Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Directions: Think, Write, Speak. Do not skip ahead.

Once, when asked why I write, I replied that as the youngest child in a loud, opinionated, Italian-American family, it was the only way for me to get anyone's attention. But what I think I really meant is that off the page I don't always trust what might come out of my mouth – that is, unless I have had sufficient time to plan out what I'm going to say in advance.

So, ask me to make a presentation, teach a class, lead a seminar, introduce someone, give a speech, and I'm good. Because first, I can write it all out. And rewrite it. And revise. And edit. But ask me to sit next to your hyper-intelligent cousin who can hold the attention of a full dinner table, and I go practically silent. Or worse, stammer, sputter and say stupid things.

Which is why I was so relieved to read, in the New York Times Book Review the other day, an essay by Arthur Krystal, "When Writers Speak." Mind you, Krystal's premise that many writers are not good at conversation is based on people like Balzac and Nabokov and others of such literary prowess and renown that the public was often surprised to learn they were not wonderful speakers – and not little ole me. Still, I feel better now.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 11. Meredith Hall on What's Missing

Not counting my own writing, I filled eight notebooks over two years while completing an MFA program. They are crammed with great writing tips and insights gleaned from faculty seminars, workshops, graduating student presentations, and visiting writer talks. Feeling nostalgic, I've been wandering through them at random, and posting parts here.

What is not on the page weighs as much, counts as much, matters as, as what is on the page. What you don't include is so important. You can see this very clearly in a segmented (also called a montage or collage) essay, where white space divides and acts as a buffer, and allows you to move between narrative, reflection, and scenes, in the same way as looking through a photo album. There is time to pause and consider before moving on. It seems to me a very organic form for the writer and a very intuitive form for the reader. The key is: no transitions. You can move between times and places, from memory to present, from image to introspection to metaphor. -- Meredith Hall, author of Without A Map, and Memoirist-in-Residence at University of New Hampshire

The first ten posts in the MFA Notebooks series are here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Interview with Grace Bauer, Guest Editor of Prairie Schooner's new Baby Boomer Issue

Literary journals often dedicate single issues to major themes – grief, transformation, technology's effect on humanity, birth, hunger, so many others. Prairie Schooner is a terrific read no matter what, but their Fall 2009 Baby Boomer issue especially captured my attention. I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek and to ask guest editor Grace Bauer some questions. [Note: a Prairie Schooner subscription give-away is underway – see note at end of post.]

Lisa Romeo. How did you prepare for the role of guest editor?

Grace Bauer. I was very excited and also somewhat nervous about taking on the task of editing this special issue of Prairie Schooner. I had served as Acting Editor seven years ago when Hilda Raz (the Editor-in-Chief) had a semester’s leave, but then I just put finishing touches on an issue that was pretty much together. This time I was, by choice, taking on much more control – and responsibility. Many years ago, I worked on a short-lived little magazine called Pontchartrain Review in New Orleans, and have also co-edited an anthology, so I wasn’t completely lacking in experience. I’ve been reading literary journals for a long time -- but still, being at the helm of The Schooner was a little daunting.

The first (and probably smartest) thing I did was to sit in with Hilda as she put together an earlier issue. Hilda and I have worked together on our own books -- she was instrumental in helping edit my last collection, Retreats & Recognitions -- so I had some idea of how her editorial mind worked, but the journal seemed like a different kind of creature, and I wanted to see how she tamed it.

Over the course of an entire afternoon, I observed how she made (and often re-adjusted) her choices for ordering the poems, stories, essays, and reviews with an eye toward achieving some balance while making connections and creating interesting segues from one piece to the next. I asked a lot of questions. I had confidence in my ability to recognize good work when I saw it, but I am notoriously “technically challenged” and had a lot to learn about some of the “nuts and bolts” aspects regarding the journal’s formatting template, etc. I knew I had a capable managing editor, James Engelhardt, to rely on for much of that (and I did so). I asked more questions.

And then, not having much choice, I just got into it!

LR. Writers who submit to journals would love to know more about how the editorial mix comes together, particularly for a themed issue. Can you talk about the kinds of decisions you made, where you agonized, etc.? Did you get any inappropriate material?? Did you solicit specific writers, and if so, did you then have to turn down any piece that came about from those requests?

GB. As I discuss a bit in my Introductory essay, the work in The Boomer issue came to me in three basic ways: 1) solicitation 2) the back files of already accepted work at the journal, which I combed through, looking for anything that might fit the boomer theme, and 3) announcements we handed out at the AWP Conference.

