiful.

I was going to go to a Loft Literary Center reading with Charles Baxter, whom I have always admired, and Sun-Yung Shin, whom I really wanted to meet (she's one of the editors of the awesome anthology Outsiders Within), but I was starving and tired so I went to lunch with Joy and Rebecca Kaminsky, whom I've know for years through Literary Mama but with whom I've never had more than a five minute conversation. We're always seeing each other at busy literary events and never one on one.

Then I went to ANOTHER memoir session, "Aftershock: What Happens When You Throw Off the Veil of Fiction in Rendering Long-Hidden Truths? Strategies, Advice, and Practical Tips from Four Writers of Memoir" (whew, how's THAT for a subtitle?). Only it turns out there were only three writers. They had pretty good things to say about the real consequences (familial, legal, emotional) of writing about people, and how you really can never predict who you will piss off and why. But it only strengthened my resolve to write my story.

After that, I was fried. I really wanted to go to another session, but I couldn't do it. I had to gather up my luggage and drag it across the street. I was overjoyed to find free Wi-Fi in the new hotel, which in my opinion is far superior to the Hilton.

Tonight there is a big event with Art Spiegelman. It is allegedly about six blocks away. I have not had dinner yet, am waiting for my roommate to arrive from the airport, and I just don't know. I think I might settle for the tapas restaurant downstairs.

The thing about AWP is that there are always wayyyy more things to go to than one has reasonable energy for. Unless one is a twenty-something MFA student, which I am not.

More tomorrow.

Note from Lisa: Thanks to Susan, I remember the exhaustion of AWP, as well as the high spots.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Writers Conference & The National Horse Show. Yes, I Do Have a Point.

When I was 21, I wrote an essay for a prominent weekly equestrian publication, lamenting that it would be the first time since I was a young child that I would not be attending the National Horse Show in New York City.

The piece was dripping with sentimentality, touching on everything which made that venerated, almost holy (and now diluted) equine gathering the tradition-laden soap institution it was: the gravitas in the announcer's voice, the celebrities and silver trophies, the horse vans unloading on 33rd Street, Olympic riders in the flesh!

I had all kinds of sound, logical reasons not to be there that particular year, and had sent off the piece – in the way things were done in those olden days – typed and folded and inside an envelope, as requested, on deadline, five weeks in advance of its anticipated publication.

Then, in the last two weeks when it was possible, my horse unexpectedly racked up enough points to qualify, and not only would I be at the National, I'd be there as the proud owner of a competing horse (alas, a professional rider would be aboard instead of me, but still). As I wandered around the National that week, I had a bit of explaining to do, since although I had phoned the magazine, it was not possible to make changes, and the editor of The Chronicle of the Horse had run my piece* on the first page of that week's special National issue. Oops.

I thought of this today because last week I wrote, with a bit of a whine, about not attending the AWP conference in Chicago this year. Wouldn't it be great if it turned out that I wound up in Chicago after all? Just like the National Horse Show 20-odd years ago?

Yes, it would be great. And false. Alas, I'm home and today, in a weak moment, I scrolled through the AWP conference schedule (hey, these are the things one does when socked with just the right combination of symptoms: cold / sore throat / laryngitis / coughing / sneezing / headache / body aches / clogged sinuses / sweats / chills / (huh, no fever) / earache).

Lots of presentations, seminars and panels sounded enticing, like these.

~The Meandering River: An Exploration of the Subgenres of Nonfiction. Because if there's one thing I love hearing at a conference, it's new fish in the nonfiction bucket.

~A Room of Her Own Foundation: Show Me the Money. Obvious.

~What's in the Magazines: A Conversation about the Work Being Published in Literary Journals. Because usually when I think I have it figured out, I realize I know nothing.

~"Memory of Wounds": Memoirists Tell Truth, Lies, and Memory. The question is, I suppose, which are which and how does the writer tell the difference?

~Must a Memoir Read Like a Novel? I want to know the answer to this and I suspect that up until recently it was a yes. Now, I get a feeling it's changing, which is good for me, because my memoir-in-progress is essayistic, segmented and elliptical.