Part of my challenge was time. I was technically only serving as guest editor for one semester – and doing it while teaching and keeping up with other obligations. I got a bit of a head start towards the end of the Fall 2008 semester (soliciting the essay from Dorothy Barresi early on, because I knew it would take her some time to write it) but for the most part, I started working on the issue in January, and had to have it to the printers by April. This did not allow for a “general call” or to advertise a special issue.

I solicited from people I knew, and from total strangers whose work I knew – mostly by email. Many responded enthusiastically and promptly sent work my way; some said they’d send me work, but never did. Some responded that they had no available work that seemed relevant; some never responded at all – whether because they were too busy or uninterested or never got the email, I don’t know. Some people told their friends, who also sent work, or recommended people for me to contact, which I usually did. The Schooner staff at the AWP Bookfair handed out flyers, and I found myself walking up to people and saying “hi, were you by any chance born between 1946 and 1964? And have you written about it?” -- which resulted in a flurry of post-conference submissions.

I was, from the get-go, more anxious about the prose than the poetry. I knew that, because of length, I would have to choose fewer pieces, so I was prepared to agonize over that, but both Marianne Boruch’s hitch-hiking piece (an excerpt from a longer memoir) and Marly Swick’s story seemed so perfect for the issue, it was easy to say yes to those – (I did work with both authors on cutting for length) though I then had to say no to other long stories and essays. I was happy to be able to include a few “short short/sudden” fiction pieces – because I’ve always been intrigued by that genre, and it seems to have flourished among boomer aged writers.

With poetry, I had lots to choose from, and once certain choices were made, they influenced other choices. While I expected – and wanted – some recurring themes and motifs, I also wanted variety -- in subject matter, style, tone, perspective, diversity of writers, etc. I wanted some “big name” writers, but was open to including anyone whose work spoke to me. I went out of my way to solicit from formalists as well as experimental writers, and everything in between. I didn’t get much that I would call “inappropriate,” since I was thinking “boomer” in the largest possible sense.

I didn’t want an entire issue full of work that looked back on “the good (or bad) old days” -- though I counted on getting some of that (and did). As things were coming together, I tried to follow Hilda’s lead in terms of making connections and interesting segues, which meant I sometimes turned down work I thought was very good – and relevant to the issue – but maybe too much like something I’d already accepted. Or, conversely, I might accept something because I thought it would work well with/speak to -- or against -- another piece I’d already taken.

It’s little comfort, I know, but I think that’s something all of us need to keep in mind as writers – getting rejected doesn’t necessarily mean the rejected work isn’t good or that the editor didn’t like it. So many other factors might influence a decision – especially, I think, when it comes to theme issues. In the end, I had to reject work I liked quite a bit – including work I had solicited from people (I tried to be clear when I did so that I wasn’t making any promises). A journal is finite, and I simply ran out of pages.

LR. The issue wrestles with the notion of nostalgia. Some pieces look backward, but they resist sentimentality. Even your intro celebrates the boomer generation's achievements but also points out its excesses. When writing a piece that looks back over a life or an event, what strategies can help avoid over the top sentimentality?

GB. Wallace Stevens famously said that a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully. Note the modifier. Also the one in your question: over the top sentimentality.

Because there is a good bit of work in this issue that “looks back,” there is a certain amount of nostalgia, and some of that may risk sentimentality, but hopefully resists it almost successfully. I think any adult who can look back at the life they’ve lived and not feel the occasional pang of nostalgia for things that are gone – youth, love, time, people, places, brain cells or whatever – has not faced up to their own mortality.

Over the top sentimentality can certainly make for bad writing because it’s too easy. It may mean the writer hasn’t looked closely enough, felt or thought deeply enough, or – even more likely – struggled enough with the language to really get it right. On the other hand, I sometimes read work that seems so determined to not be sentimental that it’s devoid of any human emotion, or even consciousness. While over the top sentimentality may make me cringe, its polar (as in frigid) opposite doesn’t speak to me either.

As for strategies for staying on the right side of that fine line – attention, vigilance, a bullshit detector in good working order?