~Different Directions: Compiling Different Genre Anthologies for Different Markets. Because I love, love, love anthologies.

~Shameless Promotion: Get the Book to the Readers. I had 12 years in public relations. Now I'm coaching authors to do their own publicity. Still, I'm always learning.

~A Different Conversation; Teaching Creative Writing One-on-One. Because I get asked to do this, and I like the interaction, and want to know more about it.

~XX Marks the Spot: Women and Travel Writing. Because when I was lucky enough to be traveling a lot, I wasn't writing much about it. Now, if only I traveled, I'd sure want to write about it.

~Women of a Certain Age: Reprise. Not saying I'm there yet. Doesn't hurt to think ahead. Besides, much of what I love to read in nonfiction falls into this group of writers.

~Writing in Multiple Genres. I don't do much of this. Yet.

~The Voice Over: Creative Nonfiction on the Radio. Who doesn't want to have an essay on NPR?

~The Mama Drama: The Challenge of Writing About Mothers in Creative Nonfiction. Because I wonder why I write so fluidly about my father and so haltingly about my mother. (Besides that my father's dead and can't give me the cold shoulder at holidays.)

~Smart Girls: The Ambition Game. Because it's always a tangle -- writing and kids and earning money and marriage and wanting more.

~Metaphor, Selective Memory, & Misdirection: Poetry as Autobiography by Other Means. Because one day, I want to write a memoir in poetry. Hey, you never know.

~Avoiding Sick Mothers, Absent Fathers, and Losing Your Virginity: The Tropes and Traps of Nonfiction. Okay, I've never written about any of these, but I have written about sick fathers, (metaphorically) absent mothers, and losing my romantic innocence. Same thing, no?

~Literary Mama: A Model of Grassroots Literary Community Building. I heart Literary Mama. And everyone on this panel.

~How to Make Money Writing Right Now. Do I need to explain?

~Signing Your Life Away: Protecting Your Rights in the Age of Electronic Publishing. Does this automatically negate the above?

~Getting the Creative Writing Job: How We Did It and How You Can Too. I'm told it's impossible, without a traditionally published book on the CV. But you never know.

~Writing Your Passions: Forbidden Topics. Ooh. Why not?

Soon, if my erstwhile AWP-attending friends whom I've recruited to do some guest blog posts (you know who you are!) are not too tired or wifi-deprived and don't partake of too much wine at the evening receptions, then I'll perhaps vicariously get a sense of being there. And you can too. Stay tuned.

As it turned out, I attended the National Horse Show every year from around seven years old, until the National left the NYC area in the late 1990s – even when I lived in California, even when the National decamped Madison Square Garden for the NJ Meadowlands, even when I had to call in sick to work, and even when I had nursing babies. Over the years, I went from attending as a horse-crazed little girl, to a competent amateur rider, to friend of the competitors, to owner of a winning horse, to journalist covering the events, to public relations consultant for the 100th National, and eventually to a mother sharing her left-behind passions with her young sons.

I'd like to be at AWP this week. I guess I'm still at the fan / friend stage, though I'm working on admission to the competent peer group, and who knows, maybe one day I might get the chance to move into another category (I'm working on a 2010 panel proposal now).

But hey, on the other hand, I escaped the flight delays and the Chicago weather. Did I mention that here in northern New Jersey, we had 50 mph winds today?

*P.S. The Chronicle's online archives don't go back that far. Which is probably a good thing. I shudder thinking how I'd react today reading something I wrote way back then.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Writing, Voice, and Laryngitis

It's not complete laryngitis, but close. I have no voice. While some folks in my house are finding this to be a terrific turn of events, it only makes me aware that not only am I voiceless in an aural sense today, I've been struggling a little with voice in a few of the pieces I've been writing, too.

I find that while point-of-view and tone and language and many other craft matters can be adjusted and reworked during revision, if a strong, specific, sure voice is not there in the first draft, then no revision is going to rescue the piece. When I can't detect the voice, or I don't like the one that seems to be emerging, or the voice is there but it doesn't quite fit, I usually toss out the first draft (or two or seven) and try again – usually with a sizeable dose of frustration, self-criticism, and annoyance.