Note from Lisa: Prairie Schooner editors would like to give away a one-year (four issue) subscription to their excellent journal. Simply leave a comment on this post before midnight on October 17. If you like, share a boomer memory, an experience submitting to or editing a literary journal, or a response to something discussed here. Please include a way for us to contact you.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for writers, readers, geniuses, and people like that

►Advice, tips, and seminar round-ups from the Writer's Digest's conference, The Business of Getting Published, held last weekend in New York City, are gathered here.

►Contemplating a city without free public libraries is terrible enough. And somehow, that city being Philadelphia, historic home to many publishing initiatives, it was even worse to consider. Massive budget shortfalls in the Pennsylvania state budget meant this was slated to occur on October 2, but fortunately letters, pressure, and special legislation eventually prevailed.

►In case you're not caught up with the week's news, the MacArthur Foundation announced its 2009 list of Genius Grant recipients – individuals from various disciplines each receive half a million bucks, no strings attached, just to continue being creative in their respective fields. Literary names include Edwidge Danticat, Deborah Eisenberg, and Heather McHugh.

►I'm happy to know that The New Yorker is going to be exempt from the mandate apparently issued this week to all other Conde Nast magazines to cut expenses by 25 %. I'm a fan of TNY, and want to see it thrive. And I understand that most literary endeavors need funding not tied to profits to survive. Still, I keep hoping someone – and the folks at CN seem massively qualified – will one day work out a way to both support literature in a mass-market publication and be fiscally successful, too. Meanwhile, Go Remnick!

►Speaking of magazines, Web Designers Depot compiled some of the most controversial magazine covers of all time. Agree with the choices? [update: broken link here has been fixed.]

►Attention MFA students, alumni and faculty: What do you think MFA students should expect (demand?) from a program? Erika Dreifus is collecting opinions about this over at her Practicing Writing blog.

Shelf Awareness bills itself as "daily enlightenment for the book trade." I'd say it's an interesting destination for anyone interested in books, period. My favorite feature is the daily run down on which authors are slated for TV appearances that day.

►At The Rumpus, in a review of Jill McCorkle's new short story collection, Going Away Shoes, Skip Horack notes: "Writers who are able to make us laugh out loud are often viewed with unjust suspicion, as some readers seem to fear that humor is somehow “unliterary,” that what makes us laugh cannot also be profound. That’s nonsense, of course, and the dark humor contained in these stories testifies to what Shakespeare knew well: that humor has the power to expose as much about our struggles and our pains as it does about our triumphs and our joys."

►I'm a sucker for anything British. Don't know why and no longer care. I just go with it. So I'm enjoying a new blog find for all the reasons any procrastinating activity ought to make one both giddy and guilty. It's written by a British author of young adult novels, and she's long winded, funny, honest, a bit crude, no-nonsense but also whimsical, and loaded with Britishisms some of which I still can't puzzle out. She calls herself "crabbit". Just read her and you'll get that one. Start with the recent post, Why Do I Write At All?"

Have a great weekend. Laugh.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Will write for money. And apparently, other stuff too.

It's been quiet on the blog this week partly because I'm doing class prep (Rutgers continuing ed memoir/creative nonfiction starts in a few days).

But it's also because, when I was talking to someone last weekend about being a writer, and I mentioned this blog, and also an essay published in a literary journal, here's what I heard: "And how much does that pay?"

Let's put aside for the moment the lack of civility and presumptuousness in such a comment: as if anyone (except perhaps my husband) has a right to those details.

Mind you, invariably this kind of remark is made by someone with a far greater and much more secure income than mine, someone with childcare and an established career who hasn't taken 3 personal or sick days in two years, someone who hasn't ever worked in any kind of freelance capacity, someone who hasn't the slightest interest in any kind of artistic expression, someone, in other words, like the person who said it to me last weekend while we were having what I thought was a pleasant comrade-in-arms conversation about how the recession is affecting our ability to not wince and heave each month when making out the checks for – well, everything.

When this sort of thing happens, I spend a week or so having a conversation with myself that goes something like this:

Me (only meaner): No time for non-income-producing work this week. Nose to the grindstone.

Me: But I do have paying work. Teaching. Editing. Writing. There are checks coming in every month, you know.

Meaner me: Not enough, missy. Not enough.

Me: Okay, but maybe just a blog post or two.

Meaner me: Nope. No money to be made there. Get more confirmed writing assignments. Find new editing clients. Propose a new course. Ask for more work from current clients. Sign up more students. Say yes to the person who wants to hire you to edit that unpunctuated handwritten-in-pencil, "nonfiction flash fantasy novel in linked humorous poetical essays."

Me: What are you talking about? There's no such person.

Meaner me: Well, you know what I mean. Chop chop.

Me: Okay, but I am going to proofread my 200-page manuscript for that contest…

Meaner me: Forget it. Paying work only, girl. All day, every day.

Me: Right. I'm on it.

And I am on it. For about three and a half days. Then, like an emotional eater who sneaks cookies when everyone is in bed (yep, that's me too, but that's another story), I'm at the computer at midnight writing a blog post. Or reading entries in a contest I've volunteered to judge. None of which "pays." There is, however, a pay off.

And so, I'm back.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Excuses, Excuses. Or, Just Shut Up and Write.

Writers are great at excuses – for missing deadlines, not having enough time to write, missing their muse, why they'd be more productive with a different computer, software, chair, day job, office, life. Yeah, I'm guilty too.

So, sometimes it's instructive (and humbling) to consider those writers who really do have excuses – and don't use them, but instead accomplish something significant.

Like Laura Hillenbrand, who, because of chronic fatigue syndrome and severe vertigo, could only research and write Seabiscuit a few sentences at a time, sometimes in a reclining position with her eyes closed.* Or, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a victim of locked-in syndrome, who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly one letter at a time, by blinking one eye in response to an alphabet chart held up by a therapist.

I was reminded about this today when I read the following in a brief interview:

"LO: Is there anything you’d like to accomplish that you haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?
PS: I’m working on a long poem. … I’d like to write a book on my teaching method, and I’m going to be writing a book about the fact that I’m dyslexic."

Dyslexic? Who is PS? Oh, that's just the Founder of the Writers Studio and 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Schultz.

* Hillenbrand's New Yorker essay about how she was first stricken and coped with her disease for 10+ years, can be found here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Writerly Links for Your Weekend

Here's some of what caught my eye this week.

+ Editor Unleashed's 25 Best Writing Blogs 2009 – five in each of five categories. (I didn't make the final list, but appreciated the nomination and votes!) Bookmark this for days when you need a little inspiration, a little commiseration, a little advice, maybe a little kick in the butt.

+ If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know I'm a big fan of essay collections. So I'm enjoying the short excerpts and other material on the blog for P.S. What I Didn't Say. Unsent Letters to Our Female Friends, edited by Megan McMorris.

+ Some good tips for revising one's own work, via Natalie Whipple's blog.

+ Lots of TV concepts and scripts purchased by networks never make it to the screen. Let's hope this one, a comedy titled "Open Books," and based in part on my favorite editor-turned-agent, does.

+ Nathan Bransford, agent-blogger, compiled this terrific glossary of publishing industry terms.

+ This mix of writing workshops, offered through the Writers Circle in Warwick, RI, looks affordable and has an admirable teacher list.

+ Finally (and funnily) one screenwriter articulates the ultimate response to passing acquaintances who ask him to read and critique their work, gratis. Brace yourself.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks: Part 10

In these posts, I offer golden nuggets I heard from faculty members and visiting writers, which I scribbled into notebooks during my MFA program a few years back.

The following tidbits are from the first day of my first residency, and during that wonderful, tortuous session, I wasn't quite as careful to note who said what.
-The story must begin in the first sentence of the first page. Don't clear your throat. -Ground it in specifics before letting metaphors fly.
-Master the rules. Then forget them.
-The main character has to want something that seems somewhat unattainable.
-What's at stake? Is the character going through something difficult and can the reader root for him/her?
-There must be setbacks.
-The hunger to see things in a humorous way is a universal need for readers, even (or especially) in an otherwise sad story.
-- I believe he or she may have been paraphrasing Robert McKee.

The rest of the MFA Notebooks series can be found here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Guest Blogger Michelle Cameron on fictionalizing her family's Jewish history in her new novel

Here's why I love Twitter. I find an interesting group of writers, jump in on the conversation, and sooner or later, one of the group and I discover, Hey, we live five miles apart! Which is exactly what happened when I "met" Michelle Cameron there last winter. Then we connected in person at a nearby book festival. Michelle's novel, out this month, is The Fruit of Her Hands (Simon & Shuster), and it's getting nice reviews.

Please welcome Michelle Cameron.

I’m a writer of Jewish-themed books. My debut historical novel, The Fruit of Her Hands, is the story of Shira of Ashkenaz, the devout wife of a renowned rabbi who confronts rising anti-Semitism in medieval Europe. My second novel, now with my agent, takes place during the Judean exile in ancient Babylon. And I’m researching a third, set during the Maccabean era (think Chanukah).