A few years back, I heard a very accomplished writer (and I’m sorry I can't remember who), say that once she gets the voice, she's got the piece. I agree completely. I also believe voice is one of the most difficult concepts to learn in any formal way, but on the other hand, one of the most natural components of writing to understand somewhere in a writer's gut.

In nonfiction, the key question I think, when a piece is still in revision stages, is to ask a critically helpful reader, who is this narrator? If the answer comes back something like, she's upset, or she's funny, or she's happy – or some equally vague and general comment – then the voice is not there or not there yet, it's not clear, not specific, not singular. The narrator might as well have laryngitis.

I read a novel this weekend in which the first-person voice was so strong and so honed, I would not have been startled if the 17th century narrator walked right into my living room and started asking about the lamps and laptop. The book was
Year of Wonders: a Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks, and while I sometimes feel that novelists have a big advantage over nonfiction writers in creating a voice for their narrators, I keep reading fiction to see how they do it.

Sure, Brooks could craft a completely fictional voice for her Anna Frith -- but not out of whole cloth; the depth and meticulousness of research is clear in every line. And when the voice I’m trying to create in a piece of memoir or essay nonfiction is one for a narrator also known as me (okay, the me I was a month, year, decade ago) – well, there are few excuses not to also mine every piece of "research" too, from my old journals to photos to conversations with relatives and friends, which put be back in mind of who that narrator was at a certain point in time.

Voiceless is death for a piece of writing; and when I encounter a voiceless book or essay, I feel antsy, eager for it to end, hoping often in vain that it will improve. Interestingly, a strong sense of voice does not always necessarily carry a piece of work with the critics; Year of Wonders got
mixed reviews, some finding it overly melodramatic and rife with expected sentimental and pastoral references. None I noted however, quibbled with the clarity of Brooks' narrator.

When I find a voice on the page which I love – whether in a novel, a memoir, on the pages of a newspaper or magazine, on a web page or blog – I tend to want to follow that voice, or rather that writer, wherever it leads. That accounts for the way I buy books and consume media, often one writer at a time. If a voice speaks to me, I want to read everything that voice has to say, even if the voice changes from one novel to the next, from the memoir written 10 years ago to the magazine essay published last month.

Today, I plan to not use my voice much, at least not the one which requires vocal chords. The other voice – I hope to use it a lot. Right after I get back from the book store, where I plan to pick up...maybe something else by Geraldine Brooks – one of her nonfiction books this time.

In any case, a book store is a good place to be when one needs to find a voice.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Writer Q & A: Tables Turned

I like doing question-and-answer interviews here on this blog and as a freelance assignment when I'm asked to interview an interesting person. The other day, the tables were turned.

I was interviewed yesterday over at Freelancedom.

Steph Auteri's questions had me remembering (mostly happily, if a bit nostalgically) some of the earlier, more unusual, stages of my career. They also made me think about what's going on now and where I might go in the future -- all signs of a good interviewer. Even if I did get a little squirmy when I had to answer.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out

An extra-overstuffed fridge full of links and love this week. Hope you find something of interest.

► Those of you who write about the experience of parenting (this includes father-types, too), and would like a byline in the smart, literate magazine
Brain, Child, will be interested in this podcast interview with the editors.

► It's not every day you get to congratulate an old grade school friend on an Oscar nomination, but I get to do it today: Kudos to Ellen Kuras for her Oscar nod for best documentary feature.

► I don't know about the whole join up pitch at the end, but I kind of like the stop-whining-and-work-harder tone and grit of the
No Recession For Me guy.

► Speaking of the economic collapse, I've been checking in at
Recessionwire, and especially liking Love in the Time of Layoffs, which doesn't surprise me because I admire just about everything Deborah Siegel writes over at Girl With Pen.

► I'm not big on New Year's Resolutions, and good thing, because by now, I would have broken them all. But I like what this guy says about
picking three words to act as motivators throughout the year. Nope, don't have it narrowed down to three yet. Working. On. It.

► Boy, was I sad to see Publisher's Weekly editor-in-chief Sara Nelson
shown the door last week in a sweeping reorganization. She's been gracious in her comments ever since (no surprise), but it's still disturbing to see her bewildered hurt and to be reminded of her clear and unabashed devotion to books and writers, in this piece.