So you may be drawing some conclusions about me: That I’m probably religious myself. Or, if I’m not observant in the wig-wearing, don’t-drive-on-the-Sabbath Orthodox kind of way, I’m definitely an active member of a synagogue. You may think that if I came to your house, you would want to ask me if I kept kosher before bringing out the coffee and cake.

But you would be wrong.

Hurriedly – because I don’t want anyone (especially not potential readers!) to get the wrong impression – I'll add that I deeply admire and even envy people who have strong religious convictions. Having studied their personalities in the guise of my protagonists, I understand the spiritual well from which they draw strength and meaning. But my own relationship with my religion and that unknowable conception called God is considerably less defined than that of my characters.

So, why write “Jewish-themed” books? Why not just historical novels?

One answer is that, whether I am devoutly Jewish or not, it is my heritage. I am descended from a long line of rabbis, all the way back to the 1200s. Over the generations, my family experienced discrimination and suspicion from their Gentile neighbors, and sought to escape it by taking part in the great Jewish migration from France and Germany to Russia and Poland. Many fled pogroms, immigrating to America. Others helped drain the swamps and build the first kibbutzim in early 19th Century Palestine. And about half of my mother’s family perished in the Nazi camps.

With a family background like that, what else would speak so clearly to me and mean so much? If the old writer’s dictate, “write what you know," is valid, then that's what I am doing. These are the family stories I heard while sitting at my mother’s table

Another answer is my somewhat unique education. I know my Jewish history. My mother, a fervent Zionist, moved us to Israel when I was just turning 15. In an Israeli high school, I got a heady dose of Israeli history all the way back to the Bible, which we also had to study seriously.

But perhaps what really moves me to write about Jewish conflicts and characters is the nature of the Jewish religion itself. In The Fruit of her Hands, from early childhood Shira is drawn to learning Talmud, despite its being forbidden to women at that time. One of her greatest joys is when she can study with her father and then her husband, and she passes on that passion to her own daughters. Studying the great Jewish questions is a life-long endeavor in which there are no fixed answers.

There is an ethical base to the Jewish religion which resonates with me as well. One of my regrets is that the concept of “tikkun olam” – repairing the world through your ethical actions, a concept which I try to embody in my own life ― was anachronistic to the Middle Ages. So I had to edit out all references to it. But the spirit of being able to heal the world through charity and deed is still very much a part of the novel.

In one part of the novel, my heroine, Shira, wonders why she could not give up her Judaism in the face of unrelenting persecution. But then she remembers all of the wonderful, warm, family times, in which religion played such a significant part, and she realizes these are the moments “that give her life shape and meaning.” In writing The Fruit of Her Hands, I was writing a part of my family’s story and giving voice to their unwavering commitment to the Jewish faith.

[Notes from Lisa: To be entered in the book give-away, leave a comment and a way to reach you - email address or link to a site where you can be contacted. (You must have a North American postal address for shipment.) Contest ends midnight PDT, September 29.

You can also ask Michelle a question in the comment section (today only) and she'll drop by to answer it.

If you can't wait, by all means, order your own copy of her new book. If you live in New Jersey, you can probably catch Michelle at a reading or discussion event soon.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Every writer needs a creed. Here's mine.

About five years ago, when my career needed a major shake-up after a lengthy hiatus for child-rearing, I decided I would do two things:

1. Stretch, especially in ways that I think, for various reasons, are off-limits to me.
2. Say YES.

Usually, the YES part comes first. "Yes I can do that," I say, with a confident smile on my face, all the while thinking, "How the hell I am going to do THAT?" Still, these two mandates have led me to many great places. Lately, I've added a third: Do what scares me.

Which leads me this: I'm writing fiction. Yup, three (probably very bad) rough drafts of short stories have somehow appeared on my desk. It doesn't look like "this fiction thing" is going away; but it also isn't going to take center stage. So, I'm just engaging with it, writing a bit every day, saying yes. The scary part: I've always understood how important it is to incorporate some of the elements of fiction when writing nonfiction; BUT discovering that the opposite is not entirely true -- that some of the foundation stones of memoir and personal essay don't translate to the act of writing of fiction -- was quite disconcerting at first.

I also said YES this month to judging a writing contest for a local arts organization, and to co-chairing plans for a master class series for MEWS (Montclair Editors & Writers Society). Neither of these two things fall into the scary department, except maybe in the sense of finding the time. But I don't sleep that much.

By the way, these three mandates don't always turn out fabulously. Road bumps have ensued. I've made a few dumb choices. Rejections seem to multiply. But they seem manageable. So, not so scary.

On the other hand, the high school reunion coming up in five weeks – the one I still can't decide to attend or not? Now, that's scary.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Son-day Supplement

My 11-year-old wrote a poem the first week at school. I asked him if he would like to publish it on my blog (hoping my readers might indulge me this one time), and he accepted. I didn't help with a single syllable.

I am

I am caring and daring.
I wonder what the world would be like without electricity.
I hear the planets talking.
I see an alien space ship.
I want the world to be cleaner.
I am caring and daring.

I pretend to use the force.
I feel a castle made of chocolate.
I touch soft fluffy clouds.
I worry about my brother.
I cry about my grandfather’s death.
I am caring and daring.

I understand what laws mean.
I say all are equal.
I dream of inventing a new type of computer.
I try to help my friends.
I hope I will live for a very long time.
I am caring and daring.

- Paul

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Book Festivals, Book Blogs, Brown Blockbuster to Buoy Bookstores. And, some other stuff.

• Updates on what's new in the world of literary journals, as well as other issues of interest to writers who submit to journals, are posted at the New Pages blog.

• The Poets Forum on Contemporary Poetry is scheduled for October 15-17 in New York City, and discounted passes are available until Sept 15.

• These three are free:
The Brattleboro (VT) Literary Festival runs October 2 – 4.
September 26 is the date for the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C.
On the West Coast, the San Diego City College International Book Fair runs Sept. 28 – Oct. 3.

• If you have a favorite book blog, check out the list of nominees and vote here until the end of the day on Sept. 12 (that's tomorrow). Speaking about these blogs, one critic wonders if they have a future.

• He may not be your cup of literary tea, but Dan Brown's new novel, debuting this week, has booksellers nationwide bracing for vigorous activity.

• How do editors at the New York Times Book Review make their selections? Some inside info here.

• I was sad to hear that Garrison Keillor had suffered a minor stroke this week, and hope he recuperates fully.

• You can read some wonderful short memoir pieces, by various writers, at the Authentic Writing Stories blog.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Joy of Julie, Julia, and The Joy of Cooking

When I saw the Julie + Julia movie recently, I loved the scene in which Julia Child finally comes face to face with Irma Rombauer, the author whom she's admired and idolized, the author whose book, The Joy of Cooking, had already spurred Child to train as a chef and agree to co-write Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Child discovers that Rombauer is not the precise, serious, erudite author and exacting trained chef Child had imagined, but someone more like Child herself – a woman who loves to cook and loves to write and is rather quirky and has grit. But what really interested me was Rombauer's explanation that, even though the book by then (1947) was a huge bestseller with a major publishing house, it had started its original publication life in 1931 when Rombauer used her meager life savings to "have it printed" (translation: she self-published, or in the parlance of the day, used a vanity press.) Recently, Joy of Cooking was "selected by The New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important and influential books of the twentieth century," according to Simon & Shuster.

I love how Child seems to visibly convey something important not-yet-published writers need to know -- that published writers are not so different from us. They just kept at it and kept at it and invested themselves and believed in their project. And, I liked the way, without praising or condemning the concept of self-publishing, it was just another fact about the book.

I have lots of opinions about self-publishing but mostly it boils down to: it all depends on the book, the topic, the author, and his/her goals. I thought of this again today when I found this list of other books which surprisingly began their publication lives that way. Take a look.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Getting Started, courtesy of Lorrie Moore

By now I'm pretty sure everyone knows that Lorrie Moore has a new novel out this week, A Gate at the Stairs. I haven't read it, but I expect to. That's not really what today's post is about, though. This morning, I was having trouble getting started on a new piece (not news, really!), and so I was idly clicking around and reading about new books, which led me to remember the following piece which I wrote at the request of Susan Bono, editor of tiny-lights: a journal of personal narrative on the topic of how writers can get started. It originally appeared in her in the December 2008 issue.

How Do You Get Started?
by Lisa Romeo

Assignment: 500 words. Deadline: Tomorrow. Topic: How Writers Get Started

You begin. You stop. Start. Stop. You remember Lorrie Moore*.