► I'm not going to the
AWP Conference in Chicago next week, so why why why did I click over and study the crammed schedule, filled with dozens of seminars and presentations? If it was a half-baked attempt to assure myself that I wouldn't be missing much, well, like all of my baking efforts, it failed miserably.Then I started getting the emails and postcards and Tweets and Facebook alerts about the evening get-togethers, from fellow MFA alumni, far-off writers friends, and journals I adore. Very hard not to start searching flights. Not so hard when I look at the checkbook. Meanwhile, I've recruited a few intrepid writer pals who are Windy City-bound to provide a guest post or two.

► Whoa! How did I never stumble over this – an incisive
blog about the inner workings at the New York Times.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stuck? Rx: Read a Novel. Feel Worse, then Slightly Better.

When I am stuck – in life, in a waiting room, and of course when I am stuck in my writing – I read. Of course I'm always reading, but when I'm stuck as a writer, I read with a different sort of attention. Sometimes, no almost always, reading helps. I learn something about the world, about myself, about writing. Occasionally however, instead of getting me unstuck, reading makes me wonder about this whole writing thing, as in how can I ever hope to get there, from here.

The other day, I decided to read a novel that's been on my shelf for a while,
The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. Oh, reading the book was fine, excellent in fact. An interestingly complex main character with a voice that just did not quit, not even for a paragraph. A secondary character vulnerable enough to make me want to take home and mother, but smart enough to admire. A bunch of interwoven narratives seamlessly braided, but not until Krauss had set such an intriguing puzzle that I was up way past even my usual really late bedtime.

So, this book? As a reader, a huge hit. As a writer, a huge hit to the confidence. It's writing and craft techniques and talent and risks like Krauss's which makes me, even on a good day, doubt my own (meager) literary competence and nearly decide that anything I might produce would only be anemic in the extreme.

After I closed the cover, I thought to myself now you've really done it, now you'll be more stuck than ever, and depressed besides. And I was, for a while. Eventually (that is, after a nice nap), I picked up a pen. Some days, that's all you can ask.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Write Me a Roller-Coaster

If my 2009 New Year's resolutions had been to spend the month of January being frustrated, being disappointed, being grateful for the power of my extended network of writing friends (in person and online), and being left to wonder (often simultaneously) if "this writing thing" was the best or the worst part of my life – well, then I would have to get a gold star for keeping those resolutions.

I'm still exhausted and reeling from a confluence of experiences, events and situations, writing-wise, that made up my month; not to mention the mental gymnastics required to keep myself on something resembling an even keel. Though I’m not trying to be coy or overly dramatic, it still feels too soon to write about any of the situations specifically, except perhaps to say that:

• Sometimes what I want (to do, to accomplish, to experience) turns out to not be what I need, at the time, either as a writer or as a person.
• Sometimes my personal family life reminds me, emphatically, that the writing has to take (a way distant) second place, and that sometimes, this is a good thing.
• Sometimes, many jobs, even the ones which I seem perfect for, will go to others, even to others who seem singularly unsuited.
• Sometimes, someone (or some organization/publication/group) who previously had offered a career boost, instead closes a door.
• Sometimes, a quiet supporter of my work comes forward to make an unexpected, bold gesture which humbles me, and opens a window.

…Accepted essays fall victim to folded publications.
…A new column never bows because of a shuttered website.
…Clients change their minds, their budgets, their email addresses.
…Agents lose interest.
…A long-awaited residency at an artists' colony is interrupted by…life.

And yet….

- New writer friends appear and buoy me.
- A reading is well-attended.
- Downtime makes it possible to draft a business plan for a former idea, to polish a big chunk of a new proposal.
- Taking stock, slowing down, and taking a look around, once dismissed as luxuries, suddenly feel essential and important, and too-long overlooked.
- Writer friends graciously contribute killer guest posts, just because I ask.
- My family, and especially my husband, remind me that my presence is valuable, not (just) my words.

Always, and still, I come back to writing. And I remember, that there are twelve months in a year.