First, you do something, anything, else. Crochet. Sing. Sing while crocheting. Start something else - a different story, a post. You tweet. You fail, miserably.

Start a draft. Inner critic laughs, tears it (figuratively, metaphorically?) into a million pieces, shouts Lies! Critic is thinking of unwritten review due yesterday, stalled book proposal, 128 unanswered emails, the unfinished teaching prep.

Think about beginnings. You start, in your head. Dismiss lines, words, syllables.

Tell spouse you are writing about how writers get started; spouse laughs.

Next day, you start.

Tell your mother you are too busy writing to talk on the phone.

You start. You write of the importance of keeping small notebooks everywhere - car, bathroom, gym bag - for thoughts, images, ideas. Of having a writing notebook, a three-subject 120-sheeter, where everything, anything happens. Of the time you once misplaced it, and how no one could start homework or eBay invoices or dinner until it surfaced.

You are warming up. You write about rituals, like fingering a bookmark with the George Elliot quote about never being too late to start over. He-he.

You think about centering your computer in the window, the thoughtful writer framed in glass.
Writing is lonely, you need illusion.

You do have advice: Don't answer the phone unless it's the school nurse. Only answer emails from editors. Don't answer the door to your oldest friend even if she is carrying a bakery bag.

Later, spouse asks how essay/story/poem/article is going. Glare. Explain that "supporting" your writing precludes asking how it's going.

Start again. Shut the door, turn on music, though you prefer silence.

You send emails one flight down to spouse, indicating that essay/story/poem/article is not going well and so you cannot stop; or it is going so well that simply you cannot stop. You are unavailable for dinner prep, or dinner.

You start, re-start, continue to start. Remind yourself this is the creative process. Always. Starting. Again.

Now, something is on the page. You are happy. You reread, and see that all you have written is a failure.

Start again. Replace coffee with white wine, reserved for when you have started badly, or maybe have started too timidly.

There are other methods.You read writers who matter. You read junk. You stop reading because another writing voice is becoming too loud in your head. Anyway, while reading is important, vital, you must eventually stop. And, start.

You wonder what you ought to write about. Not, what was the assignment? But, what do you care most to write? You limit these thoughts to five minutes or, risk cerebral anemia.

Do something, anything else -- day job, night job, weekend job. Jot down what you observe and overhear. You are not procrastinating, not in denial. You are paying rent, paying dues, paying attention.

Push loved ones away, pull them closer; you can't write with them here, or with them gone.

Eventually, you have a beginning or, beginnings. You read them. They are terrible. You reread them. They are fine, really fine.

You start again. On revisions. Rewrites. Middles and endings. In endings you find, always, beginnings.

You cook, walk the dog, cat, guinea pig. You meet friends for coffee and one asks how writers get started, that blank screen, that blank page. Isn't it hard, they want to know. Oh no, you say. Oh, yes.

You reach for the small notebook you carry in your purse. You write something down.
c- copyright 2008, Lisa Romeo

Readers, if you have not read Lorrie Moore's, "How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliché?" from Self Help, or if you simply haven't read it recently, please treat yourself. You can find it here. Also, Narrative Magazine has a new interview with Moore on their site today (free registration required).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 9

"Gold in Them Notebooks" is a continuing, though sporadic, series of posts, featuring what I find while randomly looking through the notebooks I filled during my MFA program. The rest of the series can be found here.

As part of a seminar titled, "Stay Happily Writing," focused on keeping future MFA grads actively writing, we were urged to:

- List five writing-related goals each for the next month, the next year, and the next five years.
- Speaking as your own inner critic, write out why you won't or can't accomplish these.
- Now, addressing that inner critic, write why and how you will work toward making these goals happen.
- Give yourself three gifts as a writer: Read some good literature every day. Write something every day. Be teachable.
- Write the author flap copy for your first book. For your second book.
- Always be open to new suggestions and ideas -- about your writing, your goals, opportunities, volunteer projects. Try it. You never know.

- Leslea Newman, editor, writing teacher, and author of 50+ books, including children's books, young adult novels, poetry, writing craft, adult novels, essay and short story collections.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day for Writers

I’m thinking about Labor Day and what it means to writers, especially those whose writing income is not a reliable indicator of the labor they expend. Does Labor Day have a relevance for them?

Writers think of their efforts as a labor of love, and indeed we are often asked to contribute to various creative projects for no (or very little) pay because they have been conceived and executed as labors of love. (I sometimes think this phrase should be amended to labors we love.)

Authors, particularly first-time authors, think of the process of publication as giving birth and we all know what precedes a birth: labor.

We say we are laboring away at a manuscript, especially one that seems not to be giving much back in return.

So, writers, on Labor Day, think about it: value the effort, the craft work, the mental energy, the work ethos, the physical time spent at the task of writing. Maybe you are even today working on a poem, article, query, chapter, essay, blog post, short story, or other piece of writing. If so, take a minute to celebrate and recognize the labor it entails.

And while we are at it -- those of us who can devote more time than might ordinarily be available to our writing, or who were able to get the education necessary to launch writing careers directly because of someone else’s labor -- maybe today is a good time to say thanks.

P.S. And for those crazy, wonderful, exhausted writers who are participating in the Three Day Novel challenge this weekend -- get out of here. You have a book to finish!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Long Weekend Edition

Hope you find something of interest here for your long weekend.

•Short story writer extraordinaire Alice Munro has withdrawn her latest collection from the running for Canada’s largest (and richest) literary prize, “clearing the way for younger writers,” and some wonder if that’s really such a good thing.

• Say it isn’t so. After 26 years, Reading Rainbow ends its PBS run.

• I just discovered that one of my favorite writers/editors/agents, Betsy Lerner, keeps a blog on her site. She’s the author of The Forest for the Trees, not exactly a new book for writers, but a must-read.

Etude is an online journal with a special emphasis on the craft of literary nonfiction.

• Want to play with type and fonts and the like on your site or blog?

• Five female authors whose books will debut in 2010 are blogging about their experiences in the run-up to publication, over at the Debutante Ball.

• Protagonists in young adult fiction who happen to be plus-size: Does this even have to be an issue?

• Check out the Editorrent blog for interesting examples, advice, tips, musings, do & don’t, and rants from two acquisition editors.

• Beginning tomorrow through January 3, the Myrtle Beach Art Museum presents Faces and Stories: A Portrait of Southern Writers.

• If you are a fan of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and eagerly awaiting its theatrical release, with a screenplay by (McSweeney’s editor & memoirist) Dave Eggers, you may like New York Magazine’s interview with Eggers, here.

• Why should writers care about Twitter? A lot of reasons.

• And finally, having trouble finding the words to explain to some recalcitrant publisher or clueless prospective client why writers should get paid? Well, you may not be able to use these exact words, but I guarantee you will enjoy listening to Harlan Ellison explain it all.

Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My Father, the Writing/Career Coach

My father liked to exaggerate, in a harmless way, in a way which would make others feel good and enjoy the conversation, in a way which seemed to telegraph the amplification and yet at the same time, make it inconceivable for anyone to call him on it.

When I was in my 20s, with my first real (non-freelance) job, I occasionally overhead him say, "My daughter is a top level public relations executive in New York City."

I wasn't.

Oh, I worked at a Manhattan public relations agency all right, and it wasn't exactly entry-level, though it wasn't anywhere near the top. Owing to a first-hand command of a specialized expertise (horses and the show jumping world) and a unique Rolodex of contacts (the equestrian media and elite rider-athletes), I filled a certain niche important to the most important client at that particular agency at that particular time: It was 1984 and the client, Purina, wanted major mileage from their sponsorship of the United States Equestrian Team (which would win Gold at the Los Angeles Olympics that summer).

As an ardent rider myself, and after spending several years post journalism school working as a freelance writer for equestrian magazines (translation: barely scraping by) -- yes, it was a dream job. But only to me. In the overall scheme of the New York public relations business, I was but a very small cog in a quite minor wheel.

But. My father didn't know all that, or at least, he never seemed to understand when I explained that there wasn't anything "top level" about what I was doing. I'd get angry sometimes when he wouldn't acknowledge my true status, and wondered if he wasn't proud of my real achievements.

Of course, I understood it all much better when I had children of my own.

Now that my father has been gone for a few years, something funny happens to me once in a while. On a day when I accomplish something professionally, and even more so on a day when it seems I'll never accomplish another thing, from somewhere deep in my brain (my heart?) I'll hear my father's voice.

"My daughter is a..."
"My daughter writes for…."
"My daughter is editing..."
"My daughter just published…."
"My daughter teaches…"

...and I fill in the blanks any old way I want.

I keep it to myself. I don't argue with the voice. I resist the urge to self-censor. We all need a way to keep going. Some days, that's mine.